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California's no place for my boy


THE eldest has been accepted on a college exchange programme to the United States and is to spend his third year in California.

 He must choose one of 10 universities on offer, so we all sit around together, draped over chairs, going through the options as families do nowadays: faces lit by iPhones and iPads and making little swiping motions with our thumbs and forefingers.

"What about San Diego?" says someone.

"Oh, no," frowns my wife. "Too hot. Too dangerous. It's a border town, right? Bound to be drugs and murders."

"Sounds perfect," the second-eldest grins darkly.

"Actually," I correct. "It's a city – and I shouldn't think it's exactly No Country for Old Men. It's a resort. There's surfing."

"That means dangerous waves and currents," says my wife, furrowing her brow even more. "Sharks," she mutters.

The eldest makes an exasperated noise. "Psh!" he says.

"Los Angeles is on the list," pipes up someone else, and we all begin frantically swiping our screens again.

"Absolutely not," says my wife firmly.



We all look at her. "It's LOS ANGELES," she says, looking up and blinking at us as though no further explanation is required. "There's NO WAY," she says.

"Blame Robert De Niro and Al Pacino," I mouth hoarsely to the eldest. "The film Heat," I explain. "Violent bank robbery scene. Sorry."

"We're looking for somewhere a bit more 'rom-com'," says my wife, settling into the sofa.

"There must be SOMEWHERE in California where they haven't set a horror."

"No Country for Old Men and Heat aren't horrors," I point out.

"Says you," she mumbles and we all return to our screens.

"Santa Cruz," I sigh, I don't mean it as a suggestion this time, though it IS one of the colleges on offer. I mean it wistfully.

The eldest has been there before, when we were just a family of three. "Look at the Ferris wheel," I'd said to him as he peeked over my shoulder from the harness on my back.

It had seemed so quaint, all the funfairs and clapboard houses, but as I swipe my fingers over the little screen now it just seems so far away, a pinpoint in a corner of a vast, distant continent.

"Santa Cruz Chainsaw Massacre was a great film," offers the youngest teen.

"No!" gasps my wife.

"I'm kidding," he chuckles.

"Right," says the eldest. "If no one is going to take this seriously . . ."

"I am taking this VERY seriously," says my wife, but he's already gone, then the others shuffle off too until it's just the two of us and the little girl.

"Can I have his room when he's in America?" she croons.

It hits me. He'll be gone for a whole year. We'll be a family of five, not six – and not just the odd night, wrapping his dinner in cling-film and leaving it on the kitchen table in the hope that he'll make the last train.

Properly gone. Whole time zones away. On the edge of another ocean. It's simultaneously exciting and gut wrenching. How will we cope?

"We'll just have to see," is all I manage and she skips off, satisfied for now.

"You know what the real question is," says my wife when it's just the two of us.

"How on Earth are we going to figure out the DVD player without him?" I try.

"Precisely," she tells me.

"God," I say.

I use this as an excuse to let a wave of panic wash over me as I wonder, when did everything change?

When did WE go from being the ones who would set up a movie for HIM to watch, just so we could have a little time to ourselves; to being the ones plonked in front of the television dumbly waiting for him to come in and do the thing with all the buttons and menus that makes the moving pictures happen.

More to the point, when did it all go from being our journey, to being, well . . . his.

"We need him," I tell my wife glumly.

"We do," she agrees.

We've gone from swimming furiously on the tide of life with our kids in tow to bobbing to and fro as they now climb the crest of every big, new, exciting wave that carries each of them a little farther away.

"Santa Cruz sounds good," I say.

"It does," she says.

"There's a lot of surfing there too, you know," I say.

"I know," she says.

"I think he'd make a very good surfer," I tell her.

"He would," she says.

He suddenly storms back in, all perfectly quaffed hair and aftershave.

"Don't forget, I'm going to Poland this weekend for four days," he says. "It's minus 10 in Warsaw," he adds, eyes twinkling.



"Well, for heaven's sake, make sure you keep your phone charged," says my wife.

"Just in case," I tell him, "you know, Netflix goes on the fritz or something and we need you."

He shakes his head at the two of us pityingly. "Rrrr-ight," he deadpans and vanishes.

It takes just a few seconds for the little girl to pop her head around the door.

"Can I have his room," she says, "when he's away in Poland?"