1998 the spell, p.18
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       1998 - The Spell, p.18
 

           Alan Hollinghurst
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  Of course it was difficult for young people — really young ones. Nobody could quite explain it, but it seemed to be impossible for Danny to have a proper job. Robin didn’t help him much — there was surprisingly little family money. Alex thought Danny’s whole upbringing had been so dispersed, back and forth between schools and colleges in England and America, that it had somehow affected his powers of concentration; or maybe it was an early diet of Class A drugs that was responsible. There was something almost self-mortifying in the jobs he did take on; and he had left two of those since Alex had met him, and was moodily disinclined to explain why. The phone was ringing and Alex hurried inside.

  “Darling, it’s your erstwhile lover,” said Justin.

  “Um…who would that be?” said Alex vaguely.

  “Very funny, darling. Now look, have you heard from Robin?”

  “Yes.”

  “And are you going to go down to Hinton Gumboil and mow the lawn?”

  “I don’t know yet. Is mowing the lawn part of it?”

  “It’s the essential part, darling. I’m amazed he didn’t mention it. There will be a list on the draining board — hedging and ditching, topping and tailing, mopping and mowing…”

  Alex laughed tolerantly. “I don’t mind all that.”

  “Because as you’ll have gathered we’re going to be away for a couple of weeks, and frankly without my incessant attention the garden will become a mess.”

  “Yes of course. I can see that. You’ll be in Clapham, will you?”

  “Well, he will. I’m in the Musgrove.”

  “How do you mean?”

  Justin paused. “Ah. He didn’t tell you.”

  “We only spoke for a moment.”

  “We’re having a trial separation, darling.”

  “Good god…Are you all right?”

  “Things have been hopeless lately, as you can’t have failed to notice.” There was a large swallowing noise — not emotion, Alex realised, but gin. “Frankly, I think it’s over. But I’ve agreed to have a further think. So I’m doing it in the Musgrove, which is marvellous. He doesn’t know where I am, by the way. I’m just having a pre-dinner drink.”

  “Where is the Musgrove?”

  “Don’t you know it? It’s just next to Harrods. I’m the youngest person here by about forty years. It’s where old lady dons stay. They all wear brown felt hats in the dining-room. I think a lot of them are lesbians. I mean real lesbians — you know, female ones.”

  “Well, I don’t know what to say.” Alex was surprised to find his scepticism so quickly vindicated, and surprised at how he felt for his old friend, when it should have been Robin he identified with. Justin was clearly quite drunk; he pictured him in this funny hotel — the elderly side of his character. He thought he must want company.

  Justin said, “I’ll probably buy a house.”

  “Right…”

  “They’ve finally sold Daddy’s place, so I’m swilling in money. There’s no rush, of course. I’ll have a look round while I’m here.”

  Alex couldn’t imagine him doing anything so practical. The mention of Justin’s father lit a fuse, which he tried to stamp out, to the muffled explosion of a year ago, the awful week of his death and the funeral. “Where were you thinking of?”

  “What’s Hammersmith like these days?”

  Alex said, “I think you need somewhere more central,” rather quickly and frigidly.

  “Anyway, we’ll see.” And Justin passed suavely to another question. “So how are things with Miss Daisy?”

  “Fine.” Alex found that despite the openness about Robin there was something impolite and even treacherous in discussing his own new affair with his ex.

  “Mmm?”

  “It’s fine. I hope he’ll like the Dorset idea.”

  “I should warn you that we’re hideously unpopular down there.”

  “Since the party?”

  “They weren’t mad about us before, but they loathe us now. There were formal complaints. PC Bertram Burglar came round and gave us a wigging.”

  “Did he darling?” Alex was sorry to have missed that. “It was only noise, wasn’t it?”

  “It was homosexual noise. That’s what they don’t like.”

  “We were very tidy.” Alex remembered the time, about 4 a.m., the sky already paling, when they had all started clearing up obsessively; apparently it was an effect of the cocaine. Glasses were gathered and washed, bottles collected; disco-queens darted round with dusters and damp cloths, furniture was swiftly and exactly rearranged; he had found Danny in the lavatory, putting all the back-numbers of the Architectural Review into chronological order.

  Justin said, “They don’t really know you, so you should escape the worst of the contumely.”

  “I certainly hope so,” said Alex, tickled, lightly haunted, to hear that word again, which Justin had learned in an audition piece and kept on using with a variety of meanings.

  “Mrs Dodgett is still with us, of course, and the Halls. The Halls are virtually outcasts too, but they only play Gregorian chant.” And following a clear process of suggestion Justin paused to refill his glass — Alex heard the clink of the ice and the joggling noise as it rose in the fizz of the tonic. “So you’re in love, are you?”

  “Yes, I think so. I mean, I am. He does seem pretty keen.”

  “Don’t keep too tight a rein on him,” Justin said impatiently, as if this was something he’d meant to get off his chest a year or more ago.

  “No, darling.”

  “Did Robin say anything about it?”

  “He apologised again for what he’d said before.”

  Justin seemed satisfied by that. “It came as a bit of a shock to us,” he said, in his parental mode. Then, “Is it an open marriage?”

  “Certainly not. No, we’re living together. You know I’m incapable of an open marriage. He has every opportunity, but I’m sure he wouldn’t mess around.”

  “He’s fully settled in at Brassica Road, then.”

  Alex was a little exasperated by this. “Well, he has his own place, but mostly he’s here.”

  “I’m just trying to picture it, darling. I’m rather jealous.”

  “You don’t need to picture it, it’s nothing to do with you. Jealous of whom?”

  But Justin laughed tremendously at that.

  Afterwards Alex saw that he should be flattered by this vicarious interest. He had a quite pleasant sense of himself going up as Justin went down, and of being recharged in Justin’s eyes by his success with Danny. But then he saw that if Justin left Robin he would be on the loose again, and he felt a feebly possessive instinct realerted. He also thought wistfully how nice it would be, on top of all his other perfections, his sulky beauty and manic energy, those breathtaking sprints and tranced lulls, if Danny made him laugh like Justin did.

  They didn’t travel down together. Danny, who was free to do so, went down the day before on the train, and had arranged to be met at Crewkerne by Terry; Alex wasn’t sure if he was paying him. He went disconsolately to a straight dinner-party in Wandsworth, in the house of contemporaries who seemed to him already middle-aged; he felt he had dropped a decade. He wanted to tell them about his new impromptu life, so remote from these pleasant predictable evenings, and he noted their nostalgia and worry when the talk touched on what their teenage children did, but he kept it to himself. He always took the young people’s side, which was droll for someone who worked in pensions. His last dinner-party had been a takeaway at Danny’s friend Carlton’s, where they sat on the floor and listened to techno. Techno was like house, but “harder,” as Danny said, and seemed to have no words or tunes in it; you could only have it on very loud. It wasn’t the perfect Tafel-musik, but Alex had loved crouching there and bawling his head off.

  Danny rang early next morning, as excited as a child. “Hurry, hurry, hurry!” he said. “It’s fantastic down here. I’ve been up since six. It’s a fantastic day!”

  “I’m just on my
way, darling.”

  “Good. I can’t wait to see you.”

  “I’m longing to see you.” Alex laughed. “I do adore you, Danny.”

  “Oh I love you so much,” said Danny, and rang off as if too elated to say anything else. Alex gazed at the phone with tears running down his cheeks and an aching erection.

  He hardly noticed the three hours of the journey, they were eaten up by his thoughts and feelings. It was a hazy morning which clarified into stunning heat, and he roared along with the roof down in a private vortex of wind and sunlight. He sensed there were comparisons to be made between this journey to Dorset and the earlier two, but he left them luxuriously unexamined. The points on the route, turn-offs, sudden views, an ugly garage, cropped up with the stumbling fluency of something almost learnt, expected as soon as seen. When he came to the junction where an old white finger-post made the first reference to Litton Gambril his heart raced with proprietary emotion. He had to remind himself that the villagers were all against him; though when he drove past the church and the cottage gardens with their pink rose arches and the early lunch-time groups outside the Crooked Billet, he knew the place was nothing more than indifferent to him.

  The gate was open and he ran the car in on to the bricks. Any moment he would have his first sight of Danny, perhaps leaping up through the garden to meet him — he jerked his bag out of the boot with a smothered smile as if already being watched. But there was no sign of him yet, there would be a tiny delay, which seemed worse, now Alex was here, than all the solitary hours before. Danny’s faded pink tank-top was hanging from the back of a deck-chair, a casual flag of occupancy.

  The front door was locked, and Alex went round to the back; he heard Danny’s voice before he saw him and the knowledge that he wasn’t alone was like the small black cloud that briefly cheats a sunlover. He scowled to think some terrible bore had called in, to complain perhaps; or even that Danny had asked someone else to stay — he was startled at how his mind ran to that unlikely possibility. But it was only Mrs Badgett. She had her back to Alex, but Danny saw him and lost the thread of the talk as he looked past her and started smiling. “You remember Alex…”

  “Hello Mrs Badgett.” For the moment he just nodded amiably at Danny, as if he knew all about him but hadn’t yet been introduced.

  “Ah, there he is! I was just saying to Danny how you couldn’t keep away.”

  “Not possibly,” said Alex rather archly.

  “Now, have you brought any champers this time, that’s what we want to know.” Alex merely grinned at this. “Ah, you boys had a good time, anyway.”

  “I wish everyone was as nice as you,” Danny said, scuffing his bare feet on the grass. It seemed all he had on was a tatty old pair of shorts. Alex saw that he still wasn’t wearing the gold chain, another tiny cloud, but it burnt up and vanished in the glow of his gaze. He was astounded that Danny, who was a ravishing idea of his, could actually be standing in front of him, the perfect and only embodiment of himself, reconstituted in every detail, remembered and unremembered — after a moment he had to look away. Mrs Badgett’s presence added a hallucinatory element of suspense.

  “I’ll tell you something,” she was saying: “they’re a lot of stuffy old buggers in this village. When did they last go out dancing, I wonder? They’ve got no idea of how to have fun, most of them.” And she swung her hips as if she wouldn’t mind having a bit of a dance right now. Alex tried to refocus his attention on her. He thought that the green-fingered motherly side of her character coexisted with something gypsyish that you saw in Terry too. Perhaps that explained their connection with the caravan business. Terry had told him something about Mr Badgett at the party, but he couldn’t recover the facts from his blurred memory of the whole odd episode, during which he had got the impression that Terry was offering him sex for money. He’d been somewhat offended by that, on top of his trifling jealousy of Terry as a former bedmate of Danny’s.

  Danny said, “Are you going to the disco up at Broad Down?,” not quite seriously.

  “I might well,” she said. “I might well. I’m not sure I’m exactly in tune with the music these days. If I can get Terry to put on some of the old slower songs, I wonder if he’s got them though.”

  Alex thought the conversation was never going to end. He stepped back to pick up his bag from the lawn, and gave Danny a staring, hungry smile over her shoulder. They only had four days here together, they couldn’t waste time like this.

  “Mind you, when I was your age,” she said, half-turning to take in Alex as well, which proved how much younger he’d become, “we went into Weymouth for the rock “n” roll dances every week. I’ll tell you who was a great dancer, was Rita Bunce. You know Rita, don’t you, up at Tytherbury. Of course she’s a fair bit older than me, she married a Yankee airman over here in the war. There was a whole lot of them stationed up at Henstridge…”

  “I’m just going to take my stuff in,” Alex said.

  He went through the kitchen, where a wasp was tapping and fretting against the window-pane, and into the sitting-room. Everything had been tidied away, and there was a fusty stillness inside the house which added to the mood of sexual expectation. He felt as if he had broken in — he couldn’t explain the dreamlike sense of truancy; he supposed it was something to do with Robin’s not being here, with his butchly assertive way of knowing how to do everything, as though each loaf baked and log chopped implied a scorn of you for not having baked or chopped it yourself. And then Alex did remember his earliest visit, seeing Justin naked and amazing in the kitchen as the bread rose, before he even knew that Danny existed; his testing the nature of his feelings, despair and perseverance in a dubious alloy.

  Danny was laughing and shouting “Alex!” from the kitchen. Alex said nothing, but stood where he was, almost helpless with the certainty of happiness. Danny strode in and ran at him with a comic growl, jumping up on him with his arms round his neck and his legs round his waist and smiling so much that it was difficult to kiss.

  They slept in Robin’s — and Justin’s — bed; and again Alex had a sense of transgression, which faded when he was in it, with Danny in his arms, but came back to trouble and please him when he woke in the early light with one arm numb from Danny’s weight, and the beams, the bedside table and all the furniture of that other relationship steadily materialising out of the dark. The nearly noiseless tick of Justin’s little clock, and its visible quivering escapement, lent an eerie continuity. Then he slept again, and woke and slept, always with the reassurance that Danny slept more heavily while he himself was fitfully vigilant and protective. Afterwards he thought of the cottage on these days as a place of sleep, and the garden too as a sleepy hollow, in its dull high-summer greens now the blossom was over, with wood-doves in the trees and the stream dwindling and trickling in the heat as if half-asleep itself. Despite all his alertness to Danny’s presence, and his honeymoon sense of luck, he kept waking up and squinting at the time and finding how much sleep had got the better of him.

  Danny seemed to share his awareness of the absent couple. To him they were usually a fairly comic proposition, though now there was a note of puzzlement and concern about his father. He would ask Alex idle questions about them as they lay on the grass with the papers or soaped each other in a lukewarm summer bath. “Do you think Justin and Dad will get together again?,” “I wonder what Justin’s doing tonight.” Alex was no more likely to know the answers than he was, and Danny laughed in his disquieting private way, as if at a strain of romantic folly to which he was himself immune. He seemed intermittently aware of Alex’s shyness on the subject.

  In the bathroom on the first night, getting ready for bed, he said, “You don’t know what it’s like having a gay dad.” Alex thought of Murray Nichols, his own father, distantly benign, industrious, hidden in his work, and tried to imagine him seducing one of the junior partners: he couldn’t even get the hand on to the knee. He said,

  “I suppose it’s a further twist o
n not being able to imagine your parents having sex.”

  But Danny said, “I can imagine him and Justin only too well.”

  “Yes, so can I,” said Alex, and changed the subject abruptly. “Aren’t you wearing your chain any more, darling?”

  Danny started to clean his teeth, and made a garbled noise with the brush in his mouth. “Whore Darn Laid Learn!” he explained.

  “I didn’t quite make out…”

  He stooped and spat and found Alex’s eye in the mirror. “I said, Sorry darling, I left it in London.”

  “That’s okay — you don’t have to wear it all the time…You don’t have to wear it at all.”

  But he was treating the matter seriously. “No, I want to. Actually I took it round to George to get it valued. I thought it ought to be insured. I meant to pick it up before I left.”

  “Oh…It’s not that precious,” said Alex.

  “It is to me,” said Danny, with sentimental promptness.

  Alex pushed in at the basin, the light adhesiveness of skin pressed against skin. “You didn’t say you’d been to George’s.”

  Danny was baring his teeth and peering in the mirror. “Yeah.”

  Alex thought he’d almost rather hear that the chain had been lost. His instinct had been against George from the start. The fact that Danny never talked about his friendship with him, even when asked directly, was odd, since he gossiped graphically about everyone else he knew. Alex was certain he’d invented the valuation business just as a pretext for seeing George. “How is old George?” he said, as if he weren’t afraid of him.

  “Mm? Fine”

  “Well, give him my best,” Alex said, undecided what degree of irony to go for.

  Danny was slipping him an old-fashioned look in the mirror, and when Alex said “What…?” he shouted with laughter and then kissed him on the cheek. Alex hoped for a second that the whole thing had been a tease; but Danny said,

 
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