1998 the spell, p.14
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       1998 - The Spell, p.14
 

           Alan Hollinghurst
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  “Don’t worry. There’s nothing going on. Oh, by the way, Mum rang, to wish me happy birthday. She said to tell you hi.”

  “Is that what she said…” said Robin.

  They went out together with clutches of glasses. A dark Arabic-looking boy, with a shaved head and a goatee, sprang up to Danny so that he jogged the drinks, and kissed him on the mouth. “See, I made it!” he said. He was holding a loosely wrapped present, and slipped it under Danny’s arm. When his hands were free Danny opened it, and shook out a white T-shirt, with the disconcerting legend MaDmAn on the front. “Put it on,” said the boy. There were one or two whistles as Danny fiddled with his cuff-links, and someone said, “He’s off…” It was a tiny change in the climate, a casual tension, as if more than a young man’s upper body had been briefly bared. He had a small pendant on a chain, and Robin wondered if that was one of George’s gifts as well. Alex was standing close by with a protective but unpleasantly lustful look, and tucked in the label at the neck of the T-shirt when it was on. There was laughter and clapping, Robin said “I don’t get it,” though Alex seemed to find it funny, or wanted to suggest that he understood. Robin hoped with curt benevolence that Alex would get off with some nice London boy tonight, and stop hanging round his fucking house.

  He was relieved to find that the coals had reached a pinkish orange, and tied on his apron; soon there was the expected smoke and spatter, and the reek of seared meat was drifting among the fir-trees and over the field where cows themselves stood munching unrecognisingly.

  Danny behaved with a sweet combination of shyness and bossiness appropriate to a birthday boy; and Robin was aware too of the restraint that his own presence imposed. Some of the boys didn’t yet know who he was and said, “Oh, you’re the cook, are you — great food!” or “How long have you known Danny?” as though he might be some secret sugar-daddy rather than his real inadequate father. He brought out candles in jamjars as the dusk set in and listened to Danny talking about his exchange year at college in Vermont. He thought it must be then that he had started taking drugs, though Jane claimed omnisciently that he never touched a thing at that time.

  “There was this guy who had really bad asthma,” Danny said. “And he was always really speedy on some stuff he had, called Blocks Away �?” — he drew the trade-mark sign with his finger.

  “So we started trying it, and it was amazing, it made your heart race, but you were really concentrated as well — it had ephedrin in it.”

  “Oh, right,” said one of the boys.

  “It was great for working late at night. Though more recreational uses did…suggest themselves once exams were over. We used to go into this little pharmacy in town, wheezing and panting, and the old guy there would say, “Sure is a lot of asthma up at that college,” and we’d say, “I know, sir, I reckon it’s the pesticides they put on the fields up there — that’s the one disadvantage of a college in a beautiful rural location like this, sir,” though often we were pretty high already and probably overdid the explanations. What my English prof called “trowelling on the authenticating detail, Whitfield.” And he never did get my name right…”

  Robin smiled and got up to collect plates. He wondered how he could worry about Danny doing things he had done himself, or would have wanted to do. He’d never seen him like this, as an adult at the centre of a circle of friends. It was as if the revolve had brought a whole tableau of characters swiftly on stage, already drinking and laughing. Whether the detail was authentic he couldn’t tell. He went towards the back door and the lights went out, and then a gleaming white oblong of candlelit cake seemed to levitate into the garden, and high above it, in its ghostly but lively light, Alex’s pale captivated face.

  Robin had worried from time to time about the Halls, but whenever he saw them they were caught up in serious talk with some new group of Orchidaceae. Margery was a quiet, stoical woman, with the spare weight and poor concentration of a reformed heavy smoker. Mike was the retired bursar of a military college, proud of his own intelligence, and always hungry for talk. His drunkenness had three phases: first an expansive open-mindedness and principled respect for ideas, then a rather moody period of stifled impatience with his interlocutors, whom it emerged he simply couldn’t agree with, and third, launched with sudden sneering force, an hour or so of unbridled contempt and obscenity, ending with an abrupt collapse. As he came through the house, Robin heard Mike’s voice in the front garden reaching a steady dogmatic yap, and thought it might be time to ease them homewards. He found him in an improbable group of young style-queens, whom he seemed to have roused to unexpected animation. “You know nothing of war,” he was saying.

  Lars said, “Well, in Norway the military expenditure…”

  “Look, what’s your name, Mike,” another cut in.

  “Who is this guy?” a third one said to no one in particular.

  Margery saw Robin coming up, and said, “I think we’d better go now. It’s been lovely.” She looked around. “I don’t know about Mike.” Then Justin was there too, offering another gin and tonic, and put out to find she wanted to leave.

  “Oh, Margerina!” he said, which he’d never called her to her face before, and carried on as though he hadn’t said it, “Well, at least let me walk you home”; and then snorted after all.

  She said weakly, “Mike”; and somehow she managed to catch his eye and pass him a wordless but familiar message. At that moment the music jumped into a new mode and volume, it was another, of those meaningful shifts of level as the party moved nearer its instinctive goal; and the effect must have been alien and horrible to a couple in their late sixties.

  “I’ll walk our friends home,” said Justin.

  “I’ll come too,” Robin said. “I might leave Danny to it for a bit.”

  “It’s okay,” said Justin, with a meaning look of his own.

  Margery made a little cringing grimace and said, “I don’t think they want us old crocks around.”

  The four of them went up the shadowy path, Mike turning, like someone dragged from a fight, to call out, “You think about it,” with a grim laugh.

  “Now the fun’s really going to begin,” said Margery, without a smile and with the remotest hint of nostalgia. “Though I don’t know who they’re going to find to dance with.” Robin couldn’t tell if she was being mischievous; and as it happened, when they reached the gate a goggling taxi-driver was setting down a pair of virtually naked girls, who, if you ignored their crew-cuts and tattoos, might just have fitted the bill.

  They walked slowly along in the warm late twilight, Justin and Robin flanking their guests. Robin glanced about into uncurtained windows, the flicker of televisions. You could certainly hear the party from some way off, but he tried not to care. A yellow quarter-moon had appeared between the beautiful tall crocketed finials of the church tower. Margery said, “I suppose it’s all a sort of Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

  Mike wasn’t having this. “It is not a Midsummer Night’s Dream,” he said. “People are always getting this wrong. Yesterday was the longest day, the 21st. That’s a fact, an astronomical fact. Midsummer Day, which is an ancient pagan festival, is on the 24th. Tomorrow, if you must, is Midsummer Eve.” He shook his head furiously. “Today is nothing, absolutely nothing.”

  “I suppose I meant…”

  “It drives me mad when people get that wrong.”

  They parted at the Halls’ gate, though Robin glanced back to watch Mike muttering over the door-key. Margery must be very drunk too, of course, but she showed it only by her expressionless heaviness, and the occasional utterance of a harmless but incensing remark. There was a chink of light, and then the slam of the door.

  Robin and Justin turned for home. Their shoulders touched lightly as they walked and Robin took Justin’s hand for a few steps, till Justin pretended he had to blow his nose. He felt miserably in love, with an almost teenage pain brought on by the distant presence of the dance-music in the summer night, and an older perso
n’s bleaker ache at the shouts of his son’s friends funnelling into pleasure. “All right, darling?” he said.

  “Fine,” said Justin, as if he’d been accused of something.

  A few paces later Robin said, “What do you make of this George character? I hope he hasn’t got designs on Dan.” He peered into the heavy shadows under the copper beech on the green — its huge trunk was ringed by a seat where two of the boys from the party were sitting, you couldn’t quite see but they were obviously snogging, and he wondered if that could ever have happened before in the tree’s 300-year history. He thought it was the tree Hardy had in mind in his poem “An Assignation — Old Style.”

  Justin said, “It’s a bit late to worry about that, I’m afraid. He was bragging to me just now about how crazy Danny was for him, and how he’d had to choke him off. His phrase, not mine. While you and I were settling into rustic bliss in Little Gumdrops it seems young Danny was round in Holland Park servicing Arthur Negus.”

  “You’re not serious.”

  “Well that’s what he said.”

  “So you mean Dan is clinging on?” It was more disturbing and unwelcome than he could rationally account for. He felt he should somehow have been there to screen and approve his son’s lovers, it was another dereliction too subtly painful ever to have been expected. “I mean, he’s so…charmless, and self-satisfied.”

  “He is quite sexy,” Justin said. “You know boringness can be so arousing. One day I’ll have to work out why that is.”

  In a mood of obscure retaliation, Robin said, “Your old boyfriend’s becoming quite a fixture.”

  “It was sweet of him to bring that champagne,” said Justin, in a tone of serene acceptance he would never have shown to Alex in person.

  “No, George brought the champagne.”

  “I think not.”

  “Alex brought the cake, and George brought the champagne. Danny told me so.”

  “Darling, I saw Alex get the fucking champagne out of his car and take it up to put it in Mrs Badger’s fridge. You were far too busy strimming to notice.”

  Robin stopped, less to argue than to enact his puzzlement. “But why?”

  Justin took a moment to answer, out of delicacy, Robin thought. He looked down at the coping of the low wall beside him, where snails had left tracks that shone in the moonlight like chalked hearts and girlfriends’ names. “He just wants to fit in, darling. He’s terribly lonely — he obviously thinks you hate him. Alex is always giving people things, and often his presents are too extravagant, sometimes people are so embarrassed that they never speak to him again.”

  “But I’m giving this party,” Robin said, with a childishness that he heard and couldn’t help laughing ruefully at.

  “You can hardly object to someone presenting you with a case of Bolly.”

  “No, I suppose not. It’s not Bolly, actually, it’s Clicquot, but still.”

  “It’s unquestionably Bolly.”

  “Oh what the fuck does it matter what it is?” Robin shouted quietly and stamped off for a few paces, then turned and almost ran at Justin, who looked slightly frightened. Since the absurd and shaming incident in the car, Justin had shown a physical mistrust of him, and still winced if he touched his face, even though the bruise had gone. Now the kiss was long and hard, Justin didn’t resist, but there was something desolately stagey to it, as if it were very late in a run of one of the plays he no longer auditioned for. His tongue performed the usual explorations, Robin felt the awkward hardness of his trapped dick pressing against his own, that homosexual conundrum with its various witty solutions. But when it was over it was over, Robin saying, “I love you,” with tears of frustration in his eyes, and Justin, like a secretary briefly disarranged by an importunate boss, smoothing himself and murmuring, “We’d better get back.”

  During their absence a new arrival had parked at the top of the lane, a battered yellow Escort that half-blocked the gateway of their tight-lipped neighbours the Harland-Balls (subject of some of Justin’s freest wordplay). Robin anticipated trouble and strode down through the garden with a new resolution to forget himself and think only of Danny. There were hours and hours of party to go, which seemed, from moment to moment, a torture and a blessing.

  Little groups were standing or sprawling in the garden, some intimate around the steady candles, others more noisily out of control. He saw that they were weaving shelters out of their London lives around themselves, though maybe the magic of the country night still glinted in through the chinks. In the sitting-room, with the french windows open, dancing had begun; the relentless club atmosphere of the music seemed slightly comic in a setting of watercolours and Bernard Leach pottery, and the first dancers were drunk but self-conscious, smiling a lot or staring at the floor. Robin thought he would move one or two things, and took a large vase through to the kitchen, where an intent little circle was gathered round the table. Danny had his back to him, and turned with a lazily criminal look, which he immediately guyed into a joke. “You’re not supposed to be in here!”

  “A father’s place is in the kitchen, dear,” Robin said, and heard how rare it was for him to be camp.,

  George was sitting chopping coke on the back of a dark shiny cookery-book. For a second, Robin worried more about the marks the razor would make on the cover than the substance the razor was so finely fanning and gathering and trailing into lines. It was something he had once done in this kitchen himself, though not of course when Danny was there; and evidently it was a ritual Danny had some experience of too; but it wasn’t an event that father and son had ever taken part in together, or that one had taught the other, and Robin felt embarrassed and a little compromised by the business. He saw the almost sexual expectancy of the ring of young men and the corrupt generosity of George, who had laid out so much money to impress them, and perhaps make them more malleable. He set down the vase that he was still clutching, and started putting plates in the dishwasher with censorious scrapings. George sniffed and pushed back his chair and was soon congratulating himself on the excellence of the stuff. Robin glanced across to see Alex being coached by Danny in how to snort a line, but when Danny’s own turn came he went outside.

  He picked up a nearly full glass that was balanced on the window-sill and knocked it back — it was the cheap wine Dan had brought from London, and its appearance marked a further phase in the party’s downward career. He felt for a moment like a person who’s not much good at parties, the sort you find by themselves plucking books from the bookcase as if perfectly happy. He looked at the stars above the still trees and wondered if he wanted to be rescued and swept away by someone charming. The scene in the lane with Justin made him flinch with wretchedness and anger at having been snubbed. He had never been in such a situation before, and had a dread of life being different from now on, his powers steadily withdrawn, like cancelled memberships. He saw what they meant by the change of life. He stood hunched in a horrible new atmosphere of doubt, his mind crowded by Justin’s sexual presence, hardly able to believe that something so banal was happening to him. The tall black man who came round the corner of the house seemed to emerge quite naturally from this painful ruck of thought, and struck Robin as at once unexpected and inevitable. He was chatting in a careless hilarious way to one of the boys Robin had brought from the station; he was differently dressed, in a black roll-neck shirt and beige pants with a low crotch like an American serviceman, but Robin knew his rolling muscular walk exactly, and the naive friendly effect of his broken nose, and the glint of the gold cross that hung from his ear-ring.

  He followed them indecisively through the back door and watched them drawn into the charged field of the coke-tooters, whom Danny seemed to be calling forward or discouraging according to some inscrutable regime of his own. Then Justin was coming through from the sitting-room, raising his hands to screen the drug-takers from his sight in a slightly old-maidish charade of his genuine disapproval, and Robin caught the moment of unprepared contact, the blac
k man saying, “Oh, hello!,” Justin touching his arm and saying merely, distantly, “Hello darling” as he passed by, and the black man watching him go with a humorous, remembering look.

  Justin put his hand on Robin’s shoulder for a few seconds and Robin welcomed the gesture and the palpable guilt that prompted it. “I knew it would come to this,” Justin said, with no awareness of the heart-stopping larger way in which his words could be taken; he meant simply the cocaine. And perhaps Robin’s anxiety on both subjects gave the edge to his question:

  “Who’s that black guy you just spoke to?”

  Justin turned with a heavy sigh; and clearly he was broad-brush and indiscriminate with drink. “What, that one, darling? No idea. Never seen him before in my life.” It was the most unguarded lie that Robin was aware of having heard from him, and he saw he couldn’t respond to it with the little sarcasms and chidings he used to sort out the minor evasions, some mystery in the phone-bill or a vanished bottle of wine. “Why don’t you ask Alex?” Justin went on. “He appears to be an old friend.” And it was true that Alex had an arm round the man’s shoulders, and in the middle of speaking to him suddenly plonked a kiss on his cheek. Robin thought, you poor fool.

  He strolled over and interposed himself before the black guy could take the rolled-up banknote. “Hi, I’m Robin. I’m Danny’s father.”

  “Oh. Hi — Gary,” said the man, half offering a long and beautiful hand, which Robin ignored, and assuming a look of insincere respect. Robin wondered if he knew he was gay, if Dan had talked about him, and for the first time in the evening hoped not.

  “Is that your car, the yellow Escort?” He thought angrily of it trundling its way through all the months since he’d seen it before, and homing in at last by some mechanical instinct on this cottage a hundred miles away. He pictured it on the verge of the A303 at two in the morning, with the bonnet up and Gary jumping back from it flapping his elegant fingers. “I’m afraid it’s blocking our neighbours’ drive. Can you move it?”

 
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