1998 the spell, p.19
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       1998 - The Spell, p.19
 

           Alan Hollinghurst
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  “Since you obviously can’t stand him!”

  Well, it was good to have the truth broken out like that. Alex blushed and murmured in a pretend refutation, though Danny was already putting his arms round him — he tensed and relaxed as a purposeful hand slid under his waistband.

  Every morning when Alex woke he thought of Danny; his thoughts emerged from the watery interview or vanishing railway-carriage of dreams, stumbled on for a few forgetful instants, pale and directionless, and then fled towards Danny in a grateful glow of remembered purpose. It was love, and all the day would be coloured by it. Or perhaps love was the primary thing, on to which the events of the day were transiently projected — that was how it seemed afterwards, when his memory gave back rather little from these months. Alex could never picture Danny as a whole — he was an effect of light, a cocky way of walking, a smooth inner thigh, a lithe sweaty weight, a secretive chuckle, a mouth drawn back before orgasm as though he was about to be sick. Alex woke up, thought of Danny, and on these lucky days felt his breath on his neck, or the curve of his hip under his hand.

  On the first morning at the cottage, Alex lay for a while exploring his mood. It seemed they had announced themselves as a couple after all, by coming away, it wasn’t like one of them sleeping over at the other’s place. He could say “we” now, but felt a superstitious reluctance to do so after trying it out in an imaginary phone-call. And it was true that Danny’s own riotous yacking sessions on the mobile, when friends rang from London, left Alex largely unmentioned, and foolishly unoccupied too, while the unheard jokes came thick and fast and the interrupted mood thinned out and disappeared…He raised himself on an elbow and looked at Danny, sprawled on his front with his head turned away; then ran his fingertips very gently across his shoulders, over the bare nape of his neck where the chain might have wriggled under the touch, the deep blue ineradicable knot of the tattoo, and down the long smooth slide of the back to the smooth buttocks where the kicked-off single sheet of a summer night dipped between and hid the rest of him. One or two pale hairs showed and a smear of wiped gel. He didn’t know if Danny was awake, and couldn’t tell if his super-delicate caresses were giving pleasure to both of them or merely to himself.

  In the cool of the evening they went for a walk up the hill. It felt unnatural to Alex to be in the country and not have a walk each day, but Danny said he thought that was only if you had a dog. They went up the back lane by Mrs Badgett’s and out into the fields — the way he had gone with Justin on that first late afternoon. Danny wasn’t protesting like Justin, but seemed even less certain what it was one did on a walk; he bounded about with a sudden access of energy after a day spent sunbathing and dozing while Alex mowed around him. At one point he climbed a tree and Alex waited in a prolonged paroxysm of boredom, saying, “Jolly good, darling, come down now.” He held hectoring conversations with uncommitted-looking groups of sheep. When they got to the stream, more stone than water now, and hedged in with tall coarse grass, he stood on the plank bridge and did a little shuffling dance, grinning at Alex as if they could both hear the music. Alex explained how this was the same stream that ran down and round and past the cottage, and had a moment’s recall of boys peeing into it, and finding the stars a poor approximation to clublight. He mocked Danny for his ignorance of country things — he couldn’t tell wheat from barley or an oak from a beech.

  Alex was looking out for the giant’s sofa, where he had sat with Justin six weeks earlier, but its shallow declivity was covered up with thick green bracken, and they climbed on past it and left it, like any of those unspoken sadnesses or unguessed embarrassments that one partner keeps from the other for ever. Higher up there was a tiny local outcrop of flat grey stones, and Danny loped up on to it. Alex followed and they stood for a while with their arms round each other and a sense of unspecified achievement. Danny smelt of sun-oil and sweat, sweet and sharp. They sat down, and he stretched out with his head in Alex’s lap and a happy sigh. It was as if he was leaving it to his older friend, with his particular knowledge of trees and probably harmless enthusiasm for crops, to appraise the landscape while he rested and chatted and purred under his hand.

  The end of day was extraordinarily still. Even the great ragged bulk of a grey poplar was motionless, until a breeze too slight to feel moved a little patch of it in a glinting whisper. Its shadow slipped towards them across the hillside, and every- where between the shadows the light grew tender and solicitous after the rigours of the day. Alex’s fair skin felt tight and warm — he’d childishly tried to keep up with Danny, who tanned easily. “You’ll have to plaster me in aloe vera,” he said.

  “I will, darling,” said Danny fruitily. “I will.”

  Alex looked down at him, the sun-pinked nose, the dip at the base of the throat, the lop-sided tenting-up of his shorts that any friendly physical contact seemed to bring about, the bare ankles scratched by grass stalks. It would have been unreasonable to expect more than this from life. He picked up Danny’s hand and kissed it.

  Danny said, “Is Justin rich?”

  Alex recognised that he and Danny didn’t often follow the same line of thought, so that when they did there was something explosively funny or sexily mysterious about it, like the first double-take of love itself. This moment was a different kind of telepathy. It struck Alex for the first time that Danny might be jealous of Justin. He said, “I was just thinking about that — in a way.”

  “Really?”

  “In a way. Yes, he is quite rich.”

  “He doesn’t show it. I mean, he doesn’t have anything.”

  “He says he’s going to buy a house — though you’d better not tell Robin that. He’s not mean exactly, but he does find it difficult to spend. Sometimes he gives himself a treat. He always goes in for the lottery, and occasionally wins the smaller amounts, you know, a few hundred quid.”

  “Of course I never win anything,” Danny said.

  “Then he came into a lot of money when his father died. I don’t know if I told you. His father had a factory. He made a rather ridiculous object of common domestic use.”

  “Oh…?”

  “He sold out in the eighties some time, as Justin didn’t seem to see his future in the die-cast business. The father was about sixty when Justin was born, it was quite unusual. He adored him and believed he was going to be a great actor, and never seemed to notice his lack of progress. There was a terrible bronze bust of Justin in their house, done when he was about twelve. He was very wounded when I laughed at it, it was highly idealised, and very sulky — it was the ideal sulk, I suppose; though I can tell you it was nothing compared to the moods he got in later on.”

  “Really?” said Danny encouragingly, like a child who wants to hear a particular bit of a story. And Alex hesitated at the thought of this one, because he had never told it and was afraid that merely telling it would fail to convey his meaning. He looked down at the village and the wooded hills rising beyond in the penetrating light, and thought of sitting almost here with Justin and taking in the view as if it were another unexpected part of the inheritance. Now he wondered if Justin would ever come back here, except to pick up his clothes and his clock. The horizontal sun shone right in among the trees and he saw a woman with a dog emerge from under them and skirt the field below as clearly as through binoculars, though she must have been half a mile away. In the field itself he saw how tractors had drawn curlicues in the silver-gold corn.

  “We’d gone away,” he said. “I suppose it was rather like the trial separation, except we were trying to be together. This was a bit over a year ago — last June.” Alex didn’t know how much to say; he felt he might make himself unattractive to Danny by giving him a true picture of his earlier failure, and the futility he had only recently been rescued from. He went on quickly, “We’d been having less and less sex — sometimes we went for weeks just lying side by side, or there’d be a quick hug and a “good-night.” Sometimes the vibrations would wake me up and he’d be having
a wank.”

  “Dear oh dear…”

  “I know, darling.” Alex thought he wouldn’t believe him if he told him how long he had once gone without sex. “He made me feel like a stranger in my own bed.” He could see this was also an alien concept to Danny, who rocked his head consolingly against Alex’s hip. “Anyway, I decided to take him to Paris on the train, and he said he didn’t want to go, he was perfectly happy staying at home and going to the off-licence. But I got a package deal at the George V, and that did finally seem too good to turn down.”

  “I hope you got a decent shag out of it,” said Danny, frown-ingly representing Alex’s interests.

  “Sure…” Alex swallowed again on the bitter lesson of that afternoon, Justin kissing him as though he’d been paid to do so, the sex only just possible. “Anyway, it didn’t last long. That night we got a call to say his father had had a stroke. Justin was out of the room for some reason, and I answered the phone, and had to tell him. He took it very badly.”

  “Well, that’s hardly surprising.”

  “I mean he was furious with me: for taking him away at a time when his father might have died. He said he had been worried about it all along; though in fact his father’s only symptom was being ninety-four or whatever he was.”

  “What about the mother?”

  “She’d died, from drink I think probably, when Justin was a schoolboy. I’m sure that increased his sense of guilty panic -he was the only one left. Actually guilt’s a huge problem with him, but that’s another story. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of his tempers, but in my view they’re always violent repudiations of guilt. So we rushed back on the first train, we were almost the only people on it, and then we got another train straight to Coventry, but when we reached the hospital his father was already dead.”

  “Hmm.”

  “And then after that it was just awful. I could understand what was happening, but if I tried to make him see that he was displacing everything on to me he thought I was attacking him. You couldn’t help him. And then there was the funeral and something very strange seemed to happen to Justin as he walked round, it was a baking hot day, and he realised he was the owner of this large ugly house full of Maples furniture. I have an image of it, I can’t really explain, I sort of dogged his footsteps, hoping I might be allowed to help him; but he was already taking possession, going from room to room totting things up in his head. We went out across the lawn to get away from the others, who were mostly retired old men from the works whom Justin simply couldn’t cope with, and who obviously knew nothing about us. I said, “Are you all right, darling?” or something simple like that, and he just looked at me, it was quite chilling, and said, “You are unforgivable,” and then turned and walked back to the house. I suppose he’d been drinking all morning. Anyway we never…made love again. That was the end for us. He was probably already seeing your father.” Alex glanced down at Danny, who appeared to be working it out. “Though actually I don’t think that was the point. It was the money. At last he’d got it, and he couldn’t bear the thought of sharing it.”

  Danny said, “Well, you said he was a taker, not a giver.” It was always interesting to see what he had remembered.

  The light was changing more rapidly, and only the long green top of the far hillside now caught the sun. Through the stillness Alex heard the distant scrape of a dog’s bark, and voices from the farm below, with its grass-grown ricks and empty sheep-pens, to show that there was life there after all. He loved this time of day, with its delicate atmosphere of reward, and this evening especially he was touched by a sense of pattern, or providence. He said, “It’s such a miracle we met.”

  “It is, darling,” Danny agreed, with an upward cartoon gape of joy which stealthily declined into a yawn.

  When they got in, Danny put on some dance-music — there wasn’t any talk about it, and Alex, who’d actually been feeling a bit Vaughan Williamsish, suppressed his disappointment. He’d brought down a double CD of Barbirolli conducting the “London” Symphony and the “Pastoral” Symphony, though its aptness was to remain a purely private satisfaction. He spread out the Sunday papers on the sofa and sat at an angle reading them while Danny danced loosely around with a bottle of beer held out in front of him. He found he had a new impatience with newspapers, and only skimmed the first paragraph of most articles before his eye twitched to another piece; he especially disliked full-page reports from crisis zones, with their out-of-date assumption that he had nothing more pressing to do than read them. He sometimes looked at opera reviews, but the only stories he really liked were ones about drugs. Another teenager had died that week after taking ecstasy, and happily there were several articles about her, forking over the same old lies and opinions. Alex, having taken the drug once, and read a lot of other articles on it, felt he possessed the subject, and sighed indignantly over what he read, while his heart raced and his stomach tightened in recollection of the experience. He was shocked and rather thrilled to find he was angry at the girl for fucking up. And now the music reached him like a hypnotist’s coded phrase, and set up a moaning hunger for some beautiful stimulant. He sat back and stared his hunger at Danny, who worked across the room towards him, like an over-animated stripper, until he had one foot up on the arm of the sofa and was inching his zip down and wheezing with stifled laughter; at which point the phone rang. They both stared at it peevishly, until Danny let Alex answer.

  “Oh, is that the wrong number?”

  “This is Bridport, um, 794—”

  “Darling!”

  “Oh, Justin…”

  “I thought I’d ring and find out how you’re getting on. It sounds like a disco down there.”

  “We’re just listening to some music”

  “Things have certainly changed, darling. I mean, it’s not exactly Frescobaldi, is it? Act Twelve, Leonora’s delirium.”

  Alex mugged regretfully at Danny over the receiver and watched him go off into the kitchen. “Have you had dinner?”

  “I wasn’t all that hungry.” It was worrying, sober oneself, to hear the quick decay of his speech, the half-conscious pauses and runs. “How are you getting on with Daniella Bosco-Campo?”

  “Extremely well.”

  “Did you know that was the Italian for Woodfart?”

  “We were on the brink of having sex when you rang.”

  “Let me see, where is it…Pettirosso Bosco-Campo is the father’s name,” Justin went on.

  “You’ve clearly signed on at a language laboratory since you got to town.”

  Justin grew arch at the slap of a sarcasm. “Let’s just say I’ve been talking to an Italian with a very large vocabulary.”

  Alex found he didn’t want to know. “Anyway, you’re getting on all right. Have you spoken to Robin?”

  “No, you don’t speak, darling, if you’re having a trial separation. You remain in your room, obviously much of the day is spent in meditation. It’s a time for plumbing the depths, darling.” Justin paused, and Alex suddenly had the impression that he wasn’t alone: an unrelated movement, a door tactfully closed, Justin perhaps unaware of these sounds, and the awkward collusion they demanded from Alex. “I don’t suppose he’s rung you?”

  “Not me. Danny called him this morning, I think it was, just to check up on him. Dan’s quite anxious about the whole thing, actually.”

  Alex thought Justin was absorbing this, with an unusual intuition as to how his actions affected other people, but after a moment all he said was, “I must say, it’s marvellous not being in the country.”

  Alex said stoutly, “Well, we think it’s marvellous being in the country.”

  Justin gave a dryish laugh. “Ah yes. It’s called Love in a Cottage, darling. Make the most of it, because it doesn’t last long.” He pondered his own words, and then said again, “Anyway, I just wanted to see how you were getting on.”

  “Thank you. It’s heaven,” said Alex. And as he rang off and stood there with the music pulsing past h
im through the empty room he thought that that was how it would resolve itself, the doubts and subtle disappointments would be forgotten, and it would be heaven after all.

  He went towards the kitchen and on a sceptical impulse stopped by the little commode and tugged open the top drawer. For a moment he thought he’d done Justin an injustice (that was an old play on words). There was a large album there, which he didn’t like to look in, and under it the Scrabble box, but already he had seen the edge of red paper and, loosely wrapped in it, the instantly discarded, never remembered book. He supposed that it would stay there for years after Justin had cleared out, and no one would know what it was.

  Danny was sitting at the table meticulously rolling a joint. Alex leant against the cold Rayburn and half-watched him, with disguised interest and relief. He thought how his little sighs and delayed breaths of concentration were like his breathing in bed. “We can just have this,” Danny said, “and then we can drop an E.” He ran his tongue along the paper’s edge. “That music’s really put me in the mood.”

  With the whole of gratification suddenly in view, Alex decoyed negligently. “I suppose you don’t want something to eat.” He didn’t know what it would be; he was a decent cook but felt unmanned by Robin’s kitchen with its hung-up switches of herbs and magnetised Sabatier knives. One of the cupboards contained a jumbled armoury of disassembled mincers and other patent devices in pitted aluminium and chipped enamel such as you might find in the pantry of an elderly relative. Another held labelled bottles of home-made wine, some with their corks rising. “It would be lovely to just find a meal,” Alex said, “all steaming on a tray.”

  Danny grinned and said, “Have some of this instead.”

  Five minutes later he said, “Feeling mellow?” and Alex nodded and kissed his cheek. There was something mellow in agreeing to the smug old hippy word mellow; just as there was something thrilling in submitting his high feelings about ecstasy to the drug’s autistic jargon, drug-fucked, monged, off yer face. They were lying on the sofa, and the CD, which was one long supple ride over a dozen linked tracks, had reached its cruising speed, and out beyond the dazzling rhythms a woman sang “Oh-oh yeah!,” the three notes shining and resonating as if called from a dome. It was just a sample, Danny said; the phrase came back identically perhaps a dozen times — the only words in the song. But Alex was instantly fixated on it, and closed his eyes to see it in its imagined height and depth. It sounded like a welcome and an absolute promise, the yes of sex and something bodiless and ideal beyond it — what it might be like to float over a threshold into total acceptance by another man. Danny’s head was nodding gently to the rhythm against Alex’s chest — “Fucking great, this one,” he said.

 
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