From About a Boy, chapter 26:[N.B. Will is a single man in his mid-30s; Marcus is a twelve-year-old boy with whom he has developed a somewhat reluctant friendship.]
“Marcus, listen. I’m really interested in this woman, and the only thing I could think of that might make her interested in me was to let her believe you were my son. So I did. I’m sorry. And I’m sorry I didn’t tell you straight out.”
Marcus stared at the video screen—he’d just been exploded by a cross between Robocop and Godzilla—and took a long pull on his can of Coke.
“I don’t get it,” he said, and burped ostentatiously.
“Oh, come on, Marcus. We’ve been here before.”
“What do you mean, you’re really interested in her? Why is she so interesting?”
“I mean …” He groaned with despair. “Leave me with just one scrap of dignity, Marcus. That’s all I’m asking. Just a tiny, tatty piece.”
Marcus looked at him as if he had suddenly started talking in Urdu.
“What’s dignity got to do with her being interesting?”
“OK. Forget dignity. I don’t deserve any. I fancy this woman, Marcus. I want to go out with her. I’d like her to be my girlfriend.”
Finally Marcus swiveled his eyes away from the TV screen, and Will could see they were shining with fascination and pleasure.
“Yes, really.” Really, really. He had thought of almost nothing else since New Year’s Eve (not that he had much to think about, apart from the word Rachel, a vague recollection of lots of long dark hair and a lot of foolish fantasies involving picnics and babies and tearfully devoted mothers-in-law and huge hotel beds) and it was a relief to be able to bring Rachel out into the light, even though it was only Marcus who was up there to inspect her, and even though the words he had had to use did not, he felt, do her justice. He wanted Rachel to be his wife, his lover, the center of his whole world; a girlfriend implied he’d see her from time to time, that she would have some kind of independent existence away from him, and he didn’t want that at all.
“How do you know?”
“How do I know?”
“Yeah. How do you know you want her to be your girlfriend?”
“I don’t know. I just feel it in my guts.” That was exactly where he felt it. He wasn’t feeling it in his heart, or his head, or even his groin; it was his guts, which had immediately tensed up and allowed for the ingestion of nothing more calorific than cigarette smoke. If he went on ingesting only cigarette smoke he might lose some weight.
“You just met her the once? On New Year’s Eve?”
“And that was enough? You knew you wanted her to be your girlfriend straight away? Can I have another fifty pence?”
Will gave him a pound coin abstractedly. It was true that something had happened in him immediately, but what had pushed him over the edge into the land of permanent daydream was a remark Robert had made a couple of days later, when Will had phoned to thank him for the party. “Rachel liked you,” he said, and though it wasn’t much to build a whole future on, it was all Will had needed. Reciprocation was a pretty powerful stimulant to the imagination.
“What is this? How long should I have known her for, according to you?”
“Well, I wouldn’t really describe myself as an expert.” Will laughed at Marcus’s turn of phrase, and the furrowed brow that both accompanied it and seemed to contradict it: anyone who could look that professorial while talking about the minutiae of dating was clearly a twelve-year-old Doctor Love. “But I didn’t know when I met Ellie the first time that I wanted her to be my girlfriend. It took a while to develop.”
“Well, that’s a sign of maturity, I guess.” The Ellie business was news to Will, and suddenly he could see this was where they had been heading right from the beginning. “You want Ellie to be your girlfriend?”
“Not just your friend?”
“Well.” He inserted the pound coin into the slot and pressed the one-player button. “I was going to ask you about that. What would you say are the main differences?”
“You’re funny, Marcus.”
“I know. People keep telling me. I don’t care. I just want you to answer the question.”
“OK. Do you want to touch her? That’s got to be the first thing.”
Marcus carried on blasting away at the monster on the screen, apparently oblivious to Will’s profundities.
“I don’t know. I’m thinking about it. Go on.”
“That’s it? There’s only one difference?”
“Yeah. Marcus. You have heard of sex, haven’t you? It’s kind of a big deal.”
“I know, I’m not stupid. But I can’t believe there’s nothing more to it. Oh, piss.” Marcus had lost another life. “’Cos I’m not sure if I want to touch Ellie or not. But I still know that I want her to be my girlfriend.”
“OK, so what things do you want to be different?”
“I want to be with her more. I want to be with her all the time, instead of just when I bump into her. And I want to get rid of Zoe, even though I like Zoe, because I want Ellie to myself. And I want to tell her things first, before I tell anyone, even you or Mum. And I don’t want her to have another boyfriend. If I could have all those things, I wouldn’t mind if I touched her or not.”
Will shook his head, a gesture Marcus missed because his eyes were still glued to the video screen. “I tell you, Marcus, you’ll learn. You won’t feel like that forever.”
But later that night, when he was home on his own and listening to the sort of music he needed to listen to when he felt like this, music that seemed to find the sore spot in him and press up hard against it, he remembered the deal Marcus was prepared to strike. And yes, he wanted to touch Rachel (the fantasies that involved enormous hotel beds definitely involved touching as well), but right now, he thought, if he had the choice, he’d settle for the less and the more that Marcus wanted.
Nick Hornby (b. 1957)
If you have not read About a Boy, I really must insist that you do so with all due speed. It's one of my favorite books. The movie's good too, one of the better page-to-screen adaptations in recent memory, but even so, the book is still much better. Go! Read!