1998 the spell, p.8
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       1998 - The Spell, p.8

           Alan Hollinghurst

  There were only a few seconds of fun, of calculated trouble, Danny shouting “Dad, for god’s sake!” and Justin sort of whining with fear disguised as irritation, whilst Alex stuck out a hand in front of him and was about to make a fatal grab at the wheel. Of course Robin turned in time, it was a trick, though he was shocked to find how clenched he was, and how much nearer to the edge than he intended: as the car swerved back through 180 degrees a spray of loose stones and scorched-out divots hurtled out. Justin and Danny were not wearing belts, and Danny was thrown on top of Justin, whose head smacked the window and left a feathered smear of blood on it.


  Alex left for lunch a little early, and trotted out down the resonant staircase and through the vaulted vestibules which formed so misleading an introduction to his small, net-curtained office. In the street he unclipped his security pass, and slipped it into his suit pocket; a coach was slowly releasing a team of garish old holiday-makers, with their own badges saying “Warren” and “Mary-Jo” in large schoolroom script. He felt for a moment both anonymous and at home. The sunshine flashed off moving cars and vans, and gleamed in the polished visors and swords of the motionless horse-guards, but there was a lively breeze too that flapped at his jacket and span the dust around as he crossed the Horseguards Parade. He was trying not to hurry, but misjudged the traffic in the Mall, and had to hang back and then sprint to get across.

  In the courtyard of the Royal Academy, under the blank windows of the various learned societies, he felt a familiar awkwardness, as though being watched, though he knew the only watcher was himself. At the top of the stairs he showed his Friend’s ticket and signed his name. He sensed the grand continuity of the galleries with the building in which he worked, the pillars and architraves, the high commanding forms, and the dark-suited figures who moved among them, old or prematurely ageing, their talk, when you overheard it, both imperious and discreet. There was an astounding exhibition of sculpture from a great private collection, but the objects, which ranged from primitive grave-goods to rococo saints, from Iceland to Oceania, were commented on with the same mixture of diplomatic wariness and faintly hostile amusement as the affairs and crises of foreign countries were in Alex’s place of work.

  He swooped and rambled quite quickly through the first couple of rooms, and when he saw what he was looking for in the third room he approached it obliquely, and with a pretence of donnish absorption in some other items. He inspected the chin, mouth, nose and right eye of a young man, eloquent, polished features with the slight crystalline sheen of marble, and saw them dissolve as he passed by; from behind, the fragment looked like a rough missile, or a meteorite. He came round it again and saw the splinter of face reassert itself. Then he let his gaze float to the head beyond it, a different but perceptible sheen in the crest of blond fuzz and the unweath-ered smoothness of the skin. The young had a bloom, it was true — despite the hooded, hung-over stare directed half-accusingly into the middle distance. Alex came forward with a grin already going and an odd third-person sense of himself as a figure unexpectedly descending. He watched closely, and with a kind of fascinated relief, as Danny’s disgruntled mouth opened into a wide smile.

  “Hello, Alex!”

  “Hi, Danny”

  They shook hands, looking keenly into each other’s eyes, Alex’s other hand lightly gripping Danny’s upper arm, feeling his quick uncertain attempt to harden up the biceps, then letting go with an admiring fingering of the stiffish grey-blue serge of his uniform. Danny shrugged his shoulders round inside the jacket and shuffled to attention. With his epaulettes and his big patch pockets and his No 3 crop he looked like a bolshy wartime recruit to the RAF, though the triangular tuft beneath the lower lip was a mid-nineties detail. The walkie-talkie in his left hand crackled, he listened to the incomprehensible message and said “Yeah” with a little sneer of tedium for Alex’s benefit.

  “So how’s it going?” said Alex, in an idiom that was slightly unnatural to him.

  “He’s a wanker, that one,” said Danny, shaking his head at the receiver in his hand. “He’s been on my back all day because I was five minutes late — if that.”

  Alex smiled, sympathising, but knowing instinctively that it had been nearer half an hour. “Don’t you go mad with boredom?” he asked.

