1998 the spell, p.28
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       1998 - The Spell, p.28

           Alan Hollinghurst
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  “No, let’s go to the castle.”

  They got back into Nick’s car and drove out of the village and along Ruins Lane, which had the stony dryness of summer still, though the chestnuts were already dropping their leaves and there were scarlet shocks of haws in the hedges. One other car was in the car-park — it had a caged rear section for a dog, and the forlorn admonishment about puppies being for life in the window. Nick led the way over a stile, and into the lumpy field where the ruins stood, or crouched. There was one picturesque bit, a towering fragment of the hall, with the airy grid of a bay window high above, and the barred-off opening of a narrow spiral staircase. Next to it was the kitchen, where Alex stooped under the lintel of the fireplace and peered up the chimney to the pale blue chink of sky.

  Alex knew he would have loved it here as a boy, with his taste for lonely places; it was somehow akin to a hollow, roughly habitable oak in the woods at school, and to his dusty, torch-lit “house” in the cupboard under the stairs, with the ceiling that stepped down like a trap on the already long-legged child. “I’ve been playing hide and seek,” he used to say; and his mother said, “It can’t be hide and seek if no one’s coming to look for you, darling. It’s just hide.”

  He walked off to the edge of the site, where some newly sawn pine-logs were stacked and giving off their fresh vomit smell as the sun warmed them. He watched Nick bustling about the stony knolls, reading the old Ministry of Works signs that said “Storerooms” or “Chapel.” There was an element of conjecture there too, no doubt. He thought how Danny had lived his youth, and followed his appetites, and slept with such a variety of men that you couldn’t see any common thread beyond the blind desire to know the world through sex. The thought made Alex sag with envy and loss, even though he had Nick, and though sex, of course, was not the only way to know the world. He wondered what Danny had meant when he said he loved him, or adored him, and whether meaning something had even entered into it. He clearly had no idea of the psychic shock, to someone like himself, of falling in love. Danny would be a great lover, that would be his career, though he knew next to nothing about love, just as some great musicians knew nothing about music, beyond their gift for making it.

  In general he was very happy now. There was something sweet and justified about reliving the solitary excitements of his past in the company of someone as handsome and generous as Nick. Mornings of ruins and evenings of L’elisir d’amore. It must just be the fact of being here again in Litton Gambril that rekindled his sense of surreal and arbitrary injustice. Today, like every day of the past fourteen months, was a part of the life he had thought he would be sharing with Danny, and he was spending it without him, and to that extent he was spending it alone.

  The Sicily tickets had come the morning after his return to London. They were to have been a beautiful surprise for Danny, and lay on Alex’s kitchen table, beside the brochure of the Excelsior Palace Hotel, Taormina, with the unforgivable ignorance of mail sent to the newly dead. Coming back into the room, preparing to go to work but still expecting to hear himself phone in sick, he saw the tickets again and started crying quite violently, pushing them around the table with a stiff, unaccepting arm. Later, he put everything back in the envelope, and went into the office.

  In the evening he rang Hugh and cried some more through the inadequate medium of the telephone. Hugh said, “I’m so sorry, darling,” with real tenderness, as well as an irrepressible note of vindication.

  “These have been the worst three days of my life,” said Alex, sincerely, and believing, in his retentive way, that you could compare one pain with another that was only remembered.

  “Tell me again how old he was,” said Hugh.

  “He was twenty-three. I mean, he still is.”

  “Yes,” said Hugh. “They don’t want the same things as us, you know.”

  Alex was so struck by the wisdom of this remark that he instinctively rejected it. “We were madly in love,” he said.

  He went round to see Hugh the following evening and they got drunk in his flat before going out for some pasta. As they left the building they had to make their way through a small crowd of theosophists whose grateful expressions he attributed broadly to the effects of a seance. The restaurant was as always half-empty and too brightly lit, as though to draw attention to its meagre popularity. The hand-coloured photographs of Etna and Palermo Cathedral conspired in the gruesome excess of irony which bristles around any crisis.

  Alex had favoured and then suppressed the idea several times, but at the end of the meal, loose on Corvo and a couple of grappas, and full of gratitude to his oldest friend, he said, “How would you like to come to Sicily with me next month for a couple of weeks, staying only at the best hotels?” As he said it he found he already regretted it — Hugh would get on his nerves and be a perpetual disappointment as he sat in Danny’s place, Alex would be ashamed of him in his tweed jacket and compromised by him in the Casanova pub and the Perroquet disco…

  Hugh was looking down in the sudden flush of delicate feeling, and Alex was moved to see how touched he was, and instantly forgot his regrets — of course it would be better to visit the temples at Agrigento in the appreciative company of someone who sweated classical learning than in a state of sexual distraction with Danny, and anxiety at every moment that he might be getting bored. Not, of course, that he could go with Danny: that was why they were having this conversation, it was the still new fact, and it leapt up like a hot liquid burp in his throat, and brought tears to his eyes.

  “It would be marvellous,” Hugh was saying. “But I really don’t think I can.”

  “Oh, come on,” said Alex. “You can’t stay in boring old Bloomsbury for ever. It would be fun. Think what a great team we were in Greece, all those years ago.” Though this wasn’t quite how he’d thought of it at the time.

  “The thing is, I’m going to be away then myself, actually. This didn’t seem the right moment to tell you, but I’m going off, with a friend, to, er, to Nigeria for three weeks.” Hugh looked shaken to be making this announcement, but couldn’t help smiling. “I’m already having the jabs.”

  “Good god!” said Alex, in a tone of cheery alarm. “And who is this person?”

  “Oh…he’s called Frederick.”

  “I see. I assume he’s Nigerian, is he?”

  “What…? Yes, he is.”

  “And how old…?”

  “Um…he’ll be thirty-six next month — well, whilst we’re in Lagos, as it happens.”

  “I won’t ask you how you met him”: at which Hugh looked a little crestfallen, for all his air of thrilled reluctance as the facts came out. He piled and smoothed the sugar in the bowl into a tiny Etna of his own.

  “I’ll tell you anyway. I picked him up in Russell Square.”

  Alex sat back and nodded at the revealed logic of this fait accompli. He knew what question Hugh wanted him to ask next, and he brought it out with airy courtesy: “What’s his dick like, by the way?” Hugh’s glow of tactfully suppressed pleasure deepened to a triumphant blush.

  Alex wasn’t sure, over the following weeks, what he felt about Hugh’s unprecedented affair. He was moving through the obscurely delineated phases of grief, and his reactions to matters outside himself were unpredictably null or intense. In the first few days the slightest pressure made him weep, and he nearly got in a fight with someone he swore at from the car. After that came a phase when he longed to weep, but couldn’t, which seemed perversely like yet another failure. He went round, just for a drink, to meet the boyfriend. Frederick was slender and a little shy, and had a deeply melancholy look even when he was laughing. He enquired, with disconcerting politeness, about the well-being of all Alex’s relatives. As the drinks went down, he grew more and more physical with Hugh, and Alex too came in for brief knee-strokings and lingering smiles. When Hugh went out of the room, Frederick said, “Hugh told me your boyfriend left you.” Alex merely nodded, and Frederick took his hand and said, “Well, I’m more t
han sure you going to find another one,” with a long glance that was not only flirtatious but had an embarrassing prophetic certainty. Soon afterwards Alex kissed and hugged them both, and left. He was naturally delighted by his friend’s happiness. Those were the words he used to himself as he tried to eliminate the small residual feeling of envy and betrayal.

  He had very little contact with Danny, beyond a few impossible phone-calls, one of them an absurdist vignette of blocked communication because of the bad reception on Danny’s mobile. “I said: This has been the worst week of my life,” Alex barked, three or four times, till he sounded more furious than miserable. Danny left a message on his machine to tell him when he was going to California, and Alex groaned at the way that silly idea had been allowed to harden into a life-changing fact. He was sure he would never see him again; and then bleakly soothed by the knowledge that he couldn’t bear to see him anyway. He wrote him a long letter, which he worked on and recast in his head and on paper for days and days, so as to make it reasonable; he dropped it into a pillar-box in Whitehall after work and was immediately terrified that he might reply.

  Justin rang several times and asked a lot of questions; he was tender but fairly probing — it seemed almost as though he had found a way to observe the effects of his own breakup with Alex, but from a later, guiltless angle; or perhaps there was an element of atonement. Alex himself, sighing and switching about in his bed, was typically alert to the pattern. This second failure was a shocking reinforcement of the first. And yet he had to admit that there was something ambiguously easier about it too: he already knew the lesson, he knew the bereft amazement of finding that you had unwittingly had your last fuck, your last passionate kiss, your last taxi-ride hand-in-hand in the gloom; and he knew too that on both occasions there had been signals, like the seen but noiseless drum-strokes of a tympanist checking his tuning.

  One Sunday in late October he made the long journey right across London to have lunch in Hampstead with a kind colleague from work; and coming out a bit drunk into the street decided he would go up on to the Heath and see if he bumped into anyone. It was a bright blue day, and though by now the warm sunshine was going from the streets, it was still dazzling when he emerged on to the westward slopes of the hill. He wasn’t exactly sure where to go, but he saw a sympathetic-looking man with short grey hair and a darker goatee turn purposefully down a path ahead of him, and followed on at a casual pace, but with a quickening sense that something important was being allowed to happen. He looked about keenly. The chestnuts were already bare, but the oaks were thick with gold and withered green, and a half-denuded poplar stood in a reflecting pool of its own fallen leaves. It was that time of day he loved, when the lowering sun struck right in among the trees and made every branch burn.

  He came down into a more shadowy area of woodland, with patchy tall undergrowth and vague paths crackly with beech-mast. There were a number of men mooching about in the bushes. He couldn’t see the man he had followed, though he kept a certain presence in Alex’s mind, as a guide who had silently appeared and disappeared. Now he had to fend for himself, and he was useless at cruising, even in somewhere as unchoosy and anonymous as this. He walked on, had a look at his watch, wondered if he should just go home after all, and then within a few seconds he had stumbled into a large and still relatively leafy bush with a dark, thickset man, and was kneeling in the sex-litter and soft loam with the stranger’s stiffening cock in his mouth. The man chewed gum and looked around, apparently indifferent to the exquisite thing that was being done for him. Occasionally he said “Yeah,” like someone on the phone. Then he pulled his hips back quickly, and nudged out a little load over Alex’s cheek and nose.

  As sex it was about the least gratifying Alex could remember; the man was hardly his type, and had clearly had no interest in reciprocating the favour; also his trousers would now have to go to the dry-cleaner’s. Yet the episode struck him as significant. He strode back up through the woods, casually observed by the same waiting men, and down again through the steep narrow streets to the station, with the fascinated feeling that he’d acted out of character. The street-lamps were starting to glow through the odd neutral light after sunset, and the faces of people he passed took on a kind of romance — he couldn’t say why. On reflection he thought you couldn’t really act out of character, and he went in under the arch and down in the lift with the sense that he had just paid a visit to a remote suburb of himself. Through the following days he sometimes remembered the taste of the stranger, the roughness of seam rivets and stitching in his thick denims, the heavy atmosphere of permission in the wood. In bed, the event took on a beauty it had lacked at the time, and Alex thought he’d quite like to see the man again.

  In December there were parties in the early evening, and he would often find himself, about nine o’clock, speedy and unselfcritical with drink, stepping back out into the clinging chill of the night, and ready for the new kinds of fun he had learnt from Danny. He saw he had started to recoup the Danny disaster in an obscurely private way. He had an appetite for drugs again, but no clear idea how to get some. He knew it would be a bad idea to ask his secretary. He’d heard that the murmuring boys you walked past in clubs would happily sell you paracetamol or household cleansers, and he knew they could tell that he was a patsy. He hadn’t kept in touch with Danny’s friends, but he still had Jamaican Bob’s number, and one night when he got home he gave him a ring.

  “…yeah I know, that’s his problem,” Bob was saying as he answered. “Hello.”

  “Oh, is that Bob?”


  “It’s Alex here — Alex Nichols.” There was the sound of several people discussing something, a television on. Alex heard the tension in his own voice, and when he looked up at the mirror he saw his fawningly needy expression.

  “You’ll have to help me,” said Bob.

  “Danny’s friend…?” And that turned out to be a hard phrase.

  “Oh yeah, I remember. You’re the one who falls in love.”

  “That’s me.” Alex chuckled obligingly. He had a feeling you mustn’t mention drugs by name. “Bob, you know your auntie…?”

  “I’m sorry my friend, I can’t help you,” said Bob. “Bad timing, yeah?”

  “Oh…” Alex wasn’t sure if that just meant he should ring back later, or if it was code for some major fuck-up in the international traffic.

  “I just got a card from Dan, as a matter of fact. You heard from him lately?”

  “Not for a bit,” said Alex.

  The next day after work he thought he might try Dave at the porno shop again; he was always reliving the sublime hour, or half-hour, he had spent in a shirtless embrace with him and Lars back in June, and he couldn’t believe that that wasn’t a very special memory for Dave as well. When he got there he studied the menu of the next-door Chinese restaurant for a minute, then darted aside through the horrible bead curtain. It had never occurred to him that the patterns of employment among porn-peddlers might be somewhat erratic, and that Dave might not be there. But that was the case. A cheerful Irishman in late middle age was warming himself at a fuming Calor-gas stove beside the counter. “Yes my friend,” he said.

  “Oh…er…” Alex turned away and looked quickly up and down at one or two cellophane-wrapped magazine covers, like someone with bifocals at an art gallery. Three men in leather harnesses and haircuts of circa 1970 were grouped around the tethered body of a fourth. A glowing young blond smiled back as he sprawled over a pool’s edge, buttocks spread — he was a bit like Justin, except of course that Justin couldn’t swim. Alex realised he couldn’t face enquiring after Dave, he felt disadvantaged enough being here at all, amid the alien porn. It would surely be culpably obvious why he needed Dave. He bought an optimistic pack of rubbers and hurried out.

  He had just turned along Old Compton Street when he heard his name shouted. This only ever happened when some popular person called Alex was by chance within a few yards of him, but he looked
across the slow-moving traffic, and there, hand up like a referee, and choosing his moment to dart between the taxis, was Lars himself. He gave Alex a kiss and asked him what he was doing. Alex said “Nothing,” with a kind of smiling passivity — it was distinctly magical that he had appeared at this moment, sparkly-eyed and breathing a pale cloud into the night. His blue puffer-jacket showed a Norwegian respect for winter, but it was open to display his muscular chest and stomach in a tight white T-shirt. Alex loved having been claimed by him on the busy street.

  They went into a bar that he and Justin had used in the early days of their affair, though it had been fiercely refitted since then as a high-tech cruising tank. Fast dance-music was playing, it wasn’t great for conversation, but Alex felt the tingle of arrival again. He grinned at Lars, and started to wonder if there was any reason they shouldn’t have sex; then saw that he was running ahead of himself. When he was cheerful, as he had been once or twice in recent weeks, there was something manic and fixated in the emotion.

  “So,” said Lars, clinking his beer-bottle against Alex’s, “it’s good to see you.”

  “You too.”

  “Been busy?”

  Alex blinked. It was a common formula that he thought must have some criminal meaning. He was never either busy or not busy. “Oh, you know,” he said. All he wanted Lars to be clear about was that he’d spent the past twelve weeks in heart-break. That was his story, and he’d had frustrating evenings with people who’d failed to grasp it. Sometimes he was childish enough to act miserable, to get attention. Sometimes he said, “I’m just so miserable,” and people thought he’d said, “I am, as always, fine,” or if they did understand they began to talk spaciously about some minor success they’d had.

  “Well of course I heard about you and Danny,” Lars said, not flippantly, but with a suggestion that it was all a long time ago. “I guess Danny’s just not ready to settle down. If he ever will be.” Of course that was the trite official line. Alex was pretty sure Lars had had a fling with Danny, after all everyone had; but he wasn’t yet ready himself for that fondly sceptical tone. In fact now that they were talking about it he couldn’t quite think what to say. Lars said, “Sure, he’s a fun guy, but he’s not exactly Mr Reliable. Anyway I hope you’re not wishing now that you’d never met him.”

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