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The folding star histori.., p.39
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       The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.39

           Alan Hollinghurst
 

  ‘He was a drug-addict and a, a gigolo,’ I said, and saw that I’d only conjured up two further dangers and brought them dripping into her house.

  I went out to find her a few minutes later. I felt sure Luc must have gone to my rooms, this once, through some simple misunderstanding, a glitch in our polyglot pillow-talk. I wandered softly along the passage to the kitchen and came to a halt when I saw her through the open door. She was half turned away from me, standing by the stove, eyes fixed, I thought, on the teeming emptiness under the table. Behind her hung copper pans, far more than could ever be used at one time, and in front of her were spread potatoes, curly red cabbage, fretty French parsley, a lemon, a mortar, a bottle of oil and a huge mauve, bearded, festive fish.

  I scuttled across town through a vapoury drizzle, running for a few yards and then dropping back into a winded walk; I was muttering with anxiety, Luc fouling up on this morning when everything needed to run sleekly and deceptively. I sensed it as a protest or a tease, it seemed to register in my body, the dull ache in my thighs and back after the rigours of that particular exercise. My yearning for his lean, fit body became a flustered envy of it, a hopeless need simply to be seventeen, to be half my age, at the wondering outset …

  Cherif was sitting at the top of the stairs like love locked out, or as if he’d come himself for a lesson. ‘Are you ready for me?’ he said.

  ‘Baby, shouldn’t you be at work?’

  He looked at me indulgently. ‘I’ve got to get my clothes first. I can’t go in my best coat.’

  I unlocked the door with the fear that last night had been a hallucination, and that normality had come back, noiseless and solid. But then I saw how he went through the room, only half-disguising his suspicions; and I must admit I had cleaned up as if after a crime. There was sick worry and accusation in his face and way of speaking, inexpertly and bravely and cloyingly covered up. When I explained about Luc going missing he brightened and mimicked frowning concern.

  So we went hunting for him together. Cherif was to be my partner on this one, he didn’t want this drama between me and Luc ranging round town unchecked; and I let him come because I had no idea where to look and didn’t expect to be successful. It was like a task set in a dream, you went busily around, you were pointlessly systematic, your eye searched through shop-windows and cruised the crowd till you felt giddy, as if you were trying to count them. You saw a blond boy and ran to the street corner, caught up with him, as you might have wanted to anyway, and felt licensed to scrutinise him and turn him down. Cherif was useless, never having seen Luc: it was a charade for him in his high-collared coat like an old film gumshoe, more watchful for me than for the kid. He cursed him a lot, and criticised him as a truant and a trouble-maker.

  We checked out one or two cafés and bars, though it seemed likely to me Luc would be at a friend’s house, or else just walking in one of the tree-lined streets at the town’s edge. As the morning lengthened he became more poignant – suffering and confused after our night together, needing confidence and love. I contrived to come past the Cassette, and ran in for a pee, drifting back by the deserted tables and booths, the bare bar-stools where we’d sat. It didn’t seem impossible he’d be there, waiting for me, as if he had a bet on it.

  In the main shopping-streets the hateful advance parties of Christmas were out, wiring up tinny speakers from shop-front to shop-front: mechanical music was heard in the distance, even worse than the carillons, with none of their lofty resonance. I thought hysterically how I would have to go back to England and leave all this behind, give up the search with the boy still unfound. And a winter of Cherif’s bickering and disappointment. The rain spotted and blurred my glasses. I said, ‘I’d better get over to Luc’s mother – he may have turned up.’

  When we came out into the Grote Markt the low cloud seemed to buckle and bruise above the gilded gables, the belfry-top was lost, there was a sense of steeply heightened concentration. The rain was suddenly audible and swelled in a few seconds to a steady fizzing racket on the stones; it came down on us and up at us, intent and oblivious at once – I turned up my jacket collar and started to run and Cherif was splashing along beside me, shouting and laughing. There was nowhere in particular to hide: it was like being caught on a shingle beach or even out at sea. I took off my glasses and ran with them clutched in my pocket. It was a chaos of jumping, vague forms and watery obliteration – I headed for Long Street, drenched and gasping, ready to surrender: on top of all the anxieties it was oddly hilarious. I ran up to the steps and slammed the bell with my palm, and Cherif, dripping but protected by his coat, came after me and was swearing rowdily when Luc’s mother opened the door.

  We stood panting and bedraggled in the hall, like two truants ourselves, with nothing to say. Mrs Altidore was clearly alarmed by the sight of Cherif, in his filthy boots, ambling round the room as she spoke to me. The whole day was so odd it hardly surprised me to see him in this least likely place, with the water still sparkling in his curly hair, looking critically at the hangings.

  ‘He’s left town,’ she said. ‘I’m sure he has.’ I longed to say no, he’s here, he was with me all night – it was all a bother, with my clothes wet and clinging and cold, though I was hot from running and red-faced in the dark old mirror opposite. She groped in the pockets of the purple knitted house-coat she had on, and brought out a letter. ‘This has just come. It’s from Luc’s friend Arnold, who is a very responsible young man. He’s like an older brother to Luc. He’s brilliant. He’s at the university of Leuven.’

  ‘Yes, Luc’s told me …’

  ‘He says … “I thought I should tell you that I have had a long letter from Luc … much of it is very personal but he does say how much he wants to leave home … you probably know he has been very upset lately, affairs of the heart have not turned out well for him … I have tried to calm him down but I thought you should be prepared for him to do something unexpected, as he has before.”’ She held the letter out to me with the stare of someone demanding help. I read it quickly and resentfully, as evidence of an older intimacy, a more disinterested care. My hair dripped on to it and made the inky tendrils float.

  ‘I don’t know,’ I said. It was priggish, wasn’t it, and sneaky? But then Arnold didn’t know about me, about us. Nobody did.

  ‘I want you to find him,’ she said in her cracked, imperious way.

  ‘Well, of course I’d love to, but I’ve just been searching …’

  ‘I think I know where he’s gone. There’s no point in my following him, alas – it wouldn’t help. It’s not easy for a mother to look after a seventeen-year-old boy alone. He misses his father, it’s quite natural.’

  ‘You think he’s gone to his father, gone to Brussels?’ I was alarmed that he might blurt out about last night.

  She chewed her cheek. ‘Can you drive?’

  ‘Yes …’

  ‘Then take my car; I’m sure you should go straight after him. He trusts you and likes you and you’re … disinterested – you could get him back before he does anything stupid.’

  I saw myself boarding a ship in disguise and infiltrating a tense strip-poker game deep below decks. It was going to be a test of initiative, like one of our mad field-days at school. It still seemed to me somehow beside the point, but I began to catch the mother’s agitation, her dread not only of where he was going but of having driven him out. ‘I don’t want him falling into rough hands,’ she said, glancing narrowly at Cherif as if he were himself a manifestation, a messenger, of the underworld (long ignored, long suspected and feared) that was waiting to receive her son.

  ‘I’ll do whatever you like,’ I said. ‘But first I really must change, I’m soaked to the skin.’ It was clear she hadn’t noticed this till now.

  She tugged open drawers, and chopped through the clustered hangers on the cupboard rail. I wasn’t sure if she was looking for old things that didn’t matter or for something good enough and suitable. She didn’t know the leather me, only t
he sports-coat and tie me. She laid out a couple of shirts. ‘A vest?’ I nodded. ‘Underpants? Well, you can help yourself’ – thank you, I will. ‘But can you get into his trousers?’ I said I’d try them and see.

  ‘The two of you are the same height, but you of course are much fatter.’ She lifted out some dreary flannels which none the less had a beauty when you imagined them ironised by Luc’s long legs.

  I couldn’t really start changing till she’d left; I squatted to untie a shoe, and she watched me interestedly, as if to say it was years since she’d seen a man undress even so much as that. ‘I’ll give you the keys to the car,’ she said, ‘and to the Pavillon de l’Aurore.’

  ‘Thanks very much,’ I said, thinking of it still as a treat, whose magic might be broken if I protested or asked questions. For the past twelve hours or more life was living itself with a logic and fluency of its own, everyone else was in a state of crisis, but I had become calm, I knew it couldn’t be resisted.

  When she had gone I pushed the door quietly to and dragged off my wet clothes. I still had the sensation of being chilled and hot at once, like a neo-classical description of passion. A pile of heavy unlovely garments grew in the middle of the floor, as if placed by an orderly suicide. I stood in my damp jockey-shorts and slowly dried myself with Luc’s face-towel; then wandered about, looking at his pictures, the muddle on his desk. I read some notes on a pad – ‘W. born at Cockermouth(!)’, ‘Fostered alike by beauty and by fear’, various other quotations and ‘Ask Edward about’ followed by nothing. Well, I’d certainly have told him if I could.

  The framed school photo was four years old – one might have expected Luc to be cross-legged at the front, with the cups, but because of his height he was standing with boys who were evidently older – he looked vulnerable among them, his smile anxious and pre-sexual beside their thinly nonconformist grins and sneers. There were some beauties at St Narcissus, those Benelux blonds – and there, at the headmaster’s feet, was a dark Puck, round-faced young Patrick, holding a polished heraldic shield between his knees and leering as though to say, if you could see what’s behind this …

  I thought of the day I’d found Patrick in this room – sprawled just there, scuffed school shoes on Mrs Altidore’s richly worked bedspread. And the first visit – my secret excitement, the yearning I’d stifled under a kind of snootiness, it seemed to me now, as of someone only just out of his own Airfix-trophied den. And this third visit, how young it all still looked, and how unguarded, and hence reproachful.

  The flannels were too tight to get the zip up; I flicked through the other trousers and found a baggy old pair that looked possible, made of thick navy drill with carpenter’s pockets, faintly musty from a season’s neglect, with chalky lines at the knees from the oxidised hanger. On me they weren’t so baggy after all, but they could just be buttoned unflatteringly at the waist. I drew on Luc’s socks, I went to the mirror and buttoned his shirt over his cotton vest, I climbed into his russet sweater – all these things mothered and fabric-conditioned and freshly stored. I looked at myself with eerie satisfaction.

  The light wasn’t good, the rain still thrashed into the street below, and I stepped forward to see myself in the mirror, the flushed impersonator. There were long gold strands in the teeth of Luc’s comb, which must have come out as I drew it through my rain-sleeked hair and stayed there, like the first fine threads of age among the black. His clothes hugged me tightly, exactingly, like sports gear; I felt the little heart-weight of dread that preceded sports at school, looking out down the relentless track. And yet it didn’t seem to matter – I stroked my thighs and somehow they were his, this was what it felt like to have a medallist’s legs, to carry the tape with you and have it flutter down about your waist as you reined and jogged loosely on. The churches were striking noon, but in the glass it was dusk. I hovered and peered and glowed there, his inhabitant.

  Then I saw I had accepted his mother’s intuition – I wasn’t expecting him to come springing up the stairs and catch me in his things. I saw my own face sicken in the mirror. Each second that I gave up to becoming him only took him further from me. I pictured him hurtling away through the rain, faster than any runner, in a car hidden from pursuers by a twirling wall of spray, or in a train that seemed to cross in seconds from one side of this little country to the other. And why stop there? He disappeared into France, or Holland, or Germany, he was among the youthful detritus of Paris or Hamburg. And then the questions were asked. Patrick and Sibylle said how they’d left him in my care, a red-eyed slanderous snapshot, like that of Rose, was passed around the bar. No one from among the stooped churchgoers and cleaners of the winter daybreak came forward to remember him in the street, after he left me. I was the last person to have seen him alive.

  There was a knock and his mother came straight in. I saw her troubled for a moment by my rueful grimace. ‘I’ve just had a phone-call’, she said, ‘from Kristien de Taeye, the wife of the Minister of Culture.’ And already it had happened. I felt the accusing finger quiver and jab and fence me back – the finger was an épée – shielding my face into the corner of the room.

  ‘Oh yes,’ I said, feigning a search for a shoe.

  ‘Her daughter Sibylle is a very close friend of my Luc. Apparently she was with him last night. Up to a certain point.’

  ‘Aha.’

  ‘Well, she’s gone too.’

  The car was a laurel-green Renault saloon, about ten years old but with surprisingly little on the clock. Inside there was an oppressive smell of polish and plastic, it was a bit like sick, sour and sweet, or like cod-liver oil and malt. In spite of the rain I opened my window for air – the drops zipped past me on to the crocheted seat-shawls and strewn cushions of the rear window.

  So the Three had finally declared themselves. Their egg had rocked and cracked and out from its opaque wreckage had scuttled the blanched baby basilisk Luc and Sibylle. My mouth was open in a rictus of contempt, loss, jealousy, guilt – to run so quickly, and with her … How had they arranged it? Why had they even bothered? I grew claws and wings, I was a monster of gross, intolerable demands. He couldn’t face me, after what had happened. And here I was coming after him with a roar. I stamped wretchedly on the accelerator, and after a moment’s uncertainty the car thrust forward with a power it seemed almost to have forgotten. We thrummed over the cobbles of the Street of Disappointments with a new speed and a new compression of misery.

  There was something about Cherif’s coat, as he sat beside me, that only darkened the mood. It had got a soaking, of course, its first, and even within the sour-sweet stuffiness of the car it gave off a melancholy smell of its own, of wet wool, doggy and defenceless – a smell of defeat. I knew that it had lost its sheeny down, its expensive freshness, and that it would never be new again.

  I wondered why he didn’t take it off. He had sat hunched in it in the Altidores’ hall for quarter of an hour whilst I changed and talked. I came downstairs patting the pockets of Luc’s best sports-jacket, the one I had sometimes envied him, fine grey tweed with a wide yellow square in it, and there Cherif stubbornly was, unattuned, unamenable, like a foreman summoned to the mill-owner’s house. In the car he said nothing, but I knew he was glancing at me as I drove, and at the little buffetings my face was taking from the feelings I was sparring with. I winced and ducked at the wheel and knocked my glasses as I knuckled away furious tears. I couldn’t take him with me on this journey, or pretend a merely tutelary interest in Luc when I was gasping already with anger and anxiety. I would have to tell him he couldn’t come. Then he said, ‘Let me out of the car.’

  There was a van on my tail in the lashing rain, I couldn’t instantly stop, but he was in a passion of his own. ‘Let me out,’ he said again, with a frightening edge.

  ‘I can’t,’ I shouted. ‘Just fuck off a minute Cherif, Christ I’ve got enough to think about without you freaking out, you stupid cunt.’ But something had cracked in him, he was beating on my arm so it was hard to
steer; I squinted in the mirror through the already misting rear window, and for a second at him, baretoothed. I indicated right and craned forward through the murk for somewhere to pull in, and Cherif, who had never driven in his life, snatched at the hand-brake – the car swerved out for a second at the rear, and the van blasted its horn and swerved too, it was going too fast; in the wing-mirror its headlights flashed as it loomed within an inch of the wing and then hurtled past, a hand like a conductor’s, brutal, damning, out of the window.

  ‘I was about to stop,’ I said quietly, when I’d come to a halt. ‘You could have written off Mrs Altidore’s car within two minutes of leaving her house.’ I felt in fact that I had somehow escaped from a run of bad luck. I had caught a mirror before it shattered or avoided seeing the new moon through glass. I could speak for some time in this prudential vein, in the hushed control I placed on my fright, denying the childish wound of being accused, however justly. But he was fumbling with the seat-belt, prodding and tugging at the simple catch, which at last came free. It was an old belt that didn’t retract and he flung it with a clatter against the tin and plastic of the door. He jumped out of the car and stood for a moment gazing away, as if trying to choose the perfect phrase with which to go: I waited for one of his broody poetic claims, while the rain streaked down around him and over the inside of the open door. But he merely pulled the belt of the coat free and then shrugged the heavy garment off. He bundled it loosely, tumblingly, and without looking tossed it in at me like something common and contemptible. Then he turned back down the street, leaving the door standing out like a broken wing. I leant over and pulled it to and then sat and watched him quickly dwindle in the rain-bubbled side-mirror, with an involuntary catch of pleasure at his big handsome backside – he was terribly sexy to me for a moment.

 
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