The idea of a kiss that was lost for ever
|Magic moment, 2012 © Uwe Heidschoetter|
To me he had all his own interest, and then the glamour, and the burden, of his short but famous name. It had always been a part of his appeal to me that he was A. V. Dax’s son; just as it was a sign of our friendship that I half-forgot the fact. To him it was a knottier and more inescapable matter.
As I pulled on my coat and reached in the pockets for my gloves I felt that my greater age and experience, the people I knew and the thousands of books I’d read, counted for nothing in his eyes. The War had levelled us, and on this platform he was already standing taller and stronger. [...]
And yet there was something unguardedly boyish about him too. There was even a strange moment towards dawn, when it felt colder than ever, when he asked me what some vaguely emerging landmark was, and leaning by me in the stepped opening of the battlements he put his arm around my shoulders, while with the other hand he pointed and I squinted down his finger as through the sight of a gun. I had never been used to physical contact, and his loose hug flustered me before it warmed me and even cheered me.
The Marcs themselves were welcoming, somehow both earnest and relaxed. Mme Marc, source of Bastien’s large lips and dark eyes, looked steadily at Johnny when they had their exchanges in French: she wanted them to understand each other. And maybe she understood too, from stray glimpses, stifled phrases, the stink of semen in the boys’ room, that something was going on. But he didn’t think so; and if she did, her looking him so firmly in the eye was a sign of her French intelligence on all things to do with sex.
Johnny stood there as if lost, but conscious now of another man, a live one, reflected in the glass as he strolled and scuffed and stopped along the far side of the room, a bit older than himself, with short dark hair and an amusing face, black flared jeans and a duffel coat; the waiting and pacing deepened his appeal, as did the risk of him passing on, a missed chance. In a minute he came alongside, craned forward to search for what Johnny saw in the photo, while Johnny shifted from one foot to the other as if magnetized and touched shoulder to shoulder with him. The man stepped back a fraction and peered quizzically at Johnny, then back to the photo, as if finding a likeness and then accepting how absurd, and hilarious, it would have been if one of the long-haired men in the bedroom had been Johnny himself. Johnny was slow to see this, and when the stranger said, ‘Not you, then?’ he was able to laugh, ‘Oh . . . no!’ with sufficient surprise and briefly touched the man’s arm.
Their conversation went by loops and catches then, while they drifted from picture to picture in an English uncertainty about how seriously to take them. They touched shoulder to shoulder again as they tested each other’s tone, and knowledge. It was beautiful the instinct of it, quite new and alarming too to Johnny, though the idea that he fancied the man grew as it was encouraged and returned, and was smoothly akin to their joint enjoyment of the art, which now mattered rather less. He found he was called Colin, not a name he liked, but he adjusted to it – it made him fancy him more. Still the polite uncertainty survived, after the last picture, and they drifted back through the two rooms, nodding and saying yes to the ones they’d agreed on before. Then they were out in St Martin’s Place together, a cold wind blowing and a quick decision made.
Johnny, stung, had to touch him – it was a pat on the shoulder, as he turned and went towards the barrier with the idea of a kiss that was lost for ever stiffening his face. Ivan too had turned and moved away, and once he’d shown his ticket Johnny was gripped for the second time by the pain of not having acted, and under it, a little salve, the sense of having escaped.
To Ivan there was something more stirring than their kisses in Evert’s eyes, which had looked at lovers long before he was born, and now looked at him. He lifted his glasses off, leant aside to place them on the table, quick practicalities deepening the charm of the moment, the surrender to what had to happen. Evert blinked at him, his face naked for the first time, his bed-face – he groped Ivan, ran his hands up over his chest, ‘I can’t see a thing . . .’ and down very confidently to rub and squeeze the hard ridge trapped at an angle in his jeans. It was as if with his glasses off he couldn’t be seen: he coloured up not with shyness but with re-engaged appetite.
Johnny weighed up the situation. ‘Well, it’s good to come back to someone years later. They’ve changed, and so have you.’
‘God knows,’ said his father, and after a second looked straight at him.
Alan Hollinghurst - The Sparsholt affair (Picador-2017)