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The folding star histori.., p.19
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       The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.19

           Alan Hollinghurst
 

  ‘It’s like a bloody Jubilee Walkway,’ said Edie. ‘Except you’ve only been here five minutes.’

  ‘Sorry to be a love-bore. You just happen to have caught me on my last mad fling before old age sets in.’

  ‘Hmm.’ She swung away to take in the buildings. ‘Are you treating me to the theatre tonight?’

  ‘Well, we could. It does take up a lot of valuable drinkingtime.’

  ‘I have a hip-flask.’

  ‘And I don’t know if you’ll like it. There’s an opera season – Saint-Saëns’s Henry VIII and Grétry’s La Siffleuse.’

  ‘The second one would be lovely. It sounds like something for Sir Perry.’ This was a reference to our local old man of letters back home, Sir Perry Dawlish, known, up to a point, for a monograph on ‘Whistling in Literature’.

  We ambled past the side of the theatre, drawn by the noise of a piano and a woman’s voice. From an open rehearsal-room window a melancholy soprano came floating down: ‘Dans cette brumeuse Angleterre je meurs sous un pâle soleil …’ We listened until a stamp and a cry of ‘Shit!’ precipitated a bad-tempered reprise.

  ‘It must be poor dear Catherine of Aragon,’ said Edie solicitously. ‘One knows how she feels.’

  ‘Have you been writing anything?’ she asked, much later on, in the Cassette. This was a reference to our local young man of letters, Edward Manners, groomed early for a career in print, and already considered by most to be a lost cause.

  ‘What a very insensitive question.’

  ‘Sorry, darling. Do you want another beer?’

  ‘After that I certainly do.’ And it had caused me a genuine twinge of bleak unease.

  Left alone, I gazed down the busy bar and thought how attractive and interesting everyone looked: it was the onset of anything-will-do time – often of course (one tended to forget) a mutual compromise. There was a parting of the crowd and a couple shunted through: I dwelt on them for a second or two before I placed them. In front was the shatteringly pretty lad I suspected of servicing the Spanish girls, and propelling him with a hand on his neck was the assistant from the camp clothes-shop – I’d seen him there before – the one who had sold me my bad-taste Orst tie. ‘He’s not queer, he’s not queer,’ he kept saying excitedly.

  They shouldered into the bar just by where Edie was standing, so I slouched over. Shop was still sheltering Shattering with an arm round his back as if otherwise he might panic and run off, or else be pinched and spoiled by the inflamed clientele. I said to Edie, ‘This boy works in a fashion shop in town, you ought to meet him’, and then told the boy how he had once fooled me into buying some deviant swimwear. Never having worked in a clothes shop, I imagined the staff must fondly remember everyone who went in. ‘You were wearing jodhpurs,’ I said, to seal it in his mind. He stuck a hand in his fine dark hair, widened his large dark eyes and then dubiously exclaimed, ‘Of course!’ He was slight, mobile, playing on looking so young, unfairly eclipsed by the beauty of his friend.

  Edie passed me my glass and stood looking politely at the boys, who had half-turned away to catch the barman’s eye and obviously thought our conversation was over. ‘I’m Edward, by the way,’ I said. The shop-boy looked back uncertainly. ‘Edward. Me Edward.’ I stuck out a hand.

  ‘Alejo,’ he said; and then compelled by Spanish courtesy: ‘This is my cousin Agustín, from Bilbao. He’s not queer.’

  ‘And this is my friend Edie from England. She’s not queer either.’

  Agustín looked terrifically cheered at this, and shook hands fervently with both of us. I held his gaze until his grin faded, he looked down and I let go of the fingers I was still absent-mindedly clutching. I felt almost sorry for him having to carry the responsibility for such deranging beauty through life. His short dark curly hair, his quick dark eyes, the slightly everted lips and the little lines made by his smiles, the small ears, the unblemished fineness of his skin set off at the neck by the upturned collar of pale old denim, all made one long to kiss him and fuck him. I was hollowed out with envy of the Spanish girls having him on the other side of my wall.

