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The folding star histori.., p.30
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       The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.30

           Alan Hollinghurst
 

  Old Gus pocketed the money, and stared at me with his withering eye. ‘Bastard!’ he barked, with hatred and ferocity, smacked his stick against the pavement, turned on his heel and stamped off.

  I stood there grinning out of sheer alarm and an odd sense of shame, and then went slowly on towards the house. I peered about defiantly, but I felt my surroundings had instinctively sided with Old Gus. The austere façades were clouded for me by this brief injustice; their vigilant high windows looked on an offender, someone who brought no credit to them. I answered them back, but for a moment I hated the street and the long perspective of failure to which it had condemned me. I stopped to collect myself and spurred myself on with the beautiful new idea of an outing. I would borrow Matt’s jeep for a day, pick up Luc quite early, showered, talced, full of curiosity and a sense of privilege, and drive out to some historic town for lunch, a walk, both of us admitting boredom in the brown old museum, conversation freed of the inhibitions of the Altidores’ dining-room and their starchy ancestors. To be out in the storm-crossed countryside together, both rising to the occasion with new charm and candour! And then – best leave it there. I sprang up the steps and pressed the bell with a zing that felt slightly manic.

  His mother opened the door, clasping a knitted orange shawl round her throat and almost over her mouth. ‘Quick, quick,’ she said. ‘We’ve all got colds.’

  ‘What, all two of you?’

  ‘I got it from going out in the rain, and now he seems to have got it from me.’

  You stupid old nit, I thought, just don’t go out in the rain. I thought of him almost like Dawn in his latter days, he must be kept from the least infection. ‘I’m so sorry.’

  ‘You may prefer to cancel your lesson.’

  ‘No, no,’ I said with a hasty cough, a covert self-inspection as to whether I didn’t myself have a slight sniffle.

  She shooed me into the dining-room, still with the shawl swept across her face. She was very pathetic in it, like an elderly actress playing a veiled houri. Then she flitted off, leaving me with my darling’s forebears. There were those I saw each time, who hung facing me and behind Luc, and whose features I tried absently to map on to his in a kind of genetic photofit; and the others, behind where I sat, whom I looked at for a moment now. There was the interesting Guillaume, with a thin grey book in his hands, but a dull picture. Why didn’t he get our mutual friend Orst to paint him rather than this conventional journeyman, whose muddy signature was already obscured by candle-smoke? And balancing him, his wife Anona, the Princess Cirieno, no less, a fine-featured woman with sexy eyes but equally subdued to the sobriety of her new family. And after them, nobody; it was as though they had hidden their faces.

  ‘Are you going to be painted?’ I asked as I heard Luc come in.

  ‘Not like that,’ he said. ‘And not like this.’ I turned and saw what he meant.

  ‘Oh,’ I mildly protested. And really his invalidish look touched me in a new way. He was pale, sore-eyed, bothered by his cold but perhaps finding something luxurious in his achy passivity, in the enormous woolly, chequered neckscarf and baggy old corduroys he was slumming in; he was more glamorous for looking shitty, like Garbo playing a tramp. His hair was dark and greasy and stood in thick furrows when he ran his hand through it.

  ‘Don’t come near me,’ he said humourlessly as he pulled out a chair at the far end of the table from where I had left my music-case.

  ‘All right,’ I agreed with a pained laugh.

  ‘So what does your L stand for?’ he said, with a nod at the gilt-stamped initials on the black leather.

  ‘It’s not my L,’ I said. ‘It was my father’s bag for his music, I think I told you he was a singer. I’ve just brought it back with me from England.’ My mother had suggested, with some emotion, that I might like to use it. ‘Edward Lewis Manners. ELM, a kind of tree we don’t have any more in England, thanks to some beetles from Holland.’

  ‘So you don’t have a middle name?’

  ‘Yes, I do actually.’

  There was a pause. ‘Is it a secret?’

  ‘Yes. No, don’t be silly. It’s, it’s Tarquin, in fact. I always think it sounds like a horse,’ I added hysterically.

  ‘I’m quite pleased I don’t have a middle name,’ said Luc.

  Mrs Altidore tumbled in with my coffee and a lemony drink for her son. He hunched over it sniffing, cross and negative.

  ‘LA stands for Los Angeles,’ he said.