  Danny gaped and slumped as if at the grossness of the under- statement, but then said with a smile, “No, it’s not too bad. It’s a lot better than supermarkets. There you get chatted up by housewives, here you’re cruised to bits by men. This is more responsible, of course.” He stepped back to keep his eye on a woman apparently mesmerised by a sleek stone Buddha. “They hurl their phone-numbers at you,” he said. “I’ve had twelve this week.”

  “Really,” said Alex, already resenting these other suitors, and confused to find he wasn’t alone in thinking Danny beautiful. “And how many have you—”

  But Danny was moving warily away, as another security-man, a bald, scowling Indian who looked unlikely to receive such advances, came marching slowly through from the next gallery; with a delicate regard for Danny’s position Alex sidled off to see something else, wondering at the same time if Danny really wanted to talk at all. He had worked their friendship up so much in his mind, and followed it through the coming months with such tender imagination, that it was a shock to discover he still had all the work to do. He found himself in front of a sixteenth-century Spanish Saint Sebastian made of brightly glazed pottery. Holes had been left all over it for the arrows, so that it looked like a huge anthropomorphic strainer. He imagined it being pulled from a pond and water jetting out of it for a few seconds, then slackening and dwindling to a drip.

  There was no sign of Danny now, and he walked round discreetly searching for him among the thickening lunch-time crowds. He wondered, with his usual instinct for the bleakest view, if he was just another old queen hoping for the young man’s favour, pressing his number on him like a supplicant bringing his absurd request to a shrine. He looked around at the detritus of old religions, vessels of exhausted magic. In front of him was a mask of blistered bronze, paper-brittle and azure with age. For a moment he remembered the broken-nosed mask on Tony Bowerchalke’s pyramid. Perhaps he was wrong, but he thought something had passed between him and Danny as they groped round that unsettling building.

  “Don’t breathe on the objects please sir.” Danny was beside him, and slid an arm quickly round his waist.

  “Are you okay?”

  “Yeah, fine.” His demanding mouth twisted into a grimace. “It’s so great to see you,” he said.

  “You too,” said Alex. “I suddenly realised on my way here you might be on duty.”

  “You mean you didn’t come just to see me?”

  “Of course I did really,” Alex said, glad that the little pleasantry was also the truth.

  “I was going to give you a ring actually.”


  “See if you wanted to go out one night.”

  This was exactly what Alex wanted to do, and he said, “That would be gorgeous.”

  “I felt so sorry for you last weekend,” Danny said, perhaps revealing that his motives were mainly charitable. “What is the matter with my dad at the moment? Justin not giving him his Weetabix, maybe.”

  “I don’t think that can be it,” said Alex quietly, with a sick second of recall of the sound of the two of them at it. “It was probably stupid of me to come.”

  “No, I’m glad you did. It made it much more bearable for me, you know. I was getting such a heavy number about Terry staying over.”

  “Ah yes…”

  Danny looked around to see if they could be overheard. “Dad’s not all that together about me liking blokes.”


  “That stunt in the car!” Danny frowned and slowly shook his head. “What the fuck was all that about…?”

  Alex gave a curt unamused laugh; then said, “He was very upset afterwards.”

  “Must be the t
ime of life…” Danny said, sagely or cynically, Alex couldn’t tell.

  A couple of young men drifted past, one of them in sunglasses as if the art might hurt his eyes, the other talking and swivelling his arm from the elbow, perhaps to explain it to his friend, but eyeing Danny lazily up and down — then gasping and stretching back to him, flicking his fingers as if he had been asked a difficult question. Eventually he said, “Sean!”

  Danny nodded tolerantly. “It’s Dan,” he said.

  “Dan! I nearly walked right past you, in all that butch clobber. This is Hector by the way.”

  Hector winced in acknowledgement.

  “This is my friend Alex.”

  “Pleased to meet you Alex. I’m Aubrey.” He gazed at Danny and clutched his hands to his chest in almost tearful amazement at the encounter.

  “Well!” he said. “Haven’t seen you out for ages.”

  “I was in the country last weekend — we both were,” said Danny, signalling Alex and giving a surprising suggestion of closeness. Aubrey looked unimpressed by this.

