The answer to the eternal question was three. It was not really an eternal question, but one that had appeared when I entered the sixth form at Blackfriars School, and had recurred all through the two years of sixth form, the after-school gap year, the three years at Cambridge, and the after-university gap year. The wording changed a bit over this period, from girls to women, from done it with, to screwed, fucked, had sex with, but the gist was the same. The questioner was always male, and the conversation usually took place late at night, after a party or a night at the pub, though in the sixth form we must have been sitting on top of the desks in Room 23A after teaching hours. The tone was usually hushed and earnest in the early days, but later it became slightly mocking, even challenging: 'OK, Daniel, so how many...?' And the answer was -
- not alway three, of course. In the early days it was an embarrassed smile, a shake of the head and a sort of gasp that was trying, not very successfully, to disguise itself as a laugh. And, and, and, the mind working frantically to try and deduce what answer was expected. Should I have slept with any girls / women by now, and if so how many? I didn't even know any, or at least none that I wasn't related to. Come to think of it, I knew my sister's friends, too, but not to sleep with - they were her friends, not mine, and I hardly even talked to them. Now it appeared I should have been using my passing encounters with them, in the hall while one of us was going in and the other going out, or on the landing when one was waiting for the loo and the other leaving it, to some kind of advantage. How many had I even looked at?
But I got better at answering. There were girls, even at Cambridge (most of them nurses from Addenbrooke's). I went out with some of them, took one to a May Ball. I had my first kiss upside-down, leaning over the back of a chair to attach myself to the lips of a girl who had kissed every other male in the room that evening, in my eagerness to make sure I didn't miss my chance. And the answer to the question went, overnight, from a shrugging none to a shrugging three, because I had reached the age when three was a modest, sensible, unshocking answer.
That was the answer I gave to Rob in the Shakespeare's Head one Wednesday lunchtime. He had called at the Squirrels just after I had got up; I had nibbled at a bit of cold corned beef hash, drunk some coffee and was about to wander out and tour the bookshops. The door was open and I heard him galumphing up the stairs; I could tell instantly it was him, not only from the heaviness of the tread but from the faint wheezing that went with it, and my first thought was: how does he know where I live? Then I remembered I had told him about the Squirrels, in one of the quieter moments of one of our Tuesday drinking sessions, made a joke out of the name and the decor: my glitter palace. I still didn't want him to see it. Nobody had visited me here since I had been at Southdown, only Marjorie asking if she could make the bed.
'Morning, Daniel,' Rob said, stooping slighly as he reached the landing, 'how about a cup of coffee? Or any drugs, if you happen to have any?' A couple of hours later, we were sitting in the Shakespeare's Head (large, grubby and sour-smelling in the daytime), and Rob was asking me, not mockingly but in a spirit of theoretical inquiry that seemed appropriate to my new, scholarly existence, how many women I had slept with. I felt almost confident in the answer by now, perhaps because it was the same as the number of pints I had just drunk. The answer was three.