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The folding star histori.., p.32
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       The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.32

           Alan Hollinghurst
 

  Paul didn’t look especially impressed with this. ‘I’m not sure that’s quite how it works,’ he said.

  Cherif was lying on the bed, smoking a joint and blowing the smoke over his nodding cock. The rackety little blow-heater gusted the air round and round in a stuffy indoor anticyclone.

  ‘This is all very North African, dear,’ I said; ‘but I don’t actually approve of smoking in the bedroom.’ I was banging about, clearing the place up, powered by a few dull resentments. ‘Lovely in a brothel in Tangier, I’m sure, but here …’

  ‘Don’t you want some?’ he said.

  I had started to sort a ruck of clothes into piles before a visit to the launderette, Cherif’s thick socks and nylon underpants and cheese-cloth shirts, Luc’s bits and pieces that it was a shame in a way to wash, my coloured shirts with fraying collars. I went over and took a quick crackling drag. It gave me the usual giddiness and distant aphrodisiac buzz – I’d never really seen the point. The hot air from the blower went wolfing up the back of my legs, I thought my trousers might get scorched; and he was warm too when I bent down to him and kissed him as I let out the smoke. He was a wonderful kisser and left me each morning with my lips tender and glowing, as if they’d been lip-glossed. And now there was the moustache and its softly scratchy exercises.

  He pushed his hand through my hair. ‘I love you,’ he said, quietly sing-song, a routine reminder.

  ‘Mmm.’

  ‘Don’t go out now.’

  ‘I’ve got to, I’m afraid. Actually, I think my trousers have caught fire.’

  He lifted my glasses off, as if to make it impossible for me to leave, and put them on himself, saying now he would have ‘Edward’s view of the world’. I left him wincing and recoiling at the steep-down sharpness of things, and stepped into the other room, hesitant, with an outstretched hand, not noticing what I was doing. I opened the cupboard to get my leather jacket; it hung there obscurely beside Cherif’s vulgar coat, which still gave off the expensive new smell of opera cloakrooms. My life seemed to be one of understandings based on sex and misunderstandings based on love.

  Out in the street, shouldering my bulky hold-all, unshaven, whistling that trite song that was played over and over in the Cassette, the song the man had whistled on my neck the day I arrived, ‘See Me Tonight’ – ‘seamy tonight’ I thought each time – I came round a corner and saw Paul leaving an old house across the way. Again, the fleeting impulse to go on as if I hadn’t seen him: I was too scruffy, too seamy, really. ‘I say,’ he called out.

  ‘Good morning, Paul.’

  ‘You look as if you’re eloping.’

  ‘Only as far as the washerama, I’m afraid.’

  ‘I’ve just been to see Pauwels about the frame. He’s got to get the right gilt to match. I’ve given him the photograph to go on for the design.’

  ‘Oh good.’ It was almost as if my approval were being sought.

  ‘Where is the laundry thing by the way?’

  I gestured generally towards the area of the shopping streets.

  ‘Isn’t it rather a bore?’

  ‘It’s not especially fascinating.’ Though there had been some nice working lads there last time, folding up old-fashioned winter drawers.

  ‘If you don’t mind the walk, you could do it at our house. Lilli’s always got the machine going.’

  ‘It’s sweet of you. But there’s such a lot,’ I said, stooping and shrugging under the burden. ‘It’s not all mine,’ I warned candidly.

  ‘And there’s something I want to show you too,’ he said.

  We walked on in silence for a while, adjusting to being outdoors together for the first time. I felt more observant, filled with a slightly precious regard for my surroundings, as though Paul owned the place and were graciously making it available.

  ‘I was quite wrong the other day,’ he said, clearly himself unmindful of the splendour of the main square. ‘I’m sorry. I could see you thinking something wasn’t right.’

  ‘Was I? I’m sure there’s no need to apologise.’

  ‘There is because I was being inconsistent. You asked me about the white pictures and I got snappy about sex and said that artists’ private lives didn’t matter or should be kept secret and then I started testing you with questions which are actually all to do with the artist’s private life.’

  ‘I think I thought,’ I said carefully, ‘that you felt a special respect for this artist, because of having known him.’

  ‘Well, that’s perfectly true,’ he said, ‘though not exactly the point.’ He looked at me shrewdly. ‘I’m quite a reluctant curator, you know’ – almost with the implication I had somewhere claimed the opposite. ‘I certainly never planned to end up back here, where I’d begun. As I think I told you, my original field of interest was the seventeenth century; I spent a year at the Courtauld in London, with your famous Sir Anthony Blunt! Then I came back and taught in Amsterdam, and so on and so forth, I won’t bore you.’ He was nervous these past few days, and I often found him, despite all my sympathetic politeness, my genuine delight in being with him, at least a step ahead of me, or to the side. I caught his arm to stop him as the tram came silently across our path.

  ‘I’m not at all clear how the Museum came about,’ I admitted; ‘I ought to be by now.’

  ‘Well, that is perhaps where the problem lies, the problem of my talking nonsense. The point is if you have been spending years with Van Eyck and so on, and then with Rembrandt and even Rubens, and you have your own passion for Delacroix, or Manet, or Picasso, then Edgard Orst does not seem after all to be an artist of, shall we say, world standing. Then his sister is dying and she asks me to help her set up a trust, to make a permanent museum of his works; she says it was his wish and she thinks I would be the right person to run this museum, which is to be in the family house – where she, incidentally, continued to live, unmarried, to the end. That, very briefly, is the story of how this place pulled me back. And also perhaps explains a little of why I felt the need to protect him. Now if he were a Delacroix I don’t suppose I’d worry.’

  It couldn’t be the whole story. I said, ‘Nowadays people are more interested if they know, say, that an artist had syphilis.’

  ‘And even more so, don’t you think, if that artist had the image of being austerely celibate? For years the pious people here saw him as a model of devotion, the scandal of his affair with Jane was completely forgotten, they knew nothing about it, they thought of him as a kind of hermit, like St Anthony or something. And like St Anthony he had his temptations.’

  In the kitchen Lilli (could I call her that?) was chopping vegetables at the table, whilst Marcel sat opposite, picking bits and being indulgently ticked off. I thought how innocent he was and how Lilli and he carried on like a parody of a mother and child. I wondered what form his passion for Sibylle took, what images enshrined it in his mind. He gave me a friendly greeting, as though I wasn’t his teacher any more – an uncle, perhaps. He’d got used to having me around; it showed in his work, which was lazier but better. And as for me, I was charmed to be in their warm kitchen, stuffing my washing hurriedly into their capable machine, accepting an offer of coffee, all ready to be absorbed into these simple Saturday rhythms.

  ‘Will you be working on the picture?’ Lilli asked.

  I hadn’t planned to do anything of the kind – but if Paul wanted me to … It would be a few more hours away from Cherif.

  ‘I’m going to take Edward for a walk,’ he said. ‘There are some things I want to show him, my dear Lilli.’ And she smiled warily.

  We followed the curve of the streets at the town’s edge. Paul had put on a dark hat, which gave him an adventurous look, almost a kind of glamour, with his mild pale dome eclipsed, and a subtle air of self-mockery too. I realised he was excited. ‘I don’t have your splendid raven locks,’ he said. I strode alongside in the mood of suppressed annoyance that precedes being given a surprise.

  ‘That’s the old Altidore house, by the way
,’ he said, as we passed a long building with an arched entrance and tall gables of cut brick. It had the plaque of the regional water-board beside the door, and office lighting glowed inside the warped old windows; but high up there were gothic As in the brickwork. I tried not to show how immoderately interested in it I was.

  ‘When did they sell it?’ It was a sudden troubling possibility that Luc had spent his early childhood there. But in fact his gambling grandfather had made the move to Long Street before the war. The Germans had used the house as a local headquarters, Paul said, and the fifteenth-century woodwork had been wantonly damaged before their departure. It was the first time I had heard him refer to the Occupation that must have hatched his own adolescence so darkly.

  A nice crew-cut soldier with the bulk of a body-builder came slowly striding towards us – as often happened in these empty streets I saw him some way off: there was time for interest and self-consciousness to quicken or be mastered as you approached each other, strangers crossed with a heightened sense of promise. He was wearing camouflage gear over a rollnecked jersey, the dappled trousers tucked into socks and boots – he looked fit, supple and compact. Charmingly he wore tortoise-shell glasses.

