1998 the spell, p.10
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       1998 - The Spell, p.10

           Alan Hollinghurst
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  They took their Es at the bar. “Get yer gear down yer neck,” Danny said, with a big rascally grin, pushing the tab between Alex’s lips with his thumb to make sure it went home, but watching him carefully too as he swallowed and screwed up his face at the bitter admonitory taste.

  “Anything that tastes that bad must be good for you,” Alex said, imagining the small grey pill tumbling down inside, dis- persing its molecules of pleasure and risk. Danny knocked his back with a swig of Vittel.

  “You’re going to have a fabulous time,” he said. He pulled Alex’s head down close to his and shouted confidentially, “You tell me if you feel anything bad, if you’re not well — tell me straight away.”

  “I will darling.”

  “You’re going to have a fabulous time!” He was jiggling about and his smile seemed full of affection and something close to mockery as he watched Alex drifting towards his unimagined thrill. “I’m really envious.”

  “But you’re doing it too.”

  Danny shook his head. “There’s nothing like the first time.”

  Even so, within a few minutes Alex saw him altering. They were out on the floor, in their own disputed little space among the thrashing dancers. Everyone was staring, but like people gripped by thought, without much knowing what they were looking at. Alex kept being jabbed by elbows and hands that milled to the beat like tick-tack or lightning kung-fu. The boys glistened and pawed at the ground. They looked like members of some dodgy brainwashing cult. Alex pursed his lips at so much willing slavery, and imagined it all going wrong for him, and the incomprehension of his family and colleagues as to why he had done it. He felt abruptly sober and self-conscious about his expressive, old-fashioned 1984 style of dancing. Danny flung an arm round his neck in his sweet way, and he was warm and excited, like a drunk who has lost his sense of the other person and asks a question because he wants to tell you something. “How are you feeling?”

  “Fine,” said Alex, with vague irritable pride, like someone immune to tickling or hypnosis. “I mean, I don’t feel anything.”

  “God — I’m spinning!” Danny said, but drew away from him very slowly, his hand round his waist. Another little clinch. “Tell me if you don’t feel okay.”

  “Yes, darling.” He saw it wasn’t quite like drunkenness, Justin for one was never so trusting and attentive. Danny danced up against him, lovingly, but unaware how he was lurching into him.

  After thirty minutes Alex acknowledged to himself that he felt quite pleasant, but he could easily argue the feeling away as the elation of drink and dancing and the company of a thousand half-naked men. Though the men were beautiful, it was true, in the cascades and strafings of coloured light. Each of the men round him seemed somehow distinct and interesting, in a way he hadn’t understood when he wandered in past the long line of cropped heads and top-heavy torsos. But of course people were unique, one tended to forget. He twirled round with a smile and saw Danny getting out of his short-sleeved shirt without stopping dancing. He thought he was lost in a world of his own, chewing and licking his lips, fumbling as he tucked the shirt through a belt-loop. Then both arms were round Alex’s neck:

  “Fuck, these are strong, I’m going to sit down for a bit.”

  Alex hugged him loosely, with a slight queasy sense that in fact it was he who was going to have to look after his guide. Danny took his hand and they sidled through the crowd and flung themselves down on a wide raised step that ran along the wall. Others were there already, heads nodding, dancing in a way though they were sitting down. Alex still felt shocked at this wholesale surrender to the drug, but the abandon was beautiful too, he could see that. The music built and built in ways that were inevitable but still exceeded anything you could expect — arms were raised towards it in a thronging silhouette against jets of dry ice; and that was the last time Alex saw anything sinister or inhuman in it.

  Danny said, as if unaware of a break in the conversation, “Wow. How are you feeling, darling?”

  “Fine. I don’t feel anything much yet” — with an exaggerated desire not to exaggerate, to be sure of whatever happened when it did. He looked at his watch.

  “How long?”

  “Forty-five minutes.”

  “Just sit back, breathe deeply, don’t fight it, Alex!” — with a tiny spurt of annoyance, as if the novice was stubbornly defying the master.

