1998 the spell, p.25
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       1998 - The Spell, p.25

           Alan Hollinghurst
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  It turned out they were Carl (blond) and Les, local lads. Carl was blushingly revealed as engaged, but Les was on the rebound and desperate to score. “I know what you mean,” said Danny, and colluded with hesitant half-phrases in their appraisal of the nearby girls. Les was hardly his type but he had an unexpectedly sweet smile. He said,

  “This sea’s crap.”

  Danny said, “You need north Cornwall, don’t you, for the surf?” He tactfully withheld his Californian credentials, which he thought might crush the boys; he couldn’t imagine boogy-boarding in these stocky northern breakers if you’d done it out there, and could remember the jolting zoom of the ride in across a field of foam a hundred yards wide.

  Carl said, “It’s usually better than this,” with a mixture of local pride and vague provincial discontent. “Where are you from then?”

  “London, yeah…” said Danny, looking down and brushing sand from the towel he was sitting on. “My dad lives down here — well, Litton Gambril.”

  “Ah, nice,” said Les; but didn’t ask anything more.

  Carl said, “I don’t know about that one, Les. I reckon she’d do for you” — his eyes following a biggish teenage girl in her timid but heavy-footed approach to the water. Danny sniggered, but apparently the suggestion was serious: the two of them wandered a few paces away, and he read the skull-crowned Motorhead tattoo on Les’s left shoulder as he squinted seawards. Really, hetero life was so archaic and mad — Danny let out a quiet chuckle of relief at his own good fortune. And maybe Les too had his doubts:

  “No. She’d squash me,” he said. “She’d squeeze all the life out of me, that one.”

  Then up from the sea came Alex, so that they seemed to be staring at him: he clearly wondered what was happening.

  “Here comes your dad, then,” said Carl. “Well, we’d better get in that sea if we’re ever going to.” And off they trod, as butchly as possible, but stooping and jabbing out their arms as they went over pebbly bits. Danny noted a kind of social cringe in their avoidance of Alex. He watched him approach, breathing roughly, tilting his head sideways to shake water from his ears, and of course he felt the romance of it, his lover coming up from the waves, in the flush and shiver of his exertion, leaning out of the noon sky to pluck up his towel. And then it passed.

  At lunch-time they trekked along to the Hope and Anchor, asking Carl and Les’s other friends to keep an eye on their things; though Alex was fretful about the arrangement. In the restaurant section at the back Danny spotted Terry, looking very handsome, in a blue-and-white striped sweat-shirt, like a minor sixties film-star, being treated to a huge lobster lunch by a man with glasses and a linen jacket, who might have been an Oxford don. It was amazing how well he did down here, with a little help presumably from Roger and John at the Mill. He looked up and winked at Danny over his patron’s shoulder.

  After a couple of pints of strong lager Danny felt much more cheerful, and for a while was full of randomly focused energy. Alex only drank Appletise, because he was driving, or didn’t want to get a headache. He watched with a tense half-smile when Danny drifted away from him to gossip with strangers, feed crisps to their children, and briefly take part in a game of darts. It was a compulsion of Danny’s, he wasn’t being deliberately neglectful, in fact he introduced Alex to a good-looking man he had just introduced himself to, but Alex was so stiff, and the conversation died as soon as he left them together. When they were outside again Alex started talking in a hopeless farcical way about someone who worked in his office. Danny scanned the parking-lot and then the beach as they walked along, and said “Yeah” with adequate regularity. An athletic-looking blond couple were walking ahead of them, both presumably in swimsuits, but they were covered by long T-shirts, so that they seemed from behind to be wearing nothing but the T-shirts. The man had beautiful muscular legs, with a glimmer of down on the back of the calves; the back of his head was square and Germanic, cropped short up to a thick topknot, which was stiffly untidy where salt-water had dried in it. The woman laughed and put her arm round his waist, his hem-line rose a fraction and showed the edge of his tight blue trunks. Danny was imagining licking the back of his neck as he fucked him. “Well I thought it was funny anyway,” said Alex.

  Danny looked at him poker-faced, and then laughed, and said, “It is funny, darling. Very funny.” He wondered how long it was since the Germans had had sex, and how much longer the woman could possibly defer having it again. He dropped a little behind Alex, as he sometimes did, in the caressing grip of his own thoughts, and also with a sad but liberating recognition of something quite obvious: they had nothing in common. Their paths in life had joined for a moment, Danny had done a good deal for him, one way and another he’d got him sorted, and now it was natural and right that he should send him gently on his way. The process was so logical that he thought Alex himself, after the first upset of it, would be bound to see that it was right.

  Back at their spot, Danny said, “Okay, time for a kip, I think,” and lay out flat on his towel. Alex hopped about between him and the sun, getting undressed all over again. He said,

  “Aren’t you taking anything off?”

  “Oh all right,” said Danny, sitting up and twisting off his canvas shoes, one against the other. “You don’t want to get skin cancer.” Actually it was very hot, but he enjoyed the tease of keeping his jeans and T-shirt on. Alex was always looking at him, time and again he would be gazing at him when he woke up, as if he couldn’t believe his luck. “Anyway, you’ve seen it all before,” he said.

  “Hm,” said Alex, clearly thinking that was rather beneath him. And Danny saw that being so much younger he must resist the temptation to be childish. He decided to read, and got out the bizarre book he had found in the lav at the cottage. If you started it at the front it was called Memoirs of an Old Man of Thirty; but you could turn it round and start from the back, where the text, which otherwise appeared upside-down, was called Loves of a Young Man of Eighty. It seemed to be a dodgy piece of 1890s smut; the Young Man of Eighty referred to his dick as his yard, which Danny took a while to get the hang of. He couldn’t see why people kept wanting to look at his yard. Alex said, “What are you reading?” and when he held up the book he seemed oddly put out by it. “Are you enjoying it?” he asked.

  “Yeah, I guess.”

  And then rather anxiously, “Do you find it sexy?”

  Danny made a moue of uncertainty. “I suppose you could just about wring a wank out of it, if you were desperate.”

  Alex inspected the book prudishly and winced at the overlapping wine-rings on the white vellum binding. “It’s been half torn out of its covers,” he said, and threw it down again on the towel. “But what does it matter? It’s only a rare book. Perhaps you’d put some stuff on my back.”

  “Sure.” Danny knelt and squirted out a curl of aloe cream between Alex’s shoulder-blades and rubbed it in briskly all the way down towards the black edge of his Speedos. He thought how uncertain sex-magic was. It struck, and there was a tingle in the air around a man, and when you touched him it flowed round you too. Some people kept it for you for years, and when you saw them there was the same dependable shock, the shiver of rightness, the cool burn deep between the legs, the gentle thump on the chest, the private surrender of a smile. And with others it faded, like a torch left on, or with the quick disillusion that followed a hit of coke. A couple of months ago he adored Alex’s back, he had mauled it and scratched his heels across it, amazed by Alex’s fierceness on top of him; and he had arched over it too, in the lovely dismissive lust of a fuck from behind, getting crueller and crazier to the tune of Alex’s shouts. Yet oddly, here on the beach, he could think of those things without a twitch. Presumably the light swipes and pro-bings of his fingers were giving Alex pleasure, but to him this was a sportsmanlike task. He gave him a couple of slaps and said, “You’re done.”

  Then he lay down again and slept and half-slept, in a tumult of bright dreams that shrank away when a child
shrieked or the pebbles clattered, but then crowded back at once with their unlikely predicaments and jabber of new arrivals. He was aware of Alex talking and had the sense of himself as a joke, lying there while they talked about him and said “I don’t think he’s really asleep.” He smiled to show that he wasn’t, and after a necessary moment’s calculation said, “Hello Terry,” without opening his eyes. “Come and join us.”

  Terry had evidently said goodbye to his lunch companion and had time on his hands before going up to Broad Down to sort out the disco. Danny made a space for him, and Alex moved too, without much enthusiasm, and said, “You do things over at Bride Mill, don’t you Terry?”

  “I have been known to,” said Terry.

  “And what’s it like? I gather it’s on the expensive side.”

  “Gor, the prices there. It’s very nice, mind, it’s beautiful.”

  “I thought I might take Danny for lunch tomorrow.”

  “Well, very nice,” said Terry. “It’s, you know, it’s posh. It’s mainly for people of the older persuasion.”

  “You don’t have to do that,” said Danny quietly; though what sounded like a flattered demurral masked a moment of decision for him. He couldn’t go to the Mill with Alex. He couldn’t sit with him in the oak-beamed dining-room, and chatter at him over the fresh-cut roses and the leather-bound folio of the wine-list, and smirk with him about the chorus-line of cow-licked young waiters as if nothing was wrong that couldn’t be made right by a little fine living. He could feel the quality of anxiety in Alex’s extravagance, and foresee the claustrophobic cou-pledom of Sunday lunch under John and Roger’s velvety patronage. So whatever was going to happen would have to happen before then. He found he had a deadline, and that meant he had a few words to prepare.

  Terry said, “I got that Billy Nice, is it, CD.”

  “Oh, Ricky Nice,” said Alex, before Danny could say anything.

  “Yeah. It’s great when you’ve had a few.”

  “A few what…?” said Alex.

  “You want to hear him live,” Danny said, and pushed at Terry’s knee impatiently. “You’ve got to come and see me in London, man. I’ll take you down to BDX.” He hadn’t planned the first person singular, but it was true to his mood and his instantaneous vision of Terry naked and face down in his Notting Hill room.

  “Yeah, we’ll show you a good time,” Alex said.

  After a minute, Danny said, “Gosh, I’d like an ice cream, or a cold drink.”

  “Yeah,” said Terry, with a slow nod and a look of ready but undirected cunning.

  Alex said, “I am a bit dry…”

  “Perhaps,” said Danny, “darling, you might be a complete hero and go and get us something. I don’t think I could face walking all the way back. What do you want, Terry, a Coke? I think I’ll have an ice lolly. Oh please…” and he made a feeble gesture of supplication and fell backwards on to the towel.

  Alex pulled on his shoes, and began his long tramp over the shingle, holding his money in his hand. When he was thirty yards away Danny and Terry both got undressed, with the absent-minded rapidity of something often rehearsed. Under his jeans Terry had on a pair of very tight yellow swimming-trunks, cut square across the thigh, with a gold medallion like a belt-buckle sewn on the wide waistband; either they were camp sixties retro or had remained in stock since that time in one of the slower-moving Bridport outfitters. Danny was in his usual boyish shorts, stone-coloured but semi-transparent when wet. He passed Terry the sun-block and got him to massage it into his back as he lay with his chin on his fist, and his stiffening dick pressing into the sand. Terry himself was a wonderful colour — the patchy burns from different outside jobs had fused by now into a steady Greek or Spanish brown. When he’d finished he stretched out beside Danny, on Alex’s towel, and said, “I suppose this is as far as it goes.”

  “Um…I’m not sure about that,” Danny said. He had a funny little sense of responsibility.

  “You two not getting on so well any more?” said Terry, in his blunderingly intuitive fashion. Danny looked up to where Alex could still be seen moving away, his long strides hampered by the slipping pebbles. “I reckon he’s still tipping his hat at you, anyway,” Terry said.

  “He’s a really sweet guy,” Danny said. “I love him very much. But, you know how it is. I used to jump on him, now he jumps on me.”

  “Well then. You’re not in love with him.”

  Danny wondered if Terry knew what he was talking about. “I’ve only been in love once,” he said; and decided in a second not to elaborate. He’d seen George chatting up Terry at the party, and had been careful not to find out what happened -it was one shake of the sex-dice he didn’t want to contemplate. He said, “You know me, Terry. I’m not ready to settle down. I have to keep things from him all the time. We’re just not meant to be together.”

  “Still a chance for me then,” said Terry, touchingly enough. Danny looked him over, his eyes coming back to play between his legs, where a stealthy upheaval had already taken place.

  “There will always be a place for you in my, um…” he said, and reached out to snap at the elastic of his trunks. He wondered if there was some futuristic way they could have sex here, in the middle of the beach, without anyone knowing. Then he said, “Or do you mean a chance with Alex?”

  Terry pondered it. “I’d say he’s quite nice-looking. And I dare say he’s quite well endorsed.”

  “Okay. Sure — none of that’s a problem.” Danny remembered the days of his rapid initiation into the scene, and how anyone who had split up said “The sex was never that great”; so that he wondered after a while why anyone had a partner, and after a while more whether any couples actually had sex — at least with each other. And now he found the same words at the front of his mind, as an easy alternative to the more peculiar truth.

  “How come you two got together?” said Terry. “I wouldn’t have thought he was your type.”

  “I don’t have a type, darling,” said Danny, whose Utopian policy was to have everyone once. “I thought you knew, he used to go out with Justin.”

  Terry wasn’t expecting that. “Well I wouldn’t have thought he was his type either.”

  “Oh, you know,” said Danny: “shy top and bossy bottom, it happens all the time,” and watched Terry absorb this crude but worldly insight.

  “Right,” he said. “So how did Justin get off with your dad?”

  Justin himself was quite free with the story of the Clapham Common Gents, but a kind of family pride, or maybe just snobbery, dissuaded Danny from passing it on to Terry. “Oh, they met in London someplace.” In fact his laughter when Justin first told him had covered a few lost seconds of incredulity and shock.

  “I suppose if I was Justin, I’d probably prefer…Mr Woodfield, rather than Alex,” said Terry, enjoying the new mood of frankness. “I always thought he was a bit of all right, your dad.”

  “Hey, no you don’t! Hands off my old man!” said Danny, as if speaking in subtitles; and noticed the now uncontrolled mutiny in Terry’s trunks. “Justin’s fair enough…”

  Terry blushed and turned on to his front. “And so’s Simon,” he said, “I suppose,” with an effect of hurriedly covering one piece of mischief with another.

  Danny worked it out behind the black sheen of his shades. He wasn’t totally easy with knowing about Justin’s indiscretions; they troubled him because they were bad jokes against his father, who had always seemed immune to attack and powered by a scandalous personal authority. “You’d better tell me,” Danny said.

  Terry sensed his reserve and said, “Nah, it doesn’t matter.”

  “Go on,” said Danny, “if it doesn’t matter” — thinking of that Jewish funeral, and his father’s freaky stoicism, like indifference, as if his homosexual loss could not be mixed with the family’s grief and embarrassment.

  “It was years ago,” said Terry, laying his head on his arms and giving Danny a charming porny smile. “He used to catch hold of me and
, well…interfere with me.”

  “Really,” said Danny, and smiled back, because it sounded such a simple and idyllic thing to have done.

  “He used to say, “Is that a ferret in your pocket, Terry, or are you just pleased to see me?””

  Danny tried to analyse his mood, it was distilled randiness laced with anxiety, which made the randiness even stronger. He saw Alex coming down towards them at a stumbling trot, the orange melt from an ice lolly dripping through his hands and blown on to his long pale legs by the breeze. He said very quietly, in a straight-faced parody of Terry, “I’d like to interfere with you an’ all,” and then wondered if there was some equally effective spell for making your dick go down.

  Alex’s bad mood wasn’t helped by the stifled giggling of the boys. He nudged his way on to a corner of towel and sat sucking primly at the angled straw of a fruit-juice carton. “I hadn’t realised it was National Snogging Day,” he said, and scowled over his shoulder. “Every couple I passed were glued together at the larynx.”

  “Must be the weather,” said Terry.

  Danny was twisting his lolly round to catch the drips and mumble up the slushy fragments that slid off the stick at the lightest bite. He knew Alex was watching him and tensely daydreaming about the kisses he still thought they were going to share.

  “The thing about Ada Ringroad,” said Justin, “is that Mike can’t stand him, but Marge is being stubbornly nice to him. She asks him round almost daily, the old fag-hag. Last time we were there, Mike called him a deviant of the worst kind.”

  “How did he take that?” asked Alex.

  “Well he was pissed, and we all laughed like lunatics, and he seemed to get the idea.”

  Danny had just come down from a shower, and was buttoning his shirt and holding his own gaze in the sitting-room mirror, with a sense of readying himself for a testing premiere. “What does he do?” he said. He saw Justin come up behind him and felt him too as he slid a hand around him with a kind of sexiness that was somehow made possible by Alex’s presence, as if nothing could come of it.

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