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Ain't Too Early (and it Ain't Too Late)

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The first sensation of seeing him – shock, a kind of shivery heat, strangely fearful confusion – vanished swiftly. It was swallowed by the automatic assumption that the sight could not be true.

 

Laurence Laurentz’s career had depended sufficiently on skill in visual lying, in oh so many ways, for him to know how easily one was trapped.

 

Recognition had initially transfixed Laurence, yes. That strange skein of emotions, familiar from the set of Merrily, running stiff threads of tension through his body. But all that was – had to be – based on a mistake.

 

Because the young man chatting, laughing, in a group on other side of the terrace, across the rippling, sparkling blue of Rock Henson’s swimming pool, could not possibly be Hobie Doyle.

 

Bright sunshine and one too many post-prandial brighteners might have been clouding Laurence’s vision. It was the sort of day you only seemed to get in Hollywood Hills, all blue sky and ozone, stark and sticky and like every breath carried an undertone of dust. All the guests were in dark glasses, even here at this party where to be recognised was not only likely – the men at these gatherings knew one from other anatomical features besides the face – but arguably safe.

 

But Laurence hadn’t felt safe as he’d turned his back on the pool area and headed on up the brief rise of the patio and into the main house. It was a modern, open-plan and well-lit design, and the lounge had wide picture windows. On some previous visits to this house, Laurence had sat watching the sunset through them. Today, though, as usual at these larger parties, the curtains had been lowered on their automatic fixtures and within the room it was dark, men’s upturned faces lit silver by celluloid, as if in a false moonlight.

 

It was only later, wandering back out onto the terrace – the sky now turning red and majestic, the citrus scent of candles to keep the insects back, the harsh blend of nicotine, pot and male sweat – that Laurence looked again, saw again and thought it really is him.

 

Hobart Howard Methuselah Doyle, as his mother had apparently christened him before having the good grace to remove herself from the world lest she be allowed to name anyone else. And when had Hobie told Laurence all that? Laurence couldn’t remember whether the occasion had been the third day trying to make Hobie cry in Merrily’s hotel lobby scene – truthfully, Dr Freud had nothing on what a director sometimes had to plumb in the histories of people set before them - or whether it was the one morning that Hobie had ever arrived late to set, (Hobie’s birthday, it had emerged), and whether Hobie had said it then the first time, talking about being an orphan boy on a dude ranch and completely ruining one of Laurence’s best monogrammed silk handkerchiefs.

 

‘Many happy returns’ had seemed like an inappropriate sentiment after that, even giving a gift in poor taste. The studio had sent an elaborate and very American fruit basket which Hobie had regarded as some men might have a grenade. Laurence had compromised by letting him keep the handkerchief and sending him home early, and getting bits of the script re-written all over again.

 

The thing was, Merrily We Dance had been an entirely decent play. But the version Laurence and Hobie and poor old Joel Kleineman and his typewriter and correction fluid had come up with in the end? That had won Oscars.

 

The ceremony had been the last time Laurence and Hobie had met. Hobie had been sheepish, clutching his statuette like it might melt away, ‘Aw gosh’-ing his way round the party. He’d been tired, though, as well, lines under his eyes, that shuffle in his step from the old break in his leg. Laurence been conscious of hovering, and then of hiding.

 

HIs head was aching a little now, temples tight with dehydration – it had been too stuffy in the crowded lounge where the portable screen and film projector had been set up, and the mood which had begun as titillating gone too quickly to the coarse, to sounds and sights that to him were somehow no longer appealing.

 

During the third reel – the one with the two young men and the black rubber dildo, Laurence had seen that film before and the camerawork was particularly egregious – one of the other guests, a lithely muscular chap dressed in swimming trunks and tooth whitener, had put his hand hopefully into Laurence’s crotch. That was when the headache had set in.

 

Sometimes Laurence wondered if he was getting old.

 

Maybe that was why he had thought he could see Hobie Doyle – upright, forthright, boy howdy, outdoor living, rootin’ tootin’, beans and bacon Hobie Doyle – at the swish party of the year. What IS the collective noun for fags, darling? A man inside at the screening had muttered to Laurence. A shimmering? A bitchness? A rogering?

 

Was Hobie in fact here, but only in consequence of being accidentally lost? Entirely possible, generally speaking – Hobie would have left a broken down car, for example, and wandered to the nearest house for help with a open-hearted optimism, and perhaps not even have noticed that the party was overwhelmingly tipped toward the male of the species and that in it’s most naturalistic form. But Hobie’s sense of direction, if Laurence recalled correctly, was actually rather good.

 

On one of the off-days, during the Merrily location shoot in Wisconsin, Hobie had gone off horse trekking. He’d rode out quite alone and been away long enough that some of the staff had started to twitch, and talk about search parties and falls and broken legs. It had been in the moonlight that Hobie had returned – Laurence hadn’t joined the party waiting for him, as such, but it wasn’t a big ranch, only so many places to sit and smoke. Hobie had looked so much happier, after his day riding, than Laurence had ever seen him before. That was when he’d realised how to coach Hobie through the ending scenes, the part where his character resigned himself gracefully to his wife’s betrayal, looking serene and distant and as though he had an inner peace the envy of all.

 

Laurence had never thought of those scenes in relation to himself, to Burt, until suddenly they all seemed to be.

 

Hobie had come to take Laurence away from the bar, the last day those scenes were shot. Not clear, then or since, why it had been Hobie and not a runner. They’d driven down dark, tree-lined roads and Hobie had just kept looking forward, steady. Perhaps they’d talked a little then, drunk and desultory and innocent and uncomprehending by turns – it wasn’t like Laurence remembered, or cared to try to.

 

The next day Hobie hadn’t even mentioned it. Laurence certainly wasn’t going to raise the topic first. Besides, his skull had been thundering. He’d dreaded getting Hobie through that day’s shoot but it was mostly shots of Hobie wandering down his character’s ‘home town’ streets looking determined and confused, which was probably the look Hobie wore when he woke up in the morning.

 

Now, Laurence moved carefully down the wide steps towards the cocktail bar. A beautiful dark-skinned man in a pristine white jacket stood with his shaker in hand, ready and waiting.

 

“Yes sir? Anything you fancy?”

 

Laurence permitted himself a mirthless chuckle.

 

He examined the bottles and ran through his mental index. Drinks and men, they both went in themes for him. Baird Whitlock and Long Island Ice Teas, because Baird needed at least five kinds of liquor at once before he’d admit he liked cock. Drake Shelton and plain orange juice because Drake was always on a health kick except for the little business of the Benzedrine. Cosmo Brown and Don Lockwood, that one night they’d invited Laurence back to their cosy flat when he was new on the Hollywood scene, their whisky sours all rich and welcoming, their flirtation gentle and affectionate.

 

Teddy Earnshaw. Teddy Earnshaw and Larry Smith, as Laurence had been then, all those decades ago, hiding out in Teddy’s Mum’s room and drinking the brandy she kept in the cupboard, giggling and kissing and gasping into discoveries together. Teddy had died in the war, been married by then with three children. Laurence sent the widow a card and a cheque, she’d returned both.

 

Burt. Burt and his stupid White Russians, vodka, Tia Maria and cream all mixed into what Laurence had considered a puerile and unappetising mess – that choice of drink was supposed, presumably, to have been a joke of some kind. Or a clue? Whoever knew with Burt. Burt who could move like a syncopated cat with oiled joints, whose cock was slender and cut and whose spunk Laurence could still sometimes taste in the back of his throat.

 

Burt had always been a mistake. From the first time they’d got together – after one of Rock’s parties, no less – Laurence had known that. But Burt had been there, available and pliant and in no way especially objectionable. Burt had seemed… safe.

 

When he’d gone to look at Burt’s room after Burt first vanished, Laurence had been startled to realise what a blank it was. Evidently Burt had been plotting and planning all that time but there was nothing to give any sign. If Laurence had been directing the scene, rather than just living it, a beam of light would have highlighted something metaphorical – a hammer and sickle discarded from a workbox, or a red scarf, or even the stupid vodka. But the room just had a collection of magazines with Burt in, some with porn in (some of these overlapped) and a lot of material on raising healthy dogs.

