The fox dashes past the orange puddle of the street light, head bowed against the rain, nose following the trail of something delicious, and I watch for a while, but I’m hungry, impatient. I turn the blind, put on a lamp and some Radio Three and pour a glass of wine. The house is still and I’m alone. This never happens. There is no one to cook for tonight but me and I’m making risotto, thick with butter, wine, peas, the palest mushrooms, drenched in parmesan and loaded with black pepper.
It’s fair to say that I’m good to myself and I’m writing this note to tell you that you should be good to yourself too. I drink a glass of chilled white while stirring in the stock, watching the glistening Arborio grow fat, filling up the pan with an alarming portion. For a little while I’ll pretend that the modest serving will be enough, but I know I’ll rise from the table and fill my plate again. I’ll eat greedily, noisily, in the company of a candle and a proper place setting, table manners be damned tonight; there’s no one here to listen to me smack my lips and noisily chew every last molecule with relish. My reckless gluttony is not fit for other’s eyes. Tonight, I eat risotto with a fork in my right hand and Mantel in my left. And if I leave a little greasy fingerprint on the corner of a page, then the book has become a personal map and more beguiling in my eyes.
Eating alone – tearing into the guts of your food – is a source of joy. The string of cheese, or the undulating web of spaghetti, cascading from fork to chin, is a source of delight not embarrassment when there’s no one there to witness it. Yet there’s an insidious belief permeating our instagrammable culture that social eating and the companioned consumption of ethically curated –yet joyless – food is a sign of social success. Guys, the whole come-over-for-dinner thing is never going to be as relaxed and carefree as a leftover chicken sandwich eaten in the bath.
Confession: I’m greedy. I know of only one food I won’t eat.
Another confession: I have a husband and four children I adore and cook for every single day. Meals are eaten around a table, the day discussed and dissected. Is it any wonder then, that I sometimes – just occasionally – I long to be alone? I’m an introvert and there is bliss to be found in solitude, in indulging only yourself and in the playful putting together of a moment. Remember how little control you had over your food when you were a child, and how you promised yourself that when you were a grown up you’d eat only those things you loved? Now is your chance. You have control. You have at least a little money. You have the capacity to gambol through a deli thinking only of yourself.
Not sure about this? Indulge me here. Sit quietly over there and witness some solitary greed.
I’m having a train picnic. I have a double seat to myself and am discouraging any interlopers with selfishly (judiciously) placed bags. We leave the station and as I watch city become suburb, become country – I unwrap my purchases. There’s stuff from two different stores: a bottle of icy, still lemonade, it’s pulp floating like confused ghosts in a sea of yellow; a roast beef sandwich on white bread, bulging with horseradish and rocket; three tiny macarons, ridiculously pretty, crisp, then soft, then jammy. There are crumbs on my t-shirt and a re-reading of Pullman going on and if you’re staring I’m not aware of it. Solitude is relative – there are other passengers but none I’m acknowledging. My expanse of window and my bag barricade demarcate a temporary home.
Spring. It’s midnight and the garden is exhaling, the slabs cool and the grass lush. Somewhere, distant, a dog barks. I sit surrounded by flowers and watch cloud pavlovas glide teasingly overhead. Everyone I love is asleep and I share my supper space with only the unseen souls in the plane blinking overhead and the creatures that crawl. In a purple goblet there’s glacial prosecco, in my hand a white chocolate ice cream. I’ve planned this through the kid’s baths, the squaring up of the house, the work on the half-written lecture still strewn over the table. My nine-year-old self, incapable of staying awake until midnight, is as deeply impressed by the hour as with my obvious contentment to sit in such emptiness. It’s a privilege to notice the moon float higher, while scoring an expensive choc-ice. Later, I climb into bed with cold feet, the smell of night air in my hair and a melting shard of chocolate betraying its way meltingly on my pyjamas.
You see – it doesn’t have to be grand, it just has to lift your spirits, nourish your sense of self and give your body something it craves. I’ve enjoyed eating that has been simple, banal even, but some magical combinations of solitude and situation have fused those times into my mind.
I’ve danced alone in a field in a Dark Sky park, with Sigur Ros in my ears, the Plough wheeling overhead and a wedge of chocolate cake held between two napkins. I’ve sat in the window of an Oxford bistro and eaten vegetarian chilli, a book about Elizabeth I to peruse if I fancied some bloodthirsty company. There have been Sunday trips to the cafe in tartan jammies with a coat thrown over, only to return to my bed with a bacon roll, a poke of sweeties and a pile of newsprint.
We are grownups. We must eat our vegetables and socialise. But now and again, nourish your soul and enjoy some solitude. Stroke your belly; wipe your chin. Burp.
Somewhere close by, if you look really carefully, your nine-year-old self is grinning.