The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.16Alan Hollinghurst
‘What did you think of Orst’s pictures when you were a girl?’ I said, quick-marching for a moment to keep up.
‘I found them quite frightening, but also very fascinating. You know how you make yourself look at horrid things to burn out the horridness – some of them were all right of course, the wonderful portraits; but the Medusa with all the snakes in her collar made it hard for me to enter that room really until quite recently. Some of the others were less sensational, but I thought they were even more disturbing by being vague about what was going on.’
‘It did seem quite odd to me when I saw a whole party from St Narcissus in the Museum.’
‘Oh, we were always coming in from St Opportune, as well, with Miss Van der Menge, our mad art mistress. We had to choose something in a picture and copy it and write about it. I remember I was very keen to get my own Chimera. Then you had to do some research: what is a Chimera, what does the artist mean by it etc, what does it eat?’
‘You really are much better qualified.’
‘I always had an advantage, because I was shown round with my parents sometimes after hours, and Paul would get out beautiful drawings and prints the other girls had certainly never seen. He even showed us some of the white paintings then.’
‘It’s what I call these very late pictures I was telling you about, which are in different shades of white, just verging into yellow or pale blue. Don’t you think it’s a good expression?’
‘I can see that it could be offputting …’
We had come out into Trumpet Street, to my surprise, a few yards away from Helene’s parked car. Away to the right the carillon of the great belfry began the maundering Catholic hymn with which it made its devotions before striking the important hour of six.
‘I’ll see you next week.’
‘All right,’ I said. ‘I’ll look forward to that.’
‘I’ve got to go home and work on my dress.’
‘Mummy and I are making a fantastic wedding-dress. You can hardly see us when we’re doing it, with all the yards of stuff. It’s like being in a cloud.’
‘A cloud with pins in, I should imagine.’
She gave her funny laugh, shuffled forward and let me kiss her on both cheeks. Wedding-dresses, white ones, made me think in old-fashioned terms: had she kept herself for Jan? Had she kept herself from him? How unimaginable to walk in trembling purity through the tearful, admiring crowd.
The next time I went to Luc’s house, the door was opened by an anxious girl like a cockney parlour-maid, who eyed me up and down before standing aside: I stepped in over various boxes and the flex of a floor-polisher. Luc was trotting down the stairs.
‘Frightful bore,’ he said, in his most startling Englishism so far. ‘My father’s coming to visit us, and all is on its ears.’
Mrs Altidore came out of the dining-room. ‘I can’t have you in here,’ she said, frowning at us in turn and giving me at least a feeling of being linked with Luc in some wonderful delinquency. Luc himself was gaping and shrugging exaggeratedly, gently taking a rise out of her panic and its thin veil of disdain. If I hadn’t been there she might have raised her voice or given him a harmless hit on the upper arm. She stooped and snatched up a small rug and shooed us towards the stairs with it. ‘Take Edward Manners up to your room, darling, and let Rosa and me get on.’
‘But …’ – Luc was beginning some further broad objections, just coloured, I thought, with a real unwillingness to have me up there. I thought for a flash of Julien Rostand’s room, out at the coast, the protocols of an adult-free zone – ‘Privé, Danger de Mort’. I looked down, pained by the situation, a hot sick stripe of excitement in my chest. We were both perhaps fixing on the same embarrassments – the unmade bed, and where I would sit, the helpless revelations of childhood that a young man’s bedroom always makes, his sudden consciousness of them. When he saw that it was inevitable he loped up the stairs, two, sometimes three, at a time, leaving me gesturing to his mother and then turning to follow. There was a hint of spurning and unmarrying in the way he sprang on ahead, it was no companionable face-to-bum ascent. We had never walked up a flight of stairs together before.
On the first-floor landing I hesitated, and walked on into a room – twin beds, dried flowers, pale sunlight scalloped through lacy curtains over silver counterpanes, the guest-room mausoleum. Time was muted there, the empty months extended, and close by Luc was growing, bounding up and down the stairs all day past this half-open door. He was calling out, hesitating on the turn of the banister above. As I came up he gave me a tense smirk of reluctant welcome.
Luc’s room … I walked through it with an open-minded air, as if I were being shown it by a house-agent, and looked down into the street from the window, noticing the smaller globed reflection of the view in the mirror that hung beside it. Luc’s room didn’t have that much character: a battered old desk with a secretarial kind of swivel chair, bookshelves above with school-books, English, French and Flemish novels, several volumes of a cheerful and unlovely children’s encyclopaedia; a mini sound system with headphones plugged in and a stack of tapes, the yellow Walkman too; fawn carpet, magnolia walls with a framed school photograph and a poster from the Town Museum (some chaste Memling); a single bed hastily covered with one of his mother’s gaudy bedspreads, kicked-off moccasins seen beneath its fringe … If only it could happen now, my hand in his hair, the whole length of him pressed against me, our tongues rolling over each other. He was wearing very baggy desert-coloured trousers, pinched in at his slim waist with a useful-looking belt; his shirt was almost a jersey, with three buttons at the neck – the effect was quite feminine, and had me imagining his cock with more than usual hunger and wonder.
