1998 the spell, p.2
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       1998 - The Spell, p.2

           Alan Hollinghurst

  “Okay, so you’ve been out to Taliesin West, you’ve seen the…stumps, those big pillars of the Pauson House, all that’s left of them. What else?”

  Robin smiled sportingly, and absorbed the fact that he was a tourist among many others. “No, I’ve only just arrived.”

  “First stop the Blue Coyote. A man who knows what he’s after.” Sylvan slapped the bar lightly. “I could do a lot of that kind of research. Same again please, Ronnie,” to the turning barman. “And another beer?”

  “I’m fine,” said Robin. “No, I’ve been out to the ruins of the Ransom House today.”

  Sylvan paused and nodded. “Yeah. That’s serious. I never saw that. You know, if you’re in school here, you get to do all of that stuff. I remember the day he died, old Frankie Lloyd, and the teacher comes in for art class and tells us with a real catch in his voice, you know?, “ladies and gentlemen…” We were all pretty upset.” He looked at Robin with a wistful pout, as if he still needed consoling. “So how the hell d’you get out there? You got four-wheel drive?”

  “I got an Indian from the reservation to drive me,” said Robin, still proud of his initiative.

  “Wo-ho! And you lived to tell the tale?”

  “Just about, yes…” — and now he was uneasy about grudges and feuds, the hardened candour with which a local hopes to disabuse the naively fair-minded newcomer. He wouldn’t tell him about the sand-trap. “No, he was great. Just a kid.”

  Sylvan looked at him with concern. “Well you were lucky, man. Cos I’m telling you, they are the worst.”

  It was true that Victor had been an unsettling driver. But he’d also been clairvoyant. In the moment or two that Robin disliked Sylvan he saw how beautiful he was; and surely available to him, completely at his pleasure, if he said the word. He had to frown away the smile that rose to his lips on a kind of thermal of lust.

  “It’s the drink or it’s the peyote,” Sylvan went on, fluttering a hand beside his head to suggest a crazy befuddlement.


  “You know peyote? Edible cactus. Gives you visions, man.” Sylvan swaying his head and making a little crooning sound. Then grinning and putting a reassuring hand on Robin’s own, and leaving it there. “No, it’s part of their religion. Isn’t that great? Big ceremony, eat peyote, trip out…Of course the kids here are into all that now, the hippies? They go out in the desert and they’re out of their fuckin’ heads for days on end.”

  Robin wasn’t sure if that was a good idea or not. He’d got a kind of trance off the desert as it was, he could breathe in and feel it again now, a partly physical elation; and something else, that perhaps was religious, or at least philosophical, the inhuman peace. He pictured that burnt-out folly, which was a lesson taught to a wealthy family who presumed they could make a home in such a place and lay a claim to it. Was it $10,000 they’d spent just on drilling for water? He was watching a very camp couple smoking and bawling with laughter. He thought how he wasn’t that kind of person. He shifted his weight so that his leg pressed against Sylvan’s knee. He realised he’d had a plan for the evening involving dinner and a phone-call; but the plan was meaningless in face of the unplanned. With a little freeing twist he withdrew his fingers and then slid them back between the other man’s.

  “So…” said Sylvan.

  Robin looked into his long-lashed, untrustworthy eyes. “Is there a phone here?” he said. “I must just make a quick call.”

  The phone was in the back by the Gents, in an area even bleaker and more functional than the bar. He dialled and stood gazing at the deadpan irony of an old enamel sign saying “NO LOITERING.” He wasn’t a loiterer. To him the words had only ever meant “Get on with it!” When he made his infrequent visits to the lavs at Parker’s Piece or in the Market Square, eyebrows raised as if at the exploits of someone else, he always seemed to find gratification at once, from a man who clearly was a loiterer, and had probably been loitering for hours. He was through to the operator, who sounded relaxed, almost sleepy, but a nice woman, who took pleasure in bringing sundered friends together. A man came past and nodded “Hi!” to him, like an overworked colleague — Robin gave an abstracted smile and peered into the imagined middle-distance of the expectant caller. He was both keen to talk and keen to have the conversation over.

  When Jane answered he was talking at once, and he felt it like a rebuke when the operator spoke over him to ask her if she would accept the call.

  Then, “Hello Janey, it’s me,” he said, “did I wake you up?” -and heard his words repeated, with a fractional delay, by the unsparing mimicry of the transatlantic echo.

  “No, I was awake,” she said, as if it might be an emergency.

  “It must be quite late.”

  “It’s twenty past one.”

  “Anyway, you’re all right?”

  “Is everything all right?”

  “Yes, it’s amazing, I can’t tell you.”

  “Because if it is, I’m so glad you rang.”

  “Oh thank you, darling,” murmured Robin, with a vague sense of undeserved success. “I just wanted to hear your voice, and tell you I’m all in one piece” — and the echo gave him back his last words. When he spoke again, he found she was already talking.

  “Actually I was asleep. I’d just got off, I’m extremely tired, but I’m so excited at the moment that it’s quite difficult to go to sleep.”

  Robin had left her only two days earlier and her words were at odds with his assumption that she must be missing him terribly. He was jealous of her excitement, but also reassured, in a way, that she could be excited without him; she seemed to license his own unmentioned freedoms. “Has something happened?” he asked lightly and cautiously. He was surprised to hear a giggle, maybe just a sign of nerves.

  “Something clearly has happened: in fact you probably remember it. More important, something’s going to happen.”

  He thought how you never really pictured a friend when you spoke to them on the phone: they had the shadowiness of memory, of something not looked at directly; you saw a presence in a half-remembered room or merely a floating image of their house or street. The phone Jane was a subtly stronger character — darker, more capricious and capable — than the Jane he lived with and loved. He said, “Have you got another interview?”

  “Oh really.” There was a pause in which he pondered why this was wrong. “Robin, I’m pregnant. We’re going to have a baby.”

  It was the “we” that disconcerted him. He thought for a moment she was referring to herself and some other man. And even when he saw, almost at once, that he must himself be the father, he retained an eerie sense that she had somehow done this without him.

  “Oh Janey, that’s fantastic”

  “Are you pleased?”

  “Of course I am. Christ! When will it be? I mean it will change everything.”


  “Or a lot of things. Will we have to get married?”

  “Well, we’ll have to think about it, won’t we? It’s not till June.” She sounded mischievous, dawdling; and also to Robin indefinably larger. His blurred mental image of her had taken on already the pronounced jut of advanced pregnancy.

  He dawdled himself when the call was over, with its awkwardly near-simultaneous “Bye’s” and “Love you’s”. His eyes ran abstractedly over the “NO LOITERING” sign while the news moved slowly and spasmodically through him. In a play or on television the phrase “I’m pregnant” was often a clincher, it solved things, or at least decided them. Robin gasped softly, and chewed his lip, and then smiled and nodded in a good-humoured acquiescence which there was no one there to see. It was still the first moment, but he saw himself in the sleepless moil of early parenthood, and felt a plunging anxiety, as if he had inadvertently ruined not only his own young life but someone else’s too. But then nudging the worry came a reluctantly conceded pride, a nostalgia for his friends at the crew’s steak dinner and the 1st XV feast, who would have stood him drinks all night and
shared in his achievement with foul-mouthed shock and envy.

  He probably couldn’t tell Sylvan. He would go back into the bar as if he hadn’t just had a conversation that changed his life. He saw perhaps he could forget the conversation, and put off his new life till the morning. A beautiful man was waiting for him and Robin glowed in the urgency and the lovely complacency of their wanting each other. He wanted nothing in his mind, in his sight, in his hands but Sylvan. He span back into the bar almost in a panic for Sylvan.


  Alex left the engine running, and walked hesitantly to the gate; he wasn’t sure whether to open it and drive in, or to park outside in the lane. He saw the long roof of a cottage below, half-hidden by flowering trees, and a track of old bricks laid in the grass, where presumably a car could stand. To a town-dweller it seemed desirable to get a car in off the road; but perhaps a stronger sense of security would come from leaving it outside, ready for escape. He decided to back it up on to the verge, where it lay in long grass under a tall wild hedge. Climbing out and locking the door he brushed a hundred raindrops down across the canvas roof.

  May had been wet and chilly this year, the spring evenings robbed of their softness and height, the mornings slow and dark. Alex woke each day to the early creak of the central heating, and still, after seven months alone, reached out in a little fumbled ritual to put a hand on the pillow where Justin’s head should have been; or he shifted on to that side of the bed and lay there as if he was keeping himself company. The weather lent its grey weight to the suspicion that his life had been taken away from him. Then abruptly the summer came, and he was waking to the chinking of the blackbirds, and again after dream-muddled sleep to the footsteps and voices of the first leavers, and early-morning light that entered at a shy angle into rooms that were sunless all winter. There was a new sense of distance, of the drowsy rumble of a city stretching away in haze and blossom — a rumoured invitation, which took on a sudden unexpected reality when Justin himself rang up and invited him to Dorset. And then as he braked and spurted through the narrowing lanes of the Bride valley a short, rattling shower had come, like a warning and a reminder.

  They hadn’t seen each other since the dark October day when Justin came back to clear his things out of Alex’s house. Wet leaves blew across the windscreen as Alex drove him to Clapham with his little chaos of carrier-bags — the two of them silent, Alex out of grief and Justin out of guilty respect for his former lover’s feelings. Justin’s shoes and half-read novels and crumpled clothes, and the two or three pictures, the cushions, the dozen nearly empty cologne bottles and the brass travelling-clock that had been part of their home and were now on their way to become the unanticipated clutter of someone else’s. It was months before Alex could bring himself to look at the thumbprint-covered polaroids of him, red-eyed and drunk; and he had no other mementoes — Justin had never been known to write a letter. He closed the garden gate noiselessly behind him and wondered what his old friend looked like.

  The cottage was low and very pretty and Alex scanned it with an Englishman’s nostalgia as well as a tall person’s sense of imminent discomfort. It was almost too much, it was the ideal of a cottage tuned close to the point of parody, the walls of gold-brown rubble patched with bits of chalk and brick, the straw fantail pigeons on the crest of the roof and the real ones that sidled on the slope of the thatch below, the white clematis and yellow Mermaid rose trained tumblingly above the small dark windows, the air of stunned homeliness…And this was where Justin woke up now, and looked out, over the secretive garden, with its wallflowers and box hedges, old lead sundial and brick paths leading away through further hedges to glimpses of glass. He must have changed very greatly. Or if not, his new man must answer to needs in Justin that Alex himself had never guessed at. From one of the upstairs windows a bunched blue duvet was lolling out to air and gave the house a feel of heedless privacy, as if no guest were expected. At another stood a jar of flowers and a stack of sun-bleached books. Beyond them was the impenetrable indoor darkness of a bright summer day.

  There was no answer to his knock, and he stood back on the flagstones in a muddle of emotions: relief, annoyance, real fright about the coming encounters, and an incongruous alertness and desire to please, like someone on a first date. After another, perhaps quieter knock, he walked round to the side of the cottage and shaded his eyes to peer through a window. It was the kitchen, with something steaming on the Rayburn and a colander of chopped carrots on the table, which made him feel that he had in fact put them to some trouble. He turned the corner and saw the back garden, a lawn and a low wall, beyond which was an unmown meadow with a fast-running stream at the bottom. He wandered away from the house, still with the sense of being an intruder in an ordered but not invulnerable world; he thought he could call out, but part of him was clinging to the silence and secrecy. He felt slightly sick. It might still be possible, after all, to get back to the car and leave without being seen. Beyond a small orchard of apple-trees on the left there was a wooden shed with a tarred roof. He tried the door casually, then turned back towards the cottage.

  At first he thought Justin was naked. He made a dip in the blue groundsheet, which spread in little hills and dales around him over the long, bent grass. Alex approached him warily, like a nature-watcher keeping downwind of some nervous creature — though the idea was doubly absurd for Justin, who was evidently asleep. Closer to, it turned out that he was wearing a kind of thong.

  Alex loitered beside him for a minute, unable not to look, hot-faced and haggard above the sprawl of what he had lost. He wondered if it was a cruelly deliberate tease. His eyes took in the blond down on the calves darkened with sun-oil, and the slumbrous weight of the buttocks with the tongue of lycra buried between them, and the arms pointing backwards like flippers, and the head turned sideways; it was everything he remembered, but more than that too, correct in each unconscious detail, even in the changes, the new plumpness around the waist, the smooth fold under the chin.

  He looked away, at the trees, the white glints and curls on the hurrying greeny-black surface of the stream. The air was drugged with the sharpness of flowering hawthorn and cow-parsley and the lushness of the grass in the heat after the shower. Wood-doves made their half-awake call’s, and at the edge of hearing there was the trickle of the brook. He glanced at Justin again, who seemed very remote from him, lost in the senseless countryside and the unsocial vacancy of sun-worship. Alex squatted down, and held his breath as he reached out a hand to wake him. Blue eyes opened wide, squeezed shut against the glare, then squinted upwards.

  “You’re outrageously early,” Justin said, with a further blink and a yawn.

  “Hello, darling,” said Alex, and grinned to hide how wounded he was by Justin’s tone. He watched him turn over and sit up.

  “You’re such an old pervert to be staring at me like that. How long have you been there? I’ll probably have to report you to Police Constable Barton Burton.” He frowned, and Alex leant in awkwardly for a kiss.

  “I’ve only just got here. Of course one didn’t expect a welcome.”

  Justin gave him a level, sparring look, and then smiled coyly. “What do you think of my tanga?” he said.

  “Is that what you call it? I think you’ve put on some weight,” said Alex.

  “It’s Robin, dear.” He stood up and turned round once: he was lightly tanned all over. “He feeds me and feeds me. He also has a mania for getting one’s kit off. He’ll have you out of all that, darling.” At which Alex felt needlessly shy, as if warned at the beginning of a party of some worrying game to be played after tea. Justin put an arm through Alex’s to lead him back to the cottage. “You’re looking very groomed, darling, for the country. This is the country.” He gestured weakly with his other hand. “You can tell because of all the traffic, and the pubs are full of fascists. Apparently there’s another homo moving into the village. We’re terribly over-excited, as you can imagine.”

  They were standing in
the kitchen, in another kind of heat, fuelled and flavoured by cooking. Justin lifted the lid that half-covered the slow soup on the hob and peered in with pretended competence. Alex said, “There’s a wonderful smell.”

  “That’s the bread, dear. He pops it in before he goes for his run, and when he gets back it’s the exact second to take it out again. He makes all sorts of different sorts of bread.”

  Alex pictured his return. “I don’t think he ought to find us like this.”

  Justin gave a smile and looked down at his sleek near-nakedness. “Perhaps you’re right,” he said, reaching for an apron from the Rayburn’s front rail, and sauntering out of the room in it like a French maid in an elderly work of pornography. Alex turned away from the sight.

  He knew he’d been an idiot to come here. He stood where he was, fixed in the well-mannered paralysis of a guest who has been left alone, and humbled by the yeasty efficiency of this strange kitchen. He sensed the presence of the man who owned it, Robin Woodfield, with his capable country name, underlying or impregnating everything around him, and this was a bleaker challenge than he had anticipated. Justin had taken a clear, cowardly and sensible decision to swing along as if Alex and he were no more than good old friends. But Alex himself was petrified by the crackle of undead emotions. There was a squeak of floorboards above and the dulled coming and going across the ceiling of Justin’s heavyish footsteps. Was their bedroom there then, with the warm chimney behind the bedstead, and baking smells rising through the floor? Alex gripped the back of the chair he was standing by, and then let it go, with doubting relief, like someone who thought for a moment he had seen a ghost.

  And here Justin physically was, in crumpled linen shorts and trodden-down moccasins, which Alex remembered from earlier summers, and a baggy white T-shirt with the signature of Gian-lorenzo Bernini, hugely magnified, disappearing round the sides. “I see you’re wearing Bernini,” Alex said.

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