1998 the spell, p.27
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       1998 - The Spell, p.27

           Alan Hollinghurst
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  “Yeah, I think so,” said Danny. “She says she can always get me a job out there again.”

  “And where is that?” said Adrian.

  “San Diego…”

  “No, I don’t imagine I’ll ever fly again,” said Mike, loudly and slowly, as though that were the really interesting aspect of the matter. Danny saw Justin looking gently in Alex’s direction — to the others, of course, this sudden birthing of a plan was neither here nor there.

  He said, surprised by his own note of involuntary bitterness, “Well, there’s not much to keep me in this country.” When you had an audience you could say things easily that were almost impossible to bring out one-to-one, even in bed. Though perhaps it was also easy to say too much.

  Mike said, “I suppose we could hang each bell-ringer from his individual rope.”

  “I’m quite getting used to it,” said Margery. “I think we’ll all rather miss it when it stops.” Then, seeing Alex had got up and was going towards the door, she said, “It’s across the hall and turn left.” He blinked and went out.

  The conversation ambled on, given sly prods and perverse turns by Justin, who seemed to feel responsible for the success of the occasion, in a way that he never did at home. Mike was wincing at the wall, too caught up in the smoulder of his outrage to make his usual polemical sallies. Danny had the childish sensation of being ignored and unvalued after his clumsy moment in the spotlight. He couldn’t think about how cruel he had just been to Alex, and when he tried to run through his resignation speech again it had a horrible echoless deadness to it, like something said in a recording studio. He looked along the faces of the others, wondering what they were talking about. His father’s expression was specially husbandly and benign. Then Danny found Justin was staring privately at him, and he knew he was right when he twitched his head towards the door. “I must just go too,” Danny said under his breath as he slipped out.

  The lavatory door was shut, and he waited for a minute outside, suddenly fidgety for a pee himself. Then he thought, well he’s still my boyfriend, and tapped and went in. But Alex wasn’t there; and in the white emptiness of the stuffy little room Danny knew the crisis had closed in on him. As he peed he looked sideways into the mirror, and saw how terribly beautiful he was: the image itself was reflected again off some hard vain surface deep in his eye, and he thought, with easy pity, how little Alex would want to lose him. On the narrow shelf above the basin was a thinning hairbrush, and a comb, and a square bottle of cologne: he pulled out the stopper to confirm it was the one they had been breathing all evening, and turned down his mouth in the mirror when he saw it was called “Bien-Etre.”

  Alex was sitting on the back-door step, looking down the sloping, untidy garden. Danny came through the kitchen and sat beside him, but without touching him. Alex said, “Oh Dan” — it was very rare for him to call him by name.

  “I’m sorry,” Danny said. He thought perhaps by some miracle Alex had understood everything.

  “I really do think you might have told me about this US thing.”


  “You terrify me at times.” Alex reached for his hand, and he let him hold it, but without any return of pressure. “I mean, what happens to us? I can come and see you, of course. I look forward to that. But it’s hardly very convenient.”


  “Or perhaps you’re not really going,” Alex went on, in a tetchily forgiving tone. “But if you are it would have been nice not to have heard it announced in the middle of a drinks-party.”

  They had never had a row, merely separate hurts and irritations which they seduced each other out of. Danny saw that he hadn’t done this right, and it made him sulkily aggressive. “I may not go,” he said, and withdrew his hand.

  “I mean, I’m your boyfriend. That lanky bloke whose arms are round you when you wake up, and who then goes off to make your breakfast: that’s me.”

  “Yeah, I wondered who it was,” said Danny. “Look, it doesn’t really matter whether I’m here or in San Diego, I can’t go on seeing you, Alex.”

  Alex had already drawn the breath that should have carried his next remark, but he halted and let it out in a tragic sigh.

  Danny stood up and strolled back across the kitchen and drew a glass of water. The whisky was giving him a slight headache; rather like poor Heinrich…“I’m very sorry,” he said.

  When he glanced round, Alex was sitting in the same place, but tipped sideways against the door-frame, as though he had been thrown there by a blast. The pose was somehow histrionic and got on Danny’s nerves. He saw him roll his head, once, quickly, to see where he was, and Danny had the feeling that he himself had become the embodiment of something dreaded, that could hardly be looked at.

  Back in the sitting-room he was told to help himself to another drink. He knew he had been sobered by the adrenalin of the past five minutes, and unexpectedly humiliated by Alex snapping at him to leave him alone. The others all seemed pathetically drunk and old. Adrian was asking about ladies-that-did, and various village names were rummaged for, each followed by a horrifying cautionary anecdote.

  “We’ve never had any fucking charwoman,” said Mike; which nobody pretended to be surprised by.

  Justin said, “You can always have nude housework done, of course.”

  Adrian pursed his lips, but would clearly have liked to know more.

  Mike said, in a marvelling monotone, “You lot talk so much fucking tripe.”

  “I’m not against nude housework,” said Margery, “but I think I’d have to go out while it was being done.”

  “Where’s the silent Scotsman?” said Mike. “Polishing his nails?”

  Danny studied their five faces again; they all had a foolish look of temporary confidence, which he forgot he must often have had himself, in extremer forms too. Even Mike, who got furious on drink, seemed to have entered into a richer and more involving relation with himself. “Alex is just getting a bit of air,” Danny said; at which Mike nodded and drummed his fingers on his knee. Both he and Margery had renounced cigarettes, and the peculiar ashtrays mounted on stirruped thongs had gone from the arms of the sofa; but still the magnolia paintwork was dimly varnished with smoke and gave the room an atmosphere of terminated pleasures. Perhaps the others didn’t care, or were too sozzled to notice the room filling with shadows; but Danny never lost his sense of the speed of time. When he thought of Alex’s epic hesitations — the years without sex, the unaccountable solitariness — it brought him close to a panic of impatience.

  He saw that Justin was peering at him again, with a hint of a smile — he couldn’t work out the ironies in it, it seemed encouraging and disappointed at the same time, as well as secretively sexual, as if they already had an agreement to meet up later. He knew he had just done something serious, and needed assurance that he had been right. Then the bells came tumbling down the scale and stopped.

  The overtones swam there for a moment, and after that the ear was haunted by the bells and heard them fadingly continuing. The silence was astonishing, being ordinary existence thrown into relief by the hour or more of incessant sound, unwavering in rhythm and volume. And then it wasn’t silence. Mike got up and pushed the windows open, and there was a bird twittering, a car whining as it reversed, the dry runs of an old-fashioned mower, like a child’s rattle. Alex was somewhere outside, in the wilderness of the garden. Danny had been sent in, but he guessed he would have to go back out to him.

  Mike sped across the room with the brawler’s roll he had when drunk. “Right!” he said, switching on the old blue-leather Philips gramophone, which he had confidently attached to an even older-looking valve amplifier and big, BDX-size, speakers.

  “I think they’ve cut it rather short,” said Adrian, unwisely.

  “Don’t get me wrong, Ringrose,” said Mike over his shoulder. “But your bell-ringing pals are fucking cunts.”

  “Oh dear,” said Margery.

  “I’m afraid so,” said Mike,
exhilarated to have reached this stage of the evening already.

  “I’m just going to check on Alex,” Danny said.

  He was in the kitchen when he heard the music start, and then it came out very clearly through the windows when he stepped into the garden. It was Mike’s retaliation against the bells, a crackly old record of Gregorian chant, turned up offensively loud, though the music itself remained more than unflappable: the spare and echoing rise and fall of men’s voices, the ritual Latin. Danny stood for a moment by the two deck-chairs on the rough circle of lawn, and thought of calling to Alex, like someone getting a child in for a meal or bed. But he saw that the tone would be wrong: he was annoyed with Alex for still being here, and then a second later he was a little frightened at his responsibility. He stooped past the woody buddleia and down a path under apple-trees. There was a shed, and a fruit-cage covered in convolvulus, and one weedy but cultivated patch of kitchen-garden. After that the lot tapered, and there was only wild grass thigh-deep, and a big old tree at the bottom where the fences met. He saw Alex perched on the fence, with his back against the tree-trunk, looking unapproachably lonely. You could still see the curving track he had made through the grass, and Danny, out of some barely conscious symbolic scruple, made a separate wading path towards him. The grass was dry, and bleaching from the mid—

  August heat, and where Danny’s hands trailed into it they found it dusty and sometimes sticky with secretions like bubbled spit; underfoot there was a crackling, and he realised he was treading on tiny grey snails — and there were dozens of them clinging like seed-cases on the thicker stalks. By the time he came to stand at Alex’s shoulder, his baggy black jeans were streaked and powdered from the field. He thought Alex might be crying, and that he’d been sent away so as not to witness that, but when he peered at him sidelong there was no sign of it. “I’ve come to see how you are,” he said.

  After a while Alex said, “It’s like fucking murder in the cathedral.”

  “The music, you mean,” said Danny, with a snigger.

  Then Alex went on, very tensely, as if afraid of anything Danny might say, “You remember we walked up there not long ago.” He swept his hand up quickly, to hide its shaking.

  Danny detected some sentimental reproach. “Yes, of course, it was a beautiful evening,” he said; though he did find it striking that Alex should mention it, because that evening up on the hill had been the silent turning-point for him, with Alex talking about his failure with Justin, and a sense of failure coming off him, like someone you would be unwise to set up business with. Danny said, pretty confident that it wouldn’t be put to the test, “You know we’ll always be friends.”

  Alex half-turned but still didn’t look directly at him. “Is it George?” he said.

  Danny chuckled sourly. “George wouldn’t let me anywhere near him.”

  “It’s not Terry, for god’s sake?”

  “Alex, it’s not anyone!” He wanted to touch him consolingly, but also to push him off the fence, where he was nodding forward and hugging himself delicately, as if every liaison of Danny’s were a broken rib or an unhealed cut.

  “I’m sorry,” Alex said, “I can’t take in anything you’re saying. You seem to be talking gibberish. We’re two people wildly in love with each other, and you’re saying you can’t see me any more.”

  “Well, I’ve changed, darling, people change. I’m sorry.” He glanced back over the full two months of their affair, and remembered getting dressed in front of Alex on the first evening he came round, and thinking he’d never seen anyone so well-mannered and so sex-starved. It had been at a strange moment in his own little number with cynical black Bob, and he could see now that there had been something defiant and capricious, perhaps, about taking up with Alex.

  “I haven’t changed at all,” said Alex. “Apart from coming to love you more and more.”

  “You know, we don’t have anything in common,” said Danny, and had to acknowledge that it didn’t sound that great.

  Alex shook his head. “I thought the affair itself was what we had in common,” he said.

  “Yeah, well…” Danny stuck to his idea that there was nothing to talk about. He frowned and blinked away the muddled imagery of their nights together, the happiness and sweat; and he knew there was a dappled prospect of things he could have learned from Alex, if he’d given him time and attention. But for the moment, and so perhaps for ever, he needed the story to be bare and shadowless. They’d gone out and got off their faces, and Alex had had his mind opened to dance-music. And now they were ending up in music, something altogether more monastic — even if distantly interspersed with Mike shouting “Cunt!” out of the window. Danny decided quickly and analytically that Alex, in spite of his wounded bafflement, accepted what had happened. There was no immediate suggestion of working out problems, or a trial separation. He couldn’t put it into words, but he saw something fatalistic in Alex rush forward to acknowledge the disaster. “Come on,” said Danny.

  As they toiled out of the long grass, he gestured courteously to Alex to go ahead of him, and followed a few paces behind him up the rather notional path. The chanting grew grander as they approached the house, and he knew there would be some solemn moments ahead; but he quite admired the way he’d brought it off. It was the first big break-up he had been responsible for, and with an older man there was of course that further question of respect. He stopped to brush and slap at the mess on his trousers.


  Fabulous finials!”

  “I know!” Alex stepped backwards through the long damp grass to look up at the top stages of the tower: the hooded niches, the little pinnacles like stalagmites that grew from the ledges of the buttresses, the taller pinnacles, three to each corner and one to each side, that crowned the whole thing. The effect was extravagant, and like many strictly superfluous things it was what he most remembered. Not that he’d ever looked at it properly in the Danny period. Danny wasn’t big on finials, and they had hurried on by.

  He turned and watched Nick wandering among the gravestones, stooping and scratching off moss with that pleasant thoroughness he had, the suggestion that even if something wasn’t worth doing, it was worth doing properly. Nick was the first person Alex had slept with who was older than himself, and though at their age it hardly made a difference, there was something, well, restful about it, and solidly grounded, after the jolting berths and squealing point-changes of nights with Danny. The pattern had been broken, since Nick wasn’t a taker, and shared Alex’s own determination to give; his amused absorption in every aspect of Alex’s life, as if Alex’s story were the one thing to master and see the beauty of, had felt almost invasive after Danny’s fidgety indifference.

  “I know there’s an interesting wall-painting,” he said, coming back and poking his arm through Alex’s to steer him into the porch. The gesture, like many of Nick’s, seemed to compress time: they were romantic undergraduates from some Oxonian golden age but also a nice old county couple who hadn’t lost their appetite for life. The leap of the latch echoed into the interior, and reminded Alex, who felt warily suggestible today, of the characteristic clatter of the latches in Robin’s cottage; though beyond that there were fainter echoes, of church-visiting on childhood holidays, and of going in to play in the pulpit while his mother did the flowers. It was a sunny October day, and the church, which was unwarmed, was full of light. Nick strode about appreciatively, while Alex, who always believed in reading the instructions, studied the information bat.

  The fragment of wall-painting was in the north aisle, and showed Tobias with the Angel Raphael. It was executed in various shades of brown, which merged with the discolouration of the plaster and the rough blots where the plaster had been patched, one of which rendered the angel enigmatically jawless. But the fat little boy could be seen, in his brown jerkin, and holding up his brown fish. Alex said, “It says here it was painted with a brush made from a squirrel’s tail.”

  “It’s hard not to
suspect an element of conjecture in that,” Nick said.

  The angel guiding Tobias had flowing curly hair and a belted tunic; he was about eight feet tall, and strode forwards on a thickly outlined right leg with a very elegant foot — heel raised and long toes taking their purchase on the ground, which was implied by a dandelion-like tuft. It made Alex think of his last day with Danny, on the beach, and the memory was surprising even though this little trip to Dorset was all memory — ever since London he’d been waking himself up from the troubled trance of the past. At the end of that afternoon, he had walked with Danny along the sea’s edge, the sand was firm but sodden with water, and at each step a shiver of silvery light seemed to flash from under their feet. Alex pointed out the effect, in the lyrical but cringing tone that was forced on him by Danny’s coldness, and Danny had merely cleared his throat, with an unamusable downward curl of his big mouth.

  Nick hugged him from behind, and they went out of the church. He was being vigorously kind this weekend, and any tension he felt about meeting Justin and Robin, and pottering round the landscape of Alex’s previous affair, was disguised as excitement and a hunger for ancient monuments. “And now the castle!” he said, as they came into the road.

  “There’s not much to the castle,” murmured Alex, who was covering his tension less well, and was ready for a drink. “The Crooked Billet is a marvellously unspoilt old pub.”

  “Art before alcohol, dear,” said Nick. He was a person who expressed large clear feelings and wants of all kinds and then showed a special charm in tuning and surrendering them to other people’s moods — or at least to Alex’s. “Of course, if you’d really rather not…I know this must be strange for you. You must tell me everything you’re thinking” — a phrase which to Alex always had the effect of a sudden inhibition.

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