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The folding star histori.., p.42
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       The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.42

           Alan Hollinghurst

  The mauve Mini was coming over the field, bouncing and struggling on the rutted track. That terrifying little car. I waited for it shiftily, trying to make out if it contained one, two, or even three people – perhaps they’d all come to tell me the game was over, they would get out and lean on the open car door and marvel at my folly. It buzzed on to the mossy flagstones and stopped dead in front of the statue. There was only Sibylle inside – she sat for a while glaring out. It was clear to me she’d been sent by Luc to deliver some ultimatum and was working herself up to it and concentrating her anger at me and my blind interventions. Then she spotted Marcel, who was standing away to my right, frowning, head on one side in one of his gawky ‘grown-up’ attitudes.

  She got out and hurried over to him, kissed him on both cheeks. ‘Mm, you need to shave,’ she said. Marcel giggled and fell silent; they stood blinking at one another, as if each trying to formulate an explanation of how they came to be here.

  ‘There’s an amazing billiard-table inside,’ said Marcel.

  ‘Is there?’ She smiled encouragingly and sauntered towards me, unnervingly calm, like a trained nurse approaching a violent patient. I came down the steps apologetically. Then we too looked at each other.

  ‘That’s a very nice jacket,’ she said. I nodded and rubbed the cloth of the lapel between forefinger and thumb. ‘I hope it kept you warm out in the car all night.’

  ‘Yes, thank you’ – foolish, not wanting to add being cold to my other weaknesses.

  ‘Yes, it is a warm one, isn’t it? I’ve worn it myself a few times, when Luc thought I might be getting chilly – it was like an overcoat on me.’ I saw her shrugging it on, his arm brusquely round her shoulder to shiver her. She looked down, piqued, as if she thought I too might offer it up. His other clothes went without comment, they were perhaps anonymous enough not to speak clearly of their owner. And that of course was all I longed to do, to speak of him but not to give him away, not to seem to share him with her, to be proud in defeat. I started obliquely:

  ‘You must have left very early.’

  But she was on her own fuse. She looked at me blankly. ‘You’ll never have him,’ she said.

  ‘Then you don’t know …’ I didn’t say that, but a kind of stifled smugness like heartburn must have crossed my features and shielded me from her brutality. ‘All I want to have’, I said, ‘is the chance to talk to him and help him if I can. His mother’s dreadfully worried, she wants – well, she wants to do what’s best for him.’

  She gaped at me as if I were a total idiot: I had never imagined such disrespect, but I was too raw for the usual prickle and bluster at the outrages of the young. ‘His mother.’

  ‘So why don’t you just tell me where he is? No one’s trying to come between you. He thinks of me as a friend.’

  ‘How on earth would you know what he thinks. You haven’t got a clue what goes on inside his head. He thinks of me as his best friend.’

  ‘Yes,’ I said disarmingly, ‘he told me he did.’

  She wandered off in a circle, hands in pockets, pink-cheeked with anger and cold. Marcel leant against the Renault and scuffed the ground – he hadn’t known what a terror she was.

  ‘So where is he?’ I said.

  ‘He’s not in the house,’ she replied, slyly neutral.

  ‘I know that.’

  She paused and scanned the decrepit elevation. ‘I’d wondered too.’

  I glinted at her as if detecting a trick. ‘You’re not going to pretend you don’t know where he is, it’s too tedious.’

  ‘I haven’t any idea,’ she said sotto voce.

  ‘But you’ve run away together.’ She raised an eyebrow. ‘Or do you mean he’s run away from you as well?’

  ‘We didn’t run away together,’ she said after a moment. ‘He ran away, as you call it, and phoned me to tell me. I asked him to meet me at a friend’s apartment, not to do anything stupid or get arrested. I borrowed our friend Patrick’s car and went there. That was where you spent last night. At 3 o’clock this morning he rang again and said he couldn’t come to meet me. He was – on the coast. I drove off to another rendezvous and waited there, for hours, but he didn’t turn up. He wasn’t trying to trick me, I think he just couldn’t manage it.’ I had to stop myself grinning as I heard her tight-lipped itinerary of failure. ‘I thought he might have come here.’