 

Laurence had painstakingly sorted out whatever Burt’s mother might like to keep and then burnt the lot of it anyhow. How could he have explained himself to her?

 

By Burt’s account, she wasn’t a nice woman anyway. But then Burt hadn’t been a particularly kind person himself, not when you got to know him.

 

“Sir?” the bartender prompted.

 

“Lemonade,” Laurence said, “if you’d be so good. Thank you.”

 

The incident in Wisconsin had scared Laurence sufficiently to make all day drinking more of rarity. You couldn’t work in the industry and be completely dry, and some days just keeping going from dawn to dusk seemed unthinkable without the cushioning grace of alcohol. But that was the last time it had been bad enough to lose his memory.

 

He couldn’t have told Hobie about these parties that day, surely? But if Hobie was here – Laurence dared to sneak a sideways glance, and again had to conclude that there was no ‘if’ about it – if Hobie was here by anyone else’s summons, then who? Which man had decided to work on Hobie? Who would have looked at that pile of gangly goodwill and hayseed wisdom and curls and…

 

Merrily had been such a success, of course, in the end. All that sweat and editing and compromise had somehow produced a movie even Eddie Mannix had shed a tear at. Hobie was a rising star at Capitol Pictures and that never hurt a man’s charms, even if he had few to begin with. Mannix had mentioned something about an upcoming big budget musical – You’ve heard the kid sing, Laurence? He’s not Olivier, OK, I grant you that, but have you heard the kid sing?

 

Laurence had, as a matter of fact. Hobie usually sang on the way to and from his trailer, without any apparent consciousness of doing so. Laurence would find himself humming things about cattle in meadows and hay on hilltops all day long. It had been most irritating.

 

Cradling his lemonade to his chest, Laurence wandered to the wall edging the terrace area, over which could be seen the view of the valley below and the mountains beyond, darkening as the sun set. It looked like the start of a film, or perhaps the end of one. Superimpose ‘The End’ on this image, roll credits and music, a story neatly tied up, a moral made, a tale told.

 

He’d even thought he might have got there, with Burt. To the fade away and end, to the ‘and they lived happily ever after’ with nothing left but routine. They hadn’t, perhaps, been tremendously happy but they’d been used to each other. And the sex had been, frankly, excellent. Burt had understood what Laurence wanted, even if he wasn’t always polite about it, or about Laurence liking what he liked. You full yet? he’d used to whisper in Laurence’s ear, bearing down on him, piercing in.

 

One could wonder which role Hobie likes to take, with whoever Hobie’s here with, except Laurence was not going to wonder that, and was not going to even turn around and look again. He’d have this lemonade and maybe he’d just go. Get in his car and get home to bed. He been looking forward to maybe getting some company in that bed tonight, but now he just felt… empty.

 

“Hey there, Mr Laurentz, sir.”

 

Laurence closed his eyes for a moment.

 

It was Hobie. In the flesh and right next to him. Hobie, still looking just like Hobie. Still wearing a thong at his neck, not a tie. Still like he’d fallen off a hayrick yesterday.

 

Still with his messy curls and his eyes wide and full of starlight and hope. Still with his slight, nervous smile over those deceptively perfect teeth.

 

“Laurence,” Laurence corrected, automatically. And then, giving in, “My dear boy, what are you doing here?”

 

Hobie’s face went serious. He frowned, brow furrowing.

 

“Guess I came to see you. Laurence.”

 

“But why would you…” Laurence broke off, stared back.

 

His heart was pounding in his chest. Hobie wasn’t safe at all. Hobie had never been safe, never been entirely predictable.

 

Hobie, however, had always been kind.

 

Laurence swallowed. “I’m not sure, Hobie, if you understand what you’re saying.”

 

“Words was never my strong point, huh?” Hobie stepped forward a little. Slowly, he leant in.

 

His lips were warm, his taste fleeting as he pulled away.

 

“You understand now?” Hobie asked.

 

Laurence blinked. “No,” he said, truthfully, and felt suddenly very light. “But perhaps you can explain further.”

 

It wasn’t shock, actually. It wasn’t surprise. It wasn’t a twist in the tale. It felt, strangely, wonderfully, like it made perfect sense.