The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.35Alan Hollinghurst
I didn’t quite see the importance of it – I tried to do justice to Paul’s sense of a moral conundrum whilst wondering who in the busy outside world gave a fuck about Edgard Orst anyway. Who were the Orst admirers? I imagined them like the fans of some eccentric minor composer, the Delius-nuts who turned out when my father did A Mass of Life at the Fairfield Hall – snuff-stained old sex-maniacs who sat conducting in their laps and collected bulging leather shopping-bags from the cloakroom afterwards. You couldn’t tell from the rare bewintered visitors to the Museum, but the Orstians must be a similarly dodgy lot, joss-scented fantasists, nineties queens in velvet – perhaps still flared – suits. It was fairly clear to me that Paul himself wasn’t one of them. He had admitted yesterday that Orst was something of a come-down after Rembrandt, that brilliant though he could be he lacked the range and sympathy of a major artist, that his was a ‘world of impossibilities’. But that only seemed to make his personal loyalty firmer. I thought about what he’d said of their meetings, though in retrospect his words seemed cautious and inconclusive: Orst and his last days remained as yet in the deep shadow of his reticence. I felt sure some primary promise had been made to the blind old man by this clever teenager who came to talk to him or (as Helene had evoked it for me) to go through the print-drawers describing the pictures. Paul had come back to him decades later without much enthusiasm, but it may have seemed like destiny. There was a deep slow tempo to it, the half-hidden line of another life, that demanded respect and acceptance, and could never be changed.
On reflection I saw that yesterday’s lesson had been as much about the pleasure of having a pupil as about Orst’s techniques and preoccupations. It wasn’t that Paul was lonely exactly, but that the painter’s secrets were offered, very deftly and instructively, as symbolic of secrets – or not even secrets, discomforts – of his own. There was a sense, as he locked the nude pictures back in the drawer, that something else had been revealed; and he gave me an optimistic smile. I was surprised, slow-witted, had the feeling of some benign plan unfolding in which I played a useful part without knowing quite what it was – the younger person who mysteriously performs what an older one despairs of. Not that I minded – I enjoyed being distracted by the Orst world and its nice problems, it had become a wonderful shadowy refuge from my own. I stepped into the Museum’s inner glass lobby with an expectation of comfort and bookish peace.
Behind the table, with the postcards and cash-box, sat, not the pleasant student of the past few days but the repellently spruce figure of … I found I’d completely suppressed his name, for some reason Rex Stout came to mind, in the second or two that I stopped dead, wishing it wasn’t true.
‘Hul-lo,’ he said. I gave a bitter little grunt, and he said, ‘I suppose I should have known you’d be an art-buff.’
Even in that moment I found myself recalling my spluttering efforts to convey to Edie the intensity of his awfulness, his pseudish self-confidence, his active vanity, his thick-skinned suggestive matiness, his, his … and seeing all over again how I had failed. ‘I’m not an art-buff,’ I said in an icy mutter; and went on towards the stairs.
‘Even so, it’s fifty francs to go in.’
I was just by the desk and looking down at his work, densely written pages of notes that he was going through with a yellow highlighter. It was A levels looming, a hopeless pretence of system …
‘I work here.’ (By which I clearly meant, I work here, arse-hole.)
Any sense of a gaffe was lost in his satisfied twinkle as he absorbed this fact. Ronald something – ‘researcher’. It must be paranoia but I couldn’t help feeling that one of the things he was researching was me – not of course for myself but as a figure in the life of a certain tall lean blond young man … ‘I wasn’t told about anyone working here.’ I shrugged. ‘You mean you’re one of the guards?’
‘I work with the Director – I’m his assistant.’
I saw him glimpse the opportunity of delaying me and asking me further questions. ‘And you say you’re not an art-buff!’ I sighed sharply. ‘You’ve never told me your name, incidentally.’
Was there any way I could refuse it? I could use a false name, I could be Casey Hopper again for a minute … ‘Manners,’ I said sternly, pleased as I had sometimes been before that it meant something and could sound like a reproof.
‘Well, Manners,’ he said, ‘I hope this means we may see more of each other.’ He took up his highlighting pen and settled forward again with a queeny wobble of the head, as if to imply I had discomposed him unnecessarily. As I started up the stairs he said, without looking round, ‘The Director’s not here today, by the way. As I’m sure you know.’
The office wasn’t locked, thank god, and I closed the door behind me as if I had just escaped from something vile in a dream. I was telling myself already that it was absurd to have such a phobia of a person – it was the kind of loathing that could creep into your empty corners, a neurotic preoccupation. I switched on the lamp and sat down and stared across at the place where normally Paul would be sitting. I was remonstrating with him silently, how could he have taken on Ronald Strong, how come he had never mentioned him to me? I felt as if I were the Director of the Museum and Paul had gone over my head in some important decision. I took out ‘Orst and his English Contacts’ again and stared at a paragraph of it for five minutes.
The truth was I felt a real anxiety about being in the place by myself – not a day I normally came in, Paul ‘away’ but perhaps about to return, no arrangement having been made. And it wasn’t as if this was an ordinary office, it was almost part of his house, he might come through the little passage in his dressing-gown, in unsuspecting possession of his morning, to find me there: not exactly an intruder, so surprise and displeasure would be mastered but revealed in later mortifying hints. I’d got the terms of our friendship wrong, it seemed, perhaps it would be better if I didn’t come in any more. As it happened, another young Englishman, Rex Stout, was interested in Orst, really very keen, he could be a great help, a trained researcher … I got up and looked out of the window. Of course I had no intention, no desire, to go through Paul’s desk, but I began to feel a queer conviction of petty criminality. I left everything just as I’d found it, and went out very quietly on to the stairs.
The door of the first-floor gallery was closed, but not locked, and I slipped in. A table had been set up where work on the triptych could take place, and some temporary rearrangements had been made. The pictures themselves were still there, the two new parts hooked up in an approximate line with the ‘Mirror’ picture. I stood and tried to focus my attention on them. It was the middle panel that we had not covered in our little seminar – taken straight from a photograph, Paul had said, but was the subject of special importance? An empty street, a bridge, a gothic oriel, a density of old roofs beyond, the tower of St John’s evidently, with the black flecks of the jackdaws circling; it was the odd quarter-hour of evening when you find you can’t see properly any longer, the details fog, you strain to read grey against charcoal. Or maybe it was just the dirt, which from the side you saw on the surface – it might have been swabbed with muddy water. Maybe it was a bright spring morning, waiting to dazzle, full of things to be done, unaware of the tragedy welling at the day’s end.
I looked at the familiar panel of Jane. Real shadow here, it was a dream of beauty, glimmering silk, folded angels, troughs of velvety dusk. Then I pictured her splayed successor, the plunge from reverence to cruelty. I assumed that, after once being robbed of what he loved, Orst had needed to chain his girl down (Marthe she was called), to insist on his power while he could, with a kind of futile force – it was like watching the anger of bereavement hugely delayed. I met the face in the dark oval of the mirror, and caught my breath as much at my own stupidity as at the halting gaze of chrysanthemum eyes.
A suntanned blond dawdled past, looking down at me coyly, noncommittally, seeing if the memory hook caught in the murky pond. ‘Hi,’
‘Oh hi!’ He dropped on to the banquette beside me. I felt him briefly adjusting to the gloom that I gave off and my lowered stare across a clutter of empty glasses. ‘How are you?’ he said brightly.
‘How are you, Ty? You’re looking very brown.’
‘Mm – I’ve been in London.’
‘Oh …’ (And what sort of name was Ty, anyway? It sounded like an actor in one of Matt’s films. ‘And then at last Casey submits to Ty’s throbbing fuck-pole …’ And there it still evidently, self-importantly, was.) ‘How is the old dump?’
I saw him wince to have the city of his dreams mocked. I knew to him it was size and grandeur and fashion-shoots and nights at Heaven; it wasn’t crap and decay, the maze trodden by the wispy-bearded youngsters who slept in doorways when you glamorously left Heaven at two or three. ‘Oh, it was great. I did a lot of work, you know, modelling? Everything from anoraks right down to jockey-shorts!’
‘And who was all this for?’
‘That was for C & A,’ he said negligently. ‘Soon I shall be on all the bus-stops.’
‘And do you show off your dick in the C & A brushed-cotton slacks?’
‘No, you are not allowed to,’ he giggled. ‘They make you put it out of the way.’ So living models had to aspire, as one had sometimes surmised, to the generalised sexlessness of the old chocolate mannequins. He took the opportunity to change gear, I remembered it all now, up to the sing-song fifth of his fantasies and achievements, he set the cruise control button, he might go on for hours. ‘I met this really sexy man in the Bloomsbury area, he is in the fashion business – well, he makes window displays, you know, they call them charm pads, and –’
‘Yes, you know, charm pads for the jewellery and rings. What you call the charms. Well, he is an older man, but still very sporting and fit. He has a huge apartment with the most fantastic curtains …’
What was an older man, I wondered? I was looking at Ty close to, and in a better light than when we had first met: he might be my age or more, to judge from the little creases around his eyes when he beamed at his own anecdotes, though in composure, and in a general innocent vanity, he was amazingly fresh and young. I began to admit to myself how like Luc he was, the high cheek-bones, the rather small, guarded, grey eyes, the thick fair hair. I hadn’t realised before – of course, I hadn’t even met Luc yet that night at the Bar Biff: I was looking at anyone in that first week as though they might be my friend and my future. I wondered if Ty had been an abortive first attempt, a dry-run, at Luc, who was made to the same formula, but was the real brute thing.
‘… anyway, he said, “Why don’t you come to my house, which is in the country, because we have a lot of things in common to discuss, and maybe, who knows, we can work something out.” So I said –’
‘I know,’ I broke in, ‘why don’t you get me a drink. I find it hard to concentrate without one, somehow. Also, I’m fucking miserable, fed up.’
‘Oh … what is the matter?’ He looked round as if the explanation might be to hand. ‘Are you by yourself here tonight?’
‘I was,’ I said rudely. ‘I’m waiting for someone. Well, Cherif, you remember him.’
‘Oh him,’ said Ty condescendingly. ‘He’s a stupid young man.’
‘He’s living with me at the moment,’ I said, not exactly to contradict him. And then in a few sentences I told him how I was despairing in love, trapped in my own home by a boy who was in love with me, and now my place of work had been infiltrated by someone I hated. I doubt I would have poured it all out so succinctly and bitterly to anyone capable of responding, but to formulate it to Ty was a distinct lonely relief. All I kept back was the repeating shock of Dawn’s being dead, my own regret at his not having said goodbye, the guilty certainty that anything I did was something he couldn’t do.
His reply was blithe but still surprising. ‘Well, I know what you are like. You must tell your love to the boy, otherwise you will never have peace with yourself, and try to find out the good side of the Rex Stout person, which there must be, and say to someone who has just come into the bar that he must go and live somewhere else and go to hell too.’
‘Thank you,’ I said, as he got up and finger-waved goodbye. I wondered what had happened at the man’s house in the country. Perhaps he ran a moral self-help centre. I heard Cherif give his mocking hoot at Ty as they passed behind me.
‘Baby, why do you call Ty Mouchoir?’ I asked him, when he’d settled and fussed over me enough. He grinned and pointed between his legs.
‘Because it is not real. Just a rolled-up hanky.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
He shook his head with a little moue of incontrovertibility. ‘I know,’ he said, clearly not wanting to offend me with the details of proof. Actually, I thought the story might help to pass the coming hours. I longed for Edie and wished she would come back again, with her gift for sharing and judging my feelings at the same time. She didn’t know how many imagined dialogues she took part in, how often her friend addressed his silent pleas and exclamations to her. Still, soon I would be beyond caring, the wave of drink would rise and after a pretence of doggy-paddle I would embrace Cherif and go under.
We sat in silence for a while in one of the side bays, like a couple of forgetful old drunks in the Golden Calf, who had known each other all their lives. When I looked up and across I saw the darker far reaches of the bar, towards the lavs. There was a group of men there who only appeared on Sunday nights, heavily leathered, cropped, studded and tattooed, quiet amongst themselves, like steady-nerved conspirators, holding each other’s eyes as they contemplated whatever it was they were about to do. I suspected it would be something demanding and uncomfortable but I envied them – they gave off, in their sexed and sombre way, the certainty that it was what they wanted. Then I heard Luc saying, in his Ealing Films toff accent, ‘Well, what’s it to be?’
For a second I thought the question was addressed to me. I started and then sat very still. A girl’s voice replied, ‘How frightfully kind!’ and a rowdy young man said, ‘Simply splendid!’ I reddened at this English mockery, turned, mad and frowning, to face it, but in fact the high varnished back of the stall cut them off from view: they couldn’t have known I was there. My heart was pounding with danger and opportunity – the Three right here in the Cassette, joking in spiffing English that no one younger than Perry Dawlish used, though they still clearly thought it was spot-on. I felt crowded and troubled. Why were they here? They were the world beyond, the bar was where you came for refuge and solace from them. I hushed Cherif to hear them better as they dropped into Flemish. It was possible they had just blindly and high-spiritedly stepped in for a beer, or they might think it coolly affirmative to drink in a more or less gay bar; what I dreaded was the note of mockery flaring up again, the trouble there sometimes was with het trash. I would have to join them, of course; I was destined to go through that little purgatory.
‘Cherif, darling, I’m sorry I shushed you then, I was just thinking, which you know I find hard enough.’ I was rather feline in my pissed decoying movement, my nest-plunder obliquely in view.
‘Sometimes I don’t understand what you are thinking about,’ he said serenely, even proudly. I looked down and smiled.
‘Well, I’ll tell you. If you promise not to be upset.’ He was silent, as though considering his rights. So I went into a long spiel, full of lulling reasonableness, about how I wasn’t used to spending so much time with someone else, the years that had passed since I’d had an affair like this, how my sex-life had pretty well petered out before I came to this country; how of course it was all amazing and wonderful, but how I was still naturally a rather solitary person, and also, as he knew, trying to be a writer, and messing round with a few ideas … The thing was that just now and again I would need a bit of time to myself. I’d like to go back by myself tonight, and could he go out to the hostel?
As a lie, this one had the merit of
I went for a pee and then waited, as if soliciting, just inside the door. The Durex machine was beside me, I bought a packet of three for something to do; then I washed my hands with anxious thoroughness and checked myself in the mirror under the illusionless strip-light. I was terrified. Someone murmured something to me – I stared blankly at him in the mirror and he shrugged and went away. There I was again, but now entirely by myself in that further observable world; I leaned forwards as I might have to study a portrait that was brilliantly but ambiguously painted. What was it that made the subject tick? It was hard to tell. I stooped closer, in a kind of vertigo of detachment. I saw that the lenses of my glasses were covered in dust – smoke particles, stuff out of the air, tiny flakings of skin and scalp.
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