  I got Alejo talking with Edie. She said something about an embroidered black waistcoat he was wearing, and I saw her finger the work on it. He brought to mind her camp young friends of 1980 or so, her fellow-students at the Central School of Fashion, when she was my entrée to London, to the West End, and we would all go drinking together in Soho, which waited on the other side of Oxford Street like a barrio of risky enticements. It was dear old New Romanticism then, the boys were growing pony-tails, dressing in braid and buckles, voluminous pants and sleeves; they were crazy about girls, they thought it was fabulous what you could do with them and a few yards of taffeta and ribbon.

  I was making reassuring conversation with Agustín. So, how long had he been over here? Nearly a month. And what was he doing? He was employed by a Spanish wine-warehouse … they had an outlet in Obrecht Street … I should come to a tasting. I’d absolutely love that, I said. I noticed a certain self-consciousness in his answers, caused by our physical closeness in the crush of the bar, and by a drunken extravagance of my own that I was barely aware of, and by the way he found me watching his face and the beautiful opening of his mouth. What a piece of luck that his cousin should also be living in the city! Yes it was. Were they close? Well, Alejo’s branch of the family still lived in Trujillo, which was very remote (a sweet misunderstanding of the question, this, that had me puzzled how Alejo had made the journey from remote Trujillo to a postmodern northern boutique). I said, ‘I wonder if you know some other Spanish people in the town, who live on St Alban Street?’

  He seemed startled by this, as though I were in possession of classified information. ‘That’s remarkable indeed,’ he said. ‘At present my sisters are living in that very street. I have been staying there sometimes; it is better when my cousin has his boyfriends and lovers in his room: he doesn’t want me to be there.’ (Now that was hard to believe.) ‘So I go to my sisters and sleep on the floor, oh dear’ – and he made a mime of rubbing his shoulder and stretching his back. His sisters … the floor …

  ‘I wonder in my turn’, he said, ‘if you know an Englishman who lives on that street, who is my sisters’ next neighbour …’

  ‘Oh,’ I said.

  ‘A very mysterious man. They say they have never seen him but they hear him late in the night, swearing and singing and banging the doors or something. He is always very drunk and though it is disturbing for them they are frightened to speak to him.’

  ‘Have you heard him yourself?’ I asked, hoping I could discount this as scandalous hearsay.

  ‘Oh yes, I have …’ and then I watched it dawn on him with a lovely blush and a kind of setting of the face against his mistake. He took a long draught of beer, and with the oddly magnified attention I was paying him I saw his open lips very clearly through the glass and his teeth refracted through the pale beer, which slid into his mouth in three deep swallows.

  ‘I often am very drunk,’ I admitted, placing a heavy hand on his shoulder and shaking him matily. I glanced aside to Edie, who was sculpting around herself for Alejo’s benefit some imaginary bustier, and who topped it off with a sceptical coup d’œil in my direction. ‘And to be absolutely honest, your sisters can make quite a lot of noise themselves.’ Oh, the ghastly give-and-take of life.

  One or two others were hovering, as if hopeful of an introduction to Agustín, whom Alejo had never before been able to persuade to come to this place: they were raising their eyebrows at him over Alejo’s head while I clumsily tried to keep him with me. But I had had my turn. Alejo was kissing one of the newcomers and tugging his cousin away to meet him.

  After a blurred further hour of drinking and more than my ration of cigarettes, Edie and I found ourselves outside again with the two Spaniards. It was refreshingly cool, though they were wearing less and were less numbed by drink and paced about as we said goodbye. Alejo was going on to the Bar Biff with five or six others. He kissed Agus
tín with sensible fervour on both cheeks, which seemed to give his friends a licence to do the same; the boy stood there like a reluctant bride as his new acquaintance filed towards him. Then we three were alone – of course it was a night for him to be away from Alejo’s. I was their escort … We rambled home under brilliant stars. I dimly recall one or two diversions to show them historic things, my voice echoing off the darkened houses, Agustín standing in a street-lamp’s soft gleam, shivering and expressionless.

  Much later in my room, sitting with Agustín, Edie already in bed, flat out with drink and fatigue. The boy must think we’re a couple, or he wouldn’t have come up to see, and accepted a cup of whisky. My Uncle Wilfred’s motto going through my mind: ‘You don’t want girls around, spoiling everything’ – not always true, that. Whole quarter-hours passing in two or three minutes. Agustín is worried about his cousin and the life he is leading – he doesn’t disapprove, it’s not like that, though if his aunt and uncle in Trujillo knew … I tell him it is all fine, I am talking up the overall excellence of Alejo’s lifestyle and the things he likes to do, as if I had known the boy and taken an interest in his welfare for years: it seems to make me more trustworthy … Agustín is scared by stories he has heard – he speaks superstitiously of drugs, pornographic films, disappearances. Perhaps a friend of Alejo’s has been kidnapped. For a while I concentrate on him so hard that I can’t take in what he’s saying. It’s like sometimes you can’t understand, when people speak too clearly. I am devastated by his beauty, which seems to me on another plane from when I first saw him.

  He tells me 2.30 has just sounded from the church. We are standing at the top of the stairs and I ask him with laborious irony if it is all right to go disturbing his sisters at this hour: it has been very quiet there. He says it is fine, they are both away for the night in Antwerp. ‘Oh,’ I say, with a muggy sense of opportunity. I take his left hand between both of mine and stroke the back of it for a moment. I lean into his anxious breath and trace with my fingertips the quick-pulsing blue vein in the miracle of his neck. He pushes me to arm’s length, frowns a disappointment that cuts to the heart, and holds out a hand. We shake once, twice, and he springs down the shadowy stairs without a word.

  A Sunday morning swim was what Edie always had. She rose from the bed like a zombie at 8.30 and I heard the flush of the loo and the humourless rhythmic grunts that accompanied her exercises. Incredible how she did it. I pulled the duvet over my head, thinking with satisfaction that I was too lazy to become a creature of habit. I didn’t seem to have a hangover yet. I wanted to go back into the shallow dreams of old friends, brought to mind by all the nostalgic talk we had been having …

  She was standing at the bedside with a mug of tea. What a brick. ‘Time to get out your deviant swimwear,’ she said. What a fiend. I writhed and kicked and bawled but it was no good. ‘And shall I give Agustín a knock?’

  Augustín!

  I lurched into the other room and got into the cupboard. There was the faint sound of a radio-voice, something beginning – oh, I knew it, K361. Had I done anything truly terrible? Surely not, though there was a lingering sense of pain. He’d have to be a bit of a prig to hold it against me. Had I tried to kiss him? Awful guilt-circuit of years ago. The music snapped off and then a door slammed. I went to the front window and looked down into the yard, and saw him go busily out. It was only for a moment of course, but he seemed to have displaced Luc at the summit of my mania.

  Edie said, ‘I thought we’d agreed long ago that you didn’t get involved with straight boys and I didn’t get involved with queer ones, since it was in either case a recipe for heartbreak?’

  ‘You are right,’ I said, standing unguarded, paunchy in my boxer-shorts. In a spirit of mortification I went to look for my swimming things.

  I did feel a little queasy by the time we reached the Baths, what with the rash drinking and the anticipated misery of swimming, memories of last time, and the sense of hearty purpose in the echoing din after the quiet streets outside. The air in there had the morning-after chlorine smell of nail-varnish remover and stale cigarette-smoke.

  The changing-room was busy and there were a lot of dads with their sons and friends’ sons, kids screeching about, running into me as I winced and wove through the room. I found a locker and started to undress. I got my new trunks on and they seemed okay, just not very supporting: they had a good sleek feel. They were perhaps rather conspicuous. I was pulling my shirt over my head when I heard a voice I knew and then another. My heart leapt, I had no time to plan an escape: for a second or two I thought I might keep my head hidden in my shirt, and move off somewhere else like a defendant leaving court under a blanket. But I nerved myself, tugged my arms free, and looked. Luc and Patrick were sauntering towards me, and just behind them, smiling to himself, was Matt.

  I was so appalled by this grouping, and what it implied, that I simply sat back with a sigh and a smile. The group themselves showed no concern, however: they were relaxed and cheerful. They didn’t see themselves as a tribunal for my complex, shaming crime. They had come from the shower – the teenagers in long towels tucked round their waists, Matt naked, but holding his towel and wrung-out shorts in front of him. Luc was the first to notice me, and stepped forward with a big grin and shook my hand as if he was really fond of me, or as if this bleak male place demanded classic camaraderie.

  ‘What extremely good luck, Edward!’ he said.

  ‘Yes, amazing.’ He was a hundred times more wonderful than Agustín. The pictures of him were rubbish. Despite my looming humiliation I was thinking that he wasn’t wearing any clothes, only that towel, and that he was about to take it off. I stood up and felt the warmth coming off his chest and face, and saw that his arms, even so, had gooseflesh.

  ‘This is my friend Patrick, by the way, who, whom I have told you about.’

  Meeting them both was like meeting filmstars, their aura and beauty put weights on your tongue. Patrick shook my hand too and nodded and said he was pleased to meet me; he spoke English easily, though without Luc’s tendency to parody an English accent.

  Matt had been observing this and I shot him a warning glance over Patrick’s shoulder. Perhaps if he didn’t acknowledge me the day could be saved; each of them was busy at his locker. I wanted to be out of there and hidden in the water: at the same time I longed to dawdle and see Luc naked – I had to see that. Matt came across and said, ‘Hello, my friend’, and swiped a hand across my shoulder and down my upper arm in a laid-back greeting.

  ‘Hi,’ I said huskily.

  ‘Crazy swimming-trunks,’ he said, and then under his breath, ‘Your own?’ – and winked as he turned away.

  Luc noticed and said, ‘Does Edward know Matt?’ in a tone of surely affected bemusement.

  ‘Yeah, these are the guys I was telling you about,’ said Matt. ‘The ones I met down on the beach that weekend.’

  ‘Oh … I …’

  ‘Yeah, he’s the guy I was telling you about,’ said Luc tediously. ‘I said there was this young man on the beach at my friend Patrick’s house and … you know, the house next door?’

  ‘How extraordinary,’ I said. ‘Do you mean you were both at this tiny place no one’s ever heard of at the same time? You see I’ve forgotten the name again.’

  It all depended on Matt’s next sentence; I don’t know why I thought I would be let down except for my jealousy of his friendship with the lads and my hang-over paranoia and the heresy of last night. I was holding on to a look of distracted marvelment. ‘Yeah, that time we broke into the old house.’

  Patrick looked up with triumph, even admiration: ‘So you did break into the house?’ and Luc frowned at me.

  ‘You mean you both?’

  I would have blustered and given myself away if Matt hadn’t ended his game and said, ‘Not him, no – I was with an old friend of mine.’

  ‘We never saw him,’ said Luc coolly. ‘Or her.’

  ‘Perhaps you snore a lot?’ suggested Patrick
. I thought hollowly of the other losses, and how stupid Matt was to rely this much on his glamour and his lies. The boys seemed so innocent in his company, unsuspecting, flattered by the attention of this lean swimmer ten years older than them with his casual sharp knowledge of what was what. That was how con-men worked. The boys didn’t see the stiff-up hard-on he flashed at me as he turned and pulled his jeans over his naked arse – how he was turned on by danger and deceit. I watched Luc absorbing the fact that a man might not wear underpants, and thought aloofly of the things I’d eased up that same backside.

  Patrick pursued Matt with a few more questions, slipping out of his towel and drying his arse so that his cock swung back and forth. It was a sumptuous monster, with a lazy confidence of mastery about it, a veined softness and sheeny bloom that suggested astounding powers of extension and engorgement: in fact the whole genital ensemble was just about the most breathtaking I had ever seen. But it wasn’t the right moment for me. I was utterly on edge for Luc (I spotted his smiling glance at it). He was taking an age piling his folded clothes on the bench in front of his locker, which was just too far off for me to keep up easy chat from in front of mine. I was spinning the thing out in the most dreamy way, whilst vainly trying to hold my stomach in – I only had my glasses, watch and socks left to take off. I affected a concern with the state of my toes, and peered between them as though for signs of athlete’s foot. I made a clumsily cheery interruption to what seemed to have become an absorbing conversation between Matt and Patrick about football, I hadn’t been able to pay attention. I remembered Edie, several determined laps into her routine. And would Luc never drop his towel? What was he so shy of? I thought of perhaps setting fire to it, or asking to borrow it.

  The moment came when I had to take off my glasses, the last thing I put into my locker. Now I would need to get really close to him if the vision when it came was not to be a mere blur of pink and gold. Then:

 
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