1998 the spell, p.11
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       1998 - The Spell, p.11

           Alan Hollinghurst
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  Justin got out the photo album that Robin had once shown him, a big optimistic-looking thing designed to house a whole family’s sentimental history, but reverting, after the first few cheerful episodes, to thirty or forty pages of charcoal vacancy. There was baby Danny in the bath, which didn’t give one much to go on, and dancing up and down in a sling hung in a doorway to make him walk. There was Robin, a mere soft-faced boy himself, in his tight flared corduroys, bending sexily over his little son; and Danny’s mother, ample, exhausted, maybe a bit stoned, smiling out from under five years’ growth of thick dark hair. There were Robin’s handsome parents, in their changeless county couture, admiring the baby but clearly glad that they wouldn’t have to hold it for long; and proudly unaware, like Edwardian, gentry, of the upheavals ahead. In one of the pictures the young Woodfields were joined on the lawn by the hunky little Marcus whom Robin was probably already seeing on the side. There was a seventies mood of sexual conspiracy about them, as if they had all just been in bed together; though clearly that was far from the case — Jane had been blind to her husband’s dammed-up queerness.

  Tucked in loose at the end of the album, roughly where it would have been if the sequence hadn’t been broken, was another photo of the boy and his mother, taken last year on the beach at La Jolla, Danny lean and sunned in long baggy drawers, Jane fierce and fit in a one-piece black swimsuit, hair cropped, something fanatical in the way she gripped her son round the shoulder and pulled him off-balance, though they were both laughing and doubtless acting up to the photographer. Danny had such big nipples; they must come from his mother, like his big soft lips. He wondered if he shared Robin’s thing of looking as if he was about to be sick just before he came. Though he never acknowledged it, Justin was longsighted, and he had to hold the picture away to study it in detail. You really couldn’t tell if that curve of shadow was a crease in the shorts or a hugely lolling half-erection. Or maybe it was caused by something heavy in the pocket. Justin found the uncertainty undermined the fantasy, oddly enough; and the presence of the mother was chastening too. After a minute he put the photos away.

  He bathed through to elevenses, and waiting again for the kettle to mark the next stage of his virtuous pre-drinks morning, leafed through the local paper. There was an eyecatching headline about Bridport boys dicing with death, though it turned out their way of doing it was to dive into the harbour beside the ferries and pleasure-boats. Apparently they did it for dares. An editorial said local people must make sure they knew where their kids were. And that in itself set him thinking. There were pages and pages of property, for locals and strangers alike, everything from cowmen’s prefabs to fortified manor-houses; and the thriving and abstruse classified pages, abstruse at least to someone used to the different codes of Boyz or Gay Times. Still, Justin looked through them with an irreducible tinge of hope, wondering brightly if the “Mangles for Sale” were machines or vegetables; and there, in its own. black-ruled box, as if placed by his personal tempter, was the question “Need Something Doing, Now?” and the favoured, solution, “For All Those Odd Jobs — Terry,” and what Justin well knew to be a mobile number. He smiled and folded the paper away. Well, he could hardly ring him, especially since Robin checked every entry in the itemised phone-bill; they’d already had a row about some £30 calls to a gay chat-line.

  Justin had a glass of wine with his soup, and followed it with a couple more: a substantial Australian red of the kind Robin often kept for special occasions. Staying with Australia he watched overlapping episodes of three soaps on different channels, thumbing between them to make sure he didn’t miss any shirtless appearances of his favourite actors. After that he found he’d had a bit of a snooze, and had woken up to the still, heavy country afternoon in a state of delinquent horniness. He thought of the period, later on with Alex, when he went to the Common at this time of day; and his wild afternoons early on with Robin, who’d been quite mad then, and the most exciting sex he’d ever had. “Dove sono,” he said out loud, which was an aria Alex used to try to sing. He thought he might at least toddle up to Mrs Bodgett’s cottage and see if Terry was around.

