The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.11Alan Hollinghurst
‘It’s a Jane, I imagine,’ said Inge, with a tolerant chuckle like her daughter’s.
‘It’s a Jane,’ said Echevin. ‘The whole thing is called “Autrefois”, which in itself has been a problem, since Orst produced about thirty pictures with that title. Fortunately, however, I had a photograph of it, when it was still in his studio at the Villa Hermès. Not a very clear photograph: it’s at the back among various other works, but it gives enough to go on. I could be pretty sure when I saw something whether or not it was it.’
‘Why would anyone break it up in the first place?’ I asked.
‘It was sold quite late on; the old man was rather pressed for cash in the thirties – he was out of fashion, of course, and going blind and not producing any more. One or two collectors rather preyed on him, I think; his whole inclination was to hoard things but he did let quite a lot go. This particular work was bought by a Bavarian-Jewish manufacturer who hung on as long as possible before fleeing into Switzerland with almost nothing, except a wing of the triptych – the other one, which is completely different and I believe a lot later. I’ve known about it for two or three years now: it’s an astonishingly beautiful seascape, nearly abstract, just three zones, sea, sky and shore, very brooding and intense.’ We hummed appreciatively.
‘I wonder what the connection is between that and the woman at the mirror,’ I said.
‘Ah well …’ rumbled Maurice.
‘It is rather one of his things,’ said Echevin, smiling to cover the implication that I might have been expected to know. ‘You probably noticed several pieces next door where he frames apparently unconnected subjects together. Sometimes there is a clear symbolic relation between them, sometimes the poetry I suppose lies in their mysterious difference, like images in a dream. He speaks of them as being shrines of a mood or a memory – he hoped for an attitude of mystic contemplation in the viewer.’
I nodded. I sort of did know that; and was sorry to have forced the recital of the point. ‘I want to hear about the middle bit, then,’ I said.
‘Now, the middle bit,’ said Echevin again with the sweet glow of discovery, a warm crinkling about his large pale eyes, ‘is what I found almost by accident when I went to Munich in the summer for the big Symbolist show. I met a man at a party one night and when he heard of my Orst connections he said would I go to his flat and look at a painting he had bought in a sale in Czechoslovakia which had the EO monogram on it. I must admit I hesitated. The owner himself clearly wasn’t an expert, he was a perfectly nice dentist, but the odd provenance made me wonder, and the idea of treasures in Eastern Europe suddenly rising to the surface and becoming available was attractive too.’
It was clear how the story was going to end and we sat with expressions of placid encouragement and poked politely at the thick, off-white fish on our plates, a fish that must figure somewhere in Luc’s catalogue, though I couldn’t put a name to it myself. And that had me sunk for a heart-gripping ten seconds in the sensation of Luc: abruptly in his presence, I was starting to unbutton his shirt … ‘It wasn’t quite so easy,’ our host was saying. ‘He took me off from the party in a taxi, he wanted to know straight away, it seemed. We drove and drove, and then we were on a sort of motorway and it turned out he lived in what was virtually another town; I was getting a bit restive, and I could see how anxious he was that I shouldn’t get anxious, so there was a rather difficult kind of constraint. Eventually we reached a magnificent apartment block – absolutely brand new, he was evidently a very rich dentist – and went up about ten floors. He lived there with his fierce old mother; she emerged in her dressing-gown and shawl, looking very disorientated and very possessive.
‘The apartment was stuffed with art, most of it rubbish but with occasional little things which it might have been worth getting down and looking at carefully. There were some Puvis drawings for instance. But the picture he wanted me to see was very much in the rubbish category, a crude portrait by someone who couldn’t paint, which Orst, whatever his faults, decidedly could. I looked at it and pronounced upon it perhaps a little … firmly. It didn’t even have the promised monogram. The mother stood around suspiciously, despite the son’s urgings that she should go back to bed; it was only when I said I must return to my hotel that she shuffled off.’ Echevin’s eyes rested on me for a moment. ‘I’m so slow to understand,’ he went on. ‘I popped into the bathroom before I left, and when I came out, wondering if I had enough money for the taxi back and imagining an embarrassing moment as I asked the dentist to help me out, there the dentist was, but now sans jacket and tie, waiting in the doorway of a dimly lit bedroom. I suppose I must have given some signal earlier on, or misunderstood something when we were talking at the party: my German’s by no means perfect.’
