With five youngsters and her beau in tow, the Estranged Wife and I reflect on what we pulled from our wreckage

Thank you, I said, for insisting on having children, I was worried that I would be a terrible father. “You were!!!” she replied, “but they love you so that’s all good.”

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Regular readers will know that this column is a merry-go-round, in which the same horses come into view again and again: I’m broke, I’m bored, I’m not getting laid. Sometimes new horses appear, such as: I’m freezing my balls off, or that train journey was a pain in the backside. To return to that last nag prematurely: last week a man got into the final spare seat of the Quiet Coach at York and announced to the woman sitting next to him, but loudly enough for most of the carriage to hear, that he had intended to go to Doncaster but had got on the wrong train.

He popped open a can of Stella and told us his life story, which included the details that this was not the first time he had made this mistake, that he was from Hull, had voted for Brexit, and scorned the notion that people like him “didn’t know what we were voting for”. It struck me that the fate of the nation hangs on the opinion of someone who is, by his own admission, not competent enough to read a departure board, but I forbore to mention this. I also forbore to repeat my bravery of two weeks ago, when I asked a couple in the same carriage to bear in mind what the word “quiet” meant. I didn’t interrupt this man because he was drinking a beer that in some circles is called “wife-beater”, which could, by extension, become “passenger-beater”. But that’s enough about Quiet Coaches for a while.

Anyway, I was – am, until tomorrow morning – back down in London for a couple of reasons, one of which was to have dinner with my youngest son, his girlfriend and two of their friends, who are off on a post-mocks trip to Paris. Now the youngest, like his siblings, has, over the years, told his friends stories about me, as a result of which I am considered an object of some fascination, and far removed from the experience of their own fathers. Their fathers do not get caught at Luton airport, embarking on a family holiday, with an accidentally-trousered half-ounce of excellent marijuana, and get away with it. Their fathers do not call a miserable, sub-Fawlty chip shop owner in Lynmouth “a miserable old c—” after exceptionally poor service (and food. Note, this chip shop is not the Esplanade Fish Bar, which was voted North Devon’s favourite chip shop in 2010, and deservedly so). Their fathers do not live in a Hovel and play with air rifles with them. Their fathers do not... well, you get the idea. And yes, the fate of the nation hangs on the opinion of this fool, too.

The last time I was scheduled to meet the youngest one’s friends I was unable to, and he was really cross with me. At first I found this hard to believe, but the kids do appear to have an affection for their old man and relish his eccentricities – or “failings”, as they’re more commonly known. (By coincidence, I’ve just received an email from a publicist whose headline is, “Discover novel inspired by childhood trauma ahead of Children of Alcoholics Week.”)

So I found myself one evening in Shepherd’s Bush, at the family table, with five youngsters (my daughter joined us; the other sibling is in Manchester), the mother of my children and her beau. As I sat down to dinner I thought I’d better start embarrassing my son in front of his girlfriend by saying, “I think it’s about time we had The Talk.”

Afterwards they dragged me off to the pub, and we discovered it was quiz night.

“What kind of weapon,” asked the quizmaster, “is a da-ringa?” A what? I asked myself, until I worked it out. I turned and said, summoning up all my dad powers of embarrassment, “I think you’ll find it’s pronounced derringer.” (A small pistol.)

Were my children embarrassed? Not a bit of it, or if they were, they hid it well. It’s funny, though, how one doesn’t think of one’s own children as young, but when they are in the company of their peers, you think to yourself: “My God, they’re twelve.” But they’re not. They are still forming themselves, but the job is nearly done – a little soft round the edges, although the youngest’s girlfriend seems considerably more self-possessed than I was at her age. (Translation: she doesn’t seem scared enough of me.)

The next day I got a sweet text from the Estranged Wife, saying what a lovely evening it had been, and how pleased that “somehow we pulled a lot out of the wreckage”. Thank you, I replied, for insisting on having children. I was worried that I would be a terrible father.

“You were!!!” she replied, “but they love you so that’s all good.”

Which is a double-edged thing to say, but I shall concentrate on the second half of it as I sit in the Quiet Coach tomorrow, listening to someone recite their autobiography for 500 miles. I wonder what county they’ll be from. 

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 08 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Broken Europe