The Swimming-Pool Library, p.1Alan Hollinghurst
FIRST VINTAGE INTERNATIONAL EDITION, SEPTEMBER 1989
Copyright ©1988 by Alan Hollinghurst
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in hardcover in Great Britain by Chatto & Windus Ltd. and in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The swimming-pool library/Alan Hollinghurst.—1st Vintage
p. cm.—(Vintage international)
I. Title. II. Series.
For Nicholas Clark
About the Author
‘She reads at such a pace,’ she complained, ‘and when I asked her where she had learnt to read so quickly, she replied “On the screens at Cinemas.” ’
The Flower Beneath the Foot
I came home on the last train. Opposite me sat a couple of London Transport maintenance men, one small, fifty, decrepit, the other a severely handsome black of about thirty-five. Heavy canvas bags were tilted against their boots, their overalls open above their vests in the stale heat of the Underground. They were about to start work! I looked at them with a kind of swimming, drunken wonder, amazed at the thought of their inverted lives, of how their occupation depended on our travel, but could only be pursued, I saw it now, when we were not travelling. As we went home and sank into unconsciousness gangs of these men, with lamps and blow-lamps, and long-handled ratchet spanners, moved out along the tunnels; and wagons, not made to carry passengers, freakishly functional, rolled slowly and clangorously forwards from sidings unknown to the commuter. Such lonely, invisible work must bring on strange thoughts; the men who walked through every tunnel of the labyrinth, tapping the rails, must feel such reassurance seeing the lights of others at last approaching, voices calling out their friendly, technical patter. The black was looking at his loosely cupped hands: he was very aloof, composed, with an air of massive, scarcely conscious competence—I felt more than respect, a kind of tenderness for him. I imagined his relief at getting home and taking his boots off and going to bed as the day brightened around the curtains and the noise of the streets built up outside. He turned his hands over and I saw the pale gold band of his wedding-ring.
All the gates but one at the station were closed and I, with two or three others, scuttled out as if being granted an unusual concession. Then there were the ten minutes to walk home. The drink made it seem closer, so that next day I would not remember the walk at all. And the idea of Arthur, too, which I had suppressed to make it all the more exciting when I recalled it, must have driven me along at quite a lick.
I was getting a taste for black names, West Indian names; they were a kind of time-travel, the words people whispered to their pillows, doodled on their copy-book margins, cried out in passion when my grandfather was young. I used to think these Edwardian names were the denial of romance: Archibald, Ernest, Lionel, Hubert were laughably stolid; they bespoke personalities unflecked by sex or malice. Yet only this year I had been with boys called just those staid things; and they were not staid boys. Nor was Arthur. His name was perhaps the least likely ever to have been young: it evoked for me the sunless complexion, unaired suiting, steel-rimmed glasses of a ledger clerk in a vanished age. Or had done so, before I found my beautiful, cocky, sluttish Arthur—an Arthur it was impossible to imagine old. His smooth face, with its huge black eyes and sexily weak chin, was always crossed by the light and shade of uncertainty, and met your gaze with the rootless self-confidence of youth.
Arthur was seventeen, and came from Stratford East. I had been out all that day, and when I was having dinner with my oldest friend James I nearly told him that I had this boy back home, but swallowed my words and glowed boozily with secret pleasure. James, besides, was a doctor, full of caution and common sense, and would have thought I was crazy to leave a virtual stranger in my home. In my stuffy, opinionated family, though, there was a stubborn tradition of trust, and I had perhaps absorbed from my mother the habit of testing servants and window-cleaners by exposing them to temptation. I took a slightly creepy pleasure in imagining Arthur in the flat alone, absorbing its alien richness, looking at the pictures, concentrating of course on Whitehaven’s photograph of me in my little swimming-trunks, the shadow across my eyes … I was unable to feel anxiety about those electrical goods which are the general currency of burglaries—and I doubted if the valuable discs (the Rattle Tristan among them) would be to Arthur’s taste. He liked dance-music that was hot and cool—the kind that whipped and crooned across the dance-floor of the Shaft, where I had met him the night before.
