The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.26Alan Hollinghurst
It was into this dispirited household that I remember Geoffrey and Mirabelle coming, quite often, as if determined to brighten us up. There was a sense of an impromptu party being stirred into reluctant life; they would arrive with a half-bottle of Beefeater or a batch of meringues in a tin. The idea of Geoffrey brightening anyone up had something incongruous about it that added to the forced sense of fun. He made a genuine effort, he smiled a lot in a rather loopy way, he even once told a long humorous anecdote, followed by an expectant silence in which Mirabelle quietly provided the proper punch-line and pointed out an error earlier in the story which altered the meaning of the whole thing. It was Mirabelle really who made the going.
As well as her line-judge’s shout, she had a lovely liquid singing voice, which I imagined being refined to its bright clarity in the great stills of her bosom. She was always rather shy of using it in my father’s presence, and made pointless remarks about how she couldn’t sing at all, but then would break into a phrase or two from Cole Porter inadvertently, out of pure tunefulness, when carrying out the plates or pouring a drink. What sometimes happened was a duet with my father, which seemed less presumptuous on her part, though he would much rather have just listened to her or better still had no singing: ‘I will if Lewis will too,’ she would say, which may have been the basis for Geoffrey’s festering jealousy all these years later.
My father had a great aversion to character-acting in songs, any rolling of the eyes, putting hands on hips or wringing out of humour. He tended to sing like a sentinel, sworn to some higher purpose. Mirabelle, however, was much given to caperings and routines which spoke of a thwarted desire for the stage and could be rather overwhelming in the confines of the sitting-room. She knew several of the drunk songs from operettas and fin de siècle musicals and sometimes did ‘Ah, quel dîner’, from La Périchole, in a recklessly ‘French’ manner. But her party piece was a song ‘I’m just a wee bit boozy’, from a forgotten show called Her Cousin from Kansas, in which each verse was slightly more slurred than the one before; at the end she would pretend to stumble against the piano or even fall to the floor. My mother, who accompanied, always had a look of forlorn sobriety after this number.
On one of these sad restless evenings that they came ding-donging into with such puzzling gaiety my mother muttered to me not to go out after supper. I was immediately certain that this was the night when Dawn would come back. I saw him, bronzed, heavy with sperm, roaming the common into the small hours, maybe meeting someone else … But Charlie had boorishly slipped the net and gone down to the pub, and I was being relied on to keep up some sense of occasion. The Turloughs had brought a bottle of cherry brandy and I drank several little glasses of it and felt annoyingly careless and witty.
We went into the sitting-room, and I sat by the door, so as to get to the phone first when it rang. It was extraordinary the certainty I felt, one of those baseless whims, a slight chemical thing perhaps, that changes your whole attitude. Geoffrey, as a rule needlessly discreet, gave a detailed account of the machinations behind the current bypass proposals. Then my father went to put a record on the stereogram. I knew that he hated background music, and that this was a ploy to prevent anyone from singing. But the moment he lifted the magic lid Mirabelle exclaimed, ‘Oh Lewis, my love, why don’t you sing to us? I can’t bear a record on, when you don’t know whether to talk or listen to it.’
‘I really won’t tonight,’ he said firmly but with a smile. And then what could he do but add, ‘But if you’d like to …’ I think she agreed less out of high spirits than from a sense of duty.
‘I shan’t sing “I’m just a wee bit boozy”’, she said, ‘because actually I am, and I’ll probably get muddled up with the words.’
‘Ah well,’ said my father.
‘But can you play …?’ She had a whisper with my mother and after five seconds’ modest thought broke out in a deeper, sexier voice than usual, ‘A home is not a home without a man – He’s the necessary evil in the plan …’, at which Geoffrey looked quite uncomfortable. My mother accompanied anxiously, making it sound like a metrical psalm. When it was finished I clapped for too long.
‘Thank you, darling,’ said Mirabelle with a bow. She had on black linen bell-bottoms that added a further curve to her outline and low-cut slippers which showed the little pinched cleavages of her toes. ‘What would you like me to do next?’
There were no immediate requests, and the general answer might well have been ‘Sit down and shut up’. ‘Beggars in Spats,’ I called out mischievously. This was a comic number from the Broadway of thirty or forty years ago, a genre utterly antique to me but treasured by all these adults as the glamour music of their youth, and so absorbed by osmosis into my own. It was another of those things that gave me the ghostly sense of having grown up in an earlier age.
She did sing ‘Beggars in Spats’, which was about a couple getting married with only a nickel between them but somehow managing very well; it was a long song, in which everything happened several times over. ‘And now I’ve done enough,’ she said, turning her eyes on my father. ‘If I really can’t persuade Lewis to join me?’ He shook his head. ‘There seems to be a bit of a matrimonial theme. We could round it off with “There’s Nothing Like Marriage for People” …’
‘I’m just not up to it tonight.’
‘Oh, go on, Dad!’ I said, bounding across to his chair and tugging at his hand. ‘It’s always so funny when you do it in your American accent.’ And Sibelius, noticing the activity, lurched to his feet and clittered round the parquet giving short affirmative barks. I appealed to my mother, who looked mournfully at my father, not knowing what to hope. Mirabelle doodled the first two lines sweetly, sotto voce, ‘Imagine living with someone Who’s longing to live with you’, and winked at me as he got up, with an alarming look of stifled wretchedness, and took his place by the piano. Mirabelle slipped her arm through his and sang the lines again, still very sweetly. (‘Oh god, I imagine that every minute of the day,’ I thought.) ‘Imagine signing a lease together; And hanging a Matisse together,’ my father replied, but in stiff English. She took it up, in English too, ‘Oh what felicity In domesticity!’ and he capped it, with a sternness that was comic in itself, ‘Let no one disparage Marriage!’
It was all very strange. Geoffrey stared at his wife expression-lessly. Was he angry with her for pretending to be getting married to my father? Or was he merely stuffily hiding his admiration and assessing the song as though he had never heard it before? I wondered if I was so self-absorbed that I’d missed out on something important that had been said. The accompaniment was oddly inadvertent. Mirabelle was nursing the thing along by sheer, even exaggerated, force of personality: ‘Hurry, let’s call up the minister!’ – head thrown back. A second’s delay, ‘Why be a sinister Old bachelor or spinister …’ My mother had stopped and I turned to her irritably. Her cheeks were wet with tears, and she was fumbling at her cuff for a handkerchief. Then she jumped up and ran out of the room.
My father called ‘Peg’ and went after her, half-tangled up with the doleful but excited dog. Mirabelle looked horrified at what she had brought about. Geoffrey nodded towards the door, and she drifted into the hall, biting her lower lip. The two of us were left alone. The shock of the first moments was yielding to a childish urge to cry too, the contagion of misery, however little understood. Geoffrey got up, walked to the window, and stood glaring into the dusk and the privet hedge.
‘I’m very sorry about your father’s bad news,’ he said, raking and smoothing his beard. ‘I suppose it’s as well to be prepared for the worst. Let’s hope they can hold it off for a few more months, eh?’
I did ring Willie Turlough, god knows why – perhaps out of that same sense of desolation that had welled up from the past and seemed to me, as it can in certain lights, to be our real environment. We talked against a background of white noise, he was impossibly distracted; I pictured him holding a wriggling bundle like the baby that turns into a pig
I was in the pub first. It didn’t seem to them to be all that long since I had left. To me it did, so that I was reluctant to go in, and then hurt at how little fuss was made of me. The deaths of our friends were in the smoke-soured air, of course; they were still being talked about with original shock, and with the occasional hilarity that came with shock and brought a tear to the eye that the indulgent reminiscences failed to raise. From time to time someone would have the muffled excitement of breaking the news to a new arrival who hadn’t heard. I noticed how the story was changing as each teller patched it together.
I bought lagers for my old chums Danny and Simon, who must have known me well, we had drunk so much together and talked so much, up and down the scale between murky confession and the permitted embellishments of tales of conquest, the two of them drily puncturing my more preposterous flights; but I had an eerie sense of having broken with them, of looking in with envy on their steady and self-sufficient affair. The utterly unchanged bar, some of the men I had slept with at one time or another, even Dawn himself, existed in earlier, closed-down precincts of my life. When Simon asked me some perfectly straightforward question, I felt it had been run through a scrambler. What was the scene like in Belgium? You mean the scene … in Belgium …? I couldn’t think of anything to say.
Willie and Alison had given up expecting me by the time I made it out to their house. She appeared in her dressing-gown, holding the baby, little Ralphie, whom she had just fed into fat-faced sleep, Willie was hurrying about in his socks, holding chewed toys, a stained cot-blanket. I felt I was interrupting something arduous and intimate.
‘What sort of time do you call this?’ he demanded cheerfully, and gave me a sympathetic kiss on the cheek. Actually it was only half past nine, a time at which I normally comforted myself with the certainty of hours of drink to come; but when you entered the lives of young parents you were in another time-zone, pale faces came to meet you in the half-light, abstracted with fatigue. ‘It’s like some awful kind of training,’ Willie said, ‘where they wake you up at odd hours of the night, and you have to put an engine together, or defuse a bomb.’
‘I didn’t know they did that.’
‘Don’t they? I thought they did …’ He yawned like a dog, with a whine too.
Alison had gone upstairs and didn’t re-emerge. I imagined she’d just fallen asleep where she was. Willie looked mildly bemused by the silence, the social call from the outside world. He was piecing together what it was one did. I said, ‘Would you rather I went?’
He was dismayed. ‘My dear Edward!’ Slightly ponderous now. He frowned and smiled, and I realised he looked so much balder because he’d done the sensible thing and cut it all off short. Last time I’d seen him there had been fatally middle-aged wisps. His features were so good that he looked even more handsome without hair than with it. As he wandered round through the debris of plastic bricks and scribbled scrap-paper I couldn’t help thinking back through his shapeless casual clothes to the naked prefect he had been, his magically unblemished skin, the blue veins that ran over his upper arms, the idle beauty of his big cock and balls. Not for the first time I thought what an excellent homosexual he would have made. ‘Would you like a drink?’
‘Mmm. Perhaps the merest rumour of Scotch. The merest hearsay …’
‘I’ll bring the bottle.’
I swept the rubbish from an armchair and sat down and still got a piece of Lego up the bum. Why did they do it? Why did this dully charming man, who was already working absurdly to support two children, who got up at six each day to commute to town and was sometimes not home till nine, then go inanely on and sire a third? It must be instinct, nothing rational could explain it – instinct or inattention or else what Edie called polyfilla-progenitiveness: having more children to stop up the gaps in a marriage. I was at the age when I couldn’t ignore it; my straight friends married and bred, sometimes remarried and bred again, or just bred regardless. I saw them losing the gift of speech, so used to being interrupted by the demands of the young that they began to interrupt themselves, or to prefer the kind of fretful drivel they had become accustomed to. I saw the huge, humiliating vehicles these studs of the GTi were forced to buy: like streamlined dormobiles, with tiers of baby seats and stacks of the grey plastic crap which seemed inseparable from modern infancy. I saw their doped surrender to domestic muddle, not enough letters on the fridge door to spell anything properly, the chairs covered in yoghurt.
‘This is all very sad,’ said Willie, with a stern smile. Neither of us knew yet just how seriously the other was taking it, whether we would shortly be telling slightly derisory stories in an air of accomplished melancholy or if one of us would be comforting the other as he sobbed out his bitter regrets and griefs. The thought of a scene of unguarded emotion with Willie, whatever its cause, had a certain appeal.
‘I wondered if Mirabelle might be here,’ I said.
‘No, she’s been wonderful with the baby, much more than with the other two’ – as if that was the only reason for her coming round.
‘Here’s a good long life to Ralphie number two,’ I said, chinning my glass. ‘A new Dawn, you might say.’ Perhaps there were unhappy implications to this.
‘He was the first of our schoolfriends to go – that’s why I chose his name.’ This wasn’t true, or it depended what you meant by friends; our old boys’ magazine now had two epochs to its obituary page – the steady professional deaths of the prewar generations, and the cluster of pinched-off careers, nothing much to say about them yet, dead at twenty-four or twenty-nine, or thirty-three, no causes given, where before it had been climbing accidents.
‘It was a very sweet idea. I’m so confused by the shock of this death, having started in a way to prepare for a different one. But if he’d gone as it were knowingly, he’d have been very touched at what you’ve done. He rather loved you, you know.’
