FOR the guts of 18 years, my wife and I have been relentlessly dogged by some diminutive chattering parrot or other, room to room, up and down every street and around every supermarket aisle, haunted by high-pitched little anecdotes. As one grew up and into another room, another took their place.
"Uh huh. Yup. You don't say," we'd offer fruitlessly. "Don't you have something else to do? No? Really? Okay," we'd sigh. "Mmm-hmm. Yup. Wow."
It's been a never-ending barrage of leapfrogging non-sequiturs, brain numbing and exhausting; a catalogue of the startlingly obvious; a falsetto running commentary from 2ft off the ground.
And God help us if we didn't pay attention. We'd risk being thumped or yelled at. These were monologues at gunpoint. Listen or else – and we'd pray for wine o'clock, heaving huge sighs of relief at the final gentle click of a bedroom light, leaving the bedroom door ajar as instructed, then sneaking down the stairs, flinching at every creaking floorboard and finally exchanging grim, exhausted glances.
We'd gone from celebrating our children's first little garbled salvos, to praying for a ceasefire.
Quite when it was that all this turned on its head, I don't exactly know, but at some point, my wife and I became the irritant, the interruption, the presence to be wearily tolerated or escaped from.
Of course, I'm not thinking about any of this as our little girl, the last of our four still able to communicate in anything other than a series of barely intelligible clicks and grunts, follows me around the kitchen reciting the lines from a forthcoming school play – but for the first time in I don't know how long, I actually sit down and look at her little face for a minute, revelling in the chatter.
"You're not listening," she chides. "Okay, I'll start again," she says. "Ready?"
I grin and off she goes and for the life of me, I haven't the first clue what she's jabbering on about, but it doesn't really matter. I find I'm rather enjoying the chirp of her voice, her oblivious enthusiasm.
Suddenly aware she's stopped, I begin clapping. "Awesome," I tell her.
"I'm not done yet," she says, with a dark flash of pre-teen exasperation. "I'm thinking of the next bit."
"Oh," I tell her, folding away my smile and hiding my arms jokingly.
"Now I have to start AGAIN," she says irritably, all but stamping her foot, then taking a deep breath and beginning to rattle off the little speech again.
Mid-delivery, a hairy ghost glides by behind her.
"Where are you going?" I call after him.
"Out," he says.
"Wear a jacket," I tell him, but the door slams before I finish the word 'wear'. I look back again at the kitchen counter to find it empty this time.
I try to pry her away from the television where she's heaped behind a rather sour expression, but my daughter seems to have decided to abandon any further attempt at conversation for the time being.
"Shh," is all she hisses. "I'm trying to watch this."
Suddenly at a loose end, I go and bother her older brother in the other room, who I find wearing a headset and busily obliterating something on a screen.
"Hey," I say.
"What," he replies, looking up blankly from behind his fringe and pressing a button on his headset which makes a blue light on it disappear.
I can't think of anything to tell him, so I make a funny face and stagger towards him with my arms out.
"Go away," he says. "I'm doing something."
"Maybe I can help," I prod. "Are there zombies involved?"
"Please," he says, switching the blue light on again, "go away."
"Come on," I say, in my best Dr Evil voice from the movie Austin Powers, lurching towards him, "give me a hug."
"Don't touch me," he says, meaning it and making as if to duck.
"Come on," I tell him, still mimicking. "Give your daddy a freakin' hug . . ."
"Just stop," he says.
"Hug," I say. "Hug. Hug. Hug."
"Get out," he shouts. "I'm busy," then he turns away, disappearing back behind his hair and into his game.
I wilt a little, watching him for a second as he rattles the controller in his hands, gasps the word 'Aw!' into his headset at the sound of an explosion on the screen, then I turn around and shuffle off robotically.
As a last resort, I dig out my phone and text the eldest, who's been doing college exams in town.
'How did it go today?' I type, then 'Will you be home for dinner?'
'Fine', comes the response, and 'No'.
When my wife comes home, we pour wine and sit in the empty kitchen. "Where is everyone?" she says. "Oh," I tell her, a little miserably, "you know," and I motion around the house with my chin.
"Nice to have a bit of peace," she says, taking a sip.
"Yes," I decide, weighing up the years on invisible scales in the air with my eyes then raising my glass. "I guess it is kind of nice."