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The folding star histori.., p.18
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       The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.18

           Alan Hollinghurst
 
‘Well, he’s lovely, darling … odd-lovely, wouldn’t you say? His upper lip is very large and over-luscious.’

  ‘When you see the point of him it’s the upper lip you love most of all. You go from disliking it to accepting it to … adoring it.’

  ‘The other thing I think’, said Edie, ‘is that he’s too young for you.’

  ‘Well, of course he’s too young for me,’ I said in sudden miserable annoyance. ‘Still, it happens, it happens.’

  Edie was a hit in the Cassette and shook hands with people and made funny conversation, much of which was over their heads. She wore black shoes and tights, a thick short bunched red skirt that stuck out, a black leather jacket and her hair pulled up inside her black cap: she looked like an interesting young man during that brief phase when skirts for men were considered a possibility. She wasn’t a fag-hag (if anything, she claimed, it was I who was a hag-fag), but an emotional aloofness, the afterspace of several short, obscurely unhappy affairs, made her at home among gay men; they were abruptly intimate yet made no deep demands on her, and she followed their doings with close attention and a kind of caustic merriment, as at some gratifying old melodrama. She would go into the George IV at lunchtime, but never at night, when she thought the boys should be left to make their own mischief, which she could hear about next day. She was kind, too, when she needed to be: she had looked after friends of ours who were dying. Dawn was one of them.

  She and Gerard took to each other and had a long lively talk, while I sat it out on a bar-stool and made occasional interjections implying a closer relationship with Gerard than was really the case. I suppose their witty chat, with Edie like a louche minor royal showing a radiant fullness of interest in her interlocutor’s stories, stirred some clumsy jealousy – and I remembered Gerard’s old ambiguity, the early marriage, and didn’t quite trust him. I bought us all another drink and he dropped the subject of Burgundian court music like a flash and said, ‘How’s it going with Matt, then?’

  ‘Fine!’ I said.

  Gerard looked around the room and said, ‘Yes, a lot of people were quite surprised when you went off with him.’

  ‘Too hot for me, you mean?’

  ‘Well … And then he’s not very interested in the things you like.’

  ‘I’m sorry’, I said, ‘but we seem to have quite enough in common to be getting on with. Perhaps you believe in the narcissist theory of gay attraction; I’ve always loved it with people who are different from me.’ I was sounding cross and turned cosy for a moment. ‘He’s been away for a couple of weeks, should be back tomorrow.’ I looked down. ‘I’ve missed him a lot actually.’

  ‘I hear he likes pretty kinky sex.’

  I said, ‘Yup’, and Edie said,

  ‘Is this the person you’ve been working for?’

  ‘No, no,’ I said, with the warm mendacity of tone I knew she would understand – in fact she had named it the Manners Disclaimer years before.

  ‘You wouldn’t want to work for Matt,’ Gerard explained to Edie: ‘he does very shady dealing, and is often in the jug.’ We laughed, and he added, with a spoiler’s relish, ‘As Edward will tell you, Matt isn’t even his real name. He’s really called Wim Vermeulen.’ After a moment of narrow-eyed scepticism, I nodded and sighed in confirmation. ‘He changed it recently when he came out of prison. Apparently he thought he looked like Matt Dillon.’

  ‘I think he looks just like him,’ I said.

  Later on Edie and I slumped together on the banquette in the corner and half-watched some stubbly frenching going on across the room. ‘Is this Matt really a crook, as your musical friend says? It does seem rather odd if he’s changed his name.’

  ‘Gerard’s just madly jealous of us,’ I said as I realised the symmetry of the thing. ‘Actually he is a crook, yes. And I’d more or less come to the conclusion that he’d been inside. Though I confess the Vermeulen thing is a surprise. I thought he was someone else he knew; letters come for him. I’d even started getting a wee bit jealous.’

  ‘Do be careful.’

  ‘It’s nothing serious, what I do isn’t. He has a lot of business with computers which as you can imagine I have nothing to do with. And then this other stuff … it’s rather shaming really. He’s a sort of fetish merchant. Well, he sells porn videos, very cheaply, by mail – he buys them and copies them, which I suppose is illegal. And he also sells people’s clothes, which must be illegal too, and is much more profitable.’

  ‘Why’s that illegal?’

  ‘He steals them first. There are guys out there – in here, for all I know – who are prepared to spend a fortune on, say, a sixth-former’s Y-fronts or a really sweaty kind of yucky jock-strap.’

  ‘I hope you didn’t spend a fortune on your one blue sock.’

  ‘No, no, I helped myself to that. The thing about Matt’s items is that they’re a con. Actually he does sometimes genuinely work to a commission; but as a rule he just passes things off as, say, the young postman’s rather heavily soiled smalls, or the lycra shorts of the national schools squash champion, who just happens to come from our very own St Narcissus. He goes to the Town Baths when they are in for their swimming-lessons and helps himself to a handful of the dirtier pieces.’

  Edie had the open-minded expression of someone on holiday good-naturedly learning the rules of a foreign national game.

  ‘So the soiling is the important part really?’

  ‘Oh, absolutely. And pubes. They up the price phenomenally. And there you do have to be a bit careful.’

  ‘It seems to be very school-oriented.’

  ‘Yes, it does at the moment – it may just be the rush of the rentrée that’s got so many of the perves on edge. There are older people too who have their following – some of them soil professionally; the cynical foul, I suppose you might call it.’

  ‘It’s all a revelation to me.’

  ‘Isn’t it? It’s a kind of alchemy really. You take something of only slight practical value, but give it a magically arousing association, even if of a kind most people would consider revolting, and you’re minting gold.’ And I had a hard-on myself at the grip of Luc’s tight little knickers and feeling the hard-ons he must have had pushing against the very cotton that now constrained mine and his balls thoughtlessly snuggled there all day long.

  ‘I suppose you haven’t met any of your customers.’

  ‘It’s all done by registered mail. They write of course, these great fantasies about porn-stars – some are illiterate, some are obviously the work of leading academics, they’re rather like Henry James, they put all the rude words in inverted commas; some are always bragging about the size of their own equipment, which I don’t believe. And then there’s the phone. It’s all new to me but I find I make quite a good phone-fraud: I work them up in a slightly grudging way, as though I might not let them have what they want so badly. As an opportunity for speaking stilted English to foreigners it beats conversation-classes any day, and the pay is far better.’ I glanced to my left and saw Frits, heavily alone with his book. ‘Don’t look now,’ I said, ‘but I’m quite keen to avoid that person standing reading.’

  Edie looked at once, and just happened to catch his eye as he was turning the page.

  ‘Well, I hope you’re a Somerset Maugham fan,’ I said, as he came gratefully over and offered us another drink.

  Much later, in bed, an almost pre-adolescent clean cosiness except we must still have smelt of beer and smoke, Edie like one of the von Trapp children in pyjamas that looked to have been made out of old curtains, and me in brand new boxer-shorts, still with a lot of dress in them.

  The lamp was out and only a ghost of light showed her form between me and the window. The Spanish girls were at rest, only sometimes the loose purr of a car over the cobbles rose across the intervening houses; and at one o’clock Edie said she would be disturbed by the hours sounding from St Narcissus, which I no longer noticed.

  ‘I rather like Frits,’ she said drowsily. ‘It ought to be the F
lemish for chips.’

  ‘I rather like him, too. I like the way he’s genuinely surprised if you find him attractive. You have to egg him on a bit. And of course he is an absolutely stupefying bore. You have to keep reminding him that what you want’s his dick and not his view of Hugh Walpole’s Rogue Herries novels.’

  ‘Well, I don’t want his dick. I thought he was sweet and rather thoughtful, unlike some of the others you introduced me to.’

  I sighed. ‘You’ll probably hate Matt, if you meet him. He isn’t sweet at all. He’s a great connoisseur of other people’s foibles.’

  ‘Thank heavens I don’t have any,’ said Edie, snuffling and shouldering into her pillow.

