When I was younger, the phone was a constant companion and source of solace, a lot like eating fistfuls of Lovehearts or Refreshers. I could dial any time of day or night, and willing friends would be at the other end, ready to drop what they were doing to listen to my many woes, empathize, give advice (which I would promptly ignore), and enjoy or endure the high drama of my inner life.
My phone bills were probably my biggest expense: I saw them as a painful necessity of life alone. Friendship was the highest state of being: to be connected with another who could understand me meant, literally, the world. I had a lot of friends — it's probably just as well, given what I'm describing.
My friends came from distinct groups, parts and times of my life. Sometimes different sets of friends co-existed. I was different people in each of these groups. Sometimes the groups strung out like a pasta necklace over time, knots of friends at different junctures. Some of these groups have faded to shroud-like thinness in my memory. Ties with them are gone. Other groups have shrunk to symbolic representatives, two or three people from an original band.
My friends were a massive compensation for the trials of the single girl, a protective defence I could summon when the adventure got too much. I can remember parties in France, when husbands came over to dance with me. Wives would glare at and shun me. I felt the opprobrium as though I were the guilty party, and saw myself as a vulnerable potential victim of patriarchy. Husbands had their wives, what were they doing preying on single women? What were their wives doing blaming me? What was I doing that made me a temptress? Being available.
Then I watched as my own friends married, and saw that they no longer told me of arguments, he said, she said, should I call him, he's such a bastard, what do I do. A wall of propriety came with marriage, it seemed, behind which women were to execute their dirty washing, and not reveal the workings of the machine. Apparently there was too much to lose. But I wondered, even then, whether what was at stake was not their individual marriage, but the state of marriage itself, the edifice, the institution.
Now I am married too, and I have gradually relinquished my former single girl tell-it-all-and-ask-for-succour behaviour. There are fewer moments when I simply have to pick up a phone and call a friend, because I have to tell someone how I am feeling.
Sadly I have accepted that I now have smaller phone bills. There is no time and no privacy for those long, long dissections of the soul with my girlfriends. And I must cope, I am not allowed, by social consensus, to show my feelings in public. I must find ways to manage, and I must not speak of it. The very fabric of society apparently depends on my dogged silence.
It is customary, among the smug married, to assume that single women must be lonely, vulnerable, wanting a relationship really. I find that I don't subscribe to this view at all. I count my single female friends among my closest. I think it is precisely because they are still able to function existentially. They are, and they wouldn't deny it, vulnerable, prey to other people's wandering husbands, and to their own fears, at times. But they have a very precious commodity: choice, true choice. Choice about when to take a holiday, what to eat, what to wear, when to swear, what to write, what to say to describe the death throes of a fiscally-fissured Europe, who to say it to.
I went out for supper with one of my best friends the other night. She is single, hugely successful as a writer, flying high. She goes out when she wants to. She reads and thinks freely. I was consumed by envy. I know that I cannot have these things because of the choices I have made, and that my only choice is to fight the blanketing gum of marriage, to sabotage its secondhand customs and conformities, to mine it for what is valuable and take the rest to the charity shops with the children's outgrown clothes and toys. It would be easy to comfort myself with another side of my friend's life, her night time anxieties. But this is not the truth.
The truth is that the female experience is, at the moment, still vulnerable to the socially-sanctioned choices that are available to women. If you choose to have children, a readymade world of conformity, and lethal punishment for non-conformity, awaits. Step into your future, ladies, it is all laid out for you, we know what it costs, and where to buy it. We also know what it will cost you, but that is the price you have elected to pay. If you choose not to have children, you are open to isolation, and self-doubt, as others inform you of what you are supposed to feel.
Across the supper table, both of us, I think, felt lonely.