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The folding star histori.., p.5
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       The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.5

           Alan Hollinghurst
 

  ‘That is perfectly possible. There are a dozen or more at the Tate, but they haven’t been shown since before the war. There’s an important one in Leeds, “Rêveries”, some portraits in Glasgow, bought from the collection of Connal, one or two in Brighton’ – those, I thought, I might have seen on some camp, windswept weekend, rising at lunchtime and wandering half-hysterically about with whomever I had in tow, full of wild plans for getting rid of him – ‘and even a major drawing at your mad little Corley-Cripps Museum in Eastbourne, which is always so conveniently closed.’

  He looked at me unblinkingly and I said, ‘Yes, I’m sorry about that’ – then he gave an enchanting smile and a little giggle, at which I felt a sudden and unexpected intimacy had been reached. I had a warm glow, half a shiver, a tear in my eyelashes, not enough to fall. I had seen the Corley-Cripps Museum years before with my gay uncle Wilfred, prospecting in the Newhaven area on some unexplained business of his own, and still vividly remembered the huge 1890s villa, with its green cupola and cars in a shed at the side that were almost as old as the house itself. We were admitted by a reluctant old woman in an overcoat, whom a pre-war photograph in one of the rooms enabled us to identify as Madeleine Corley-Cripps, daughter-in-law of the builder of the house. I might well have looked for a moment or two at a mystic panel by Orst, as I did certainly at the three Burne-Jones ladies and at blackened allegories by G. F. Watts. But their mysteries were dim beside the captivating dereliction of their surroundings – the click of loose tiles underfoot, the enormous moribund plants, the cases of damp-damaged memorabilia, the linings of the curtains tattered and brown and trailing on the floor, the view from the windows on to the garden, its statuary blistered and tarnished by the salt air.

  He had only called it mad, but I hoped that my host, who must be a practised poker-around in odd and not always welcoming places, shared my love for this one – and love, in the sudden flush of enthusiasm, is what it was revealed to be. I wasn’t sure if the joke was already over. I wanted to say something about the cars, and how my uncle and I, once Madeleine Corley-Cripps had closed the front door behind us, slackened our pace down the drive, halted, and without a word turned back and crossed to the garages, with hasty glances over our shoulders and at a disreputable near-run. All old Corley-Cripps’s automobiles were there, three abreast and three deep: a sports Delage, an intensely rare Napier 90, a green Bentley, a long-nosed Isotta-Fraschini, a raffish little wasp-backed Bugatti – the other passion of that manufacturer of once world-famous pumps. And in what a dream light they lay, with the brambles straggling over the glass roof.

  ‘The thing I recall even more than the Burne-Jones “Beatrice” there,’ said Paul Echevin, ‘was an eight-litre Bentley of 1931 (I think), the first saloon to exceed 100 miles per hour. It must have been untouched for a quarter of a century. One dared not lay a finger on it for fear that it might fall into a heap of dust.’

  It was a night of stars and cloud, not late, the odd canalside bar still lit and, as I came by, the voices of the last regulars within, chatting and grumbling discontinuously, arguing out of habit. I was happy to be out in this beautiful little city, unaware if I was warm or cold after the last cognac – the one I had not been expected to accept. I felt full of energy, as I often did when it was really time to go to bed, the time when through my clubbing years we all of us used to come alive again and go purposefully on. I hung about in the Grote Markt and heard two quarters chime from the Belfry and smoked a cigarette between. The shutters came down on a restaurant as two of the waiters, with anoraks over their white shirts and black bowties, loped for the last bus, already impatiently champing on its air-brakes.

  When later I crossed the road to the old doctor’s house, I saw that the wicket at the side was open – I never left it like that at night, on firm instructions from the old doctor’s housekeeper. And when I entered the yard I saw at once that the window of the top room on the other staircase was glaringly alight: my new neighbours had arrived. I climbed the stairs two at a time in a mood of affronted possessiveness. After I had closed my door I stood tensely in the near-darkness and heard, from that silent realm that lay beyond my wall of cupboards, the voices of the Spanish girls.

  What could they be doing in there? At first I thought their unusually penetrating laughs and shouts must be the high-spirited noises associated with arrival and unpacking, questions volleyed from one room to another as to where such and such a thing, plucked incredulously from a suitcase, should go. But no other sounds were to be heard – no shuffling about or opening and shutting of doors. Perhaps they were just sitting there, reading their school-books or darning their stockings, looking up from time to time, unable to resist screeching some hilarious commonplace at each other. I wasn’t sure of the layout of their quarters, and maybe they were quite unlike mine. I made a bit of noise myself, and in the middle of a long exchange which involved the singing of two or three verses of ‘When I’m Sixty-four’, marched along opening and slamming each of my cupboards in turn. Which made no difference whatsoever. In a moment of sudden despair I knew that they must have a guitar.

  I got undressed and turned the light off and sat waiting for the next remark or the first explosive chord. Once or twice I thought I heard the first squeaking stoppings, the hunched rehearsal of the chord-changes before the right hand springs its hackneyed horrors from the box … But perhaps it was just a distant creaking in the house or the bell of the night tram out by the station. After a while I could hear only my own indignant pulse and the hairs on my legs sliding together. Then the twelve o’clock carillon from St Narcissus, almost welcome, with its plonking hymn that had become a sort of malign lullaby. ‘Yes, close your eyes up tight: You will not sleep tonight’ – the dud note, the metrical space marked only by a rusty click, falling on the word ‘eyes’.

  3

  Saturday, and a late start – waking in the usual cosy surge of memories and fantasies, the fantasies lacking in focus. It wouldn’t quite work with Luc, I recalled a lad or two I’d seen about in the street, then hustled Cherif in quickly for the close.

  I took a shower, maddened by the sudden shrinking of the supply, spinning the hot tap and getting nothing but a feeble rope of cold. I stood out on the floor, leaning in through the curtain to test it. Then there was a far-off whining and knocking from the cistern in the roof, and the hot came thrashing back in an instant devilry of steam. Of course! It was my new neighbours at work, their shower had some kind of priority over mine, they could draw my water off and leave me shivering with annoyance.

  I mopped my little mirror clean and peered into it. It was absurdly small – it would almost have gone in a handbag; my face was cropped by its edges and looked rather good in it, I thought, like the features of any biker in the classic frame of his helmet. I swept my thick black hair around – my best feature, which people sometimes thought was dyed if they hadn’t seen my forearms or bare legs. I imagined Luc might quite admire it, and see the claim it made for my being romantic and young. He ought to see it in this mirror, which left out all the rest of me. I thought of Cherif, with his comforting extra poundage, how he seemed to like all of me, and had no inkling of my steady disappointment at how I’d turned out and was likely to stay – never having looked fabulous in a swimsuit, caught in other people’s photographs with a certain undeniable burliness. While my hair was still wet I combed it back, and it lay appealingly where I left it. It appealed to me, that is to say, though perhaps to other people it was the tell-tale feature of my self-delusion.

  I went for a wander through the cluster of ancient buildings which formed the still religious heart of the old town – the Cathedral, the Bishop’s Palace, the low dormered quadrangle of the Hospital – and out into the alleyways behind the Museum, to find that it was the day of the animal market. The vendors’ pickups and trailers were drawn up tight against the wall, and in between, on low barrows or simply standing on the cobbles, were the rustling, rackety cages that contained their wares. There w
as a ripe, unhappy smell that I remembered from the circus that ran up one childhood summer outside our windows at Rough Common; and then, as I walked along through a light crowd that seemed oppressive in the narrowly overhung street, a smell of frying onions, sausages and chips from one van and of fresh whelks and shrimps from another.