‘Oh, my god,’ said Maurice; and Helene and I laughed appreciatively. I could imagine how Echevin’s nice looks and his neat, shy, independent manner might encourage this kind of confusion.
‘The awful thing was,’ he said, ‘that over his shoulder, and indeed over the bed, I could see a painting that made my pulse quicken just the way the poor dentist must have hoped it would when I saw him. It was of course the Orst he wanted me to see, it had all been a front with that other awful daub; and despite the shadow, I could see that it was very like the middle panel in the old photograph – one of his deserted gothic townscapes: actually the dimness made it very like the photograph. And I had to get into that bedroom! That was a testing ten minutes …’ Echevin noticed his food, and set to catching up.
‘He must have been pleased to find he owned a valuable picture, though,’ said Inge.
‘Oh yes, he was – in the end. One could see the tussle of greed and hurt feelings. It was unsigned – had belonged to an uncle – our Bavarian industrialist, of course. The man liked it very much, which was why he had it in his bedroom. And why it has not been at all easy to get him to part with it. I’ve had to be quite flirtatious on the phone. However, I believe he will now lend it to us, and as the wing from Switzerland will arrive on permanent loan next month, we might well be able to reassemble a major lost work by the end of the year.’
‘What a ghastly experience,’ said Maurice.
‘He was quite a handsome dentist,’ said Echevin with a teasing shake of the head. There was a moment of mutual adjustment, of taking the ethical temperature. I was feeling terrifically queer tonight, but none the less anxious not to alienate the strait-laced Maurice or lead him to suspect that under the benign curiosity I would show about Luc I was aching for the boy’s arse and touch and lips and tongue and tits and legs and salty toes and involuntarily spurting cock. The talk ambled and clumped through dessert, prompted and set askew by drink. There was that common dinner-party sense that no one truly knew what they were talking about, Helene, who played the piano, keen but clueless about music, Maurice with his fudged quotations and half-forgotten stories from the evening news, and me pretending to have half-forgotten books I had never read. Echevin, of course, truly knew about Edgard Orst, but when the talk turned to football and boxing, on which Inge had vigorous views, he was soon feinting and conceding.
For a minute or two I played a game of introducing the name covertly into the chatter, as I remembered doing with long-ago infatuations, asking or rather telling Helene about Gluck, or swapping Cavalier quotes with Maurice, jealously watching him shape and just exactly mispronounce the word Lucasta, the darting buss with which it began, the upward and downward flicker of the tongue against the teeth. Then he said, firmly and uncorrectably, ‘If I have freedom in my love And in my soul am free, Angels alone, that soar above, Enjoy such liberty.’
It was only when we returned to the other room and stood around with our coffee-cups, filling the contented pauses with long looks at the paintings, that I at last brought out my question: ‘I wonder if you taught my other pupil, the Altidore lad.’ Even to my ears it sounded deranged, bumblingly casual for the first few words and then, as the sacred name approached, slipping the gears wi
‘What’s that? Um … No.’ He took a sip of coffee, and looked around.
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ I felt like saying; but waited and then prompted: ‘He seems a very clever fellow.’
‘Yes, I believe he always did pretty well. I only take them for the last year, as a rule.’ What a miracle, I thought, that Luc was not even now writing an essay on Lovelace or Suckling for this busy, musty-smelling man, who was turning and raising a hand to signal to his wife and so perhaps about to leave.
‘It must have thrown him a good deal to be chucked out,’ I hazarded.
‘I’m sure you’ll keep him up to the mark,’ he said, with the sudden warmth of someone who is going and wishes to leave a friendly impression on a person whose company he has not enjoyed.
Blessedly, Inge had heard. ‘Who’s he going to keep up?’ she asked.
‘Oh, it’s just another boy I’m teaching, Luc Altidore, and I wondered if Maurice remembered him from St Narcissus.’
‘Well, there’s a story,’ she said, plus chuckle.
‘You mean his being expelled?’ I said rapturously.
‘Quite so.’ Again there was a scary pause, in which I foresaw the conversation being hijacked by some intolerable boring other thing.
‘I wasn’t quite sure,’ I said dawdlingly, ‘from what his mother told me, what actually happened.’
‘Well, I don’t suppose anyone knows exactly what happened, do you,’ she said with a jolly-stern tucking in of the chin ‘– except the boy and the sailors themselves.’
I don’t have a clue how I took this. I think I smiled, smirked probably, under the creasing pressure of horrified excitement. ‘The sailors,’ I said at last, rather crossly, and as if I’d always expected the worst from them.
‘I mean, that’s all I know, maybe Maurice knows more’ – but Maurice had already turned away and was calling something to his host – ‘the boy, what’s he called?’
‘Luc,’ I said weakly.
‘Young Luc was found on a ship out at the port, playing cards or whatever with a bunch of Norwegian sailors, at, like, 3 a.m ….’ She shrugged. ‘Isn’t that it?’
‘Mm, that’s all I know,’ I agreed.
‘And it’s probably enough.’ Now there I couldn’t agree. And happily she said, ‘But if you should find out more, it might be rather fascinating to know.’
‘I don’t think I could very well ask him,’ I said, already wondering how it could be done.
‘When you’re better friends,’ she said, so that I thought she had seen right through me. ‘I rather love these dentist-sailor stories.’
Matt lived in a servant’s flat draughtily tacked on to a large shabby house on the western side of the town. If you got to bed late there you only slept for an hour or two before container lorries bound for the port rumbled past the end of the street, making the windows rattle and the bed-springs distantly vibrate. You woke and found you needed a pee, and groped in the half-light from outside into the small cold bathroom, the floor a tangle of dirty underwear, the glass shelf cluttered with Matt’s creams and conditioners, pep-pills and prophylactics. You stumbled on something as you made your way back and for a second or two Matt’s snoring stopped; then you slid apologetically under the bedclothes and the snoring started again, and you lay there with just a shiver of longing to be back home. Then the alarm-clock started beeping, it was seven already, and Matt rolled over behind you and pushed his hard cock between your legs.
I had been amazed on my first visit at the chaos in which he lived, the chairloads of clothes, the tumbled boots and kicked-off loafers, the old socks and pulp novels mixed up in the bedding. Dirty plates and glasses were rigorously taken to the grim little kitchen but, once there, amassed in the sink until a particular item was needed, when it would be gingerly extracted and run for a moment under the flaring and popping hot-water geyser. Much of remaining space between, under and on top of bed, wardrobe, chairs, table and TV was taken up with Matt’s computer stuff: the stacked boxes of components, disks, spare keyboards – as well as other electrical goods, video games and hundreds of blank tapes. Yet out of this unconscious shambles he emerged each day, each night, clean, beautiful, sweet-smelling, and giving off an air of masculine order.
The house he was at the back of belonged to an elderly and reclusive woman, deaf and cat-loving. Matt, it appeared, was not allowed to use her front door or to go into her part of the building at all; so access to his rooms was through the back yard and a glassed-in porch full of half-dead plants. It was odd that we both lived hidden away behind old people whom we never saw; comforting too, as if it allowed us to be children again, free and disadvantaged. Matt in fact had no respect for the rules, and my first time at his place he worried me by swaggering down the hall and into his landlady’s kitchen to find some brandy I had said I felt like at two or three in the morning. The cats gathered round him discriminatingly, as if they knew him well or expected him to feed them.
I was astonished, once I had sobered up, to find that I was Matt’s lover: I thought it might have come about through something Cherif had said to him, an inadvertent testimonial. When I looked at myself in Matt’s bathroom mirror I seemed to be greeting with new respect an acquaintance I had long thought unlikely to succeed. But then it was an odd sort of success: lover, perhaps, was hardly the word for my role. Matt was like someone beautiful I might have met on the common and counted myself lucky to have ten minutes with under the trees. There was no sentiment to it, beyond the minimal trust of two people pleasuring themselves together; when my instincts homed sleepily towards love I felt him hold me off, cold-eyed, as if my sheltering embrace had been a threat or lapse of form. For all his trickiness, there was no romantic con. I wasn’t even sure he had much grasp of friendship. He seemed able to sustain that pure detachment of sex from feeling that normally crumbles with the loss of anonymity or the chance of a second meeting. It threw me back to my great sex-period, the days of saving up for Croy’s. And half the time I saw it suited me; with Matt I did the dozen things I couldn’t do with Luc.
I stayed at Matt’s for most of that week, partly because of the Spanish girls – not so much their noise as my fear that they might make a noise, intrude some unwanted disturbance on the nervy, luxurious disquiet which was mine already and which kept me pacing about, drinking and after a while smoking, reading a paragraph a dozen absent times, gazing from the window when the day waned as if trying to decipher some truth, or rather some hope, from the trees and clouds and time-blackened brick. In the little lost garden below the first leaves were turning. At Matt’s there were no such distractions. I would be there as a rule only after the Cassette had shut, drunk and demanding, and each visit described a slowing arc from fucky oblivion to parched and anxious waking, stumbling dressing and going home. It was the hours of half-sleep that were the longest, and through which the green figures of the alarm-clock, between tiny spasms of dreaming, kept their steadiest vigil. Time was tearing along, but it would never be morning.
Cherif had gone off somewhere – to Rotterdam so Ivo, the camp and caring barman, said, though Cherif in his blunt, hurt way had said nothing to Matt or me. I should perhaps have been worried, but his absence seemed to offer one of those undeserved respites from guilt and obligation. Then I noticed that it left me feeling lonely; Matt was lean and fit and fierce, I liked the gymnastic sex that had me sweat-soaked and out of breath; but when I woke to his rattling snores I began to think back tenderly to Cherif’s comfortable hug. I was writing a long and often interrupted letter to Edie, saying how Cherif had said he loved me and how I missed his dusty clothes and serious kissing.
I was too self-absorbed to realise at first just how criminal Matt was. The little raid on the pantry should perhaps have alerted me; and later in the week, when he went in to find an electric fire to allay the new coolness of the nights, his landlady’s back could be seen
My news was fairly momentous too. By now I always took in Luc’s street in my walks across town and went past the house fast but brazenly, with a look of friendly expectancy that would have appeared slightly potty to another passer-by. I saw how my routes for simple errands were tugged into wide and tiring loops by the pull of that street and that house. The cheery tourist map was traversed by new trails, and a new and unsuspected shrine had been drawn in. A general restlessness kept me on the streets a lot by day, and I began to recognise stallholders and groups of kids and certain afternoon walkers who kept regular hours. I aimed always to go past the Altidores’ in the early evening, when the lights might first come on in the house and Luc be seen at an upstairs window towelling his hair. But so far it had never happened, and I would go on with slackening pulse, through further streets already impregnated with a mood of bafflement and anti-climax.
That Thursday, after my lesson with Marcel, who was making progress and described the plot of Bloodbath 4 with a new determination, I went out, drifted round the shopping-streets, spent a while in the photography section of a bookshop browsing the fashionably retro albums of athletes and swimmers, and then guiltily slipped into the Golden Calf for a bottle of Silence. I felt fizzy and reckless when later on I turned into Long Street just as the lamps twinked on above, pink and mauve and flickering like a favourite vice.
The Folding Star: Historical Fiction by Alan Hollinghurst / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes