1998 the spell, p.24
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       1998 - The Spell, p.24
 

           Alan Hollinghurst
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  Justin said, “Shall we have a game of Scrabble, darling?” in a special broody tone.

  Robin seemed to ponder for a moment if this was code for something even more enjoyable, and then modified his caress into an encouraging rub. “Sure, if you really want to.”

  “I do, darling.”

  “Okay.” Robin jumped up to get things ready, with a slightly exaggerated air of keenness and self-denial, like a hospital visitor. Their two previous games of Scrabble had been reduced to absurdity or even aborted by Justin’s childish resentment of the rules. It was especially risky if they played one of the Woodfield variants, where the rules had been devised by Robin himself. “What shall we play?”

  “I don’t mind, darling. You decide.” Justin was charmed by his own cosiness and pliancy, and couldn’t have said how ironic he was being, or where it would all lead. “Something a bit different?” He knew that Robin and his mother had played obsessively in her last years, and that Lady Astrid had made and memorised a list of all the two-letter words in the language.

  “Okay.” Robin offered him the letter bag. “Let’s have nine letters, then; and seventy-five extra if you put them all down.”

  “Fine.” Justin smiled mysteriously, picked out an A, and added, “Oh, and no two-letter words.”

  Robin drew breath to complain, but then thought better of it.

  Justin held his letters away from him and scanned them fondly for a couple of minutes. “Do you know what my first word is going to be, darling?” he said.

  “I don’t.”

  “Well it begins with a G, and it ends with a Y, and the middle letter’s an A.”

  Robin pursed his lips in the briefest pretence of amusement, and was already entering his score on the sheet when Justin put down GRAVY. “Ah. Very good, twenty-four,” he said, before doing a quick reshuffle of his rack and then laying out across the board, with calm ruthlessness, the word EXASPERATE. “Um…let me see…sixty, and the bonus…one hundred and thirty-five.”

  “Marvellous,” said Justin, arranging his new letters and sending his mind off on a wilfully naughty excursion through his sexual activities of the past ten days. Gianni, and Carlo; and then Mark, who had bulged rather less than promised. No, Carlo was definitely the best. When he focused again on his rack he could only see a hedge of consonants, like a Welsh village. He thought how absurd it was to be doing this for fun, by choice; when surely the point about getting a little bit older and having money was that you never had to do anything that you didn’t want to. He put down GENTS, as a flat joke, and also, in their case, a romantic one, and scored a suicidal eight — he felt Robin’s disapproval of the wasted resource of the s. “Shall we have a drink, darling?” he suggested.

  While Robin was out of the room Justin hopped up and looked at his rack, on which TEMPORISE was waiting to be deployed. He saw that if Robin laid it across the s of GENTS he would get a quadruple word score plus the bonus; which after a moment’s mental arithmetic would doubtless come out at several thousand points. He was back studying his letters, and accepted his gin and tonic abstractedly, only looking up when Robin had set down his tiles. The word he had made was PROEMS; which came to a timid twenty-six. “Rather a good word, I think,” Robin said.

  For Justin the game was over at that moment. If they were both going to play deliberately badly, even though from quite different motives, then what was the point of continuing? He shouldn’t have looked at Robin’s letters, perhaps; and he remembered that though knowledge was power it could also involve a good deal of disappointment. Still, he couldn’t admit to having peeped, which might be considered a kind of cheating. He took about five minutes to make his next word. “Sorry…” he said at one point.

  “It doesn’t matter,” said Robin, suppressing his gaping impatience as if playing with a child.

  Justin was thinking about going out later, and the wonderfully unorthodox guide to village life he would be able to give to the newcomer. All he knew about him came from Margery Hall’s vague remark that he was a bachelor and rather musical, from which he had built up a convivial portrait of a boozy old opera queen who would of course find him very attractive and amusing. Then he did something most annoying, and put down half his word before hastily taking it up again. He said, “I think it would be nice to just sort of put down words.”

  Robin frowned equably. “Isn’t that what we’re doing?”

