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She has a full-time remote job and her rescue cat Fred. Her best friend Sadie visits with her two children. There's her online support group, her jigsaw puzzles and favorite recipes, her beloved Emily Dickinson poems. Also keeping her company are treacherous memories of an unstable childhood and a traumatic event that had sent her reeling.
But something's about to change. First, two new friends burst into her life. Then her long-estranged sister gets in touch. Suddenly her carefully curated home is no longer a space to hide. Whether Meredith likes it or not, the world is coming to her door…
I fear me this—is Loneliness—
The Maker of the soul
Its Caverns and its Corridors
Emily Dickinson, “The Loneliness
One Dare Not Sound”
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Lao Tzu (and Meredith’s therapist, Diane)
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
My name is Meredith Maggs and I haven’t left my home for 1,214 days.
Thursday, November 15, 2018
I’m tidying the living room when he arrives. First, he pulls up outside my house in a gray car. Next, he walks up my path. He has a slim folder tucked under one arm and long legs. It only takes him three strides to reach the door.
At 10:57 a.m. the tall man rings my doorbell.
I like it when people are punctual. I don’t get many visitors—my best friend, Sadie, and her kids, James and Matilda, and the grocery deliveryman are my only regulars. Sadie is often late and frazzled, but I let her off because she’s a single mum with a busy job—a cardiac nurse at the biggest hospital in Glasgow. The grocery deliveryman is always right on time.
I take deep breaths, watch my feet walk to the door in their blue Converse. Look at my right hand as it reaches for the handle, grips, pushes, pulls. I draw the door toward me, slowly, and do a quick scan. Checked shirt, buttoned right up to the neck, under a navy duffel coat. A few years younger than me, I think. Or maybe just someone who benefits from fresh air and sunshine. He has dark hair, short at the sides and longer on top. A friendly face—open eyes and an easy smile, not forced.
I don’t get a lot of visitors. But this one seems OK, on first impression.
He offers a hand. “Meredith? I’m Tom McDermott from Holding Hands, the befriending charity. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”
I wish I could say the same, but of all the things I have to look forward to—and it’s a short list admittedly—this isn’t one of them. Meeting new people has never been a joy. Especially people who visit solely to make sure I’m not neglecting my personal care, or wasting away, or drinking vodka for breakfast. When the boxes have been ticked and the forms have been filled out, I’m really rather boring.
I shake Tom McDermott’s hand, because it’s the polite thing to do. He’s the first man to come to my house since Gavin—lovely, sweet Gavin, who was no match for my nightmares—but I don’t feel threatened. I don’t find Tom McDermott intimidating, in his checked shirt and duffel coat, standing on my doorstep.
Still, I don’t let him in. Not yet. Even though I invited him here, grudgingly, after Sadie left the leaflet on my kitchen table under a box of Tunnock’s Teacakes and I went through the motions. The same leaflet that Tom McDermott has just fished out of his folder and is holding up in front of me. I interlink my fingers behind my back in response to the large black capital letters: “WE’RE HERE TO HOLD YOUR HAND.” An act of defiance that only I’m aware of.
I look at the two people on the front of the leaflet. I know their faces well—I’ve seen them several times a day because they’re attached to the front of my fridge with a magnet in the shape of a heart. One is a middle-aged woman, the other a man who looks old enough to be her grandfather. He has cloudy eyes and a tuft of white hair on either side of his head, and looks tiny in his armchair, shoulders hunched up around his ears. They’re smiling at each other and—right on brand—holding hands.
“I always thought befriending was for old people,” I tell Tom McDermott, ready to label the leaflet as Exhibit A.
“Actually, we try to reach out to anyone who might need a friend. Elderly people, teenagers, anyone in between.”
“I have friends,” I tell him, stretching the truth.
“Maybe you have room for another one?”
I think about this, about the way my tiny circle might not pass for a circle at all—unless cats count—and I’m not really concentrating on what he’s saying about training and risk assessments and codes of conduct. But I decide I’m curious enough to let him into my house.
I couldn’t move my almost-completed jigsaw of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss from the coffee table in the living room, so I’d carefully pushed it against the wall. If Tom McDermott needs a table, we can move through to the kitchen.
I leave him there and go to make us tea. (“No sugar—I’m sweet enough,” he tells me with a wink, and somehow it comes across as quite endearing, not sleazy.) When I return, he’s kneeling down, looking at The Kiss.
“How long did this take you?” he asks.