He was watching television when I got in. The curtains were drawn, and he had dug out an old half-broken electric fire; it was extremely hot. He got up from his chair, smiling nervously. ‘I was just watching TV,’ he said. I took my jacket off, looking at him and surprised to find what he looked like. By remembering many times one or two of his details I had lost the overall hang of him. I wondered about all the work that must go into combing his hair into the narrow ridges that ran back from his forehead to the nape of his neck, where they ended in young tight pigtails, perhaps eight of them, only an inch long. I kissed him, my left hand sliding between his high, plump buttocks while with the other I stroked the back of his head. Oh, the ever-open softness of black lips; and the strange dryness of the knots of his pigtails, which crackled as I rolled them between my fingers, and seemed both dead and half-erect.
At about three I woke and needed a pee. Dull, half-conscious though I was, my heart thumped as I came back into the room and saw Arthur asleep in the gentle lamplight that fell across the pillows, one arm sticking out awkwardly from under the duvet, as if to shield his eyes. I sat down and slid in beside him, observing him carefully, hovering over his face and catching again the childish smell of his breath. As I turned the light out, I felt him roll towards me, his huge hands digging under me almost as if he wanted to carry me away. I embraced him, and he gripped me more tightly, clung to me as if in danger. I murmured ‘Baby’ several times before I realised he was still asleep.
My life was in a strange way that summer, the last summer of its kind there was ever to be. I was riding high on sex and self-esteem—it was my time, my belle époque—but all the while with a faint flicker of calamity, like flames around a photograph, something seen out of the corner of the eye. I wasn’t in work—oh, not a tale of hardship, or a victim of recession, not even, I hope, a part of a statistic. I had put myself out of work deliberately, or at least knowingly. I was beckoned on by having too much money, I belonged to that tiny proportion of the populace that indeed owns almost everything. I’d surrendered to the prospect of doing nothing, though it kept me busy enough.
For nearly two years I’d been on the staff of the Cubitt Dictionary of Architecture, a grandiose project afflicted by delay and bad feeling. Its editor was a friend of my Oxford tutor, who was worried at my drifting unopposed into the routine of
Volume One was to cover A to D, and I was allowed to work on some of the subjects that interested me most—the Adams, Lord Burlington, Colen Campbell. I edited the essays of repetitive pundits, was sent out to the British Library or Sir John Soane’s Museum to find plans and engravings; smaller subjects I was allowed to write up myself: I turned in an exemplary article on Coade Stone vases. But the Dictionary was a crackpot affair, a mismanaged business, an Escorial that turned into a Fonthill the longer we worked on it. I rang people up and there were parties from six till eight—which meant going on, and then some drunken supper and then, as often as not, the Shaft and acts in which the influence of the orders, the dome, the portico, could scarcely be discerned.
After I left Cubitts I felt hilarious relief at being no longer a cross between a professor and an office-boy—someone whose presence was explained as much by his name as by his interest in the arts. At the same time there was a slight sad missing of the slipshod office routine, the explanation over the first foul coffee of just where I’d taken whom, and what he was like in every particular. It was the sort of world that made you a character, and would happily, stodgily keep you one for life. And there was the subject too—the orders, the dome, the portico, the straight lines and the curved, which spoke to me, and meant more to me than they do to some.
I slipped away from Arthur next day and walked in the Park—it was perhaps the straight lines of its avenues that exerted some calming attraction over me. As a child, on visits to Marden, my grandfather’s house, days had been marked by walks along the great beech ride which ran unswervingly for miles over hilly country and gave out at a ha-ha and a high empty field. Away to the left you could make out in winter the chicken-coops and outside privies of a village that had once been part of the estate. Then we turned round, and came home, my sister and I, spoilt by my grandparents, feeling decidedly noble and aloof. It was not until years later that I came to understand how recent and synthetic this nobility was—the house itself bought up cheap after the war, half ruined by use as an officers’ training school, and then as a military hospital.
Today was one of those April days, still and overcast, that felt pregnant with some immense idea, and suggested, as I roamed across from one perspective to another, that this was merely a doldrums, and would last only until something else was ready to happen. Perhaps it was simply summer, and the certainty of warmth, the world all out of doors, drinking in the open air. The trees were budding, and that odd inside-out logic was evolving whereby the Park, just at the time it becomes hot and popular, shuts itself off from the outside world of buildings and traffic with the shady density of its foliage. But I felt the threat too of some realisation about life, something obscurely disagreeable and perhaps deserved.
