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The folding star histori.., p.10
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       The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.10

           Alan Hollinghurst
 

  I had picked a locker in an odd corner, an alcove almost. The fair boy, the skinny lover, was in there now, back turned, a towel over his shoulders. I must have said something – just a swimmer’s bark perhaps – and he twisted round with my wallet in his hands. Beside him the locker-door was open, my wet shorts still hanging from the pin of the key, revolving slowly and dripping on to the concrete floor.

  He threw the wallet on to the bench as if it were distasteful to him, as if he had been tricked into picking it up in the street; and came round me quite fast, tossing his damp hair back off his face. He couldn’t have run far in the state he was in, but he might have headed back to the pool, where it would have been harder for a diffident foreigner to make a fuss. I’m sure he would have dodged me in some way, if his friend hadn’t come pounding along the alleyway of lockers and hanging coats, grim-faced but with a trace of chancy humour still in the eyebrows, ready in case the situation could be saved with a joke. I imagined a good deal of crap was about to be talked, and a lot of conning extenuation produced to block my path to a proper complaint or report. But my dark young decoy didn’t have to claim a part in this, he could have played ignorant, and when he came marching to his friend’s aid, his strong little cock bobbing, I was obscurely touched and confused in the midst of my anger.

  ‘Has he taken anything, sir?’ he asked, a hand on my shoulder, looking at the rifled locker. The ‘sir’ had a different sarcasm now, like a policeman’s. I stepped forward and snatched up the unbuttoned bill-fold. There had been little enough in it, anyway. ‘I haven’t got any money, you stupid bastard,’ I blurted out. ‘You’ve really picked the wrong person.’ I knew I’d come out with a few hundred francs for drinks and perhaps a sandwich or a pickled egg. There was nothing there now.

  ‘I didn’t take anything,’ said the thief, with a brief insulted smile. I stared in silence, my hand stuck out. ‘It was like that when I came along.’ His friend moved close to him as if to whisper something through his hair, slid two fingers into his waistband and tweaked out the money, the two shiny leaves with their High Renaissance portrait, my survival-kit. ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ the boy said, bewildered, thinking himself betrayed. But I had a hunch that the other was a better criminal than his accomplice, who had taken so long and been so miserably caught. ‘Here’s the money, Edward,’ he said. ‘Listen, I’m really sorry about this.’ I fumbled with my towel and fixed it round me like a skirt. I was more wounded by my own idiocy than by the tawdry little crime, and raised my voice to cover my shame.

  ‘That’s all very well,’ I said. ‘I’m afraid I shall have to report this. You just can’t …’

  ‘Hold on, Edward,’ said the boy, looking around him to assess the damage my outburst might be doing and perhaps to make sure that he had no audience for the rest of his act. Again the hand on the shoulder, and this time the side of his body pressed lightly against mine. ‘Sit down a minute, you know …’

  ‘There’s no point in sitting down,’ I snapped. And then, ‘Oh shit, where’s my watch?’ – my dear father’s gold watch with the stop-hand that had slyly timed many a Messiah and Gerontius … I rummaged in the locker, grateful at least that I had caught the offender and that that above all could be saved. But it was still there, rolled in my sock in the toe of a shoe. I turned round almost panting at the waves of pain and apprehension these kids were so wantonly inflicting on me. At the same time I was aware of not speaking in my own voice, of being betrayed by anger into routine threats and dead formulae. The skinny boy muttered ‘Mark’, but Mark stared at him and then slowly sat down; and there was something about that slowed pressing together of the slatted pine bench and the boy’s naked bottom, maybe something calculated, maybe not, the momentary heightening of his nakedness by contact with the inanimate, hard world, the fore-image too of the faintly flushed stripes the slats would leave when he stood, as if after some delicate accurate thrashing, that tilted the balance for him. I sat down in turn and so after a moment did the other boy, opposite us and wary. He shivered slightly and hunched the towel around him.

  Mark looked me straight in the eyes and reddened as he said, ‘I’ll do anything you like, Edward.’

