Tim Dowling: the oldest one is out tonight. I wasn’t expecting this | Family
It is the middle of the work day, but I have vacated my office shed because the youngest one is having a job interview in it. It’s the only place that combines strong wifi coverage with no risk of an argument about towels suddenly breaking out behind him.
My wife is in the sitting room, taking a business call on speaker phone. The oldest one is working in the kitchen when I walk in.
“Huh,” I say. “I might have to go for a walk or something.”
“A walk or something?” he says. “Yeah, makes sense.” He has mastered the art of pretending to have a conversation with whoever else is in the kitchen, without listening, while typing at speed.
“Anyway,” I say, turning to open the fridge, “we probably need some things. Are you in?”
“Yeah, exactly,” he says. “Weird.” Then: “Sorry, what?”
“I mean, are you in or out tonight?”
“Oh,” he says. “I’m out, actually.” I am not expecting this. For over a year, “Are you in?” has been a rhetorical question. Everyone was always in.
“Really?” I say.
“I’ve got a flat viewing,” he says. “I’ll just pick up some food from wherever.”
I am trying to process the phrases “flat viewing” and “food from wherever” when the middle one walks in, earphones dangling like little icicles.
“What about you?” I say. “Are you in or out tonight?”
“Out,” he says.
“Out where?” I say.
“Out there!” he says, pointing south-east. Through the window I can see the youngest one being interrogated by his own laptop.
I find a mask and head out the front door, taking a long diversion to make my trip to the shops last the length of a job interview. I see people having haircuts in windows, and eating on the insides of restaurants. Out there, I think. You can keep it.
Later, my wife and I are having a quiet dinner for two in front of the television.
“So, he’s progressed to a second interview,” she says.
“Who’s this?” I say.
“Your son,” she says.
“I know he did,” I say. “I just thought we were talking about this show.”
“Christ, I hope he gets it,” she says. “I want his bedroom for an office.”
“We need to think about what happens when he doesn’t get it,” I say.
“Here we go,” she says.
“Managing crushing disappointment,” I say. “That’s the key.”
“Why are you like this?” she says.
“Because I’ve never reached the second interview stage of anything,” I say. “I didn’t even know they had them.”
“One day soon they’ll be gone and I’ll be alone,” she says, in a gentle singsong.
“No,” I say. “I will still be here.”
“All alone,” she sings.
The oldest one arrives home an hour later. The flat was great, he says. And taken.
“Oh well,” I say, with managed disappointment.
“Keep trying,” my wife says. “That’s the secret.”
Over the course of the next week, the youngest one has his second interview, the middle one applies for a job and the oldest and his potential roommates arrange more viewings. I sit in my office, feeling the world shift underneath me.
On Thursday afternoon I hear the kitchen door open and shut. I turn from my screen to see my wife crossing the garden, looking grave. She opens the door of my office, leans her head in, scrutinises my floor for a long moment, then looks at me.
“He didn’t get it,” she says. Somewhere deep in my guts, a lift cable snaps.
“Oh no,” I say. “That’s just, after all that…”
“Yes, he did!” she screams, so loudly that I jump out of my chair.
“Oh my God,” I say. “Why would you do that?”
“He got it!” she yells. “Isn’t it brilliant?”
“Yes, it is,” I say. “Only I’m unable to enjoy the moment, because I’m having a heart attack.”
“He just texted me,” she says. “I’m off to get some champagne.”
She leaves me there with my chest thumping, two contrasting reactions still sluicing through me. Even later, when I am feeling calm and pleased and proud, I can tell the contents of my ribcage have been permanently reordered.