IT'S only days before the eldest disappears to America for a year away. The second eldest, meanwhile, is spending most nights staying on at his college across the city, which means the rest of us are facing some hard adjustments to being a family of four, not six.
Just before our official downsizing, however, I bump into the eldest one last time, late, in the hall, wrestling with an enormous backpack.
"Off early?" I joke.
"3am," he grunts, lips a thin line as he tightens a strap.
"Where to?" I say, forgetting for a moment.
"Edinburgh," he says.
"Edinburgh," I repeat as if to see how it sounds.
"Yup," he says.
"So, when will you be back?" I say, conscious now that I know all this, that he knows that I know all this, and that we're just playing a sort of word game. It's called reassurance.
"Three days," he says.
"So, just in time. . ."
"For my going-away party," he nods.
"And then that's it," I say.
"Yup." We stand in the hall for a moment and he looks at his bag. "Well," he says, motioning towards the front door. "We're all getting the taxi together in the morning, so I'm going to . . ."
"You need a lift?" I say, brightening.
"No, thanks," he says. "I'm taking my longboard." I nod and we both look at it. He spins a wheel on it with one hand.
"Oh!" I say, suddenly remembering something else. "Can you do one thing for me before you go?"
"What?" he says, brightening this time.
"Fix Netflix for me? I can't get it to work."
He searches my face to see if I'm joking.
"Seriously," I tell him, "it's beyond my capability."
It's also the last time we'll do this for a while, I think. We go into the sitting room and turn on a light. "It probably just crashed," he says, fiddling with it. This is what he always says.
"Oh," I say, looking at the back of his head, the broad width of his shoulders, the skinny outline of his back through his T-shirt. "Oh" is what I always say.
"Have you tried turning it off and on?" he says without looking up.
"No," I say, like I'm hearing the suggestion for the first time.
"Have you tried changing the batteries in the remote?" he says, getting up.
"Batteries," I say. "Right."
I hunch over the remote like a child doing a Rubik's cube.
"I have to go," he says, stepping out to the hall.
"Okay," I say without looking around as the front door opens.
"Bye," he says. The door slams and he's gone.
I hear his longboard hit the driveway then the sound of the rollers disappearing down the road. I look at the blank, grey screen of the television and then at the batteries in my hand, then I sigh.
Next evening, after dinner, adjustment to our new, more compact family unit proceeds apace
"Who's on washing-up?" says the youngest. "Not me," she adds.
"Not me," says her brother.
"You'll have to adjust the roster between two instead of four," I tell them.
"That's not fair," laments the boy. "Just because someone isn't here shouldn't mean they get off washing-up." We all look at him.
"My God," I mutter. "He's the Stephen Hawking of 'washing-up theory'. It's quantum dishwashing."
"Well," chimes in the youngest, "I washed up at lunchtime, so . . ."
"You weren't even here at lunchtime," says her brother.
"Exactly," she chuckles.
In the end, my wife does the little there is, then we retire to the family computer, the only place we can now watch Netflix.
"Problem is," I explain, "the screen goes to sleep every 10 minutes, so you have to keep getting up to wiggle the mouse."
"We need a long stick," says my wife.
In the end we stretch the wire across to a chair which we can just reach with one toe every 10 minutes. It's a mechanical solution to a technical problem.
"We may get through this after all," I say, referring to the family brain drain.
Later, I'm locking up when I see a large spider on the wall. Getting rid of spiders is the second eldest's job, but he's still not home. I'm in a quandary about this horrific situation when our crazy puppy skitters in, zooms over and gobbles up the spider in one slobbery go.
"A very mechanical solution to a technical problem," I nod.
When the second eldest finally comes in, I'm standing on a stool holding the puppy at shoulder height as it gobbles up cobwebs from the ceiling like a Hoover.
"Eh," marvels the second-eldest. "Do you need help with something?"
"Not a bit," I tell him, clutching the snapping pup, feeling like Homer Simpson and his Spider Pig. "I think we're getting along just fine."