  He loitered admiringly through the garden, stopping to sniff the roses and wallflowers, as if he might be being spied on by his better conscience; and in the back lane, with its convenient gate and mood of secret access, he still had the air of someone merely out for a stroll. There was no sign of Terry’s “Love-mobile,” his pale-blue A-reg soft-top Talbot Samba; but his mother was working in the garden, tying up bean-canes, and told him she was expecting him to look in soon.

  “Something I want to ask his advice about,” said Justin.

  “Oh…” said Mrs B., evidently impressed that her son should be required in a consultative capacity. “I’ll send him straight over.”

  “Only if he gets in in the next hour or so,” Justin added cautiously.

  “I’ll tell him.”

  “Thanks a lot.” He turned for home, and then called back, “Tell him to come just as he is…” He had liked the thing last time of Terry shrugging off his overalls.

  And now, really, with the appointment pretty well certain, he thought how outrageous it was of Robin to leave him locked up here, like a slave, a mistress with no life of her own. He walked on, past the back gate, along the lane to the main entrance, with its view towards the sea-obstructing hills; he despaired of the country, with its loathsome hedges and alarming animals and smelly little shops selling nothing but canned fruit and knicker elastic. No one he could talk to down here would know the meaning of anything he said. He began to wonder if they were even going to get the old queen who’d been promised as the next tenant of “Ambages” — or “Handbags” as Justin called it. He could walk up by the church and have a look, but he didn’t want to miss Terry.

  He thought about how he wanted to be found. It wasn’t a sunbathing day, it was overcast and the air was full of idly circling insects, but it was hot enough to be about in nothing but his old linen shorts. He checked the effect in the wardrobe mirror, frowned down at his midriff, where sleekness was feebly holding out against slackness, and glancing up without moving his head caught sight of what could only be called a jowl. His mirror work was normally more carefully censored. What on earth did he look like in — well, three or four unflattering sexual positions came galloping to mind…? Thirty-five was youngish for jowls. He wondered, with a prickling of the scalp, quite what he was being fattened up for. But then a rap at the door sent all such worries out of his head.

  Terry had come, charmingly enough, with his tool-box; and it took a minute or so of laborious double entendres to establish what sort of odd jobs needed to be done. Then there was some less charming banter about money. Apparently a couple of Hollywood location-scouts staying at Bride Mill had been astonished by Terry’s modest tariff. “They had one of them scratch limos,” he said. “They taught me a thing or two, I must say.”

  “One’s never too young to learn,” said Justin.

  “I gave as good as I got, mind,” Terry added cryptically.

  “Let’s go upstairs, darling. How old are you, by the way?”

  “I’m twenty,” said Terry, following him with the tool-box, for verisimilitude. “Well, nineteen, to be honest.”

  Justin shook his head in wonder at a rent-boy who not only was honest, but pretended to be older than he was.

  In the bedroom he got him out of his jeans and T-shirt and had him sit back on the rumpled sheets while he nosed round his pleasingly stained briefs — pale blue, which was so much his artless country colour. He could smell his cock through the tautening cotton and knew he’d already had sex today, he loved the sense of the kid being inexhaustibly in use. “That’s it,” said Terry. “Let him out, give him some air.”

  Justin did as he said, and wondered if his pride would be hurt if he asked him not to talk.

  “He’s a nice one, isn’t he?”

  “Mmm,” Justin agreed, his mouth suddenly full.

  Terry gasped.
“He likes that.” He spoke of his penis as if it were some rare and lively rodent that he’d raised himself and could show to selected other boys with justifiable pride. “He’s thick at the bottom,” he explained, “and he’s even thicker at the top. He’s got a big broad snout to him.”

  Justin sat back on his heels. “Yes, you said that before.”

  “Well, you know you like him, Justin. He’s a nice one, all right.”

  The fuck that followed (“That’s it, show him the way home!”) was disappointingly brief. Justin was about to upend into his favouritely abject position and found that Terry had already come. He brought himself off quickly, just to finish the thing, and wondered bleakly why he hadn’t done so hours before.

  After that Terry quite settled in, and lay there talking point-lessly. He really ought to have left, but Justin remembered he was sort of a friend of the family, and felt an odd delicacy about asking him to go. The afternoon had grown darker and darker and indoors it was doubly gloomy. From time to time faraway thunder was heard. It seemed to hurry the evening towards them, and the moment that was. conjured up by the loose spin of the whisky-bottle cap, the wonderful renewal of booze.

  “So when’s Robin getting back?” Terry asked, looking about into the shadows with a certain satisfaction at having tenanted the master bedroom.

  “It could be any time now actually…”

  “He’d better not catch me again.”

  “No. That’s right.”

  Terry sat up and the pale singlet-shape of his untanned chest had a vulnerable gleam. “Everything okay between you two?” he asked, a little too sagaciously. And then, with oblique persistence and a further frowning survey of the room, “It’s a nice house, this.”

  “Yes indeed. We love it.”

  “I thought you might be getting a house of your own now.”

  Justin lay back and stared at the rough oak beams above. “Who or what gave you that idea?” He heard Terry shift, and the thump of his feet as he searched for his clothes.

  “I thought you were a wealthy man,” Terry said after a bit. So was that what they said about him in the village? Or was it just Danny’s pillow-talk?

  “You didn’t tell Dan about us, did you?” said Justin, severely, and with a hint of shame.

  Terry tugged up his zip and said, “I never tell nobody nothing”; which if you didn’t construe it too strictly was a reassurance.


  Danny asked his friend George to the party, and then rang him to suggest he might like to drive them both down to Dorset in his BMW the day before. George always raised objections, and sometimes ended up doing what Danny wanted. “Won’t you be working?” he said.

  “No, I’ve quit.”

  “I see. You’ve been fired.”

  He sensed George’s disapproval and hoped to deflect it with a joke. He paused and said, in a Brooklyn whine, “So I was five minutes late…”

  A year ago, on Danny’s first night alone in London, he had met George in a bar and gone back with him to a richly over-furnished flat in Holland Park. He had almost no sense of himself as a stroke of luck to a man pushing forty, and in fact was relieved by George’s wanting him, and comforted by the stuffy clutter of the rooms. It was as if the entire contents of a country house had been herded into one apartment by an aristocrat who couldn’t bring himself to sell — though it turned out that everything was for sale, since George was a dealer in antiques, with a special line in baroque tapestries, indoor obelisks and highly varnished paintings of dead game. He gave Danny his first experience of cocaine, and they spent a couple of days in a languid binge of sex that was magically protracted and insulated by George’s mastery of hangover deferral: a fat new line, the crack of a fresh Jack Daniels cap, at just the right moment.

  After that George went to Paris for a week, and Danny couldn’t stop thinking about his dark cynical face and the vague first knottings and stretchings of age in his wide flat body, which moved him and aroused him so unexpectedly. In the lamplight, with a lover’s closeness, after a little silver pipe of hash, he had touched the tiny creases around the eyes and mouth and seen how they changed his dully faceted handsomeness into beauty. Danny had never had such intense and prolonged excitement with another person, and knew at once that he couldn’t go on without the certainty of more of it. George didn’t return his messages, and when he finally went round to the house seemed surprised and slightly annoyed to hear him on the intercom. The minute’s coolness in the hall, in the glow from a bronze torchere, and under the provoking gaze of a marble faun, was all it took. Danny knew he was in love.

  George was a self-reliant bachelor unused to much genuine emotion, and wary of entanglement with a kid of twenty-one. He was moved by the poetry and artistry of things that he sold but had the low human expectations of a sexual predator. He was vain of his appearance and his largely uneducated instinct for objets de vertu. He could see how ripe Danny was to be hurt, which was why he decided not to see him again after the dream debauch of the first visit. But now here Danny was, with his boots off, and a drink in his fist, sitting up beside George in the deep Knole sofa and longing for a sign that it was okay, that he could touch him again, and more. George had been in analysis, and treated Danny to a confusing and grandiose half-hour tour of his psyche, which apparently had two poles: a delight in artifice and a mania for honesty. In fact his frankness could sometimes upset people. Danny listened and perused the carpet, only half understanding what George’s point was, feeling the possible diplomatic chill of so much reasonable talk, and waiting only for the tone of voice that meant yes, whatever the words were. Then he found George was pushing him on to his back, and felt his heart thumping through the black roll-neck shirt, and his hard dick at least grinding out the longed-for syllable. He told him later that he had felt vulnerable to Danny’s own vulnerability.

  The affair that followed was doomed, Danny saw it now, and he sometimes wondered if he would rather have done without the difficult four months; the ending, certainly, was the worst thing in his life. But then George, perhaps out of a guilt that even he was not frank enough to acknowledge, had insisted on their staying friends. This was hard for Danny because they had never been friends, they were lovers from the start; but George had also been his guide, and that perhaps was what made it possible to meet again, like a bright pupil and the teacher whose affection he had won. George had given him fluent access to the many-roomed edifice of London gay life, from the cellars to the salons. People had envied him his good-looking young protege, who would sometimes say, as they left a luncheon in Mayfair or an East End sex-club at five in the morning, how friendly the people were. George only explained it once: “Dearest, anyone would be friendly to you.”

  Now, a summer later, Danny was waiting on the front step of his rooming-house. He had a couple of cases of cheap white wine and a hold-all of tapes and various party clothes. When George drew up he felt the old shock at the sight of him, a moment or two’s heavy-heartedness, as if the lessons and adjustments of the intervening months had never happened, and then at once a lightening, a mood of sentimental acceptance. In the boot of the car there was a case of champagne, but he said nothing about it — he couldn’t be sure it was intended for him. He got into the passenger seat and only then gave George a friendly kiss, and pictured, with a hum between his legs, what he would still do to him given the chance.

  They got out of town just as the Friday rush, with its atmosphere of suppressed panic, was beginning; and urban though they were there was a sense of release as they came clear of the outskirts. Danny looked through the CDs and pressed Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony into the player, not sure if he would recognise it, and then exhilarated by the horns at the outset, which seemed designed to be heard at eighty miles an hour on a long trajectory through the summer landscape.

  “So who’s going to be there?” said George, in his faintly despairing way. “I hope there’s someone I can talk to.”

  “You can always talk
to my hunky daddy.” And Danny laughed, as he did more and more, at the farce of sex, and the thought of novel pairings of people he knew.

  “Of course, I want to meet him.”

  “Then there’ll be Jim and Francois, and Carlton, and Bob and Steve and Jerry and Heinrich…” He remembered he’d wildly asked a number of virtual strangers at Chateau, though with no idea if they had accepted, or would themselves remember.

  “So you’re bussing in a whole crowd of dizzy disco bunnies and letting them loose in the beautiful English countryside.”

  “I know…” Danny murmured, with a fresh sense of the experiment of life.

  “They may not be able to breathe country air. You’ll need respirators of poppers and CK One.”

  “I think they can be relied on to bring those with them.” Danny squeezed George’s knee. “I’m hoping you may be going to stimulate our central nervous systems, darling.” At which George merely raised an eyebrow. Danny added, “Bob’s always loaded with goodies,” to offset the surfacing suggestion that George had only been asked for his coke and his car.

  “So who are you going to set me up with?” George resumed, in a tone of voice that emphasised his appetite and a cheerfully heartless readiness to use his old lover in his turn.

  “What are you like?” said Danny. And then, mischievously, “There’s young Terry, of course…” He made a pretence of conducting the music, with hammy head-shakings and no clear sense, so far from a drug and a DJ, of the rhythm of the thing. “Local boy.”

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