1998 the spell, p.4
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       1998 - The Spell, p.4

           Alan Hollinghurst

  Alex lay in the bath with his hair sleeked back and his knees sticking out of the water. Justin had been in first, and the floor was wet, and there were arcs of scattered talcum-powder across it. There hadn’t been time for the tank to reheat properly, and Alex played with himself listlessly, and more for warmth than excitement. His thoughts ran back and forth between this evening and last year, with a choking sense of mystery, of some missed briefing, an explanation he had failed to understand and which would never be repeated. He knew he’d been told, but he couldn’t remember for the life of him why Justin wasn’t still his boyfriend. He looked across heavy-heartedly at the mingled soaps and cosmetics crowded round the basin, the muddle of crimson bath-towels, Robin’s running-shorts and vest kicked into a thoughtless ruck with Justin’s cast-off shorts, as if acting out their owners’ lusts without them. Above his rising and falling navel his sponge grounded itself and floated free, grounded and floated. He pulled himself up and reached out to the shelf for Justin’s favourite cologne, the squat decanter of Bulgari, and sprayed it upwards. When he leant into the costly mist it was instantly two years ago; and when he opened his eyes, his hopeless uncorrected feelings seemed to tingle around him in the scented air.

  Justin was sleeping, or perhaps just sulking, in their room; Alex took his time dressing and perfecting himself, stupidly afraid of being alone with his host; he knew already that Robin cooked with a concentration that made talk artificial and discontinuous. He stooped downstairs, and wandered towards the kitchen and the noise of the opera, which he thought would be a cover for his discomfort; perhaps they could just drink and listen to it, and it would block out the roughly jealous appetite-killing sexual imaginings which the cottage seemed to force on him. Then amongst the music he heard a voice speaking, rapid and casual, not Robin’s cultured baritone, which interrupted it with the stately answer “Salmon,” but a young man’s classless indifferent tenor. “I need a bath,” he said.

  Alex paused before the presence of a further guest, a further fact which no one had thought worth mentioning to him: it rattled him, though a moment later he welcomed the idea of a fourth person who might ease the insoluble tensions of the other three. He heard his name with a start. “Alex is in there, I think,” Robin said.

  “Oh, right…Who’s that?”

  “Justin’s ex.”

  A hesitation. “Is he cute?”


  “Do you think he wants his back scrubbed?”

  The noise of Robin scraping something quickly from a bowl with a fork or spoon. “I’m sure he’s longing for it. Though I’m not sure it’s you he wants to do it. No…no…he’s perfectly all right. About nine feet tall. He’s rather like a ghost—”

  At which point Alex ducked into the room with a dim generalised exclamation of pleasure — the bath, the smell of food, the prospect of a drink, simply being there.

  Across the kitchen, and framed this time by the thickening dusk beyond the back door, the two figures were standing, Robin with his right hand on the neck of the young man, in what Alex thought of as a gesture of special admiring tenderness. It wasn’t what he’d expected; and Robin at once dropped his arm, while the stranger looked at Alex with raised eyebrows, as if also awaiting an explanation. Robin should have said something, but he let the social pause deepen, while Alex stepped forward, glancing at the newcomer, who seemed so at ease here, himself an ex perhaps, who shared with Robin certain unforgotten habits and tones; young though, twenty-two or three, with a cropped fuzz, and a pointed blond tuft under his lower lip and a black T-shirt tight on his lean figure. His mouth was plump, down-turned, sleepy, vaguely disdainful; but a smile woke up in it and you changed your mind. He moved towards Alex and squeezed his upper arm with a sweet spivvish suddenness of friendship. “I’m Dan,” he said, tipping his head oddly towards Robin. “He’s my dad.”

  Alex looked at him again, to confirm and explore this undreamt-of fact.


  When Simon was very ill they had stopped making love, though much that passed between them seemed to carry the promise or the memory of sex. Robin had lain for night after night beside his friend, and fallen asleep with a hand laid lightly on his shoulder or thigh, in a gesture both distant and reassuring. He changed the sheets, and supervised the medication, and did everything for Simon, often complaining about the trouble and disturbance, as if he thought this was only a temporary problem. He treated him with the practical obtuseness of the healthy.

  Simon was happiest in Dorset, he enjoyed the sheltered, sun-struck days in the cottage garden, and if there was a threatening breeze would sit in the greenhouse, with its sunken tank and humid unseasonal warmth, and read and doze like some doddery old expat. He liked the thick country darkness, which to Robin seemed newly sepulchral after the leaking glare and animation of London nights. Robin watched him slip over a threshold, into the tapering perspectives of fatal illness, in which all but the mildest pleasures lay in the past. In a terrifying dream he was himself the dying man, a mere consciousness gazing out from the eyes of a paralysed body, unable to call to the friends who hurried past the open doorway, on their way to tennis and dinner and sex. Occasionally a figure would stop and look in, with the resolve of someone testing their own capacity for suffering.

  Robin was working that spring on a Queen Anne villa at Kew, and for much of the week he made his office in the little flat at Clapham, driving out each morning to watch the rotten beams come down, the riverward portico made safe, and then back at tea-time to Simon and rooms which seemed for the first few minutes peculiarly white and narrow. It was the sort of job he loved, the rescue of a house from near ruin, with a formal garden that could still be guessed at behind high red walls; the roof was made good, the cellar dried and sealed, a rainy week transformed by ancient colours scraped up bright on wood and stucco. But as the months went on, and the documents and photographs accumulated, he felt the countervailing force of the other record, the dipping graph of Simon’s strength, with its comfortless statistics. It was the darker half-hidden face of the ambiguous April days, success threaded in all the way with defeat.

  For his last week Simon was in hospital, it was that stage already, when help and reassurance were most necessary and most futile. Robin shared the evening visits, or vigils, with Simon’s father and sister; then found his days troubled by a horrible anxious liveliness. He came back to the flat at lunch-time, so as to be on the move, then went out to run on the Common and exercised under the trees with his hand-weights. The horse-chestnuts were already leafing, the bushes bright green on black; there was a spring mood, casual but purposeful, and Robin envied the relief in the faces of other solitary joggers and unhurried couples.

  One mild cloudy day he was turning home along the Common’s edge and went into a newsagent’s to buy a drink. He had to wait at the counter with a queue of punters handing in lottery slips, and found himself looking with unconscious intimacy at the man in front of him, who was half in profile to him, superstitiously checking the fifteen boards he had marked. It was like the impersonal closeness of a crowded tube train, which none the less fosters secret desires and lurches of excitement. Still warm and impatient from running, but slowed and held by the inertia of the crammed little shop, with its lurid video posters, its insulting birthday-cards, its amazingly compendious top shelf of thickly overlapping pornography, Robin had closed his fastidious inner eye, his architect’s eye; and now it opened again, in the unexpected presence of something beautiful among so much unregulated vulgarity.

  In those queer, lulled seconds he looked more and more intently at the younger man’s glossy blond hair and full lips parted in vaguely unintelligent concentration. There was some- thing sleek and unreliable about him. Robin felt a kind of kinship with him, as with his own self of fifteen years or so before, habituated to sex and admiration. He wanted to hear him speak, to see if the generally public-school impression was accurate, but he handed over his chits and his foolish £15 without a
word. Robin got himself beside him at the counter, almost as if they were together, and waited for him to receive his tickets, holding up his chilled bottle eagerly.

  Out in the street whim thickened into necessity, goaded by the younger man’s complete unawareness of him, as if he had become a wraith like his dying lover, when he wasn’t, he was forty-six and big and fit and handsomely unshaven. He followed him back the way he had come, taking in, with a hushed involuntary groan, the heavily elegant backside, in tight and frayed old jeans, with one of the pockets half ripped off, as if by the failed flying tackle of an admirer. He felt his energies more and more focused and absorbed, and he saw that of course it was a long-obscured need of his own that was clarifying itself in the solid sauntering figure twenty yards ahead.

  They went on, across the flat open Common, Robin remembering to look about him as if unconcerned with the lottery addict and trailing him by pure coincidence. They passed knots of schoolboys, a trampled goalmouth. He saw their course across a plan or map. An expert follower would have moved from tree to tree, or taken tangential paths that still kept his object inescapably in view. But Robin didn’t care, in fact he wanted to be seen. They approached and passed a high graffiti-blitzed bandstand, beyond which was a low wooden building, like a broken-down cricket-pavilion, with a boarded-up stall that still advertised Teas and Ice Cream. The blond was briefly out of view behind it, and when Robin came round the corner he was nowhere to be seen.

  He saw angled wicker fences that screened the entry to public toilets, the Ladies’ was closed up with barbed wire, but from the Men’s, by some benign perseverance or dreamlike oversight, the hiss of the flush was heard, and the metal door swung open to the bright protesting arpeggio of an old spring.

  Twelve minutes later, jogging back past walkers who knew nothing of what he had just done, boys’ shouts and football whistles on the breeze, an oblivious bounce in his stride, as if powered by some forbidden drug, the thrill of a secret transgression warming him to a blush that the innocent would put down to the wholesome effort of running…Of course someone saying couldn’t he have waited? But there was no choice, just as there was no excuse. And the thrilling squalor of it, the blond’s expressionless hunger, swallowing and swallowing on Robin’s slippery, kicking cock, then crouched forward over the filthy bowl, hands clasped round the down-pipe, the unlockable door swinging open behind them.

  Robin should have showered, but he made do with a cold squirt of Escape under each arm, pulled on his jeans over his damp jockstrap and drove to Kew with aggressive speed, half guilty, half exultant. All afternoon, among the reliable old builders and the masked and overalled death-watch-beetle men, he had the smell of the stranger’s moist arse and sweet talc fading on his beard and fingertips. By the time he drew in to the hospital car-park it had gone.

  Simon made a few widely spaced and incoherent remarks, and smiled with an apparent bitterness that was perhaps only an effect of his gauntness and the recurrence of half-suppressed pain. Robin dreaded any irony about his own good health; he was glad that Simon was dying “well,” that is to say under sufficient sedation for the horrors of the grave to have masked their faces.

  The following lunch-time he went straight to the pavilion, and did his exercises alongside the schoolboys’ soccer pitch, almost as if he was waiting to go on. He kept the screened entrance casually in view. He liked the building’s reminiscence of his own teens and their successes — smells of linseed and creosote and changing-room staleness. He had a long wait, running off and back on an improvised course between invisible markers, but the hour raced forwards for him, lost in the image of the nameless man. Robin loved the dull glow and the fleshiness of him, which seemed in some barely acceptable way a recompense for what had happened to Simon. It was only lust, of course — he must remember that; he hadn’t even heard the man speak, beyond a grunted disdainful “Yeah” when he swiped a hand down his neck and whispered “Okay?” before he left. But it was electric lust, nothing sane or resistible. The shadowed ground among the trees was brightened by his floating image, like the dazzle inadvertently thrown off by a moving windscreen or an opened window. A wide pale shoulder, the grey-gold dusk of hair between his legs, unrelenting blue eyes, glimpses and gleams in the air of a spring day. When the man at last appeared Robin saw him with a shock of recognition — he had been remembering someone so different.

  That night Simon said to him, “You look well,” and took his hand with a confused stare, proud and doubting. To Robin there seemed something clairvoyant about him; Simon knew him best of all, it was absurd to suppose that he wouldn’t know everything,he had done. Robin felt he had been left to decide, by some punishing honesty system, whether he had been accused or absolved. He said, “I love you,” which he had never done before in the presence of the younger sister and the admittedly deaf father. In the early hours of the morning Simon died.

  Robin took it calmly, he acknowledged the facts with a stoicism that was part of his natural pride, and was also a Woodfield thing: he knew he had been given an occasion to behave well, as well as Simon had died. And there was a certain resilience too that came from his still unnegotiated standing with the family. In the event neither he nor the father seemed to know which of them had lost more, and which deserved the keener, the more unconditional, condolences.

  By late morning an almost physical discomfort had set in -faint nausea, a distracted clumsiness, panicky breathlessness. The stoically observed sequence in the hospital, the emphatic last breath and the following silence, the subtle relaxation and emptying of the face, the timid but steady squeaking of the nurse’s shoes on the linoleum, and the dark confirming descent of the Indian doctor, came back to him with the clarity of something belatedly understood. He barged around the flat, picking things up and throwing them down, appalled by their irrelevance or their crude pathos. His thoughts were unpleasantly sexual, he pictured Simon as he had been ten years ago, with his fat Jewish cock always thickening up and needing work; there was something suspect in thinking of his cock as Jewish, as if it was a little person; he imagined it now, cold and bloodless between the wasted thighs.

  He went into the bedroom, got undressed, and then pulled on his singlet and running-shorts with tense excitement. He remembered the day twenty years before when his grandmother had died at her flat in the Boltons and he had gone out as if in a trance to one of the Earl’s Court pubs and picked up a man in a leather cap and fucked him all afternoon.

  When he hit the street he found a fine clinging rain was in the air. It was comforting, and intimate, like some barely palpable form of therapy; it seemed to define his warm agitated body within its weightless cool. He saw the trees of the Common at the end of the street, and ran without slowing across two streams of edging and accelerating traffic to reach them. He wasn’t jogging exactly, it was faster than that. When the wooden shack came into view, with its boarded-up windows and offers of Refreshments, there was already something habitual about it, that filled Robin with relief and shame. He ran straight into the Gents, which was empty, and stood panting against the wall, silvered with drizzle.

  But by three o’clock no one had come in, except a blind man with a stick and a dog, like a figure in a comic sketch, and some noisy kids in football studs who glanced back at him apprehensively as he withdrew into the cubicle. He leant against the door to keep it shut and cried silent tears of grief and humiliation.

  The next time he saw the blond was a week later, in the West End, among the crowding shoppers in Long Acre. He was thinking of him, and there was a blurred half-second of adjustment as the remembered features dissolved into the real ones: the shock of his presence was sweetly subdued by Robin’s sense that he had been there, on the floating gauze of his imagination, all along. He had the discernible aura of an idea made flesh. The clothes were different, he seemed somehow in disguise, but Robin smiled, to show he knew his secret, as the blond passed by, with a quick unrecognising stare.

  He could hardly believe that
the moment had come already, and gone; and after a few seconds of bumping into people he turned back. It was the stare that wounded and provoked him, he would have hated it in anyone else, and was already making peculiar allowances for it: the man was terribly short-sighted, or was himself perhaps lost in grief; or it was just an unamusing game. He stood alongside him at the window of an expensive men’s shop, where the stare was directed with more affectionate concern at the mixture of oddly cut suits and sporty clubwear in black, orange and lime-green. The shadows of the two men who had twice had fierce speechless sex together fell vaguely across the stilted little tableau of clothes and accessories, the pinned baize, the bodiless folds of trouser-legs and shirt-sleeves. There was a faint reflection in the wall of glass, too pale and inconstant to let them see each other steadily. Robin’s eyes milled over the baffling price-tickets. He started to feel that like an agent making contact he should produce a pre-arranged phrase, something gnomic but commonplace. He had never felt so constrained. He found he was gripping the other man’s shoulder and saying quite loudly, “I’ve got to see you again.”

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