His movements slowed; his breathing hinted at sighs; his eyes grew boggly and his mouth pursed. Being a northern European myself, I understood that, at last, enough booze and drugs had been consumed to allow a Serious Conversation. It had to be soon, because with us arsetight victims of latitude and Puritanism (or, in his case, Jansenism) there is only ever a little magic window when we have lost our inhibitions but not our motor control.
So I set my face eagerly in the requisite answering pose of solemnly expectant, poached-eyed attention. At last, he cranked his gaze up again to meet mine:
"Jim, so tell me: are you and Teresa into rugrats?"
Now, having then not read the works of St Roddy, I assumed he was nosing into our sexual practices (he is a psychologist, and you can never trust them). Unclear visions formed in my head: were we into rugrats? I blushed and blustered:
"Ah well, Pascal, you know, we're sophisticated people, and..."
"Kids," said he, licking glue.
Which is the great question that crops up in every relationship once the thirties start to pile up. Are we or aren't we? Medical advances may be winning points off the calendar, and we all know that the biological clock has always ticked differently according to social class, but it is still in the thirties that women have to answer the question. Since it is odds-on these days that her male partner (if any) will be more or less the same age, he will have to ask himself the same thing.
Few men can have faced this moment without briefly daring to think yes, we could happily wait another couple of years. Or five, say. But it ain't up to you personally. Which is fair warning, because it means the whole business of fatherhood starts the way it is going to continue: with the deliberate repression of the part of you that longs for unconditional personal freedom. (Writ large, this deal is called society, that organisation designed to prevent 18-30-year-old men running the place, and thus make possible the survival of the human race.)
Consider philosophically. When a single-cell organism divides into two, is it breeding or dying? Or both? Maybe we have not moved on that far, because the moment that our paternal DNA books itself for the next episode of the Human Adventure, it is all up with us. We cease to live in the way we have come to understand living.
In fact, by any comparison with previous generations or less fortunate countries, we have been partying for the best part of 20 years. And now we are supposed to change nappies and subjugate our entire lives to someone else? Out of choice?
This element of choice is what is so modern. Even our parents' generation still lived in a world where to breed or not to breed was treated largely as a matter of fate. The contraceptives were there, but not the mind-set. My own parents had five of us without, as far as I can gather, either wanting or not wanting us all very strongly one way or the other. It just happened. Now, every half-way middle-class kid is the result of a conscious series of debates and decisions.
But then, what is so new about that? Our ability to choose the conditions of our own lives is what makes us human: it started in Eden, remember? And we have now come so far in our freedom that we can make a free decision whether or not to end our freedom.
This sounds like mystical ravings, but I propose the rational solution: in our hearts of hearts we know that what we normally call freedom is not really freedom at all. There is no other sane explanation for the way that so many people keep on deciding to breed. Some vestigial sense, watertight against the ceaseless clamouring propaganda of Personal Freedom, is telling us that there must be some Big Story that outbids all the quick little hits of Consumer Heaven.
And so you end up carting your wailing new offspring about the house at some unearthly hour, convinced that you must have been off your rocker to give up all that for this. Congratulations. You have freely created the quadruple whammy whereby the Four Horsemen of middle age - the baldy, the gut, the career crisis and the kids - hit you almost simultaneously. So much for free choice. What we need is a benevolent dictatorship that forces us to have the kids in our twenties.
Still, better late than never. As you look in the mirror and see a receding, fattening, job-hobbled person with their very own personal burden-for- life clinging madly to them, you may realise that perhaps the Greeks were right not to let men vote until they were 30. Perhaps what we have been living up till now was just a grotesquely extended adolescence. Maybe the Four Horsemen are saying: at last, it gets serious. Maybe, after all, the Apocalypse is really just the start; and maybe it is about time, too
James Hawes's `A White Merc With Fins' is published by Vintage, price pounds 5.99Reuse content