The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.9Alan Hollinghurst
‘Yes, Cherif’s good,’ I said, swallowing the passing heartburn of his remark. ‘But he’s not really in love with me. And you forget that I am in love with someone else.’
He looked at me sceptically, and revved the rough-throated engine a couple of times. ‘What are you doing this evening?’
I thought of one or two lies (going to a dance in a barracks, supper with Luc at a country hotel). ‘Oh, the usual,’ I said. ‘Chasing oblivion at the Cassette.’
‘Have you been to the Town Baths yet?’
‘Do you mean a swimming-pool or something else?’
‘Yes, the swimming-baths. The Town Baths. Why don’t you come with me for some hard exercise before your drinking begins?’
I didn’t want to get more involved with Matt; I bridled, as I often did these days with beautiful men (‘Don’t bother about me’) – and I was a clumsy, nervous swimmer. But the thought of a distraction from Luc, an hour or two saved from a night that would otherwise be rushed and lost in drink, made a sudden appeal. And perhaps I did quite like the idea of being stripped out with Matt and the ten minutes afterwards in the showers, chatting like straight boys and sharing his shampoo. I said I’d come, and took directions to the place without being able to concentrate on what I was being told. Matt gave me a wink, I slammed his door; and it was only as I watched him fight his throttle and catapult through the empty street on some imaginary challenge that I doubted if I had any trunks with me. Then Marcel appeared, slightly anxious, but with a new comic silly-old-me look to him that was far from welcome.
I made every effort, through the hour that followed, to be helpful to the boy: I was becoming a friend of the family, which entailed certain obscure but real duties; and I had started to see how Marcel himself played a part in Luc’s world and must be courted for access and information. I was quite alarmed at the thought of what he could tell me, the dreams he could unwittingly nurture or destroy. I’d lost the courage I had in questioning Luc, and paced the lesson carefully, making sure of each hesitant step, taking nothing for granted. The time was horribly elastic. While we toiled through basic irregular verbs, while I sat and waited for answers and gazed past him to the trees and church tower outside, the minutes and seconds seemed actually to slow. I had the sense that movement would be laborious or impossible, and that my voice would emerge in an ogreish growl, fractured into its separate vibrations. But when he lost me, when my mind ran over the whole story of Luc so far, when I thought jealously of Matt with Cherif, time looked dramatically condensed, it was all happening, fierce, bright and purposeful, like the top line in some great canon, whilst in the depths the basses pondered on the subject in inexorable slow-motion.
Suddenly, at last, St Narcissus was announcing the hour, its elderly clatter unleashing the rumpus at the school as lessons broke up and masters, half-relieved themselves, shouted their last instructions over the rising din. Marcel unthinkingly shut his notebook, in which he had been writing out the verb ‘to forget’, and beamed cheekily. He was still conditioned by the rules and stimuli of the school he had escaped; and seeing this I went to the window and questioned him amiably, as he packed up his satchel, about his time there and his friends.
‘Do you still have some pals at school? You know, friends.’
‘I have one or two.’ And how unreal it must seem to be kept from them and their routines and gossip by this square of garden and this dull canal. It was as if one of the classrooms had floated off in a dream and perched nearby, filling its solitary pupil with a mood of privilege and anxiety.
‘I should have asked you before if you knew my other boy, Luc Altidore?’
He mumbled, ‘No, I don’t really know him.’
‘Of course, he would be older than you.’ I turned and looked at him encouragingly. He was ready to go now and clearly waiting out of politeness, remembering perhaps that I was to come to dinner again, that he could never get away from me. ‘You must miss it all, Marcel, don’t you?’ I urged. ‘The companionship especially.’
‘It is a very clever school, but I am not so very clever.’ He shook his head, to say it was touch and go whether he was happier then or now; and I understood that he had not been happy either at school or out of it. I had known him from the first as a boy set apart by his illness, but I had at least imagined a hobby – in the simplest terms, stamps or model kits – and a friend or two he shared it with. But I could see that Luc himself would not be such a friend.
