Woman’s Biggest Husband Is The Moon

I remember broken motion sensor taps on a rocking ferry. Packs of boys with clipped Germanic haircuts stirring into the café, slapping walls and spinning chairs. Passing though women in perfect team uniforms. Blues and reds, blacks. They passed through reading adults, tired families and juice-sucking girls, hunting out the games rooms and the cinema.

I open my eyes and turn. What time is it? I have an appointment I’m going to miss if I don’t get up. Don’t know why I’m in two minds. A tablet beside me on the bedsheets.

I have been away. My overnight bag remains by the door, still packed. Beyond the window lies a pale, autumn weekend. I could stay here. Not dress. A shroud of covers, a milk-wet cereal bowl somewhere. No need to be or do. Neither here nor there till Monday.

Something made me ask for the address and a time.

There are no leaders but the leader is Jay Nunnery. Jay is fit, not forty and fashionably bearded. He removed his shirt and now looks patiently around a semi-circle of seated men, also shirtless, beside me. We’re in a rough copse, a neglected corner of Queen’s Wood in Highgate. Scoops of bronze leaves and acorns beneath us. It’s October now, I realise.

Jay looks satisfied and unfurls a slow “Welcome. To ‘Men’s Action for Peace’” to which some in the group respond: “It’s not about hating women.”

“Welcome, Knights and..” He nods at me. “New faces.”

I look at the comrades. One is bookish, little eyes behind little glasses. He has chosen to sit on a log. A pair of mischievous-looking vintage fans, reformed by retro pride, slicked 50’s hairstyles and a sleeve of arthouse tattoos. There is a pudgy lad with thick hair who cannot meet anyone’s stare. And a young black fellow with his knees to his chin to my left.

“We begin, as always, with the Knightly meditation. Dermot, this a connective phase into which we have incorporated the Quaker concept of ministering. You won’t be judged. If you feel the need to break contemplation, to share any feelings you’ve had in the past week, feel at ease to do so.”

I have meditated in the past. To be honest, I am mostly relieved to have bypassed any kind of initiation ceremony. I close my eyes and focus on breathing, scan down through my body for feedback, nestle into my inhale and exhale. The rustle of the trees. The traffic’s distance, humming towards outer London, becomes a safe shore. I only open my eyes once, to check my fellows.

“This week I watched weird porn.” I hear a hesitant voice, ministering. “Dark and humiliating. I liked it.” Who was that? By the time I open my eyes the speaker cannot be discerned. No-one seems phased.

I have closed my eyes for only a few seconds when another voice says “I Skyped the ex-wife. Called her a child-snatching toe-rag to her actual mother’s face.” One of the vintage guys, I’m sure of it. My eyes tighten slightly. I don’t want to know.

“I read Deborah’s letters, again.” That was cryptic. As those words and the silence sinks in, they fill me with sadness. I feel like I should give in and trust it.

“I trolled some feminists. On the internet. Spur of the moment. Wasn’t me speaking. Something. Snapped.” I exhale a sigh and realise that I’d be identifiable by the novelty of my voice. I feel unmasked. I open my eyes but the others are still in their personal zone.

Jay Nunnery is making something called the ‘Staff of Immanent Power’. Constructed at each assembly, captured and destroyed at the end of a joust. “This is not a phallus. This is new power.” It is a rotten bough, wrapped and tied in ivy, earth and leaves. I pluck a reluctant Twix wrapper away from the tightening strings as we finalise its construction. Then it is screwed, as upright as the Knights can muster, into a designated foundation.

I was wrong. I didn’t escape initiation. The others must smear me in a ruddy camouflage as Jay looks on, quietly stroking his beard. I might be the only man without one.

“City boy, Dermot?” The conversation is affable and relaxed.

“Well. Analyst. No big bonuses.”

“You should demand it. Aren’t women always saying they should learn a bit of male entitlement?”

“Except when it comes to sex.” The pudgy lad pats cold earth flat on my chest. “Then male entitlement is all of a sudden a bad thing. For a change.”

“Don’t let feminists get to you, mate.”

“Former partner was into it.” I confess, feeling a snake of mud work across my shoulder blades. “Not placards and dungarees. Just ‘If I’m not CEO by thirty-five it’s probably all your fault’.”

“Fuck sake.”

“Never grateful. English birds. Go Korean, mate. Sweet as peanuts.” “Breath of fresh air.”

“Gentlemen, that’s enough.” Jay steps in and the group allow him to face me. He places one hand on my shoulder. “Welcome to Men’s Action for Peace. We have no expectation and expect your all. This is about loving. Ourselves, as men. And women. They’re our daughters, Dermot. We hold them in wise, resilient hands to guide them. They need us.”

We begin the psychological spannering which had intrigued me on the MAP website. A joust, which is non-adversarial and non-hierarchical. Nomadic ensembles broker deals of assistance, then disengage. Above us the Staff waits to be claimed on the knoll. Jay runs backwards like a referee, shouting things like “People are your friends but also not. Find the second paradox, Umoja. That was your homework.” And “Why do you trust mistrust, Dermot? We need that conversation.” And “Stop and accept your hotspots.”

A basketball bounces off my head and I grab it, make a foolish split for the knoll, till someone rises out from a tangled crater left by a long-fallen tree. My legs collapse beneath me.

“Transfer confrontation,” pipes the guy with glasses, but my fumble in his direction simply spins the ball down the hill. The whole convoluted game theory difficult to follow. Various corridors progress the slope in a lattice but I lie where I am, watching a young family in the distance, just beyond the trees, sometimes seen and sometimes unseen.

The little girl wears a yellow rain jacket and striped leggings. Very ‘British classic’ but costs a bomb. She and her parents amble slowly and all carry sticks. More than a family. They’re a family plus the promise of Family.

“Needing a wee breather?” Jay Nunnery angles into my view, and then hoists me to my feet.

“Jay, I-” I really want to skip the post-joust social pencilled in at the nearby pub and just slip away.

“There’s no man cave moments here, matey.” He swells his chest. “Commitment issues are a freshman’s fear. There is no falling at the first hurdle. We won’t let you.”

A quick check over his shoulder reveals the others, curious but determinedly inclusive, ambling towards me.

A pair of sharing platters, upscaled Ploughman’s with smoked duck paté and spiced Scotch eggs, descend over long benches crowding the patio of the Woodman. The final ales arrive and we knock in a very European way. “The MAP.” Jay Nunnery is on organic wine.

The conversation resumes. “See, that’s what they said about the Suffragettes.” One of the retro guys is chatting to his left, to be inclusive towards Umoja. “You’re chancers. But nice quote-unquote normal people will thank the chancers of 2015.” I’ve been curious about Umoja, about why he is here. He is a silent, proud lion surveying the sunset, rising above mere conversation.

“There’s Glenda Jackson,” he eventually says, and I look round.

“Who?” “She’s an MP, right?” “Was.” “Never heard of her.”

She is alone, across the patio, reading a newspaper and fingering some olives.

“This is an opportunity,” the bookish guy, Colin, suggests to Jay, “We could alert her to MAP actions. Expand her consciousness.”

“Go ask her why we get harsher sentences. Why courts bend over backwards to keep women out of the nick. Ask her why men are inherently bad and women are victims of circumstance, Jay.”

“There are no leaders,” Jay reaffirms shakily.

“Don’t look at me. I’m not local. I’d be wasting parliamentary time.” “She’s retired.”

Nunnery, who is not only a Highgate resident but has a therapy practice in the constituency, scrutinises his glass, watching his eyes narrow in the reflection. “Colin’s right, this is an opportunity.”

“Show her pictures of boys being circumcised.” “She’s eating.” “Patriarchy shouldn’t put anyone off their food.” “If it puts her off she’s antisemitic.” “Anti-American.” “She’s Islamophobic.” “We need a photograph of that. That would get in the paper.” “I’m sorry but I don’t tend to carry pictures of boys being circumcised around with me.” “I could draw it.” Umoja offers. “Have him shouting ‘If I was a girl my pain would be real’”. “Just hand it to her.”

Jay seems unconvinced, and takes the pencil out of Umoja’s hand. “We need to be strategic about this. We’re about peace not confrontation. And the MAP never stoops to public mortification. That’s why we’ll win.”

She is reading about the resignation of the Labour whip, a frustrating turn of events which further damages an already divided party. She wishes him a successful future as a ‘cross-bencher’ by swiping a frown over his mouth with the squeeze of an olive. People don’t seem to want change, she thinks. ‘Hope’ is all they want. When it comes to actualisation they crack up. She begins reading the latest column by her friend Taylor Hampton. A full-on sweetie but the sudoku gets more comments than he does. She is immediately aware of a figure wavering near her table, a pudgy youngster in a ‘Phantom Menace’ t-shirt.

“Ms Jackson, would it be male entitlement to ask for a selfie? Facebook.” He juggles a smart phone.

“Odd way of putting it. Of course not.”

“Oh, a pet subject.” He ambles around to sit beside her, but she gets perturbed by what appears to be caked mud in his hair. “I’m never sure what’s entitlement, and what’s just wanting something and doing something about it.”

“Well, are people under an obligation? And do you persist?”

“Never. I retreat into fantasy.”

“One of the primary roles of the arts, and very wise.”

“Do you regularly retreat, Ms Jackson?”

“Not politically, no.”

“I thought the personal was political.”

The conversation was turning odd, but Glenda forces her smile till the shutter sound, an android marriage between a tut and a sigh. The shot shows her eyes bending swiftly to the left, however, catching a table of wriggling men who seem to be watching.

“Those are my friends, Glenda. They’re men. But it’s not about hating women.”

“What do you mean?” She watches him speak as if suddenly detached from herself.

“Direct action and new forms of power.”

“Such as?”

“We’re formulating the forms. It’s early days.”

“Could you call me when you know?” She then hands him her card, which he exchanges for his own. Over her glasses, she peers elsewhere.

I am on the Northern line with Colin, swaying slightly, both of us choosing to stand, though not required to do so by the volume of people.

“I hope you come back next week,” the book-buyer for a minor branch of a major bookstore says eventually.

“It’s -” I turn over the MAP handbook and check the cover. “You lot are -. I’m intrigued.”

“Don’t come back because you’re intrigued. Come back if it did you good. But give it a few days to decide.” He looks to some advertising, beginning to frown. “I feel considerably better in a group. Something is happening. I can feel it.”

Rocked by the train’s motion I gaze into a short poem, not reading it at all.

As she sits down, she looks up.

“Dermot, does money emasculate you?”

“No.”

“Castrate you? Does it make you limp as a male person?”

“That’s a trick question.”

“Why?”

“If I say it makes me not limp you might have grounds to release me.”

“Release you. I’ll release you out of a plane.”

Kacey Underwood leans over her desk. “Know who this is?” She taps a framed photograph, just about the only thing there is in her office, a monochrome image of a steel-haired old woman with clear-rimmed glasses.

“I always assumed it was your grandmother.”

“Christ.” She snorts. “I’m from the gizzards of the universe. No. It’s Dorothy Day. Catholic anarchist. Lived in a vow of voluntary poverty. If you stole Dorothy’s coat she’d hand you her shoes. You need them more than I do. We give and we give till it hurts. We give. Till our knuckles get sore giving.”

This aside, an impromptu calling-in as I passed Kacey’s door, brightly I must admit, in a new tie, might be about bonuses. I also know that I mightn’t grasp what it is really about for some time. It’ll come haunting me. “Are you giving and giving till it hurts?”

The only thing behind Kacey is sheer glass, the size of a cinema screen. Behind that, a construction site in the sky. I watch the workers and I envy the clarity and physicality of their toil. It must be simple and satisfying. Far below us, London turns.

“Is this about the Banco PanAmericano deal?”

“This is about you.”

“There’s a lot of unfinished business. A lot of unresponsive people.”

“Which is why we need an ass who can sit on them.”

Last night I dreamt I had to count all the rivets at a fun fair. All the nuts and screws. Somewhere between an estimation and an impossible job.

“I’ve signed off on everything required before schedule. No business case has been negatively impacted.”

“And there’s a reason why your team is now under my directorship.”

In my dream there was a dodgem car that kept moving, all on its own, and I kept running after it. I’d get into another car to chase it but the rest of them started circling too, all on their own, so I lost it.

“We have to be more onside and aggressive. I know that.” Does everyone live in this contemporary interzone? Too nice or too bastard, and that is all there is?

“It’s midterm bonus time.” Kacey Underwood bumps into my suspicions very abruptly. “Traditionally you’ve been excluded. But we have to be shrewd. Watchdogs are slopping all over us. How much did we incentivise you in April? Did you buy yourself a pretty laptop?”

“I bought myself an engagement ring. Which I still have.”

“Ah.” I seem to have bumped her back. She looks very matter-of-factly at the ceiling. I begin to feel sorry for her, which is possibly a first. She has become to me, if I am entirely honest, a series of thoughts to avoid having. But just then I see a person, with a tang of domestic life, a history. Something precious worth hiding.

“Top team have the right to see how employees use the internet.”

I get a cold flush. This might not be about bonuses at all. There are ways to make people jump without touching them. “Kacey, I use it for work purposes. Research.” I try to glean something from her face.

“Dorothy’s been looking, God-like, into men and women’s souls. She sees every dirty nook.” I stare around the face of the steel-haired old lady. This is about trolling.

“I know a lot about you, Dermot. I have your history. I know you like classic novels and philosophy.”

“And?”

“Suggests to me someone who likes read ‘up’ as opposed to reading ‘down’.” Her hand lifts at the wrist to form a forty-five degree angle. “In your politics you prefer to punch up as opposed to punching down.” Her hand takes off slowly, like her aforementioned aeroplane, then drops to a slap on her knee. “So your relationship with Lavender Annsmith surprised me. It’d be rude of me to suggest it, but you were fucking down.”

“That’s-”

“As your boss, I want you to fuck up, Dermot.” Although I am staring straight into two unhypnotisable eyes I can feel the cross of her legs as if they were my own. “Someday. Someday I’ll take you to one side, in some lonely and expensive little bar, and I’ll give you that instruction. Fuck up.”

“In what sen-”

“Push the pennies into the pound column, tear up the deal sheets.” She leans back and drums two fingers on the arm of her chair.

“Oh.” Not that again.

“You’re balls-deep in my mess already. Badder boys got there first, and you were the nearest mop. Now you need to be taught strategy. Learn to appreciate reward. Good doggies get big bones. But, Lavender, no. Gender player. Clockwork turning in a solipsistic little trinket box called ‘I, Woman’. Gender is for castratos and stuck-at-homes, stuck in their heads and chewing meds. Nobody with the hunger gives a damn, boy.”

Not that again. “I don’t like being called ‘boy’.”

“It’s how we talk in Carolina.”

“No, it isn’t.”

She pauses, stands, her smart phone vibrating softly. “You’re right, but I like it. Does all this talk offend your English sensibilities?”

“Three quarter Irish.” I stand to leave, since she is clearly showing me the door.

“Three quarter ballache. I’m a tenth from Charleston. Nobody cares, little Europe.”

As I walk away she is holding the phone to her ear.

“Now you run along, little doggie, and you get hungry for me. Check your balance.”

Lavender Annsmith’s profile name on scrumpet.com is the nicely unimaginative ‘LA1984’. Don’t ask me how I found this out but I once tried to log in using buzzwords which I associate with her. She appeared on the dating site days after we split up. No grieving period. There was a soft stalking phase on my part while her Facebook went from photographs of designer food to fully private.

I scan down the eternally-updated and recast dating profile looking for clues as to who she might have met this weekend. “Must be outgoing” probably means she met some decent but indoorsy male. “Must be committed and serious” means she met someone who wanted to sleep with her on the first date (she’s ostensibly either/or on these matters, although that is no guarantee that she didn’t sleep with him, nor that her commitment sensor proved faulty). The habitual height restrictions (some sections of the gender rulebook remain unripped-up), and the profile ends “I couldn’t live without feminism. Looking for a feminist man, and not a Feminism Accepting but Reprehensible Man (FARM).”

I’m not sure why anyone needs to put this. No man under sixty thinks men and women aren’t intrinsically equal, that the Equal Pay and Sexual Discrimination acts aren’t a good thing, and that the rest is a debate. A debate, but also about individual personalities — pushy or passive, chilled or stickler, child-friendly or missus busy, overworked libertine or amateur wanker. But it’s a debate which, ultimately, Annsmith needs to win as a woman.

Her paragraph of likes, which should exist to provide some provocative individuality, the keys to an existential self under the performance, is as generic as most other profiles. Travel, wine, restaurants. No, I lie. “Health foods/clean eating.” What insight does the return of some finer detail lend me? She fell head-over-heels for a dumpster-diver? Was given the runaround by a glucose-spiking pee-pee recycler? As I tire and tab through her competitors all I really end up seeing is the hair and the smiles, volumes of hair and acres of smiles. The backgrounds eventually interest me more. Greek island. Glastonbury. A sober flash of suburban new-build. A postered bedroom wall. Perhaps I’m an obtuse kind of a snob, measuring people, pining for the indigenous equality of someone I met at uni.

I close the sunshine slates of scrumpet with mixed feelings. We’re too free, with too many choices. Our grandparents got it right, with their faith and fear and obligation. In the absence of those, we make phantom chains to tether all the airless, unhelpful liberty. Perhaps that is why I’m still looking at Lavender Annsmith’s account on scrumpet.com, months after she left.

I register an account on Tuesday lunchtime, and by Friday I have a date. As I board the tube that evening I watch a woman struggle on with a cello case. I help her, not necessarily out of chivalry, but unexpectedly warmed by the reminder that women also play the cello.

“So how long have you been doing this? Scrumpet, I mean.”

“A while.” I lie.

“I’m stuck in a loop. I date men who are so much like me. They’re more like brothers or reminders of other lovers, and then I get bored. Where’s the fun? So I date someone radically different and I get annoyed. Eventually. I remember why I became the person I am. With the views I have. I want them preserved. I think that’s the mid-term loop.”

Something about what hackneyfreespirit, my date, is saying recalls to me a native American fable I once read in an anthropology collection. A little girl who found everything too family or too foreign, too far away or too close, with nothing in-between, nothing at the perfect distance. So many fables about little girls getting things just right. I look under the table.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m checking to see if you have legs.” I’m skipping to the denouement.

