1998 the spell, p.21
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       1998 - The Spell, p.21

           Alan Hollinghurst
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  He did what he could to counter the mood. He got into shorts and hurried round with a show of unchallenged physical energy. The lawn in this dry weather didn’t need mowing again, and he saw that the dead-heading of the roses had been done exactly to his instructions. There was only a little perfectionist weeding to do. He carried the heavy black book of the Tyther-bury plans to the work-hut, but the air there was stifling, and the book lay on the desk like a penance: he looked out at the long field and the hanging wood which were the constant counterparts to his working thoughts and wondered how he could ever make a drawing again. Everything was flavourless, or slightly bitter.

  When it was cooler he went for a run round the fields. The wheat was coming on with its usual evenness of purpose, but it was a scruffy time of year, the path dry and cracked among dead cow-parsley and tall brown grass. A field of rape had been cut and left in its unEnglish chaos of gigantic tussocks. He didn’t see anyone else in the half-hour he was out, and he had the feeling he was the only person who had put up a resistance to the heavy heat of the day. He pinched the sweat out of his eyes.

  When he got in he had a long shower and examined himself in the mirror as he dried, with a sportsman’s attention to particular muscles and a firmer acknowledgement than before that something in his bearing was changing, that the flow and swing of his body were becoming strange to him. Of course you saw it in others at the gym, the little fold of skin at the armpit, gooseflesh at the throat, the flattening of the buttocks, the slump of the chest. A wiry young man had a perceptible stoop, a regular heart-breaker’s smile took on a worried persistence. In some of them the marks of time were sexy — as Robin’s own baldness obviously was. He thought of Justin, with his plump little underchin, his contained sleekness mysteriously yielding, the pattern of his hair-loss revealing itself, and found every detail rousing and real. Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be. He smiled sternly at his sun-browned handsomeness, and remembered the absurd remark Tony once dragged up about his father’s being the handsomest man in Wessex. It was funny because it was both so pompous and so camp; which didn’t mean that it wasn’t also quite likely to be true. His father would have frowned at the phrase and thought there was something pansy about it; but in the privacy of his dressing-room he probably turned it over and admitted it was pretty near the mark.

  It was oppressively still in the house, where every window was open, and when Robin stood at the back door he saw the sky to the west was full of purple-black promise; he leant against the door-frame with a bottle of cold beer pressed to his bare chest and waited for the first miraculous spits of rain on the path. There was a blink of lightning and he counted the seconds and worked out that the storm was breaking over Lyme and Charmouth; he pictured the dusty water running down the steep streets towards the sea. He felt his mood shifting, his cleanness pricking with fresh sweat, and the prospect of the long loveless summer evening already coloured by the storm with an enjoyable mood of crisis. The Wessex Woodfields rose to a crisis. It was the indeterminacy of recent weeks that disheartened him: he had been cheated of a crisis and left to wander in a private desert, which to everyone else still had the look of a richly cultivated landscape.

  He hadn’t come for nearly seven weeks, by far the longest abstinence in his thirty-five years of maturity. (He once said to Justin that he had probably first ejaculated on the day that he was born, but Justin seemed to detect some impropriety in the alignment.) He was surprised by the pattern of sensation — the taunting sex-urge that built up after three or four days of being pushed away had quickly declined at the end of a week, and apart from the night of Dan’s birthday, when it was abnormally provoked, it seemed to have gone into a monkish kind of aestivation. It was a mystery he had never even hoped to experience, he was proud of his sex-life and impatient of any sort of sex “problem”; but now he found there was some symbolic magic to it, like the private discipline of a prisoner which gives him strength to wait for the moment of release.

  He saw he would have to get drunk. He thought of ringing Mike Hall, but felt too delicate for the sarcasms and abuse of Mike’s “late” phase. He cracked up some ice and made himself a Justinian half-pint of gin and tonic. He considered smoking more of the famous hash, which must still be hidden in the work-shed, but then felt it would be futile to escape from loneliness into a state that only focused the longing for another person. It grew darker in the house and there were gratifying stamps of thunder, as if someone had dropped a safe upstairs. When the rain started, abrupt and vertical, Robin left the windows open and let the displacement of damp air flow in over his chest and shoulders. He pictured Justin coming to stand behind him in a rare unironical surrender to the thrash of the rain and the retina-printing lightning; though in fact Justin was nervy in storms and roamed around sulkily to disguise his slightly shaming anxiety. Robin took a mouthful of gin and tonic, and chewed it like a taster to make the chilled bubbles seethe across his palate.

  He thought he would put on some music, and stood looking along the shelf with an indecision that threatened to let the misery in again. The little flickers of elated sensation, from the power of his body or the colour of the storm, expired upwards like the bubbles that plinked and whispered in the glass, and left him with a darker sense of solitude. His old vinyls, in bumped, coffee-ringed sleeves, were all here, the Beatles and the Stones, the Doors, the Incredible String Band. To look at them was to risk the tumble into a picturesque past of essay crises, car troubles, sleeping with girls. He peeped at the Kinks, in their crotch-gripping flares, and recalled rolling joints on Revolver. Robin had the small accidental CD collec- tion of someone uninterested in music, who still made the occasional purchase and sometimes bought the wrong thing because he couldn’t remember what it was that had been recommended. He hadn’t even known that he owned Vaughan Williams’s “London” Symphony, and had certainly never listened to it. Anyway, he didn’t want to think about London. There was something that must be Dan’s, Dance Forever, that he thought he would just try, but after a minute of primitive repetition he guessed you had to be in the right mood for it. He tried some Mahler, which was loud in a different way, but it got on his nerves. In the end he settled for a Beethoven quartet, which he found he knew quite well, and hummed along to without apology. He got himself another gin, and coming back among the deep shadows of the sitting-room where only the oscillating displays of the stereo gave out any light, he imagined candles. The storm rumbled close again, in an exciting sabotage of the music; on the window-sill was an old silver candelabrum and he liked the thought of struggling flames against the backdrop of downpour. There were matches somewhere in the little commode, and he went through the top drawer impatiently. Underneath everything else was the box of Swans and for some reason a book, wrapped in torn, shiny paper. He pulled it out with a frown, couldn’t think what it was, and left it on the top to look at later. He wondered if it was something Justin had planned to give him, and then saw that he was being absurdly sentimental.

  The effect of the candles was romantic, and perhaps funerary, a wake or a vigil, he didn’t know. The rain hissed, the quartet busied along, and when a voice emerged from the edge of the grudgingly retreating thunder Robin shivered and grunted and twisted round with the split-second certainty he was about to be attacked; and the immediate cover of showing he thought it was a joke. Terry Badgett was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, with an anorak hanging by its hood over his head for a dash through the rain. “Sorry to make you jump,” he said.

  Robin supposed Terry must have knocked, he knew he was getting a little deaf, and wondered if he should offer an explanation for listening to chamber music shirtless by candlelight.

  Then he thought there might be some emergency to do with his mother. He said, “Hello Terry?”

  Terry looked at him for a second, so it seemed to Robin, with the amorous amazement of a figure from below-stairs. “I just saw all your windows were open in the car,” he said.

  “Oh my god

  “I didn’t like to touch it in case it’s alarmed.”

  “No. Thank you so much.”

  Robin ran up barefoot through the dwindling rain and had to start the car to activate the windows. It must have been gustier than he realised — the odd Swedish tweed of the passenger seat was soaked, and the glove-box and radio were drizzled over by the blown wet. He gave it a wipe, and decided he would leave it till tomorrow; he locked the car and the rain stopped, then it came back in a dash, like the last bit thrown out of a bucket, then stopped again. Terry’s Talbot Samba was parked at the gate; Above it the sky was toweringly dark where the storm moved eastwards, but beyond the cottage it had thinned into a brown-grey haze that half-obscured the fields like a coat of wood-varnish. Somewhere beyond that, discernible only in odd pressings and squeezings of light, the sun was setting. Robin took in the unusual effect, the sparkle on the dripping trees and hedges, and the astounding stink of the country after such heavy high-summer rain.

  Terry was sitting on the sofa, leaning forward expectantly to learn the extent of the damage. He seemed disappointed not to have detected some more serious problem. “Only I just saw it…” he said.

  “You deserve a drink,” Robin said. “If you have time.” He went through to the kitchen, and called back, so that Terry followed him, “I was hearing good things about you today.”

  “Oh yes…?”

  “I was at Tytherbury this morning. Mr Bowerchalke seemed very pleased with the work.” Robin still had a sense of Terry’s being on probation, after his trouble-making teens, and needing encouragement to keep him steady. In the resentful memory of the village he remained the youth who got the Bishop girl pregnant and let the water out of the Horensteins’ swimming-pool. “A beer okay for you?”

  “Thanks very much.” Terry hung the anorak on a chair and looked round the kitchen with the ambitious interest of someone angling for promotion. He had had his hair cut, square at the back in the way of small-town barbers, and there was a new pale stripe above the sun-tanned neck. Robin noticed the salty blots where the sweat had dried in his black T-shirt.

  “So what have you been doing today?”

  Terry took the bottle. “Oh, running around,” he said, with a distant smile. “I’m getting a fair bit of work now.” Robin gestured them back into the sitting-room. “I’ve just come over from Bride Mill.”

  “You get on well with Roger and John,” Robin said, referring to the Mill’s corduroyed co-hosts.

  Terry smiled. “Yeah, I have a good repartee with them.”

  They sat at either end of the sofa, the candles glowing in Terry’s dark eyes. Robin sprawled with his drink held loosely at crotch level. He wasn’t sorry to have the company of someone fresh and handsome and remote from any intuition of his own gloom. Terry’s face had lost the thickness of adolescence and the pained, untrusting expression of a boy who is always in the wrong. Robin liked the way he showed his curiosity, sometimes unguardedly, sometimes slyly. He believed he was a figure of some social fascination to Terry, and was pleased with his own relaxed manner with him. He said vainly, “I’m sorry, I ought to put a shirt on.”

  Terry took a quick sip from his shining brown bottle. “Don’t mind me,” he said; and his eyes lingered on Robin again for a moment. “You by yourself tonight then?” — glancing away at the somehow ritualised room.

  “I’m afraid so,” said Robin casually.

  “Where’s that Justin then?”

  “He’s still in London.”

  “Oh yes? He made me laugh at that party.”

  Robin smiled warily. “He can be amusing. But we mustn’t talk about him behind his back.” He was aware of his own desire, after a couple of drinks, to be critical of Justin, but alert to any mistaken intimacy on Terry’s part.

  “It’ll be good to see him again,” Terry said indulgently, but also as though he had in mind a particular date. “Where is it we’re all supposed to be going, Italy is it or something?”

  “Sicily, wasn’t it, for some reason?” said Robin, with forced hilarity of recall.

  “That’s right, Sicily. To celebrate his so-called new-found wealth. At one point I worked out he was taking about twenty of us.” Robin said nothing, and already half-regretted having let Terry in, like a boy with a rod, to angle in the sullen pond of his misfortunes. “Of course he’s probably just taking you, isn’t he?” Terry added quietly.

  Robin thought Justin would never spend anything on him, and began to understand that there was some deeper connection between the money from the house coming through and Justin’s deciding to move on, as if the cottage had been merely a convenience. Which, after all, as Justin often plonkingly joked, was what a cottage was. The quartet ended, rather oddly, and he got up to eject the CD; it was only as he pressed it back into the case that he saw it had five movements. “Mm,” he said. “But you don’t know Justin” — a phrase which brought. the whole year of luxurious sexual privacy in a shocking rush before his mind’s eye.

  “I don’t know him like you do,” said Terry, in a very diplomatic tone.

  Robin looked along the CD shelf — there they were again, Van Morrison, Abba, some Mozart, Vaughan Williams’s “London” Symphony, of course. He had one arm raised against the shelf above, the biceps squared up and veined. He was surprised by his need to be admired by the boy. And the effect was so quick, almost too easy.

  “You’re looking good,” Terry said.

  “Ooh, I’ve looked better.”

  “You been to that new gym in Bridport?”

  “Um…no, not yet. Any cop?”

  “Oh yeah. They got all the machines. One of the instructors is a mate of mine. I was trying to get Dan to go. I told him I could get him in free.”

  “No, he’s not into that sort of thing,” Robin said, and seemed to be claiming some slightly embarrassing exemption on his behalf.

  “No. He’s got a nice little body, though,” Terry said, with a shy insistence that he did have some private connection with this decadent household of Londoners. Robin said to himself, in his bare-chested sceptical way, that he couldn’t get worked up about this kid who slept with his son; but when he thought back to that small-hours encounter in the bathroom, Terry muddle-haired and still boyishly stiff after sex, he had a stifled shudder of longing, as if someone had breathed in his ear, and wondered bleakly whether there was much point to all his romantic good behaviour.

  “Let’s not bother with music,” he said, and sat down again. It was getting cool, with the windows open, and he really would have to put a shirt on soon. He said, “Did you see Dan when he was down?”

  Terry said, “My mum said he was down with Alex,” which wasn’t quite an answer. Robin wondered how tender his feelings for Danny were, and saw that despite various things that had happened he didn’t really think of Terry as being homosexual. But perhaps Terry had similar doubts about him.

  If so, his next move didn’t show it. “You look cold,” he said, with a wide, tense smile, sliding, half-crawling along the sofa to chafe Robin’s upper arm. He leaned across him to stand the beer-bottle on the carpet, and then slid his other hand between his legs. There was an absolute lack of transition that might have been explained by either ignorance or genius. “Let’s go upstairs,” he said.

  Robin pulled back his head with a soft snort of surprise; then looked away from the boy and back at his waiting face in a small enactment of his dilemma. If he did, it would be his first betrayal of Justin, though what was more uncomfortable was the hinted betrayal, the furtive shadowing of Dan. He smiled at the unusual delicacy of the situation. “You know I’m a quarter of a century older than you, don’t you?” It was very strange to be making such a protest.

  Terry took his hand from Robin’s thigh, and sat back a little. “If you don’t want to,” he said.

  “Well, yeah, I want to,” said Robin, though he thought it was a good question; he blushed for the first time in years at his own hesitation. “I’m just thinking of
…other people.”

  “They won’t know, will they,” Terry said. “Anyway, I’ve had my eye on you for some time.”


  Terry breathed in Robin’s face: “Only ever since you came down here, when you got this place.”

  There was something remotely threatening about him. Robin had the picture for a moment of one of those teenage gangsters with a couple of kids in different households and a forty-year-old woman he sees in the afternoons. He wasn’t going to say how he remembered Terry from that time. Simon was always complaining lustfully about the little hunk in the back lane, who sat on the wall to watch the workmen and had a dick like a trapped animal in his pocket. Robin kissed Terry on the nose, out of courtesy, or as a token of the omitted seduction. Or perhaps he thought the last seven years had been the seduction, the haphazard, unrecognised approach. “Come on then,” he said; and heard other unspoken words that might have followed: “It’s late,” “It’s past your bed-time.”

  After it was fully dark the wind got up quite quickly, and Robin lay with his back to the lamp listening to the stirring in the trees. It was a hissing and pattering like a clever dry sound-effect for rain. Terry was curled in against him, talking desultorily and pretending not to doze. Robin thought of the day, at varying times from spring to spring, when you were first aware of the wind in the leaves, not the empty moan of winter but a new impression of vast, almost substanceless resistance. It was hard to hear it in town, where the spirit of the place was often muted. It was one of the reasons he wanted to sleep beside trees and fields.

  He had been wise to hesitate about Terry, though perhaps not foolish to give in. In bed Terry was lively but self-regarding, as if he wanted to show this older man that he knew how to do it — he was quick and vain; beautiful, but he didn’t touch Robin in any but the most mechanical sense. He was a merely cursory kisser, whereas Robin always wanted to snog heavily, especially with strangers. Terry seemed to find that too intimate or too compromising. He was very proud of his broad-backed dick, which reared off at an angle as if long since tugged askew by the obsessive attentions of his right hand. He had an idiotic patter about it, but Robin shut him up in the simplest way he knew; even so, occasional noises emerged, like the conscientious rejoinders of a dentist’s patient. He seemed somehow displeased by the dense but fountaining volume of Robin’s ejaculation; and Robin himself observed it as a phenomenon of nature, with an almost total absence of sensation. It wasn’t the ending he had hoped for through his spooky weeks of continence.

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