Tell Juliet, I advised him, that you worry about being sucked into the womb while having sex

"How was Robert?" asked my partner when I finally got home. "Business as usual. He can't decide whether to stay with his loving wife, Marjorie, or run off with some woman with big tits called Bella." After two solid hours in the Lamb listening to Robert's self-serving introspections I felt the need for a burst of insensitivity.

It wasn't the first time he'd called me up to talk about his love life. Back in the seventies he invited me to spend an entire weekend walking round Coniston so he could explain the trouble with Juliet.

"Something's happened to the sexual side of our relationship," he announced as we staggered up the Old Man. "We've decided that we can no longer have intercourse."

"Why's that?" I gasped.

"Well, Juliet is very much into feminism. And she's very worried about penetration. According to her, it's always an aggressive act, tantamount to rape. So we've stopped."

I waited until the descent gave me enough breath for a proper response. "Tell her to read old Freud on vagina dentata. Tell her you feel threatened during sex. Say you're worried about being engulfed, vacuumed back up into the womb. That should do it." Afterwards, I learnt that my remedy had worked.

I only wish it hadn't. The price for my gobbet of psychoanalytic wisdom has been another dozen interminable evenings listening to Robert describing the vexed state of his current relationship.

His most recent problem - choosing between Marjorie and Bella - seemed, on the face of it, less complex than the penetration issue. But not to Robert. For an hour he explained that Marjorie no longer provided him with intellectual stimulation. It turned out that whereas Bella was a regular reader of Prospect, Marjorie was never happier than when she was curled up with the lifestyle section of the Mail on Sunday. And while Bella was like a Kerouac hero whose candle burned at both ends but would not last the night, Marjorie was, well, comfortable.

By this time I was considering my options. If I feigned an epileptic fit there was every likelihood he'd continue his story in the ambulance, but if I succeeded in setting fire to the table with my cigarette lighter he might regard the subsequent conflagration as a sign that he should opt for the pyrotechnic Bella.

I realised with a shock that I'd started to speak. "You know your trouble, Robert. With you it's all self, self, self. You're not telling me about either Marjorie or Bella. I doubt if you ever really see either of them. When was the last time you looked at Marjorie, properly looked at her?" I sensed a way out. I had to prove for once and for all that I was no longer a fit person to be the recipient of his confidences.

"You remind me of the man who came home and met his wife on the doorstep. 'Hello, darling,' she says. 'Notice anything different?' 'Oh yes,' he goes, 'you're wearing a new frock.' 'No,' she says, 'I'm not wearing a new frock.' 'Oh no, silly of me,' he says. 'You've bought some new shoes.' 'No,' she says, 'I haven't bought any new shoes.' 'Oh, all right,' he says, 'I give up.' 'I'm wearing a gas mask,' she says."

I rose to my feet as though propelled there by the octane of my own joke, made a hurried excuse about having to rush home to catch a repeat of Vanessa, and staggered out into Lambs Conduit Street.

When I glanced back through the glass he appeared to be staring into the pit of his stomach.

Searching, once again, for his own navel.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, How the doves turned hawkish