  I’d heard about this market from someone at the Cassette, and knew it was popular with the local children, who were here now, laughing at a marmoset sprinting in a wheel or trying to provoke some reaction from the comatose tree-snakes and elderly, moulting parakeets, who stood first on one leg, then on the other, looking cynically about. I saw lizards, kittens, carp, canaries; I saw a little ginger monkey rubbing its nose like a person who is embarrassed; I saw tiny fluffy dogs you might mistake for slippers and insects you might think were shrivelled fallen leaves. One old woman had a biscuit-tin of spiders, and a scientific-looking man stood behind a glass case half full of earth, challenging you to believe that it contained a pair of nocturnal burrowing voles. I hung about with the families, who were in a mood of subdued hilarity, and strolled among the boys who were standing with their bikes, their expressions mingling teen contempt with innocent absorption. Occasionally a few francs would exchange hands, and the purchaser of a rabbit or a piranha would walk off briskly, as from a shady deal; I was being very English, no doubt, but I wondered what heartless caprice could lead anyone to buy here. I avoided the sellers’ eyes, and had the feeling that if I let them snare me with their sudden patter, or worse a huckster’s wordless beckon and hand on the elbow, I would be shown some further unwelcome curiosity, something uniquely poisonous or malformed.

  The animal-sellers were a collection as rickety as the animals. Even the young ones had the weathered, impassive look of market-people everywhere, silent for long periods as if without expectation, then breaking into vaguely fraudulent animation. From the signs on their vans and their registrations it was clear that they came in from Holland, from the Ardennes, from northern France, and for a moment I caught a glimpse of this makeshift menagerie rattling from place to place across the rainy roads of Flanders, a reluctant fraternity, showing up each week or each month. There was shouting from further down the street, the yap of a dog and one or two other voices indistinctly raised. I couldn’t see through the crowd what was going on, but the way people turned and after a second or two resumed their conversation with a dismissive flap of the hand made me suppose it was a well-known drunk or the flare-up of some habitual old rivalry.

  Then, shouting sporadic obscenities, a small bearded man in torn and filthy tweeds came past, waving a stick and making occasional growling sallies at parents and at their slightly scared children, who I guessed were wondering if their mums and dads also knew these wild words that were never heard at home. In front of him hurried a black-and-white terrier, which seemed partly to share in and partly to apologise for its master’s performance, and glanced at the animals that were for sale as if to show a puzzled awareness of kinship. When the man wasn’t ranting the dog barked, so as to keep the noise more or less continuous. ‘It’s only old Gus,’ said a man next to me; but his bearing wasn’t old – it had a certain mocking rectitude – and when he glanced at me I flinched from a sharp-eyed handsomeness lined and broken under matted hair and a week of beard. He was old in the sense that a ‘character’ is old, and with the premature old age of the destitute. Once he had gone past, one or two of the boys had the courage to whoop a childish insult at him.

  I had finished with the market but waited a moment until Gus had gone before following him – wary of the man, although when he did turn and brace his shoulders, or dart at someone who embodied for a second whatever it was he hated and raged against, the swipes of his stick fell short; and his words could be laughed uneasily off. At the street’s end light struck in from the wider thoroughfare that crossed it and people stood talking in a weekend muddle of idleness and busyness. A nice-looking short dark boy, hands in the pockets of baggy blue corduroys, a guernsey round his shoulders, stepped backwards laughing just as Gus came up behind him. They both recoiled, the boy with momentarily delayed horror, Gus with the snarl of one who loathes above all to be touched; then silence and then a brown-toothed smile. He stepped forward, clutching with his left hand at the low, blackened crotch of his trousers. ‘I know all about little boys,’ he said, ‘I know all about cocks and cunts’ – so that the kid backed off and turned away fast, though with a mock-cheery shout to his companions. But Gus had already lost interest.