  He did as he was told, and found himself putting an arm round Danny, his fingers playing dreamily on his bare biceps, his head against the wall rocking as the music climaxed and broke off in gorgeous piano chords.

  “Mmm. The music’s fabulous.”

  “I know.”

  “What do you call this music?”

  “It’s house.”

  “So this is house. Why’s it called that?”

  “Not sure actually.”

  “It’s fabulous.”

  “I know.” Danny smiled at him with what might already have been the tenderness of love when it is first revealed. “Go with it…Think what you want. Say anything you want.”

  He didn’t know about that. He closed his eyes and snorted in air as if about to dive for something he’d lost. Now Danny’s arm was looped over his knee, his hand fondly but abstractly stroking his shin, which had never seemed so sensitive a place. The music pounded and dazzled but had its origin in somewhere subtly different, grand and cavernous; yet when Danny spoke again he didn’t need to shout — it was as if they’d been granted a magical intimacy in the heart of a thunderstorm. What he said was, “Fuck, this is good.” And then again, with what seemed an angelic concern, “Tell me straight away if you don’t feel all right.”

  Alex felt a trace of shyness still because what he wanted to say was deeply to do with Danny. He closed his eyes and his mind sped ahead down the glittering tracks of sound. It wasn’t a hallucination, but he saw his own happiness as wave on wave of lustrous darkness, each with a glimmering fringe of light. The words when they came were totally inadequate, but he knew at once that Danny would understand them and read his indescribable sensations back into the tawdry syllables. He said, “I feel ravishingly happy. I’ve never felt so happy.”

  Danny had his arm round Alex’s shoulders, they half twisted towards each other and kissed, though the wonderful thing was the silky feel of Danny’s neck and arms and the heat of him in the sweat-damp tank-top. Alex saw that what he most wanted was happening and groped marvellingly between the different kinds of happiness, the chemicals and the sex. It seemed that happening and happiness were the same, he must remember that, to tell everyone. Danny sat behind him and hugged and stroked him. Wherever he touched him little shivers swept over his skin. Alex gripped and stroked the arms that were stroking him, and pulled Danny’s feet round inside his legs. He wanted them to touch all over simultaneously. He could feel Danny’s nipples as they rubbed against his tingling back.

  They were dancing in the middle of the floor, in a loose group with some other friends of Danny’s. Alex had never felt so agile or so energised. He pulled off his wet T-shirt, and knew what a shining streak of sinewy beauty he was from the way people looked at him and lightly touched him. His thick black hair was soaked, and fell forward and was flung back. He danced like everyone else now, but better, more remarkably. He found himself staring rapturously at the dancers around him — it was never deliberate, it was as if he woke up to find his gaze locked with a grinning stranger’s. Or he was suddenly talking to someone, or taking a drink from their bottle. Everything was immediate, but seemed to have started, unnoticed, a few seconds before. The music possessed him, he lived it with his whole body, but his ear had become so spacious and analytic that he could hear quite distinctly the hubbub of everyone talking, like the booming whisper of tourists in a cathedral.

  Danny left him in the bar with a friend of his, a muscly young Norwegian with silver blond hair. “You look a bit like Justin,” Alex said to him, with a laugh at how little he cared about Justin or anything that had hurt him in the past.
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  “Do I now,” said the blond.

  “Do you know Justin?”

  “No, darling, but don’t worry about it. This is your first time, right?”

  Alex loved the Norwegian’s accent, and his fluency in English. “You’re gorgeous,” he said, and they bumped their lips together in an unsentimental kiss.

  “You’re pretty cute yourself, as a matter of fact. You’re feeling quite great, am I right?”

  Alex just laughed and shook his head, and gripped his friend tighter. There were three of them now, Dave from the porn- shop had his arms around them both, and Alex kissed him on the cheek and kept squeezing the back of his neck in a state of almost unconscious oneness with him. He had never done more than shake hands with a black man, or tackle one perhaps in a school rugger game — he sighed at how black he was, and ran his fingers in slow arcs up and down the small of his back.

  “Those pills were all right then…”

  Alex was trying to formulate an amazing truth. He confided it first to Dave, as the purveyor of all this bliss, and then to the blond. “I feel so happy I wouldn’t care if I died.”

  “Oh don’t do that!” said the Norwegian, in his practical way. “You can always get happy again.”

  Alex kissed the two strangers and they stood and caressed him for minute after minute with the indulgent smiles of all-knowing, all-forgiving friends.

  He was parched and drank a little bottle of Lucozade. He twisted his watch to the light and saw he’d been here nearly three hours. He knew he had to have a piss and roamed off from his guardians with a vague idea of where the lavs were. Walking was somehow harder than dancing, and he almost lost his footing on some stairs littered with empty plastic bottles. In the passageway a shirtless blond boy was dancing in front of him, beaming, pupils dilated, alight with drugs. He hugged him, and they started snogging — there was a tiny round bolt through his tongue, which lolled and probed and rattled against Alex’s teeth whilst their hands gripped each other’s backsides and they swung about with fierce hilarious grunts and gasps. Alex pushed him slowly away, with soft pecks on his nose and forehead, and when he looked back a few seconds later he could see that the boy had already forgotten him.

  Waiting in the ringing brightness of the lavatory he felt a tinge of loneliness, and wondered where Danny was. Everyone was busy here, men in pairs queuing for the lock-ups, others in shorts or torn jeans nodding tightly to the music, caught in their accelerating inner worlds. A guy in fatigues half-turned and beckoned him over to share his stall — Alex leant on his shoulder and looked down at his big curved dick peeing in intermittent spurts. He unbuttoned and slid in his hand and for a moment couldn’t find his own dick, he thought perhaps at some stage in the zipping forgotten hours he’d had a sex-change, but there it was, so shrivelled that he shielded it from his friend, who said, “You’re all right, you’re off your face,” and “You can do it,” and then, hungrily, “Well, give us a look,” while he stroked himself and stared and stared.

  An hour or more later Alex was sprawled in a chill-out room with his arm round Danny, chewing gum, still rocking and tapping to the music in the vaster space beyond. There were fluorescent hangings that absorbed him for long periods. The blue was transcendent, infinitely beautiful, all-sufficient. And then the red… People drifted past, or sat down touching them as if they were old friends and said “All right?” Sometimes they were friends of Danny’s, and they hunkered down peaceably for five minutes and said nothing much, though everything they did say was charming and inexplicably to the point. The giddy excitement of earlier had subsided into a perfect calm without boundaries, across which figures moved with something of their vivid drug presence still about them. Once a boy called Barry something, whom Alex sometimes passed in the corridor at work, loomed up in front of him open-mouthed and doubting, and after a moment’s thought said, “No, you look like Alex, but you’re not Alex,” and went on his way.

  Danny shifted round so that they were face to face, their legs hooked round each other as though they were talking in bed. “All right?” he said.

  “Yes, darling. I know why it’s called house music, by the way.”

  A humorous pause. “Why’s that?”

  “It’s because you just want to live in it.”

  Danny pushed his hand through Alex’s hair and kissed him. “Do you want your other E?”

  He was interested to find that he didn’t. “I wouldn’t mind just lying here for ever.”

  But Danny was a little moody and restless. “Yeah, I’ve really come down now.”

  “Well, do you want another?” The idea seemed grossly greedy, like eating dinner straight after lunch; though he’d read about how people did four, or six, or twelve. He couldn’t imagine anything better than what he was still going through.

  “Nah…” Danny was struggling to his feet, and looking down to help Alex up, as though he were pregnant and delicate with his own happiness. “Let’s go home,” he said.


  Justin listened to the bang of the front door, the brisk and wounded footsteps up the path, the remoter thump of the car door, the noise of the car starting up and then swiftly receding. When Robin worked at home Justin seemed naturally to sleep on, but now that he had the cottage to himself he felt relieved and alert. He rolled over on to Robin’s side of the bed. They had been keeping to their own sides all week, and he snuffled up his lover’s smells from the sheet and pillowcase with a fetishistic pleasure that was keener at the moment than his feelings about him in person. To wake up to the smell of Robin after a night of sex and before another mumbling half-conscious morning bout was the firmest promise of happiness that Justin could expect; but he refused to wheedle him out of his sulks, and admired his own connoisseurial way of enjoying him in his absence.

  Nothing had been quite right since the weekend with Alex. Justin opened the door in his fantasy of that Sunday morning and had Alex join them in bed for a rivalrous threesome. Alex never sulked and never refused him. He had to admit that the shock of seeing him again had brought a hidden trail of quiet after-shocks. He didn’t know at the time why he’d asked him down, but now it appeared like a covert reckoning, a need to compare, a weighing-in as if the fight hadn’t long been over; he wanted to be sure he hadn’t made a mistake. In the week that followed he had thought about Alex, especially his innocence and — what was it? — his lack of ego, with more and more puzzled fondness and with illicit whoofs of lust.

  He dozed, and woke to the noise of horses’ hooves in the lane, and remembered someone he used to see who lived in Gloucester Place, and the clatter of the troop of horse that went through on Sundays, at six in the morning, on their way to exercise in the Park. Robin had gone up to London for the day, and Justin was jealous of that, although he’d refused to go with him. He pulled on a pair of Robin’s dirty shorts and wandered downstairs to fill the kettle. In the kitchen his breakfast had been laid and a slow imponderable soup on the Rayburn was already flavouring the air with lunch. There was a brown envelope for him franked from his late father’s stockbrokers — he couldn’t quite deal with that yet; and the Independent covering all but the black-letter masthead of the West Dorset Herald. He opened the back door and stood looking accusingly at the long grass, the cow-parsley, the brook.

  Really he shouldn’t be left alone like this. He’d had years of it now, the awful neglect of lovers who had jobs. And he saw, with the sharpness of something remembered for the first time, the little leaded window-panes of Alex’s bedroom, and the view of similar windows across the road on all those days that he was left there, with nothing to do but play with himself and watch Neighbours and get drunk. Here you had the noise of cuckoos and sheep and tractors; there it was the workmen’s drills in the street, or a car-alarm, with its merciless re-startings, or the clink of shirt-buttons against the glass door of the drier. Loading the drier was a thing he could do. Alex suggested early on that he try housework, but the washing-machine broke the first time he us
ed it, and anything to do with cooking was beyond him, though he looked forward to food. He found washing up depressing. He did once hoover, the thing pulling behind him like a recalcitrant dog that had smelt a bitch in the opposite direction, its lead tangling and jamming around doors and chair-legs. He remembered even Alex could be a bit snappy when hot from hoovering.

  One simple possibility for today was to give Terry a ring, but he rejected it with a clear sense of tactics. He mustn’t give Robin any new occasion for his old grievances, and Terry’s discretion was still untested. He took a mug of tea through to the sitting-room and then remembered that there were some photographs of Danny in the little commode. He kept forgetting that he fancied him now as well. He squatted down to pull open the drawer and there on top of the albums and the Scrabble and the boxes of candied fruits was something half- wrapped in shiny red paper, it looked like a book, and it was only after he’d read the title that it all came back to him. He never thanked Alex for it properly, but Alex knew he couldn’t say thank you, it was his one unconquerable inhibition. And then a book… After all, there had been bleakish passages back then, those evenings with the opera CDs, squashed up side by side to follow the tiny libretto, Alex turning the page surprisingly soon, while Justin was still trying to square what he was hearing with the words of the previous aria, never quite sure which was Aroldo and which Enrico, even with the help of the waxen pomaded costume portraits in the booklet. Actually Alex was a frightful stick-in-the-mud. Dame Kiri te Kanawa sings Rodgers and Hammerstein was the risque thing he sometimes put on after dinner when people came round (“So good to hear it done by someone who can really sing”).

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