The swimming pool librar.., p.19
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       The Swimming-Pool Library, p.19

           Alan Hollinghurst
 

  ‘Hallo, Will,’ he said as usual.

  ‘Hi, Bill …’

  ‘His Lordship said you’d be coming down. This is Alastair, by the way.’ He rested his hand on the boy’s head.

  ‘Hello,’ I nodded. Alastair blinked, shuffled and pummelled the air in front of him, breathing in and out like a steam train. I laughed with relief that Phil had not come with me.

  ‘It’s a big night for us,’ said Bill, ‘hosting the Nantwich and being in the finals. We’re placing a lot of hope in this young man.’ Looking at Alastair, I was not surprised. Unlike the scrawny little bruisers of the first bout, here was a boy, older, certainly, broad-shouldered, with some unconscious charismatic glow to him. Bill’s hopes, too, cannot all have been sporting. His protégé had a handsome, square-jawed head, pink and gold colouring like my own, and instead of the bog-brush haircuts of his team-mates a trendy coiffure, cropped short and close at the sides, with sprouting golden curls on top: he looked like the inmate of a penitentiary as imagined by Genet. Along his erotically plump upper lip ran the licked blond wisps of his first baby moustache. I felt a churning of lust for him, and the mood of the churchyard, which had abated a bit among the mums and dads, crazed me again. ‘Come and see him do his stuff,’ said Bill—and we went back into the hall as the bell for the end of the first fight rang out.

  I didn’t know if Bill was being very cool and ironic, or if he assumed I would know that he was Shillibeer and that he played a part in the Nantwich feudal system. For the moment he was too engaged with the boxing, running across to speak to Alastair’s father (who was biting his cheek with anxiety in the second row) and showing how he belonged by making fluent, familiar remarks—‘All right, Sean? That’s the stuff!’ ‘You gotta watch that left, Simon’—all with a slightly forced or stagey air, brought on by the tension of the occasion (for Bill was a shy, sober man) and perhaps by my presence there.

  We had seats right at the front, by the Limehouse corner, and the floor-level view of the ring, the scuffling of feet on the canvas, the alarming lurch of the ropes towards us when one of the boys fell against them, made it a disturbingly immediate spectacle. When Alastair’s name and age and weight were called out, Bill subsided to the seat beside me and seemed exhausted by his anticipation on the child’s behalf. ‘He’s darned good, he’s darned good,’ he said to me. Then the bell rang.

  He was paired with a black boy, heavier than him but less agile. Alastair, who had hyped himself into a state of dancing aggression by the time that the two of them touched their white-knuckled gloves together, moved about with wonderful deftness, rather keeping himself to himself at first, but darting in for arhythmic, chancy jabs. Like many boxers I’d seen, people like Maurice at the Club, Alastair was not physically large; his shoulderblades and scruff, uncovered by his royal blue singlet, were not packed with muscle, and his upper arms, though long and powerful, lacked the volatile, easy massing that many ordinary working boys could muster. He ambled in for a swift succession of blows, left, right, left, that sent his opponent onto the ropes, half tripping as he fell backwards. As the referee sprang between them, conjuring an eight-second standing count with the deaf-and-dumb gestures of the ring, the voices rose for Alastair—his father loud and abrupt, and the juvenile babble of his team supporters and mates. One trio of teenage stylists bawled their encouragement while grinning and chewing, selfconscious, acting manly, caring and not caring. After a little more capering about the round ended.

  Bill was on his feet in a second, propelled by sheer anxiety and commitment. The helmet-whiskered man was planning to do the mopping and pepping up, but Bill snatched the stool and bounded up between the ropes, pushing his boy into the corner with an awkward, forceful accolade. I looked up at them and half caught Bill’s remarks, a mixture of love and surprising complaints. ‘You’re letting him off, you’re letting him off,’ he said. ‘And don’t forget your fists’—useful advice that was followed by dogmatic, nodding one-worders, as he sponged Alastair’s flushed, upturned face, wiping brusquely at the unspoilt features, and running his sopping embrace around the boy’s shoulders and up the shorn, gold fuzz of his neck. ‘Beautiful,’ he said. ‘Great. Smashing.’ Alastair just nodded back, saying nothing, staring entranced at Bill, breathing in keenly through his nostrils. When the bell rang, Bill popped the gumshield back into his mouth, swelling and spreading the pink lips into a fierce sneer. Then, as the referee bobbed backwards to the ropes, they were off again.

