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The folding star histori.., p.29
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       The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.29

           Alan Hollinghurst
 

  I couldn’t listen to much of the service before I was on; we sang a hymn with the wrong tune, so that nobody did more than mumble till the last verse. I tried to sing, but was voiceless with tears, glancing forward to the awful box, which held what was left of my friend for the little while before we burnt him again. I kept trying to name people, not to fidget as the time raced closer. Suddenly the vicar announced my reading, before the Gospel, much earlier than I expected. I looked stupidly about, hoping that no one might have noticed. The audience settled back, some blowing their noses. There was a thin wail from Dawn’s mother in the front row, I knew how she must long for it to be over, but must want it done properly. So I went up and read.

  One morn I miss’d him on the custom’d hill,

  Along the heath, and near his fav’rite tree;

  Another came; nor yet beside the rill,

  Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;

  The next with dirges due in sad array

  Slow through the church-way path we saw him borne …

  My father brought me through it, reminded me how to clear my head and strike out with that impalpable falsity that actors need. As I looked down through the grey November light at wretched faces, I remembered him describing an audience and its expectations, the control of yourself you needed to control them. They wanted something from me that it was surprisingly in my power to give. ‘Speak out,’ he said. It was rather like on certain still nights, I had never told anyone, but I felt him stooping out of the dark continuum he was banished to and pressing about me with advice too stern to be strictly followed.

  Back in my seat I was quietly elated, almost expecting congratulations, and took a moment or two to adjust to the heavy-heartedness around me. I’d shared a sympathetic smile with one of Dawn’s sisters – all three were in the front row with their parents, two of them married to men who sat between them with the diplomatic dry-eyed look of outsiders. It was odd the role these women played in my sense of Dawn, odd that in my keenest memory of him I was absent and they were there – their family holiday, when he was just sixteen.

  It is some banal Mediterranean resort, the sand shuffled and rubbishy at the end of the day, the sea still and salivary, the four children tearing about, Ralph muscly in tight little trunks, his shoulders pink from the sun, lightly terrorising the girls, whom he keeps on kissing and pinching, picking up and throwing into the water. He is full of unfocused energy which finds issue all day long in teasing and chasing, broken by spells of lordly basking, when they rub creams into him and, hoping for a truce, bring him drinks. He is all potential. His sturdy little cock gets hard as he nestles in the sand, and he likes to surprise the girls with the jut of it; they are censorious about it, as they are about his four chest hairs, and as he is about their breasts. What a busty little group they are. The day cools and the girls trail in while he has a last swim – a long fast lap of crawl. Then I see him wait out there, treading slowly, breathing sharply, looking back at the land where the first lights have appeared. He kicks his legs apart and feels the cool water touch his grateful sphincter. No one ever knew, no one ever will know, so I have him thinking of me, back at Rough Common, thinking of him, waiting for him, reaching down, as I imagine him doing, to feel the quick undertow of possibility.

  The cars bearing the family nudged their stately way out across the abashed, resentful traffic for the drive northwards to the crematorium. The rest of us gathered loosely on the gravel, I ran over to Edie and we clutched each other in a brief agony of sobbing and stifled shouts. The de Souzays were to give a reception later and she said to come with them now. I clambered into the back of their long senatorial Daimler and into the hushed, complex atmosphere of this other family. We crept forward giving sympathetic smirks to the people who hardly heard the car. Gerald lowered the window and called out, ‘Come to us at one, you know where it is’, though the Sindon boys looked a bit at a loss. The lad with the motor-bike seemed to have made friends. Others straggled along the road into the centre of town, advised of the fire and mulled wine at the George IV. Out ahead of them was a brisk stooped figure in a dark grey coat and trilby, flicking his walking-stick forward at each stride.

  ‘Can we fit him in?’ murmured Anne, and her husband slowed as she lowered her window in turn. ‘Can’t we give you a lift, Perry?’ she called out. But he kept on walking, merely raising his hat and hooting back, ‘I’m fine, thank you!’

  ‘See you later, then.’

  ‘He’s nearly ninety, you know,’ she said as we moved on. ‘How very sweet of him to have turned out.’

  I glanced back at him, wondering if he’d remembered our meeting as he heard me read, now that I was fatter and older and never wrote poems. He still looked about him in the same way, as if anticipating greetings, still had that air of redundant youthfulness. There was something moving and irrelevant in his having come, as though Georgian England must be represented at these end-of-century exequies.

  Later, much later. Five and twenty to midnight the greeny-white figures dimly showed. The day doused in drink and almost out. I rambled home from someone’s house, alone but charged up by intense communings with virtual strangers, the compulsive unity that follows a funeral and its unambiguous end. The night was damp and still, the street-lamps hazed among the nearly bare trees, a moment I recognised when no one was about except barmen from pubs walking their Alsatians, taxis bringing passengers from the last train and leaving their perfume of burnt fuel.

  I turned into Fore Street and saw an unusual phenomenon: across the far end a great roll of pearly fog that gave the lamps at the common’s edge the air of a promenade at a melancholy lakeside resort. Fog had become so rare in my adult years that I looked on it as something miraculous, lucent but opaque, unaccountable in where it lay. I walked towards it slowly, down the middle of the road, and when I got to the low fence, stepped over and into its drizzly embrace.

  To my slight surprise, it was almost dark inside the fog, but I soon hit the path, and the land was so familiar … I turned up my coat collar and found it misted with little drops. I was exhausted but hated the idea of going back to my room with my thoughts. The path steepened, and then suddenly the fog ended. I came up out of it into a different night of glittering air and a strong enough moon to throw long shadows in front of trees and bushes. I loped on up to the top with a shiver of exhilaration.

  The fog circled the hill, and lay thick away to the east – the Flats were submerged, beyond them only the leafless crowns of the tallest trees showed vaguely in its surface. To the south other hills rose out of the pale floe like inaccessible friends, who none the less shared the sense of occasion, the hour or two of local sublimity. I pictured the silent foreign streets I was going back to, under the same moonlight. It came to me that it must be tomorrow – no, later today – that Helene was to be married. Surely she couldn’t sleep. I wandered along the ridge almost expecting to be able to see the city’s towers.

  When I got to the bench I found I wasn’t alone. It gave me a moment’s gooseflesh, as if the person sitting there had abruptly materialised. I wondered if I’d been talking to myself aloud. He turned his head a fraction, but not so as to look right at me, and the moon glinted on round glasses. He was a black kid – by the generous extension I gave to that term year by year – perhaps in his early twenties; he was perched on the bench’s back with his feet on the seat; I made out a woolly hat rolled down and a puffy waistcoat over other dark clothes. We stayed as we were for a while, sharing the unusual view and its mood of stillness and oblivion.

  ‘Amazing night, isn’t it?’ I said lightly, just for form.

  ‘Yeah,’ he said; and hopped down from the bench as though about to clear off, because I’d spoilt it for him. ‘Nippy.’

  Was it? I’d drunk too much to notice – but, yes, our breath made smoke. He’d probably been up here for ages, too; thinking something through. It took me a while to realise he was holding out a hand towards me.

  ‘Feel that,
he said indignantly.

  I clutched it, it was cold and felt chapped; held it for a queer moment longer, only now seeing the point, and he squeezed my fingers back. He let out a sigh and pulled himself towards me in a kind of dance-step, and then we were hugging – he smelt nice, some ordinary girl’s fragrance. We kissed sulkily, with a minor clash of spectacles.

  I decided I was into this, and fumbled around his waist; his intake of breath as my own wintry hands touched his skin. The bubbled waistcoat made him look bigger than he was, but he had a round, hairyish backside and when I groped through the tangle of undone shirt-front and lolling belt-buckle I felt the start of something beautiful in his rough crotch-hair and had to tug it out, thickening and obstructing itself, from its prison down a tight jean-leg. I could barely make it out in the night between us, while he pressed against me, rubbing at my fly, kissing me with surprising fervour all over my face, his tongue slipping over my glasses and smearing the lenses. He was all stoked up, in a way I couldn’t quite match but marvelled at, and at the chance that brought me here on this November night, which was otherwise a cold prospect for both of us.

  3

  A Merry Goose Hunt

  15

  Cherif had grown a moustache. It was thick, not quite as broad as his mouth, and gave him a pugnacious expression; the appealing curl of his upper lip was disguised. I hesitated before taking a seat by him at the bar. ‘You probably don’t recognise me,’ he said.

  I rested a hand for a second on his cool leather shoulder. ‘I recognise all the rest of you.’

  ‘That’s good.’ In fact there was shyness behind the bristles. ‘I thought you must be dead or something. I’ve been in here the last three nights.’

  ‘Not me, someone else: I’ve been home for a funeral.’

  He turned his glass around on its mat. ‘I thought you might be at that men’s sauna, I went there.’

  I knew about the place, I pictured it in a deeper shadowy circle of the city’s sex-life. ‘No, I never go there. Any good?’

  A shrug. ‘One or two guys … I didn’t really do anything.’

  I noticed I was pleased he hadn’t. ‘I don’t have the figure for sauna sprawling any more.’

  He kept frowning at his drink and said, ‘You look really thin’ – with a hint of criticism, an implied allusion to the wasting of unappeased love? I ordered a beer for myself, and added one on for him.

  ‘So where have you been?’ I said.

  He leaned towards me and pushed his hand through my hair and stayed stroking the smooth little knoll behind my ear with a gentle thumb. I thought he’d probably had a few – it was the mid-evening lull already. I’d come in straight from the airport, a bit queasy from turbulence and a string of miniature malts and the mad cabaret of the Kentair stewards.

  ‘Nowhere,’ he said. And I thought maybe that was enough curiosity shown.

  He called something to the barman, who was slow to respond, and gave the impression Cherif was not his favourite customer as he handed over a newspaper that had been stowed behind the till. It was the Flemish Post, a few days old, folded, slightly browned already, with the brittle texture of newsprint that has got damp and been dried out. Cherif set it in front of me, pointed to a short article, and then watched me as I read it. I knew his grasp of the language was poor and he seemed to take the piece in again by following my reactions to it.

  ‘Hm,’ I said, pushing the paper back towards him.

  ‘We had the police in here talking to everybody.’

  ‘Oh.’ I looked towards the article again. It said how the body of a young man had been found in the sea-canal; Pieter who-was-it …

  ‘It’s Rose,’ said Cherif, ‘the one you called Rose.’ A moment of uncomfortable recall – his big twitching fist with the girl’s name pricked in blue across the knuckles, his pin-point pupils and nervy patter and crude attempt to hustle that older man. The barman came past and took the paper away again.

  ‘I threw him out,’ he said. ‘Dangerous sort. Drugs. A week or two back. Not queer of course,’ he explained. ‘Either a waste of time or it means trouble.’ He turned with a single firm shake of the head.

  ‘So what have they found out?’ I asked Cherif.

  ‘I don’t know.’ Well of course he wouldn’t, but I’d hoped for a little more. ‘He was mad, perhaps.’

  ‘He talked a lot of sense to me.’ But Cherif was melancholy about it. ‘You didn’t know him, did you?’

  ‘I met him in here, that’s all. You sound like a policeman.’

  ‘Sorry, darling.’ I drank, and looked down the half-empty room. It was a doldrums hour, the juke-box silent, the TV hectic but noiseless, one or two bores in uncontested command. I stroked the back of his hand.

  ‘No, it is a horrible thing, someone just being taken out, so to speak.’ I had my own grief and was alternately resentful and full of sympathetic intuitions.

  ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said.

  But he came back to it later, as we lay in the dark: the jingling of bed-springs was over, I was just asleep, looking for my bunk in the workers’ hostel Cherif was staying in, such a confusion of doors and unlit stairways … Something about ‘Rose’, out in the cold canal, I think he only called up the image and let it palely float, nothing more to say about it – a kind of dread, though, underneath.

  Then I lay awake in my turn, as his breathing slowed, his mouth squashed open against me, the tiny stirring of his moustache hairs on my shoulder. It seemed to have been dumbly agreed that we were back together again. I even believed it myself when we got to my room and we were at each other, just like the first day we met. He said he hadn’t come for a fortnight, he’d never gone so long, his cock stood up like a soldier, he wanted me to wank him off so he could admire the sight of such plumes of sperm. ‘I was saving it for you,’ he said, and my heart sank, though I pretended to be flattered. Then afterwards each of us took the other and I was utterly enclosed in his unguarded fucker’s tenderness – I mean lover’s tenderness, I knew he loved me in each strong inward push, his face bobbed down to mine in a cross-eyed blur of passion; he couldn’t sense the little clench of denial amid my own shudders and grunts.

  It was cold by the morning, at least outside the gathered fug of the duvet. I jumped straight into jeans, two vests and my thickest sweater, and he was shivering as he wiped a hole in the window and peered across the misty garden to the dark mass of the school. I felt rather guilty and hugged him from behind and looked out over his shoulder; but there were no ancient rites today, just steam blowing from the kitchen vents and a dull glow of stained glass. It fed a fantasy of power, being fully clothed and holding a naked man in my arms.

  ‘What are your plans?’ he said mock-formally when he was dressing. It was a notion of his that I always had plans, and that making them constituted one of my main satisfactions; and I was starting to realise that any plans I announced to him were a defence against his own vagueness and that he knew this, and knew that my days in reality were as plotless and inevitable as his own.

  ‘My first plan,’ I said, ‘is to take you out for some breakfast. You worked hard last night, young man, you deserve it.’

  ‘And your second plan?’ he said, hopping towards me as he tugged on stiffish old socks, contriving to stumble and pull us both back on to the bed.

  ‘My second plan is to pack you on to a tram, bus or other public conveyance and get you off to your place of work.’

  He was putting a line of kisses up the side of my neck, pushing me gently backwards, till he lay half-covering me. ‘And your third plan, Mr Manners?’ There was a hint of aggression in this game, which seemed like a distant parody of ‘witty’ sex-talk in an old film-comedy.

  ‘Well, after that I’ve got to, er, I’ve got to do some teaching.’

  He lay very still, and I could feel his heart beating indignantly.

  ‘Are you teaching Luc?’

  I pushed myself free of him and sat up. ‘For god’s sake don’t go on ab
out that,’ I said. ‘That’s all over long ago. I can’t think what I ever saw in the little shit.’ I walked out into the main room, improvising as I went; I didn’t want to watch his reactions. ‘He’s so … so arrogant, and lazy, he’s impossible to teach. He’s got a girlfriend. I mean … He’s not attractive, his mouth is horrible, as everyone says, it’s virtually deformed …’ My flesh was prickling and I had tears in my eyes from the confusion of play-acting and heresy. I kept myself hunched away when Cherif padded after me and hugged me from behind in his turn.

  When I swung into Long Street I nearly tripped on a busy little terrier that yapped in alarm and scampered aside. I looked up and there was the bearded figure of Old Gus. He came on with his glaring swagger, his stick slicing as if at grass-stalks. I stepped aside myself, and as I was just by him he halted and said amiably, ‘Could you spare me a few francs?’

  I pretended for a moment not to have heard, but then in an old muddle of principle and superstition dug my hand into my pocket and brought out all my change, quite a bit, a couple of quid, started to pick among it and then just gave it all to him. I felt an immediate certainty of worth, of providence’s palm being greased and of a prompt reward, an hour of new sweetness with Luc.

 
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