“A few days, just doing the odd half hour here and there,” I say, setting the tea tray on the floor. I’ve added a plate of chocolate cookies, despite Tom McDermott claiming he’s sweet enough.
“Amazing,” he says, and I think he’s talking about the jigsaw, not the biscuits, but he reaches for a cookie and takes a bite. He stays on the floor, his long legs crossed, and washes his cookie down with a gulp of tea. For a total stranger, he’s making himself very comfortable in my living room. I perch on the end of the couch, my mug sending heat into my palms.
“Meredith, it’s really good to meet you. Before we start chatting, let me give you some information about the charity. It was set up in 1988, right here in Glasgow, by a woman called Ada Swinney, whose mother was housebound due to dementia. Our mission today is exactly the same as Ada’s was back then—to offer company, friendship, and support to anyone who needs it.”
I don’t know what to say, so I sip my tea.
“The most important thing, at all times, is that you feel comfortable and safe. At any time, if you don’t, you can tell me to leave and I will—no questions asked!” He takes some forms out of his folder. “Shall we get the boring stuff out of the way first?”
I answer all his questions and nod in all the right places until the forms are back where they belong.
“You’re clearly a bit of a star at jigsaw puzzles,” he says. “What else do you like to do with your time?”
After a few long seconds of Tom McDermott smiling—he has, I concede, kind eyes—and me looking blankly back at him, I say, “I read a lot.”
“Well, I can see that!” He gestures at the books lining an entire wall of the room, then jumps to his feet in one surprisingly smooth motion for someone with those legs. “Quite a variety you have here, Meredith. Plenty of classics… history… art… do you have an all-time favorite?”
“It’s actually a poetry collection. Emily Dickinson.” I join him at the shelves and reach for a slim orange book, its spine soft and creased from decades of use, from the touch of fingers much older than mine. I bought it in my favorite secondhand bookshop; it has For Violet, ever yours handwritten on the inside cover. I’ve often wondered who Violet was, and why a book given to her with so much commitment ended up being available to me for two pounds. Whatever its story, I feel safe with it in my hand.
“Dickinson. She felt a funeral in her brain, didn’t she? Genius.”
“You can borrow it, if you like.” I surprise myself by offering him the book.
“I would love to. Thank you, Meredith. I’ll take very good care of it, and give it back to you the next time I see you.”
I’m a little taken aback. I expected him to say—politely, kindly—that he couldn’t possibly take my favorite book. But by the time I’ve taken my seat back on the couch, he’s tucked it into his folder and has helped himself to another chocolate cookie.
“Meredith, I know you haven’t left your house for a very long time,” he says.
“One thousand two hundred and fifteen days,” I tell him.
“A very long time,” he says again.
“Well, it’s flown by.”
“You count the days?”
I shrug, feeling stupid. “I guess I have nothing to count down to, so I count up.”
I fold my arms across my body, well aware of the message that sends.
“We don’t have to talk about that, if you don’t want to.” He keeps his voice soft, a contrast to my sharpness. “I’m here to get to know you. I’m interested to learn about your life, what you like and don’t like, how you pass your time. And… well, maybe we can figure out a way to help you get back into the world?”
“I am in the world,” I say defiantly.
“Yes, of course you are. But—”
“And I have a cat. Fred.”
“Fred? Astaire, Savage?” He grins.
I don’t. “Just Fred.”
“I love cats,” he says. I’m beginning to think that Tom McDermott will agree with me no matter what I say. He thinks my jigsaw is amazing. He loves Emily Dickinson and cats. I’m also beginning to regret giving him my most treasured poetry collection. I might never see him—or that beloved, faded orange cover—again. I wonder if I could ask for it back. Maybe he’ll go to the bathroom and I could slip it out of his folder and put it back on the second shelf from the top, where it belongs.
But he shows no sign of going to the bathroom and wants to keep talking about cats.
“What happens if Fred gets sick?” he asks.
Tom McDermott has underestimated me. I’ve been asked all these questions before.
“Fred has never been sick,” I say proudly. “But I have a very good friend, Sadie. Sadie would take Fred to the vet.”
“Ah. That’s good. What else does Sadie do for you?”
“She picks up my prescription once a month. That’s it. She’s my friend, not my carer.” My shoulders feel tense. They’ve been frozen in place—somewhere near my ears—since I gave him my book. “I don’t need anything else.”
“And you work… full-time?”
“I’m a freelance writer, so it varies. But I’m kept busy.”
“A writer? That sounds exciting.”
