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The folding star histori.., p.38
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       The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.38

           Alan Hollinghurst

  ‘Bye, my dear,’ I said. It was a lovely gesture, but I almost wished he hadn’t. My head in the crook of his arm, his head on my shoulder, face hidden from me. I raised a hand and ran it lightly, sorrowfully over his suede back. He seemed to want to draw it out, there was a charge of emotion I hadn’t allowed for. I felt him press himself against me, nuzzle his chin more snugly at my collar in a final clinch, let out a mumbled sigh. I supposed he must know everything, it was his clumsy way of saying sorry, a rugger-faggoty brush-off from which I would have to break free any second. I felt his lips pressing, lifting, pressing on my neck.

  I tried to say ‘Luc’, it was just a swallow, a bubble. There was a shriek of laughter through the wall, a spasm of gabbling, the knock of some dropped object shaking the floor.

  ‘What was that?’ whispered Luc, chuckling, not nervous, standing back, but still holding me, putting both arms more comfortably round my neck, as I stood there, clutching him feebly, with little terrified sighs. He leant his forehead against mine, he was open-mouthed, too close to see. Slowly I shifted, power ran back into my arms – it was as if something had come into the room or something had gone out. We started to kiss.

  Luc was asleep. I lay propped up beside him, thinking of later days in our affair, unguessed afternoons of sex, drives beside long canals, his cock curving out of his fly in the car, high-summer lulls when we lay like soldiers under Flanders willows and poplars, shirts off, watching clouds drift in the canal, his crude, obsessive demands.

  I tiptoed out for a drink of water and came back gulping from the glass like a child. I thought he might have vanished, it seemed foolish to let him out of my sight; but there he was, a goldish blur. I half-stumbled on his clothes, and crouched to rifle them – but what did they matter when the boy himself was here? I found every fear answered and calmed by that luminous fact. He was lying in my bed, naked, sleeping – flat out. It was a triumph. Tears slipped down my face, I didn’t really know why – it felt like gratitude, but also they were the tears that register some deep displacement, a bereavement sending up its sudden choking wave. It struck me I must be mourning everything that came before – it was the desolate undertow of success.

  When we had started to kiss it was what I wanted, he was warm and strong, our cocks, lying opposite ways in our jeans, rubbed and jolted off each other, we were going to fuck, but for a long while I just held him there in a hard, shocked grip. His tongue pushed into my mouth but I blocked it with my own: I felt my tongue was the tip of some passionate organ that was rooted deep inside me, so densely coiled, so fiercely self-involved, so hardened to its own darkness and starvation that it reacted with a spasm of bewilderment to the free gift of what it craved. He lifted off my glasses and looked at me as if he found me drolly beautiful. I brushed and moulded his face and neck with incredulous fingers, kissed his eyelids, his long nose, the soft burden of his upper lip. He was squeezing my cock already and still I thought I would be mad to let this happen. I thought once I started I would stifle him, frighten him with my dreadful unconditional needs. He would break away with a sickened laugh.

  I was reckoning without his own madness. Of course it wasn’t just mischief, he wasn’t trying to trap me: he wanted fun, experience, anything wild – either you did it with him or you didn’t. Somewhere out there was the person he loved, a boy or a girl, but for now he was making do; I felt I was getting the benefit of some stored-up passion intended for someone else, but brimming and spilling; and maybe he liked the switch of power in seducing an older man. It struck me it might even be a kink of his, that he’d done it before – there was the dream I’d had about him and Matt … I started pulling off his clothes in a turmoil of jealousy and pride.

  Luc naked – apart from his white briefs. His hard cock had a vein in it so thick that it showed in contour through the stretched cotton. I turned him round in my hands, kissed the back of his neck, stood away from him a moment as I undid my cuffs, glancing down at his legs, where the summer tan-lines still palely showed. I thought, I mustn’t say I love you, though they were the only words I had in my head. He looked back, swung slowly round, swallowing, wondering; there was a mastered shyness in his face, his movements had the seductive blur of drink, the sureness heightened by delay. He took my cock in his hand for a stroke or two, then hugged me again – I was kissing him adoringly, gasping a bit crazily as I worked at his mouth, confusing him; calming him too with my hands across his back, tranced arcs falling gently to his waistband – my fingers slid firmly under and he caught his breath as I furrowed through. He curled against me, then started pushing at his pants to get them down.

  Luc’s cock – with that fat little rope of blue-grey vein that ran out along its broad back and then curved capriciously under, the tight foreskin, still with a tang of moisture under it – I kissed it and licked his blond-wisped balls just briefly, in acknowledgement, whilst his hands went softly through my hair. I stumbled him back a couple of times till he bumped the chair, he didn’t quite know what was going on – he raised his foot on to the arm and I slid beneath and twisted round with my face in his arse. It was bolder and more beautiful than I expected, the flare of it as he leant forward to play clumsily with my cock. I stroked his pucker with a knuckle, longing to lick – I breathed on it, sort of whistled as if cooling something. It had a pretty, spoilt expression, a puzzled pout. I kissed all around it, decoyed my tongue all down his raised thigh, came back and tried it with a licked thumb. There was a kind of pride in him as well as me; he would take whatever I gave him. I felt for a second or two the strict obligations of the teacher’s role, then doubted, as my thumb slipped in to the first, then the second knuckle, whilst he complained and jacked his cock fiercely in his hand, if he had anything left to learn.

  I fucked him across the armchair, his feet over his shoulders; I had to see his face and read what I was doing in his winces and gasps, his violent blush as I forced my cock in, the quick confusion of welcome and repulsion. I’d used up all the lube Cherif had left in the jar, but I saw tears slide from the corners of his eyes, his upper lip curled back in a gesture like anguish or goaded aggression. His hand flickered up against my chest to stay me or slow me. I was mad with love; and only half-aware, as the rhythm of the fuck took hold, of a deaf desire to hurt him, to watch a punishment inflicted and pay him back for what he’d done to me, the expense and humiliations of so many weeks. I saw the pleasure start up inside for him, as if he didn’t expect it, his cock grew hard again in two seconds, his mouth slackened, but I made him flinch with steeper little thrusts.

  I was up on the chair, fucking him like a squaddy doing push-ups, ten, twenty, fifty … I had a dim sense of protest, postponed as if he wasn’t quite sure, he was folded in two, powerless, the breath was pushed out of him, there was just the slicked and rubbered pumping of my cock in his arse, his little stoppered farts. His chest, his face, were smeared with sweat, but it was mine: the water poured off me like a boxer, my soaked hair fell forward and stung my eyes.

  And already it was about to end. I pushed myself back on to my feet, I came out of him for a moment and tugged him back by his haunches, his arsehole glittered and twitched and I thrust straight in, then held it gently, barely moving in the gulping shivery limbo just before the end. I had a high starlit sense of it as the best moment of my life. I stroked the inside of his thighs, stooped forward to lick and breathe the faint rubbery smell of his feet; took his cock out of his fist and worked it unyieldingly for him. I saw his balls clutch up, he said ‘No, No’ and rode on to me as his thrown line of sperm soared into my face, my hair, and again, and then again. So I pushed over the edge myself – I made a grieving moan at the bitterness of it, craving the blessing of his gaze, though his eyes were oddly veiled, fluttering and colourless like some Orst temptress’s.

  Luc was perfectly friendly in bed, though he smiled more to reassure himself than to charm me. I was given the feeling I’d slightly overstepped the mark. I was sweet to him, our heads together on the pill
ow, though I tried not to crowd him and torment him. I laid an arm carelessly over his warm stomach. I wanted to hold him, he was everything to me. His eyes were closed, but he would never sleep when his heart was speeding so.

  ‘Are you all right, darling?’

  ‘Mmm.’ Another slow smile, a pat on my protecting arm.

  ‘It’s a jolly good job you came into the bar this evening.’ A pause, in which he sighed and swallowed. ‘I mean, it’s not as if you often do.’

  ‘No.’ It struck me that if I hadn’t been there he could have ended up with someone else; perhaps on other nights he had – it made me feel sick.

  ‘Had you ever been in the Cassette before?’

  ‘We had a bet,’ he said, with a smirk. So it was just a dare, I thought there’d been a certain bravado to him … ‘About whether you’d be in there.’

  ‘Oh …’ I couldn’t tell if that made me a fool or a dangerous dark horse. ‘And who thought I would be?’

  ‘They did. I thought you might be, but I didn’t know. I said not. I thought I’d won, because I didn’t see you in there, but then you came up to talk to us.’ Did it quite figure? I caught their cryptic exchange of looks again, saw the thread of mockery glint again in the story of the evening. Still, he had stayed for me, and I had triumphed. I had obliterated Patrick and Sibylle. ‘They think you’ve got a crunch on me,’ he said.

  ‘And why would they think that?’ I asked lightly and then wished I hadn’t.

  But he was too clever to answer, or too kind. He turned towards me, saw my confusion and kissed me on the cheek. Well – even if he was of their opinion, it clearly didn’t trouble him. Even, I thought, if he’s just using me, slumming it with me here, it’s happiness, it’s a fucking miracle. I ran my hand over him and between his legs. He was hard again, and so was I. I half-rolled on to him and he lounged round me like a cat, drawing up a leg, a heel that rubbed along my thigh and rested roughly and electrifyingly in the crack of my arse. I thought ‘scratch bottom’ and smiled at him and to myself but I didn’t explain; it felt both a comfort and a sadness to live so much more than him in the world of metaphors and puns. He gently pushed me off, saying ‘Not now’, though he left an arm limply over me, our calves were crossed. I wondered if he felt the transgressive thrill of a man’s hairy legs against his own.

  While he slept I kept watch over him – a smooth shoulder, the little pool of the clavicle, his neck, his extraordinary face, his hair muddled and pushed back. His lips were parted and dry, and I felt anxiously that I should wet them from a flask or with a soaked rag. It seemed mad to have him here and not be making love to him over and over, but I was consecrated to his repose: my mood became oddly chivalric. I remembered the old Altidorean legend – not as far as I knew espoused by Luc – which made him a direct descendant of the Virgin Mary, admittedly in her later, post-virginal phase. I’d known from early on that he had something unearthly about him – it was all more than likely. I lay back dazzled by his mere companionship, the trust he put in me to see him through the night. I thought of Ty’s little agenda: get rid of Cherif – for the moment that seemed to be done, my thoughts didn’t even track him as far as Matt’s and whatever they were doing there; find the best in Rex Stout – I perhaps hadn’t followed that to the letter, I’d been a lout; tell Luc you love him, or you will never have peace with yourself. So I said it into the air, not loud enough to wake him – I hardly heard it myself over the blow-heater’s rattle and rumble next door, that might have been a ferry’s trembling engines, heard from a cabin on a night crossing.

  I dreamt I had met a young man by the seaside. We went for long, energetic, rather tense walks, away from the sea and through a derelict industrial estate. I was very keen on him; he had curly dark hair and blue eyes and was astonishingly strong. He ripped a steel door off a windowless, bunker-like building, just to show me what he could do. I was exhilarated. I was too shy to ask, but I hoped he would do other such tricks. We sat down on a dusty doorstep, there was no one around, and he tugged his shirt off to show me his chest muscles and his biceps. I was calling him Luc, though I was almost certain that wasn’t his name, and he took a slow, calculating moment or two to react to it. ‘Yes, I’m Luc,’ he said; ‘of course I am.’ And he lobbed a breeze-block through a window across the street as though to prove it.

  Luc stirred against me – the shattered glass’s rhythmic tinkling was St Narcissus striking three. He sighed and burbled but seemed not to wake, or if he did he pretended sleep. I eased on to an elbow and studied his face. I could just make out, under the veined and silvery eyelids, the rapid oscillations of the eyes that mean dreaming, or in a waking person the secretive reflex when a wish is glimpsed and then denied. I wondered what townscape he was rambling through and who he fell in with in that luminous world of his own invention, that no one but him would ever see and that he himself would prodigally forget.


  ‘I’m afraid he’s not back yet. But come in.’

  ‘Oh.’ I was a few minutes late myself, delayed perhaps by unease about this meeting as much as by tiredness and a light hangover and the magnificent shock of last night. It made me feel like a kid again, going to call on Dawn’s parents, when the outrageous fact of what we did together seemed to bulge upwards like some monstrous erection under the tea-table – one saw the cups begin to tilt … I was imagining the weeks to come, the shabby little subterfuges Luc and I would be put to. I thought he’d probably be better at it than me: it was part of his daily reckonings with his mother, whereas I flinched guiltily from cheating her.

  I followed her into the kitchen. ‘Where has he gone?’ I asked. I’d wanted him to be there as I arrived, very much.

  ‘He stayed overnight with the Dhondts, their boy Patrick is a great friend of Luc’s from school.’ A capable subterfuge already.

  ‘Oh yes, I’ve met him. I ran into them at the Town Baths one morning.’

  ‘It was a rare chance, then. Luc normally hates swimming. He doesn’t like anything where you have to take your clothes off. He was so tall as a little boy, and ashamed of being skinny.’

  ‘I hadn’t thought of him as being skinny,’ I said, as if willing to entertain the idea, still feeling his warm dips and curves in my palms. It was clear to me the whole preoccupation with fatness and weight was the mother’s not the son’s.

  ‘I’m making some coffee, just as usual,’ she said. Then, ‘So are you pleased with his progress?’

  ‘Oh, he’s terribly good,’ I said. ‘I’m sure he’s right just to concentrate on the Dorset English exam – I know you were worried about it, but I can promise you he’ll do well. He’s going to do his first big essay for me this week, on Wordsworth and childhood.’ I beheld its careful pages already, and myself correcting them firmly, reluctantly.

  ‘He’s so wild sometimes.’ She had her lost look. ‘He’s crazy keen to get away from here. And I suppose I must … help him to escape! Of course I love the old town. You know his family have lived here since the twelfth century?’

  ‘I knew they went back quite some way.’

  ‘I wish he showed more interest in the church. I don’t think young Patrick Dhondt is a very good influence, he’s quite a rough noisy boy with a terrifying little car which I’m always afraid he will crash and kill them both. Luc seems to be devoted to him. I think it must be a sort of hero-worship, you must have come across it. He spends as much time with Patrick Dhondt as possible.’

  ‘I see.’

  ‘Of course the father, Roger Dhondt, is a famous ornithologist. But he’s always stalking about with his binoculars. I don’t think he’s got much time for anything that can be seen with the naked eye.’

  I laughed and saw how it warmed her on this dark November morning to call up her worries. It seemed I might be able to help by keeping Luc out of Patrick’s clutches. ‘I’ll do what I can,’ I said.

  She put me in the dining-room, just as usual, and I sat and stared at ‘Tintern Abbey’. Luc was always punctua
l, so this seemed a kind of test. He’d left me in the cold of the dawn, nervy and hurried, a bit embarrassed, with a tense smile as he slipped out of my arms, and something about getting back while his mother was at early mass. But maybe he hadn’t been home. He was doing something that was painfully hidden from me. And then his timing must have gone wrong, there having been no rehearsal. He would come in panting, with a light, unelaborated excuse, grinning at me as he entered the room, calling back reassuringly to his mother. I sipped the coffee, my hand shaking. It dropped into my mind that he was avoiding me.

  ‘It’s very odd,’ said Mrs Altidore, popping in five minutes later. ‘I’ve just telephoned Céleste Dhondt, she’s French and always quite rude. She says Luc didn’t stay there last night. She says Patrick got home very late by himself, she thinks about one o’clock. This morning he said Luc had made other plans.’

  ‘How curious …’ My pulse was thudding in my neck.

  ‘You see what I mean, he’s so wild. It truly frightens me at times, Mr Manners. I don’t want to drag out his whole history in front of you, I’ve always wanted you to see him at his very clever and gifted best, but I think you will know anyway that there have been catastrophes before.’

  ‘I’m sure he’ll be fine. There’s no reason to think anything … untoward has happened to him.’

  She wandered over to the window – I saw for the first time a haunting fore-echo of the son’s lazy stride in her gangling actions. My mind was slamming round the maze of alibis and explanations. I found myself impotently concentrating on the fact that Patrick hadn’t got home till one o’clock.

  ‘The awful business of the boy last month, found in the sea-canal,’ she said. It seemed cruel not to tell her the happier truth about her son. I dismissed her fears quite brusquely, burdened by the familiar glimpse I’d had of a mother’s forebodings, a video nasty of the threatening world.

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