1998 the spell, p.23
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       1998 - The Spell, p.23

           Alan Hollinghurst
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  He couldn’t explain what happened a couple of days later. He went out with Charles again in the morning and looked at a smallish house off the Fulham Road that had been totally renovated. He didn’t expect to like it, he found the mere mention of Fulham depressing, and perhaps he only went because of his dotty new fixation on Charles, the secret stud. Charles picked him up outside the hotel, and his new pitch was a superstitious reluctance to talk about the house at all, as though anything he said might threaten the beautiful outside chance of Justin’s falling in love with it. “I’ll be very interested indeed to know what you think,” was all he said. He had the unlasting aura of a person one has surprisingly and happily had sex with in a dream; but he appeared not to notice Justin’s quizzical glances. There was an old signet-ring on his right hand, but his wedding-finger was reassuringly vacant.

  Outside, the house was sameish white stucco, with a bald front garden where a cement-mixer had stood; but inside it had been given a coldly avant-garde make-over, and had lost all reference to the consolations of an ordinary home. The two men marched moodily over the creaking expanses of blond flooring, and Charles gave clumsy demonstrations of various concealed fixtures: Justin thought this must be his first visit to the property, and suspected that he had a significant hangover; he watched him take off his jacket and lay it on the graphite-coloured kitchen worktop, and took in the hinted bearing of chest and buttocks with revisionist indulgence and fascination. Then there was the trill of a mobile, and Charles wandered off trying to get a good reception. “Yes, I’m there now,” he was saying; and other laconic, shielded remarks, as if he couldn’t speak freely. Justin was alone for a moment in the kitchen, and quickly felt in the horizontal breast-pocket for Charles’s wallet — it came out with a tug, a fat old buttoned billfold, bulging with credit card slips and petrol vouchers. Behind the little glassine window inside was a snapshot of an extraordinarily beautiful black girl.

  Well, that was all he needed to know. He moved to put the wallet back just as Charles, with an irritable turn of speed, was coming through from the front door. “Sorry, Pete, this bloody phone’s still playing up,” he said. “I’ll ring you later.” There was nothing Justin could do, and he started forward, saying hectically, “So this room doubles as a dining-room,” as he crammed the thing into his own pocket.

  The rest of the inspection was purely histrionic. Justin ranged about and asked questions as though from a transparently remembered script, but all he could think of was the wallet and getting rid of it. Charles seemed relieved by his sudden liveliness, and perhaps thought he had had an undeserved success. At each stage of the following business, Charles picking up his jacket, their leaving the house, getting into the car, the ten-minute drive, and Justin’s getting out of the car, various ruses seemed briefly possible but then had already lost their moment. A straightforward explanation would have been humiliating. At one point he had the thing — so much not the thing of Charles’s that he wanted — in his hand and was about to slip or throw it into the back of the car, but his nerve failed him.

  After being dropped he went into the hotel for a moment, and then emerged again with a certain unavoidable shiftiness, and ambled along the street. He couldn’t hand the wallet in, because he couldn’t be associated with it in any way. He couldn’t leave it somewhere, because another person might use the credit cards and cause Charles even more nuisance. He felt too guilty to look inside the wallet himself. This was among the more ridiculous things he had done, but was not to be classed with odd bits of trouble he’d had at school with taking other boys’ things. The thought that his momentary caprice was about to become a horrid little crisis for someone else required swift and frowning censorship. A huge garbage-truck was progressing down Beauchamp Place, with overalled men in fluorescent waistcoats lobbing sacks and boxes into its moaning and crackling tailgate. Justin stood and watched it pass, and as the men ran forward he stepped out to cross the road and tossed the wallet into the rearing jaws of the machine.

  He decided to miss lunch, and got a taxi into Soho. He went to a bar where he had sometimes met up with Alex after work in the earlier, more outgoing phase of their affair; but it too had been the subject of interior design, and its new surfaces of polished steel and industrial rubber forbade nostalgia. He ordered a nutritious bloody Mary. He felt that he wasn’t drifting but adrift. He didn’t know what to do about the houses. He would have to see Charles again, to offset suspicions, but the idea of looking over another property was already vaguely sickening to him. He imagined ringing the office and being told that Charles would no longer be looking after him. And then he could simply abandon the search, it would be a sweet release; he could buy a brown felt hat and see out his days in the considerate hush of the Musgrove Hotel. He had a recurrent delusion, which seemed to him authentically criminal, that he could still smell the high-summer stink of the garbage-truck, beer-slops and rotten apples and cod-liver oil.

  By mid-afternoon he had been round three bars, accompanied on the last leg by a talkative young man called Ivor, who had met him and Robin at a party last Christmas. Justin had only a filtered recollection of that earlier occasion -of being shown off by Robin, of being very beautiful and amusing, and, perhaps, of Ivor being one of those he had impressed. “I often repeat that joke of yours,” Ivor said.

  “Oh…” said Justin.

  “When I said what a pillar of strength you were to Robin, and he said, “Oh, more than that,” and you said, “What, an arcade?”” Justin chuckled bashfully, and thought it was quite funny, or would have been when he said it. Ivor seemed to be mesmerised by him, his chatter was partly nervous, and when Justin started speaking he sat with his lips apart, as if to memorise what he said. He was a nice enough looking chap, with short black hair and sporty club gear that he must have thought suitable for daytime wear. The opportunity never quite arose for Justin to tell him he had left Robin, and he sheltered behind Ivor’s understandable ignorance, and found it comfortable, and then uncomfortable. “I’d love to have you two round for a meal,” Ivor said, “while you’re both in town. Or perhaps you’d like to come and see my new show.”

  “Sure…” said Justin, turning to signal to the barman.

  “You don’t remember what I do, do you?” said Ivor, clearly thrilled by his own insignificance.

  Justin didn’t like to say that, strictly speaking, he couldn’t remember Ivor at all. He said, “We’ll only be here for a couple more days.” And then, “Do you want another drink?”

  The bar they were in was small and sparingly lit, with walls of mirror to allay the sense of being in a trap. It was clearly a haunt of Ivor’s, and they were soon joined by a loose group of his friends. Justin bought drinks for them all, with a strained heartiness that wasn’t his natural style. One of the boys said to him quietly, “Are you okay?” He was a thickset rugger blond, whom Justin had immediately hoped to impress — it was confusing to be shown this wary solicitude. He had had what, four bloody Marys and then a couple of summery screwdrivers. He wasn’t that far gone. But maybe his gaze at the boy, who was still soberly shy and reasonable, had been unwittingly heavy. He said, “I’m fine,” and the boy shrugged and lifted his bottle and murmured, “Cheers.”

  Later, he was buying a drink for another man, and told him he was looking for a house, three or four bedrooms, in west or south-west London, but north of the river. He may have rather bragged about his requirements. The man said, “Well, let me know when you find one. I suppose you won’t need a lodger?”

  Justin said, “I might have a sort of paying sex-guest.”

  This didn’t seem to be what the man had in mind, but he laughed, and said, “Anyway, you must have a boyfriend.”

  “Yes, I must,” said Justin.

  Ivor, who tended to audit and sample anyone else’s conversations with Justin, said excitably, “He’s got a bloody gorgeous, boyfriend. Haven’t you? He’s this gorgeous architect.” He took a sip from his salt-rimmed glass, and added, “They’re
made for each other,” with a note of extravagant regret.

  Justin looked in the mirror on the facing wall. The bar was reflected in it, and their group of seven or eight, and his eye tracked across it to find himself. The skin of his face felt tight, with the dry tingle of afternoon drunkenness, the hint of giddiness and dissociation…He knew he should leave, but winced at the thought of the bright sunlight outside, and saw the wince in the mirror as an ugly little convulsion in the indefinably alien stiffness and slackness of his face. Everyone else seemed to be all right, he saw that the man who might be his lodger had noticed him looking at himself, and was smiling ironically at him. The bar was really terribly small. He took in, with delayed displeasure, that the cool quiet jazz of earlier had mutated, as the afternoon ran over some invisible threshold, into louder dance-music, with its threatening chemical eagerness. Ivor was saying something else to him, more unguarded as he got drunker himself. Justin turned and stared deliberately at the polished surface of the bar. His breathing was rapid and shallow.

  As soon as he was out in the street he felt better, and he walked a block or two unseeingly in short charges and pauses. Whenever he thought back to the bar the panic returned, with a sudden wrong beat of the heart; but the effect diminished a little each time. It might have been all right, but he avoided looking in shop-windows or car-windows. He went into Soho Square, which he thought would be free of reflections, and sat firmly on the grass, in the middle of the lawn, under the airy canopy of the planes. One of the gay boys near by came and asked him for a light, but he just shook his head. After a while he got up quickly and went to a phone-box. He jabbed at the numbers and listened to the ringing tone without a clue what he was going to say. He felt it was out of his control, and that whatever he said would come to him in the moment that he said it. He had a vague image of the Clapham flat, the sex-box as he used to call it, and Robin darting to the phone. A preoccupied and not quite recognisable voice said, “Alex Nichols.” Justin winced, and for a paranoid half-second thought that Alex was there with Robin; then he started to wonder how he had dialled that number, by some flustered instinct -it was well over a year since he’d rung Alex at work. “Alex Nichols,” the voice said again, wearily. Justin stood there panting, like a pervert, and heard Alex hang up. Then, more deliberately, as if trying to see where he had gone wrong the first time, Justin keyed in the sex-box number. Within a second he heard the muffled clatter of the ansafone, and Robin’s voice, unlifelike, businesslike, making the impossible announcement that he had gone away.

  By the time he reached Crewkerne it was dark, and he saw the last taxi pull out from the station yard as he emerged with his bags. There was a slight chill and a sharp grassy smell in the air. He went to the phone-box to call a cab, and then stood under the lamp at the station door. The ticket-office was closed, and the lit platforms and waiting-rooms were unmanned, in the modern way. Occasionally a car that wasn’t his cab came slowly past, and then accelerated away. The edge of a small country town at 10.30 at night, with rear lights disappearing: it was a definition of loneliness.

  He noticed that the driver didn’t take credit cards, and decided not to tell him he had no cash. He sat in the back, with his overnight bag clutched on his knee, and watched the car’s headlights sweep corner after corner of the high-hedged lanes. The driver took them fast, and several times raised a squeal. He probably wanted to finish for the night, this was far out of his way — Justin was indifferent to him but glad of the mood of emergency. He swung from side to side, gripped by the muddled emotions of coming home and going into exile. He had made a mistake, but he didn’t know which it was.

  When the car stopped at the gate he did a cursory mime of dismay over his wallet. “It’s all right, I live here,” he said; but the driver held on to his luggage. He hurried down through the dark garden, hoping more than ever that Robin would be in. A light was visible through the apple-trees — it was like a house at the end of the world, and he had a sense that he had left it thirty years ago, rather than ten hapless days.

  Some punctilio, or maybe a taste for drama, made him ring the bell, though his keys were in his pocket. He heard the springy thump of Robin’s footsteps, and knew he would be barefoot, and pictured his puzzlement at a late-night visit. The door was plucked open, and there he was, shockingly himself, utterly lifelike. Justin saw his sigh of surprise, and then the doubting but unstoppable smile. “Have you got twelve quid, darling?” he said. “I’ve got to pay the taxi.”

  Robin came up to carry his bags, and Justin thanked him quietly, as for an expected but still agreeable tribute. In the kitchen they had a quick hug, but sat apart across the table. Justin had the beginnings of a dry headache. When he looked up he saw that Robin was crying.

  He always rather froze in the presence of other people’s distress. He had only once seen Robin cry before, not long after they’d met, when he had told him about Simon — and it was true that on that occasion he had found it terribly sexy. Now he said, “So when did you come back?”

  Robin pulled a hand across his face and cleared his throat. “Um…about three days ago. I couldn’t stand not hearing from you — knowing you were somewhere near by.” Justin read his desire to ask a dozen questions, some of them important. “Are you going to tell me where you were?”

  “It doesn’t matter.”

  Robin sniffed and stood up. “Drink?”

  “Yep. Scotch.”

  He got glasses and a half-empty bottle. “Did you have fun?”

  “Yes, for a bit. I needed time. You mustn’t forget I’m a city girl, darling, at heart. I grew up in Solihull.” He took the glass that Robin slid towards him, and peered into it absently. “Anyway, then I decided it was time to get back to dear old Luton Gasbag.” He smiled briefly and then drank, but with no show of celebration. He was anxious to prevent avowals from being made. “Did you get up to any mischief in my absence?”

  Robin hesitated for a moment, as though trying to make up something silly, and said, “I slept with Terry Badgett.”

  “Huh…I see.” Justin scraped back his chair. “That’s a bit pathetic, isn’t it?”

  “Totally pathetic. I was lonely, he jumped me. It was a waste of time. And money.”

  “You don’t mean you paid him for sex?”

  “The sex was hopeless, and then he woke me up and asked me to pay for it. He obviously sees himself as some kind of hustler.”

  Justin tried to show he was above such things, but he felt bitterly wounded; and baffled by Robin’s motives in telling him. “I’m not sure I needed to know that,” he said.

  “Well, you asked. I’ve never had secrets from you, and I’m not starting now. I thought you’d left me, for fuck sake. I haven’t taken a vow of chastity.”

  “Maybe I have left you,” Justin said. He felt his anger waking up, with its exhilarating potential to take him far from home, and he slammed the hatch down on its head and bolted it shut. “Anyway, I hope he didn’t stay the night.”

  “No,” said Robin impatiently. “He was only here about an hour. It was nothing.”

  An hour, thought Justin. An hour of betrayal. He said, “I don’t want all the village knowing about it”; and then started laughing, and carried on laughing for longer than was pleasant.

  When they were in bed he curled up in Robin’s arms and felt his hard cock pushing apologetically against the back of his thighs — he thought it was more like Alex’s shy lust than Robin’s usual masterful advance. He said, “Do you mind if we don’t tonight. I have, genuinely, got a headache.” He shifted away, but reached back to grip his powerful hand.

  In the morning Robin lay in much longer than usual, and kept rolling on to Justin with pretend-sleepy humphs and gropes. But Justin could outsleep anyone. Eventually Robin swung his legs out of bed and went to the bathroom, leaving the door open. Justin listened for the boyish noisiness of his peeing, always straight into the water, and the flush pulled just before he finished. A minute later he heard rattling in t
he kitchen beneath. He lay there waiting for the Terry thing to break loose again; but nothing very much happened, and he wondered if perhaps he didn’t care. He intuited some motive of revenge in the whole business, which made it amusing in a way, and he saw that it was something he could always bring up. He pushed back the covers, and turned round on the bottom sheet like a dog in its basket. It didn’t take him long to find half a dozen bent black hairs, which he picked up fastidiously and took between thumb and forefinger down to the kitchen. Robin was laying the breakfast, and Justin set them down with a conscientious frown on his side-plate. “How much did you have to pay for these?” he said.

  Robin’s face was instantly shadowed. “I said, I didn’t know you were coming.” He turned away with a shake of the head, as if he could never do anything right.

  It was extraordinary to have such power over someone to whom you longed only to submit. There they both were, half naked in the kitchen, the back door open, the noise of birdsong fading under the gathering roar of the kettle. Justin said, “Shall we do housewife surprised over breakfast by meter-reader? Or are these the Lucy Rie plates?”

  Robin said, “Mike Hall rang and asked us to go round. They’re having the new man from “Ambages.” I imagine he wants some moral support.”

  “I’m not sure I can give that,” said Justin. “What’s his name?”

  He was very cheered by the thought of a social evening, with old people.

  Robin went to the phone, where he’d written it down. “His name’s Adrian Ringrose.”

  Justin raised an eyebrow. “He sounds like the ballet critic of a provincial newspaper.”

  “That’s what he may well have been. I think he’s retired down here.”

  “He’ll be awfully glad he’s met us,” said Justin, with a companionable yawn, and a sense of the significance of the first person plural. “Still, there’s lots of time before then.”

  “Masses,” Robin agreed, and raised his eyebrows optimistically. He had taken the day off work, to be with Justin, which was both comforting and oppressive. He came back across the room to sit beside him on the sofa, and put a hand on his thigh.

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