The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.34Alan Hollinghurst
‘I knew you’d be fascinated,’ he said quietly. ‘I think we should have a few of them in the catalogue, don’t you?’
‘But obviously.’ It had become our catalogue only in the past week or so, and he appeared to welcome the uninformed certainty with which I saw some matters he had fretted over for years. ‘Besides they are themselves art-works by Orst,’ I pronounced. ‘We – you might even put them all in.’
‘It’s not usual,’ he said crisply, crossing to the print-cabinet, and stooping to tug out one of the wide shallow drawers. ‘But see what you think later’ – in a teasing tone; was I drunk?
He came back with a big square folder, and handed it to me carefully. ‘A la nuit tombante’ was written on it in an old-fashioned hand – not Paul’s pretty writing, some earlier guardian, perhaps the high-minded Delphine … ‘I just want you to see this,’ he said. I opened it with a little mime of curiosity, as if it were a present.
An expanse of creamy-white, a sheet that was more like a wall, with a small square aperture at the centre – through which you looked at a dark sea and a sky that rose from a rim of light into deepening greys. The image was only four or five inches high, but intensified by a heavy black frame that gave one the impression of looking out from a high-up window in a thick-walled castle – for some reason I thought of Elsinore. At the same time I knew it was the lithograph to which Orst had returned in the simple late panel of the triptych, though there he had dispensed with the heavy masonry of the surround. It had a certain power, the lonely sea and the sky, though I felt it took enigma to the verge of emptiness.
Underneath, though, was another sheet – an earlier state, Paul said, that showed what the black margins hid, like worn old details boarded up against the salt air: the white balustrade of a balcony below, tall windows at either side folded steeply back, in the left one the letters DROME reversed, running downwards and very faint. The sky was lighter and crossed with high striations of cloud and in its depths I thought I saw (what may only have been a hesitation of the pencil) a pale speck of the folding star – well, you didn’t fold at sea, but it gave me a disconsolate shiver.
‘Presumably Hippo and not Aero,’ I said, envisaging the white cliff of sea-front hotels, it might be Eastbourne, and then seeing of course where it was, the whole thing shifting into a deeper perspective, a hotel at Ostend – ‘Cold as the wind without an end’.
‘Eh? Oh, you’re very clever.’ Paul smiled. ‘But not quite clever enough!’ I frowned and he stooped beside me; I was in his breath as he looked very closely at the picture. ‘You have to think what hotel our friend would be likely to choose for a romantic escape with his lover. And right next to the Kursaal, too, for Jane, who loved to gamble.’
‘I’ve never been to Ostend, where I assume it is, except getting off the ferry to come here.’ I was trying to think what other sorts of drome there were. A velodrome? The Belgians were keen cyclists. Or perhaps it was the beginning of the word. ‘The Dromedary Hotel?’ was my unconfident attempt.
Paul stood back. ‘No matter. It was the Hotel Andromeda. It really doesn’t matter, though it was a favourite legend of his.’
‘Did he see himself as rescuing Jane from something? I suppose her jealous husband …’
‘It’s possible. Actually, I don’t think it was the rescue side that interested him, he was much keener on the idea of the chained-up woman. He had a bronze Andromeda at the Villa – school of de Vries, a beautiful thing, but with a very long and heavy chain that hung down the pedestal in a loop.’
‘Anyway’, I said after a moment, ‘he certainly didn’t rescue her on the most important occasion.’
