“Alexander Rostov, could it be that you have become settled in your ways?” This is the rhetorical question the protagonist of the novel A Gentleman in Moscow (by Amor Towles) asks himself. Thereafter the narrator speaks, noting how younger people are rarely set in their ways: “At the age of twenty-two, Count Alexander Rostov could not be inconvenienced, interrupted, or unsettled. For every unexpected appearance, comment, or turn of events had been welcomed like a burst of fireworks in a summer sky – as something to be marvelled at or cheered.”
However, having been charged with the guardianship of a child after decades of being answerable only to himself, adherence to a routine has crept up on Count Alexander Rostov. Just as, with the passing of the years, one never admits to the gradual but inevitable ageing etched on one’s face (a realisation that can come as an all too sudden shock one morning as a person you barely recognise stares back at you from the mirror), so too, some of us come to admit, in quiet moments of clarity, that we’ve become set in our ways.
“Without his even noticing––without his acknowledgement, input, or permission––routine had established itself within his daily life. Apparently, he now ate his breakfast at an appointed hour. Apparently, he must sip his coffee and nibble his biscuits without interruption. He must read in a particular chair tipped at a particular angle with no more than the scuffing of a pigeon’s feet to distract him. He must shave his right cheek, shave his left, and only then move to the underside of his chin.”
Is this me? I asked myself as I read it. Whereupon I turned the interrogative into a statement. This is me! I am not routine bound, yet my lack of routine is precisely how I am set in my ways: the ability to do what I want, when I want. To have two chocolate digestives with a cup of tea at 5.30am, read for an hour, then go back to sleep. To dig my mother’s garden in my pyjamas before breakfast. To pack as much into a day as I want, or to upend the day, shake its promise to the wind, and sit in a chair and do nothing.
Years ago, my husband told me about people he knew who were ‘set in their ways’. I listened, as one might listen to a fable in which is contained a universal message, a message that, whilst important to know, is not something that will ever impede on your life. Never me – I remember thinking – that shall never be me, although I shall, at least, be able to spot it in other people. Ah, what comfort there is to be had in the self-delusion that certain characteristics only befall ‘other people’. Although not unique to someone who dwells alone, he went on to tell me, becoming set in one’s ways is more likely to take root in someone who does not share their space. Living with someone else keeps you lose, bendy, accommodating, all those things that are the opposite of ‘set’. Those you live with might drive you mad from time to time, but at least co-habitation shakes you out of the stasis of becoming as fixed as a limpet to a rock. Well, that was all right then, I was inoculated against it.
Except I wasn’t. Years of imperceptible movement towards one way of doing things have created a furrow, a track from which it is hard to deviate, until, having been alone for a period of time (I’m going to plonk for five years), you find yourself in the place of: ‘This is how I do things.’ There has been no need for alteration, compromise, negotiation, adaptation. The only turmoil is against my own better judgement – and indeed, quite often I don’t know which of the inner voices is the better judge.
Late last year, a friend came to stay; because of global circumstances she was my first house guest in twenty months. ‘Your herbal tea is in the wrong place,’ she told me. ‘Set up there in the corner where you must contort your body to get past the fridge, past the music stand, past that chair. It’s bad ergonomics. I’ll re-arrange it for you.’
Wow, horse, cart, harness. I invited her to sit back down and keep her twitchy hands to herself. Had allowed her to move my teabags, what would have been next? The slippery slope of interference, that’s what. One doesn’t stand up in a canoe, nor does one ram-stam one’s way into re-arranging where someone keeps their teabags. After she left, I found the milk not on the inside door of the fridge where it stays but on the shelf with the cheese. Set in my ways… me?