  Paul was talking about something and I found myself laughing exaggeratedly so as to make an impression of happy indifference on the young man; at the same time the laugh was a mask behind which I looked at him all the more keenly. I wasn’t listening to what Paul was saying and didn’t know if he had registered my lapse of attention: he tended to busy on, caught up in the oblique runs of his own thoughts. But he looked across with a moment’s surprise as the man drew level with a questioning smile and I let out a bold little ‘Hi!’ My heart sped up for a while, I even fell a pace or two behind and glanced back at him moving away. It wasn’t often you saw a soldier by himself. He was a natural buttocky type, like the young Dawn, though what cut into me was the glint of intelligence, the hint of witty sous-entendu his glasses lent his square, inexperienced face. And maybe we did make an enigmatic couple, me stubbly and leather-jacketed and fucked-looking, Paul, in his oddly vented paletot and broad-brimmed trilby seeming perhaps a little fruity and mysterious, like one of those flamboyant but watchful dons who recruit discreetly for the intelligence services. When I caught him up again he stared at me for a second, and I thought his large pale eyes had never been more subtly comprehending. I felt he must know about Luc and everything, but simply, kindly held back from touching on a situation which he could only see as futile and perhaps improper. He wasn’t a drunk or a gossip. I knew he cared about me. He must have read my smothered hints, my trembling unconcern at every mention of Luc and his ancient family. I looked away into the arched stillness under a bridge that the road rose and swung to cross. Almost a circle, arch and reflection crossed by the water’s wintry line. I was working with nothing, I had nothing on Luc, nothing of him that mattered, nothing from him. It came over me with a certain desolate formal perfection and for the first time.

  ‘Have you been to St Vaast?’ said Paul.

  I told him I had passed it on the evening I arrived in town, roaming about … ‘It was locked,’ I said, ‘I couldn’t get in. It looked rather melancholy, I think.’

  ‘I’m afraid it is. This little parish is a very poor one. The people still use the church, but they’ve never had the money to do it up. It had that rather wonderful porch tacked on in the seventeenth century. Since then it’s been more or less left alone.’

  We turned a corner and there it was, at the end of the street. It gave me a shock: not only its nightmarish appearance – the bleak, battlemented tower so out of scale with the low old cottages around it, the derelict theatricality of the porch, with its barley-sugar columns and shit-crusted ledges – but also the shot of pure recall, my first hours here, full of forced excitement and independence, fighting back home-sickness.

  ‘The area’s suffered a lot in the past ten years. There used to be several factories across the canal but they’ve all been closed down.’

  ‘And I believe there was a hotel?’ I said – half-expecting to be told there wasn’t.

  ‘The old Pilgrimage and Commercial? Quite right. You have picked up an amazing knowledge of the town.’ I thought how lamentably wide of the mark that was. Anything I knew had been absorbed unconsciously on my wishful loopings through certain quarters; I’d been incurious about every history but one.

  When we entered the church Paul swept off his hat and at the first pew-end dipped to one knee, his coat fanned for a second behind him on the stones. I was surprised, and the way he rose and hurried me on suggested it was mere habit, a conciliatory gesture to the believers kneeling here and there in prayer. In front of them, and at several side-altars, pyramids of patchy candle-light lit up the insensible faces of saints and Virgins. Beyond that there was only an impression of decrepitude and Romanesque gloom.

  I followed Paul as he wandered down a narrow aisle, almost blocked with the black wardrobes of confessionals. Perhaps we should just pop into one of those and get it over with. Then he turned back, he seemed uncertain himself, hesitated with a hand on my shoulder, looked guardedly across the scattering of kneeling figures. ‘Let’s stay a moment,’ he muttered, and slipped into a pew. I followed him again and sat by him waiting. There was a sombre echo. It was as if a coffin might any moment be brought in.

  Sometimes a careworn old woman entered, or another ended her prayers and shuffled out; sometimes a shuffling old man, a widower among all these widows who presumably believed in miracles and hell. The church was lively, in its destitute way, compared with the emptiness of the streets outside. Perhaps that was itself the secret, the place where the pious gathered as they approached the end, though no one saw them come here. It occurred to me as a vague possibility that it might be something to do with Paul’s wife, whom he never spoke of and whom I knew about only from the tragic anecdote I’d bullied from Marcel. There was a snapshot of her in an ivory frame on the desk in Paul’s office, a sensible boyish blonde among Orst’s menacing red-heads. To marry at last at fifty and then lose your wife, to find the long decades of bachelordom creep up again like some funereal Daimler that matched your pace, its leathery solitude always in waiting, patient of the brief postponement …

  ‘This is probably a complete waste of time,’ Paul whispered. ‘I can’t quite think why I bothered dragging you out here.’

  ‘I remember Orst used the tower of this church in the picture for the story of the False Chaplain,’ I said, like a doggy student.

  ‘Yes. He used to come here, you’re quite right.’

  There was a pause. ‘It’s not easy to imagine why,’ I said.

  ‘It had one attraction.’

  ‘Well, it is a church.’

  ‘He wasn’t a religious man. Well, he observed religion, in the sense of looking at it very much with an eye to its forms and legends, and he was moved by the primitive faith of his country and obviously the idea of mystery; but he wasn’t properly a religious observer. He liked to watch people at prayer, but didn’t pray himself – or so he claimed.’

  ‘I think you’re suggesting there was a particular person who prayed here that he liked to watch.’

  Paul looked a little embarrassed that I had got the point; I couldn’t help feeling he could have just told me – back home in the warm, proposing a pre-lunch gin as he opened the burgundy to breathe … Or would it have been quite the same? I glanced away, to shawled figures, lost profiles, lips moving almost silently, as if in troubled sleep, the bleak old building given depth and tenderness by the multiple soft pulses of the candlelight. And here Edgard Orst would sit or kneel among the poor, his fastidious mouth closed, his eyes behind his powerful spectacles drifting always to the same unwitting worshipper.

  ‘They seem all to be old people here,’ I said quietly – some perhaps were only Paul’s age, though so much more bent and buffeted.

  ‘She was a young woman of the parish – only twenty-five or so when Orst first met her. I
believe she had lost her fiancé in the Great War. She took in washing, like so many of the women round here. I can still remember the long drying-racks along the canal-side, and the tunnels and alleyways of sheets you could get lost in if you were a child.’

  ‘So they had an affair?’

  ‘Well, it must be said she didn’t only take in washing.’

  ‘I see.’

  ‘She had always had something of a reputation, though it’s not clear to me that Orst ever knew that.’

  ‘He became her – client, do you call it?’

  ‘He saw her one day coming from the market-place. She got on to a tram, and he immediately followed her. The thing was that she looked uncannily like Jane Byron; rather statuesque, with of course the amazing red hair – orangé was his word, I think quite literal.’

  ‘He surely didn’t tell you about all this.’

  ‘No, no. Mad though he often was he was never indiscreet. But much later on he told his sister, and he started to keep a journal, just under the force of the new emotion, which no one but she and I have ever read.’

  ‘You are incredibly protective,’ I said rudely, with a short laugh, in unchecked exasperation; he paled, looked aside as if others might have heard the accusation, but didn’t retaliate. In fact, no one seemed to care that we were talking. ‘Go back to the tram,’ I said softly.

  Paul paused a moment longer. ‘He followed her on the tram, and followed her when she got off. He felt he was seeing an apparition, as if the image he had been painting over and over for the past twenty years had suddenly come to life – come back to life, as it were. He noted which house she turned into, wrote it in his pocketbook, then wandered on bemusedly and got lost. He didn’t know this part of town, despite having lived here all his life. He had to get right back to the other side, to the new suburbs where the Villa Hermès so incongruously was.

  ‘Like many rather severe people he was actually quite shy. You know he spent the years of the Great War in England’ – again, I just smiled and shook my head – ‘and he had cut himself off so much at the Villa, and in effect denied the present so successfully, that he didn’t know how to go about meeting an ordinary girl again.’

 
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