The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.28Alan Hollinghurst
There was to be no holiday, of course, for the second year running, and I felt ashamed by this further evidence of the decline of the Manners family. The previous Christmas I had secured a distracted agreement that Dawn could come to Kinchin Cove with us and looked forward to it blindly in the teeth of all the warning signs. My mother rather liked Dawn, who helped with the washing-up, shared in her gentle mockery of my sixth-form posiness, and had a reliable second-row-forward straightness about him; she couldn’t make out why we were such inseparable friends, and there was something sweet about her frequently exaggerating his good points, as if these must explain it: ‘Ralph’s got bottom,’ she said to me one Sunday morning over pastry-dough and apple-peel. But by the early summer, brittle and hollow-eyed with her own anxieties, she had forgotten her promise. I made a scene about it, half-aware how I was disgracing myself, arguing really I suppose against something else.
I told Dawn it was off and took him some photographs of the cottage from an earlier summer, the beach and rocks just below, the shallow river that ran out over the sand, the loafing figures of Charlie and his genuinely unsuitable friend Gary Quine, who got wrecked in the Wreckers, called my parents by their Christian names and gave me, when I was twelve, my first awed lesson in the use of a rubber johnny. Dawn wasn’t much bothered about the place I loved and wanted to bring him to as a new brother, who could teach me to dive. He slipped an arm round my neck, gave me a long hard-working kiss and said why didn’t we go off together, camping – we could go to France. He’d already opted out of his own family’s trip to Spain. I knew with a sudden grave certainty far bleaker than that of my father’s death that I would never go to Kinchin Cove again.
We went to look at tents, quite unaware of their cost and complexity and scaling our plans down from ‘The Sultan’ through ‘The Marquess’ and ‘The Cavalier’ until we ended up with a titchy dun-coloured thing called ‘The Pilgrim’. ‘I think you’ll be rather on top of each other in this one,’ said the sales assistant.
The plan that we have a trial night on the common came from my Uncle Wilfred, who had supervised innumerable camps for the de Souzay Trust and stressed the importance for both of us of knowing how to pitch and strike. It was a wildly exciting idea, clouded at first by the fear that he was going to come up and instruct us himself. But no. He would be sitting with my mother, as he did increasingly in my father’s last months; she was the only woman-friend Wilfred had and the evenings, kindly meant, were a strain for both of them. ‘Your uncle’s more of a man’s man’ was all my mother ever said about him. Cues for anecdotes about their shared childhood produced only grouchy vaguenesses; when she was fourteen he had gone to war and in a sense the rest of his life had taken place under military camouflage; all we saw was an impatient self-discipline and a sardonic tendency that never quite rose to humour and was especially disconcerting in these visits intended to comfort and distract. At the time I knew nothing of his constant sexual appetite, and it is possible she didn’t either: like so many siblings they had nothing useful in common and their attempts at sharing things were marked by childish awkwardness and dogged cross-purposes.
Wilfred checked the kit for us. ‘Done it a thousand times with the Susies,’ he said, peering shrewdly at Dawn, who was bending to unbuckle his rucksack and looking somewhat resentful of the old boy’s drill. I thought he might be critical of The Pilgrim: he declared it ambiguously to be ‘a tight little tent’. ‘Having a cook-up?’ he said. I told him we were just taking scotch eggs and a bar of chocolate, which he clearly thought feeble to the point of effeminacy, but my mother snapped that there was nothing else. I ran upstairs to say goodbye to my father, who was lying on his bed fully clothed. I asked him how he was feeling and he said, ‘Not very good, old boy’, which was the most he ever did say, and left me habitually at a loss how to answer him. On the turn of the stairs coming down I heard my mother saying hurriedly to Wilfred, ‘… a week or two, perhaps, they say, probably no more’ – so that I went into shocked slow-motion, my hand to my mouth, and after ten seconds jogged down in a forced briskness of concealment.
