London - Perched on the edge of a sofa, drink in one hand and a canape in the other, I tried to make conversation with my blind date.
As party-goers cavorted around us, I asked the nice man in the dinner suit about his job, then told him about my horses, before throwing in a couple of political firelighters to see if I could spark a good conversation into life.
But we just didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Eventually, we gave up talking and sat staring into space as our friends grew merry on champagne and danced around the living room.
The “date” was the result of a well-meaning friend insisting that I should not be alone as I saw in the New Year.
“No, no, I’ve found you a man,” she said, uttering the most terrifying words in the English language. She reminded me a friend of ours had a son who was recently separated and so would accompany me to a black-tie house party.
I insisted I was happy to stay in alone with the dog and watch TV. She didn’t believe me. No one ever does. It’s that word “happy” everyone gets stuck on.
For society has a blindspot when it comes to women like me. How can I be happy when I am 42, without a man andchildless?
They see me as a problem to be fixed, a conundrum to unravel. No one can rest until I’m sorted.
That is why I felt a surge of empathy when Jennifer Aniston hit out at the ongoing public fascination with her personal life.
The Hollywood actress spoke for happily unmarried women everywhere when she railed against society’s obsession with the traditional happy ending.
This fixation has dogged Aniston, 45, more than any other celebrity I can think of.
She must get sick of people speculating whether she is going to get married and why she hasn’t. And the endless guessing about whether or not she is pregnant must drive her mad.
I have often thought how unfair this is. A gorgeous, witty, self-made woman, Aniston ought to be inviting widespread admiration for her achievements.
Yet instead of lauding her accomplishments as a popular comic actress, the world continually asks when she is going to marry whoever she is dating - currently actor Justin Theroux.
As she pointed out, when she poked fun at the ongoing speculation at a recent women’s conference in the US, the assumption is that women are unfulfilled unless they have married and given birth.
“Being a woman, our value and worth is basically associated with our marital status or whether or not we have procreated,” she told feminist and activist Gloria Steinem at the makers Conference on women’s issues in California.
She joked that people assumed single, childless women were “in fact in deep s**t”. What she means to highlight, of course, is that the exact opposite is the case. That she even has to point this out is astonishing in this day and age.
Women who remain childless and single, whether by accident or design, belong to the fastest growing demographic of our age.
But, as Aniston has found, and in my experience, too, we may as well still be in the Dark Ages.
As a single woman, I often find myself the subject of people’s pity and, sometimes, their suspicion. No one, not even my closest friends, seems able to believe I am happy in my unattached state.
When I tell them I don’t want to meet a man, they give me a look that says they think I am bravely whistling in the dark. “Bless her heart,” their concerned faces say.
They show ill-disguised disbelief when I assert that I do not want children any more.
And because I am in my 40s, they leave me in no doubt that though they are doing their best to fix me up, it is a tough ask.
I have been variously told by my matchmaker friends: ‘I know a guy whose wife has just left him and he can’t cope on his own... My husband has a friend who’s just got divorced from a woman who beat him black and blue...’
And my all-time favourite: “There’s a guy living on a houseboat near us who seems like a real oddball. He’d be perfect for you.”
Honestly, anyone would think I was a spinster in a Jane Austen novel who will be destitute unless I can find a man to marry me.
As for the gossip single women endure, I often feel as if I’ve woken up in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, during the witch trials. A few weeks ago, I went for dinner with a male friend, a divorced farmer. Days later, a friend called me: “The word going round is that you and the farmer are an item!”
“Can’t a woman have dinner with a male friend on a Friday night?” I asked. Obviously not.
Last month, I went to a big formal dinner. As I arrived, one of the guests, there with his wife, greeted me, then looked behind me and said: “Who are you with?”
“No one,” I said. “But who did you come with?” he asked, frowning. “I came with myself,” I said, walking into the venue alone, as he stared at me as if I had walked in naked.
There is something about a woman alone that still scandalises polite society. Though we like to think of ourselves as advanced, we still see women as the weaker sex, in need of male support.
Even the term “fix you up” implies there is something to put right, that single women are broken and need mending.
Yes, there has been sadness in my life and romantic disappointment. Did I set out to be on my own in my 40s? Probably not.
It has happened, in large part, because I spent my mid-30s with a man who did not want to settle down and have children.
I don’t know the real story of Miss Aniston’s marriage to Brad Pitt - when she was aged 30 to 35 - but I’m guessing there may be similarities to my situation.
I met the man I thought was the love of my life, a City broker called Ed, when I was 34, and spent three turbulent years trying to persuade him to start a family. He was dead set against it, but I stayed with him because I was in love.
By the time I accepted he was never going to agree to children, I was nearly 38. The child-bearing years of my life were almost gone.
I spent a year getting over him and, by the time I was ready for another relationship, I was pushing 40 and getting pregnant was a whole different game.
I could have tried, at 38, to have a baby on my own with fertility treatment. At 40, when I did meet someone else, I could have tried to start a family with him. But I am a great believer in accepting when a ship has sailed. I didn’t feel it was right to immediately demand marriage and children of my most recent boyfriend, Will.
I would rather enjoy what I have than hanker after what I don’t.
Will and I split up last year, but remain firm friends. Even though the romance didn’t work, we will always be there for each other.
For me, the formal arrangement of a marriage just wasn’t meant to be. Instead of a husband and children, I find fulfilment looking after my horses and spaniel pup.
Rather than regret what might have been, I make a virtue of the fact I am footloose and fancy free.
I accept that a lot of the concern is well-meaning. Just as my friends worry for me, Aniston’s fans fret about her finding a man who will look after her because they feel genuine affection for her.
But I also believe the reason so many women identify with the former Friends star is precisely because she is unmarried, childless and, by her insistence, happy.
Perhaps our obsession with the romantic happy ending is evolving. The more we happily unmarrieds go on being happy, and defying expectations, the more likely it is we will change perceptions.
When I was writing my last book, the publisher asked me if the main character would end up with the man of her dreams.
Because it was a memoir based on my life, my publisher joked how brilliant it would be if I found a man, and a happy ending for the book, while I was writing it.
I made the ending of the book suitably ambiguous.
I am working on a novel and, again, find myself grappling with the same question.
Will my heroine live happily ever after because she finds a man? Or will she live happily ever after, even though she doesn’t? I would like to think she is strong enough to find happiness either way. - Daily Mail