  ‘There’s no one here,’ I said, more gently.

  ‘Then I don’t know where he is,’ she threw off, and hit her fist against the top of her thigh and crumpled into tears.

  She’d taken on such power as my rival that it was perplexing, somehow shaming, to see her tremble and cry. But it was Marcel’s moment. She turned away from me with a wail as someone utterly unfitted to comfort her, and hid her sobbing face in her young friend’s arms. He patted her back and nestled his chin into her hair like a boy getting his first slow dance, anxious, radiant.

  I backed off, happy to be an adult, far from wanting to intrude. My thoughts were all on Luc and our meeting at the coast – I thought we could take up where we’d left off, I was catching my breath imagining it. What an unexpected sight the two of them were, hugging under the weedy stone giant, like a gorgonised reveller, and beyond them the brown and damson of the winter woods.

  After a minute or two in the car Marcel began to sing, without realising, it seemed, looking out of the window, gently nodding his head. It was ‘See Me Tonight’, but done in a light boy-baritone that made the song freshly amorous. I came in on the second chorus – it was stuck in my brain and had only to be activated, as if by a hypnotist’s codeword. We went on for a while in hesitant boisterous unison, both of us high on relief and altered prospects. There wasn’t much to ‘See Me Tonight’ and after a couple of high-spirited run-throughs we petered out. Marcel looked quite surprised that it had happened. ‘Do you know, um, “Heartbreak Hotel”?’ he said; and I started it off. We swooshed along the empty road, bawling, ‘I’m all so lonely, baby, so sad and lonely, baby’ like schoolboys on a coach-trip.

  Apparently his mother used to start sing-songs in the car and his father and he had sometimes remembered the practice since – they sang the same old Flemish folksongs as they had ten years and more ago. With us it had been hymns, all the way to Cornwall in the Humber’s leathery heat, my father putting them deliberately to the wrong tune. I always chose grand Chestertonian ones, ‘Take not thy thunder from us’, ‘Smite us and save us all’, whilst Charlie reluctantly nominated the Geography Hymn. Sometimes we boosted the sunshine mood with ‘Summer Holiday’ or ‘The sun has got his hat on’ – a phrase that always troubled me with its counter-suggestion of cloud. Most difficult and lesson-like were rounds, in which you couldn’t merge in the general din but came in alone and on time, although Charlie dragged and forgot and sang flat. ‘White sand and grey sand. White sand and grey sand. Who’ll buy my white sand? Who’ll buy my grey sand?’ The words were always drivel but you had to pipe them out and hold your own amongst the unfriendly circling of the others.

  The hotel was stifling and deserted, but the sea had a grim beauty, seen from the window, while the hard valanced beds seemed to promise a cloudy luxury. I lay down while Marcel was in the bathroom, hearing only the hiss of the shower and the creak of the pipes. It was a lull in the chase, like one of the puzzling calm intermittences in love itself. I was still unused to hotels, I wanted to stay here for days, for months, perhaps, forgotten by the staff – they would wake us in spring with coffee, and newspapers like April Fool editions, full of just-possible absurdities.

  I dreamt that Gordon Bottomley was staying at the same hotel. I was filled with emotion, and took Luc to see him in his room. The poet was vigorous and well-preserved, and busily at work on a verse play which he had started in the 1930s and which was now over a thousand pages long. He threw open a wicker hamper in which the curling bundles of manuscript were carried from place to place. He said how much this work had cost him, what he had given up, of ordinary pleasures and
griefs, in order to find time to get it right. I spoke to him about a poem of his that my father had sung in a setting by Finzi, but when he asked me what it was called my mind went blank: I said I thought it was called ‘Mud’ and he said ‘Oh yes’, though neither of us was convinced. Luc was polite but indifferent and after a while drifted off into the adjacent room – I saw him through the open door, masturbating calmly and talking to someone else out of view.

  Marcel and I patrolled separately through the day, among the beach shelters, the steamed-up cafés, the meagre amusements of the resort. Sometimes my beat would cross his and I would buy him a snack, some local speciality – a helping of chips or a hake sandwich. His attitude had improved dramatically. He might genuinely have come here for a holiday. Mrs Altidore had backed our hotel booking with her Mastercard and the cashier advanced us a clip of thousand-franc notes. Marcel spent much of his time in a cacophonous games arcade, claiming that Luc would be drawn to it. I watched him as he went on further chases, through landscapes that opened up at sick-making speed, violet, rose, lime-green, where loss was met by derisive klaxons and victory by urgent trills. Other, rougher boys began to cluster behind him, sullenly impressed by his nerve and his quick hand. It wasn’t Luc’s sort of place at all. I saw him kicking along the beach, sunk beautifully in himself, hurling bits of driftwood back, watching the waves’ sloping approach – like something felt along the heart …

  The storm had thrown up sand on the esplanade and caked the seaward windows of hotels with salt. Miniature reparations were being made with brooms and ladders. Something in the mood of leisured routine, the morning vacancy of hotels, snagged me with longing. I drifted to the station, asking ‘Why?’ and ‘Where?’ again and again – it was like some endless Lied my father might have sung, ‘Warum?’, ‘Wohin?’, the conventional stanzas shifted into breathtaking depth by the modulations between them. And the station too, with its tiny repertoire of arrivals and departures, was the threshold of everywhere else – Luc himself was perhaps already miles beyond the shining vanishing-point of the rails.

  Even so I was on edge for him. I sat and smoked in a bleak public garden sheltered from the wind but in sound of the sea; the flower-beds were stripped out for winter, puddles shivered on the concrete paths. No one whatever came into it, which seemed to make it apt and ready for our reunion. There was a yelp from behind me and the slap of feet. I thought, this is it, and turned with a smile I knew would be half a grimace of doubt and fright. A thickset blond was jogging up and for a fraction of a second I tried to commute him into Luc, I wondered what he had done to himself. He glanced back at me as he passed, big features abstracted by the rhythms of running and music: I could hear the tinny racket from his headphones. He ran on round the garden’s perimeter, then stopped and rocked on the spot, bending from the waist and doing exercises surely more eye-catching than useful. But what did I know?

  He was a type I often liked, a stone or more over-weight: I guessed his backside looked like mine would have done in tight, sweat-darkened cycling-shorts – he made the whole idea of me by implication rather sexy. He also wore a zipped-up tracksuit top and the stacked rubber running-shoes which since my night with Luc exercised a confusing appeal. His calves were hairy and I thought his arse might be too if I got to lick the thick buried cord behind his balls and stab my tongue a little way into his muscly hole. My fantasy flowed out and caressed him – I felt light-headed with fatigue and with relief at having someone other than Luc in my sights; for a minute or more I was absorbed in this solid substitute, and when he turned to face me, twisting, bobbing, high-stepping like a horse, I carried on looking at him with what must have been an oddly simple expression of welcome. He loped back round towards me, his cock and balls compact but emphatic; I was making the best of his rather loose mouth, the coarse hair squashed under the alice-band of his personal stereo. He nodded vaguely, but I saw it was only to the thrust of the music – it seemed he hardly took me in as he thumped past. I turned with a snigger of regret, torn already between dispraising him and a spurt of envy for the runners’ world that I had always loved but never entered.

  At dinner we had the restaurant almost to ourselves. Marcel drank a glass of wine and chatted about the day’s excitements, how he thought he’d seen Luc several times but in the end it was always another ‘funny-looking’ boy. The months he had spent playing video games in the sanatorium had paid off magnificently this afternoon – he’d emerged as a kind of champion in the amusements arcade: it was altogether one of the best days he’d had for years. But soon my lack of attention made him fall quiet; he looked at me with his head on one side and made sweet little attempts to jolly me along, but I was sinking fast into incommunicable gloom – the first bottle was already empty. He was still aglow with his new role as Sibylle’s esquire, sent on to the coast whilst she retreated home. I glanced in a tall mirror and saw us as a headwaiter might, as a boy with an uncle, a godfather perhaps, a bachelor evidently, who lacked an easy way with youngsters, and disheartened the lad when he was meant to be giving him a treat. The age-gap seemed to widen between us; he gripped his cutlery like a child, and piled in the good, overdressed food as if determined to get value from that at least, whilst I was too racked by other hungers to want to eat. Sometimes he pointed his knife at something and I told him what it was called in English, and he repeated the word with a nod. Dismal canned music played, the short tape slurring from incessant repetition, fragments of Mozart and Tchaikovsky swung and sugared – I saw the morning studio, the shirt-sleeved sessioneers, the villainous arranger, the mockery of everything I held dear.

