MY GOOD FRIEND, Kirsten, had a bad time of it in the run up to Christmas, even discounting her two month long sinus infection. Not only has her father been battling (and thus far, thankfully, winning) a rare, life-threatening disease for months but friends and relatives started dropping like flies. At first it wasn’t too bad. The passing of a friend of her Dad’s, who she wasn’t that close to, meant an afternoon off work for the funeral, just to be a moral support with some free food thrown in. Who could really complain about that? Two weeks later it was an elderly aunt who had been ill for some time; sad but not unexpected.
Far more tragically, a fortnight before Christmas, it was her 42 year old cousin. He woke his wife of twenty years at two in the morning by suddenly sitting up in bed, fighting for breath. Before the paramedics could arrive he was dead. Sudden Adult Death Syndrome, they called it; his heart had quite literally trebled its rate and then stopped. Forever. A fit and healthy man, he had no history of heart trouble. Kirsten, with throbbing head and dripping nose, and had to battle her way through thick, swirling snow to reach the crematorium up in the Peak District. The dense, white blanket outside only served to amplify the sobs of his young daughter in the stark, chilly interior. His son and wife sat silent with shock. His mother wept on Kirsten’s shoulder afterwards, saying again and again, ‘My son should have buried me, not the other way round.’
Kirsten felt numb for days but reflected that his was a life well-lived; he was a committed, caring father and had had a strong and happy marriage. We agreed that it was better to be here but a short while and make a positive contribution then fester for years, embittered and sour.
This brought Kirsten to reflect on her own life. In her twenties she had fallen for a passionate, good-looking but volatile Armenian. The relationship was turbulent; his heavy drinking bouts and mood swings bothered her but not enough to break things off. During a period of relative calm and happiness she told him that at 29 she was ready to have a child. He was positive about this and a new, more tranquil phase ensued. Reluctant to deflate all her life rafts given the frequently unstable nature of their union, she had hung onto her house until the middle of her pregnancy. With the baby’s arrival only a few months away and with it major life changes afoot, she asked him what she should do with her house now. ‘Sell it and move in with me,’ he stated unequivocally. At last she felt that things were as they should be and looked forward to happy family life ahead.
In her ninth month she found out he was sleeping with someone else and, distraught, confronted him. He walked out. Two days later she got a solicitor’s letter telling her to leave the property. As her Dad helped her to collect the cot, baby blankets and her clothes that evening, the police arrived to say they had been told a theft was taking place. When they saw her belly bursting through the buttons of her coat and heard her story, they said she should take her stuff quickly and then get advice on an injunction against him. Nine days after she gave birth to her little girl alone, her “partner” left Britain, never to return. Never to pay a penny in maintenance. Six weeks later, living in her mother’s sitting room with the baby, she had to return to work and has never paused for breath since, constantly worried about money, always overdrawn. She has a lovely little place of her own now but her shower hasn’t worked for two years, the boiler can only be used on manual, she has cardboard at the window of her study in place of curtains and only wears what she can find in the sales.
She has dated on and off in the interim but not with unprecedented success. Unsurprisingly, trust was something she struggled to find. There was a nurse who seemed, at first to be the caring, nurturing man she had longed for, but then turned into the male equivalent of that woman with the mental condition from Misery. When she was struck down by a severe lung infection and was confined to bed, he was beside himself with joy. Housebound together for nearly three weeks, he installed himself beside her and firmly told all friends and relatives that Kirsten needed complete rest and should on no account be disturbed as he, and only he, could care for her in the way she needed. Needless to say when she regained the ability to walk, she marched him out of the house/prison and out of her life.
Then there was the childless, younger man. Witty, intelligent and attractive, surely he was the one she had waited for. Until he announced that he didn’t really feel able to commit to someone with a child as he thought he’d want one of his own. That thought had clearly been much further back in his consciousness when he’d first got into her knickers, she mused. Inured to the harsh realities of dating she conceded defeat. Her daughter came first and if this man wasn’t mature enough to accept that then he wasn’t the one for her.
Recent dates have been one-offs: the good-looking and very solvent motor-sports executive who was catatonic with shyness; the confident, well-travelled businessman with a top of the range company car and an au pair. We decided the au pair probably was the most attractive thing about him and made a note that household help was a definite plus on any list of desirable traits in a man.
Her supportive nature and organisational skills have made her top choice as bridesmaid and maid of honour so many times over the years that she classes vol-au-vonts as one of her main sources of carbohydrate. But so far she’s never been a bride.
As she reclined on my couch in the post-Christmas glow of a warm television set and consulted the guidance card of my Thornton’s Premium Collection chocs for the eighth time, she said that all the recent deaths and her Dad’s illness had made her realise that life was too short and too precious to be alone. What was the point of sitting on your couch by yourself, passing your evenings in front of the telly or in a solitary bed living vicariously through the autobiography of someone who had made every minute count in their scintillating life? Her step-mother had been a rock for her father, bringing up his children with him and now, as he struggled with his health, being there every step of the way. ‘Who will be there for me in my old age?’ she wondered poignantly.
‘Well, not me for one, if you keep scoffing all my chocolates,’ I pointed out pointedly.
‘Do you want to die alone?’ she asked with sudden drama.
‘Well, you know me.’ I replied, ‘I’d be happy to embrace death in any form if I contracted cellulite.’
‘Oh God. You’re so bloody vain, it’s ridiculous. But seriously, doesn’t it worry you?’
‘Nah. I’ve nearly died about four times already due to my risk-taking nature. Dribbling down my chin in a wheelchair in a nursing home holds far more terror. I enjoy my own company so it’s fine. To me a relationship can often be an obstacle to me doing the things I enjoy.’
‘Well, good for you,’ she opined firmly. ‘I don’t want to live a solitary, selfish life and die alone. I’m ready to share my life and give and receive love with another human being.’
Taking the last rose-fragranced Turkish Delight enveloped in a soft milk chocolate blanket from the box, she added, ‘Anyway, I just got my pension forecast and I can’t afford to ever retire unless I marry someone with some money. And I really need a shag.’