1998 the spell, p.13
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       1998 - The Spell, p.13

           Alan Hollinghurst
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  “Of course, darling,” said Alex, slithering into the car, but thinking, as he drove off with an uncharacteristic toot, that if it came to it Hugh would certainly decide “Let’s not.” They had once been to Heaven together, twelve or thirteen years ago, and Alex still remembered Hugh’s way of taking the floor, with hands on hips and his legs kicking out spasmodically as if in some distant holiday recollection of Greek folk-dancing.

  He sped across town as the sun was setting. It was the Summer Solstice. Everywhere people were launching on their weekends, thronging into restaurants and bars. He wished them well, but he felt the town was largely pointless now Danny had left it; he and his friend must already have been at Litton Gambril for three or four hours, they’d have had drinks with Justin and Robin, and perhaps dinner, though the friend was staying at Bride Mill, so perhaps was dining there. Alex picked at the plans. The presence of Justin was going to be almost surreal, as was the agreement with Danny to keep their affair a secret. He wished they could have gone down together, but there wasn’t room for everything in his two-seater, and he already had a case of champagne in the boot. In other respects, though, the car had come into its own; Justin had always shown a non-driver’s inability to distinguish it from any other car, but Danny admired it from the start, and in the past week they had driven on a number of unnecessary diversions along Old Compton Street with the roof down, Danny waving like an over-eager starlet, and often shouting quite loudly to make sure he’d been seen by some dim disco acquaintance.

  Alex switched on the radio, and it was one of Haydn’s opus 76 string quartets that he had sometimes listened to with Hugh. It held him for a minute with its familiar novelties, and he tapped lightly on the wheel to demonstrate his involvement with it, but he couldn’t resist a feeling that it would always be there, and found himself reaching into the glove-box for his latest purchase from Harlot Records, Monster House Party Five, a three-CD compilation of forty pounding dance tracks mixed by DJs Sparkx, Joe Puma and Queen Marie.

  The thwacking bass at the opening of Joe Puma’s set (if that was the word) made him grin and shiver. His drugged remark about wanting to live in house music had only shown up how unobservant he was: he had been living in it all along. Now he heard it, everywhere, or something very like it to the novice’s ear: in cafes, clothes shops, of course in gay bars with Danny, and thumping from a van in slow-moving traffic in Whitehall, so that he kept catching up with it as he walked away from work; idly channel-surfing on a night alone, he found it glittering like an open secret through programmes on fashion, holidays, local politics, and ads for drinks and cars. He almost envied the barmen and shop-assistants who lived with its promise of pleasure all week long. Maybe they wouldn’t even wait for the weekend to go dancing and be off their faces again. Driving west into the last of the day with the music in his ears he saw the electric storm of the dance-floor, the racing languor of the chill-out room — it was literally heart-warming, he felt his pulse hurry and his face colour up. And then he remembered waking in Danny’s room on the Sunday afternoon, their foreheads pressed together, the same tired lungful of air breathed back and forth between them, the muted sunshine through unlined curtains…Alex had rolled gently away and examined his happiness to the rhythm of the wallpaper, the clutches of pink roses like featureless putti floating hypnotically ceil-ingwards.

  It was dark by the time he reached the Crewkerne turn-off, and he drove on in silence so as to concentrate on the signs and the bends. The road was unrecognisable from his first journey. He rolled down the window to smell the trees and fields and the cool air that had been warm all day. On corners his headlights swept past tree-trunks, a white cottage dark for the night, impassive horses in a field. He felt romantically alone. On a high open stretch of the road he saw the stars, which at first he thought were the upward reflections of the car’s lit dials in the windscreen; later there was the glimmer of a town beyond the long black line of a hill. Moths, labouring through the dark on their own amorous callings, rushed to obliterate themselves on the beacon of the car.