“It’s not really. I don’t have bylines in the New York Times or anything. It’s just web content for businesses.”
“Believe me, it’s exciting compared to what I used to do.” He pulls a face. “I got made redundant from my job in finance last year. So I’m taking a bit of time out, trying to figure out what to do next.”
I nod. I’ve never been good at small talk.
“What about your family, Meredith? Do they visit often?”
My stomach clenches. I take a gulp of my tea.
“It’s complicated,” I tell him.
“I’m pretty good with complicated,” he says, and his voice is gentle. “But we don’t have to go there, Meredith.”
“I have a mother. And a sister. Fiona. Fee. She’s eighteen months older than me.” I rush the words out of my mouth.
“What’s your sister like?” It’s a natural question, out of his.
“Different from me. But I don’t know anything about her anymore. We haven’t spoken for a long time. I don’t see her or my mother at all, actually.”
“It is complicated,” Tom says softly. Then he waits, and the fact that he’s giving me space makes me wonder if I can say more. But I can’t find the right words, so I go back into the kitchen for more cookies.
Half an hour later, I stand at my front door and wait patiently for Tom McDermott to leave, to take three strides down my garden path and get into his gray car and drive away. I’m exhausted from all the talking, all the questions, all the worrying about my book, all the pretending my life is a ten when the truth is that most days barely scratch the underside of a six.
He’s taking his time to go. He’s already thanked me profusely for my hospitality, looking straight into my eyes and telling me he’ll be back to see me next week, if that’s OK with me. Fred watches us from his favorite place, the comfy chair on the upstairs landing. It’s the first man in the house for him too; I wonder if cats pick up on things like that. Part of me is pleased that he didn’t come down to welcome Tom.
“Remember, there’s no obligation on your part,” Tom says. “If you hate my jokes, or can’t afford all the cookies I eat, you can tell me to go away at any time. No hard feelings, I promise.”
“You’ve got my favorite book, so I suppose I’ll need to see you again.”
“Very true.” He smiles. “And I’m looking forward to seeing what jigsaw you’re working on next.”
“A mosaic tile design,” I tell him. “It’s intricate.”
“Well, I can’t wait to see it. Until then, Meredith.”
I raise my hand to bid him farewell, but he pauses on the doorstep.
“One more thing, Meredith… if you don’t mind? I’m curious—there must be something you used to do that you miss? One thing you can’t do at home?”
It’s started to rain heavily. Tom McDermott buttons up his duffel coat. Behind his head, the dense, gray clouds of the late-afternoon sky move toward me. I’m aware of them, without looking directly at them. I inch backward, away from the open door.
“Swimming. I love swimming,” I say softly.
“I’m a terrible swimmer,” he says. “I can do doggy paddle, and that’s about it. Anyway…” He pulls the collar of his coat tighter round his neck and shakes a raindrop off the tip of his nose. “I’ll be swimming home at this rate. Goodbye, Meredith. You take care.”
“You too, Tom McDermott,” I whisper as I close the front door.
That night, I dream I’m doing doggy paddle in a huge lake with Emily Dickinson. Tom McDermott and the old man from the leaflet are sitting on the side, watching and waving and eating chocolate biscuits.
Monday, November 19, 2018
I check the clock: 8:19 a.m. Almost right on schedule. Plenty of time to exercise before putting my eggs on to boil at 8:54 a.m. Two eggs, five minutes, for the perfect runny yolk. It took me three days to master it and it was worth the trial and error.
But before perfect eggs, twenty minutes of cardio. What a revelation it was, the discovery that a twenty-minute workout each day—with a rest day of choice—is all I need to stay fit. I have a few favorite YouTube workouts, but I mix it up now and then, just for fun. And the beauty of doing it at home, alone, is that nobody sees how out of breath I get after six rounds of burpees.
I always follow cardio with relaxation: stretching, deep breathing, and positive affirmations. “I accept myself unconditionally” is one of the recent additions to my repertoire. This morning, yet again, I struggle to get on board with it; it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. Diane, my therapist, tells me to stick with it, that it has to become a habit to have an impact. I told her that I didn’t think affirmations were supposed to be lies, which led to a long conversation about self-sabotaging behaviors.
Morning workout done, and with my eggs simmering, I drop two slices of sunflower-seed bread into the toaster until they turn golden brown. I give them a light spread of butter, slice them neatly, and pop them onto a plate. Next, the eggs go into their spotted cups, and I crack the tops (the best part) and sit down at the table with tea in my favorite mug, the one that matches my egg cups. It’s 8:59 a.m. Perfect. I get a kick out of these little achievements.
I do a few hours of work offline, have a cheese and pickle sandwich for lunch, then log on. I try to limit my time online because I know how easy it is to get stuck there. A digital hour is like ten seconds in the real world. I wrote a schedule once, but quickly realized it didn’t allow for those spontaneous Google moments that pop up on a regular basis, like when you need to know how to make a béchamel sauce or can’t remember the name of Henry VIII’s fifth wife (he popped into my head when I was thinking about misogyny one day, and I always get the Catherines mixed up).
I know some people think the internet is the root of all evil, but I couldn’t survive without it. Literally. I can get anything I want delivered to my house, often within twenty-four hours. Fresh milk and tampons and batteries and books. I don’t even have to answer the door, if I don’t feel like seeing anyone that day. I have a box attached to the front of it, big enough for parcels. I fitted it myself, I’m proud to say.
Luckily I found a clever app that records the time I spend online and disconnects me when I reach my daily limit of eight hours. Up to six of those are spent working, depending on how many projects I have on the go, which leaves two hours for misogynistic kings and everything else. Even after all these months, it still surprises me when I hit the limit. But it makes me use my time.
After catching up with the news (it’s International Men’s Day, which leads me down a rabbit hole of opinion pieces about toxic masculinity), I sign into StrengthInNumbers, the online support group I joined after Sadie emailed me a link with “CHECK THIS OUT!!!” in the subject line. That was just one of her bright ideas. She has a lot of those, sending me links to new books or articles she hopes will give me the push I need to become a Normal Person again. She emails me reviews of new restaurants, texts me with Groupon deals for spa weekends and afternoon tea deals. Just in case, she writes. I delete them without reading them. I know Sadie means well, but I don’t want to spend my free time reading research papers on social anxiety disorder or books about agoraphobia by people with a string of random letters after their names.
For the record I don’t have either of those things.
I have to admit that StrengthInNumbers was one of Sadie’s better ideas. I like the anonymity of making connections online, and it’s comforting to know I’m not the craziest person in the country. Today, ninety-eight people are active—about normal for a Monday morning. Evenings and weekends are much busier, for obvious reasons. I’m lucky to be able to work from home and set my own hours, so I’m not tied to the nine-to-five grind. That’s one thing I definitely don’t miss. I often work late—I like being awake when the city sleeps.
I check in with a few of the regulars and ask about their weekends. Janice (WEEJAN) had a difficult time with her wayward teenage daughter, but she managed to resist eating all the chocolates in the Quality Street tin (she only had eight, and didn’t make herself sick afterward). Gary (RESCUEMEPLZ) says he went on a bender—despite his best intentions—but what else can he do while he’s on an eighteen-month waiting list for a counselor? I tell him it took twelve months for me to get my therapist, Diane, who’s not exactly my favorite person in the world but I certainly never feel any worse after talking to her. Janice says he could get a private therapist for fifty pounds an hour. Gary says times are tough and he can’t afford to pay fifty pounds an hour. Janice points out that he probably spends that on beer and vodka in a week, which doesn’t go down well. I leave them to argue about the dangers of self-medicating and the strengths and weaknesses of the National Health Service. They’ll go around in circles, as usual. I’m just about to log off when a private chat window opens on my screen.
I hover my cursor over the profile picture—a fluffy white cat, which makes me smile. I check her details: female, 29, Glasgow.
CATLADY29: I’m not sure if I’m doing the right thing. It’s my first time here… I just need someone to talk to…
JIGSAWGIRL: Hey, that’s OK. I’m Meredith.
CATLADY29: Hi, Meredith. I’m Celeste.
JIGSAWGIRL: Hi, Celeste. I see you’re in Glasgow? It’s always nice to meet a fellow Weegie.
CATLADY29: You’re in Glasgow too? Oh, that makes me feel like I’m talking to a real person. Whereabouts do you live?
JIGSAWGIRL: I’m definitely real. I live in the East End.
CATLADY29: I’ve just moved into a new place in the city center. Near the art school?
JIGSAWGIRL: Seriously? That’s my old stomping ground. Good times!
CATLADY29: I’m on Sanderson Street.
JIGSAWGIRL: No way! That’s where I lived. Number 48. Flat A.
CATLADY29: Meredith, you won’t believe this. I’m in 48D.