‘Well, I rather loved him,’ said Willie smugly. ‘In my way – of course, not like you did.’ I looked at him with a sceptical little smile, so that he went on, ‘Even I could see that he was jolly handsome.’
Well, yes, he was quite handsome – dark curls, blue eyes – but that wasn’t the point of Dawn, it wasn’t why men wanted him. Willie reminded me of people without a sense of humour, who laugh at the wrong moment, or for too long. There was always something lacking in those men who had never had a queer phase as boys, it showed in a certain dryness of imagination, a bland tolerance uncoloured by any suppression of their own, a blindness to the spectrum’s violet end.
‘I was trying to tell Alison about you two at school, and how scandalous you were. She wasn’t very impressed. She said she thought that was what all public schoolboys did – you know she can be a bit left-wing.’
‘We’re all a bit left-wing, dear.’
‘I hope she doesn’t think you ever carried on like that. She must know you were the great untouchable.’
Willie looked into his glass and shook the ice around in it. ‘I didn’t really want to be untouchable, you know. But I just wasn’t into it. I tried quite hard sometimes; everyone would be mooning about one of the new boys – don’t you think he’s a perfect orchid, isn’t he just like a dark little kitten – and I’d search my heart, but all I could ever see was a rather anxious little chap who’d had his cricket-bat stolen, or whatever.’
‘You are aware that virtually the entire school had a crush on you?’
‘Well, I don’t know about that. It could be quite lonely at times, and I felt a bit of a stick-in-the-mud. In the dorm I pulled the sheets over my head or pretended to sleep if ever naked figures went scampering past. I did feel I was missing out.’
‘I don’t think you missed out on much. I don’t remember much of all that. They might have wanted to do things, but you know they were all too bourgeois and inhibited.
‘Well, you and Ralphie did okay.’
‘That wasn’t vice, darling, it was love.’
I saw Willie’s almost instant mastering of the surprise of being called darling, watched him as he sprawled a fraction more unguardedly on the sofa, as if to deny the intrusive intimacy of my tone and absorb the jolt of grief that must account for it. Perhaps at that moment I saw how isolated I felt in losing Dawn, though he hadn’t been mine for … sixteen years.
‘It’s brought so much back,’ I said. I went on about that summer, the horrible empty weeks which had just begun to haunt me with their apparent denial of what had come before and of the promise they had seemed to give of what was to follow. I jumped and told him about how good at drawing Dawn was: there was something sexily luxurious about the patient sittings, when the boy who had had me for real an hour before would perch across the room and stroke my outline on to paper, and I felt as if it was me who was drawing him, studying his absorbing gaze, his tongue on his lip where mine liked to be, or wetting his thumb to blur the charcoal with it.
‘Were you ever caught?’
‘I don’t think we ever actually were. There were several occasions of absolutely split-second escapes, you know, when you leap into a deeply studious pose with your pubes trapped in your zip. Everyone knew we did it a lot, of course, and mocked at us out of envy, but though that wasn’t a secret, the sex itself was, somehow. But it’s like that, isn’t it, it’s amazing what you can manage, what you can fit in in the unsuspected intervals of the day.’
‘I think I must have been a great innocent at school,’ said Willie, with a certain self-satisfaction.
‘We went out at night a lot of course. We used to meet up by the river.’ For an instant only I seemed to smell the damp mud and half-see the river moving in the dark, conspiratorial or perhaps indifferent. ‘You remember those trees down behind the CCF sheds. I don’t know what kind they were, their crowns were much paler than the rest, they seemed to gleam in the dark.’ The dense twiggy mass around the trunk, like some involuntary eruption of secondary life, the leaves dusty and sticky, dropping on to the verandah of the army hut, which by a trick of memory appeared with taped-over windows, as if in wartime. The leaves would be falling even now, the life of the school must still be going blindly on: perhaps kids were huddling at this moment in the smokers’ riverside bivouac beyond, or snogging intently in the dubbin-scented hut, unbuttoning each other in the glow of SM McGregor’s breathy gas-fire. This was an aspect of the corps that Willie, who had been big in the army cadets, was unaware of; and maybe the hut seemed a glamorous rendezvous to me because I had opted out, and spent those long parade-ground afternoons in the alternative vacancy, the smoky idleness, of ‘community service’.
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