  Robin seemed surprised, even exasperated, to have Alex in the house again; it was one thing for Justin to invite him, but then for Danny to take pity on him too…Alex watched the Woodfield social reflex come into play, the sudden over-compensation of smiles and offers of drinks — that making the best of things that could seem faintly schizoid. Justin’s welcome had been more muted but more genuine. He said, “I didn’t think you’d come back, darling,” and held his hand in a way that asked for affection more than it offered it. It was midnight, of course, and he was a little maudlin. As for Danny, there was a tantalising distance, crossed only by touches and winks that felt almost negligent in their furtiveness. They hadn’t worked out their story properly, and acted as if they had barely met. The effect was that all three of them appeared to wonder why Alex was here. Alex felt that Danny’s surely rather cold and watchful friend George was being treated with an easy fondness that he would have been glad of himself. Danny messed around nerve-jarringly with tapes of something called drum “n” bass, which he said was “massive” this summer; house, apparently, was all too commercial, you heard it everywhere now, you had to have been there four years ago, when it was at its underground zenith. “Oh,” said Alex, unable to protest, and feeling obscurely betrayed by his own teacher. When they came to turn in, Robin took him up to a different room from last time, with a filing cabinet in it, and various large objects covered with a cotton bedspread. “You shouldn’t be too uncomfortable,” he said. Alex lay awake in a horrible turmoil as to whether he should have come; then woke with a start to a presence in the room, the muttered breaths of sleepy concentration, a cool hand patting the pillow, patting his shoulder, his elbow, then the warm weight of a man stretching gently, half-clumsily along him in the dark.

  Robin was up early next morning, with a number of noisy jobs to do. Baking smells spread slowly through the house, and as soon as the dew was off the grass he was out with the mower. He was taking the party seriously, and there was to be enough food for more than the thirty people Danny thought might turn up. Alex came down to find him shirtless by the fridge, with a wisp of grass caught in his chest hair, drinking milk from the bottle, then brusquely wiping away the white moustache. He still gave off his air of challenging competence, although for Alex his threat had been nicely displaced: the rival had emerged as the potential father-in-law, whose approval he might one day hope to win.

  Alex offered his help and it was agreed he would drive into Bridport to do some shopping and pick up some things on order. Danny was busy with more abstruse planning. He stood around in the sitting-room saying, “Right, they’ll come in here. “ with great decisiveness, then pondering the matter again. He had a large flat notebook, a survival of his American student days, with pictures of rock stars taped to the cover, and a headline from the National Enquirer, “DAN THE BEAST”; he was writing in this in a sunny spot of the garden as Alex went up to the car.

  The secrecy was certainly a bore, and went against Alex’s mood of expansion and freedom. In the car he kept telling his news to himself, though he couldn’t get the wording right. “I’m madly in love with him” gave the first quick spurt of release, and the cliche, as happened in love, seemed fresh after all. But it wasn’t sufficient. “I’m wildly in love with him,” “I’m utterly in love with him” — he couldn’t find an adverb pungent and reckless enough.

  He spent an hour in the town, with its broad Georgian streets called North, South, East and West, the compass of a region remote from London, and with its own procedures. In the cake-shop there was worried talk of a customer preparing to go up to the Smoke. When it was Alex’s turn, the baker said, “How are you today?” as if he knew of some ongoing health problem.

  “Very well indeed, thanks,” said Alex. “How are you?”

  “Not too dusty,” said the baker, to which Alex could only murmur “Ah,” unsure from his tone if that meant pretty good or a bit off-colour. He asked f
or a large white cake in the window, which the man lifted out with pride. “That’s a lovely wedding-cake,” he said. “You’re not the lucky man?”

  “I do feel quite lucky,” Alex said. He had the eerily restful country feeling that his homosexuality was completely invisible to these people.

