Everybody has their different talents. I am good at: horses, chicken soup, not dangling modifiers. I am bad at: tennis, filing, and beef stew. (I’ve never cracked the secret of beef stew. I’ve tried twenty different versions. It is never bad, but it is always very, very slightly disappointing.)
I am catastrophically bad at romantic love. I never got the hang of it. I always did it with completely unsuitable people, for a start. They were charming, funny, intelligent and fantastically unreliable. They always left. Then I would take to my room and listen to Leonard Cohen records and be unable to speak for quite a long time.
Even when it was going well, I wasn’t much good at it. I found the swinging from chandeliers stage exhausting. Even when I was very young, I longed for the violent emotion of the early stages of love to pass, and the nice steady part to arrive. Since my relationships were always dramatic, short and doomed, I never got to the nice steady part. I still imagine it must be quite soothing.
In the end, I gave it up as a bad job. Lucky for me, I never wanted to get married or have children. I think people thought this was a form of bolshiness, but it was merely something that did not call to me, just as some people do not wish to live in New York or play piano concertos.
I used to get perfectly furious about the horrid patronising view that single people were somehow less than. I would issue rolling rants about the miseries and compromises and lonelinesses that are hidden away in the dark corridors of a romantic relationship. I have seen the despair that can exist behind the facade of a publicly perfect marriage.
Now, I don’t care. I don’t rant. I grow old; I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Everyone has their thing. Not all relationships, it turns out, hide secret misery. Some are perfectly lovely. My friend the World Traveller is brilliant at marriage and family. It really is her special skill. She and her husband like each other and want the same things and laugh at each other’s jokes. The great-nephew and nieces are some of the nicest and happiest children I know. When I see them all together, I want to hang out flags. They are a family at ease with themselves; they are a roaring success. The World Traveller did that, and I’m always rather in awe of the women who are good at making a family. I also feel very, very grateful to them, for doing it, so I do not have to.
But one strand quietly remains, of my early firebrand objections. It is that I still protest at the privileging of romantic love over all others. I think the other loves are possibly more important. I live easily and delightfully without romantic love, but I would be undone without friend love, family love, place love. The love I feel for Scotland endures like the blue hills that make my heart beat. The feeling of being stitched into a various and extended family is one of the high joys of my existence. The old friends, who have seen me straight and seen me curly, and know all my weaknesses, and love me anyway, are perhaps my greatest gift.
There is the dog love. You all know about that. I still miss my Duchess and my Pigeon. Their sleekness and kindness and funniness and beauty are still stitched into my heart. Now there is Stan the Man, the eccentric lurcher. (Actually, that is a bit of a tautology. All lurchers are eccentric.) He is lying beside me as I write this, his amber eyes regarding me quizzically. I love him because he is characterful and handsome and gentle. I love that he can run like a racehorse. I like his great athleticism. I admire the fact that he is going to catch that damn mouse in the feed shed, or die in the attempt.
There are other smaller loves which are important too, some of them so small they may hardly be seen by the naked eye. I love trees and politics and racing and books. I love lichen. I love the poems of TS Eliot and the songs of David Bowie and the paintings of Stubbs. I love talking about the big questions, which don’t have any definitive answers. What constitutes the good life? How did the Big Bang bang? What’s it all about, Alfie? How is it that the human heart may take so many blows and still endure?
And above all this soars the red mare.
It turned out that I got a love of my life after all. I never thought I would. I was so crashingly hopeless at gentlemen that I had thought I would have all the many other loves, but not a single, over-arching one. And then, by the merest sliver of chance, a horse appeared, who was useless at racing and useless at polo and should have gone to China, only the man with the lorry never pitched up. In that most random way, she came into my life.
At the beginning, I thought it would be a nice thing, to get me away from my desk, to remind me of my darling dad, to return me to something I was once good at. I did not know that it would turn out to be my one true love.
But that is what she is. I can’t even begin to count the ways. I love her kindness, her cleverness, her comedy skills, her courage, her authenticity. I love that she is a bit of a duchess and that her pedigree is crammed with Derby winners. I love that she goes back to the Byerley Turk, three times, on the bottom line. I love her power and her grace. I love her smell. I love that she does not give a bugger about the superficial things. She knows what is important. I love that sometimes, when she hits a perfect stride, it feels as if we are flying. I love that she knows I am her human and that she may rely on me. It feels like a gift.
And that is why, on this Valentine’s Day, I have no yearning for hearts and flowers. I don’t secretly long for dinners by candlelight or grand romantic gestures. Valentine’s Day is thought to be an excruciating thing for singles. But you see, I have my love. I hope you have yours. I hope it is not the kind that fits neatly onto a Hallmark card.