The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.24Alan Hollinghurst
Much of his mystique for me came from his house. Blewits was named from the lilac-gilled mushrooms that grew in profusion in its dank spinney, and which he gave almost at random to people from the town. When I was a little boy my mother received a basket of them, and I remembered her anxiously pondering if they were edible, the gift of a good or bad spirit, and then hastily putting them in the bin. Gigantic beech-trees whelmed above the house on the common side and roared thrillingly on windy nights. In winter you could look down through them at the steep red roofs and shingled gables, the air full of rooks and bonfire smoke. In summer everything was hidden; the drive twisted through laurels and rhododendrons, the light was speckled and private. To visit the house was to have the magic access of a dream fused with the proud ordeal of winning a prize.
It was late May and the mossy outbuildings were roofed with fallen horse-chestnut flowers. I thought they would be fun to explore, those sheds with small cobwebbed windows and sometimes a chimney: more fun than talking to Sir Perry Dawlish. ‘Good afternoon, Sir Perry,’ I kept rehearsing, on my aunt’s anxious prompting. ‘No more cake, thank you, Sir Perry.’ I had a high regard for ‘The Months’ but even so was not fully convinced that this famous old writer, who had actually known Gordon Bottomley, would want to spend much time on them.
The house was very gloomy inside. I was aware that it was a romantic kind of Victorian house, which accounted for the dark oak and stained glass of the hall. At first I could hardly see and was impressed by the confidence with which Dawlish moved around. He had the busy air of someone unused to dealing with children but determined to make a go of it. His voice was high and enthusiastic, with the lost vowel-sounds of an earlier age.
We sat in a big muddly room at the back, a sitting-room-cum-library that merged into a conservatory with doors open on to a derelict-looking garden. Again I had the sense of his being utterly, blindly at home here, whilst I was stepping cautiously between stacks of books, parchment-shaded standard lamps, little cluttered desks with only an inch or two left to write on. He sank on to the end of a sofa that was slumped and shaped to his person, and gestured me to a hard button-backed chair that resembled a corseted lady.
‘It’s very kind of you to ask to see me, Sir Perry,’ I said. ‘My Auntie Tina sends you her … best regards’ (I couldn’t quite come out with ‘love’).
‘How is the dear woman?’ he said, with a shrewd, humorous look that suggested we both thought she was a bit of a fool.
‘Very well, thank you.’ (This was far from being the case, I recalled at once: in fact she’d just had a cancer of the throat diagnosed.)
‘What a gifted family you are. Novels and belles-lettres: that’s your aunt. Lovely singing: that’s your father. And now poetry too. You must feel you live on Mount Parnassus.’ I looked away, abashed by the tribute, and running my eye along the bookshelf beside me: George Merrifield’s Love and Earth, Ochre by Violet Rivière, Robert Nichols’s Aurelia, More Verses by Wayland Strong. The dust lay thick along their tops, like blue-grey felt, but still … real books, by real poets. I knew Merrifield’s sonnet on ‘Cider’ from Poets of Our Time; indeed Graves claimed I had cribbed from it in my own ‘Autumn’; but to see the full majestic volume of the man’s work was to come a step nearer to the fountainhead. I noticed a thin book of V. L. Edminson’s and thought perhaps Sir Perry could clear up a bitter dispute between Graves and me as to V. L. Edminson’s sex … ‘Do you walk on the common?’ he asked.
‘Oh yes, sir, we’re always going up there. I particularly like it at sunset. It can be quite glorious then.’
‘Glorious – can’t it. I don’t know what I’d do without the old common. Paulette loves a run-around on the tops. My dear little dog,’ he explained. I decided against owning up to the bullying Sibelius. ‘So many different aspects to it, don’t you find, the steep bits, the flat bits, the woody bits, the open bits … There’s a bit for every mood out there! At this time of year the hazelwood is too lovely.’
‘Lovely,’ I agreed, not actually sure which the hazelwood was, but caught up in the nervous enthusiasm.
‘Don’t you think? I wander up there and sort out my ideas, as I call them. I dare say you do the same. Work out a poem in your head, then scamper back and write it down?’
This was exactly what I did, and I felt privileged to know that Dawlish did too. At the same time I was fractionally put out to think that the nature-mysticism I had evolved around the common’s numinous gullies and heights was not my private cult, and had other, older adepts. ‘I feel as if I’m in direct contact with the Muse up there,’ I said. And when I sat in my special tree and waited for the folding star I did, I did …
‘Direct contact, absolute “hot-line”, I quite agree.’
I didn’t think I could better that. ‘Have you been writing a great deal, Sir Perry?’ I was making it sound as if a new book from him was what I wanted most – we all did.
‘Well, d’you know, I have? I’ve got a new selection out next week; and I have enough poems already for two more books after that.’
‘That’s wonderful,’ I said, imagining retailing these potent, probably confidential, pieces of knowledge to Graves and one or two others.
‘Well’; he shrugged and burbled something about tempus something, which I took with a sympathetic smile. ‘Things start coming back to you at my age. I’ve been writing a lot about dead friends – and about my brother Tristram, he would have been a great poet, of course.’ He gazed at the floor. Should I ask about Tristram? ‘We all jolly well had to be writers, and thank the Lord we all started young. I don’t know if you know, but well, Tennyson …’ And off he went into an account of the Dawlishes, the bishops, the generals, the poets, Swinburne, Henry James, Robert Bridges (his godfather), young T. S. Eliot, that certainly put the Manners Family of Kent in its place, and held me enthralled in the musty gloom. Even so, after twenty minutes, I felt my concentration ebbing, my features locked in a kind of sneer of astonishment, my poems in their plastic folder still clutched in my lap, like the programme to a different concert. I felt painfully ignorant of Swinburne and Henry James; we didn’t do T. S. Eliot till next year. I was flattered but also somehow hurt that he had misjudged me and poured this well-rehearsed torrent of stuff over me.
Later we went into the kitchen together, as if not quite sure what we’d find there, and managed to make a pot of tea. Again it seemed an honour to be doing these homely things with a great man, and so soon after meeting him: it would have been less impressive if he had had the servants I’d expected. There was no suggestion of cake.
At last he made me hand over ‘The Months’ and leaving me to browse went off to a chair at the brighter end of the room. I got out the Merrifield volume, which bore the inscription ‘To Perry Dawlish from “the Old Rogue” – George Merrifield, May Day 1928: knowing that he will go far …’ I turned to the list of contents, hoping to find ‘Cider’, which I knew by heart anyway (it was the unobvious rhyme of oozing with refusing in the sestet that I had stolen); but it wasn’t in Love and Earth, which was perhaps an earlier collection. I realised for the first time just how large Merrifield’s output was.
I was awed by the book and its associations, and wondered why its author was known as the Old Rogue. I imagined him like Toad of Toad Hall, with goggles and a cigar, motoring recklessly from one Sussex alehouse to another. I kept peeping towards the window, trying to read Dawlish’s reactions. He was in profile, and partly canopied by a broad-leaved plant that sprawled across the glass above him. He seemed to be paying each sonnet the very closest attention. Or had he perhaps fallen into a quiet doze? It occurred to me that he might have died. No – another page was shuffled under. I wondered which month he’d reached. I was aware that some months were stronger than others, which was why the sequence began with September, like a school year. I thought it unlikely that he would be very critical of them, but I would have to be sensible and take his criticism with eagerness and resolution when it came.
Hunting moodily through my books for something to read at Dawn’s funeral I came across Poems Old and New by Peregrine Dawlish, with an inscription to me, and beside it the copy of Merrifield’s Love and Earth that I had felt bold enough to ask to borrow that day eighteen years ago, and had never returned. I felt dully guilty about it, but it was too late now. Flicking through the Dawlish I remembered that he had been a good Georgian poet with a tight lyric grace; it was later that he mistook his gifts, made painful attempts to get modern, shrilly took on free verse and low-life subjects and made a fool of himself. You could see why Squire might have praised him at fifteen: I suppose he used the same words as Dawlish had solemnly addressed to me. Looking back, I thought I could make out the suspect emotion of that afternoon, the old man’s vicarious excitement in acclaiming talent he had only imagined, the tone of foolish self-congratulation. But at the time, it was so much what I wanted to hear that I took a nearly erotic pleasure in it. When, after a moment’s hesitation, he lent me the Merrifield, and capped it with Poems Old and New, with the further wing-beat of wonder at finding what Perry was short for, I felt as if I’d been received into a succession. There was something about the light that day, the penumbra beyond which he sat in the leafy window, that fixed what he said in amber. I could still hear his hollow augury now; like the words of a fairground palmist, hard entirely to discount.
Early that summer holidays I wandered up on to the common after supper. Charlie was just home from Cambridge with a Third that no one quite knew what to say about. His line was that he was a maverick genius, that exams weren’t where he shone. There was a sort of smothered row (we never had any other kind) about his waist-length hair and its probable impact on anyone who might interview him for a job. He had a girlfriend at last, whom he deferred to on everything: ‘Lisanne says you shouldn’t boil vegetables’, ‘Lisanne thinks Schubert’s really boring’. After a couple of days Lisanne had become an invisible antagonist in our house, the subject of Charlie’s veneration and everyone else’s keenest loathing. We almost longed for her to come and stay, so that we could answer her back in person.
Charlie let me know that it was what he called ‘the full scene’, and came into my room unnecessarily to extol the virtues of Lisanne’s breasts and the miracle of the pill. I didn’t care about them, but being made to think of them only worsened my holiday blues, the sense of being sundered from the boys I felt and thought so much about. It was hot and tedious at home; my father was out of sorts and depressed and seemed withdrawn from us in a new and unaccountable way; the few friends who lived in the town had been whizzed off to Skye or Montpellier or Corfu with their families. I went up the hill a lot, semi-spying on sunbathers semi-hidden in the long grass, and thinking of Mawson and Turlough and El-Barrawi transforming whatever holiday thing they were doing just by being their enviable selves.