  “Ooh, not settling down, I hope.”

  “How about you?”

  “I don’t know…” He gestured in turn to the speechless, perhaps non-anglophone, Hector, and gave him an irritable sluttish stare. “What you doing this weekend?”

  “Not quite sure,” said Danny. “May be at the Ministry tomorrow night.”

  “Oh…” Alex murmured, wondering which Ministry, and picturing some familiar function, Danny in uniform checking bags and coats.

  “It’s a bit straight, isn’t it? Though what’s it matter when everyone’s off their face anyway?” Aubrey smiled wearily. “Can you get us on the guest-list?” Alex thought that would be pretty unlikely, unless it was somewhere very socially compromised, like Ag and Fish.

  “Look, I’m not supposed to talk to people when I’m on duty,” Danny said, and pointed to the tab on his shoulder, on which the word ALERT was embroidered.

  Aubrey took it well. “All right, doll, well maybe see you” -giving him a kiss on the cheek, which was obviously also not allowed. Hector smiled and shook hands firmly, as if after an invigorating exchange of views.

  “Shagged them both,” said Danny, when the couple had turned the corner; “though Aubrey doesn’t know that.” He glanced around naughtily. “Hector is” — and he merely mouthed the word “huge,” with a comic mime of staring incredulity. He walked off, in his squashy, slightly squeaky Doc Martens, but turned, in front of a long Greek lion. “I’ll ring you tonight…but Saturday, okay. Keep it free.” And he gave him the smile again, which to Alex seemed more than ever private and unpredictable, like something you might normally only discover with more intimate knowledge of a person, like Hector’s hugeness, but which to him was far more exciting than anything like that.

  On the way back to the office he realised he’d forgotten to have lunch, and ate a sandwich on a bench in St James’s Square. The plane-trees, in their grandly reluctant way, were only just coming into leaf. Alex felt the beautiful unwise emotions of something starting up, and grinned to himself between bites, as if his sandwich was unaccountably delicious; though what he was savouring was the longed-for surprise of being wanted. He looked up, with a sense of being still in the exhibition, at the statue of William of Orange on its tall plinth. The king was heroically bare-chested, and reined his horse back with a glare into the future he was destined to command. The horse’s high bronze foreleg was frozen in the air — and Alex pictured it plunging forward, along the paths and away under the trees.

  Danny lived just off Ladbroke Grove in a tall terrace house which until last Christmas had been a private hotel. Beside the front door the words HOT AND COLD and APPROVED could still faintly be seen through a covering of whitewash. Alex arrived early and walked on past; he wasn’t sure how keen he should appear to be, though he had been thinking ravenously about Danny for the past two days. He had forgotten the mood of a new affair, the compulsive mix of risk and reassurance. He had spent an hour that morning in Sloane Street having his hair made fractionally shorter; and more than an hour walking about the house in different clothes and glancing soulfully but self-critically into mirrors. He never put on weight and at thirty-six could still wear everything he owned. He found himself zipping up jeans and laboriously unbuttoning shirts he hadn’t touched since long before he met Justin; some of them were probably fashionable again, though others, he was pretty sure, were merely evidence of a styleless past. He finally left home in blue jeans, a white T-shirt and a short black leather jacket, an anonymously classic effect which belied the carnival of uncertainty that had produced it.

  So this was Danny’s neighbourhood. Alex wondered if he ever used that gloomy, velvet-curtained pub, the Chepstow Castle — though of course gay men nowadays were meant to use bars, where there was nowhere to sit down and the drinks cost twice as much. There was a launderette, a caged West Indian off-licence, and an Italian restaurant which looked attractively mysterious from outside, though photos in the window showed the interior as a hell of crowded tables, sadistic gypsy fiddlers and dangling Chianti bottles. He thought of the evening he’d been meant to spend, Traviata and then dinner with his old friend Hugh, and Hugh’s swiftly hidden envy when he learned why he’d been chucked.

  He came back and searched the tall panel of bells. A housing trust now ran the place and seemed to have welcomed in an extraordinary number of people. The bell marked “Woodfield” was near the bottom, and seeing the name again, with its trilling resonance of sexual power, Alex felt the incongruity of chasing after Robin’s son. He wasn’t sure if he was taking a devious revenge on Robin for stealing Justin, or if he was helplessly joining Justin under the spell of the family. But then Danny himself was jumping at him with a kiss on the cheek and a tight hug that was almost aggressive.

  He led him through to a tall room at the back of the house, with a window open above the garden. It still had the built-in cupboards and corner washbasin of its hotel days and an overwhelming wallpaper of bunched pink roses on a pale yellow ground. There were various house-plants, some thrusting and barbed, others droopy and sprawling, like conflicting moods. “I’ve just got to get ready,” Danny said, half-unbuttoning his shirt and pulling it over his head like a kid rushing for games. Alex smiled at him, and tried to look casually at his lean hairless torso, the surprisingly fleshy brown nipples. He immediately loved the ordinariness of him as well as the oddity. When Danny turned and stooped to splash water from the basin on his face and neck Alex saw the small blue knot, like something from a scouting manual, tattooed on his left shoulder-blade. He felt abashed that Danny had already marked himself for life; he turned away and slouched about the room in such a relaxed fashion that he looked as if he might fall over.

  He took in the jumble on the mantelpiece, but didn’t study the curling snapshots too closely for fear of cutting himself on the grins and glints of Danny’s world. He had an impression of life as a party, as a parade of flash-lit hugs and kisses, in a magic zone where everyone was young and found to be beautiful. He drifted over to the bed, which was wide and low, with a red cotton bedspread neatly pulled up. Danny’s phrase about “shagging” Aubrey and Hector came back to him.

  “Now what shall I wear?” Danny said, towelling his head and coming over to Alex with half a smile and the peculiar promise he seemed to give off that there was going to be fun.

  “I’m not the person to ask,” Alex said, uncertain whether to admit to his own dress anxieties, his desire to fit in while still somehow being himself. He saw that since Justin had gone he was in tatters as a social being; he didn’t know what effect to make, or how to make it.

  “You look great,” said Danny, with an emphasis on each word, as if contradicting someone else. He crouched to undo his shoes, then stood and unbuttoned his trousers and wiggled his hips to make them fall down. Alex felt a bit breathless.

  “Oh yes,” he said inside his head, with a split-second glance at the leftward tumble in Danny
’s black boxer-shorts. He wondered if he was meant to make a move on him now, and if he would always regret not doing so, but Danny turned and opened the big cupboard, in which clothes were hung or folded in a way which suggested discipline and self-respect. And in a couple of minutes he was dressed, in green and beige gingham bags that might have been made from the curtains of a holiday caravan, and a loose pink tank-top and a white sleeveless shirt left open and hanging out; he sat on the bed to pull on black trainers with soles suggestive of a specialised orthopaedic need.

  “Do you want some white wine?”

  Alex said yes, and Danny went out to the kitchen, leaving the door open — he could hear him talking to someone. He went to the window, so as to be somewhere when Danny returned, and gazed out at the tangled garden and at other figures getting dressed and undressed and pouring themselves drinks in the tall back windows of the next terrace. That brief routine, the stripping, the picking out of different clothes, had moved Alex and confused him. He saw how long it was since he had shared such unselfconscious moments with another man, or even allowed himself to think in terms of his own happiness. He had a sense of the danger of it, like the neglected reminder of an old injury, as well as an amazed absorption in Danny; he found himself forgetting that Danny was fourteen years younger — or half-forgetting: the clothes he had finally chosen were a cheery signal of the distance between them.

  Danny came back in still talking unencouragingly to the man from the kitchen, who had a black pony-tail and bare feet and looked as if he had just got up. “Yeah…great…okay…I’ll let you know…”

  “I’m Dobbin,” said the man, leaning in the doorway and scratching himself.

  “Hi,” said Alex cautiously. “Alex.”

  “Alex. Nice one.” Dobbin winced. “That was some fierce gear,” he went on, as if Alex knew what he was talking about. They both looked vaguely at Danny’s trousers.

  “We’ve got some stuff to do,” said Danny. “I’ll catch you later.”

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