  Alex found that he’d contracted that occasional ailment of the late developer, an aversion to his own past. He had grown up in a country town, different from this one, duller probably, and more defiantly conformist; but his mood of ghostly familiarity deepened as he went from shop to shop. The poverty of the little supermarket, with its own-brand biscuits and jams; the high prices of the farm shop, with organic vegetables and free-range eggs crusted in authenticating dung; the brown old men who slapped down all their change on the newsagent’s counter, not yet used to the decimal currency, or leaned wheezily at the urinal under the town clock with their leather shopping-bags; the old outfitters selling brown and mauve clothes, and the charity thrift-shop indistinguishable from it, and the derelict boutiques with a spew of mail across the bare floor; the photos of fetes and beauty contests and British Legion dinners in the window of the newspaper office, which might almost have been the window of a museum; the peeling front of the main hotel, with its promise of fire-doors and meal smells; the word MONUMENTAL on an undertaker’s sunlit window thrown in sharp-etched shadow across a waiting tablet; the shyness of the country folk and the loudness of their jokes and greetings — he felt he knew it all, and was horrified by it, as though by some irremediable failing of his own. Then the cloud of the mood heaved slowly past and he drove out of town with a quivering sense of how his luck had swung round, like a weather-vane.

  Something came back to him for the first time, it might have been waiting for its explanatory moment. It was the late summer of 89, the eve of his thirtieth birthday. He had left town on a Friday evening to drive out to his parents in Essex for the family celebrations. As always he felt he was leaving a scene of potential pleasure, even if only getting drunk with a straightish group of friends. He had a route through the lanes to the village where his parents had just bought the Old Rectory, with its acre of demanding garden. There was never any traffic, only local people heading to the pub in their Austin Maxis; but this time he ran into a line of cars, red tail-lights backed up in the twilight as far as he could see. After a while engines were switched off, and Alex watched the young men in the Dormobile ahead of him get out to stretch their legs and talk to the other drivers. He leant out himself and asked a boy standing on the verge what the trouble was. “They’re blocking us off,” he said. “We’re waiting for new directions.” A girl in leathers with a mobile phone came walking down the road, and the drivers, who were all young and excited, called out questions to her. The whole thing had the feel of a chaotic exercise by an oddly high-spirited rebel army. Pop music from different radio stations mingled in the still air. It turned out they were going to a rave.

  Alex didn’t see why he should pretend he was going to a rave, perhaps he panicked slightly, though the mood was not aggressive, just voluble and collective. He wasn’t sure exactly what happened at a rave. He knew it was a horrible inconvenience to the people who lived in the area. He started up his engine, pulled out of the line and went up the just passable other side of the road, with kids gesturing and shouting things at him. Some of them clearly thought he was one of the wide-boys who’d organised the thing. Now and then he had to mount the low verge. Before long he came face to face with a police motor-cyclist. He could see he was in the wrong, but he explained where he was trying to get to, spoke vaguely of having just come from the Foreign Office, and after the policeman had spoken to colleagues up ahead, was told to follow him, he’d get him through. Alex saw it all now, his problematic progress through the lanes, up and down between second and third gear, the flashing stanchion of the motorbike revolving ahead of him. They went on past a mile and a half of stalled vehicles, the cheerful faces at the open windows, the thump of music and shimmer of petrol fumes in the scented evening. He began to feel like a fool, who had missed what was happening around him and asked to see out the last night of his twenties under lonely safe conduct.


  Robin and George both went to meet the 19.10 arrival at Crewkerne station. Eight guests were expected to be on it, all of them unknown to Robin, though George was confident of recognising several. Robin didn’t warm to George and disliked his sarky intimacy with Danny; he hoped he wasn’t being trailed as a new boyfriend. George had avoided the day’s preparations by touring antique shops in Beaminster and Lyme. As they waited in the station car-park he praised one piece of furniture in the cottage, but only one.

  When it came to it, there was no doubt who the party party were. Among the few Saturday commuters, local kids and dun-coloured hikers there was a swishing little posse of metropolitan muscle and glamour. In appearance the boys ranged from sexily interesting through very handsome to troublingly perfect. Robin watched them for a few droll seconds as they collected under the Gothic arch, looking careless but a little abashed by this alien place, a couple of them chewing gum and candidly eyeing Robin and George, so that when George called out “Hey, guys!” and contact was made, something else was slyly acknowledged by their smiles. Robin had put on, almost unconsciously, his sexiest old button-fly jeans, and George was wearing leather trousers, which rather confused Robin with their hot attractive smell. He couldn’t help thinking they must look like a pair of affluent queens who’d hired a whole chorus-line of hustlers for the weekend. Perhaps it had looked like this to local people when those aristocratic buggery scandals of forty years ago were taking place.

