1998 the spell, p.9
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       1998 - The Spell, p.9

           Alan Hollinghurst

  “Okay, man.” Dobbin winked a gummy eye and wandered away, maybe hoping to be reminded where he was or what he was supposed to be doing.

  “Dobbin’s had a little bit of a heavy night on Special K,” said Danny, in the tolerant sotto voce of a well-paid nurse.

  “Oh…” said Alex, who had a sympathetic regard for bowel troubles. “He probably needed something stronger.”

  Danny smiled at him narrowly and Alex felt he had missed an allusion. And then how could Dobbin’s night be finishing at 8.30 p.m.? They raised their glasses and began to drink.

  By the time they left the house they were both a little hectic from the wine, though Alex began talking responsibly about dinner. There was a harmless tension between them as to who was in charge. Alex kept glancing over his shoulder for a taxi, and gave amusing descriptions of various expensive restaurants that he liked, in each of which he had already pictured the two of them dining in old-world gloom or unsparing post-modern glamour. Danny bounced along the pavement saying “Yeah” and “Sounds great” with indiscriminate enthusiasm. One or two of the places Alex listed had strong associations with Justin and with nights of memorable happiness or misery, and in either case seemed to offer the furtive prospect of an exorcism. Alex longed to reinhabit the disused wings of his life. He felt the tingle of benign power in having someone to pay for again.

  In the taxi his hand lay on the seat in the early dusk between them; when he glanced forward he saw the wild pink aftermath of the sunset reflected in the wing-mirrors. The cab rattled along the length of the Park, with the windows down and a cool draught that took away the need to say anything much. At the lights they felt the brief proximity of roller-bladers under the trees, and the evening’s ordinary flux of pent-up energy and fatigue. When Alex looked quickly at Danny he saw something mischievous and self-absorbed in him that he hadn’t noticed in Dorset; the half-bottle of wine had freed him up surprisingly and in the running shadow and glare his face seemed coloured by suppressed or anticipated amusement.

  They got out in Soho, where the cab was immediately taken by someone else and whisked off, leaving Alex with an odd subliminal feeling of no return. He’d forgotten how crowded the streets were, and wondered if in fact they had been quite so busy in the old days. Danny’s mobile phone rang, and he turned away to laugh and jabber into it, while Alex stood and was bumped into. There was something festive about the streams of people; but he felt he hadn’t yet entered the fun. He thought of his usual Saturday nights in Hammersmith, with only the noise of dinner-parties breaking up, and then the distant rumble of the Great West Road; and the weekend, once a month or so, with his parents near Chelmsford — the firm sympathetic grip they had on him since Justin had left.

  “Come on,” said Danny. “Day-dreaming.”

  “Where are we going?”

  “I’ve got to try and find someone.” He took Alex’s hand, but people barged between them and he let go. He followed on, caught up with him, then was suddenly alone when Danny stopped to hug and kiss someone. Which was how it continued. He began to think they would never get to the end of Old Compton Street. Danny knew every beautiful or interesting-looking person who came towards them, and those he didn’t know were registered, with a raised eyebrow or turn of the head, for future investigation. A bar or cafe with its tables out on the street could take five minutes to get past while he squeezed in between the chairs, bestowed stooping embraces, sat briefly on people’s laps and uttered bursts of mildly hilarious nonsense, underpinned by casual hand-holdings and caresses. Alex couldn’t tell if he was a star or a mascot. “This is my friend Alex,” he said punctiliously to everyone, and several of them found the time to say “Hello,” or at least “Hi,” and give him a cursory upward glance, before getting on with their chat, during which Alex stood about with a distant but forgiving expression. He felt somehow provincial, and afraid of showing his ignorance. Words like Trade, Miss Pamela and Guest-list were produced and received with the gratified ennui accorded to a well-established ritual. Anecdotes of excess got the most laughs, and Danny himself carried one or two that he heard to the next little group, in an easy pollination of gossip. When he moved on he waved impatiently as if it was Alex who was keeping him waiting. “Come on,” he said. Alex knew already he would do whatever he said. He thought he was showing off by marking his place in this world so insistently, it was really quite childish. But then he saw his own childish longing to be known and greeted in a world other than a third-floor corridor in Whitehall.

  In the restaurant Danny was rather quiet and ordered only one course, as if hoping to discharge a social obligation as quickly as possible, while Alex chose a souffle with a twenty-minute handicap. They had a table in the window, and Danny sat breaking up bread and looking out past Alex’s shoulder at the parade of pleasure-seekers outside. At first he said “Yes…yes” with distracted regularity while Alex was telling him sweetly self-deprecating stories about the office: he had never had any special arts of courtship, being very nice was his only technique. He watched Danny’s cool grey eyes slide from right to left, passing briefly over the obstacle of himself. He said, “I’m sorry, it’s a bit dull in here,” feeling the gloom and discretion of the restaurant as if they were expressions of his own character, or indictments of it. He seemed to have picked the one place among these gay blocks that was still a haven for heterosexuals. Then Danny smiled enormously, and reached across to touch Alex’s arm. He leant forward, and re-angled his attention — it was a change of gear that thrilled Alex and slightly unnerved him, since he had seen Robin do just the same thing the previous weekend, in a physical convulsion of remembered manners; he had been glad of it and doubted it at the same time.

  Danny said, “I wonder what Dad and Justin are up to this weekend.”

  Alex looked at his watch. “Ten fifteen. I don’t know about…your father, but Justin will be drunk.”

  “Mm,” said Danny nostalgically, and pulled the bottle out of the ice. He was drinking quickly but not heavily — it was the acceleration of the evening, which Alex only resisted because he couldn’t tell where it was going. “Did he always drink that much?”

  It was a hard and posthumous-sounding question, like something asked in court. Alex wasn’t sure whether to protect Justin or expose him. “It varied. He never really gets hangovers, I don’t know why. It’s never really been a problem. He drank a lot last year, after his father died. That was a bad time for us. The beginning of the end, I suppose.” Alex found himself looking into the shallow bowl of a camera obscura in which a country scene was projected, lawns and chestnut-trees, a saturation of green, the agonising stupor of a summer day, Justin in a dark suit walking steadily away from him. “After the funeral things were never the same.”

  “When was that?”

  It really wasn’t what Alex wanted to think about — it was everything he was trying at last to escape, and it gave him a sense of foreboding to have it conjured up by the beautiful young man he hoped would be Justin’s replacement. “Exactly a year ago.”

  Danny seemed to be working it out. “So when did he meet Dad?”

  “Actually, I’m not sure. Some time after that,”

  Danny was already laughing. “And we won’t go into how they met.”

  “No, quite,” said Alex plonkingly, to hide the fact that he didn’t know and never wanted to. When at last the food arrived, the waiter drained the bottle into Danny’s glass and accepted his enthusiastic nod at the suggestion of another one.

  “He’s quite a change from Simon,” Danny said, holding his knife and fork straight up as his eyes explored a plate of capriciously disguised cuts of guinea-fowl. And again he seemed to be smiling at a recollection he couldn’t politely explain. “Quite a change…”

  There might have been some mockery of Justin in the air, and again Alex, who knew better than anyone what Justin’s failings were, was surprised to find himself lightly wounded on his behalf. “Why, what’s Simon like?”

  Danny w
aited till he’d finished chewing and then said, “You’d have to ask in Golders Green cemetery,” and laughed quietly and bleakly. “No, he died last year.”

  Alex raised his eyebrows and nodded, taking in the fact and with it a sense that he might have been unfair to Robin, whom he’d thought of up to now as a mere loose libido, a lordly saboteur of other people’s happiness. “AIDS?”

  Danny paused and said, “Yeah,” as if it was unnecessary or even bad form to mention it.

  “But…Robin’s okay?”

  “Oh yes.” And with a grin: “My impression is he’s always been a pitcher not a catcher.” Alex wasn’t sure if they both saw the double meaning. He was oppressed again by his own dark inner loop, the melting fade into fade into fade of his memories of sex with Justin. “This is delicious by the way.”

  “Good — this is too,” Alex said, though even the fugitive demands of a souffle were a little much for his amorously shrunken appetite.

  “I mean he looks different, Simon was dark, I suppose they both had rather gorgeous bums. Do you think people always go for the same type?”

  Alex wondered this about himself; part of the point of Danny was that he wasn’t like Justin. “It can be very nice to have a change. Some people have to have a blond, or can only get it up with black guys, or only like short people.” He sounded stolidly expert.

  “Yeah, what about you?”

  “Well, almost everyone’s short to me. Though I admit I never quite see the point of other tall people.”

  “I like the way they go on and on,” Danny said impression-istically.

  “Do you?” Alex gave a grateful smile.

  “I do,” said Danny, acting sly.

  Alex loved being with him, it went off like a rocket in his heart, the fierce ascent and all the soft explosions of descending stars. He wanted passers-by to stop and watch them leaning together in the candlelight and speculate enviously about them. He said, “I suppose the thing is, with types, it’s not so much the look as the psychological thing. Whether you’re drawn to givers or takers.”


  “I’ve got a ruinous taste for takers.”

  Danny was picking ferally at the last brown-mauve flesh on a white bone. “That’s just a typically modest way of saying you’re a giver,” he said, smiling with grease on his lips. “It’s really sweet of you to take me out to dinner.”

  “It’s a pleasure, darling,” Alex murmured, obliterating, with the gentle pounce of his endearment, a momentary discontent — he hadn’t yet said he was treating him, so Danny had robbed him of a moving gesture later in his synopsis for the evening. It was strangely as if Danny knew this when he said,

  “I really want you to have a good time tonight. This is your night.”

  “Is it? Thank you…” said Alex, though still with a feeling that he was being pitied or at least humoured, and that it was “his” night in the exceptional way that a birthday was, or the annual visit to town of a terrified old relative. “Well, I’m in your hands.”

  Danny nodded his head with a firm, self-confident moue. “I thought we could go to Chateau, it’s pretty fantastic right now. If you’d like to.”

  “Great,” said Alex. He’d seen the club’s name fly-posted over derelict shops and on switch-boxes at traffic-lights, and would recognise its logo of an exploding castle. If it had truly been his night he would never have thought of going there. But he kept to his deepening sense that he must put his trust in Danny, who had been sent by the magic of coincidence to take care of him. And he loved dancing, even if he hadn’t done it much in the past ten years; when he imagined bopping around it was to a song called “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” which he knew had been the big hit of summer 84. Sometimes he walked past the queue of a club after a dinner in the West End, saw people keyed-up in front of the ropes, and felt his own inhibitions like forces in the air, dark columns of crushing barometric pressure.

  While they waited for coffee Danny went to the loo. Alex watched his swinging shirt-tail as he sauntered between the tables where suited older men and their glossily coiffed women were expensively stuffing themselves. He found there was something sexy after all in having come to this starchy place, where he and Danny struck a note of casual deviance. Then he watched him coming back, the unemphasised beauty of his strong young body in the bright baggy clothes, the mixture in his face of natural eagerness and moody self-possession. Alex thought to himself, “This isn’t going to happen,” and at once offset the idea with a resolution that he would simply get what fun he could from it. The mechanism of disappointment in him was rapid and supple with use.

  The coffee came, and Danny sat back, turning the little cup with outstretched fingers. “Have you ever done E?” he said, and gave him an amiably calculating look.

  Alex said, “No,” firmly and quietly, perhaps primly. “No, I’m a narcotics virgin, really”; he might as well own up, and indeed he wasn’t ashamed of this, though his choice of words seemed to hint at the need for a deflowering.

  “Nothing?” said Danny, with kindly incredulity. “Never?”

  Alex pondered. “Well, you had to smoke dope at school. But it never did much for me — I stopped when I grew up.”

  “Ouch,” whispered Danny. “You know what I mean.”

  “Didn’t you and Justin do drugs?”

  “Justin has a horror of drugs — if you don’t count alcohol, of course.” Alex paused, still unsure if he should talk about the foibles and phobias of someone he loved and who now stood in a nameless relation — uncle, stepmother — to Danny himself. “He had a bad trip on acid once, when he was a student. He looked in a mirror and his face was all made of animals. He never took anything after that.”

  “Very Arcimboldo,” said Danny.

  Alex was looking ahead, down an avenue of easy-going criminality, with busy shadows between the wide-spaced pools of light. He was pliant and emotional with drink, and said humbly, “You’d have to look after me.”

  Apparently Dave, a friend of Dobbin’s, was the man they had to find. When they were out in the street, Danny recovered his air of bossiness and mystery, like a prefect in the school of pleasure. He conferred on the mobile for a minute, then led the way through a couple of alleys, with people pissing and snogging in them, and out into another busy street, bright with restaurants and cafes, and crowds of drunks threading among the stalled traffic. Alex looked up at the narrow strip of night sky, a pinkish grey, any stars smothered by the glare of the district. Then he found Danny had doubled back abruptly and darted in through the door of a shop; Alex followed him as the strings of the bead curtain swung into his face.

  Dave sat among the shiny flesh-colours of shrink-wrapped pornography and rubber sex-aids like a big black deity in a garish little shrine. He had the jaw and the firm weight of a boxer, but his hair was dyed, like blond astrakhan, and his voice was jaded and high as he tried to hustle a punter into buying a video. “Yeah, you’ll like it. There’s a bit of leather in it. It’s got older guys. You don’t like that? Well, it’s got plenty of young guys too. It’s got everything really…” He winked at Danny as the man, with a briefcase under his arm and perhaps a train to catch, squinted hotly at the TV screen on which an extract was playing. “Can I help you?” he said to Alex, as if dealing with a notorious browser. Alex jumped and clung to Danny’s arm.

  “We’re together!”

  He felt compromised being here, he found pornography depressing, and the glimpse of the video, in which a man was rolling a condom on, was a flustering anticipation of what he hoped himself to be doing in a few hours’ time. He stepped back and wandered round, insofar as wandering was possible, coming face to face with the raring phallus at every turn, like a surreal sequence in a fifties thriller: there was no escape from his depravity. He picked up a magazine called Big Latin Dicks, a title more blunt than exotic; penes magni, he thought, and for some reason found himself imagining the men who printed it, perhaps as equably as if it were Homes and Gardens, and
the men who put it together (“What does your dad do, by the way?” “He’s the deputy editor of Big Latin Dicks. I thought everyone knew that.”)

  Now they were alone and Dave and Danny were talking coolly about doves, pyramids and bulldogs. Alex wasn’t innocent to this of course, and found it had an anxious-making glamour. Dave stood about in the shop, in his tight pin-stripe jeans. “I had Tony Betteridge MP in again tonight,” he said.

  “What was he after?”

  “Oh the usual. I sold him this piss video, that’s his thing, We Aim to Please it’s called, great title. He said, “I’ve had this video before.” I said, “I thought you were into recycling.” ”

  Alex sort of got it, and actually that was one of Justin’s preoccupations that he never went along with. He wondered if Robin was more obliging. “I didn’t know he was gay,” he said.

  “I ought to have photos of them outside, the MPs and that. What do you call it…‘by appointment.’”

  “Testimonials,” said Danny.

  “So what was it?” Dave asked, with a seller’s confident return to the subject of mutual interest. Danny took Alex aside and muttered,

  “Have you got sixty quid?”

  Alex paused. “I can get it.”

  He slipped out of the shop and hurried up the street, already half-expecting to be jumped by the drug-squad, and possibly the vice boys too.

  He paid off the taxi outside the club, and kept close to Danny as they strode past the hundreds of people queuing. At the crowd barrier Danny leant over and kissed the bomber-jacketed security guy on the lips, a few jeering fondnesses were exchanged, and that was all it took — the barrier was pushed back and they walked through, a ripple of nods and calls going over their heads from echelon to echelon of bouncers and greeters to signal their exemption and desirability. Inside the door a beautiful black woman as tall as Alex said “Hello darling” in a chocolatey baritone.

  They were moving at once in the element of music, the earth-tremor bass and penetrating shimmer of high metallic noise. Alex checked his jacket, and as he stepped down with Danny on to the edge of the immense dance-floor, swept by brilliant unpredictable stabs of light, a shiver of recognition ran up him from his heels to his scalp, where it lingered and then gently dropped downwards again through his shoulders and spine. On the wall behind him was a sign saying “Dangerously Loud Music.” Alex was shocked and laughing at the sound. Crowds of men were moving in blurred inexhaustible unison with it. Others, in tiny shorts and lace-up boots, danced alone on platforms above the heads of the crowd, some strutting like strippers, others sprinting on the spot with a flickering semaphore of the arms. And all around the floor, and trailing away into other unguessed spaces, there was an endless jostling parade of half-naked men, faces glowing with happiness and lust. Alex howled “Do you want a drink?” into Danny’s ear.

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