Tim Dowling: my middle son has become my boss, and he’s relentless

It’s Friday, late morning, and the oldest one is trying to work in the kitchen while I sit across the table from him, pounding away with a pestle. I can see it’s annoying, in hindsight.

“Why are you cooking now?” he says, finally.

“I’m not cooking,” I say. “I’m crushing up the cat’s pill.”

“Do you have to do that?” he says. I stop and look over the lid of his laptop at him.

“When we got home from the vet, I rolled the first pill in a scrap of ham and the cat swallowed it whole,” I say. “I was like: moron.”

“He likes ham,” the oldest says.

“The next day he ate the ham and spat out the pill,” I say. “I tried holding his jaws closed until he swallowed, and now we’re enemies.”

“I was there for that,” the oldest says.

“So now I crush the pills and stir them into his food,” I say. “Which works fine, unless the dog eats the food first.”

“How do you stop that happening?” he says.

“Are you from the RSPCA or something?” I say. “Anyway, after this there’s only one pill left.”

The middle one walks in, and we both fall silent. Ever since he appealed to my vanity by suggesting I do my own podcast, the middle one has become my producer and, effectively, my boss.

“I sent you a shared document,” he says.

“I saw, thanks,” I say.

“There are links to a couple of academic papers,” he says, “and a more general article about the whole subject.”

“Shared documents freak me out,” I say to the oldest one. “Other people can watch you type in real time.”

“That’s the idea,” he says.

“I’m a professional writer,” I say. “I don’t want anyone seeing how long it takes me to arrive at the correct spelling of necessitate.”

“We can reuse a few questions from last time,” the middle one says. “But we’ll need more.”

“I haven’t looked at it yet,” I say. “I’ve been mostly working on the theme tune.”

“The interview is tomorrow morning, so.”

“Tomorrow morning when?” I say.

“Early,” he says. “Adelaide is like eight and a half hours ahead.”

“What’s the extra half for?” I say, gently folding pill dust into the cat’s food. “Maybe we should ask that.”

“Maybe,” the middle one says, meaning no.

I set the bowl down on the windowsill, in front of the cat. The cat looks at the bowl, and then at me.

“It’s cat food,” I say. “Pure and unadulterated.” The cat jumps down and walks out through the cat flap.

“Are you kidding me?” I say.

That night I lie awake wondering what the middle one is telling important members of the academic community that makes them think it’s a good idea to be interviewed by me. I think: even I’m too important to be interviewed by me. And I also think: this is where vanity leads you – into the territory of paradox.

At 4am the dog starts barking outside. In what has become a routine, I go downstairs to the garden to tell the dog’s friend, the fox, to go home. The fox regards me with breezy contempt for a moment, and then disappears over the back wall. The dog turns and trots into the kitchen ahead of me. In the light of a pink moon, I see that the cat’s bowl is empty.

Early the next morning, the sun not quite risen, I am sitting in my garden shed, headphones on, heart thumping. On the screen in front of me I can see last-minute questions being added to a list in real time. I lean towards my microphone.

“Can you hear me?” I say.

“I’m right behind you,” the middle one says, typing furiously.

“I mean, in your headphones,” I say.

“It sounds fine,” he says. “He just emailed to say he’d be a few minutes late.”

“OK,” I say. “Do I have time to do the sudoku?”

“Maybe,” he says, meaning no.

An hour later I step out into the cold morning sunlight – interview complete, the whole day before me, and almost no plans. Then I remember I still have an appointment with the cat’s last pill.