My favourite time was soon after sunset, when I liked to catch the first sight of the evening star, suddenly bright, high in the west above the darkening outlines of the copses. It was a solitary ritual, wound up incoherently with bits of poetry said over and over like spells: sunset and evening star, the star that bids the shepherd fold, her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west … It intensified and calmed my yearnings at the same time, like a song. In one poem I’d seen that first star referred to as the folding star, and the words haunted me with their suggestion of an embrace and at the same time a soundless implosion, of something ancient but evanescent; I looked up to it in a mood of desolate solitude burning into cold calm. I lingered, testing out the ache of it: I had to be back before it was truly dark, but in high summer that could be very late. I became a connoisseur of the last lonely gradings of blue into black.
This evening was windless, with high grand cloud that the afterglow made into dream-towers of pink. A hawk went over in the dusk as I climbed to the top, then there was a nagging squeak – I thought of a small night animal, but it was only a boy on a bike, braking and juddering around the steep rutted paths. Well, others could share the twilight too. There would sometimes be a couple with a dog, relishing the cool, or kids from the Flats, not quite ready to go in. Charlie said the queers went up by the wood at night, and I imagined them with a mixture of distrust and fascination. I leant on the trig-point, and saw the bike approaching again. What an effort to have walked it all the way up here, even if he came by the gentler climb from the other side. I was aware of the wheels wobbling by me, the squeak of the brake again, a plimsolled foot scraping for balance. It was Dawn. He fell against me, hand round my throat to keep him steady, so that I choked for a second, like in a fight. He let the bike slither under him across the path and hopped free of it while a wheel still lazily spun. Then there was a second embrace, an arm round my shoulder in apology and surprise.
It seemed we were being matey: Dawn’s arm stayed heavily where it was, his fingers absent-mindedly doodling on my collar-bone. We gazed out at the glimmering pinky-mauve crag of cloud that stood motionless to the west. He was very warm from exercise, and lightly sweaty in a tracksuit – not the sleazy multi-coloured modern kind but the soft old navy-blue kind that was like a rugged form of undress, like slumberwear worn out of doors. I always felt disadvantaged in sports gear, and envied boys like Dawn who came to life in it. I was analysing the slight discomfort in our stance, a hollowness in my stomach, an ache down my thighs like I got on a high building. I raised my arm and rested it on his back.
‘I should have known I’d meet you up here,’ he said, with a hint of routine school jeering, and a hint of flattery too, as if I figured in his thoughts, a poetic type from the Lower Sixth who might be worth wary emulation.
‘I’m always up here,’ I said, to counter any suggestion it was his place, not mine.
‘Yeah, I come over on my bike sometimes, since we moved. We should arrange to meet up.’
I loved the idea of that, perhaps we both had these great vacancies – these grandes vacances – to fill. On the other hand what would we talk about … We hardly knew each other; he was already coloured in my mind by being in Drake, with their drab plum strip. He was handsome, he’d been a rather hopeless Orsino last term, but his strong physique and violet tights had given the role another kind of interest. He turned towards me and jutted his chest out, with a body-builder’s deep breath, and hooked up his other arm. ‘Feel that,’ he said, nodding at it. The light was failing, there was a moment’s uncertainty. ‘Go on.’
I ran my hand over the gathered biceps, then played down my approval – actually, I wasn’t interested in muscles, except as part of the knot of manhood and the tightening hold it had on me. He rocked his bosom against mine, as if he had a girl’s big tits. I could feel his hard nipples through our two layers of cotton. It was the sort of dumb sport you imagined them passing the time with in Drake. I was dying for him.
He reached down quickly and grabbed at my stiff cock. ‘What do we have here?’ he asked facetiously as I ducked backwards with a giggled gasp of protest. But his hand was still on my shoulder. ‘Oh, come on,’ he said in American, and pulled me slowly back towards him. ‘I saw you getting a root that time on the train.’
‘When?’ I said.
‘I had one, too.’ This was too much what I want
An oldish couple who might have been standing in the gloom for ages. I sort of recognised them. They admired the sublimity of the sky, some stratospheric wind just teasing the top of the cloud over into an anvil point, the lower parts darkening through lilac to powerless storm-grey. Oh, why didn’t they just fuck off? The man, in a cap, half-stumbled on Dawn’s prostrate bike. ‘That must be the Ashringford road,’ the wife said, gesturing at distant lights. I looked at Dawn, and found he was looking steadily at me. This was the real thing, we were going to do it. Our expectant silence must have been palpable to the others; as they disappeared down the steep path I heard the wife’s crisp ‘I don’t know’, and wondered what the murmured question had been.
We stepped back together and he kissed me with closed lips, as if shyly soliciting an answer in his turn. It was the gentlest thing I’d ever known from another boy, blasphemous and unhidden. I reached down again and rubbed him through his pants and he just let me. ‘We’d better go under the trees,’ he said, and went to pick up his bike. ‘Don’t want to lose that.’ I thought to myself, ‘But that’s where the queers go’, imagining some nice distinction between what they did there and whatever we were going to do.
The Folding Star: Historical Fiction by Alan Hollinghurst / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes