The swimming pool librar.., p.34
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       The Swimming-Pool Library, p.34

           Alan Hollinghurst
 

  Perhaps the strangest dream I had was one which recalled the evening of my arrest. The frequency with which it recurred could of course be explained by the frequency with which I anyway dwelt on those few crucial minutes. What puzzled me was the variations on the actual events. Always the sequence began with my leaving a group of friends and walking off briskly and excitedly, as I had done, towards the cottage. Which cottage it was, however, altered from night to night, much as it did, of course, in my actual routine. Sometimes I would make for the merry little Yorkshire Stingo, sometimes for the more dangerous shadowy dankness of Hill Place. Sometimes I would find myself going out to Hammersmith, intent on one of those picaresque ‘Lyric’ evenings; and this involved a cab, or bus or train, inevitably subject to diversions, wilful misunderstandings by the driver, or bodies on the line. Even if I was only walking a few hundred yards to a spot in Soho or that ever-fruitful market-barrow, the Down Street Station Gents, I was liable to lose my way or to be caught up in other business, other people’s demands, which only served to increase the frustrated urgency of my quest. Often I would arrive at the correct location to find that the cottage had disappeared, or been closed down and turned into a highly respectable shop. And in reality the places that I sought had in some cases long been closed or demolished. Down Street was shut up before the war; and the station at the British Museum, although I recall no lavatory there, was another imaginary rendezvous, that now is an abandoned Stygian siding; so that my dream dissolved one nostalgia in another, and showed how all closures, all endings, give warning of closures, greater yet, to come.

  I enter the narrow, half-dark space—again certain that there will be something for me there, but always uncertain what. In the dream it is only the acrid, medicinal scent that is missing—but the excitement from which it is almost indistinguishable survives. It is a smell as remote as can be from supposedly aphrodisiac perfumes, but its effect on me is electrifying. I unbutton at once, or in the dream remove most or even all of my clothes; my mood is optimistic and youthful—and my body too puts off half a lifetime of weight and care.

  After a few moments a handsome young man comes in, his eyes obscured by the brim of his hat; or the lightbulb in its wire cage is behind him, so that he is a figure of promising darkness. I realise that of course I had seen him in the street on my way here, and had had the impression that he returned my glance. He must have followed me in.

  He stands well back from the wall and the gutter as he eases his bladder, his penis is preternaturally visible and his attitude encourages me to look at it. Sometimes he seems to drop his trousers round his knees or to undo a wide fly with buttons up both sides, like a sailor’s. In the light of day I can discern elements of many people in him, some of whom he may for a few seconds become, so that I whisper in welcome ‘O Timmy’ or ‘O Robert’ or ‘Stanley!’ At each moment he embodies a conviction of happiness, of a danger overcome. His penis is not quite that of any of the ghosts of whom he is compounded: it is not either large or small, thick or thin, pale or dark, but has an ideal quality, startling me like some work of art which, seen for the first time, outwits thought and senses and strikes in an instant at the heart.

  He puts his arms around my neck, and I lick his face and push back his hat, squashing it down urchin-like on his springy black curls. His features are serious and beautiful with lust. We two-step backwards into what is no longer simply the cottage but a light-filled space whose walls alter or roll away like ingenious stage machinery in a transformation scene. We make love in the drying-room at Winchester, or in a white-tiled institutional bathroom, or the white house at Talodi, bare of my scraps of furniture and revealed in all its harmonious vacancy: simple places whose very emptiness prompts desire. In one version we are in a beach shelter of poles and canvas—the sides, luminous as screens of shadow-plays, thrum in the wind, while overhead tiny white clouds are blown across the radiant blue.

  In another version, of course, it is not like this. I enter the lavatory and within a few seconds hear the click of metal-tipped shoes approaching the doorway, and look casually across at the young man who takes his place next to me. He is so gorgeously beautiful, in American jeans and a flying-jacket, that I can hardly believe, as he vigorously shakes his prick and with his other hand pushes back his lustrous hair, that his act is aimed at me, a man of twice his age, an old gent in an old Gents. In a cottage one takes what one is given, and is thankful; but nonetheless I am fifty-four—I hesitate before such golden opportunities. I am looking down intently, paying no attention, though my heart is racing, and then I hear other footsteps outside. I have missed my chance. But oddly the footsteps stop, recede, and then after a few seconds start back again. Somebody is waiting there. I glance quickly at the young man and his thick erection, and find he is looking at me steadily. I take a deep breath, and my heart sinks like a stone as I realise I am about to be robbed, more, perhaps badly beaten. If I try to leave I will be caught between the lovely boy—whom I see now for what he is, a steely young thug, perhaps the very one there has been talk of lately in the pubs—and his companion nervily keeping watch outside.

  It is a horrifying moment, and I button up hastily and step back, all my instinct being to preserve myself as far as possible from the physical and moral outrage which almost visibly gathers itself to strike. There is a thumping silence, and the light of the one lamp across the wet tiled floor seems conscious that it will illuminate this and many other atrocities, just as it will go on shining through days and months of sudden speechless lusts, and all the intervening hours of silent emptiness. The boy, seeing I have begun to escape, himself adjusts his dress, but says nothing to me. As I go out at an ungainly scuttle he is behind me, almost beside me, and I see the other man, in a dark overcoat, step forward and look interrogatively past me. The boy lets out a little affirmative grunt, the man raises his hand to my lapel and speaks: ‘Excuse me, sir …’ but I am slipping past him, dreading to become involved in their insults and sarcasms. It is only a second later when I hear a car approaching and make for the opening in the bushes, beginning or meaning to cry out, that I slam full length to the ground, my arm is jerked behind my back, the boy is astride over me, and the man in the coat says: ‘We are police officers. You are under arrest.’

  My months in the Scrubs were a kind of desert in time: beyond their strict and ascetic routines they were featureless, and it is hard in retrospect to know what one did on any day or even in any month. I had had, of course, some experience of deserts, even a taste for them, and knew how to fall back, like a camel on its fat, on an inner reserve of fantasy and contemplation. I was a kind of ruminant there. Even so, it did not turn out in quite the way that—in the first numbed and degraded hours—I had imagined it would. Indeed, for several weeks the time rushed by, and it was really only in the final month, when freedom grew palpably close, that every minute took on a crabwise, cunctatory manner, came near to stalling altogether. I was haunted then by an image, a visionary impression of young spring greenery—birches and aspens—quickened by breeze but seen as if through frosted glass, blurred and silent. But by then a real atrocity had happened, something more than my freedom had been taken away from me.

  My early days there called on my resilience. It was like being pitched again into the Gothic and arcane world of school, learning again to absorb or deflect the vengeful energies which governed it. But a difference soon emerged, for while the schoolboys were bound to struggle for supremacy, and in doing so to align themselves with authority, thus becoming educated and socially orthodox at once, we in the prison were joined by our unorthodoxy: we were all social outcasts. The effects of this were often ambiguous. Many of the distinctions of the outside world survived: respect for class, disgust at certain violent or inhumane crimes, and the ostracising of those who had been convicted of them. But at the same time, since we were all criminals, a layer of social pretence had been removed. There could be no question of pretending one was not a lover of men; and since many of the in
mates of my wing were sex criminals—or ‘nonces’ in the nonce-word of the place—there was between us a curiously sustaining mood of sympathy and understanding. Of course guilt and shame were not magically annulled by this, but a goodish number of us—by no means all first offenders—had been caught for soliciting or conspiring to perform indecent acts, or for some intimacy (often fervently reciprocated) with underage boys. And many of the prisoners themselves, of course, were little more than children, old enough only to know the dictates of their hearts and to be sent to prison. The place was fuller than it ever had been with our people, as a direct result of the current brutal purges, and many were the tales of treachery and deceit, of bribed and lying witnesses, and false friends turning Queen’s Evidence, and going free. Such tales circulated constantly among us—and I added my own mite to this worn and speaking currency.

  My case, on account I suppose of my title, had been the subject of more talk than most—though nothing like as much as that of Lord Montagu, which shows all the signs of iniquity and hypocrisy evident in the handling of my arrest and prosecution, but wickedly aggravated by police corruption. In the prison my fellows felt sure that we two must be acquainted, and imagined us, I think, swopping young men’s phone numbers in the bar of the House of Lords. It was hard to convince them that not all peers—just as not all queers—know each other. Even so it appears that his case—and in its little way mine—are doing some good: even the decorous British, with their distrust of the life of instinct, their pleasure in conformity, are saying that enough is enough. Some of them, even, are saying that a man’s private life is his own affair, and that the law must be changed.

  My dim lavatorial notoriety became in the prison a kind of glamour, and helped me, as I looked about and learnt the faces and moods of the men, to make friends. Covert gestures of kindness saved me from trouble, or explained the punctilio of some futile but unavoidable chore. Matchboxes and half-cigarettes were slipped to me as we jostled together for Association. Warnings were given of the foibles of particular screws. And so the nonce-world, which became my world, closed about me, offered me its pitiful comforts, and began to reveal its depths—now murky, now surprisingly coralline and clear.

  My guide and companion in this was a young man I met after a week or so, a well set-up, rather tongue-tied little chap called Bill Hawkins. I had noticed him early on, and was not surprised to find that he spent a lot of time in the gym: he had a fine torso and packed shoulders. We played a few games of draughts together on my first Sunday evening. He clearly wanted to talk to me, but was uncertain how to go about it, so I drew him out. It transpired that he had been for over a year the lover of a teenage boy who trained at the sports club in Highbury where Bill was employed. They saw each other every day, and were blissfully happy, though Alec, as the boy was called, avoided his old friends and caused concern to his parents by his singular behaviour. Twice Bill and Alec went to Brighton and spent the weekend in a guesthouse owned by a friend of the sports club manager: if anyone asked questions they were to pretend to be brothers, for Bill himself was only eighteen, and Alec was a couple of years younger. After a while, though, Alec became more distant, and it soon became clear that he was involved with another man. Bill, in all the torments of first love, took precipitately to drink, and would make a nuisance of himself banging on the door of Alec’s parents’ house. Then foolish, intimate letters were written: and found, by the parents. They showed them to Alec’s new friend, an insurance salesman with a Riley whom they, in a fine hypocritical fashion, considered more suitable and respectable than poor, passionate, uncontrollable Bill. Together the salesman and the parents took the letters to the police. Bill, when questioned, did nothing to conceal his feelings. He was sent down for eighteen months with hard labour.

  Bill and I became great friends, and he, who was regarded as a kind of mascot by many of his fellows, and entrusted with secrets in the way that one might pour out one’s feelings to one’s dog or cat, knew a great deal about almost everybody, and seemed to feel keenly their various trials and tragedies. He pointed out to me a number of relationships between the men, confirmed my suspicious interpretations of odd gestures and habits, and revealed what was fairly a structure of submerged bonds and loyalties. There were half a dozen longstanding affairs going on, and various other men and boys were available if properly approached, or shared their favours with a satisfactory polygamy between two or three of their companions. In a way what had happened was a comic reversal of the circumstances which had put us all in there in the first place, with the prison authorities bringing us together, admitting our liaisons, and protecting us from the persecution of the outside world. The screws themselves were by no means indifferent, it transpired, and two of them at least were having sex on a daily ration with prisoners—though those prisoners were treated with the greatest suspicion by their fellows as being probable grasses. One of them was provided with lipstick and other maquillage by his officer, and his femininity, at least, was tolerated as it would not have been outside.

  Bill drew me out too, and I have a clear and rather touching picture of him sitting opposite me, his powerful, stocky young frame transforming the stiff grey flannel of his uniform so that he looks like a handsome soldier in some poor, East European army. He concentrates on me closely as I tell him about my childhood, or about life in the Sudan; and he is interested to hear about my house and my servants. I have promised him that when he is released, early next year, I will find him something to do: a job in a gymnasium, if possible, where his feeling for men and physical exercise can be fulfilled, rather than baulked and denied in some clerkly work. It was rather desperate to see him toiling for weeks over detective novels from the prison library: he doggy-paddled through books in a mood of miserable aspiration, but they were not his element.

  I took to the prison library with more duck-like promptness. It was a bizarre collection, made up almost entirely of gifts. Ordinary well-wishers and a number of voluntary bodies gave miscellaneous fiction and popular encyclopaedic works on technology and natural history; an outgoing governor had presented a collection of literary texts, some deriving from his own schooldays but also including French classical drama and the complete works of Wither in twenty-three volumes; and the Times Literary Supplement had charitably for some years sent to the prison all those books it felt no interest in reviewing, a body of work ranging from bacteriology to handbooks on historic trams.

  I picked on something which must have come from the ex-governor’s bequest: a schools edition of Pope, with notes by A. M. Niven, MA—one of those frustrating near-palindromes with which life is strewn. It had seen active service, and words such as ‘zeugma’ filled the margins in a round, childish script. I had not read Pope since I was a child myself, but I had a sudden keen yearning for his order and lucidity, which was connected in my mind with a vision of eighteenth-century England, and rides cut through woodland, and Polesden and all my literate country origins. The book contained the ‘Epistle to a Lady’ and various other shorter poems; of the longer works it gave only ‘The Rape of the Lock’ complete, and I fastened on this poem, and on Mr Niven’s account of how it had been designed to laugh two families out of a feud, as the flashings and gleams of a civilised world, where animosities were melted down and cast again as glittering artefacts. I determined to learn it all by heart, and put away twenty lines a day. The discipline, and the brilliance of the work itself, were a kind of invisible enrichment to me—though, lest I should feel like an actor learning a great part with no prospect of a performance, I had Bill hear my lines each time I mastered a new canto; and he seemed to enjoy it.

  Tempting though it was to retire into this inner world, there were always visits to look forward to—and to regret, for their cruel brevity and for the new firmness with which, afterwards, the door was shut, the walls of the cell confined one. The visitors carried their horror of the place about them and for a while after they had gone left one with an anguished vacancy of a kind I had ne
ver known before. All one’s little accommodations were laid bare.

  My first visit was from Taha—a ‘box-visit’, a reunion conducted through glass. I was wildly shaken to see him, so that I could not think of much to say. He smiled and was solicitous, and I looked at him closely, masochistically, for signs that he was ashamed of me. It was extraordinary how his confidence was undimmed: he spoke very quietly, so as not to be overheard by the guards or the other prisoners, and told me a score of sweet, inconsequential things. The second time he came, a few weeks later, we were allowed to sit at a table together: he had his little boy with him now, who seemed very excited at being allowed into a prison but frightened too of being left behind. Taha told him to hang on tight to my hand, and as he himself was holding my other hand we sat linked in a triangle, as if conducting a seance. The day before had been Taha’s birthday—and of course I had nothing to give him. He was forty-four! I can honestly say that he was no less beautiful to me than he had been when I saw him first, twenty-eight years ago. His brow was higher, his face scored with lines that had been mere charcoal strokes on the boy’s velvety brow and cheeks. His eyes, though, had deepened their immensity of melancholy and laughter, and his exquisite hands too were lined and shiny as old leather, as if he had done far more than merely polishing my shoes and silver.

  That night I lay long awake, caught up again, with a vividness of recall, in the life we had spent together. Despite a thousand differences it was like a marriage, a great, chaste bond of love and tact—which made it all the odder that he had really married and become a father. I was gripped again by my mood of awful falseness and despair on his wedding day, when I gave him away into that little house in North Kensington and into a world more unknown and inaccessible than the Nuba Hills where I had found him first. Since then I have seen this period simply as a test, challenging our bond only to affirm it again. The terms were different, his independence, as each evening he went off on the Central Line, took a concrete, dignified form; but his loyalty was unaltered. Perhaps his distancing even endeared him to me more, and showed me afresh a devotion to which we had both become over-accustomed.

 
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