The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.27Alan Hollinghurst
‘Do you like being out at night?’ I asked, not because I wanted to know, but so as to license what I wanted to say about myself.
‘I haven’t really done it much. Except you know … in the car.’
‘It may be too late for you now. You need to do it when you’re a lad and you feel like part of a secret society, and an old, country thing, standing still and seeing night-sighted animals busying about.’
‘Not being night-sighted oneself …’
‘After a while you are. I can’t remember the individual nights, isn’t it awful, that whole phase of my life has somehow rendered down to a few scenes – being out under the trees, lying in each other’s arms looking at the stars, our naked legs in night breezes and moonlight, seeing a fox trotting round and round on the path by the gym, trying to levitate on the cricket pitch: you remember the levitation craze, I think I did actually levitate … and of course all the things we did to each other, well, it was levitation in a way, I don’t need to tell you what love’s like, but perhaps that’s why it’s all a mood or just an impression of blackness. I was too pressed up against him to see.’
‘You seem to have seen a lot,’ said Willie kindly, perhaps touched by my moist-eyed, slightly fanatical manner. ‘Um, have another drink,’ and he leant across with the bottle and I let him pour as if unaware that I had to say when. The lovely confidence of that tarnished gold liquid in my grasp, the sense of being provided for, of knowing one could come through. I plucked off my glasses to rub my eyes and saw the lamp-lit room and my friend’s pale face in an intimate crepuscular blur, like a little etching by Edgard Orst. And I felt the spirit of the time that I had summoned up pouring past me like a night-wind through woods around a lonely shack or long-abandoned Nissen hut where two boys squat and banter over a ten-minute fire of twigs and rubbish. My heart was thumping with the certainty that when I put my glasses on again Dawn himself would be leaning forward from the sofa, his teenage eyes and mouth unveiled by love.
‘Of course, we had to get away from Lawrence Graves.’
‘Christ, I’d quite forgotten …’
‘Old Graves was mortally put out by the whole business. I tried to make him feel wanted, and I used to have Dawn round for Bruckner and Mahler sessions in our study, but Graves got into absolute paroxysms of irritation if we even smiled at each other. He’d be conducting away and though the music was all part of it, Dawn and I could almost forget it was going on somehow, we were so full of our own latest memories and plans, and he would catch us smiling at each other … I think he wanted to kind of hijack our affair, take it over or blow it up.’
‘He was in love with you himself, presumably.’
‘Of course,’ I said impatiently, covering the fact that I had never quite realised that. ‘Of course. And it’s true that Dawn was never exactly brilliant or enthralling company unless you saw the point of him. I remember coming in one day and finding he’d been waiting for me for hours. Graves was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of him as if he was trying to mesmerise him or get him to reveal some potent but unguessable quality he had. He was really trying to get down there with him. I said later how poetic a picture it had been – poetic was one of our permitted terms of acclaim – and he turned quite nasty. “Poetic!” he said. “He talked prose to me all afternoon!”’
Willie didn’t smile. ‘I feel rather sorry for Graves, being left all alone at nights, being told to turn his music down by Head of House W. Turlough, whilst his best friend, actually probably his only friend, was running round naked on the cricket pitch with someone who was clearly more attractive than he was. If I’d realised at the time I’d have been nicer to him.’ I gave a humorous snarl at this attempt at a joke. ‘What became of Graves, by the way?’
‘I wonder.’ The last time I’d seen him was vividly clear to me, shocking and secret. Or maybe it didn’t matter. Willie ought to know these things. We were both men of the world, of different but adjacent worlds; and we were about the same age now, though Willie seemed to me to have entered the placid, incurious middle phase, the semi-sedation of hetero expectations, whilst I was still running loose, swerving and tripping through the romantic undergrowth outside. He must be thirty-five, I was thirty-three, would be thirty-four in the week after Christmas; but as always I felt that my age was only a term of convenience, an average age, and that one moment I was donnish and past it and the next a bewildered youngster scarcely out of school. I took my glasses off again to spare his embarrassment.
‘Do you know about Mr Croy’s?’ I said.
‘No, is it a prep-school?’
‘Not exactly.’ I gazed at the overlapping aureoles the lamps cast across the ceiling, and saw again the astounding scenes in that house. It was years after school, it was after Cambridge, in my own brief spell as a schoolmaster, on a rainy half-holiday, when I made one of my irregular, urgent visits, and found Graves there, with a crew-cut and ear-rings, and the young assistant from Levertons flushed and greedily at work on him, ribbons of saliva down his chin.
‘Well, the thing about it is …’ I said.
‘What is it, sweetheart?’ Willie asked quietly. I smirked at the new endearment.
‘You see …’
‘Can’t you sleep?’
I looked across with a frown and blush of my own. A little blonde ghost had appeared at the sofa’s end, and Willie’s strong arm opened towards it and brought it noiselessly into his embrace.
‘Sit with us for a while.’ I pushed my glasses on again and saw the child wriggle and shake her head and hide her face in her father’s shirt-front. He rocked her for a bit, resting his chin abstractedly on her curly crown and gazing at the wall. ‘Sorry, Edward, do go on,’ he said, snugly, as if he were rocking himself to sleep. ‘She’ll drop off in a minute or two.’
‘Oh, it doesn’t matter.’ He didn’t protest, he seemed to find security in the reawakened claims of fatherly duty. I knew he’d prefer it if I went.
Before long the child was asleep, or had wandered at least into the dream thickets on the path towards … I hunched forward and made half-pissed conventional noises about her beauty and temperament.
When he came down again I was waiting in the hall.
‘How’s that drink?’ he said.
‘I’ve finished it.’
‘I’ll get back to my mother’s.’
He stood in his socks in the doorway whilst I turned on the step and looked up at slow-moving cloud and three or four stars.
‘See you tomorrow,’ I said. ‘I’ve got to read, god knows how I’ll manage.’
‘You’ll do it beautifully. Do you want a taxi?’
‘I’ll walk a bit and perhaps get the little bus if it comes.’
‘I haven’t asked you anything about Belgium and your job and … I don’t even know why you went.’
I grinned at him. ‘Oh, the usual mixture of panic and caprice –’ I couldn’t explain to him why this was a place to get out of. I stepped forward with a shiver and slipped my arms round him and hugged him and after a second or two he gave me a comforting rough rub between the shoulderblades. I kissed him on the cheek and then pushily kissed his mouth, until he shook his head away.
‘I can’t,’ he said, ‘I’m sorry. I mean I’m so sorry about everything.’
I waited at the bus-stop at the end of Willie’s silent road, wishing I had never come, and thinking about him with a sullen charge of sexual violence. The night was damp and autumnal, the suburban birch and willow leaves came flitting down on to the tarmac, gathered in puddles or were swept about by the breeze in little dying sallies. I stood reading a notice about August Bank Holiday excursions to Brighton, Eastbourne and Dover. At the top a red bus surged forward in steeply exaggerated perspective and a cheery driver raised his cap – oh, the blind future tense of old announcements! How wrong it was to disclaim our adolescence, to wince at its gaucheries and ignorance, when we would be lucky to recapture its first-hand vividness and
At Stonewell each year we had a field-day when the boys were divided into squads and despatched on surreal errands to test their initiative: bring back a letter signed by a bishop, or souvenirs from six Cinque Ports, present a baby to a master in disguise on Beachy Head. A kind of home-sickness coloured the early phase of the day. Hitch-hiking was forbidden, and whilst a few such as Dawn slipped away by bike, the rest of us amassed in sprawling bands at bus-stops and the local station, as if reluctant to separate, hoping feebly to tag along with our rivals, or to absorb the good luck, the slightly manic confidence of the two or three who were already making with maps, cameras and phone-calls to high-placed relations. But when we were an hour or two away from school, forlornly tramping up to the gates of top-security dockyards or trespassing through woodland in search of sham ruins, anxiety gave way to a guilty suspicion that none of it mattered, a muddled sense of futile freedom.
The days always took place in a perspective of failure, we never expected to get an interview with a submarine captain, and we were often stranded as evening fell at some inconvenient spot requiring to be rescued by the harassed masters in their station-wagons. Getting home turned out to be the real test of initiative, and we failed it. We waited at a shelterless bus-stop just like this, as the rain came on, playing basic games of chance with tossed coins. I remembered that once I was with a couple of others, including the palely introverted German boy Peter Rott (Tommy as he was known) who grew his nails into buckled claws and disguised the length of his hair by not rinsing out the shampoo: as the rain fell on his matted pine-scented head he began to bubble gently, and suds ran down his face like sleepy tears.
My father didn’t have a few more months, he had just over a year; he died in that month of shadowed insouciance that precedes the arrival of the A-level results. I was relieved that it wasn’t in term, that I hadn’t been called out of school to be told, that it hadn’t messed up my exams; but later on I mildly regretted the loss of the acclaim and respect that should have been due to me. By the following term, when I abruptly began to grieve, it no longer merited my schoolfriends’ puzzled consideration.
His ashes were strewn on the common, because he had loved it, but the idea seemed so gruesome to me that I stayed alone in the house while my mother and Charlie and my Uncle Wilfred set off up the hill, uncertain whether they were a procession or if they should go a bit faster, like a family out for a walk. They had chosen an ordinary workday morning, quite early, when no one much would be around to wonder what they were doing, or have to avert their eyes in sudden understanding and dismay. I hadn’t wanted to see the urn – more like my mother’s rosewood sewing-box than the samovar I had imagined – and found it hard to accept that my father, the same size, more or less, as I was when he died, could have been reduced to this neatly portable and disposable quantity.
I sat in a kind of frozen observance of my own in the sitting-room, with the silent monument of the piano, the massed records and the unsinging sheet-music – my mother had left a Bach aria open on the music-stand. From beyond, Sir Thomas Beecham peered out over his signature with a look of testy merriment that I thought inappropriate. I thought how much people know when they die: that canterbury full of music, not just known but gone into in some adult never-satisfied way that I couldn’t understand. I had always been too easy and ignorant a judge, and said it was lovely the first time, and also the second quite different time, and soon lost patience as he kept working it towards some future state I couldn’t envisage and which now would never be.
His going was so slow, and so unprecedented in my experience, that I found it hard to bear in mind or even to believe in. He was quieter than usual, hating to make a fuss, but sometimes coldly demanding. He was glad that I was getting on with things, racing out after minimal bursts of revision to meet my friend on the common, showing the stifled high spirits of a boy with a secret happiness; his occasional words of reproach rankled with me for days, since I knew I was spending less of my time with him than before; an unadmitted fear of illness kept me away. ‘Let’s have some music tonight,’ he would say, and catch my hesitation, my momentary reordering of my plans.
A large oval mirror hung by two chains above our fireplace. There was something aloof about it – it was never one of those mirrors that embrace a room and give it back to itself with a hint of strangeness and enhanced worth. Though I had become rather vain of late and conceited about my inky quiff, I tended not to consult it; but when we had a record on and I was sprawled on the sofa opposite, my eyes would dwell on the slipped horizon of the wall behind me reflected in its high ellipse – a sun-yellow wall like an empty beach reaching up to the sky of shadowed white ceiling, a birdless distance that took on splendour or desolation according to the music and the varying light of the months.
It was about that time that music, which had always been around me, and was identified, through the scent of polish in the sitting-room, with the very air I breathed, gained a new and independent grip on me; I suppose it was love that made me see a Mozart concerto or a lyrical and exultant Schumann symphony not simply as a wonder in itself but as a kind of explanation of life. Like love it seemed to admit me to a new dimension of luminous purpose: music raised my expectations to an ideal level that other friends found comic or unbelievable if they weren’t initiates themselves. At school we were played some bits of Janáček, which were the most convulsively life-like music I had ever heard. I gathered up the scraps of Supraphon record-sleeve information, cryptically condensed and obscured by translation, that were all that could be found out by an English boy, and was amazed by the lateness of his flowering and the fact that this bristling old gent should be the one to confirm everything I felt at seventeen about life and sex and being out at night with winds and stars.
And what were my father’s thoughts as he sat limply in his armchair, head back, eyes on a different distance, later on sometimes slipping into noiseless defenceless sleep? He was only fifty-five, only lately robbed by chemicals of the thick black hair we had always had in common; he hadn’t reached his late phase yet. He started singing as a young man in the Navy: I imagined his mess-mates gathered round him or lying solemn in their bunks as he crooned some old salt-water ballad and their ship slid on through the moonlit toy sea of a British war-film. He must imagine those days too, I thought, rather than look forward to the final sudden crisis; but I knew he would never say. There was a beautiful accidental integrity about the galaxy of thoughts inside that listening head. Almost everything he knew and felt had never been spoken, never sung, never known to another soul.
The ritual events of the summer unfolded, both more intense and more trivial than usual. The May Day bank holiday fair came to the sloping football-pitch by the Flats, and gave me its annual, slightly threatening surprise as I strolled over the common on Friday after school and saw the caravans and dogs among the new greenery below and heard the mingled roar of generators and jangle of carousel-music. I saw Dawn there later in the company of three of his sporting friends from Drake, leaving a fortune-teller’s booth with grinning faces, leaning superbly in at a shooting gallery, then wandering on, the others lighting up, watching shaken kids unloading from an aerial whirligig, Dawn secretly following the acrobatics of a teenage fair-boy swinging from pole to pole on a kind of switchback roundabout. I half-hid from them, paralysed with possessiveness, and dully tensed against the sarcasms that would break out when Dawn and I came together. We had a rather unhappy notoriety by then – ours wasn’t a classic prefect-fag tendresse: our terms were w
Then it was Wimbledon again, watched in illicit paragraphs of two or three hours amid the final exam preparations, sometimes with Ogg’s Seventeenth-Century Europe numbly open on my knee. Mirabelle was in electrifying form in an early women’s heat I saw and seemed to call ‘Fault’ obliviously at every first service. One of the men players from Eastern Europe evidently had an enormous penis, which I never heard the commentators refer to. I imagined Mirabelle would have some tales to tell about him.
I loved the dream acoustics of Wimbledon, the curtains drawn but the windows open behind them, occasional noises of traffic, distant shouts from the sunny common or close-up chatter of people walking past, louder and more unguarded than we were, as if they had leant right in to the lulled half-light of the room to say ‘Yeah, well see what she says’ or ‘No you fucking don’t!’; then, recessed within this, the hushed, attentive sound-world of the court, whose irregular pock-pocks and applause and torpid rallies of commentary themselves gave way from time to time to a further unseen dimension, disconnected applause from another court, the sonic wallow of a plane distancing in slow gusts above, that a minute or two later would pass high over our house as well and drown out the television as it passed. The whole experience was one of oddly compelling languor, an English limbo of light and shade, near and far, subtly muddled and displaced. My father seemed satisfied with it, as if his family could share for a while his own powerless and agitated calm.
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