Last Christmas Day, the only people I spoke to were a couple I approached, when out walking, to ask if I could stroke their dog. The rest of the day I spent alone, as I do on so many others.
Early mornings are the worst. I am retired and have no partner. What family I have are living far away from my home, near Chichester. I have no-one nearby who loves me, no-one around to see if I wake up or not.
The lonely only child of a stoical mother and humourless father – who were not only badly suited but both old enough to be my grandparents – I grew up in the Surrey commuter belt in a cold and insular family. There were never any hugs or closeness; no-one ever said “I love you”.
I played on my own and had no idea how to integrate and socialise at school. It meant that I was awkward and unpopular without understanding why. It didn’t help that I was a plain child, too.
It grew easier in my teens, when I managed to make a few friends.
In the late 1960s, I worked for a time in Spain as a hotel receptionist and met my first real boyfriend. He asked me to marry him but I was only 21 and didn’t feel ready to settle down and start a family. My childhood experiences had implanted in my head that marriage and children were not for me. It seemed too much like drudgery; having your life mapped out and having no say in it.
When I came back to the UK I joined an airline and all of a sudden, the world burst open in front of me. It was a revelation and for the first time in my life I was happy.
Then, out of the blue, while standing in for a sick colleague on a flight, I met the love of my life. I knew love for the first time ever and, best of all, it seemed to be mutual. I couldn’t believe that such a charismatic person could love me. The archetypal tall, dark and handsome man, with a hint of mystery.
I bought a cottage near Gatwick and we lived together when doing so was still considered rather outré.
Unfortunately in that first wild flush of adoration, I completely missed the warning signs – and I continued to miss them for six years. I didn’t want to know. If some things he said didn’t quite tally, I ignored them. Inconsistencies were given plausible explanations.
It never occurred to me to question why, in his 30s, on the back of several failed businesses, he had no real job and, apparently, no savings. Nothing was ever his fault – he just had bad luck. He went for interviews and was never successful, something I could never understand. I now believe others saw the flaws that love had blinded me to.
When he asked me to lend him some money to start a company, I was thrilled to think I could help him succeed and prove everyone else wrong. But everyone else had been right. For six years, I kept throwing money at him. He was a kept man; not only did I pay all the household expenses, I also continued gamely to subsidise the new business. But it never seemed to be enough.
I vividly recall the day he knelt beside me in the bath and persuaded me to go to the bank and sign an unlimited guarantee to keep the company going, quite convinced that success was just round the corner.
It wasn’t, but bankruptcy was. His floundering toy company went into receivership and suddenly, aged 42, I lost everything I had earned in the past 25 years.
I had no-one to blame but myself. He fled abroad to avoid bankruptcy and left me to face it alone. In the 1980s, bankruptcy carried a huge stigma. I had to account to my trustee for every penny I spent or earned. It was a time of shame. I was discharged about 30 years ago but the scars and memories remain.
I moved to Sussex, where nobody knew my background, and I never found love again. I have been on my own for three decades and imagine I shall end my days that way.
Now retired, I have a summer job helping at a local tourist attraction. In my 70s, I still scrub up well and believe I am generally liked. I put on make-up, wear smart clothes and put on an act of being outgoing, humorous, patient and kind. I do it well and nobody suspects – not even my colleagues.
But when I come home, the front door closes and the act disappears with the clothes and the make-up. I have a small circle of what I call peripheral friends – nice people who I wouldn’t wish to burden with my inadequacies. I put on an act for them, too.
The shame and humiliation of bankruptcy haunt me still. Who would want anyone with that sort of background? The tacit connotation is that of dishonesty and fraud. I am not guilty of any of that – only of quite overwhelming naivety – but who would ever believe me?
I would like a kind companion but the thought of knowing how much to divulge about my past before he took fright and disappeared is a hurdle I can’t surmount.
So, here I am, with no-one. I am not anybody’s godmother, sister, sister-in-law, niece, wife, mother, aunt, mother-in-law or grandmother. So how do I define myself? What am I without a label of being or belonging? What real identity do I possess if I don’t have a title representing some meaning in the life of another?
I wander through the days without responsibility or achievement. I always believed that being able to be content in my own company was a good thing, and it is. I am not frightened of silence. But I should like there to be some alternative.
I bear my late ex-partner no grudges, no bitterness and no ill feelings at all. I love him still, but wistfully. For a time, he gave me more love than I have ever known, before or since, and he made me happy. Such memories are gold. And I still have those.