The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.2Alan Hollinghurst
The moment I had locked the door he was on to me, chewing and stuffing my mouth and knocking my glasses up skew-whiff over the top of my head. He was an animal, that great thing for someone else to be. A second or two later he was grinding one hand up and down on my bum and with the other guiding me down to rub his cock where it stood out hard and at an angle in his loose old jeans.
On the way from the Museum we had crossed a bridge above swans and the putter of an empty bâteau-mouche, the commentary running on regardless, when he had suddenly held out in his palm a little packet with a rubber’s squashed ring contour. I didn’t mind the wordless confirmation, but I turned my head away, too full of feeling for this boy, who had only been my friend for twenty minutes, who felt nothing for me but was so unhesitatingly himself, a little overweight, his upper lip and chin roughened already with shadow. Now he was sitting in my lap, riding on me with a certain urgent disregard – I swept my hands across his sleek and trusting back, and reached up to shoulders where muscles powerful from work gathered and dispersed. I was glad he couldn’t see me, gaping and heavy-hearted with praise for him.
We were on the end of the bed, and I hugged up close to look round his shoulder and into the full-length mirror. Our eyes met there, but he was a little bothered by that intimacy. Then, as I was climbing to the end, he got right off me and stood on the floor. I scrambled up too, confused for a moment by my own reflection in the glass, as if without my specs the image needed to be blinked back into focus, or as if a sixth sense revealed a face within my face, ghostly features caught in the very silvering of the mirror. Cherif took a half-step forward, and fell against the glass with flattened palms. A sequence of sounds emerged from it, or from a distance beyond it; and then for a couple of seconds we saw ourselves dematerialise and a perspective open up within – a shuttered room with stacks of chairs, lit from the side by an opening and closing door. Cherif was sighing and laughing quietly, and sat down again on the bed while I pulled on my trousers, hopping and treading on the legs.
I had been exploring the city rather fast and anxiously, referring on and off to a tourist map which omitted side-streets and alleys and showed the famous buildings in childishly out-of-scale drawings. Its poetic effect was to give me the shape of the town as a fifteenth-century engineer, expert in dikes and piles, might have shown it in plan to a ruling count: a mounted opal veined with waterways and suspended from the broad ribbon of the sea-canal. The industrial park, the post-war poor estates, the spent suburb of my first-night wanderings, were shown as fields, confirming the sense I had at every corner that the whole city aspired to be an artist’s impression.
It wasn’t a big town, and its great monuments, like the pinnacled elevations jostling on the map, were out of all proportion to the streets, courtyards and canals beneath them. The tapering, windowless monolith of the tower of St John’s and the ugly green spirelets with which a turn-of-the-century surveyor had capped the ancient tower of the Cathedral were mere satellites to the legendary altitudes of the Belfry. From far off, in Ostend, when we had cleared the cranes and the edge of town, these three appeared across the plain as a mysterious trinity, with the Belfry, growing epoch by epoch in battlemented stages towards its octagonal crown, the most doggedly heaven-storming of all.
Today the sky was low and the air fenlike and damp when I crossed the Grote Markt and saw the maestro of the famous carillon – a shovel-bearded young man in corduroy jacket and knee-breeches like a figure from some ingenious Flemish clock – unlock the gate and start to climb the two hundred stairs to his console in the clouds. Even in the Grote Markt, beneath the stepped gables of the best restaurants and the gilded angels who had paused on top of the Town Hall and raised their trumpets high over taxi-ranks and bus-stands, there was nothing happening. A few visitors wandered out of the glassed-in arcade of the Tourist Office, but the school holidays were almost over and the visitors were studious couples. A few women clambered with supermarket bags into one or other of the waiting buses that showed the names of outlying villages. Sometimes the silent tram came through. These were the days and weeks of a ceremonial square. And then the carillon banged out its lifeless rendering of a folksong or hymn.
It was the silence that followed that was most challenging. As I went round with my list of addresses the stillness of the town fused with my new suspicion of being watched, of something calculating in the mid-morning emptiness. I found myself coming back with relief to those two or three streets lined with ordinary shops, red flashes of special offers on sausage or coffee on the windows, outfitters and stationers cheerful with skirts, satchels and coloured pens for the rentrée. And among the rednosed Brueghel boys with bicycles there were others who looked bored and stylish and desirable. I found myself marvelling that they lived here.
I saw five rooms in all, but chose without hesitation. The others were such vessels of loneliness, or else too pinned and stifled with rules and considerations for someone who had finally left home. I had a horror of lying there, forbidden to smoke, listening to the cistern filling overhead. It was usually a housewife, garrulous and noncommittal, who would let me in and take me up, observing resentfully as I felt the bed or opened the hanging cupboard. In two of the houses other pallid lodgers were caught on their way between bedroom and lavatory and given a warning. I hardly saw Cherif as a welcome regular in such a place, or the romance of my new life unfurling under such surveillance.
The room I chose was so hidden away that it gave me the sensation of having entered, with dreamlike suddenness, into the secret inner life of the city. On the street it was a doctor’s establishment, a bare white house with a brass plate polished almost flat. At the side a gated passage led through into a shallow courtyard: the doctor’s residence backed on to a far older range of buildings – rough pink brick, steep roofs with the high-up doors and hoists of warehouse attics. Like a tiny Cambridge college, it had two stairways, one at either end, leading up to disused workshops, storerooms, and, on the second floor, two sets of rooms that were let. One had just been taken by some Spanish girls; the other, which was cheap but primitive, was mine; the old doctor (who still saw a few patients in his retirement) told me in French how pleased he was to have an Englishman there.
All down one side of the room ran unusually deep cupboards, each with an enamel number, and a door that shut with a boom. I could only occupy them all by putting underpants in one, shoes in two, jerseys in number three; when number four was opened my leather jacket was revealed like a historic vestment in a cathedral treasury, flanked by the monstrances of my special bottles and jars. Each shelf had been neatly lined with old newspaper, held in place by drawing-pins; I turned my head sideways to scan the time-silvered sports news and antique auto-tests. The facing wall was a wooden partition, rough with nail-holes and nail-heads hammered in, that made me wonder what had been stored here, what work had been done here, and when it had come to an end. It seemed an encouraging setting for my own projects, the bits of writing I was going to take up again. Behind the partition was the sleeping area, choked by a high iron bedstead in which three people could have slept abreast. Outside, at the head of the stairs, was a little washroom, with a sink and a fragment of mirror, and a rudimentary shower that dripped and left a rusty stain.
As soon as I was alone I set out my dictionaries, English, French and Dutch, and my notebooks and inks; I checked the crockery – two of everything, which seemed another good sign – and switched on the creaking electric plate. I’d persuaded myself it didn’t matter there was no heating – only a little blower that roared and ate electricity. I bounced on the bed and set its loose finials jingling.
At the front of my main room a leaded dormer looked down into the courtyard and across to the shuttered upper floor of the doctor’s house; but at the back there was a big sash-window. It looked westward, across to the mouldering apse of the church of St Narcissus; on the map the drawing of its singular brick tower and pointed lantern obliterated my house and the garden that lay
Half-way down the stairs I stopped, hearing an earlier echo than Cambridge and my first independence. A church tower, somewhere in Kent, its narrow door left open: there’s a rehearsal, part of a festival, and my father is singing in it. I’m a little boy, clambering up among the junk the verger and cleaners have stacked at the foot of the spiral ascent, mops and brooms, rolled-up banners, tumbled flower-tripods with their dry Oasis and bent cowls of chicken-wire. Dust and secrecy. I haven’t been missed. I go up and up with my hands on the steps above, until there’s the slit of a window. When I look out over the churchyard, our Humber drawn in by the lych-gate, the drop of the land beyond trees, I feel afraid, giddy, I have gone too far. And then the beautiful tenor sound starts up, high and untroubled, probably Bach, though maybe something lesser, I know nothing of all that, only the rise and fall of my father’s sung line, which I have the illusion of seeing, like a gleaming trace across the shadows. Without knowing why I sit down with a bump and start to cry.
The bar Cherif had named was a good walk away, along the broad deserted quays of broad deserted canals, linked by rare stone bridges. The cloud had lifted in the afternoon and in the cool that followed there was a first hint of autumn. I passed a small park with empty benches and an odd dreamy restlessness in its trees. Then there were wide wooden boathouses, broken-down cottages and dogs and children playing who looked unaccustomed to strangers. I wondered for a minute if I had gone wrong, but there was Wanne’s bar; there was a curtain inside the door, and beyond it a narrow brown room with men at the counter listening to a football match and abruptly shouting their disgust. The long-haired barman dealt with me neutrally, or it may have been with mild hostility.
I needed something to do, and rehearsed and updated my Flemish on a discarded newspaper, which slowly revealed itself as rancorously right-wing. I drank my beer too fast, and ordered another. I wanted to be with Cherif again, the whole day’s search had been leading back to him, and flat anger settled in my stomach as he didn’t turn up; and then amazement at myself and my baseless belief that my needs could for once have been so easily met. Whenever the door swung open I knew it would be him and swallowed my distress at the sight of his friendly face and everything it offered, and it was always someone else, a regular who won a curt, delayed greeting as he was absorbed into the group around the bar.
With the exception of a woman in a dressing-gown who looked in from the back to complain, there were only men here. Yet it certainly didn’t seem like a gay bar – unless it was some specialist working men’s kind of ugly set. At last I nerved myself to gesture the barman down. Did he know someone called Cherif, French Moroccan, a docker …? At which he made a very clear announcement that what do you call him Cherif was not welcome there, or any of his type. I walked out at once and started back the way I had come, the same children turning and watching as I passed. The early evening was high and receptive and unsurprised.
The silence of neglect that enveloped the old church of St Narcissus was broken only by its hourly chime and – as I discovered that night – a six-hourly broken-toothed carillon, which donged its way heartlessly through a hymn that I hoped had ended each time it reached the irregular pauses of its missing notes. It had me awake at midnight and at six, with a stab of despair about last evening; I worked through wearying punitive fantasies about Cherif that fizzled out each time in shallow sleep.
At ten I went round, through a gleaming holiday haze, to the Altidores’ house. They lived in Long Street, which ran out from the centre of town in an elegant, endless curve; I counted ahead of me and picked out No 39 before I got to it: tall and reserved, with a high basement and four or five steps climbing steeply to the black front door. I noticed I was repressing my curiosity about my future, coming to our first encounter with the empty mind and last-minute turn of speed that are a way of meeting a challenge; though all the time the boy’s touchingly sullen image was in the air before me, flickered, like a subliminal projection, over spires and gables, while his surname exercised its glimmering romance: Altidore, it was a gothic belfry in itself, or else a knight-errant out of The Faerie Queene …
Luc’s mother answered my short but frantic-sounding ring; I stepped into an interior I had never guessed at, and which I saw at once was the shrine and workshop of an obsession. She must have been the most prolific needlewoman in Belgium. The hall, and then the sitting-room she pushed me into, were festooned with her work. Large-scale hangings, or saggings, depicting the sort of subjects – ships, timbered inns, corps de ballet – that are favoured in jigsaw puzzles for their monotonous difficulty rather than their beauty, were the mere backdrop for floral firescreens, beaded and bobbled tablecloths and sofas so heaped with wildly coloured cushions as to leave only the tiniest area for the sitter’s bottom. I ambled round amongst it all, giving speechless shrugs of appreciation, my gaze running for relief up to the high ceiling, though even there a woven affair, implying an almost Victorian suggestibility, extended like a growth down the chains of the chandelier. Following her politely through to the kitchen to get coffee I glimpsed the dyeing pantry, where hanks of red and orange wool hung dripping into buckets and giving off a raw smell.
Her manner was vague, disappointed and accidentally bitchy, so that I excused her rudeness or took it as a joke. Nearly six feet tall, in a mauve crocheted frock, with long lilac-stockinged legs and buckled witch’s shoes, hair neat and lifeless round a small, pale-powdered face, brisk, apprehensive, humourless, painfully artistic: I saw the absurdity of her at once but thought I might grow to find her sadly sympathetic. When I declined a tiny sugared cake she said, ‘Yes, you should lose weight, ten pounds at least, no cake for you’, and put out just one for herself with the calm propriety of someone who would never be fat the way I was getting already. ‘I am very busy,’ she told me: ‘I am working on a new altar-cloth for the Cathedral. You mustn’t keep me for too long.’
I smiled and said, ‘Of course not.’ I began to wonder if Luc too might be very tall and skinny.
‘I’m glad to see you alone though, while Luc is away,’ she said, as if enlisting me in some operation that was peculiarly delicate and dreadful; though that ‘away’ was what echoed through my thoughts and resolutions. Away! So the pressure was off, the anxious gambits of the first conversation had been needlessly rehearsed. It seemed he had gone to stay with friends on the coast, no one could stop him, though Mrs Altidore had begged him to take some books, and held, frowningly, to the belief that he would be studying. She spoke about him in a tone of careless despair; but checked herself several times, to remind us both that he was clever, cleverer than almost anyone. He was wayward, troubled, unknowable; but then again he was gentle, introspective and beyond question a good boy. When she despaired I was full of conventional reassurance, modest confidence, I would see what I could do; w
She told me Luc had been a scholar at the college of St Narcissus, the province’s oldest and most exclusive Jesuit school, where his friends were the children of various important lawyers and bankers whose names meant nothing to me. Last summer, however, following on an obscure incident, which it would be ‘too great a waste of both our times’ to go into, he had been required to leave. Now there was the worry of his finishing his education: Mrs Altidore thought she had persuaded him to try for university – perhaps in England: she had heard that Dorset had a European exchange scheme and a way with sensitive misfits. Luc himself was keen to go abroad. My task was to facilitate his escape – to polish his English conversation, already near-perfect, apparently, and to widen his knowledge of English literature: Milton, Wordsworth, Margaret Drabble and whatever further authors I considered significant.
Before I left she asked me what other pupils I had and seemed satisfied that as yet I had only one and so might really be able to devote myself to the cause of Luc. She wanted to know who the second one was; and raised her eyebrows and tilted her head when I said it was Marcel Echevin; she thought him a suitable stable-mate even if hopelessly dim. ‘Don’t try to cut corners by seeing Echevin at the same time as my son,’ she advised. ‘They are wholly incompatible. I hope I can trust you.’
The weather had turned breezy and hot, ideal September days, the pale-backed leaves quivering and glinting like spring, and I would have left town too, given the chance – joined my pupil at the beach in the flimsy pretence of studying a book. But I had the other one to see and my living to earn. It was hard to identify the impulse to work among the other sensations of merely being on holiday. I wrote a letter to my old friend Edie, telling her all about my rapid new start with Cherif but skirting round the blunt humiliation of the rendezvous at Wanne’s bar. Also to my mother, but sticking more closely to matters of weather and diet. I felt them both in their different ways watching for me, half-hiding their concern at what I’d suddenly done. And once or twice I thought of them all, and the pub and the common and the whole suburban sprawl – half a map, half a picture, like the tourist hand-out here but infinitely draggled and banal – with a sudden heart’s thump or two of longing.
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