One of the things that people assume one lacks, if one should take the peculiar decision not to marry and have children, is love. There has been a lot about loneliness lately on the wireless. I heard at least three programmes speak of it, as I drove the five hundred miles to London, and the five hundred miles back to the north. (I think there must have been some terrifying survey, revealing the secret lives of lonely Britons.) I was talking about it to one of the best beloveds, when I arrived to stay for my first night in the south. Without thinking, I blurted out: ‘the only time I’ve ever been lonely was when I was in a relationship.’ He looked mildly surprised. He is a family man to his fingertips, proud and adoring of his four funny, bright children, affectionate with them, like a bear with his cubs.
It is true, though. It takes a top skill set to live with someone and love them well, every day, and I don’t have that set. I always chose absolutely hopeless fellows – charming, even glamorous, but unreliable and often quite fucked up. I instantly committed the grave sin which makes all the poor old shrinks in Hampstead shake their heads and suck their teeth: I gave all my power away. I fell into crazy, hopeless, unrealistic love, and wondered why I always felt so uncertain. Then I gave way to noisy despair as the whole thing fell apart with a rocking clang of inevitability.
But I have the love of thirty years. Those were the ones I saw this trip, the ones I have loved since I was eighteen years old. We have so much history together. We have, as Nanci Griffith sang, seen each other straight and seen each other curly. We’ve been young and hopeful together, wild and immortal. We’ve stayed up all night and driven through Italy and danced and drank and laughed. We’ve seen each other through heartbreak and desolation, through failure and triumph. We know each other so well and love each other so well that we start talking the moment we see each other, after gaps of many months, as if it’s only been five minutes. We smile goofy smiles of fondness and understanding at each other. We exult in each other’s successes and happinesses, wanting them as much as we want our own. We ruefully admit that we are chipped around the edges, a little battered and bruised, but still in there, pitching. We admire each other’s strengths, and do not judge each other’s weaknesses.
They are magnificent, these friends.
I don’t just feel the love when I see them, and then settle down. The love hums in me for the whole time we are together, beaming steadily from my expanding heart. It stays, strong and true, in my chest, on the drive home, as I think of them all, and how lucky I am to have them. It is profound, enduring, tested love.
And then, as I motor through the Lake District, where the snowy hills are so white at first I mistake them for clouds, I get the love of natural beauty. I look at the sheep on the fells, and the old stone walls, and the green, green grass, and I feel that love.
When I pass into Scotland, I cry actual tears of love, because this is my place and I chose it and it took me in, folding its blue mountains and its glacial valleys around me. Sometimes I whoop when I pass the Welcome to Scotland sign. Sometimes I get goosebumps. Sometimes I sing. This time, I had a little weep, because love can sometimes make you cry with joy.
And, of course, at the very end, there was the canine love, as Stanley the Dog capered and leapt about me, in a frenzy of delighted disbelief. You came home, he said, with his dancing eyes. There was my sweet little house love, with the books and the pictures and all the colours. There was the paddock love, as I arrived in sudden sunshine, and found the red mare, sweet and docile and furry, slowly eating her hay under her favourite tree. There was family love, as I saw the Mother and Stepfather and Brother-in-law and Younger Niece.
It really is an awful lot of love, for one person.
I am bloody lucky, and I don’t take it for granted, not for one moment.
I took my first ever selfie (terrible word; someone should think of a better one) this trip, just to show that occasionally I can brush up and go out without being covered in mud. Although there was a tremendous moment when I parked in Dean Street, and a little bit of Scottish hay fell out into London’s glittering West End:
PS. Very tired after my lovely but long week, and I know that I’ve buggered up some of the tenses, and there will also be typos, but my eyes are too squinty to proof-read. Forgive me.