Before this year, I was suspicious of new books; probably because I always judge a book by its cover, and generic classics are more or less the only ones I feel I can trust (not forgetting Faber’s totally strokable poetry collection). So, I only ever read the tried and tested greats, imagining myself to be some sort of supercool literary elitist. I guess this was a result of ignorance, my knowledge of contemporary writing only spanning the Stephanie Meyer / E.L. James type until recently, aka the kind of books that could be written by throwing marbles at a keyboard and base their front covers on stock images. It turns out I was just being a massive prick, and there are amazing books being published all the time. Who would have known!!
Right now I’m irredeemably obsessed with the novels of Alan Hollinghurst (which form a tiny fraction of the 84 newly-bought books piled up in the corner of my room, the products of my spending addiction) and I waste a whole lot of time listening to his posh academic voice talking about his books in every interview that he’s had recorded ever. He begins ‘homosexual’ with a ‘homm’ rather than a ‘home’. That’s just makes him even better.
From what I’ve read so far, (The Folding Star, The Line of Beauty and 2011’s The Stranger’s Child), The Line of Beauty is by far the most impressive, so it’s not surprise that it won the Man Booker Prize in 2004. I would tell you all about it, but I’d risk sounding like a sub-par critic, and you deserve to read it yourself. All you need to know is that it’s completely enthralling and multi-faceted and it helped me to realise that there are new books which really are going to endure. Ok, cringey love letter to Hollingurst over. Enjoy an unrelated photograph of some university accommodation.
And now for a nicely pretentious passage of fiction I wrote for my creative writing course, but which I shouldn’t really hand in for assessment because it’s a shameless imitation of his style. It’s got everything a good Hollinghurst needs: a posh girl who says darrrrling, a creepy gay protagonist, slightly archaic language and some narrative ambiguity thrown in for good measure. Also, forgive me for the italicised words looking like they’re walking through a hurricane. I can’t change the type-face on this theme. Woe is me — oh, the pain of spending all your money in bookshops (because Amazon doesn’t give you the same comforting retail experience) and not being able to purchase a premium blog layout. I may single-handedly be keeping Waterstones afloat through the recession. Do I deserve an award for that?
I met Ally at the station later in the afternoon. I spied her from behind, grappling with unnecessarily heavy bags in the rushed crowd that had been on her train. She gave a nervous shudder when I tapped her on the shoulder, but when she swivelled and realised who I was the fear evaporated and she dropped her luggage in favour of a tight hug. After we’d exchanged excited greetings she seized my biceps and stepped back to survey me.
‘You’ve got so thin!’
‘Ally, you flatterer.’
‘But you have! Look, your jeans are practically falling off those bony hips, darling. We must get you some new clothes while I’m here.’
She smiled and reached up to tap my head. ‘I hope everything’s well up there.’
We spent the evening cooking steak with a rich, dark sauce and steamed carrots, a recipe which Ally claimed to discover in a dusty foreign cookery book she’d salvaged from the family attic. I’d learnt to take such stories lightly, though. She’d always had a habit of gilding the more quotidian details of her life with careful fragments of narrative; ones that matched the image she hoped to portray.
After eating, we opened my bedroom’s wide sash window and hung out of it to smoke. It had been a while since I’d had a cigarette, so at first I found my face contorting with surprise at the scratchy tar’s presence in my throat, but soon it was a source of gentle, leg-heavying calm. We’d shared a bottle of merlot over dinner, enveloping us in a slow cloud of intoxication which eased conversation into more personal realms. Ally narrowed her eyes at me and grinned. ‘God, it’s been ages.’
‘I know! It’s unforgivable, Ally.’ I stubbed out a cigarette on the windowsill and fumbled for another. ‘By the way, Cara mentioned something about a man on your end.’
‘Oh god, that’ll be Peter. Don’t listen to Cara, she doesn’t know what happened; no one really does. It was just – it was nothing. I fell for a guy and he didn’t fall back. Textbook stuff, Matt, textbook. How about you? Love life?’
She leant forward as if she was about to tell me a secret in a crowded room and whispered, ‘I don’t believe that for a second, Matthew Goodwill.’
I tilted my head back and exhaled a stream of pale smoke, probably laughing more than the situation warranted. ‘Well, there was one guy, just a one night thing.’
She glared at the promise of a good story.
‘Tell me more!’
‘It was just a friend of a friend, and we were so drunk that it wasn’t really worth it.’
Ally dropped her cigarette out of the window and we watched its descent to the pavement, where it punctuated the darkness with its fierce little orange glow.
‘I still feel a bit odd about, you know, the whole gay thing.’
‘Oh Matthew! You need to get over this stuff. You’re brilliant!’
I realised that the wine and cigarettes had had a heavier influence on me than I’d thought.
‘I know you don’t want to be that guy, you know, the effeminate one with the Judy Garland obsession and the – I don’t know – the limp wrist, but you’re not! And fuck it, so what if you were.’
I smiled and squeezed her shoulder for a moment, at which she shrugged and let out an irritated sigh. I felt my vision beginning to fuzz.
‘Besides, what could possibly be more masculine than men loving men?’
I think I laughed at that, but the memory is unclear, as if it were obscured by the electric snowstorm which seizes the television screen during moments of interruption. I could feel the stars begin to slide, the mirrors shifting, Ally dropping away limb by limb, her disembodied shout lingering for a dizzy moment like a long, blue shadow.
Then she was over me, spraying my face with water from a plastic bottle which my mother used to water flowers.
‘Holy shit, Matthew! You nearly fell out the fucking window!’
I tried to keep my eyes open as she hooked her arms under my elbows and hauled me off the floor.
‘What the fuck did you take?’
I ebbed in and out of consciousness for the next few hours, tumbling vicariously through my own fragmented memories and dreams. When I finally awoke for good it was daylight and Ally was perched on the windowsill again, sucking agitatedly on a cigarette. She tossed it and flew to my bedside when she noticed me stirring. I still felt the residue of some terrible paralysis fizzing through my body, but the worst of it was over. She fussily persuaded me to take some awkward sips of water, but it tasted odd and somehow dry.
‘Matt, I don’t understand what happened.’
I furrowed my head deeper into the pillow. ‘It’s just allergies, that’s all. I shouldn’t have eaten those carrots, and I shouldn’t really drink either.’
‘Well, shit. Cheers for the heads up, darling.’
‘Sorry, Al. I’m an idiot, don’t be annoyed.’ I lifted myself up to lean against the headboard. ‘And don’t bother my parents with any of this; I’ll be absolutely recovered in a couple of hours.’