1998 the spell, p.5
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       1998 - The Spell, p.5

           Alan Hollinghurst

  They started meeting in the afternoons at Robin’s flat. Justin lived with a boyfriend in Hammersmith, and arrived about 2.30 by taxi. The boyfriend worked for the pensions fund of a government department — Robin thought one day Justin said the Home Office, another the Foreign Office. Various facts came out in the conversations after sex, when Robin made strong coffee for himself and a precocious gin and tonic for his visitor: Justin had sometimes worked as an actor; he was thirty-four; he had an unusually old father, in his nineties, who was a manufacturer; he had been with his boyfriend for a year and a half, he loved him but was bored with him physically. Robin felt no guilt or hostility towards this other man, just a distant curiosity. He said nothing about having once been married, and having a grown-up son; but after a shamed little unseen pantomime of hiding Simon’s photo in a drawer he left it on the bedside table, and Justin seemed gratified by its presence. Robin got the feeling that duplicity was a constant part of Justin’s life.

  He found him charming and funny, with a line in absurdity that he hadn’t expected. By the time of his third visit and his second gin and tonic they were grinning at one of his stories and holding each other’s gaze above a sudden deepening of intimacy which seemed to Robin both dangerous and possible. When Justin strolled and sprawled around the flat, naked or in his boxer shorts, he created a half-pleasant mood of lazy confinement. Robin watched him with a new alertness to his own four small white rooms, as if given a fresh chance to judge their effect. But Justin noticed nothing, and so made all the considered details and improvements seem rather negligible -Robin wondered if Simon himself had ever really appreciated them.

  At moments the sense of sacrilege was very strong — but then the point perhaps was that the stranger knew nothing of the man whose place he was taking: he had no obligation towards him. Robin sobbed when he told him of his death, but the loose hug that followed, the wiping of a cheek with a rough thumb, moved in ten seconds into sex — Robin heard his own tearful breaths modulate helplessly into gasps as Justin’s flickering mouth got to work. He stroked and clutched at his thick golden hair — and how it all came back, the life of love and excitement he had once thought of as his right and his inevitable future.

  In theory the afternoon arrangement was ideal for him, since it left the mornings free for visits to the site and he could work on through the lunch-hour, while the builders sat out under the portico, with their sandwiches and cigarettes, and their incurious air of owning the place. Then he could be home in twenty minutes, and after his two or three hours with Justin the early evening opened out with its usual patterns of exercise, and unusual invitations from old friends who were clearly still making him a priority. Robin quickly saw that his preoccupied manner and sad lack of interest in other men were indistinguishable from the symptoms of contained English mourning. At times he wondered why he wasn’t mourning more.

  But after a couple of weeks the romantic secrecy and restriction were themselves becoming painful. The purposeful mornings were thrown askew by the intensity of looking forward to the afternoons. He had to be told things twice, he was in a daze which again might be put down to grief, he got behind with his work while he watched the clock like a schoolboy. It was as if he saw through the plans he was studying to something uncontrolled and turbulent beneath. Justin crowded his thoughts, aroused him and slightly irritated him by having so complete and monotonous a hold on his imagination: he appeared to him both as a devouringly passive lover and as a kind of cock-teaser, a grown-up school tart, with his refusal to be touched, even to be seen, before 2.30 in the afternoon. Robin wore out his most intimate images of him by turning them over so persistently in his mind.

  And then the whole movement of withdrawal, around five o’clock, the friendly but businesslike silence in which they got dressed, the new note of anxiety when Justin checked his watch…and the first seconds of being alone again after the door had shut, Robin wandering sightlessly from bed to desk to sink with the weak smile, tender, rueful and shocked, of a feeling suddenly deprived of its object. The dusks grew longer and lonelier day by day as his feeling deepened. He walked out again to the gym and in the softening light, the slowly precipitating pinks and blues of a lover’s evening, he saw he was in a trap. The fact of having Justin was undermined by the fact of not having him; he needed nights with him, not hours. The old self that Justin had reawakened couldn’t be satisfied by the arrangement he had imposed.

