31ST DECEMBER 2011
New Year’s Eve is my most hated day of the year. I can count on one hand the number of remotely good New Year’s Eves I have ever had, and this year looked like being another damp squib as I continued to ponder where I might go.
When I was a child, I loved waking on the first day of the New Year to find the pile of hats and whistles at the foot of my bed – the cache my parents brought back from the dance they had been to the night before.
My sleepy eyes stretching to take in pink crepe streamers dangling from the top of a shiny purple cone; red and blue plastic nursing waxed coils of inflatable whistle; jewels of sweets in a nest of tinsel – the glamour of a world I didn’t know but imagined, as I sifted through the evidence.
Sometimes, my parents had a New Year’s Eve party. Before the guests arrived, I would watch my mother prepare the food – creamed chicken in vol au vents (French food, no less! I thought Mum and Dad could speak a second language), sausage rolls and, my favourite, deep-fried fish balls. My brother and I were allowed to choose a small plate of food to take to our rooms to enjoy our own private party. And I thought I was the luckiest child in the world.
When did New Year’s Eve go so wrong? Was it when alcohol became part of the equation and aspirin replaced paper hats as the main fare of New Year’s Day? Or was it when I found myself without a date when all of my friends were sifting through a mountain of invitations? Maybe, as with most things, the shine went off it when I simply grew up.
By far my worst New Year was Millennium Eve. I had broken up with my boyfriend ten days before Christmas after I discovered he had gone off with a nurse when I was away. We were in Soho Pizzeria in London and, upon my suspicions being confirmed, I left the restaurant with great dignity. Halfway up the street, I changed my mind, ran back and gave him a “How could you do this to me!” rant in front of the whole place. Every nurse in Casualty and Holby City got a bad review from me after that. Sluts, the lot of them.
So, on the biggest New Year’s Eve in my lifetime, I was alone in front of the television, listening to bagpipes. Quite why anyone has the nerve to call that portable windbag a musical instrument is beyond me, and much as I love Scotland, the bagpipes make you understand why God chose to put the country so far away from everyone else.
As a single, older person, your New Year’s Eve choices are limited. Billboards in town are advertising late night drinking and DJs, which is a euphemism for glass in your face and a noise level that will make it impossible to phone the police and report said glassing of face.
Formal dinner dances are no fun on your own and come second in loneliness only to going away and staying in a hotel, where you then end up paying for the privilege of couples ignoring you.
We have huge expectations of New Year’s Eve, yet most people hate it. Far from feeling like a new beginning, for most of us it reinforces how little we have accomplished since the last one; and as the recession continues to bite, these days it also reinforces how much less money we have than we did a year ago.
But I still made the effort and went to the Cameo Club, which continues to be my favourite haunt in the city. Why change the habit of every other day for one night? And, at a mere £5, as a bagpipe avoidance solution, it was a snip. Shame the loud music drove me out shortly after midnight, but a small group reconvened in my house for charades.
Bring on 2012, I thought, waking with an optimistic song in my heart.
1ST JANUARY 2012
The New Year did not start well. After a very enjoyable Christmas catching up with family and friends, I was looking forward to 2012 with renewed optimism after what had been a difficult 2011 (after a difficult 2010 and 2009, come to that).
On New Year’s Day, I went to two of my local pubs to bring in the New Year with a few more people, and I returned home ready to start real life again on January 2nd (yes, a Bank Holiday, I know, but I figured I had already had enough time off).
I worked through the night in my living room, reviewing TV and contacting colleagues in LA, which I have to do during the early hours because of the time difference.
Suddenly, I became aware that the house had become very cold and went to check to see if I had left any windows or doors open. Everything appeared secure, and when I went to bed, everything seemed in order.
I awoke to a freezing house the following morning and noticed my kitchen window flung open. There were black footprints over my kitchen floor and dining room carpet. Then, I noticed footprints on the clearly destructed window.
I could not immediately see anything missing and called the police to report the break-in. But suddenly I noticed that my handbag was not in its usual place. Running hysterically through the house, I soon realised that it had been taken, along with several valuable possessions and a lot of cash and credit cards.
I never carry a lot of cash – friends’ experiences of being mugged on the streets always having been a deterrent; but this was an exception owing to the extra long holiday and the banks being shut.
The police were fantastic, from the desk officer who took the call to those who came to interview me and take forensic evidence. Likewise, the Lloyds Group insurance people I spoke to. Kind, understanding, sympathetic and helpful – I could not have asked for more.
I have returned home to find my home having been broken into when I lived in Bath, but Neighbourhood Watch were there so quickly the thieves escaped with nothing. The devastation felt by the violation of one’s personal space is, however, incalculable, and the knowledge that someone was in my home, just feet away from me, robbing me of my possessions, is something that, at present, is something from which I do not feel I will ever fully recover.
How did I not hear them? Why would they enter a house where it was clear someone was at home? Or, did they think the house was empty and, upon seeing me investigate the cold, pull the window shut and hide outside until I turned the lights off?
What if there had been no money in the bag? Would they have passed through the rest of the house and, upon finding me in the living room, coshed me over the head and helped themselves to everything they could?
The questions have been endless. The What Ifs, the Buts, the If Onlys – and, as the officer who took my statement said: hindsight is a wonderful thing.
When he handed me the statement to sign, I read through it and said it was fine – apart from the misplaced apostrophe in the possessive pronoun “its”. He asked when it was correct to use an apostrophe in the word, and, in the middle of my tears, I gave him an English punctuation lesson. It’s weird what shock does to you – and what it does not take away: namely, an obsession with language. Already, I was forming what I was going to write about the incident.
I was reminded of the story about Dorothy Parker who, at a theatre performance, laughed hysterically throughout but, in the next day’s paper, slaughtered the production. When asked by the gentleman who had listened to her guffawing throughout why there was such a disparity between her response and the review, she replied that she had not been laughing at the production, only what she was going to write about it.
The only upside of any bad experience for a writer is the knowledge that it is more material, and my grammar lesson was a tiny chink of light that reminded me that I was still me and would at some point return from what I now perceived myself to be, in just a few hours: a “victim”.
There are many situations in life capable of turning us into victims: the speed at which we shake that label off depends, for the most part, on our respective abilities to be re-active or pro-active. You can rant and rail against the hardships life throws at you for weeks, months, years; but in the end, it is only you who can change anything in your life.
There is a wonderful Maupassant short story in which one man tells another that he will ruin his life for the hardship he has dealt him. Decades later, having endured a terrible life and lost pretty much everything, the man meets the other, who had promised the wrath of terror; he congratulates him on having done exactly what he had said he would, destroying everything he held dear. Oh, that, the man shrugged; I forgot about that straight away.
The knowledge that it is we who are ultimately responsible for everything that happens to us is often a bitter pill to swallow, and it’s certainly true that there are many people – damned thieves included – who have no conscience when it comes to harming the lives of others. But it is how we respond to what is inflicted upon us – deliberately or by chance – that is the real sign of a great human being.
When the Stephen Lawrence “guilty” verdict was announced on Tuesday afternoon, it put my own burglary in perspective. Doreen and Neville Lawrence lost their wonderful young son at the hands of murderous, racist thugs; far from becoming victims, they fought for justice for 18 years, and this week, in part, they got it.
There is, indeed, evil in the world. People lie and steal and kill, and do all manner of things to defenceless human beings that it is hard to comprehend. But, when we feel at our most helpless, there are also many human beings who can surprise us with their compassion and kindness.
For me, this week, it has been the goodness shown not only by the police and insurance staff, but of so many strangers and friends on Facebook and Twitter, who offered messages of support after my ordeal. I felt alone and frightened, but was instantly surrounded by offers not only of practical help but emotional support.
It was uplifting, heartening, and transported me from the role of victim to one of survivor.
As for the people who robbed me. Enjoy the money. It won’t last. The love and support of my friends and family will.