The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.25Alan Hollinghurst
I felt the minute of physical separation keenly, skirting the pond, Dawn walking the bike between us, the proficient idling of its wheels; I wanted things to start again, and then, as we stepped under the nighttime of the wood’s edge, was quite afraid, too. This was the ‘dim woods’ of poetry for real. I cannot see what flowers are at my feet. The forest’s ferny floor. I’d threaded the paths there often by day, but now it was mazily different, the underbrush of August was thick and tangled across.
Dawn had stopped to lodge his bike against a tree, and whispered loudly, ‘Hey, Manners … don’t go too far.’ Perhaps I was trying to lead the way, as if I often did this. I came back towards him and we bumped into each other. I just couldn’t see at first, and then began to make out tree-trunks and bushes against the relative brightness of the open common beyond. We hugged for a kind of confirmation, and I passed my hand shyly over his face (he kissed it!) and through his short curls. My mouth was open and sour with need when his lips nudged over it and his fat shocking tongue pressed in.
When we came out of the wood I knew I was late, and must hurry down. The towering anvil of cloud had become a ruffled palm-tree of darkness against the other darkness of the sky. I longed to be alone, longed for it to happen again. Dawn sat astride his bike and leant on my shoulder to steady himself. It was a firm, slightly painful grip, through which all his weight and balance seemed to communicate themselves, as if we were an acrobatic act. Then he circled swiftly across the turf. I ran up to the trig-point and watched the rushing field of his front light and the red glow of his back light as he jolted and swung down the hillside and was suddenly out of view.
Geoffrey and Mirabelle Turlough were great friends of my parents, though I was never quite sure why. Geoffrey was a wiry man with a depressing grey beard and no sense of fun, whilst Mirabelle could have represented fun in a pageant and was huge and outgoing, with short dark hair and glasses on a chain. He was in charge of the local planning office, but had been a fine amateur tennis-player just after the war: one could picture him doing months of practice serves. They had met at the Tennis Club where Mirabelle often umpired the ladies’ matches. Later a shoulder injury had forced him to give up, but Mirabelle, who was no player, retained a passionate interest in the game, one that he seemed rather to resent. In my teens he was always in grey flannels, jacket and tie, when she would be wearing white daps and sports shirts with pockets right out on the end of her breasts; she would often be tugging the shirt down over her hips in a jolly, let’s-give-it-a-go sort of way. Each year at the end of June she would appear on the television in uniform, glaring down the tramlines and howling ‘Fault’ whenever possible. ‘She shouts so loud’, my father once said, ‘you hardly need a telly to pick it up.’ Even so, those two weekends late in the summer term were always spent with the curtains drawn and the tennis on, not from any particular interest of ours in the sport, but rather from the hope of seeing our friend crouched behind the muscled legs of the receiver. The next week the Turloughs would come to supper, and Mirabelle would reveal the best of the scandals she had picked up about the players – particularly sexual ones of a kind that were never talked of at home, and which all of us, including Geoffrey, took rather stiffly.
I knew from early on that Mirabelle was somehow in tune with sex in a way that I couldn’t believe my parents were. On the other hand she seemed to have no real rapport with her husband, whereas my mother and father were clearly linked by some deep if reticent bond. Geoffrey was a decent, disappointed man, who would ask you about your O levels, whilst Mirabelle called you darling and winkingly cross-questioned you on your non-existent girlfriends. They seemed to embody some mysterious thing – perhaps a flaw, perhaps a principle – about matrimony and the unimagined later centuries of adult lives. She was always pumping me for information on their heavenly son Willie, who was in the year above me at Stonewell and fancied by absolutely everybody; and it was a disturbing moment when I overheard her saying to my mother how easily she could fall in love with the boy, and my mother replying, ‘He’s too young for you, dear!’ Alas, Willie took after his father in conscientious dullness, and was aloof to all pashes and advances. Later, when it became clear to my mother that I was gay, it was Mirabelle who helped her come to grips with it, and spoke of it as an enviable state of being, the opportunities … She brought it up all the time, with slightly wearying good-heartedness.
After my father died, she kept close to my mother, and developed the habit of dropping round for coffee three or four mornings a week. For years she was associated in my mind with our neighbourly sitcom doorchime, which didn’t so much ring as brightly announce impending good-fellowship with its halting ditone. Once it had been an incongruous interruption of my father’s practising. But later, when nobody else much came, the words Mirabelle and doorbell became almost synonymous with each other.
I was sitting at the kitchen table with my mother, looking at Gray’s ‘Elegy’ in The Golden Treasury: I was amazed to find how little of it I remembered. I didn’t see it as especially appropriate for my dead friend, who blushed, but not unseen, and wasted none of his sweetness. I thought she must just like its tone of maxim-studded consolation. ‘It’s the end,’ she said, and pointed to the verse beginning ‘One morn I miss’d him on the custom’d hill’. Then the bell ding-donged. ‘Ten fifty-five,’ she said, with irony but no resentment.
Mirabelle was sixty-four now, a year older than my mother; but whereas my mother never aged in my eyes, and remained at an ideal forty of competence and prettiness, her friend struck me, after a couple of months’ absence, as abruptly an old woman. The hugeness had become wheeziness and powdered underchins, and the odd compromise of her marriage, it turned out, was under unexpected strain.
At first she was all cheer, subsiding on to a startled kitchen chair, and examining me closely. ‘It’s lovely to see you, darling, but he’s looking a bit pale, a bit black under the eyes, isn’t he, Peg? I expect it’s the late nights out there.’
‘I think he has lost weight,’ my mother answered obliquely.
‘I expect you’ve got one of those lovely Dutch boys, haven’t you, with blond hair, grey eyes – very friendly.’
‘I’m not actually in Holland,’ I said, shying away from the complicated truth.
‘He’s here for the funeral – you know …’ said my mother.
‘Darling, it’s too unbearable. Poor you, poor them, oh dear … You know Willie’s had a third, a little boy: they couldn’t decide what to call the little chap, they’ve just called him Number Three or something silly like Marmaduke, which I thought was in danger of sticking. Anyway, now they’re going to name him in memory of your friend.’
‘What, Dawn …? I’m not sure that’s …’
‘No, Ralph, silly.’
‘I think Ralph Turlough would be a very good name,’ I said, though feeling that Willie had somehow managed to miss the point.
‘I’m sure they’d love to see you.’ She hesitated, and took the coffee my mother was passing her. ‘I’ve been taking refuge there myself, of late. Well, I can help with the baby.’ And then the story came out – how Geoffrey, within weeks of his recent retirement, had gone into a resolute depression, had claimed that their life together was pointless, that he had never loved her, never even liked her much, and that he knew all about her affairs with numerous other men, including, one rather gathered, my own father. ‘And I never!’ she said, in Dandy Nichols cockney. ‘I never!’ My mother smiled confidently. ‘Do you know what he said to me today?’ she went on. ‘He came into the kitchen and said, “Good morning, evening and night, and now I don’t think I need speak to you for the rest of the day.” And he just sits there, you know, with his fingers in his beard.’
‘Don’t you think he ought to get help?’ I suggested.
‘I’m the one who needs help, ducky. The fact is, if I may digress, that when he grew his beard I thought “Oh, no”, but then he couldn’t play tennis any more, which was very hard for him, h
As she talked I was increasingly drawn under by a current of recollection that her presence, and the lines from Gray, had obscurely triggered – the desert air of that summer of 1976, in which she and Geoffrey had somehow played a part, a memory of sexual loneliness, which would later pull so much I did into its own fierce patterns.
I remembered the day after that first time with Dawn, coming downstairs with a kind of wary astonishment, feeling I’d been given access to a world that lay just on the other side of the parquet, the fridge, the radio, the piano declaiming in the sitting-room. I looked covertly at my family, wondering if they too were inhabitants of this thrilling dimension. Perhaps Charlie was; but his accounts of life with Lisanne seemed oddly to leave out any mention of it. I felt both irritable and supremely tolerant at the same time, sulkily looking over my mother’s shopping-list, but then when I got outside, dancing to the baker’s like a character in a musical comedy.
It wouldn’t have been an early start. Throughout my adolescent holidays I got up wastefully late, as though to make up for the austerity of school mornings, the wintry dressing in the dark. Sometimes it would be 11.30 or 12 before I came down for a cup of coffee and was warned off spoiling my lunch. They were hours of luxurious tedium in the half-light of the bedroom, reading for a bit, dozing in and out of songs coming from downstairs, Schöne Müllerin all that summer, my father flagging and dissatisfied. I evolved fantastic sexual situations around boys at school, dropping off in the middle of them, then waking and putting them through some further fabulous depravity. My mother’s weary, unwitting half-joke, ‘Are you getting up?’, would be shouted from the hall, and I would reply with my comprehensive euphemism, ‘I’m just having a think.’
Now that I had actually made love, more astonishingly now that I had been made love to, the fantasies were subtly undermined. It had been awkward, a bit scary, my legs were stung by nettles, we’d only kissed a lot, really, then quickly stroked each other off, but it was wholly different from the heartless occasional jerk-offs at school with someone who called you a queer afterwards. Next day my head was full of the heat of it, the lovely certainty we did it for each other. When we met tonight, it would be a step further into the dreamy underwoods of love. By the time I went out for my walk after supper I was prospecting far into the future. I had coached Dawn to some surprising exam results, he had moulded me into a runner and swimmer who commanded respect. I wrote long letters to an imaginary friend abroad, dotingly detailing Dawn’s sweetness and beauty. For all our open-air beginnings I had him closeted with me in des Esseintes-like privacy, in a sealed world of silk and fur and absolute indulgence.
But Dawn didn’t come. I sat on the bench reading Tennyson, but not taking it in, looking up every few seconds for a bike or just for him in dark running gear. It was breezier than last night, the wood was stirring in tumultuous slow-motion, the pond broken and bickering. I waited through a muffled sunset till the wind had blown off the cannon-smoke of low cloud and opened up a sky of densening stars. Of course we hadn’t said we’d meet. I walked nervously under the wood’s edge for a minute, and looked out the way I thought he would come, for a light swivelling over grass and bushes. But there were only the lights of planes, high up, climbing out of Gatwick, the intermittent yawn of their engines, and when they’d gone just the gusting of the trees. I was shivery in a T-shirt, and jogged home for warmth, working out a story about how I’d come back safely along the road.
Next day I was desolate, and even coaxed out a few tears in my room, which I found impressive and almost cheering. I knew I had to ring Dawn, and got up suspiciously early to do so, hanging about in the hall with a book, until I thought the coast was clear, and then swiftly dissimulating my intention when my mother or Charlie came heedlessly through. I was more and more nervous the more I deferred. I didn’t know their routines or anything about them; the phonebook gave me their address and I worked up an image of 12 Sands Road – by the sound of it pleasant enough – as a household severely unwelcoming to phone-calls of any kind, much less those from boys who wanted to fuck their son. I imagined Dawn denying all knowledge of me, hanging up on me, or just giving me some casual putdown. I had actually started dialling when my mother looked out from the kitchen and said, ‘Can’t it keep till cheap time, love?’ And I accepted her objection with only a show of reluctance.
From 5 o’clock on I was locked in a parched rehearsal of my opening remarks, which involved an optional parent-charming paragraph (always say who you are and apologise for troubling them) that snagged on the question of how I should refer to him. Then I had to say ‘Hi! Dawn? It’s Edward … yeah, great …’ and hope to catch the warmth in his reply and if at all possible lead him on to propose a meeting himself. By six these simple phrases had become a kind of hysterical gibberish in my mind, as though they’d been passed round the room in a game of Chinese whispers. I went to the phone, but thank god someone rang up for my father just at that moment, and I put it off till 6.30.
After supper I said, ‘I’ll just make that call now, Mum’, and went and did it so quickly that the adrenalin only caught up with me at the moment someone answered: a girl, rather sultry and bored. He must have sisters. They were all out, she said. Or put it another way, she was there all by herself. She almost sounded as if she’d like me to come round and fuck her instead. She said she’d tell Ralphie that I’d rung, and repeated my number sluttishly wrongly before she got it right.
Then I set out into the high-summer wastes of longing. Dawn never rang back. I missed him on the customed hill, all right. I missed him everywhere. Some days it was as if nothing had ever happened; on others I felt ruined, I’d been given a sip of some marvellous elixir and then had it snatched away. I knew it was absurd to fall in love after ten minutes’ breathless smooching, but that only added an element of hysterical determination to my passion. Everyone noticed I was moping, but there were larger glooms about the house that rendered mine unimportant. My great-aunt Tina was very ill; Charlie kept deferring his visit to Lisanne’s parents (who weren’t at all sure it was a good idea) and tinkered pointlessly with circuitry in his room; and though nothing was said to me, it was obvious my father was doing less work and that there was a new caution about money. He had begun to cancel engagements. He was pale and withdrawn. I would ask him if he was okay, and he would push out his chest as if about to sing and say, ‘I’ll be all right – a bit out of sorts.’ But our fortnight at Kinchin Cove was off that year; and the trading-in of our rusting Humber Snipe, a suffocating monster which, if never entirely new in our experience, had been a sign of prosperity six years before, was again deferred: it began to resemble one of the broken-voiced old hulks on the forecourt at the Flats. I had always been thrilled by cars and was deflated and embarrassed. I was told that my school-fees cost more than a car, and knew that I wasn’t allowed to complain.
After the first week, I took to ringing Dawn’s number two or three times a day from a phone-box in town, though there was never any reply. They must have gone on holiday: he was somewhere different entirely, showing off on a beach, chasing his sisters, picking them up and spanking them, being clumsily macho for their protesting fun.
I felt trapped in the house, but didn’t want to miss a phone-call if it came. We had a smart, trilling phone but it was on a party-line, and I imagined Dawn baffled and kept at bay by the engaged tone as our talkative neighbours (whom we knew only from the inane fragments of chat that obstructed us when we tried to ring out) were maundering on. I began to hallucinate the cheep of the phone in the routine undertones and overtones of the house – in the burble and chink of the fridge, inside the dreary howl of the hoover, in the tinkling drops of a filling cistern. Perhaps
Sometimes a postcard came from holidaying friends and I examined the grim communality of the beaches with burning interest. That lad in black trunks, half a centimetre high in the middle distance at Rapallo or Cagnes-sur-Mer, looked pretty hot. It was so sexy there. Here there were only some beery lads on the grass, or old gents with their shirts off sitting on benches, listening to the cricket on tiny trannies. In town I found things taking on an absurd sexual significance: I tramped round and round on imaginary errands so as to see a butcher’s boy with a spot-crossed full-mouthed face joking in the doorway with his workless mates. I knew where in Digby’s the second-hand manuals of photography and volumes of obsolete sexology were shelved. Even the square-jawed beige mannequins in an outfitters’ window, with a generalised mound between the legs, possessed a certain power of suggestion, as did the surreal cross-sections used to display underwear, as if the erogenous zones had been cast life-size in milk chocolate. Being in love seemed to license and heighten random desire all around; I felt guiltily untouched by the conventional wisdom of never looking at another man.
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