  The second round was unspectacular at first; the St Albans boy was by no means unattractive, I decided, if of a rather slow-witted, suspicious expression—and he managed to place a couple of good body-shots under Alastair’s guard, shots that were rare in this kind of fight. Then Alastair sent through a vicious jab to the black boy’s face, where we heard not only the muffled smack of the glove but beneath it a strange, squinching little sound, as of the yielding of soft, adolescent bone and gristle. As the boy fell back Alastair followed up, before anyone could stop him, with a second blow of punitive accuracy. Cutting the air between them with his arm, the referee held Alastair off, gestured him away, and as he did so caught up his left glove in his hand. Across its blancoed surface, smeared by the impact of the second blow, was the bright trace of blood.

  Bill turned to me with a look of relief. ‘He’s done it,’ he said. ‘They’ll have to stop it now. Yes, he’s done it.’ The shouts in the hall were modified with a sympathy easily accorded to the loser, and Alastair, himself looking rather stunned, cheated somehow by his own victory, jogged about in the ring, punching the air, which was all that was left for him, and showing he had hardly noticed, he needed a fight. After brief deliberations between the ref and the officious, serious judges (this was their life, after all) the unanimous decision was announced. Then Alastair relaxed, hugged and patted his opponent with a careless fondness, and did his lively round of thanks and handshakes. I was moved by the propriety of this.

  Bill of course went off with his champion, and after I’d watched the opening of the next fight, which didn’t promise to go so well for Limehouse, I wondered what the hell I was doing and sloped off too through the audience and out by the swinging blue doors. Through another door on the right I heard the familiar fizz of showers and felt the familiar need to see what was going on in them.

  There was such an innocence to the place that they saw nothing suspicious in my presence there—nothing either in Bill’s, who, freed from adult prerogatives, absorbed himself with earnest complicity in this little manly world. The mood here also was one of pure sportsmanship, of candid bustle, like a chorus dressing room. Both teams shared the facilities, and Alastair and his opponent sat side by side on a bench, Alastair undoing, with patient, soldierly tenderness, the bandages that bound the black boy’s hands, and then offering his own hands to be undone, his wrists lying intimately on the other’s hairless thigh. The black boy wore a plaster woefully along his already puffing cheekbone.

  ‘I’d have a shower, lads,’ said Bill professionally. Watching the lads undress I felt, as perhaps Bill always felt too, not only randy curiosity but a real pang of exclusion, in every way outside their world. The shower was a perfunctory business and soon Alastair was back by us, towelling himself with surprising unselfconsciousness for a sixteen-year-old. I realised why it was, when, after tucking his long-skinned dick into cheap red knickers, and pulling on a grey jersey and those baggy, splotch-bleached jeans which look as though a circle of kids have jacked off all over them, he said to Bill: ‘I got to go and see my girlfriend.’

  Bill grinned at him wretchedly. ‘Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,’ he said.

  7

  At my prep school the prefects (for some errant Wykehamical reason) were called Librarians. The appellation seemed to imply that in the care of books lay the roots of leadership—though, by and large, there was nothing bookish about the Librarians themselves. They were chosen on grounds of aptitude for particular tasks, and were known officially by the name o
f their responsibility. So there were the Chapel Librarian, the Hall Librarian, the Garden Librarian and even, more charmingly, the Running and the Cricket Librarians. My aptitude, from the tropically early onslaught of puberty forwards, had been so narrowly, though abundantly, for playing with myself and others, that it was only in my last term, as a shooting, tumid thirteen-year-old, that I achieved official status, and was appointed Swimming-Pool Librarian. My parents were evidently relieved that I was not entirely lost (urged absurdly to read Trollope I had stuck fast on Rider Haggard) and my father, in a letter to me, made one of his rare witticisms: ‘Delighted to hear that you’re to be Swimming-Pool Librarian. You must tell me what sort of books they have in the Swimming-Pool Library.’

  I was an ideal appointment, not only a good swimmer but one who took a keen interest in the pool. A quarter of a mile from the school buildings, down a chestnut-lined drive, the small open-air bath and its whitewashed, skylit changing-room saw all my earliest excesses. On high summer nights when it was light enough at midnight to read outside, three or four of us would slip away from the dorms and go with an exaggerated refinement of stealth to the pool. In the changing-room serious, hot No 6 were smoked, and soap, lathered in the cold, starlit water, eased the violence of cocks up young bums. Fox-eyed, silent but for our breathing and the thrilling, gross little rhythms of sex—which made us gulp and grope for more—we learnt our stuff. Then, noisier, enjoining each other to silence, we slid into the pool and swam through the underwater blackness where the cleaning device, humming faintly, swung round the sucking tentacle of its hose. On the dorm floor in the morning there were often dead leaves, or grassy lumps of mud, which we had brought in on our shoes in the small hours and which seemed mementoes of some Panic visitor.

  I told Phil all or some of this when he asked me about swimming, and showed him my Swimming-Pool Librarian badge (brass letters on red enamel, with a bendy brass pin) which, along with my preliminary lifesaving badge, I still had and kept in a round leather stud-box on my dressing-table. The box itself, aptly enough, was a gift from Johnny Carver, my great buddy and love at Winchester. Phil was round at my place for the first time, and it seemed to arouse a curiosity in him which had been almost abnormally absent before.

  ‘It smells so rich,’ he said.

  ‘That onion flan, yesterday—my old socks …’ I apologised.

  He was close enough to me now to laugh at anything. ‘No, no. I mean it smells expensive. Like a country house.’

  I still dream, once a month or so, of that changing-room, its slatted floor and benches. In our retrogressive slang it was known as the Swimming-Pool Library and then simply as the Library, a notion fitting to the double lives we led. ‘I shall be in the library,’ I would announce, a prodigy of study. Sometimes I think that shadowy, doorless little shelter—which is all it was really, an empty, empty place—is where at heart I want to be. Beyond it was a wire fence and then a sloping, moonlit field of grass—‘the Wilderness’—that whispered and sighed in the night breeze. Nipping into that library of uncatalogued pleasure was to step into the dark and halt. Then held breath was released, a cigarette glowed, its smoke was smelled, the substantial blackness moved, glimmered and touched. Friendly hands felt for the flies. There was never, or rarely, any kissing—no cloying, adult impurity in the lubricious innocence of what we did.

  ‘Are you into kids?’ Phil asked.

  ‘I’m into you, darling.’

  ‘Yeah, but …’

  ‘You know it’s illegal, our affair. Officially, I can’t touch you for another three years.’

  ‘Christ,’ he said, as if that altered everything, and paced around the room. ‘No, I think kids can be quite something. After fourteen or so. I mean I wouldn’t touch them when they were really small …’

  ‘No—but a little chap who’s already got a big donger on him gets a hard-on all the time, doesn’t know what to do with this thing that’s taking over his life—that’s quite something, as you say.’

  Phil grinned and blushed. One of the reasons he loved me was that I put these things into words, legitimised them just as I was most risqué. He was encouraged by this franc-parler to explore the new possibilities of talk, sometimes in so reckless a way that I thought he must be making things up. The men at the Corry came in for particular attention. ‘I really dig that Pete/Alan/Nigel/Guy’, he would quietly celebrate as we dressed after a shower, or emerged onto the evening streets again. The wonderfully handsome, virile and heterosexual Maurice seemed to excite him in particular. ‘What a pity he’s straight, man,’ Phil would say, with charming and earnest shakings of the head.

  It was a touching advertisement for free speech. But at the same time it caused me a twist of jealousy. If he was getting into this kind of mood about Alan, Nigel and the rest, who knows what might not happen when I wasn’t there to receive his confidences but Pete or Guy in person was, with queeny smile, easy tumescence and buttock-appraising eye? In the pool one evening I’d introduced him to James, who had clearly fallen parasitically for him at once; but I saw no danger there. There were more reckless propositioners, like the laid-back Ecuadorian Carlos with his foot-long Negroni sausage of a dick; his (successful) opener to me had been: ‘Boy, you got the nicest dick I ever see’—a gambit only really useful to those who are pretty well set up themselves. And a few days ago, as we were all drying, I had heard him, forgetful or careless of this, say to Phil: ‘Hey, you got a really hot ass, boy,’ and watched Phil redden and ignore him—and say nothing of it to me.

