Chapter 1: A Man and a Boy
Will Freeman was thirty-six years old and he had never had a job in his life. Sometimes he thought about working. He looked through the job advertisements in newspapers and wrote occasional letters to employers, but he was never invited to interviews.
He didn't mind. He was OK as he was. He was a cool guy with a cool lifestyle. He read quite a lot; he saw films in the afternoons; he went running; he cooked nice meals for himself and his friends. When he got bored, he went to Rome or New York or Barcelona for a few days.
Will didn't need to work for money because in 1938 his father had written a very successful Christmas song. Many famous singers had made recordings of this song, and each time Will's father had received royalties. Since his death the royalties had come to Will.
So Will had become rich without having to work at all. He was happy with his life. He lived in a nice flat in London and drove a fast car. He liked women and had lots of girlfriends, but he never got too involved with them. He preferred to look at other people's lives from the outside, like watching TV. If a relationship with a woman became complicated, he ended it. He wanted to keep his life simple.
In the evenings Will usually went out with friends. These were guys who worked in music shops or belonged to the same sports clubs as Will, or who were part of the same pub-quiz team. They weren't close friends - but they were good enough for a drink or a meal.
The evenings were fine, but Will had a lot of free time during the day because all his friends were at work. So he filled the time with a bath, tidying his flat, going to the shops, watching Countdown. Countdown was an afternoon TV quiz show and it was his favorite program. Sometimes he wondered how his friends had time to work. How could a person work and have a bath on the same day?
Will didn't like children. He wasn't interested in them, and he didn't want any responsibility for them. But his friends, John and Christine, had two. The second was a baby girl, born just the week before, and Will had been invited to see her.
When he arrived at John and Christine's flat, there were children's toys everywhere. Pieces of brightly colored plastic were spread all over the floor, videos lay out of their cases near the TV, a white cloth over the sofa was covered with dirty brown marks . . . How could people live like this?
Christine came in holding the new baby while John was in the kitchen making tea. 'This is Imogen,' she said.
'Oh,' said Will. 'Right.' He paused. What did people usually say about babies? 'She's . . . ' he began, but stopped again. It was no good. He decided to ask Christine about herself instead. 'How are you, Chris?' he asked.
'Well, you know. I'm rather tired.'
Why? A lot of parties?'
'No. I've just had a baby.'
John came into the room, carrying three cups of tea. 'Barney's gone to his grandmother's today,' he said, for no reason that Will could understand.
'How's Barney?' Barney was two, and interesting only to his parents, but Will knew he should ask John something.
'He's fine, thanks,' said John. 'He's still getting used to Imogen, but he's lovely'
Will had met Barney before and knew that he wasn't lovely, but he decided not to say anything.
‘How are you, Will?’
'I'm fine, thanks.'
'Don't you want your own family?'
I can't think of anything worse, thought Will. 'Not yet,' hesaid.
We're worried about you,' said Christine.
'I'm OK as I am, thanks,' said Will.
'Maybe,' said Christine, and smiled.
Will was beginning to feel very uncomfortable. Why did they want him to have children? Children would make him very unhappy. If John and Christine wanted children, and to be unhappy, that was fine. (Will was sure that John and Christine were very unhappy, even if they didn't realize it.) But why should they want him to be unhappy too? Will could see only one reason for having children. When you were old and poor, then they could look after you. But Will had plenty of money, so he didn't need toys on the floor or dirty sofas.
John and Christine used to be OK, he thought. Will and a girlfriend had gone out to nightclubs with them once or twice a week, and they had all had a lot of fun. But since John and Christine had had children, everything had changed. Will didn't want to meet Imogen, or hear how Barney was. He didn't want to hear about Christine's tiredness. He decided not to visit them again.
'We were wondering,' said John, 'whether you'd like to be Imogen's godfather?' The two of them looked at Will, smiling and waiting for his reply.
Will laughed nervously. 'Godfather?' he said. 'You mean church and things? Birthday presents? If you two are killed in an air crash, I'll have to look after her?'
'You're joking, aren't you?'
‘No, you're a very serious and responsible person.'
'Oh, no,' said Will quickly. 'No, I'm not. I'm really a very shallow kind of person. Thank you very much for asking me, but I can't think of anything worse.'
