The eldest has left for university – so I’ve finally grown out of avoiding my mother’s calls

Nicholas Lezard’s Down and Out column. 

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A call from my mother. In days gone by I would routinely let her leave a message on voicemail and then let it marinate for a day or so before responding. I offer no justification for this heartless behaviour. It was just the way things were. Perhaps it was down to the fact that when I was growing up, there was never a lock on the inside of the lavatory door; so one was never really able to relax in there, if you see what I mean, and one was always having to keep one’s ears open.

Did one betray one’s presence and deter the unknowing intruder by pretending to have a cough, or by humming, say, “Rule Britannia” or “Maria” from West Side Story? Or did one just sit there, fearful, trembling like a vole, hoping that whatever threat would pass if you just sat quietly enough? It all rather tried the nerves, and whenever I went somewhere that had a bog with a lock on the door and, moreover, unlike a school cubicle, a door that went all the way down to the floor, I would sit in there rather longer than usual, just for the pleasure of it. Friends’ mothers would ask if I was unwell. Never better, I would say.

Thirty-three years is a long time for that particular aspect of my upbringing to have an effect on seeing the word “Mum” appear on my telephone screen, though psychologists may beg to differ. I gather they make much of this kind of thing. But sometimes the more psychologically boring explanation is to be preferred: one does not look forward to the phone call because, likely as not, its opening gambit will be a mild but pained rebuke for not having answered the phone previously, or called in the first place, even if the reason one did not call in the first place was that one feared a mild but pained rebuke for not having called in the first place. If you follow my reasoning. I can’t be the only one.

This has changed for two reasons: having children of one’s own, and also the need to keep up to speed with news of my father’s health, which is not of the best, but at least he has his marbles – and also a very British notion of not wanting to upset anyone with bad news. My mother, being American, is less reserved.

But having the first child go to university does change the way you think about the filial bonds. For some reason it feels like more of a rupture than the gap year. (The daughter, bless her, did not do anything daft like swan around Laos for six months catching things. She earned some money and learned how to cook for 16 people at once. I suggested that when she claims her philosophy degree she start a themed restaurant called, perhaps, I Just Kant Get Enough, but she said A Good Plato Food would be better.)

When my parents dropped me off at university, I was like one of those cartoon characters who disappears from the frame, leaving only a dust cloud and ricochet-like “Piaowww!” noise. And it wasn’t just because I couldn’t wait to have a crap in guaranteed privacy. It was the time when I could rid myself of the vestiges of childhood (by acting in a remarkably immature fashion for three solid years).

In those days, though, there were no mobiles. If you wanted to speak to your parents you had (usually) to queue for the payphone in a draughty corridor near the laundry room with a few ten pee bits in your hand; if you didn’t want to speak to your parents – and frankly there was never really a reason to speak to them unless you needed money or wanted to say happy birthday to them in person (because you’d forgotten to post a card in time, or at all) – you didn’t. And the traffic was always one-way: you had to call home; home couldn’t get in touch with you, barring a dire emergency.

I shudder to think how often my mother would have called me up, had the mobile existed then. And so I resist the urge to ring my daughter. (The Estranged Wife had complained about the newly empty room in the house; I reminded her with perhaps unnecessary asperity that I already knew very well what it was like to be separated from my children for longer than I wanted.) An email here, a text there. And so, with no pressure to do so, she calls me up: asking how to fake harissa, or for my Secret Gravy Technique; sometimes even just for a chat. So now I answer the phone when my mother rings. Finally. The last time she did so she was round the corner and took me to lunch. And you know what? It was really nice. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

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