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The folding star histori.., p.12
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       The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.12

           Alan Hollinghurst
 

  I was still some way from the house, but I had it casually in my sights and knew just how it fitted in the rhythm of frontages opposite, glassier and posher than its immediate neighbours, the house before it having an illuminated cross in an upper window. Luc’s front door opened and two figures came out sideways on to the top of the steps and then Luc himself, taller and protective, emerged between them: the Three! I knew Sibylle’s smart look at once, and the boy too, of course, snug and strong. She reached up and kissed Luc on the cheek. I saw as if an inch away his flared lips kiss the air beside her as she did so, and he and the boy slid an arm round each other and left them burningly there through a last brief reprise of their talk.

  I faltered. Could I be seen in the uncertain light? I should go on with a quick wave and greeting, even, ideally, stop and be drawn into a loose embrace of conversation – introductions could be made, fast friendships charmingly inaugurated. But I stopped where I was, twenty yards off, pressed against the wall, watching their joking and agreements in the doorway with the hunger of a ghost: I felt like a nothing, a mere emanation of weathered bricks and mortar. Fatuously, I crouched to re-tie a lace, but looked up helplessly in the youngsters’ direction, and saw the guests disengage themselves, come down the steps and turn away with a further sung-out goodbye. They strolled off for a few seconds and Luc called, ‘Hey, Patrick’, and when the boy looked round made a nodding jump, like heading a ball, and they both grinned. Then the boy, Patrick, went out into the road and bent to unlock a car: the Mini, the mauve Mini. I wandered dimly after them as the car pulled out; the engine wasn’t firing properly. I tried to remember the number plate: KYF, KYF … a Cherif-like syllable. The door had closed behind Luc by the time I came by, and I didn’t even glance in at the window, swamped in my renewed sense of failure and imbecility.

  There were running footsteps behind me and Luc touched me on the shoulder. He was ravishingly flushed and pushed his hair back and for a moment I thought he was going to hit me.

  ‘Hello, Luc! I was just …’

  ‘Edward, what really good luck! I wanted to ask you something and I didn’t know how to get into contact with you.’

  ‘Oh.’

  ‘Then I saw you actually walking past the window at the very moment I was thinking about you!’ He was agitated enough not to notice perhaps how oddly I responded. ‘Don’t you think that must be a good sign?’

  ‘I certainly hope so.’ I wondered if he was going to ask me in, and I glimpsed an evening utterly changed, even if just a drink with him and his mother and high baroque trumpet-blasts of power and lust breaking out soundlessly above us.

  ‘Well, I hope very much you will let me change my lesson tomorrow, because I want to go away out of the town.’

  ‘Oh, of course, well, where are you going?’

  ‘I am going to the seaside, I think I have told you about it before, to where my friends have a house.’

  So that was what the three had been planning … And already the old city began to feel irksome and desolate without them, without him, as it might have done centuries before when the court that Gerard had described to me moved on and took its revels with it. ‘How long will you be gone?’

  ‘Only till Sunday night or Monday. I can see you on Monday, perhaps in the afternoon to be quite definite.’

  ‘Yes, okay. As long as you make sure you take some books with you. We’ve got a lot of books to look at, you know; you can’t get too casual about this.’ I had the astonishing image of him in my mind frowning through smoke and drinking vodka in a cabin on some rusty old tanker, dealing cards to a ring of blond sailors in singlets, who exchanged glances and chatted about him in a language he couldn’t understand.

  ‘You bet, Edward. I will be reading The Poets of Our Time in each free moment.’

  ‘Good.’

  There was a pause in which we simply looked in each other’s eyes and his grin of self-congratulation seeped away and he was shifting and waiting to be dismissed. I had never seen him so childish – it was a sign of trust, maybe, that he wasn’t bothering with his usual indifference, though he must have known too that keenness and high spirits won adults’ hearts and persuaded them that there was goodness left in the world. Then when he turned and jogged back to the house I thought I had never seen him so manly – so broad and so slimly heavy and incontrovertibly grown. I went on towards Matt’s, the street-lights warming and yellowing as the twilight fell.

  8

  I panicked again under the huge sweep of sky that opened up. The city was suddenly behind us; I looked back, and above the warehouses and estates the cluster of extravagant towers rose into view again; they became the city; then they dwindled and were blurred in haze. We were leaving fast, the engine was shouting, the wind tore over the windshield and whipped the hair about on top of my head. I wanted to be back where we’d come from, late in bed or strolling out for a pre-pre-lunch beer. We overtook lorries and family cars with luggage on the roof, new from the ferry. Here was all the rest of the world, and my old world too, the Brits still cautious on the blind side of the road, looming ahead and then for a few seconds alongside, the roped tarpaulins jabbering loose, the drivers anxiously alert to the flashy blast of the jeep. But I was a Continental by now, and looked on them with pity and dismay as they fell behind.

  There was a certain brown obscurity in the sky ahead, like rain falling out to sea. Matt was wearing bottle-green dark glasses and frowned as he drove. A few miles later it lifted and dissolved; and the further we went the more radiant and old-masterly the air became, so that the whole mad, worrying escapade began already to feel out of time, steeped in a dream-ether of its own. When we crossed into France, and Matt turned off and pulled over in a country road to check the map, my goose-flesh smoothed and the October sun was almost hot on my forearms. We went on the last four miles more stealthily, my left hand tucked for childish comfort under Matt’s thigh. Then we dropped to a wide view of current-silvered sea, with several big ships standing off; and a sharp turn of the road presented us all at once with a straggle of houses, a massive, squat church with a spire, and the sign – St Ernest-aux-Sablonnières.

  We dawdled along the street, me slunk down in my seat with one of Matt’s baseball caps not disguising me much, dreading to be seen or for us even to be noticed, and the jeep farting uproariously at each touch on the accelerator. There was a grocer’s, a bar, a novelty shop, a few old stone houses and at either end new brick ones with steel security blinds and unmade gardens just as the builders might have left them. Between them you saw the sea, and other houses lower down, and when we turned and came back we took a narrow lane to the left and emerged on a sand-blown track that I knew was where we had to be.

  A string of modest villas, bungalows with lawns running down to the dunes. An air of mild neglect – scabbing stucco, rusted house names, woody buddleia breaking through the garden fences. An air of between-the-wars, of chic whiteness and empty space and cocktails on the glass-screened terraces with sunset views across the Channel. And of being in a place now forlornly unchic, a little colony half-abandoned to encroachments of sand and wiry grass.

  We pottered along past the ten or twelve houses to the end of the road, where there was a small concrete car-park looking out over the sands like a gun-emplacement. A few new vehicles were waiting there beside a derelict and plundered Ami, and down the beach a few figures could be seen. Were the Three amongst them, intimately corralled in one of those striped wind-breaks, or careering down to the shock of the sea? We turned again, and drove back, and it was only going this way that I caught sight of KYF, tucked in a rose-tangled carport, the carport of … Les Goélands. I was now virtually on the floor of Matt’s jeep and urged him to go on. He pulled up in the next entrance-way and asked me just what it was I wanted to do and why we were here. He wasn’t angry but he was used to getting results; he wasn’t imaginative; he wasn’t shocked by the whims and oddities of others – the odder the better, as I was coming to realise – but he
needed an objective. It was hard to explain that I just wanted to be here, just wanted to see the house.

  ‘So we’re going to spy on them.’

  ‘Well, how can we? If I go on the beach I’ll be recognised.’

  Matt disregarded this. ‘But you want to see him stripped out. You want to know what’s going on with Les Trois’ – he took on my term without a flutter – ‘and whether your kid’s fucking with the girl or the boy. Or both.’

  ‘Or neither.’ It was not unhumbling to have it so spelt out.

  ‘You must remember I’ve never seen any of these guys. They’d better be good.’

  I sat feeling wretched for a while, bruised by my alliance with someone so alien and unsuitable as Matt. Then he turned off the engine and jumped out.

  The entrance-way we were in was overhung with sprawling trees; the gate, meshed against dogs, sagged under a heavy chain. Inside, clumps of cupressus had been allowed to grow and grow, and obscured the house; their young tops swayed in the breeze. I watched Matt leaning at the gate, his polo-shirt hanging out. Then he scrambled over smartly, showing a white quarter of naked back, and disappeared down the driveway. I stayed where I was, at last confident of disaster.

  This was an older house than the others, maybe the first that had been built out on the dunes below the village. It was shuttered and weatherboarded, and at the bottom of the neglected garden another gate under a rustic arch gave on to the beach. Matt had moved the car to the park, where it looked fractionally less conspicuous and almost sensible – a fun-truck, a beach-buggy high on testosterone. Anyone who saw it there would know at once that it belonged to some sporty young fools miles down the beach with a ghetto-blaster and a badminton set. And here we were, stalking through the prickly shrubbery, peering into the back garden of Les Goélands. There seemed to be a whitewashed wall in the way, and nearer the house a dark shed with a tarred roof. You just couldn’t see in, and you couldn’t hear anything, either.

  I gave Matt as accurate a description as I could of the little group. ‘They’re all beautiful,’ I said. ‘Sibylle is small and self-contained, with glossy reddish-brown hair, and Patrick is stocky and square-faced and unhurried, with short dark hair that sprouts out at different angles; and Luc … well, I’ve told you all about Luc.’

  ‘You certainly have,’ said Matt, with a stylish little sarcasm he didn’t normally rise to.

  I sat at the end of the garden whilst he cruised off down the beach in his black swimming-shorts and a singlet. It was like teaching, in a way, knowing how to catch his imagination, to set him tasks he might take to for the pleasure of them. Now he was my eyes, he had to find and recount for me, and my mind’s eye followed him over the loose horizon of the sandhills and into the field of play I absurdly couldn’t enter. I kicked around in a low-walled patio overgrown with grass and bindweed, with built-in benches warped by sun, and the black griddle of a barbecue that might have been used quite recently: maybe parties stole in from the beach – there were beer-bottles tumbled in a corner and holding their slant few inches of rain. I smoked a cigarette and fizzed the stub into one of them. It was very still, with the lull and whisper of the sea nearby but out of view, and hot sunshine that was a miracle in which the Three uncannily took part: they had known of it in advance, and known, almost without thinking, what to do. I unbuttoned my shirt and lay on one of the benches, breathing the seedy vanilla smell of a bush on which half a dozen late bees still dropped and toppled.

  Later I walked round the house, and peered in at a couple of places where the shutters were broken, but my own head cut out the light I needed to see by. Upstairs at the back was an old-fashioned sunroom, with a view that must clear the dunes through wide salt-bleared windows, at each of which a pale Venetian blind was lowered and closed. On the hard standing below a small sailing-boat lay upside-down on bricks; I twisted my head to read the blistered freehand lettering: L’Allegro, and wondered idly if its sister-vessel was laid up next door. Perhaps Luc was half-heartedly caulking it right now.

  My heart raced when I heard footsteps coming up behind: it was Matt, hair still wet from swimming (though quilled and looped a bit by the breeze), and sand drying in the dark hairs on his calves.

  ‘You’ve been ages,’ I said. ‘Couldn’t you find them? Perhaps they’re all in the house.’

  ‘No, I found them.’ He half-turned from me, pushed down his waistband and pissed fiercely into the bushes; then stood for a while slapping his dick in his palm as a doctor smacks a vein he wants to rise; then with a snarl of regret stuffed the stiff thing back so that it jutted awkwardly and then slowly slumped.

  I was hungry to know what had happened, and also just plain hungry. It was high lunchtime. ‘Shall we go up to that bar and get something to eat?’

  ‘Yeah, you go,’ he said. ‘I had a beer and a sandwich on the beach.’

  ‘Oh. Well, thanks for bringing me some.’

  He strolled off a pace or two and stood with hands on hips looking up at the house. ‘I’ll tell you something,’ he said. ‘That boy is wild.’

  A shot of pain and acclamation went through me. ‘Well, I told you,’ I pointed out. ‘I told you he was a golden dream made solid flesh.’

  ‘No, not the golden dream one,’ he said. ‘Well, he’s okay, he’s a bit skinny, a bit weird … those lips? No, the other kid, Patrick.’ Matt looked at me and shook his head. ‘I’ll tell you something, that boy has got a whopper. A total fucking monster between his legs.’

  ‘How do you know?’

