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The folding star histori.., p.7
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       The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.7

           Alan Hollinghurst
 

  Someone had a torch and was roaming about, turning it on and off and provoking shouts and groans, and the occasional laugh. Or maybe the laughs came from the torch-carrier himself, drunk and tediously mischievous. For a moment I found myself at the fading limit of his beam, uncertain if I was visible, or if I wanted to be, if I was an intruder or a stumbling new arrival at the darkened pleasure-dome, grateful for the usher’s glowing wand. Then the beam jerked to my left, and picked out two men against a tree, jeans round their knees, an arm round a neck, a hand roughly grasping at a white bottom – before they twisted back into the darkness, too far on to care much or protest. The torch went out and I stood still while the floating image, a glimmering ectoplasmic bottom, wandered and faded. In a minute the light struck out again and I saw the whole garden revealed for several seconds.

  It was a wide circular clearing that would have been charming centuries ago, when the wood was no more than a nursery laid out in ranks and opening into tapering perspectives, but now was like something from a dream, with the huge impassive agitation of the trees above the circle of yew arbours, each with its gryphon-legged bench, and at the centre a brimming stone basin, mysteriously fed and clear.

  One or two youngsters were squatting on the basin’s damp surround: they had the ghetto-blaster, tuned in to some nighttime station high on nostalgia – Herman’s Hermits, then Village People, zapped from time to time by meteorite bleeps and whines and the continental jabber of adjacent wavelengths. I loafed out with all the smothered expectation of a teen date, hands in pockets. One of the boys called out, ‘Halloo, how are you!’ and when I got to them we shook hands and inspected each other in the shadowed flame of a Bic lighter. Then darkness again. Someone said he’d seen me in the Cassette, someone else thought he had too. There was a mood of bland concurrence, as a large plastic bottle was nudged into my hand and Dusty Springfield mentioned smokily that she just didn’t know what to do with herself. One of my companions sang along, anticipating the words and getting them wrong. Still, there was drink. I tilted the denting carboy to my lips and chewed incredulously on a mouthful of orange-juice.

  Each yew-niche was a place of available secrecy, and I loitered round the circle, finding out what was going on. From some came steady little rhythms, or muttered encouragements, or deep, delayed intakes of breath, as pleasure turned serious. From some came girlish giggles and whispering. Some seemed empty and silent; or a solitary cigarette glowed and dimmed. I came round again, with slightly put-on carelessness, aware that I must be more visible to whoever was waiting there than they were to me. I got the impression from a smoker’s ember-light of a fair-skinned mask, an upturned leather collar. I wished I had my leather jacket on, that I had planned all this. Was Matt still here? Had he met his builder? Was that beautiful man fucking a few feet away? Or was he off in the wood, beyond the torchlight, dead leaves in his hair and damp earth pressed into his back, mastered by his bricklaying colossus? I passed the alcove again, in a dither of lust and reluctance, and heard something murmured – just a throat-clearing perhaps, a manly Gitane-burble of readiness, of mere presence … And where the hell was Cherif? A spasm of jealous annoyance carried me in.

  You never knew what to expect. You never knew what they expected. You hadn’t had the advantage of being at college together, or persuading yourself you fancied him over drinks and supper, or knowing each other’s name, or anything. The absolute black ignorance was the beauty of it, and the bore. Then afterwards perhaps there would be a match-flare of talk and information, a number written down, too often only one … It was simplest if they went straight down, or got you to: you were at it, you knew what you were doing, and it probably wouldn’t last long. But then times had changed since the first anxious necessities back home on the common, at seventeen. There were new rules that didn’t quite come naturally … Sometimes these strangers got very lovy, tongue all over you, stubble-burn, sighs and moans. Sometimes they hardly wanted to touch, they’d hold you at a distance, like someone they were blokishly saying goodbye to; then a hand would descend and abstractly get about its business. Sometimes they liked to stand pressed up behind you, sometimes they wanted you to do that to them. Sometimes you wanted to, too. Often, of course, they were very drunk or stoned, and so were you, and it mattered less – anyway, you could hardly remember. Once in a while you had the best time you’d had in two or three years.

  The cigarette was stamped out, though its smell lingered and grew stale around its smoker. I ran my hand quickly over a buckled leather jacket and down the stoutish legs as if I were frisking him at an airport. There was a lot of metal on him – the buckled jacket-sleeves, the thick chatelaine of keys at a belt-loop, the belt’s own leaden buckle, rivets in the jeans. As I straightened up he ran his hand vaguely over my face, a nicotined finger sour under my nose; then over my chest and stomach, soothing, noncommittal. I felt his head in turn, stroked behind an ear and pulled a lobe where three, four, rings clustered, and a further screwed stud. The hair was sleek and flat to the skull, and as he put his arms round me and hugged up close I traced it to a double rubber band and a silky foot of pony-tail. It was nice and warm being in there with him.

  Even so I wasn’t very keen on him; among my sighs and mutters I let out a great yawn over his shoulder, converting its final paroxysm into a shuddering, half-biting kiss of his manacled ear. I tried to imagine he was someone else, as he pulled out my dick – which was a bit sullen, a bit killjoy, wanted to be asleep – and as I duly prised out his own rather pushy, anonymous, straight-up little number. Suppose he was Matt, or even Gerard … but I was growing used to the night, began to make out the dark oval of his face against the deeper darkness beyond, and when he rubbed against me, felt the chopped whiskers of a moustache. He knew I was holding back and out of friendliness or pure insensitivity he went at it the harder: there was a quick little ritual of groans, ‘Oh yeah … oh yeah … oh yeah …’ and he shot off heavily up the front of my shirt. I closed my eyes. He hung on me for a while in hot-breathed recovery, and then returned to work on me. It was with a sense of conscious sacrilege that at last I admitted the idea of Luc. It was Luc standing behind me, his spent dick stiffening already between my legs, Luc’s strong young hand firmly, almost over-fiercely, jerking me off, set on giving me pleasure, thrilled to do so: Luc who cupped his other hand to catch the warm splodge when it came.

  I twisted slowly in his arms, the night wind carried a phrase or two of angelic tenorino Stevie Wonder on the crest of the forest’s darker blind roar, the long grass ran and whispered, it was a rhythm of a runner’s waterproofed legs whistling against each other, and the ambush of a flashlight a foot or two away. There we were – two men, drunk, ungainly, our spunk on each other’s hands and clothes, and him looking at me with amusement while I winced and turned away.

  4

  ‘I saw you in the street.’

  ‘When was that?’

  ‘Saturday, at the market.’ Luc’s manner was warily reasonable and left him room to retreat if his first signal of friendship was rejected. I stared at the long, transparent miracle of his face, the slithering stack of hair, eyelashes still stuck with sleep, that brutally vulnerable lip. He was a slightly kitsch piece of work from an artist who carved in alabaster like flushed hard honey. The sleep-creases, a wisp of towel-fluff on a not yet daily razored jaw.

  ‘I love you.’

  He looked down at his exercise book and aligned his red, black and blue felt-tip pens with its upper edge. I pumped off a few more rounds of silent ‘I love you’s – it took two or three seconds only. ‘You should have said hello.’

  ‘I’m afraid there was no time.’ Had he sensed the clumsy semi-panic of my sudden stride across the square? ‘I was with my friends.’ Oh his friends … I thought of that well-favoured, self-admiring trio and of the trite intimacy of the shorter, darker boy and girl with my Luc, and was almost on the point of telling him about my friends. He mustn’t see me as this lonesome crackpot. My heart was thudding,
my own upper lip was dry, curled and stuck somehow to my teeth in a nervous rictus; I felt very warm.

  We were in the dining-room again, not face to face as for the first interview, with its air of overdrafts, but cornerwise at the end of the table. I foresaw our legs touching, the pulse of a crossed leg gently knocking at the other’s calf, if by the end of the hour we had pushed back chairs and talked. I had barely thought about it, but I had the light behind me, the rinsed light of the flatlands which illuminated Luc and made him frown when once or twice the sun unveiled and struck across the sheen of walnut into those narrow, frankly unromantic eyes. I didn’t see how he could be unaware of my feelings, which seemed to blunder and rebound around the room, hardly daring to fix upon their object. Surely I was behaving extraordinarily?

  His mother came in with the two cups of coffee on their gilt papier-mâché tray, and they seemed a comforting little emblem of Luc’s and my life together, tokens of its domestic normality that I saw repeated down the gallery of the coming months like the dwindling and vanishing servant on a bottle of Camp. She sampled our jerky conversation for a minute and retreated as if not quite happy with its colour and seasoning. When she’d gone I jumped up to get the sugar from the sideboard, alert now to her dogmatic little campaign that I should lose weight, and so made to seem defiantly flabby and rotten-toothed. But what the hell. I found myself reflected in the slanted glass of one of the blacker Altidore portraits, and I didn’t look too bad: it was only in dreams sometimes that I turned out to be a true, short-winded fatso. I turned to offer sugar to Luc, who rejected it with a note of sleepy disdain; there was no spare flesh on him. I imagined him wanking in bed, perhaps half an hour ago, an intake of breath, the soft pearls tumbled at last in his pubic hair. I put the sugar-dredger carefully back beside the silver cruet, the grotesque epergne and the tantalus with its golden inch of cognac.

  ‘So tell me about your friends.’

  ‘Well, there is not too much to say.’

  ‘I expect you have a large number of friends.’

  ‘No, not so many.’ He lowered his head to take a first slurp at his coffee. ‘I have had some good friends at St Narcissus, but now I do not see them too much.’ His voice, light, insistent, trustless, the heart-breaking Brutus of a school play; the occasional early-morning throatiness as if he were a smoker already.

  ‘I can’t believe they’ve all dropped you. Decided not to be your friends any more.’

  ‘There are some, few, people who will always be your friends, even though you may not be with them often, and there are others who you see, whom you see, all the time who, sure, they are your friends, but when life moves on you begin to forget them, and I find you do not have too much to say to each other any more.’

  ‘How very true.’

  ‘For instance my friend Jeroen at St Narcissus, you know we used to see each other every day, and so it was before then. His father was at the very same school with my father, and I used to play with Jeroen when we were just little kids. We both are, well, quite good runners, but he became faster than me, and perhaps I was unfriendly to him – not on the surface, you know, but more on the bottom. Yes, underneath. But now, when I see him in the town, like yesterday, I am actually quite upset because we just say a few words and maybe I am embarrassed a little bit because I am not in the school any more, but then I think he would like to be more grown-up and not to be in the school too, even though he is now one of the top duxes – do you say, the prefects, yes – and the captain of everything. So we just laugh at each other for a minute and then we go away.’

  My poor darling Luc! What hateful lessons you have to learn. I grimaced avuncularly – not too avuncularly: the understanding smirk of a real friend. And it was cheering to think of his old unappreciative friends dropping away, leaving only our little corps of idolaters, unencumbered by other flatterers and time-wasters (though schism and betrayal within so fanatical a clique were a further danger not to be discounted). Even so there was a certain grossness in my pushing the next question forward, and I felt again for a second the interrogator’s planned scorn for etiquette, moved by the fiercer logic of his need to know.

  ‘So who are your main friends, your best friends now?’ And my hand shuddered so that I had to return the cup to the saucer untasted. A faint smile suggested surprise at a perhaps harmless intrusion, registered the challenge of summing up so private a matter and of setting about it in another language. But then, he seemed to say, as he looked down and studied the dark swirls and blooms of the walnut table-top, he wanted challenges, he needed to excel, and I was right to test him so intimately within the businesslike confines of our hour. I knew with a stab of certainty and regret that he would not have answered candidly if he had thought of me as anything but a remote functionary, whom he was well enough bred to treat as an equal. I had receded in a moment from Praetorian guard to the shabby pedant-retainer of some remote and time-locked noble household.

  The first person he described, Arnold, had been a frighteningly clever contemporary of his at St Narcissus, who had passed his final exams a year early and was now at university in Leuven, taking about ten different courses simultaneously and aiming to graduate in half the usual time. He was unlikely to be the handsome little chap of Saturday morning, with his rugger-player’s crop and bright but hardly intellectual air, and I interrupted after a minute or two’s encomium of Arnold’s tremendous brain, his fluency in six or seven languages, his almost negligent mastery of the organ and the cello, to insist on the importance of a physical description. ‘That’s really what you should have given me first, you know. Conjure up the outer man, before getting into all this stuff about his mind.’

  ‘Well, he is quite tall –’

  ‘Ah.’

  ‘Did I say something wrong?’

  ‘No, no. Carry on. How tall is he? Your height?’

  ‘He’s a bit taller than me.’ Luc paused, as if he might have satisfied the requirements of the physical description clause, but I pressed him a little further – kind of clothes, glasses, slight speech impediment – to disguise my lack of interest.

  ‘And Arnold’s your best friend, is he? You must miss having him around to tell you what’s what.’

  ‘What’s what. Yes, that’s correct. But we do write to each other and he writes very long letters telling me about what he has been reading and what music he is playing and so forth.’

  ‘And what do you write about in your letters?’

  ‘I tell him what I thought of the books he told me to read, of course; and the music, but less, because he greatly loves organ music, and I hate it very much.’

  ‘Quite right.’ Luc gave a grin, the first of our friendship, his eyes almost closed, the long upper lip baring his gums, his moist incisors. And then he seemed to notice how I stared at his mouth, the grin went dead, he flushed and looked away denyingly. Or was it mere self-consciousness at having acted for a second or two so unselfconsciously? Without losing sight of the inquiry into his pals, I digressed briefly into music, and what he had been listening to. He said, depressingly enough, that he liked ‘all kinds of music’ – with the already admitted exception of the awful rumbling, blaring, warbling automation of the organ (he didn’t put it quite like that) – and when pressed came out for Philip Glass (defiantly, as if he knew he wasn’t any good) and for Schubert’s piano trios (which Arnold was playing with a couple of university friends and insisted on Luc having in his head, in his system, as well). I thought back with a kind of despair to the days when I first got those trios into my head, and how I would never now hear them afresh. But that was half my life ago – when I was just at Luc’s discovering age.

  ‘And who are your best friends here in town?’

  He took a moody couple of sips of coffee. ‘Perhaps my best friend is called Sibylle.’

  ‘That’s a beautiful name,’ I said airily, as if the ground had not shifted under my feet and there were not an ominous sifting of dust from the jagged crack in the ceiling
. And like some creepy old hetero I went on, ‘And is Sibylle as beautiful as her name?’

  ‘Yes, I think I could say that she is very beautiful.’

  ‘Fair-haired, I imagine?’ I ponderously decoyed.

  ‘Her hair is actually dark brown.’

  ‘Tall and forbidding as a Sibyl of Michelangelo?’

  Luc raised both eyebrows, stumped by that question, which I had indeed run out in a hammy double diapason, as if playing for the relish of some third, invisible, friend.

  ‘She is not tall,’ he said.

  ‘The Sibyls were wise women, prophetesses. Michelangelo painted them in the spandrels of the Sistine Chapel, holding their prophetic books.’

  ‘Yes, I know.’ So you think you know what spandrels are, do you? But then, what are they exactly …? I hesitated and then pressed the door shut against the image of Luc with his latter-day sibyl, meeting her in the empty afternoons, wandering the streets in a sentimental embrace, tea-time at a café, her on the pill, he priggish with first love. ‘Is she still at school?’

  ‘Yes, she is in her last year.’

  ‘At St Narcissus?’

  ‘There are no girls at St Narcissus. She is at St Opportune, near the Cathedral. It is an even older school, founded in fourteen –’

  ‘Quite so. And – and do you know other girls there?’

  ‘Yes, very many,’ he said with a little defiant nod. And why shouldn’t he know many, even very many, girls? I had known lots of them myself at his age, though fewer, somehow, now, away from the equal opportunities of school and university. And wasn’t Edie in many respects my best friend? Hadn’t we walked down Fore Street arm in arm and even loitered on occasion in Cricketfield Lane in a lovely sexless parody of boys with girls – daydreaming, nattering, full of camp confidences?

 
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