We hiked up the familiar paths, Dawn deliberately testing my loyalties with a good imitation of my uncle. Mimicry, like drawing, was one of his gifts, and both were literal and so at times unsettling. I responded with cowardly jabs and pinches, knowing that he would get me back later with some stifling, bare-breasted wrestling hold. It was still quite early and we wandered across the network of summer paths scuffed and scrawled through the dry grass; we didn’t want to pitch our tent in the dark but felt self-conscious about doing so whilst walkers and lyrical late kite-fliers were still about. Probably the best place would be on the far side, the way Dawn came from home, where there would be shelter by the copse-like remains of ancient hedgerows. We circled back to the pond and sat on the bench, eating our scotch eggs and watching anglers packing up their gear. The boys among them trudging away with their rods and camp-stools like little old men. Behind them the silhouettes of pines and poplars were reflected and the sunset opened canyons of pink and ultramarine in the pond’s muddy depths.
‘Better look out for the folding star,’ I said.
‘What is this folding star?’ said Dawn, with the annoyance of hearing me keep saying it and having pretended before that he understood it.
‘Don’t you know your Milton?’ I said pityingly. ‘The star that bids the shepherd fold? As when the folding star arising shows His paly circlet? … Dear me.’ I put an arm round his muscly shoulders and squeezed. ‘It’s when you know you’ve got to put the sheep all safely in the fold.’ He shrugged himself free.
‘What about putting the boys all safely in their tent?’ he said.
‘Yeah.’ I couldn’t actually see the star in question but maybe it was best to set about it. I was always spoiling things with my quotations – he saw them as a kind of sarcasm against himself.
The Pilgrim took about five minutes to put up. Dawn dived into it as if scoring a try and when I looked in through the flap he seemed to take up all the space. I felt he’d laid a claim to it that I would never be able to challenge. I slid in alongside him, in the mackintosh-scented gloom, shocked by the lumps in the ground. ‘It’s a good job we like each other,’ I said, slipping a hand between his legs and stroking his balls through the soft cotton of his tracksuit bottoms.
‘Just think. Nice. Antibes. Juan-les-Pins’ – each name said with savoured French Oral vowels.
He rolled on to me with a fierce grin that faded into a stare, lips parted, holding his breath then sighing it out suddenly over my face with a hint of sausage-meat and hard-boiled egg. He was working his stiff cock against my thigh. I ran my hands over his lightly sweating back and down under the elastic to the damp cleft of his arse – he curved his spine and my middle finger just reached, and drew a gasp from him as it touched his tender muscle. An outlying root of the ancient hedgerow pressed harder and harder into my back as if to register a serious objection.
I struggled out from under him and he took it as a turn in the sex-tussle till I said, ‘I’m just going outside for a minute.’
I peed into the bushes and then strolled a short way across the hillside. In the late dusk the blanched, feathery heath-grasses looked almost luminous against the darkness of the woods. I sat on a round tump, it might have been a tiny tumulus, and looked out at thin cloud and distant lights. I’d never been this far this late, hearing only the rumour of cars on the London road, the patter of leaves like rain that slackens and stops. Tonight was like being given the keys to a bridal suite: we had come up here with an unwitting blessing. My lover and I. I wrapped the word around me like a stole. The wonder of having a lover – I saw us for an exhilarating moment from outside, the amazing thing we had done. Other boys at school had girlfriends, of course, and left you in no doubt about what they did with them; but what tawdry affairs those were – you saw them hanging around the shops at Saturday lunchtime, in a stumbling embrace as if each
I looked back at the tent, dimly illuminated from within by a torch, and the shadow-play of Dawn on all fours inside, getting it ready for the night. I fell into an awful blank puzzlement at times about why it had to be him; and panic at the thought of hitch-hiking alone with him to Juan-les-Pins – so at his mercy, in those dusty roadside waits, the duty to keep up our spirits, my condescension and his touchiness. It might be very nice to be doing it with another boy, like Turlough or Hall; but they, of course, had shown no interest in seducing me. I saw myself deliberately breaking, no, twisting, my ankle, very badly, just outside Calais and having to come home.
A man was standing about thirty yards away, staring at the tent. I thought he hadn’t yet seen me, despite the little eminence I was on: the khaki glow of the canvas and the bobbing rumpshaped shadows thrown across it from inside held his attention entirely. He stepped forward cautiously, stopped – turned his head to catch any sound. I was fascinated by his thinking himself the observer, unguessed in the dark; and chilled by the freedom it gave him, the unhindered time he had to spy on us or to do us worse harm. He saw me, seemed to ponder for a while what to do, then started slowly in my direction. I thought it would be absurd to move away, but stood up, as if I had been spotted in a game of hide and seek, and waited with my heart thumping in my chest. I thought he might be a kind of night-ranger who could tell us to move on, frighteningly without a uniform, so that we wouldn’t know whether to obey him or not.
He stopped again a few feet away, slightly stooping forward to mime his curiosity. ‘Hi,’ he said, tentatively. A loud owl-call came from the wood, and then another, further off. I couldn’t tell if they were real or people signalling – I knew real ones always sounded like imitations. He turned his head towards them and the faint cloud-gleam showed steel-rimmed spectacles, a white square face with swept-back dark hair. ‘Someone’s making a night of it,’ he said. The voice was troublingly cultured, with a hint of drink-blur – he wasn’t aware of the long pause that followed as I worked out how I could escape him in the dark. I’d played and stood about all over here, but the dimensions and positions were vague at this moment. ‘Looks rather tempting, don’t you think?’
He felt slowly, amusedly, in his breast pockets, and brought out cigarettes and a lighter. ‘Do you smoke?’
‘No’ – it was a little anxious cough. ‘No,’ I said again.
When the lighter flared I saw him lit up for several seconds; black leather jacket, grey jeans a bit tight around the midriff, the ghoulish chiaroscuro of the face above the flustered flame, wishful dark eyes lifting to make out what they could of me. The image floated on the moment’s blackness that followed, suspended in the dry warmth of French tobacco smoke.
‘How old are you?’ he asked.
‘Eighteen,’ I said, adding on a year as if I had been challenged in a pub. And then, with a tenuous politeness I thought would protect me, ‘How old are you?’
‘Thirty.’ He exhaled ponderingly. ‘Three.’
Even more than I’d expected. I felt it like a sinister disgrace, being out in the night with this person, the menacing vagueness of his intentions, the seedy self-confidence of the queers out in their secret element. I’d better walk off quietly towards the tent.
‘Why don’t you come over here?’ he said, with a new intimacy and tenseness. He swung his cigarette arm out in a casual shrug of possibility, but stayed where he was, as though not to waste the effort if I wasn’t interested. ‘Well – suit yourself. I’d like it, if you’d like it.’ I couldn’t associate the voice with anything to do with desire. It was like being propositioned by an announcer on Radio 3.
‘No, thank you,’ I muttered offendedly. And then to my great surprise: ‘My father’s very ill, actually.’
He took this in with another glowing pull on his Gitane. ‘Shit.’
‘He’s only got a couple of weeks left to live,’ I explained carefully, though it was myself I was explaining to.
He threw his cigarette away into the dry grass and I watched anxiously in case a fire began to crackle round it – there hadn’t been rain for over a month. I wanted to criticise him bitterly for that. ‘Hey, hey, hey,’ he whispered heedlessly as he came up close. My face was stiff, I wasn’t actually crying, just breathing out through my mouth in brusque sighs. When he put an arm around me I was hugged into leather and smoke and beer – it was horrible but remotely consoling, the firm clutch of another world that could take me if I let it. He stood and rocked me as if I were crying – I felt pinched and self-conscious not being able to, the vessel of tears sealed up tight inside. I slid my arm woodenly across the stranger’s back. I thought, if my father could see me now …
‘Edward, Edward?’ – a low querying call. Dawn’s unmistakable form, the swish of the grasses in his hesitant approach. The stranger smudged a kiss by my ear at the moment I broke away.
‘No … no …’ I was saying, almost under my breath, as I hit at his arm and half-stumbled in my desire to get free.
‘Edward …?’ both of them said.
Dawn was triggered into the sudden belligerence I found both unnecessary and exciting. ‘Fuck off,’ he said to the man, with a short, spittly chuckle.
‘Okay, okay,’ backing off a pace or two. ‘The kid’s upset, okay?’ A wariness to his tone, as though he’d heard this before. He began to walk away and called back, ‘He just wants looking after.’
‘Fucking queers,’ said Dawn with another incredulous laugh. And then peevishly to me, ‘He can fucking look after himself.’
I couldn’t answer that. I felt lost and utterly unknown. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said. ‘He didn’t do anything.’ I turned back towards the tent. If only we were in our respective homes, if we’d just put the tent up one morning in the garden to see how it was done. I hated the tent, and the hours to come, with Dawn squashing me and nowhere to escape to but the night and its predators. I wouldn’t say anything about it now, but I felt I could reasonably get up at first light, under the pretext of writing a poem.
When I looked back I could just make out Dawn running very fast across the slope, the retreating stranger peeping round at the last moment as he brought him down with a quick easy tackle, got up and jogged back. Beyond them both, on the crest of the hill, figures were moving among the trees.
I hadn’t been in All Saints for years and had forgotten what a reassuringly unsacred building it was; the old village church had been replaced in the late eighteenth century by a broad stuccoed box with an organ gallery and white box pews and a huge east window of clear glass, with trees and the vicar’s upstairs windows visible as one sat and listened to him or thought about lunch. Only the old grey west tower had been kept from the earlier building, and that was under wraps again, being gently cleaned by weeks of running water. I arrived early and found the vicar negotiating with the masons about sheltering the mourners from the incessant cold downward flow. Then we went inside and pulled the chains that kindled primitive overhead heaters: I paced around through their warping blast, getting the feel of the place, more distracted by nerves than grief. I remembered the nausea that preceded class when I was a schoolteacher; even a personal tutorial could approach with a certain chill tread. ‘Oh darling!’ I gasped, and loitered, fiddling with a pew-door’s loose brass catch, lost in a gripping daydream of love for Luc.
‘Everything all right?’ murmured the vicar, resting a hand on my shoulder and swishing his alien skirts against my legs.
It was wonderful who came – our old friends, school contemporaries I hadn’t seen for a decade, unfamiliar queens from London in oddly cut, somehow cheerful suits, antiques young men and other frauds, a tall deaf man whom nobody knew, who was Colin Maylord’s father, a lad fresh off a motor-bike (oh Ralphie!) climbing in leathers and pony-tail into a pew beside startled country aunts and uncles, Gerald and Anne de Souzay, grandly self-effacing, with Edie’s u
I took a place at a pew’s end and waited through that grim interval before the entry of the family and the bearers with their shocking burden of proof. The organist was wittering on through his formless and infinitely extendable introit, music that had never been written down, mere sour doodlings to fill the time, varied now and then by a yawning change of registration like a false alert. The occasional chink of a chisel or half-sung call came from the workmen outside. A sliver of a last night’s dream came back to me and melted away as I tried to grasp it. Matt in the bar teasing me and mocking me with the story of how he’d seduced Luc the afternoon I’d left town – how easy it had been for him, the boy almost bawling for it, four, five times, how he was having him again tonight … I started thinking forward impatiently to my return flight tomorrow, wishing away the unrepeatable hours.
A prospect of the backs of heads, the part of yourself you didn’t know about, which always came as a surprise in a clothes-shop or a barber’s glancing hand-mirror, the part so trustingly turned to a lover. There were heads here I’d sat behind in school: Tony Barnett who used to stow his hair into his turned-up collar with the aid of grease and paper-clips, a big director of commercials these days with a shiny bald patch like a tonsure; Hilary Smythe (poor fellow), teenage cottager you saw hanging on the railings by the traffic lights in town, along with the drunks in torn tweed jackets, looking drably smart now, with a grey moustache; beside him that broad-necked figure like a boisterous but not ill-natured dog, actually called Boxer, captain of rugby, mopping at his eyes with a red handkerchief; in front of him the forgotten Sindon twins, Doug and Greg, or was it Greg and Doug, completely unchanged, brilliant swimmers interested in nothing else – I suddenly remembered their address, like a far-off holiday, and their bathroom with its smell of chlorine and drying towels – they were here in padded silvery suits; I wanted to lick the identical blond ferns in the hollows of their necks.
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