  ‘Man, you only have to be a hundred yards away to see that. He’s running round in these little swimming-things, he’s got this big fat strong arse sticking out the back and this unbelievable package out front. The whole beach was just, like, fixated on it.’ Matt gripped himself between the legs and shivered.

  ‘I’m glad you’ve enjoyed yourself,’ I said tartly but truthfully too. The lesson was working. ‘I’d like to see him myself. What was Luc wearing?’

  ‘What? Oh, sort of trousers, like sailing trousers, long trousers but short.’

  ‘He wasn’t swimming in long trousers?’

  ‘He was reading a book.’

  Oh, my obedient Luc, taking my instructions so simply to heart.

  ‘Are they still out there?’

  ‘Yes, they’ll be there for a bit. Then they’re probably going to take a boat out this afternoon. They’ve got this nice little dinghy.’

  ‘Mm. I shouldn’t let your imagination run away with you.’

  Matt came back to me, put his arms round my shoulders and kissed me on the nose. ‘That’s what they said they were going to do, anyway.’

  ‘You mean you actually overheard them talking.’

  ‘Ed!’ He shook me. ‘I’ve just spent the last half hour with them. We’ve been playing frisbee together – well, the girl and Big Boy and me. The professor was studying … And then they very nicely shared their light lunch with me.’

  I backed away. ‘How can you do this?’ I said, amazed and angry and eaten out with jealousy.

  He sauntered along the side of the house, and I watched him stoop at the back door and rattle the handle. He walked haltingly round, bare feet on pine-needled gravel. When he’d done his circuit, he said softly, ‘We’d better stay here tonight’, and sent me away down the garden again, so that I shouldn’t see what he was going to do. I began to feel that he could do anything he wanted, just by not caring about it.

  When I stepped into that house and the back door scraped shut and a family of mice whizzed and froze over the kitchen floor, it was with a whisper of reluctance that could hardly be heard. Matt beckoned me through a shadowy doorway and we were in limbo; the quick adrenalin of the crime was calmed by the still, stale air; the twirling shafts of light from the cracked shutters only stroked our legs as we passed and left me with a feeling of mysterious safety, hushed and remote as the sound of the sea.

  In the entrance hall the two oars and paddles of L’Allegro were propped in a corner
and a 1987 calendar with an image of the Virgin and the compliments of a Citroën garage in Dunkerque was pinned up above a telephone – which Matt lifted, listened to and laid on the table-top, as if we had no wish to be disturbed.

  The owners were called Rostand, rather impressively, but the cold, intrusive shock of seeing their name on a spew of dead mail, a gardening catalogue for each year, seasonal circulars from St Ernest, was allayed by the long passage of time, almost as if they had given up any rights in the property by leaving it alone so long. I envied them their holiday home and remembered how possessive I had felt of the bungalow we took each year at Kinchin Cove; how I liked the second-best, third-best furniture, the formica-topped table, the patched armchairs, the shell-covered lamp just like the Rostands had, and how I hated the last day, the bed-stripping, the tidying-away, the final retreat to the back door, wiping the floor as we went and effacing the last footprint of our presence.

  Matt had gone on upstairs and I followed in a dream; though most of the house was in a twilight murk there was a brightness at the end of the landing, where a door was open on to the sunroom, and Matt called softly, ‘Ed!’ The closed blinds were luminous with the sun outside and the air held a dry old smell of warmed woodstain, like the inside of a cigar-box. Matt was kneeling on the low windowsill and as I came up beside him he tweaked down a slat of the blind and I glanced through with the sudden vertigo of a crane-shot in a film, clear over the tangle of the shrubbery to the long white stoa of Les Goélands and the white steps and the rectangle of sloping lawn. He took his finger away as if to say, it’s there but you can’t have it yet. ‘So what’s my reward?’ he said, standing up.

  I went down and nosed and kissed his balls through the sleek black nothing of his swimming-shorts, and lifted them on my tongue and let them drop. I glanced up and he was sighing into the distance as if he could still see Patrick – I knew it was hardly me he wanted. He pushed the shorts down to the top of his thighs and waited with hands clasped on top of his head whilst I tugged his balls free with my lips and tongue and little careful cat-nips of the teeth. The gauzy inner slip of the trunks was damp and still held grains of sand; he tasted salty between the legs.

 
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