One floor below, unaware of the meeting taking place upstairs in Angus and Domenica’s flat, an encounter of a very different sort was about to occur. Since his resignation from his post as a government statistician, Stuart had been busy preparing for his new life, both professional and domestic.
The professional side of this preparation had involved a consultation with a financial adviser whom he had met in the Cumberland Bar. This man knew all about redundancy packages and pension entitlements and such things, and was an expert in what he called “exit strategies”.
“I take it they’ve offered redundancy terms,” said the adviser, over a pint of McEwan’s India Pale Ale. “The civil service tends to be quite good about those sort of things. Better than the private sector, on the whole.” He paused, looking momentarily concerned. “You have been offered something, I take it …”
Stuart tried to look nonchalant. “Actually, I resigned. Handed in my dinner pail – in a manner of speaking. Not permanently, of course – I’m still alive …” He smiled weakly. “But no, I resigned.”
The adviser bit his lip. “An actual resignation? As in: I quit?”
“As in I quit.”
The adviser took a sip of his McEwan’s. “That’s almost unheard of,” he said. “Nobody resigns from the civil service. They die, yes, and they very, very rarely are nudged out, but they don’t go and resign.”
“Well, I did.”
The adviser put down his glass. “Amicably, I assume.”
Stuart hesitated. But now bravado took over. “No, I insulted the Supreme Head of Personnel.”
The adviser made a noise somewhere between a whistle and a gasp. “Well, that’s something. Her. I’ve come across her. Few have survived who’ve done that. Or not survived in post. You’re a brave man, Stuart – a brave, currently unemployed man.”
“Well, it’s done,” said Stuart. “I suppose I’ll need to make arrangements.”
The adviser produced a sheet of paper, and listened while Stuart gave him figures. Then he did some quick calculations, checked them, and then shook his head. “Not good,” he said. “And your wife? Does she work?”
“She’s going back to university to do a PhD,” relied Stuart. “Up in Aberdeen. She’s got hold of some funding for that, but I imagine I’ll have to contribute.”
“You need a job pronto,” said the adviser.
“I know,” said Stuart. “I’ve registered with a head hunter and I’ve been offered a couple of interviews.”
The adviser looked relieved. “That’s fine,” he said. “I suspect you’ll be all right. We’ll freeze the pension and start contributions to a private scheme. You can sell your ISAs.” He handed over the sheet of paper. “There’s one thing I want to ask you. What was it like insulting the Supreme Head of Personnel? Was it … was it cathartic?”
“Immensely,” said Stuart.
“Then it was worth it,” said the adviser. He leaned forward. “You know, I think I’ve met your wife. My own wife is in one of her book groups. She’s called Irene, isn’t she?”
The adviser took another sip of his beer. “I don’t want to pry,” he said. “I wouldn’t normally ask another chap about this sort of thing, but tell me: are things … all right, so to speak?”
Stuart glanced at the other people in the bar, the other Cumberland regulars. How many of them could say that their lives were all right, so to speak? Some, he thought; but only some.
“No, they aren’t,” he said. “She’s going off to Aberdeen, and there’s somebody there. She hasn’t said as much, but I’ve been able to put two and two together. I should have done that years ago, but I didn’t. I was too …” He searched for the word. It was there before him, but he felt loath to make the admission. Then he did. “I was too weak – far too weak. I allowed her to browbeat me on practically everything. Every so often I’d stand up to her and assert myself, but then, sooner or later, I’d fold, and we’d be back to normal. And normal for us was her calling the shots.”
The adviser was sympathetic. “Oh, my dear fellow,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I’d heard a bit of that from others. You know how people speak. Well, they’d said something about all this. They said that you wife was a complete pain …” He stopped himself. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be personal.”
Stuart smiled. “You don’t have to worry.”
“No,” said the adviser. “I can’t possibly.”
“Well,” said Stuart. “My life is going to change. She’s going to be away in Aberdeen and, frankly, I don’t think we’ll see much of her down here.”
The adviser looked concerned. “But your boys? You’ve got two boys, haven’t you?”
“Yes, I have. But my mother lives just around the corner and she’s going to be moving in. She offered – I didn’t have to ask her.”
“Thank heavens for mothers,” said the adviser. “Well, for some mothers, I suppose – almost all, in fact.” He glanced over his shoulder and leaned forward again. “It seems to me that you’ve had a somewhat trying experience.” His voice was now not much louder than a whisper. “There are lots of men in that position, you know. Oh, and lots of women too – women have had a dreadful time of it at the hands of men in the past – and many still do. There are plenty of bullies out there but …” He lowered his voice further. “But some these bullies are women, you know.”
Stuart shrugged. “Statistically …” he began.
The adviser cut him short. “Yes, yes, I know about all that. But the point is, Stuart, that you’ve been a victim. And victims sometimes need to acknowledge their victimhood. That’s the first step. Then they need to realise that nobody’s going to look after men unless men start looking after themselves.”
Stuart thought for a moment. “But isn’t that what men have been doing for a very long time? Looking after one another? Giving each other jobs and perks and so on? Restricting the freedom of women?”
The adviser raised a finger to his lips. “Not too loud, old chap. Remember who runs this country now? Women. You never know when they’ll be listening in. They’ve been wiring up our bars for sound.” He paused. “You’re right about that, but that’s largely in the past, you know. The boot’s on the other foot now. Women are in charge. They’re taking over, and you know what? – they’re looking after other women. It’s men who are threatened now. Look at the intake of universities – men are in the minority in all the student intakes. Look at how our young men are failing. And is anybody saying there should be given a leg up? They aren’t.”
“Well, there’s been a lot of historical injustice …”
“Historical, Stuart! Historical!” hissed the adviser. “But this is the present.” He reached into his pocket and took out a small card that he handed to Stuart. “Read that. Commit the telephone number to memory, and then burn it. Then call us when you’re ready.”
Stuart read the print on the card. Men Underground, it said. And then, under that, The Male Resistance. He saw a telephone number.