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The folding star histori.., p.13
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       The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.13

           Alan Hollinghurst
 

  He shuffled backwards as I helped him from the fleeting encumbrance of the shorts, and spread himself on the mouse-pillaged cushions of a wicker sun-bed. I came after on my knees and licked and pulled and sucked on his balls whilst he stroked himself off and ploughed my hair back over and over with his other hand. Sometimes, my hair tumbled forward and was trapped and yanked in the steady piston of his fist. ‘That hurt!’ I felt like saying, but he was choking both balls into my mouth to swallow on as he came, and I only produced an ill-mannered grunt.

  While he was out at the shop, I drifted through the house, only half-curious about the Rostands and barely conscious that I was doing wrong. At the other end of the landing was a door with a boyish notice, ‘Julien, Privé, Danger de Mort’, and as I opened it I saw for a fraction of a second a fat little boy with glasses earnestly coming to terms with The Police or Duran Duran. But as my eyes adjusted to the gloom there was nothing but a bare mattress, and a child’s deal desk on which lay some Astérix books and a die-cast Ferrari Testa Rossa and a long-since shrivelled inflatable globe. I felt Julien must be a bit younger than Patrick. Had they known each other, played with the boat each long summer, been transformed one after the other by puberty, Julien anxious and awestruck by his Belgian friend? Maybe Luc had known him too, and maybe that earlier, simpler threesome had come up to his room to fight and boast and hold the stilted talk of adolescence.

  We camped out at the house, eating floury apples and pâté and olives from a jar. Matt escaped a couple more times and swam again in the late afternoon when even he admitted that the sea was hurtingly cold. I liked having the house to myself and lay about in the diffused light of the sunroom, blindfolded with daydreams and drifting into sleep. I made a slight adjustment to the angle of the slats and from time to time looked through. Once the long windows on to the porch were open, and towels and trunks had appeared on the line: I had missed their return. Later the doors were closed and lights reached out across the lawn; but we were at too obtuse an angle to be able to see in. Later still, at one or two, I went out along the beach myself and loitered by the white palings of their fence. There were no lights now, but a hazy three-quarter moon picked up the glimmer of the dunes, the small vanishing lines of the wave-crests, and, when I turned, the white villa itself and the hanging towels and the dim, sea-bleached hydrangeas. Here was the gate, jammed open in the sand, and then the stunted thorns, clipped by the wind into arrows pointing at the darkened windows. Why not step in? Suddenly I knew the house would not be locked, and that I could ghost through it and hover over each sleeping face, him with her or him. But I didn’t, I wouldn’t. I kicked and stumbled back through the dunes, my heart spurting with longing. I had left a candle burning in the kitchen and shielded it upstairs with its dumbshow of shadows and startlements to where Matt was already snoring and striking a sympathetic echo from the old cupboards and bare floors. I hovered over him for a minute, his arms pinned in a camphory cocoon of blankets, his beautiful, cynical face agape and faintly senile. Then I stole across the landing and lay down fully clothed in Julien’s room. For a long time I watched the candle burning, the flame tugged away by a harmless draught. When I blew it out and saw the thin-walled cup of wax at the tip cool into darkness I thought how for centuries the world had fallen asleep with that sweet singed smell in its nostrils.

  I woke in horror and disbelief at having overslept and missed the beginning of an important exam. Half an hour late already, and none of my clothes ironed, nothing remembered, all movement slowed and spasmodic … Then I woke again and groaned at the vestigial gleam of my father’s watch-dial – ‘illuminons’ I had called it as a child, taking it from his wrist and hanging it on a lamp to recharge its brilliance. Five and twenty (as he always quaintly turned it and as I sometimes affected to do), five and twenty past four: the worst wastes of the night at last admitting the possibility of dawn. There was some noise in the room, intermittent rustles and distant scratches, the same as always, or perhaps with a squeak of caution at the slumbering Gulliver in their midst. I decided I didn’t mind, worried briefly and blankly about my life and everything I was doing, and then I found it was quarter to eight and the window-square was illuminous with excluded sunshine.

  Businesslike Matt was already up and out and I had the holiday impulse to catch the best of the day as well. Then I ran the scene of a chance meeting through my mind and paled with sickly embarrassment. I kept a regular check from the sunroom, but the tenants of Les Goélands were clearly making the most of their unhindered, unsuspecting Sunday morning. A bell from St Ernest rang demandingly and then stopped and still they slept on, or woke perhaps with drowsy smiles and gummy kisses and hotly did again what they had done before they slept. It wasn’t till after ten that a window opened, and Patrick came on to the porch with a mug of coffee and stood scratching the back of his head and looking unexpectantly at the sea.

  I tried to make out this famous dick, but he was wearing baggy old cords as he had been the first time I saw him, and a sweatshirt with writing on, not tucked in. I didn’t really care; it was Luc’s cock I cared about and endlessly imagined. In my fantasies it changed, sometimes modest and strong, sometimes lolloping and heavy-headed, its only constants an easy foreskin, a certain presence, and a heather-honey beauty to it. He stepped out from the house behind Patrick and stood for a moment with an arm round his shoulder.

  I recoiled from the window as if from the flash of an explosion, and then came timidly back. Surely I couldn’t be seen, they would never notice the adjustment of the blind, it was the last thing on earth they would expect. I felt the need and the humiliation at once, and it took a while to learn the voyeur’s confidence of being unseen. A hundred metres apart, Luc had told me the houses were, which only went to show how little he cared for accuracy, or how little he had ever noticed, or imagined that his pointless answer to a pointless question would ever be checked and charged as it was now, that it would be the distance between him and me. He was twenty, thirty yards away. He had vanished. When he came back it was with Sibylle, and a plate of white bread rolls and a pot of jam. The three sat barefoot side by side on the steps and I could hear their voices, though not what they said. Sibylle competently sliced the rolls in half, daubed them with jam, and passed them along to the boys, who hunkered forward to avoid the crumbs. I hadn’t seen Luc eating before. When he had finished, Patrick looked him in the face and said something and Luc’s tongue came out and licked up an apricot stain.

  Then there was a little spat, Luc nudged Patrick like a naughty child at table, and almost pushed him off the edge of the step into a japonica bush. Both boys stood up grinning and shielding their faces with their hands and Luc capered backwards down the lawn. I had the strongest sense of his just having got out of bed and pulled on that thin blue jersey with perhaps nothing beneath, and those old red calf-length ducks. I watched him ankle-rocking until he saw that the game was over and dawdled back to the house. They all went inside, leaving the plate and a coffee-mug on the steps. Oh, they were only kids, they were only camping out: if Patrick’s parents had been there, they would have had a table, a tray, napkins, a cafetière. It touched me terribly the way they just roosted in the place and did without the adult protocols.

  Time passed. The sun climbed and cleared. Flies buzzed between the blinds and the glass. And still the window on our neighbours’ porch stood open, the cup and plate sat on the steps, yesterday’s towels swung slightly on the line. It was like a memory game. I felt challenged to find something that had changed. I thought Patrick’s black trunks perhaps had been taken in. When Matt came back I snogged with him fretfully for a minute downstairs. Where were they, he wanted to know; what was going on? He’d been for a long run down the shore, families were out, there was a small crowd round a van selling frankfurters and frites, beach-balls were a-bounce, and still their little fucking snot-nosed lords and ladyships declined to come out and play. He was cheerily angry, like someone covering up a mischief of his own. I picked up
a wodge of Paris Matches and took them upstairs to thumb through, nervously waiting for a possible appointment. We played a desultory game of following the fortunes of actors and models, seen together in a night-club in my copy, married in the later issue Matt was already throwing aside, agreeing a separation in a special exclusive two or three months after that. And who were they with now? Matt lost interest quite quickly and went prowling around.

  It was voices that alerted me, and I sidled back to the window with abrupt and gloomy excitement. Another fight was going on, with Patrick asking Luc a question, accusing him of something but embarrassed already by possibly being wrong; Luc shook his head in a mime of disbelief and backed away – then turned, slung out a hip and pushed his trousers down to show a strip of blue undershorts. Such a saucy, commonplace little mime it was: I didn’t like it. Patrick went back into the house, and Luc hung about for a couple of minutes by himself. I felt he was self-conscious, as if distantly aware of being looked at. I began to pick up on the odd tempo of the voyeur’s day, the scattered sightings, the extended lulls, the great patient investment of time, the eerie, more than social intimacy with figures utterly detached and unconscious of you; they were the twitching puppets of their own routines and whims, immune to your muttered urgings, your baffled telepathy, your shielded stare. I’d known it before, once or twice – and half-ashamed – watching a boy next door waste a day, his expanses of day-dreaming, his occasional inscrutable actions. I remembered the texture of the thinnish, slow time in which he existed, the one-sock-on, one-sock-off doldrums of a morning alone. I hated the Donningtons – not for any particular reason, just in that keen, general way one hates one’s neighbours, with their boat and their extension – and as I trained the binocs on young Gerry, whose round face was being brusquely thumbed, pinched and generally rethought by the gods of puberty, I felt I was taking a secret revenge. I shut myself in the bathroom and watched and watched. It was like a corrupt privilege granted in a dream or in an ancient public school.

  ‘Let’s have a look.’ Matt came up beside me, bored, rather brutal. I was still peering at the empty lawn.

  ‘There’s nothing to see at the moment.’

  A flesh-mantled finger with a tiny oblong of lost nail pushed down the blind-slat, and the leathered cylinders of a massive pair of field-glasses slid into position.

  ‘Man, you can see everything with these.’ How did he do it? I was ineffectual again, a mere blundering inner man, protected and outwitted by my cold-hearted friend. Another blunt finger rocked the milled focus-wheel. ‘Incredible. You can count the blades of grass,’ he said. ‘If you want to.’

  ‘Let’s have a look.’

  His whole identity was obscured by the glasses, and his grin might only have been the sneer of a face screwed up against the sun. ‘You could count the pubes on his balls.’

  ‘He doesn’t have pubes on his balls. Now can I have a look, please?’

  ‘Yeah … yeah …’ – a concentrating tongue peeped and havered. ‘Oh boy. Here comes Big Boy. Just look at that … Looks like they’re going boating again.’ I squinted through, somehow convinced that without the binoculars I wouldn’t be able to see a thing, though there of course Sibylle and Patrick were, encumbered with paddles and a bailer and boxy pink lifejackets.

  ‘Now where’s your little friend, I wonder? He’ll probably stay indoors to do his reading, and you won’t see him at all, which will be your fault.’ I gave Matt a blow in the ribs – just like the boys fighting, I saw – and he cackled and said, ‘No, hold on, who do we have here?’ And Luc was back again, awkward on the steps, as if unable to give help when it was expected of him. ‘If I was young … Luc,’ said Matt, ‘I’d be getting a bit jealous of Big Boy and the girl.’ When I got the glasses at last though, and caught the pair as they scuffed out on to the beach, there was an angry firmness about them. They looked unlikely to enjoy themselves. I took off my specs and twiddled the focus to my shorter sight. The lenses were powerful, ocean-sweepers proved perhaps in some war-time conning-tower, treasured later for their ability to capture shore-birds’ markings and charming movements. The heavy casing was chipped, the leather was frayed and in the paint the name DHONDT was roughly scratched.

  Half an hour raced and drifted by before Luc appeared again. Then things began to unfold with a canny momentum of their own. He came on to the porch and I had the field-glasses on him: he was startlingly clean and close, palpable but also stylised in the flowing depthless picture-plane. When I shifted my position the picture twitched uncaringly to various greenery, a nodding sapling’s top, and I had to run the glasses down and across in a worried blur to find him strolling over the lawn, just beneath me it seemed, like a figure in the flattened foreground of a Japanese print. I didn’t dare open the blinds further, and the picture was hazily occluded above and below by the unfocused slats. They gave an edge of mystery to the brilliant image they framed.

  He spread out a pale blue towel with tattered edges, an old towel kept for the beach, for tar and sun-oil. Then he paced around it in a territorial sort of way, and looked out towards the dunes. I thought for a while he might be going on to the beach instead and that I would lose my almost supernatural vantage-point. But he resolved on privacy and I saw at once his shy, clever dignity – it made me love him even more. He tugged off his jersey and lay down, reaching out for a cloth bag: I watched him take out some lotion and read the bottle before deciding he wasn’t likely to get burnt; the sun was bright, though, and he put on visor sunglasses, their arms linked behind by a short embroidered band. Then he rolled on to his front and opened a book, he was looking away from me and I refined the focus over his shoulder and made out a typical page of Poets of Our Time: he must have folded a pencil in as a marker, and he was soon underlining words and scoring the margin and then for about five minutes he worked on a dense, formal doodle – I think it was on a Roy Campbell page. The thing about Our Time was that it was really Our Fathers’ Time. I wondered at my own impulse to keep him back with me in a shared childhood of unfashionable lyrics and discredited rhetoric. I studied his naked brown back more closely than I had ever studied anything – the wide plates of his shoulderblades, the slight boyish dip between as he leant on his elbows, traces of pink scratches on the shoulders, the shaped, back-swept golden hair stacked in the embroidered sling of the shades-band.

  When I put down the binoculars to take off my trousers I was confused to find myself indoors, in another house, and not kneeling just behind his open legs ready to fuck him or tickle his feet. I came back to my vigil to find him standing up and looking around, and I thought perhaps he was giving up already. Matt was quite wrong to say he was skinny; he was lean but no more skinny than Matt was, and his chest was surprisingly big, with wide milky nipples. I knelt there teasing the air with my tongue and teeth, and working my jaw in imaginary kisses.

  He was taking his trousers off.

  I can’t go on about the next hour. Luc on the grass in his shallow blue shorts, rather discreet; the tan-lines of the summer, of his red ducks and of longer shorts than these, marking comical sexy stages up his long legs to the whiteness I just glimpsed where the hem rode high by a finger’s breadth on the rise of his buttocks. Already the little creases and blue nodes of veins on his inner thighs. Nothing about his cock, but a couple of seconds’ vision of crinkled scrotum (I may have imagined that). The discarding of Poets of Our Time and the getting on of a yellow Walkman. Its not being Schubert. The scary challenge of a look my way, half-sitting up as if alerted by a noise or the glint of the lens, then lying back again, fingers in his waistband. My envy of his hands as they cupped his head, or flicked at an insect or a tickling grass, the light scratches with the back of a thumbnail. My envy of a long-toed, dirty-soled foot rubbed against the opposite calf, then sliding slowly down till it lay by the other and tick-tocked to the beat of the music.

  He had to move as the sun swung round and the shadow of our house advanced across the lawn; the steep roof and the lowe
r sunroom took an ominous form, like the blind head and paws of the Sphinx, I thought. Twice he picked up the towel and resettled himself further away, frowning, the subject of an experiment in light he seemed not to have grasped. Twice Matt brought me off. I needed both hands to hold the heavy glasses without shaking. I was rather tied up, head and hands in one place, heart and mind out there where my pupil lay and daydreamed and shifted from the advance of the cool tide of shadow.

  9

  I must have been early for the lesson. I was approaching from the other side, on the streets I associated with disappointment, the pilgrim’s reluctant departure from the shrine, sores and deformities still unhealed, though this way round the sombre landmarks took on a new aura of hope and apprehension. I was calming my nerves with tricks against stage-fright that my father had taught me. And there was Luc, walking ahead of me, not running but clearly anxious not to be late. I was bucked up when I saw him look at his watch; my authority was manifested in that quick gesture – undiminished, maybe even heightened, by my tolerance in rearranging the lesson. Then wasn’t I pained too to know what a distant figure I was to him still, the martinet of dead poetry and strict time?

  He had turned a corner and when I came round it twenty seconds later I saw him talking to a man who must have stopped him. They were holding on to either side of the unfolded tourist map and Luc, taller by a head, was stooping across it in the search for a street, I assumed, that the man had asked for. I heard him groan with annoyance and giggle with shame at not finding it; while the visitor wore a calm, almost gratified expression, finding himself not so stupid after all. To ask the hard question is simple, I thought.

 
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