1998 the spell, p.16
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       1998 - The Spell, p.16
 

           Alan Hollinghurst
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  “Mark, and Curtis,” said one of the boys, with actually rather thin tolerance, and lifted an empty champagne bottle to his lips.

  Robin looked at them from his own stoned distance. Standing alone by the stream for five minutes, ten minutes, his head ringing, his eyes twitching across the plains of stars, he had been gripped by a ghastly adolescent sense of helplessness — though he knew his thoughts had been wilfully fucked up or unblocked by the hash. He was still so randy that he shivered and swallowed as his mind groped round Justin, round one or two others at the party, and Lars of course, to whom he’d ended up feebly saying, “I’m very sorry, please don’t tell anyone”; as he’d watched him go off into the shadows he was picturing what he might have done with him if they’d met up fifteen years ago in some club —. though Lars was only about nine then probably. Robin found himself laughing dully at the thought that he could have seen him as a schoolboy on his honeymoon trip northwards with Simon; their visit to the wooden palace at Trondheim came back to him with extraordinary clarity. That was another effect of the drug, a vividness of memory, almost as if under hypnosis, he could walk from room to room of a house he hadn’t seen for twenty years, or feel the presence of a long-forgotten man with the stifling closeness of a figure summoned up by a medium.

  “Where have you been darling?” said Justin, and the boys tittered because he had an amusing way of speaking — he could hint at a lurking joke in “Pass the salt,” which was why there was something so grim to his black moods, when his command of the saving funniness of things was shown to be a mere rhetorical trick.

  “Have you missed me?” Robin asked, running his hand over the top of his head with a sudden horror that it might still be streaked with Lars’s dried semen.

  Justin paused to consider this opportunity for marital pleasantness. Maybe he sensed Robin’s unusual odour of guilt, maybe Lars had in fact blabbed about being led on by Danny’s daddy in the garden shed. Justin said, “I’m entertaining, darling. I can’t think of everyone,” at which Robin managed a pained smile and turned away to find a drink. He felt the usual loneliness of the party-giver heightened, a memory of something he didn’t know had happened to him, the time when all the guests had gone and you went to bed alone.

  A hawkishly handsome young man was standing by the fridge, watching the party’s lurching rallies through the kitchen with a cool smile. Perhaps because he was wearing both a shirt and a jacket he gave the impression of being unpopular. Robin cracked himself a beer and nodded at him, and the boy said, “Hullo there, you don’t know me, my name’s Gordon,” as though he was trying to sell him double-glazing over the phone.

  “I’m Robin…Danny’s father.”

  “Ah yes!” They shook hands, Gordon lowered his head and peeped up at him in a mock-modest way that seemed to carry some reproof. “You’re enjoying the party,” he said.

  “Am I?” said Robin, wondering just how bombed and sweaty he looked.

  “I mean, I hope you are.” Gordon laughed, and of course it was the slight Scottish colouring to his voice that gave him his critical leverage. He nodded sideways, at the boys, the music, the chaos. “It might be quite a shock having all these youngsters in the house.”

  “I was a youngster myself, you know, until…well, quite recently,” Robin said, with a powerful smile.

  “I didn’t mean to suggest you were old.” Gordon gestured at his own physiognomy, and then toiled in his error: “Heavens, I’m thirty-four myself. It was my birthday last week, in fact. Born June the sixteenth 1962, in Perth’s Memorial Infirmary.” Robin nodded and raised his can in salutation. “Ah, there are a couple of seats free,” Gordon said, and ushered him towards them as if, whatever he might claim, he was venerable enough to need a sit-down.

  “Um…”

  “You may be asking yourself how I know Danny,” Gordon was saying. “We slept together a couple of times, not far apart, back in February. Once at his place, once at mine.”

  “Ah,” said Robin, wondering if he’d missed the passage of some new freedom of information act. “And just how far apart did you sleep?”

  “Ha-ha,” said Gordon dryly. “No, we’ve kept in touch. And I was very honoured to be asked to the party.” Robin supposed he could see what Danny had seen in the young man; the humourless twinkle was itself obscurely provocative. “I don’t really do this sort of thing any more.”

  Robin hid his sympathy with that remark. “You’ve not done any of this, for instance?” — nodding at a couple leering rival-rously over the busy razor.

  “What, the charlie, the snow, the laughing powder?” said Gordon, with the weary sarcasm of a customs officer. “No, I don’t do that stuff. I don’t drink, either,” he added, clarifying something else Robin found odd about him, the scary availability of his hands for exaggerated gestures; again there was the sense of salesmanship. “No, no. I prefer the high of life.”

  “Ah, that,” said Robin.

  Gordon leant forward — they were knee to knee. “I think the real excitement comes from embracing life as it is, not escaping from it into unsustainable fantasies.” He was smiling, but Robin thought there was some kind of challenge in his unconver-sational tone, and said easily and courteously,

  “Don’t you think sometimes the escape can be part of the embracing? I mean, altered mental states, or whatever, may all be experiences worth having.” Gordon was looking at him intently, and Robin recognised the attitude of someone who waits with apparent respect for a phrase they can attach their argument to. “How do you go about embracing life as it is?” Robin asked. “At any given moment?”

  Gordon didn’t answer this directly; he smiled thinly to suggest he’d spotted a trick question. Then he said, very quietly and confidentially, “We have to be ready for change, when it comes.”

  Robin said, “Yes, quite. Though as an architect I have a certain taste for permanence…”

  “I don’t think we have any idea of the changes that are going to happen, very soon, as God’s plan for the new universe is worked out.”

  Robin snickered, out of irritable embarrassment at…his name being mentioned, and also at the contrast between this encounter and the previous one in the shed, which he saw in a vivid regretful flashback. Of course the boy was an evangelist, and an evangelist of change, which would make him all the more inflexible. He said, “I don’t know about that,” and looked around. Gordon had rather cleverly got them trapped in these chairs behind the door and out of the rescuing flux of the party. Robin saw his own progress through the evening, a veering line through the margins of his son’s event, a sequence of volatile encounters in the near-dark. But Gordon’s next question seemed to let him off:

  “Do you read much?”

  “Not as much as I’d like,” said Robin. “I’ve been reading a bit of Hardy lately; for local reasons.”

  “Uh-huh?”

  “Thomas Hardy? Celebrated Dorset novelist. And poet.”

  “Right…You haven’t read Arthur Conan Doyle.”

  “Oh. Well, not since I was a boy. I suppose everyone reads him when they’re young, don’t they? Or used to, anyway.” Gordon nodded — that seemed to confirm something he’d heard. “Do you just like the Holmes stories or do you like Brigadier Gerard as well?”

  There was a pause while the question was assayed for relevance. “I’ve spoken to him,” Gordon said.

  “Brigadier Gerard, you mean, or — ?”

  “I’ve spoken to Arthur.”

  “Recently?”

  “A friend of mine is in close and frequent contact with him.”

  “I see,” said Robin. “You mean your friend’s a medium” -aware that he had thought of mediums only minutes before, which was in itself faintly spooky.

  “Arthur is very much one of the higher spirits working for world change. A truly great spirit.”

  Robin’s eyes made a quick panicky search of the kitchen. Danny was just slipping out into the garden. He wondered if his son had heard all this from Gord
on, or if they’d been too busy having sex. He supposed he must have invited everyone in his address-book, perhaps from a fear that few would come so far — though the bores, of course, were always eager to travel.

  “He has a very fine voice,” Gordon was saying. “I may say a truly fine voice.”

  Robin didn’t know quite how to signal that for him the conversation was over. “What did he say?” he asked, and took a scowling swig from his beer-can.

  “I’ve got to wait. He told me I’ve got to wait; and when the time comes to move, then he’ll let me know. With the Millennium, of course, there will be many and great changes. He said, “You’re in the right place at the right time,” which was truly wonderful. It’s already been a great help to me with traffic problems, always getting a green light, avoiding the major tailbacks at road-works and so forth.”

  “That must be useful.”

  “Oh that’s just a tiny example. It was Arthur who told me that I had been a sixteen-year-old fish-seller in the Holy Land at the time of Jesus Christ.”

  “You’d never suspected?” Robin had an abnormal sense of himself as a fount of unnoticed irony.

  “He also told me that I’m not really gay. I just happen to be attracted to certain men. It’s a spiritual thing, in fact, a spiritual magnetism; usually we’ve known each other in another life. Arthur said what I really have to find is a wife, he was strict about that.” And here Gordon too looked round the room with a tinge of anxiety. “It’s the woman’s destiny to support the man,” he said; which perhaps gave some idea of the nature of the new world order, when it came about in four years’ time.

  “I don’t know about that,” said Robin, shaking his emptyish beer-can and beginning to nod goodbye.

  Gordon had an almost cunning look. “I understand you’re now living as a gay man,” he said.

  “Well I am a gay man,” said Robin. He stood up, and as he did so he saw Justin stepping cautiously out into the garden. “Ah, there goes life,” he said. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go and embrace it.”

  ELEVEN

  Early in July, Danny got a new job, working nights in security at a City office-building. He knew Alex wouldn’t be pleased, and mentioned the hours — eight till six — quite negligently, like a child vainly hoping to slip some new freedom past its parents. Alex looked aside with an instant bright flush, as though he’d been slapped, the corners of his mouth turned down. Danny saw that he hadn’t chosen the moment all that well, the early-evening chat over Alex’s kitchen table; the distinguished bottle of wine he’d persuaded him to open was a clumsy palliative — of course he wouldn’t want to celebrate. “I’m not working Saturdays,” Danny said.

  All Alex said was, “Oh darling.”

  Danny felt the reproach, and said, “I need the money, Alex.” And then, “I know the hours aren’t great for us, but the pay is really good.”

  Alex was both hesitant and impatient as he took up his old theme: “I’ve got masses of money…”

  Danny sighed in acknowledgement, and said, “I know that. But I can’t live off you.” He wondered if he should bring in a gibe about not being a kept boy, but saw the confusion in Alex’s face and took a shifty sip from his glass instead.

  “I don’t see why not.”

  Danny said quietly, “I’m not Justin,” and then gave a little laugh at the idea, picturing him in this house. It was the careless mockery of a predecessor, with its tacit fraction of suspicion that the predecessor might still be a rival. “You know I hate doing nothing.”

  “I know, sweetie, but nights.” He could see Alex doing the calculations he had already done, as to how they could meet, and for how long; and keeping them to himself in case the correct answer was even worse than it seemed. It was won- derful to be loved so much by somebody, and Danny jumped up with a surge of cheerful fondness for Alex and went round behind his chair and hugged him loosely from above.

  “We’ll have fantastic weekends,” he said.

  “Mm.”

  He poked his long tongue into Alex’s ear, and when he had him shivering and swallowing he played him the tune he knew he wanted to hear, though he did it like an urchin, not a tempter: “I’ll take you out and stuff you full of drugs.”

  The effect wasn’t immediate. It would have been rather hurtful if it was. Alex had to bend slowly and gracefully to the idea without suggesting that it erased his earlier doubts. “But you could do that anyway,” he said. Danny saw the benefits of having kept him on such a short leash — he had yet to give him his second E, though Alex had begged him for it, and even sulkily pointed out that he’d paid for it. “Well that would be lovely,” he said.

  Danny slid round and sat across his lap for a short snog. “Anyway,” he said, “you know me: I’ll probably resign within a week.”

  He started a couple of days later and pretended to Alex that it was a terrible drag; he never tried to tell him quite how much he liked the job. He had always been a night creature, sometimes went to clubs that didn’t even open till three or four in the morning, and found himself in a state of incredulous alertness whenever Alex wandered off at 11.30 or so to clean his teeth and clamber into bed; so there was nothing abnormal to him in sitting out the small hours in St Mary Axe except the silence and the sobriety. The expanse of time he had learnt to set aside for the long trajectory of an acid trip or a couple of Es was now spent keeping a casual eye on the blue eventless-ness of a bank of video monitors, or making hourly tours of the corridors in the fifteen floors above.

  Three guards were on duty at any time, one of them a superior. They took it in turns to move about, and Danny was given a break at 1 a.m. when he went to the staff-room, made a new thermos of tea and read for an hour, or wrote in his notebook. The life of the building wasn’t simple, there were several firms that worked there, some of which closed down at six, while others straggled on till late, a couple of voices in an office, a single desk-lamp or computer-screen reflected in a window. The lifts were all switched off and waited with their doors open and mirrors gleaming, but he had a special key to operate them for the planners and dealers of the early hours. It was high summer, so the shift began in the refined late daylight and came to a close with the light strengthening again beyond the tinted plate-glass of the lobby. Around five their reflections began to dissolve and the narrow old street outside to redefine itself, remotely as though some trance-like stimulant were wearing off. The cleaners came in as he was hanging up his uniform, and he could leave for the early Tube with a beautiful sense of having seen something through that you never got from a banally visible day-job. Then there would be breakfast with Alex and if he didn’t feel like sex he could tease him and deafly press for second and third helpings, heaping on praise for his cooking, until Alex simply had to get dressed and leave for work; and then a long uninvaded morning of sleep from which he would wake about three with a bizarre absence of hangover symptoms or other toxic after-effects. The successful discipline of it all gave a sparkle to his self-regard.

  His first week he worked with the same people; the senior one, Martin, was a moustached fitness-freak of about fifty, with a barrel chest and upper arms that stretched the vented seams of his short-sleeved shirt. Danny imagined he was gay, though various discreet remarks based on this conjecture had been met with a distancing sarcasm. The other man was a morose heterosexual with a pudding-basin haircut and a copy of Mayfair in his locker. There was a mood of stifled sexuality about the place through all those vacant hours, and Danny assumed that the other two were also caught up in private worlds, and imagining quite different scenes as they gazed at the steeply angled views of the lobbies, the goods entrance and the underground car-park.

  One night at the beginning of his break Danny went up to the fifth floor to have a wank in the Gents; it seemed too obvious to use the staff toilet, and the choice of floor was subliminally tipped by the attractive young banker who often worked late up there and might be glimpsed or smiled at or even run into in the mirrore
d seclusion of the Gents. After five days of soft-soled patrols Danny was alert as an Indian guide to the faintest tremor of sex. A superficial search of desk-drawers had confirmed his suspicions about two or three of the brokers and re-insurers. He grinned at their shared secret, and then at the image of himself in the windows, trapped above the dark City like a lonely volunteer for an experiment in deprivation: he noted he was grinding his teeth from sexual frustration; already he was masturbating up to three times a shift.

  He sprang his dick admiringly from his uniform, and was just getting going when he heard the door of the gents open and swing shut and then a voice call out a tentative hello. He said nothing, and after a moment the newcomer went into a further cubicle and bolted the door. Danny couldn’t check on him, as the partitions came prudishly down to the floor — there was no opening for the quick bold contacts you could have in American rest-rooms. Still, he heard the knock of the seat-lid being closed, and just made out the rustle of paper and the hurried chopping noise of a plastic card on the china cistern; then a pause and a couple of sniffs; and then the chopping and sniffing repeated. Danny smiled — from amusement, and an unclear sense of power, as a kind of proxy-policeman, zipping himself stealthily back into his navy serge; and from reckless fellow-feeling, the pounce of hunger for a line or two — no, a whole night — of cocaine.

  There was the sound of a flush, for authenticity, followed at once by Danny’s — he pictured the suspect’s alarm, and saw it too, in the man’s guilty search of the mirror as he stood vigorously washing his hands. Danny came up behind him and his mood was an oddly sexual mixture of strength and need, though it wasn’t the pretty banker standing there, it was an unlikely user, with glasses and a wedding-ring glutting through the slather of suds he was unconsciously working up — Danny saw the strains of the job and the marriage and the funny confidence of the coke being tested against them. He turned a tap on too, and smiled at the man in the mirror — he thought there was a certain friendly menace in his own bearing, with the blue epaulettes on his white shirt, but the tie left off, two buttons open. He made up a joke that had a nasty blandness of euphemism to it: “Who’d have expected snow on a night like this?”

 
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