‘And what do you know about Luc’s girlfriend?’ I boomed roguishly, appallingly, and blushed as I did so. Marcel shook his head and took on a dogged look, as if the lesson and its catechism were starting up all over again. ‘What’s she called?’ I hammed on – ‘Sibylle something?’
Marcel looked down and fiddled with his satchel-buckle. He was flushing more richly than I was. ‘She is not his girlfriend,’ he said. ‘They are just friends.’
‘Not his girlfriend,’ I echoed quietly. ‘No, I suppose he is a little young to have …’ And what did Marcel know about girlfriends? ‘Well, I’ll see you on Wednesday. No, tomorrow night. That will be nice.’
‘He was never interested in girls,’ he said quickly in Flemish, as if the idea were too serious or shocking to manage in this difficult other language. I let the lapse pass, and hid away the longed-for but doubtful information to look at later.
A moment after the door had closed I felt quite humiliated to be acting the role of the buffoon, agonised into farce. I went to the front window and watched Marcel emerge into the yard below and break into a heavy run as if, sedentary and breathless though the boy was, he could hardly wait to reach the gate and be free of me. I knew instinctively the freedom that he wanted – not freedom to do some challenging thing, but to do almost nothing, to wander homewards through the mild afternoon … I stayed with my forehead to the windowpane and within ten seconds there was the slap of the wicket again, and back came the curly-haired boy Matt and I had seen earlier. He had been to the big supermarket and swung a carrier with a loaf and a bunch of flowers sticking out of it. He disappeared into the Spanish girls’ staircase and something told me that in the bulky lower part of the bag were cheesy nibbles, Cokes and Sprites and a beer or two for the boys. The girls were out now, as far as I could tell, but when they got back they were going to have a party! For a moment my gloom swallowed up my envy.
I opened the hanging cupboard and got into it, tussling lightly with my raincoat and leather jacket and jangling the unused hangers on the rail. I had a fatalistic need to know what I was in for, what crass intrusions of noise I was going to tolerate; as well as a complete curiosity about the boy, who seemed to me unswervingly beautiful and sexy just then in contrast to the shrouded and ambiguous merits of Luc, who was never interested in girls. But after ten minutes with my ear pressed receptively to the wooden partition, I had picked up nothing beyond the snap of a ring-top can, a few words, halfsaid, half-sung, and a smug reverberant burp. At last I thought I heard a gently rhythmic noise, and had him frowningly exploring himself, until I realised it was the shushing of the pulse in my ear. I edged back into the room and shut the door.
My route to the Town Baths was vague enough in my mind to take in the street where Luc lived without forcing, but when I came past the house I looked down nervously, and only glanced for a second searchingly into the ground-floor windows. Evening was coming on, and I could see nothing in the front rooms beyond the heavy swags of Mrs Altidore’s curtains. And on the first floor, something else, the gleam of a disc, like a lens, suspended just inside the glass and catching the light with a flash of animation. Better not to see him just now. The sudden ebbing of anxiety; and then the wallow as a questing wave of apprehension pushed into the inlet of my heart: perhaps that was what Wordsworth meant in a passage I would be teaching Luc much later on when he spoke of sensations felt along the heart – as if the heart were a sea-beach on which feeling rhythmically broke. I recognised a deep-suppressed cold fear of water and the schooltime echo of o
I would have missed the place if I hadn’t seen a brisk little family with rolled towels under their arms turn off just ahead of me into a covered alleyway thronged with locked bikes. At the end a guichet and an inexorable turnstile gave admission to a further, darker passage, a region of brown paint and damp-eaten plaster.
I hadn’t found any swimming-trunks, and so brought an old pair of army surplus shorts with button fly and turn-ups that some fantasy of summer had made me pack in England: they were my mowing the lawn shorts, my lying on the mown lawn with the Sunday papers shorts. They looked hopeless among the kids’ darting Speedos and the trim corsetting of the dads. I stepped out gingerly through the lukewarm footbath on to the white noisy poolside.
Part of the misery of swimming was that you couldn’t do it in glasses; the surrender to cold water followed immediately on the surrender to a world of vague distances and confused identities, and as I stood squinting down the lanes in the dim hope of picking out Matt’s dark head I had a moment’s foretaste of the fears of the old, as you see them smiling anxiously against imagined threats and half-heard ridicule. Then I jumped in like a child, straight off the side and holding my nose.
With my first kick from the edge the pockets of my shorts filled heavily with water. After two or three more cautious strokes they were dragging at my hips and I had to dart a hand down to tug them back … I felt with my feet and could just stand tiptoe. Not daring to haul myself out in a rash denuding surge at the side, I hopped and then toilingly strolled towards the shallow end, startled by the shout of a strong swimmer swimming laps, a wordless bark was all he had time for as his head plunged in again and I sprawled backwards to get out of his way, knocking into a stout woman with a stately, slow-moving head held high and a kick under-water like a mule.
I stayed crouching and randomly splashing in the shallows, exaggerating the bruise the woman’s kick had inflicted, and whining inwardly like a child who wants an excuse to go home. I moved around enough to bring any of the other men who were waiting or resting between laps into the welcoming circle of my close vision, but there was no one I knew, there was no one special, until at last I saw Matt and waved and gave a derisive, laddish shout. He stared for a moment, then turned his back on me as I roamed towards him and I had almost put my hand on his shoulder before I realised it wasn’t him. Then some kids came threshing past in the fury of a race and a fight mixed up together, and mixed up in their wake a further shout and rush, an arm from behind throttling me, thighs locked piggyback round my hips as I stumbled forward and under in a horrified welter.
When I struggled up, gasping and mad, the grip relaxed, he slipped off my back and turned me in his arms quite lover-like. ‘Matt, you stupid fucking cunt!’ He was dazzling with his hair flattened, the cheap flash of a sapphire ear-stud and his unapologetic sideways grin. I wanted to slap his face, but just held back as he said, ‘Did I frighten you?’ and splashed some snot off my upper lip. We were standing a few feet in from the end almost in an embrace; the pool was navel-high.
‘I’ve got to get out,’ I said. ‘My trunks keep coming down. Well, they’re not trunks, really – that’s the point …’ Matt was running a finger inside the sagging waistband, rubbing the back of his fist against the water-logged crotch. ‘For god’s sake, man. We’re not in the Bar Biff now.’ I made off towards the little ladder the timid and the oldsters used. But Matt was with me, creamily kicking across on his back, lean and effortless. When I got out and the water streamed from my pockets and turn-ups on to the poolside he didn’t laugh; he even hopped out too and walked with me to the exit: he had on weightless, silkily synthetic black shorts.
‘I’ll buy you a drink later,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to do my 2,000 metres.’
‘That sounds like quite a lot later. Okay, you know where I’ll be.’ He squeezed my upper arm before he turned, jogged back and up-ended without a splash into the rippling blue. He was interestingly white, as if he couldn’t be bothered with the vanity of tanning or had spent the hot late summer in some more worthwhile way than most of us. I was sorry to have passed up the chance of soaping his back.
The showers were functional and fierce, a yellow-tiled room with six fixed nozzles and high up in one wall a narrow strip of meshed window that could be tugged open at the top by a chain. I was amazed to pick up, through the crash of the water and the suck and wheeze of the drain, the putter of a boat’s engine and a brief reek of burnt fuel. A canal must lie just outside, perhaps lapping against the very walls of the bath.
‘Have a good swim?’ said a shampooing dad opposite, with the nice unintrusive openness of the people here.
‘I haven’t got the right clothes,’ I said and hurried to get out of my shorts.
‘You want some proper swimming-trunks,’ he said. The conversation was unlikely to soar, but we chattered on for a minute or two while I washed, about indoor as against sea bathing and about the Belgian beaches. He was very enthusiastic about Blankenberge, though what he praised in it, the crowds, the cheap food, set me against it. I stayed on for a while when he’d left, the hot water thrumming on my shoulders, then went to the doorway and screwed up my eyes to read the changing-room’s electric classroom clock. It was already ten past eight: seriously time for a drink.
I towelled myself down at the rubber-matted threshold of the showers, and I was largely dry when I heard a whoop and a couple of lads came splashing in through the footbath, a nicely curvy dark one and a skinny one with long fair hair twisted up in a knot like a girl. They ran straight into the showers and fell against opposite walls, panting and laughing at each other. Without hesitation I flung my towel aside and went back in, un-stoppering my conditioner bottle and preparing to wash my hair all over again.
I hadn’t seen them since that first evening at the Bar Biff, the hot little loudmouth and his friend, his lover, who now unknotted his hair and shook it over his shoulders as if he were Jane Byron herself; and it did give a scatter of glamour to his hollow-eyed face, still blurred by spots around the forehead and jaw. The dark boy, who wasn’t plump but would never perhaps be thin, was as hoarsely sexy as possible: I flickered a look from moment to moment over his square full-mouthed head, like a Roman street-boy’s, the soft black hairs on his upper lip – and one or two already on his broad-nippled chest – and down to the bow in the draw-string of his trunks, the string hanging and diverted across the neat sideways jut of his cock within the tight red fabric. Yet it was his scrawny friend, just beside me, who gave me again the feel of those lost months of self-discovery, the first possession of the rights of sex. The dark boy would always be sexy, even when he ate himself into middle age, and, who knew, into marriage and its infidelities; but the blond one – not blond even, but a sort of no-colour that took body in the wet – I saw as a common scrap irradiated by love and confidence. I remembered how the whole world changed, how you were suddenly inside the great luminous concourse of human happiness, and how you thought you would be there always – though now, fifteen years later, I found myself glancing myopically in from the limbo of baffled hopes and bad habits that was always ready and waiting just beyond.
My boys didn’t actually wash or strip, just lounged around and laughed. After ten minutes or so their unembarrassed possession of the place was tiring me and I had washed so frequently and industriously that I began to feel like the victim of some traumatic guilt, who must wash and wash till his skin is chafed away … Then at last the fair one had finished, and hurried off into the changing-room – I couldn’t quite catch his remark. He had on knee-length trunks in phosphorescent orange, lime and mauve, nightmare colours from my own childhood that seemed to be fashionable all over again. His friend grinned in appreciation, in anticipation, but stayed behind. My heart stepped on the gas.
By now I was simply lolling under my jet, as if to get the maximum benefit after several unusually demanding hours of exercise. When I looked up, the boy smiled at me.
He tilted out a greedy palmful and stood in the middle of the room, rubbing it into his shortish hair; then handed the bottle back and came in under the jet next to mine. Long drools of suds flooded down his easily muscled back.
‘Did you have a good swim, sir?’ he asked.
‘Yes, great, thanks. I feel quite tired after it.’
‘That’s when it does you most good. What did you do? Hundred lengths, sir?’
I could have done without all this ‘sir’ business; it made me feel like an old gent in the hands of a keen young hotel porter with his eye on a tip. I only wanted to appear his equal, almost his coeval, and he was calling me ‘sir’ every third word. I wondered for a moment if he had mistaken me for a master at his school. ‘Not quite that much,’ I said, ‘though I’d have liked to have done. My name’s Ed – Edward, by the way.’ He nodded, and jutted his face into the column of falling water. Then he stepped back, breathing in sharply two or three times and at long last toyed with his draw-string and tugged off his little red slip.
An odd thirty or forty seconds followed – me with a helpless and untouched hard-on, the boy quite clumsily doing some sort of improvised act, turning and bending under the shower, joining his hands behind his head to show off quick young biceps, sighing like someone simulating pleasure in a film. Thirty or so seconds before I understood. I was out of the shower in a moment, snatching up my towel and going at an angry stride through the changing-room, suddenly alert to my own nakedness, and abruptly shrunken by my sense of stupidity and loss.
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