The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.45Alan Hollinghurst
I turned and there was Patrick coming quickly towards me, half-smiling, glancing away. There was something free and yet formal in our coming together at the centre of this great square, and I spread my arms to gesture at the scale of it, though he may have thought that I expected to embrace him. He was vividly conspicuous in a pink skiing-jacket over a green tartan shirt that as usual hung out at the front. I thought how good-looking he was, and then saw the disquiet and resolve of someone who brings bad news.
We shook hands and frowned and stamped as if waiting for others to turn up, the rest of the routed Three perhaps: I saw that Patrick and I only had a friend in common, we weren’t friends ourselves.
‘Do you want to go for a coffee?’ he said.
I had come out in search of breakfast, but any appetite I had was obliterated by worry. We moved off towards an old café on the far side of the square, a place I thought might be too smart and hushed, but I lacked the will to suggest an alternative. ‘Have you heard from Luc?’ I said lightly.
‘Not for a week,’ he said, almost as though he didn’t know anything had happened.
‘Ah. I thought you might have done.’
‘No, I haven’t seen or heard from him since that night we all met in … the bar. I think you’re the last person to have actually seen him.’
I knew I was in very deep. I wondered at moments if I had murdered Luc and then wiped all memory of it – he was crouched rigid in one of my big cupboards, and the Spanish girls were picking up the smell. ‘Your friend Sibylle has spoken to him since, of course.’
Patrick shot me a glance that was oddly mournful. ‘Well, she may have done,’ he said, pushing open the door and giving me a shiver as we stepped into the warm. I sat down wondering why I went through life not knowing anything, never any the wiser; I seemed to be my pupils’ pupil.
‘You mean she was lying?’
Patrick flung himself down opposite, his chair at an angle – his arm sweeping the table. ‘No, I wouldn’t say that.’ He seemed to me reserved and proud and a little solemn with those early emotional upheavals adults are accused of not understanding. ‘She makes up shit,’ he said, like the bully he once was, and with the same hidden doubt.
I thought of her snooty theories about my friends – but wasn’t a certain premature decidedness allowed among the young? It was how they charmed and achieved – I was suddenly on her side. ‘Why would she make up that? I mean she borrowed your car, I think I’m right in saying, and drove all over the place on the strength of that phone-call – he told her to meet him at …wherever it was.’
‘No, you’re probably right …’ The waitress came and he left me to order; I was aware of him watching me. ‘I don’t know what you know about Luc,’ he said afterwards.
‘Sibylle is madly in love with him,’ he shied away. ‘That is why she can become very rude – she always looks so cool, and so bloody beautiful, you don’t realise she is very worried underneath and says things she doesn’t mean. She’s trying to keep hold of him and keep him away from everyone else.’ He looked at me with the large brown eyes of an extrovert boy who is learning about the heart; I thought he would always be unafraid of its demons and would get what he wanted. ‘She thinks of you as a great threat.’
For a moment or two I believed I wasn’t reddening. ‘I’m just his teacher,’ I said, scratching my head in a spasm and feeling more generally compromised, as though Patrick had implied some sordid leering motive in my merely being with him now. I twisted and shrugged out of the hot coat. ‘Luc’s not in love with me, for heaven’s sake.’ I hadn’t put it quite so cleanly before, even to myself.
‘It might be better if he was,’ Patrick said, masking the riskiness of the words with a prudential frown.
We were silent for a minute or more, gazing towards the counter as if we were thinking about nothing in particular. I couldn’t tell yet what hostility the boy felt for me and began to suppose he didn’t know either, and expected no more than the gloomy comfort of a chat. ‘Can’t Luc sort of make a go of it with Sibylle?’ I deviously put out.
Patrick grunted mirthlessly. ‘I’m sure he’d like to’ – and held back, I felt, from saying more, as the milky coffees arrived. Then, ‘No, they’re very old friends.’
