I’m staring out of the window of my son’s fourth floor flat on the Exeter university campus. It’s the start of his second term.
Behind me, he is unpacking his suitcases and watering his cacti, which have somehow survived the Christmas season.
Below Exeter is submerged under fog. A few church spires hold their heads up above the damp mist, but the rest of the city is wrapped in a grey shroud.
I’ve turned my back on my son to stare out of the window because I’m desperately unfit. The lift was out of order and lugging myself and a bulging suitcase up four flights has done me in.
My chest is heaving like a lifeboat on a swelling sea and I’m refilling my aching lungs with sips of air like a hummingbird daintily sucks up pollen.
If he doesn’t ask me to turn around i should be able to recover my breath and preserve my dignity as the Pater Familias.
‘Is that you?’ he asks.
‘Is what me?’
‘That sound like an old donkey with emphysema,’ he says.
‘Probably the pipes in your bathroom,’ I say. ‘The plumbing in student accommodation is notoriously noisy.’
Two rail cards beat as one
My wife suggested we travelled on the train together.
‘It’ll give you the chance to talk to each other,’ she said.
‘About what?’ I said, racking my brains for anything we would want to talk about that required me to spend Saturday travelling to and fro to Exeter on a train.
‘You know. Father and son things,’ she said.
‘No. Important things.’
‘Haven’t you told him about the birds and the bees, yet?’
My wife shakes her head.
‘This could be one of those moments when you could be there for him.’
‘You mean carry his bags up that hill?’
‘No. Show him you want to spend time with him as he takes another step towards independence.’
‘My dad never came to see me at university,’ I say. ‘I would have been appalled if he had even suggested it.’
‘And you always say your father never spent quality time with you. Well, this is a chance not to make the same mistake.’
When I was a student I stayed away from the parental nest as much as was financially possible. I practiced an early form of social distancing and was a non-homing Pidgeon who came back only when the clothes basket began to smell like an overhung partridge. Why would my son feel any differently?
However, it’s not often my wife says she thinks I could be useful in anyway whatsoever so I bury my doubts and book a return ticket to Exeter St. David’s with my son.
At his window (again)
‘Did you spot the shoe?’ asks my son.
He is standing next to me, pulling the window ajar. He’s an inch taller than me. When did that happen?
There’s a yellow running shoe lying upside down in a puddle on the roof opposite.
‘Why is it there?’
‘Dunno. It’s been there since I got here,’ he says.
A seagull lands next to the shoe and takes a peck or two at it before flying away disgusted by the taste of rotting rubber.
‘Probably someone having a laugh,’ I say.
‘Probably,’ he says.
My heartbeat is back to normal.
‘Do you want to do a tour of the campus? Some people do some mad stuff with their bedroom windows? Beer walls, cardboard Popes.’
‘That’s when you stack empty beer bottles in your window until you block out the sunlight.’
‘Ok. Let’s go,’ I say.
‘But be quiet out in the corridor. The rest of the flat is still asleep.’
He puts his index finger to his lips.
‘You can’t be serious. It’s lunchtime.’
‘This is early. Remember: no talking in the corridor.’
He posts a picture of himself onto his flat’s WhatsApp group so they know he’s returned and then we tip-toe downstairs.
Father and son on campus
We walk around the campus. This is the first time I’ve done this with him and although we don’t talk much it feels I’m part of his world if only for an hour or two. I wonder if I could put my arm around him but realise we’d both be horrified if I did.
We cross ourselves and genuflect as we pass the cardboard Popes and laugh at the windows walled up with empty beer bottles.
‘Even your cacti wouldn’t survive in a room like that.’
‘Can you imagine the smell?’ he says.
On the train home
An hour later I’m on the train to London. A brief hug at the station and he’s turned and is tramping back up the hill to his flat where his flatmates are crowded in the kitchen slurping cereal, as they prepared themselves for hard stint in the few hours of daylight still left.
Somerset slides by. It’s a flat watery place: barren trees, pig pens and winter hedge rows trimmed and sharp as steak knives.
Before Tiverton, the train stops alongside a junk yard where a handful of farmers and their boys are admiring old farm equipment running their hands along the rusted sides of the machinery as if the ageing tractors were pets.
Return of the Boomer
Back at home in London my wife is keen to know if we’ve had an epiphany of inter generational understanding.
‘How did you get on?’ she asks.
‘OK,’ I say. ‘He only called it home twice. Otherwise, it was fine.’
A version of this blog first appeared in the Chiswick Calendar.