‘He couldn’t swim,’ said Paul abstractedly, still pondering the images he must have seen so many times, as if there were more of these secrets in them if you only knew how to look. ‘He stood at the window in the late afternoon and watched her go out till he lost sight of her. She swam right out, as she often did – she was a strong swimmer. He never saw her come back. He sat in the room and sketched the window and the view, almost as a kind of reflex: he liked to be busy with his work all the time. He made this simple empty drawing – evening was coming on – he followed the hour and darkened it into his favourite twilight. Later he went down to the beach to look for her. I’ve always had a very clear idea of the scene, the dandyish young man in his owl’s glasses, rambling back and forth on the sand in the thickening gloom, trying to make out faces, putting questions to strangers: that awful fear that makes you an idiot. At last he told the police, but it was dark by then, and there was nothing they could do; and besides, who knew which way she had gone? Perhaps further out a current would take her. They alerted the coastguards at Middelkerke and De Haan. She was quite a well-known figure, so the news travelled fast in other directions. Apparently they had registered at the hotel under false names, but Edgard forgot in the turmoil of the moment. He seems to have been briefly deranged by anxiety – he went out quite late to the Kursaal, believing that he would meet her there. Then he made a scene. He was still so young, remember, he was only thirty-four, and he thought he had lost his great love – well, he had. I must say he seems a touching figure to me – self-absorbed, of course, not particularly humorous, but slightly comic even so, and, you know, vulnerable.’
We were both resting our eyes on the framed photo above the bookshelves, which dated, I believe, from 1910, when he looked a good deal older than forty-five. His proud turn of the head, I realised, had put me a bit against him ever since I had seen it on my first visit here. But then who could ever tell what their next decade held? ‘When did they find her?’ I asked.
Paul carefully returned the prints to the drawer. ‘They didn’t,’ he said.
I was impressed by this, as I always was by the idea of a total disappearance, the vertigo of it, and the way it none the less left room for wasting hope. And again I was full of questions, and objections too, that I hesitated to put. Had she killed herself, did no one see her from a boat or ferry, might it have been a planned escape, involving another man, a change of identity, flight to another continent. I needed the photos back to look for further signs.
‘The husband was questioned, of course,’ Paul said. ‘He was in Deauville, which seemed vaguely suspicious. But I believe he had a perfectly good alibi. And Edgard himself virtually ruled out suicide – there was no note or explanation, and he knew her moods.’ I watched Paul unlock a drawer on his side of the desk, with an apprehensive frown. ‘I think it did all give him a feeling of life being unaccountable, of not having much idea about what even those closest to him were thinking and going through. As well as being a dreadful shock, of course. But when he’d settled down and kept on coming back to her over and over again I assume it was his way of asking those simple questions, the how and where and why.’
‘And not coming up with the answers.’
‘Well, he never came up with answers. It was fortunate’, said Paul with a giggle, ‘that he had always made something of a point of that.’
He was holding a battered manilla envelope to his chest – the next part of the demonstration. I remembered Helene’s account of after-hours tours of the Museum, the child’s sense of privilege almost regardless of what she was being shown. ‘I’ll leave you with these a moment’, he said, ‘whilst I go and er …’
When Paul had hurried off through the wall I got up and stretched at the window – just at the moment a few drops striped it. I looked lazily out, as I had often done before, at the inscrutable houses opposite, seen clearly now that the trees were bare. The houses Orst had looked at as a boy, that his sister had seen each day throughout those later years. It was possible to believe, in the yawning after-lunch stillness, that the same people lived there still, a minimal ghost existence of creaking boards and early dusks, looking out from time to time at our dark gables through the rain. I thought of my own view of the old doctor’s house, with its shuttered upper floor, its air of professional secrecy, the occasional faint escape of an
I shook the contents of the envelope on to the table, and quickly spread them out. It was photographs again, and bits of photographs – of women, I thought at first, but then saw that it was just one woman, who like Jane was put through a number of hoops. There were the same veiled close-ups, the hieratic poses, the flaked-out half-lit reveries. The pictures were smaller, printed I supposed in Orst’s own dark-room, ‘the dark crucible of his art’ as his impressionable English visitor had called it. Unlike the others, though, they included a lot of nudes, or near-nudes, the long hair hanging in falls that hid, or nearly hid, the woman’s outward-turning breasts. Sometimes she looked back over her shoulder in affected surprise, sometimes she reclined on a sofa in short black stockings, or with the black feathers of a fan clustered between her legs. She was a handsome girl, young, unembarrassed; she looked cynical but dependable. I was very slow to realise that this was the second Jane, the laundry-woman who was the actress’s reincarnation.
