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The folding star histori.., p.8
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       The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.8

           Alan Hollinghurst
 

  I wanted to know more, but dreaded hearing him say what I didn’t want, above all, to hear said. ‘Let’s talk about food!’ I suggested.

  ‘Okay,’ he said with a shrug, but then settled forward as if after all this might be quite fun. ‘I will name fifteen kinds of fish.’

  When the slightly fast clock in the adjacent sitting-room softly bonged twelve we had ransacked the slippery markets of St Andrew’s Quay for a whole catalogue of eels, mussels, monkfish, dace and bream, and were growing almost hilarious as we hauled up odder and more doubtful species from neglected buckets and murky tanks. Luc’s fish vocabulary was so comprehensive that I found myself learning from him; it was all good St Narcissus drill, of course, drummed in by some insanely thorough master, and I saw that though Luc notched up rarities like chad and wrasse to his credit he had no very clear idea what they looked or tasted like. Still, while the game lasted, we were suddenly closer, our awkwardnesses forgotten. The chase became a race. ‘I’m surprised you should have overlooked grayling,’ I said censoriously; and he slapped the table and said, ‘Yes, and what about mullet, Edward, what about mullet!’ so that I grinned and my heart sprinted at this first real naming, the first time I had become a person, my own name burning my face like some heartfelt endearment.

  I expected his mother to come in and round things off, and got up and stretched and looked out of the window into the strip of garden with its tubbed shrubs and little pointed-roofed gazebo. Beyond was the canal, in whose sullen undredged depths fish undreamt of by Luc or me must live. I asked him if he knew my other pupil Marcel, and turned in one of the passing dazzles of sunshine to watch him answer, my shadow firm for a moment across the carpet towards him, its head in his lap.

  ‘Only by sight,’ he said, ‘from school. I think he is a very kind young man and not a happy one. Sibylle …’ I waited. ‘Sibylle is a friend of his. I don’t really know him.’ He gathered up his notebook, in which he was yet to write a word, and clutched together the coloured pens. His mother came in. He rose and after a few exchanges did his duty of showing me to the door, but as if it were something he hoped he wouldn’t always have to do.

  5

  I had arrived without knowing how on the street where the Orst Museum was, and sat down, suddenly exhausted, on a bench opposite. The quiet out here was subtly different from the quiet of the middle of town, the little brick squares where for a full quarter of an hour no car would pass and nothing alter beyond the pulling-to of a shutter, or a dog trotting along with an intermittent sense of purpose. Here the stillness was as deep, the grand brick houses equally steeped in silence and discretion, their windows silver-black above the stumpy limes. But you felt a freshness, the nearness of a larger sky, to which the line of windmills at the street’s end blindly opened their arms. I watched a couple of tourists arrive at the Museum and recognised their mood of achievement, of having come out quite far, almost into the country.

  In the Museum’s dark, polish-scented hall I paid my admission fee, and bought a booklet, vainly feeling that the girl student at the desk should know that at other times I came here free, with the director, long after she had gone home. I laid a claim to it, somehow, because of the unexpected understanding I believed existed between Paul Echevin and me. It would have been pleasant if he had suddenly come down the stairs and spotted me; but I slightly dreaded it too, in case the greeting was cool and the girl student more in his confidence than I was. She sat behind the modest display of postcards with the defiant air of an intelligent person wasting time for a good cause. What hours, weeks, of nothing must happen in this hall, as the autumn came on. As I turned away she picked up a fat paperback and continued to read.

  The first room was long and half-panelled, with the sparse furnishing of a house no longer a home – a pair of roped-off chairs, a writing-desk with a dozen dusty pigeon-holes, a tall Dutch vase in the big black aperture of the fireplace. Cream cotton blinds were pulled half-down at the front, whilst at the far end the windows gave on to a sunless open porch and one of the city’s high-walled secret gardens. A handful of paintings by Orst – each preciously isolated – hung in gentle diagonals of light against a background of worn heroic tapestry. I walked round the room three or four times wondering if it was all a mistake, if I should leave at once, but I clung to it in the end, almost fearing to be out on the streets again, the lulled, senescent streets, when I was so pierced with relief and exhilaration and lust and a sense of failure. I sat on an absent guard’s folding stool as if stumbling to my corner, slugged by the boy’s beauty and too stunned to see the beating still to come.