  “I mean, wherever we liked.”

  “Oh I see,” said Robin. “Well, that might make an interesting variant. I think it’s probably best if you engage with your opponent’s words…”

  Justin took a drink, and then quickly put down PIRRENT. “Eleven, darling.”

  “What on earth is that supposed to be?”

  Justin blinked offendedly over his sabotage. “It’s PIRRENT,” he said.

  “Why don’t you have PRINTER?”

  “Oh I far prefer this.”

  “Yes, darling,” said Robin, clearly thinking he was being mocked, but remembering to indulge Justin, like someone senile or mad. “But what does it mean?”

  “Oh…” — Justin kept shaking his head as he searched for the definition. “It means…sort of vainglorious.”

  There was a long pause before Robin said, “I’m afraid I’ll have to challenge that.”

  Justin twisted sideways to pick up his drink, and the jerk of his knee fetched the Scrabble board off the low table, and scattered the letters across the floor. “You know how superstitious I am,” he said. “I’m sure that must be a sign.”

  FIFTEEN

  Danny went down to Dorset for a few days to put some distance between himself and Alex; though the reason he gave was that he wanted to check up on his father and Justin. He knew Alex couldn’t object to this kind-hearted plan, and he tried to persuade himself that Alex too might feel ready to cool it. He brought his big notebook with him as usual, and his more secret plan was to try to write a play about some of the people he knew on the club scene, Heinrich and Lars and a few others, with talk of an enigmatic older man, which would be his homage to George, as well as a kind of revenge on him. He didn’t envisage any technical obstacles to writing something stageable and sensationally topical; he spent one morning planning the guest-list for the first-night party, and going over certain points in the interviews he would give.

  At the end of the week Alex came down to join him. Danny half-hoped that Robin might make a fuss about this, but his father treated Alex these days with amiable indifference, perhaps out of respect to Danny’s boyfriend, perhaps because he guessed he wouldn’t be his boyfriend much longer. He arrived soon after ten on Saturday morning, which like so many of his actions made you calculate the exact degree of inconvenience and eagerness that lay behind it; he’d have got up at six at the latest. He stood about expectantly in the kitchen as the others ate a halting, hung-over breakfast. He had some photographs of their long weekend with him, and showed them round dotingly, like an excited voyeur of his own happiness. Justin was rather pointedly studying the Equity prices in The Times; Robin served up more and more fried food. Danny’s impression was that the two of them were having a lot of sex and a lot of rows, which was probably better than having neither, as had been the case before. Robin did what he could to shield him responsibly from both things, and made him wonder if he could dodge those two things himself this weekend.

  It was a breezy blue day, and Danny thought they should get out of the house. “Shall we go down to the beach?” he said, with a tug on Alex’s shirt-sleeve, and an awkward sense of a withheld endearment. He stuffed some towels and a book he was reading into his knapsack, but left his notebook behind, as he didn’t want Alex getting interested in his play, or indeed in some of the other things it contained. They went up to the car, and Danny leapt into the passenger seat without opening the door. The car was fun, after all, and freedom. He switched on the CD player, which whirred and checked itself and jumped to the middle of some slammingly hard house that Alex must have been liste
ning to en route. Really he wondered at times what he’d turned this nice Donizetti-fancying civil servant into. As they drove up the lane, Mr Harland-Ball was standing in his gateway, and Danny called out, “We’re queer!” in a helpful tone.

  Alex changed into top on the Bridport road and let his hand drift from the gear-stick on to Danny’s thigh. And it was true that Danny was tinglingly randy after a night of red wine and Irish whiskey, and had been feeling a touch redundant, alone in the house with a busy couple — it required a certain tactful blindness, and deafness. He sprawled back for a moment, so that Alex could feel his cock, but then said, “Actually, you’d better concentrate on the road.”

  Alex said, “It’s strange having the other two in the house again, after we had it all to ourselves.”

  Danny paused and said, “It is their home.”

  “I know, darling. That’s not quite what I meant.”

  “You mustn’t be so possessive,” Danny said, and smacked Alex’s knee to make a little joke of it; when he glanced at his face a moment later he saw his blush, and knew he was silently absorbing and refuting the charge. Danny turned off the music, which was a bit strong for eleven in the morning, and started fiddling with the radio. Alex said,

  “Did I tell you I saw Dave the other day?”

  “Dave who?”

  “Your friend who works in the porno shop.”

  “Oh, right.” Danny found his favourite dance-music station, but it kept warping into a programme of hilarious advertisements in French. “You really need to get a better sound system,” he said, not for the first time.

  “What is his surname, anyway?”

  “Whose?”

  “Dave’s”

  “I don’t know,” said Danny. “I’m not that intimate with him.”

  It was already busy at the beach, and they had to park some way from the refreshment cabins and the edge of the shingle. Danny’s eyes moved mischievously around behind the unreadable black discs of his shades. He noted Terry’s Lovemobile drawn up at the side of the Hope and Anchor, by some special arrangement he had with the landlord; and there were some nice big teenagers and a few sexy young dads mixed in with the trashier holiday-makers. Danny glanced at Alex to see if he had noticed them, but he seemed absorbed in the practicalities of the expedition. He walked a few yards ahead, past the Fo’c’sle Fish Bar and the Kiss Me Hardy gift kiosk, which had lost the last letter of its name. And even that detail seemed to raise the sexual pitch of the day.

  The top of the beach was a low ramp of shingle, but further down there were patches and stripes of coarse grey sand. To the right the deep channel of the river opened out between its timbered walls. Alex didn’t know about the death of a local boy there, who had dived on to a pleasure-boat and broken his neck; Danny had read the story in the West Dorset Herald and preferred not to look at the shrivelled flowers and blotched messages that were still heaped on the quayside. He trailed on towards the further end of the beach, where the cliffs reared up again, and there weren’t so many little kids. He wanted to sit down near some lads he could get into conversation with. Alex came along, upset and inquisitive about the death, and why Danny hadn’t waited for him. “I think we should go here, darling,” he called, indicating the last free patch of sand; and Danny mopingly complied and turned back.

  He had two contradictory feelings. He wished Alex wouldn’t call him darling all the time in public; and on the other hand he was so conditioned to a world in which everyone was gay that he found it hard to bear in mind, down here, a hundred miles from London, that almost everyone wasn’t. He raked the beach with a cruisy steadiness, a mysteriously knowledgeable smile, as if he had only to decide. Alex settled the bags and towels like an obstacle to escapades which, Danny briefly admitted, were never likely to happen. But there again, rationally, statistically, magnetically, there was a real chance that he might have picked up.

  They sat down and he turned his attention to the sea, which Alex was reacting to in a forced, appreciative tone. There was a dazzle, even through sunglasses, on the small, noisy breakers, and the frothy film of water that slid back down the beach. A short way out there was an almost hidden rock over which a bright hood of foam reared and fell from time to time. After summers on the long surfing beaches north of San Diego, with their stilted lifeguard stations and neck-ricking parades of godlike men, Danny found the English seaside tackily spartan. Even on a hot day like this, there was a rough little breeze that hummed and buzzed over the nearby stones. He kept his T-shirt on and lay back looking at the sky; where there was nothing to see, except the highest faint plumes of cirrus. Alex said he thought there was something specially ethereal about the clouds, they were so high that it was hard to think of them as related to the earth, they were like vapour-trails of a war in heaven, or something. Danny, who had spent an instructive weekend with a Scotsman from the Met Office, said more scientifically that they were seven or eight miles up, and at that altitude would be composed entirely of ice-crystals.

  When he sat up again he saw that Alex was looking at him, and said, “What…?”

  “Nothing, darling. Have you heard from George about the chain, by the way?”

  Danny sounded cross. “No, I haven’t. I haven’t seen George, or heard a squeak out of him for weeks.” It was only as he said the sentence that he decided who he was being cross with. “I think he’s dropped me, the bastard.” He frowned very hard to stifle a grin. It was fun to have this entirely fictional pretext to talk about George. Alex looked both pleased and troubled.

  “I hope you’ll get it back soon.”

  Danny nodded and looked out to sea. “You never told me where you got it,” he said, with half-hearted wiliness.

  “I can tell you if you like. It was left to me by my grandmother.”

  “Really…?”

  “I think she thought I could give it to my wife.”

  Danny guffawed anxiously. The next stage of his plan had been to confess that George had lost the chain or sold it out of a misunderstanding. He wished he could just say that it had been stolen — and quite possibly swallowed — by a satyromaniac Brazilian dwarf. But it was never easy to be brutal to Alex. In fact the need to treat him delicately, to protect him, as you protect your parents with small lies and omissions, was a strong part of Danny’s love for him. It was a kind of respect, and the lies themselves were coloured by solicitude. At times, the success of his deceits gave him a dizzy feeling of competence, at sustaining a double life; and that in turn made him proud of his affair with Alex, as an achievement, unlike the straightforward world of his miscellaneous fucks, with its perishable feelings and minimal commitments. But the grandmother’s jewellery, the wayward convictions that must have led Alex to make that gift…It was like a creepy bit of private magic, a secret engagement ring. Danny said, “I had thought of asking George down this weekend. I think you two should get to know each other better.”

  Alex said, “You had, had you?” and Danny laughed. It was so easy to trigger Alex’s jealousy, and funny that he didn’t realise that George was virtually the one person in his world that Danny could never have. The prohibition made the memories of him cruelly arousing, and he hunched forward to hide his erection.

  Alex made quite a performance of changing into his swimming-trunks under a towel, like a straight person who has grown suspicious of the atmosphere in a locker-room. “Just get changed,” Danny said. “Nobody cares.”

  “Thanks very much,” said Alex. “I notice you’re not getting ready.”

  “I’ve got my shorts on under my jeans,” Danny said. “Besides, you wouldn’t catch me going in there.”

  “The young of today have no fibre,” said Alex, pulling his shirt over his head, and standing for a moment, square-shouldered and head back, to make a joke out of his self-consciousness. Danny glanced up at his tall flat body, and remembered how he had found it fascinating and elegant, in its lanky way, after all the superfluous muscle he was used to being gripped by. And Alex was su
rprisingly strong, even if the ghost of an old back injury warned him away from some of the more demanding sex holds. Beside Danny he looked eerily pale, though if you’d taken his trunks off you would have seen the thin priming of tan on the rest of him. “Well, I’m going in,” Alex said, and stepped forward, still in mock-heroic fashion, knowing he would be watched all the way to the water. “And I don’t want you talking to those rough boys,” he said, with a repressive nod at a group about twenty yards behind them.

  When he was in quite deep and his head rising and dropping on the swell with a sleeked, stoic, solitary look, Danny gave him a wave, and thought maybe he was more like a child than a parent. Once you got him happy and absorbed in some activity you would be free to take up your own compromised interests again. Alex waved back, with a gasping grin, and seemed encouraged to strike out on a further lap. Now and then Danny saw the upward flicker of his elbows.

  There was a rattle of shingle and Danny turned casually to see a couple of the rough boys hobbling down from their encampment of lilos and six-packs. One of them was blond and brawny, the other wiry and slight, with a dark ponytail and Gothic tattoos: he had a boogy-board under his arm. Both of them wore long baggy shorts, as Danny liked to himself, though he knew they did it from a laddish fear of revealing themselves. He gave a tutting nod of greeting, and the dark boy said, “All right?,” which in a deep Dorset accent had a niceness, even a kind of chivalry, that it wouldn’t have had in London.

  “All right?” said Danny. And then, “That your board?” The bright skeleton-key of thoughtless phrases that unlocked each new contact, the quick-witted focusing of tone: he kept telling Alex there was no one you couldn’t talk to, if you wanted to, it didn’t matter what you said; but Alex was always worrying about the content.

 
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