1998 the spell, p.12
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       1998 - The Spell, p.12
 

           Alan Hollinghurst
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  George scanned the road ahead with narrowed eyes. “You say young.”

  “Twenty-two, like me, at least until midnight. Oh, professional age, twenty. If not nineteen.”

  “I’m not paying, sweetie.” Though the idea had clearly taken root, since George said later, “Any other members of the profession coming down?”

  Danny was pretty sure that, even during their affair, George had sent out for sex, he had seen ringed numbers in the back of Gay Times; though now he made himself laugh at the image of those boys, buzzed into the building with their knapsacks of accoutrements, and witnessing their own performances in one of George’s Empire mirrors. “I’ve asked Gary — the black one with the broken nose? But he may not come, it being the weekend…”

  “Any women coming?” asked George, as if he missed Danny’s meaning, and was suddenly concerned with the propriety of the gathering.

  “I hope Janet will be there.”

  “She must have turned into a faggot by now, just from natural adaptation.”

  “She was the only woman at Colon last week.”

  George gave a slow nod of concession to the other point of this sentence. “Well, you’re certainly managing to find your way around without me, darling. Even I don’t go to Colon.” Though the odd thing was that since their clubbing days together, Danny had hardly ever seen George out; which made him think that either he had changed his habits, and entered a maturer phase, or that without having Danny to show off and show off to there were easier and quieter ways of getting what he wanted. Even in the old days, while Danny danced like a madman, George tended to loiter against the wall, where the boys were staring and fumbling with their wraps of speed.

  “And who knows, my dad may be glad of some female company.”

  “I see. He’s still interested?”

  Danny didn’t want to overstate the case. He’d seen him sometimes watching a woman and felt there was something beneath the apparent impassivity and courtesy. “It might be a bit of a relief…But no, I think he just got queerer, like Oscar Wilde or someone. Once he thought he could do everything, then it polarised towards the one thing.”

  “It’s pretty…cool, to have an out gay dad,” George said, supportively but humorously.

  “Oh I quite agree,” said Danny, with a readiness that made him sound a bit straight himself. And there was a sort of anxiety, which he tended to blink away, that one of the figures at the edge of the dance-floor could perfectly well be his own father. There were still leather trousers and a studded thong in the wardrobe of the London flat.

  Later George said, “You’ll have to tell me where to turn off.”

  “Not for ages yet…” Danny was afraid the whole thing might pall on him as the necessary three hours unrolled. “You have to wait for the Crewkerne turning. Then it’s sort of…not as far as it was.”

  “I take it you’ve got someone lined up for yourself, by the way. Total frankness, remember,” George went on; and Danny thought there was a tension in his voice, at the prospect of meeting a successor.

  “Total frankness. Okay,” said Danny, confused to find how much he wanted to tell and how much he would have liked to keep the thing secret. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt him to set it out for someone else, though he knew from the awful stalled debates of their break-up that frankness wasn’t in itself a solution. If you were truly frank you saw only what a muddle you were in, and how you felt three different things at the same time. He said, “Well, I’ve sort of got a new boyfriend.”

  “Right, How old is he?”

  “Thirty-six.”

  “Uh-huh. Name?”

  “Alex. Alexander Nichols.”

  “No, I don’t know him. Good Scottish name,” said George, with an absurd air of expertise.

  “I suppose so. He sounds completely English. Went to Bristol University, his father’s a solicitor in Chelmsford. He told me loads about his family, but you know how it is when you’re talking in bed, you get much more interested in their shoulder-blade or their armpit or something.”

  “What’s his dick like?”

  “You waited such a long time to ask that.”

  “One doesn’t like to pry.”

  “In fact it’s a bit like him — longer and thinner than…the norm. He’s six foot four.”

  George mulled this over as if he didn’t really find it satisfactory. “Does he have a job?”

  “He works in the Foreign Office. He’s quite well off,” said Danny, with an evident sensible belief that this was an active element in someone’s appeal. Then, rather shyly, stroking his throat, “He’s given me this gold pendant thing.”

  George glanced across as he pulled it free of his shirt. “I’ll have to look at that,” he said. “It could be valuable.”

  “It is valuable,” said Danny.

  They drove on in silence for a while, till George said, “He must be keen on you”; and with a sudden and lonely burst of charm, “not that I find that hard to understand.”

  “I think he’s madly in love with me.”

  “And you?” George asked.

  “No, I like him, I think he’s really sweet.” Danny couldn’t explain his sense of bewilderment at being adored so unconditionally by Alex, or his wariness, since George, of allowing himself to feel anything strongly. The past six months had been a riotous escape from all that, compressed by hindsight into a continuous orgy of casual sex.

  “I see. You haven’t said where you met him.”

  Danny chuckled. “This is the funny thing. You’re going to have to be really discreet about this, actually. He’s Justin’s ex, from before my dad. And of course, Justin doesn’t know; and I don’t want Dad to know either, not yet anyway. We met at where we’re going, Hilton Gumboot as Justin calls it, two weeks ago. Alex came down and I could tell he was a bit keen; then I went out with him last weekend — and I’ve seen him a few times since.”

  “Well, it certainly sounds like we’re going to have fun,” George said sourly.

  “I put him on his first E,” Danny went on with a slow smile. “I thought he was never going to come.”

  George paid this remark the homage of a knowing snicker due to any drug anecdote. “But the sex is good?”

  Danny wondered for a second how he’d ever got on with George’s dreary sexual supremacism. “Sex is fine. He’s quite passionate.”

  “You mean passion — but not genius. Technique? Technique can sometimes be mistaken for genius.”

  “George, he’s so innocent, and strange…” How was he going to explain him? “He’s thirty-six, he’s only had one real affair in his life, with Justin, who I would have thought was totally inappropriate. Anyway it was a big deal for two years, until, of course, Justin broke his heart. The first night he told me he hadn’t touched another man for a year. Then he talked and talked all next day. He was still very mellow from the night before. As I say, I couldn’t take it all in, but…He’s just different. He’s not jaded. I sound like I’m a hundred years old but it was so sweet to be out with someone who finds everything new and amazing. He’s quite serious too. He kept analysing everything he felt. You should have seen him at Chateau.” Danny smiled. “He kept saying, “Look at the men! I love men!” It was like he was coming out all over again.”

  “I hope you took him upstairs at Chateau.”

  “To be absolutely frank, I did leave him for a bit and go upstairs, because Gary wanted to…see me. I think upstairs can wait for later. Anyway, I wanted to keep him for myself.”

  “He’s a cultured sort of chap, is he?”

  “Oh, yeah, he knows all about opera, and he’s read masses.”

  “It’ll do you good to get some culture,” said George. Danny stored this remark away, and went on as if he hadn’t heard,

  “Though he clearly hasn’t read Vanity Fair — I caught him out on that.”

  George seemed to ponder the whole thing for a while, then said, “So what is it you care for least about him?”

  But Dann
y wasn’t prepared to be negative. After they’d taken the Crewkerne turning, and certain features, an old T-junction sign, a pub, a row of trees, began to stir the subtle anxieties of arrival, he did briefly think about it, but only out of slightly decadent curiosity. There was something frustrating perhaps in a companion who had never heard of most of the new gay bars and had no conception of the pivotal importance of the DJ, who he clearly thought was just the bloke who played the records; at moments in the past week, as Danny showed Alex round what was after all his own town, he’d felt towards him as you do towards the duller schoolfriend you lend your notes to and end up almost teaching yourself.

  NINE

  Is he a scholar?” was Hugh’s first, rather off-beam question.

  Alex said, “Not at all.”

  “God, you’re lucky. I’ve got this kid after me who just won’t let up with the scholarly references and talks non-stop in about ten different languages. He makes me feel as if I’m All Souls College and he’s taking a fellowship exam to get into me. Actually, of course, the door’s open and the kettle steaming on the hearth.”

  “No,” said Alex, who hadn’t come here to talk about Hugh’s dimly prospective amours, “Danny’s extremely bright and adaptable but he doesn’t really know anything. I mean, he’s seen one opera, by Handel, and he can’t remember which one. He seemed persuaded by each of the titles I suggested. He’s got a degree in something called cultural studies, which apparently doesn’t quite involve reading a book. I don’t know why I’m being so catty. And of course he’s terribly young. He does know all about dance-music”

  “Coppelia and stuff.”

  “No, darling.”

  “I didn’t really think you meant that. How young is he?”

  “He’s twenty-three tomorrow.”

  “Ouch,” said Hugh, turning away with an envious grimace and looking for the bottle.

  Alex and Hugh had been together at university, though Hugh had gone on to Oxford to pursue a D Phil and then landed a job in Coins and Medals at the British Museum. He was a wonderfully sedentary person, who nowadays rarely left a shallow rectangle of streets between the Museum, an Italian restaurant in Dyott Street, and his dark disorderly flat above the Spiritualist Meeting Rooms in High Holborn. Alex sometimes dropped in there for a drink, since it was hard to get Hugh to Hammersmith. Amazingly, they had been to Greece together, in 1980, though on an old-fashioned Hellenising trail rather than to the alarming possibilities of a modern gay resort. Hugh had been quite slim and attractive as he blustered selfconsciously down the beach in his tight old swimming-trunks, but since then he had given way to the steady spread of lun-cher’s middle and office bottom. “Let’s not” was his usual response to any suggestion of activity.

  His friendship with Alex was intuitive, protected by their shared timidity and steeped in its own atmosphere of culture and fantasy. They talked on the phone, they listened to Haydn quartets together, they got drunk and ruminated obscenely about boys they had fancied, often long ago, looking out from Hugh’s rooms towards the roofs of Bloomsbury like a pair of dirty-minded spinsters. Alex’s occasional adventures were received by Hugh with curiosity and an oddly prudish pique; Hugh himself seemed not to have adventures, and his way of denying his needs was the recurrent fiction that someone was bothering him with their attentions, and he couldn’t decide about them. The appropriation of the gardens next to the Museum as central London’s liveliest cruising area gave him a new pretext for jokes and hinted misdemeanours. Alex felt that Hugh and Justin were the only two people who properly understood him; though, of course, when Justin came along -picked up, just like that, in the street — Hugh had retired wounded, as if somehow found wanting by his old friend. He was first with the condolences and candid analyses when Justin left. The announcement of a new affair was bound to be a little ticklish.

  Alex told him how it had happened. “I went down to this cottage in Dorset in love with Justin and came back in love with Danny. It was a completely magical thing.”

  “Surely you weren’t still in love with Betty Grable?” said Hugh.

  It already seemed so long ago. “I think, in spite of everything, if I could have woken up beside anyone in the world it would still have been him.”

  Hugh shook his head in a distress of incredulity; but then saw the bright side. “Anyway, it’s now definitely over.”

  Alex chose not to be tryingly truthful. “The last two weeks have been extraordinary — I feel as if I’m under a beautiful spell”

  “The thing about spells,” said Hugh, “is that you don’t know at the time if they’re good ones or bad ones. All black magicians learn how to sugar the pill.”

  “Well I never had your mastery of the occult.”

  “What’s his dick like, by the way?”

  Alex gestured implausibly with both hands. “But you know I don’t care about that sort of thing.”

  “Of course,” said Hugh, smacking his forehead, “I keep forgetting.” And then, “It’s like money, it’s easy not to care when you’ve got it.”

  “Talking of sugaring the pill,” Alex said, and went on to give what account he could of taking ecstasy. The urge to tell had been distracting him all week, it seemed nearly a necessity, like the born-again’s compulsion to spread the word at bus-stops and street-corners. He thought it best not to confide in anyone at the office, though he guessed from overheard phone-calls that his sober-suited secretary was, technically, a raver; he met young Barry’s curious, doubting look with the blandest “Good morning.”

  Every detail of his initiation was touched by the magic, though it was in the nature of the night — arriving drunk, the wild sprint of time once the drug took effect — that most of it was forgotten. He kept saying, “It was fabulous, it was fantastic, I can’t describe it.”

  “Hmm,” said Hugh, poised somewhere between scepticism, envy and shock.

  “It was the combination of the pill and Danny of course, feeling suddenly on the inside of life rather than the outside. It made me see how depressed I’d been, I think the depression was so insidious and all-pervasive that I only noticed it when it was gone.”

  “It’s only a drug, though, isn’t it. It’s not a real high.”

  “I don’t know, it’s real enough when it’s happening. I’m not a philosopher.”

  “But what about the after-effects?”

  “You just carry on feeling wonderful. I’ve been talking to people all week. Danny’s amazing like that — if he likes the look of someone he just starts talking to them, where I would normally wait ten years for an introduction in writing.”

  “Wasn’t everyone else about sixteen? — they are on television,” Hugh said, and Alex looked at him, with his scruffy haircut and his dense brown habitat of books and folders, as if he had suddenly slipped a generation. He felt a vague affectionate dismay at Hugh’s life of paper, the teetering research for the still unfinished thesis, the stacks of numismatic journals with a dirty cup on top or a half-dead Busy Lizzie, and doubtless, tucked away deep down, an issue or two of Big Latin Dicks. “I didn’t notice, darling.” The truth was he had no regrets, he longed to do it again, he loved his late start and was glad to think he hadn’t exhausted these pleasures when he was Danny’s age. Danny spoke already about mid-week glooms and short-term memory loss. Alex said, “I feel somehow I’ve been set free.”

  “Well, don’t become a slave to your need for freedom, will you,” Hugh said, with a mixture of concern and self-satisfaction. “I mean people do die.”

  “I find I’ve overcome a lot of crusty old prejudices,” Alex summed up. “Until last week, I was appalled by the idea of drugs, as you know I thought pop music was witless rubbish, I really couldn’t be doing with the noise and trash of the gay scene, I hated chewing-gum and trainers and baseball caps with writing on, in fact any clothes with writing on the outside. And now I think they’re all absolutely marvellous.”

  “So you’re going to be turning into a whatsaname, are you?” said
Hugh.

  “I don’t know what I’m turning into,” Alex said. “ ‘We know what we are but not what we may be’: Ophelia.”

  “Well, look what happened to her,” said Hugh.

  Hugh put on his jacket and they strolled down to Dyott Street for a quick bowl of pasta before Alex set off to Dorset. The staff were Sicilian, and a hand-coloured photograph of the 1928 eruption of Etna hung above the bar. Hugh knew them all well, and spoke to them in confident Italian. The waiters made a fuss of him, but were quick and business-like, and brought San Pellegrino and a plate of bruschetta without being asked, since that was what he always had. Perhaps just because of his speaking their language everything that was said by either side caused immediate amusement, and left behind a mood of wistful reassurance. Alex chatted and drifted, and nursed the plan that had just come to him, to take Danny away to Sicily at the end of the summer: the plan swallowed him up so that he couldn’t do much more than prod and repeatedly re-coil his tagliatelle. He was dying for a drink, the glamour of any kind of stimulant was immense, but he knew that he had a long drive ahead, and held off. He sensed a continuity between the benign routines of the restaurant and the larger movements beyond it, flights, journeys, days and nights. It was the oneness he had felt on ecstasy, which came back now and then like an image from a dream that surfaces again in the absent-minded mid-morning. He had never been to Sicily, and said casually to the waiter who was clearing the plates, “Does Etna still erupt from time to time?”

  The waiter tucked in his chin and said, “No, signore,” with a warm smile, as if to discourage a harmful rumour; and then, seeing Alex’s disappointment, said, “Well, a little bit, signore. Yes, from time to time.”

  Hugh walked with Alex to his Mercedes, and they stood for a while looking down at it in the odd hesitation before saying goodbye, with its trail of unnecessary recaps and puzzled attempts to remember something else that needed saying. Hugh was more cheerful and loving after a flask of Orvieto and the chance to absorb the impact of Alex’s news. He kissed him on both cheeks, and said, “That club sounds fantastic, actually. You must: take me some time.”

 
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