The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.22Alan Hollinghurst
We reached the top and turned briskly to look in each direction, as was the habit, saying ‘Yes … yes … yes’ as we checked off the different views. The church-tower was clad in grey polythene. The nearby belt of trees, referred to as Condom Copse in a recent letter to the Knowledge, was almost leafless, its secret underwoods laid bare. ‘Fall, Winter, fall,’ I said flatly, not really wanting my mother to hear.
‘You won’t have any hills like this where you are,’ she said.
‘No,’ I said, and breathed in heartily.
‘You’ve made some friends, though?’ – as if the two might be obscurely related.
‘Masses!’ The thought of them was too agitating, a flare that made me clench my face for a second. ‘Paul Echevin, who I work for at the Museum some days, is frightfully nice, he’s rather taken care of me and had me round for meals.’ For a moment I just wanted to tell her I was in love with Luc, give her the whole stupid thing and watch her grasp it. There had been spells of candour before, and she rose to them pluckily; but I knew she would rather not know.
‘The loop?’ I nodded. This was the basic family walk, followed times out of number, that avoided the far end of the common, and brought one gently down through patches of alder and thorn towards Blewits, before turning back sharply and running home parallel with the road.
I said, ‘I rang Dawn’s parents this morning.’
‘I ought to. I don’t really know them.’
‘She seemed quite calm.’ She had spoken in a slow, drugged, but practical way. They thought he died instantly, but then with the fire … well, what was left of him? ‘She didn’t say so, but I got the feeling she wasn’t sorry he’d gone like this, rather than … in a few months’ time perhaps. And then he came on, I’ve never known how to cope with him at the best of times, he actually said, “Well, no one can say he died of AIDS, Edward.” I suppose it will strike them in a day or two, some griefs are too big to take in all at once.’
‘Poor things.’ I knew my mother had a sick worry about me not being careful – not having been careful. One of my candid moments had been when I told her my negative test-result.
‘She asked me to choose something to read at the funeral. It’s rather difficult … not “Dawn” by Gordon Bottomley, anyway, I think.’
After a pause, she said, ‘I love the end of Gray’s “Elegy”, I remember I read that a lot after your father died. It reminds me of all our walks. Or you could do a bit out of Lycidas.’
‘That might be too moving. I’ve got to get through it.’
‘And what’s happening about his friend from the antique shop?’
‘She didn’t say. She may not know. People are often rather miffed if there’s another death at the same time – it’s as though it’s been done deliberately, to steal their thunder.’
‘Who wants thunder?’ my mother said.
I wasn’t in the same house as Dawn; I was in Raleigh, which had a strong tradition of smokers, beauties and abstract expressionists, while he was hidden away in Drake, a dour, disciplined house that smashed everyone at rowing and rugby sevens. The school wasn’t old or great, which perhaps explained why it had chosen such creakily historic house-names – Sidney, Frobisher: portraits of these ruff-necked adventurers hung in the stale air of the dining-hall. There was something touchingly childish about it.
He had arrived a year before me, but I was streamed straight into 4A, whilst he, who had spent a year in the Remove, trundled up into 4B or C: so we didn’t meet. I knew his parents lived near the school then and he cycled in on his sports-bike each day. I was a weekly boarder: every Monday morning and Friday evening I made the twenty-minute stopping-train journey out and back to Rough Common’s tiny rustic station, a kind of cottage orné with an acre of commuter car-park. I can’t remember much about him then. The only image is the end of a Colts match against Lancing, dutifully clapping the teams in, an air of madness and gloom, the clatter of boot-studs on the path, and Dawn in the midst of them, socks down, heavy thighs slashed with mud, sweat in his black hair and blue eyes, the nice heft of him – we crowded them consolingly and for some reason I patted his hot damp back as he passed.
My great friend was Lawrence Graves. We went through school in tandem and both wrote a lot, though he always assumed, with his combination of names, that it was he who was destined to be a major literary figure whilst I would fill some ancillary role: in one of his fantasies I edited his poetical remains after his mysterious early death. He had the Lawrence-Graves Letters out of the school library on permanent loan. (There wasn’t much demand for it.)
Graves pleased me at the start, and even slightly unnerved me, by knowing about my father. He had heard him give a recital of popular Schubert songs in St Leonards and let it be known that though he had certain reservations it hadn’t by any means been a washout. He already had autographs of Ronald Dowd and Elly Ameling, so one knew that his standards were high. Later my father sang the Evangelist when the school Choral Society put on a St Matthew Passion: he was in beautiful voice then, and sounded like a great singer against the scrawny background of child violinists and choristers uneasy in dynamics below mezzo-forte. I sat at the side of the hall in my own vortex of anxiety and pride, sometimes mouthing the words as if he might forget them. Occasionally, when he rose for his next oration and stood waiting, his eyes would sweep over me without apparent recognition: I told myself that he saw me all right, that he was bound by the exalted protocols of art, which dictated the ritual stance and the glazed formality of tails, black cummerbund and patent-leather shoes – the extinct indoors garb I would sometimes pick up for him from the cleaners or menders. The concert lights glowed on his oiled black hair and black-framed spectacles.
I felt this event should make me too a figure of some consequence, and Graves hung back afterwards to get an autograph; but even so there was something risible about my father’s fame. He had appeared on one or two uncool telly programmes, supporting a talentless ‘star’ through various sickly ballads; and his record of seasonal music reached No 3 in the album charts in the lead-up to Christmas ’71. For a moment there was talk of his having his own show, and our house was in the grip of misery for a fortnight. But the screen-tests didn’t go well, he was too shy and serious; he came home hopping with shame and relief. I fantasised about his having a success that transformed our rather careful lives, but I loved him best for what he loved best, the patience-shredding hours by the piano, my mother stoutly accompanying, as he worked and worked on a song or a recitative. None of this meant much to my schoolfriends stuck in Mudd and Slade. After the Matthew Passion one of them gave a strangulated parody of my father’s performance, not from malice but it brought tears to my eyes. A doubt had been entered, that could never wholly be expelled, that he was a figure of fun.
Of course he didn’t always have the alien rectitude of the concert platform. He loved getting out of his frac. At home he was a quiet ironist, closer with my brother Charlie than with me, though I was the one who inherited his habit of sitting and gazing into the middle distance. A tiny bedroom had become his office and often you would pass the door and see him leaning at the window, watching the wind over the common. Hundreds of hours I sat pretending to read, but sharing music with him, anything recorded by Beecham, whilst he read the score or peered into infinity through the blank above the picture-rail. When I first brought Graves home he won my father’s heart by his morbidly detailed knowledge of Delius, but then risked losing it by conducting when a record was on. I had to take him for a walk to the trig-point to explain my father’s conviction that if Sir Thomas had already conducted it there was no need for anyone else to.
In our second year at school Graves and I shared a study-bedroom. He was too camp and snobbish to be popular, but I had fallen swiftly under his influence and he had correspondingly formed a keen dependence on me. No one else made any claim on us, and though part of me longed to be billeted with one of the fabulous Raleigh rebels, I consigned that plan to my thrivin
Graves was going to be a great conductor as well as a great writer, and the double demands of his destiny were enacted daily in the narrow space of our study, when he would leap from his desk, pen in hand, to ‘bring them through’ an especially devilish test of ensemble or stab out the climactic chords of whatever record was on. The walls were soon spattered with ink. He was working on a play, ‘Noble to Myself’, in which all the characters had titles, and I would be required to take three or four parts in read-throughs, improvising ever more clipped and drawling accents.
His parents lived in Somerset, and seemed for all practical purposes to be a good deal more remote than that. Often he came home with me for weekends, though my mother didn’t warm to him or his nocturnal habits, and my brother mocked him behind his back; my father, who found the thought of his visits oppressive, was irresistibly caught up in talk about music and would sit up with him after the rest of us had gone to bed, listening to Bax or Busoni ‘quietly’. My father’s memorabilia included an inscribed photograph of Beecham, and one of his batons, which Graves used to eye yearningly as he sat on his hands on the sofa. Sometimes, in conversation, my father would illustrate a point or remind us of a song by singing a few bars; it was lovely, but we all found it embarrassing.
He’d been dead so long now that he moved in my mind like a figure from another age, a life in evening dress. Even at the time, when we heard him on the wireless, singing in the Daily Service or in a request for Three-Way Family Favourites, I remember the feeling that his voice was being brought to us from the beyond, from a cavernous other world screened by the tarred muslin of the speakers. We had been early possessors of a stereogram, a monstrous and luxurious teak coffer with discreet lights and grilles and a lid it was impossible to drop: some cushioning mechanism arrested its fall and brought it noiselessly to rest. It had good bass sound, which my father used to turn up to cover the hiss and crackle the machine exposed on his treasured old records. There it still silently stood, at the beginning of November 1991. And there was Beecham’s baton on a stand like a pen-rest; and the ugly canterbury stuffed with music, Bach cantatas, Victorian parlour-songs that were enjoying a kitsch revival when he died; and the shine of the parquet around the subfusc bulk of the sofa and chairs and under the black promontory of the piano. Nothing had been altered, nothing renewed. I felt the sense of return oddly exaggerated, as if my childhood went back further than it did.
I sat about my room in my vest and pants, smoked a last cigarette and flicked the stub into the Donningtons’ bushes – lilacs that would crowd over the fence in early summer and waft up to my window. Something awful had happened last week: I’d left the dining-room in the middle of Luc’s lesson and gone upstairs for a pee, as I always did now, I’d become a reckless addict of the laundry-basket. I had the negatives on me and planned to run on up the further flight to Luc’s bedroom, return them to the wallet in the desk and be back at the bathroom again in fifteen or twenty seconds. It was a simple but bold idea, and as the time came on to put it into practice I was less and less able to concentrate on the passage from Milton we were talking about. ‘A herd of Beeves,’ said Luc. ‘I’m not so sure what is a herd of Beeves.’
‘I’ll explain it in a minute,’ I said, springing up with the look of comic distraction that signified ‘Need to go’, and slipping out of the room. I had a feeling there must be a downstairs loo, and I didn’t want to give anyone time enough to tell me about it. Up I went, in swift strides, past the bathroom and then on to the further flight, keeping to the inner edges of the talky old treads. The door of Luc’s room was ajar, I slid round it and was halfway to the desk before I fully understood that I wasn’t alone, that Patrick Dhondt was sprawled on the bed in his black school breeches, reading a book.
‘How ridiculous!’ I said. ‘I was looking for the bathroom.’ I felt myself going as red as I have ever been, disastrously compromised. He looked at me with faint surprise. ‘Hel-lo!’ I exclaimed. ‘How are you?’
‘Very good,’ he said, and then smiled. He was unquestionably in possession of the room, of the bed. I backed towards the door, and he looked down to his book, in part to hide a flush and grin of his own. ‘It’s downstairs,’ he said.
I got hot thinking about it now – one of those torturing moments you masochistically recall from time to time for the rest of your life. I unzipped the side-pocket of my bag, took the photographs out and climbed into bed. Why hadn’t he been in school? Why did I have to be the bore who took Luc from him for an hour? What had they said to each other afterwards, when Luc jogged back upstairs and ragged on the bed with him? Or had they just dismissed me from their minds, leant close together and solemnly begun to kiss? Luc’s hand … I choked the vision off, and sorted out all the pictures that had Patrick in: I didn’t want to see him, or the girl. Two snaps of Mrs Altidore at work on a tapestry and smiling dimly had struck me none the less as having some subtly accusing quality, and had already been eliminated. I tightened a magic circle round the young man.
