David Trinder says: 'Cutlery leave the water in strictly alphabetical order; therefore the last item to leave is always a teaspoon.' He has experimented by including a xylophone, but it was a failure 'as it is not strictly an item of cutlery'. Neither is a zarf, presumably.
Geoffrey Langley also maintains that it is always a teaspoon. 'This was decided long ago by Morton's Fork, and is celebrated in song and story ('Spoon River', 'The Spoon and Sixpence'). Dr Johnson himself observed this, and advised us to count the spoons.'
R J Pickles agrees about teaspoons and blames Murphy. 'He can transport more cutlery into our homes if he carries teaspoons, which he delivers singly when the washer-upper is distracted.'
Michael Prendergast (D/MX 830344 to his erstwhile naval companions) says the whole thing was settled long ago in the Royal Navy, resulting in the chant:
Tinkle, tinkle, little spoon.
Knife and fork will follow soon.
'The break-up of the cutlery family,' writes Pam Apthorp, 'is becoming a growing cause for concern. Since the large increase in the student population, cutlery siblings are being lured away from home, in many cases never to return. 'Cutlery pieces remaining in washing- up bowls may be outcasts who may attempt to run away and join their true families, some of whom are lurking at the bottom of my dishwasher.'
How do the various items of cutlery decide which is to stay behind? 'Being cutlery,' says Len Clarke, 'they just cut for it'. According to James Royal- Lawson, however, the elective process has recently been changed.
'The cutlery in the bowl call a national meeting, in which some 4 million pieces of kitchen equipment have the chance to air their views. Any utensil which is a member of a kitchen union has the right to vote, including tea-towels, food processors and, most disturbingly, fridge-magnets.'
This may help to explain Paul Clark's belief in the phenomenon of 'non-metallic magnetism', which causes cutlery to adhere to washing-up bowls, and sharp objects to point upwards when approached by bare feet.
Stuart Cockerill goes into greater detail on the physics of the non-stick cutlery bowl adhesion process, blaming the hydrostatic charge of dirty stainless steel, comparing its effect with 'the documented 'playing dead' of the possum when approached by predators'.
Since the polarity of the charge is entirely random, he explains: 'A large amount of cutlery is likely to possess an overall neutrality, making it vulnerable to the intrusion of various species of yellow rubber glove. When only a few items remain in the water, there is a possibility that their charges will be identical, creating a strong overall field of missability. And that condition is guaranteed when only one item is left.'
Deriding any suggestion of anthropomorphic choice among crockery, he says that it is more difficult to explain how the various bits of crockery dotted around the house decide which is to be forgotten when the dishwasher is loaded.
Finally, Caroline Hull sidetracks us on to occult paths with a brief introduction to cutleromancy - divination from implements left in washing-up bowls. 'Teaspoons are presages of peace, harmony and a quiet night in front of the telly; a vegetable knife foretells that the peace of the household is about to be disrupted by someone in a hat, probably a bank clerk; two crossed forks indicate the possibility of a pleasant week on the Norfolk Broads in a hotel which does not take dogs; and a potato masher, three soup spoons and a garden trowel suggest that you should never have opened that third bottle of Bulgarian red.'
All of which leaves plenty of room for suggested titles for the prequel to Back to the Future. Will Oldham proposes 'Back to the Future Minus One: Back to Front to the Future'. Paul Clark suggests 'Back to Basics' or 'Back to the Day Before Yesterday'. R J Pickles says 'Immobile in the Present'. Most chilling of all, Len Clarke offers 'My Downing Street Years - 1995 to 2005'.
Oh, all right, a zarf is a holder for a hot coffee-cup. I thought everyone knew that. This week's questions: What does acronym stand for? (S Cockerill). If you can switch on the lights at teatime in winter, why can't you switch on the dark in summer? (Flora, aged 2). Is this a silly question? (several readers).