Just Saying

Surviving the single life

To become single in your 50s can leave you unsteady. But you take stock of your life, and your linen, and figure out that everything can be fixed with Tabasco.

There's big trouble brewing in Yio Chu Kang. There is a man in the mirror I am not certain I recognise. He used to think Muji was a Japanese dish and now he's a self-appointed authority on their steel laundry baskets. He could barely tell a corn from a flake, and now he meditates in supermarket aisles and can name you 11 different types of cereal.

What's happened to me?

Singledom. In middle age.

It is not as dreadful a condition as you might think but it is an education. Life in Australia might have taught me to clean bathrooms, vacuum and iron, but now I have an advanced degree in domesticity. I count my towels more often than a school matron and wander my house with my finger extended like a mad cousin of a water diviner. You know why? To run it over random surfaces to check for dust. My mother applauds me, my daughter probably thinks I should try counselling.

Singledom is a case of life trying its jiu-jitsu on you: It flips you, tosses you and it can be scary, confusing, altering and liberating. In its first days - and it's been nearly three years since my separation - you delicately negotiate a landscape of loss and walk the world uncomfortably like a man in tight new shoes. For 25 years, you see life as a duet and then your prism changes. Now you dream of growing older with no one but yourself. Well, unless Diane Lane changes her mind.

To move from constant companionship to the solitary life is to move from sound to silence. Time stretches and you relearn how to spend it. Space alters, for a single person makes a house appear bigger. You learn not to be terrified by the quiet but comforted by it, and eventually appreciate what the sailor feels like alone on a boat at sea. He sees himself more clearly.

Upheaval - illness, job loss, divorce - always slows life down for a while and you attempt a sort of human mathematics, a reckoning of the self, where you peek at your fragility and count your inadequacies, and even discover a tenacity you weren't certain you owned. In singledom, your life is your own, it cannot be blamed on anyone.

You are not alone, of course, for the 50s are a time of partitioning, marriages folding and people widowed, and just when life should be settled there is, instead, a splintering. What is left is the middle-aged wounded.

I have a small mafia of recently single friends - some of their stories dark, many painful, all of them trying to make peace with an unsteady new life. One flees to another land, another finds himself socially awkward. They're overwhelmed by a precarious financial future yet cling to positivity. They're tired of "what happened?" questions yet elbow aside bitterness.

It's like middle-age masons at rebuilding class. They're learning to watch movies alone and to use fitness as an armour against a fear of illness. Something primitive and raw and unfamiliar is kicking in, and it is self-preservation.

I've learnt to cook eggs in nine different ways and can confirm that Tabasco makes anything edible. I find my responsibilities - paying bills, inspecting windows for smudges, keeping stock of chips, checking on softener - keep the brain sharp and that humour is the way to attack life. I even figure out that operating the washing machine is not as complicated as flying an F-16, and I gain even greater respect for my ex-wife and every other multitasking working woman I know.

To move from constant companionship to the solitary life is to move from sound to silence. Time stretches and you relearn how to spend it. Space alters, for a single person makes a house appear bigger. You learn not to be terrified by the quiet but comforted by it, and eventually appreciate what the sailor feels like alone on a boat at sea. He sees himself more clearly.

You also discover you're richer than you imagined as kindness knocks on your door and friends bring reassurance. Love comes in the form of a pressure cooker from Delhi, dinners from a neighbour and a brother who takes 10 minutes of roundabout conversation to check if you're drinking yourself to sleep. "I'm fine, really" becomes your anthem.

Improvisation is everything. I have to dress myself, which sounds kind of odd, except that I am colour-blind and so I must Skype my son-in-law in Melbourne for advice on which tie matches my shirt. Else most queries once regularly directed at a spouse are now aimed at the mirror. Do I need a haircut? Are my muscles growing? Surely that's not a paunch?

Most alarming is how inept people think you are. When I host my first dinner as a single man, table laid out with my grandmother's English dinner set, I nearly receive a standing ovation.

Then everyone sits down and wants to know if you're dating. Men nudge and wink. Women insist they've found someone perfect for you till it transpires your date doesn't even enjoy reading. Of course, to say you prefer to stay at home with a book is to be officially pathetic, but it's hard to explain that singleness is not always loneliness and solitariness is not sadness.

Humans adapt to new worlds and singledom is its own private planet where a little selfishness is bred - you will never learn to share the TV remote again - and obsessiveness can take root. I have become a cousin of Rafael Nadal, for I am as methodical with the precise geometry of my chairs as he is with his bottles. It sounds rather disturbing but a neat home in some strange way symbolises a life in control.

Marriage is enriching because another human unlocks something in you, but this is life pared down, leaner and simpler. Occasionally, I think I have solved this new life but I should have listened to that squinting American philosopher Clint Eastwood, who used to say, "Man's got to know his limitations".

In an overzealous spirit of adventure, I hired a woman to come and cook biryani and kebabs in my home for a lunch party. A thoughtful friend dropped off the rice, onions and uncooked mutton. All was in place. I made myself a vodka and congratulated myself on having evolved.

Well, not quite.

The cooking lady, middle-aged, stern, put out her hand.

Pressure cooker?

I pulled out a bonsai one. She looked appalled. There were 15 people.

Blender? Oh damn.

Lime? Hell.

Green chillies? Christ.

Bread crumbs? $%%#.

The list of what I lacked, as man and in condiments, was not just clear but growing. I was starting to get alarmed. She started looking at me funny. I called neighbours for help, ambushed their maids, borrowed a pressure cooker, got in a taxi, bought chilli powder, raced back. At home, my friends hooted and my ex-wife with customary grace was kind enough not to roll her eyes.

In the kitchen, the lady sweated. I didn't dare go in but I could almost see her sighing and scowling and shaking her head: "Bah, single man."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 20, 2017, with the headline 'Surviving the single life'. Print Edition | Subscribe