“Course I bloody do. Are you ableist?”

“No. In fact, I think a beautiful woman in a wheelchair might suit me. I’d carry her to bed, and she’d never leave.”

“That’s not ableist. That’s Norman Bates. You’re saying disabled women can’t make a conscious decision to exit unhealthy relationships.”

“It’s a joke. A metaphor or whatever. I’m just implying that it’s sometimes nice to be needed.”

“No woman would crack that joke. Are you actually going to drink that?” She points. The waiter has put a spoonful of wine into my glass, and is waiting to see if I approve.

“Ladies first.” I pass it to her, staring at the soft clutch of the waiter’s expectant fingers. Post-Annsmith, I know the score.

“They want to build more out of less. And computers give that to them.”

“Employers?”

“Everyone. So I dream about buildings behind destroyed a lot. It’s like cognitive therapy without the behaviour.” We’re talking dreams and films. “Is there fun in that?” “But, you’re right, ‘Germany Year Zero’ is the only film with a realistic depiction of the cruelty and starvation endured by civilian Berliners after the war.” “Did we order a coconut semifreddo?”

“Tell me I have great tits.” “Why?” “I like it. I like the kind of man who comes out with stuff like that. Who can’t help himself.” “You have great tits.” “It doesn’t work now. It has to surprise me.” “Amanda, can I say something to you?” “What?” “Don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s about your tits.” “What about them?” “What about them? I’m about to pull them out of your bra with my teeth.”

“Your card, sir.” “Ah. Thank you.”

“He gets it all the time.” “What else are you going to do?” “Rip your underwear apart. In the street.” “What else?”

“You’re alright.” hackneyfreespirit is hammered and we’re bored snogging. A cab pulls over and I open the window to give her a breather, then I accept her loose but stressed invitation to share.

“Too similar or too different?”

“Aw. Eighty-twenty.” She attempts to see-saw her hand. My money’s on a hunch that we’re not exactly in the ‘life partner’ zone. Two bottles, some brandies and limoncello in and it hardly matters. A man needs a degree of snobbery or he’d do it with a lamppost. Her hand waits on my leg but I’m not going to have sex with a drunken student. How do I tell her that? I help her out at her house and, carefully, I accept her invitation in. She trips on the bare stairs, and I catch her and help her to stand.

“Bloody architecture. Man, it’s so dry. You have no idea. I’ll be pitching to build. rich people’s. Whimsy, round stairs. No you said you don’t. trust civilisation. I don’t see. What. Cos Greek myth. Right. Dreamworks. Okay. You said every Hollywood movie is just the Odyssey. These days. Okay boring. Fine. Or something. But civilisation is important. We have to be civilised, man, Dermot.”

“Which one is yours?” She doesn’t reply and the first bedroom door I try reveals a snoring mass half-clad in the darkness. I elbow against the next one, noticing a bold Matisse print on the far wall, just opposite the computer station. This would be it.

I scoop her legs off the floor and lay her down. Then fold the remainder of the duvet over. “Into your. canoe.” I find the bedside light switch and look to her shoes. Perhaps I should unbuckle them. Her eyes open and a faraway smile appears on her face.

“Get in.” She tries to look theatrically nonplussed. I tell her I’m going to pop downstairs to make her a cup of tea. She closes her eyes and moves around a bit. I look about the bedroom at the everywoman cares, the stuffed hangars, the stacks of eternal learning, the rounded hopes and added value. Digital Morphogenesis in Architectural Design, its Foundations and Applications. And I kneel upon a Pilates roller to squeeze her hand, to kiss someone I don’t really know and will never see again goodnight, once upon the softness of her hair.

“Welcome, Knights.” At the usual time, on another dry autumn weekend, Men’s Action for Peace begin their meditation session in Queen’s Wood, which will also give us a chance to share any gendered hotspots.

A new member, a tanned and youthful but serious-faced journalist who introduced himself as Taylor, meets only the gaze of nuts and leaves between us. Shirts are removed and we close our eyes. There is no rustle within the trees this week, only the occasional brush of distant traffic. My breath begins to slow as I plug in.

No-one ministers their feelings, lost in thought, or perhaps thought-free, until Robert, one of the tattooed pair says, “In a corner cafe. This mother. Yapping at her boy. Pikey. Every move he made was a problem. Yap. Wanted to push her face in the soup.”

His words linger in the group consciousness and then fold away, caught by the naked trees, and absorbed.

Towards the end of the session, another voice feels the need to open. “Sour battle hawk. Pro Syria. Iraq. War addict. Death is her answer to everything. At a launch party. I said ‘Cos you and your suburban coven won’t end up on the front lines. You get soggy thinking about kids dying. Admit it. If you’re so pro-war sell yourself as a barrel bomb, you misandrist cow’.”

The new Knight, Taylor, seems to be done. My brow knits. I say nothing this week. And, eventually, Jay stands. He pulls forward a canvas bag that is slung diagonally across his chest and he searches for something inside. Colin is there, and Umoja. Robert and Ray. The Phantom Menace mustn’t have been able to make it.

Slowly Jay offers a white feather to Taylor. “Take this.” He says. “Today we’re going to thank Emmeline Pankhurst for shaming voteless children into the war, with a feather.”

Jay turns in the centre of the circle and raises an open palm, and we join in. “Thanks for shaming us.”

“Aw, I can’t stand it. I’m going freelance. I hate the oppressive silences in the office, the two-faced women who write recycled articles about men and then go ‘Hi’ and breeze into meetings all chirpy like the cat who got the cream. And the men are abstracted muppets who sit there and take it. If everything I wrote pointed out the awful things women happened to do, week in week out, I’d be over hot coals. Everybody knows the whole thing is backseat driving but nobody says anything. Nobody screams. What’s wrong with you guys?”

Taylor might be Australian or Kiwi. I never can tell. His eyes are closed and we are smearing him in the camouflage of initiation. It dawns on me that he might be gay. Not that that’s an issue.

“Not all guys,” corrects Colin. “We scream.”

“But who’s hearing you? It’s pretty Zen out here, guys.”

Robert and Ray finish patting his arms, and Jay steps forward. “This we can discuss. But first, those accustomed to the handbook know that the MAP is built on quantum psychogeography. This week, we explore the Arts of New War.”

“Man down!” I cry amidst the trees, no-one there to hear me, the battalion having spread out. Ray is playing wounded. I kneel beside him and flick around the MAP handbook.

‘Where precisely is the injured indicating physically?’ Ray is kneading at his heart.

“Go on without me.” He rolls his eyes and grits his teeth, sucking air, then panting.

“Never, Knight.” Ray gulps like a fish on a deck while I flick the page. A hurrah sounds above us.

“Show your true colours, expendable.” Taylor places both feet on the fallen bough. He’s taken to the gaming. All day I’ve felt like a rough sketch watching a statue. I close the handbook. The rules of New War indicate that we must fly our true flags before firing a shot, especially since the game centres on deceit, infiltration and false flags, to the point we forget who we originally were.

“I don’t know who I am.” The end.

“Then you will die the death of a man who has left himself behind.” He throws us down the white feather and shoots at us several times with a discarded Fanta bottle.

Feeling the heat, Ray begins squeezing his eyes. “The first thing kids hear about sex is rape in schools. Used to be paedophiles, now it’s arm-twist this and chloroform that. Consent is doing their heads in.”

“It’s about teaching boys that girls are passive. So you mention sex when you want to enfeeble them.” Colin adds.

“But they can’t teach polyamory because they sense that Victorian repression holds the family unit together.” Jay considers.

“Sex is part of the same natural flow as breastfeeding. Anywhere we allow one we should allow the other. It’s always male aspects of reproduction that need to be buried and shamed.” Taylor offers.

“Yeah, if birds can have those badges saying ‘Baby On Board’ why can’t we have badges saying ‘Stiffy On Board’. It’s the same nature.”

Indoors at the Woodman, we appreciate the fireplace. It must eventually, seasonally, get far too cold for Men’s Action. I wonder what happens in winter. I watch the flames, trying to picture the kind of woman who’d look up to a man wearing a ‘Stiffy On Board’ badge. Give up her seat. But some things are more important than admiration. Things need to adapt, towards more progressive attitudes.

“All good stuff.” Jay is recording the MAP manifesto suggestions. We have decided to politicise. “Education. Social housing. Rough sleeping and suicide. The more I write this down the more I realise what a truly fem-centric society we live in.”

“‘If men have all the power, how come women set the rules?’”

“They’re more than welcome to equal power. But it’s time we set a few bloody rules.” The manifesto goes on for several pages.

“Women complain about bastards, then queue up to watch a billionaire spanking an intern or whatever in the cinema. Bad boy alphas.” This was my only contribution to the ‘Sex and Mental Health Intersectionality’ brainstorm, and even that went unrecorded.

“So, Taylor, how did you hear about us?” I turn to ask.

“Just surfing for men and action. Found you guys eventually.”

I nod once, watching the frothless top of my St Austell tilt unsteadily. Something about him. At one point, back there in the trees, I even had the suspicion that there might be a mole in the MAP. Like he’s trying too hard. Hatchet job. But if you’ve got nothing to hide, why hide it?

“What about you?” The new Knight might be turning the tables of suspicion, and is pointing to the manifesto. “Anything else from that side of the table?”

“Oh, I’m not sure.” Umoja is drawing a ‘Stiffy’ badge on a beermat. “I think we want to avoid anything silly.” I regret the word, since it renders the table silent again. “I mean, for politics you have to get backing. A serious proposal might do that more effectively. Cost-benefits.”

When I looked in my bank account, this morning, I had exactly £26,126.86 more than expected. That’s quite a midterm bonus for an analyst, but the oddness of the figure has haunted me all day. It’s not tax, so why this exact net sum? “I guess I’ll make sure it flies.”

“Okay, troops. I’ll leave you lesbians to it. Keep me in the loop. I gotta hook up with a couple of grindrmen to expend a little spunk.” Taylor downs the last of his mineral water and stands.

“A little spunk.”

“That’s what he said.”

“I just don’t know how people do that.”

My date on Wednesday is looking ‘long term’ only. I have decided to be ruthless about these things.

“I had the oddest thing last year.” She says. “An email out of the blue. Multiple recipients but I couldn’t see who else it was addressed to. From a boy I knew from Chesham Grammar. He said he felt guilty for how he had treated all the women in his life, and that he had decided to find their emails where he could. He wanted to apologise.”

“What did he do?”

“Not much to me. We kissed at an upper sixth formal. He tried to put his hand in my shirt but I pushed it away and he walked off, saying he was insulted.”

“Pretty selfish. But maybe he did a lot worse. To others. Later.”

“Maybe I contributed to it. Maybe he felt he had to get more and more intense as each girl rejected him.”

“You didn’t reject him. You wanted a different kind of relationship. Better.” I explain patiently, but my mind is filling with numb prostitutes, wet kohl turning cheeks into a ruined charcoal sketch. I’m sure there are people this creep can never apologise to. In fact, I imagine the email itself as a ploy to see which fool would reply, say she forgave him and found his quest for atonement heartening. The bastard would enter into correspondence, suggest a rendezvous, happy that he now had his hands on the ultimate acquiescent female.

Michelle seems mature for her age. It may not be exciting, but she comes across as a generous spirit. She has the calmness of someone with a solid base, out of town. Something she can always go back to. She works in finance too, in personnel.

“Well, I replied, and told him that I found his apology brave.” To be honest, if there’d been a fireside I would have begun gazing into it. We’d met in a French bistro chain, with chain décor and chain faces on short-stay staff. Neither of us hungry. We’ve been poking at cake. “We met up, in fact.”

I feel an urge to move, a prickling against my skin, a sudden about-turn between us. Really? And I can hear Taylor saying ‘Why is everything between men and women here so bloody.. political?’

I welcome the arrival of a text message which illuminates my phone and take the opportunity to distract myself. “And had you? Had you contributed to his, um, lifestyle?”

“He looked so sad and earnest. I found myself apologising too.” The serenity of Michelle’s voice has become an irritating drone. It strikes me somewhere in the mid-brain, like a dull knife.

“Why, for Christ’s sake? Forgot to turn this off.” I fiddle with the handset.

“Well, he put his problem down to distance from his mother. He’d been yearning for warmth all his life.”

“Yeah, I bet. Yearning. And did you?” The message is from hackneyfreespirit. It begins ‘You are’.

“Did I what?”

“Warm him up.”

“That’s kind of private, Dermot. Are you the jealous type by any chance? Your temperament has changed.”

Don’t tell me I’ve changed when you don’t even know me. “Look at this.”

Michelle backs away from the message and winces. “‘You are the best friend an unconscious girl can have’. What does that mean?”

“What do you think it means?” I wink.

“I don’t like men who wink.”

“Oh, that’s a shame. Because I have to wink. Semi-automatic cognitive rapid wink movements. Doctor’s orders.”

“What are you talking about? You sound insane. Whatever you do to unconscious girls, is that an order too?”

I awake at half past four, somehow unable to fit my own circadian rhythm. I dreamt about a chemical plant. It had a racetrack outside, for motorcycles. I knew there had been a horrific accident. I just knew it. Even in the shower, someone looked at me and said they couldn’t wash it off, the blood.

I turn out of bed and see Applemarmalade’s face and her cut-dead disappointment. We began dragging one other down like weights.

As I close the bathroom door, and I remind myself again that I have no need to, and I’m feel that I’m rupturing some bubble. Pretence. ‘Stand up and take a step towards yourself’. The mirror watches me. I never had to discover if I was the jealous type before. Never came up. Such a dark mood on the tube home, wondering what the problem is with me.

“I wish men’s rights people would stick to valid issues instead of attacking women”

Like Valerie Solanas and Andy Warhol? Next time we’re debating paternity leave I’ll, what, put a bullet in Lady Gaga? Just to be mature?

In review, that retaliation wasn’t wise. A manifest death threat to a public figure. Traceable. To be fair, half an hour later I was browsing mental health articles, for therapy and male groups.

I am deep diving through my internet history when, quite suddenly, I find what I’m looking for. The sum that has been haunting me. Thirty seven thousand EUR.

Vitabirth Center can offer rich database of surrogate mothers who have carefully screened in accordance with the provisions of Order 67 of the Ministry of Healthcare of the Russian Federation. There is no waitings list.

You will be: blood sample testing for syphilis, HIV, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C (valid 3 month); spermogramme; blood type and Rh identification; infections guard (chlamydiosis, uro- and mycoplasmosis, herpes simplex, cytomegaly)

There follows an itemised and costed list of science fiction. Anti-muller hormone tests. Koagulograms. Karyotype analysis and screenings. Some IVF fall backs, follicle puncture and ultrasound, oocytes.

Seemingly, the same night, I lingered over the invitations of Yulia, a 27 year old non-smoker, 125 lbs and blood type O, from Saint Petersburg, looking swollen and mystical in professional soft focus. “I’m a cheerful person. I’m a teacher at the elementary school and I think children are the biggest happiness in life. I’ve already had my child so I want to help other people.”

Yulia is available to surrogate for Heterosexual Couple, Gay Couple, Lesbian Couple, Single Woman

Tonight the office is empty. The windows turned into mere reflection, for beyond them is sky black. I cannot see what Kacey Underwood sees. Working is all I do. I need friends, I know.

Kacey Underwood. Plots are slipping in and out of me like snakes. I wanted a baby and it split us apart. Common, common story. The unspoken needs to be spoken but both Lavender and I had friends in even tighter situations, which may in itself have buttoned us up. Someday, who knows, only the super-rich or super-religious will breed. We had no faith to compel us, knit and corral us. Western intelligence. Ambition. None of it gets into the DNA. No matter how bought into commerce, you’ll only skate its surface.

“Beautiful moon.” Fabrice, the Congolese cleaner (I try to put names to faces, at least once before the contract expires and the uniforms change) says. I have taken a USB stick from my bag to back up a lot of files, enterprise social network chats, Skype for Business, webinars, email trails. In case the plot gets opaque.

“Is it? I didn’t see.” I move to the window, beside him, and eventually find a mottled white satellite that isn’t merely a reflection of the office lights, as elegant up there as Yulia’s belly.

“Mbenga people, the Pygmy, used to say ‘Woman’s biggest husband is the moon’.”

“Did they? Why would they say that?”

I begin to reconsider my home. I sit there, looking round, making plans. I live in a one bedroom converted place above a launderette, beside a roundabout, at the end of a villagey looking high street. The launderette was crippled in a gas explosion some fifteen years ago, which I only found out about a month after purchase, but this means that the reconstructed apartments have a modern look to them that others in the row do not. Open plan and bare floor, and a balcony at the back where we used to barbeque, leading off an all-steel, if by now fatigued, kitchen.

I spend Saturday morning throwing things away and cleaning, for I am expecting a visitor. I walk to the tube station and purchase flowers, five powdery orange lilies, which I arrange inside a tall plastic jug.

Rather than embrace true piggery, I seem to have gathered a universe of effortless treats since living solo. Cologne, with a baffling depth I’m uncomfortable about, impulse shirts that wait like wallflowers in the wardrobe. An intelligent toy robot with wifi has become my evening quizmaster. I get most of my economics out of that guy. A stout rack of lifestyle magazines I now square and correct, and which only serve to show me my absence of lifestyle.

“Please, sit. Ms -” I sit.

“Please, Svetlana.” She keeps her camel coat on, and she doesn’t sit. She is six foot and blonde with a long nose and a brown leather flapover folio case. She looks about the room as if purchasing it, or saying goodbye after selling it. Somewhere between the two. Her eyes, when they settle on mine, softly close, then spring open.

“If men could spend a day as women they would never leave the bed. They’d play with themselves until night-time.” She points to a film magazine on the coffee table in front of me, a fully clothed actress on the cover. Mostly fully clothed. Actually, it’s a bikini. I was just about to offer her a cup of coffee, but I change my mind. She walks slowly about, then pauses at my DVDs and books.

“Well. I’m sure if women had twenty-four hours as men they’d look down and go ‘This is interesting. Reckon I’ll plant it somewhere the sun doesn’t shine.’” I thought this would be a joke. It doesn’t sound right.

“But there’d be no-one around. So they’d drink Scotch and beat one another’s brains in.” She offers. “You live alone, sir?”

“Yes, I do.” I have to quickly remind myself that I’m the customer here, since she is talking to me like a detective.

“It’s very honest of you. You don’t know how many people bring a friend to pretend. They snuggle on the couch. Look into one another’s eyes. And there’s only one pink toothbrush or one blue toothbrush in the bathroom. You know what I mean.”

“Perhaps they share. It’s kinda cute.”

“Sharing toothbrush? Is your idea of relationship?”

“It doesn’t totally make me puke. I mean. There’s no dirty in love.” Lavender and I never would.

“There’s no dirty in love.” She repeats my words in the flattest voice, fluty and drifty at the end, touching but not moving an André Gide. “No dirty in love.” Her eyes turn to wander up and down some David Lynch spines.

“So.” I feel like slapping the table, and I sit forward, swiping the air. “I’m really impressed. Your website. The costs are clear. Terms. Birth and export certificates. Accommodation at the clinic. Even a mobile phone with a local SIM. It puts my mind at ease. Brilliant.”

“We are the premier agency in the European Union, sir. For a reason.” And Svetlana is their UK service representative.

“Just two flights to Kraków to also consider.” She turns fully and walks to the centre of the room, then even further, until a shin hits the coffee table.

“We don’t do single men.”

“I know that certain surrogates can refuse. Whomever. Sure. Catholicism. Views. Maybe they should. But I’d like a chance to discuss it. With someone.”

“Oh, you can find whatever you want, sir. You will find anything.” She casts her head. “In the streets. But we are the premier agency in the European Union for a reason.”

She looks down her long nose at me, her camel coat opening and a hand tucking her pocket. I look at her corduroy skirt, and up to her face, my own expression beginning to fall. I stare at the corduroy again, for the first time in my life absolutely unembarrassed at gazing into a woman’s crotch. I’m looking through thick fabric, to the everyday mystery of vagina, cervix, deeper. For the epic of fusion, taking mass, gestation. Dirty or not, atoms going forward. I want them, and I want her to see that I want them. I look up earnestly.

“I’m a good man, Svetlana.”

“Why? Why no wife?”

“It’s not.. a big deal. It’s in case. It’s ‘why should I’ if I don’t need or want one or find one. Women do it. By accident or on purpose, doesn’t matter. They chose to go ahead. I might want to go ahead too.”

Svetlana moves back and then crouches to face me. “Sir, to explain. Since mankind has fallen from the fucking trees women have had to be careful. Understand? More careful than you. For a lot of reasons and not all of them are dinosaurs. Male fraudulence. Male violence. Male perversion. And women brains are just like yours. So big.” She spreads her hands. “See. Mostly made of fat. It’s why I eat coconut oil. It has MCT. Some women fall for big male words. They need a voice. I will not be culpable for putting a baby into a risk situation.”

The sharpness of her tone silences me for good. I don’t even notice if she stands or doesn’t stand, or if she leaves. But she is gone. Silence. Perversion. Male violence. It’s like ‘Muslim violence’. It’s offensive, but why hashtag the conversation #notallmuslims when someone is determined to hate you. When they need to hate you. I open my mouth to speak, at the door, and then I falter. Button it, mate.

I have stopped shaving. Then I started again. Now I’ve stopped again. Perhaps it’s a MAP thing. I look in the bathroom mirror, wondering what to do. I trim a stray hair on my eyebrow, and wash my face. And squeeze some kind of male moisturiser from a slate grey tube. When did I start this carry on?

I’ve always thought that I had a certain kind of friendliness to my face. A face people warmed to. Perhaps I was wrong. It’s relatively new to me, to be disliked and mistrusted. It feels like a boxer’s blow and I quite like the soul of it all. Barack Obama said there’s no point in people of mixed race seeing themselves as white when the world sees them as black. If the world sees you as an untrustworthy bastard? Is there any point pretending otherwise? If I was in two minds about going back to the MAP meeting last week, this week I am not.

“Violent male incest and perversion. That’s the first thing I think of when I see you, Dermot.” Taylor Hampton has been howling with laughter, a little unhelpfully, through the latter half of my tale. “What a bitch. Male perversion. If she’s never met a female pervert she needs to get out more. Or in more.”

Colin is more considered. “Sounds like she has latent religious morals she can’t express as such.”

“Nobody asks ‘Why no husband’?” “We’re optional.” “She’s forcing you to a backstreet surrogate, Derm.”

Taylor says he knows some already. “Are you serious about this? Because, guys, to be open with you I thought there might be a feature in the male rights business but Dermot’s your cause célèbre. The human angle. Male donors, they get fifty quid for their entire genetics. What’s the next step?”

I look at Taylor. I felt recharged today, the last day of outdoor gaming, and I tackled him to the earth with a ruthlessness that surprised me. I am serious about this.

I night crawl to my parents, over an empty, windless and boxed-in estate. Through the council-approved personal gate, forcing a new key into the loose barrel of the door. It’s dislocating, not how things have changed but how they’re stayed the same. The same nut-coloured telephone stand, the same wan Eire map, that listless oval mirror. Nodes of corn, shillelagh-shaped.

My father is asleep in the light of the television, in the same armchair. The pay-view hurling has finished and a worthless carousel animates the screen. He still has his overcoat on, a habit gained in a lifetime of security jobs. Cold huts. Defiantly London Irish, he took advantage of a multicultural hub by marrying a woman from the same town as his mother. You know where you stand.

I swim the narrow stairs I used to jump as a child. As I approach my room, a line of light at my feet suggesting life inside. And behind it I find my mother, sitting up in my bed with a magazine on her lap. Sonic the Hedgehog and Tails still preside like a Madonna with Child.

“What are you in here for?”

She doesn’t stop reading. “I get a bit of peace. Any old thing has me turning. Are you still sorting out your sock drawer? Since your you-know-what?”

I begin to rummage the built-in cupboard full of video games, school books and compact discs. “It was hardly a divorce.”

“It’s none of my bloody business. Tell me. You never turned around and told me ‘It’s none of your business’. And I’m going to get the blame for something and end up with no grandchildren.”

I find the music and hooded tops that I need and I fill a sports bag with them. “The future is parthenogenesis.”

“Who?”

“Immaculate conception. Or the dawn of male autonomy, a more grown-up responsiblility for their own reproduction.” The mad talk warms her briefly, but she saddens.

“Your great uncle Malachy had no interest when Helen passed on. She was 28. They invented monasteries for that.”

I never told them that I’d taken a few days off over in Inishannon. For some reason I wanted to go back, alone, for the first time in my life.

“I just know what I want. You know? You know it when it’s there.”

“Not us. Never see you. I used to say you sided with your da. I think you blame the two of us.”

I zip up and leave. She’s not as bad as she was. ‘She’s not as bad as she was’, Dad offered last Christmas, privately siding with me. Publicly, of course, in the Crown or the Quay, or when the reign of law reaches down like a pelmet over rapidly closing curtains, he knows who he has to side with.

“And you are a married couple?”

“Nearly there. A matter of admin. Bunting and so forth.” Taylor Hampton tests his coffee as my guest takes notes. My living room suddenly looks lived-in. “The UK Fertilisation and Embryology Act states that two people need to be recognised as the parent of a surrogate baby. But marriage isn’t a stipulation.”

“You have made research.”

“Not much.” I intervene quickly, feeling Taylor’s hand tighten on my leg as I attempt to sit forward. “I mean why would we research that? When we could be researching. Bibs. Jabs.”

“Gay couple fine. Single men we have problem.”

Taylor seems keen to interrupt. I’ve been baffled by his train of thought since the questioning began. “Single men are inherently off-putting. Don’t you think?”

Vivien, the small, stout and self-confessed ‘new rep’ for the main Slovenian agency raises her face from her notes to ponder, and frowns a fascinating italic gap between central incisors. “I have found so. In my experience.” We’re all wedded to something.

“That’s why men have to walk the walk.” Taylor looks into my eyes almost apologetically. “Why we love them when they do. And need to forgive them.”

Vivien seems bewitched, picking apart the internal dynamics of our relationship with a smile. As am I, very much without one. “And who will be the donor?”

“Who’s the daddy? We’re going to toss for it.” Taylor stands. I trust we’re not going to do it right now. “This one wins the broody prize. Everybody know he’s mum. But I have the eyes.”

“You do.” Vivien giggles into her shaking pen, passing him an album of prospective surrogates.

“See. Vivien agrees.” I am left behind on the sofa, listening to him. Haranguing me was not an agreed part of the pretence.

“We’re going to discuss it, Vivien.” I grab the book and hold it like the latest edition of a prized comic. It has all gone smoothly. Maybe I was unduly shaken by my first experience, for it now seems normal and shameless. Consumerism. But consumerism helps. That’s its job.

Taylor has backed across the room to the turntable. “I want to fall in love when I first see her. She’s not just some vessel. We’ll be life buddies.” Rather than the vintage electronica I brought from my folks, the rare chill, he settles on ‘2 Become 1’ by the Spice Girls.

“This is mother’s discretion.”

The album splits open through small town photo shoots, lace collars for stubborn baby fat and pallid eyes. Gorgeous, lifeless as a strange pet shop or a memorial to victimhood. The missing. The sheer eugenics of what I’m doing appeals to me. The clean lines.

“Wow. That one’s hard as nails.” Taylor takes the sofa edge.

“Guess so.” I flick about, my dating brain beginning to fight back. Someone preened leaves me thinking ‘She looks high maintenance’. Not an ounce of that matters any more, Derm. You’re free. Think free, think neat. Think fascist.

“I meant that in a good way.” My gay partner turns, bemused, to the friendly rep, who has been reclining and smiling. I turn another card page. “She’s a pro.” He says. “You can tell. She refers to women on the blob as ‘civilians’. Tampons are for wimps.”

“Sometimes I think I have the best job.” Vivien cries, shaking her head and sitting up to return to her papers.

I can’t sleep. I press my face into the skin of the pillow, as if pressing it hard enough would break me into the next world. My thoughts aren’t thoughts any more, each image is a link to another image. Ships. Sails. Destiny. My father’s wrist watch, wearing it. Inheritances of manhood. Initiation. Scars. A shoplifter I watched at work, dropping steaks into her coat. A door that opens behind me, just behind my bedroom. Horrorism. Chemsex. Being held. Holding something until it comes apart, all around me.

Can I toss for it? That might help. (The problem with condemning porn is that it abandons men to a hollow memoire of exes, pat narrative on colleagues, nomadic threesomes with surly flat white creators. Even in your dreams, no-one believes it. The afterburn is lonely, the real world surreal. And some men, I imagine, don’t have the directorship.) When does Marta happen? I should be conserving.

Power, I have consciously dreamt of. And anyone who dreams of power during do-it-yourself needs a word with themselves.

Marta’s face, when the webcam eventually finds her, is just as the photo album suggested. Defined where mine is weak, soft where mine is too strong. She’s more casual now, in a beaten sweatshirt, tapping keys in a light-filled, bare-looking kitchen. Philosophy grad. Artist. I thought we’d be a good blend.

Vivien says something in Slovene, and she replies, beginning to smile as two and a half faces fill her screen.

“Hi.” Taylor welcomes her, and I do too. His arm is round me and we’re wearing awful matching hoodies. Why do I feel like the ‘woman’ in this relationship?

“Hi.” She says something more in Slovene.

“She’s asking please not to judge her on her bad English.”

“That’s really sweet.” Taylor says. “Tell we wouldn’t judge her in a million years.”

She adjusts her screen and clicks a pen, her tomboyish hair fresh from a post-run shower, it seems. Almost as masculine as she is feminine. Fit, intellectual. My fascist eugenics flew past the native earth girls with flowers in their hair, the suburban model types, into a kind of post-gendered autonomy. Young, almost glowing. Strength seems to leap from her. Any whip-shaped neurotic streak within me would cling to this woman as if she were an oak, an anchor. This woman stops the voices.

We introduce, then — “You must be popular?” My first statement, dumb and revealing. Marta shrugs.

“I have done this once, last year. I enjoy the experience. It help me work. How to say? I prefer process to outcome. I think perhaps I am not a mother. Really. I translate biological processes. What remains when they are gone. Into um. Ahuman art? I also like the aesthetics of hospital. Life as a technology. But for fixing diapers? I don’t think this is me. Some couple find me strange.” She laughs briefly.

I don’t. Taylor looks at his list of questions as if they’re less relevant. “You’re 5’10. 138 lbs. Um. Is there anything you want to ask us? We’d like to be friends.”

“No need for this. The agency emailed the details. Less is perhaps more. I don’t wish to see her grow up. Please understand. I’m a false memory. She might ask about her mother. Mother is now, how to say? Transconsistent institutions. That’s all. I wrote an experimental text. I’d like you to keep it until sixteen.”

“Sure.”

“Have you taken drugs?” Taylor asks suddenly.

Marta stares into the screen. “Not for pleasure. Pleasure I find tenuous as a motivation. Tells me nothing. ” Me neither. “I have taken mind enhancements.”

Taylor seems more confused and Marta can sense it, but I watch her as she quietly refuses to explain further.

“She’s not a bit dry?”

The view from the balcony behind my home is of tile-brown, layered rooftops and nondescript extensions, a retired dentist’s back yard with his rotting chair in it. But there are trees and a skyline if you look for them. Taylor is making some kind of joint. Vivien will send dates and itineraries. I’m going alone.

“Dry is good. Feels like it’s been too easy.”

He shrugs and licks the rolling paper. “Things are easy these days. It’s the money to do them that’s hard. Meanwhile I have to lie. Legally sign things.”

“We’ll book in a separation when I’m on paternity. It’s a law that hates men but tell me if I owe you anything.”

Magnesium. Folic acid. Valerian. Good name. Molly. Mona. Stars in childhood books, starlight and ladders. Men in uniform. Flower sellers.

Still insomnia. I push my face into the skin of my pillow. Cells. Power Query. Oracle. Append source? Merge column. Appending.. [Wait]. Source = Xml.Tables (File.Contents (“\DATA100\DMacMahon$\My Documents\BPA.xml))

“Sole guardians rarely get jail.”

If she looked at the menu, I imagine Kacey Underwood would order the ribs and mixed herb salad. I’m unhungry myself, so I fold the menu closed.

I dabble with mindfulness and have spent days focusing on the present moment, accepting my thoughts and feelings, allowing an appreciative inner voice to get airtime. The waitress brings Bloody Marys.

“It’s all in the tomato.” Kacey decides. “Most bars glug gunk out of a pack. Here they squeeze it fresh.” We’re in a dark and deconstructed-looking place across the plaza called Blue Cargo. Nets, boxes, ropes. I try to get consciously thankful. It’s raining out there. Does mindfulness survive alcohol? You can’t meditate drunk, but you can have an evening run after one, if you avoid the Regent’s Canal.

I look at Kacey’s face in the candlelight. Lucky. That’s what I feel. Here, a job in London and fatherhood impending. After a swift promotion, April’s bonus will be tidy. By the time the Banco PanAmericano contract signs, the trail will become inauditable. At worst I’ll be suspended. I close my eyes, stroking the table top. There are many off-piste things I can do.

“I can squeeze the figures any way you want.” I bite into celery. “Bounded, over-focused? Loose with selective binaries? Horizontal, hold the vertical?” Those eager to complete look at bullet points and headlines. “This won’t be illegal. This will be my bad.”

“Our bad.” She hasn’t stopped looking at me. “We require full trust. I do. I like you.” Perhaps mindfulness is having an effect on her. “You have an internal world, Dermot. So many husks in this business.”

“Everybody has an internal world. You’ve delving into mine. That’s the difference. I follow people on social media. Rivals round here. And I walk past them in the plaza and I know their faces and their lives. It makes a walk here like an arthouse film. People have glass minds we see inside.”

She keeps looking at me. “Like you pass your therapist in the mall. They won’t say hello or make eye contact. They’re not rude. It’s patient anonymity.”

I smile at her casually. “You visit a therapist?”

“Oh, had a bunch. But some coding is coded. You do yourself disservice trying to change the dance. I learned to enjoy where I push myself. That’s what happiness becomes.”

I saw the shoplifter again this morning. The one I watched dropping steaks into her coat. She picked up a basket and I followed her at a distance, around the supermarket, just after it opened. The too-casual walk and peruse, the fluish sniff, the jerk back and the stoop, pointing a finger at the fridge as if counting the yoghurts. At one point, I imagined my presence fix in the corner of her eye, she was now suspicious, but this sort of animal paranoia was her permanent state. She lived there. I saw minute calculations in her head. Millions of signals registering in a microsecond.

Kacey snorts and drains half her glass. “And you’re packing this in for a kid.”

“A speedboat on the Thames. The view from the Docklands office.” “No.” “Old school Jermyn Street menswear monstrosities with boyish sexist views.” “No.” “Boutique hotels. Christmas party damage on Facebook.” “Facebook is for babies.” She pauses. “The money.” “Hope not.”

“Me? You’ll miss me.” A sudden flash of self-consciousness, a blind spot I can’t get round.

“I’ll miss you.”

The drinks keep coming. “I meet very few men who don’t want to be daddy. In this world.” Kacey Underwood turns reflective, scanning the bar area slowly. “You. I think you want to be mommy. Good to have around.” Her look drops to the table. “Steadying.”

I think the fact that Kacey Underwood sees me as ‘steadying’ says more about her than me. That said, I’ve felt a lot more centred since I began taking independence-oriented decisions. I imagine she is about to announce a new clause to the contract. How tidy can April’s bonus be? And then I feel both legs wrap around mine.

“Ho-ho.” “It’s pure therapy.” “Sex is not therapy. Not even your kind, I imagine.” My mindfulness hits peak. But I relax and smile, grateful for the opportunity to be torn. “What does that mean?” “Oh probably whips and jelly. I don’t know.” “I can do intimacy.”

“It’s not something you ‘do’. Like a handstand.”

The boss in her comes out again, demanding answers. If I have it all sorted, as I will do chained to junior, tell me about good sex. Mansplain, mommy.

“Love, for one thing. A kind of confirmation. Mutual.” “I don’t believe I just heard an adult male with two balls say that. Mutual confirmation?”

I pat the table top. It’s stupidly high for such a conversation. “You’ve never been in love?”

“Never. Ever, ever.” Kacey Underwood pulls my hand over the table towards hers. She raises it and suckles a finger. Traces three tips along her teeth’s edge till one enters the quietude of her gum. “Like this?” I watch her stroke her cheek with the finger. My brow knits as far as I permit it, and I stroke her bottom lip until her eyes close.

“These were too cute not to come with us.” She sets down shot glasses, pocketed from Blue Cargo. She has a bottle of rare tequila from her desk. We’re on the modular acoustic sofa in the second meeting room.

“Mommy isn’t happy, Kacey.” I pick up a shot glass, waiting for her to pour.

“Always been the bad girl.” I was kissing my director in the rain. My lips feel used, but I was the one trying to hurry this thing along toward the lifts. She kisses to silence me, unbuttoning and unzipping. “You like. Admit it.”

“I don’t need. To like it anymore. I don’t need to like it.”

“You’re drunk, mommy.” My shirt is undone. I try to shake myself sober, to stroke her hair, staring over her, at a wall. The architecture out there. Some Leonard Cohen came to me. ‘It’s real but it ain’t exactly there.’

“Look at me. Look.” I need to tell her something. I don’t know.

Her shoes are kicked off and she pushes me down.

“I care about you, Kacey. Even when we don’t agree I try to rise above. Rise above and understand where you might be coming from.”

“Uh huh.” There’s an obtuseness people need to succeed in life. I know.

“I just want the same from you. That’s what I want. I want the same from you.”

Kacey Underwood’s head drops forward, like the game is becoming another game. She has already pulled my hand between her legs, below her skirt. The flesh is soft, the fabric satin. “Keep pulling a trigger. Don’t whine when it bangs.”

“Get..” She falls on me.

“Your tits deep already, mommy. Don’t put the job in jeopardy. Think of baby.” She pushes herself back and pulls my belt to open it. Her hand tries to clamp my mouth though I’m silent.

“The Violation Of..” I speak between fingers.

“Woman can’t violate a man.” Her accent strengthens. Astride, pulling out my cock, she leans back to push it fully inside.

“Law defines it that way.” I am smiling but I’m spinning. “Convex regions. Ultimate bad boy, apparently. Phallocentric. Phallophobic in fact.” I have been conserving, too far. How many cause célèbres can one man be?

She rocks as I penetrate, and laughs. “You’re inside my body. I’m not inside yours.” I’ve had sex with four people in my life. Enough to know that some women are actually rough inside, ribbed and drawing.

“Same risks. Different shape. See Tetris.”

“When do women violate men?” This woman does Kegels. I try to get comfortable but she is strong and impatient.

“Victims risk being re-traumatised. Shame goes double for men. We can’t know the actual rate.” Stats can live anywhere, even thin air. She looks down, more pleased with herself than I’ve ever seen.

“I read some victims admit to orgasm.”

“Still a crime.” I elbow my head and shoulders up.

“Really? Body going Yes. Brain all No. I’d say the problem is. Disconnect.” She sits up to push down on my chest as she rides home, fingers grabbing my side. Beyond talk, beyond people, in the unique, empty space that is women during sex, she can feel things tighten toward orgasm.

We fuck regularly for a while, until I feel compelled. “Betrayal of trust, Kacey.” Then she bows to my ear, incapable of losing the argument. The timbre of her breath shivers my back. “Ultimate trust.”

She leans on me until the throb of orgasm, where she pulses mechanically, pushing my palm against her forehead, licking her hair back. She gently draws up and I almost fall out, then squashes down on me. I had been conserving, and the span of my orgasm, which she facilitates with little rolling ass movements, surprises me.

“Now the love comes.” She snorts back loosened phelgm, crawling off and throwing her hair in my face as she nestles my aching chest. “After.” I try to give my back a stretch, it hurts.

I’m getting more spins and I crawl out, knock away a shot glass, and hustle up my trousers, stagger comically, cursing. I am confused, nauseated.

I don’t remember much, except her rolling away. A departing ‘yes’ to a security guard, trying to walk too-soberly, pausing too-long at the automatic doors. Then a mind-blank Uber home, stumbling for support, looking for the driver’s eyes in the rear-view mirror and biting my own hand conscious, as if being in a movie would be more real than this.

Before the morning alarm, I call up the early arrivals and tell them I’m ill.

I awake again in the afternoon for a cold rinse under the shower. Sit on social media to see what I’ve been missing. Reading, but not. In this room, not. Lost in the weight of a head, pickled, reeking the wrong taste.

The block on my news feed comments is lifted. Airless wrath, a call for war. Warning: Graphic. Misogyny. Misandry. Pro-Israel versus proto-Palestine. Tory MRA feeding sex-neg. A bulging net of binaries that holds inverted consciousness together. Dogs of identity, tending to dog. Team Mommy, Team Dad. On it swings, like next year’s New Year live from Australia. Somewhere the web was civilised. Old bulletin boards, anon. I stand in the kitchen, forgetting that I am looking for ibuprofen.

That night I book a return flight to Ljubljana. Suddenly and thoughtlessly, I transfer the entire amount due to the agency. I’ve been not thinking about this too long. Twelve more unsleeps. I unfollow, unfollow.

Fresh air on the balcony in the cold. Orion’s Belt.

“You’ve got to have game before you can raise your game. Raising your game helps define yourself. You don’t define yourself against base. Definition comes from self plus desired outcome. Then your raised game needs to feed into your rituals. You’ll start by taking conscious steps and conscious choices, until they become second nature. And when there are setbacks you’ll say ‘game on’ because you’ve not only got game but game is who you are.”

Without looking at me, Fernanda finishes a careful dissection of a porterhouse into neat bites spread evenly over bone marrow gravy.

A few days later, decommissioning my account on scrumpet.com, I noticed one-line messages from this motivational speaker and life coach. I’d helloed her early on, and the last message apologised because she’d been out of the country. I was going to ignore them, to be honest.

“I don’t feel like I’ve got game.”

“We all do. Self-sabotage is game. Just unconscious.”

“Isn’t it just first world problems? No offense, but it feels very noughties.”

Although Fernanda seems to have a high bar in terms of expectations for herself (her bag sits like another person, on the seat beside us) it kind of irks me that she regards everyone as either a well-oiled machine or a self-saboteur. Her sleeves are partly rolled. I notice a stick’n’poke tattoo on her inner arm, a tiny cross I think.

“I agree. Syrian refugees wouldn’t have avoided their life by mirroring, NLP and using the three magic questions. It’s first world. People spend the majority of their time in a disassociated state. War zones force association. But even thinking about third world problems is still thinking. It’s a picture, an emotion, and ultimately about how we relate to it.”

“Are you saying, what, that war is the ultimate mindfulness? Or Syria is all in my head?”

“It is unless you’re there.” She pauses, reading me well. “Coaching is not just about earning power, you know. You might want to contribute more, self-develop, be of greater benefit.”

“Come on. How many company executives are paying you to help them remember to recycle?” As well as an unfolding cold, I have a pain in my lower back. I’m not actually being as negative as I sound with Fernanda. I’m trying to find something out and I don’t know what it is.

She sighs and looks up. Exactly the same age as me but with clear brown eyes, she recently finished a second masters from Lund which she described as a ‘top-up’. I look at her face, but little convinces me that the game of human sexuality isn’t a bit transparent and silly.

“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Dermot.”

“Dermot who?”

I leave the tube station after my date and find the high street oddly deserted, wet from showers, stray buses turning cautiously on the roundabout at the end of the road.

I look for life, and cross the street to walk beside the shops, only to find myself slowing down beside the supermarket. Ghosted trolley cages populate its blackened insides. I check my reflection against the closed tills.

As I near home, the moon waits above me, as full as it can be in the mist. It follows and bothers me. And as I pass the launderette and reach my front door I even ask it to fuck off.

The weather moved on, over the cusp of winter and into a solemn dryness that seems to enliven people. Around me, comfortable new overcoats and scarves. People curing of short-lived infections. I turn to health at this time of year too, find myself in Planet Organic. My pre-meal cocktail, my pellets, my liquid iron, now laced with male supplement. Pine bark and zinc and everything. My flight is on Sunday.

The plaza, where I am waiting for an udon to cool, is a mock-European piazza busy with lunch-takers. I’ve been watching a pair of youthful police officers nearby. Immobile but vigilant. I even wondered if they were real, until one of them suddenly followed a helicopter across the sky.

“Hi Dermot.”

“Oh, hello Brenda.” A colleague passes, leaving the restaurant with a takeaway. “Join me if you like.” I don’t know why I said that. I feel social.

Brenda Coleridge is a long timer, a respected piece of furniture. A mother of two, and Kacey Underwood’s PA. She stepped out of the train a station early and avoided the 7/7 bombing. “I paid ‘to go’ rates.” “Come on, be a devil.”

She looks back and slips out a tray of mixed uramaki, before settling. “How are you, Dermot?” “Really good. Buoyant.” “Fresh out here. And no carb shaming.” “Kacey keeping an eye on you?” “Oh, it’s inhibited minerals this and leaky gut that.” “Intense.” Sociopathic. “Robert Britton flew in today. Clash of the titans.” That’ll be fun.

The two policemen are talking to a woman with a pram. An odd sight in the City. I nod over. “They’re going to arrest her for pramspreading. They’re pramsplaining.” I laugh. “What’s that?” “When women talk about other women as if they’re children. Usually followed by a plea for men to stop being patronising.” We eat. “I don’t mind Kacey any more. She’s no victim.”

I don’t regret the Kacey thing. It felt like a confirmation. Of something. “I guess not.” “How are your kids, Brenda? I have to ask advice. I’m expecting.” “Dermot, I didn’t realise.” “Very early days. Between you and me, I’m looking to dad full time.” “Brenda wrinkles her nose in confusion. “Over half the world now live in cities, Brenda. Used to be sexy. Small towns are in. Ballykissangel. Twin Peaks. Sell up. Stroll the dales. Just me and her. The local baker’s tax returns. Bliss.” “Well, it’s taxing. I found maternity leave really boring.” “It’s a decision no-one regrets. You can’t.” “No, but..” “Just to supervise a little ball of consciousness as it grows into the world.” “You make it sound like God.” “Nearest we get, Brenda. Nearest I’ll get.”

Brenda Coleridge soaks a dab of soy into a remnant of rice. “Someday I’ll look back and think the emotions were worth it, but right now? My eldest is missus livid. Activism. Uni. Everything looks wrong. I think I might have given her too smooth a childhood. Too happy. You know? Adulthood is a shock or something. But there’s no going back. It is what it is, I tell her.” “It is. Leave her with Kacey for a week.” “Oh, wow.” “That’ll straighten her onions.” “If that’s not a phrase it needs to be.” Brenda laughs. “Never had much of a teenage phase, myself.” “No, me neither.” Something straightened our onions.

I missed the last MAP meeting. I’m shallower than I think. I have Taylor’s passport, in my bag, along with my own. It somehow feels like their job is done. 59% of millennials are single. More than equal opportunities, this is about the future.

I’m on the upper floor, in the corridor, and I pass the second meeting room, and the sight of the acoustic sofas breaks my stride. They listen deafly, a dumb witness. And at the end of the corridor someone is coming through the doors. This wouldn’t be an issue but the spectre of Robert Britton and my director makes me instinctively elbow open the meeting room and slip inside. That’s one tangle of eye contact none of us need. I immediately regret it. They’re booked all-day in the VC, though, not here. Why would they come in?

I listen against the wood, hearing nothing of their approach, when a balded bull with a neck like packed steak looms into view through the slim window on the near side of the entrance. I duck back.

“We’ve got to press the gas. Shorten the sentences.” Rob is saying. “Promise them a miracle.” “The numbers don’t lie.” Kacey says, like she is repeating it for a second time. “Itchy little turds. If I could choke them to death I would do.” Rob stops, his shoulder filling the slim window. I find myself unable to breathe. “Whose side do you think I’m on, Rob?” “You better be. I’ll turn this place around so fast you’ll be sticking tampons up your fanny.” “That’s what they do in the UK, Rob.” “Jesus Christ. Whose cojones are on the line here?” “Everybody’s, Rob. A school of cojones. A flock.” “The collective noun is boardroom. A boardroom of cojones and mine are slapping the plank above 5th Avenue. If I jump, you’re breaking the fall.” “Unfair dismissal.” “One more of those and I win a bubble wand.” “Rob, if you could hear yourself.” “If I could hear myself I’d punch my own face. Everybody in that room would have my face and I’d punch theirs too.” “Greatness, Rob. Comes from strategy. Bird’s eye. Looking down.” “Like a patient etherised upon a table.” “My therapist wants me to give and give until it hurts.” “Are you saying we walk in there and French kiss?” “I’m saying. Disarm them. Make them itch elsewhere.” Kacey is leaning against the door. I can feel it. I hold it with my shoulder. “A little itch that don’t add up.”

Robert Britton moves in the direction of the VC and the figure of Kacey Underwood fills the glass. “São Paolo’s another country, Rob. I’ve been there. They establish faith, in individuals. They see warmth, not scale. They form relationships.” “They sound like stroke victims. Ruining a bakesale.” “And that means coffee, Rob. Somebody who knows what they’re selling.” “What are you saying?” “With plantation status along the west coast it’s goodbye Fairtrade.” “You got inside on that?” “The market’s too stable for socialist hocus pocus. The numbers don’t lie.” “What about all those Guatemalan Suzies sieving beans?” “They’re gonna wake up and smell real life, real quick.” “Don’t they have co-ops? Jungle command?” “Heck, we’ll fly in Prince Andrew. You should see that guy samba.”

Rob’s vanishing laughter is robust.

When I walk into the station on my last day, I see her again. The shoplifter. She’s standing away from the wall, watching the commuters tap their Oysters at the automatic gates.

I face the tube map, looking along the tiles. Zipped in a meagre white puffer parka, clear of staff but still pretending to glance at her watch as if waiting for someone. A free stare that tends to the gates, gauging the workers who arrive to file through. A start when she sees someone she might tailgate behind, but a freesheet rising slightly in her hand when she misses her chance.

She’ll want someone slow, doddering even, someone who takes too long to produce their card and is well into the trap before he bothers to beep. No-one following him.

Beep. And she’s behind me. Quick and expert. The nudge of thin winter padding against my back. I speed up graciously on the other side, allowing her to overtake. From her perspective, it was flawless. A minor turn as if to apologise, but no need. Perfect work.

She’s very casual on the escalator. Waiting on the right as I descend on the left. Each step I approach is a better world of better detail. I find myself inhaling evenly, eyes closed, as if enriched, when I pass.

“Right now there are a million people in the air.”

Captain Mike has twelve thousand flying hours behind him, over twenty-four years. He looks dependable and regular and not entirely unplugged from the human race. A stress on the word ‘people’, which could be his accent.

I touch-pause the stream as Mike’s interviewer raises her eyebrows, and then touch back. We’ve been through turbulence, ‘What are those noises?’ We’ve gone over adrenalin in nervous flyers. Mike mentioned a tiger but didn’t use the phrase ‘fight or flight’ itself, because we’re on an imaginary runway already, and any serious Paleolith would have one option remaining, to club the British Airways passengers around him. Now Mike seems to want to stress how ubiquitous, commonplace, even nod-off dull, flying has become.

“Right now.” He begins again, as stable as a man can get, classless and unphased. “There are a million people in the air.” I fan through Taylor Hampton’s passport. Hasty entry stamps rise and fall like music score. Then, I don’t know why, I turn off the tablet and call my parents. And my father answers.

“Sure I’ll get your mother.”

“No, it’s okay, dad. Just a quick one. I’m going on a break. I don’t want you to get a postcard out of the blue. I’m going.. Just a week. Less.”

He doesn’t ask where, a holiday being a holiday. If they ever went anywhere the photographs tended to focus on other couples they met. Here’s the pair from Glasgow. Their son was in a submarine, but he took sick.

“That’s grand. Thanks for letting us know. Just a chilled one?”

“Yeah, a chilled one. There..”

A silence.

“I’ll fill you in when I get back.”

“No bother.”

“No. No bother.”

I pack. The leather case seems so fatalistic. Cold War double dealing. So I pack my things into a bright, medium-sized backpack. Technically I don’t think that was ever mine.

I sleep. I dream at last. I’m walking down a dark and deserted street in Ljubljana, my flight having been delayed, a heavy suitcase in my hand. From the far end of the street I hear a sharp, regular squeak. Strained and uncanny in its constancy. The pauses between each squeak fill me like chasms, for I know that another is coming. I see a low figure then. It appears as a man in a wheelchair, shunting himself towards me. I stop, reluctant to meet him. My fear is such (what’s he doing out here, at this time?) that I decide to cross. But as soon as I make a decision the dream changes, and Lavender Annsmith is there with a pram, and I look at it, and at her, and she looks sad but happy, which is mature. “I thought you.. didn’t..” She said she didn’t want kids. And we say nothing because we know she simply met a better man.

It’s the same man behind the desk. The same as when I arrived. Same green-screen gown, same believable nod over the untied procedure mask looped around his neck.

I’ve been walking for an hour. As instructed. I walked along tree-lined streets under orderly apartment blocks. The kind of suburb where nothing seems to go far wrong. I found a park and bought a pastry. I need to see more of Ljubljana. The hotel is. Well, it’s a hotel.

He recommends that I sit and then disappears to fetch some results. I watch the corridor door swing behind him, knowing that there is a room down there with a blue crate full of German pornography. You’re given a fat plastic tube with no sense of rush. I couldn’t use the porn. I tried to think of something grand. To rekindle the feeling of stars aligning. Stars of destiny, I guess. The life-changers. I watch a muted television in the corner of the waiting room. Two local celebrities are cutting ribbons across the Christmas market in some baroque-looking square. People seem delighted to see them. I check emails and a new MAP Newsletter.

The camera crew are rolling in cables and returning to their van. Gym-built security in overalls silently restructure steel gates. The opening day of the Christmas market and the lights around the tree are still being hung. I pass under a ladder.

Wooden huts are being decorated with ornaments. A rich, potent smell of mulled wine lifts up and gets lost in the air. There’s honey schnapps and sausages over flame, and cute handicraft in mangers.

On top of a sealed envelope containing Marta’s experimental text (which I have a darnedest feeling contains nothing but a side copy of the contract I just signed) someone sets a leaflet for tonight’s procession. An esctatic St Nick and a discount for ice skating.

Post-ghost. Medium.

Post-ghost. Medium.