BBOKS / The Folding Star: An extract from the new novel by Alan Hollinghurst

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Edward Manners - 33, disaffected, in search of a new life - has come to an ancient Flemish town to teach English. Almost at once he falls in love with one of his pupils, the 17-year-old Luc; this infatuation forms the background to a rich triptych of obsession, betrayal and memory, whose central mystery is solved only in its very last lines. In this passage, Edie, an old friend from England, has come to pay Edward a visit: he shows her the famous sights as well as the less public aspects of his adopted city

NEXT DAY was Saturday, autumnal and clear. I had offered Edie a round of essential sightseeing, the Memlings, St John's, maybe even the Orst Museum if we had the stamina. She got up early and did some alarming exercises, but I had woken resistant already to the plans I'd made, the shine had gone off them, I almost let it be seen that I was longing to spend the day, waste the day, in some other fashion. 'I don't know,' I said, 'what would you like to do?' I was on the edge of that bad territory of scuffed-over promises.

Edie loved climbing things - castles, cathedrals, follies with a view of five counties, the wind-shaken iron lookout towers left in public parks from forgotten expositions. It was partly the fact that I didn't, that after counting fifty steps in a dark spiral staircase I began to feel more than merely breathless, felt threatened and starved, that had kept me from paying my few francs to climb the Belfry. I'd even felt a mild panic yesterday when I'd seen Edie set eyes on it, and inwardly mumbled some childish magic to prevent her from asking me to go up. But there was no avoiding it. This morning in the square she craned up at its pinnacled top until she almost fell over backwards. The sky was azure and endless, it was an obvious day for the ascent.

'We must do it,' she said, and didn't see at first my misery at hearing what I most dreaded proposed by a friend with brutal high spirits. Then she was telling me not to come, she'd wave from the top, I could wait 'like a grown-up' at the cafe across the square. I stood back and wincingly scanned the exterior. I admired it of course in a picturesque way, but to the prospective climber its odd construction, like three tall church towers stacked in narrowing sequence, heightened the sense of the ordeal by dividing it into three phases. In each the stairs would doubtless be narrower, the sense of entrapment tighter, the occasional glimpses from tiny windows the more terrifyingly remote from earth. The topmost part was an airy octagon in which the bells could be seen hanging over nothing.

The first phase wasn't actually too bad. The stairs were broad and well lit. It took a while for the tower to disengage itself from the great squat Gothic hall which it surmounted. At the top we stepped into a gloomy chamber that housed a museum of local history, and out of sheer relief I looked minutely at the decrepit, noseless or fingerless manikins in historic costume and the scale model of the town at the time of Charles the Bold, with its fallen-over toy soldiers and web of canals covered in dust.

The second section was more testing. Edie kept saying how incredibly brave she thought I was being and why didn't I go down; and I don't know what perverse machismo pushed me on, like someone just behind me with their fist pressed into the small of my back. 'I wouldn't tell anybody back home,' she said.

'I want you to tell everyone back home that I did it,' I panted, recoiling from an arrow-slit image of old roofs far below and a horizon of ploughed land.

In the bottom of the third part was the carilloniste's office, deserted at the moment: we looked in through the roped-off doorway at the keyboard and the framed photographs of various celebrities who, amazingly in some cases, had climbed this far and shaken the carilloniste's hand: King Leopold II, Montserrat Caballe, a man in furs and regalia who looked like Eric Sykes. It was cosily appointed - one half-expected to see a gas-ring and kettle. Then the real horror began.

The stair was not much wider than a person, and very steep and dark. I became hilarious, shouting snatches of poetry, which Edie took as a good sign until I was groping and gripping at her heels, the calves of her trousers. I longed to turn back, but wouldn't have dared go down by myself. Then voices were heard ahead of us, whirling footsteps, numbers shouted out, eighty- three, eighty-four, high-pitched taunts and boasts. What sounded like thirty, forty children were going to come past us. Before I saw them I pictured them as red and black apprentice devils, capering gleefully with their forks over rooftops, clouds. When they came there was just squeezing darkness, airless bombardment. I lost my grip on Edie, my outstretched hand grasped at cold black stone, children's knees, knapsacks; someone trod on my fingers; I clung to the notional central pillar, the inner tapering edge of the steps wasn't wide enough, I saw myself being dislodged by the heedless barging onrush of youngsters and dropping into a black funnel.

'There, that wasn't too bad, was it?' said Edie as she hurried up the last few stairs into the sunlight.