  Telling Matt the story as we hurried in the early hours from the bar towards his flat, I had trouble conveying the keenness of the dilemma, this particular boy sitting naked beside me, breathing through his mouth into my face, his wet hair releasing sudden trickles down his neck, and making fabulous proposals that I had grumpily to reject. ‘You should have brought him back here,’ said Matt. ‘We could have taken turns with him.’ He gave his short nagging laugh, that always sounded bitter or unmeant. ‘Yeah, we could have fucked him at the same time. You ever do that?’

  ‘Oh yes,’ I said, ‘but not since I was a kid myself …’ He looked at me admiringly in the street-lamp’s masking glow.

  ‘You’re really wild,’ he said.

  ‘Everybody’s wild if they’re given the chance,’ I announced, too pissed to care if I was right. ‘There’s this place I used to go to when I was about, well, twenty or so, it was like a sauna, but just in someone’s house – you’d never have known it was there, it didn’t have a name or anything: people who went there called it Mr Croy’s. Though I must say there was never any sign of Mr Croy himself.’ The thought of those wild afternoons had me catching my breath to find I already had such epochs in me, and that I could look back through the drizzle of wasted time to arcadian clearings, remote and full of light and life.

  I stopped and called Matt back. ‘Just come down here a moment with me. I want to look at something.’

  ‘Come on, man, it’s fucking half past one.’

  I took no notice, and doubled down the side lane that led into Long Street. It was only a quick couple of minutes and I was standing across the way from the tall house, gazing up reverently, like a young man in a Schubert song, at the sleeping beloved’s window. Not that I knew which window was his. Curtains were closed at every one, and the discreet illumination of an old-fashioned lamp, highlighting the black shine of the front door, lost the upper floors to the night. Where I had been shy before, I gazed hungrily now, with anxious exhilaration, at each shadowed opening, up to the dim roofline and the stars that stood beyond.

  ‘What’s this?’ said Matt, coming up beside me.

  ‘In there, a beautiful seventeen-year-old boy is asleep.’

  Matt shook his head. ‘Is that all we’ve come to see? Or do we get the seventeen-year-old boy as well?’

  ‘Please!’ I grinned at the Altidore residence and somehow brought Luc to light in my mind, dreaming, lips parted, in near-darkness – pyjamas, for some reason, but the jacket unbuttoned and twisted under him, an arm across his stomach unconsciously repulsing the possessive duvet.

  I spoke to Matt for a while, incoherently, trying to bring him into my mood, but glad in the end that he wasn’t drunk or romantic enough to get there, and that I possessed it unviolated. He had a hand round my waist, under my jacket where I was a bit fat above the belt; when a taxi came by the driver commented on us to his fare – and when they had gone the silence left me awkwardly alert to the noise we must have been making. I remembered nights at home woken by drunks, passing or stopping for half an hour outside our gate, loud and heedless with drink, sometimes women’s wild recriminations … I pictured Luc stumbling, half-cross, half-curious, to tweak back the curtain, seeing us propped up and talking rubbish in the doorway opposite. Then Matt started undoing my fly.

  6

  ‘You’re wearing a truly astonishing tie.’

  I beamed. ‘Yes, what do you think?’ There’s no denying one’s tie, no standing back from it. Mrs Vivier nodded at me to show she had taken in the phenomenon but was too polite, too little au courant with the whole tie scene, perhaps, to venture an opinion. I went towards the over-mantel mirror with the backward-leaning prance of an actor made up fat, and was more startled than I had expected by the gaudy flash of the main motif.

  ‘I
m not sure I’d want one myself,’ said Paul Echevin, considering it too in the mirror’s safe distance. ‘Isn’t it the wrong way round? I mean it’s right in the mirror.’

  ‘Oh.’ I squinted down at it uncertainly.

  ‘But do tell me where you got it.’

  ‘A most extraordinary clothes shop in I think it’s Tanners Street, aptly enough. Masses of leather, and jewellery made out of knives and forks.’ It was the campest thing I’d said to Echevin, but he laughed intelligently. ‘There’s someone there who paints these art-ties.’

  The dry buzz of the doorbell was heard – Mrs Vivier called out from the kitchen, and Echevin went down to let in the other guests. I was alone with my tie for a few moments, and with the puma-pounce of love that made me gasp and go white and then go red. I felt so raw and mad that afternoon that I had bought absurdly in the little shop, spent to soothe myself, a kind of proxy giving to Luc. And I had considered getting him just something, a neckerchief, a death’s-head ring, a silver lurex cache-sexe … When the doe-eyed assistant in jodhpurs and smoking-cap had peeked through the curtains to ask if I needed a hand getting into some oddly unelasticated swimming-trunks that he had recommended I thought perhaps I should bring the boy along for a fitting – remembering how he had told me, the first day we met, of borrowing from his friend Patrick a costume that was too large, that, like my shorts, had promised to peel off. In the end I took the trunks, and a shirt so lobelia-blue you could scarcely look at it, and the notorious tie. I imagined wearing it to Paul Echevin’s house as a badge of my inner turmoil as well as a distraction from it.

  My fellow guests were a man called Maurice, his coolly humorous wife Inge and their daughter Helene, a serious young woman I took a moment to recognise – the one who sold the tickets at the Museum next door. Maurice was a firm dogged little man, quite good-looking, who flung himself into a chair with a sigh as if he lived there: he was a schoolmaster, it turned out, and he had certain schoolmaster’s characteristics: in some subtle way dislocated from ordinary adult society, squeezed between vocation and routine, dull yet with a habit of enthusiasm. I remembered the mystery of masters’ marriages, the way the poor wives had been figures of lust or ridicule to the filthy-minded boys. I wasn’t sure which the plump, unageing Inge would be. She was half-German, half-Swedish, she lived in Flemish-speaking Belgium and had been for years an interpreter in Brussels, at home in the lexicon-limbo of Community administration. She told me her story at dinner, without much sense that I would be interested in it, and the drunken excitement I showed as each turn of her career unfolded may well have sounded forced or even mocking. But by then I had discovered that Maurice was no ordinary teacher, he was the head of English at St Narcissus, and so the source, if I handled him right, of exquisitely precious information. He and his wife were to be courted and heeded as they had never been before.

  The start was a bit rough. Maurice made himself so completely at home that I was left out while he gossiped with Echevin. Inge was busying into the kitchen to swap notes with Mrs Vivier, and Helene and I found ourselves back in the role of children, who, if discreetly ignored, might well get on together. We were still dry, to my dismay, and I stood with my hands in my pockets while Helene fiddled with a ring on her left hand.

  ‘You’re engaged!’ I said; and she blushed when she said yes. That happy confusion, coupled with some remote tribal relief that in that case I wouldn’t have to marry her myself, and indeed was honour-bound not to flirt with her, made me suddenly warm to her. ‘Are you an art historian, I suppose?’

  Again the solemn discomposure. ‘No, no. Oh, you mean the Museum. No, I just help out there from time to time when Paul asks me to.’ How often I misread a face, an attitude, and credited strangers with intimidating powers they didn’t have or want. ‘I do bits and pieces. Baby-sitting I don’t mind at all, and helping with censuses. I’ve done secretarial work for my father, and even invigilated exams. But no, I’m nothing really.’

  ‘You like jobs where you can read a book.’

  ‘They are the best,’ she said, with a shy chuckle. There was something so sensible and tender about her that I began to feel quite jealous of her husband after all, her husband to be. I thought of asking her about him, although I tended to mistrust the accounts young women gave of their intendeds, their wonderful jobs and looks. But in rushed Mrs Vivier with the claret-cup and glasses on a tray. At which Maurice looked up and said, ‘I’ve just noticed your Orst tie.’

  ‘Oh yes,’ I said, smoothing it over the largely imaginary stomach that it caparisoned.

  ‘So Paul’s selling these now, is he?’ – at which Echevin merely hummed. ‘It’s the Athena, isn’t it? Not here, though, not next door. It’s in the Town Museum, surely?’ He stood up and peered at the tie – on which Orst’s Athena was indeed reproduced with a certain additional gold and glitter and with the illusory depth of a hologram. ‘What is it William Butler Yeats says? “Maud Gonne at Howth station waiting for a train, Pallas Athene in that straight back and arrogant head” …’ He looked up, stirred by his own brief delivery.

  ‘Waiting a train,’ I said.

  ‘Maud Gonne at Howth station waiting for a train.’

