1998 the spell, p.15
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       1998 - The Spell, p.15
 

           Alan Hollinghurst
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  Justin had come up, and said with a nervousness only Robin would have traced, “They’re called the Hairy Bollocks, darling. You mustn’t get in their way.”

  Puzzled, smiling fairly good-naturedly, Gary followed Robin from the room, round the edge of the now almost unlit dance-floor, out of the house and up through the garden. Robin’s heart was thumping, but he felt concentrated; he knew he had the involuntary prim smile of masked tension. When they got to the gate, he said, “I’m sorry, I don’t want you here, you’re going to have to go.”

  There couldn’t have been any doubt about his tone, but Gary sniggered, and stopped in the near-darkness to try to read his face. “Huh?”

  “Please go.”

  Gary shook his head, and the cross twinkled for a second. “What’s the problem?”

  “It’s not your fault,” Robin said reluctantly. “I just don’t want you in my house.” His unreasonableness made him sound more bitter, as though to justify itself. He wished the guy wasn’t black, and so obviously nice enough. He thought he had the characterless niceness you’d expect from someone who pleased strangers for a living.

  Gary said, “I just got here, man. I just drove three and a half hours, to see my mate Danny. It’s his birthday.”

  “I know that,” said Robin quietly. He knew he was being a monster, and in the thick of this clumsy little episode saw objectively for a second that this was the kind of thing he did now. “You’ll have to stay somewhere,” he said, in a feeble concession, and pulled out the crumpled notes from his back pocket and thrust them at the insulted guest without counting them. He thought it was £40 or so.

  “I wouldn’t touch your fucking money,” said Gary; though the offer clearly marked a point of no return. He backed away, and Robin was glad he couldn’t see his expression. The boys who had been smooching under the copper beech were just coming home, and one of them greeted Gary, who was too angry and hurt to say more than “Look out for that one, he’s a wanker” as he got into his car. They all watched his squealing, snaking reverse down the lane. Then the boys slipped past Robin with an evasive murmur. He waited for a minute or two, thinking what he would say to Danny; then went slowly down the path with the sense that what he’d done might one day be forgiven but could never be explained. He came into the kitchen with a sure feeling that word of the event had preceded him; he took up a bottle brightly and offered it round but he knew he brought with him a mood of smothered crisis and a host’s too evident desire that his guests should know nothing of it. Alex came up and put an arm round him, with a ridiculous new friendliness, and asked confidentially what had happened to Gary.

  “He had to go,” Robin said, and remembering the half-dozen breakfast-times he’d seen him in Hammersmith, explained, “he got a call on his mobile.”

  “Oh,” said Alex sentimentally. “He was rather sweet.”

  Robin thought, You stupid cunt, day after day, within minutes of your going to work, that rather sweet man used to go into your house and fuck your boyfriend, in the bed you’d just got out of, or perhaps over the kitchen table, or even on the hall floor, and you knew nothing about it. But to tell that story would be to picture himself waiting outside in the car. The anxiety and humiliation gripped him again for a moment. He went to the cupboard and poured himself an anaesthetising Scotch.

  Somehow the incident was kept from Danny, and when he found Gary had gone he was too reckless with coke to concentrate on the story. Robin alternated between keeping an eye on him and wondering if there was any point. The party was becoming sweaty. One or two of the bigger boys had taken their shirts off, and though Robin himself was often shirtless in the house and loved muscle weight and tone he found the effect disconcerting, as if guests had come to dinner and stayed on to play strip poker. He saw Terry Badgett come through, in his party clothes, sharply pressed navy-blue trousers and a baggy white shirt, looking, to Robin’s rusticated eye, far sexier than the city boys, who were so habituated to fashion and fun. He was wary of Robin, after the row of a fortnight ago, but Robin nodded at him genially and saw that he was Danny’s by right. As for himself he would never have anything so young again; a thirty-five-year-old was trouble enough. And if he did fall prey to some doting nostalgia for the lustre and stamina of twenty-two, he could always ring Gary or one of his colleagues; maybe that was the sort of thing that lay in wait in this unwelcome new phase of his life. “Hello Terry,” he said, and they shook hands.

  “I’m going to be doing some work for a friend of yours,” Terry said; which made Robin wonder what friends he could be said to have. “Over at Tytherbury, at the mansion. Mr Bowerchalke’s got me in to do some decorating in his new rooms.”

  “Oh, great,” said Robin, though he wasn’t sure Terry was up to the kind of thing he intended for the Odd Room. Tony was evidently saving money again. On his last visit Robin had agreed to a second Campari, saying “Really, just a drop,” and watched Tony, with no obvious intention of offending him, decant exactly that, as carefully as a chemist in a lab. “How did this come about?”

  “Ah, my mum’s an old friend of Mrs Bunce,” said Terry, with a narrow-eyed smile that suggested even larger networks of obligation at his command. It was something else remotely Italian about him, along with the dark, slicked-back hair, and the wide-hipped unclassical body that reminded Robin of a Vespa-driving boy he’d been distracted with lust for on an early art-trip holiday with Jane. Then Dan came up and hugged them both and took Terry away to dance, like an old-fashioned host at a different kind of party.

  Robin was looking around in the relief and tolerance of new drunkenness when Lars came up to him. He was clearly a bit spacy from the coke, but retained his air of wanting nothing more than to talk to whomever he was with. This was charming in itself and in its rarity; he didn’t have the feverish, alienated look of most of the others. And in fact he said, “I was thinking it’s quite like some gay club here, you don’t mind?”

  Robin shrugged, smiled and said, without working it out, “I was going to gay clubs before you were born.”

  “Oh…” said Lars, with amused surprise, though Robin couldn’t tell what part of his remark had provoked it. He said,

  “I agree it is a bit different in your own home,” and finished his Scotch. “Actually, it’s just what the village needs.” They laughed and Robin said, “Do you want to smoke some hash?”

  “Oh, sure,” said Lars, with the unintended tone of someone agreeing to do some light chore; but hesitated as Robin moved off, perhaps uncertain where they were supposed to do it. Robin turned to see where he was, and he came up and touched his elbow, and followed him out across the garden to the dark shape of the work-room. They both looked up at the moon, and even in the context of driving dance-music and half-naked men there was something miscreant about them. The Arab-looking boy ran into them, coming back from doing who knew what under the trees, and they spoke meaninglessly for a minute. Robin was glad Lars made no reference to their own little plan: his silence was a confirmation.

  He felt for the key in the crack over the door, and let Lars in, reaching round him in the deep shadow to turn on the hooded brass desk-lamp. “So this is your den, am I right?” Lars said, looking at the books, the pinned-up drawings, the white slope of the drawing-board; silently taking in the photos of Justin, and Danny at his graduation, and Simon, whose very existence had been unknown to him. On the desk was the chunk of white vitreous china with SEMPE on it; he seemed to find it amusing and weighed it in his hand while Robin opened a drawer and took out an old tobacco-tin and his little hash-pipe. In the tin, wrapped in foil, was the dense cube of stuff he’d brought back from London earlier in the week, and had hidden here, with a rare and trivial sense of keeping a secret from Justin; though now it seemed, with Lars smiling and humming, and swinging round to perch one big handsome buttock on the edge of the desk, to be part of a larger deception. He found it hard to keep the amused expectancy out of his face and voice. He said, “Dan seems to be having fun.”
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  Lars smiled indulgently. “Well, that’s as usual.”

  Robin picked up the lighter and said, “You must know him quite well?” For a second he heard a distorted echo of another kind of chat, the pipe-smoking housemaster and the prefect he wants to trust; though Lars seemed to understand, and even to be waiting for some mild interrogation.

  “I’ve known him for a long time,” he said. “Five or six months.”

  “Gosh,” said Robin, and sucked the flame down to the bowl and held the smoke in — it was a brief suspension of ordinary manners, he and Lars holding each other’s eye with impersonal concentration, as if waiting to record an experiment. Then he breathed out slowly, and passed the pipe over. It was like a little silvery spanner you use to mend a bicycle; Lars had trouble getting anything through it, and Robin reached up with the lighter and covered his hand with his own. Again they stared at each other — though he knew the hit would take a minute to come. The boy looked down with a quiet laugh and idly fingered the china fragment.

  “This must have a story connected, am I right?”

  Robin said, “My boyfriend Justin says it’s just a bit of an old bog,” with a sense that it would be honourable to mention him.

  “Ah yes…” said Lars, perhaps uncertain of the slang. “Yes, he’s so funny.”

  “He’s a scream, isn’t he.” Robin got up and came round the desk and dropped sideways into the old armchair. “It’s special to me, anyway,” he said. Of course he hardly noticed it any more, it was a sort of paperweight; but there were times when he remembered its tenuous accidental story and the quivering light of the day he stole it, or picked it up, which was the day he learned he was to become a father. All he told Lars was, “It’s a bit of an old bog from a house in Arizona that I went to when I was a student. When I was Dan’s age.”

  “So what does SEMPE say?.” “It’s trying to say SEMPER, which is the Latin for always.”

  “Ah,” said Lars wistfully. “So it’s almost always” — and then looked down at Robin with a coyness that dissolved to reveal something fiercer and less voluntary.

  “Do you know everyone here?” Robin asked, aware of the bad continuity — it came from embarrassment and also perhaps from the muddling onset of the hash. He didn’t often smoke and was surprised each time by the stealthy twist the drug gave to his thoughts and sense impressions.

  “Oh, most of them,” said Lars, with a shrug, as if the distantly thumping party was a forgettable preamble to this scene in the hut. The room still held the old-fashioned warmth that had gathered in it all day — an odour of wood-stain and tar, like the shed at home where they had stored the tennis-net and the croquet box. Robin was sensitive to the smell and its suggestions. He shared with Justin an aroused openness to smells, which was why they both liked sex first thing on a summer morning, after sweaty sleep which was itself brought on, magically quick and deep, by the abrupt exhaustion from sweaty sex before it. He saw his mind caught up in the blurred rhythm of remembered and expected sex, and glanced down dopily to see how noticeable his erection was; and then remembered further that he and Justin had barely touched each other for a fortnight. Of course the room had the illicit smell of hash now, though he could still pick up Lars’s ambiguous cologne, he was just beside him after all, a beautiful lime-scented presence sitting side-saddle on the edge of his desk. For the moment it made him careless and ironic about Justin. “Pass me the pipe again,” he said.

  When they’d both had another hot pull on it, he watched Lars get up and go across in front of him to shift some papers from the other chair and sit down. His movements were decisive but inaccurate, and Robin found that a comforting proof that they were getting out of it together. He had the feeling with this young man that he didn’t need to pretend, that he could perfectly well tell him things about his life and how it wasn’t one he’d ever planned on, things he hadn’t yet told to anyone else. It was the feeling of unexpected arrival that marked out some friendships in their first hours, and left other chance encounters as memories of unexplored potential. Even so, he was forty-seven, and stoned and horny, and knew what he was allowing to happen.

  “Wow,” said Lars, “this is quite something,” and shook his head and pushed both hands back through his shiny pale-blond hair. It was a three-legged Frank Lloyd Wright chair he was sitting on, with his thighs apart, following the suggestion of the triangular seat. Robin knew they weren’t saying much, but wasn’t sure if the boy did, or if they savoured the smiling silence in the same way — how many parts lust, how many mere stunned surrender to the drug.

  “You probably had a lot of coke first,” Robin said, and they both found something a bit comic in his words; sometimes everything you said was funny, and waited for with a bottled-up laugh, as if the simple fact of enunciation were preposterous — as it had often seemed in the giggly tedium of adolescence.

  “Whatsaname,” Lars said, “Danny’s lover is quite off his face, I think.”

  The words hung for a while in Robin’s mind before finding any clear referents in the outside world. He watched Lars undoing one, two, three shirt-buttons and sliding a hand in to stroke and comfort himself. The phrase “Danny’s lover,” which Robin had never heard before, was coolly unambiguous, but he couldn’t attach it to a particular person. He saw how lover had become a gay term; you didn’t hear straight people talk about their lover, there was a new defiance in the bucolic old word. He thought Lars might mean George, and said, “Well, he brought the stuff, didn’t he? He’s probably had much more than anyone else.”

  Lars was smiling distantly at him, as though he hadn’t heard him. Then he said, “No, you mean George. I mean his new lover.” He looked down, the matter seemed to be closed, but he added, “I hate George.”

  “Yes, he’s an absolute shit,” said Robin, which they both found extremely funny.

  “I’ve been with George,” Lars went on, “and I can tell you -quite uncategorically — how he treated me, well…he treated me like shit.”

  “He dumped you!” Robin said, with a broad new sense of metaphor. “Baby, you were lucky.” He swung round with a grin to sit square in the chair, with his strong Blue’s legs in their pale old denim stretched out in front of him. He let the matter of Danny’s new lover slip away into the remote context of the party and the night outside. He wasn’t going to do anything with Lars, but it was thrilling being with him. The reflection of the lamp in the window obliterated the view of the moonlit field they might otherwise have had. Robin felt a steady buzz between his legs, and a ringing in his ears, and surreally imagined them connected, like an impatiently thumbed doorbell. He laid a hand loosely across his lap, concealing and emphasising. It was a lovely mood, he felt his unrefusable sexual power again, with the certainty that it was what made his life worth living. Just the weight of his hand was electrifying. He saw the photos on the wall, and thought of Simon when he had first met him, and Marcus coming round in the afternoons while Jane was at the library; and Justin in the stinking Gents on Clapham Common — he dared himself to think of him, and found he could do so with a new complacency.

  Lars was crouching by Robin’s chair, with an arm across his knees to balance himself. His finger drew a little pattern again and again on Robin’s right thigh, but he was looking up into his face, hardly aware of what he was doing. Robin found himself gasping quietly, as if he kept forgetting to breathe. Lars’s features had taken on a marvellous intensity, they seemed to have been cleansed to their essential beauty in a solution of desire. Robin had never taken ecstasy, but he thought its effect might be something inexpressibly vivid like this. Lars was familiar, but he was compellingly strange too — Robin frowned and sneered as he ran his fingers over the young man’s cheeks and nose and open lips. Lars butted his face repeatedly against his hands, licking and biting them, and muttering what Robin might have said, “You’re so beautiful.”

  He slid up along Robin’s sprawled body, and the warm squeezing weight of him was almost a torture of exc
itement. They were face to face when someone tried the door, and after a moment a slow loud voice said, “I dunno, it’s locked, there’s a light on,” and the handle was rattled again. “Someone shagging in there already” — and a sullen laugh. Then the voices retreating, with a shouted afterthought, “Give ‘im one from me!” The two of them were still, their parched mouths inches apart, faces a flushed blur. Robin smelt the stale coke-breath that outlasted the sweet reek of the hash smoke; he tested it for its own perverse sweetness, since it was Lars’s breath. And then there was the kiss, slow and luscious at first, and then choking and ferocious, as though each was trying to cram his head into the other’s mouth. Something happened then for Robin, maybe it was the ghost presence of his lover’s cold kiss beneath the passionate kiss of this virtual stranger, some oblique and painful reminder, the drug’s jumped connections. He felt it sharpen and chill like the alarm that penetrates a dream before it wakes you. He held the boy’s heavy head away from him — he kept pushing towards Robin’s ear with the slurred whisper, “I want you to fuck me…” Robin said, “No…no…” firmly, regretfully, and made himself awkward against him, though he knew he was in no state to understand. He watched with guilty dismay as Lars struggled to his feet, pushing down his trousers and pants in a sort of sexual fury. Robin shut his eyes and heard the shout and felt the warm accusing strokes fall lightly across his face.

  “Darling, have you heard, we’re all going to Sicily,” said Justin, though the last word didn’t come out quite right. He was leaning by the sink with his arms round two young men, who were chewing and grinning on and off as they remembered or forgot where they were; one was half-naked and had a faint stubble across a once-shaved chest. Each of them seemed to support the others by some clever structural counterpoise. It was clear that Justin, who was merely very drunk, had happily synchronised with their different disarray. “We’re going to Sissy with Marge, and Curtains,” he said, shaking each of them in turn to win confirmation of this delightful new fact.

 
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