  There had only once been trouble between us. I had been silly about a blond with very good manners called Robin Stannard, who was perfectly friendly and pretended not to be aware of the mawkish strength of my feelings about him. Edie had been my confidante in the whole non-affair, and strengthened me in my fantasy until I found out that she had suddenly got off with him herself: I greeted him with yearning bonhomie and smelt her perfume on him. It was a betrayal so stunning that by the time I had adjusted to it their little fling was already over; and after a few days Edie was coming round, too shamed to be able quite to apologise. It was ten years ago, but it pressed round me tonight with something of its original force, and kept me awake long after she was unmistakably asleep.

  Next day was Saturday, autumnal and clear. I had offered Edie a round of essential sightseeing, the Memlings, St John’s, maybe even the Orst Museum if we had the stamina. She got up early and did some alarming exercises, but I had woken resistant already to the plans I’d made, the shine had gone off them, I almost let it be seen that I was longing to spend the day, waste the day, in some other fashion. ‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘what would you like to do?’ I was on the edge of that bad territory of scuffed-over promises.

  Edie loved climbing things – castles, cathedrals, follies with a view of five counties, the wind-shaken iron lookout towers left in public parks from forgotten expositions. It was partly the fact that I didn’t, that after counting fifty steps in a dark spiral staircase I began to feel more than merely breathless, felt threatened and starved, that had kept me from paying my few francs to climb the Belfry. I’d even felt a mild panic yesterday when I’d seen Edie set eyes on it, and inwardly mumbled some childish magic to prevent her from asking me to go up. But there was no avoiding it. This morning in the square she craned up at its pinnacled top until she almost fell over backwards. The sky was azure and endless, it was an obvious day for the ascent.

  ‘We must do it,’ she said, and didn’t see at first my misery at hearing what I most dreaded proposed by a friend with brutal high spirits. Then she was telling me not to come, she’d wave from the top, I could wait ‘like a grown-up’ at the café across the square. I stood back and wincingly scanned the exterior. I admired it of course in a picturesque way, but to the prospective climber its odd construction, like three tall church towers stacked in narrowing sequence, heightened the sense of the ordeal by dividing it into three phases. In each the stairs would doubtless be narrower, the sense of entrapment tighter, the occasional glimpses from tiny windows the more terrifyingly remote from earth. The topmost part was an airy octagon in which the bells could be seen hanging over nothing.

  The first phase wasn’t actually too bad. The stairs were broad and well lit. It took a while for the tower to disengage itself from the great squat gothic hall which it surmounted. At the top we stepped into a gloomy chamber that housed a museum of local history, and out of sheer relief I looked minutely at the decrepit noseless or fingerless manikins in historic costume and the scale-model of the town at the time of Charles the Bold, with its fallen-over toy soldiers and web of canals covered in dust.

  The second section was more testing. Edie kept saying how incredibly brave she thought I was being and why didn’t I go down; and I don’t know what perverse machismo pushed me on, like someone just behind me with their fist pressed into the small of my back. ‘I wouldn’t tell anybody back home,’ she said.

  ‘I want you to tell everyone back home that I did it,’ I panted, recoiling from an arrow-slit image of old roofs far below and a horizon of ploughed land.

  In the bottom of the third part was the carilloniste’s office, deserted at the moment: we looked in through the roped-off doorway at the keyboard and the framed photographs of various celebrities who, amazingly in some cases, had climbed this far and shaken the carilloniste’s hand: King Leopold II, Montserrat Caballé, a man in furs and regalia who looked like Eric Sykes. It was cosily appointed – one half-expected to see a gas-ring and kettle. Then the real horror began.

  The stair was not much wider than a person, and very steep and dark. I became hilarious, shouting snatches of poetry, which Edie took as a good sign until I was groping and gripping at her heels, the calves of her trousers. I longed to turn back, but wouldn’t have dared go down by myself. Then voices were heard ahead of us, whirling footsteps, numbers shouted out, eighty-three, eighty-four, high-pitched taunts and boasts. What sounded like thirty, forty children were going to come past us. Before I saw them I pictured them as red and black apprentice devils, capering gleefully with their forks over rooftops, clouds. When they came there was just squeezing darkness, airless bombardment. I lost my grip on Edie, my outstretched hand grasped at cold black stone, children’s knees, knapsacks; someone trod on my fingers; I clung to the notional central pillar, the inner tapering edge of the steps wasn’t wide enough, I saw myself being dislodged by the heedless barging onrush of youngsters and dropping into a black funnel.

  ‘There, that wasn’t too bad, was it?’ said Edie as she hurried up the last few stairs into the sunlight.

  ‘Edie … Edie …’

  She turned and ducked my head like a baptism under the low lintel. A doorway for dwarfs, for god’s sake …

  In front of me lay the rinsed expanse of the leads. I was unhappily aware of Edie springing across it and snorting in one view after another through the generous loopholes in the parapet. ‘It’s glorious!’ she shouted, jamming down her hat against a surprisingly tough little wind, undiscernible at ground level, sent to bother those who dared the heights. I thought if I could gain the central flagpole and hang on to it, I might be able to cope. I ran to it as if expecting sniper fire, my legs like rope. Clasping it behind me in both hands I stood and considered my position. It was hard to believe I wasn’t play-acting, no one could be so silly about heights; yet my knees were fidgeting with fear and I couldn’t breathe deeply for the black knot in my chest.

  ‘You must tell me what everything is,’ called Edie.

  Slowly, holding me like a difficult drunk, she brought me towards the parapet. I wanted to do it, but had already the sense of scrabbling for existence on the edge of a cliff. I couldn’t have done it with anyone but her. Well, Luc, perhaps could have beckoned me on. The long hexagonal apertures opened at diaphragm height and one could grip the stone on either side. I did give her a perfunctory pointer to the Cathedral and St John’s; and there was the lantern of St Narcissus, of course, the school with its two hidden courtyards beyond, and that must be the steep old roof of my own room, with the front dormer just visible: Edie looked along my trembling finger to find it. If I tilted my view too steeply down I panicked and drew back. ‘Gosh, look at the docks,’ I said. The sea-canal was bright and empty, and in the distance were raised cranes and beyond them the glimmering line of the coast. I saw the derelict industrial suburbs, roads swinging out across the flat farmlands, and far-off masses of poplar and beech.

  On the other side there were the shadows of cities towards the horizon, there was the station, and the modest outskirts of the town, and then a beautiful golden wood. It took me a moment to recognise it as the Hermitage. Seeing it all at a glance inside its high wall I could hardly believe how I had wandered in it that night for so long. There was the tea-house; and that long break in the trees must hide
the endless, misty pond. And where was the clearing with the yew-niches? Somewhere there, among the autumn magnificence.

  I wanted to look for Luc’s house, but it was too close: I felt faint as I traced the far end of Long Street and had to step back and sit down. I lay out flat for a while and closed my eyes while Edie bounded about. As well as the animal fear I felt a kind of humiliation at seeing the quaint labyrinth of the city contracted below me, and my futile little circuits laid bare. When I opened my eyes it was worse – swinging blue vacancy, the tip of the flagpole with its oxidised lightning-spike. It was like being on top of a mast. Then, with annihilating loudness, eleven o’clock began to strike.

  ‘Now you must do something for me,’ I said. I was stamping and lurching about on the lovely flat ground, giddy like someone who has just been robbed of his autonomy on a scary ride at a fair. Surely passers-by could tell that I had left their dimension for a while and had come back to it with a vow never to leave it again. The warmth! The sensible calm! We went into the Golden Calf and had a settling gin.

  We didn’t get to Orst that day, but we did a very quick tour of the Town Museum: Edie had an intense, photographic way of looking at pictures, unlike my lazy day-dreaming habit. I showed her the spot in front of the Bosch where I had met Cherif, and I was lyrical about him: so sexy, so ready … And where was he now? Rotterdam, was it still? ‘He’s probably being ready and sexy down there too,’ said Edie, sceptically but not unkindly.

  We drifted out and round the corner, among a thin crowd, and there in the narrow back lane was the animal market again. I told Edie she must see it, perhaps in turn not noticing her reluctance, but after a few yards of terrified mice in wheels and tethered hawks hopping and snapping at their leg-chains she turned away tense with anger and distress. ‘I’m sorry, darling, I can’t … I don’t know how you can.’

  ‘No, let’s go somewhere else.’

  I took her arm and we went to the lane’s end, and left into the square by the theatre. ‘This is where I fell in love with Luc,’ I said, doggily marking each place with an amorous association.

 
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