  Robin wanted to know his son’s friends, and had felt happy and punctilious all day at the prospect of welcoming them. George at once asserted a louche sort of claim to three of them, who went off with him in his BMW; Robin had to take four in the back of the Saab. They grumbled a bit, and made sluttish jokes about the tight squeeze. “Ooh, what’s that?” they kept saying. “Whose is this?” Robin couldn’t help thinking they were rather common; or perhaps it was just his concern about Danny, and his conviction that no one could be good enough for him. The standard of manners was certainly variable. “Can we stop for some fags!” one of them called out, as if Robin were merely a taxi-driver. Up front he had a charming Norwegian called Lars, who reminded him of a trimmer, mus-clier Justin, and also, in the deliberate courtesy of his talk, of certain schoolfriends whom Danny used to bring home for weekend exeats. Though presumably he had been found, like the rest of them, in the new club scene where Danny was clearly so popular, and which Robin knew little about. He hadn’t really been out since Subway was closed down in 1984.

  When they got back to the cottage there were several cars in the lane and another half-dozen boys stretching their legs on the verge beside a rented minibus. Bright-coloured groups were strolling through the garden with what looked like glasses of champagne. A window was open to let out surprisingly nice music. There hadn’t been a party here since the circumspect celebrations of Simon’s last birthday, nearly two years ago. Robin felt a tiny proprietary shock at the take-over by strangers.

  He came round the house to find the Halls standing together, looking irritably at some shrubs. They had only “dropped in for a drink,” as Robin had suggested, though on their lips the phrase had a worrying looseness, with no implied promise of their dropping out again. Like all awkward guests they had arrived early and would have to be introduced cold to some unsuitable stranger. They had brought a little present for Danny — “It’s only a bottle, I’m afraid” — and Robin was pleased they had come: they were among the few people in the village who remained friendly and hospitable after Simon’s death. Not that they could be said to revel lubriciously in the reported details of gay life. On occasion they were merrily caustic. (It was Mike Hall who had said, when shown a volume called The Cultivated Fruits of England, “Good god, a book about Woodfield and his chums.”) They made a wonderfully inadvertent
contrast to the other guests, who were exploring the garden as if it was their first one — there were shrieks of laughter and worried gasps from the woodshed and the greenhouse. Margery was red-eyed and exhausted; the rape that was in flower in great garish blocks around the village gave her rashes and hay-fever. “I’m not supposed to drink with these pills,” she said, taking the vast gin and tonic that Justin had made for her. Justin had an almost reverential fondness for the Halls, and ushered them indoors, perhaps relieved not to have to talk to what he called the Orchidaceae. There was something both evasive and host-like in this. Robin stood swaying in the wake of his beauty, and went off to struggle with the barbecue as if physically grappling with the malign mechanics of the situation, the enforced indifference. He had built the little sheltered griddle himself and was vexed by its frequent failure to draw.

  When he came back to the kitchen, Danny was hectically opening bottles of champagne: it was that startling moment when you find that the party has taken off and is using up fuel. He was wearing black trousers and a crisp white collarless shirt, as though he’d been interrupted in dressing for some more formal event.

  “Hi Dad!” he said. Then, “Have you got a drink?”

  Robin realised that he hadn’t, and that it might be a good idea. “Where did all this bubbly come from?” he said.

  Danny looked confused — it was a look he’d had as a kid, on far earlier weekends, when Robin found him playing with expensive toys that were given him by Jane’s new men-friends. Well, he still came for weekends, and he had chosen to be here for his birthday — it was something, but it wasn’t nearly enough. “George brought a whole case,” he said.

  Robin gave a murmur. “That’s very generous of him.” Perhaps George hadn’t yet got anywhere with him, and was giving him lifts and expensive drinks as an old-fashioned way to his heart; but it seemed out of character. He must have been frowning, because Danny said,

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