  ‘It also stands for Library Association.’ I knew everything it stood for, not all of it repeatable to LA himself.

  ‘I’d like to go to Los Angeles.’

  ‘I don’t think you’d like it when you got there,’ I warned him, ‘it’s extremely violent and the air’s poisonous.’

  ‘It’s also a long way away.’

  ‘I’m not sure that’s necessarily in its favour.’

  ‘Oh, I think it is,’ he said, nodding and staring past me out of the window. I undid my case in the chilly silence that followed. He’d exposed me to his anger before, and it scared me, mortified me, even though I knew I was not its object, merely the listener who was there when it chanced to be expressed. There was something mad and unsocialised in it. ‘Let’s not talk about the William Wordsworth today,’ he said, as I opened the book.

  ‘Okay.’

  ‘I’m not ready to talk about it yet.’ So he hadn’t looked at it, I thought. ‘I’m not quite well, you know, we can just talk.’

  ‘Okay.’ Sure, whatever you like. I started looking for an uncontentious subject, as he sniffed the vapour from his mug; but I was clueless with unhappiness.

  ‘So you have had to go back to England?’

  ‘I’m afraid so.’

  ‘Then you prefer it here?’

  ‘I suppose I must do,’ I said, thinking how I had been sick to return, and how odd these personal questions were from him, who had never shown so much curiosity before. But he turned aside again to a bleak comment of his own.

  ‘I would prefer to be there. I am looking forward to going to the University of Dorset, if I can get permission.’

  ‘I’m sure you will do very well. I’ll be able to come and visit you and take you for drives to Maiden Castle and Cerne Abbas,’ I said, recouping something of my earlier exeat fantasy, and only then seeing the Freudian gaffe of my choice.

  ‘Cerne Abbas is the man with the giant prick?’

  ‘That’s right,’ I said briskly, through a broiling blush, ‘it’s a late Roman chalk figure, probably of Hercules …’

  ‘I’d like to see that,’ he said firmly, though the implication was that he could do so under his own steam. The sad ghost of the couple of Dorset visits I’d made when Dawn was there drifted like rain across my image of vast grassy hillsides. It was obscurely moving, like a dream sighting of a lost friend, that Luc was set on going there too. Then I remembered the windswept walkways of the campus and the lethal loose cladding and the sticky carpet of the students’ bar.

  ‘The friend whose funeral I’ve just been to was at Dorset, that’s why I know about it.’ For once I regretted the invitation to intimacy; he looked at me levelly, in a way that slightly frightened me – boys don’t want death around, spoiling everything, they haven’t felt it if they’re lucky, like Luc. Or perhaps his stare was one of capable sympathy, narrowed and hooded by his cold.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ he said flatly. ‘Why did he die? Or she …’

  ‘He. He was killed in a car-crash. It was very sad. He was very ill anyway, he had AIDS; but he probably had a few more months to live.’ A snatch of the funeral’s heightened sorrow made me turn my head aside.

  When I glanced up again Luc seemed shaken himself. He had the hunch of new responsibility that team-mates have when the ambulance trundles from the pitch and they jog back to their positions, one man down, amid instinctive brief applause. Something had touched him. He started talking about car-accidents. He said you never had accidents if you thought you might have one, be
cause it was the essence of the accident to be a surprise. I said you could drive down the wrong side of a motorway and be pretty sure of causing an accident, but he maintained that it wouldn’t be an accident for you, because you did it on purpose – though of course it would be for the totally unsuspecting persons that you drove straight into. He seemed to feel fairly confident that this sophistical state of readiness would protect him on the roads, and I couldn’t quite get him to see through it. And in a way I agreed – rather as one imagines terrible losses, as I sometimes, with prickling scalp and hot tears, imagined his death or disappearance, as a charm against its happening. I said, ‘I hope you’re right’, and even so was filled with a superstitious fear of one or other of us being squashed by a lorry the next time we ventured out.

  One of us will go first, I thought later, as I sat in the Cassette waiting for Cherif to turn up, drinking keenly to heal over the morning and the gape of the quickly darkening afternoon. A year from now I won’t be here and nor will he. I was by the window for a change, looking out through its brown wrinkled glass at the wonky street – it was hard to tell who figures were as they loomed and flowed under the stained street-lamps. A raw air from the sea filled the squares and alleys this evening, as it did the phantasmal nightscape of the coast and Channel and boats wrecked on the Dorset rock-stacks that was all I could see of the future. Well, let him go. I’d backed out of the house after twenty minutes, with minimal politeness, pleading his ill health as if it were mine. I didn’t even go to the bathroom.

  Cherif came in about five and I was lifted by his reckless grin and ignorant confidence. We kissed and his jerkin was cold and slippery. When he came back from the loo I watched him approaching down the length of the bar – his cock looked lovely and lively the way he had it, middle and leg inclined to leg, I thought, transporting him for a second to the alien field of cricket. He sat down as it nudged into a major hard-on – a fact not wasted on the bar’s arch-bore Harold, whose window franchise we had strayed into. He leant between us in a jet of pipe-smoke and said, ‘You’re very lucky to have this young man, you know’ – a remark which seemed both insulting and in some ways unquestionably true.

  ‘Did your lesson go well?’ asked Cherif, almost with a note of mature concern for his trampled rival.

  ‘He was ill,’ I said, ‘terrible cold, we didn’t have the lesson.’

  ‘Oh. So what did you do all day?’

  Cruel question. ‘Well, I had Marcel Echevin in the afternoon. We did cloze tests. It was fun,’ I said bleakly.

  ‘What’s that?’

  ‘It’s when you miss out words from a passage and he has to provide them to show he’s understood it.’

  Cherif looked alarmed by this. He ran his hand up my thigh, and gave me a fluttered kiss as if to blink away all this stuff he didn’t know or care about anyway. I went on, ‘I might say, “Cherif Bakhtar comes from Paris – he is a _____.” And he will say …’

  ‘“He is a very sexy man”.’

  ‘No. “A Parisian” is what he will say. It has to follow from what I said; actually that does kind of follow, I agree.’

  ‘And I will say, “Mr Manners comes from England”, and he will say “He is a very, very sexy man”.’

  I suppose there was a sort of wretched charm in this squashed joke. ‘I don’t think he would say that, you know. He’s in love with a beautiful girl called Sibylle. Unfortunately for him Sibylle is the girlfriend of Luc.’ I ran the name in quietly as a test for both of us – he gave a sweet cooing laugh he had, whilst I heard a drumming protest from my heart at the syllable, and the pain of his coldness, and the force of this supposition about the girl. Otherwise – I went on to myself, while Cherif had started talking again – why did he pretend she was not at St Ernest all those futile weeks ago? Hadn’t he told me, even earlier still, that she was his closest friend, and set my prospects sickeningly askew? Why did nothing lead anywhere but to the stale air of this bar and the blond shallows of the glass?

  ‘… and it was really cold,’ Cherif was saying, ‘and it started to rain, and I didn’t have anything.’

  He slumped into an indefinably fictional posture – I’d seen it before, where he acted out his own neediness, made a quite possibly unconscious bid for sympathy.

  ‘You ought to have a proper coat,’ I said – like my firmly benevolent mother again. ‘That skimpy little jacket’s useless.’ I was kind of fond of it, a street-market bargain of years back, fashionable only in a time-locked Third World way, the gingery surface coming off in patches, like cracked veneer.

  He shrugged. ‘Okay, but I haven’t got the money.’

  ‘Don’t be ridiculous. You must earn good money, doing all that heavy work, whatever it is.’

  ‘You don’t understand,’ he said. ‘I have my mother and four sisters in St-Denis and I send it all to them.’ He made a new gesture he had at his disposal, parting his moustache with thumb and forefinger and sweeping his palm across his mouth in a way suggestive of secrecy or an only partial truth. It may sound odd but I liked the hint of pretence, it was a relief from his coltish open-heartedness, even if I was the one to be exploited.

  ‘All right, I’ll get you a coat,’ I said, knocking back the rest of my drink and handing him the empty glass.

  Alejo’s shop was still open, though you wouldn’t have known it from the shady discretion of the front, which gave it the air of a sex-shop or a turf-accountant. Cherif followed me hesitantly into the spotlit hallway, puzzled as I had been by the chic absence of stock. One could have, it seemed, a hanky, or a rubberised vest, or a single green shoe. Alejo himself was loitering at the counter, languidly folding a shirt. He looked captivating in racing silks and olive velvet breeches.

