The Spell

By Alan Hollinghurst

Vintage Books USA

Copyright © 1999 Alan Hollinghurst
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780099276944

Chapter One

He wondered if the boy had lost the way. They had started out on a driven track half-covered with small noisy stones; but it faded, was found again for half a mile, where it followed the rim of a dry wash, and then died away among the windswept contours and little dusty bushes of the desert. The pick-up roared on across long inclines of grey dirt. The boy kept his foot down and stared straight ahead, as if unable to consider the possibilities that lay to left and right. He was almost smiling -- Robin couldn't decide if from nerves or from the pleasure a local person has in scaring and disorienting a stranger. An empty bottle rolled and clinked against the metal supports of the bench-seat. Robin sat with his forearm braced in the open window, and grunted involuntarily at each bump and drop: academic research had never been so wayward or so physical. He found that he was smiling too, and that he was not only shaken but happy.

    They reached a low crest and there beneath them spread thirty or forty miles of silvery waste, crossed by the quick eclipses of windy sunlight; the wide plain was rifted with gulleys and dry riverbeds, and climbed distantly to mountains which were radiant towers in the west and unguessable obscurities in the blackly shadowed south. This was what he wanted to see: it was what had brought a rich man and his architect here half a century ago. It wasn't a terrain that could be ploughed or grazed or humbled by use: nothing could have altered unless by the gradual violence of winds and storm rains. The pick-up slowed, and Robin imagined that even his guide, who had surely seen nothing but this country all his life, was responding to its magic or its admonishment.

    `What are those mountains called?' he shouted over the churning of the engine and the racket of stones and grit against the bottom of the vehicle. The boy looked stoopingly across, and out beyond Robin at the morning-bright bluffs to the west. He nodded several times, perhaps he had only understood the word mountains, or was hesitating before so many mountains, with so many names.

    Suddenly the cab was full of sand. The boy gave a wordless shout and the pick-up pitched sideways, the windscreen was dark with sliding sand, sand pumped through the open windows in a pelting rattle and in a moment was heavy in their laps and round their feet. Robin squeezed his eyes shut on the sting of it, and felt the boy's arm in his side, scrabbling for the gear-shift. He gulped a breath and was choking and spitting out sand, while the van stood still, or was it vaguely sliding. Then the engine rose to a scream, the sand came alive again, and they were lurching upwards and ahead in a panic of burning revs. Robin thought they wouldn't do it, weighed down by the element they were struggling with. He wondered if the sand was bottomless.

    When they were free of it they shot forward across the slope, as if the racing machinery couldn't be reined in; or as if the invisible pit they had blundered into might follow after them, like a hungry and offended spirit of the place, clothed in a spiralling storm.

    There wasn't much to see, and as Robin dawdled reverently around with his camera and his notebook he was unsure if the scare in the car had made the destination more preciously perilous or more evidently not worth the effort. Much of the house had been built of wood, marked grey and rose in Wright's insouciant sketches, or of canvas, which was useless against the freezing desert nights, and equally combustible. All that remained standing, at the end of a terrace of fissured concrete, was the rough bulk of the hearth and the chimney-stack, a little tower of boulders, the bluntly symbolic heart of the place. Robin knelt among ashes, paper rubbish, a half-burnt creosote-bush, and squinted up the open flue at the square of bright eggshell. People had been here, hundreds probably, scholars and students, and the unfriendly reflective men who lived in the spell of the desert. He touched the blackened stones and thought of other lonely places -- roofless cottages on Welsh mountains, pissed-in pillboxes squatting in the fields at home; and there was something of the outpost in this ruined site, of duty and homesickness. But then he straightened up and saw the view.

    Away to the right, the boy was bailing sand out of the footwells of the car; he did it slowly, with an air of resentment at his own folly, and doubtless respect for the heat. Nothing was worth rushing -- except driving itself, of course, unlicensed, off-road: that was the thrill for a teenage Indian with a father drunk and hostile at nine in the morning. Robin felt the constraints of the boy's silence drop away: the day was balanced between the upland cool in which it had started and the steeper heat to come. He took off his shirt, and felt deliciously both hot and cold at the same time. He clambered up and away from the site, among shaly hillocks, and chose a place to sit.

    He had a copy of Wright's plans in his knapsack, and a single photo of the finished house, leached of detail by sunlight and reproduction -- a copy of a copy of a copy. From here he could see the vestigial triangle of the layout, and, matching a distant mountain with a grey shadow in the picture, admire the defiant caprice of the project. He hoped he had shown a similar spirit in coming here.

    He had never seen a desert before, nothing much emptier than the cropped Dorset heaths of his childhood, with clumps of pine, and the broom-pods popping like pistol-caps in the June heat; nothing much grander than Snowdon or Sca Fell. He liked it, the warm smell of the sagebrush, and the bitter-green herblike plants that grew sparsely under the rocks. The place was desolate but the air was benign, and had high flickers of birdsong in it -- what were they, springing upwards from the shelter of bushes? Not larks. The word fieldfare came sheepishly to mind.

    He was twenty-three, and it was his first time in America. He found the company of Americans made him stiff and formal, though these were qualities he was unaware of in himself before. His vocabulary felt embarrassingly large and accurate, though in conversation he had a recurrent sense of inarticulacy. He was doing research for a doctoral thesis, but knew he was ignorant of the simplest things in the landscape he had come, in part, to see. Still, he anticipated discovery; as he sat frowning into the sun, with little breezes curling over his naked back, he felt he had Americas in him -- he had never been so alert or so free.

    A little way off from the concrete standing he scuffed over something white and squatted down to pick it out of the dust. It was a rough piece of sanitary porcelain, about three inches square, with the letters SEMPE on it, perhaps part of SEMPER, forever. He smiled at that, and because there was also an architect called Semper, so very different from Frank Lloyd Wright. With a quick suppression of ethical doubt, he opened his knapsack and dropped it in.

    Back at the pick-up his driver sprawled behind the open passenger-door and smoked a cigarette. His blue T-shirt was dark with sweat, and his cheeks were red in his wide brown face. He raised his eyebrows as if to say `All done?', and Robin said, `Did you get it cleaned out?'

    The boy flicked away the stub and stood up, shrugging his head from side to side and tugging up his belt. The open bed of the vehicle wouldn't have passed any very exacting inspection, but it was probably good enough for this dusty country. Robin assumed that no worse damage had been done. `Go back,' said the boy, in a way that was both a question and its answer, but also held a hint of a rebuff. Robin was faintly hurt that, even after the fright they'd shared, his companion was so uncompanionable; he hardened himself against him, and protected his elation, which in some novel way sprang both from the visionary light of the place and from a thrilled muscular sense of himself. And a little bit, of course, from having walked a site that was sacred -- at least to one of them. `Yes, let's go,' he said airily, and turned for a last attempt at consuming the view. The distances had begun their delusory oscillations, He felt he wanted to store up the light inside him.

    The black fabric of the seat was hot and Robin spread his shirt over it. The car crept off up the hillside: he thought the return journey might be more circumspect. For five minutes or so they trundled across what still seemed to him unmarked territory, unrecognisable from the outward ride. The boy continued to stare narrowly ahead; then Robin realised he was looking at him -- occasional glances, meant to be noticed. He half-turned in his seat, with a smile that was ready to absorb sarcasm, but could warm into friendship if that was allowed.

    `So you big strong-guy.' His driver's social opener, impossible to have predicted. And was it mocking or admiring after all? Robin looked down at himself. In England, in Cambridge, his friends made jokes about his natural pleasure in pulling his clothes off -- jokes that he saw as admissions of envy and covert excitement. But here in the desert maybe his unthinking health and handsomeness struck a vulgar touristic note?

    He explained himself solemnly: `I do a lot of rowing, actually. And I play rugby' -- and then saw that neither term had the remotest meaning here. He mimed a couple of pulls on the oars, and then said, `Rugby is like American football, of course. In a way.'

    The pick-up rattled on, tilted on a long curving hillside so that he slid a little towards the boy. He was wondering how to salvage and further the conversation, and as he did so drifting his fingertips unconsciously over the plumped biceps of his other arm, angled in the open window. His mind ran on to the later part of the day -- he needed lunch as if he was still in training, the carbohydrate boost; then a nap in the louvred half-light of the inn room, under the lulling sigh of the ceiling fan; then writing up his notes on the Ransom House. And an evening to follow, in a strange city; he knew there would be drink in it, and he wanted there to be sex, though he couldn't see how it would come about. Perhaps it was all that sport that had made him susceptible to the smell of sweat; the unwashed presence of the driver, the sharp warmth of his worked-in vest, blustered across him in the cab. He slid an unusually sly glance between the young man's legs, and was caught in a dreamlike few seconds of conjecture, the simultaneous narrative of sex that never happens. So that when the boy said, `Hey, don't tell my pa', with his fullest and yet most anxious smile so far, Robin thought for a moment that the fantasy was shared, or that he must unknowingly have made a proposition. He found he was blushing. `About sand-trap, man.'

    Robin looked ahead and thought he saw the original trail again. By and large he had been well treated. `Oh, no -- of course not.' And really the idea was absurd -- he had the itch as usual but he didn't fancy the boy, to whom such an activity, whatever activity it was, might well have been repugnant.

    For a dollar more he drove him on, past the desolate Indian village and his father, scowling and stumbling by the road, and right into Phoenix. Robin asked no questions, though he registered the tense smoking of a second cigarette. To the boy it was a kind of escape, if only to the familiar limits of a further compound; while to Robin every store-front and hoarding and road-sign had the saturated glamour of America: so that they both felt pleasure, in separate and unshared ways. At first it seemed a little embarrassing to rumble into town in a battered old pick-up with a windscreen that was two arcs in a shield of dirt; but then Robin sprawled and embraced his situation. He wondered if he might be taken for someone local, but knew at once he was too bright with involuntary interest for that. The young people they passed outside a bar had long hair, and beards, silver jewellery and bright, tatty clothes; one of them was concentrating on a small recorder, whose failing notes gave Robin a twinge of loneliness.

    They took an indirect route, he suspected, to his hotel; maybe the boy knew a short-cut, maybe he was conditioned to go a certain way that he had learnt in going somewhere else. It was midday, many of the streets were empty under the glare of the sun. I need a baseball-cap, Robin thought: then I'll fit in. There were breezes in the garden palms and shade trees of the sidewalk, but the heat, though longed for, was slightly shocking, like someone else's habitual luxury. They came almost to a halt at the end of one of the bleak cross-alleys that bisected the blocks -- a central gutter, garbage cans, cables, the barred back-windows of stores and restaurants. The boy pointed and said,

    `Good bar, Blue Coyote', and nodded several times.

    `Oh ... is it?' Robin squinted sceptically into the empty sun-struck defile. He thought it must belong to a member of the family. He hoped he wasn't suggesting they go there now.

    `You like it.'

    `Okay, thank you ... I'll remember that', looking forward again, suddenly impatient for the hotel and the meal; but thinking, so rare were his guide's pronouncements, that he probably would remember it. And it turned out to be very close to where they finally stopped, by the shabby-romantic deco San Marcos, with its peeling pink lobby and display of grotesque old succulents.

    Robin found himself waiting for change, then was ashamed at his meanness and raised his hand to stop the boy's unproductive gropings in a back pocket; he thought he probably didn't have change, and that he had gone just too far to save them both from embarrassment. The boy gave a dignified nod. Robin smiled his clean seducer's smile, though it was a mask to his confusion, his fleeting apprehension not of the honoured quaintness of being British, but of the class sense which tinted or tainted all his dealings with the world. He stuck out a hand. `I'm Robin,' he said.

    `Victor,' the driver replied, and gave the hand a lazy shake.

    `Hi!' said Robin; and then got out of the car.

    The Blue Coyote had no windows, and so saw nothing of the boulevard-raking sunset, or the gorgeous combustion westward over the mountains. When he found you had to ring a bell, he almost turned away, it was only a whim to have an early-evening drink there; but the door half-opened anyway and he was appraised by a stout young man who wore shades for the task and who stood aside with an accepting `Yep'.

    Any light in the room was husbanded and shielded -- by the fake overhanging eaves of the bar and the hooded canopy above the pool table. Even before the door had shut behind him, Robin felt at a disadvantage. It was the gloomiest bar he'd ever been in and seemed designed to waken unease in the stumbling newcomer, eyed from the shadows by the dark-adapted regulars. A hush had fallen as he entered. He felt foolish to be so suggestible, so lightly carried here by his new sense of ease and possibility. Then `Automatically Sunshine' sang out from the juke-box and as if startled from hypnosis the drinkers set down their glasses, the talkers resumed their murmur, the pool-player blinked and stooped and potted his ball.

    The barman poured the beer straight into the glass, so that the froth was at the brim in a second, and then over the brim; and stood the half-full bottle by it on the wet counter. `So what part of England are you from?' he said, with a frown that might have meant distrust of England in general, or the suspicion that he might not know the part, once named. He was a large man in his fifties, with a black pencil moustache and an air of having borne indignities.

    Robin said, `Oh, sort of south-west. Dorset? Is where I grew up.'

    `Dorset. Oh yeah, I heard of that,' said the barman, taking the dollar bill with a little twinkle of self-congratulation.

    Robin turned and leant on the bar and scanned the room with a pretence of indifference. He watched a long-haired young man talking to an older businessman, who must just have come from work; making a point to him with hands jerked up and up in the air, and then, as the businessman laughed, smiling at him and bringing his hands to rest on his shoulders, the thumbs moving to a gentle caress behind his ears. Robin looked quickly away, and at the man on a barstool beside him, who he knew at once had been gazing at him with the same unsubtle fascination. He took in the glossy dark hair, the long humorous face, the legs apart in tight flared jeans. `I guess I must have been in Dorset when I was down in Plymouth,' he said.

    `You might have passed through Dorset,' said Robin punctiliously; `though Plymouth itself is in Devonshire.'

    The man smiled in a way that suggested he knew that. `I'm Sylvan,' he said.

    Robin accepted the information broad-mindedly. `Robin, hi!' he said, and extended his callused rower's hand.

    `Oh, okay ...' Sylvan raising his hand from his knee and complying with the courtesy; and smiling rather insistently as if to press the stranger to a quick glowing acknowledgement of something as yet unsaid. Robin knew what it was and hid his indecision, and the snug sense of power it gave him, in an English innocence.

    `What took you to Plymouth?'

    Sylvan looked down. `Oh, family. That kind of thing.' Then bright and intimate again: `What brings you to the Valley of the Sun?'

    It was never easy saying these things to strangers. `Research, actually.' He slid the rest of the beer gently into the tilted glass. `Yeah, I'm doing some stuff on Frank Lloyd Wright?' He saw he'd already got the habit of the interrogative statement. He glanced up at Sylvan.

    `Okay, so you've been out to Taliesin West, you've seen the ... stumps, those big pillars of the Pauson House, all that's left of them. What else?'

    Robin smiled sportingly, and absorbed the fact that he was a tourist among many others. `No, I've only just arrived.'

    `First stop the Blue Coyote. A man who knows what he's after.' Sylvan slapped the bar lightly. `I could do a lot of that kind of research. Same again please, Ronnie,' to the turning barman. `And another beer?'

    `I'm fine,' said Robin. `No, I've been out to the ruins of the Ransom House today.'

    Sylvan paused and nodded. `Yeah. That's serious. I never saw that. You know, if you're in school here, you get to do all of that stuff. I remember the day he died, old Frankie Lloyd, and the teacher comes in for art class and tells us with a real catch in his voice, you know?, "ladies and gentlemen ..." We were all pretty upset.' He looked at Robin with a wistful pout, as if he still needed consoling. `So how the hell d'you get out there? You got four-wheel drive?'

    `I got an Indian from the reservation to drive me,' said Robin, still proud of his initiative.

    `Wo-ho! And you lived to tell the tale?'

    `Just about, yes ...' -- and now he was uneasy about grudges and feuds, the hardened candour with which a local hopes to disabuse the naively fair-minded newcomer. He wouldn't tell him about the sand-trap. `No, he was great. Just a kid.'

    Sylvan looked at him with concern. `Well you were lucky, man. Cos I'm telling you, they are the worst.'

    It was true that Victor had been an unsettling driver. But he'd also been clairvoyant. In the moment or two that Robin disliked Sylvan he saw how beautiful he was; and surely available to him, completely at his pleasure, if he said the word. He had to frown away the smile that rose to his lips on a kind of thermal of lust.

    `It's the drink or it's the peyote,' Sylvan went on, fluttering a hand beside his head to suggest a crazy befuddlement.

    `Oh ...'

    `You know peyote? Edible cactus. Gives you visions, man,' Sylvan swaying his head and making a little crooning sound. Then grinning and putting a reassuring hand on Robin's own, and leaving it there. `No, it's part of their religion. Isn't that great? Big ceremony, eat peyote, trip out ... Of course the kids here are into all that now, the hippies? They go out in the desert and they're out of their fuckin' heads for days on end.'

    Robin wasn't sure if that was a good idea or not. He'd got a kind of trance off the desert as it was, he could breathe in and feel it again now, a partly physical elation; and something else, that perhaps was religious, or at least philosophical, the inhuman peace. He pictured that burnt-out folly, which was a lesson taught to a wealthy family who presumed they could make a home in such a place and lay a claim to it. Was it $10,000 they'd spent just on drilling for water? He was watching a very camp couple smoking and bawling with laughter. He thought how he wasn't that kind of person. He shifted his weight so that his leg pressed against Sylvan's knee. He realised he'd had a plan for the evening involving dinner and a phone-call; but the plan was meaningless in face of the unplanned. With a little freeing twist he withdrew his fingers and then slid them back between the other man's.

    `So ...' said Sylvan.

