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BEFORE I had children, I envisaged father-son chats in which I'd answer questions with tremendous conviction, occasionally illustrating my point with a diagram or verse. "The higher the plum tree the riper the plum," I'd say, "the richer the cobbler the blacker his thumb." I'd name the planets, describe the difference between refraction and reflection and explain the phenomenon of persistence of vision. Well, the sons have arrived, the questioning has begun, and it is clear that I have been studying for the wrong examination.

"When are you going to die?" asks the four-year-old, with little in his voice to indicate he'd be put out by this. I've been wondering about this lately, but try not to show I'm uncomfortable with his line of inquiry.

"Not for a long time," I say.

"But how long?" he asks with some impatience.

Even straightforward scientific questions prove difficult. Last Tuesday at 4am the boy and I were sitting on the bathroom floor, both flecked with vomit, having one of our chats.

"What is a virus?" he asks. It was my fault for using the word virus as if I knew what it meant. With all the conviction I could muster, I explained that viruses were tiny men who climbed into your cells and drove them around like cars until you were sick.

"What are cells?" My fault again. I kept going, hoping he'd fall asleep and forget it. In the morning I was mortified to hear him repeating my explanation to the au pair. I looked up viruses and learned they are sub- microscopic infective particles which subvert the synthetic machinery of the cells they infect in order to replicate themselves, but it's too late. My little car theory is all over town.

Occasionally we have more hypothetical discussions. The other day we were in the car when he said, "Mumma can never escape from us, can she? Because we'd just follow her wherever she goes." I had a suspicion the first part of this scenario wasn't his invention. I guess I always knew my wife and I would end up communicating chiefly through our children, but I imagined we'd wait until they were older. I assured him that, yes, he and his brother and I would track his mother to the ends of the Earth, using the latest surveillance equipment. I imagined the three of us sleeping in seedy motels, listening to wiretaps and showing her picture to waitresses at motorway services. Eventually we'd trace her to Soho, where she would have a tidy flat and, under an assumed name, a job in publishing. Then we would burst in and tell her we were all out of clean towels. "Mumma can run," I told him, "but she can't hide." He smiled, which gave me some hope that it would get back to her.