1998 the spell, p.20
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       1998 - The Spell, p.20

           Alan Hollinghurst
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  “Mm,” Alex murmured, and then started smiling at the thought of the pill. He didn’t know you could do it if you weren’t in a club, with its religious sense of belonging. He said, “When we take the pills, darling, which I hope will be soon, what are we going to do? Sort of dance up and down in here for four hours?” He didn’t mind, but was afraid he would keep hitting his head on the ceiling.

  Danny said, “You’ll see,” and Alex understood that all this had been planned for him; or perhaps was an improvisation passed off as a plan. The music ended, and Danny bustled about preparing the tray of their alternative feast — water, gum, a couple of bottles of beer, garibaldi biscuits, a nameless videotape, and a deep-blue coffee-saucer holding the off-white tablets. Alex thought of the beta-blockers his mother placed in his father’s dessert-spoon, to be sure he would remember them; and had a sharp contraction of guilt that he hadn’t rung home this weekend — a routine had evolved of a call at sherry-time before Sunday lunch: it meant they didn’t have to run in crossly from the garden, and the inflexible timing of lunch gave the conversation a natural term. Now it was too late — 10.30 was emergencies only, and he would have to ring tomorrow with some explanatory hint at what he so far hadn’t mentioned to them, the new man in his life. Danny too was clearly briefly elsewhere. He said, “Ricky Nice is playing at BDX tonight.”

  They went upstairs, got undressed and dropped their tabs in the bedroom, which had the still warmth of an airing-cupboard even though the windows were open under the eaves. They lay in a loose embrace and watched the moths come in, clumsy ones that knocked about inside the lampshade and others, with long transparent wings, that gathered noiselessly on the ceiling, and made a random frieze along the tops of the walls. Alex liked this decorative invasion of nature, the drug came up, Danny massaged his swiftly sensitised shoulders and back, and he tingled with a sense of the closeness of trees and fields and animals trotting warily about.

  It was very different from the first time, and afterwards he saw how clever Danny had been to make a direct comparison impossible and so defer any feeling of disillusion. Time accelerated, but was never lost; the thrills were more measured; he was clenched around Danny in a shivering hug without music and dancing to set his adoration alight. They watched a video compilation that Dave from the porn-shop had made, which Alex feared would be three hours of close-up sodomy, but turned out to be a magical sequence of cartoon shorts and nature films: they gasped at the throb of colours as flowers sped from seed to bloom, a storm of flamingos rose from a lake, and the sun set over the Grand Canyon. Alex felt very hot, and drank a lot of water, but couldn’t pee; he chewed and chewed, and gripped Danny with an impossible snail-like longing to touch all over at once. There was something invalidish about them, on the bed there, glowing and incapacitated.

  He slept shallowly, with racing dreams of ceaselessly mutating forms, bright and artificial as toy jewellery. He felt they ought to be frightening, but for some reason they weren’t. They were like the speeded-up orchids and ephemeral desert blooms, but alchemised into plastic. Some churring night-creature woke him up, an owl on its prey perhaps, and though he closed his eyes again he was still awake. The woman’s bright voice kept calling out “Oh-oh yeah!” from the threshold of total happiness, the phrase was stuck in his brain and began to mock him and turn to rubbish with repetition. He tried to counter it, each time it came, with what might have been its opposite, Chopin’s A-minor mazurka, with its mood of etherised regret, and after a while he found they had fused into an unlikely new genre; he almost woke Danny up to tell him about it, the house mazurka. Maybe Ricky Nice would do a remix of it. The flickering dance rhythm ran on for ever, like a night-train over points.

  Already the darkness was turning grainy and dimly translucent where a glass of water stood; the wardrobe mirror answered with the greyest gleam to the first hint of dawn at the window. Soon the birds would start up. He thought back to his walk through the streets in London after Chateau, hand-in-hand with Danny, the astonishing crowds on the pavement at 5 a.m., buses surging up for unheard-of antiquarian destinations, Whipps Cross, Chingford Hatch, the blearily milling boys smelling of sweat and smoke, pupils huge and bewildered by daylight, fag-ends imbedded in chewing-gum stuck round the welts of their shoes — the rapturous novelty of it all. Absurd though it was, with the same beautiful young man snoring naked beside him, he longed to be back there again, looking out for the improbable taxi that would take them home together for the first time, in the magically protracted hour when he knew that his life had been given back to him.


  Tony Bowerchalke said, “I can’t remember what I said.”

  Robin smiled discreetly. “You only said you’d had an idea.” Tony’s message on his Clapham answering machine had shown a certain alarm at the machine itself, which he treated like a dictaphone, signing off with “All best wishes, Tony Bowerchalke.”

  “Well, I hope you’ll like the idea.” They were standing on the gravel circle, where Tony had been waiting, perhaps all morning, for his arrival. “That very smart car belongs to the people in flat one,” he said, nodding towards a soft-top silver BMW parked beside his own peppermint-coloured Nissan Cherry.

  “They’re in already…”

  “They took it immediately. I don’t know if I’m not asking enough. It’s a young banker and his fiancee.”

  “Are they all right?”

  “They’re perfectly charming,” Tony said, in a way that might have intimated some huge reservation; but he went on, “It’s very pleasant having other people in the house, I find. I think they’ll stay.” He looked at Robin with an unsteady smile, and there was an impression of a half-memorised speech being glanced at and thrown away. “So that was, and remains, my idea: more flats. Turn the whole house into flats. Actually, if I’m to stay here, I think it’s the only way.”

  Robin nodded slowly. It would certainly help to solve the unpleasant emptiness of the coming year; so far the only job he had was the commission for a neo-Georgian toilet-block in Lyme Regis. And the ongoing worry of the pyramid, of course. “I’d be happy to do it,” he said, “if you’re sure.” Tony seemed to have nerved himself up for change, and Robin thought he might have reached his decision only by ignoring its implications. There was an uneasy cheerfulness about him.

  They went into the low vaulted hall and Robin felt the semi-derelict gloom of the place grip him consolingly. It was work, at least, technical, and imaginative in its latter-day way; he had his sketchpad in his briefcase and his tape-measure clipped to his belt and a hidden but hungry sense of usefulness. After a week in London, where he had tinkered artificially with late decorative amendments to the Kew job, before rushing home to eternal half-pissed evenings by the silent phone, the call to Dorset was like a firm hint from a friend.

  In the library, in the smell of crumbling leather and vague rawness of papery damp, Tony had put out the tooled black album containing the original plans of the house. Robin glanced at them again with his professional sense of familiarity, the eye’s fluent movement among the old inked lines and wiredrawn annotations of every closet, corridor and stair. Victorian country-house plans still had their special appeal; they were like board-games mimicking the business of a social labyrinth that had once been serious enough. To the converter they were almost too rich in novel backstairs opportunities. He turned the pages, and felt his pleasure of a few moments before had been exaggerated and was abruptly wearing thin. The rapid twist was typical of his mood these days, when his thoughts were ragged and hard to control, and rushes of excitement could be stifled by a black chill.

  He said, “Why don’t you show me over the whole house? There’s a lot I’ve never seen.” He needed to find out if there was a contradiction between Tony’s dogged love of the place and his new need to let it go. The emotions seemed to him obscurely parental.

  They spent an hour or more going systematically from room to room, Tony saying again how the house had always been revile
d, how in the thirties and forties it was the apex of bad taste, and yet how his mother had loved it, and how, seen in the right way, it was if not beautiful then at least remarkable and certainly unique, a rogue, in Robin’s word, among the discreetly elegant seats of the county. Robin was glad that Tony had taken on the rogue idea; he couldn’t deny that the house’s mixture of Tudor, hotel rococo and early French Gothic was astoundingly uncouth; but it showed too the bracing indifference to opinion of someone doing exactly what they wanted.

  There was a sequence of large bedrooms, the south-facing ones already full, of dusty heat. Robin paced around each room, to get the measure of it, and there was a touch of professional con too, a hint at more mysterious calculations. One bedroom adjoined a boudoir with a painted ceiling of flowers on trellises — it was Tony’s mother’s room, and still had her silver-backed hairbrushes and tassled perfume spray on the dressing-table. At the front of the house was a room that Tony called the Lake Room, apparently because his aunt, who was always given it, and who recorded her dreams, had said over breakfast one morning, “I dreamt that there were two lakes in my room.” “People were always pleasantly surprised to be told they were in the Lake Room,” said Tony, standing at the window and peering down at the waterless circle of the drive.

  At the end of the main corridor was his own room, which he opened up with self-conscious briskness. With its high single bed, formica-topped table and Germolene-coloured satin eiderdown it had the air of an old school sanatorium. The square of carpet was laid over beige linoleum. On the table was a transistor radio and an oldish book about wartime espionage. A further passage led into a tall narrow space enshrining the polished teak bench and scalloped porcelain bowl of the “Clifford,” a majestic Victorian water-closet. Robin didn’t like to examine the bedroom too closely. He knew little about Tony’s intimate life, but the singleness of the room agitated him, as if he had suddenly come on evidence of something he would rather ignore. On the wall there were framed photographs of permed middle-aged women, some pre-war children, a bull-terrier, nailed up in the inartistic but serviceable way that was perhaps Tony’s version of the family blindness. He thought of his own life, which seemed in retrospect to have been gripped and shaped by sexual love, the constant indispensable presence of another person, one after another, and overlapping — he thought of his awful behaviour in Simon’s last days and couldn’t suppress a certain shocked admiration for his own instinctual drive. Later Robin realised that this room had also carried a hushed resonance of the Wiltshire nursing-home in which his mother, the “redoubtable” Lady Astrid, had spent her last unreconciled year.

  The top floor of the house could be reached by three different staircases, which Robin said would be convenient. Tony said, “They take some getting used to. Let’s go up this one. My aunt used to say that she came down this staircase but she would never go up it because she didn’t know where it went.”

  After a minute or two Robin, with his normally fine sense of orientation, said, “I see what your aunt meant.” Up under the roofs there was a maze of odd-shaped stuffy rooms with tiny windows, linen-cupboards with skylights and ladders of empty shelves, unannounced changes of level. In several rooms chamber-pots or old tin basins had been placed on the threadbare carpets and bare iron bedsteads to catch dripping rainwater; though now they held only chalky stains. Tony flung open numerous cupboards, as if wanting to make a clean breast of the thing, though again it was only emptiness that he revealed. Robin felt very remote from the outer world. “You don’t often come up here,” he said.

  “I did in my Sardines days,” Tony said, with one of his nervous schoolboyish gestures of straightening and neatening himself. “Those low cupboards under the eaves were admirable hiding-places.” Robin could imagine him crawling into one and pulling the door shut. “I go up to the Top Room, of course.”

  “Oh yes, I want to see that.”

  It appeared to be another closet with an ill-fitting door, but inside there was a narrow staircase, with fluffy dust at the side of the treads, and bright daylight up above. The Top Room was Tytherbury’s attempt at a tower, a little lookout among the chimney-stacks, with its own small summer-house fireplace and rattling leaded casements on three sides. In the old days visitors had always wanted to see it, and those with connections were invited to scratch their names on a window-pane with a diamond. Florence Hardy, Hallam Tennyson, Muriel Trollope: an interesting if strictly secondary collection. There was also an R. Swinburne, which Tony said people wanted to believe was A. Swinburne having trouble with his stylus; and a Wm Shakspere, facetiously introduced by Tony’s grandfather when he was a boy. “It’s ice-cold in winter,” Tony said, “and as you can see baking hot in summer.” Robin looked at the south-facing sills, which were warped by sunlight and rotted by rain-water. Beyond the glass the view was compromised: the light-industrial chimney, the new barns and silos on the Home Farm, part of the vanished layout of the garden visible in dry weather as in an aerial photograph; not the sea, but the straggly pines above it, and the top of the pyramid. That particular structure was taking on a further symbolic burden, as the task that wouldn’t go away, the problem that a younger man would already have solved, but which filled Robin with a paralysing sense of responsibility.

  Tony asked him to stay to lunch, which they had in the kitchen. Robin knew that life here was already confined to a few of the smaller rooms, and that the occasional Campari he had had in the barely furnished drawing-room represented a special social effort. It was hard to praise the meal, of tinned tongue, with a tomato, a spring onion and a curl of lettuce; but Tony said, “These spring onions are jolly good.”

  Rita Bunce said, “You’re going to split the old place up, then.”

  “Well, I’ve only just started thinking about it.”

  Her smile was responsible, and so seemed to hint at her anxiety about Tony. “We’ll all be much better off,” she said, which they each appeared to think about and find true. “No more housework. I don’t know what I’ll do all day.”

  “Oh, I’ll keep you busy,” said Tony, perhaps more rakishly than he intended.

  It was very like the grind of Justin’s old joke as he explained his plan to stay in a hotel: “With no housework to do, I shall have some time to myself for a change.” Robin was lost at once in the gloom of that other story, which undercut the good fortune the three of them were quietly welcoming. Work, which was a salvation from empty misery, was shown up by it as the feeble consolation of the loser. The secret technical joy he had always got from buildings and the art of building shrivelled away, as if poisoned. He set down his knife and fork and asked for another glass of water.

  “I hope you approved of young Terry’s efforts in the flats,” Mrs Bunce said.

  “He made a decent job of it,” said Robin. “I was pleasantly surprised.”

  “He’s turned out a good lad, after some bad beginnings,” Mrs Bunce said. “He’s very clean.”

  “He’s a buster, isn’t he,” said Tony.

  “He’ll be busy with the discos now, of course,” said Mrs Bunce.

  “You ought to go over one night,” said Tony. “Rita’s a great dancer, you know.”

  “Going back a bit!” Mrs Bunce said, while a blush surfaced through her cream and powder. Robin glanced at her with courteous interest, and she went on, “No, that was the jitterbug-ging we used to do. They don’t do that these days, or else I’m very much mistaken.”

  “I’m afraid not. I’m not even quite sure what it is.”

  “And I’m not going to show you!” Robin saw that she’d brought the faintest hint of sexual sparring into the conversation, even though she was turning him down. “That’s how I met my other half,” she said: “Billy Bunce from Clifton, New Jersey. He could jitterbug them all into the ground. That was magic. Well, I’ve never seen anything to touch it since. The modern dancing, oh dear, you see it on the telly.”

  “I know,” said Robin, with a widowed sense that he would never go da
ncing again, and that his style of Mick Jaggerish strutting and shaking had already gone to join the jitterbug in dance limbo, along with the twist and the Charleston, the quadrille and the gavotte.

  The mood clung to him as he drove on to Litton Gambril. He was miserably distracted by the idea of Justin’s freedom in London, the complete freedom he had chosen from the botched experiment of life down here. Robin pictured him at the garish little newsagents in Clapham where he had first seen him, or among shoppers in Long Acre, and was horrified by the fact that mere chance had brought them together in those two places. For the first time, it struck him as absurd to expect loyalty from someone he had met in a toilet.

  Normally when he arrived at the cottage he felt happily divided, and opened the place up in a capable adult way while his eyes and thoughts ran round the house and garden like imaginary children, making contact with their favourite spots. But today, in the sunless heat, he could only think of how he missed Justin, and the house in its private hollow looked like an elaborate emblem of failure. He had to have someone always around. Nights spent by himself were more and more bewildering to him. It was clear that Dan and his friend had slept in the big bed, and there seemed something inexorable in that. The kitchen showed signs of the misplaced tidiness of guests, everything subtly wrong. It was like the endless summer weekends he had spent here when Justin was still living with Alex, but darkened now by a hint of dispossession.

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