The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.41Alan Hollinghurst
A sort of eternity opened up, like double physics on a school-day afternoon, the palate dry, the hands smelling of rubber and copper … My head lolled in yawn after yawn. Events were dull and rhythmless – a cat’s finical patience along the forecourt’s low wall, the passing of long-distance lorries, tared and flagged, that shook the car with their bluster. I tried to remember the whole of poems I’d once learned by heart, to keep awake, but memory was tarnished, words were spotted over, image blurred into image and poet into poet. When they faltered I left them and went drowsily towards the mirage they had conjured up, of summer dusks, funny old anecdotes, old embarrassments that still made me burn, boys’ cocks and kisses under elms that had died with my boyhood’s end. And then the poems had their various occasions and points of view, which like the advice of well-meaning friends seemed hardly to take the measure of my own mood and problems. It was all so far from last night. I lived back through that with thumping heart and closed eyes. ‘This man is quickened so with grief, He wanders god-like or like thief, Upstairs and down – round and round – something like that – below, above, Without relief seeking lost love.’ Godlike or like thief: I saw what it meant for the first time in the twenty years I’d known the poem. But then lost love … Had I lost it? Had I ever had it? Or hadn’t I cleverly maximised the trouble by losing something that had never been mine? I looked at the ugly shuttered building with a moan of pure need – and a wild, small-hours certainty of being punished and forbidden.
I went down by the waters, and a bird
Sang with your voice in all the unknown tones
Of all that self of you I have not heard,
So that my being felt you to the bones.
When Marcel’s alarm went off I woke with the same metallic fear and sense of being far from home. He roused himself so slowly that it seemed pointless to expect him to sit alertly until 6 o’clock. Still, he snapped his seat upright and sat pawing his head, as if expecting to play his part. Perhaps he wouldn’t feel as lonely and foolish as me. I settled back, pulling the musty multi-coloured crochet of the shawls around me, already fetishising them as remote kin of Luc’s own bedspread, familiar, unnoticed trappings that he sprawled and stirred amongst, thinking of elsewhere.
I dreamt we were at Mr Croy’s. Luc was lying naked on the table, surrounded by five or six men, some in naval uniform, a couple in cheap suits with their huge cocks jutting sideways and already seeping into the taut cloth. I was somehow amongst them but also outside and above their casually concentrated circle, as if I were writing the story of the dream and setting them in motion. I seemed to catch and share the haunting, forgotten dynamic of group sex, jealous and democratic at once. And Luc was ready for the ritual, lifting his head slightly, moistening his dry upper lip with a nervous tongue-tip. But to my bafflement all the men did was inspect him, closely but politely, as if they might have him but hadn’t decided, and didn’t want to mark him and be obliged to pay. Or almost like doctors, whose interest was scientific and excited by other invisible symptoms. I saw them push his legs apart, run their hands lightly, testingly up and down his thighs, and over his chest and stomach. One of them weighed his balls noncommittally in the palm of his hand, while another slipped back his foreskin and pinched open the little goldfish mouth of his swollen cock-head. They turned him over and one of them pressed his cheeks apart while the rest appraised his other hidden orifice; I saw it clench and gape with anticipation and delay.
I was in the bathroom, confused by the back corridors of Mr Croy’s, the pantries and stairways overhung by dripping cisterns. I knew I wanted to get back to the main room – I had left it with the repressed anxiety with which one leaves luggage briefly unattended or asks a stranger to keep one’s place in a long and hungry queue. I trotted round in confusion, sometimes hearing a shout or a slap from behind locked doors, through walls. I caught just a glimpse of Mr Croy himself, in a curtained back parlour – gross, brilliantined, with a gin and tonic, listening to ‘Beggars in Spats’. A sense of misery and wasted money began to weigh in my chest.