'Edie . . Edie . . . '

She turned and ducked my head like a baptism under the low lintel. A doorway for dwarfs, for God's sake . . .

In front of me lay the rinsed expanse of the leads. I was unhappily aware of Edie springing across it and snorting in one view after another through the generous loopholes in the parapet. 'It's glorious,' she shouted, jamming down her hat against a surprisingly tough little wind, undiscernible at ground level, sent to bother those who dared the heights. I thought if I could gain the central flagpole and hang on to it, I might be able to cope. I ran to it as if expecting sniper fire, my legs like rope. Clasping it behind me in both hands I stood and considered my position. It was hard to believe I wasn't play-acting, no one could be so silly about heights; yet my knees were fidgeting

with fear and I couldn't breathe deeply for the black knot in

my chest.

'You must tell me what everything is,' called Edie.

Slowly, holding me like a difficult drunk, she brought me towards the parapet. I wanted to do it, but had already the sense of scrabbling for existence on the edge of a cliff. I couldn't have done it with anyone but her. Well, Luc, perhaps, could have beckoned me on. The long hexagonal apertures opened at diaphragm height and one could grip the stone on either side. I did give her a perfunctory pointer to the Cathedral and St John's; and there was the lantern of St Narcissus, of course, the school with its two hidden courtyards beyond, and that must be the steep old roof of my own room, with the front dormer just visible: Edie looked along my trembling finger to find it. If I tilted my view too steeply down I panicked and drew back. 'Gosh, look at the docks,' I said. The sea-canal was bright and empty, and in the distance were raised cranes and beyond them the glimmering line of the coast. I saw the derelict industrial suburbs, roads swinging out across the flat farmlands, and far-off masses of poplar and beech.

On the other side there were the shadows of cities towards the horizon, there was the station, and the modest outskirts of the town, and then a beautiful golden wood. It took me a moment to recognise it as the Hermitage. Seeing it all at a glance inside its high wall I could hardly believe how I had wandered in it that night for so long. There was the tea-house; and that long break in the trees must hide the endless, misty pond. And where was the clearing with the yew-niches? Somewhere there, among the autumn magnificence.

I wanted to look for Luc's house, but it was too close: I felt faint as I traced the far end of Long Street and had to step back and sit down. I lay out flat for a while and closed my eyes while Edie bounded about. As well as the animal fear I felt a kind of humiliation at seeing the quaint labyrinth of the city contracted below me, and my futile little circuits laid bare. When I opened my eyes it was worse - swinging blue vacancy, the tip of the flagpole with its oxidised lightning-spike. It was like being on top of a mast. Then, with annihilating loudness, eleven o'clock began to strike.

'NOW YOU must do something for me,' I said. I was stamping and lurching about on the lovely flat ground, giddy like

someone who has just been robbed of his autonomy on a scary ride at a fair. Surely passers-by could tell that I had left their dimension for a while and had come back to it with a vow never to leave it again. The warmth] The sensible calm] We went into the Golden Calf and had a settling gin.

We didn't get to Orst that day, but we did a very quick tour of the Town Museum: Edie had an intense, photographic way of looking at pictures, unlike my lazy day-dreaming habit. I showed her the spot in front of the Bosch where I had met Cherif, and I was lyrical about him: so sexy, so ready . . . And where was he now? Rotterdam, was it still? 'He's probably being ready and sexy down there too,' said Edie, sceptically but not unkindly.

We drifted out and round the corner, among a thin crowd, and there in the narrow back lane was the animal market again. I told Edie she must see it, perhaps in turn not noticing her reluctance, but after a few yards of terrified mice in wheels and tethered hawks hopping and snapping at their leg-chains she turned away tense with anger and distress. 'I'm sorry, darling, I can't . . . I don't know how you can.'

'No, let's go somewhere else.'

I took her arm and we went to the lane's end, and left into the square by the theatre. 'This is where I fell in love with Luc,' I said, doggily marking each place with an amorous association.

'It's like a bloody Jubilee Walkway,' said Edie. 'Except you've only been here five minutes.'

'Sorry to be a love-bore. You just happen to have caught me on my last mad fling before old age sets in.'

'Hmm.' She swung away to take in the buildings. 'Are you treating me to the theatre tonight?'

'Well, we could. It does take up a lot of valuable

drinking-time.'

'I have a hip-flask.'

'And I don't know if you'll like it. There's an opera season - Saint-Saens's Henry VIII and Gretry's La Siffleuse.'

'The second one would be lovely. It sounds like something for Sir Perry.' This was a reference to our local old man of letters back home, Sir Perry Dawlish, known, up to a point, for a monograph on 'Whistling in Literature'.

We ambled past the side of the theatre, drawn by the noise of a piano and a woman's voice. From an open rehearsal-room window a melancholy soprano came floating down: 'Dans cette brumeuse Angleterre je meurs sous un pale soleil . . .' We listened until a stamp and a cry of 'Shit' precipitated a bad-tempered reprise.

'It must be poor dear Catherine of Aragon,' said Edie solicitously. 'One knows how she feels.'

'HAVE YOU been writing anything?' she asked, much later on, in the Cassette. This was a reference to our local young man of letters, Edward Manners, groomed early for a career in print, and already considered by most to be a lost cause.

'What a very insensitive question.'

'Sorry, darling. Do you want another beer?'

'After that I certainly do.' And it had caused me a genuine twinge of bleak unease.

Left alone, I gazed down on the busy bar and thought how attractive and interesting everyone looked: it was the onset of anything-will-do time - often of course (one tended to forget) a mutual compromise. There was a parting of the crowd and a couple shunted through: I dwelt on them for a second or two before I placed them. In front was the shatteringly pretty lad I suspected of servicing the Spanish girls, and propelling him with a hand on his neck was the assistant from the camp clothes shop - I'd seen him there before - the one who had sold me my bad-taste Orst tie. 'He's not queer, he's not queer,' he kept saying excitedly.

They shouldered into the bar just by where Edie was standing, so I slouched over. Shop was still sheltering Shattering with an arm round his back as if otherwise he might panic and run off, or else be pinched and spoiled by the inflamed clientele. I said to Edie, 'This boy works in a fashion shop in town, you ought to meet him', and then told the boy how he had once fooled me into buying some deviant swimwear. Never having worked in a clothes shop, I imagined the staff must fondly remember everyone who went in. 'You were wearing jodhpurs,' I said, to seal it in his mind. He stuck a hand in his fine dark hair, widened his large dark eyes and then dubiously exclaimed, 'Of course]' He was slight, mobile, playing on looking so young, unfairly eclipsed by the beauty of his friend.

Edie passed me my glass and stood looking politely at the boys, who had half-turned away to catch the barman's eye and obviously thought our conversation was over. 'I'm Edward, by the way,' I said. The shop-boy looked back uncertainly. 'Edward. Me Edward.' I stuck out a hand. 'Alejo,' he said; and then compelled by Spanish courtesy: 'This is my cousin Agustino, from Bilbao. He's not queer.'

'And this is my friend Edie from England. She's not queer either.'

Agustino looked terrifically cheered at this, and shook hands fervently with both of us. I held his gaze until his grin faded, he looked down and I let go of the fingers I was still absent-mindedly clutching. I felt almost sorry for him having to carry the responsibility for such deranging beauty through life. His short, dark curly hair, his quick dark eyes, the slightly everted lips and the little lines made by his smiles, the small ears, the unblemished fineness of his skin set off at the neck by the upturned collar of pale old denim, all made one long to kiss him and take him home. I was hollowed out with envy of the Spanish girls having him on the other side of my wall.

I got Alejo talking with Edie. She said something about an embroidered black waistcoat he was wearing, and I saw her finger the work on it. He brought to mind her camp young friends of 1980 or so, her fellow-students at the Central School of Fashion, when she was my entree to London, to the West End, and we would all go drinking together in Soho, which waited on the other side of Oxford Street like a barrio of risky enticements. It was dear old New Romanticism then, the boys were growing pony-tails, dressing in braid and buckles, voluminous pants and sleeves; they were crazy about girls, they thought it was fabulous what you could do with them and a few yards of taffeta and ribbon.

I was making reassuring conversation with Agustino. So, how long had he been over here? Nearly a month. And what was he doing? He was employed by a Spanish wine warehouse . . . they had an outlet in Obrecht Street . . . I should come to a tasting. I'd absolutely love that, I said. I noticed a certain self-

consciousness in his answers, caused by our physical closeness in the crush of the bar, and by a drunken extravagance of my own that I was barely aware of, and by the way he found me watching his face and the beautiful opening of his mouth. What a piece of luck that his cousin should also be living in the city] Yes it was. Were they close? Well, Alejo's branch of the family still lived in Trujillo, which was very remote (a sweet misunderstanding of the question, this, that had me puzzled how Alejo had made the journey from remote Trujillo to a post-modern northern boutique). I said: 'I wonder if you know other Spanish people in the town, who live on St Alban Street?'