    Robin looked into his long-lashed, untrustworthy eyes. `Is there a phone here?' he said. `I must just make a quick call.'

    The phone was in the back by the Gents, in an area even bleaker and more functional than the bar. He dialled and stood gazing at the deadpan irony of an old enamel sign saying `NO LOITERING'. He wasn't a loiterer. To him the words had only ever meant `Get on with it!' When he made his infrequent visits to the lays at Parker's Piece or in the Market Square, eyebrows raised as if at the exploits of someone else, he always seemed to find gratification at once, from a man who clearly was a loiterer, and had probably been loitering for hours. He was through to the operator, who sounded relaxed, almost sleepy, but a nice woman, who took pleasure in bringing sundered friends together. A man came past and nodded `Hi!' to him, like an overworked colleague -- Robin gave an abstracted smile and peered into the imagined middle-distance of the expectant caller. He was both keen to talk and keen to have the conversation over.

    When Jane answered he was talking at once, and he felt it like a rebuke when the operator spoke over him to ask her if she would accept the call.

    Then, `Hello Janey, it's me,' he said, `did I wake you up?' -- and heard his words repeated, with a fractional delay, by the unsparing mimicry of the transatlantic echo.

    `No, I was awake,' she said, as if it might be an emergency.

    `It must be quite late.'

    `It's twenty past one.'

    `Anyway, you're all right?'

    `Is everything all right?'

    `Yes, it's amazing, I can't tell you.'

    `Because if it is, I'm so glad you rang.'

    `Oh thank you, darling,' murmured Robin, with a vague sense of undeserved success. `I just wanted to hear your voice, and tell you I'm all in one piece' -- and the echo gave him back his last words. When he spoke again, he found she was already talking.

    `Actually I was asleep. I'd just got off, I'm extremely tired, but I'm so excited at the moment that it's quite difficult to go to sleep.'

    Robin had left her only two days earlier and her words were at odds with his assumption that she must be missing him terribly. He was jealous of her excitement, but also reassured, in a way, that she could be excited without him; she seemed to license his own unmentioned freedoms. `Has something happened?' he asked lightly and cautiously. He was surprised to hear a giggle, maybe just a sign of nerves.

    `Something clearly has happened: in fact you probably remember it. More important, something's going to happen.'

    He thought how you never really pictured a friend when you spoke to them on the phone: they had the shadowiness of memory, of something not looked at directly; you saw a presence in a half-remembered room or merely a floating image of their house or street. The phone Jane was a subtly stronger character -- darker, more capricious and capable -- than the Jane he lived with and loved. He said, `Have you got another interview?'

    `Oh really.' There was a pause in which he pondered why this was wrong. `Robin, I'm pregnant. We're going to have a baby.'

    It was the `we' that disconcerted him. He thought for a moment she was referring to herself and some other man. And even when he saw, almost at once, that he must himself be the father, he retained an eerie sense that she had somehow done this without him.

    `Oh Janey, that's fantastic.'

    `Are you pleased?'

    `Of course I am. Christi When will it be? I mean it will change everything.'

    `Oh ...'

    `Or a lot of things. Will we have to get married?'

    `Well, we'll have to think about it, won't we? It's not till June.' She sounded mischievous, dawdling; and also to Robin indefinably larger. His blurred mental image of her had taken on already the pronounced jut of advanced pregnancy.

    He dawdled himself when the call was over, with its awkwardly near-simultaneous `Bye's and `Love you's. His eyes ran abstractedly over the `NO LOITERING' sign while the news moved slowly and spasmodically through him. In a play or on television the phrase `I'm pregnant' was often a clincher, it solved things, or at least decided them. Robin gasped softly, and chewed his lip, and then smiled and nodded in a good-humoured acquiescence which there was no one there to see. It was still the first moment, but he saw himself in the sleepless moil of early parenthood, and felt a plunging anxiety, as if he had inadvertently ruined not only his own young life but someone else's too. But then nudging the worry came a reluctantly conceded pride, a nostalgia for his friends at the crew's steak dinner and the 1st XV feast, who would have stood him drinks all night and shared in his achievement with foul-mouthed shock and envy.

    He probably couldn't tell Sylvan. He would go back into the bar as if he hadn't just had a conversation that changed his life. He saw perhaps he could forget the conversation, and put off his new life till the morning. A beautiful man was waiting for him and Robin glowed in the urgency and the lovely complacency of their wanting each other. He wanted nothing in his mind, in his sight, in his hands but Sylvan. He span back into the bar almost in a panic for Sylvan.


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