He didn't stay much longer.
Not far away, in the Holloway area of London, a twelve-year-old boy called Marcus was lying in bed, unable to sleep. He was worrying about his mum and his new school. Marcus's mum was called Fiona, and she and Marcus had only been in London for a few weeks. They had moved there on the first day of the summer holidays because Fiona had got a new job. Before moving to London, they had lived in Cambridge, where Marcus's father, Clive, still lived. Fiona and Clive had separated four years ago.
Marcus thought London was quite boring. He and Fiona hadn't done much in the holidays. They'd been to see Home Alone 2, which wasn't as good as Home Alone 1. They'd been to have a look at his new school, which was big and horrible. And they'd had lots of talks about London and the changes in their lives. But really they were sitting around waiting for their London lives to begin.
Marcus had had two kinds of life. The first, which had ended when he was eight, was the normal, boring kind, with school and holidays and homework and weekend visits to grandparents. The second kind was more confused because there were more people and places in it: his mother's boyfriends and his dad's girlfriends; flats and houses; Cambridge and London. It was surprising how many things had changed when Fiona and Clive's relationship ended.
But now Marcus was very worried about his mum. She had started crying a lot in London - much more than in Cambridge.
He didn't know why she cried. He wondered if it was about boyfriends. Marcus didn't mind if his mum had a boyfriend. She was pretty, he thought, and nice, and funny sometimes. He wanted his mum to meet someone who would make her happy.
He couldn't help his mum with her problems, and she couldn't help him with his other big problem: school. His first day at his new London school had been a disaster. Marcus knew that he was different from most other kids of his age. He wasn't right for schools. Not big secondary schools like the one in London. His school in Cambridge hadn't been so bad.
The children there were younger, and there were lots of weird kids there, so Marcus hadn't felt uncomfortable. It was OK not to be right for some things, he thought. He knew that he wasn't right for parties because he was very shy.
That wasn't a problem because he didn't have to go to parties. But he had to go to school.
Marcus couldn't talk to his mum about his problems at school, because she couldn't help. She couldn't move him to another school. Even if she did move him, it wouldn't make any difference. He'd still be himself, and that, it seemed to Marcus, was his real problem. The other kids laughed at him because he was weird. They laughed because he had the wrong trousers, the wrong shoes and the wrong haircut.
Marcus knew that he was weird partly because his mum was weird. She was always telling him that clothes and hair weren't important. She didn't want him to watch 'rubbish' TV or listen to 'rubbish' music or play 'rubbish' computer games. All the other kids spent their time doing these things, but Marcus had to argue
with his mother for hours and he usually lost.
She could explain things about Bob Marley and Joni Mitchell. And why it was more important to read books than to play on the Gameboy that his dad had given him. He was quite happy at home, listening to Joni Mitchell or reading books, but it didn't do him any good at school. It made him different, and because he was different the other kids made him feel uncomfortable.
It wasn't all his mom's fault. Sometimes Marcus just did weird things. Like the singing. He always sang songs to himself inside his head but sometimes, when he was nervous, the song just came out of his mouth. It had happened in his English lesson on the first day of his new school. The teacher was reading and all the other students in the room were quiet. Suddenly, for no reason at all, Marcus had started to sing, and all the other kids had laughed at him.
Chapter 2 SPAT
Will first saw Angie in a music. She had lots of thick blonde hair, big blue eyes and a lovely sexy voice. She reminded him of a beautiful film star.
Two days later, he saw her again in a cafe and started a conversation. By the time they had finished their coffee, he had her phone number.
Will was rather surprised that Angie wanted to go out with him. He had never been out with a woman who looked like Julie Christie before. Women like her didn't go out with men like Will. They went out with other film stars, or lords, or racing drivers.
He learned the reason over dinner on their first evening out, when Angie told him that she was a single mother with two kids and a lot of men didn't like other people's children. Will wanted to push the table over and run out of the restaurant, but Angie was a very beautiful woman.
'Really, it's no problem. I've never been out with a mom before, and I've always wanted to. I think I'd be good at it.'
'Good at what?'
Right. Good at what? What was he good at? That was the big question which he had never been able to answer. Maybe he would be good at children, although he hated them. Maybe he should give John and Christine and baby Imogen another chance. Maybe he was going to become Uncle Will!