  I made a forced decision to read the little history Paul Echevin had written. I knew I knew nothing about this painter beyond a few details on book-jackets, a decadent poster or two perhaps at university – his famous Sphinx that ramps and bridles and circles Oedipus’ legs with its tawny tail; or the oddly appealing Purgatory where each gaunt figure stoops under the weight of its own Chimera, a domestic-looking hybrid like a mother’s thick fur stole with feet and long-toothed head still on. The refined asymmetry and social elegance of the portraits in this room – all of members of his family, it turned out – came as something of a surprise.

  I learned that Orst had been born in this house in 1865, the son of an eminent civil lawyer. His childhood had been secluded, the family pious and old-fashioned but not uncultured, the house cluttered and démodé in its furnishings and rich in the patterned and storied Flemish fabrics that were to appear so often in Edgard’s pictures. We were to imagine him and his sister Delphine playing in the sequestered garden with its sixteenth-century mulberry trees, two introspective children lost in their own world of chivalry, playing sometimes quite apart, acting out their private legends. (At this point the various belfries of the town, slightly staggered and clangingly oblivious of each other, began to sound the hour.) In the far wall was the postern giving on to the outer defensive canal, a door always locked, but the source again, so Echevin proposed, for the repeated imagery of the doorway in Orst’s work – a mystic threshold, apparently, on to who knew what, as in his masterpiece ‘La Porte Entr’ouverte’.

  As a young man he went to Brussels to study law, but in a first surprising show of independence gave it up after a year and managed to enrol, on the strength of some romantic designs for Hamlet, at the Académie des Beaux-Arts. A marked strain of Anglophilia brought him to lodge in the quartier Léopold, with the British colony – and much of the success of his earlier years was due to galleries and collectors in London and Liverpool and Glasgow. Burne-Jones was an influence, an admirer and, in his last years, when Orst would spend the two or three months of the exhibition season in England, a friend. Orst joined, in its own final years, the group of Belgian Symbolists who called themselves, like the first squad for some irregular ball-game, ‘Les XX’.

  In 1898 he had made designs for The Merchant of Venice in Brussels and painted a life-size full-length of the Portia, Jane Byron, a Scottish actress with the abundant red hair and pale heavy-jawed beauty of the period. A scandalous love-affair followed (la Byron was suing for divorce in England, to the consternation of the Catholic Belgian press), and Orst produced a series of studies, portraits and outright fantasies over the heady six months before her death by drowning at Ostend in May 1899. The portraits and fantasies did not, it seems, finish with her death: furnished with passionate memories and several hundred photographs, Orst carried on painting her for another thirty or forty years – until he lost his sight in the mid-1930s.

  In 1900 he left Brussels and returned to the abandoned city of his birth; his career as a portrait-painter was over (though he was persuaded to take the occasional commission, for instance to draw the King’s children) and henceforth he devoted himself to his melancholy obsession. I imagined him spending his days in this childhood house, in this room perhaps; but apparently he had built a house of his own on the other side of town, a tall white maison d’artiste topped by a figure of Hermes who gazed out with a lofty c
hallenge over the surrounding suburban gardens. (The house had been demolished after the war to make room for an important road.)

  There were three pictures of Orst himself in the booklet. The first was by a fellow-student at the Academy, a hasty charcoal drawing that emphasised potential brilliance and potential tragedy. In the second, a photograph, he was seen in his studio against a background of tapestry and objets de vertu, already the cold-eyed dandy I knew from the picture in Echevin’s study, half emerging, half held back by shadow. A pebbly pince-nez hung at his lapel. The third, taken in his last years, looked none the less like an experiment from the early days of photography, or like something indoors seen through a breath-clouded window, a wash of white light into which the blind old man, shawled in a wheelchair, seemed almost to dematerialise.

  I was gripped by Orst’s obsession with his actress. I loved the superior way he had renounced everything in its favour, and made such a show of retreating from view into the snows of a dream. Of course I was working it up rather from the few facts given in the pamphlet: my mind ran ahead and took possession of the idea. I imagined a life consecrated to the image of Luc, a shuttered house, the icon of his extraordinary face candlelit in each room – until I saw with a shiver that I had killed him off already, perhaps too high a price for either of us to pay. I went upstairs in search of Jane, standing aside at the first turning for the couple who had come in before me, and overhearing their firm Cheshire distaste for what they had walked all this way to see; I warmed to them and despaired of them at the same moment; then past the door of Paul Echevin’s office, which was slightly open in approved Orstian style, his voice heard on the phone, trying to wind up a conversation.

  And there Jane was. She wasn’t entirely alone: other figures and various beasts paced and waited in the starry twilight, the jewelled Hades that she inhabited. But she was always the one on whom the drama turned or the mood centred. In a big triptych, hinged like an altarpiece, you saw only her ringed left hand scooping a train of crumpled satin, like a bride entering a carriage, but you knew it was her. In other pictures, cropped in similar startling ways, you were given only the firm-jawed lower half of her face and the hair spread out, or gathered round her like a shroud. A conversation-piece, where half a dozen women lazed on a terrace with tea and sewing and cigarettes while sunset waned through trees and spires beyond, turned out to be all Jane – full face, once smiling, once pensive, both profiles, a chicly bustled rear view, stretching, hands pressed to the small of the back, and a tender profil perdu, which spoke of intimacy and oblivion; in the mannered vastness of the flat gold frame, the words ‘Léal Souvenir’ were inscribed in red.

  Just by repetition the face began to emanate a kind of power, though this was nothing to do with character or expression. Jane Byron might have been a versatile actress but all the roles Orst cast her in were enigmatic or monumental – the seer, the sufferer, the sphinx. Even the domestic scenes, depicted with photographic refinement, had an air of suspended animation, and seemed reports from a world of dreams. The face itself was a mask, heavy, almost matronly at times, and while I didn’t warm to it in itself I was oddly excited by its pale proliferation. Though the pictures showed no concern at all with men (the occasional epicene boy was always in the end a Hebe or a bosomless girl-child) there was none the less something perverse about them which did almost as well. It was the sense of a passion that had taken the fateful turn into fixation, exploited by its own compelling mechanism long after its subject was gone.

  It was quite a surprise after all this to find a group of pupils from St Narcissus on the upper floor, junior boys cross-legged in their capes and gaiters forming a semi-circle around the art master, a dynamic broad man built like a prop forward. I loitered on the further side of the room, looking with an adult eye at a row of tiny, almost invisible silverpoint drawings, but curious as a boy about the others and what they were being told. The master was explaining a set of landscapes: I heard how Orst had returned every year to the hamlet in the Ardennes where his childhood summers had been spent, and how he liked to escape from the studio and paint out in the forests and on the heathy uplands; how, in particular, he returned to a lonely woodland pond, which he had painted twenty or thirty times in different lights and at different seasons. I learned more about St Narcissus, too, than I had gleaned from the chants and odd emphatic phrases of lectures that crossed the back garden; I recognised the methodical presentation, the excessively clear light thrown on obscure subjects, the mixture of free speculation and arbitrary learning that make up a good old-fashioned education; I saw the reasonable self-satisfaction of the master and the concentration of the boys who were not afraid to speak their minds when questioned, and not broken by a reproof. And I thought of Luc out on this same lesson two or three years back, attentive but independent, giving the best answers, a big boy already in the dressy black uniform he had worn until so lately, until whatever it was that happened happened … every teacher’s darling, surely (though this one looked a little fierce for darlings).

  ‘What colour is this pond? Stevens?’

  ‘Grey, sir.’

  ‘No. Van Damme?’

  ‘Lead-coloured, sir.’

  ‘Correct. And what are these trees? Stevens?’

  ‘Are they Douglas firs, sir?’

  ‘Firs will do, thank you, Stevens.’

  The faint terror of being back in school, but now as a forgetful grown-up among teenagers primed like guns, overcame me, and I slipped back downstairs, leaving the ponds for another day.

  Paul Echevin was coming up, but something made me shrink and look down as we passed, as though I might go unseen in the oaky half-darkness; a second later I hated having flunked the meeting I had already pictured to myself with pleasure, even excitement. ‘Edward!’ He had turned with a hand on the banister.

  ‘Oh, hello …’ I wasn’t sure what to call him.

  ‘You didn’t tell me you were coming in.’

  ‘I didn’t know,’ I said, with sudden force on the final word which surprised both of us and made him pause a moment. ‘I didn’t know,’ I repeated more sensibly.

  ‘Tell me if you’re coming again – don’t pay.’

  ‘That’s very kind of you.’

  He started up the stairs again. ‘Are you running off now? Have you seen it all?’

  ‘I have to. It’s Marcel’s lesson in half an hour.’ I smiled and shrugged to suggest that that was life, but that it wasn’t a burden.

  ‘Ah yes. Well, come and see us again, won’t you? Perhaps you’ll join us for supper tomorrow. We’ll have a couple of people in, but nothing formal. I’m a bit worried about you,’ he said, nodding, whimsical but clairvoyant. ‘I think we need to feed you up.’

  I’d just turned into my street when there was an annoying pip-pip-pip on a horn, and a kind of jeep, metallic blue, with yards of chrome trim, triple exhausts and gigantic tyres, pulled up just past me. It reminded me of the uncomplaining toys which tumble over and right themselves all day long in trays outside Oxford Street gift shops. I looked in and Matt was leaning across, trying to open the passenger door. Our relations had been cool and abstracted on the night of the Hermitage, so I knew he must be stopping to show off his ridiculous vehicle.

  ‘Hey, Ed!’ he said. ‘Jump in, let’s go for a ride.’

  ‘I can’t,’ I said, ‘I’ve got a lesson.’ The mistaken diminutive rattled me. My mother had insisted on the full Edward all my life, and so had I – though my uncle Wilfred was allowed the deviation of Ned. Yet there was a pleasure to be had from answering to it – a hasty, holiday intimacy. Ed was someone it might be a relief to be for a day, under a sunny sky. I felt a frisson of recall, just half a second of access to a keen, lost mood – a childhood summer at Kinchin Cove, my brother nagging me to put down my book and play rounders, a beach bully shouting, ‘What’s his name? All right, Ed, you’re over there, Ed …’

  ‘Is he the cute one? We could take him for a ride too.’

 
He isn’t, I’m afraid. Not this one. He’s a fat little fellow with asthma.’ I leaned in at the open door. Matt’s right hand lay on the passenger seat still, its veins sexily fat and blue over the delicate bones, the nails shockingly bitten. I imagined it moving up my thigh as I sat beside him and we burned out of town.

  ‘Where is it you live?’

  ‘Just there. The white house on the corner.’

  ‘It looks very grand.’

  ‘Yes, doesn’t it?’ We gazed at it as if I was the lucky owner of the whole thing.

  ‘And who’s that?’

  The wicket at the side had opened and an incredibly pretty boy with curly dark hair came out, checking his fly and looking pleased with himself.

  ‘Oh, that,’ I said wonderingly. Matt and I watched him go past on the other side of the street apparently quite unaware of our scorching attention.

  ‘Another of your cast-offs, don’t tell me.’ He had turned and was craning through the polythene rear window of the hood to catch every last possible second of the sight of the young man. Then he swung back with a grin of lust.

  ‘How did you get on the other night?’

  ‘Okay, thanks.’

  ‘You made out?’

  ‘Yep. I got lost for a few hours, but I made out in the end.’ He was nodding and staring: I was clearly meant to ask him the same question.

  ‘How about you? Did you find your builder?’

  ‘The fucker wasn’t there. Or if he was he found someone else first. No, I ended up with your friend, the Frenchman, the Moroccan.’ Matt looked at me narrowly, like a sadistic child, knowing his words would have some effect but unsure what. ‘Ed, you ought to look after that man. He told me that he loves you, and he is wild. We fucked each other every which way.’

 
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