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The folding star histori.., p.14
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       The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.14

           Alan Hollinghurst
 

  I didn’t like the look of this man – fortyish, fit, with curly fair hair receding above a long boring face. I could imagine people saying he was good-looking and he gave the impression of believing this himself. He had a neat little knapsack with a cape packed across the top.

  I stopped before I got to them, determined to reach the house after Luc, and staggered too, seeing him only feet away, to think where I had been, in mind and body, since we had last met. Only yesterday I’d come twice across his naked legs – or rather, on to a cushioned window-seat and a sprawl of time-crinkled TV magazines in a derelict house – but still it had seemed to me as if we had made love, the intimacy was so prolonged and detailed; I knew his body better than he did himself. I saw now that it wasn’t quite fair, incredibly he didn’t know, he’d been reading and listening to music at the time. The man was excusing Luc for his failure, his free hand grasped his upper arm consolingly. ‘Don’t worry, it’s a very special, odd interest of mine,’ he was saying in English as I stepped forward and gripped Luc’s other elbow in an involuntary challenge to the stranger’s claim. How dare he foist his special odd interests on the boy?

  ‘He wanted to know where the Fratry of St Caspianus is,’ Luc said as we walked on the last hundred yards to the house. ‘I know I ought to know that, I have learnt it once.’

  I could have told him, god knows. It was a dingy, patched-up little place on the edge of town, close to where Matt lived; I passed it every day and never saw a sign of life. Only the most insatiable antiquary could ever have dreamt of going there by choice. I could have impressed him, even gently squashed him with my knowledge, which wasn’t even monk-knowledge, just a part of the accusing streetscape of the morning after. But my mouth was as dry as cloth and my features had a rubbery stiffness, as if I had been terribly wounded by an old friend and didn’t know what to say. Luc glanced sideways at me, but thought perhaps I was merely angry, and that he was in for a difficult hour. I was on the brink of tears just to be walking beside him in the real world, the two of us in our black jeans and smart today with light sports-jackets, though his was costly and Scottish whilst mine was American and second-hand.

  ‘So whatever did happen to your glasses?’ Luc asked with new informality as we sat down in our regular places at the dining-room table.

  I fingered the cracked bridge and the side-hinges stiffly fixed with tape. I wanted to tell him how when he had finally gone into the house and left nothing but the silvered oblong on the grass where his towel had been spread I had stood up and wandered desolately over the half-seen floor, treading on the spectacles that I had discarded to make love to him and inflicting the damage he could now see. ‘I fell off my bicycle,’ I said absurdly: ‘or more accurately I was knocked off.’

  ‘I hope you weren’t hurt, Edward,’ he said with eager sympathy, almost more eager than sympathetic, but he was only seventeen and what did he know? ‘Everybody rides bicycles and I think they can be very dangerous.’ I shrugged to show that I was fine. ‘I didn’t know you had a bicycle,’ he said.

  ‘It wasn’t actually my bicycle,’ I admitted. ‘It was a friend’s.’ I could see myself being pressed further and further into deceit rather as a lying quick answer to a barber’s question, incuriously followed by a further question, can lead in minutes to a crazy-house of invention and non-sequitur. ‘I won’t be riding it again,’ I emphasised. ‘It was a complete write-off.’

  ‘A write-off. Yes. Anyway, I think of you as a walker,’ he said. (So he thought of me.) ‘I have often seen you walking along this street, when I am working in the evening, and it reminds me to work even harder.’

  He had seen me … And was there controlled anger in his cool delivery, a new tone in our affairs? I lobbed the blame clumsily back – ‘You can’t have been working very hard if you were looking out of the window’ – and heard what a leaden censorious jerk I sounded, and grinned to deflect his hatred.

  ‘Perhaps you don’t know all about our little mirrors in the window, which are present in most of the old houses. We can sit and do what we want to do and then we just look up quickly and we can see all along the street.’

  I blushed and nodded with genuine enlightenment. Of course I had seen these spying-glasses; but I hadn’t realised just how routinely nosy these people were. I began to feel that everything I did might be observed and censured from within the dark old windows of the town. ‘How was your weekend?’ I said.

  ‘Oh, it was very good, thank you.’

  ‘You’ll have to remind me where it was you went. I know you said it’s where a friend of yours has a house?’

  ‘Yes. It’s in a small village that is actually in France, called St Ernest-aux-Sablonnières …’

  ‘Of course, I remember now, where St Ernest etc …’ He nodded, and looked at me with slight concern, as if I might really have forgotten the whole rigmarole of our first lesson. ‘You must have had good weather – you even look a bit browner; if it was anything like it was here, you could almost have done some sunbathing.’

  ‘I find it is too boring, sunbathing. But yes, the sun was shining and all was right with the world.’

  ‘So.’ I pondered this vain concealment. ‘Tell me what you did. Who was there?’

  ‘Oh, it was just me and my friend Patrick. I think I told you before it is his parents’ house.’

  ‘Just the two of you, then?’

  ‘Yes, it was very quiet, we could just relax and well, do our work.’

  ‘How cosy.’ And he looked away as if I were insinuating something, though in fact I was baffled by this lie and hurt to be lied to and had a will to chase and expose him. His mother was out today at the Cathedral, and we had no coffee to fill the pauses and neutralise our embarrassments. We were alone in the house … I stood up and walked to the window and made a frowning survey of the garden, two Japanese maples with twisted limbs in a combustion of bronze and crimson. My long, disappointed silence bothered him.

  ‘I have done the reading you told me to do.’

  ‘Good … good …’ I came back and sat down. I needed to re-establish the reality of the weekend. ‘We might as well be very British,’ I said gravely, and watched his forced smile fade into unease. ‘Tell me again what the weather was like.’

  Relief and boredom. ‘The jolly old weather again! In the morning there was some … fog; then it went off and there was only small cirro-cumulus formations.’

  ‘Aren’t your friend Patrick’s parents worried about leaving their house unattended?’ I was brooding on the dream-mirage of yesterday’s sunshine on white stucco, a door left open, and he was adding and taking away, smuggling Sibylle out of the picture, touching in the stratospheric clouds that I had never looked up to see.

  ‘They aren’t worried. My friend’s father, Mr Roger Dhondt, goes there quite often. He is a writer and, well, he does his writing there.’

  ‘So your friend Patrick’s surname is Dhondt?’

  ‘Yes, have you heard of him? Roger Dhondt has had published books about nature and – ecologie …’

  ‘Ecology. No, I’ve never heard of him.’

  ‘You know he used to be at Het Zwin, with the wild fowl. He is very interested in birds.’ I glanced at Luc, and saw he was troubled by my frown. ‘In fact,’ he said encouragingly, ‘their house is called Sea-Gulls.’

  ‘I know, I know,’ I felt like mumbling, as even the vacant charm of that boarding-house, blue-skied name tarnished.

  ‘Sometimes in the summer there are people living on the sand. But they are bums and we are not worried about them.’ He grinned like a child who has no access to his parents’ puzzling sadness and tries to entertain them, while they exchange a stony intimate look. ‘Sometimes they go into another house there, which has been empty for many years. We know they sometimes go into the garden, which is fine, okay, and make a fire and have a party. Now, my friend Patrick thinks there are people living in the house, but I don’t know.’

  ‘And why would he think that?’ I said v
aguely. ‘I mean, has he seen people there?’

  Luc was vaguer still. ‘He said he heard noises in the house, which is next to ours, to his. There was, you know, a guy around, that we kept seeing; he was a stranger, but I think he was a nice good-looking guy, quite rich, and not a bum who would break open the house.’ I stared at him, and saw him stir himself again – but as though not certain it was worth the effort – to a further pleasantry. ‘My friend Patrick says he could hear the sound of someone snoring, in fact, coming out of the house. But I think it was only the sound of the sea.’

  It was on the journey back from St Ernest that Matt told me he would be going out of town for a week or two. He said it in so casual a way that I knew it must be something important, into which I shouldn’t enquire.

  ‘I’ll miss you,’ I said, and was surprised by the truth of my words.

  He said, ‘Yeah’, in an ambiguous murmur; and after a moment mentioned some business things he hoped I’d look after for him. He fiddled in his breast pocket for a fat roll of notes and tossed it into my lap. I didn’t like to count them while I was with him, but I felt a surge of undeserved good luck, whatever was involved. I’d been ignoring the money problem, burning up my good but sparse teaching-fees in drink and wasting my small reserves on romantic unnecessaries like my lobelia shirt – I had sort of decided that after the weekend I would make a decision to decide what to do. Then it turned out we weren’t even to spend tonight together; and as he was leaving the next morning I was unexpectedly bereft. I wandered back to my room feeling wild and lonely.

  An envelope with beautiful, imaginative writing on had been slipped under my door, and lay on the threadbare rug. I tidied away an ashtray, a crusted coffee-mug, a bottle of milk precipitated into caramel grounds beneath faintly blue water – all out of respect to my letter and the capricious hint it gave of a finer life I could be living. I had no real idea who had sent it; I hoped it might be an invitation – someone’s offer to look after me for an hour or two. But hardly anyone knew where I lived. I was dying to see Cherif again, but doubted if his writing, which I had never seen, could possibly be so rococo. Marcel’s, I knew, was loopy and backward-leaning. And then my first idea came back, against my better judgement: that it was from Luc. Something he was too scared to say to me face to face – a kind of Valentine in a fancy script, or its opposite, the astounding note that said everything must end.

  It was from Paul Echevin, and I adjusted after a moment to the pleasure of that. Did I want to earn a bit of money by helping him out at the Museum? Sometimes it would be Helene’s job of reading a novel in the hall and occasionally selling a ticket or a postcard; mainly it would be paperwork, checking references, proof-reading the English text of the Orst catalogue that he really must get finished before the coming summer, that was so many years overdue.

  I felt charmed, and a little intimidated – even though he laid the letter out as an inventive uncle might for a bright child, with a sketch at the bottom of himself disappearing under stacks of paper, and his name written with streaming tendrils for serifs, like the visiting-card of the South-West Wind in a children’s book I’d had. I felt the ghostly oppression of work, the wrong way you had to do for money what you wouldn’t do otherwise; I was thinking like a child who can’t see the point of things, but whose questions to a jovial grown-up touch even so on some uncomfortable flaw. Then I saw myself, still about nine years old, sitting at Paul Echevin’s immense desk, chin on forearm, in the first week of wintertime, in the teatime lamplight and gloom and the busy adult silence, lost in a world of words and pictures.

  It was dark on the stairs, dark in the room at the top, but the darkness there was like the darkness in films, where sleepers lie in blue shadow; or there was a phosphorescence in the air, the curtains, the sheets and pillowcase were mildly luminous. I stepped cautiously over dropped clothes, a screwed-up dress shirt, upsettingly jokey boxer-shorts, anxious above all not to tread on a pair of glasses. Luc was asleep, on his back, his pyjama-jacket open, his nipples wide, brown and rough, he held back the greedy duvet with a leather-gloved hand. I thought if I could unbutton that glove at the wrist and coax it off those long, nervous fingers it would be a very beautiful achievement. I perched on the edge of the bed and looked minutely at his stomach as it dropped with the long-delayed breaths of deep sleep, the tongue-tempting crevice of his navel. His anatomy was grand and somehow luminous itself, and where the blue veins thickened in his neck they seemed transparent, as in a model or a chart. The model of a man … I pressed back the bedclothes devoutly and saw his cock asleep in the heedless gape of his pyjamas. It was heavy and warm in my hand, silky, the skin slid back with an intimate moist whisper. When he opened his eyes I was the first thing he saw. He was too moved to smile, it was love like a tranced levitation, cosy and radiant like divisi strings, a saint’s vision perhaps of the timeless in the humdrum. It was ours. His arms circled my head and brought me down to him.

  When I opened my eyes the first thing I saw was a pair of shoes, made of webbed orange-coloured leather, shucked at forty-five degrees, the heel of one on top of the other, like a first position in ballet. They were intensely horrible, alien in design, scuffed and lopsided from wear. I was lying on my side at the mattress’s edge, the bedding just reaching to the line of my shoulders and hips. I was afraid the weight of my stomach would topple me over on to the floor. The shoes were the focus of my dry misery, and I closed my eyes again and ran yearningly back through the dream-fade to catch and remember everything I could. How he had loved me. How he had clung to me.

  I was fixed in my position by the rough heel of a foot pushed against my calf and the lightly adhesive pressure of a biggish bottom pressed against my own. I tried shoving slowly but firmly backwards, but met with unconscious, heavy resistance. Squinting at my watch on the floor I saw it was only 6.15; daylight was hardening on the wall and all I longed for was warmth and oblivion. I slipped out of bed, walked round and climbed into the cold welcome of the other side. The pillow there had the yeasty smell of dried semen – fresh and stale at once.

  I looked at the big stubbly face of – who was it? Frits. From Holland. A keen uncritical lover of English literature. Perhaps the coppery lighting of the Cassette and the benign warp of drink had lent him a glow as he stood against the wall reading Of Human Bondage – misled himself, I suspected, by that potent noun, but still stubbornly hoping after two hundred pages. He’d looked shelteringly big and artisanal, with a touching mixture of clumsiness and adroitness about him; I imagined him doing something expertly with wood.

  He seemed pleasantly surprised when I asked him back to my place, as if our talk about Maugham might have been an end in itself; as if I were offering him a lift that took me somewhat out of my way. ‘Thanks very much,’ he said. It was clear to me as we walked across the empty town that I had picked up a pretty heavy bore; every time I pushed the conversation gratingly towards men and sex he said ‘Yes, yes’ as though he didn’t quite understand, and then went on in his dogged English about Richard Adams. I began to wonder if he knew the Cassette was a gay bar.

  And then the Spanish girls, the voices in the woodwork, murmuring and shrieking in what felt like derision as I sat in Frits’s lap in the armchair and slipped my hand inside his denim shirt and jiggled backwards and forwards on him until he had a big fat hard-on. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I began to know that the life of being in an office all day, every day, was not for me. I then needed to take time to find out what it was that I really wanted to do. I wanted to read good literature, and travel around the place. I had to get out of the mouse-market, Edward.’

  I lifted the bedclothes a little and looked at his sleeping body in the greyish light, slumped, hairy, held in, it almost seemed, by a long brown hairless scar, the plump bud of his cock shifting and stiffening as he rose himself into the light of early dreams.

  10

  ‘Hello.’

  ‘Hello? Matt?’

  ‘Matt’s not here, I’m afraid.’
A thoughtful pause.

  ‘Oh yes.’ The line went dead.

  I carried on sorting out the orders, clipped pink slips on which products were tactfully referred to by number. A good sprawl of post awaited me each afternoon on the floor of the porch – the business letters addressed to Matt, and occasional envelopes for a certain Wim Vermeulen, which I set aside and which aroused my curiosity more. I supposed he must be one of his old lovers or partners, or perhaps the previous occupant. Something kept me from opening them – I wondered raffishly if it might be thieves’ honour.

  The letters from Matt’s subscribers were often several sheets long, full of secret enthusiasm and not easy to read. ‘I can’t thank you enough for introducing me to young Casey Hopper,’ one of them began. ‘What a “doll”! I’ve quite fallen for him. It’s such a pleasure to find a lad of that age who really likes to take it from an older – and bigger – man. And Casey, I am pleased to say, is certainly well set-up himself. He has such a pleading look as he lies there spread out, when his arms and legs are tied to the bedposts and I can gaze at his secret treasure. Sometimes it is “all over” then, before anything else has happened.

  ‘Perhaps I should tell you a bit about myself. I used to be in the agri-business in Ghent, where I have lived all my life. I am sixty-seven by the way, and have retired now, so I have plenty of time on my hands, and will certainly be getting in touch with you again. I like young men, eighteen to twenty-five or so, well-built, with short hair. I do not like boys with obviously dyed hair or who are effeminate in any way and wear ear-rings or jewellery. As you can imagine Casey Hopper tops my bill!

  ‘You may think it strange, but I have never much cared for sex, despite what I have been saying; nor would it have been easy for me. I live with my mother, who is now ninety-four but has only recently become fully blind. I have always relied on the clean and easy practice of what used to be called self-abuse. I’m proud to say that I have climaxed at least once every day since 1937.

 
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