Though I didn’t believe in such things, I was a perfect Gemini, a child of the ambiguous early summer, tugged between two versions of myself, one of them the hedonist and the other—a little in the background these days—an almost scholarly figure with a faintly puritanical set to the mouth. And there were deeper dichotomies, differing stories—one the ‘account of myself’, the sex-sharp little circuits of discos and pubs and cottages, the sheer crammed, single-minded repetition of my empty months; the other the ‘romance of myself’, which transformed all these mundanities with a protective glow, as if from my earliest days my destiny had indeed been charmed, so that I was both of the world and beyond its power, like the pantomime character Wordsworth describes, with ‘Invisible’ written on his chest.
At times my friend James became my other self, and told me off and tried to persuade me that I was not doing all I might. I was never good at being told off, and when he insisted that I should find a job, or even a man to settle down with, it was in so intimate and knowledgeable a way that I felt as if one half of me were accusing the other. It was from him, whom I loved more than anyone, that I most often heard the account of myself. He had even said lately in his diary that I was ‘thoughtless’—he meant cruel, in the way I had thrown off a kid who had fallen for me and who irritated me to distraction; but then he got the idea into his head: does Will care about anybody? does Will ever really think? and so on and so forth. ‘Of course I fucking think,’ I muttered, though he wasn’t there to hear me. And he gave a horrid little diagnosis: ‘Will becoming more and more brutal, more and more sentimental.’
I was certainly sentimental with Arthur, deeply sentimental and lightly brutal, at one moment caressingly attentive, the next glutting him with sex, mindlessly—thoughtlessly. It was the most beautiful thing I could imagine—all the more so for our knowledge that we could never make a go of it together. Even among the straight lines of the Park I wasn’t thinking straight—all the time I looped back to Arthur, was almost burdened by my need for him, and by the oppressive mildness of the day. The Park after all was only stilted countryside, its lake and trees inadequate reminders of those formative landscapes, the Yorkshire dales, the streams and watermeads of Winchester, whose influence was lost in the sexed immediacy of London life.
I found myself approaching the dismal Italianate garden at the head of the lake, a balustraded terrace with flagged paths surrounding four featureless pools, a half-hearted baroque fountain (now switched off) aimed at the Serpentine below, and on the outside, backing on to the Bayswater Road, a pavilion with a rippling red roof and benches spattered with bird droppings. Deadly as this place had always seemed to me, stony and phoney amid the English greenness of the Park, it was an unfailing attraction to visitors: loving couples, solitary duck-fanciers, large European and Middle Eastern family groups taking a slothful stroll from their apartments in Bayswater and Lancaster Gate. I sauntered across it, as much to confirm how I disliked it as anything else. Some desolate little boys played together more out of duty than pleasure. Queens of a certain age strolled pointedly up and down. The sky was uniformly grey, though a glare on the white frippery of the pavilion suggested a sun that might break through.
I was turning to leave when I spotted a lone Arab boy wandering along, hands in the pockets of his anorak, fairly unremarkable, yet with something about him which made me feel I must have him. I was convinced that he had noticed me, and I felt a delicious surplus of lust and satisfaction at the idea of fucking him while another boy waited for me at home.
To test him out I dawdled off behind the pavilion to where some public lavatories, over-frequented by lonely middle-aged men, are tucked into the ivy-covered, pine-darkened bank of the main road. I went down the tiled steps between the tiled walls, and a hygienic, surprisingly sweet smell surrounded me. It was all very clean, and at several of the stalls under the burnished copper pipes (to which someone must attach all their pride), men were standing, raincoats shrouding from the innocent visitor or the suspicious policeman their hour-long footlings. I felt a faint revulsion—not disapproval, but a fear of one day being like that. Their heads seemed grey and loveless to me as they turned in automatic anticipation. What long investment they made for what paltry returns … Did they nod to one another, the old hands, as they took up their positions, day by day, alongside each other in whatever station in their underground cycle of conveniences they had reached? Did anything ever happen, did they, despairing of whatever it was they sought, which could surely never be sex, but at most a glimpse of something memorable, ever make do with each other? I felt certain they didn’t; they were engaged, in a silently agreed silence, in looking out endlessly for something they couldn’t have. I was not shy but too proud and priggish to take up my place among them, and it was with only a moment’s hesitation that I resolved not to do so.
I walked to the far end of the room
The man who had been at the adjacent place said ‘Oh my Christ’ and hurried out. All along the rank of urinals there was a hasty doing-up of flies, and faces that spoke both of concern and of a sense that they had been caught, turned in my direction.
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