He seemed startled by this, as though I were in possession of classified information. 'That's remarkable indeed,' he said. 'At present my sisters are living in that very street. I have been staying there sometimes; it is better when my cousin has his boyfriends and lovers in his room: he doesn't want me to be there.' (Now that was hard to believe.) 'So I go to my sisters and sleep on the floor, oh dear' - and he made a mime of rubbing his shoulder and stretching his back. His sisters . . . the floor . . .

'I wonder in my turn,' he said, 'if you know an Englishman who lives on that street, who is my sisters' next neighbour . . .'

'Oh,' I said.

'A very mysterious man. They say they have never seen him but they hear him late in the night, swearing and singing and banging the doors or something. He is always very drunk and though it is disturbing for them they are frightened to speak to him.'

'Have you heard him yourself?' I asked, hoping I could discount this as scandalous hearsay.

''Oh yes, I have . . .' and then I watched it dawn on him with a lovely blush and a kind of setting of the face against his mistake. He took a long draught of beer, and with the oddly magnified attention I was paying him I saw his open lips very clearly through the glass and his teeth refracted through the pale beer, which slid into his mouth in three deep swallows.

'I often am very drunk,' I admitted, placing a heavy hand on his shoulder and shaking him matily. I glanced aside to Edie, who was sculpting around herself for Alejo's benefit some imaginary bustier, and who topped it off with a sceptical coup d'oeil in my direction. 'And to be absolutely honest, your sisters can make quite a lot of noise themselves.' Oh, the ghastly give-and-take of life.

One or two others were hovering, as if hopeful of an introduction to Agustino, whom Alejo had never before been able to persuade to come to this place: they were raising their eyebrows at him over Alejo's head while I clumsily tried to keep him with me. But I had had my turn. Alejo was kissing one of the newcomers and tugging his cousin away to meet him.

After a blurred further hour of drinking and more than my ration of cigarettes, Edie and I found ourselves outside again with the two Spaniards. It was refreshingly cool, though they were wearing less and were less numbed by drink and paced about as we said goodbye. Alejo was going on to the Bar Biff with five or six others. He kissed Agustino with sensible fervour on both cheeks, which seemed to give his friends a licence to do the same; the boy stood there like a reluctant bride as his new acquaintance filed towards him. Then we three were alone - of course it was a night for him to be away from Alejo's. I was their escort . . . We rambled home under brilliant stars. I dimly recall making one or two diversions to show them historic things, my voice echoing off the darkened houses, and Agustino standing in the street-lamp's soft gleam, shivering and expressionless.

Much later in my room, sitting with Agustino, Edie already in bed, flat out with drink and fatigue. The boy must think we're a couple, or he wouldn't have come up to see, and accepted a cup of whisky. My Uncle Wilfred's motto going through my mind: 'You don't want girls around, spoiling everything' - not always true, that. Whole quarter-hours passing in two or three minutes. Agustino is worried about his cousin and the life he is leading - he doesn't disapprove, it's not like that, though if his aunt and uncle in Trujillo knew . . . I tell him it is all fine, I am talking up the overall excellence of Alejo's lifestyle and the things he likes to do, as if I had known the boy and taken an interest in his welfare for years: it seems to make me more trustworthy . . . Agustino is scared by stories he has heard - he speaks superstitiously of drugs, pornographic films, disappearance. Perhaps a friend of Alejo's had been kidnapped. For a while I concentrate on him so hard that I can't take in what he's saying. It's like sometimes you can't understand, when people speak too clearly. I am devastated by his beauty, which seems to me on another plane from when I first saw him.

He tells me 2.30 has just sounded from the church. We are standing at the top of the stairs and I ask him with laborious irony if it is all right to go disturbing his sisters at this hour: it has been very quiet there. He says it is fine, they are both away for the night in Antwerp. 'Oh,' I say, with a muggy sense of opportunity. I take his left hand between both of mine and stroke the back of it for a moment. I lean into his anxious breath and trace with my fingertips the quick-pulsing blue vein in the miracle of his neck. He pushes me to arm's length, frowns a disappointment that cuts to the heart, and holds out a hand. We shake once, twice, and he springs down the shadowy stairs without a word.

'The Folding Star' is published by Chatto & Windus, price pounds 15.99, on 26 May

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