The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.6Alan Hollinghurst
Careful, Mary! was, or else wasn’t, one of her best – it depended on whether you took her seriously or enjoyed her as a bizarre joke. Aunt Tina had spent a long childless adulthood in Africa, married to a Scottish coffee-planter, and her novels had come to her almost unbidden, like letters full of homesickness and childish make-believe. The more she wrote of England the more romantic her picture of it became – after three or four books it was barely recognisable; but her gaffes began to attract her a new audience, who loved the inadvertent comedy of her naively lofty style. For a while there had even been a Christina McFie fan-club, though it was never quite clear if she was fooled or if she took it in the camp spirit in which it was intended. I remembered the disappointment I’d felt as a child when she returned from Kenya and I discovered that she wasn’t black, merely tanned and wizened; she had a sharp smell that struck a hugged six-year-old keenly, and wore trousers and smoked yellow cigarettes.
I had read Careful, Mary! when I was still too young to know what was wrong with it; it was the one in which she got muddled up and wrote about Bermondsey when she clearly meant Belgravia; the raffish ‘Bermondsey set’ were like figures from Thackeray oddly translated to the era of Victrolas and racing Bentleys. Still, why not? I thought. And then she had ended up in Chislehurst, in eccentric isolation amid some private fantasy of England.
I was quite taken by her portrait of the young Duke of Bermondsey and absorbed myself with deliberate enthusiasm in her topsy-turvy world. Then I finished my glass and the pleasure shrivelled. I closed the book and sat back with my head against the wall, drumming my fingers tentatively on the cover, half-smiling to myself with misery that this could have happened again. And with the excitement of a recognised necessity, too. Out in the streets I walked fast but aimlessly around, drymouthed and giddy with early-afternoon drunkenness under the glare of thin cloud. Soon I was in my street, I was in my room and closed the door. It felt warm and remote there, like a room left behind when everyone has gone to church: and there were the cold coffee-cups and old papers strewn about for a maid to clear in their absence.
Somewhere, now, Luc was … doing something. At home, perhaps, over lunch with his mother, eating well amid sparse conversation. She didn’t understand how beautiful he was, she censured the sprawl of those long white-jeaned thighs under the table where he and I had sat for our hour. He was in the starry dream-orbit of his youth and she was trying to ground him with her worries and precautions. Or perhaps he had gone to a café with his two friends, they had got a bit drunk and excited on a bottle of red. The friends must love him and more or less openly desire him. I lay spreadeagled on the jangling bed to think, the back of a hand across my eyes. I heard St Narcissus strike three. When I woke the room was full of shadows and through the chambered thickness of the walls came the laughter of the Spanish girls.
It was not too early to go to the Cassette, and I had the makings of a bright, dry headache which could best be prevented by a flood of light Belgian beer. In the various streets and small squares around the Town Hall the markets were closing up now, the canvas was folded off the stalls, rails of clothes were trundled with flailing wheels over the cobbles towards waiting vans, a huge compressor lorry inched through the debris, fed at the back by teams of overalled oldsters … The proper emptiness of the place was being re-admitted, surrendered to – and it filled me with gratitude and panic in rapid alternation. The annoying distractions were being removed, but the vacancy that followed left me impatient for company: company to hold and hint at my wild new secret amongst.
Cherif was already at the bar, apart at the far end, leaning on the counter, drunk and dejected after a couple of hours of TV football. On the screen above, pundits in white sweaters were analysing the game, and Cherif brought his fist down on the bar again at the slow-motion replay of an upsetting first-half goal. It took him a moment to refocus on me, and to accept the odd fervour of my kiss and embrace. I bought us beers and stood behind him as he watched the interview with the winning manager, and hugged him tight with my head on his shoulder. I sniffed up his smoky, beery slowness, and tucked my right hand in his waistband and felt for the clean beginning of the hair above his cock – what at ten or twelve, awed as children in a fairy-tale, we had called a ‘forest’. How any groping, now, at thirty-three, retained the freshness and the shock of those first twilight wanderings out of bounds, the first wonder of consent … My left hand was in his left pocket, working on his dick through the rough lining, gently, so no one down the room would notice – until he twisted away and denied me with a little gasp.
Now that it came to it I didn’t know how to make my confession. I took him off to a table in the corner, though I knew he was still looking from time to time at the TV screen perched beyond me and at an angle, so that he could only half make out the picture but couldn’t stop trying to follow it. He couldn’t see why we’d had to move, though I was so caught up in my secret and the acclaim that would greet it that I missed the note of bossiness in my own voice.
‘Cherif, listen,’ I said: ‘I’m in love.’
He looked at me dully, then leant forward and kissed me on the lips. I felt quite pleased that I had his blessing. ‘My friend,’ he said.
‘It’s all a bit sudden, though I suppose I could see it coming.’ He remained silent, incurious, then looked down as if feeling had for a moment made him shy; and reached in the pockets of his leather jacket for cigarettes and matches. ‘I suppose you can guess who it is,’ I said, with a little breathy giggle now I was so near to saying. He lit a fag and then offered me one, and though nerves tempted me and I was relishing already the shot of smoke and the gently crackling combustion, my hand was trembling too much to accept. He glanced up at the TV again and then back to me. I said, ‘It’s my pupil Luc’, and he said flatly, ‘I love you too’, at exactly the same moment.
I had reached across the table to cover his fist for the announcement and in the silence that followed he looked down at this loose handclasp with a rather impressive contempt. He let me force my fingers into the curl of his, but I soon withdrew them. ‘Of course I still want to be with you,’ I said, like the clumsiest kind of adulterer – and for a second or two I hungered for Cherif and was mad with irritation at him and myself. After that he was in an angry sulk for the rest of the evening and was difficult company. I wandered and settled amongst the other people I was getting to know. Perhaps I forced myself on them – but I presumed on a kind of queer camaraderie and drank so as not to notice.
For a while I chatted with Gerard, a young musician – very good company but somehow remote, the sort of person it is hopeless to fall for, as I quite did at first, with his hooting laugh and witty sentimental conversation. He told me he had been married at seventeen, but separated by the time he left university: she was a strong, demanding girl and had almost convinced him that he was straight. But after a year or so he found his thoughts were turning all the time to other men, as they had done before he met her. I could imagine the couple’s self-absorption: he spoke of it as of some brief annoyance, like missing a train; but it was clear that it had troubled him more deeply. I put my hand on his shoulder and stroked his neck once or twice with my thumb, but we were no more intimate for that. He was still quite spotty, although probably about my age, and wore hopeless clothes – shapeless jeans, fluorescent trainers and complicated musician’s knitwear; but he was beautiful, with his dirty blond hair and chestnut eyes. He gave off the sexy mood of youth going smoky and drinky: if too shrewd actually to be a drunk he was certainly a very drinky kind of person. He was girlish but unshaven; naked he would have been quite hairy, though I wondered if his body was slack or heavy and strong. He was relaxed and broad-bottomed but gave the impression he would be nasty in a fight.
Because I was in a state I knew I might give any contact a disconcerting charge of feeling and talked to him deliberately about his work. He played in a period-instrument band that met three or four times a week and gave regular concerts in the
I started to tell Gerard about my father, and the records he had made, and about what it was like growing up in the house of a musician, the smell of starch, the hospital quiet, the cold suppers left under a cloth for his late return from a recital in Hove or an oratorio part in Guildford Cathedral. Gerard was torn between friendly enthusiasm and condescension towards this unheard-of tenor with a repertoire descending from Handel and Mendelssohn through Balfe and John Bacchus Dykes to Oklahoma! and the occasional medley from Lennon and McCartney. He shook his head and said, ‘It’s another world, isn’t it?’ – as if to marvel at my father’s endurance and to remove himself, as a musician, from any taint of association. I would have gone on to point out that Lewis Manners had brought far more happiness into the world than the Ghezellen van der Musycke were ever likely to do and that moreover he could sing, but I was distracted by Cherif climbing on to a stool further down the bar and twirling the remains of a drink with a look of moody disaffection.
Later I was talking to Matt. Matt was lean and pale, with slicked-back hair, and a cynical smile that never quite extended to the left side of his mouth. There was an affected calm to him; he looked at you with a glancing stare as if you had already come to an agreement. When I’d seen him here before he had been over-smart, and showed a spivvish self-consciousness about his cuffs and the creases in his flannels. I understood that he was something to do with computers, he was in the money, which explained his groomed composure among the transient youngsters of the bar and added to the static of sex and faithlessness he knew he gave off. Tonight he was in clean new denim and a Tom of Finland T-shirt: a bulging biker arm-locked another across the shallow dip of his chest. He listened closely but impassively to my pained gauche hints about Luc and Cherif, then put a hand on my shoulder and talked to me quietly. His conversation was flat and narrow, and whatever he said took on the feel of a double entendre. He made my back prickle and my chest feel hollow. He talked about ‘the best places to go’: the best place was the Hermitage, some old gardens on the edge of town.
Matt and I walked up through the narrow stagy gloom of the Blind Fox and sat for ten minutes in a bus waiting for it to start. I looked around at the handful of other passengers, slack with tiredness or shaking newspapers inside out to find some last unread announcement, and reflected on the ambiguous situation I was in. Matt was taking me to the Hermitage because of what I had told him of my troubles, of my day, and he thought it would take my mind off them; we were going there together – had left the Cassette glamorously together – but when we arrived we would have to look out for ourselves. I gathered Matt was pretty sure of meeting a builder from Leuven whom he’d had there the Saturday before; he wouldn’t want me hanging around like a kid-sister, though I had a kind of comic dread that I would keep bumping into them as I prowled about. Actually I simply wanted Matt myself, but was powerless to tell him so as the seconds slipped away: we sat with our arms hooked over the seats in front and made sporadic remarks about things.