When I got back to the room, they were fucking Luc one after the other, the inside of his thighs was slimed with sperm and spit. A line had formed, and when one had finished he pulled out and stumbled back to the end of the queue, briefly stroked and kissed by his friends as he passed them. I kept trying to join the queue – I explained to them that Luc was my lover, and made extravagant claims about his Wordsworth essay, but they thought that was a bit of a joke and pushed me away. Each time I came back they repulsed me more roughly, till I was thrown to the floor, and then kicked at as I crawled back, gazing up at their sweating naked buttocks and slicked cocks, not hearing their whispered jokes as they jostled and practice-fucked each other and edged forward towards the splayed, stoned, leering boy. ‘But why?’ I kept pleading, sobbing. ‘He’s mine. I’m sharing him with you, because I want you to be my friends.’ But they sneered and punched me and told me to piss off.
I woke shaken and convinced. I lay there panting, almost grateful to find myself in a cold, smelly car in the bleak twilight of a foreign roadside. I stretched and looked at my watch’s faint hands: 5.45 – it made me groan for my big high bed. Above me rose the back of Marcel’s seat, and his head hung sideways as he slept, never quite rolling off the edge and waking him. I sat up, hardly surprised, sorry for the kid. Each forceful breath of his misted the windscreen in a circle that shrank and cleared before the next one fleetingly condensed there.
I slid out and went gaping and stamping down the road. The dream-mood still muddled me and startled me with scree-rattles of panic and pique. Croy’s venetian-blinded bathroom, and the men cleaning up as if after cricket or squash, with occasional comically ordinary remarks – ‘That was a good one this evening’, ‘Yes, he’s shaping very well’ … Of course I knew those days would never come again, it was only in dreams of one kind or another that the party went on – I didn’t need so brutal a reminder. It had the vividness of waking experience, and seemed available to memory with none of the usual fade. Beside it, all around it, my real situation, wandering before dawn on the outskirts of a Flemish town, seemed relatively dreamlike, implausible, only to be accounted for by the subtlest symbolic analysis. An old man with a knapsack came past and greeted me humorously and I answered him with tremendous gusto – the day’s first phlegmy utterance mad with unadjusted warmth. I strolled across the forecourt of the flats and looked again, more at leisure, at the names on the bells. This time they all seemed brightly familiar, but only because I had looked at them before. I frowned back from the porch to see if Marcel’s alarm had rung yet: I wouldn’t tease him, I supposed he would absorb the lapse into his general resignation, his history of witnessed failures … I came down the steps with a lurch when I saw the Mini had gone. I ran to the empty space and stared at where an irised patch of oil glinted freshly in a pale oblong of tarmac.
We had Luc’s mother’s hand-drawn map and went at a crawl along country lanes, like a couple invited to a party in a remote farmhouse. The distances were meticulously given but hard to judge on the ground: I slowed and craned out through the grey dawn light at several gateways. I was furious to have lost the youngsters and was coldly forgiving to Marcel; at the same time I felt the irrational high spirits that come with a brief reprieve, a beating held off. ‘That’s it,’ said Marcel, with odd optimism.
It was a gate into a wood. I pulled over on to the grassy halfcircle in front of it and sat looking for a minute – it was clear no one had been here, at least not by car. A heavy chain lay slumped round the central uprights, but when I got out I found that it wasn’t locked. In the middle of each gate a roundel like a battered hubcap was fixed to the flaking wrought iron and on it I could just make out in rust-blurred relief the monogram TA. Oh, they left their mark on things. I peered through into a pine avenue, where it was still dark.
We agreed that they weren’t here, but both pandered to the other’s half-hidden desire to see the place. Mrs Altidore h
We came out into a wide tussocky field, the drive remembered and rutted by farm machinery, and juddered over a dully chiming cattle-grid. In front there was a high silhouette, a bulk of grey, that I steered towards, the car’s underside slithering over long grass. Then there was a paved court stacked with farmer’s hurdles and fuel-drums and a mossy, moping statue peering down: it could have been anyone, a shepherd, a prophet, even Aurora herself. Beyond it a few steps rose to a padlocked steel door. This was better, it was adventure in a recognisable form – we clambered out and sniffed the air.
