The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.46Alan Hollinghurst
I muttered my fatalistic tag, ‘It happens, it happens.’ It would have been too feebly extenuating, too woundingly true, to have said that it was the boy who had seduced me.
‘Of course it happens. I know it happens. Really what I want to say is that it does not alter or diminish my trust in you at all.’ The curiously formal language with which Paul entered this new phase of candour.
‘Thank you.’ I glanced at him and saw that he was stiff with nerves; I began some further socially graceful acknowledgement, but he cut across it with the already prepared continuation of his speech, perhaps with a tiny stutter of delay –
‘No, it’s all quite fascinating to me. May I – there’s something I’d rather like to tell you.’
We were nearing another small city, large signs gathered to explain the inescapable choices we had to make. I gazed out across fields, depots, the sun-reflecting car-parks of factories, to the cluster of gothic towers like a bungled version of our own. I felt a certain reluctance to listen to Paul. My mind was running on ahead to the meeting with Martin, which I imagined would test me a good deal more thoroughly than this one with Paul. I thought Paul could be using this hour to rehearse me, as if for a viva after a wobbly exam. I didn’t want the journey to be over too soon, but at the same time I fidgeted to be out of the car. I suspected what he was going to say would be one of those admissions the teller considers to be ‘oddly similar’ to your own and which, offered as proof of sympathy, serve only to rob your predicament of its force and singularity.
As if I hadn’t heard him, I said, ‘I’m terribly worried about seeing Martin Altidore.’
I felt him flinch from my rebuff – for a second I recalled the atmosphere of scenes in the car, the two parties strapped in their positions, glaring forwards. But when he spoke it was in a tone of negotiation: ‘I can see it’s difficult’; and after a moment he reached out and patted me on the arm just as I moved it. ‘Are you thinking of coming clean?’
‘No. Not unless it’s clear that he knows – if Luc’s said something, or … I don’t think anybody need know apart from me and him – and you. To be honest, I’m pretty certain his running off has nothing to do with him and me being …’ (I couldn’t quite pronounce Paul’s happy version of events). ‘It’s to do with other things. I don’t want to muddy the water by appearing to incriminate myself.’
‘Altidore could hardly object,’ said Paul, ‘after everything he’s done. You know, the poor mother must be sick of being run away from. But I think you’re quite right. You’re being truthful to yourself, and that needn’t call for exhaustive or unnecessary truthfulness to others.’ There was a long pause in which I ran mistrustfully over this welcome advice. ‘I’ve never told anyone about my first affair, because it would have caused distress and served no purpose – it would have been . . gratuitously honest.’ His discomfort was palpable, his determination dried his mouth and gave an odd new depth to his voice. I was being callous: he had planned to be listened to; but even so I wanted to let him off the hook, spare him these abrupt breaths and incessant mirror-checkings. Perhaps he could tell me about it on a later day, when we weren’t so busy, weren’t riding steadily above the speed-limit. ‘I do think that, don’t you? One mustn’t mistake brutality for honesty, as so many young people do nowadays, or impertinence for wit, incidentally! Oh, in my case it was a summer’s passion, when I was seventeen too, as it happens – with an older man.’ So there he went with the oddly similar – and brought out lightly after nearly half a century, in a tone not practised but certainly rehearsed, it caught my sympathy. I could see what it had cost him, though not yet why.
If I still failed to encourage him it was because I didn’t want to seem crudely eager for the details – I didn’t quite know in what terms to express an interest. I assumed an indefinably sham expression of sober receptiveness. ‘Tell me about it if you’re sure you want to,’ I said. He nodded irritably, but then waited, as though struck unexpectedly by the margin of doubt my words allowed for. Or perhaps the rehearsed words had died on him, or turned into nonsense with time. My head was a little on one side, I was focusing on his predicament, which seemed to grow and become more inexpressible as a full minute passed, and then another. The tension became rather sickly and embarrassing then, and I couldn’t look at him. I found myself shifting and gazing out of the side-window while my own briefly arrested spools of anxiety and regret started up again. I made some trivial remark, but he didn’t reply, only held up his hand in that gesture of his that called for patience and consideration. We raced on for maybe a quarter of an hour, switching rather madly from lane to lane, Paul hunched forward as if the road demanded all his attention. I thought, if he’s waited fifty years, what’s fifteen minutes? But Brussels was already beginning to rise around us and inflict its own further squeeze of anxiety.
