The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.47Alan Hollinghurst
‘Well, you were only trying to help.’ I felt my nerves about Luc’s father focusing on Paul’s predicament – I was trying to justify myself as well with this bland remark.
‘The next morning I woke up knowing I had done something terrible. I slipped out very early and cycled round to Orst’s place as fast as possible: I had to warn them that the house was being watched. When I turned the corner – into our street – I saw a van parked, a group of people outside the front door, soldiers, a tall Gestapo officer who was well known in the town, the Gruppenleiter, as well as various neighbours. It was most imprudent of me, but I couldn’t keep back – I should have turned away at once, my father had drummed into me how I must never involve myself unnecessarily. I came up to the edge of the group, and just then the dear old couple were brought out and pushed into the van. They didn’t see me, but the image of their silent terror makes me ache to this day. There was a long pause, a stoical illusionless pause on the part of the neighbours; though they were curious too, there was a miserable sense of occasion, that something so hidden was about to be brought to light. When Orst came out, they all crossed themselves, Willem was pushing him in his wheelchair, though he was dead, and bounced and lolled as the wheels went over the cobbles. His face was bloodless and his eyes wide open: he seemed to stare angrily, his mouth was open in a sneer. There was a smell, and the women lifted their aprons to their faces. It was grotesque, but the faith of the bystanders was equal to the challenge – it was quietly stated among them who he was, tears were shed, prayers were muttered, the spectacle was taken in without flinching.
‘Then the soldiers hoisted the body, the painter, up into the van in his chair, and he stayed for a moment, before the doors were slammed, as if he was sitting in judgement, it was pointless my hiding in the crowd, he could see me now though he never had before. I was in that mad shocked state when your head is full of rhetorical voices: he seemed to be bitterly asking me, as he always used to, what it was I had seen in the street, what colour the clouds were now. Then he was gone – they were all gone. Later the bodies of the servants could be claimed for burial. Orst as you know has no tomb.’
No tomb. How often I had failed to register the negative evidence, the white canvas, the invisible wingbeat that flutters the page. ‘But what had happened?’
‘That, my dearest Edward, I do not know.’ And he glanced at me keenly for a second, as though I might at last be able to tell him. ‘Willem must have known. I watched him standing by the van, and I remember thinking how well I knew him, physically. I saw through his dreadful uniform. I knew just how his shoulders moved, and how the hairs grew on his chest and at the bottom of his back, and between his legs. I knew where his appendix scar was, and the rings of his vaccination on the upper arm. I knew what he could do with those big limbs in his other life, his love life. In spite of disaster all that still seemed a triumph. You’ll think I’m mad. He could have walked over then and arrested me; he saw me weeping in the crowd and maybe didn’t know it was not for Orst but for him. He gave me a look, but he didn’t betray me.’
‘But he already had betrayed you!’
‘Well, I don’t think he betrayed me to anything like the same degree as I betrayed Edgard Orst, and the blameless people who protected him.’
‘And you can’t be sure you were responsible – the house was being watched, you don’t know how he died …’
‘But how does one know what one is responsible for? It seems to me a youngster cannot know. He picks up an older person’s life and then – he is distracted, self-absorbed, over-zealous, or perhaps quite unreflecting, he’s no idea what he’s doing – lets it drop.’
For all the humiliations Paul was owning up to, I felt again his subtle grasp on life, the quick intelligence that was impotent against his own problems, which it could only watch and bemoan. And then the confession itself was so hopelessly belated, kept back, by some begrudging mechanism, until the secret it enshrined had spread and shadowed his existence almost to the end. I felt properly sorry for him, but was aware too that the long perspective of his revelations made him faintly unattractive to me. I sighed and shook my head and wondered if there was some way in which I could politely dissociate our two predicaments. ‘Now let’s go and see this sculpture of his,’ he said.
We waited in silence for the lift to rattle down. I knew I was failing to make the capable response, and sensed his disconcertment – it was tinged with a panic that he overrode with a fresh avowal: ‘I can’t quite explain how it is that you’ve helped me so much with all this, but you have – oh, you’ve helped in a dozen ways with the proofs and your patient work, but that’s not quite it.’ He hesitated. ‘I’ve sometimes felt like protracting the catalogue even longer, just to keep you busy and looking after me, to keep us looking after each other.’ There was a ping! and the doors slid open on to an aroma of cigar-smoke, like the still fresh trace of a wanted man. We stood inside, the doors closed, and after a second or two of ascent Paul kissed me on the cheek and flung his arms around me, banging his briefcase against the small of my back. I stared over his shoulder at my reflection in the lift’s steely wall.
I found ‘Printemps’ quite sinister, a little smaller than life-size, with a steady grey eye and a torrent of red hair. The right breast was shiny and worn, as if often rubbed, like the burnished toe of a saint, by day-dreaming devotees. The figure ended at the knee and stood on a dulled and chipped gilt plinth. It gave a troubling sense of merely suspended animation, as though waiting to catch the viewer off-guard. I felt there should be a slot in the base for a coin that would set the head nodding, the eyes rolling, the lower lip and chin dropping and snapping shut; perhaps it would utter a slow, repeating laugh; then it would freeze again, just as it was, with the mockery and promise of its stare and its smile.
It was party time again for the Spanish girls: their voices cut like buzz-saws through the background of guitar-music and chatter. Christmas, of course. And what a lot of friends they had. I looked down into the utter stillness of the back garden, the bare trees, the canal, the rotted water-door of the darkened school. It was only three but the light was going, I couldn’t quite find the little statue under the apple-boughs: it pleased me that I’d never been down there and didn’t know what it was. Relentless flamenco chords, and the proud rapping on the box of the guitar taken up, stamped out hilariously on the bare floor and sending its tremor through the ancient joists. I felt neglected but at the same time sniffily anti-social, as I sometimes had in childhood, when Charlie’s parties had no role for me. I pictured the goings-on like the fake head-tossings and eye-flashings of a sixties ‘Latin American Fiesta’ LP sleeve.
There was a knock at the door.
This was something so unusual that it seemed to bring my whole life before my mind’s eye. What I dreaded was Cherif’s return, some maudlin rapprochement or pretence that nothing serious had gone wrong. Or it could be poor troubled Paul, I supposed, in search of the solace I alone seemed able to offer him. But what if Luc was standing there, fluffily unshaven, greasy-haired, hungry …? I crossed the room assuring myself it was only Marcel, who had got the time of a lesson wrong, or forgotten it was the holidays.
Outside, in a vision of unbruised youth and beauty, were Alejo and Agustín. So I had been forgiven? The former, in one of his bright silk waistcoats, like a wicked prefect, kissed me on both cheeks, while his cousin extended a hand stiffly, but with a slight smile: he gave the impression of having been coaxed round and of relying entirely on Alejo as a chaperon. Still, I felt in some way blessed by them, ridiculously moved to find myself in their thoughts.
‘Agustín wants to ask you something,’ said Alejo. I shrugged and spread my hands to say ‘Anything, anything.’
‘Both my sisters say, would you like to come to their party.’
‘And …’ prompted Alejo.
‘And I invite you too.’
‘And so do I.’
‘Oh … it’s terribly sw
‘It is for Christmas, and also for my sister’s, um, onomastic … holiday,’ said Agustín, glad of this further rationale for their gesture.
‘I’m very touched, please thank your sisters, it would have been wonderful to meet them at last, but the truth is I’m tied up with something here.’ I was aware of their both looking curiously past me into the grim fug of the room. ‘And then any moment I have to go out to meet a friend on the other side of town. But thank you, thank you, my friends.’ For a minute I was Scrooge playing Mr Brownlow. ‘I hope you’ll have a very happy time.’ I caught on Agustin’s incomparable face the glow of a double satisfaction.
I couldn’t have borne the party, simple social sweetness was beyond me these days; yet by the time I skulked out through the yard, aware I was noticed from my neighbours’ window, a hunched figure in the dusk, I had begun to feel humiliated by their offer, like some difficult old widower invited to share the family turkey. I saw I was shy, too, of dancing with unknown girls.
After the tinny carols in the streets, the automated mania of the shoppers, the limbo of Christmas, garish but dank, it was like reaching home to push open the heavy door of the bar, to hear the spring sweep it shut behind me, to move again in the slowed rotations of this other limbo, in its deep-sea gloom of copper and green.
I was at the bar, settling and ordering, relishing the management’s sullen refusal of all festive crap, before I heard a toot of recorders, like a pert echo of long-ago end-of-term concerts. I turned, and there in the corner was a group of hairy mutants, bodies in jeans and sloppy jerseys topped with heads of crumpled felt and black bristle, with holes for eyes, as if a finger had punched through bone. One, with an ambiguous long jaw and flopping ears, gave me a wave, that was followed by muffled giggles from the rest. I nodded back, hoping that would be it. A certain silly terror of masks.
Of course I knew it was Gerard, I knew his wide hips as he came over, and the blond fuzz on the back of his hands. ‘I’d forgotten you were a donkey,’ I said.
If there was sarcasm in his look it was entirely absorbed by his grotesque proboscis. ‘I’m a hare.’ He had two mouths: his real mouth and chin were left uncovered beneath the contraption, so that he could play, whereas the mouths of the bear and the monkey more troublingly coincided.
‘So when’s your concert?’
‘It’s tonight – aren’t you coming? In the old Council Chamber.’
‘Of course, I’d love to. Can you still get tickets?’
‘Totally sold out.’ I winced regretfully. ‘But I can probably get you in. Come early’ – and he started on an account of how and where. It was obviously Kindness To Me day. I thought back, to rid myself of all this, to when we’d first met, just here – how I wanted to kiss him, how he dodged me but stayed with me, warm and breathy and avoiding. I thought he couldn’t kiss anyone as he was.
There was a ghastly moment as the others crowded round, like clumsy chimeras, their own embarrassments hidden under fur and whisker. The bear with the recorder, playing the thing he would normally be goaded to dance to, gave a few further tootlings. I stared them out with an unconvincing grin. Then they shambled away, plucking their heads off like fencers and showing their flushed young faces beneath. The door shut behind them and I turned with an apologetic grimace to the barman, dear little Ivo, who had helped me at moments before, who kept his ears and eyes open – there was a horrifying noise from outside, a cracked re-echoing whoop, and another, and then another. It was like the never-before-heard siren of a sinking ship. Gerard had let loose with his bombard at last.
Ivo made a camp gesture of alarm, and clutched his tea-towel to his heart. A moment later, ‘I’m glad they’ve gone. They got on my nerves!’
‘Mine too.’ He paused by me, and stared at the counter, as if trying to pick up the thread of an interrupted conversation, then shook his head.
‘Staying in town for Christmas?’
‘I’m going back home in a couple of days.’
‘Back to London, yeah?’
‘Well, a bit south of London.’
‘Lucky you!’ He unbuttoned his shirt-pocket and took out a packet of Marlboro. ‘Want one?’
‘Thanks a lot.’ I offered a light.
‘Thanks. No, everyone seems to get out of here as quick as they can. Not that I blame them.’
I didn’t know what I thought about that. The place irked me, made me ache with the absence of Luc, each street mocked me, but I dreaded leaving, just for a few days, when he might need me, or might feel the seasonal tug home. ‘I was hoping Matt might be here.’
Ivo glanced at the clock. ‘It’s a bit early for Matt. Or whatever he’s called.’
‘I suppose you’re right.’
‘Anyway, he’s probably busy.’
I smiled and blew out smoke. I wondered how much he knew about my friend. ‘Could well be.’ And indeed it was early for anybody: only the solstitial nightfall gave the hour the aura of drinks-time.
‘Being kept busy, from what I gather.’ I didn’t quite see this. ‘Is he still seeing that boy?’
I thought about it for a moment and a swallow of beer. ‘I don’t think so. Which one do you mean?’ I couldn’t honestly say I knew or was jealous.
Ivo assumed his scandalous ‘discreet’ manner. ‘I don’t know his name, dear. I just watched him pick him up in here one night. Then the next night he was telling me all about it when the kid comes in again. Couldn’t get enough, Matt said.’ He glanced both ways along the bar. ‘He had him seven times – and that was just the first night. I was moderately jealous. Not that he was my type – you know, tall, tall schoolboy, blond, mouth like a sponge. Still – only seventeen … It must be nice to get something really fresh.’
My hand was still steady, my heart flinty. ‘When would this have been?’
‘Ooh …’ he searched with no sense that it mattered: ‘Three or four weeks ago? One thing about Matt, he always gets what he wants. Though even he looked a bit shagged out. Then the kid kept kissing him, and Matt was groping him between the legs – white jeans, you know – I’m saying I didn’t fancy him but come to think of it he was completely gorgeous. I just prefer dark men,’ he said, with a bat of the eyelids, and slid off to answer another customer.
I was still perplexingly calm, though I pulled on the cigarette fiercely, and stared at the threadbare pommel of the bar-stool next to me, where he had sat so untouchably that evening. It was the arch ingenuousness of his remark ‘That guy Matt must be gay’ that came to me first; and then Matt’s obscene and encouraging gesture behind the boy’s back. I finished my drink quickly but thoughtfully and I was almost at the door when it flung open with consummate timing to admit the busy world of Ronald Strong. I thought for once I would speak to him, my mind was clear and fuelled, I stopped with an ironic glance – but he looked me up and down in an expressionless second and swept past. I went on out with a dull, half-audible ‘Fuck you’.
As I walked across town I was shocked but composed, as one is at first after a death one knew was coming. The horrible fact had been with me, known to me all along – it was none the less plausible for having been imparted in a dream.
Out towards Matt’s, those wide neglected streets, the houses shaken by lorries, the pavements and windows silted and blinded with dust. I was watching my own purposefulness curiously, wondering when it would falter. Matt cared about nothing, and so was oddly invulnerable – he was the great facilitator, he would say he was ‘only getting the kid ready’ for me, and perhaps that was true, perhaps he’d set him up to the whole thing. I pondered whether Matt could be involved in his disappearance – I couldn’t see the point. I’d thought I was about to break with him for good, to limp away in the laughable shreds of my dignity, but maybe that was pointless too; he liked me but he wouldn’t miss me, whereas I was snagged with a sentimental respect for the part he had played in my fiasco. I went on past the end of his road.
I was dawdling alongside parked
The back of the house was dark, the jeep standing in the yard, loosely swathed in a nylon tarpaulin that rustled and lifted and sank in a stirring of breeze as if someone was there. I let myself in to the glass porch, which still held a dim vegetative smell from the withered azaleas and sprawling rubber-plants, and then into the flat, with its own bouquet of cologne-smothered squalor. So he’d brought Luc here. I lit a cigarette and hung around by the bed, disordering it further with a fastidious toe. For a second or more at a time I let myself imagine them. I seemed to have forgotten that I had slept here since, unknowing, hoping to forget.
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