Authors: Alan Hollinghurst
Edward Manners – thirty three and disaffected – escapes to a Flemish city in search of a new life. Almost at once he falls in love with seventeen-year-old Luc, and is introduced to the twilight world of the 1890s Belgian painter Edgard Orst.
Alan Hollinghurst was born in 1954. He is the author of one of the most highly praised first novels to appear in the 1980s,
The Swimming-Pool Library
(1988), and was selected as one of the Best of Young British Novelists 1993. His second novel,
The Folding Star
, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize. His most recent novels are
The Line of Beauty
, which won the 2004 Man Booker Prize.
The Swimming-Pool Library
The Line of Beauty
The author gratefully acknowledges the hospitality of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, Woodside, California, where the early part of this novel was written.
Les grands vents venus d’outremer
Passent par la Ville, l’hiver,
Comme des étrangers amers.
Ils se concertent, graves et pâles,
Sur les places, et leurs sandales
Ensablent le marbre des dalles.
Comme des crosses à leurs mains fortes
Ils heurtent l’auvent et la porte
Derrière qui l’horloge est morte;
Et les adolescents amers
S’en vont avec eux vers la Mer!
Henri de Régnier
A man was waiting already on the narrow island of the tram-stop, and I asked him falteringly about the routes. He explained politely, in detail, as if it were quite an interest of his; but I didn’t take it in. I was charmed by his grey eyes and unnecessary smile, and the flecks of white paint on his nose and his dark-blond hair. I nodded and smiled back, and he fell into a nice pensiveness, hands in pockets, looking out down the empty street. I decided I would follow him.
The tram made its noiseless approach, headlamps on although the sky was still bright: the No 3, the Circular. We clambered up the steps together, I sought his help with the ticket-franking machine, which pinged as though I had won a prize. He swung into the seat behind me, and I felt his casual presence there as we trundled from stop to stop past churches and canals; when he whistled a little tune his breath stirred the hairs on the back of my neck. I thought, these are the evening routines which will soon be mine, the tug of an unknown suburb, or a bar, or a lover. I turned to ask him a further question I’d been nurturing, but it was just at the moment the tram seemed to lose its current and came to rest. A young woman was waiting, smoking, and gave a contented wave. My friend jumped off and trotted her away under his arm, whilst the doors folded to with a sigh.
I went on out, beyond the Stock Markets, hardly noticing, wondering what it was I had expected. For two or three stops I had the car to myself; I sensed the driver’s puzzlement, and stared determinedly through the window at the featureless district we were passing through; then I panicked and rang the bell. When the tram moved off I found myself alone, and knew suddenly, as I had not done at the station or the hotel, that I had arrived in a strange city, in another country. Part of me shrank from the simple change of place.
There was no one else in the street that led up to the church, no one in the shabby square that its tower overhung. St Vaast: an ugly old hulk, with a porch tacked on, all curlicues and dropping yellow stucco, with a nest-littered pediment above. It was locked, of course: no last light glimmering from a vestry window – no choral society meeting after work to rehearse their director’s own Te Deum or some minatory Flemish motets. I went on with a shiver.
From the further side of the square a lane led out to a still bleaker area. The street-lamps flickered into pink as I approached, but nothing else responded. The buildings were grandiose, like cinemas gone dark, the lower windows boarded up and plastered with posters for rock groups and the dud grins of politicians in the previous year’s elections. The names of newspapers, printing works, engineering firms, in forward-looking Deco script, could still be read above the padlocked entrance grilles. There was a sense that cacophonous all-night business had been done here, and that the city, with a certain unflustered malevolence, had chosen its moment, and stilled it, and reasserted its own dead calm. At the street’s end was the long vulgar front of a hotel, the Pilgrimage and Commercial, still with its brass entrance rail and the red and blue badges of motoring clubs. I climbed the steps, among the ghost-throng of arrivals, and peered through the splendid glass doors on to a shadowy half-acre of mud and rubble.
I was at a bar that was quite crowded, back in the middle of town. I’d had a few drinks, my sense of possibilities was bobbing up again, as well as a feeling of justified delay – I’d only just arrived, there was time for everything. I looked out through my cigarette-smoke and the coppery half-light at various strangers, some chatting, some embracing, others airily alone. It was called the Cassette. I had a presentiment of it in a month or two’s time, when these first impressions of brass taps and bottle-glass windows and little varnished compartments would be dulled, and I would take the manners of the two barmen, one taciturn, the other solicitous, for granted. I smiled at my own sense of anticipation, of being poised for change, ready to fall in love, and finding myself in the midst of this ordinary evening in the oddly mock-Tudor surroundings of the city’s one gay bar.
I thought perhaps I should go and eat somewhere, but I ordered another beer first. They were quick and lightweight – you could have as many as you liked. I stretched and admitted how tired I was. I’d been up at dawn to leave, my mother speechlessly helping, unable to disguise her misery and anxiety as she drove me to the Dover train. I sympathised with her, and felt confirmed in the rightness of what I was doing. It was something I couldn’t explain, although explanations were asked for. I had mumbled reluctantly about time running on, and about the job abroad being only temporary; but not about the darker sense of stepping already along the outward edge of youth, and looking back at those who were truly young with unwelcome eagerness and regret.
Just in front of me was a boy with thick fair hair and a long rather mouthy face – it must be a local type. I saw that the older man he was with couldn’t quite believe his luck and was clinging to it with clumsy determination while it lasted, though the boy himself appeared relaxed by his frequent caresses. I caught the boy’s eye from time to time, while he carried on talking as if he couldn’t see me. I found myself idly imagining our life together.
A middle-aged man in a suit came and stood by me and started talking about his success in business; I was polite, as always, but he could probably tell I thought something wasn’t right. He looked around a good deal and wanted seconding in his view of other people here; several times he backed into the pathway of kids who were going to the loo and then turned his apology into a hurried half-embrace. Sex was very firmly at the top of his agenda, but in some obscurely unflattering way he seemed not to regard me as a sexual possibility myself. He asked if I had any contact numbers. I said no, and then wondered what they would put you in contact with. I couldn’t explain to him my odd sexual economy of the past few years, the fantasy-ridden continence, the sparse ration of intense and anonymous treats; I didn’t know myself how it had come about. I wasn’t sure I could expect much from my hotel, the Mykonos, which advertised in the English gay press. It had seemed the usual stuffy warren when I checked in, the tiny lounge sour and abandoned.
At the other end of the bar, near the door, a man smiled at me quickly and sceptically, looked away, looked back. I stopped off by him for one more drink, offered him one, puzzling for a moment over my fold of high-denomination notes, the unfamiliar portraits of the makers of Belgian history. There was a dangerous quality to him, square-jawed, handsome, offering some unspecified challenge, spittle at the corner of his mouth. He could have been an off-duty soldier, nervily alone, counting on the power of his build and his close-cropped head. I felt the hollow burn of attraction in my stomach, but he didn’t give away what he felt. We stood close together, both of us also looking past each other, so that I saw him against the movement of the men beyond him, an arm around a waist, fingers that lightly touched a cheek. The surly barman, jowelled and braceleted, pulled the beers and muttered something to my friend, whom I watched pretending not to hear. The boy reached out his hand for the glass and I glimpsed tattooed letters on his four fingers: R, O, S, E.
He was quiet and tense, and didn’t react with much interest to anything I said. I felt his attention searching for a focus in the crowd behind me; or he looked into his glass in the grip of some bitter memory. I asked if he was in the Navy, and he waved his marked hand dismissively, without saying yes or no. I began to wonder why I’d bothered with him. Then with a little smile that made me think it was all shyness, that the tenderness he sought involved some cost to his pride, he said, ‘So tell me what you do.’
I told him I was a teacher, I’d come out here to teach some boys English.
This didn’t thrill him, it only ever touched those who had liked being taught: I saw a kind of wariness in his eyes, as if he might have owed me an essay.
‘Do you come from London then?’
‘A bit south of there. You won’t have heard of it. Well, it’s called Rough Common.’
‘Then why did you come here, for god’s sake?’
I suppose I should have foreseen such casual and incurious asking of the hardest questions. I had the sense again of being guided deep down by motives too tenuous to explain. It was something to do with growing up in a singer’s household, to the daily accompaniment of art, and with this little old city being famous for its music and pictures; I couldn’t quite admit to myself the uncertainty I felt already at its deadness, its air of a locked museum, the recognition that what had happened had all been centuries ago. I said, ‘Well, I wanted to use my Dutch – my mother’s family was Dutch, I studied it at school. I think you learn these things, then you discover a use for them.’ Over the past month of muttered revision I had imagined conversations that ran more smoothly, where the cheery exempla of the grammar book gave way to passionate declarations.
He started to refer to all the money I had, and I said, ‘But that’s everything I’ve got, I’m terribly poor!’ I patted the pad of notes zipped in my jacket pocket and he looked at me with a friendly scepticism, that said he knew about the traveller’s cheques folded among my shirts in the hotel cupboard, and my reliable background, how I could never fall through the net. And it was with a little bourgeois shock that I finally read the message of his eyes, the pupils shrunk to black pinpoints. I didn’t know whether to mention it or not, wasn’t totally sure I was right. Drugs frightened me and moved me to an impotent desire to help.
I bought both the following rounds – I couldn’t pretend that they weren’t within my means; he accepted them with a hint of irritation, as though to have thanked me would have been an admission of his dependency. I was the victim of a con, in a way, someone who didn’t know him, a fresh fool, on the first night of my capricious little exile, drunk and hungry for contact. Sometimes he scratched at his chest with a thumbnail, and the tiny crackle of chest-hairs under the cotton of his polo-shirt filled me with a wondering sense of his whole body, as keen as if he’d been leaning by me naked.
I offered him a cigarette, but he shook his head contemptuously. ‘I’ve got to get hold of some money,’ he said, looking away from me, pretending to accept my plea of poverty. I saw it was all over, I hadn’t worked out for him; he hadn’t even told me his name. I thought of him simply as Rose. Rose of the Rose Tattoo! I suspected it wasn’t worth explaining the literary joke. I muttered, ‘What is it you’re on?’