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The folding star histori.., p.36
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       The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.36

           Alan Hollinghurst
 

  Luc had his back to me, as I came along the bar, and I took him in for the first time, relaxed, holding forth, speaking a bit loud perhaps to show he was at ease among the heedful queens. He was wearing the exact clothes of the morning I fell in love with him, the suede jerkin, the white jeans slightly bagged and tucked up his arse as he lolled with ankles crossed, the nerdy discord of the trainers. I thought how I never knew just what size and shape he was – it must be because I worked on him so much in my dreams that I always found him different, always frightening and always remotely banal.

  He was saying, ‘He rewrote the whole thing, though, that was the point – he didn’t just cut bits out and add bits on. The 1850 text is usually much better written than 1805, more concise and vivid and I think even witty.’ I saw Patrick’s stance of tolerant boredom, as at something that might be useful to him at some stage, and his slow double-take on me waiting at Luc’s shoulder. I gave a little smirk made up of such warring elements, pleasure at Luc’s plonkingly retailing what I had said to him in the fragment of our lesson, regret that he wasn’t passing on my feelings in favour of the 1805 Prelude and its youthful life (the pain of only half-remembered words), paranoid suspicions again that I was somehow being mocked, even a hint of a mime of rueful, clumsy love; and love itself: not the cool blue pilot-light but the rumble and flare as the clock came on … I began to feel hot in the face, my mouth and neck were hot, my balls ached helplessly.

  I touched Luc’s upper arm just as Patrick said a neutral hello and I embraced them all with an eager beaming ‘Hi!’, like a popular young schoolmaster. Luc was startled, embarrassed to have been caught talking Wordsworth, but as usual when we met in the outside world excited and, well, charming. We shook hands, both comforted by each other’s confusion, blushing and grinning, almost jeering, like old friends who can’t at first think what to say.

  ‘How’s your cold?’ was the best I could do.

  ‘Oh, it’s gone away,’ he said, with a lyrical gesture as if lifting a veil from his face, though there was still a wisp of hoarseness to his words.

  A silence fell in our group, and I wondered if they could hear my heart pumping. Perhaps they were waiting for me to move on or out, they didn’t know I’d come to stay; or maybe they knew all about me and my pathetic unwelcome passion. I looked up shyly at Sibylle, who was herself looking humorously at Luc; then glanced at Patrick – but he immediately flicked to Sibylle. Then, ‘This is my friend Patrick,’ said Luc. I nodded and smiled. I hadn’t seen him since the morning I found him in Luc’s bedroom; I still didn’t know what damage I’d done. ‘And this is my friend Sibylle, Sibylle de Taeye’ – with a hint of his own pride in a distinguished name. ‘And this is my friend Edward Manners.’ The rhythm of the scene demanded that he call me his friend, but still it made me very happy.

  We simmered in our introduced state for a moment, as if each pondering afresh the bracing mystery of our being who we were. I longed to be who I was, to be natural and funny, but I knew I was doomed to be someone else by the violence of my needs and the enigmatic little circuits of the Three. They’d only been talking about Wordsworth, but they gave me the feeling I’d broken dampeningly into some far more intimate and sophisticated transaction. They may have been bored, but they were bored in their own satisfactory and really rather amusing way. I found my hand was oddly empty and pushed myself among them to the bar. I heard myself booming, ‘Well, what’s it to be?’

  First of all I talked to Sibylle – I was suddenly too upset to manage Luc under the scrutiny of his best friends. I half-turned my back on him, though I kept picking up his chat with Patrick through the thin medium of our own conversation. I thought if I was very charming and could somehow imply a closer knowledge of Luc than I had then she might let some commonplace thunderbolt drop – ‘When Luc and I get married’, something like that. She had great composure, as of a child brought up to talk well to strangers, and keep cool under the pressure of extravagance or bad behaviour. Her face was round and calm, a convent-girl’s face, lightly made up to suggest other attainments. She was wearing white jeans, in ominous twinship with Luc, and a shirt open over boyish white collar-bones and buttoned firmly between unboyish breasts; there were old, elderly pearls at each ear. I wanted to find her naive or even brittly snobbish in the English way, and was rather daunted by her poise and openness as she assessed my career and aptitudes.

  ‘You also teach my friend Marcel, don’t you?’ she said.

  ‘Oh yes, I do.’ I was tracking a story of Luc’s about a holiday in Italy … Padua … Galileo … the anatomy theatre … How formal he was with them tonight. I wanted to shout ‘At ease’, to drag him back to the beach, kids sparring in the sand … ‘Yes, he’s, he’s a nice lad. Of course he’s had a difficult time.’

  ‘He’s very frightened of you,’ she said, in a way which showed conclusively that she wasn’t. But I respected fright this evening, I knew the warping pressure and panic that another person’s presence could cause.

  ‘He has no need to be,’ I said. ‘In fact I don’t think he can be any more – we’ve become great friends.’ I pictured him at home, pottering with the pastry scraps, always reaching back for childish solace, just the opposite of these three, drinking beers in a gay bar.

  ‘He tells me you’ve been doing work for his father.’

  ‘Yes, that’s right.’

  ‘… incredibly handsome Italian men …’ Patrick was saying.

  ‘I always think he’s rather a pathetic figure.’

  ‘How come?’ I said, with a cross little laugh.

  ‘Oh, having lost his wife in that bizarre way. Marcel and I talk about it a lot. We think he hasn’t had the heart for anything since.’

  ‘He’s extremely fond of his son,’ I said warmly, wondering if even so I did justice to his devotion.

  Sibylle shook her glossy bob and leaned back on the bar. I thought I didn’t really like her confidence. She said, ‘My father says he’ll never finish this famous catalogue. He says that Paul Echevin used to be a first-class scholar when he worked on Rembrandt, but for some reason he gave it all up to work on Orst, since when he’s written no more than a couple of articles. My father thinks he’s lost hope.’

  ‘I can’t tell you how wrong you are,’ I said. I’d had this before, from Helene. I was sick of the conspiracy against my friend. ‘For a start he works on the catalogue every day. I’ve never seen such a hard worker. He’s a real scholar, you know, he wants to get things right. It will be finished by next spring. And he’s written far more than a couple of articles, I can assure you.’ (I certainly recalled seeing three.)

  But she stuck by her high-up father’s opinion, even if she distanced herself from it in some canny way. Patrick was giving Luc an update on St Narcissus gossip, tales of nicknamed masters, football news, told in his sturdy bollocksy voice but full of the shiver and gloom of winter school. Luc laughed and I felt his exclusion from it all, a hint that he would rather not hear about it.

  ‘And how do you find my lovely Luc to teach?’ Sibylle asked loudly, to be heard and perhaps break up our pairing and its faint antagonism.

  I swivelled round to take him in, my heart punching with foreboding, and gave a sickly smile, while Luc himself turned with a cough and showed an interest in the bunched leather-queens. I saw one of them catch his eye and smile, and he swung back with a blush. ‘Oh, your, your Luc is a joy to teach,’ I said. ‘If he’s not in a bad mood.’

  He put an affectionate hand on my shoulder, but it made me jump, and then curve apologetically against him, bungling his easy gesture. ‘Last time I was in a very bad mood, and poor Edward just had to turn on his heels,’ he explained, and gave my arm a squeeze that wiped out all the pain of the last week. I felt my throat streaming, pulsing like a dove’s with unspoken ‘I love you’s, I wanted to kiss him all over his face and burble them into his flushed ears.

  ‘He’s been in a silly mood for several days,’ said Patrick, and Sibylle shot him a frowni
ng glance, and Luc narrowed his eyes at him. I still had no idea of Patrick’s role or influence; he might have been the jester, the outsider, or he might have been their leader, if they admitted one. A silence extended and I soaked up how healthy and sexy he was, in a heavy jersey over a blue shirt that hung out over frayed old jeans. I thought, if the queens in here knew what he had between his legs … I was basking for a second or two in the simple randy thrill of being with a truly huge-cocked kid. ‘So you like Luc, do you?’ he said. I couldn’t tell if he was needling me or hoping to get a good price for him.

  A moment came when Sibylle refused a further drink, slid from her bar-stool and quietly stated that it was time to go. ‘Some of us have got school in the morning,’ she said. Patrick seemed happy for me to buy him drinks all night, but let himself be persuaded. So it was over already – it hadn’t lasted an hour. I saw my futile excitements, as though through glass or as the sceptical barman must have seen them, setting up round after round for me, the boys getting noisy, heartbreak waiting – and what else could I have expected? I began to think wistfully of Cherif.

  Then Luc said, ‘I’ll stay for a bit longer.’

  Sibylle peered around, assessing the imprudence of this decision. ‘Okay,’ she said, with an upward flick of the eyebrows. Patrick had sauntered hunkily to the lit console of the juke-box, and we all watched as he thumbed in a coin and deliberated over the corny menu of titles. I couldn’t think of anything to say, I didn’t dare look at Luc. Then a button was pressed and after several seconds a distantly familiar intro came at us from all sides. It was one of those rhetorical songs you heard in a late-night minicab, ‘I want to be where love is’, drunk yourself, and the requests read out – Darren, don’t keep breaking my heart … I need you but I need time – as you accelerate through the glittering streets.

  Luc kissed Sibylle on both cheeks. ‘Be good,’ she said, ‘sois sage.’ And Patrick rolled up with a grin and barged him and kissed him on the mouth. I thought, Ah, you do that, do you? – or was it just young sportsmen’s faggoty closeness, their high butch pained regard for each other and themselves? It wasn’t the treatment I was going to get – I gave a little absolving wave, but he grabbed my hand in mid-air and shook it: it was a bit like jiving. ‘We’d better leave them to it,’ said Sibylle. Patrick turned at the door and grinned again; I wondered if I was the subject of some broad joke – but then if I was, Luc must be too. All that mattered was that he wanted to stay for a quarter-hour more, even if only to grouse about his troubles away from his smothering critical friends.

  It had been a terrible time. I had watched myself trying different gambits, donnish to start with, pursuing the matter of the 1850 Prelude, then holding forth about Milton, Schubert, F. R. Leavis etc etc and clearly being the greatest bore on earth; then I smoked a cigarette (which they hated) and swore a lot (which seemed to displease them too); then gave them maximum charm, which they resented as a puzzling form of satire. At one point I was even nodding about to a song on the juke-box, but Sibylle stilled me with a glance. I was young and lively and clever, I told myself as I blundered like some awful Ronald Strong figure from rebuff to tacit rebuff. And then Luc wanted to stay.

  There was a lovely sense of cleared space, of spreading calm, like sunlight out to sea, in the gold and copper cabin of the bar, as we drew two stools closer and settled ourselves knee to knee and the song wailed grandly on and then faded out.

  ‘Oh dear, Edward, I’m sorry about that. But I’m very glad you were there!’

  I was astonished. I was gesturing for a drink with one hand, not wanting to miss a moment, a single muscular movement of his face. When he smiled there was a fleck of spinach above a tooth at the side and I hungered to suck it away. ‘What are you sorry about, and why are you glad? I was going to say sorry for barging in on your drink.’

  ‘No, no.’ He sighed and looked down. ‘We’ve all been, you know, arguing. Sibylle and Patrick are my dear friends but this is the first time we have been together all week. We went out for our dinner, and it was terrible, and then we had to have a drink, to show we didn’t just want to go home, though I think we all did!’

  ‘Oh. What were you arguing about?’ I was looking at his down-turned head, but also at the veins standing out on his long hands loosely cupped between his thighs; I didn’t care what they’d been arguing about, I felt a ridiculous contentment at having him to myself, amazement that we hadn’t done this long before.

  ‘It’s very difficult to explain, I feel very embarrassed.’ He took a slurp from his fresh drink. ‘Well, it’s, of course, all to do with love.’

  ‘Mmm.’

  ‘And as we all know by now, the course of true love never did run straight.’

  ‘Exactly.’

  ‘You’re much older than me, maybe you can tell me what to do,’ he said. I studied my thumbs responsibly, wounded, honoured, and when I looked up he was smiling, not quite at me but over my shoulder. ‘Hi,’ he said. There was a quick bloom of scented body-lotion, a hand squeezing the back of my neck. Matt was back.

  He ducked vaguely for a kiss and his gelled hair was cold on my cheek. ‘Hi,’ he said quietly, nodding slyly at Luc. ‘I didn’t know I’d see you two in here.’

  ‘Well, here we are,’ I said, with a self-satisfaction that made Matt smile. ‘As it happens, we were just having a terrifically private talk.’

  ‘Oh, it’s not important –’ said Luc, who was gazing happily at Matt as if he were his special hero. And he did look glamorous, in his crook’s suit and cashmere overcoat, and with his sapphire stud.

  ‘No problem. I’ll see you soon,’ he said, moving on down the bar, patting Luc on the shoulder as he went, as though he were a promising pupil of his, not mine. I followed him with my eyes and he turned smiling and made a fisting gesture – I shook my head slightly to say it was not alas like that. He started talking to one of the leather-men. As far as I could see he had something for him in his pocket.

  ‘I think that guy Matt must be gay,’ said Luc.

  ‘You’re absolutely right,’ I sighed, as though reluctantly admitting to some long-held secret. And I sensed further questions coming, the boy must be a bit drunk, but still he held back at the edge of this new terrain. I felt that for once I had aroused his curiosity: he was about to be interested in me and my friends. I glanced sideways across low tables where men were gossiping, some with their arms round each other, or snogging in the shadows. How was Luc with all this? A qualm of propriety came and went. They must be sick with envy seeing me with him, my face lit up by his aureole of young heat. ‘Let’s get back to solving your problems,’ I said, so pleased to be invited in that I ignored how those problems might tangle with my own.

  I saw the pain alter his face, saw him weigh the difficulty of telling against the relief of it. He gazed at me abstractedly. Was I his buddy or his moral tutor? ‘I think maybe you won’t know what I’m talking about,’ he said. ‘You’re a very sensible, correct-minded kind of person. I think you are always in control of your own feelings, and maybe you don’t have all so strong feelings about other people.’

  ‘Try me.’

  ‘It’s that very bad thing, where you are in love with somebody and think about them all the time but they are also your dear friend and you see them all the time too. But they are not in love with you. And every time you see them you feel more in love.’

  ‘That is a bad sort of situation.’

  ‘Sometimes I wanted to tell you in the lesson, but it is better to talk about books and current affairs.’

  ‘Is that why you were so keen to go to Los Angeles in our last session? Well, you had a cold too.’

  He slapped his hand on the counter. ‘I had a cold because I was out all night, standing in the rain under a certain person’s window like a bloody idiot.’

  ‘Your mother said you got it from her.’ It was too touching to think of him – the romantic semaphore of young love, the old courtly gestures, dreading to bring things to the poin
t. I pictured us backing into each other, like rival serenaders in a comic opera.

  ‘My mother’s like that, she always takes the blame.’ He smiled at me steadily: he seemed to find comfort in me. And my eyes were revelling gently over him. ‘The thing is, Edward, I fear I must certainly go to the gentlemen’s.’

  I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about – it must be something like the dogs, or the wall. But he stood up and looked about and I understood and told him. I watched him wandering to the far end of the room, pushing his hair back, sweetly self-conscious under twenty pairs of eyes. I was blasted with lust. I thought why don’t you just go on me, hose me down, unbutton my fly, slip your dick in and piss my pants … why don’t you? I saw a voracious dark kid I had come across before get up and follow him in. I wondered what Luc would think when he heard the clink of his foreskin-rings against the urinal’s china cup.

  I caught the barman’s eye and ordered another drink. I seemed to be virtually sober, I was drinking without noticing at least, it was rather like those trick-glasses where you tilt them to your lips and the liquid disappears. Did the boy want one too, he asked, perhaps impressed after all that I’d fought off the minders and rescued the star. I said yes, they were only light little beers, it would keep him a few moments longer before he shook hands and left for home.

  Matt came up and said quickly, ‘I don’t know what you’ve done to Cherif. He’s over at my place. I found him standing at the bus-stop crying like a baby.’

  ‘Oh fuck, thank you, it’s just … as you can see …’

  ‘No thanks required. I think he’s hot, as you may remember.’

  ‘Yeah, he’s not so delectable when he’s all snotty-nosed. But have him, do what you want with him!’

  ‘He’s in a serious way about you, you know.’ I grimaced impatiently. ‘Anyway, we’ll compare notes tomorrow night.’ And he gave his casual stare, with its usual assurance that the world of fantasy need not stay fantasy for long.

 
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