  ‘Hola, Alejo!’ I called out gittishly, but it was enough to make him look and remember me.

  ‘Hello,’ he said, trotting forwards and kissing me Spanish-style on both cheeks.

  ‘This is my friend Cherif, he’s feeling the cold, he wants an overcoat.’ They shook hands, and Alejo walked round him a couple of times appreciatively before leading him through the mirror that was a swing-door into the busy grotto of the shop. I followed on, warmed by my new role as patron, but also reaching down for a certain prudence, like a parent at a school outfitters. Through the speakers came Doris Day singing ‘Buttons and Bows’.

  ‘Rudi, can you go on the till,’ he said to a little blond in braces; ‘I’ll look after this one.’ Rudi whispered something and glanced across the room as he went out. ‘Trouble in number three,’ Alejo explained cryptically, and ran straight on with ‘Your friend is fabulous.’

  ‘Do you like him?’ I said, looking at Cherif as he walked along and shyly felt the sleeves of a rack of coats; maybe we could come to an arrangement.

  ‘Where did you find him? Are there any more?’

  ‘There must be some fairly similar. In the Town Museum, actually, looking at a picture of Heaven and Hell.’

  ‘Well, I know which one you got!’ I stroked my chin consideringly. ‘After the coat I’m going to interest him in some other things.’ And he sprang off to guide him, a hand confidentially round his upper arm, almost resting his cheek on his shoulder.

  I wandered about for a minute, idly flicking through the clothes on the rails. There were a lot of idiosyncratic items of a kind you’d never wear but that a colour-blind trendster might carry off at a party or club; there was plenty of leather, with weirder cuts and zips than my own dear old jacket; and there was a strong vein of Englishry, Tattersall checks and thunder-and-lightning tweeds. I tried one of the jackets on but it made me feel like Jimmy Edwards. A third assistant, who was very nervous but had learnt the basic cant of salesmanship and stuck to it through thick and thin, kept telling me it really suited me.

  I put it back on the rail and in the mirror beside me was my rival. I looked down quickly and then slyly peeped and saw that his smile extended beyond his own admiration of the black denim jacket he was trying and called ironically for my
opinion of it too. ‘Hello there,’ he said. ‘We keep on meeting.’

  I turned and gave him a black stare that I couldn’t keep from weakening into residual good manners. ‘Yes, don’t we just.’

  ‘You remember I ran into you twice. You’re English, aren’t you? You’re usually with that tall, fair Belgian boy. Amazing-looking kid.’ I felt sick of being complimented on the beauty of my companions. ‘I can’t remember what his name is.’ He turned sideways to check the cut of the jacket and show me his compact backside – perfectly acceptable in itself but irrevocably horrible by dint of being his.

  ‘Hans,’ I said. He raised his chin and frowned in the mirror as if to say he didn’t for a moment believe me.

  ‘We really ought to have a drink some time,’ he said, with the same menacing naturalness. ‘You know, two Brits abroad, mutual interests …’

  ‘I’m afraid I don’t drink,’ I said, probably with a trace of beer on my breath. Probably he’d seen me in the bar when I was far gone.

  ‘Amazing shop this, isn’t it? It’s like a fairy grotto.’ He looked at me archly. ‘What do you do, actually?’

  ‘I’m a writer.’ I turned to see how my friends were getting on.

  ‘I don’t do much at the moment,’ he said. ‘Well, I work out.’ He smiled and peeled off the jacket. I thought for a disgusting moment he was going to start working out right there. He pulled a bill-fold from his shirt-pocket and handed me a card. ‘If you change your mind,’ he explained confidently. I shook my head but he held it out till I took it, with invisible fumigation tongs, and walked off down the shop with it. To my confusion it didn’t say ‘I am a noxious berk’ but ‘Rodney Young – Researcher’.

  Cherif had picked a rather New Look full-skirted brown coat with wide shoulders and a tie-belt. It was going to cost me a lot but I was determined to go through with it, without quite understanding why. I supposed it was a substitute for the love I couldn’t return, or what’s called throwing money at a problem and is always held not to work. He turned up the collar and stepped back to the mirror, to catch the surprise of his metamorphosis. And it was a different Cherif, bourgeois, self-conscious. It seemed to imply that further changes would have to be made: those old jeans, those dusty boots, that cap. Alejo’s ideas were even more radical.

 
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