  Robin had always been, in his well-mannered way, an initiator. He didn’t have the predatory disregard for the other person that some of his friends had, but he was used to creating a mood and exploiting a possibility. He thought he had never been resisted by anyone worth having. If he had felt trapped before, in the years of his marriage, and in the early restless days with Simon, he had shown a proud instinct for survival and escape. He found he was thought of as slightly dangerous, the handsome, athletic young architect, whose father was Sheriff of the county, who had a son at a good prep-school, but who was also known to a more secret elite in the underground clubs of early-eighties London. So it was a new experience, like the troubling physical changes of middle age — the sudden hair-loss, the slowing sex-drive, the half-doubted dulling of his hearing — to find himself in the submissive position of a mistress, the yearning but unacknowledgeable creature of the afternoons.

  Worst of all were the weekends, the three whole days from Friday lunch-time to Monday lunch-time, the enforced or at least accepted silence…It was a silence with an irresistible sense of crisis to it, as if everything must be over between two lovers who left each other alone for so long. Robin went down to Litton Gambril, where the early summer was pushing on senselessly without him, and where he could invent useful jobs for himself, get the Rayburn going and cook an elaborate meal out of the garden and eat it with the sorry haste of the newly widowed. The cottage was solid and stubborn and as he had left it; it wouldn’t come to life. He had a feeling he had made a mistake, and was acting with a parody of purpose. He lay on his customary side of the huge old farmhouse bed and swept out an arm over the cool double vacancy. He felt for everything he’d lost in Simon, and everything he needed in Justin, snivelling and exciting himself at the same time, till he felt quite freakish with pitiful and possessive emotions, and brought himself off so as to be able to sleep.

  One Saturday lunch-time he drank a bottle of Gilbey’s with the Halls and rang Justin’s number when he got back, in a mood of truculent reasonableness. “Let’s cut the crap,” he said, as he span the phone-dial through the eleven laborious numbers, which seemed in their old-fashioned way to be giving him time to think twice about the call. After a couple of rings a pleasant unfamiliar voice recited the last seven digits back to him, ending on a little interrogative rise. It was a tone of such easy and unsuspecting efficiency that Robin hesitated, and when after a few seconds Alex said “Hello,” the tone hardening but still tolerant, he hung up. He sat hunched forward on the sofa in the stillness of the country afternoon. Up in London a young man he had never seen would be putting down the receiver with a shrug and speaking innocently to the man they shared; Robin knew he was house-proud, and pictured him in an apron. He found a note of reproach in that happy mechanical answering of the phone, in the enviable pleasant boredom of their affair. Then he got to his feet with a sullen longing to break it up, which he drunkenly allowed to become a plan.

  Back in town he was in a mood of fatalistic excitement that was new to him. He thought he must at least see his rival and drove over early on the Monday morning to the quiet Victorian street where the two of them were living. He slipped into a space almost opposite the house, and sat looking at it, professionally adjudicating the commonplace glazing and pointless panels of terracotta tiles so as to subdue his sense of its special aura and of the bulging secret it sheltered. He saw an upstairs curtain pulled open by a shirt-sleeved arm, and then tugged half-back again, as if after a wincing protest. It was an ordinary redbrick terrace house, made remotely pretentious by arts
-and-crafts details. Once it would have had a maid and children in it. Robin wondered how Alex and Justin lived in it, what they had done with it.

  His view of the front door was interrupted by a battered yellow Escort dawdling past in search of a parking-space. The driver was a flat-faced young black with a gold cross ear-ring which glinted as he craned round. Seeing Robin in his car he mouthed a question as to whether he was about to leave, and when Robin shook his head gave him an incoherent grin, which seemed to have some kind of sex-sympathy in it. He stopped a short way ahead, in the middle of the road, and waited. It was the half-hour of going to work and to school. All along the street goodbyes were being shouted down hallways or front doors double-locked for the silent daytime. Robin started to feel conspicuous as children were hurried past. He looked carelessly at the black driver, who he thought might be an electrician or painter, and saw him angle the rear-view mirror so as to check his hair in it, and ogle his own eyes and teeth as if for crumbs of sleep or breakfast. He saw him squirt a little aerosol into his mouth. He missed the opening of the door opposite, but turned at the knock of its shutting and the rattle of the letter-flap. A pale young man in a grey suit came out on to the road; he was so tall that he seemed almost to trip over the flimsy front gate. Robin thought there was something rather 1890s in the long profile and the almost black swept-back hair; he was more beautiful than Justin had led him to expect. At the same time he thought brutishly of the sex-life he had with Justin and couldn’t imagine how this man could ever have satisfied him. He saw him stoop to unlock a vulnerable old soft-top Mercedes, and as he drove off, with a look as if surprised and embarrassed by the competitive noise he was producing, the driver of the Escort backed up alertly and into the space he had left.

  So that was it. He had seen his lover’s partner in the barely thinking routine of his workday morning; and it was better to see and to know than to be haunted by imaginings. He felt it had been worth it. And it was really only then that it occurred to him that he might see Justin now himself: he could be late at Kew and have a fierce half-hour with him first, in the musty marital bed, or over the kitchen table, shaking the breakfast things on to the floor. At the moment he loved the idea of sex that smashed things up. Even so, he waited. He was frightened of Justin.

  A minute later he heard the remote trilling of a phone, and glancing across the road saw the black guy nodding into a mobile and then poking its little aerial back in before getting out of the car, reaching in for a knapsack, slamming the door shut. He was broad and muscular, with curvy legs in ripped old jeans; he strolled confidently round the car, through Justin and Alex’s flimsy front gate, and in at the door, which opened already as he approached. Robin saw a flash of white bathrobe on a welcoming arm before the door closed. He sat with his mouth open, his lips hard and curled, as if about to be sick. Upstairs in the bedroom’s bay-window the half-open curtain was tugged carelessly shut.


  Alex gets nicer and nicer when he’s drunk,” said Justin. “Don’t you, darling?”

  Alex gave a slow frowning nod of agreement and when Danny laughed slid a smile at him and held his eye for a second. “Some of us do,” he said.

  Justin noticed the contact and then took in Robin’s steady gaze across the table, the turned-down smile that said that he usually indulged him but tonight might side with the others. “I’m an angel when I’m drunk,” said Justin.

  It was the end of a long rich dinner, Danny clearing the dishes in the rational way of a trained waiter, leaving Justin with his spoiled helping of now cold pudding, which he eyed with baffled alarm, like an emblem of a life he couldn’t recall ordering. “You can take my spotted dick, darling,” he said; at which Alex alone laughed, out of a remembered habit.

  “Anyone for coffee?” said Robin loudly. “Or homegrown borage tea…?”

  “Come and sit on my knee,” said Justin, pawing vaguely at Danny’s passing leg.

  “I’m a bit busy at the moment, Justin. Doing the clearing up.”

  Justin mulled this over for a moment. “Well it’s awfully good of you to do that,” he said.

  Alex reached across to top up people’s water-glasses. “Have you got Justin to do any housework or things like that yet?” he asked Robin.

  “Oh no,” said Robin hastily. “I sometimes wonder if he’d like to. He watches me doing housework with what seems to be genuine interest, but I think without any real confidence that he could ever learn to do it himself.”

  Justin smiled past them forgivingly. He didn’t know at the time why he had invited Alex down, except out of restlessness and a loose desire for trouble. But it was satisfactory to bring the two main men in his life together, and watch them politely squaring up and backing off, Alex with his Scottish dryness and hot hurt feelings, Robin with his well-bred charm and hints of sexual ruthlessness. He liked the power he had in knowing these two men as he did, the faces under their faces that were only visible in the light of their desire for him. There was a surplus of power, with its delicious tendency to corrupt. He looked at Danny, stooping to stack the dishwasher, the loose singlet hanging off his lean young shoulders. “Hey-ho,” he said, lifting up his glass. “Country life.” “Country life,” said Robin, taking it defiantly as a toast; while Alex looked on with the old anxiety at Justin’s menacing changes of tack and private ironies.

  “There’s the most marvellous pig in the village,” Justin said to him. “I must take you to see it. It’s probably the most interesting thing in the village. It’s an enormous great big pig.”


  “Of course. You’ve seen it, haven’t you, Danny?”

  “I’m too busy for that sort of thing” remained Danny’s line, and Justin saw him glow when it drew a mild laugh. Well of course the other two were going to look after the boy.

  “We could go and see it now, but it’s probably got its pyjamas on,” Justin said, as if dealing with a very young person indeed.

  “Let’s just stay here,” said Robin quietly.

  But Justin got up anyway, and wandered out through the open back door to have a pee under the remote supervision of the stars.

  It was a night blacker and more brilliant than any you ever got in London, even up on the Heath; and there there were warmer, moving shadows. Justin shivered, in the faint chill of nearly midnight. He longed for crowds and the purposeful confusion of the city; he wanted shops where you could get what you wanted, and deafening bars so full of men seeking pleasure and oblivion that you could hardly move through them. It was deadly still here, apart from the dark chattering of the stream. A bat or something flickered overhead. He thought there were the great high times, the moments of initiation, new men, new excitements; and then there was all the rest. He turned back towards the lighted door. Only candlelight, but a subtle glare across grass and path. He thought resentfully of how this wasn’t his house; it had been patched and roofed and furnished to please or tame another partner.

  His new thing of fancying Danny was rather the revelation of this evening, and he had let his imagination run all over him while his two lovers trailed through their protracted routine of shared sarcasms about himself. He still found it uncomfortable that his boyfriend had a son, as though it showed a weakness of character in him. Justin hated weakness of character. He needed his lovers to be as steady in the world as they were in their devotion to him. He found himself apologising that Robin was not a more famous or original architect. And Danny himself was rudderless, doing bits of work here and there, sharing a house that smelt of smoke and semen with various other young pill-poppers and no-hopers; and yet always giving off an irritating sense that he knew where he was going. But tonight the freshness of him was abruptly arousing, the blue-veined upper arms, the fat sulky mouth with its challenge to make it smile and the little blond imperial under it, and the crotch thing, of course, the packet, which was the first and final arbiter with Justin, and qualified and overrode all other feelings and judgements. “Like father, like
son,” he said, with evident if uncertain meaning, as he thumped back into his seat.

  “Now who wants to play Scrabble?” said Robin. He swept the crumbs from the table in front of him and smiled irresponsibly.

  Alex looked ready to play, but ready too for Justin to say, “You lot have a game. I’m far too dyslexic tonight.” In fact he could read and write perfectly well, even though certain words were liable to slippage: shopfitter, for instance, he always saw as shoplifter, and topics as optics, and betrothal as brothel. Last week, in a glance at one of Robin’s plans, he had seen the words MASTER BOREDOM.

  “I’m not playing,” said Danny, with anxious firmness, and wiped the draining-board and plugged in the kettle.

  Justin said, “Why don’t we play Alex’s Encyclopaedia game? Alex invented it, it’s marvellous.”

  “Okay,” said Robin, in a tone of fair-mindedness tinged with pique that his own game had not been preferred. “What is it?”

  Justin bowed his head to Alex, who gave a tentative explanation of the rules. “It’s based on the idea of a multi-volume dictionary, like the OED or something. You have to make up the names of the volumes, like “Aardvark to Bagel,” that sort of thing. Except that they have to describe the other people you’re playing with. Then they’re all read out, and you have to guess who they are. It’s not a game anyone can win, it’s just a bit of fun.”

  “I’m not sure about that,” Justin said, and watched Robin’s rapid competitive assessment of the idea.

  “You could get two points if you guess right,” Robin said, “and one point if you wrote the definition.”

  “I suppose so,” said Alex.

  “Actually it’s not fair on Alex,” Danny said, “as he only really knows Justin.”

  Justin said, “It doesn’t matter, because he’ll be nice about everybody.”

  Robin went to a drawer for scrap paper and a handful of chewed pencils and biros, and picked up a fine Rotring pen for himself. Alex said, “Okay, so you can only go two letters ahead. You can have “Awkward to Cuddle,” say, but not…”

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