There was a general likeness, though in monochrome the overwhelming feature, the torch of her hair, could have been any middling colour. She was pale and strong-jawed and big without being fat. She could certainly have been a relation of Jane, a younger sister, with a similar humour and nerve. I tried to forget she was a prostitute, and had presumably been paid for these sessions in the studio, but the impression of detachment and compliance couldn’t be dispelled. She met the camera’s stare very levelly: she still had life and self-esteem, but her bright eyes, in the middle range of the sepia, had nothing of Jane’s disconcerting power, the impression she gave of seeing through time and experimenting with dangerous drugs. The new girl could never have been the Kundry of ‘Jadis Hérodias, quoi encore?’ In one picture she stood with her arms full of the dusky bundle of her hair, though at first glance I mistook it for a cat.
There was another small envelope among the photographs, on which the word ‘Private’ had provocatively been written. I opened it circumspectly, the old gum still dully tacky, and slid out yet another set of photos, that made me wince and hesitate. I knew for a moment or two what ‘Private’ meant – desires expressed without the filter of art, glum shaming needs … I made my interest scientific, dimly thinking what a prig I was when it came to women and the indignities men demanded of them. It figured that the downside of Orst’s mysticism should be something coarse and exacting. The young Jane – I didn’t know what to call her – had a wary look now: she was a professional, she would have upped the fee, but she was not an actress like her predecessor. There was a sense, that was perhaps the cruel erotic pivot of the pictures, that though she was a working woman she was a good Catholic too, who believed in eternal fire and wondered, as she took the lash or pissed herself for Orst’s camera, if that might land her there.
There were only half a dozen of them. In the first, she stood with one foot on a table, one on a chair, looking back over her shoulder (he seemed to like that startled supplicating glance), two fingers spreading her cunt from behind. There was a glistening detail to it that was far beyond the things I had puzzled out long ago from Charlie’s under-mattress stash of Escorts and Parades. Then I noticed indignantly that she was wearing the collar of medals: her dead original’s magnificent choker was part of the apparatus of bondage. In the next she lay sprawled on the carpet, fettered to what?, the camera-tripod?, with Andromeda’s chain. In another she was bending over and I saw with a little protesting ‘Oh …’ the black boss of a turd lodged patiently in the tight opening of her arse. I put them back thinking, ‘Well, after all, these aren’t the worst things’ – they wouldn’t quite go in, there was something in the envelope that stopped them. I funnelled it and tapped out on to the table a sprig of orange hair tied with a thread, a tiny crinkly switch. Somehow one knew it had not been taken from the head.
Cherif was crouching barefoot in the armchair, with his overcoat on, drawn tent-like round his knees.
‘Baby, you’re not even dressed,’ I said.
‘I’ve been waiting for you, so that we can go out and get lunch.’
‘Half past five’s a bit late for lunch,’ I said. ‘Look, I’ve got all the washing done, and free! Washed, dried and ironed.’ I unzipped the bag and tilted it towards him: buttoned shirts, folded pants, rolled socks all neatly compacted. I recalled Lilli Vivier’s slightly flushed and compromised look as she gave it back to me. Had there been something shameful? I lifted out a shirt of Cherif’s that had PARIS written all over it, and was presumably not intended for Parisians themselves. Did Lilli think that was mine? I supposed after the Orst tie débâcle anything was possible. I handed it to him and he took it with a moment’s admiration, then scrumpled it up and hurled it into the corner.
‘You prefer them unironed. I’ll remember that in future.’
He looked at me miserably, and I felt my face tighten under his reproach. ‘Why do you keep going away from your Cherif?’
It was a courtly phrase of his – I thought I heard it plaintively rehearsed all afternoon.
‘I never said I’d be back for lunch,’ I brought out. ‘I had a great many things to do.’
He jumped up and came over to stare at the washing. ‘I suppose did Luc’s mother do this for you.’
‘Is that what it is?’ I said, with a little fake anger. ‘I’ve already told you Luc’s over, I’m over Luc.’ What was it they said about love being proved by its constant renewal? I swallowed desolately at the sudden thought of him. ‘No, it was Marcel’s father’s housekeeper who did it for me – for us. I’ve been at the Museum. You know I have a lot of work to do there.’ I knew too that Cherif never asked about that inaccessible realm, which wounded him by absorbing me so much. I reached into his open coat and stroked his stomach. ‘You must have other things to do,’ I said. ‘I can’t spend every moment with you – much as I’d like to’ (words hardly voiced). I saw a string of obvious questions coming, the painful catechism of reassurance – we had been through it several times this week, with tears on one occasion and his insistence I was the first person he had really loved. I couldn’t bear it – either for itself, or for its perverse requirement that I keep swearing to something I was more and more keen not to mention at all. ‘Do you want a drink?’ I said, and set about unpacking the laundry into the cupboards.
‘We haven’t got any,’ he muttered. ‘I’d have drunk it if we had.’
I reached to the back of the sock shelf and brought out a hidden quarter of brandy. ‘There you are.’
He grabbed it and huddled back in the chair, taking nips from the bottle as if he’d just been rescued. It wasn’t as if I’d been with another man, or only with dear old Paul, I didn’t see why I should have to cajole him back into humour, but his suspicion stuck to me and wakened some vaguer guilt. Still, it seemed I was off the hook. When the questions started they were lugubriously tarty.
‘Do you think I’m too fat?’
‘I don’t mind how fat you are. Let me have men about me that are fat. Anyway, I can hardly talk.’ I went over to the window and looked into the murk below – a gleam on the canal from a light on the bridge, the school weekend-dark.
‘I am the only person here …’
‘I know, but, Edward? What do you think of my tuyau d’incendie?’ (his own vainglorious euphemism).
‘I think it’s, um, admirable.’ I badly wanted to be somewhere else. It would have been a relief to see Matt, to spend a night or two in illusionless infidelity, but there had been no sign of him since my return from England. I wondered how Luc was spending his evening. I realised that since our aborted lesson, the lesson of the cold, I had unconsciously swung round to my old view that Luc and Sibylle were, well, lovers. Perhaps I was just rationalising my sense of rejection – though it wasn’t honestly as decisi
‘You should see my brother,’ Cherif was saying; ‘he’s got a much bigger one.’
‘Really, darling, I’m quite satisfied with yours. Anyway you haven’t got a brother. You’ve got four sisters, remember? You send them all your money.’ It was the old evasive Cherif for a second or two, sexily unreliable, the one I had dumbly exchanged for the plaintive lover, the dopy stay-at-home …
‘Just because I haven’t told you about my brother, Ahmed, before doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist,’ he said, with a certain self-satisfaction. ‘He is in Rotterdam. I was staying with him when I was there, after you sent me away.’
This was just about possible, I supposed. As for sending him away – there was nothing I could do about the stories he told himself.
I even went to the Museum on Sunday, not sure I’d be welcome, though there was always work to do. Paul had given me a paper he had written years before on Orst and his English contacts, that might somehow be condensed or reworked for the catalogue – he was vague about it, and seemed to want my advice. I couldn’t help worrying, as I walked through the town amid the perfunctory tolling of bells, familiar coded calls to a dozen congregations, whether I was the right person to give such advice, when my only qualifications were literary and when Paul’s style was so cautious, so lacking in the scurrying charm of his talk, so unable, as a matter of principle, to take the vulgar advantage of his material that might have made for more than scholarly interest. In the past twenty-four hours his fastidiousness had come to seem more nervously defensive, and so, of course, more revealing, though I couldn’t tell yet what it revealed.
Yet clearly something was about to happen. If he suspected that the time had come to tell all about his painter, then I could easily support him in that view. Nowadays the sexual details seemed often to be the whole point of a biography, with the implication that they had been for the subject as well. Paul’s book would be arid and out-of-date without them, but with them it could be a small sensation, and with no loss of scholarly standing. In fact, since the details were not just details, since he was dealing with a whole career lived in the baleful light of a sexual idea, scholarship really demanded that everything be told … This was the sort of argument I was going to have to put to him, that I felt him equipping me and tentatively exhorting me to put.
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