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The folding star histori.., p.44
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       The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.44

           Alan Hollinghurst

  ‘No, they were among the lucky ones.’ He gave me a surprisingly bright grin. ‘Our little threesome became quite close, in time. They stayed on with us until after the war, until we knew for certain that their parents had been … exterminated. We became inseparable, in that way that teenagers do – with a secret language, each of us half in love with the others, and full of rivalry too, which sometimes burst out in dreadful rows. Those were the occasions when I first heard my own faults described without mercy. Of course our all being under the same roof made it very intense and inescapable. There being three of us gave us a sense of mysterious power, to ourselves and to outsiders. It also made it hard to do anything independently, or in a couple without the third. I don’t know if you’ve experienced anything similar.’

  I rocked my head and raised my eyebrows to say, ‘Have I ever.’

  ‘You’ve guessed the point of the story, I’m sure’ – and for once I thought I had.

  ‘Well, Monica I suppose must have been Lilli.’

  Paul gave a sighing smile, and looked down, so that I wondered for a moment if I was wrong. He said, ‘I won’t pretend I wasn’t fairly anxious when she came back. We’d lost touch after I’d gone to England. She went back to the country, and married very soon. It was natural, she wanted her new life. But within a few days we’d each remembered how the other ticked; we were both somewhat raw from our bereavements, we had disagreements, just as we always had. To be honest, it has often been very difficult for us. The most important thing was that Marcel got on so well with her. I could see he was a way for her to come to terms with the city again, at least as far as it was possible for her to. They took each other for long walks, which must have brought back terrible thoughts for her, the whole mood of those years, and the subterfuge that had allowed her to survive when all her family had been annihilated. She used to come back in with Marcel, exhausted, gripping his hand tight – obviously he didn’t realise what he meant to her. She never said so to me, indeed she’s never spoken of it at all, but I’m sure he helped her to see things through his eyes – I mean, with a certain freshness, and optimism. He seemed to forget his own woes, too, when he had her to protect him.’

  I thought, why did no one tell me? I might never have found out. I scurried back over various semi-drunken mealtimes, thinking I might have said something awful. ‘And what happened to the boy?’

  Paul looked at me kindly, uncertainly. I saw he was still thinking of Marcel. Then, ‘Oh, the boy. Well, we remained great friends, we went to university together. If I tell you he became a schoolteacher,’ said Paul, with a slight amused hesitation, ‘I will probably have told you enough.’

  In fact it took me a few seconds of clumsy verification. I said nothing, but smiled and nodded slowly to acknowledge my surprise and then my lack of any reason to be surprised. So the two former orphans both looked after children – well, that seemed right, it was the form some unalterable need had taken. I heard the familiar crack of a board, and half-turned to see that Helene was standing in the doorway that gave on to the stairs. Her hand was on the door-knob and she leaned into the room as though waiting for a sign that she was not disturbing us. I wondered how long she had been standing and listening. Paul must have seen her; that hint of amusement perhaps came from having her there at the dénouement of her father’s story.

  She went round the desk, behind Paul’s chair, and leant forward to embrace him, her arms crossed loosely under his chin, her cheek pressed to his temple. The gesture seemed full of her fresh adult confidence, though it was also the embrace with which a child cajoles a stern but sentimental old relative. She stayed there, looking up at me with a glow, until Paul patted her hand and she slowly stood back. I shared their quiet pleasure that I was in on the secret; as well as feeling the initiate’s disadvantage, the tacit admission of how clueless I had been before.

  I got up more suddenly than I’d meant to, and in my customary reflex stared out of the window, at the fog which annihilated the street and at the same time cast a faint illumination.

  ‘I nearly told you before,’ Helene said, ‘when we went for that walk, do you remember? But you know they never talk about it – Daddy and Lilli don’t – and so it never seems quite right for me to either.’

  ‘I’m just so glad they’re here at all,’ I said after a moment, though with a sense that I shouldn’t now pretend to like Maurice more than I did. I saw how the schoolboy role of know-all and competitor had lasted and soured like a tough old jacket. It was hateful of me, but I began to be irritated by the ubiquitous power of the unsaid, and by the generous little enactment of Helene’s gratitude, the stooping hug that said for them the crisis was over – not still waiting to happen, somewhere along the invisible roads.

  ‘Any news of Luc?’ said Matt, in a tone that for the first time admitted tender concern and caught me unawares. My voice cracked under the light pressure of sympathy.

  ‘Nothing,’ I said, and walked away from him, my mouth turned down at the corners like a child in the silence before a wail. I stood looking over his twisted bedding, sucking in deep breaths; wondering abstractly who’d been sleeping here. Matt kept away from me, stacked up tapes with the noisy briskness of someone pretending to do housework. After a while I went over to him and gave him a kiss. ‘Actually I’m terribly hungry,’ I said.

  He gave his crooked smile of relief. ‘Run out and get some burgers.’

  ‘Okay. I don’t have any money.’ And I dug with an inverted kind of pride into my jeans pocket and displayed a palmful of coins that would buy nothing, the change one expects a beggar or busker to be grateful for. Matt did something similar, though he brought out a bookie’s roll of banknotes with large rudimentary sums jotted on the top one. He pulled a couple of thousands off and tucked them into my waistband, as if I were a stripper; then kissed me again.

  When I got back with the warm polystyrene boxes, he was on the phone. ‘Yeah … that’s right … the American guy … yes, really sexy … he’s not a jerk … oh, a jock … yeah, he’s a jock all right …’ He gave me a wink, head cocked to hold the receiver whilst he tipped the packeted condiments out of the bag. ‘Okay, here he is … Ed, yeah … This one’s for you,’ he said, a finger on the secretary’s hold button.

  ‘Who is it?’

  ‘Some guy from Ostend.’

  ‘What’s he want?’

  ‘You’re an American college-boy, okay, he just needs talking off.’ I ducked away puzzled. ‘Come on, he’s paying good money. His dick’s in his hand. Just tell him how sexy you are.’ Matt held the receiver out to me, and I gestured wanly at my cheeseburger, already cooling after its journey from the Bishop’s Palace. ‘Eat while you work,’ he said.

  I sat down. ‘But I’m not American …’ There was no help for it. ‘Hello?’ I said in a suspicious growl.

  ‘Oh hi! Is that Ed, right?’ The man was speaking in a heavy American accent himself, but with homely Flemish vowels.

  ‘Yep.’ I settled myself and turned my head so that I couldn’t see Matt. The scope for confusion was so great that I found myself taking it quickly and self-mockingly, like something done as a dare. I’d never rung a sex-talk line – I didn’t know what the conventions were.

  ‘So, where are you from, Ed?’ the man from Ostend asked with patient excitement.

  ‘Oregon,’ I said, wondering if it sounded as wrong to him as it did to me. I remembered doing Our Town as the school play, only Dawn being able to sustain the accent amid a medley of Yogi Bear and something oddly like Yorkshire.

  ‘Oh great. That’s the Rocky Mountains, right?’

  ‘We have the Rockies.’ Though doubts immediately formed.

  ‘And lumberjacks, don’t tell me, that’s really wild.’

  ‘Uh-huh. Though I’m a student, remember.’

  ‘Right! That’s very sexy. But you must know one or two lumberjacks?’

  ‘Well, one or two, I guess.’ And I heard myself give a guilty laugh, as if I really were confessing to s
ome rough weekends in the Oregon woods. I reached for my burger, and balanced it up in my hand so as not to shed the loose onion-rings and swell of ketchup.

  ‘That’s great. So what do you major in?’ I’d no idea there was so much background in phone-sex. I heard a little catch in his breath and wondered if that was what he got off on.

  ‘Oh, let’s not talk about boring old work!’ I said, beginning to feel more at home in my accent, which had swerved irresponsibly southwards and seemed to have settled on hunky Bobby in Dallas for its model. There was a pause, in which I could hear faint rustling sounds. I took a bite of tepid beef and bread.

  ‘Well, Ed,’ and the voice was slower and more serious. ‘Aren’t you gonna tell me what you look like, and you know, what you’re doing to yourself?’

  I chewed frantically. ‘Sure, sure. Well, what shall I start with?’

  ‘You’re blond, I think your friend said?’

  ‘I’m blond. Very blond as a matter of fact. And I’m pretty muscular, like, I work out a lot, swim a lot, all that shit.’ I seemed to be turning into Rex Stout. ‘Yeah, I’ve got a washboard stomach.’

  ‘A washbore?’

  ‘That’s right.’

  ‘Oh …’

  ‘Or so the guys all say.’

  ‘Tell me what you weigh, Ed,’ he breathed, as though just to hear the figure would be the same as having my real weight on top of him. I knew I couldn’t do the conversion from stones to pounds. I supposed 140 pounds must be 10 stone, which was so much lighter than me as to sound almost anorexic.

  ‘One hundred sixty-five pounds,’ I said masterfully.

  ‘I think I really like you, Ed.’

  ‘Thanks very much.’ I took it as a compliment to me as well as to the person I’d invented, whom I found I’d started to rather fancy too. I wondered who my interlocutor was. I didn’t mind this phase of arch foreplay – my innocence of the whole system seemed to make me more genuine. ‘What’s your name, by the way?’

  His breathing was – heavy: it was heavy breathing. I felt it wasn’t polite to show that I’d noticed. All the same, I pictured a person, perhaps no older than me, naked on a bed, in subdued light, somehow encumbered with clips and straps and probes, greased and hard but holding off the time-and-money-saving moment. I imagined I too was naked in his scenario. I took another mouthful of burger.

  ‘Have you got a big one, Ed?’

  ‘Mm. Mm.’ And when I’d cleared my throat: ‘Yeah, it’s huge. It’s like, a half-pounder.’

  ‘Oh Ed, that’s really wild … A big, big sausage.’

  ‘Well …’

  ‘Do you have it in your hand right now?’

  ‘Yep, I sure do. I can hardly get my hand round it. I’m lifting it up towards my lips …’

  ‘Oh, man’ (though it sounded like oh, men).

  ‘It’s kind of oozing stuff out of it!’

  There was no immediate reply to this, so I carried on eating, faintly troubled by the priapic monster I’d so concisely evoked. He must have covered the mouthpiece – a residual modesty screened the final moments. Then he said, crouching right at my ear, ‘I love you, Ed.’ I didn’t know if I should respond with something similar; I could only think of ‘Well, I’m very fond of you, too’, but before I could say anything I heard the clunk of the receiver being dropped and saw it twirl on its flex, knocking a table-leg. Then the line was dead.

  ‘Who was that?’ said Matt as I hung up.

  ‘I don’t know.’ Now it was time to eat, please; and there was a surprising twinge of regret amongst my hunger for my new friend. I wondered if he’d get in touch again.

  ‘You were great,’ said Matt, stepping towards me through the clutter of the room.

  ‘It seemed to do the trick.’

  ‘Of course it did.’

  ‘I didn’t really say anything, though.’

  ‘Well, that’s what the trick is,’ said Matt, and gave me a horrible leer.

  It seemed Matt was toying with the idea of a phone-sex line. He already had a couple of ansaphones on a separate number with tapes in them of American porn-stars giving true confessions. Occasionally throughout the evening as we sat watching football there would be the clatter of the tape starting, and a real American voice, turned right down low and sounding oddly fake to me, would drawl away, half-obliterated by the chanting in the stands and the raving of the commentators – ‘Hi, you’ve reached Chad Masters, I guess you’ve seen me around … yep, it’s one of the biggest … oh, boy … could you take all of that motherfucker? … like I had to every day when I was a kid …’It left me shivering and anxious, the night around me, it seemed, threaded like tracer fire by lines of anonymous lust. I squashed up uncomfortably with Matt in his chair and drank bottle after bottle of beer.

  Later Matt got out a video; I supposed he was trying to arouse me or distract me. His business was pleasure and people paying for it: he couldn’t fathom those darker states of mind that were immune to titillation, or that took it somehow amiss. I groaned and thought I might weep if I had to watch people fucking.

  ‘Let’s just go to bed. Can I stay the night?’

  ‘Sure. I think you’ll be really interested in this though.’

  ‘I’m not one of your punters, darling.’ I was yawning and stumbling round.

  Matt pressed the cassette into the machine. ‘It’s got someone you know in it. Someone who once made a big impression on you.’

  ‘I refuse to think,’ I said, my mind none the less thumbing through the torn catalogue of men I’d known or merely seen and felt for. ‘Anyway, I don’t have friends in that world.’ An unsteady card appeared on the screen, and a soundtrack of rock music came through fitfully.

  ‘This is just an amateur thing, made locally, no production values or proper editing – a lot of people like them better, when it’s boys they might know in real life, they’re getting very popular.’ I’d read about something similar at home, where men on a housing estate would gather to watch a video of one of them fucking one of the others’ daughters: I felt I was seeing my own fantasies held up to the distorting hetero mirror – how they liked the men beery and unshaven and the girls busty and young. I covered my face with my hands; then, when Matt had wandered to the kitchen, I reached for the remote control and fast-forwarded for ages.

  Matt woke me with a shake and I sat up and frowned at a couple of men going at it dementedly, with the noiseless hysteria of an early motion picture. He took the remote, and abruptly slowed the film – I groaned at the artless dawdling of ordinary time, the wanton deferral.

  Later there was a horrible bedroom where the light came back off silvery ‘abstract’ wallpaper, and two skinny boys who couldn’t get erections were doggedly sixty-nining. It must actually have been someone’s room, of course, probably the director’s if you could call him that – he would spend the night there, perhaps alone, after he had paid the boys their drug-money, less than they needed – the room glinted with bad faith. I said, ‘This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen.’ Above the bed a female saint, perhaps the Virgin herself, turned saucer eyes heavenwards. I pretended to sleep, and then slept.

  Later still – a minute later? twenty minutes? – there was a young man lying face down on the bed, naked and pale, but bigger and stronger than most of the movie’s phantom crew. His legs were apart and you saw the dusk of hair on his balls; his face was buried in the pillows. The camera prowled down on him as a fly settled and walked about on his white arse. It flew off when the camera panned away to show the door halfopen and behind it a man standing – fortyish, bearded, overweight in a T-shirt. His jeans were round his knees – he was already wanking as he spied on the boy; he seemed genuinely into it, it was a new note in the film, something voluntary and felt and so in a way more difficult to watch.

  ‘That’s the guy who made the video,’ said Matt.

  The boy was standing with his back to us, we saw him only from the shoulders down, whilst a pair of hairy hands mauled and probed his ba
ckside. Like everything in the film it went on for ever – you felt you could have flown to Athens or read The Spoils of Poynton in the time it took to change to something new. I was bewildered to think anyone could watch this for pleasure, it seemed to mock any thought of sexual happiness. Then at last we were round the front, where the man was kneeling, the boy’s limp cock in his mouth. He went at it and went at it; sometimes he took it in his hand and pistoned it into a semblance of life, but then it died again. We never saw the young man’s face, only the strong, lean body; but he began to generate a vague sense of apology, his hands reluctantly caressed his fellator’s thinning scalp, and lingered there long enough for us to see the skull charm of a ring that bit into his finger and the tattooed letters R, O, S, E.

  At the end the older man shot off up Rose’s leg and you saw the milky drops hang and trickle among the thick hairs of his calf. Rose himself didn’t come, and the camera drifted off in a cliché pan to distance that went out of the open window. It was night now, and for a few seconds we saw from above the shadow and flare of a city, the walkway lights of high-rise housing echoed further off by the ribbons of light on ships in dock, and between them a network of streets, pulsating and nameless.

  I felt the greatest reluctance to take my clothes off and hurried into bed in shirt and trousers. I pulled the blankets around me and when Matt got in, shivering and excited, I hugged him like an old wrestler, so that he could hardly breathe. By the time he had started snoring I was boiling hot and had to get out of bed to strip. I stood there wretchedly, eyes half-closed with fatigue, unbuttoning my shirt. As I fumbled with my jeans there was a clatter that made me jump and fall over, and a voice close behind me, intimate and unwelcome. ‘Hi, you’ve reached Chad Masters, I guess you’ve seen me around …’

  I strolled across the empty arena of the Grote Markt and stood to admire, or at least acknowledge, its weathered self-acclaim. I felt alone, like a survivor in a city visited by a curse – and nervous about how long I could hope to carry on myself, pitted and limping as I was. I turned up the collar of Cherif’s coat and raised my head to scan the belfry, which seemed to curve and topple against fast-moving cloud. When I looked down I was giddy almost as if I’d been up there – it was steadying to hear my name called out.

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