The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.43Alan Hollinghurst
I looked up at the waiter, who was nodding as I had seen him nod earlier to his Walkman, and who gave a shrug as though politicly conceding that this classical stuff wasn’t too bad, if you actually listened to it; while the mother said, ‘We’ve always loved Mozart.’
Nothing I said in the next two minutes was brilliant or even persuasive, but it came torrentially, from I don’t know where. I was only faintly conscious of my small audience, of other staff coming in from the kitchen and standing with cloths in their hands, and of their swings of feeling between hurt and anger and cynical appeasement. I had ruined their evening with my bad language and my fist banging the table, but perhaps I had made it too: they would never forget the man who went mad and raved against the music that no one else had minded, and against them too and the poor young waiter who seemed to draw from him a special wildness of reproach, like an unfaithful husband.
Afterwards I couldn’t remember my words, only the sensation of having spoken, of voicing opinions I never knew I had, of the routed resort to fundamentals. I didn’t manage a peroration. I faltered on my high phrase about ‘the mockery of everything I hold dear’ – one hand gripping the waiter’s reluctant but dutiful wrist, the other tugged at dumbly across the table by Marcel, in pity or fear or the shadow of an earlier day, when his mother had made such a scene in a public place. Then I was free, I strode out as if my tears, after this, would be somehow a disgrace, and hurried into the Gents; though even there, in the deadlit gloom, the vandalised music was faintly relayed.
I went out later and walked in the damp, buffeting air to the end of the town. The night was cloudy, the sea invisible save when it thumped like a distant bomb-blast on the sea-wall below and sent up drenching spouts into the lamplight of the promenade. There was no one about but me, dulled to the cold by cognac but lucid and suggestible. I thought of the place in summer, jostling with randy youngsters, indistinguishable shrieks from the water’s edge: but for once I was content for all that to be in the past. I was applying myself to the subtler connoisseurship of the out-of-season, days without warmth and nights without encounters, empty pleasure-grounds and the violence of the tides.
I turned along a short pier and propped myself for a while above the pounding, self-rebuffing blackness. The unseen water’s ejaculations awed me: I felt barely connected to the town’s ghost façade or the land that lay beyond it. I pictured the dark ploughed distances there, farms and villages secured against the torrents of wind and rain, a blurred lamp swinging. Then there were towns with wind-rocked belfries, the street where I lived. The light in the yard would be throwing its pale stripe across my ceiling. With time the eye would grow accustomed to the shadow and make out the solemn bulk of table and chairs. How spectral the abandoned room was, no rhythmic gasping would ruffle the Spanish girls tonight.
I remembered clearly something Paul had said about Orst’s prints, how they were the mirror of a northern world, silent, wintry, interior, remote from the outdoor brilliance of the south. They were adressés aux esprits de silence, discreet signals between one solitude and another; their sombre vaguenesses and mystic gleams were images too of the world of their collectors, the inward vigil they kept before the precious sheets, their trembling attunement to the indefinable. So that Orst’s tenacious remembrance of Jane was an ideal form of the collectors’ passion: he flattered their archaic yearnings and enrolled them among the rich in spirit, scorners of the vulgar modern world and what he termed its demolishing wealth.
I felt the poetry of the thing tonight, perched above the breakers and the dim phosphorescence of the returning foam. I knew nothing about this country, to me it was a dream-Belgium, it was Allemonde, a kingdom of ruins and vanished pleasures, miracles and martyrdoms, corners where the light never shone. Not many would recognise it, but some would. I seemed to have lost Luc in it. It was his wildness that had brought me to him and now it had taken him away. I studied my situation with a certain aesthetic amazement.
Helene was back from her honeymoon in Rome and Naples, and radiating a new self-esteem; it showed in the lethargy of her movements, the unembarrassed glow that came to her cheeks, her evident sense of returning to a quaint little world whose rules she observed with a new irony. I asked her what was it like, and though her answer was restricted to days among the ruins of the Forum or Pompeii it was clear that the real wonders had taken place, and kept on taking place, in the up-to-date privacy of the hotel.
