It’s always a rite of passage when you first borrow money from your children

On the way back from Manchester, before hitting the motorway, we found an impressively decrepit petrol station and topped up the car

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The trip to and from Manchester was a success, I suppose, in that we survived it, my eldest son and I; on the way up, I’d spent a merry few miles going the wrong way on the M56, phone on my lap, listening to directions on speakerphone. “Is the sun in your eyes?” “Yes.” “Then turn around.” “Shit.”

This was better than the previous time I’d driven to Manchester, last year, when poor signage – yes, I repeat, looking you firmly in the eye, poor signage – took me almost to the borders of Scotland. (On the way back, with the son navigating me around a tailback on the M6, we suddenly found ourselves staring at an impossible, surreal beauty: among the trees, a vast saucer cradled in scaffolding as gleaming and white as a filmstar’s teeth. “Jodrell Bank!” I exclaimed, although I’d never seen it before. I think my son was impressed. We didn’t see it this time round, though.)

I spent time with his housemates and stayed the night. Student houses are always a special kind of disgusting, but the students themselves are always divine. There was the added bonus of a pool table in one of the bedrooms, which we were invited to use. It would appear that my son has been putting his time at university to good use after all: he is now, and I hate to admit this, better than me at pool. Or at least he knows the curves and bends of the table. I remember my father, playing snooker with me in the bar of Hampstead Cricket Club, saying: “You’re rather good at this; have you thought of becoming a snooker hustler?” For context, I should point out that he had, at the time, switched to playing left-handed in order to give me a chance; and I’d been stinking up the family home for an unemployed year after graduating. I searched his face for sarcasm and found none. It was the only career advice he ever gave me.

On the way back, before hitting the motorway, we found an impressively decrepit petrol station and topped up the car; I had to borrow the money from my son. This on top of the £100 I’d had to borrow from his younger brother, without which I wouldn’t have been able to get from Brighton to London in the first place. It’s always a rite of passage, isn’t it, when you first borrow money from your children. (The rite is for both of you.) The first time you do it, you can’t believe you’ve sunk so low. The second time it’s not so bad, and by the third time the awkwardness has evaporated, if not entirely.

Meanwhile, back to the car journey. The son had slept on sofa cushions on the floor; he’d given me his bed, on the grounds the driver should be the one who was well-rested. The son had managed, by his estimation, about two hours of fitful slumber, and on the way back spent almost the whole journey asleep. “Thank God we’re nearly home,” I said, as he woke up around the time we were crossing the M25. “Your incessant rabbiting on has been driving me round the twist.”

Anyway, he now faces the challenges of adulthood. These were bad enough when I were a lad, sending doomed applications to publications – any publications at all, as long as they were advertising in the Media Jobs section of the Guardian (I swear I sent my miserable CV off to something with a title like Pig Farming Monthly; hey, I thought, it’s a foot in the door) – but now it must be even worse, and with a whacking great loan to pay off on top of it all. How do you cope with that? What’s the psychic cost? What’s the actual cost? I earn a bit less than the national average wage these days, but this puts me ahead of an awful lot of people whose main or sole source of income is writing. If I had a five-figure loan as well, the temptation would be to find a caravan in the woods somewhere and go completely off-grid. In a sense, I am; there is a long and devious chain of forwarding addresses before a letter or parcel sent to the Hovel ends up going through my letterbox. I think of my children looking at their father and thinking that this represents rock bottom, a situation they should aspire to avoid; anything would be better than that.

We’re nearly home now. The M40 has become the A40, and we pass the Hoover Building. When we were a viable family, that is, with all five of us, including their mother, in the car, we would all pretend that the Hoover Building was actually a giant Hoover, and we would make sucking noises and tilt ourselves in its direction. I’m about to do this but there comes on the radio a special report on death squads in, if I recall correctly, El Salvador.

“That reminds me,” says the son. “I’m going to go backpacking in South America with my friends in January.” Ah, Jesus, I think to myself. Can’t he just stay somewhere safe, at home, and perfect his game of pool? He could become a hustler. 

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 12 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in