Will knew there was nothing less sexy than a goatee beard, but he was thinking of growing one anyway. It couldn’t get him any less laid. It had been five months since he’d broken up with Dee and therefore six and a half months since he’d had sex. It was starting to get to him.
He could see his own face, or rather a long-eyed distortion of it, in the curved window of the Central Line train. He had the kind of narrow features that could probably get away with a goatee, inasmuch as that was possible. Although it might make him look a bit like the devil, he thought, thanks to his thin dark eyebrows and sharp teeth. He imagined himself as Lucifer, travelling to work on this particular line, as hot and red as hell and tearing through London’s stomach. He would be sitting with a pitchfork resting between his knees, and his arrowhead tail would lay curled over the armrest. The carriage would be empty, of course, just as it was right now – because who wants to sit next to Satan? Occasionally some middle-aged suit might hop on, sit down and snap open his newspaper; then, seeing el diablo here, shriek and claw at the closing doors, diving back off onto the platform gasping in horror and holding his chest. That is how it would be.
Will looked right, left along the train. Three punchy guys wearing faded jeans and fluorescent builders’ vests at the near end of the next carriage, and a young, Middle Eastern-looking couple with a small child further down. But he really was alone in this one. That had never happened to him before.
If he had a goatee he might be able to get the kind of girl who goes for guys with goatees. Who are they? He didn’t know. Comic-bookstore girls, maybe. The ones into heavy metal and films about superheroes. But then he might have to be into heavy metal and superheroes too: again, not sexy. There would be the clothes to think about as well. He would have to wear way-too-big short-sleeved shirts with cartoon flames at the hems, and a wallet chain. A wallet chain. No. A goatee beard was unthinkable.
The train pulled into Bethnal Green. No one got on. Still, it was very early. It was, strictly speaking, Saturday morning, although Will was dressed for Friday night, and anyway he hadn’t had any sleep to separate the days. He had been at a party and afterwards stayed on his friend Mark’s sofa. He was grateful for the offer: Will lived in Kilburn, which was far from the party, and Mark was in Mile End, which was not. But Mark lived in Mile End in a bare-walled, cold-floored flat that smelled of the previous resident’s cats. After two hours on the mangy sofa, exhausted but sleepless from the cold and the cat smell, Will sat up in the darkness and sipped water from a smudgy glass. Under the floorboards, pipes pinging. Outside, London screaming – even at this hour. Looking at the time on his phone. 5.47. Okay. The trains will be starting soon. Another mouthful of cat-water. Then scooping up his phone and keys and closing the door carefully behind him.
The train slowed again and came to a stop in the middle of a tunnel. A minute passed, all coal-dark, cabled walls and the nearest experience to silence you can have in this city. Will crossed one leg over the other into a 4 and sighed like a yak. He was bored: bored of his own thoughts. Of thinking about himself. But he had no one else to think about. That was his real problem, not the lack of sex. He could wait another eight and a half months if he had to, and another eight and a half months on top of that. What he really wanted was a partner, somebody in particular to think about, somebody who would spend time thinking about him and wanting him too. That was what he missed, which absence was weighing on him like wet clothes. Being wanted: imagine that! Amazing! Jesus, just being noticed would be something.
The kid in the next carriage had started wailing. Will sat up and looked at the young family through the end-of-carriage doors. The kid was a boy, maybe two years old. He was hanging off a vertical red handrail with his head flung back. He was really hollering; really going for it. A moment later the train shunted back into action, the jolt throwing the kid dumpily down on his bum. He sat there for a moment, shocked into a mooning silence. Oh boy, thought Will. Now they’re going to get it. The kid looked up at his parents. His mother reached out with come-here arms. The boy opened his mouth. Here we go… But instead of crying, he started laughing. Two seconds ago his face was a pink smudge of gum and tears; now he was as happy as a dog. He scrabbled up into his mum’s lap, still beaming. The father turned to his wife and made an eye-rolling gesture of mock exasperation. His wife smiled back at him and stroked the baby’s hair. One of the builders, the eldest – he was chuckling at it all too. He had had the same experience with his children or more recently his daughter’s children. Will had never been more certain of anything in his life. There was something in the builder’s smile, and though Will could not say exactly what it was, he could tell it contained genuine warmth. It was there in the young dad’s get-a-load-of-this-guy act, too. It left Will wanting to climb through the partition window right at that moment and join them, all six of them, the builders and the couple and the laughing child, and be involved in whatever kind of camaraderie it was that was momentarily going round in there.
But he wasn’t involved, and that was that. And he certainly couldn’t make himself involved by twisting through the window into their carriage. That would have just freaked them out – especially with him looking like Satan and all. So Will went to the doors of his carriage and stood watching the blackened walls zip by until Liverpool Street scrolled into view.