With the family on the other side of the world visiting relatives, I had a week to myself for the first time in ... I don’t know ... 17 years. Well, I say alone, but there were 8kg of chocolate boxes stacked around me, an entire baby Stilton and five panettones, courtesy of Christmas. It was dazzling company.
In the sitting room the tree flashed and yearned, like a guest who simply cannot leave, however much the party’s over. I sat next to it, feeling a bit tender towards its overblown appearance. (I have literally worn that outfit once or twice.)
Soon the messages started rolling in from concerned persons who knew of my predicament: sisters, sisters-in-law, neighbours, pals: “How are things?”. “Are you going to be OK?”
I didn’t know whether to yell “Eek!” or shout “Hooray!”; yet I hate people feeling sorry for me, so I tried to talk up the situation. I heard myself murmur, as someone who has to beat off invitations with a giant stick, “You know, I have decided to accept something exciting every other night. In the days, I am going to start my new novel, learn a language, take my personality to the – what’s it called – oh yes, the next level. Get fit. Square my religious beliefs with my current lack of faith. Visit the sick. The usual. But on alternate evenings I will go mad for pleasure in sequins and lace ... ”
“Please ring anytime, night or day, we know your house is noisy at night, and you get scared and we’re so here for you,” everyone said.
The week felt so precious I didn’t want to use up a single second on any past-time that wasn’t first rate. Sometimes, when there is a very fine show of paintings in London, people say, “You must go to the Degas/Van Gogh/da Vinci/Italian altarpieces from before 1500, because this will never happen again in our lifetimes.” WelI, I felt like that.
I needed to lay down achievements and memories. At the end of my week there must be something substantial to show for it. I imagined a stern but benign interlocutor asking me to give an account of my time. It wasn’t St Peter, was it? Was I confusing my little drama with the plot of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical? I can’t say it has never happened before.
Still, my hopes were high. I would reject the soothing for the cathartic, the drear of the workaday for constant epiphanies and full-blown breakthroughs. I thought of the wife of a relative who decided, when he died, that she would now wear the Dr Scholl sandals that he detested. What does my family really mind me doing? I wondered. I thought of all my flaws: my terrible taste in music; my insistence on sky-high standards in others while being a bit slipshod myself. Truth is, there’s nothing they mind. They are living saints. I am the one who minds things.
Three hours in, I had a small whisky and two truffles, a few walnuts, a grapefruit, a wedge of pineapple and a handful of crisps. It was an identikit supper from my single days. I went upstairs, idly picking some lumps of fudge from the banisters, and got ready for bed.
At midnight I thought I heard a noise downstairs. I froze. I imagined the scariest intruder I could think of and watched as my limbs began to shake with fear. I knew there was no one there, but somehow it didn’t help. The noises grew louder. Too frightened even to rise and lock the bedroom door, I lay cowering.
Put your coat on and run out of the front door, I told myself. Take refuge in K’s spare room up the road. But to bail out on the first night would prove such bad things about me.
I reviewed my situation. Sometimes I prefer to pay for help rather than accept it from friends. Could I call Universal Aunts, who have been supplying staunch and caring companions since the 1940s? Could I bribe an agency nurse to sleep in the next room?
I could bash the taps with a sledgehammer and call a 24-hour plumber, who might be cheery. The fire brigade are pretty hard to beat, as I found out when I tried to clean the iron. A security guard? A private detective? There was always Claridge’s ...
Nursing these thoughts, despite the clunks and cracks of floorboards and pipes, I eventually fell asleep and dreamt of a small army of angelic carers, from different professions, a bit like the Village People, cheering me on and wishing me well.
Seven hours later I awoke, refreshed, ready and willing, full of carpe diem – or seize the carpet, as we always translate it round here.
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