'I don't know. Doing things that kids like.'
For the next few weeks, he was Will the Good Guy, and he loved it. It wasn't even very difficult. He played with Angie's children, and took them to McDonald's and to parks and for a boat trip on the river. It was a very good arrangement, he thought. He had never wanted to be a father, but this was different. He could walk hand-in-hand with a beautiful woman while the children played in front of them. Everybody could see him doing it. And at the end of the afternoon, he could go home again if he wanted to.
Angie made Will feel very good about himself. Suddenly he became better-looking, a better lover, a better person. And she especially loved him because he wasn't her ex-husband, who had problems with drink and work, and who was sleeping with his secretary.
Will went out with Angie for six weeks, but there were some things that he was beginning to find difficult. Once he booked tickets for the opening night of a new film, but Angie was half an hour late because she couldn't get a babysitter. And when they spent the night together, it always had to be at her place and she
didn't have a good TV or many CDs.
But just when Will was thinking about ending the relationship, Angie decided to finish it.
'Will, I'm so sorry, but I'm not sure this is working. It's not your fault. You've been great. It's me. Well, my situation anyway. I've met you at the wrong time of my life and I'm not ready for a serious new relationship.'
It really was very strange, Will thought. Angie had believed he was serious about her, and he hadn't been serious at all. Now she was starting to cry. He had never before watched a woman cry without feeling responsible, and he was rather enjoying the experience.
'You don't have to be sorry for anything. Really.'
Of all the evenings he had spent with Angie, he loved the last one the best. The relationship had been perfect, and had finished in a perfect way too. Usually when his relationships with women ended, he felt guilty, but this time he had nothing to feel guilty about.
Will knew then that there would be other women like Angie- bright, attractive single mothers, thousands of them all over London - and he knew he had a lot to offer them. He could sleep with them, make them feel better about themselves, be a parent for a limited time, and walk away without feeling guilty.
What more could a man want?
One Monday morning Marcus's mom started crying before breakfast, and it frightened him. Morning crying was something new, and it was a bad, bad sign. It meant that it could now start at any time of the day without warning.
When he went into the kitchen, she was sitting at the kitchen table in her night clothes, a half-eaten piece of toast on her plate, her eyes red from crying. Marcus never said anything when she cried. He didn't know what to say. He didn't understand why she did it, and because he didn't understand, he couldn't help. So he stood there staring at her with his mouth open.
'Do you want some tea?' she asked him in a sad little voice.
'Yes. Please.' He made some toast, drank his tea and picked up his bag. Then he gave his mother a kiss and went out. Neither of them said a word. What else could he do?
On his way to school, he tried to work out what was wrong with her. What could be wrong that he didn't know about? He didn't think it was money problems. She had a job - she was a music teacher - so they weren't poor, although they weren't rich either. But they had enough money for the flat, and for food, and for holidays once a year, and even for occasional computer games.
What else made you cry? Death? But he'd know if anybody important had died. He'd seen all his relatives - his grandparents, his Uncle Tom and uncle Tom's family - at a party the week before, and they'd all been fine. Was it about men? He knew his mom wanted a boyfriend because she joked about it sometimes.
But if she joked about it, why should she suddenly start crying about it?
So what else was there? He tried to remember the other things that people cried about on TV programs. Prison? An unwanted baby?
But Marcus had forgotten about his mom's problems by the time he was inside the school gates. He had his own problems to think about. A group of kids usually bullied him on his way across the playground. Today, though, they were at the other end, so he reached his classroom without difficulty.
His friends Nicky and Mark were already there, playing a game on Mark's Gameboy. He went over to them.
'How’s it going?'
Nicky said hello, but Mark was too busy to notice him. Marcus tried to watch the game, but he couldn't see the Gameboy very well, so he sat on a desk, waiting for them to finish. But when they finished, they started another game; they didn't offer him a game or put the Gameboy away. Marcus felt he was being shut out, and he didn't know what he'd done wrong.
'Are you going to the computer room at lunchtime?' he asked.
That was how he knew Nicky and Mark - through the computer club. It was a stupid question because they always went to the computer room. It was the only place where they would be safe from the other kids.