JIGSAWGIRL: OMG! How crazy is that? The flat above!
CATLADY29: I know, right? When did you live there?
JIGSAWGIRL: I moved out about five years ago. Decided it was time to take the plunge and buy my own place. Do you like it there?
CATLADY29: I love the location. Tiny flat, though. Hardly big enough to swing a cat.
JIGSAWGIRL: LOL! I remember. Speaking of cats… who is the cutie in your profile picture?
CATLADY29: Ah, that’s my mum’s cat. Lucy. No pets allowed here, unfortunately
JIGSAWGIRL: I have a cat. He’s called Fred.
CATLADY29: Aww… you’re so lucky! You’ll need to put him on your profile picture so I can see him!
JIGSAWGIRL: I will! He deserves to be shown off
CATLADY29: It’s nice to meet you, Meredith. What brings you here?
My fingers move quickly over the keyboard, giving my stock answer.
JIGSAWGIRL: Friendship and support. I have some mental health issues.
CATLADY29: I hope that wasn’t prying?
JIGSAWGIRL: Not at all.
CATLADY29: So, how does it work on here?
JIGSAWGIRL: Well, there are different channels for different things. Depression, addiction, PTSD… everything really. Those are monitored and moderated by volunteers. There are lots of advice pages as well, with links to professional helplines and resources. And you can also chat privately to people, individually or in groups. Like we are now.
CATLADY29: It’s quite daunting, to be honest.
JIGSAWGIRL: Hey, it’s OK. I can’t promise to help, but I can definitely listen, if you want to talk about anything.
I imagine her looking at her screen, wondering whether to confide in a stranger. Trying to decide whether sharing whatever it is that’s been occupying her thoughts or giving her nightmares will make her feel better or worse. That’s something I can’t give an answer to. After almost two years, I still haven’t fully opened up to Janice or Gary.
CATLADY29: Actually, I think I’d just like to chat about cats for a while, if that’s OK?
JIGSAWGIRL: I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.
We end up chatting for ages, not just about our mutual love of cats but about Liza, who still lives in 48B and hangs her wet underwear over her windowsill to dry. I tell Celeste I’d have thought she’d have learned her lesson after a gust of wind blew her black-lace thong into the path of the number 60 bus, circa 2002. Celeste tells me she doesn’t think Liza wears black-lace thongs anymore and sends me multiple laughing-face emojis, and I laugh out loud at the memory.
I realize that Sadie will be here soon—she texted me last night to say she’d pop in after picking James up from school. Before I sign off, I tell Celeste it’s been really nice to chat to her, and I’m not just being polite.
Sadie arrived halfway through the first year of secondary school, a head taller than all the boys and with an attitude as bold as her hairstyle. So blonde it was almost white, she wore it close to her head, shaped around her ears. The other girls in our class looked at her disdainfully from behind their permed curtains, but she reminded me of the models in Mama’s Freemans catalog. I didn’t have the bouncy curls or Sadie’s cool crop; Mama refused to pay for such luxuries. My hair was long and curly, the same boring color it had always been.
Mr. Brookes sat Sadie next to me in English, and after a quick grilling (yes, I watched Twin Peaks, I definitely preferred
- "I laughed, I cried, and I bowed down to the brilliant author of this brilliant book."—Gillian McAllister, New York Times bestselling author of Wrong Place Wrong Time
- "A gorgeous, charming novel...Sweet, moving, funny and hopeful, with a courageous heroine who sweeps you up in her story."—Jennifer Saint, bestselling author of Ariadne
- “A novel that examines our most private spaces and what it means to be alone versus lonely, this charming, thought-provoking debut novel will be a big hit.”—Good Morning America
- "Meredith, Alone is a touching contemporary fiction following one woman's journey back into the world." —Popsugar
- "A timely and poignant book about trauma, loneliness, and stepping outside of our comfort zones — literally."—Buzzfeed
- "Executed with care, humor, and grace, this novel pokes at the bubble of solitude to show each of us that suffering has a sense of community and with that, the prospect of optimism."—Library Journal
- "Alexander creates a winning heroine in Meredith and likable characters in her kind friends... An optimistic, feel-good novel."—Kirkus Reviews
“[A] satisfying debut. The endearing characters offer a sensitive portrayal of what it means to live with mental health issues… with heart to spare.”
- "I shed tears. Very, very touching, sad, sweet and hopeful."—New York Times bestselling author Marian Keyes
- On Sale
- Nov 1, 2022
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Grand Central Publishing