  The indolent bunching of the shoppers, a parked van, the street corner with its hanging lamp and mutilated figure of St Anthony of Padua – all prevented me from seeing that broad-shouldered, strong-bottomed lad, and on impulse I followed him round the corner. He and his friends had cantered on for a bit, and it took me a moment to find them, stopped again under the iron and glass marquee of the theatre. There was my friend, and a taller fair boy beside him; beyond them, looking back at me, was a calm, wide-faced girl, hair cut in a shining bob. The shorter boy’s hand rested above the small of the taller one’s back, as if he had touched it lightly to reassure him or command his attention and then left it there in comfortable forgetfulness. It was a turning-point in my life, this second sighting of Luc. I knew at once how the shape of him lingered in me, like a bright image gleaming and floating on the sleepy retina: there was a kind of miserable excitement, a lurch of the heart. At the moment I recognised him and laid a hopeless claim to him, I knew I was observing him on the loose in a world that barely touched on mine: I had the clearest sense of his indifference, as he stood there with his back to me in a brown suede jerkin and white jeans, his back on which this appealing stranger was allowed to rest his hand, confident in some unguessed intimacy. Never love at first sight; but second sometimes – while I strode through the theatre colonnade, as if unaware of the three, and with a certain glamorous urgency bent on some objective beyond them, the singing echoes of my shoe-tips rang through a longer arched perspective, and seemed to summon up the skitterings of earlier loves setting out on their improbable journeys. The three had perhaps reached a natural pause in their conversation, though of course I thought their quite abrupt silence, when I was just by them but looking away at the long irrelevant announcements for Henry VIII and La Siffleuse, was virtually an act of aggression. I swept on stiffly to the Grote Markt, and crossed it as if they were still watching me, even following me. It was not till I got to the Tourist Office, went unhesitatingly inside and stood at a rack of cards, looking past it through the huge lettered window and found that they were nowhere to be seen, that I marvelled abjectly at how my sudden burst of feeling had wrongfooted me. I had lost the chance of an easy greeting, a display of the amiable equality of our dealings, a word or two with his beautiful friends. I could have put my arm around that broad suede back, just above the other one, and claimed the beginnings of a friendship just as intense. I plucked out postcards one after another and amassed them like a terrible hand at pontoon: the Belfry, the Belfry, a frozen canal, a mural from the Town Hall, painted by Edgard Orst.

  I was in a dingy old bookshop, running my eye blindly over the stock, waiting for the storm in my head to pass: the place was a refuge, a bunker, insulated by its own dusty tedium and the bulkheads of paper and worn leather. I froze off the donnish assistant, who enquired as to my special interests and who may have thought I was a thief – I who had stolen nothing in my life. I worked my way into the remotest back-room, where there were three or four shelves of English books under the stairs, and crouched down in front of them with the feeling I was asking them for help.

  H. E. Bates, Hard Times, Drabble, ancient abridged texts of Gulliver and Crusoe with the cancelled library stamp of St Narcissus, the ringed golden flower on the dull green boards … The Poetry Section, Arkell, Armstrong, Arnold (Edwin and Matthew), it was like Digby’s at home, where I’d had my first holiday job – a receiving area for dead and dying enthusiasms. Some local Anglophile of advanced years must have passed
away. I saw my long-lost schoolfriend Poets of Our Time, and took it out and clutched it without opening it. I thought I would give it to Luc; we could study the Binyon and Bottomley and Masefield together, without his knowing how their phrases ran through my past, the melancholy secrecy of reading. It struck me I should buy him other books as well, they would be presents, too musty to be recognised as such, with invisible inscriptions. I took down an Awkward Age, a Persuasion, a Love’s Labour’s Lost with immediate firmness. And of course a tough enough reading-list would keep him busy, he’d have no spare time for his vacuous pawing friends, his day would be somehow mine; and the evenings – perhaps he would need to see me in the evenings to sort out his finer uncertainties, questions of motive and metaphor … I ran along the shelf again and frowned to read the rubbed title of a novel; it took several seconds for me to be sure – it really was one of my Aunt Tina’s, foxed and crumbly, on wartime paper, and priced as if the dealer knew the value it would have to one affectionate customer. There were family as well as friends here under the stairs.

  When I didn’t go to the Cassette I went to the Golden Calf, an old men’s bar in the middle of town but so tucked away up an alley full of bicycles and beer crates that it could have been anywhere. The regulars either sat in unexpecting silence or spoke loudly and infrequently about what they’d seen on television. You could have been in a lounge bar in a market town in the west of England, or even in the George IV at home, except that here there was no music, which made it better for reading or writing letters. Today I sat with Careful, Mary! to distract me between the malty mouthfuls of a lunchtime ‘Silence’ – a flooring brew from Antwerp alleged to be made by Trappist monks. I felt obtusely proud of the filthy little book, and wanted to tell the old boy next to me how Christina McFie was my comical-tragical great-aunt.

 
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