1998 the spell, p.7
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       1998 - The Spell, p.7

           Alan Hollinghurst

  The flats had been contrived in the service wing. When Tony Bowerchalke’s great-grandfather had dreamt up the house, an ambitious local architect undertook the plans for him, differentiating the various offices and quarters of the male and female servants, the sculleries and pantries, the plate safe and the fuel stores. At the end of the wing was something described as “Odd Room,” provision having outrun the most ingenious requirement. Tony claimed that he and his sister had played a private version of fives in it when they were children.

  Robin wasn’t happy, and he didn’t want to show it. He wasn’t in control. Justin had insisted on sex at eight this morning and moaned and yelped like someone dubbing a porn film. They heard Alex shifting in his bed next door, and when the excitement was over Robin couldn’t help imagining the effect of their grunts and laughter, and felt humiliated to have behaved so cruelly. The absence of any allusion to it in Alex’s face and conversation over breakfast was a clear sign of how upset he must have been. It seemed he had made a pass at Justin yesterday, he was obviously still in love with him and having a ghastly time. Robin felt sorry for him, but in a theoretical way: his loss was Robin’s gain, it would be awful to lose Justin, but Robin himself had never been left.

  He stood in the Odd Room, where the new plaster had quickly dried in the hot weather from rosy chocolate to the sand-pink of a powder compact. The arcs of the workmen’s floats could be faintly seen in the surface, which was marble-smooth and yet left a chalky dust on the fingertips. The room held the pleasing smell of plaster and fresh sawdust. His footsteps reverberated. He liked this clean practical phase of the project, when nothing was compromised by use.

  Back outside, Mrs Bunce was collecting the glasses, and told him the rest of the party had set off to see the mausoleum, a word she produced with a lightly mocking grandeur. “Your young man wanted to see it,” she said, by which he supposed she meant Danny. Justin would only have wanted to see it if everybody else didn’t.

  He saw them from the top of the field, just too far away to shout to without sounding silly. Danny and Alex were on either side of Tony, Alex stooping attentively and looking quickly about like a royal duke being shown something enterprising. Away to the left Justin wandered, swiping at grasses, unsocial, fuelled by nothing more than a weak aperitif. Robin climbed the fence and jogged down towards them; all he could think of was claiming Justin, jumping him or tackling him into the long grass.

  Tytherbury had been built a little inland, out of sight of the sea, and the estate reached to the shore only at one point, a mysterious sunless combe or chine, raggedly wooded with yews and rhododendrons and overspreading cedars. A small, almost hidden stream ran down through it and under a fence and cut a wandering channel across the beach. The wood had an unusual abundance of lichens and epiphytes, which gave it the look of a dwarf rain-forest, and Tony sometimes sent obstructive letters to ecologists who wanted to study it. He had learnt his lesson with Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, whom he had entertained to dinner and given the run of his archive, and who had repaid him, in the Dorset volume of The Buildings of England, with a merciless sentence about the house: “An extreme example of a justly neglected type.”

  Pevsner didn’t record his impressions of the chine, or of the discomforting structure perched above it, in a clearing among storm-wrecked Douglas firs: “In the grounds, MAUSOLEUM of Thomas Light Bowerchalke. A pyramid.” After several inspections Robin found it still had its monumental effect, the steep planes of finely mortared purple brick confused the visitor’s sense of scale: was it thirty feet high? Forty? Fifty? It gave a squeeze to the heart and called for a mild bravery in those who approached it. It was completely smooth, until at the very top of each face a glazed oculus let light into the unimaginable interior.

  Tony hurried forward, like a put-upon sacristan, searching through his keys. The door of the pyramid was below ground level, and he seemed to step down into the earth as he entered the long ramp that led to it. Robin followed him, and Danny, and Alex and Justin with their different hesitations. Robin glanced round and saw that Justin had turned his back to have a piss. Tony was saying something about the mask over the door — an impassively staring Roman face that had been vandalised into noseless Egyptian flatness; Robin at least was never sure if it was a man or a woman. Above it there was an inscription in Greek, which no one was quite clear about, but which Tony said meant, “He is going to his long home.” A padlocked grille covered the door, which had oxidised bronze fittings and scraped open heavily across the floor.

  Inside, the first surprise was the still cold after the breezy heat of the day, and the before-dawn dimness on sun-narrowed eyes. Justin came in last with his shades on and groped his way round the happily shivering Danny. Alex was gazing at the crossing brick trusses overhead and stumbled backwards into the sarcophagus, on which he found himself demurely sitting down for a moment — a single polished slab of brown marble, quarried at Purbeck twenty miles to the east.

  Robin was still puzzled by the structure of the building. Where other such pyramids he had seen, in landscaped parks and manorial churchyards across the country, contained a domed chamber, which looked almost as if quarried from the heart of a solid mass, the Tytherbury one was an open space from the sunken burial chamber to the apex. It was like being inside a church steeple, or an oast-house, except that the joists were not made of timber but of brick, and seemed to hang in narrow intersecting arcs one above the other. The effect, in the grey gleam from the weather-limed skylights, was both mysterious and claustrophobic. Tony claimed that the mosque at Cordoba had been its inspiration. It was the buckling of one of these brick strainer arches that Robin was expected to remedy. A shallow dip half-way up on the lichenous north face had alerted them to the danger. Robin explained it rather cryptically to the others, as if expecting, or even hoping, not to be understood, pointing to a spot high up that none of them could honestly see. “How can you work on that without what’s above it falling down?” asked Alex.

  “I don’t know,” said Robin.

  There were frills of damp between the courses of brick just beside them. He didn’t like this building, and had a clear image, a tiny loop of film, in which it fell in on him. He found its lack of religious assurances surprisingly bleak. It was over a year since they’d buried Simon, but he was chilled and troubled by literal-minded imaginings, standing within a few feet of a dead body that must be withered and grinning after more than a century of unbelieving rest. Alex gave him a rueful smile, perhaps about the repair job, though it seemed to have some subtler intuition in it. He said, “I never know how you know, how people ever know what will stand up.”

  “Well…” said Robin broadly, as if it was, actually, within the competence of any intelligent adult. He thought, he’ll start on stresses and strains in a minute.

  “It’s the whole thing of stresses and strains, isn’t it?” — Alex looking away to where Justin was speaking quietly to Danny, Danny tracing a line with his toe in the gritty dust on the stone floor. “And we certainly know something about them…”

  And that was what Robin disliked, the spurious intimacy that Alex was ready to suggest between them, as though to bring him down to his own level of failure and niceness. Robin had what he thought of as an upper-class mistrust of niceness.

  He turned away on a pretence of looking for something, to show he wasn’t here merely for pleasure; he unclipped the metal tape-measure which he carried like a carpenter on his belt, and measured the low doorway, to see what might or might not be brought in. When he turned back the other four were smiling about something, standing close together just beyond the sarcophagus. He was embarrassed to hear Danny saying something about opium. Tony had once confided in him, as if it were still a problem, that his great-grandfather had been an addict; and Robin had mentioned to Danny his theory that the pyramid, and perhaps the house itself, was an attempt to realise the architectural phantasmagoria of an opium dream. He heard Tony making some hasty rejoinder, and Danny saying,
That’s so cool.”

  Outside in the sunlight, hearing the door dragged to, the grille padlocked, a brief silence of readjustment among the group — his son, his lover, his guest, their sweet expectant old host — Robin wondered at his own paranoia, and made a characteristic effort to banish it: a deep breath, squaring of the shoulders, an irritable frown and then a wide handsome smile at the others. Justin was a flirt and it meant nothing, he liked to be a nuisance; when drunk he would sit on the laps of virtual strangers who had come to dinner or push himself against old friends of Robin’s in little faux-fucks, like a dog. He said it was just a sign of his shyness.

  Justin went ahead on the walk back, chatting to Tony in a casual suggestive way, as if to a man of his own age and experience; perhaps he was hoping to secure another drink. It made Robin feel he had been too formal with him. He watched them walking, shoulder to shoulder. The sight of Justin from behind could still startle a little noise from him, half grunt, half gasp, of lust and admiration. It was love’s clear thrilled focus on its object in a blurred irrelevant field. Alex was talking to him but Robin looked only ahead, with a fixated half-smile. When he did turn, to show a form of courtesy, he saw that they had both been staring at the same thing.

  In the car going home there was a mood of idle resentment among the others, as if they had behaved well for very little reward. Robin said, “Bowerchalke’s a nice old boy, isn’t he,” but it was only Alex who bothered to say yes, whatever he might really have felt. Robin saw how you could play tricks on someone so self-repressing and ready to agree. “Of course he’s a silly old fool,” he said; but Alex merely gazed out of the window with a wincing smile at the sunlight from a high cloud’s edge.

  Justin said, in a tone both loud and confidential, “I gather you were a very naughty boy last night, Danny.”

  “Not particularly,” said Danny.

  There was a little pause. “Well, that’s not what your father says, Danny.” Justin spoke like a mother who has landed the task of conveying a sad parental disappointment. “Up till all hours hobnobbing with Terry Blodgett; and what-have-you. And you know your father’s feelings about rough trade.”

  “Oh do I,” said Danny.

  “And don’t be cheeky.”

  “Terry may be rough trade to you,” said Danny, in a light bored voice, “but he’s an old friend of mine.”

  “Mm, old friend maybe. But you hadn’t…you know…before, had you.”

  Danny made it clear that while the whole discussion was a joke it was also beneath him. “Only half a dozen times,” he said; which got him a scream and a slap from Justin.

  “The young today. It’s enough to break a mother’s heart.”

  “Fortunately I have a very tough-hearted mother.” Danny buzzed his window half-open, and let in a refreshing draught across the back of the car.

  Robin allowed this nonsense to go on behind him, because he felt he had already said enough, and Danny was right, even though he himself was not wrong. The parental instincts that Justin was lampooning were awkwardly strong sometimes. Even though the marriage had broken up eighteen years ago, Danny’s visits still left Robin with an aftertaste of disappointment, of adulterated sweetness; sometimes they had been anxious charades of the life they might have led together, but played out with an eye on the clock and a mawkishness which shifted from one to the other. The weekends, the half-vacations, were planned as treats, but for Robin were always reminders of his failure as a husband. The failure remained, however much he reinvented it as a triumph of instinct. He avoided meeting Jane, and could be severe with Danny, as if to refute some imagined accusation of negligence. He ran a good house. He wanted to know who was sleeping under his roof. He didn’t want his boy turning into a slut. But Danny had come back from California last summer in a perversely independent mood, which Robin blamed feebly on Jane, a Distinguished Professor now, who wrote acclaimed books in an idiolect Robin couldn’t understand.

  He looked in the mirror and felt a tug of futile envy for Danny’s freshness and freedoms — even a smothered mood of rivalry, having watched Terry Badgett grow up over the years and turn from one kind of trouble-maker into another. It was exciting as well as distasteful in the small hours to find Terry frowning naked into the bathroom mirror, still glowing from sex, the cast-off condom unflushed in the bowl. It was the first unignorable evidence he had seen of Danny’s sex-life, and his anger surprised him, as did the lingering sense of protest.

  Alex was smiling tensely at the backseat badinage. Then Danny said, with mischievous brightness, “Justin, why don’t you tell us the story of how you met Dad?” — and didn’t see the full triangulation of his blunder for a moment or two, when the others started speaking simultaneously on unrelated subjects.

  As they came into Litton Gambril Alex said, “Can I buy us all lunch at the Crooked Billet?” and looked round forgivingly at his friends. There was a brief silence, the mildly raised eyebrows of hesitant acceptance, and Robin said,

  “I’ll get lunch at home. I mean, thank you. But we can’t actually go to the Billet any more.”

  “Oh,” said Alex, as if wounded by his own craving to give; the pub, with its long thatched eaves and hanging baskets, was coming up on the right. Two round-faced men, looking rakish in riding-boots, came out with sleek pint glasses in careful hands, and perched on the low wall. The odd bottle-glass panes in the window of the public winked impenetrably. The Saab went past without a wave.

  “We’d been going there for years, of course,” said Robin. “It’s a nice old pub. Hardy mentions it in Tess as a well-known stopping-place on the old road from Bridport to Weymouth. Tess was looked after by the landlord. Unfortunately, relations with the present landlord are rather less cordial since Justin got very fresh with him, which didn’t go down well, and then relieved himself in the back porch. So lunch there really isn’t a possibility.”

  “Does Hardy also have a bit about the lavs being the smelliest in Wessex?” said Justin.

  “It’s a marvellously unreconstructed pub,” Robin said.

  “Like the views of most of the people in it…”

  “Still,” Alex said, “I’m surprised at you falling out with a publican.”

  Justin sighed. “Thank god for the Halls. Though even he turns nasty after a couple of bottles of Famous Grouse.”

  Robin said, “We do have drink in the cottage,” and then, just as they were approaching the gate, braked, put the car through a bad-tempered three-point turn, and raced off. He knew he had antagonised each of the others in some fashion today, and felt a collective tension in the car; it was quite enjoyable and immediately made him feel better.

  “My god, we’re being kidnapped,” said Justin languidly. “No doubt we shall be chained together.”

  “I just realised we haven’t shown Alex the cliffs,” Robin said. “He can’t go back to London without seeing the cliffs.”

  “The cliffs will still be there after lunch,” said Danny, in words a father might more naturally have used to a child.

  “We can have lunch in a pub in Bridport, where Justin is still unknown.”

  “Well I’m paying,” said Alex. Justin reached round the headrest and slapped him lightly on the ear.

  Robin drove fast out of the village and then, instead of taking the main road along the valley, turned abruptly into a narrow lane that climbed and levelled and climbed again. He felt half-smothered in a whiteness that brushed and lurched at the car, the ragged may tumbling into banks of cow-parsley, horse-chestnuts with their balconies of dropping candles, the dazzle of sunlight through leaves flowing up over the windscreen. There were even daisies growing in the green crown of the road. As he climbed towards blind corners he gave two or three jabs on the horn and pressed on with a gambler’s instinct that there would be no contest. When he braked it was a long second after his passengers had done so.

  Alex had to get out and open the gate, and Robin thought for a moment how funny it would be to leave him there and to watc
h him determinedly taking it as a joke when he later caught up with them. Then they powered up a wide open hillside, sending off the nearby sheep in stupid curving runs. Robin found some remembered pleasure in this off-road driving, days spent outdoors with handsome unsuspecting schoolfriends whose fathers were farmers, the boys already allowed to drive the Land-Rover, roaring and bouncing through the fields, learning handbrake turns on a disused airstrip. Once they had revved and revved and charged at a ditch, and through the fence beyond, a line of barbed wire and a rotten post flying into the air. Road driving seemed rule-bound and processional when he began with it a year later.

  The cliffs along here rose to regular arched heights, with sweeping grassy shoulders between them. They were the crumbling cross-section of the line of hills that sheltered the inland villages, and as the car trundled up the incline, with the higher gorsy crowns swelling grandly on either side, the sea-wind began to bluster around it, and in at the half-open windows. The sea was close but still invisible: Robin felt his pulse quicken at its nearness, an old excitement that was swallowed up in the dangerous acceleration of his mood. Justin started talking, with deliberate irrelevance, or as if he thought it polite to ignore the roughness and inconvenience of the journey, about a restaurant in Battersea. “Do you know it, darling, it’s a gay restaurant. It’s called the Limp Ritz. It was the first restaurant in England to serve openly gay food.” Robin thought with undiminished annoyance of his aunt who, set down in front of Chartres Cathedral, went on about something she’d had to take back to Marks & Spencer’s. He kept his foot down and drove straight towards the cliff edge, the sea suddenly lifting into view beyond it in a vast unconscious arc of silver green.

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