The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.23Alan Hollinghurst
I’d imagined he would turn left into one of the residential roads lined with flowering cherries where some of my school-friends lived, but he ambled odorously on until we had come in view of the Flats and I began to get worried. The front range of the Flats was built above a row of shops – a ladies’ hairdressers, a newsagent, the dry-cleaners where I took my father’s tails, the Indian grocers that stayed open till 8 o’clock – and overlooked a broad oily forecourt, where residents worked sporadically on cars with long-expired tax-discs. But beyond that, it was unknown territory to me. The Sharps and Flats my father called the place, as if we lived in the cloudless Naturals of Life. I don’t think I was actually forbidden to pass through into the grassy courtyard or even to enter its long white buildings with corroding metal windows. It must have been a self-imposed prohibition, a social fear that was activated again when I understood that Mark Lyle’s parents had now been reduced to a council flat.
That summer holidays I got serious about Mark Lyle. In my fantasy he became my protector, and introduced me into the thieves’ kitchen of the Flats as someone to be respected or they’d have to answer to him. At the same time I was to have a redemptive effect on him, leading him back to the life from which fate had deflected him. I would often ask insouciant questions about him, and my brother would say, ‘What are you always going on about Mark Lyle for, stupid?’ and my mother would say, ‘That poor family, I don’t know …’ She was inclined to charity work, but they seemed not quite to qualify. I imagined going down there with her, taking blankets, and meals under tinfoil.
A lot of the day I was out on the common. It was harmless and healthy, and though I’d overheard remarks about leathery old Colonel Palgrave who sunbathed in the long grass by the woods with nothing on, I never had a sense of danger. Sometimes I tagged along unwelcomely with Charlie and his friends as they stumbled round complaining and calling things bummers; often I played out complex romantic games on my own, or dared myself to clamber up trees, giving instructions to an imaginary person following me. Once or twice I stumped around on the edge of a group that included Mark Lyle, ready to drift off if they got threatening. We had a huge, friendly dog at that time, who ran away if I didn’t keep him on a lead, but who was a good way of meeting people. I was embarrassed to tell boys from the Flats he was called Sibelius, and pretended his name was Bach, which led to one or two jokes but by no means eased the problems of discipline. I became increasingly excited when I saw Mark Lyle, and my early troubles of manhood about that time took him as their object and even as their cause.
One day he was up by the pond with some other boys and a couple of girls. They were trying to fly a kite in the intermittent breeze, but after a few dips and a few spoolings-out of the thread it would smack to earth. Then the thread got snagged in a sapling pine, and the others suddenly lost interest in the whole idea of kite-flying and sloped off. With heart thumping, and not knowing what to say, I came forward and started to disentangle the cotton line from the little tree. Mark Lyle looked at me and didn’t say anything either. We worked it clumsily free, managing to ravel up the rest of it in a series of loops that tugged into knots as we tried to pull them straight. Still not speaking except in grunts of concentration and annoyance we bundled the whole lot up and went off to the bench to work on it.
‘This is a fucking game,’ said Mark Lyle after a bit. It was fantastic to be spoken to like that. I perched there in the swirl of his swearword and his Old Spice, looking into a new life of almost frightening pleasure. I glanced at him shyly; his shirt was half-unbuttoned and I could see a brown nipple as he leant forward. Sometimes our hands touched as we rolled the cleared thread on to the plastic reel.
‘That Dave Dobbs is a fucking cunt,’ he said.
‘He is a fucking cunt,’ I agreed, and Mark Lyle gave a big bright laugh. He had a wide sun-tanned face and a large mouth with one or two spots by it that he should have left alone. When we’d more or less finished, he patted his thigh and asked me if I wanted a cigarette. I blushed and said no.
‘Mind if I do?’ he said, with surely unnecessary courtesy. Actually I was terribly worried about him meeting an early death from lung-cancer; but I was overcome by the glamour and intimacy of the occasion. I watched him raptly as he smoked an Embassy to the filter. Each frown, each wincing inhalation, the way he balanced the smoke between his open lips and then as it escaped drew it back up his nose, the two or three different fingerings he essayed, all were written on my mind like a first exercise in sexual attraction. I thought Mark Lyle was the most handsome man I’d ever seen.
Later that summer I saw him again. The friendship I had envisaged had not blossomed. Indeed he’d vanished altogether for about three weeks, leaving me full of forlorn agitation. Then one evening I was rambling homewards from the Blewits side of the common through the long dry grass when I saw his unmistakable mane of fair hair. He was sitting on a bench with his back to me, and I dithered for several minutes just a few yards behind him. He wasn’t aware there was anyone there. Occasionally he lifted what looked like a beer-can to his lips. I looped round and came back in front, pretending to notice him at the last moment. Following our convention I said nothing, but sat down beside him and waited.
He can only have been fourteen, but he was managing to grow real sideburns, a more gingery colour than the rest of his hair. He was wearing a Cream on Tour T-shirt, and tight high-waisted shiny brown trousers with generous flares. You could see the stub of his cock very clearly.
‘I wondered if you’d been flying that kite again?’ I said at length. ‘I should think it’s a jolly good one.’
Mark Lyle tilted the last of the beer into his mouth, swirled it round and swallowed it, then belched so that I could smell it. He seemed to have forgotten about the Old Spice. ‘I’m fucking pissed, man,’ he said, and dropping the can on the ground stamped on it violently two or three times. Again the conflict of excitement and distress. In a way this was the opportunity I needed to put my redemptive impulse into operation, but when it came to it I wasn’t at all sure of myself.
It was one of my mother’s phrases I used: ‘There can’t be any need for that.’
He looked ahead and laughed mirthlessly. ‘Yeah, fuck off now, there’s a good little fucker.’
Tears came to my eyes; I wanted to blurt out, ‘No, no, I love you, I love you, I didn’t mean that, don’t say that.’ But he got up and stumbled away. I couldn’t watch him. I sat picking at the edge of the bench with a thumbnail. I let ten minutes go past, calming myself only to be shot through again with the awful words of rejection. I tried to sound out the note of merely friendly exasperation in them, but it was soured every time by the fierceness of the rest. No one should be spoken to like that, I thought. Then I leapt up and ran the last few hundred yards to home.
Edie had gone to stay at her parents’ flat in London: she needed to be looked after. I spoke to her father on the phone and he said she was sleeping, she’d been given some mild sedative. They would all come back to Rough Common for the funeral. It wasn’t every day you saw two of your friends killed. ‘No, indeed,’ I said.
I drifted through town. There weren’t many people about, and the side-streets had the watchful echo I’d grown used to in a bigger, older city. But in Fore Street the market stalls were up, fruit and veg, cheap skirts and blouses, huge slabs of chocolate under plastic sheets. I looked at a rampart of fraudulently flawless produce (they always served you the sad stuff from behind): red peppers, red apples, pouchy tangerines with dark green leaves, dense purple globes of cabbage, a pyre of parsnips, trimmed, stowed end to end – I thought, Dawn will never see anything like that again. ‘Yes, sir,’ the stallholder called confidently, but I found I was crying and turned away with a half-spoken rebuke to myself.
I walked on, past the George IV: I didn’t want to meet people there. Past Levertons the jewellers, with their arcane boast ‘Belcher and Curb Chains “Our Forte”’; past the rain-warped barrowloads of books outside Digby’s Sec
I didn’t know Colin well, hadn’t much liked him, couldn’t see why Dawn should have liked him – loved him – either. He popped into the back bar of the George sometimes, forty-fiveish, lean, straight-looking, in honey-coloured cords with turn-ups, suede brogues, striped shirts. He was plausible, un-amusing, a genuine connoisseur of English furniture. Dawn more than hinted that he was no thrill in bed, but had the sweetest nature; he was certainly an angel to him in his first big scare, when he thought he was going to die. But he was not a terminus I could ever have predicted to the line of lovers in which I was the first and over which I kept a futile, regretful watch.
Dawn was at ease in the shop. The last time I talked to him he was pottering around there, and we sat among the merchandise, me in a snug little Windsor chair with a £700 price-tag, him in the carver of an eight-piece Regency dining suite which crowded vacantly behind him and was marked at six thousand. At one point I watched him nearly persuade an American couple to buy a commode, and smiled at the dumb camp with which he pulled out the drawer with the china po still in situ. Later we stood in front of a time-foxed mirror, and I hugged him loosely, beefily, from behind. He was thin, seemed breakable, like something priceless he was selling. The mirror was meant for a mantelpiece, we should have been toasting ourselves at a big log fire. Our talk had been blandly constructive, but it faltered rather as we held each other’s gaze in the spotted depths where everything was reversed. I thought, he is looking at his death. He slipped free and started talking antiques.
He knew a lot by now; and if the journey of his heart was inscrutable to me I could follow the steps of his career more confidently. Perhaps it had all been a slow winding down towards this precious shop, its still, polish-scented air, caught in the tradeless doldrums of a deep recession. But for a long time it had seemed a different progress.
He didn’t work hard enough for his degree at Dorset; he got muddled up doing French and Film Theory and Vernacular Handcrafts and came out with a Third that caused considerable tension at home. His father was a workaholic insurance-broker who stubbornly thought Dawn should be the same. Instead he took a menial job with the Acomat Carpet-Cleaning Co. For a year or more that great rear presented in bedrooms and sitting-rooms in the Croydon area as Dawn moved around on hands and knees, applying his Deep Foam Cleanser to the wine and cigarette damage of innumerable teenagers’ parties. Once or twice he found himself removing stains of which he was himself the author. In time a friend of Edie’s gave him a call and he was magicked up to London to be a picture-researcher on The World of Chandeliers. I didn’t see much of him then, though I knew from Edie about the editor of the magazine, and the affair he had had with him.
When the affair was over, so was the job. Dawn was on the loose then for about a year. I had a sense of his giddy footing and fucking around, of the various older, richer men who needed to look after him. It was 1983. When we met again he was different, flamboyant, high on sexual deceit. Then it started to go adrift – a lover of his died with incomprehensible swiftness. Suddenly he didn’t have any money.
For a while he was the young man who holds up the clocks and vases on the plinth at Christie’s as the lot-numbers are announced. He wore the porters’ maroon apron with a certain flair, as if it might catch on; but would blush terrifically with a hundred or more covetous pairs of eyes on him or at least on what he held in his hands. One such pair of eyes belonged to a sexy Italian dealer with shops in Bath and Tunbridge Wells who picked him up at a sale of antique chronometers and fucked him within five minutes in the customers’ loo. That relationship lasted for five years, with Dawn in the end running the Tunbridge Wells establishment. To me he was still a boy, but he must have had a business nous I didn’t quite like to think of his acquiring. Then very quietly he made the transition to Colin. It almost looked as if he had been passed over, in exchange perhaps for a lovely bureau that hadn’t been tampered with. But Colin knew he was ill. He fell in love with him and he had the kind of love Dawn needed just then. You wouldn’t have known it as you sat bored rigid by him in the pub and smiling wanly at his pleasantries, but Colin found himself in giving and sheltering and taking care.
In my third year at Stonewell Dawn started to appear on the little train. His family had moved to a village a couple of stops further down the line from Rough Common. He would put his bike in the guard’s van, or sometimes just stand with it across the end of the carriage; he was fiercely attached to it. When we arrived at the school he would slip past the straggle of boys on foot with a quick ratcheting of the gears, head lowered, buttocks hoisted on the narrow perch of the seat. One Friday evening he took an empty place by me as we clattered through the leafy sprawl of suburbs homewards and we talked briefly of the merits of the different French masters. He was rather put out to learn that I and Van Oss, a tall pretty boy in the Lower Sixth, also had Dutch lessons from one of the French masters’ wives. He couldn’t see the point of that. Squashed up by him on the dusty moquette I got a bone-hard erection, though I’m not sure I put it down specifically to him. Any physical contact at that time was arousing, there was nothing you could do about it. But that may have been the moment when it began.
Graves and I had stuck together; indeed, Graves and Manners had become an established schooltime partnership, like a famous textbook or a make of biscuits. Being nicer, weaker and more sociable than Graves, I was aware of an occasional disadvantage in the coupling. I’d have to disown him sometimes for the sake of the late-night hash and rock parties in one of the Raleigh rebels’ studies; and the return engagements tended to be flops, with Graves coming back unexpectedly, full of sarcasm and envy, and making us listen to Vaughan Williams. Even so, he was my habit, and he couldn’t be broken.
We egged each other on into a language world of our own. It was Graves who located and nourished my vein of pedantry, and together, like mad academicians, we established a complex of unwritten rules and forfeits, making even our Latinist housemaster uneasy about entering our study. The discovery of French Classical drama was a major step: after a term with our A-level texts we were recycling alexandrines and spoke with a marked sense of the caesura. Graves was very taken with the précieux, plonkingly translated into English: anyone who offended him was said to have ‘soiled his glory’, and it was rare for him to refer to his feet as anything but his ‘poor sufferers’. This fitted well with our pained avoidance of monosyllables and abhorrence of abbreviations. In a school where a typical notice might read ‘All RHJ report to BOC at 3 for TP’ we held out for old-fashioned queenery and unnecessary effort. One year for the whole of Lent there were fines for using the first person singular: at weekends I would run up on to the common shouting ‘I, I, I, I, I’ like a madman with a terrible stammer.
And we wrote. Graves had abandoned his plans for the stage and was at work on an experimental novel, a completely new tack, the characters not only having no titles, but also no names: the men were identified by numbers, and the women by the various voiceless additional characters on the typewriter, such as # and [. He typed it at immense speed, with music on in the background, the carriage-return bell sometimes fitting in felicitously. I remained loyal to poetry, and alternated masked vers libre fantasies about the prefects with Wordsworthian sonnet-sequences
Dawlish would have been about seventy then, and was considered locally to be a famous author. If ever he showed up at a fête or sale of work he would be photographed for the Knowledge; and his rare appearances on TV programmes about writers of the twenties and thirties were also flagged in the local press: ‘“I knew Merrifield well”, Sir Perry says, and goes on to recall his three marriages and his lively sense of humour, which he claims some people could find disconcerting!’ Dawlish was a baronet, but this didn’t discourage a general supposition that he had been knighted for his services to literature.
He had had poems published in the London Mercury when he was only fifteen (my own age at this first meeting) and Squire had included his work as a brilliant new star in his Selections from Modern Poets a few years later. He had written novels, too, which had a reputation for candour; and slender appreciations of Tennyson and Patmore. All that local people would have seen of his work was the Memoirs, remaindered inexhaustibly in Digby’s window, and the thin bookmaking ideas he had taken up more recently – the text to some pictures of Royal London, an anthology of ‘The Kentish Muse’. I knew little of this at the time, of course: to me he was the spruce aquiline old gent I saw hurrying through the town, looking up with embarrassed good humour through bushy eyebrows and smiling at strangers as if they had recognised him. Once or twice he had come into a shop at the same time as me, and I was aware of an unconscious heightening of tone, a kind of feudal relish on the part of the traders that I found silly but moving. Sometimes I passed him on the common. He had a neurotic papillon spaniel that aroused Sibelius’s interest and would hurtle down the leaf-strewn slopes so that it and the whirled-up leaves seemed one. He would say ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good afternoon’, but I never for a moment thought he knew who I was.
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