1998 the spell, p.26
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       1998 - The Spell, p.26

           Alan Hollinghurst
 
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  “I believe he used to be a schoolmaster, darling.” Justin peered into the mirror. “One can see him being pretty eager with the slipper. He wears a bow-tie, which is a well-known sign of penile inadequacy.”

  “I wasn’t actually thinking of him as a sexual partner,” said Danny, gently freeing himself.

  “He has those schoolmaster shoes, like vulcanised Cornish pasties.”

  Robin came into the room and slipped an arm round Justin in his turn. Justin glanced at his trousers and said, “That’s better,” and Danny knew he must have asked him to change. A little power-shift had happened as the price of the new togetherness: his father had been lightly pussy-whipped, or botty-whipped perhaps was the word, and once again the two of them were hugging and groping each other. He wondered for a second, in a spirit of fairness, if some new contract could save his affair with Alex; but saw how unalike the situations were. He didn’t need Alex.

  Justin said, “I should warn you he’s very keen on the church; he plays the organ, and as you know Mike has a blood feud with the church. Adrian’s already very thick with the Bishops. I mean the people called Bishop,” he explained to Alex.

  Danny said, “You seem a bit obsessed with this chappie.”

  Justin turned back to the mirror with a pout. “In village life, darling, one seizes on what interest one can.”

  “Yeah, right,” said Danny.

  Alex got up and crossed the room to put a hand on Danny’s shoulder — it was a friendly gesture that had gone stiff with premeditation: it looked as if he was trying to restrain him.

  The four of them set out through the village, sometimes like a gang across the road, then pairing up in different ways when a car came through, or a bouncing unharnessed tractor. Danny noticed the self-consciousness of the others. He thought of himself as a free person threatened by the muddled commitments of this group of older men. When his mobile rang, he answered it with a yell, and dawdled obliquely across the road, for privacy.

  It took a moment to work out that it was Heinrich the barman, his boyfriend for a good ten days in the spring, who was clearly some way off his face and was talking without his usual courteous preambles and connections. “So, I want you to come across,” he said.

  “I can’t come across, darling. I’m in Dorset.”

  After a while Heinrich said, “Oh my god!,” as though he was the last to hear of something outrageous. “You know I am thinking about you quite intensely.”

  “Are you by yourself?”

  “Yes, I have taken an ecstasy by mistake, because I have a headache, so as you can imagine I am feeling very great indeed, but I have no one with me. And still I have a headache. Quite soon I will go to work.”

  “Are you working at the Drop tonight?”

  “Yes, of course.”

  “I wish I was there!” said Danny, with a childish groan of frustration. He pictured Heinrich’s hairy legs and big friendly backside.

  “Maybe we can have sex by the phone,” Heinrich suggested.

  “Yeah, I can’t, darling,” said Danny, pushing his other hand into his pocket. “We’re just going out to drinks. We’re in the street” — he could do it as a dare, but he knew he would laugh too much.

  “So who are you with just now?”

  Danny looked at them across the road, in a moment’s alienated vision of them as another set of people who had nothing in common, Robin with his sportsman’s stroll and Alex anxiously slowing his angled stride and Justin, who had small feet, somehow hurrying between them. “Oh, with my dad, and some friends.” He raised his voice and smiled at them, to confirm their suspicion he was talking about them.

  “Of course you will say this is because I am drug-fucked,” said Heinrich, showing a German sense of extenuation none the less, “but you know what I think about you. You know to me, well, you are the best.”

  Danny saw his friend again, with exact sexual recall, in the mirrored brilliance and blackness of London bars and clubs, and felt an aggravated regret for the night they would not be sharing there, the habitual regret of the pleasure-lover, but shaded with a darker discontent by the sense of something needlessly thrown aside, out of fear perhaps, though the reasons were mysterious, he had slipped away from Heinrich in an amiable absence of will, like a dreaming passenger on a slowly departing train. He said, “I’ll ring you as soon as I get back,” and ended the call.

  “Who was that, darling?” said Alex.

  “Yes, who was it?” said Justin. “They’ve got you quite pink.”

  Robin smiled at him encouragingly, confident it was some other lover seizing his chance; and Danny sensed that his father’s acceptance of him, which was so much clearer than two months ago, was easier if he was uncommitted.

  As they approached the Halls’ the church clock struck six, and Justin said, “Listen to that! The collective whoosh of tonic-water from every middle-class home in the land”; but after only a few seconds of this imaginary susurration they heard instead the charmless preparatory tolling of the bells being raised.

  “I’m afraid we’re in for some campanology,” Alex said.

  “That will make Mike hopping mad,” said Justin.

  In the lane beyond the church there was LostwithieP, formerly the rectory, then the frivolously pretty “Ambages,” which Justin said would turn anyone queer who lived in it, and then Mike and Margery’s apparently nameless house, which he proposed should be called “Gordon’s.” LostwithieP, which looked semi-derelict, was the home of the senile but beautifully spoken Miss Lawrence, who wandered in the village and forgot where she lived. She had been burgled over and over, and though nothing had been proved, Terry Badgett was still thought to have been involved. Her old untended damson-tree dropped small copious fruit across the path; where it fizzed with wasps, and people messed their shoes with it, and it gave off a sharp stale smell.

  They had to wait a minute at the Halls’ front door. Danny noticed how the area round the Yale lock was scoured by innumerable rough attempts at getting the key into it. When Margery opened, she said in her melancholy way, “Sorry, they’re watching the cricket.” Justin jumped at her and hugged her, in the style that he called “bringing the West End to the West Country”; Robin greeted her with the usual bungled chivalry of a second kiss. Danny watched Alex shake her hand, and thought how exasperatingly formal he was.

  In the sitting-room Mike Hall and Adrian Ringrose were standing watching the television, as if they knew it should be switched off and were abetting each other in deferring the moment. Margery introduced Alex and Danny over the commentary on a dubious dismissal; then Mike snapped the telly off. “Crawley and Knight are doing well,” he said.

  Alex said to Adrian, “Are you interested in cricket?” and he replied, in a mild but precise tone,

  “No, not at all.”

  Danny sat down in a high-backed armchair with Alex beside him but hidden from view by the wings of the chair; he didn’t want to cuddle up to him or to be catching his eye all the time. Already, in the hall, Alex’s hand had rested on his shoulder again, as if for guidance around the obstacles of the evening, and then trailed down secretively to touch his bum. He had wriggled away, but felt the presence of his rebuff, like a bruise in the air behind him. He was saying his words in his head, repeatedly and with exaggerated confidence. He wanted the business done with fast-moving dignity, and to his own credit. It was important not to miscue it, or be hurried into it on a wave of irritation. “I love you very much, but you know I can’t go on seeing you.” It steadied, and became reasonable, and at the same. time, like anything repeated, began to sound like nonsense. Robin was saying, “Yes, Dan is my son. And Alex is, well, originally a great friend of Justin’s…”

  “I see,” said Adrian, with a delayed flicker as he stored this information, though without, presumably, the hint that Danny heard, of the family closing ranks. “I hadn’t thought of you as old enough to have a grown-up son,” he went on, in a drily fruity way.

  “You’re v
ery kind,” said Robin, tumbling into a low armchair. “Oddly enough, if you lose your hair before fifty, people tend to think you’re younger.”

  “It’s the hormones,” Justin explained, like the owner, or perhaps the trainer, of a thoroughbred.

  Adrian himself had crinkly old-fashioned hair, very dark for a man in his sixties. Danny’s lazily accurate sensors failed to detect in him whatever it was that might make them friends -a capacity for abandon, perhaps. He gave him a preoccupied smile and looked round the room, waiting to be amused. If his sensors picked up sex, Danny could talk a functional kind of drivel, but in a situation like this he felt it was weak or dishonest to show an interest you didn’t feel. Maybe it was just the tension of tonight, but he wondered for a sober half-minute what the fuck he was doing in this dreary room, with its worn floral carpet and crocheted cushion-covers and the various bits of short-tempered wiring that Mike had rigged up. His father said you had to get drunk here to numb the aesthetic nerve. The few pictures of Highland cattle and Spanish dancers -though, as Justin pointed out, never the two together — showed a kind of hostility to art.

  Mike had gone out to get some ice, and came back in a stinging shimmer of eau de cologne, perhaps having sniffed himself in the kitchen. Danny remembered the fragrance from earlier occasions, and pictured him shaking it all over, like vinegar on to chips; last time the drinks themselves had been faintly scented from where Mike had handled the ice.

  They were all taking their first two sips as the church bells broke loose in a plunging peal. Margery set down her drink as if it cost a thousand pounds and went to close the windows. “This is a disadvantage of village life,” she said to Adrian.

  Mike said, “They’re bloody bastards.”

  Adrian gave a deprecating smile and said, “Oh, it’s a fine sound if it’s well done.”

  “They come from Salisbury,” said Mike, “or Southampton, deliberately to ring the bells. Now we shall have to shout all evening.”

  Clearly Margery thought this would be nothing new. “I suppose it is rather a fine sound,” she said.

  Danny could tell he was going to get drunk. He seemed instantly to have swallowed half of his tall Scotch and ginger ale. He thought of Heinrich again, and the striking fact of his having rung this evening, before going off to the all-night scrum of the Drop, where doubtless at some point a wide-eyed Spanish boy or French boy would lure him out to the corridor at the back. There was Heinrich himself, who was taking on new definition as a neglected suitor, and there was the world where Heinrich earned his living, where hundreds of men were forever catching his eye and poking money at him, and Danny felt jealous of both. “Of course I love you, Alex. But we’re not meant to be together. You know as well as I do. We have nothing in common.” He swayed his head to the bells, which seemed for the moment to be improvising on Madonna’s “Bedtime Story” and its recurrent good idea, “Let’s get unconscious, honey.”

  Adrian said, “I don’t need to tell you that Litton Gambril has the oldest peal of eight bells in the county.”

  “Is that right,” said Mike, none too pleased to be lectured on the matter by someone who’d only been in the county five minutes.

  Margery smiled graciously. “Do you peal yourself?” she asked, with a tiny throat-clearing to bridge her doubt about the verb.

  Adrian’s long fingers smoothed and balanced his bow-tie. “I used to ring. I rang for Cambridge. But I fear a tendonitis made me something of a liability in the chamber later on.”

  “Well I ran for Cambridge,” said Mike, in one of his mordant asides. “No bloody g.”

  “I think tonight we may hear a full grandsire major.”

  The noise was muffled in the room, but still all-pervasive, and Danny found himself listening to the dense sonic aura of the overtones, which seemed like some acoustic perception you might have in the trance of an E; though the hypnotic thing was the evolving eight-note phrase, which imposed itself on the conversation, and broke up your thoughts.

  Adrian, who had rapidly reverted to schoolmaster mode, was explaining some niceties of change-ringing to Justin. “So the conductor, as he’s known, calls out “bob” at the lead ends to produce a new row, from which further changes can then be rung.”

  “What, ‘Bob’…?” — Margery tried it distantly, as though recalling someone she had once been fond of. She looked into her drink. “I suppose there must be dozens of changes.”

  Adrian simpered for a second or two. “Well, with eight bells the number of possible changes would be factorial eight.”

  “That’s eight times seven times six times…” Robin said.

  There was a pause for thought. Justin said, “So if they rang the full grandmother’s footsteps it would be over four million changes…!”

  “Fucking hell…” muttered Mike, and emptied his glass.

  “No, no,” said Adrian, with a bright nervous giggle. “But it would be well over forty thousand, obviously.”

  “Well, they’d better not do well over forty thousand tonight,” Mike said, getting up and standing over Adrian while he gulped down the rest of his drink.

  Alex was very quiet, and Danny wondered if he knew what was coming. He probably did, he was very sensitive; and he’d been through this kind of thing before. Danny looked casually at Justin, whom he found alien in many ways, and saw that they were about to share the shabby distinction of having thrown Alex over. He knew from his break-up with George what the pain might be like. And he noticed that having been through it himself he felt somehow authorised, and even empowered, to inflict it on someone else. It was the hard currency of human business. Slightly giddy from his own philosophy, he reached up to take his second cold drink.

  Adrian said, “I do think we’re so lucky in having this marvellous castle in the village.” He had the surprised talkativeness of a buttoned-up person abruptly filled with alcohol.

  “I hadn’t realised just how lucky we were,” murmured Margery.

  “There’s not much to the castle, is there?” said Justin doubtfully.

  “My darling Justin has never actually seen the castle,” said Robin, with a funny gloving of his gibe. “But he’s only lived here a year.”

  “No, ten months, actually, sweetie, and three days,” Justin said. “Anyway, I never thought it wise to go down Ruins Lane.”

  Adrian, who was disconcerted by jokes, said, “I found poor Miss Lawrence wandering up there yesterday. She had no idea where she was going.”

  “There you are,” said Justin.

  “She needs taking care of,” said Mike, with a certain softening of tone. “What are the so-called fucking social services doing?”

  “She’s as mad as a house,” said Justin. “Did I tell you I saw her talking to a beetle?”

  Danny smirked, and drew a finger through the wet on his glass. Mike said to him, “You’re very quiet tonight, young feller-me-lad.”

  “He’s always quiet,” said Margery. “It’s nice.”

  Justin said, “It’s the country air that tires him out. He’s not used to all this oxygen, are you darling. He normally goes round in a cloud of LSD, don’t you darling.”

  “I don’t think you smoke LSD,” said Adrian.

  “No, you don’t,” said Alex.

  “I’m sure Danny doesn’t, anyway,” said Margery.

  Adrian said, with the casualness of the shockable, “Do you see anything of all this drugs business up in London?”

  Danny felt it would be absurd to lie. “Oh yeah,” he said warmly. He could be nice to them, he guessed, but he hated the silly compromises that were forced on you when you entered the remote moral atmosphere of closety old bores. As he didn’t say anything else, Adrian nodded and coloured and said,

  “You do…yes…” (Yes, thought Danny, in a spasm of frustration and worry, and I can get in free to any club in London, and get off my face for days on end, and have anyone there I want.) “Yes. I saw a lot of it in South America, of course. There was cocaine everywhere, which I
believe cost almost nothing. I must say, I was never tempted to try it.”

  “Really…?” said Alex, who was leaning forward to catch Danny’s eye.

  “I didn’t know you’d been in South America,” said Mike, irritated by this claim on his curiosity. “Whereabouts?”

  “Oh, very much so. I was with the British Council in Caracas, and then in Lima for four years. This was in the late fifties, after Cambridge.”

  “After your ringing years.”

  “Yes…”

  “They used to say they were all flower-arrangers in the British Council,” said Mike.

  Adrian looked down for a moment, to give this remark time to clear, and went on, “I’ve got some very lovely folk-art that I brought back, some of which you’ll see when you come to “Ambages.” I have a beautiful Peruvian hanging in my bedroom.”

  The words themselves hung in the air, lightly and evenly stressed, against the background clamour of the bells, and it was Margery who started to laugh first, an almost noiseless polite snuffle, and then a cackle came from Justin, Danny heard the chug-chug of Alex’s laugh, and then he got it himself, through the glaze of his preoccupation, and started to giggle breathlessly, with an edge of hysterical relief, before Mike gave out his rarely heard whimper. It was never quite clear whether Adrian had seen the joke. The amusement was too general for him to go against it, and he sat smiling bashfully, looking sideways at the floor.

  After a while, Margery struggled to make a long face, and said, “Adrian, I’m so sorry,” with the insincere regret that follows a burst of instinct.

  Embarrassed, and obliged to show willing, Adrian said, “Well, Danny, perhaps you should go to South America. People sniff cocaine in Lima like you and I drink sherry.”

  Danny nodded with another after-tremor of laughter. “Yeah, that might be good.” He looked away. “Actually, I’m going back to the States next month. I think that’s more the sort of place for me.”

  When he looked up again, Justin was making a “Get her!” face, and Robin said with a tender frown, “It’s the first I’ve heard of it.” Alex, of course, he couldn’t see — only the convulsion of his legs uncrossing and crossing the other way. “You’re going to your mother’s?” Robin mastered the situation.

 
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