1998 the spell, p.3
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       1998 - The Spell, p.3

           Alan Hollinghurst

  Justin ignored him with a half-smile which hinted that he did indeed imagine Bernini to be a couturier. “Do you want an aperitif? And then I’ll show you round.” He plucked open the tall clinking door of the fridge and reached in for a jug of bloody Mary, from which he filled two virtually pint-size glasses. “Come and see the house.” Alex followed him through a low, latched door, with an unannounced step down beyond, on which he jolted upright and hit his head on a beam. “Watch out for the vernacular detail, dear,” said Justin.

  Several tiny vernacular rooms had been knocked into one to form the cottage’s main space, and floor-length windows opening on to the rear garden let in a modern requirement of light and air. It was sparely furnished with old oak and hollowed-out sofas and a number of arts-and-crafts chairs like conscientious objectors to the idea of comfort. At one end was the empty grate of a big stone fireplace and at the other a wall of books on architecture and gardening. Justin gestured at the black-glazed vases on the deep window-sills. “Those pots, darling,” he said, “were made by potters of the greatest probity.”

  Alex walked about, watched by Justin, who seemed keen for a favourable verdict. When the phone rang Justin left him to look at the pictures. There were brown oils of Georgian children, which might have been inherited, and a number of just competent watercolours, signed “RW”, showing the cottage itself. “No, I’m sorry, Tony, he’s not here,” Justin was saying. “That’s right, he’s out. Yes, I’ll get him to ring you…I’ll ask him to ring you…Yes, don’t worry, I’ll ask him to ring you.” Robin’s paintings made the place look impenetrably private, in its circuit of trees and high old walls; leaves and petals in the foreground half-obscured the lower windows of the house, the rounded bulk of the thatch was shadowed by the bosomy beeches above it.

  On a side-table there was a framed black-and-white photo of a young man in white shorts and a singlet, standing with an upright oar, like a lance, on which he seemed to lean. When Justin rang off Alex said at once, “Who’s this in the picture?”

  His ex-lover wandered across with a little “Mm?” of feigned uncertainty and slipped an arm round his shoulder. “That’s him,” he said — and Alex, who knew the whole repertoire of Justin’s tones, heard in the two quiet syllables a rare tremor of pride and anxiety. It was a kind of introduction.

  “He’s very good-looking,” said Alex, in his own tone of dry fair-mindedness. They stood, in their loose embrace, sipping at their drinks, as if assessing this judgement on the big English boy with his wavy hair and rower’s shoulders and beautiful long legs. The wide smile conveyed the certainty of success in some imminent struggle, and so seemed to invite curiosity as to how it had in fact turned out.

  Justin gave Alex a couple of consoling pats as he drew away from him. “Well, you should see him now.”

  “That was a long time ago,” said Alex, explaining the hairstyle, the whole look, to himself.

  “Oh god darling. It’s pre-war. I mean, it’s Julia Margaret Cameron, that one.”

  And that was a kind of comfort, along with the cold tomato-juice and its after-burn of strong spirits. All he’d known of his successor till that morning was his name, his profession, and his addresses in London and here. He had wanted as little as possible for his imagination to worry at. So it was something to learn that he hadn’t been left, in his thirty-seventh year, for a kid on a sports scholarship.

  Justin flushed and smirked like a braggart anticipating jeers. “No, he’s gorgeously old.”

  (Even so, thought Alex, I hope I haven’t lost him to a pensioner. And then dimly saw the powerless absurdity of such hopes — the muddled desire to have been replaced by someone better, which was crushing but evolutionary, and by someone inferior, which would show Justin’s weakness of judgement, and prove to Alex that he was better off without him.)

  They went up the narrow box staircase for a quick orientation of bathroom and sleeping arrangements — Alex only glanced over Justin’s shoulder into the almost unfurnished main bedroom: he saw a huge bed with an oak headboard and footboard and invalidish stacks of pillows, and the little brass clock under the bedside lamp. His own room was next door, with only a plank wall, and a single bed under a flowered counterpane. He said he liked it, although he knew the bed would give him cramps like an adolescent, and he had a vague sense of being in a servant’s room, despite the facetious collection of old brown books on the chest of drawers: Queer Folk of the West Country, Who’s Who in Surtees, Remarkable Sayings of Remarkable Queens. Justin hung in the doorway. “So are you seeing anyone?” he said.

  The upstairs windows were set low in the walls, and though the midday sun made a dazzling lozenge on the window-sill the room was shadowy and cool under the thatch. The atmosphere was faintly illicit, as if they ought to have been tearing around outside but had sneaked back unnoticed into the open house.

  “Not really.” Alex gave a little squashed smile. The truth was he had been too depressed, too shaken by his own failure, to believe that any other man would want him, or could ever fall in love with him. He didn’t often lie, and he was pained to hear himself say, “There’s someone who comes round; nothing serious.”

  “Is he cute?”


  “Is he blond?”

  “He is, actually.” Alex shrugged. “He’s very young.”

  “He’s another virgin blond like me, isn’t he?” Justin made one of his experienced-barmaid faces. “Of course I’m foully jealous.” And despite the big congratulatory smile that followed, Alex registered the truth in the customary hyperbole; and then saw that the congratulation itself was mildly demeaning.

  “It really isn’t anything,” he said.

  They found Robin in running-gear and oven-gloves, knocking the loaves from their hot tins on to a wire rack. The latent smell of marjoram and garlic and rising dough had bloomed into the kitchen with its own stifling welcome. Justin scuffed through to the fridge and the jug of drink.

  “Darling, this is Alex. Darling, this is Robin.”

  “Just a minute.” Then, shaking off the padded pockets, Robin turned with a smile that Alex knew already, though he doubted if he would have recognised the rest of the big handsome boy in the big handsome man. Alex was in the first freeing ease of drink on an empty stomach, and came forward and shook his hand and grinned back; and then stood close by him for a second or two, feeling the damp heat of him. The sweat on his bare shoulders and in the channel of his chest under the loose tank-top, the sporting readiness of his manner, the glanced-at weight of his cock and balls in the silvery slip of his running-shorts, the tall cropped balding head with its lively but calculating grey eyes: Alex coloured at the mixture of challenge and seduction, then stepped back with a deflected compliment on the beauty of the house.

  “It was a shell when he bought it,” said Justin, in a grim singsong that mocked Robin’s evident pride in the place.

  “Really?” said Alex, but still looking at Robin. “I’m amazed. It feels so, um…”

  “It was a big job,” said Robin lightly, sweeping the subject aside.

  “There are fascinating before-and-after photographs,” Justin insisted; but Robin was already tugging his shirt from his waistband and saying he must shower.

  Within a minute there were springy footsteps overhead, and the soft thump-thump of dropped shoes, and then the whine of the hot-water pipes.

  Alex went to fetch his bag from the car, and walking up through the garden felt at once the pleasure of being alone; he realised it was too late to run away; he had a racing fuddled sense of surrender to the weekend and its rigours. It was like a training exercise, confusing and uncomfortable in itself, but possibly affording in the end some obscure feeling of achievement. In the bag he had a bottle of Scotch and another present for Justin, which he now knew was wrong, but when he got back to the sitting-room he handed it over, with a sprinting pulse.

  Justin gave an “Oh…” of tolerant surprise, and Alex watched in a painful clarity of recall
as he frowned and blushed over the red wrapping-paper, rather brusquely got the book out of it, murmured its title, and with a little smirk turned and stuffed book and paper into the top drawer of the oak commode behind him. So he was still unable to say thank you, which was a perverse flaw in someone who lived so much by taking. Alex watched him knee the drawer shut on his gauche but extravagant token of forgiveness.

  After lunch they were all so drunk that they had to lie down. They went upstairs with yawns and stumbles, as if it was the middle of the night. Alex pushed off his shoes and lay on his back with the door open, but Justin slammed their door perhaps harder than he meant to: the wooden latch clattered. Alex grunted and turned on his side, and hoped they weren’t going to have audible sex. He woke dry-mouthed and horny in the still heat of the later afternoon.

  Padding grumpily along to the bathroom, he passed the closed doors of other rooms not mentioned on the tour, and rubbed his eyes out of a dreamlike sense, in the half-dark, with only the spills of light under the doors, that the cottage must be far bigger inside than it was outside. At the end of the corridor hung the long ellipse of an old pier-glass, which only deepened the impression. He gave himself a friendly scowl.

  It emerged that Robin had gone out while the other two were sleeping. Justin came down and found Alex drinking water in the kitchen. “He’s on a job,” he said.

  “I didn’t know architects worked at weekends.”

  “I’m afraid they do if they’re working for mad old queens. And mad old queens do seem to make up an awfully large proportion of Mr Woodfield’s clients.” Justin sat down at the table, from which, Alex realised, the lunch things had all been magically cleared; the dishwasher must have groaned and fizzed through its cycle while he slept.

  “Who’s this particular one?”

  “Oh, Tony Bowerchalke,” said Justin, with mocking fondness, as if they both knew him.


  “Do you want a drink, darling?”

  “Good god no.”

  “Perhaps you’re right. No, old Tony’s quite sweet, but he worries a lot. Robin rang him up the other day and he said, “I’m just having a tomato sandwich,” so he had to ring off and call him again later. His house is hideous.”

  “You don’t mean Robin built a hideous house.”

  “No, it’s a Victorian loony-bin.” Justin got up and moved indirectly towards the fridge. “Robin doesn’t actually build houses. He could be the Frank Lloyd Wright of the whole Bridport area, but mostly he just tarts up old queens’ dados. It’s called a country-house practice, darling. Of course, no one builds country houses any more unless they’re neo-classical pastiche by Quinlan Terry, so it tends to be repairs and turning them into flats.”

  “Dearest, you’ve never heard of neo-classical pastiche by Quinlan Terry.”

  Justin raised an eyebrow. “You’ll find me changed in many respects from the old lezzy you used to know.” He prised open a bottle of beer.

  Later they went for a walk up a rutted lane already mysterious in the early evening under thickly leaved hazels and oaks, and out on to the high seaward slopes above the village. It was an intermittent three-mile climb to the cliff-tops, which Justin said was too far, as a rule he would only go for a walk if it was, as the French say, in the car. But Alex suddenly felt the pull of the sea, a holiday freedom that had seemed impossible in the airless cottage. He sprang ahead on his long legs over the tussocky hillside.

  “We’re not in any hurry, are we?” said Justin, starting to breathe sharply and sweating enough for his face to give back an ethereal reflection of the light.

  Alex turned and gazed at him and the improbable landscape in which they found themselves. He supposed that in the right kind of fantasy he might have appeared as a golden-haired drover or hay-harvester; but it would have been a fantasy. “It’s all so green,” he said, gesturing gratefully.

  Justin came up and anchored him with an arm. “Yes, it’s the rain. I heard someone talking about it. Apparently it makes everything go green.”

  They went on up, through gaps in hedges, past the low outbuildings of a farm with nettle-choked sheep-pens and a van full of straw, along the fenced perimeter of a silent pine plantation. They went on a dipping plank across a quick little stony stream, which Justin took as a place to stop and point out how it ran down and around and was the stream that raced past the cottage. Alex began to get an Alpine sense of distance and scale, though they were only a few hundred feet up. Beyond the stream there was a belt of young green bracken shooting out of the brown detritus of last year’s growth, and high up in it they came to a shallow turfy scoop, the sofa of a stone-age giant, and sat down in it, looking back at other hills that climbed away more slowly northwards. In the huge open shelter of the valley the air was still and mothering, though Alex thought that up behind them there would be cooler breezes dropping about the cliffs.

  The village of Litton Gambril lay below, and Justin pointed out its few features with a lazy imprecision which couldn’t quite disguise his regard for the place, and for his own good fortune in living there. “That’s the church, and that’s the steeple, darling. Those are the houses of various old monsters. That house there, you can’t really see it, is where the Halls live, who I must say are the most fabulous drunks. They’re roaring drunk the whole time, except allegedly between about eight and nine a.m. We often go there, it’s like a pub that never closes.” Alex peered at the church, which didn’t have a steeple, but a tower whose ornate finials rose against green cornfields with an effect of unaccountable extravagance. There was a loose knot of old houses around it, and the high dark crest of a copper beech on the village green. Out to the right there were walkers on the stony track that led to the ruins of a castle — “Ruined by the Roundheads, darling,” said Justin, to whom even the dustiest of double entendres deserved the experiment of an airing. The cottage itself was completely hidden in its cultivated hollow at the village’s other end; but to Alex the whole place communicated a slow shock of domesticity and loss.

  He thought of his own neighbourhood in Hammersmith, nothing so self-contained, just a block or two worn half-invisible by use, the place in the oblivious city where for him life slowed and gleamed and recovered. The newsagent and the butcher and the dry-cleaner still had the nicknames Justin had given them. For two years and a month Justin ambled through those streets, the buzzer doormat in the off-licence offered its alert reassurance, he walked to the same corner for a taxi heading into town.

  It was amazing where love took you — and Alex thought it was the one thing you would go, anywhere for. In their early days together Justin was his entree to pleasure, to the routine of certain bars, the instant friendship of good-looking men, blowsy gay dinner-parties with their undertow of sex. Alex was with him, he was accepted with a lack of hesitation that was flattering if indiscriminate, his long pale face and glossy black hair became more beautiful, his rangy walk more touching and seductive. At just the moment he gave himself completely to Justin, other men suddenly started to want sex with him. He became a charged particle. And now here he was, lying on a hillside in a part of the country he had never seen before, still dimly magnetised. He put a hand on Justin’s bare forearm, not quite unconsciously, and after a minute Justin, as usual at any place of natural or historic beauty, got up and went for a piss. Alex watched him standing a few yards off, playing the glittering arc over a patch of young bracken; in the level sunlight the curled-up fronds of the bracken twitched open here and there, giving the hillside an air of furtive animation.

  “So what do you think of Robin?” said Justin when he had sat down again, his chin on his drawn-up knees.

  It was kind of brutal. Alex looked away and then back and said, “He’s a good cook.” You couldn’t say what you thought about people, not at the time. He remembered the things his friends had said about Justin, with funereal relish, after he had gone — how he was a cheat and a bore and a drunk and an ungrateful slut, and actually they’d always thoug
ht so. He’d been surprised, he’d never acknowledged their hinted hostility, and was still obscurely resistant to what they said, in spite of the wounding evidence that they were right. He said, “I hope you’re being good to him,” which showed oblique generosity as well as suspicion.

  Justin pouted and peered out at the village, his head rocking slightly, as if unable to decide between a nod and a shake. “Try not being good down here,” he said. “Anyway, what about your bloke? You’ve been pretty quiet about him.”

  Alex smiled with complex regret. “Actually there isn’t anyone. I was just teasing you.”

  “Oh darling…” said Justin, with a comparably subtle pretence of concern.

  On their way down the hill, Alex slipped his arm through Justin’s, in a decorous way, or as if one of them at least was quite old, and when Justin’s smooth-soled shoes slid on the turf he caught at his wrist, they were almost hand-in-hand again for a second, then tumbled down together. They weren’t hurt, of course, but a moment of recovery seemed legitimate, and they lay there, arms under each other, Alex’s knee between his old boyfriend’s thighs, their trousers tugged up tight, as if the stone-age giant had lifted them by their belts from behind and flung them down. Alex was gazing at the sky, the depth of blue just beginning to silver and crumble. He turned his head slowly and with a little grimace which seemed to mock the wish that was making the pulse pluck in his neck; but Justin looked past him, as if meditating on something else. Alex half-lifted himself and kissed him unplayfully on the mouth; then struggled apart from him and stepped away with a breezy “Come on, let’s go.” He saw the lane that ran along the valley and climbed out towards London. He saw himself squealing through the villages on his way down here, in his optimistic old sports car. He glanced at Justin on the grass, still oddly expressionless, extending a hand so as to be helped up. The sun had left the garden by the time they came back, the birds were silent, but the flowers and bushes glowed with a brief intensity of colour against the neutral light. The time of day touched an old anxiety and loneliness in Alex, but Justin, who had been oppressively thoughtful on the downward walk, and seemed half-aggrieved, half-gratified by the intensity of the kiss, brightened up at the sight of the lit kitchen windows. He led Alex in from a back gate, past the greenhouse and an open shed where pale-ended logs were stacked. “That’s where we stack the wood,” he said. “When we’ve been wooding.” They came round the back of the cottage, where a relay of Tosca swirled out from the kitchen doorway and mingled for a moment with the colder music of the stream. Alex hung back outside the bright oblong and saw Robin, with a long whittled knife in his hand, stride towards Justin, who somehow slipped by, so that the kiss barely touched his cheekbone.

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