“Here is my advice to you, should you ever become inadvertently home alone for heartbreaking reasons: do all the things that you love that they hate most.” With The Tall Man still in hospital, Ella Risbridger is determined to put her evenings alone to good use.
It’s one in the morning, and I’m alone in the flat, and I’m baking cookies. There’s a set of lipstick swatches on the back of my hand, and there’s a Kate Atkinson audiobook playing gently, and the washing machine rumbles softly under it all. I pick a lipstick – inappropriate red – and put it on, just for the hell of it. Somewhere across town, the Tall Man sleeps, stable and safe under the watchful eye of the nurses, and I’m in our flat alone doing all the things he hates most. Here is my advice to you, should you ever become inadvertently home alone for heartbreaking reasons: do all the things that you love that they hate most. Do the things that are only made possible by the heartbreak.
Long baths that use up all the hot water. Not having to even make the effort to speak. Baking cookies at midnight, because there’s no reason to go to bed. Listening to audiobooks and podcasts and keeping the radio tuned, permanently, to Radio 4, because there’s no threat of someone coming along behind you retuning it, inexplicably, to Radio Rock. Wearing red lipstick – the kind that wants a liner, the kind that shines with a deep look-at-me glow – by yourself in the middle of the night.
It’s from Sephora, sent to me by a kind friend, and it’s one of the greatest red lipsticks I’ve ever tried. It’s a true red, and when you line it (which I do with a Mac Cherry pencil), looks fierce and true and a little bit superhero. If superheroes wore dressing gowns.
I wrote, last week, about how there never seemed to be any time for the things that mattered, about how I needed to practice self-care, and get back to work, and get things done. And I tried! I really tried, and am still trying: I have found a cafe close by the hospital with comfortable chairs, good coffee, a plug socket and wifi. I have agreed a time, every day, when I’ll try to go out and get fresh air, and get my work done. I give myself an extra hour at home in the morning; make sure I get a coffee on my way up to the ward; make sure I have time for a shower and to brush my hair.
And it’s working. Ish. I’m there when the Tall Man needs me, and I’m not too far behind with my work. I’m in the cafe for work calls and deadlines, and in hospital to help with physiotherapy and speech therapy and the million other tasks you never give a second’s thought to until someone can’t do them without you. I’m there all day, more or less.
Which leaves – as you’ll have worked out – only the night, and this is why I’m baking cookies at one in the morning, and painting my nails, and trying on new lipsticks. I’m wearing the fluffiest dressing gown I’ve ever seen, and brilliant bright red lipstick, and it’s for me and nobody else. The day can have my duty and my love and my care, but the night is for me alone: the night is my time. This matters, when you are a carer. It is more important than I could have imagined to have this 1 a.m., when nobody has any demands on me. One in the morning is when nobody is going to call me, or email me, or ask me for an update on John’s (vastly complex, ever-changing, deeply personal) condition. One in the morning belongs to me.
And I enjoy it. Is that a terrible thing to admit? It might be, but I don’t care: the only way through this is to find the good bits, the bits worth hanging on to. And this, for now, is one of them: the small joy of being alone. I have never lived alone in my life, and I am learning to like it. I couldn’t do it for long, but in a time where I’m needed constantly, practically, emotionally – it’s nice, sometimes, to be alone.
And then, cookies baked, I fall asleep.
The mornings are always a mad rush, even with the extra hour. It’s the trade-off for the late night, and I think it’s worth it. This morning I tumble out of bed, go groggy into the shower, fall into jeans and a jumper – and swipe on that bright red midnight lipstick. As I stumble into the bathroom I realise I didn’t take it off the night before, and it’s lasted surprisingly well. I wash my face, and apply a new coat, and although it really shouldn’t go with blue jeans and a stripy jumper – not with a name like “Belly Dancing” – I decide it doesn’t matter. I’ll let last night’s lipstick carry me through the difficult day, and let it remind me all day of the importance of carving out these little spaces, for myself and for joy.
ABOUT SOMETIMES IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS…
I’d never been much of a make-up person before last year, but strange things happen on the cancer ward. When my partner, the Tall Man, was suddenly diagnosed with a rare, aggressive lymphoma, I found myself reaching for a battered tube of Mac Ruby Woo – part armour, part warpaint, all crimson defiance. This is a column about lipstick, and about caring, and about cancer, but most of all it’s my lifeline and it’s proof – for me, at least – that putting on a brave face is half the fight. Read my story so far here.