The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.4Alan Hollinghurst
He said, ‘My mother’s going to bring some coffee,’ the voice light and mildly interrogative, the accent educated. Then I looked. He was lean and broad-shouldered in an old blue shirt; and I liked his big flattish backside as he walked past me, though his loose cotton trousers gave nothing else away. He was as tall as me (I could imagine him saying he was taller, and a laughing challenge, back to back). Did he understand that I was weighing and measuring him like this, or possibly envisage the tingle of desire that ran up my back when I saw his brown bare insteps between turn-up and low-cut moccasin? It was hard to know if something vain and mistrustful in his look was more than the ordinary wariness of a boy with his teacher, or of people starting cold at knowing each other.
To me of course he wasn’t quite new, though when he took his place on the far side of the table and waited for me to begin I could hardly keep from telling him how different he was from his picture, how much odder and better. In his father’s generation his features might have been thought ugly or exaggerated, though now they had come into fashion and could be admitted as wonderful in their own way; he must have taken from his father the long nose and high cheekbones which gave him the air of a blond Aztec. His eyes were narrow and colourless – his mother’s lost look given a new caution and sharpness; while his long mouth seemed burdened with involuntary expressiveness, the thick lips opening, when later I twisted a smile out of him, to show strong sexy canines and high gums. His upper lip was almost too heavy, a puckering outward curl, with no downward dimple in the fingermark beneath the nose, where it had a straight edge, as if finished off impatiently with a palette-knife. There was something engrossing, even slightly repellent, about the whole feature.
His mother knocked and brought two coffees in with a self-denying expression, as if to say that this would be her last intrusion on the serious work we had to do. Then the conversation made its faltering beginnings, and ran on for minute after minute, with topics artificially encouraged gaining a brief involuntary momentum before dying like an old engine in which too much confidence had been placed. We spoke about the geography of Belgium, the relative merits of the western plain and the south-easterly heights, and discussed the Flemish/Walloons question without reaching any very deep or new conclusions. It was a puzzling experience – I was fascinated by him, yet carrying on as though I’d been trapped with a bore at a cocktail party. Perhaps he really was a bore; there was no reason he shouldn’t be, whatever his fretful mother had said. Or was I expecting too much too soon, and ignoring his steady merits, the schoolboy’s vacant valuing of knowledge for its own sake? I felt I needed to find out about him, or like some subtle interrogator to beguile him into unnoticed indiscretions; I was slightly miffed when he started to give things away without much bother or self-importance.
He was looking sunned and well, so I asked him about his recent spell out at the seaside. He had been to the villa of a former schoolfriend, just over the French border, right on the beach at a village called St Ernest-aux-Sablonnières, to which, he told me confidently, the saint’s body had been brought after his fatal crusade. Patrick something was his great friend there, another rich kid I guessed, and they had often been together to this beach-house in the long holidays when the something family went out there. This time the fine weather on the very brink of the new term had tempted the boys to go there for a few days alone; or so I thought, and jealously hoped, until it emerged that there had also been a girl with them.
I fell into a rhythm of apparently pointless questions, so as to stretch his vocabulary; and under cover of these I went stalking through that seaside idyll that there had never been the remotest question of my sharing. First, how had they got there? In his friend Patrick’s car. Ah, and what was that? A Mini! Oh; and what was the house like? It was white, it had only one floor, and its roof was flat. A verandah with white pillars ran all along the front. To my surprise he called it a stoa. Below the house there was a garden with trees that leant over and a gate with two or three steps going down on to the dunes. The nearest house was a hundred metres off. And what of the inside? There were at least four bedrooms (so perfect chastity could conceivably have been preserved). We itemised the linen, the duvet-covers in red and green, the sheets made from an uncertain fabric. The furniture there was built out of pine and oak; there were many books on wildlife and ornithology. The theme of birds was continued on the cups and plates, and on various other items in the kitchen, which he considered a delightful room. I wanted to get back to the night hours, and ask him what he dreamed about when the noise of the waves had lulled him to sleep; but something held me back. I felt I could pry no further just now, though he rose to all these challenges with only brief hesitations and a certain chilly pride. What had they done? They had walked, read, studied indeed, discussed various matters. Such as? Such as … pollution, radio drama, the effect of wage agreements. They sounded like the dreariest people on earth. (They sounded like us.) Had they gone in the sea? Yes, although the water was quite cold. Then what had he worn to do so? A slip. Swimming-trunks, did he mean, or shorts? Trunks. And what colour were they? They were black. As it happened, he’d forgotten his own and had had to borrow Patrick’s, and they were too large. So he couldn’t keep them on? Oh he could, but it wasn’t easy … What, um, what had he read? He had read Great Expectations and something by Gramsci! (He seemed full of ideas on the latter but I kept bringing him back firmly to Pip, Magwitch and Herbert Pocket.)
When a little over an hour had elapsed there was another quick knock and Mrs Altidore stepped in and looked from one to the other of us, as if expecting a decision. There was a moment’s silence. Then she asked Luc how it had gone, and he nodded and shrugged, accustomed to evading her fuss. I told her that he had very good English and she said, ‘I know.’ She then had Luc show me out, which he did with a telling mixture of reluctance and formality. I shook his big strong hand and he nodded his forelock forward and curtly said goodbye.
Out in the street I felt almost nothing. I didn’t like to inspect my motives – I walked on quite briskly, looking about appreciatively, like someone at ease with himself and not denying a disappointment. Though the question insisted on forming, whether I had really come all this way for that.
I took a circuitous route home, past the Memling Cinema and down the street where the church of St Narcissus was. It had relatively up-to-date notices on the board at the front, though it was hard to decide whether an announcement of a pilgrimage (by bus) back in April was sufficient grounds to believe that the iron-spiked gate through which I was reading it would ever be opened again to the curious or devout. I noticed litter had gathered between the gate and the door.
Over the bridge, where my canal slid sullenly below, and there was the school. It was getting on for lunchtime. I heard a hand-bell ringing in an echoing inner courtyard, and as I crossed the road to look up at the tall, many-gabled building, its buckling purple brick braced all over with iron Es, Xs and Ss, I saw for the first time the historic uniform the boys wore: black breeches and stockings and black bum-freezers with wide collars and the yellow face of a narcissus flower picked out in braid on the pocket. Two of them who must have been quite senior were lounging in the gateway, like figures in an old print, and managed to look foppish and puritanical at the same time.
I wasn’t quite sure I got this Narcissus business: Luc, in the hagiological phase of our chat, had said that the saint was an early bishop of Jerusalem, whose bones had been brought back by Godefroi de Bouillon from the crusade of 1099. But this plausible legend seemed to have been wilfully confounded with the pagan myth of the boy-flower. Not that I minded.
When Echevin came round in the morning he brought a verbal invitation from his father to dinner, if I was free, on that very day. As I was wearying of heating cans of this and that, and eking them out with milk and biscuits and the occasional burger from the McDonald’s next to the Bishop’s Palace, I accepted, and then found myself obliged to be very gentle and helpful with Marcel, whom
I was drinking with Cherif before I went – he was even at the bar before me with beers for both of us bought and waiting. I had the sense, both warming and disconcerting, of figuring in his plans, of a space being made for me; I thought, I mustn’t let him fall in love, though I rode for a minute on the quiet high of his welcome, and half-relished the idea of a conquest; after the first excitement I knew that for me it wasn’t falling in love, even if it had a nervous, mechanical similarity to that.
Then we sat and the talk didn’t come very easily – we offered each other titbits of information and stared self-consciously around. It was almost a moment for a chat on Belgian geography. I remembered how I had planned to break free of the old routine of the pub each early evening, and here I was slipping already into the little comfortable hell of habit; the experiment seemed to be over. I set down my empty glass and gave Cherif a crumpled, sour smile, as if he was to blame for my weaknesses. I picked up a paper someone had left, and skimmed through one or two articles that vaguely interested me, explaining them to him in French – the British Conservatives were ‘desperate for the return of Mrs Thatcher’, the Flemish Minister of Culture looked for ‘a new morality in the arts’. I wondered if it wouldn’t have been better to have seen Cherif only once, and preserved the accidental sweetness of the first encounter, rather than pushing on into the stagnant shallows of the following days. But an hour later, when I had to go, would already be late for the Echevins, we had rediscovered each other, his arm was round my shoulder, his dick was stirring comically in his jeans, and I would have given anything for another drink, or just to have taken him off with me to my room. I wanted to be fucking him and kissing the shiny brown backs of his ears.
Slightly pumped up with beer I had to go to the lavatory as soon as I arrived at the Echevins’ and looked at myself in the mirror, pulling my face about into a respectable expression and tightening the knot of the blue silk tie which Edie had given me. I looked poor and improvised; the edges of my clothes were frayed and even my tie had a stain on it that I only now remembered, and which meant that I had no clean ties left. It may have been no bad thing to create a hard-up odds-and-ends impression on someone who was in a sense my employer, and I had always anyway loosely thought of myself as some kind of artist, who had a duty not to conform; but under my unhappy self-inspection I longed for a beautiful suit. Time was running faster than I realised. It was one of those lavatories with a flush which merely whirls the contents of the bowl around, removing selected items, and after a quick dry spasm regurgitates the rest to wallow reproachfully where it had been before. I stood cranking the not-yet-ready handle. The housekeeper had let me in and was still waiting for me when I emerged; she smiled sadly, but I felt from her too, as she led me up the narrow panelled staircase, a kind of disappointment. Or perhaps it was just my own sense of dislocation, out of breath after running between one world and another, a smoky bar with a juke-box and the silent elegance of an unknown house.
I had the sitting-room to myself, and wandered round it cautiously, as if I might damage something in the vague disequilibrium of drink. The panelling was painted white, as a backdrop to half a dozen Orst pastels, which glowed like oratory windows from frames three times their size: I frowned through the protecting glass at a prayerful face, the shot cerise of the afterglow. I was trying to remember the housekeeper’s name, from what Marcel had told me that morning: she had been his nanny and as good as a mother to him since his real mother’s bizarre death. Now I was in the house I thought of that bee-sting again, like the wicked intervention on which a fairy-tale turns, and of the survivors as existing under its long shadow.
Echevin was a late father, a handsome man in his sixties, pleasantly bald, and without the moustache I for some reason expected him to wear, so that his face had a sensitive, surprised look of some charm. His eyes were large, with oaky flecks in their pale blue pupils. He had on the grey suiting of a business man, but with unusual tucks and vents, which seemed to hint at his role in the arts. The housekeeper came back with a jug of punch (Mrs Vivier, Mrs Vivier) and he offered me a glass with a little murmur, as if he hadn’t yet decided if we were going to be friends. I was hot and on edge and gabbled about Rubens and the charm of old brick in my most ingratiating manner, to which his answers, in rapid, unselfconscious English, were polite but brief. I told myself he didn’t need to hear all this, but I was shy of bringing the interview round to the question of Marcel; in the end all he said was that the boy had never known the brief glad hours of childhood, or some such phrase, perhaps a quotation. Paternal love, watchful and removed, as I had known it and lost it myself, showed through for a moment. He saw he didn’t need to tell me my behaviour had been ill judged and over-severe – I made an unsolicited promise to be kind to Marcel, and over supper beamed at him and joked in a way he seemed to find quite sinister after my earlier toughness. I didn’t know if it was quite tactful to say to Echevin:
‘Marcel tells me he’s not an admirer of Orst’s work.’ It might have been a matter of contention between them.
‘No,’ he replied crisply. ‘But there are other things in life than the works of Orst. And besides, they are not calculated to appeal to children. A taste for the femme fatale comes later; if at all.’ Over the course of the meal a mild counter-argument to the effect that a boy of sixteen was no longer a child had been forming in my mind, and when I ran back to the romantic poseur I had been at the same age I thought I saw someone who would have revelled in Orst’s private purgatory.
‘I think they’re really depressing,’ said Marcel with a grin which showed this was a permitted house-heresy.
After supper, which left me feeling stuffed and clumsy, Echevin called me through to his workroom, while Marcel, to emphasise how they were keeping their side of the bargain, was sent to study his verbs. The poor kid came tolerantly in with Knowles’s English Grammar, which he stuck under my nose and tapped before climbing on to the sofa and mouthing vacantly to himself, like a tiny child rehearsing imaginary friends. When we came back twenty minutes later he was leaning sideways and wheezily asleep.
I think his father’s decision to show me what he was at work on was spontaneous, and so perhaps regretted: a moment of mid-evening confidence when a quiet chat, politely repeating itself and running down until it was time for me to go, would have been expected and even welcome. He had gone ahead, while I was saying to Marcel with a new fake-sternness, ‘I should like, you would like’, insisting on a pointless and unobserved distinction. I thought with surprising nostalgia of chasing velvety butterflies of vocab with Luc; and that in turn called up a summery haze of anxiety and desire.
Echevin’s study surprised me by being where it was: he had entered what I thought could only be a cupboard in the thickness of the wall but when I followed I passed through a short brick tunnel and climbed two steps into a bright, crammed office on the first floor of the adjacent building: the director’s office of the Orst Museum. I wondered if he regularly came back here after supper for silent work uninterrupted by the phone or the half-curious public chattering up the stairs that I saw through an open door beyond. A public brought in by the damp lowland weather, obedient to a notice in a hotel hallway or to a Michelin guide: what would they take away from these cryptic works of art? And what would their creator have cared for these chance visitors? Echevin gestured to a portrait photograph high on the wall: a lean-faced man of fifty, with a short, pointed silvery beard, sitting with cheek tilted towards the jewelled knob of a cane: the fastidious ironic look of the heterosexual bachelor, half dandy and half clergyman, and an air of steely enigma, almost as if he sought to outdo the starlit sphinx he had painted, which now stood propped against the opposite wall with rubber corners shielding the c
And maybe it was a bore to work so long and closely with a man who looked so coldly down from above two thousand books and catalogues (in French and Flemish, German and English, Danish, was that?, Hungarian, and Japanese) that somehow, if only by a footnote, touched on him, or on his world and time. Echevin’s note was less that of boredom than of a polite impatience, which I felt as I stumbled after him was directed equally at me and at Orst himself. Unsure quite what to do now we were there, standing side by side at the immense plain desk which took up half the room, he flicked open a folder and just like his son a minute or two before tapped the pile of photostats inside with a strong square finger. ‘These should interest you,’ he said, without complete conviction. He turned one or two of them over but didn’t give me time to see them properly. ‘His articles for the British press. There. “A Great Belgian Sculptor” – that was about Meunier – no, you may not know of him. That was in The Studio – and there, “Burne-Jones’s Funeral”, from The Times: did you know Burne-Jones was the first painter to be given a service at Westminster Abbey? A strange and admirable choice, don’t you think?’ He closed the folder again: ‘Orst was once a famous figure in London, when England was open to the influence of Europe and when Belgium was the focus of the avant-garde. But that was a long time ago.’
‘Yes, I’m afraid I’d never seen one of his pictures in the flesh until I arrived here.’
The Folding Star: Historical Fiction by Alan Hollinghurst / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes