The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.40Alan Hollinghurst
I stayed and calmed myself. I was going to the Museum, to warn Paul I was leaving town, but I couldn’t turn up like this. I groped for a handkerchief, and of course it was Luc’s, not altogether clean, with a trouser-pocket staleness, gummed up with snot which clung in the creases in hard translucent grains, like rice: I placed one on my tongue, half-expecting it to liquefy as in some miracle with a saint’s salved fluids. The jacket was a lovely one, a somewhat conventional garment, with its Scotland-Piccadilly-Brussels pedigree, for a teenage runaway – but that was just Luc’s ambiguity. It suited me more than his other things, and gave me that stamp of square-shouldered smartness I could never fully attain myself. I had seen his mother’s hesitation as I lifted it down on its hanger, like something I couldn’t afford. ‘Yes, take it,’ she said – I was only borrowing it, but I could tell it helped her to let it go, it confirmed how she was rising to the challenge. She seemed almost enthusiastic when she saw the clumsy simulacrum of her son that had assembled itself in her own house.
In the breast-pocket was a carnet of tram-tickets, half of them already punched with the dates and times of errands across town – remote evidence of … something; a pair of rosy ticket-stubs from the Memling Cinema that spoke of a shared two hours of darkness with … someone; and a folded strip of paper with St Alban Street 73 written on it, which was my address. I had no idea how he knew it, or why it was there; it seemed vaguely incriminating, so I tore it up, and then struggled with the question of where to put the scraps, when I was in his clothes and in his mother’s car.
On standard speed the wipers made an indolent, halting trawl of the windscreen, but on full speed they flicked from side to side so fast you felt the mechanism was about to snap. Marcel told me about the wipers on a friend’s father’s BMW, apparently adjustable to anything from lento to prestissimo at the touch of a finger, and with varying degrees of intermission. He was interested in cars, but only so far at the level of fixtures; he played determinedly with the cigarette-lighter and had quickly assessed the austere alternatives of the heating-system. We travelled in a roar of boosted warmth, peering out under misted arcs at the flowing stampede of cloud.
The idea that Luc and Sibylle were somewhere ahead of us and would wait to be found lost all sense in the midday darkness, streaked with cars’ lights, in the drowned anonymity of the road. Oh, I wanted to get to him first, to find out what story he was telling, to do a deal with him – but if he had been at the station early he could be hundreds of miles away by now. His mother thought not; she said it was another of his moody crises, which could be drastic in effect but were local in physical range. I gripped the wheel, ignobly anxious for myself but also with a larger, dimmer wish that he shouldn’t fuck up his young life.
Marcel was restless, eager, whisked away from his lessons on a quest for his beautiful and scandalous senior. He was pinkfaced at the privilege of it and chattered solemnly until my nervous silence, my curt demands for help with road-signs and turnings, affected him too, rather as a parent’s misery seeps into a child and subdues it. I heard the drag of his breathing amid the heater’s bluster, and then the breathy squawk of his inhaler. When I remembered I gave him a little side smile and saw him sigh with sudden reassurance. I knew that under all our tension and ignorance we were both excited by our own activity, and admired ourselves, swept forward through the murk by the exhilarating imperatives of a crisis.
It was a little crisis for him as well, of course. He had stood by with an ironic mime as I told his father that Luc had run away again – his gestures were still the moue and wiggle of the head of Lilli Vivier, his protecting friend, maybe even of his remembered mother. When I said that Sibylle had gone too I had quite forgotten for a second how Marcel worshipped her. I saw him caught by a real discovered feeling of his own – he stepped forward. Then Paul had calmly proposed that Marcel come with me and made the condition that we speak only in English – it was to be a lesson of a kind. Marcel hesitated – he wasn’t quite sure of the momentum of the thing; and again I saw his father rather clownishly encourage him, rather bruisingly exaggerate and publicise his blushing little tendresse. I put a hand on the kid’s shoulder out of generalised sympathy. It was true he was a friend of Sibylle’s: he knew far more of her than I did. I thought Sibylle herself probably didn’t know, or at least kindly overlooked, the full extent of his feelings, however vague and ideal they may have been. As I glanced across at him in the car I wondered if it was my own failure of imagination – there was no reason he shouldn’t be just as filthy-minded as I had been at sixteen. For a mad moment I thought I should tell him what Luc and I had done last night; but the moment passed and left me more wretched than before.
‘I expect they’ll have to tell the police,’ Marcel said.
‘Ooh, let’s hope we can get to them first,’ I said; though I saw he thought the police would be best, both at finding them and at somehow punishing Luc. ‘It’s a bit early for that. As a matter of fact I know Sibylle’s father wants this kept very quiet – it could be embarrassing for him, and Luc’s father too, of course.’ I’d stood by as Mrs Altidore rang both these figures, and watched her persuade them of her exciting and ridiculous plan. De Taeye had been called out of an important meeting and had evidently spoken under some constraint; he had jumped at the idea of my going to sort things out. I heard her give me an incredible reference, a summing-up not exactly of insights, but of a high regard she’d never hinted at to me in person; and Martin Altidore too had been right behind me: I picked up from his wife’s reactions his opening tone of shifty exasperation and then his relief, almost a shout when she proposed me as an envoy. As before I thought, I don’t know what I’m doing, or why these people trust me so much. Their expectations crowded on to me and became a reason in themselves.
‘Were the police involved the last time?’ I said.
He had the story all ready. ‘Yes, they brought him back to school in the first lesson.’
‘But he hadn’t actually done anything wrong?’
‘Drink. Drugs. Smoking. Theft. Trespassing. Swearing at a policeman.’
‘You’re supposed to be talking English,’ I said, to hide the shock this incident still caused me. I didn’t want him to find the words to go on about it. The imagined scene was too tender and painful, too much my own dark possession. ‘I have the idea you didn’t like Luc very much.’
He was silent, turned to gaze through his smeared side-window at the hidden farms. ‘He set fire to my hair,’ he said at last.
‘Oh my god.’
‘Altidore and Dhondt. Dhondt was worse, but Altidore always did what he said. They set fire to my cape and gave me an asthma attack.’
It was a wonder he wasn’t done for arson as well. ‘But that’s terrible,’ I said; I was cross and disappointed and very slightly excited.
‘Yes, it is. I had to go to hospital as you know. Altidore had already had his warning before he ran away.’
‘But you think it was … Dhondt who was really behind it.’ I was lost in this horrible vision of Luc as a coward and a bully. It must have been Dhondt with his dreadful gorged cudgel who had driven him on.
‘Turn left, turn left!’ shouted Marcel, as if I were stupid beyond redemption.
We came to a nondescript town – it didn’t even have a name: the sign lay in the verge beside a lorry’s water-logged tyre-ruts. Marcel announced that he was hungry, and I wished he hadn’t come with me: I saw my quest hindered by his needs and robbed of its proper comfortless urgency.
We sat in an empty café and looked out over the empty square. Marcel ate a cheeseburger greedily – he laid claim to his food as though his fat had its independent demands; but it delayed and solaced him too. I half watched him, half kept an eye on the war-memorial and the passers-by in the precipitate dusk. Then the rain ceased – there was a brief brightening, hurried glimpses of light above the housetops, yellow cloud-grottoes from which winged faces might momentarily tumble above a holy vict
I strolled across the square, jittery but slow. I was trying to picture a meeting with Luc – they were hitching and ran up to the car with a grateful look, not a great car but still, Luc saw it was his mother and swerved away, while Sibylle tugged open the door and saw with horror it was me. Luc and I not knowing if we were friends or enemies, friends or lovers. Or we met at the coast, and for a long time said nothing at all. I lost my feeble advantage, I didn’t know how to talk him down off the high ledge of his decision.
The memorial was a little crag in itself, with a hundred names still sharp in the granite of the base. Up above stood a bronze soldier, handsome, downcast, with a virtuoso moustache, not quite attractive to me, but solid with pathos. He was broad and steady, and confident of effect. I took him in with a shock – the rain-shiny helmet and cape, the out-of-doors certainty of him after the arcane fictions of Orst.
I was watching the Mini for a second or two before the thump of recognition – its provoking mauve, the unforgotten number-plate. It trundled toy-like across the square, the driver’s visor down against the sun and the lights still on from the rain. I saw the mission helplessly complicated by Patrick, coming after the others to persuade and alter and exercise whatever his uncertain power was. And then it made my job more lonely and absurd. Already I was embarrassed to be seen, so quick off the mark, there ahead of him, panting after Luc, he would think. I turned away from the approaching car.
But when it came past it wasn’t Patrick but Sibylle at the wheel, frowning forward – though in the moment she was alongside her eyes flicked to me (a figure she knew, in clothes she remembered), held me and then denied me, though a little swerve of the car betrayed the effort of self-control, and I saw her in silhouette shift her head to follow me in the mirror. So Luc was here or close by, there was a twist of relief that it was almost over already …
I ran towards the café, gesturing through the window at Marcel. I’d seen which road Sibylle had taken out of the square, but by the time we were back in the car and after her there was no one to be seen ahead. The street curved and wandered for a few hundred yards, until it reached a T-junction. We both of us peered to left and right and Marcel gave a shrug and dropped his hands, as if to say he had never rated our chances. I went right, with what may have seemed like decisiveness. ‘Keep your eyes open,’ I said. Rain slapped across the windscreen, like water tipped down from an awning after a storm.
If I had chosen left it might all have been over sooner. It wasn’t till twenty minutes later that I spotted the parked car, semi-concealed in the forecourt of a building – tall, grey, pebble-dashed, metal-shuttered, a newish apartment block on the rubbishy edge of town. I left the Renault in the road, and sprinted with Luc’s jacket pulled above my ears. I thought my fate today was to be drenched over and over – I saw a succession of changes into strangers’ clothes. Beside the front door was a panel of lit buttons, and I read the names twice, first as gibberish, then slowly, as if each of them did indeed distantly ring a bell.
‘We’re waiting opposite the house.’
‘I see. Thank you.’
‘I suppose we’ll just have to wait until one of them comes out.’
‘I wish I knew who they were with – I don’t know anyone who lives there. They must be friends of Sibylle’s.’
‘Or Patrick’s, perhaps.’ I heard Mrs Altidore’s sigh. ‘Of course I don’t know that Patrick is actually here. I’ve only seen his car.’
‘But if they’re all here, then it looks less serious – it’s just some silly prank.’
‘I’ve had Kristien de Taeye on the phone for an hour at least. She blames it all on Luc.’
I twisted round with the receiver under my chin, but I couldn’t see as far as the house from the bar’s back corner. I’d taken the precaution of having a small beer pulled. It was waiting, out of reach, chilled and golden on the dark oak counter. ‘I’m running out of change,’ I said. ‘I’ll ring you again.’
‘Yes, please.’ I was improvising my new confidential role, in loco parentis – I felt the sharp tug of her dependence on me, Luc at the centre of all our needs.
‘Or maybe I’ll just turn up with him’ – I almost said ‘bound and gagged’. I rang off and downed the beer in two swallows, like a reward for being prompt and considerate. Outside it was already dark and it seemed like a freak of virtue to leave without setting up a few beers more. But I did.
It wasn’t easy to keep watch, with the dark and the rain and the pearling of our own heat and breath on the car windows. I felt rather fatuous – I hadn’t found the tempo of it yet, I expected something to happen straight away and sat forward, staring vaguely. When it rained, the view was rapidly obliterated; the dark bulk of the building, with the glare of the lobby and one or two chinks of shuttered light above, was puddled and smeared by the water on our windscreen, streaming in its own multiple faint refractions of the street-lamps. Then I would start the engine and swill the rain off with a couple of sweeps of the wipers. Everything took on a new clarity – it was like putting on my glasses and catching the world as it came to attention, legible and commonplace. Then the corner of a window wobbled and ran, the concrete canopy of the porch twitched and melted.
Marcel was easily bored and easily scared, but he took to the long tedium of the stake-out better than I did. He said it reminded him of a scene in a film where Eddie Murphy was being watched in a hotel by two incompetent cops in a car; he had it on video and gave me verbatim, twice, the sequence where Murphy, who in fact has come and gone as he pleases, surprises his guards with a tray of coffee and rolls. I winced to think how far away the morning was. I failed to rise to his little performance, too taken up with my own memories of waiting and watching, the involuntary predator.
‘I’m sorry about Luc bullying you,’ I said, almost taking responsibility for him, swallowing at the memory of his softly interrogative kisses, seeing in the blurred glass a weird and displaced image of his naked body rinsed with my sweat.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Marcel said, sounding weary of indignities. ‘I don’t suppose he could help it.’
I gave a snuffly little laugh. ‘Well, anyone can help bullying, surely?’
Marcel nodded from side to side, as if weighing up long experience. An approaching car washed us with light, like a couple in front of a television, then left us in shadow. ‘He was, you know, very mad. A lot of people at school were not friends of his. Then Dr Boesmans used to come and see him.’
‘Oh yes. You mean my landlord in St Alban Street?’ Marcel nodded. ‘And what did Dr Boesmans say?’
‘I don’t know. It’s confidential. He used to see some of the boys in the sick-room after school – if they had problems …’ – and he tapped his temple with his forefinger.
‘You mean he’s a psychiatrist. I thought he was just … an ordinary doctor.’
‘He’s a very famous psychiatrist,’ Marcel said quietly.
I felt a futile retrospective tenderness for Luc, having his boyhood troubles sorted out by this famous old man. And then I saw, with a bleak little sinking of the heart, what the scrap of paper in his pocket had been. It wasn’t my address he was remembering, but Dr Boesmans’. It was just the sort of thing his mother would keep from me: she must have sent him to him again. That was why he had faltered for a moment when he saw where I lived, the escapade was shadowed for him by meetings of another kind.
‘How do you know this?’ I said.
He rubbed his side-window and peered out. His answer was reluctant. ‘Sibylle told me.’ Well, she would know. ‘But she says Luc’s mother is mad herself, and so does my father.’
‘His father is a mauvais sujet,’ said Marcel.
‘I suppose that’s what Sibylle says too,’ and I laughed.
He didn’t deny it. I thought of Maurice that evening at dinner at Paul’s, the sense he had given that Luc was as mauvais a sujet as his father. It seemed the masters and the boys mistrusted him, shunned him, for being a bit mental.
Later on it cleared and there were stars. It felt like midnight but it was only 8.30. Cars came and went from the forecourt opposite, my heart raced whenever figures appeared in the glass hallway or we heard the dim boom of the heavily sprung front door. I felt our secrecy leach from us as the roadway dried; people walked past and noticed that our head-rest silhouettes shielded two real watchful heads. Luc might already have glanced down from an unlit window and seen his mother’s car and wondered what posse had come to claim him back. I was full of envy of the town and its ordinary evening. An Alsatian came alongside, followed by a man in a leather jacket: they crossed in front of the car, went past the flats and slipped through a gap in the fence, the man swinging the leather-handled chain suggestively/threateningly. The dog barked as it ran off over the dark waste ground.
It was Marcel’s idea that we take it in turns to watch while the other slept, with him to sleep first. He bared his wrist and swivelled and counter-rotated various rings of his shockproof chronometer: they seemed to indicate that it was time to eat, so I sent him off with a few francs and he came back with a cardboard tray of chips, some coffee biscuits and a sickening lilac pop. There was an intent little feast in the car while I smoked a cigarette outside and wandered to the wasteland for a pee, thinking my way casually but grossly through a fantasy about the man with the dog.
It was getting cold so we plundered and distributed the rugs and cushions; Marcel lifted a lever and pressed back in his seat till it was fully reclined. For the first time I felt a kind of comfort in having him there: I thought he didn’t know what was going on, his attention faltered; but he’d be useful with Sibylle – I’d have to make use of him if the moment came. His breathing slowed as he slept and sounded like widely spaced snorts of vexation.
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