Paul said, ‘Do you know where I mean by the Hermitage?’
‘Yes, I do,’ I said, with a relieved smile that he turned for a second to see, and thought perhaps was satirical.
‘Oh, I daresay it’s very routine to you. I believe it’s very busy, what’s the word, very cruisy these days.’
‘It’s not part of my routine. I’ve been there once and got completely lost and freezing cold and had …’ – well, I mustn’t mistake brutality for honesty. ‘I had a hopeless time. I’ve sometimes thought of going back in the daylight, just to look at the trees, but I’ve never quite got round to it.’
‘It is a lovely park. There’s only a fragment of the Hermitage itself left, very badly restored’ – his confidence quickened with that professional phrase – ‘but fine avenues and a canal, and the remains of a round garden with a basin that is fed by a natural spring, and alcoves of yew – it’s like a three-dimensional Fragonard.’
‘Yes, I think I saw all of that on my, probably rather drunken, peregrinations.’
‘I just heard someone mention it at school,’ said Paul, with a swift compression of time that it took me a moment to catch up with. ‘I pretended to take no notice, but like a lot of the boys I was fairly preoccupied with all that. This boy said that someone in the town, a shopkeeper who was very obliging to the Germans, was always going there in the evening. He went on with quite a detailed account, until he started to get funny looks – you know, it seemed he knew too much.’ He gave me a quick smile that was all at odds with the expression of his eyes. ‘Anyway, the idea took hold with me. I became somewhat obsessed with the Hermitage, though I knew I would never dare ask about it directly; I used to provoke other people into mentioning it, and then make a great thing about how I’d never want to go there. Which, of course, is what I finally did, one Saturday evening in early May of 1944; and not before establishing elaborate alibis to Maurice and Lilli and stuffing my head with excuses in case I should meet anyone I knew. As I told you before, we all found we were quite brave in the war, but I had only been brave up to then in obvious common causes – never for myself. I was almost running up to complete strangers to explain what I was pretending to be doing.’
I laughed and thought of running out late to Dawn, under the wood’s edge; I felt a certain delicacy, as if the tables were turned, and held back from contributing my own oddly similar anecdotes in support of what he said. I thought I’d quite like to see photographs of him at that age. There was something of the same self-conscious bravery in him now.
‘Well, I won’t spin it out, but I crept round, and the trees were all coming into leaf – you couldn’t see far through the wood, and I couldn’t in fact see anybody at all. I wondered what I would do if I did meet someone, and exactly how it was that whatever they did was done. If ever I go back there – oh, with Lilli and Marcel, on a Sunday morning! – I hear the wind in the trees and that reminds me in an instant of what it was like, alone, entering an empty avenue. The light was beginning to go, and so, I thought, must I; I knew that after dark was more likely to be the time, but I started to think none the less that my inadvertent school informant was wrong about
‘I wasn’t sure quite what had happened. I stood there for some time weighing up things like what time it was against the obvious fact that he appealed to me, even if he wasn’t my absolute ideal; which in turn was balanced by the likelihood that he was only out for a walk – a workman from town perhaps. But in that case there could certainly be no harm in following him.
‘So I did take the path under the trees, and there, just a few paces on, the man had stopped – he was half-hidden by a great beech-trunk he was leaning behind. And so – one thing happened; and then another thing …’
I felt slightly cheated by this brisk curtailment, as though the dusk and the foliage hid these happenings from me – but perhaps glad, too, that Paul hadn’t forced himself to say. I merely hummed approval.
‘Well, they were the first shocks of sexual reality for me – a man’s large hands, a man’s rough chin and cheeks, as well as all the rest. I was not a little confused, my dear Edward, and terribly aware of doing wrong. But I found I was excited by the risk. And then afterwards what inflamed me, as much as the guy’s big prick and everything, was his gentleness, like being cradled and protected by some great giant. I’m sure in memory I’ve exaggerated that difference – I must have been fully grown myself; but Willem was a big man. I’m sure there was that class thing, too, which you’re supposed to have so much worse than us – the place and the event conspired to make me think of him as a, what’s the word, a woodlander.’
I felt it flourish, from deep nostalgic roots, and cast a dappled shadow across glass and concrete, slow-moving Africans outside discount stores, scaffolders high up. The whole recollection was beautiful, affirmative – it was hard to see why Paul had left it lying so long in the briars and the loam. ‘So you saw him again.’
‘I probably would have wanted to, because of course I was a young romantic and to me ten minutes with a handsome stranger was clearly the same as true love, and besides it had the romantic complexities of danger, and sin, as I suppose I thought of it then. I can see now that it also conformed to the sense one had in those years that everything important was secret, and so anything secret must surely be important.’
‘It wasn’t a game.’
‘Actually, it was he who asked to see me again. I didn’t realise at the time, because to me he was marvellous, but he must have thought himself pretty lucky to get a fresh and well, quite nice-looking seventeen-year-old, don’t you think? Anyway, it seemed that we had fallen in love.’ I was silent, rather shaken. Paul went on quickly, ‘This probably sounds foolish to you – all I can say is it was wildly unusual then.’
‘Not at all,’ I said warmly, to allay the recurrent note of uncertainty, as though he felt he couldn’t measure up to some fast and cynical standard he imagined me to hold. I couldn’t say without condescension how touched I was by his doubting, pedantic candour.
We mounted the pavement and swung into the low mouth of a buried car-park. At each turn of the hairpin descent the Alfa’s tyres squealed. It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth level that spaces showed – Paul backed into a bay and stilled the engine and we sat looking out into the shadowy coffered perspective, shuttered concrete, stripes of yellow light, the weight of silent floors above.
‘Well, we kept seeing each other, Willem and I. I managed it because I had to. Often I used my visits to poor old Edgard Orst as a cover – I went to him for ten minutes in the afternoon and left the old fellow babbling and confused to cycle out to the Hermitage. We didn’t think we dared meet elsewhere – in fact it was the perfect place. He came from a village a mile or two out, and lived with his old father. I outwitted everybody, at the same time being barely able to believe they couldn’t tell something was up. It went on for a couple of months – of heaven and madness. We didn’t at first, but later we did … everything with each other. Our meetings themselves were always terribly brief – I think we can hardly have talked.’
I realised I was flinching with envy from Paul’s account. I thought of my own two months of paralysed trepidation with Luc, nothing in them beyond talk, and the pointless wondering, now, if I should have moved at once, leaned very early on into his milky coffee breath …
‘Then one day I was walking to school with Maurice. We were crossing the Grote Markt, making our usual jokes about the soldiers – just to ourselves; there was a group of them quite near, the local militia, and I knew already, just because I loved him and would have known the shape of him among a hundred strangers, that one of them was Willem. He had his back to me, he was talking with his fellows, smoking – how stupid they were, Maurice and I agreed, and how little time they had left, now that the Allies had landed in France and would be here within weeks. We had an image of huge, blond, actually rather Aryan-looking Americans sweeping into town on tanks, mowing down the Fascists at the same time as they gathered us up to ride with them above the crowd. That was my image, anyway. I think I rather hoped for a, well, a special relationship with one of the Liberators. And now I was plunged into confusion – I don’t know, my guilt was suddenly ten times deeper, it was proved, it was in uniform; but at the same time there was a defiant thrill, as if I was a kind of double agent myself; and then there was the thought that this great big boy really, who was moved by strong passions of his own and was rather daring, a bit of an original, was about to be swept away by the good Americans and Canadians – I wanted to hold their advance back, perhaps the Germans would rally. Then a moment later I knew again that I was hopelessly wrong.’
Paul’s knuckles were white on the wheel, he was staring narrowly forwards like someone driving too fast through fog, weighing urgency against prudence. ‘Did he see you then?’
‘I didn’t think he had. I was completely distracted that day; and I couldn’t sleep at all that night. Whenever I hear the phrase “a sleepless night” it is that one that comes back to me, which lasted for ever, though it was a short summer night, with Maurice across the room, who was in far greater danger than me, sleeping peacefully. I went through every possibility and in the end I decided I would have to give Willem up. But I decided that I had to try one desperate measure, and ask him to renounce the Fascists before it was too late. I thought maybe I could save his life. I spent many hours running through the words I would say and bringing all the arguments of love to bear. My wildest plan was to persuade him to become an informer, I thought I could introduce him to my father, with his contacts in the underground, although I knew that would be to risk the lives of hundreds of other people. I felt the most dreadful weight on my heart, that I had to make such decisions and know such things when I was so young. I suppose the truth was I had to grow up over night, and I rightly doubted whether I was able to.
‘The next evening I cycled out to the Hermitage, but he didn’t come. I waited at our usual place till it was almost dark – I remember there were noises of other people moving about, I was afraid I would be found.’ Paul spread his fingers as if to conjure up the woodland maze in front of us, with all its blind options. ‘I was acting with a strong, if very romantic, sense of honour. My mind then, as I’ve said, was full of chivalrous imaginings, though now they carried a darker burden.
‘I think it must have been a couple of days later that I went round to see Orst in the afternoon, after school. All I really recall of it is a scene of curtained gloom, rather as if he’d disappeared into one of his own prints, if you can imagine – so little light that the colour was closed out of things. The old housekeeper said he was much worse, the doctor who came to him secretly had warned them he probably didn’t have long. I wasn’t sure why they’d plunged him into semi-darkness, since the light meant nothing to him. I suppose it was a
‘When I came out of the house Willem and another soldier were standing just across the street. I was an accomplished pretender by then, but I know I jumped guiltily, or looked astonished enough for the other soldier to call me over. He made me show my papers, asked me whose house I had just come from, and what I was doing. I said I’d been visiting the old cook and housekeeper, whom I helped with various things. We looked back at that very big house, and I was glad of the curtains and shuttered upper windows. I didn’t dare catch Willem’s eye, whilst he said that the house had already been searched, and that the degenerates had fled, and that it was in the care of a couple who came of good Flemish stock – which seemed a lot for him to know about it. The mass deportations of the Jews were going on all that summer – by then they thought they’d pretty well got them all, so I suppose they attached more glory to finding any who were left; in fact there were thousands hidden, but they were getting nervous about … the end. I got on my bicycle, and as I moved away Willem called out “A nice evening for a ride”, and then I looked back and saw him smiling, and the other fellow frowning suspiciously still.
‘So I took that as a sign and went out later to our meeting-place. He was there waiting, but in uniform. “You know now,” he said, and looked rather ashamed as I undid the jacket and took it off him, horrible brown stuff. I thought I couldn’t do anything with him, but then I found I could, just as usual. After we had … made love, he tried to make me put his jacket on, he wanted me to be a little soldier, he said. I did put on the jacket and sat there in the undergrowth with the prickly cloth against my skin and talked and talked to him. I remember the surprise and novelty of that for us both. But not what I said. The truth is I went through it so many thousands of times afterwards, slowly pressing it into a new and less accusing shape, rather as a carpenter or boatmaker steams and twists the wood into the curve he needs. I won’t pretend now to know what reasoning I used or what evidence I produced. I know most of what I remember is what I made up later, to my own advantage.’
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