By Sara Dinnen
You’re a woman living on your own. Or, indeed, a man living on his own. It doesn’t matter what gender and what the causes might have been – death, divorce, just plain fed up – the result is the same. You’re living on your own.
Don’t you just love it when someone who has been married for 45 years or so, and is still horribly married, gives you unasked-for advice?
The other day I was invited to a birthday party. Fairly innocuous you’d think. But, no. Of the 20 couples who were there (yes, that’s 40 people), I was the only, the sole, the entirely stand-out, single. A woman alone, an object of a certain degree of curiosity and probably unexpressed pity, as if I couldn’t possibly enjoy it.
This isn’t, unfortunately, a first-time experience. A few years ago, I was invited to a dinner party. I s’pose I should be grateful I still get invited but the invitation was to me, on my own, without any potential to ask a ‘partner’, ‘another’, and meaning in fact ‘a male person you might be interested in Sara, given your situation and circumstances right now’.
I asked a good friend, a woman (no, we aren’t legally united by way of civil ceremony). I thought she’d enjoy the occasion and she’s a great conversationalist. And an Anglican vicar. We arrived together (!) and the hostess announced dramatically when dinner was served that here we have ‘two spares’. That was my friend and me.
So, two ‘spares’ we were. I wondered whether we’d be banished to the menstrual hut. It happens in some hinterland tribal regions of Papua New Guinea at a certain time of a woman’s lunar month, you see.
But there wasn’t an actual hut to go to at this place in the outer reaches of suburbia, or even a lock-up garage. So we, she and I, remained as something resembling spare parts to an otherwise complete chassis.
As it turned out, we didn’t disgrace ourselves in conversation, or kick up an unruly fuss, or even hold our respective knives and forks wrongly. No, we behaved. And quite well, to the extent those sitting next to us enjoyed our conversation, despite the fact both of us were ‘spare’, auxiliary, additional.
The next enlightened dinner party I was invited to was equally, and in some ways more, disheartening. The hostess had set a generous table for 10. There was one place mat, one knife, one fork, one spoon, one napkin, sitting next to me and quite miserably on its own. In total innocence I asked if someone else was going to fill the chair and make use of the utensils and linen crying out for attention.
“Oh no” said the hostess. “That’s because I don’t like my table to be, you know, uneven”. Meaning, I was the spare so to make things, you know, equal, she had set a phantom place setting which made her feel that all things were equivalent in her little world. But not mine, obviously. So, I sat next to an empty place mat and knife and fork and spoon and napkin and decided to converse.
“Nice to meet you,” I said. “And can I ask? Do you live here?” The place mat was obviously shy and the fork hard of hearing. “Do you come here often?” I asked again. Not a lot of response to that, either. although it was fairly obvious he did while he was stuffed in a drawer waiting for his next encounter. “Can I ask, do you work for a living and, if so, what would that be?”
The place mat looked glumly at me and said he was just, you know, hanging around waiting to be dumped upon and it wasn’t much fun because management decided he needed to be in the outer office, or in a drawer, and he had to learn some kind of lesson. Which was to sit next to me.
“Don’t worry,” I said kindly. “You and me both.” At which point we both got on with the business of eating and being mute while we did what was expected of us, which was to politely be spare and not make a fuss and then have someone wash us in the morning and stuff us back into the, you know, spare drawer. Except, the person sitting next to both of us asked whether I was speaking to her!
“No”, I said. “I’m muttering to the table mat next to me.” She harrumped and turned to her, you know, husband, her better half, her less-than-spare person, and whispered within striking range of my own ears that ‘the woman next to me is quite barking’.
Good, I thought. That means she won’t bother me for the whole evening. And, being a spare, she didn’t. And no-one else did either.
Moving right along to, yes, another dinner party. The German woman sitting next to me engaged me in conversation. I hardly knew what to do such was the excitement level.
“Are you on your own?” she asked politely while looking at her husband sitting next to her. “Well, yes, I said. “Do you,” she asked, “have any animals?” Well, yes,” I said. “I have a cat.” “Oh!”, she said. “That would be good company for you,”.
Yes, I thought, it jolly well would be. At least my cat isn’t condescendingly, well, catty. But neither does she put out the rubbish, clean the house, do the dishes, wash the sheets, pay the rates and insurance, weed the garden. She does curl up next to me on the sofa and takes up most of the bed at night but apart from that, the only thing she does to annoy me is try to shit on the veggie garden.
As if to answer an unheralded and unheeded prayer, a man sitting across from me, who happened to be the local council representative, the District Mayor no less, leaned over the table and said softly, “I’d love to have an affair with you,”
I’d not spoken with him. There had been no flowers at the office begging solicitous assignations, there was no pre-boudoir wine-infused chat, no lustful eyes gazing at my breasts. Nothing but a naked statement, so to speak, and one uttered very quietly because sitting next to him and one down and across from me was his not-so-spare wife.
I looked at him. Whether in disgust or admiration at his effrontery I could not say nor even guess at. It may have been the amount of pinot noir I’d infused, or a moment of unaccustomed enlightenment or maybe even an epiphany from heaven, I know not which. But my own and very singular response just sort of tumbled out.
“If I wanted to ride a mayor,” I said. “I’d hire a horse,”.