We danced a clumsy excuse-me in the middle of the room, and I fetched up in the chair whilst he retired to the bed, and sat nervously at its edge; I glanced across the litter on the desk beside me, and read the beginning of a letter, ‘Dear Arnold’ in big disconnected writing, ‘How are you getting on?’ – at which point inspiration seemed to have dried up.
‘So your father’s coming?’ I opened with.
‘Yes, that’s right, my father. We don’t see him for ages, and then, bouf!, he just goes and turns up.’ He blew out a puff of air and nodded illusionlessly. ‘Then my mother gets very worried and we have to clean up the house.’
‘I’d have thought it was immaculate already.’
‘Yes, of course. But I would not suggest that you tell her that. She is not listening to things too much today.’ I couldn’t tell if he was really got down by all this.
‘I can’t remember how long you said they’d been … apart.’
He almost jeered the answer: ‘Four years,’ and stood up. ‘I don’t see any reason why we can’t have our coffee,’ he said. ‘Do you want some?’
‘Um … thank you. But … Shall I come down?’
‘All right,’ he said, but then turned back and looked at me as if I might be a liability, or as if he wanted to save me from the ludicrous trouble he was about to stir up. ‘Perhaps it will be better if you don’t come’ – and he was out of the door, leaving me, already, alone.
For a moment, to my surprise, I was frozen with sympathy for his poor mother, provoked by her son when he ought to have been at school and she was at her most vulnerable. Then I thawed under the hot blast of illicit opportunity: perhaps Luc didn’t mistrust me after all, it was only a guilty projection of the love he had never even suspected. He was so unknown, he was still all possibility, unopened cupboards and drawers and hastily straightened single bed … I took a step or two and the boards cracked loud enough to be heard in the street.
I looked down on the bed I had dreamt about. The crimson bedspread was worked elaborately in twining gold thread, long art-nouveau filaments that blossomed at the head into crumpled white lilies; I thought it might have been a dry-run for one of his mother’s altar-cloths. I pulled it ba
In the top drawer of the desk the last thing dropped in was a bright paper wallet, showing angled family snaps on the outside, and letting slip from within a glossy stack of lightly curved colour prints. The nervousness of sixty or seventy seconds earlier had left me, and I shuffled through the photographs with a burglar’s certain hand. And up they bobbed, one behind the other like bathers rising and dropping on the incoming waves – Luc, Patrick, Sibylle, Patrick, Patrick, Luc, Sibylle, Sibylle, Sibylle. The boys in singlets, or bare-chested, mock-heroic, she very composed, self-aware, conscious of her beauty; the boys were conscious of their own, as well, it showed in every capering gesture, even when one was pointing at the other, who stood cross-eyed, with his tongue sticking out. Then there was a picture of Luc so mythically beautiful that my mouth went dry and then I found I was flooded with a little sob. He was looking through me, eyes narrowed but translucent in sunshine, sea-wet hair pushed oddly, darkly back, lips apart but firm, as if trying out his own name, naked to the bottom edge of the photograph, just below his navel, and his long hands stretched wide, some ordinary gesture caught half-way through so that he looked like Nijinsky resting in the air. I heard the quick stride of his ascent on the flight below and as I thumbed and squared the photos back I slipped out the strands of negative in their crinkled wrapper and tucked them deep into my inner breast pocket. When he came in I was sprawled in the chair with one of his story-books and sucking the ear-piece of my twiddled spectacles. I did detect a certain anxiety as to what it was I was looking at.
‘There will definitely not be coffee,’ he said. He looked quite pleased and amused to have made the effort and carried out his plan with such provoking reasonableness. He sat on the bed again, and rubbed his hands together. I wasn’t sure if we were allies in this tiny episode, or if it was all his own. ‘What are you reading?’ he asked.
I didn’t have the wildest idea, a glance at the page gave nothing significant away, I proffered the book with a bored smile. It wasn’t a very attractive book – it turned out to be a history of the Crusades, in a fortified school binding.
‘I never could sort out one crusade from another,’ I said.
Luc grunted. ‘That’s one of my father’s books,’ he said.
I took it back with kindly dim interest, not sure what I was looking for. ‘It doesn’t seem very …’
‘All those ones are published by him,’ he said. ‘Of course I never read them, but he sends them all, and I think it makes him feel better.’
Then Luc told me about his father’s business. A meticulous account, something he had worked out for himself rather than something half-forgotten he had been told. He said, ‘I call it The Fall of the House of Altidore.’ I was so flattered and sympathetic that I found it quite hard to concentrate. His great-grandfather Guillaume, apparently, had created a little publishing firm in the 1890s, and produced small and luxurious printings of belles-lettres and poetry – part of Maeterlinck’s work on bees, collections of verse and essays on Flemish art by Verhaeren with beautiful brown plates. I hadn’t realised how wealthy and grand the Altidores had been: the publishing was just a jeu d’esprit of Guillaume, who presided at the family’s modern apogee, and was a great collector too. Now the original Editions Altidore were worth thousands of pounds, but the mercantile empire that had financed them had dwindled away. Luc’s grandfather had been a gambler, with little interest in shipping and copper. He liked to travel and have house-parties, and had built himself a house to have them in, a little frescoed château in woodland near the coast and the casinos. He lost a fortune in the Congo; and a good deal more in the Depression. The only thing he made money on was publishing, and he broadened the list to include many of the more popular writers of the day. Ten years ago Luc’s father had inherited a moribund business but one with a long backlist, dull in the main but studded with steady sellers. He had poured in a lot of his rich older wife’s money and in the boom of the early eighties things picked up. He had visions, said Luc, of their regaining something of their turn-of-the-century grandeur. Workmen had been sent to repair the roof of the little château. Then things turned down again, and Editions Altidore, like so many others, was bought up by a huge conglomerate. Luc’s father kept some decorative, pretend position there, was enormously rich again from the buy-out, and over the course of a year or so of irregular commuting removed himself from his home and his family and lived a fashionable life in Brussels instead. He had never sought a divorce, in the four years since he went, though Luc knew that he lived with an actress – virtually a teenager, he said with disgust – and his mother had been difficult ever since.
I was struck by his unfriendly strength of feeling as he told me all this, and dismayed by the high-principled severity of the young, that was a focusing perhaps of other fears and doubts. I felt quite abashed, sitting there holding his father’s book, as if I were somehow involved or to blame; like when a friend recounts to you an argument he had and enters into it again with such vehemence that you start to feel you are yourself the butt of his remembered anger. I smiled.
‘I am very well disposed towards my mother,’ Luc said solemnly. ‘I don’t want you to think I am not. I get annoyed when she is making so much fuss about him and imagines he will come back, when it is obvious that he won’t. Most of the time I can look after her, but when my father is coming there is not too much I can do.’ How poignant and humbling suddenly to see Luc as the watchful support of this woman I had always thought of as absurd, and now began to picture as the heartbroken dupe of a husband far younger than herself. ‘Already’, he said, ‘I know enough about love to understand why she does it. But still …’
I stared at him for an agonised few seconds, then blurted out optimistically, ‘So you do get on with your father?’
‘I do, of course. And you see, he is very amusing and full of life and so forth.’ He looked down at his two squared fists, which he was knocking nervily together. ‘I used to think it was possible he did not want to have a child. Now I am not sure – I think we are better friends now that we never see each other.’
I didn’t know how to follow so muted and painful a statement. I think he was as surprised as I was at everything that had come out. I leant forward, I might easily have stroked his hand and coaxed the fist into a grateful clasp.
‘Have you met the … actress?’
‘Yes, once at a party with both my parents. It was a long time ago, I think before this love affair began.’ He looked round, as if he might stretch out on the bed, but then thought better of it. ‘But how can we tell?’
I don’t think he expected an answer. ‘Oh, we can’t tell.’
‘She was in a film on the television which was in two or three parts, which I could watch if my mother was not in the house.’ Again the thoughtfulness mixed with mischief. ‘I must say that she is very beautiful, even if she is a very bad actress. You might fall in love with her yourself if you saw her, Edward.’
‘I think I am right that she was only seventeen when he met her.’ I couldn’t tell if he was looking at me pensively, abstracted by his picturing of the girl, or if he was speaking with deadpan cheek. ‘Anyway, he told me once that it was love like a blow of lightning for him, though not for her, which took much more time.’
All this talk of love from him suddenly, it was as if he had just learnt the word: he used it lightly and consciously like a new swearword packed with untried power and provocation.
‘And what about your grandfather’s chateau? Have you ever seen it?’
‘All I can remember well is a round room, do you say a rotunda, with paintings on the ceiling of my grandfather and all his rich friends, who were idlers in fact, dressed up for a fantasy. My grandfather Theo was dressed up like an Indian prince with a long sword.’ Luc looked at me openly. ‘I also remember I was very frightened of his picture.’
‘And what’s happened to it now?’
He shrugged, denying his disappointment. ‘It’s still there, with the windows all blocked up, and there is a metal roof over the top, because of the rain.’
I wanted to go there with him and help him get it back. It was just another strand of longing to know about the dereliction of what should one day be Luc’s Little Trianon, and about a certain baffling shittiness in the last downward flight of the Altidore family history. At the same time I had the image of my own history like a locked and rotting pavilion too far off and too unsafe perhaps for Luc to want to visit it. These lessons were simulacra of conversations, my part pained and inquisitive, his merely reactive and polite. Once or twice I had mentioned my father’s singing or my great-aunt’s novels, both equally forgotten, or spoken reassuringly of my own schooldays and their various failures. His reaction was a tolerant blankness, a pause.
Sometimes the pressure was almost too great, having him there in my sight, looking at me, moistening that fat lip with a hesitant tongue, pushing back his hair with the hand that later would undress him and make free with him. I got up abruptly and asked to be directed to the bathroom.
The Folding Star: Historical Fiction by Alan Hollinghurst / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes