1998 the spell, p.22
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       1998 - The Spell, p.22
 

           Alan Hollinghurst
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  Even so, afterwards, drifting sleepwards, he was glad to have Terry with him. His hands rubbed across the skin and joints and smooth transitions of a body that hadn’t yet dreamt of the changes Robin had studied earlier in the mirror. It was interesting — like an eerily privileged visit to his younger self, or to some aspect of it. But he wouldn’t want to make the journey often. How could all the ageing lovers of boys bear it, the distance growing longer and lonelier year by year? Robin liked the particulars of Terry, the very hairy calves and the smooth thighs, the marks of sweaty chafing between his legs, the small scar on the wrong side for the appendix, the damp talcky knots of his armpits. Had he really fancied Robin when he was fifteen? They got the roof on the house in time to have his fortieth birthday party between its unplastered walls, with builders’ caged lamps on long flexes clipped to the beams, and a tilting JCB backed up outside in the rutted mudslide of the garden. He cooked long skewers of sea-food in the open fireplace. He had been unsure about forty, but then in the new house, with Simon, he saw that forty was only a beginning. Of course he thought Simon would be here with him for the rest of his life, by which he meant his own life.

  It wasn’t clear whether Terry was staying. He seemed to have quite settled in. Robin thought it must be strange for him to find himself in this room, when he had recently spent the night in Dan’s bed, a couple of doors along. Now he was sleeping, his jaw had dropped, he was a mouth breather. Robin curled round and turned off the lamp, and it was only that small domestic action that startled him with the image of Justin, or rather with its opposite, the sudden teeming darkness in which Justin disappeared each night, as they turned and settled in each other’s arms. The great loves in his life — and here he was with a pointless trick, and all the vague social disadvantage that would follow.

  Terry swallowed and mumbled “All right?” as Robin hugged him.

  “Mmm.” He wondered if Justin was alone at this moment, if he was really in a hotel; he half-admired the stony way he had stuck to his resolution, and not rung home — like other addictive personalities he had a mystical respect for the total ban, as the only alternative to chaos. Still, the effect was severe. Robin listened to the wind, and thought of that other day, at the far end of summer, when a little shift occurred in the weather, that might have been nothing, a morning’s chill after weeks of glittering heat, but was in fact the airy chink through which the autumn came pouring, with its vivid forgotten lights and ache of inexact memory and surprising sense of relief.

  “I ought to be off,” Terry said flatly. “I haven’t had my dinner.” Robin pulled him closer, with a sentimental growl.

  He must have slept, maybe only for a few seconds, and when he woke it was to a subtly confused apprehension of where he was. Terry stretched and sighed and seemed to kiss his arm, but in the darkness Robin drifted on the unexamined certainty that he was with someone else. He murmured a half-awake phrase, blunt but solicitous, with the routine humour and dry wistfulness of some established intimacy. It happened sometimes in moments of giggly sweetness, when you found you were treating one friend as if he were another older and better one — a sudden access through a similar gesture or simply through the likeness of friendships. Quite often, Robin called Justin Simon, and was forced to apologise. In the dark, as breathing slowed and the hands lost the sense of where they lay, it seemed one lover could become another, like the smoothly metamorphosing figures in dreams. In Robin’s dream a stranger was shouting; he woke up and it took him several frightened seconds to work out that Terry was asking him for thirty pounds.

  FOURTEEN

  No, you’re right, sir. This room would need a bit of work.”

  “If seven maids, with seven mops…” Justin trailed away.

  “Sorry sir?”

  “Nothing.”

  “It does enjoy a south-westerly view.”

  “If it enjoys that view,” said Justin, standing back from the window, “then it must be a masochist.”

  Charles the estate agent gave an embarrassed chuckle. “Point taken, Justin,” he said. “Point taken.”

  Justin wished he would decide what to call him, and stick to it. Charles was a tall, not unhandsome man in his late twenties, with the high colour and camel-like gait of a certain kind of public schoolboy. It was boiling hot, and he was in shirt-sleeve order; he had a bright joky tie which Justin imagined was a gift from a girlfriend who didn’t want him to turn into a fuddy-duddy. He kept smoothing it down as if he would like to smooth it away. “I’ve got another one to show you,” he said. They went downstairs and got into Charles’s white Rover — or “Rover car” as he called it. As before, there was a bit of trouble starting. “You run up quite a mileage in my job,” Charles said.

  It was inexpressibly strange to be back in this neighbourhood, though the shock came not from what had changed but from what was exactly unaltered. There was that corner house with crazy “stonework” stuck over the brick, there were those peculiar children playing outside the dry-cleaners, there was the strikingly named Garbo’s off-licence, which had done so much to enhance the glamour of drinking alone; they were actually going to pass the end of Cressida Road, and he craned round to get a glimpse of Alex’s house, half-way along. “It’s a pleasant area, this,” said Charles. By and large, Justin thought he preferred the cockney Derek, from the other agency. The trouble with boys like Charles was the recurrent hint they gave off that they, and certainly their parents, lived in somewhere far grander than the properties they were trying to sell. Hence the note of pity, the wavering forms of address, and the ironic attachment to the euphemisms of the trade. “This next house has been the subject of interior design,” Charles said.

  The woman of the house had stayed in to be available to them, and sat on the sofa with her legs crossed, drinking milky coffee and doing the Daily Mail crossword. When they had been upstairs for a while, she came up to see what was happening and showed them how the loft ladder worked. Justin saw that as a vendor she had come to believe the estate agents’ literature, and would be offended by almost anything he said about the house. He was itching to leave the place for ever, but found himself in a spasm of parodic politeness asking further questions about the central heating and just having another quick look at the little bedroom. As the front door closed behind them he realised he had been rather a success.

  “So what did you think of that one?” Charles asked when they were back in the car.

  Justin made a face of retching grief, and Charles laughed and said, as the car finally started, “You ought to have been an actor.” He looked around and went on cheerfully, “Well, that’s about it for now. Can I drop you somewhere? Or have you got the rest of the day off?”

  “I need to get back to Knightsbridge,” Justin said, with a frown at his watch.

  The days in London passed wonderfully quickly. If he wasn’t doing something, then he was luxuriously planning to do it. The estate agents’ bumf came in multiple envelopes each morning, and he looked through it in a trance of horrified amusement. Once he chose to view a place solely for the blinding vulgarity of its decor. He felt cheated when they only gave a photo of the view from the house. He needed to find somewhere, and had an image of the light and space in which he would live, but nowhere that he looked at had the right circulation, as Robin called it, the right flow of space and, what was it, disposition of offices. Justin’s new era, in which he starred as a virtually teenage heir who was also in some mysterious way retired from life, would depend on the discreet presence of staff. He was more and more fascinated by having people do things for money.

  For the first few days he had been very good. He had only seen Gianni, whose number he had kept from way back, and who had provided all those amusing translations of people’s names into Italian. He was fine, but suffered from the common syndrome of having grown in memory. On the following Monday Justin went to see Mr Hutchinson, his father’s stockbroker, and left his Marylebone office feeling almost giddy with financial security.
The detail of what Hutchinson said evaporated within seconds, but a sustaining sense of power remained. He went, from need, into the Gents at Oxford Circus, where the same skinny black guy he had sucked off years ago was standing in exactly the same place and gave him the same furtive glare; but Justin thought not. He strolled on into Soho in the late morning sunshine, entranced by the animation around him, the boys dashing about, the cyclists like acrobats. How anyone could prefer the country, with its cows and sheep, both literal and figurative, was beyond him. He went into a gay bar that had just opened for the day and wasn’t yet playing any ghastly dance-music, and had a beer and a chat with the barman and left with all the free gay papers under his arm.

  Back at the Musgrove he spread them out on the bed and lay there like a child with his heels in the air and his chin in his hands. The personal services pages seemed to have grown in number and frankness in the year since he had last used them, and a lot of the advertisers now had full nude photos, though sometimes with the face smudged. Others had a picture of their face only, which he preferred. Better still were the purely verbal ones. He liked maximum suggestion combined with surprise, like an optimal blind date. If they hit it off he might see them again, but the real point was the arrival of an absolute stranger. Justin was a gorgeous young man of thirty-five, of course, so the strangers themselves were usually relieved and excited. Sometimes they asked why he didn’t just go to a bar and pick up.

  Perhaps there were too many rent-boys now. Justin had to get a pen to mark the possibilities. He thought there should be some stricter calibration of the superlatives of “well-endowed.” No one admitted to being less than VWE, many were VVWE or Massively VWE, which surely wasn’t right, it should be V Massively WE. He ringed Mark (the d he put in “buldging” was unaccountably arousing), as well as stunning Carlo, Italian hunk, biggest in town, and German Karlheinz, who offered watersports (“let me quentsch your thirst”). He saw that black Gary, aka Denzel, was still running the same ad (“You’re in for a big surprise”), and wondered what had happened to him on the night of Danny’s party; it had been a big surprise all right to see him there in the kitchen, and Robin’s jealousy had been almost uncanny. He’d have liked to see him again. His eye fell on the nondescript one-liner, “Phil. Central. In/Out,” whom he suspected was probably the best of all.

  Mark, as big as a building, wasn’t answering, but Carlo came on at once, rather snappily. He was busy now, but he could be there at seven o’clock; Justin made it clear he wasn’t after a mere half-hour, and Carlo spoke with sulky eagerness of large vague sums of money, to which Justin agreed without. listening.

  “Okay, so where is, please?”

  “It’s the Musgrove Hotel”

  “Oh. I never been to that one before.”

  “No, I don’t imagine there would be much call for you here,” Justin said, picturing his boundingly virile arrival in the chintzy front hall. “Incidentally, Carlo, how big are you?”

  “Yes, is twenty-five.”

  “Goodness…”

  “That’s in centimetri, of course, I mean to say.”

  “Ah yes.”

  “That the circonference…No, only jokin!”

  “Ha-ha.” Justin sometimes felt he should wear a tape-measure clipped to his belt, as Robin did when he was on a job. “Well, see you this evening then.”

  Which left him with a whole hot summer afternoon of waiting. He didn’t know what to do. He went down for a late lunch in the antique quiet of the Musgrove’s dining-room, and then sat with coffee and the Daily Telegraph in the lounge. People clearly mistook him for the nephew or grandson of a guest at the hotel. And part of his pleasure in the place was the reminiscence of holidays spent with his father in establishments chosen for their digestible cooking and ban on children; hotels where the lounge was empty by 9 p.m., though grumbles of conversation and bursts of high-volume TV could be heard from the rooms as he set out again for a stroll along the front to the improbably listed back bar of another hotel. From his armchair he could see through the lobby to the brilliant sunlight in the street. The stout old doorman, in maroon morning dress, was talking to some workmen outside, and stepped back to greet an elderly couple, guests who obviously knew him well. The rough tick-tick of a waiting taxi could be heard, against the fainter roar and distant squeals of traffic in the Brompton Road, a block away. The routines of London were so beautiful, calming and exciting at once, like being in love. In the words of certain masseurs, stimulating and relaxing. He thought of poor old Robin, over in Clapham, and Alex high up in his office in Whitehall, glancing out at the day through greying net curtains, and was gently aroused and lazily amused by their love and lust for him. He saw them standing side by side, with their very different penises sticking up in bewildered supplication as he swept past. They had been stopping-stations, hitching-posts in that embarrassing early part of life before one has quite enough money or knows what one is meant to do. Then there was a moment of change, of clarification. Money made everything clear.

  He walked up the road to the seldom crowded designer basement of Harvey Nichols and sorted negligently through the rails of the better houses; here and there a young assistant would break off from an exacting afternoon of club gossip and shirt-refolding to solicit his custom. He tried on a couple of suits, loose summer linens, but they made him look fat and hot, like an old-fashioned sex-tourist. “It’s not right,” he said, with a note of more general protest. The prices too were rather tawdry. He got a taxi to Issey Miyake, where he was welcomed with ritualised surprise, like an arrival at a remote Zen temple. In the forty minutes he was there no other customer came in, but when he left with a suit and a shirt he had spent a fraction over £3,000, and he hailed another cab in a mood that was best summed up by one of his earliest word-muddles: he was in a state of beautitude.

  Back at the hotel a more urgent excitement set in. He couldn’t help wondering what Carlo was going to look like, and the thought of having him here entirely at his disposal for hours on end made him prickle with pleasure. He wondered what he was doing now: working out, perhaps; or, more probably, simply working. An afternoon appointment with a dandruffed married man. Justin liked the idea of Carlo as a sex-machine, but hoped that he wouldn’t already be tired out at 7 p.m. Carlo was a strong name, though, like a fortified version of caro, which was the Italian for expensive. Of course the English for Carlo was Charles, which was the name of his estate-agent friend. That was a coincidence. Maybe Charles too was Massively VWE. It was hard to tell with those expansive pin-stripes. How would he put it? — “enjoys a substantial erection”…well, who didn’t? And perhaps there had been something a bit sexy, after all, about chugging round with Charles from house to house. Carlo, though, would be more than a bit sexy. But then you had to remember that Carlo almost certainly wasn’t his real name. There was still an hour and a half to go. Justin was so worked up that he wondered about getting another rentboy round, to fill in the time.

  In the last minutes of the approach he rather lost interest -it was only sex, and would probably be a disappointment. The phone rang at five to seven, and the pleasant Scots girl, who made Justin think of bare knees in a cold wind, said, “There’s a Mr?…a Mr Carlo, to see you.” Justin was already in the towelling bath-robe that the hotel provided, powdered and sprayed in coquettish deference to his visitor, who might not share Mr Robin’s taste for b.o. He arranged himself in a chair, but then had to get up to open the door.

  As Carlo came in, the couple in the next room were going down to an early dinner, and Justin heard the words “youth hostel” pass between them in a jolly but disconcerted tone. There was superficially something outward-bound about Carlo, in his homosexual boots and socks; the padded straps of his knapsack set off the curves of his chest and shoulders like a harness, and his black shorts, though baggy in cut, still caught and stretched around his thighs and buttocks as he moved. He was the urban parody of a hiker that you saw in any gay bar. He was by no means as tall as expected, bu
t he was swelteringly good-looking; he had the mask-like orangey tan that comes from using the wrong “no sun” lotion. He shook Justin’s hand and looked round the room with an appreciative, comparing eye as he shrugged off his knapsack. Justin knew he’d made another good choice. The boy was like a package holiday on legs.

  The next few moments had their usual fascination — the hand-over of the money, the little dent this made in the scenario of the romantic visit, and the immediate boost to it again after Carlo had counted the fold of notes; the hesitation as to what was wanted — a pretend love-scene or sex without preamble or some charged personal variant. Justin loosened his bath-robe to reveal the natural tan that was his reward for so much country tedium, and Carlo came up and started kissing him in the automatically imploring way of a shorter person. There was something pretty passionate about his warm snufflings, Justin thought, as he reached down to grasp the heavy stirring in the boy’s pants. But then Carlo stood back for a moment with a silly apologetic expression. “Only one second,” he said. “I need to use your toilet.”

  Justin gazed at him forgivingly. “Darling,” he said, “I am my toilet.”

 
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