The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.3Alan Hollinghurst
Young Echevin came to see me after lunch: he was late, couldn’t find the place, had disturbed the doctor’s difficult old housekeeper (who asked rather pointedly that it shouldn’t happen again), and sat pink and wheezing through the scheduled hour of our conversation. He was a severe asthmatic, as I knew from his father’s letter, and had been absent from school for much of the previous year, gazing out from a dustless sanatorium near Brussels. I felt a twinge of pity for him, and remembered schoolfellows obscurely stigmatised by diabetes or inhibiting allergies. The same involuntary unlovely quality hung about Marcel; plus he was fat and anxious and maladroit. His asthma provided the main topic of discussion, and gave me glimpses of the boy’s tame, glass-cabined world; it had limited his experience cruelly. Several staples of these lessons – sport, nature, what we had done in the pollinous summer holidays – were almost inaccessible to him; his own August had been spent playing video games (and for a minute his vocabulary took on an impenetrable self-confidence). A new drug had been his salvation – that and television, which had given him a certain scrambled knowledge of current affairs that he was too incurious and shortwinded to make sense of. Our primary rule – that we spoke only in English – was frequently broken; ‘I do not know, I do not understand’ was his timid refrain. And I was recollecting my tutorial manner, out of the vacant social politeness that our chit-chat parodied, and a sudden pedantry or loss of patience which alarmed him and brought him close to tears. Of course his other tutors, for maths and history and so on, all talked to him in friendly Flemish, they were local people who shared his world of reference. It took me a moment to see how alien I was – I felt myself being dreaded, in what I hoped was an unusual way, and not being sure whether to live up to it or try to soften it down.
Marcel wore bright-coloured kids’ leisure-wear, as though he was usually out on a bike or a skateboard, and had a huge wristwatch with various rotating bezels and inset dials that might have been of use to a sports coach, deep-sea diver or trader on the international markets. He looked at it with disarming frequency, so that I began to ask him each time how long was left. I was as keen as he was for the hour to be up.
The shock came towards the end, when I asked him how long he’d suffered from asthma, and if he knew why he had it, a two-part question which I felt was unwise with a beginner, it might fluster him and only one half would get answered. He looked away and I saw a change in the colour of his unhappiness. ‘Yes, I can tell why,’ he said. ‘And when.’
I didn’t quite make the story out at first, I was chivvying him and making him repeat words without knowing I was taking him back, like some kinder and wiser analyst, to the scene of a childhood tragedy. It turned out he had been shopping in the town with his mother: he was only six, it was ten years ago, in the summer. They had gone into a florist’s and were waiting to be served, when he saw a bee hovering around his mother’s shopping-basket. He knew she mustn’t be stung by a bee, but she was talking to a friend and she told him not to interrupt. He tried to flap it away, but only frightened it, and as his mother turned to him it flew up and stung her in the face. She groped for the antidote in her handbag, but she’d brought the wrong bag. She fell to the floor in front of Marcel, and within a minute she was dead.
His asthma had started a few months later, and was triggered especially by flowers. There was a sort of pride in his possession of these facts. He said that his father loved flowers, but had never had them in the house since. I asked, with what was clearly a suspicious sweetness, what it was his father did; and learned that he was the keeper of the little museum of Orst’s paintings, out on an edge of town I hadn’t visited, but where five or six old windmills had been renovated on top of a high dike. Marcel said firmly that he did not like Orst’s work.
I drank quite a bit in my room, tippling through my litre of duty-free Cap and Badge, and went out about eleven to the Bar Biff, a club in the basement of a house right next to the Cathedral. The unwary or short-sighted pilgrim might easily have mistaken it for the entrance to the Crypt (10th Century) and the shrine of St Ernest. The street outside was almost deserted, with an occasional late walker or pair of denim-jacketed boys pausing to peer through the locked grilles of electrical shops. Warm, too, with a scent from the trees that seemed to insist again on a last frail summery possibility. I felt quite good in my leather jacket, charcoal 501s and tipped, tight-laced black Oxfords; nervous, but adrift and irresponsible.
I’d seen the club extolled in a local listings magazine, and hovered with dismayed recognition over its central ‘portfolio’ of skinny lads in shorts and swimwear and reports on fabulous nights at discos: the flashlit shots of the two or three cutest boys there and the overweight barman with his arm round a peroxided stripling were indistinguishable from those in the British gay press recalling the great time had at Kid or Zoom! or Croydon’s ritzy Blue Fedora a desolate few weeks ago. Once inside the heavy sound-proofed door with its little wired judas I was in a place so familiar that I would not have been surprised to see my old friends Danny and Simon reaching through to lift drinks over the shoulders of those obstinately seated at the bar, or stalking and jumping around the tiny dance-floor. There was the same mad delusion of glamour, the same overpriced tawdriness, the same ditsy parochialism and sullen lardy queenery, and underneath it all the same urgency and defiance. We none of us wanted a palace: we liked this humming little hell-hole with its atrophied rules and characters, its ogres and mascots.
Not that I could identify too completely. I was a newcomer, an unknown, a holidaymaker perhaps or shy débutant. A few heads turned, I thought, a few remarks were made. But as I got my bottle of expensively fashionable beer and wandered round I knew I hadn’t gone down a bomb: something hard and proud in me wanted to shine, something homey and self-effacing was relieved I didn’t. And of course your regulars don’t all look for novelty: maybe they’d like to score with some strange angelic beauty but they know that heavy truck-driver with brown teeth and a famous dick will give them what they’ve been waiting for all week. The older men in the corner look with envy at the youngsters, but with a kind of disillusion too.
I leant against a mirrored pillar and kept my eye on a bunch of kids who hung around mocking and caressing each other, sipping quickly and shiftily at Cokes and beers and bopping about with a knowing coy beauty on the edge of the floor. They seemed more in their element than anyone in the dismal thin Euro-pop interspersed with tired, tired disco classics which to them perhaps still had point and exhilaration. Is it legal? I found myself wondering as I watched a muscly little lad in a string vest and baggy hitched-up jeans licking blond froth from the black down on his upper lip and holding forth hoarsely like a schoolyard gangster. He couldn’t be more than sixteen, surely? But that was okay here, unlike at home; it was the classical, commonplace good sense of Europe. I thought I’d never wanted anyone so much. I upset myself by being obvious about him, so that his mates noticed me staring at him and he turned and made a gesture with his tongue behind his upper teeth. I couldn’t quite tell if it was mocking or provocative, it might have been the sort of insult mentioned bafflingly in Shakespeare. I was absorbed in my own excitement and unaware of the routine spectacle it presented to others: I followed him when he went to the lavatory, but he peed in the lock-up stall and I heard him hawking expressively as he did so. I hung back and looked in the mirror at Edward Manners, the pudging, bespectacled English teacher twice his age.
Back in the bar and with another beer I had a man of flawless, dead good looks shift up to me and start talking with the banal sing-song that in the outside world would indicate a long and comfortable acquaintance and here was used as a short cut to a short one. There was something fascinating about his blond blandness, skin stretched over wide high cheekbones, long hair starting forward and then swept back in a layered and possibly lacquered wave. It was hard to guess how old he was: his skin was perfect, but when he smiled it crinkled into a hundred lines around his grey eyes. Otherwise he was oddly
A man who is always smiling prompts a kind of mistrust. I wished Ty (as he absurdly claimed to be called) would allow himself more of the expressionlessness to which his features were suited, of which they were in fact the ideal expression. But he was orthodontically perfect as well, and perhaps he had calculated that that mattered more. Just how fastidious can you get? I asked myself and we danced together for a bit, though I broke off for a drink when a slow number was gloatingly announced by the DJ. I asked him what Ty was short for, and he looked at me as if I was being very silly, and said, ‘Just Ty!’
We hung about together: though Ty was game for running through our earlier conversation a second time, and I pretended I couldn’t hear him through the noise of the music. He was obsessed by his career and seemed to feel destined for success in London, and that I would somehow be able to bring this about. It was all arranged that I was going to look at his portfolio and let him know what I thought. We seemed to roam back and forth over a boundary between the functional nonsense of pick-up talk and some other elaborate fantasy of his own in which he was obliviously involved, and which turned around extended fashion shoots in tropical countries, rewarded by enormous fees. I took notice, though, when he started talking about the boys in the shadowy table-booth across the floor. I had deliberately kept my back to them but turned with false casualness, ashamed to feel ashamed: I knew it would be the kid I’d fallen for that Ty was pointing out. And there he was, curled up with a skinnier, long-haired friend and eating his face in the laborious public way that adolescents have … leaving me eaten up too with envy and irritation. I swung back and muttered to Ty (I saw him uncertain if I was angry or joking); then kissed him, briefly, and got some consolation from that: he smiled, as if to say that his charm had now been acknowledged and succumbed to. We got another drink, and I was feeling quite drunk and had reached the stage of deciding to go with this guy, the all-too-common pragmatic decision. I was trying to see all that was best in him: the teeth, the skin, probably a good body worked on in gym and sunbed, which was more than I could offer, as was what he showed in his pants, and yet I felt entirely superior to him, with a kind of superiority I was too superior even to have given him a glimpse of. Then Cherif was standing in front of us grinning and leaned close to embrace us both at the same time. His breath smelt of dope.
I was cold to him and resisted his assumption that I would be pleased to see him. He ruffled my hair, and said with mock solemnity to Ty, ‘Bonsoir, M’sieur Mouchoir,’ and Ty laughingly but blushingly told him to piss off. ‘So you’ve met up with my friend M’sieur Mouchoir,’ he said to me; I supposed it was a tedious old joke to do with fashion and modelling – I merely shrugged. Cherif was nodding and chuckling and very slow. ‘How are you, my friend Edward?’ he asked.
I gave an unimpressed smile and said, ‘I missed you the other night at Wanne’s bar.’
‘Oh, I can’t go there,’ he said, as if objecting to a suggestion I had made myself.
‘It wasn’t a very good idea to ask me to meet you there, then, was it?’
Cherif was absolutely opaque, and I wondered for a moment if he was struggling to repair some real lapse of memory; but his crude survivor’s evasion proved he was not. ‘Why are men with glasses so sexy?’ he said. He looked to the handsome, I thought lens-wearing, Ty: ‘What do you think, Mouchoir?’ Ty merely shrugged in his turn.
‘I don’t like being made a fool of,’ I said, but I was already warming to Cherif’s hand moving gently on the small of my back and could see and feel the pleasure of going home with him just as certainly as I could envisage the meaningless and un-arousing performance I might have gone through with Ty.
There was a period of semi-tactful adjustment, in which Ty’s smile did overtime to mask the indignity of having me literally snatched from his arms by someone he knew already and who mocked him in such a childish way. But I wasn’t at all sure why he had singled me out in the first place, or what feelings were hidden by his rather beautiful exterior. You’d think he would easily be able to score with some other person here – but it was true that none had approached him or greeted him in passing. He seemed to me suddenly isolated in his groomed preoccupation and from the moment Cherif arrived I was aware of his seeking out another partner – his own reflection in the nightclub’s smoky mirrors. It was, I sensed, a relationship deeper than the one he might have with me or any other dancer in the Bar Biff.
Cherif thumped me awake next morning and excitedly told me to look out of the window. I was too slow, and missed the funny thing he wanted me to see. But a minute or two later as I was groping round and squirting a clown’s beard of shaving-foam on to my jaw he called me back to where he was standing in just his vest at the half-open shutter. He had his friendly crooked hard-on.
Over to the right from one of the high barred windows of that institutional building which had so far remained silent and dark, three boys were peeing into the canal. They stood up on the windowsill, pressed against the bars, and directed their dying arcs up and out – presumably in a contest to see who could reach the furthest. I watched them finish and stand down whilst the shaving-foam thinned in an almost noiseless crepitation over my stubble. In a moment or two another trio took up their positions, we heard a command quite strictly barked inside, and the one on the left was away already. It must almost have been a false start. The other two followed a few seconds later, first in hesitant spurts and tinkles, but growing in confidence until for a while all three were at full cock, like a guard of honour. I don’t think any of them reached our side of the canal, but number one made the finest impression and had the greatest capacity: he was still going strong as the other two’s offerings dwindled and trailed home across the water and a breeze caught them and frayed their thinning plumes.
I understood for the first time that this patched-up brick barracks of a place was the school of St Narcissus itself and that today being the rentrée the young gentlemen were reasserting some immemorial right. Cherif and I watched a couple more rounds, until the novelty began to wear off and a hand-bell was heard tolling. Then I realised that there would be this new element in my life, and that across the little lost garden below, where nothing but a blackbird ever stirred among the leaves, there would come week in week out the noises of a school: the bells, the blurred unison of lessons and chapel, the scraping back of a hundred chairs, the abrupt silences and eruptions of racket.
It was clear on the streets, too, as I walked over to the Altidores’, that things had changed: a flat-footed straggler with his shirt-tails hanging out came panting past me and stopped, wincing with the stitch; two truants tugged off their ties before slipping into a video shop; in a sudden sally from a side-street a games-kitted crocodile lurched at a run into my path, headed by a manic bald master. It was the first day and there were the children caught up already in the severe rhythms of school, and looking back, like conscripts on a ship, to the lazy shore of home. For a moment I shared the truants’ defiance and guilt and my heart raced with a long-forgotten panicky anticipation: I had to assert myself against the obscure medicinal hollowness of school. And of course my first assignation with Luc loomed and made me feel half master and half victim.
His mother got hold of me first, and took me into the dining-room. She hoped I didn’t mind coming to the house, it seemed better discipline than sending Luc across town to me – and then she knew where he was. I was already imagining the squeaking board that gave away her presence at the door. She went on with a number of blunt and incoherent instructions, which I barely took in – I was pretending I hadn’t seen him, just at the moment I entered the hall, behind his mother’s back, skidding through to the kitche
She left me in the darkly panelled room, among the family portraits. I waited a minute under their humourless gaze, one above the other, prudent, black-bosomed, as if they had all been painted in widowhood. Feeling faintly culpable and unfit for responsibility, I went to the long window and looked out on the garden, a high-walled strip that ended in a canal with swans idling past and a little angular gazebo above the water, where I pictured Luc smoking or waiting for a tryst. Mrs Altidore’s work was less evident in this room, just a kind of tasselled runner on the sideboard. Then I pulled out a chair and discovered the terrible industry of the seat.
There were footsteps, no voices, crossing the hall, and their brief hanging back to let the other enter first showed me they were both nervous too. Mother and son, side by side: I sensed the treaty between them and the unresolved cross-purposes.
‘This is Luc,’ she said. ‘Mr Manners.’
He was pushing back his hair and his hand was damp when he shook mine.
‘Hello!’ How old-fashionedly keen I was.
And he nodded, so that his hair fell forward again. Through the coming hour I would see that tumbling forelock dry from bronze to gold, and get to know the different ways he mastered it, the indolent sweep, the brainstorming grapple, the barely effectual toss, and how long the intervals were of forward slither and lustrous collapse. But for the moment, when we were left alone, I didn’t altogether look at him; my eyes fixed uncomprehendingly on the sideboard, a hideous epergne, a sugar dredger, a tantalus of brandy.
The Folding Star: Historical Fiction by Alan Hollinghurst / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes