Home Alone

Woman&Home - 2006

"Suddenly at the age of 56, I am living alone for the very first time in my life"

Most of us feel a bit strange when the kids finally leave home, but when you're a single parent, says Elaine Kingett, the silence is deafening

The tumbleweed rolls down the hall. The dog sleeps all day and the house waits, holding its breath – unsure of its new job description. I have four bedrooms, three floors, two bathrooms and me. At the age of 56, I am living alone for the first time in my life.

At the tender age of 17 – when I was living at home and hanging out in Blues clubs instead of studying for my A-levels – I met Jerry, who was to become my husband, and ran away with him to Art School. After 32 adventurous years together, he died unexpectedly at 53 – when we still had a very long list of things to do before we grew up.

What I soon realised was that apart from losing a soulmate and a lover, I'd also lost an electrician, decorator, carpenter, cook, bike mechanic and definitive arbiter of taste on every subject under the sun. But I did have our three children (aged 20, 16 and 12) and over the next five years we bonded together in what can be best described as a chaotic house share situation. None of us knew how to wire a plug or operate a drill, three out of four of us smoked and drank, and we all liked loud music.

My marriage had been very much the archetypal "Mum does the kids; Dad brings home the bacon (or Italian pancetta in his case), does the DIY and keeps everyone – including Mum – well in order." After his death, it was also suddenly financial wake-up time for me. I needed a proper job. Number one son moved back home to assume au pair/surrogate parent status, number two son became a dab hand at Ikea construction and opening a wine bottle, and daughter was kitchen porter, dog walker and moral minority. The house filled up with gangs of teenagers who appreciated my absence and the lights were never off. It wasn't until last week that I spent the first night in my house alone because now my children have left home.

"I bet you notice how quiet it is," say friends, but the silence is deafening. It even smells different. I can't say I yearn for the olfactory delight of burnt fish fingers at 3am, but now the kitchen bin takes almost a week to fill and

the contents moulder rankly in the mean time. And do I really still need two dustbins? People complain about cooking for one, but it's shopping for one that I find the problem. Two for the price of one? For whom exactly? An extra spinach and ricotta pizza for the dog? The thought of buying a small loaf of bread reduces me to tears.

Now that they've moved out I also notice what they've left behind – the skirting boards carved up by skateboards and bikes, the Blu Tack covered walls, the split panels in bedroom doors.

"Shut up!" Bang.
"Go away!" Bang.
"I hate you!" Bang.

The orange nail varnish on the bathroom wall – that was an interesting one. Every large appliance in the kitchen has a dent in the front. Ah, bless.

I feel like I'm living in an alien landscape. I notice the carpet so much more now that it's not covered in piles of trainers, mounds of washing or a surprisingly long adult male who never quite made it out the front door after his last can of Grolsch. It's down to me to turn off all the lights, lock all the doors and wash up my cup, knowing – give or take the odd burglar, don't let's even go there – that everything will be in exactly the same place when I go down again in the morning.

In the space of five years I have lost my husband, both parents and my kids – in a practical sense. According to the advertisements, I should be planning a cruise or, at the very least, a mini break with my fantasy grey-haired, but really rather distinguished, partner who's good at tennis and frolicking on the beach in the sunset with a cocktail in his manly paw. We could be enjoying noisy sex without emotionally scarring our kids. We could visit garden centres or join The National Trust. Of course, fantasy man could also buy a motorbike, sack loads of Viagra on the Internet and run off with his secretary, but I

tend not to focus on that side of things.

When you're a single mum, try as you may to avoid the ghastly connotations, your sons can become partner substitutes. They smell like men, they fill up the space like men, their deep voices resonate and they don't rip your self-confidence to bits with the terrifying regularity of a blossoming, hormonally-challenged daughter. I miss my boys' underwear and T-shirts in the dirty washing basket, their big, strong, protective hugs, my head level with their chest. They had noisy, lively, male friends who turned up at meal times, smoked cigarettes in the garden then filled up the kitchen and ate all the food – rather like The Tiger who Came To Tea. At Christmas and birthdays they were alwaysthere.

My social life was my kids. The boys took me to the pub, my daughter and I went to the cinema, to exhibitions and shopped. I miss their influence, their infectious enthusiasm for new ideas in music, in art, in fashion. I miss their irreverent humour and disregard for the status quo. Single when you're older can be a lonely pursuit and I know I'd rather be a gang member. I need to belong, but the couples are in charge of the membership.

I don't want my children back. I'm glad they're strong enough to go and I'm strong enough to let them. For far too long after their father's death I was an emotional mess. Now I'm sending them cough medicine and cake, but not newspaper cuttings on local job vacancies, as my late mother-in-law was prone to do for my husband when we were first together! I find the situation scary, but equally exciting. I too feel like I've left home. I'm taking control and, with less likelihood of projectile vomit, I've put the Persian rug down in the sitting room. I may even have the sofas re-covered.

For all of us it is a new chapter, a new adventure. They want me to move nearer to them, to get a "Mum Flat" in London but, surprisingly, I'm beginning to enjoy my independence and the fact that a carton of juice lasts longer than 15 minutes in the fridge. (And I buy Tropicana now rather than horrible Economy, but I don't tell them.) With no-one at home, I feel less like going out and, with a five-foot six-inch wide bed and the best duvet in the house, I'm still hoping someone might eventually join me!