‘Paul’s found a funny box,’ she said, and her chuckle, too, came with more confidence of there being something to chuckle about. I was sceptical, of course, but still I envied her; I kissed her on the cheek to associate myself with luck and happiness.
The box didn’t look funny, as it stood on the floor by Paul’s desk. It was tuck-box sized, with the lid flung back because the restraining leather strap had perished. He had taken a piece of coloured glass from it and was rubbing it gently in his handkerchief. I came round and craned over. ‘You’ll be interested in this, dear,’ he said, as if I’d been Marcel, and held up a ruby-coloured lozenge, with a clasp at the top.
‘It looks like a bit off a chandelier,’ I said.
‘Mm. I think it probably was.’ He laid it on his blotter beside another identical piece. ‘There. The price of a virtuous woman is far above rubies.’
‘I’m sure.’ I looked into the jumble of the box, neck-chains, costume jewellery, remnants of peacock-patterned silk.
‘Kundry’s ear-rings,’ said Paul. ‘You’ll find some other familiar things in there.’ And he nodded to show that I could have the treat of looking. I squatted and rummaged disparagingly, as I might have done at a fleamarket. There were cheap brooches with rusted hasps, a crystal ball, a moulting fur cap (‘Le toquet de vair’!), the beaded blue veil of ‘L’Infini’, that tore as I lifted it, a slender wand with a bird on top – I knew it from Orst’s ‘Osiris’, though not how the resting hawk was an infant’s wooden toy. It was real junk that would never have passed muster at one of Theo’s fancy-dress balls. At the bottom lay the collar of medals, that heavy treasure that had held up the chins of both the Janes in their different poses, the antique profiles blurred by time and the inscriptions rubbed down to vestigial runes.
I lifted it out with a sceptical smile, but surprised at how much it weighed: the medallions were thick, and the setting too was of some dull metal, inlaid with flat pink stones. It slumped round my two hands as I held it up to Paul; it would have pinched the women’s white necks with its embossed edges and hidden hinges. He took it from me in a priestly way and stood it on the desk, saying quietly, ‘Now that is old, at least the medals …’ They still showed emperors’ curtailed names, garlanded pillars, chariot-wheels – a miniature clamour, a very distant triumph. I wasn’t sure if the collar was beautiful or hideous, poignant or shocking: like an Orst painting it was somehow all these things at once. It was a fetish that had become a relic, and engaged both of us perhaps with a mixture of respect and distaste. I leant forward to turn it round and pretended not to notice Paul’s quick covered yawn.
It was Lilli’s day off. Marcel had been in bed with a stifling cold since our return from the coast, so Paul and I had a bowl of soup at the desk. Paul carried on reading a journal beside him; sometimes he set down his spoon with a frown and scribbled something in the margin. He seemed very dissatisfied with much that he read.
I fancied a bit more of a break than this – if it hadn’t been for the freezing mist, I’d have gone for a walk and a cigarette and probably a drink and an abrupt surrender to the bitter vacancy that our lamplight feebly held off. I scraped up the last of the soup with a childish racket and started a conversation more determinedly than I need have done.
‘Where is it Lilli goes when she’s not here?’
Paul dabbed at his lips with his napkin. ‘Didn’t I tell you? She goes to her sister-in-law’s farm.’
‘Oh yes. Where is that?’
He waved a hand abstractedly. ‘It’s … the
I found I liked it better when she wasn’t around. There was something uncommunicative about her, and so in a way repressive. Everyone who knew her said how marvellous she was; I said the same if the occasion arose, but in fact I hadn’t quite seen where her gift lay.
‘I do think she’s wonderful,’ I said.
‘Oh, I’m glad. You couldn’t not like her,’ said Paul – and added, ‘I was afraid she might be a little severe with you. I wasn’t sure how she’d take to having another member of the family to look after.’ I smiled and looked down, pleased but also dimly suspicious of the process of mutual courtesy I had activated.
‘How did she come to you?’ After all, she wasn’t strictly a member of the family herself. Then I saw that I had entered a room whose door I had always tiptoed past before – nothing to do with Lilli, but with Paul’s wife, whose death had offered Lilli her role.
Paul wiped his bowl with a piece of bread and took his time to answer. ‘When Marcel’s mother died, he was only six, he needed someone to look after him.’ It was a scenario from which he had interestingly omitted himself. He looked at me with a hint of a challenge – defused a moment later by his mock-pedantic tone: ‘“Ah yes,” you will say, “but how was it that the person chosen to look after him was Lilli Vivier?”’ I nodded, and then shrugged to say I didn’t really need to know. ‘Well, there are two answers to that question. The short-term answer is that she had lost her husband less than a year before, she didn’t want to carry on working on a farm, she had been … rather unwell herself. When Marcel’s mother died, she wrote to me. We met, and came to our present arrangement.’ He pushed back his chair and turned it so as to look out at the chilly suspension of the fog. ‘There is a long-term answer too, if you want to hear it.’
If I did, it was only as a distraction, or for the sake of talk, or to avoid thinking fruitlessly about another question which so far had no kind of answer at all. ‘If you want to tell me.’
‘I can tell you today. I wouldn’t want to if she was actually here.’ He raised the palm of his hand towards me in a gesture of deference and restraint. ‘It goes back to the war again.’
‘Well, I would be interested in that.’ I recalled how Lilli had stiffened and left the room when I had finally asked about Paul’s war-time visits to Orst. ‘I feel very ashamed at how little I know about it; I’ve never quite taken it in.’ In Belgium I had barely heard the epoch mentioned, unless under the pressure of questioning, or when Helene had given me her vaguely sensational impressions of Orst’s death.
‘Well, you know something about the Occupation. It’s honestly not at all easy for me to convey what it was like, although I grew up in it: there were years of it, it just went on and on. It was very frightening, and humiliating, and drab, with rations, and that awful hunger you have as a growing boy. But it could be exciting too, at times, if you were young and had a lively imagination. The town was full of soldiers, the Germans and of course our own Nazi militia, it was military rule – which had perhaps a certain glamour: no one ever says that, of course, it sounds frivolous in the larger context of what was going on, but my schoolfriends and I had thrilling times deceiving the soldiers, who were often very stupid and very bored themselves. We took a lot of dares, and became great heroes in our own eyes. Probably we were stupid ourselves, I know sometimes we were. My father had a constant phrase, “It isn’t a game, it isn’t a game!”’
‘What did your father do?’
‘He was an outfitter, in that splendid English word. He supplied all the schools, jerseys and jackets and corduroy short trousers. And he was quite right, of course; all the time we boys had other people’s lives in our hands, particularly later on.’
‘Did he supply St Narcissus?’
‘Yes, he did – though in the war they had to make do with plain serge suits, which everybody else was rather glad about. In fact I believe the gold thread was all commandeered for military uniforms.’
Poor dimmed Narcissi! ‘And you lived above the shop?’
‘Yes – in St Thomas Street. I was there all the time until I went away to university. It was a nice old place, but odd having the shop downstairs – I remember playing behind the counter after hours, and a sense of being privileged but also being left behind.’ Which chimed distantly with Paul’s situation now, at the Museum. He clasped his hands in front of him and studied his thumbs. ‘Various odd things happened in the shop,’ he said. ‘I didn’t know for a long time why it was that people called late in the evening and used to talk with my father in the stockroom. They would come in during the day, as well, men and women, and in the school holidays when I used to work in the shop sweeping up and opening the door. I noticed how they would often ask for something rather unusual, some purple ribbon, and be shown through to the back, whilst I would be told to go out on errands. They used to leave with brown paper parcels which I thought would have held really a very large amount of purple ribbon. I did once try asking about it and my father took me aside very solemnly and said I must never mention it again. And of course that it wasn’t a game.’
I pictured the future Rembrandt scholar running errands through the town and leaping to the shop door when its bell tinkled for a new customer – and with something of his present dignity already. ‘What did you think they were doing?’
Paul smiled wistfully. ‘I mustn’t exaggerate my innocence. You probably know about the Rexists, who were the French-speaking fascists in this country, and of course there were various Flemish groups of Nazi sympathisers. I think I just absorbed my parents’ contempt for them, as a child does – though the picture wasn’t entirely clear: several people on my mother’s side of the family welcomed the idea of our becoming part of a vast new Germany. It’s too complicated to explain. Anyway, I don’t need to explain. Many of the Nazis went straight into the local militia the Germans raised. I remember a boy called Frank, who’d been an assistant at our shop and played with me when I was little, coming in one day in uniform and shouting “Heil Hitler” when I opened the door.’ Paul muttered the infamous salute in a half-suppressed belch. ‘Also, how the demand for purple ribbon dried up abruptly after that. So I had some idea what might be going on. School was full of gossip and rumour, of course, and I learned about all sorts of things there that were never mentioned at home – often, it must be admitted, because they were completely untrue. My recollection is that you never knew if you could trust somebody.’ I looked at him steadily, with a renewed sense of how much he wanted to trust me; but he avoided my eye, his gaze wandered nervily in the gloomy oblong of the window.
‘One day at breakfast my father told me we were having some other children to stay. A boy of about my age, about fifteen, which I wasn’t altogether pleased about, and a rather younger girl. I was told I had to look after them, as they had left their families and would be very lonely and unsure of things. The boy would be coming to school with me and I remember being very anxious about having to introduce a stranger to my own rather exclusive little group. I clung to the thin excuse that he was apparently a cousin, though one so infinitely distant that I had never heard of him before. But I needn’t have worried: he turned out to be very bright indeed and had read more books and seen more American films than anyone I’d met. He was actually a great asset and if anything enhanced my standing with my friends, by association, as it were. He had to share my bedroom, and he talked all night – all about books: I know it sounds unlikely.’
‘Oh, not to me,’ I said quietly; and he smiled.
‘The girl, I can tell you, was a very different matter. She seemed utterly lost, a little dark-haired thing, sunk in herself; at night we used to hear her crying in her room and my mother going in to comfort her. I’m afraid I probably neglected her, I left her to do tasks in the kitchen, where she seemed happiest. She gave the impression of living in another world. Of course she was terribly homesick, and she had the curious habit of not answering to her name, u
‘What was she called?’
‘She was called after St Augustine’s mother: Monica. But as you will have guessed that was not her real name. I’m amazed now to think how long it took me to realise that we were sheltering two Jewish children, and how confidently the boy disguised the fact. Actually he was full of confidence; in some odd way he was able to block out what was going on by concentrating intensely on his school work and living so much in books. I think he’d read all the Waverley Novels except one, which had been stolen from the library. But … Monica somehow knew from the start that she had lost everything. She was so quiet because she was in constant fear of giving herself away. They had false papers, false ration-books, and school uniforms run up by my father – that was what the visitors were always taking away, of course, children’s clothes with the forged papers hidden in their linings. It turned out that my parents were part of an underground network that helped thousands of Jewish children to disappear, or change identity, when their parents gave them up.’
‘Or they’d have been deported …’
‘Exactly. It makes me shiver after fifty years. And they didn’t all get away with it – children don’t have that much discipline, they can’t remain in the land of pretence for ever. The monks and the other masters of the various schools were playing with high explosives. They risked their lives to save the children, but the children actually had the masters’ lives in their hands as well. If a hidden Jewish child was found in school by the Gestapo, neither the child nor the master who was deemed responsible was ever seen again. Personally I wouldn’t want to place so much trust in a frightened or bereaved teenager – but what could they do when it was their only chance?’
‘I’m afraid you’re going to say something about Monica and the boy.’
The Folding Star: Historical Fiction by Alan Hollinghurst / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes