1998 the spell, p.17
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       1998 - The Spell, p.17

           Alan Hollinghurst
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  The man covered his uncertainty with a deprecating frown — he clearly wasn’t much of a fighter, hiding out in the office after midnight on the pretext of a crucial phone-call or a report to write; he hoped to slip out of the door without saying a word. He was at the paper towel dispenser when Danny added innocently, “Though I love snow myself. I sometimes feel I can’t get enough of it.” At which the man said,

  “Ah. I see. Well…” — and they started their improbable transaction. Danny imagined the man would give him some, but saw in a second how that friendly idea was also a kind of blackmail. He had the narrow envelope of his first week’s pay in his back pocket, and he was suddenly ready to spend sixty or seventy quid from it; he thought with slovenly affection of Alex’s longing to pay for him, his readiness to make up any shortfall. He put his money on the tiled surround. The little banker had taken out his wallet and fiddled a tiny oblong packet from an inner crease. Danny unfolded it and dipped in a finger to taste it, and rub a few grains on his gums. He looked into the mirror, as if it might enhance his connoisseurship, and saw his own white-shirted figure shockingly replicated, as though by another mirror in the shadows behind him — replicated and distorted. Martin was even more noiseless than he was.

  Danny tidied everything away, with a rare deep blush, and a sense that they’d all agreed this was a bad idea. He put his money back in his pocket and did up one of his shirt-buttons. Martin went to the door and held it open. He said, “You’ve got five minutes to be changed and out of the building.” The muscles of his raised arm did their own impressive police work. Danny was silent and didn’t want to plead or make terms in front of the other man. “And you, sir, I would advise to be very careful.” Then Martin was gone.

  “I was being careful,” said the man to the closing door, as annoyance quickly replaced fright.

  Danny gave him a perhaps unallowed half-smile. “It was my fault,” he said. He did feel very foolish, and looked back on- his thuggish little “snow” jokes with a cringing reluctance to think he had made them. “Well, I’d better get going.”

  The little banker in his suit, with his huge expendable income, and his worries quickly dissolving, said, “Look, I’m sorry about this.” Danny shrugged, half annoyed by his genial tone. The guy must be feeling really good, as the two huge lines of coke kicked in.

  “My fault,” he said again; but as he turned away the man touched his arm and said,

  “Why don’t you have this, if you’d like it. It might help, tonight at least. Really, I’m trying to stop it — this must be some sort of sign. Besides, I’ve got loads more,” he added incoherently. He laughed and offered Danny the doll’s-house letter again. “It’s tip-top stuff.”

  So, with a halting eagerness, as though such an offer could only be a trick, he palmed the thing.

  “All the best,” said the man, quite sentimentally, when they were in the corridor. He swung away towards his office, a hand across his mouth for the moment to hide the irrepressible smile.

  It was 1.30 when Danny got out into the deserted street. He walked for a few yards and then turned and gave a jeer of defeat at the dark glass building with its random high-up squares of light. It was surprisingly chilly. In Leadenhall Street a lit taxi came sailing magically towards him, and he got into it, and saw he had to make a plan. It was too late, or too early, to go to Alex, and anyway he wasn’t in the mood for explanations. If he went home he would fidget morosely and feel sorry for himself. The decision hardly needed to be made, and he told the driver to go to Charing Cross Road. As they raced out through the plastic chicanes which constituted the “Ring of Steel” around the City he wished he could give the place some symbolic insult, like Becky Sharp throwing her Dictionary out of the carriage window. It had been an expulsion, but his mind would soon be working to turn it into a triumph, or at least into a providential moment of change. It was what Gordon had said to him, between, or even during, their bouts of excessively conversational sex: you had to embrace change. He saw Gordon bouncing up and down as though Danny were an exercise machine, and burbling on about God’s plan for the universe to show that he wasn’t out of breath. Poor Gordon! That was an affair that had never been likely to work, even if they had been lovers in Galilee in the first century AD. He chuckled noiselessly to himself at the thought of his real life, with its multiple choices and general freedom from censure, and saw that he felt better already. He would have a night of excess, and then the whole episode could be forgotten.

  The Drop was packed when he arrived and he pushed his way through to the bar and ordered a large brandy and coke. It was important to be served by Heinrich, whom he’d had a brief intense fling with, and who always gave him back in change the whole amount he had just handed over in payment. As the coins slipped from hand to hand it was clear that neither of them could remember why they weren’t still together. Danny swung about a bit with his drink on the edge of the dance-floor, and leaned in at the little gate of the DJ’s desk to give him a kiss between the wires of his headphones. He exchanged nods and smiles with a few regulars, the older men he was sometimes so drawn to, and let his eyes run over what he called the usual strangers, young tourists who jammed these low brick cellars all summer long, and gave off such a heady mood of temporary trashiness. Then he went into the Gents and chopped some coke up crudely with a phone-card and snorted the biggest line he’d ever had, since it was free and he felt he’d earned it. He waited there for a moment or two, wondering impatiently how Martin had got on to him, what he hadn’t noticed. He thought he might have followed him for some sexual thing; maybe he should have offered himself to Martin. He pictured the scene, and gripped himself between the legs as the coke opened up his mind and sent its amusing surge of energy through his limbs. It was tip-top stuff. A bit speedy, maybe. He was going up more sharply than he’d expected -he was olympian, but alight. He wondered if he’d ever been randier. He burst out into the club with something between a laugh and a snarl.

  Even so, he danced for a while, just because of the power in his legs and the spreading hilarity he felt. Someone he vaguely knew came up and hugged him and he told him he’d been fired — he raised his hands as he danced and shook the thing away, the veil of shame and self-accusation. The boy laughed too, since Danny was happy, and said, “Congratulations!” Danny was so relieved to find that everything was all right.

  He didn’t think this guy was hot enough to have sex with. He had a look in the Ladies, which was always very busy on a Friday or Saturday night, when ladies themselves were not allowed in the club. The main space was sometimes taken up by a slowly mutating body of men, a couple maybe having sex in the middle while ten or twelve others pressed around them, staring and saying “Yeah” and “Fuck him,” jacking off and getting caught up with each other in turn. But at the moment nothing much was happening, though rapid jolting noises from one of the cubicles showed that someone had got the right idea.

  There was a mysterious dim passageway which started outside the lavs and went round two corners before ending up by the front door and the cold draught down the stairs from the street above; Danny had sometimes emerged from the corridor blinking as if from an improbable erotic dream. He swaggered along it now, past heavily groping couples, and at the first corner he met Luis, a big Brazilian boy in boots and falling-down jeans and a leather waistcoat, muscly but a bit plump too; his back was long in proportion to his legs and he had a big head of curly dark hair. He looked like a giant dwarf, Danny thought, as Luis frowned at him, and then gave him a smile with some gold in it, and put his arms round his neck and his tongue in his mouth. Danny pushed him against the wall, with one hand in the cool sweat at the top of his bum, and the other, after a moment’s polite hesitation, working roughly at his loose crotch.

  They agreed to go back to Danny’s place — this was too good to squander in five minutes in the toilet. It turned out Luis had a friend in the club, another Carioca, whom they went to say goodbye to, a thin, poetic-looking boy all in bla
ck. After a minute 6’f impenetrable muttering, perhaps an argument about keys and plans for the morning, Danny placed a hand on both their necks, apprehending them from the Utopian height of his mood, and said to Luis, “Why doesn’t Edgar come with us?”

  He rang Alex at 7.30. “Hi darling,” he said, in an airy, somehow miserable way.

  “Hello, sweetheart. I hope you’re hungry!”

  Danny let out a little groan. “I’m not really. Actually, I’m at home.”

  “Oh darling. Are you okay?”

  He paused in the face of Alex’s innocent whole-heartedness, the maternally prompt note of worry. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. I just felt a bit strange in the night. I don’t know…”

  “I’ll come over. I’ve made the pancake mixture, but that doesn’t matter. Let me see, can I bring you anything? Have you got some Disprin?”

  “No, don’t. There’s no point,” Danny said, with an edgy jump of volume that he regretted. “Really, Alex, I just need to sleep for a few hours. I’ve been up all night, remember…Okay…I’ll ring you later, darling…I’ll ring you later…okay…bye…bye,” and he squeezed the End Call button with a vivid, not wholly serious image of prising someone’s fingers from a life-raft.

  He pulled on his boxer shorts and went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Dobbin was sitting at the table, with a haggard but sentimental look. “Dan, my man,” he said. “That was some wild shit last night.”

  “You look like you had a good time,” said Danny.

  Dobbin cast around the room for help in conveying what he had been through. “I was stuck down this fucking K-hole for like, forever,” he said. “And they’re all saying, “Come on, man, let’s get out of here,” and I’m like, “I can’t move, guys! Don’t leave me, guys!””

  “You’re always getting stuck down a K-hole,” said Danny. “I don’t know why you keep doing that stuff.”

  “Am I…? Yeah…” Dobbin pursed his lips and nodded slowly to suggest that Danny was right, he’d have to get a rein on this thing. “What about you man?” he said.

  But Danny didn’t feel like accounting for his night with Luis and Edgar. When the kettle boiled he said with a yawn, “I think I’m going to give up this job. It’s too boring, being stuck there all night, with nothing happening.” He’d never had ketamine, with its notorious hour-long “holes” of dissociation, but he said, “I might as well be in a K-hole.”

  “Right,” said Dobbin, with a slow laugh. “Except of course you get paid for it.”

  Danny took his mug of tea to his room, closed the door and then set about stripping the bed. The rucked bottom sheet was damp with sweat and blotted with drying semen. Dark pubic hairs jumped up from it as he pulled it tight. He searched the duvet and the bedspread, which had been thrown aside at the beginning, and pulled the pillows out of their cases. He ran his hands over the roughness of the carpet under the edge of the bed. He looked for a second or third time in impossible pockets. But the truth was unavoidable: he had lost the chain.

  He tried to think how or when it might have happened. The night was rather a blur. They’d all had their hands in each other’s pants in the taxi, and from the moment they reached the house it went — wild: Danny was no better than Dobbin at expressing where he’d been. They had wolfed up all the tiptop charlie, which even the Latin Americans were impressed by, and drunk a whole bottle of brandy that the Halls had given him for his birthday. They had been through every reasonable sexual permutation that three men could manage, and given up on one or two others with baffled laughter. They just didn’t stop. Edgar was what Alex quaintly called Danny: a demon. Though what that made Luis…The time shot by. And then the boys were getting dressed, talking quietly to each other in Portuguese, with odd nervy gestures in his direction. There was something weird about it, a sudden professional distance, as if his time was up. It was true there was no more drink or coke. They hid in their language, they couldn’t explain why they were going. Luis left a number on the mantelpiece, and said “Call me”; he and his friend, in their jeans and boots and sweat-shirts, each gave the nake,d Danny a friendly but formal embrace. Then they left. And then Danny, puzzled, drifting round the room unable to decide if it was accusing him or congratulating him, raised his hand to his throat and the shiver of a suddenly noticed loss. He dialled the number now, and was told by the pleasant unanswerable woman in the machine that it was not available.

  The chain couldn’t have slipped off, whatever they were doing; it was too tight, and the pale stone mounted in the little pendant hung high on his chest. The reddish gold could simply have snapped, but it seemed unlikely, old and fine though it was. Looking at the night in which he had lost both his job and his lover’s antique gift he had a sense of himself as a person in a fable, caught up in a sequence of symbolic actions. He remembered inconclusively a story in which a fish swallowed a wedding-ring. And then he knew that that was what had happened. Luis had bitten through the chain, and swallowed it. All the kissing and biting of Danny’s neck had been a preparation for the theft, he could have made a dozen unsuspected attempts at it. Danny saw the glimpses of gold through saliva when he smiled, and recalled one odd po-faced stare when perhaps he already had it in his mouth and didn’t know if his action had been noticed. It made Danny shiver again, and then wonder if it could possibly be true.


  The phone rang. “Alex, it’s Robin here.”

  Alex was at work, and for a moment he thought it must be someone in the building. “Oh…”

  “Robin Woodfield”

  “Oh, Robin. I’m so sorry. Yes!” And he heard himself coming vocally to attention to meet the challenge of Robin and sustain himself at the right pitch of pretended friendliness.

  “I hope it’s all right ringing you at the office. I can’t get through on Dan’s mobile.”

  “Of course. I probably won’t be able to talk for long,” said Alex, proud and embarrassed at the same time to be coupled with Danny by his father.

  “I’ll keep it short. It’s simply that we’ve got to spend the next two weeks or so in town, and we wondered if you and Dan would like to use the cottage for some of that time — all of it, even. I don’t know what your holiday arrangements are.”

  “Gosh.” He hadn’t heard that smoothly unanimous “we” before, and felt the force of it like the buffeting air of a passing limousine. He said, with a critical kind of modesty, “Well, I can’t speak for Danny. But it sounds a lovely idea.” He glanced at his secretary — it was the first time he’d mentioned his new boyfriend in the office — but she seemed unshaken by it; though she must have noticed, he certainly hoped she’d noticed, his general rejuvenation and hip new taste for life. “I’ll ask him later. And one or other of us will give you a ring.”

  “Fine.” There was a pause, in which Alex flicked through various pointless possible topics. All he said was,

  “It’s very kind of you,” with a certain suggestion that he didn’t expect kindness. But Robin was saying,

  “And again, I’m very sorry about what I said at the party. I wasn’t in my right mind, I’m afraid.”

  “Well, none of us were.”

  “No…You must have thought I was mad. I think I am going a bit mad,” said Robin, with such candour that Alex felt it must be an act.

  “I’m sure you’re not,” he said firmly; he did think Robin’s behaviour worryingly erratic, every time he saw him he did something you might call mad, but he didn’t want to give him that excuse. “Don’t worry, I can hardly remember it myself.” What Robin had said was, “Christ, Dan, you can’t be serious.”

  Alex thought again about that “we” when he got home. For a long time the idea of Justin’s being half of another couple had been so painful to him that he shut it out with a heavy black drop, like the curtain that comes down in the interval with “For thine especial safety” written on it. Things had slowly improved, although the moment of turning back the duvet retained its charge of inadmissible misery; he took to sl
eeping diagonally, so as to occupy both sides of the bed. That first weekend in Dorset had made him almost hate his own loyal, retrospective nature. But since the night at Chateau so much had changed, change itself became beautiful to him, and he looked at Justin’s new life with casual fondness and scepticism.

  Even so, the “we” had lightly winded him. He changed out of his suit into shorts and a T-shirt, put on the washing-machine, which he thought Danny could well have done earlier, opened a bottle of Sauvignon and went to sit in the garden. The palette-pricking gooseberry of the wine was a phenomenon, and he commented on it in an undertone, in a knowing day-dream that Danny was also there. And that, he supposed, was the point: how much Danny wasn’t there, and how far he was from the legitimate use of a “we” himself. Danny needed air and distraction. Alex groaned with wonder at the thought of a week with him in the country, but he hardly dared put the plan to him.

  This evening Danny was seeing his friend Bob, a handsome Jamaican who had shocked Alex at the party with his assertion that at thirty-one he had never been in love. Alex had cross-questioned him in a coke-fuelled harangue and clutched at his arm until Bob clearly thought he’d fallen in love with him. “We young ones don’t fall in love,” he said, with a large emotionless smile. “Oh yes we do,” said Alex gamely. Bob’s auntie was an air stewardess, and often swallowed fifty or sixty small packets of cocaine before a flight back from Kingston. Danny was supposed to come home with something tonight, and Alex was so excited by the idea, and by the matter-of-fact criminality to which Danny had introduced him, that he persuaded himself it wouldn’t happen.

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