On the far side of the little château stretched a ravaged lawn, marked out by the bloated thriving forms of what must once have been pyramids of yew. From the slippery elevation of the terrace I could see a pond, a lake, beyond it, choked with reeds and fallen branches. The light rose steadily, there were bars of orange above the tops of the firs, a blackbird started up, clear and unconcerned. It was just the time to see the place, not the kind of dawn Luc’s grandfather had named the house for or would ever have witnessed there, cold skies above a drenched wilderness; though there were hints of classic pleasures, a cloud on the lake just big enough to clothe a god in a fresco stooping on a sex-quest. I’d lost Marcel; I wandered down towards the water, reluctantly moved by the relics of all this fake galanterie, my mind vaguely in summer, though a cold gust insisted it was December and made me twitch up Luc’s jacket-collar. I turned back and saw the tiny top windows of the tower colour in the early sun, as though lanterns burnt in them.
The main part of the Pavillon de l’Aurore was a French-looking villa with long windows boarded up and stucco that gaped here and there on to cheap red brick. One end of it had sunk and opened a wandering crack in the upstairs wall; above it the roof was hidden under a canopy of rusting corrugated iron that the wind had loosened and buckled – from time to time it gave a squawk.
Marcel was quite excited. ‘I think he could be here,’ he said. He’d been exploring the garages and the kitchen-yard – apparently a window had been forced, but he wouldn’t be able to get through it without a leg-up and a push from me. He took me round to show me and I peered in at a derelict pantry, the door at the back half-open on to pale gloom. Well, it could have been Luc, but I played down the likelihood. ‘Thieves always break in at the remotest part of a house,’ I said, alarmed for a moment that Marcel might dare me to go in. I poked at the mossy sill as if I knew what to look for. ‘It’s probably not that recent.’ He leant in and called ‘Luc’, then jumped back when there was a distant scuffling and the creak of a pigeon’s wings.
I laughed nervously and Marcel gripped my arm. ‘I do have the keys to the front door,’ I said, and he gazed at me as if I might unlock his first grown-up experience; he was shrinking from it already. I thought how later I would tell Luc about this – then remembered that he might actually be here, might have heard the car ticking over and taken it for steady rain on the laurels, might have heard our voices beyond shuttered windows, might be roused from shivering runaway sleep by the key in the lock and the scrape of the heavy door.
The air inside seemed to wake reluctantly, to turn and eddy in the light and draught after years of accumulated stillness. Dust climbed and spun on the edge of the bright threshold; the hall smelt musty but obscurely alive, as if animals tunnelled and marked their territories in it. I groped and found a stiff old metal light-switch and forced it till it gave out a dead click.
Marcel said there was a torch in the car and ran out to get it whilst I stepped timidly into the near-darkness, following the wall around with a squeamish hand. I came to an opening, the moulded edge of an archway, and registered as a blind person might an impending change of scale; I slid my feet forward over the gritty flags, thinking there might be a step; when I coughed the echo climbed and dropped through a hidden vastness, like a chapel. Too scared to go on, I slunk back into what seemed the dazzle of the hall, the spotlight of the winter morning through the open door, along which Marcel stepped like a comedian. ‘Come on, there’s nothing to be scared of,’ I said – then he switched on his own strong beam.
Away to the right a succession of rooms opened out. We went through them as if Marcel were my guide to an ancient tomb, I was itching to seize the lamp off him. He played it about solemnly but without interest over bare walls, high coved ceilings, the battened-up embrasures of the windows. The place had been abandoned but wasn’t quite empty – in one room there was a trio of gilt ballroom chairs, in another the bench-seat of an old car where vagrants might have drunk and slept. High up on the walls ran the brass rods for hanging tapestries, bare plaster below them never meant to be seen. The torch came back and steadied on scrawled lettering: KRIS and a spouting cock and balls.
The final room was the grandest and most ruinous. Here the floor had dropped, and with it a pair of pillars which leaned apart, showing iron spindles which ran up through their wooden cores. It was all trumpery, up to the café-rococo of the ceiling, where a naked woman hovered in the blue. Perhaps she really was Aurora, faded and leprous, with a chalky beard where the plaster was rifted with damp. One eye was lost, the other large and inviting. The chains of a massive lamp descended from her feet – it hung in a dangerous canopy above the great slate slab of a billiard-table. Marcel was astonished by the table – the vanished baize, the few rotted strings of the pockets; he pushed the tabs back and forth on the scoreboard’s rusty rails.
‘We’d better look out the back,’ I said, and he swallowed with fright and swung the light about again, over the pillars and the sylph of the cold ceiling. Since I was in charge I was resolute – it happened like that; and he came along trustingly. I was talking to Paul in my head and didn’t get the feeling he minded what we were doing. It wasn’t like the time I had followed Matt into the Rostands’, though that distant episode seemed to haunt this one, rather as one place in a dream becomes another.
We had nothing to fear beyond birds and rats along the kitchen corridor. In a dank larder the shelves of a dresser were piled with straw and shit like some old colombier; the boards had been ripped from the windows, brambles quested in. The kitchen range held a nest that took me back for a second to the drawings of a childhood nature-book – auburn fieldmice perched on ears of wheat. There were bottles and cans and cigarette-butts of temporary residents, as there must once have been cases of champagne empties and the ash of gaming parties that went on till dawn. KRIS was commemorated here too, with the same phallic totem; I wondered if he was the object of fantasy or the boastful vandal-artist himself. We went down a passage where the paint on the wainscot had shrunk and cracked like the glaze on an old dinner-service: at the end a door with a splintered upper panel swung open on to a descending stair and a shallow cellar full of water.
We came back through a side-door into the entrance-hall. It was time for the echoing room – I knew what it must be, the rotunda of the tower. I took charge of the torch at last – just borrowed it a moment and swivelled the beam up the dark walls. The stairs rose from here and were glimpsed again higher up, pausing at an opening with a balcony. The light swept over a cupola and down, and there on the other side the faces were waiting.
The artist had painted another balcony for them, cunningly shadowed, and the revellers lounged along it, some gazing upwards, as it might be at stars or fireworks, others leaning on the rail to peer down at new
Theo Altidore stood in the middle, hand on hip, turbaned and robed in red, a scimitar in his belt. I couldn’t tell if his rajah’s moustaches were real or part of the costume. He was stout and high-coloured, with the irritable glare of the determined pleasure-seeker, handsome, young still, but already the man he would become. The brilliant picture, untouched by smoke or rain, could only show, like the Pavillon itself, how far he had wandered from Guillaume’s austere refinement. He reminded me of bankers at Glyndebourne pretending to be aesthetes (betrayed by drink) or Tatler spreads on charity balls – the Duke of Somewhere, a frightful old monster, got up as a sheik or an Indian prince, never anything less than his own status. And it was notable how Theo had chosen the glamour of another empire than the one that was to ruin him. I could see why he’d frightened little Luc with his sword and his stare and his party of idlers.
But then the whole place spoke of adult pleasures and delusions – it was mad to think that Luc would ever have wanted to come here. His mother and I revealed some romantic failing of our own, poetic suppositions that had nothing to do with the boy’s troubles and discoveries, the hidden upheavals of love. I was such a bad teacher. I stood for a while at the open front door, feeling tired and dirty. It wasn’t just that I hadn’t found Luc there in person. He wasn’t there in other ways I’d hoped for: I’d dreamt of the house as a means of possessing him, of entering his past at a deep and early level, but the jumpy ten minutes inside gave me nothing but a lonely shell. I started to snivel pathetically and turned away in case Marcel should see me. Then I heard the dull report of a car on the cattle-grid.
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