  ‘Yes, it’s waiting a train – no for.’ He looked uncertain, not altogether pleased. ‘It’s an aphetic form of awaiting; or perhaps more strictly an aphaeretic one,’ I went on like a complete arsehole. ‘You know, deliberate docking of the first syllable.’

  ‘I can see you’re going to have to watch yourself with your quotations, dear,’ said Inge, with a mild air of vindication.

  I glanced self-deprecatingly around the room, actually quite shocked myself to have brought this blare of kitsch into a place where real Orsts, of incomparable delicacy, were hung.

  We sat down to dinner without Marcel. ‘Gone to the pictures with a friend,’ Echevin said. ‘Bloodbath 4, I think it’s called. Will it be all right? It’s so many years since I saw a film … I have an idea perhaps I should be protecting him from something.’

  ‘I’m sure it will be fine,’ I said. It wasn’t my kind of thing, but I had a proper reverence for the ripped pecs of Kurt Burns, the subhuman star of the whole successful series, who had reared up all over town in the past few days with oiled bust and machine-gun aflame.

  ‘How’s the little fellow getting on?’ Maurice asked robustly, across the table.

  ‘He’s fine. He’s a lot happier,’ his father said, which gave me a keener sense of just how unhappy he must have been before. ‘He’s still a bit wheezy. But if you think what he was like a year ago …’

  ‘Is he showing any inclination to read books?’ said Maurice, not quite gently enough.

  ‘The poor child has been so slowed down with drugs, Maurice,’ said Mrs Vivier, ‘it is hardly surprising if his work has suffered.’ It was an unexpected flash, which Echevin appreciated even as he smothered it.

  ‘You’d have to ask our friend Edward about that,’ he said.

  Maurice turned to me after a second’s bafflement, and I hastily confessed that I was indeed Marcel’s English tutor, and was doing what I could to … ‘He’s getting on fine,’ I said loyally. ‘What he needs most is confidence.’ (And there was the simple substance of a million end-of-term reports.)

  Maurice ducked to his soup, and took several spoonfuls rapidly and without appreciation, as if it were the school food he must be used to. ‘So when are you going to let us have him back?’ That was when the coin dropped for me; within a few moments the two of us had been revealed to each other as colleagues of a kind, though he stood at the centre of the great self-exalting machine, whilst I was picking up the damaged and difficult fragments that its noisy shuttling shook loose. Perhaps at dusk, with closer attention, I would be able to see him from my window, pacing the illuminated classroom and holding forth on Yeats.

  ‘I’m so sorry,’ I said. ‘I hadn’t realised that you were at St Narcissus.’ I hadn’t realised, in fact, that the staff of a Jesuit school need not all be co
ld-eyed clergymen.

  ‘We’ll see how he’s doing at the end of the spring,’ said Echevin.

  I was so keen to ask about Luc that I fell completely silent. I felt that if I even mentioned his name I would turn crimson, or my fly would burst open, ricocheting buttons off the wineglasses, or the Athena on my tie would turn and give a wink. I wouldn’t use that lolling monosyllable itself, of course; it would be ‘the Altidore boy’ or some such crisply pastoral phrase. I drank with a need, and was touched to find that Echevin, who was a cautious drinker himself, remembered my habit and reached out to me frequently with the sharp, appley wine I had guzzled and praised on my first visit.

  ‘Helene tells me you’ve had some great excitement at the Museum, Paul,’ said Inge. ‘I didn’t quite follow it …’ His expression lightened beautifully: here was a man familiar to the point of weariness with his own job, his own rather airless and enervating cabin, suddenly wresting open the corroded porthole and taking deep breaths of his forgotten purpose.

  ‘I’ve been on the phone for days, trying to bring it off, and it looks as if – as if I’ve been successful.’ I nodded at him approvingly. ‘I’m reassembling a triptych that was broken up before the war. We’ve had one wing of it for years, the woman looking into the mirror. You remember you only see the woman’s face in the reflection, cut in half by the edge of the mirror.’

  ‘That must be the most popular postcard we sell,’ said Helene.

  Her mother said, ‘It’s the very dark one; isn’t it almost all in the dark?’

  ‘It’s very ténébreux,’ Echevin agreed; ‘there are extraordinary effects of candle-light on the woman’s robe – well, it’s like a sort of cope – and the hair, of course, is given a lavish treatment.’

 
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