'Don't know,' replied Nicky after a time. 'What do you think, Mark?'
'Don't know,' said Mark. 'Probably.'
They weren't real friends - not like the friends he'd had in Cambridge — but he could talk to them because they were all different from the other kids in the class. All three of them wore glasses, none of them was interested in clothes and they all liked computer games.
Two older boys came and stood in the doorway. 'Give us a song,' they said to Marcus.
Marcus didn't know these boys, but they'd probably heard about him singing in the English class. Mark and Nicky started to move away, leaving him alone. Then the older boys started insulting Mark and Nicky, and making jokes about girls and sex.
Mark turned the Gameboy off, and all three of them stood waiting for the boys to get bored and go away. Marcus tried to play a game inside his head, listing different kinds of chocolate.
At last the two older boys left. The three of them didn't say anything for a time. Then Nicky looked at Mark, and Mark looked at Nicky, and finally Mark spoke.
'Marcus, we don't want you with us.'
'Oh,' said Marcus. 'Why not?'
'Because of them.'
'They're not my problem.'
'Yes, they are,' said Mark. We never got into trouble with anyone before we knew you, and now we have problems every day.'
Marcus understood. They would be better without him. But he had nowhere else to go.
Will was looking for ways to meet single moms like Angie, but he didn't know where to find them. Where did single moms go and how could he get their phone numbers? Then he had a wonderful idea. He would pretend to be a single father and join a single parents' group. So he invented a two-year-old son called Ned.
'I'm a single father. I have a two-year-old son. I'm a single father. I have a two-year-old son,' he told himself.
But he couldn't actually believe it. He didn't feel like a parent. He was too young, too old, too stupid, too intelligent, too cool, too impatient, too selfish, too careless, too careful. When he looked in the mirror, he couldn't see a dad, especially a single dad.
He telephoned a single parents' group called SPAT (Single Parents - Alone Together) and spoke to a woman called Frances. SPAT met on the first Thursday of each month in a local adult learning center, and Frances invited Will to the next meeting. He was very worried that he'd get something wrong, like the name of his imaginary son - he couldn't stop thinking of him as Ted, not Ned.
The center was a depressing place with lots of classrooms. Will listened for the sounds of a party but he couldn't hear anything. Finally he noticed a small piece of paper on a classroom door with the word SPAT! on it.
There was only one woman in the room. She was taking bottles - of white wine, beer and water - out of a box and putting them on a table in the center of the room. All the other tables and chairs had been pushed to the back of the room. It was the most depressing place for a party that Will had ever seen.
'Have I come to the right place?' he asked the woman. She had a sharp nose and a bright red face.
'SPAT? Come in. Are you Will? I'm Frances.'
Will smiled and shook her hand.
'I'm sorry there's nobody else here yet,' she said. 'A lot of people are late because of problems with babysitters.'
'Of course,' said Will. He was wrong to come on time, he thought. He should pretend to have babysitting problems too. But then the other members of SPAT began to arrive, all women in their thirties, and Frances introduced him to each of them. The most attractive was a tall, blonde, nervous-looking woman. After she came into the room, he stopped looking at anybody else.
'Hello,' he said. 'I'm Will. I'm new and I don't know anybody.'
'Hello, Will. I'm Suzie. I'm old and I know everybody.'
He laughed. She laughed. He spent most of the evening with her. She talked a lot and he listened. He was very happy to listen because he didn't want to talk about Ned. Suzie had been married to a man called Dan, who had left her the day before she gave birth to her daughter Megan.
Suzie told him about the other women in the room. It was the same story - their husbands had all left them with children to look after. Will began to feel very depressed about being a man.
How could men behave so badly?
'I'm sorry,' said Suzie at last. 'I haven't asked you anything about yourself. Did your wife leave you?'
'Well . . . er . . . yes.'
'And does she see Ned?'
'Sometimes. She's not very interested in him.' He was beginning to feel better; he could show her that women could behave badly too. He was acting, yes, but he was doing it well, just like Robert De Niro.
'How does Ned feel about that?' asked Suzie.
'Oh . . . he's a good little boy,' said Will. 'Very brave.'
To his surprise, he was beginning to feel quite upset. Suzie put a hand on his arm.
'She likes me,' Will thought. 'Great!'