Ben, Again

By the time his son turned seven, Nikolai knew that the boy would end up joining a terror cell. Sunk costs be damned; he decided it was time to cut his losses and start afresh.

Are you sure you would like to end the assessment?

Type “YES” in the box below to confirm.

He could fit in one more attempt, he figured, before he had to meet his mother for dinner. This time, things seemed to be going better. The kid made it all the way to seventeen before getting expelled for sending an ex-girlfriend’s nudes to a dozen of his classmates. As had become his custom, he wrote up the key beats and added them to his spreadsheet, complete with some editorialising at the end.

You idiot. Should have seen that coming. Didn’t give him a single female role model. Could have got him Jane Eyre for his birthday but no, you had to put him on to Kerouac and Bukowski instead. Moron.

He showered, shaved, and threw on the jacket she’d sent him for Christmas.


Dinner, as he’d expected, turned out to be a ruse. Six plates of overpriced tapas out of a repurposed shipping container in Shoreditch, a ploy to let the old woman hector and harangue him yet again about the repro license.

“You know who you should talk to? Your brother. Him and Chloe got their one on the second go around. And now look at them. Look at their darling Theo.”

“It was their third, actually. And I’ve heard—people online say—that it’s a lot easier if you apply as a couple. They make it easier for you.”

“I’m sure he’d be happy to give you a few tips. Maybe even sit with you, watch you do it. How many times have you taken the thing now? Twenty? Twenty-five?”

“Something like that. I haven’t been keeping track.”

Two lies right there. It was fifty-two, not counting the handful of aborted (hah!) attempts where he’d realised things were going off the rails even before the kid’s first birthday.

“Well, I’m sure it won’t be long now. You remember Mrs. Batra from the surgery? I bumped into her the other day, said that her two girls just got theirs. And Meera’s not even graduated yet.”

He looked on as she shuffled chorizo and croquetas between plates, smothered calamari rings with aioli until any lingering memories of the Mediterranean had been well and truly scrubbed away. Occasionally, she’d reach for and tear chunks away from the bowl of baguette slices. Icebergs calving off the coast of Marie Byrd Land.


On the tube ride home, he started listening to the next instalment of the course, the £300 course, that he’d finally bitten the bullet on after attempt number forty. As always, the host launched straight into his routine. And, as always, his tone of voice immediately put Nikolai on edge. It was too chipper, too practiced; there was something almost American about it. He felt as if he were about to be sold a timeshare or have a copy of The Watchtower thrust into his face.

“The biggest mistake I see people make when it comes to the repro license is thinking of it like a test. Like a box-checking exercise. You need to get out of that frame of mind. Snap out of it! You’re not filling in a form here, there’s no one right path you’re trying to find. You’re painting a portrait. You’re writing a novel. This child, this boy—and if you remember what we covered in part two, you will have picked a boy—he can be anything. Anything you allow him to be.”

He knew all of this, of course. It was precisely why the thing was so difficult—and what made it such an effective filter for unfit parents. All the trials and tribulations of child-rearing packed into a large language model; the decisions you made on day one could ripple forward and come back to bite you when you were helping them pick their A-level subjects. On one of his attempts, his son had developed a drinking problem at university because he’d let him watch Withnail and I at a sleepover when he was twelve. In another, he found out that he’d forgotten to get the boy tested for allergies while they were at dinner celebrating an offer letter from UCL.

“I get a lot of people come up to me at my seminars, say they’ve tried ten, twenty, a hundred times, they just can’t do it. Think they’ll never be ready to have children. Haven’t got the instinct for it. And you know what I say? Bullshit. You can raise a kid because, here’s the thing, you were a kid. We’ve all been there. We’ve all played the game from the other side of the table. You can read all the books you want, listen to all the podcasts in the world. But you’ve already got the best experience anyone could ever ask for.”


The week passed uneventfully. He made further attempts on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. He rarely had time to cook these days—a full run took at least five hours, sometimes longer depending on how many scenarios the site decided to throw at you—so he’d taken to picking up a personal pizza at the chicken shop between the station and his flat, eating it with one hand while pushing through the early years with the other. On Wednesday he had to stay late to clear a backlog, but still found time to work through another two parts of the course in between sending out form responses to clients. On Friday he felt compelled to put in an appearance at the leaving drinks for Shenuki in the IT team.

Nursing a diet coke, he found himself trapped in the corner between two of the boys from sales. One was long and gangly like a harvest spider, draped in a Ted Baker jacket with a metallic floral lining. The other was compact like a scarab beetle, wearing a sleeveless jumper that was probably a size or so too small for him. He knew their names were Alex and Dan, but he wasn’t sure which was which. They were talking about the usual trivialities. Shows they were watching on Netflix; trips they were planning for the summer; bad dates they’d been on recently.

Dates. He remembered dates. Theoretically, he could go on one any day now. He was still on all the apps, after all. But he wasn’t going to delude himself about his chances. When you were pushing thirty-five and looking for anything serious, you had two options: put your repro status in your bio or be prepared for it to be the opening gambit of every first conversation. He could lie, he supposed, but what would be the use? One way or another, they’d find out eventually.

“After that, I’m not sure, maybe see if there’s anything on at the cinema. There’s one near me where they have the sofas, you can order stuff to your seat, it’s great. What about you, Niko? Any plans for the weekend?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe, yeah, you know. See a few people. Life admin. The usual.”


On his first attempt, thinking the options were purely cosmetic, he’d made the mistake of keyboard-mashing his way through the set-up screen. Poor little Hddsjkdsf had not had an easy time of it at school. After that, he went through a phase of picking names on the spur of the moment, typically inspired by whatever he’d been listening to on his commute. There was baby Kurt, baby Jarvis, baby Rivers, baby Thom—an entire nineties night of bouncing baby boys.

But he’d eventually come to settle on a single choice. It was short, just three letters, so it was easy to type in whenever he needed to. More importantly, it was a name he had no interest in giving to any of his real sons, should things work out that way. He’d heard of people using the assessment to try out names they were thinking about for their children—or worse, naming one of their offspring after the kid from their successful run. He couldn’t quite articulate why, but that struck him as deeply wrong. Sacrilegious, almost.

Two more tries on Saturday, both of which ended in the early teens. Around 9PM, he realised that he’d gone almost twenty-four hours without eating and decided to order an Indian. Onion bhajis, a lamb pasanda with rice, and two peshwari naans; one to eat tomorrow with the leftovers. He set the food up in front of the same screen he’d been staring at all day and checked to see which of the streaming services carried the documentary he’d been planning to watch.

He'd heard about the film, Nina, from a Reddit thread earlier in the week. He already knew how it would end. And clearly, the director knew that he knew, because the film opened with the story’s tragic conclusion: the titular mammoth drawing herself to her feet, swaying from side to side, falling back down to the rubber floor of her enclosure. Cut to the face of a scientist set against the wild tundra of the Sakha Republic. A well put-together woman in her late twenties. Korean, he assumed.

“Being there with her, watching her fade away, it was—it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

The camera had no interest in preserving any of her dignity. It pushed in on her cheeks as tears slicked their way down them, lingered on her fingers as they began to tremble. He felt as if her anguish might at any moment melt through the LCD display and suddenly he’d be there with her, the two of them bracing themselves together against the Siberian winds.

“You play it over in your head every night, asking yourself what you could have done differently. What you missed. At a certain point the only way to keep going is to cut out a part of yourself. Leave it back there with her.”

Snap back to Nina, lying on her side. The shot was zoomed in so close that the contours of her tiny chest became the vista of an alien planet, hills and valleys rising and falling in obeyance of unknowable tectonic forces. Slowly the camera began to pull away, upwards, spiralling as it did so. Into the frame rushed doctors and technicians, carting around many-limbed contraptions and encircling the creature with PVC tubing. Now, she was so far away as to be hardly recognizable; a spasming insect pinned against a circuit-board. Only her trunk extended free of the heap of medical machinery, and it flopped pitifully from side to side to side.


Around the end of the month, he had to attend a school-friend’s wedding at a country estate in Dorset. “Not the place they filmed Downton Abbey,” according to Danielle, “but it was definitely on the shortlist.”

On the train he found himself sitting across the aisle from a young woman, heavily pregnant. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen one of those. There was a poster on one of the forums who was into a lot of new world order crap; had a theory that the men upstairs were setting quotas on the licenses, deliberately ratcheting up the difficulty every year to keep the population in check. Nikolai didn’t have much time for that kind of thinking. It was what you’d say, he thought, if you were looking for excuses.

It took him a moment, or perhaps many moments, to realise that she’d noticed him staring. He first tried to play it off as if he’d been looking past her, out towards the hobby farms and the chalk hills and the telephone wires. If anything, that only made things worse. Sheepishly, he turned back to the seat in front, where the masthead of The Economist was peeking out from behind the tray table.

For seven stations, he occupied himself by learning about all the ways society was going to shit. He read about coups in East Africa, corruption in the Philippines, frozen conflicts thawing over in the Caucasus. He allowed himself to briefly fantasise about being the sort of person who might one day be able to exert his will upon the world.

“Excuse me? Excuse me, sir?”

Suddenly awake, he began to panic that he might have slept through his stop. But the passenger display was quick to reassure him that this was not the case.

“Sorry to bother you. Would you mind giving me a hand with this?”

The woman from across the aisle was gesturing towards an enormous hardshell suitcase, perched atop the storage rack above the seats. The thing looked as if it were primed to burst open at any minute, and probably weighed almost as much as she did, baby and all. Glancing up and down the carriage, Nikolai saw that the two of them were now alone together, save for a pensioner and his dog a dozen rows away.

“Of course. No problem.”

Embracing his newfound status as a Samaritan of last resort, he delicately guided her cargo down towards the carriage floor. With a small flourish, he pulled out the handle and presented it to her. The absurdity and backwardness of the gesture struck him almost immediately; play-acting as if he were a hunter presenting the first stag of the season to the lady of the manor.

“Thanks, you’re a lifesaver. Can’t believe I have to travel like this these days. Just in case.”

“You’re very welcome. And good luck with everything. The baby and everything.” 

From his seat, he watched the woman and the suitcase disappear down the platform. By the next stop he had cancelled his hotel, messaged his apologies and excuses to Danielle and her fiancée, and booked a ticket back to London.


Nikolai had always assumed that something would eventually click into place; that he’d find the missing cipher that made everything else make sense. But the expected epiphany never came. There was no grand revelation to be had. Instead, his final run felt much the same as every one that came before it—until, suddenly, it didn’t.

His son, a pop-up informed him, had attained a 2:1 degree in chemistry from the University of Exeter, and had secured placement as a summer intern for a life sciences company. He exhibited high levels of honesty, reliability, and modesty—and exceeded baseline requirements in all skill categories. Confirmation of his new reproduction status, it continued, would be sent to his registered email address within the next forty-eight hours. 

Acting on instinct, he clicked back into the text field. Congratulations, perhaps, or I hope you know how proud I am of you, or Where would you like to go to celebrate? But the page did not respond. The whole of his browser was now greyed out, leaving only a few sentences from the final scenario—a discussion about how to deal with a difficult flatmate—still visible. Nikolai took a screenshot to send to his mother. He tried to scroll up to see the rest of the conversation history, but the site would not even let him do that.

A few days later, she sent him a package in the mail. There was a card—a cartoon kangaroo rocking a joey in a cradle, underneath a banner that said “YOU DID IT”—and a bottle of single malt whiskey. It had been over a decade since he’d last had a drink, but he thought he’d keep it on hand for the next time he needed a housewarming gift.


In an alcove at the back of a trendy Ethiopian restaurant in Camberwell, Nikolai pretended that he was seeing the menu for the first time. Ainsley, he assumed, was doing the same.

In the flesh, she looked no different from any of her profile photos—which put him on the defensive, since he knew that his had been growing increasingly divergent from reality. But any initial apprehension soon faded as he found, to his relief, that she was as easy to talk to here as she had been online.

She was a year and a half older than him; had the exact same birthday, in fact, as his brother. She lived in South Kensington with her younger sister, who’d offered to move in after her long-term boyfriend broke up with her at a New Year’s Eve Party and was planning to stay at least until the lease came up for renewal in November. She worked as the finance manager for an art gallery, but was hoping to move to somewhere with more development opportunities. Her hair was the same shade of red as the title-font on the copy of Dune that had sat, unopened, on his nightstand for the better part of a year.

They bounced around between the standard first date topics and more interesting material. He told her about his dream of one day buying a patch of highland forest and rewilding it. She went on a tangent about a podcast she’d been listening to on the history of modern dance. By the time they got to the subject he had been dreading, he couldn’t even tell which of them had been the one to bring it up.

“I’ve had mine for ages. Since uni, actually. I had a couple friends who really didn’t want to wait—you know the type—so we helped each other study for it while everyone else was backpacking around Europe.”

“I wish I’d been that organised. No, I put it off until pretty recently. Just a few months ago."

“Is it still as difficult as it used to be? Sorry, that’s a stupid question. How would you even know that!”

“I guess it’s probably more realistic these days. I assume they update the AI every couple of years at least.”

They were interrupted by the arrival of their main course: a sharing platter of more than a dozen different stews and salads, laid out in neatly demarcated piles across a canvas of injera bread that stretched from one end of the table to the other. The waiter explained that the dish was traditionally eaten by hand, but he was happy to bring them some cutlery if they

needed it.

“I used to be completely convinced that I wanted kids,” Ainsley went on. “All through my twenties, I had this vision of getting out of London, finding somewhere with a garden and clean air so I wouldn’t have to worry about their little lungs. In my head, there were always three of them. Two girls and a boy.”

“That sounds like a lot of work.”

“I think I could have managed. But lately—I don’t know. You look around at the world and you ask yourself, do you really feel comfortable bringing someone here, to a place like this? And I figure it can’t even be that long until they just grow them all in pods anyway. Like that woolly mammoth a couple years ago. What was it called?”

“Nina, I think.”

“Yeah, like that. And I’m sure they’ll mess with their genes to make them all perfect. Do you want your kid to be the last person left in the world who needs glasses? The last person to get cancer?”

“I’d never thought about it like that. But you’re probably right.”

“Maybe I’m overthinking things. I do that sometimes. Overthink.”

Neither of them had any room left for dessert. On the way back to the station, she told him about a new play that her friend had helped do the costumes for, and asked him if he had any free weekends before the run finished.

Fergus Navaratnam-Blair is a writer, researcher, and occasional game show contestant from Brighton, UK, now living in South London. He has had poetry published by The Poetry Society and The Crank, and is a former Foyle Young Poet of the Year.