  At another table was a respectable couple with a clever-looking boy in glasses. I knew the constraints between them at a glance, and picked up some of the exeat talk, the mother’s resentful account of things at home, the son’s attempts to convey the excitements of study in which the parents had no interest. A reading-list was gone into in some detail; one gathered this week he was doing The Republic – ‘by Plato’.

  I found myself enlisting their support. ‘Isn’t this music awful?’ I called across. They didn’t at first get my meaning, and when they did it was clear that the parents, if they’d noticed it at all, were quite grateful for its faceless protection, whilst the boy allied himself with me: ‘Terrible, terrible’, and then seemed to regret the momentary hysteria of his tone.

  At a further table two old ladies had noticed the unusual break-out of conversation between strangers and I took their anxious gaze for support of my cause. I gestured to a waiter but just at the moment that he slipped away into the kitchen. I realised I was terribly angry, shaking with a sense of injustice that had glimpsed an outlet. Marcel kept his eyes on his plate, but could hardly swallow for embarrassment and horror at finding out for sure that he was sharing a room with a madman. As I turned round I kicked him under the table and he gave a yelp that accelerated the frenzy. ‘Excuse me!’ I called to another waiter, whose back was to me, already laying the tables with sugar and jams for breakfast, when doubtless, if nothing was done, the same tape would be inanely spooling. It had just begun its second circuit of the evening, a hellish perpetual loop. He looked round and I saw that he was the jogger from the gardens.

  My fury halted and trod air for a moment – I saw it like a freeze-framed cloud-mass on the TV weather, dragging northwards over Europe with a payload for London by morning … The boy didn’t know what tenderness of mine he’d awakened. He came over promptly, very sleeked now, like a peasant in church, his bow-tie crooked, still holding the half-formed lily of a napkin in large hands. He stood by me and I absurdly savoured having him at my command; my look was knowing, but drew no sign of recognition from him. ‘Sir?’ (Or was there a hint of irony there, at the drunkish foreigner who travelled with a schoolboy: his disdain for the celebrated Flemish fare, his scruffy, slept-in clothes?)

  I smiled. ‘I wonder if you could kindly turn the music off?’

  He didn’t sense the danger in my courtesy, though the requ
est itself clearly struck him as malign and uncultured, quite possibly a threat to the principles of the hotel and the probity of the management. ‘I’m sorry, sir, the music plays in all the public rooms.’

  ‘I’m aware of that. What I’m suggesting is that it should stop doing so. It’s absolutely unbearable to anyone who cares about music in the slightest.’ And there my voice had jumped and the storm-cloud twitched nearer. I looked across at the scholarship boy for support, but found him studiously involved with his chocolate gâteau. His parents though were alert, and indignant on behalf of the waiter, whom I felt, in the social contraction of those few seconds, taking strength from their ignorance. Then I heard a new tune vilely segued into, all the brighter in the new silence of the restaurant. It took me two or three insensing seconds to realise what it was.

  ‘Do you know what this music is?’ I barked. ‘Madam?’ The mother quivered and flushed and firmed up her chin, and the father, not easily nettled, I suspected, but trapped on an old-fashioned point of honour, exclaimed, ‘Really, young man …’

  ‘I’ll tell you then. It’s an aria by Mozart, from The Magic Flute, “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön”, in fact.’ I sat with pounding pulse through the next few bars, crooningly underpinned by Hawaiian guitars, prinked with a cocktail-lounge piano, fouled by slurs of blue, and felt that I might well have proved my case. The whole lost day had been haunted by my father – I heard his clear tenor on a childhood morning, in the old Dent translation that seemed gracefully to describe the song itself, ‘O loveliness beyond compare’.

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