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The folding star histori.., p.17
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       The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.17

           Alan Hollinghurst
 

  It was on the floor below, next to the marmoreal spare bedroom. Luc showed me in and gestured at the various opulent appointments. After I locked the door I thought he might wait outside, as Mrs Vivier so patiently had at Paul’s house once, and I listened until I heard the creak of the stairs as he went back up. I leant against the door and looked at myself pityingly in the wall of mirror opposite, thinking I must say something to Luc, I couldn’t just let this go on. I felt I might as well have a pee, since I was there, and did so, able to watch myself, as you sometimes can in trains, with a certain admiration. I washed my hands, and noted the mingled bottles on the basin’s mosaic surround – the mother’s lilac talc and cleansing lotion, the son’s canister of shaving foam and Donald Duck toothbrush, caked with pink paste; I remembered it so well, your things took the place of your father’s, you became a kind of couple in your turn. The dry toothbrush tasted of nylon and dead mint.

  At the end of the long white bath with its tall, perched and somehow vigilant brass taps was a gingham-lined clothes-basket with a lid. I rootled lightly among its contents – again the mixture of silvery slips and bras and sweatier boy’s things, grimy-necked shirts, inside-out socks and underwear. There were some white Hom briefs, tiny, damp from a towel they were bundled in with. I picked them out and covered my face with them. They seemed spotless, hardly worth changing for new ones, with only a ghost of a smell. When I rolled them up they were almost hidden in my fist. I buried them at the bottom of the basket, but then some awful compulsion made me plunge my arm in for them again.

  Before the end of the hour we heard the pneumatic scrunching and electronic whine of a big car being parked in a small space. I saw Luc studying the window spy-glass, and saw the nose of a grey-blue Mercedes swelling towards the front door in the mirror’s convex surface. As it happened I was making another attempt to tell him something about myself, but I watched his attention waver and go.

  ‘Yeah, my father’s here,’ he said. ‘I think I’d better …’

  ‘Let’s call it a day,’ I said, and we both sprang up. He had a look of anxious excitement that made me feel both protective and de trop. I thought in a way I should meet his father; there should be some mutual recognition and professional understanding, as it were, over Luc’s head. Then as we got half-way down the stairs I was simply embarrassed to be a stranger towards whom distracting courtesy would need to be shown at a moment of family greeting and tension. But Luc, though he was ahead of me and so precious to me as I let him go, didn’t forget me. He leapt down the last four steps and, as his father looked up from a muttered exchange with his mother just inside the open front door, wrapped an arm round his neck and kissed him on the lips. Then he half-turned and extended his other arm towards me. ‘This is Edward,’ he said; I came forward with a silly expression of shyness and pride, as if I were someone he wanted to marry.

  His father and I exchanged only a few sentences, bantering around his absence and uncertain responsibilities, reassuring ourselves with the facts of Luc’s excellence at English and the inevitability of his good results. I was startled by Martin Alti-dore’s appearance. He was so young. Though I knew he was younger than his wife I had still somehow expected a burgherly figure out of one of the family portraits; but there was nothing of their prudence or their warning glint of power. He was darker than Luc, more animal and compact (Luc’s legginess came from his mother), but with the same long nose and almost the same big lips. And he was in the same stretch of life as me – well, a little further on, but surely only forty. His dark suit was beautifully cut, his off-white shirt and blood-coloured tie were silk. You knew at once he was a fucker. If I’d met him in a bar I’d have wanted him. I was trying to please him, playing to some cockteasy quality he had – charm I suppose, a kind of shallow intimacy; something Luc incuriously lacked – and at the same time to stay in with Luc; and then to be good to his mother, half-forgotten just outside our little male ring.

  12

  I went out to the station to greet Edie and had to wait half an hour, pacing the platform systematically and then sitting with a coffee and a cigarette in the nearly empty refreshment hall. It was one of those vacant interludes, when pleasant boredom mixes with anticipation, and six or seven minutes of anonymous sex in the mopped and deserted Gents is what you would like best – you come just as the tannoy chimes and the fast train is competently announced. But there was nothing doing this morning: a few stout minor businessmen in belted macs, an elderly lady with a cart of luggage and a look of foreboding. I was tense but weightless, oddly comforted by the unknown plans and problems of the others. The long hand on a digitless clock-face clunked from minute to minute as the trim red second hand busied round. I gazed through the enormous windows, back towards the city – nearby a little guard-tower with a pointed roof and drooping chequered flag, and beyond it an impression of walls and spires like a city in a book of hours, only blurred and brightened by the gold of horse-chestnuts turning and the paling yellow of limes. It was a good moment for my old friend to see the place.

  In fact when she arrived she found everything wonderful: the clean, late train, the absence of people, the sleek inter-war grandeur of the station with its fawn marble and redundant spaciousness, all seemed hilarious and entrancing to her. We had a fierce hug and I was carried along for a while on the surge of confidence that came from being with a real old friend, whose friendship outlasted and diminished my other frets and misguided wanderings. I balanced up her several bags like an experienced bellhop, and we set off into town on foot. She was travelling with a hat-box.

  ‘I want you to see it this way, as if you were an old pilgrim, or you couldn’t afford the tram.’

  ‘Heavenly.’

  I led her over a bridge, through an escutcheoned gateway and into the first little square; silent houses and a statue of a nineteenth-century man with swooping moustaches – she ran forward to read his name.

  ‘I’ve no idea,’ I said.

  ‘But darling, I thought you’d know everything by now.’

  ‘Sorry. I do know one or two things, but … not that.’

  ‘I see.’ She walked round the statue on its high plinth as if my ignorance made it more interesting or problematic. The nice thing about the man was his thoughtful, almost unhappy expression, as if he felt himself unsuited to the eminent perpetuity of statuedom. He might have been a good doctor or a minor devotional poet. Edie imitated his posture, mocking it gently, and caught the eye of a young boy who came trotting past and stopped in surprise to see a man with a hat-box and a striking dark girl in black tights and tunic and slouch-cap, like a Stuart page-boy in mourning, standing stock-still; while to me it had an older resonance, the busy longueurs of photo-sessions when Edie was still at fashion-school, when we would go on to the common with a suitcase and umbrellas and sheets of tinfoil and one or two of her inventive friends and create our gleaming static happenings, which patient passers-by would stop and puzzle over.

  I was bursting with things to say to her; she was an indulgent listener, not like rivalrous old men friends who fought you for the conversational advantage. But I wanted to let the city enfold her first. As we walked on I would point out a church or house or a glimpse into a courtyard, but we hardly spoke. I felt the place was mine, I was proud of it, and of more or less knowing my way through it; and I knew the quality of Edie’s different silences, from the violent to the serene, and that we were together in this one – as I hadn’t been together with anyone since I came here.

  We were at a famously pretty point, with a view of the Belfry beyond a canal, leaves fluttering on to the water, a long quay to the left with three receding bridges stepping from the empty sunshine into the narrow lanes of the middle of town.

  ‘It is absolute bliss,’ Edie said. ‘You’re so lucky, and so right to have come. I couldn’t see why before, to be honest I thought it was quite potty, but you’re absolutely right.’

  I swallowed the blunt admission. ‘Voilà.’

 
I must say it is rather peculiarly quiet.’ She looked at her watch. ‘I mean we’ve seen three people in the past twenty minutes, and now there’s nobody in sight at all. That sort of might get to one.’

  ‘Yes, things have been a fraction on the dull side since about 1510. But we do what we can to make our own entertainment.’

  ‘So one rather gathered from your letter.’

  She was not ungrand, Edie. My mother often said she came from ‘a very good family’, which was her way of glossing over Edie’s more gavroche and boozy qualities and suggesting I was lucky to be friends with a de Souzay at all. The de Souzays were great liberal philanthropists, though not, by and large, as keen as this one was to get in a pub and talk, at some length, about men and what they liked to do. She had an emphatic contralto speaking-voice, and a certain hauteur – undercut by a vulgar laugh that could set other people going in a cinema or café.

  She always used the same scent, a beautiful fragrance that was abbeys, aunts, tapestried country houses, dulled petals in china bowls before it was … whatever it was, the discreet phial put up by some Mayfair herbalist for powdered dowagers in black court shoes. It didn’t go particularly with what she tended to wear – often made by herself and usually sexy, theatrical and vaguely disconcerting: she was my earliest experience of glamour, of bold exposure matched with dazzling concealment. Fifteen years ago I had seen her squeeze up her bust like a soubrette in a Restoration comedy, and watched with awe as her face, with its long nose and downed upper lip, was painted and dusted into a challenging and ironic mask. Even then she wore her mysterious perfume, so that to breathe it again now in my rooms was to go back through half a lifetime passed alongside her. It overwhelmed the yellow roses I had bought and stuck in a jug in the middle of the table.

  ‘I love it, dear,’ said Edie, opening the cupboards into which I’d tidied things away. ‘You could have a great romance in here.’ She went to the long back window and gazed down into the secret garden.

  I felt buoyantly rich with the money I’d been given by Matt, and loved being able to make Edie completely my guest. She kept offering to pay for things, as she had often had to in the past, and I would sternly but suavely refuse her. I took her out straight away for lunch at a gloomy and highly praised restaurant in the main square, where we drank three bottles of Chablis and ate mussels and turbot and apple pancakes. The subject of Luc was palpable just beyond us. I felt more reckless and confessional as I drank, but I kept clear of it till coffee: I thought it would take my appetite away and then the meal would be a waste of money. I asked her about things back home with the feeling I’d been away for five months, not five weeks.

  ‘Everything’s pretty much as you left it,’ she said. ‘I was at the Common last weekend – just seeing Ma and Pa, but I popped into the George for a glass of Guinness and to pick up the gossip. One hears your old friend Willie Turlough has had yet another baby.’

  ‘To think I could have been his baby,’ I said, as though envisaging some wild new form of surrogacy. ‘Still, he’s bald now, isn’t he?’

  ‘It’s a glorious great pate, by all accounts. Not that he could ever be less than humblingly handsome …’ She leant forward and pushed a hand through my thick mop.

  ‘Anything else?’

  ‘I went into Dawn’s shop, it’s all outrageously expensive. He said no one had even rung the bell – you know they’ve got a buzzer now for security – for two days. I bought a pair of old china candlesticks for about the price of a world cruise, it was sort of a mixture of charity and madness, like so much of one’s existence.’

  ‘Are you pleased with them?’

  ‘Not at all. I’m just longing for someone to get married so that I can pass them on.’

  I twiddled the stem of my wine-glass. ‘I never long for that,’ I said. ‘And what of Dawn himself?’

  ‘Well, I was amazed to see him looking so fit. Colin took him to Algeria, which was apparently somewhat hairy with the riots, but did mean he got nice and brown; and he’s put on a bit of weight. The AZT seems to have made him rather hilarious.’

  ‘I so want him to be all right,’ I said – it seemed still worth saying.

  ‘I’m afraid I didn’t see your ma,’ said Edie after a pause. ‘I don’t suppose she’d expect me to call if you weren’t there.’

  ‘I had a ten-page letter yesterday. She’s fine. At least if there isn’t an upset in the later pages. I’ve never quite finished reading one of her letters before the next one arrives.’

  We were late, perhaps loud with drink (one never knew), and the sole survivors of lunchtime. The waiter who was left to us gave only a curt nod when we asked for a second pot of coffee. ‘So what about this breaking heart of yours?’ said Edie. ‘Or am I exaggerating?’

  ‘God, I wish you were,’ I gasped, tears suddenly in my eyes.

  ‘Darling. Perhaps it will be all right.’

  ‘Of course it may be all right …’ I lit a cigarette, it was from a packet left behind in the bar, an American brand, thin and sweet – the shock of finding what other people buy and like.

  ‘Have you actually … made a move?’

  I shook my head. ‘There are the most tremendous bars and forces in the air. Sometimes I’m only eighteen inches away from him, our feet are virtually touching as we sit at the table for the lessons, I can smell the milky coffee on his breath. And yet I’m completely immobilised.’

  ‘Well, you could hardly start groping him in a lesson.’ Then, ‘How’s it going to end?’

  ‘That – that’s too logical and impossible a question. How it is is all that counts.’ Edie said nothing. ‘I’m so empty and aching for him, he affects everything I do and think, and it’s very hard to believe that maybe he doesn’t even know. It really makes me feel quite mad at times. When I go round for the lessons, you know how it is, at first I feel absolutely mad simply being with him, then after a few minutes I kind of subdue my passion with words, things get normalised, their banality somehow shows through for a while – of course there are spurts of hot heartburn – and then as the end approaches it becomes unbearable again. I feel my face is stiff with all the pain he doesn’t even know he’s inflicted: it’s just that basic biological thing, you can’t stand being separated, and for minutes after he’s said goodbye your heart is thumping and thumping and you feel full of despair and shock as if you’d just witnessed some great accident. And you have to have a drink.’ I took a deep pull on the cigarette and stubbed the whole thing out. ‘Ah, coffee.’

  The waiter set down the copper pot, and busied and obstructed us removing the ashtray and at last empty glasses. ‘Which way do you think his thoughts turn?’ Edie asked.

  ‘Anights? Well, it’s hard … Did I mention the Three? They enhance each other’s mystique no end. They’re all beautiful and well off and give the impression of being crazy about each other.’

  ‘You know what they say … “Un trio n’excite pas de soupçons”.’

  ‘Well, my soupçons have never been more excités in their lives.’ I hesitated, and then drew out the wallet of pictures from my inside pocket. ‘I can show you.’

  ‘Oh.’

  I shuffled through the prints and laid out half a dozen in front of her. She seemed deliberately to take a detached line. ‘So this dark one is Patrick? He looks a real little thug, I must say. Quite nice though.’

  ‘He doesn’t look a thug. He’s got a gigantic cock.’

  ‘Sibylle is lovely, I agree. Beautiful eyes, and mouth; and colouring.’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘She looks very sophisticated and irresistible.’

  ‘Quite. Thank you.’

  ‘And this must be him.’ I looked away and then back to the upside-down image and waited for her reaction. It was the faun-like picture of Luc on the beach.

  ‘Don’t you think it’s very ancient Greece that one?’

  ‘Mm. Where was it taken?’

  ‘It’s at a place just over the French border where the Three
are always going. I followed them down there with my friend Matt and we kind of spied on them.’

  ‘I see, you took this.’

  ‘No, no – no. I stole the negatives and had them printed.’

  Edie raised an eyebrow and I wondered again, as I had in dense hours of meditating on that picture, just who had taken it and at which of his friends that complex gaze of Luc’s had been directed.

  ‘That must have been rather difficult.’

  ‘Terribly easy. I’ve stolen lots of things. I’m wearing a pair of his pants at the moment, and one of his vests and one of his socks.’ I stuck out my feet beyond the tablecloth and she looked with concern at my one blue and one green ankle. ‘The blue one’s Luc’s.’

  ‘Darling – I mean … you do seem to have gone complètement bonkers.’

  I tolerated this remark, I wasn’t sure if it contained a hint of congratulation. I drank a cup of coffee in quick insistent sips, and Edie kept looking at the photos. ‘Are the others any good?’ she said.

  ‘There are some others I wasn’t going to bore you with.’

  ‘Bore? I love other people’s photographs. They’re the only ones that aren’t disappointing.’

  I gave her the packet. ‘There are those rather odd ones, where they’re acting or something. That one where Patrick has a sheet over his head, and Luc’s waving a poker round like a sword. Most peculiar,’ I said, drily and enviously.

  Edie frowned over the print. ‘It isn’t that peculiar. They’re only larking about. Just because you can only imagine them gazing into each other’s eyes and having sex all day long, you seem to have forgotten that they’re only kids, who still do childish, rather kooky kind of things, and like dressing up and being silly. You may not have heard about it, it’s called fantasy.’

  ‘You haven’t even met them.’ She held my hand across the table. ‘You haven’t said what you think of Luc.’

 
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