1998 the spell, p.29
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       1998 - The Spell, p.29

           Alan Hollinghurst
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  “If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be with you tonight,” said Alex, in the bar’s blue compensatory gleam.

  Lars had something amusingly on his mind. “Do you know, I think that is the only family I have met where the father is even hotter than the son.”

  “Oh…” said Alex. “I know some people do, um…” It was beyond him at times to grasp what they’d done to him. First the father smashed him up and then the son. They were terrifying to the outsider, like the Doones of Exmoor or something. “What is it they’ve got? The Woodfield…” — Alex pouted and shook his head.

  “The Woodfield wotsit,” Lars said.

  “That’s right.”

  “Oh boy. Sometime, I will tell you a little story. But not now.” And he smiled like Danny used to, like all these boys on the scene did as a glimpse came back to them from their huge cross-indexed files of sexual anecdote; then he straightened up. “So, have you been out?” he said.

  “No,” said Alex; and with a rather sly pathos: “I haven’t had anyone to go out with.”

  Lars didn’t rise to this immediately. “That was Chateau, am I right, where I saw you and Danny?”

  “Absolutely!” said Alex. He thought if he took his time Lars might suggest they went there again. A week ago he had found himself driving past it, the shutters down and padlocked, the neon logo grey and indecipherable in the dank late morning. It was a narrow facade, like a little old warehouse, with a mouth and two blacked-out eyes; the ordinary commuter could never have guessed what dreams unfurled behind it.

  “Well it’s not so good at the moment.”


  “As you may know, they got raided. Last time half the queens are standing there just with a beer or whatever. Not so great for techno dancing.”

  “I should think not,” said Alex, who felt he had been personally insulted; and then went on craftily, “Anyway, you can get the stuff somewhere else, obviously.”

  Lars glanced round and then shrugged his jacket back to show more of himself. Maybe it was just Alex’s habit of idealising anyone he found attractive, maybe Lars wasn’t Mr Super-Reliable himself, but for the moment the boy seemed to have it all. He said, “Sure, we don’t have to go there. And don’t worry, darling, I can get you anything you want.”

  Nick went back to the car for the bottle he’d insisted on bringing, and Alex waited by the gate, looking down at the cottage through the yellowing trees. Now that they were here the reasons for the visit escaped him. He didn’t like Robin, and he knew he was going to fuss over Nick and Justin to make sure that they saw the best in each other. It irked him that Justin had stayed with Robin after the promising disaffection of last year. At Christmas they had sent out a specially printed card, with a picture of the cottage on the front, under snow; it took Alex a minute to work out that they had signed each other’s names. And here the cottage still was, with them inside it, under that smothering lid of thatch. From above you saw thin smoke fading above the chimney, and vivid pink roses. Alex thought of arriving here and seeing Danny’s pink tank-top hanging from a deck-chair, like a mark of casual possession. He thought of Danny in uniform at the Royal Academy, and Danny’s account of his admirers pressing their numbers on him, like dollar-bills in a stripper’s G-string. He thought of Robin, barging in to find them naked and dozy after sex, saying, “Christ, Dan, you can’t be serious.”

  It was Robin who let them in, wearing a short apron over his jeans, and a patch over his left eye. Alex murmured concern about the patch, though he was privately very pleased by it, and felt it balanced out his own social disadvantage as a double Woodfield casualty. Robin said it looked worse than it was, and excused himself to get on with the lunch. Justin was in the sitting-room reading the paper, and plucked off a pair of frameless spectacles as they came in. “I saw that,” said Alex, giving him a big moaning hug, and grinning at the shock of how much he loved him.

  “Don’t, darling, it’s like Moorfields in here,” said Justin. He looked affectionately at Nick and said, “Hello, darling,” as if they were old friends agreeing to forget a tiff. For once Alex saw that a formal introduction was unnecessary. He stepped back with a feeling he shouldn’t intrude on a tender episode, one that was novel to him, and unexpectedly rich — the meeting of two of his lovers, with its momentary sequence of hidden appraisal and denial.

  The room was subtly altered, and more cluttered. Other little pictures of a very different taste — Regency silhouettes and framed caricatures — filled in the gaps between the family portraits and Robin’s creepy watercolours of the cottage. Several highly varnished pieces of furniture — a magazine-rack, a china-cabinet, a nest of scallop-edged side-tables — had been thrust into an unlikely marriage with the resident arts and crafts. Alex realised that these were things saved from Justin’s father’s house. He strolled towards the book-shelves, saw something else, and after a moment’s consideration let out a shriek. On the deep window-sill, turned sideways to catch the best of the sun but glaring back into the room in a consummate sulk, was the polished bronze head of Justin, aged twelve, that Alex had always found so amusing. “I see you’ve salvaged “The Spirit of Puberty,” darling,” he said.

  Justin came across, his features perhaps unconsciously jelled into an adult version of the same expression. Alex watched him decide he could take the joke at last. “You mean the Litton Gambril Ganymede. Yes, darling. Though the insurance, as you may imagine, is a frightful drain.” Nick stood around behind them, in a leisurely uncertainty about the pitch of irony.

  They went into the kitchen for drinks, and Nick drew out Robin — who kept twitching his head round to find things -by asking him about the castle and other local landmarks. Apparently Robin had been building some more flats in that hideous house they’d all been dragged off to see on Alex’s first visit, but the nice old boy who owned the place had died, and the plans had all come to nothing. Robin spoke about all his wasted work as though that were the real tragedy of the thing.

  Justin was clearly bored to the limits of endurance by the subject, and tugged Alex gently through the back door into the garden.

  “I’m sorry about Captain Blood, darling,” he said, when they were more or less out of earshot.

  “I hope it’s nothing serious,” said Alex.

  “No, I don’t think so. He burst a blood vessel, and it’s all gone rather horrid.”

  “Does that mean he’s lost his sight?”

  “Oh he can see,” said Justin. “But it looks so frightful for everyone else. I had to get him to cover it up.”

  Alex wasn’t sure who was being protected by this. “How did it happen?”

  “In bed, darling. Apparently it’s caused by sneezing, or vomiting, or, um…Of course now I don’t dare suggest sex, in case it happens to the other one. He’d have to wear a blindfold!”

  Alex took a swig from his bloody Mary. They were standing at the low wall between the lawn and the long grass, where he had found Justin sunbathing on that day last summer, which was also the day he had first set eyes on Danny. He felt very confident with Nick, but still he wanted Justin’s approval, or at least some palpably jealous withholding of it. “It’s good to be back here,” he offered blandly, staring out towards the stream and the rise of the hill beyond, and feeling again the mood of sexual jostling and sarcasm that went so oddly with the pastoral unconsciousness of the place.

  “You should see it in winter,” said Justin. “There’s nothing but those sort of dead brown plants.”

  “Docks, you mean.”

  “Mm.” Justin looked into his glass and shook the vivid last half-inch. “Well, you’ve found yourself a real man this time, darling.”

  “I think so,” said Alex, though Justin’s implicit self-disparagement took the zest out of the thing.

  “You didn’t tell me much about him.”

  Alex said, “It seemed rather bad manners.”

  Justin said, “You say you met him in a club,” with a wary, judicial tone that almost masked
his envy of the world of meetings..


  “So you just go to clubs now, do you?”

  Alex smiled; and of course it was sweet to be teased on the subject. “I went out with that boy Lars, Danny’s friend, you remember.”

  “Oh yes. I think General Dayan’s rather keen on him.”

  “That’s because he’s a retread of you, dear. In a way. He’s what you’d be like if you were twelve years younger, came from Oslo, and lived in a gym.”

  Justin seemed to find that satisfactory. “Well, I’m impressed that you threw him over for someone twice his age.”

  “Nick’s only forty-one,” Alex said. And of course it hadn’t been quite like that, he hadn’t been sure if something was happening with Lars or not, and it was only when Lars said that if Alex didn’t move in on Nick, he would, that Alex began to understand what was possible — or, as it seemed through the empathetic lens of the drug, inevitable. “He was terribly friendly,” Alex went on. “You know, it could have been the friendliness of a lunatic or a bore, but in fact he’s only a little bit of either.” He saw he was keen not to wound Justin by praising Nick’s real merits.

  Justin said, “Well, you’re used to lunatics, darling. Have you heard from Miss D., by the way?”

  “I had a card about…ooh, nine months ago. How about you?”

  “He was here for a few days in the summer, with a shattering Spanish boyfriend. They seemed happy,” said Justin, who was perhaps less careful of Alex’s feelings, though he gave the impression of speaking from outside some conspiracy of happiness.

  After lunch Nick said he wanted to see the cliffs, and Robin said he knew the best place to go. Justin refused to take part in the outing if Robin drove, and told Nick with uncomfortable candour about the time when they had all nearly been thrown to their deaths. Alex was drinking pretty intently, since for once he wasn’t driving; so it was agreed that Nick would take them. Robin sat up front with him to give directions.

  When they turned into the narrow lane at the end of the village, Nick said, “Going up!” and powered ahead, just as Robin had done; it was some boyish physical thing that Alex had never had. He sprawled back and touched the button to let in a rush of air. The banks were high on either side, and the hedges above were festooned with the soft swarming stars of traveller’s joy, already turning grey and mothy. One or two brown fans of chestnut leaves dropped across the bonnet. As before, there was no one coming the other way.

  Robin got out when they reached the gate, and Alex thought how enjoyable it would be to leave him there, and watch him running up to meet them, pretending he took it as a joke. Nick drove through and waited for him, watching in the mirror, till he came back and opened his door and said, “I’ll run the last mile. Just keep going towards that gap.” So they bumped on without him across the steep incline, the grassy tussocks hissing along the bottom of the car. Alex looked aside and saw the whole panorama inland come steadily clear, the line of ascent from the valley bottoms, the silage-heaps weighted with old tyres, little fields overgrown with alder, up past sheltered farms under hanging woods and low bald pastures, and on to the open hilltops, the windwalks and long ridged heights.

  They came into the wide dip between the two swelling caps of cliff, and Justin said, “This is quite far enough, darling, thank you.” Nick stopped, and they climbed out and walked the last hundred yards. The air freshened towards them, and though the long grass was fading and scruffy the wind seemed to buff it and put a shine on it as it laid it flat.

  Justin stopped a prudent distance from the crumbly edge, and Nick and Alex, who had gone on romantically further, came back, with the humorous good conscience of a successful couple, and took hold of him in a slightly awkward embrace, Justin clutching at the pocket of Alex’s denim jacket. Then Robin’s panting could be heard through the bluster of the wind and above the distant crash of the waves. He came up beside them, roaming round with hands on hips to get his breath back, and then decided to join them, and dropped an arm round Nick’s shoulder, at the end of the line. For a minute or two they watched the inky zones of the sea-bed, as the small cloud-shadows sailed across them; then as the sun dropped westward, the surface of the sea turned quickly grey, and they saw the curling silver roads of the currents over it.




  Alan Hollinghurst, 1998 - The Spell



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