At the first stop I looked out and who should be waiting but Cherif. He clambered on and sat down at once at the front, next to a little old man: I didn’t know if he had seen us or how conscious he was of being obliquely observed as he pulled off his awful tweed cap and sat with it rolled in his hands like a serviceman. I thought he was anxious as well as sulkily determined, independent but hopeful of mucking up our plans if he could. It was such a childish ruse that I knew for the first time in the whole fogged, giddy evening that he was truly hurt: I saw for a few minutes as we raced out on to the unpeopled glare of the ring-road that I was perhaps to blame, that I had stamped on some sentiment more delicate than he had been able to show, and that I was in fact the boor I had taken him to be.
Then Matt rang the bell and we sneezed to a halt at a shelter where tall and odorous limes towered over a high brick wall. A couple of boys, one stumblingly drunk, the other scratched and with thick sweat-soaked hair standing on end, waited in a loose embrace for us to step down into the road. It felt like arriving too late at a party, though it was only 10.30 or so. Matt, whose whole aim was sex, and who would not tolerate any lowering social embarrassments, muttered to me to let Cherif go ahead. Then we went on too, he suddenly shrewd, nervy, lighting a first cigarette, forgetting me or to offer me one. The walls swept inwards to big, curvy iron gates, which Matt immediately started to climb. I waited till he was clear and then was drunk enough to just do it, wedging my slippery-soled shoes into a haphazard ladder of bars and curlicues, and hoisting myself over the top whilst the gates rattled to their bolts. Another group of lads with bottles of beer gave almost whispered whoops as I swung down, and then said good evening with a kind of rowdy civility that cheered me up. I was in. I looked around for Matt, and smelt the iron on my hands; but he had gone.
I started down the avenue ahead. One of the boys called out something, but I waved and went on, slowing as I lost the lights from the road and the mass of the trees closed out the sky above. There was a breeze from time to time and if I had been sober I might have found it chilly; the air was saturated with the woodland smell of leaves and earth and the rich shock of being in nature again after a week of brick and stone thrilled me. I stood still in the path for a while and listened as a cool gale passed through the wood from one end to the other. And my dear dead father singing ‘Where’er you walk’, with the words repeated a quite idiotic number of times, ‘Where’er you walk, cool gales shall fan the glade, Trees, where you sit, shall crowd into a shade’, and the expression of renewed wonder he managed at each repetition …
Beyond me the driveway framed a paler, slightly misty aperture, and as I emerged from the trees and peered about, convinced that the whole area was teeming with people, holding in their giggles like guests at a surprise-party, the immense three-quarter moon, close, just half a mile away, and yellow as brass, rose ahead.
In five minutes it had exposed the sorry remains of the Hermitage on my left and in front of it a wide field that narrowed in the distance to another avenue and a glimpse of water. There wasn’t a sign of life and I thought for
Away through the long grass, actions almost preceding the decision to take them, in the rampage of drink. Now I was in the mist that hung between giant beeches like dry ice in some romantic proscenium, tumbling slowly across the orchestra … The two worn rococo lions could barely see each other, flanking the dark canal that lay ahead. I walked beside the water to the very end, learning to read my way in the obscured moonlight and the reflecting spread of the pond-mist, my heart catching sometimes at a waiting figure that was only a lichened Pomona or Apollo, its features obliterated – if not quite its promise. I couldn’t know if I was nearing the place or trekking further and further away, to a region where all that stirred would be stoats and foxes and the odd rattled wood-pigeon. Matt had spoken of a kind of formal garden, almost a maze as I imagined it. I came back down the other side of the canal, beginning to think I would go home, longing for a drink.
I thought I heard music – a spacy androgyne popsong – but the breeze snatched it and dropped it like a waltz or shushed it under a long roar of leaves. I went towards it with clumsy determination, through the near-dark of the woodland, crackling over beech-mast and leaves, brushed by low undergrowth, lifting my feet up high but still tripping now and then on dead sticks. I must be making back towards the road. I ticked myself off in a muttering, good-humoured monologue for yet again taking so long, solitary and scenically roundabout a route to somewhere that was close by at the start: the luminous hands of my watch showed 11.20. I felt very far from home and stood still for a moment to test my sex-drive, like checking the oil in a car, decided there was enough for the time being and jogged on towards the music, and brief glares of light and boyish owl-calls on either side.
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