I sipped the warm froth with its hot undershock of liquid and was back for a few seconds in the stifling love-culture of the late teens, its thrilling new absolutes, the hormonal frenzy. ‘Forgive me if I’m too curious,’ I said with a smile. ‘I was under the impression – you remember one weekend you all three went down to I think it’s your parents’ house somewhere on the coast?’
Patrick looked at me warily. ‘We often do.’
‘It was quite recently. Luc told me afterwards it had just been you and him there – then later he let slip that Sibylle was with you too. I assumed he was … covering up for having been with her.’
Patrick was slightly impatient of this finical enquiry, I thought, and made no answer for a bit. ‘My friend Luc is very loyal,’ he said. ‘He was covering up, in fact, for Sibylle and me. We were, we were lovers then; as you say, quite recently. Well, the father of Sibylle is the Minister of Culture, and we cannot have any scandals. He thought Sibylle was staying with … some other friends.’ He picked up and set down his coffee-cup. ‘That was the weekend, in fact, when she suddenly decided she was in love with Luc and not with me. I remember I went out with her in a boat we have and she almost –’ he flopped his hand over backwards on the table.
‘Capsized. I think she has to fall in love with her boyfriend’s best friend. So as to cause the most problems for everybody.’ He was shadowed by his experience, but proud of it too, and the licence it appeared to give him for scepticism about girls. I felt tensely light-headed as the twists of this drama, quite separate but bearing so darkly on my own, were recalled.
‘She certainly seemed very passionate, and possessive, when we met at dawn in the middle of a field the other day. It was almost like a duel. Of course I had no idea why he’d run off again, he’s never told me anything personal. She couldn’t help giving me the impression that it was her he’d run away from.’
Patrick gave a nervous flicker of a smile. ‘Au contraire,’ he said. ‘He was running away from me.’
This had the air of a briskly unwilling confession, and I was generous, welcoming, to the surprise it sprang. We had something in common, I could help him after all. ‘So you were both after him!’ And of course there was nothing surprising in that – it puzzled me that Luc wasn’t mobbed through the streets by defenceless admirers.
‘Au contraire,’ he said again, with a certain satisfaction at the chime and at the polymorphous stamina of the Three. ‘He was after me.’ I felt I’d have had to be Racine to keep abreast of this convulsive trio, their switches of allegiance that seemed compacted in retrospect into little more than a day.
My heart quickened, absurdly, at the glimpse of a second chance, the beautiful confirmation of how Luc’s thoughts turned, the need to get to him now before anyone else did. My mind roamed the map with a new sense of danger and jealousy. The unprecedented guilt of the past week, the fear that it was I who had driven him away, was lost in the deeper draft of these other explanations – went unseen, unguessed. If I had killed him, then it was only in a dream.
‘Yes,’ he went on, perhaps noticing my queer glow and wanting to distance himself, ‘after all these years he has announced that he’s in love with me.’
‘That doesn’t mean he wasn’t in love with you all along,’ I said, tender of Luc’s own feelings in the face of Patrick’s touchily butch manner. ‘Or ready to be in love with you when the moment came.’ At which he looked down and faltered. ‘Anyway, you don’t love him.’
‘Well, of course I love him,’ Patrick said, with the same secret pride at his recent graduation to the fellowship of high feeling, and a hint of a sulk at the suspicion he might still have something to lear
‘That’s perfectly understandable. In fact it’s dreadfully commonplace.’
‘I wish I could, you know, make him happy,’ he said, both rueful and smug. ‘But nothing seems to fit together any more. Our little group of friends has become like a group of enemies!’
I laughed, sympathetically in part. ‘The time I saw you together Luc said you’d been arguing.’
‘You mean in the bar?’
‘Yes. He told me then he was in love and how he caught cold standing under a window, it must have been your window, at night …’
‘I wouldn’t be surprised. That’s nothing. I have hundreds of letters, every day more letters. He’s gone crazy – as I said, quite suddenly, though you say perhaps it was always there. He says if I would just go to sleep with him once, it would be okay.’ I clutched at my throat and looked away. ‘I told him there would be no point.’ Patrick hunched and drank off his coffee in a few gulps. ‘No, I think he had that idea from his friend Arnold.’
‘You mean his clever friend?’
‘He mentioned him? He is now at university. He was madly in love with Luc for years, and they were quite good friends too, though Arnold was going on like a second mother to him and making him be interested in classical music and reading poetry. Luc was quite flattered by his attention, well, he’s quite intelligent, he didn’t want to be unkind. But he did make the mistake of … making love with Arnold, just once, and as a matter of fact I don’t think Arnold has ever got over it.’
Patrick was unbuttoning a shirt-pocket beneath the ski-jacket’s whispering cocoon. He fiddled out an envelope, and drew a letter from it, and half unfolded it. ‘It’s very sweet,’ he said, as I stared away from it and then let my eyes flick back in an involuntary attempt to decipher what was visible of Luc’s rapid, clumsy hand. Patrick held the letter close to himself and scanned it in a vain and rather tasteless way – I had the feeling he was teasing me with its private and unguarded contents, that he carried it as a sentimental token and liked to let me glimpse, when he turned it over, the wild and old-fashioned endearment with which it began, and which I might hunger for ever to hear from Luc myself. I thought he was going to read a bit out, and then with a shake of the head and a little smile he decided not to. He snapped the letter away and gave me a quick cold stare as if to repudiate any spurious intimacy.
‘Anyway, he hasn’t written to you since … he left.’
‘And you think he’s run away to escape from you, or from his feelings about you?’ I pressed this point with something of a policeman’s dullness and scepticism.
‘I don’t know,’ said Patrick crossly. And then, ‘I don’t see how I can be in charge of him. He’s done this before.’
‘Yes, I know. But that was only for a night.’
‘Who told you that? He was away for about three days before the police found him.’
I’d no idea. I said, ‘Thousands of young people do leave home, and nobody knows why.’ The bewildered parents were filmed in their well-appointed homes, numbly repeating how happy everything had been. They always seemed to me to offer proof of the stark unknowability of others, of a lurking violence, touched off by some invisible pressure into damage and self-destruction; it was what love sought to tame, and lived in half-excited fear of.
‘I just wondered’, said Patrick, ‘what happened that night, after we left you in the bar.’ I saw how subtly and yet unforgivingly he had brought the little interview round.
‘Well, nothing much that I can remember,’ I said, almost languidly. ‘Luc did say how unhappy he was, but never quite told me why. We chatted with other friends of mine.’ I remembered the little stings of his pillow-talk – the bet the three youngsters had had about me, Sibylle’s jealous intuition of my feelings. And yet she had left me with him. But then Luc himself had deplored the strained talk of that evening – the eerie politesse that masked the break-up of the Three, and acknowledged it. I went on carefully: ‘I said Luc must get home to bed, as we had a lesson first thing in the morning.’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ Patrick broke in.
I wondered what he knew. I found I was longing for his confidence: I wanted to step in and take the place of the absent friends, soothe the unacknowledged bereavements of his awkward time of life. I thought how pained and creepy I might seem to him – both predatory and vicarious. ‘I wish I could have helped him more,’ I said.
But he was reasonable: ‘You did what you could. You’ve been all around the place on that merry goose hunt!’ He slapped the table to mark his pleasure in knowing this imaginary idiom, and frowned in slightly forced exasperation. ‘He’s a bloody nuisance!’ he said, and ran on quickly, ‘Do you think he might be dead?’
I hushed the idea away, and as I did so saw Orst’s simple panel of the beach and the sea and the dusk sky.
I waited for Paul in the portraits room. The women and children there were strangers to me still, waiting themselves, it seemed, pink-cheeked from the outside world, in the vestibule of the dark laboratory. I had hardly been to see them since that first half-conscious visit, stumbling from the early shock of Luc. They were the beginning of the tour, spirits of the happy region the painter had left behind. They looked out, from their background of indecipherable old tapestry, like figures from a sunlit ante-bellum, suspecting nothing. The children especially, girl-cousins and long-legged boys, were stirring and faunal, for all their blue-ribboned hats and courtly knee-breeches. Orst captured their restlessness, the brevity of the repose he had exacted from them, penned in a deep corner of the sofa, or in a fur-edged coat and hat as if just returned from a winter walk alive with new knowledge, hands behind back pressing the door to, the attention barely held. He discovered the girl in his mother, also, though the swept-back hair was grey, the skin silvery-soft above the high white collar. Her eyes were cast down Memling-like on an open book, her cheek flushed as if by a first compliment.
Paul came in with his briefcase and trilby. We were going up to Brussels together, where we would see an Orst sculpture that was due to be auctioned, and I would go on to a chat with Martin Altidore that filled me with apprehension laced with furtive eagerness. Paul handed me the catalogue with the place marked, and I looked at the photo of the naked plaster torso, disingenuously called ‘Printemps’, and the high-class patter beneath, ‘une de ses très rares œuvres plastiques’. I went out to the car wondering if I could possibly have converted the estimate rightly.
For a minute or so I found something inexplicably comic in the sight of Paul at the wheel of his desirable little Alfa Giulietta – upright and circumspect, as though he still remembered his lessons. I’m afraid it communicated itself in some way and sharpened his edginess. I did what I could, admired the car, then talked blandly about the town in the winter morning light – though once we were free of the outskirts I saw how little I missed it, what a ghost city it was, now Luc had gone. I felt a dread of living on there without him, the pointless months, the paralysis of ingrown failure.
‘No news of the Altidore boy?’ said Paul, out of some subtle and forgiving sympathy.
I turned my head and watched the slow wheeling-past of the farmlands, each shed and bungalow and leafless poplar bald and staring with his absence. ‘Nothing at all.’
I was aware of Paul watching me for a moment. ‘You’re very in love with him, aren’t you?’
Poplars, a windmill, a level-crossing. ‘Yes – yes, I am.’
A slowing, waiting, then overtaking. ‘I’m so sorry – sorry, that is, that you must be going through hell.’
Paul was unembarrassed by my crying, or sensed the gleam of relief through its drizzle,
‘Oh, not at all. Or hardly. I think in retrospect perhaps I wondered, or had little glimpses that I failed to make anything of at the time.’
‘Quite often I thought you’d seen.’
‘It was Lilli who told me. You know, you left some of the boy’s clothes mixed up with your wash. It was only then I realised that you were having an affair.’
‘Don’t worry, she won’t tell anyone. I assume it is a secret.’
‘Um – I don’t think his mother would be very pleased.’
‘One can imagine the effect on her needlework,’ said Paul quietly, not sure if a joke was allowed. I gave a grateful low guffaw.
We drove on in silence, an expectant silence, whilst I wondered if I dared say more. I fingered the catch of the glove-box abstractedly.
‘Rodney told me he’d seen you together in a bar,’ said Paul, so that I thought he had just been softening me up before the serious trouble could begin.
‘I was very rude to him. I suppose he’s been what he’d call researching me, has he? He probably thinks I’ve bumped Luc off. I’m sorry, but he’s a nightmare – Rodney.’
‘I suppose he’s not perhaps very …’ mumbled Paul, trying to adjust to what was clearly an unexpected view of his new employee. ‘Anyway, that isn’t the point – he just appeared very concerned about the boy’s whereabouts. He was asking Marcel all about your expedition.’
I thought, I’m too upset already to have to think about Rodney Young. ‘I can’t explain,’ I snapped. ‘He’s just my bête noire.’ Paul made a ‘Sorry I mentioned it’ face, and went on at once:
‘I’m not criticising you, my dear Edward. I don’t know if what you’ve done is right or not. Some would say that you are in a position of trust in the Altidore household, as you are in ours, and that such a trust hardly envisages your starting an affair with your pupil.’
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