I’ve arrived at the door of my friend’s apartment block and I’m feeling pretty good. The predicted rain hasn’t arrived, the evening is warm and velvety-dark, my hair is shiny, and I don’t have a deadline looming. I’m digging in my bag for my phone – I need a flashlight to see the names on the doorbells – when I hear a familiar voice. “Kiwi!” It’s an intensely annoying artist called Marty, whose nickname is ‘The Mouth’ because that’s where his foot ends up. He’s backed by his usual posse of pale girls, like a private Greek chorus.
I steel myself. “I’m just looking for... ”
“Your contact lenses?” The Greek chorus giggles obligingly, and The Mouth smirks. “We know Kiwi birds are sightless.”
“Flightless,” I say sharply.
He’s not listening. “Are you...” he pauses incredulously – “are you ALONE?”
I want to slay him with James K Baxter – ‘Alone we are born, and die alone’ – but my nerve fails me. I say lamely, “I know about a hundred people upstairs.”
“But you came – ALONE?” He stares at me as if I’m a freak, and the Greek chorus stares in pale imitation.
“That’s right.” The fire rises inside me. “In fact, plenty of people travel alone on the underground and live to tell the tale. And guess what else, Marty? Guess who I’m going on holiday with?” I slam my hand on a random doorbell. “Myself!” Because I’ve just seen Joan Armatrading, I can’t help it; the line slips out. “ME, MYSELF AND I!”
It didn’t sound at all ridiculous when Joan sang it; I guess loud guitar and drums make a difference. Luckily right then the door is buzzed open and a voice emerges from the intercom. “Sorry? Who did you say it is?”
“ME!” I storm inside and up the stairs without looking back. “You idiot!” I say aloud. “Now you have to go on holiday alone!” Because the challenge wasn’t to Marty the Mouth, of course. It was to myself.
The following evening I’m sitting in my living room wondering where in the world, apart from a yoga retreat (and I’m allergic to yoga), a woman might feel un-stupid holidaying alone. Across the road the famous architect David Chipperfield’s son is prepping for a night out, fully aware he’s backlit in a bathroom with floor-to-ceiling windows, wearing only his boxers. As soon as the last lock of magnificent hair is in place, he’ll sashay down to the local bar and take his place in a row of single men googling on iPhones or reading newspapers. No one will consider them loners or freaks. No one will ask Chipperfield Jr in a horrified voice, “Surely you’re not – alone?”
We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go. Sitting in the dwindling light I brood over the fact that most men I know feel fine about going to bars alone, but my female friends wouldn’t dream of it. I think of the woman I saw recently dining alone in an Italian restaurant who turned out to be completely crazy, pouring wine on her spaghetti and talking to herself – while around her sane single men tucked unselfconsciously into carbonara. And I realise that, although I go on work trips alone, the prospect of boarding a plane solo for a week’s beach holiday makes me feel quite nauseous.
I force myself to think of Joan Armatrading. Of Vivienne Westwood, Virginia Woolf, Lady Gaga, Lena Dunham, Lorde: fabulous women who’ve been considered weird (especially by men, but also by women) but who have carried on regardless. So I go down to the local bar. I sit beside Magnificent Hair, whose physique I know intimately even though he doesn’t know me from a bar of soap, and I order a red wine. The barman glances over my shoulder. Of course he does. In 14 years, he’s never seen me here alone. “Meeting someone?”
“Not tonight.” I try not to look self-conscious and I start googling Greece. It’s hard, alright, but with every passing minute it gets a little more bearable.
Words by: Sarah Quigley
Photographs by: Getty Images