At peak lockdown, all anyone living with a family or flatmates fantasised about was getting 20 minutes at home alone. None of us had a concrete plan for what we would do in that time. It was just a longing for silence, for the guarantee of a short window in which nobody would be hungry or thirsty, or break anything, no incursions would be made into anyone else’s concentration, no fresh hostilities launched between household rivals, the incredible peace of nobody even moving from one room to another.
To have dreamed in 2020 of having a whole 24 hours alone in a house would have been pointless and absurd, a waste of imagination. Wish fulfilment should always double up as positive visualisation, which is to say, the wished-for thing must have at least a sliver of a chance of coming true, otherwise you’re asking the universe to ignore you. I would never, for instance, sit around wondering how I would spend €25m from the lottery, or what kind of display cabinet I would like for my Nobel prize.
Then, out of nowhere, a day of alone time dropped into my lap. The kids were with my and Mr Z’s exes, which is not unusual, but it coincided with Mr Z’s away day. I had this filed in my head as online team-building, exactly like his regular schedule of eight hours opposite a ring light. The reality – that he might get on a train, for an intensive schedule of ping-pong, personal disclosure and everyone using the word “mission”, didn’t really hit me until the day before, and then I spent so much time smirking about his plans that I didn’t make any of my own.
So at 8.30am on a Wednesday, the house was my oyster. Exhilarated, I tried to make an inventory of all the things I would normally avoid doing because they were antisocial. I got as far as singing along to Enya and eating raw onion, then my mind went blank. So from 9am to 11am, I ate raw onion on toast and waited for Magic FM to play Enya. Obviously, I could have found limitless power ballads on Spotify, but in a weird, self-defeating habit of the married, I only use it with Mr Z’s password, which I’ve never memorised. Can’t sing to Enya with him, can’t do it without him. I also had ants in my pants and smelled very strongly of onion. Turns out this isn’t only distracting for other people.
Spontaneously, I hatched a lunch plan, with the worst possible person, a friend who starts work at 5am and thus finishes by noon. Lunch is effectively dinner to him, and I wasted a load of priceless empty-house time in a pub. Mid-afternoon, I was back, my suite of choices reduced to one: have a snooze, or don’t. Twenty minutes can’t do any harm, I reasoned, then wham, it was two hours later. Weird thing to forget, that I’ve never knowingly been woken up by my own alarm; it is always someone else in the house, hearing my alarm and petitioning me on its behalf.
I was out again in the evening, and ended that with the meta-solitude experience of getting the last tube home, which had not a single other person on it. It was now 1am. I couldn’t possibly sleep, having slept so much already. There were decadent, selfish things I wanted to do, such as watch the Buffy musical episode in bed and eat more onion. It was three in the morning before I knew it, the hour at which everything starts to sound like an intruder: the dog’s heartbeat sounded like someone on the stairs, the wind like someone getting in through the window. I could not shake the certainty that I was being burgled, that some Home Alone memo had gone out to the housebreaking community. I just waited it out until I was too tired to care.
So this is what self-determination feels like – being a student, but less devil-may-care.
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist