1998 the spell, p.6
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       1998 - The Spell, p.6
 

           Alan Hollinghurst

  “But not “Back to Front,”” said Justin. “Or “Bad to Worse.””

  “Oh, I get…” said Danny.

  Robin looked round at them all. “Presumably one also does oneself?” And then smiled secretively.

  Justin watched them as they pondered and scribbled and crossed things out. Occasionally one of them would catch the eye of another. Alex coloured slightly when Danny caught him looking at him; but Robin held Danny’s gaze for several seconds and then looked away impassively — it was the bridge training that made even a game of Scrabble so steely, and filled Justin with an urge to cheat or deliberately misunderstand the rules. Danny frowned touchingly over his piece of paper, and when he had written something down looked at it sideways to judge the effect. Robin was already tearing his paper into separate strips, while Alex sighed and smiled weakly, and wrote nothing down at all, as if stumped by politeness and anxious responsibility for the game.

  When they were all ready they put their efforts into a bowl, and Robin drew a grid to record the marks according to his own system. Justin felt confident of winning, and knew the mixture of vanity and acuity required. He wasn’t sure how the Woodfields would play; as it happened the first two entries read out, “Devoted to Drink” and “Architect to Aristos,” were by Danny, and showed a rather bald approach. Justin took a chance on “Homage to Industry” being a gibe at himself, and had no doubts about “Beautiful to Behold,” since he had written it, though Alex incautiously said he thought it referred to Danny. Overall Alex’s contributions were embarrassingly candid: “Irresistible to Justin” (Robin), “Slow to Understand” (himself) and “Hard to Improve (on”), which sweetly turned out to allude to Justin; “Born to Disco” presumably encapsulated the one thing he had yet found out for sure about Danny. He looked a little crestfallen at Danny’s tepid compliment, “Interesting to Know,” and thought that “Far to Go” must be about himself (it was Danny’s lonely self-description); it chimed somehow with Robin’s blandly distant attempt at Alex, “Ready to Travel.”

  The mischief was short-lived but left them all feeling tender and stupid. They sat for a while picking through the discarded papers, wondering what Justin had been getting at with his palm-reader’s “Prelude to Romance” (for Danny) and his inscrutable “Made to Measure” (for Alex). Robin did a recount of the scores, because Justin had won by such a large margin, while he had tied annoyingly with Alex. “I thought my “Pillar to Post” was rather good,” he said. He doodled heavily over the grid, until it looked like the plan of a herb-garden.

  “That’s enough games,” said Danny, and stood up to do something.

  “Have you got a boyfriend at the moment, darling?” asked Justin.

  Danny turned and looked at him, with hands on hips. “I’ve got quite enough trouble with my dad’s boyfriend, without getting one of my own, thanks very much,” he said; though as he came past he leant over Justin and gave him a squeeze, hand into shirt-front — and Justin thought he had a nice cosy way with him after all, with his unplanned, almost meaningless little clinches. He reached up to him as he slipped away, and again caught something more than mere noticing on Alex’s face, an involuntary interest, a protesting glance. He said,

  “Alex would make you a super boyfriend.”

  “I’m sure he would,” said Danny, breezily but not impolitely.

  “You’re like me, darling, you need someone older to look after you. I know Alex is rather shy and sensitive, but he’s got plenty of money and a comfortable house and a sports car -and in bed…well—”

  “Please!” murmured Alex.

  “It’s the leverage he gets with those long legs…”

  There was a knock at the door-frame. “Am I interrupting?” A broad-faced young man with slicked-back dark hair came hesitantly out of the night. He wore painter’s dungarees over a blue T-shirt, with the bib unbuttoned on one side, and scruffy old gym-shoes. The effect was authentic, but you felt he was exploiting it. “I’m just on my way to my mum’s,” he said, with the distinctive vowels of the place.

  “Come in, Terry,” said Robin; and Danny ambled over to him and squeezed his arm.

  “Have a drink, Terry,” said Justin gruffly. And so a chair was found for him and a glass, and the bottles were lifted to the light and tilted to see if any wine was left.

  “I’m surprised you’re not busy on a Saturday night,” said Robin, in what seemed to Justin an equivocal way. Terry was a local factotum and Romeo, with a family interest in the Broad Down caravan park, a famous eyesore on the other side of Bridport, as well as a vaguer association with the pretentious Bride Mill Hotel.

  “I’ve been doing some work for Bernie Barton,” said Terry. “Papering his back room.”

  “Do you mean PC Barton Burton?” Justin enquired.

  Terry was uneasy with Justin’s humour, and said merely, “Whatever you say,” and grinned at the others for solidarity.

  “Been over to the Mill lately?” asked Robin, in a tone that irritated Justin. “How are the prices doing? Still £35 for fish and chips?”

  “Something like that,” said Terry. “Cheers” — taking a cautious drink and then laughing retrospectively. “Or it may have gone up.”

  What was annoying was the slightly roguish joviality, the way Robin’s own vowels became ambiguous, half-rusticated, a sort of verbal slouch as if to disclaim their differences in age and class. He should be what he is, thought Justin, who was not too drunk to know that his annoyance was sharpened by guilt. The present impromptu occasion was a test for Terry as much as himself. He didn’t know how practised Terry would be at deceit, and it was perhaps his own snobbery to assume that a Londoner would do better at concealing a transaction like theirs. He was far cheaper than the London boys too, and Justin believed in general that what you paid more for must be better. He should have given him a larger tip. Glancing at him now, with his forearms and broad brow already pinky-brown from the sun, Justin felt the sweet bite of his addictive nature, and looked forward to other mornings when Robin had gone to Tytherbury and left him in the waking surge of hangover lust.

  “This is Alex, by the way,” said Danny.

  “How do you do?” said Terry, half getting up to shake his hand across the table.

  “Do you live near by?” said Alex feebly.

  “Very near by,” said Terry, with a genial laugh at his ignorance. “No, my mum lives up here, in the back lane.” He tipped his head backwards. “I can slip in through the back gate.”

  Justin wondered how artless all this talk of back bedrooms and back lanes was. He said, “Mrs Doggett grows marvellous delphinia.”

  Terry frowned at this, in the suspicion that it was another joke. “She’s won some prizes,” he said. “It’s Badgett.”

  Justin himself was slow on the uptake — it was a genuine confusion, arising perhaps from Doggett’s Coat and Badge, a pub on Blackfriars Bridge where he had lost several evenings with a randy young sub from the Sunday Express. He thought there was no point in apologising.

  “You don’t need any jobs doing?” Terry asked with a vague head-shake.

  Justin said, “Robin’s famous for doing all his jobs himself.”

  There was a little pause. “Are you running the disco this year?” said Robin, as though it was an event he especially looked forward to.

  “Yeah, I expect so, come the holidays, come July,” said Terry quietly, and continued to nod at the difficulty of the task and his readiness to perform it. Justin could see his blue briefs through the side-pocket of the dungarees. Nothing else underneath then.

  “We’ll have some great music for my party,” said Danny, leaning forward from the other side and resting a hand on Terry’s thigh in a split-second enactment of Justin’s own fantasy. “You’re all invited,” he went on, apparently making it up on the spot. “Two weeks’ time, right here. That’s cool, isn’t it, Dad?”

  Robin shrugged and spread his hands: “Sure…” Justin saw it at once as a plan dense with potential oppor
tunities and embarrassments. Alex obviously wouldn’t be there, though he was already accepting with a show of flattered surprise; and maybe Robin too, as a parent, would see fit to pass the evening with the Halls…He supposed there would be drugs, which always made him uneasy, and seemed to make their users amorous but incapable.

  “How old will you be, darling?” he said.

  “Twenty-three,” said Danny, with a grimace at the ghastliness of it; then muttered histrionically, “What have I done with my life?” At which everyone but Terry harumphed and refilled their glasses with a despairing leer.

  “Well, Alex has done very well in his chosen profession, of pensions,” said Justin, and smiled to see his former lover unable to sift the compliment from the mockery. “Robin perhaps hasn’t quite fulfilled the promise of his early work on The House in the Landscape and the Landscape in the House, have you sweetie?”

  “You haven’t exactly broken every known fucking box-office record as an actor,” said Robin, in what was probably a parody of annoyance. Justin looked at Danny and Terry side by side, uncertain which to enlist.

  “I was in a play,” he said.

  Soon the party broke up, Terry called back “Cheers” from the door, and Danny went out with him, talking quietly. Justin saw Alex start to wander after them, as if sleepily attracted, or simply from an instinct to escape; then stand in the doorway with a pretence of stretching and yawning. Upstairs in the bathroom Justin switched off the light and squatted on the low window-sill, letting his eyes adjust to the night outside: the unsuspecting trees, crowded dim moons of cow-parsley, and slowly more and more starlight on the slope of the greenhouse, on the motionless roses, and the immensity of the hill beyond. He couldn’t see the boys, though occasionally he heard a louder phrase or both of them laughing, and then for a minute or more only the brook. He wanted to turn the brook off. He thought Danny would walk Terry home, through the gate in the wall and fifty yards up the shadowed lane; but there were their voices again, close by, the words indistinct, with the idling rhythms and inscrutable pauses of the overheard. Well, if Terry wanted to tell Danny what had happened, he would do so. They had woken a bird up and it gave out a series of disoriented chuckles.

  FIVE

  Robin decided to go to Tytherbury on Sunday as a break from Alex’s apologetic presence and the unnecessary tensions of the weekend. But then Tony Bowerchalke said to bring over the whole party, not for lunch but for a drink before lunch. Getting them into the Saab had not been easy. Alex, who had started out unconvincingly in shorts, rushed upstairs to change and hit his head quite hard on a beam. Then both Alex and Justin seemed to want to sit in the back with Danny, though Danny himself said he wanted to sit in the front. Justin won by arguing that Alex had the longest legs, and then drove Danny mad by playing “round and round the garden” on his bare forearm. Danny was clearly in a sulk after Robin’s frowning and in fact rather frightened encounter with a naked Terry Badgett in the bathroom at 3 a.m. Perhaps after all Alex was the best person to have in the passenger seat, with his responsible pleasure in the villages and the riot of flowering chestnuts and may.

  As they turned in between the tall brick gate-piers Robin felt the fresh awareness that went with showing a familiar place to newcomers — he seemed to share their curiosity and vague social apprehension as the pitted half-mile of the drive unwound between dense banks of rhododendrons, fields planted up close to the road as in wartime, eerie poplar plantations with pheasant-runs in their straight alleys, through to the horrible shock of the house itself. The kids, as Robin found himself thinking of them, slipped reluctantly out of the car, as though they had just been brought back to boarding-school.

  Tony was standing around on the rough daisy-crowded lawn to the left; he was evidently waiting for them with his usual nerviness and fear of accidents, though he pretended not to have seen them until the car-doors were arrhythmically clunking shut. He hurried across, tugging down his pullover and smoothing back his flat oiled hair. Introductions were made, Tony holding the hands of Alex and Danny for a second or two to help him memorise their names. They stood in an uncertain group, loosely focused on the central feature of the gravelled circle, a bare stone plinth on which some welcoming deity or tall, nasturtium-spilling urn might once have stood, but which now presented them with nothing but a short rusty spike.

  “You’d like a drink, I expect,” Tony said quickly, and after a glance at his watch led them off around, rather than through, the house. Robin let the group straggle ahead, Alex talking to their host, whom he heard say, in a tone of mild hysteria, “Not everybody likes this style of architecture.” Robin remembered trying to convince him of its virtues as an example of “rogue Gothic,” but Tony, who had been a juvenile star at Bletchley during the war, had quickly decoded the professional euphemism.

  They sat on the terrace with their backs to the house. There were a couple of old deck-chairs and two straight-backed dining-chairs, their ball-and-claw feet wispy with damp grass-cuttings; Danny, in his lively disposable way, perched slightly apart from them on the low wall. Tony peered at him gratefully and said, “Would you all like a Campari?,” as if it was their favourite; and they all pretended they would.

  They looked out, frowning into the sun, at what was left of a High Victorian garden, a wide round pond with a disused fountain of crumbling tritons, like angry, pock-marked babies, at its centre; the water had dropped to show the weed-covered pipe that fed it. The surrounding parterres had all been put to grass ten years before, when help had become a hopeless problem; though here and there a curved seat or a sundial or an unkillable old rose made a puzzled allusion to the plan it had once been part of. Beyond this there was a rising avenue of chestnuts which framed the brick chimney of a successful light-industrial unit.

  Tony came back out through the tall french windows ushering and encouraging Mrs Bunce, who carried the sloping drinks tray. Robin knew she would not be introduced and so called out, “Hello, Mrs Bunce”; and she looked flattered if flustered by the attention. She was a widow whose age was disguised and somehow emphasised by her defiantly dyed hair and cardinal lipstick and remote resemblance to the Duchess of Windsor. She would have taken off her housecoat and straightened herself up before coming outside, where she played an ambiguous role as a silent hostess. Indoors she cooked and cleaned and managed the shrunken latter-day life of the huge house. Robin offered her his chair.

  Soon Tony was admitting to the worry of the place, though no one had exactly asked him about it. Bits of the estate had been sold off in the sixties to meet beastly Labour taxes, the small farm was let on a long lease to a company which used allergy-causing crop-sprays. Now he was having two self-contained flats made in a part of the house that was no longer used, with a view to attracting well-heeled childless tenants from London. And then the Victorian Society had started to make a fuss about his great-grandfather’s mausoleum, a vandalised curiosity in what he called the park. It was in the last two matters that Robin’s practice (if you could call it that) was involved, and Tony raised his glass towards him.

  “I love the house!” said Danny, grinning over their heads and up and up at the bastions of unageing red and white brick. “It’s amazing.” And more quietly, over his glass, “It’s a trip!” Tony looked pleased, but no nearer a solution to his problem.

  Alex said ambiguously, “It’s stunning”; whilst Justin pulled his sunglasses from his shirt pocket and masked himself in them. On ordinary social occasions he would often be shy and ungiving.

  “Did you ever think of selling the whole place?” asked Danny, as if he had a potential buyer in mind, or even wanted it himself.

  “Well of course I’ve thought of it,” said Tony. “They could turn it into a training college or a merchant seaman’s orphanage and put up prefabs on the lawn. I don’t think I could let it go — you know my mother was very happy here. I couldn’t, could I…?”

  Robin had heard him use this reasoning once or twice before and thought it must re
flect a code of honour and sentiment so rarefied that Tony himself was perhaps its last surviving adherent. But Danny, whose relations with his mother were intense, seemed to take it in his stride; and Mrs Bunce said, “So you always say, Tony.”

  “It will all be fine,” said Robin, who found his function here was as much therapeutic as architectural.

  Tony smiled at Danny, and said, “I once met your grandfather. We didn’t really see eye to eye. General Woodfield,” he explained to Mrs Bunce, in a tone of inseparable ridicule and respect, “was said to be the handsomest man in Wessex. His wife, Lady Astrid, was the daughter of the Earl of Hexham.”

  Mrs Bunce patted her hair apprehensively, as if about to be introduced to this magnificent couple.

  Robin said, “I’m just going to look at that plaster.” And he stepped into the house, with a surprising and childish sense of relief.

  He went through the high dark drawing-room and into the hall. Most of the rooms at Tytherbury were conventional, with severe classical fireplaces and sash-windows that ran up square behind the pointed Gothic openings; though some had gloomy half-panelling and Tudor doorways. The hall was different, it was a showpiece, with a dark brick-vaulted entrance like a traitor’s gate, giving on to a hair-raising staircase, with joining and dividing flights, which ran up through a great bleak shaft the height of the house. Sunlight through the crudely coloured stained glass dappled the vigorous and unattractive woodwork. For all its fantasy, it shared with the rest of the house a stripped-down, semi-furnished appearance, as if it had already been sold to one of the institutions that Tony was holding at bay. A row of hooks still projected high up, though apparently the mythological tapestries that once hung from them now lent a murkily classic air to the ballroom of a Beverly Hills mansion. Pictures, furniture and armour had been disposed of in irregular bursts over the past fifty years. Robin never knew if he found the effect haunting or depressing. He climbed to the first floor two at a time, as though it were any old staircase, and entered one of the oddly inconsequential corridors that opened off it.

 
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