The picture in which he appeared like a faun of the dunes disappointed me now. I looked at the others that I’d tended to neglect, even the silly shots with the soles of two feet gigantic in the foreground and the supine body unfocused beyond had some information value. Could one read the soles of the feet as one could a palm? Was that dirt-filled crack the line of destiny, that callused declivity the line of love? He had long prehensile toes, I remembered from the Baths – and he had told me he ran very fast over short distances. I couldn’t quite imagine it; whenever I saw him he was moving with the confident slowness of the beautiful. Even his jogging was somehow in slow motion.
Here was a glancing shot under his chin, with the tiny nicks of inexpert shaving; an armpit, with sandy sun-bleached hairs; the broad nipples needing to be twisted and hurt. Here was the white watch-stripe on the tanned arm, the circle of the absent dial off-centre, sloped to the wrist-bone: time was away and somewhere else … Here he loomed in a kisser’s blurred close-up, his molten trumpeter’s lip. Behind him, in the clear irrelevance of a background, was the house next door, a slat of a sun-blind kinked down for a hidden eye.
I lay in the dark and jerked off glumly. I thought, here is the room I left Dawn to come back to on all those nights, hotmouthed, clumsy with disguised fatigue but high and alight with love. I could melt still at the memory of his back, when I pulled his shirt over his head, and pressed kisses on his shoulderblades and neck. No one ever looked nicer from behind. His back was the tapered shield, the figure of my love for him, too simple, too confounding to be put into words. I knew there had been a good deal of boredom and pretence, he hadn’t perhaps been interesting to me in himself, and yet I also knew he was the motor of my grandest feelings and most darting thoughts, the ground bass to those first intense improvisations. At moments I felt lonely with him; at others, never so excitedly at peace. And what had there been since then? Nothing quite the same. Everything in some way melancholy, frantic or foredoomed.
The first person I was in love with was called Mark Lyle. I was ten, and a day-boy at a pious little prep-school I could walk to on the edge of town. Mark Lyle was perhaps three years older – too old to be a friend to kids like me but equally too young to be acknowledged by my sixteen-year-old brother and his set. He occupied a fascinating limbo, his voice had broken, in my eyes he was a man already, but clearly not a man in the full, self-important way that Charlie was. When he left my school, his parents couldn’t afford to send him on to Stonewell, and in my imagination he became a kind of outlaw figure, whom one might expect to find living under canvas in a dell of the common. In fact his father was an epileptic who had lost his job, but to me it seemed that some dark,
One or two of the older boys heard from him after he’d moved to the comprehensive, and bragged discreetly about the contact. Occasionally I would see him myself in the town and watch him with the considerate pretence of indifference that one accords to the truly famous. I was anxious about his new friends, giants of fourteen or fifteen with fluffy upper lips, waiting at the bus-stop with ties undone and shirts bagging out and a No 6 on the go; like them Mark Lyle was growing his hair in thick dirty bunches swept behind the ears, and this seemed to me both wrong and beautiful.
Late one afternoon I saw him walking past our house, and ran out and followed him. I had shorts and sandals on – one didn’t go into long trousers till the Sixth Form – and he had his black blazer hooked on a finger over his shoulder. I wasn’t close to him, but still as I walked along I found myself in a heady slipstream of Old Spice. He must have been drenched in it, perhaps he was addicted to it in some way: I knew one of the prefects at school was a keen user, too, and had heard him drop thought-provoking hints about its potency.
I trailed Mark Lyle down the hill, having to stop and dawdle from time to time to prevent myself from excitedly catching up with him. He was clearly in no hurry to get home, wherever that might be. I wanted him to do something definite – meet a friend, enter a shop or a house – so that I would have something on him, and could go back home and ponder it in the context of my other, patchy, research.
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