  I probably needn’t have worried. We were having such a good time ourselves. Most of the days I spent at the hotel, where I got to know Pino and Benito and Celso and the others. Late evenings and nights were passed in sleep and sex in that transitory little attic room with its picture of Ludlow from the air. Phil would sleep until eleven or so each morning, but the fabulous weather went on and for the heat of the day until we hit the Corry at six, we were up on the roof in the sun.

  It was a narrow, gravelled island we had to lie on, guarded by glazed brick chimneys and, running along the sides, a prickly little gothic fence of iron finials and terracotta quatrefoils. Beyond this, on either side, the roofs fell steeply away, caught up here and there into dormers, and punctuated with parapets and turretlike protrusions. On the left we looked out into the upper branches of our close neighbours, the plane trees in the square; from here the road, in the gulf between them, was lost to view, though we heard its rumbling and squealing far below, and in the silence between the lights the distant slap and splash of the three fountains in the public garden. On the right we looked down on the bulk of the hotel, its inner wells, ventilation shafts and fire-escapes. Beyond all this we were in the company of other tall buildings—the humourless monoliths of the Senate House and the deserted Centre Point, the green dome of the British Museum Reading Room—beyond which the pretentious corner cupola of the Corinthian Club could just be discerned. There was no one much about on these eminences, on all the surprising secret acres among the water tanks, the escape-ways and the maintenance ladders. The hotel roof itself we always enjoyed alone.

  We spread towels over the softening asphalt, and lay on them in our swimming-trunks, at first, but later, when no one threatened to disturb us, naked. We fed each other’s bodies with sun lotions—a low-screen one for most of me, but for Phil, who was just starting on his tan, and for my hitherto untanned bum, one with a high protection factor, which needed (I suggested) almost continuous reapplication. We were very happy on the roof, sometimes reading, sometimes stroking and exciting each other, mostly just soaking up the sun. Phil would rub my tits or my cock, or send his fingertips over me more gently than tickling, whilst the sun beat on my closed eyelids like summer lightning over crimson lacquer. When I opened my eyes the sky would be so bright it looked almost dark. Then I would turn over and doze for an hour with my face half-buried between the spread cheeks of his ass.

  And we talked—hours of particular, loving banalities. I
insisted on how his opinions mattered, and developed and construed his platitudes into aperçus he was far from entertaining himself. Because I was in love with him, and had brought him out, I believed in a core of redeemable talent and goodness in him. I had found him frowningly reading the Daily Telegraph but had nudged him on to The Times, which we pulled apart on the roof for him to read the news whilst I dawdled over the crossword, or tried to decipher the misprint-coded concert notices. One day I read a review of a Shostakovich concert that I had been booked to go to with James, and realised with a lurch of guilt that I had stood him up. I had rushed back to the hotel with Phil instead—he would have been sitting on my face just as the ‘terminal introspection’ commended by the reviewer was at its most abysmal.

  Not that Phil was stupid, but he had made his way in the world without the constant love, the lavished education I had had. Indeed, being lonely, he had read a surprising amount—Hardy, The Forsyte Saga, Dorothy L. Sayers, John le Carré, Wuthering Heights—but without forming any ideas about the books. Intermittently, on the roof, he was getting through The Go-Between.

  ‘What d’you make of it?’ I asked.

  ‘Oh, it’s okay. It’s a bit boring in places, when he’s fighting with the plants and stuff. Ted Burgess is all right, though. I imagine him looking like Barry at the Club.’ He smiled wistfully. When at last he finished the book he said he didn’t think much of the ending.

  ‘Well, the idea is that seeing Ted and Marian shagging in the barn so freaks him out that he can never form a serious relationship with anybody when he grows up.’ He was clearly dissatisfied with this.

  ‘That couldn’t happen, could it?’

  ‘I suppose it is pretty unlikely,’ I agreed. ‘Still, in a general way it holds good. I expect you had something momentous in your childhood. It’s the whole gay thing, isn’t it. The unvoiced longing, the cloistered heart …’ He looked at me cautiously and was struggling into some unpromising anecdote until I climbed on top of him and kissed him quiet.

 
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