The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.15Alan Hollinghurst
‘Hot Hunks 12 certainly lived up to its name! Please let me know if you have any further films with the admirable young Casey in …’ The writing was clear, slanting, impatient. His was in every sense a busy professional hand.
I could hardly think of a less appropriate person than Matt to confide in, though I understood the scientific attitude with which he would read a letter like this. His was a service industry, which entailed a certain respect for the fantasies it serviced. I had seen him at his silver-screened lap-top intently answering such queries; and listened to the muted rattling runs that followed the pause as he thought through some cruder provocation and gave a little cackle or a throaty ‘Oh yeah …’ The trick, it seemed, was to be both direct and archly metaphorical, the result having an enthusiastic, illiterate tone, in its obscene way not unlike the work of my Aunt Tina. Love was blindly introduced and as a prefix was fully interchangeable with fuck: love-poles were destined as a rule for love-holes, and at the end it was geysers of white-hot love-juice that (paradoxically) cooled the lovers down. I answered one or two of these enquiries myself and discovered a natural aptitude for it: ‘Pretty-faced Lance soon gags on Chad’s massive love-meat, and Chad turns all his attentions to the youngster’s pleading love-hole.’ Later on I tried variations drawn from Gerard Manley Hopkins: ‘Rick worships Cody’s massive mansex … Doug and Darren dauntlessly double-fuck the freshman’s dewy down-side …’
I felt a little uneasy, though, in the half-world of Matt’s room, treading on so many things. The long knots of the bedding looked a bit too squalid without him, lean and white, sprawled amongst them. I noticed more than before the musty smell of the bathroom where the soiled underwear that he stole and sold collected behind the door and stopped it from opening. There was something eerie, as the deaf woman banged and sang through the wall, about finding the right fuck-film and copying it on to a new tape on two parallel VCRs. I perched among the junk, wrapping stained jockey-shorts in tissue paper and adding an authenticating ticket whilst the machines worked almost silently, with steady red lights, and the ritual imagery of love-meat passed along the cables.
The phone rang again.
‘Hello! Matt’s not there, right?’
‘Did you ring before? Is that Dirk?’
‘Oh yes it is.’
‘You probably want to know if he’s got anything for you, don’t you? Well, he has.’
‘Who is this, please?’
‘My name’s er – Casey; Matt’s left me in charge of his things.’
‘What, like Casey Hopper. That’s really great.’
‘Like … I don’t think I know him.’
‘Oh, you’d like him. Actually he’s very popular.’
‘I’ve got something very special for you. I think you know what it is, don’t you?’
‘If it’s what I hope … Is it from a certain young man?’
I consulted a clipboard Matt had left. ‘It is. To be precise, it is from – Master David K –’
‘Shush, Casey, don’t say it.’ I felt I’d entered a secret place. I wondered if my interlocutor, my customer, was naked. ‘Please be so kind as to describe it for me.’
I reached down at random for one of the items. ‘I hope you will want this, Dirk. Matt has gone to great trouble to get it.’
‘Of course. Anything of … David’s …’
‘Well, it’s a white pair of briefs. Calvin Klein.’
‘Such vanity,’ Dirk whispered.
‘Mm, mm,’ Dirk affirmed. ‘Is it, is it enriched, autographed?’
I twisted it round rather gingerly, and noticed the red name-tape of one P. R. Maris. ‘It has a firm primrose signature in the front panel. It seems he dresses left, by the way.’
‘I knew it.’
‘It will be quite expensive, though,’ I said, looking at the price Matt had underlined on the list. ‘It has the front marking, about the size of a franc, very rich, but also a clear … rearward indication.’
‘Oh the wicked boy!’
‘Yes, a proud stripe.’
I could feel a flush coming down the line. ‘Such youthful haste and high spirits.’ I let the sagged item, with its legend of juvenile incontinence, drop to the floor. ‘Do you know, I saw him, the other day, coming out of the school gates as pretty as you please in his breeches and I thought, little do you know, my angel, that I’m wearing your shameful little soccer-shorts at this moment – so tight and small they were.’
‘Quite so. Well, wait till you see these. Which you can do when you send six thousand-franc notes to the usual address.’
I heard him absorb the insult of the price, just for a moment humiliated by the extravagance of his need, then considering that only he and I need know of it. ‘I may have to ask you for other things, too,’ he said.
‘By all means; but I’m afraid I can’t come down on this price.’ I swivelled round to where Patrick Dhondt’s black swimming-trunks were spread, sleazily lustrous, on a plinth of empty boxes. ‘Many people are prepared to pay far more than that for the top items. For god’s sake, Dirk, it’s a hazardous business.’
‘You look rather tired.’
‘I haven’t worked so hard in years.’
‘Are you not enjoying it?’
‘I can’t quite decide. The first day’s bound to be a little anxious, perhaps.’ I grinned at Helene, who smiled capably back, and then looked down. ‘Do you want to go out for a drink?’
It was the sort of offer she didn’t regularly get, and she showed a shy person’s brave readiness to take it up. She was holding a bag that contained the day’s slim takings and I waited while she ran upstairs to the safe with it. In the corners of the hall, and in the shuttered room of family portraits beyond, the red spots of the alarm-beams blinked on and off with vigilant intermittence. When Helene came down she activated them from a panel in a cupboard, and we had thirty seconds to get out, which gave us a suspiciously hasty look.
‘Do you know somewhere round here?’ I said, not keen on a long walk before my drink.
She frowned at me humorously. ‘There’s nowhere here,’ she said. ‘But if it’s urgent, I’ve got a car.’
I weighed it up quickly and chose the Golden Calf. She drove us there in a yawing 2CV which had various things wrong with it. I chatted in the forced informal way of a passenger in a virtual stranger’s car, whilst she frowned through the windscreen and stamped on the pedals alternately.
She seemed disconcerted by the bar, by its high brown gloom and inartistic décor, which were wonderful to me and a relief from everything else. We sat down beside a pair of arthritic domino-players, and when the old waiter came I ordered a large beer and she asked – with a certain polite democratic negligence – for a coffee and a glass of sparkling water. I watched her watch the waiter’s retreat, the impatient haste with which he denied or overrode some deformity of his foot.
‘Is this where you normally come?’
‘I come here from time to time, as a change from the other bar I go to, where I know a lot of people, who would be a distraction from talking to you, which is what I wanted to do. At the Cassette there’s a juke-box, and great scrums of young people shouting their heads off. Here there’s no music and everyone’s over ninety and they don’t talk to you or even quite approve of you and it’s all rather restful.’
‘Yes, I’ve been to the Cassette,’ she said. ‘Jan, my fiancé, has got several gay friends, who used to go there all the time.’
‘It’s quite good fun, isn’t it, but there are so many handsome young men and I know the last thing they are interested in is me! But perhaps, as you say, that is rather restful.’ And she blushed at the sudden shift of level and the mimicking airiness with which she brought out the last words.
‘Did you know I was gay the first time we met?’ I asked.
She was blank-faced. ‘Oh, I thought you were wearing a great big badge saying I AM GAY i
‘I …’ I stumbled, laughed and blushed for some reason in my turn. ‘I wasn’t absolutely sure if Paul knew – I assumed …’
‘You don’t want to worry about that,’ she said, as the drinks were brought and the waiter stooped into our conversation. ‘Paul loves you anyway.’
I was terribly pleased to know this. ‘Well, I like him very much,’ I said, raising and holding my glass as if drinking to him. ‘It’s very flattering, because when we first met he made me feel rather a fool.’
‘You perhaps had too much to drink,’ she said, dipping to the mocha-freckled froth of her coffee with the same fastidious air that she had turned on the bar as a whole. And of course, as to the drink, she was probably right.
‘He was quite stern again today. I suppose he wanted me to start off on a proper work-footing.’
She smiled. ‘At least you had work to do. Down in the hall I was dropping asleep over my George Meredith.’
‘He is a rather yawny author.’
‘Oh, I’m glad I’m not wrong.’
‘Well, if you are we’re both wrong. Which is very unlikely.’
She glanced around the room, photographs of a fifties football team (whose right half was now the morose, memorialising landlord), one of those fake paintings of settecento cardinals enjoying a joke. ‘What work was he getting you to do?’
‘Well, stuff on this grand catalogue of his. It has to be finished by next spring, apparently, in the English version first. Orst produced such quantities of work, and the provenances are a nightmare. I’m speaking as if I knew what I was talking about, but of course I don’t, which makes it more interesting in a way, even though I’m not doing research myself, I’m just checking the English text.’
‘It sounds as if that might be a little bit yawny too.’
‘Fortunately I’m a terrific pedant, a fallible pedant, I’m sure, but I know how to spell words like daguerreotype and de Nuncques, and I love noticing when 1869 has come out as 1896 or even 1968.’
‘You speak Flemish very well indeed, for an Englishman.’
‘Thank you. My mother’s mother was Dutch, and we had a certain amount of it at home when I was little.’
‘Yes, that’s right – you speak Flemish with an English Dutch accent!’
‘Aha,’ I said, slightly rattled. ‘I didn’t realise your middle name was Professor Higgins.’
She leant forward with a serious look. ‘No one really expects Paul’s catalogue to be finished by the spring,’ she said, almost embarrassed by him, or perhaps on his behalf. ‘It’s actually a bit of a famous joke. It was supposed to be published at least five years ago; but for some reason he can’t bring himself to finish it.’
I felt inclined to disregard this, or to think that she couldn’t really know. I wanted to see it through to the end before I left town, before next year’s unimaginable summer. I sensed for a moment the awful opacity of the intervening time, the winter we all had to go through, when things would develop and decay and become my past and Luc’s – and Jan and Helene’s too. They would be married in St John’s in November, beneath its great brick scary tower. Perhaps she would invite me and I would come out dressed as smartly as I could with the bells booming and see with a pang the boys with their push-bikes who had stopped to watch the crowd and the bride and were laughing distantly at her. And Luc … we were good friends by then; I had failed to win his passion, it was a rather earnest friendship, full of my morbid suppressions and his apologetic compensations and constructive ideas.
‘I wonder how long you’ve known him for,’ I said.
Helene’s answer was quietly conclusive. ‘Oh always. Didn’t I tell you that he’s my godfather? Well, he is. He and my father grew up together, during the war – they used to be sort of best friends, though I think they stopped being them a long time ago. Paul’s still very sweet to Maurice, but Maurice seems to have dried up somehow in recent years and isn’t very sweet to anybody. Of course he does speak almost entirely in quotations, which is exhausting and drives poor Mummy mad.’
‘I’m a bit of a quoter myself. I don’t suppose he’ll forgive me for correcting his Yeats,’ I said.
‘No, he probably won’t.’
I seemed to have finished my beer and wondered if I could actually have been given a full glass. Helene knocked back the rest of her mineral water, but when I offered her something else she said, ‘Why don’t we get out of … here, and perhaps have a walk by the canals.’ I looked at her aghast. ‘Then I will go home, and you can get back to some serious drinking.’
The evening was cool and grey and I let Helene steer our course, across the deserted arena of the Grote Markt and into what I had seen described as the ville sainte, the city hidden within the city, the narrow courts and alleys and cloisters around the Cathedral and the Bishop’s Palace. I had walked there before and perched on the steep brick bridge that linked two covered walkways across a canal, and felt almost out of breath with sighing; so it had its mood for me, a black undertow.
‘No, it will be interesting to see what happens about the catalogue,’ Helene resumed. ‘I’m sure there’s still a lot to do. Has Paul shown you any of the very late pictures, painted when Orst was going blind?’
‘No, but I haven’t really even looked at all the pictures in the Museum.’
‘There are hundreds more up in the old storage attic. Sometimes you see a very big one that’s going to an exhibition being winched down outside on the hoist, in a great big box, of course.’
‘What’s special about the late ones?’
‘Paul doesn’t like to show them. They’re not really finished, at least not like the earlier ones which are so brilliantly painted, they’re almost like photographs – well, of course, he based most of them on photographs as you know. Then at the end he tried to paint what things actually looked like as he was losing his sight. The landscapes became blurred and clouded over, and you have the sense he couldn’t really see the canvas, either. I think they’re very moving – in a way I like them more than the other ones, which slightly bore me after a while’ (this said with a pretend-guilty wince). ‘But Paul for some reason can’t decide about them.’
‘So are they going in the catalogue?’
She gave her touching, oddly sexy little chuckle. ‘I wonder.’
‘Well, I must find out,’ I said stiffly.
We emerged through a gateway at the edge of a wide canal-basin, where half a dozen glass-roofed tourist-boats were tethered one beyond the other. There was a delicious sense of being left behind, the season over. We leant on a railing and looked down through dropped brown chestnut-fans into a shadowy saloon.
‘I think Orst’s death must have left … a mark on Paul’s mind. I think that may be something to do with it.’
I shook my head, aggrieved at my own ignorance. ‘I’ve no idea what happened.’
‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what you know. Yes, Paul, as he’s probably told you, used to know Orst, he used to go and look after him when he was a boy, and read to him, I think. Orst apparently never saw Paul, or said he thought he could see him sometimes through a mist. He used to get him to describe things to him at great length, including his own pictures, which must have been like doing the catalogue already, and Orst could remember them all … Then he was murdered by the Germans, and it must have been a bit like losing a father, or an uncle perhaps, for Paul.’
‘He was murdered by the Germans. It doesn’t say anything about that in the booklet at the Museum.’
‘But it does sound a quite major point of interest in the painter’s story …’ Helene raised her shoulders for a few moments. ‘Was he Jewish, I suppose?’
‘I’m sure he was partly. You’ll have to ask Paul about it.’
‘It doesn’t sound as if he’s very likely to tell me.’
We swung round and looked back over low roofs to the rival towers of St John’s and the
‘Actually I think it may have been a mistake – or he was arrested and died anyway. He was old and I think extremely ill. It was just before we were liberated,’ she said with a somehow comically offhand identification with that earlier generation and that deep event: ‘Paul would have been about eighteen.’ I thought, if this was the Second World War, what would Luc be doing? I didn’t know yet if he was merely a follower, subtly institutionalised by his St Narcissus training, or if his breaking away showed some more decisive and unstable quality, the inexplicable gift of shaping his own life, as he was shaping mine. When Paul took up with the blind old painter, he was a boy, he might have been someone that someone like me might have taught; and he was making a life-decision – no one knew at the time, perhaps it was mildly worrying to his parents who condoned the charitable impulse but regarded the artist in his eccentric villa with superstitious unease. Who could say? But if he hadn’t recognised that necessity, well, I wouldn’t have been perched on this canal-side railing now. It was an oddly satisfying few minutes, under the great wrecked chestnuts, looking back at the gables and towers and the evening lamps, and seeing how Paul’s altruism and Luc’s wild truancy fed into the empty vortex of my own life.
‘I’m quite envious of you working upstairs,’ Helene said, with a little gasped laugh at her own candour.
‘I won’t always, you know. When you’re not there I’m going to be on the front desk, with the Meredith.’
‘Well, we’ll see.’
‘It would be nice if we could both be upstairs,’ I said courteously, masking my new sense of disquiet that I might have taken a job from her and that this little stroll was being used by her to let me know. ‘You know so much more about it all than me.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t be useless. It’s not that I really warm to the paintings themselves, just that I seem to have known them all my life. It’s Paul’s direct connection with them – it makes me a little proprietorial about them in my turn.’ She stood off a pace or two and we went on, through an archway under a lamp that gave it the look of a convent or a hospital and through a chain of silent courtyards so obliquely linked with dog-leg alleys that in each one it seemed we had gone wrong and had come to the end.
The Folding Star: Historical Fiction by Alan Hollinghurst / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes