Sunday, January 22, 2012

Chapter Thirty-One of Hampton from the Halfway Line

The last chapter. I hope you enjoyed the novel as much as I enjoyed writing it. Creating this story and these characters provided me with tremendous joy and fulfillment. Thanks so much for reading and see you soon. JR


Clerkenwell, London

“Let me get this straight,” Ben Hampton had taken a heady first sip from his pint. “You sat naked …”
“Completely Billy Bollocks.” Julius Novak cut in, foam on his upper lip.
“ … on a little stool, in a classroom … for eight-year-olds while a group of Vermont villagers, whom you knew, had a go at sculpting their blocks of clay into a representation of your middle-aged body.”
“Forgive me. I’m trying to picture the scene in my mind. Little chalkboard, little desks, a riser with soft cushions. Am I close?”
“Posters showing letters of the alphabet, with arms and legs, chatting.”
“Ohhh, God!” Ben rubbed his eyes.
“The one, true Theatre of the Absurd.”
“Did you find yourself bewildered, troubled, or obscurely threatened?” Ben asked, unloading a portion of his Cambridge education.
“I just went with the flow. We journeyed beyond language. We subverted logic.”
Ben and Novak sat at a table near the bar. Well, every table was near the bar in The Jerusalem Tavern. Every table was filled, and so were the barstools. Loads of thirty-somethings were standing and sitting outside on Britton Street around the corner from Farringdon Station in fashionable Clerkenwell. The two men, both blending in to the Friday afternoon London crowd, craned their necks in something like disbelief at the swell of upwardly-mobile bodies.
The 18th century pub is remarkable for several things, one of which being the sign that hangs above the front door featuring John the Baptist’s head sitting on a platter. Both men had been terribly busy, in the six weeks or so since Novak had returned from his extraordinary visit to Marianne in Vermont, and had only spoken once. That was the conference call with Rosalie having to do with “One Man’s Loss,” and they only discussed work, nothing personal. Ben had known neither the details of Novak’s trip nor the reasons for his having left England so suddenly. He assumed it was something to do with Isabel.
“When did this place go all fucking trendy?” Ben asked.
“Not sure,” Novak said. “Welcome to Clerkenwell, I suppose. I used to pop in back when I lived in town – ’01, ’02, I think; and … nothing. Just me, the young bartender/rock musician from Cumbria …”
“Coom-bray-ar!!” Ben raised his pint.
“… and maybe a couple of sheep herders from Suffolk having a nice St. Peter’s.”
“Getting back to your stunning, American debut …”
Ben tried, honestly, but couldn’t help sense some kind of metaphysical thread between two episodes of nude modeling separated by twenty-five years.
“This, I hazard to guess, was to symbolize your willingness to …”
“Do anything …”
“Do anything to get Marianne back … in your life … like before.”
“Pretty much,” Novak said, channeling New England colloquialism.
“Then … what are you doing here?”
Novak stroked his stubble of beard and looked down before regaining eye contact and answering.
“We … uh … decided to take a raincheck.”
“What happened?”
“She felt strongly that I didn’t really mean it, that it was a type of gesture – a nice gesture; but that we were probably better off the way we are rather than …”
“The Way We Were?”
“I’m in shock. First I’m in shock that you … I mean, that the two of you … I don’t know what to say.”
“I really thought I wanted to. I was prepared in my heart, I think. But afterward – after I put her dad’s little bathrobe back on – we went and had a drink, and there was strangely nothing in the air. We had nothing natural to say. We’ve known each other twenty-five years. Something powerful stopped us then; something equally formidable saw to it again. I saw it in her eyes, and I watched her face as she saw it in mine. There was no way forward, no joy, no primal thrill at the prospect of being back together – in that way.”
“I’m … I’m sorry, Julius.”
“Thanks. Cheers.”
“Cheers. Who spoke first then?”
Novak just stared at him with raised eyebrows.
“What did she say?”
“She said it was really sweet of me. And that I didn’t have to do this. And that I’d be miserable not living in England. And she wasn’t about to argue about it or listen to anything disingenuous or sentimental.”
“I would have thought you had her on the away-goals rule.”
“I might have, had I not been so far behind on aggregate.”
Ben chuckled and pretended to cut the wit with a knife.
“Would you be miserable … leaving Britain?”
“Yes, absolutely. Well, not just Britain; being able to pop over to the continent anytime I wish. To be honest, I could never handle the states for more than a week or two. Don’t even like Vermont all that much.”
“You’re joking.”
“Nah. Not enough Vermonters. I could maybe see San Francisco or somewhere out there, but that’s the other side of the world practically from Europe. It’s like thirteen hours in the air. I can be in Florence in three hours. That’s what I call living. This is my home.”
“Well, you bloody Brit.”
“Selfish, is what I am. I don’t even deny it anymore – not even to Marianne to keep her from getting behind the defense. That, in a weird, sort of half-defeating/half-triumphant way, actually puts me on the path toward the emotional honesty that could have prevented her from leaving me in the first place.”
“Did she cry?”
“No. She’s really fucking content.”
“Well, that’s good. Isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Novak looked as though he knew it was both good and not good. “She seemed to take great delight in pointing out the irony of my starting a company that builds walls.”
They debated whether to stick around to sample the cream stout or walk a few blocks over to the Old Mitre for a Caledonian Deuchars IPA.
“Honestly,” Ben looked him in the eye. “You’re decision had nothing to do with the fact that you would have to live in a town in which many of the residents had seen your dick, and you could be reasonably sure that said ‘Johnson’ was now a legitimate topic of conversation down the general store.”
“Certainly, the old Julius could not have gotten that thought out of his mind or out of his nightmares. But I don’t think that’s me anymore, Ben. I really view the whole exercise as having been … art.”
Ben nearly laughed. He and Novak now joked like old mates. But, like a proper mate, he could see that the man sitting across from him was being something like genuine.
“My bit of it was no more and no less important than the artists, or what they were shaping or sketching or carving, or even the space we occupied. I feel perfectly normal about having helped out.”
“I don’t know you anymore,” Ben tried to look grave but couldn’t stop himself from a chuckle.
“No, I guess twenty-five years of being around fucking artists slowly rubbed off on me. This is how I wanted to feel back then when I was chasing her around Cologne. It just took me a little while to blend in, you might say. Now I’ve got a grown-up daughter throwing Samuel Beckett in my face, and her dad’s a nude model.”
“I’m proud of you,” Ben said.
“For what?”
“Exposing your testicles in front of the volunteer fire chief – not to mention what I reckon to be a shocking roll of flab.”
“Marianne said his sculpture was the most accurately rendered.”
“Let’s drop it.” Ben looked suitably appalled. “Have you seen the book?”
“Oh, yeah. Lovely stuff. When do we start the tour?”
“What do you mean ‘we’?”
“Are you kidding me?”
“No. The author doesn’t take characters from the book on tour. Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Oh, you just want it to die on arrival? You need me to help sell it, you fool.”
“Don’t make me laugh. You’re no one. You provided a few mildly helpful interviews. End of story.”
They took a sip of bitter.
“Rosalie thinks it’s a good idea.” Novak offered, demurely. “You know, the publisher?”
“I’m calling her.”
Ben reached for his cell phone.
“She’s the president of the company. You can’t meddle in day-to-day decisions.”
“The hell I can’t. I’m on the board. She reports to me.”
“She reports to the executive committee of the board; not to individual board members. What are you, Mussolini? Have you ever heard of governance?”
“What am I supposed to do then?”
“Why should I help you? You said I’m not coming on the tour with you.”
Novak looked away and sipped his pint.
“I … honestly don’t know what I was thinking.”
Ask me,” Novak looked back at Ben and ducked his chin.
“Julius, would you like to join me on the book tour?”
“Yes, I’d very much like you to.”
“I’ll have my assistant check my calendar and see if we can work something out. We’re pretty tight this time of year.”
The author shook his head. Did he really put together investors and call in favors to finance the start-up of a publishing house premised on a book about the loves and cup-ties of this man across the table from him – Julius Novak? Was it all because he wanted a continued work relationship and friendship with the inimitable Rosalie McMahon? Did he honestly think Rosalie could guide Fag and Lager Press around and beyond what many in the book world and in the City predicted to him would be little more than a depressing money pit? Had he ever wanted to be in publishing in the first place? Yes. Yes. Maybe. And, not really.
Ben had gotten an e-mail from Marianne Papineau over the weekend saying she would be in Paris and London several times between mid-summer and the holidays and would still very much like to meet his wife. Julius was welcome, as far as she was concerned; but Ben was certainly not to consider his absence a deal breaker.
‘I believe our friendship going forward to be both with #14 and apart from him,’ she wrote.
So thoughts of her, and what he believed she meant to Novak, floated back to the surface.
“Why’d you do it, Julius, really?”
“What, the Full Monty in front of the church rummage-sale committee?”
“Yeah, that.”
Novak passed Ben the bowl of peanuts while pulling on his Best Bitter, as he gave his friend’s serious question the thought it probably warranted, before answering.
“I guess I was throwing myself on the sword in a way and saying to Marianne that I was sorry … for everything, about all the things I know she shared with you about me. And that I acknowledged a generous portion of her characterizations. I was admitting to her and to myself and … to you, I suppose, that her accounts of events were ninety-nine percent accurate. My behavior, particularly back when it mattered, left a lot to be desired.”
“Come on, is that the best you can do?”
“It’s the best I’m going to do. What do want to write another fucking book?”
“God, no!”
They sipped and looked at each other.
“Marianne is a wise woman,” Ben said. “And a very fortunate one to have you in her life.” They clinked glasses. “… and to have dodged the bullet of having you even more in her life than is recommended.”
“I’ll accept that as the piss-taking that it was.”
They both smiled and chuckled -- the famous writer and the footballer whom he never really liked all that much … until he got to know him.
“So, you’ve shot yourself in the foot, as it were. Still I’d say you’re a relatively young chap. What are you going to do for legitimate and honorable female companionship?”
“Are you suggesting I would seek illegitimate and dishonorable female companionship? My good man, I’ll have you know … “
Just then a group of sweaty and sooty landscape gardeners, male and female, nudged through the throng of Londoners and joined some friends at the one long table near Ben and Novak. One of the crew, perhaps even the foreperson or owner, was a trim, Greek or Turkish-looking woman who looked about thirty-five but might have been older. Her short sleeves revealed tanned and sleekly muscular arms. Her face, flecked with dirt, was mysteriously attractive, kind of like that chief of medicine lady on “House.” Anyone could see she was looking right at Novak, while she spoke on a cell phone, then turned quickly away as if she hadn’t been. Novak was grinning – either adorably or devilishly, depending on one’s view -- as he looked back at Ben.
“Well, as our good friend José Mourinho is fond of saying …”
“Hold on!” Ben nearly jumped from his seat. “Don’t you dare quote a Chelsea manager to me.”
Julius Novak gave his best Iberian shrug, wrinkled his mouth and eyebrows and spoke with relaxed Portuguese vainglory.
“I have no fear of the future.”



Monday, January 16, 2012

Chapter Thirty of Hampton from the Halfway Line


Bloomsbury, London

Rosalie McMahon was having a busy morning in the middle of a busy week in the busiest two months she had ever experienced. She hadn’t had such full days and nights since a hideous week in 1995 when all three of her children had pneumonia at the same time and Peter was in Zurich on business. But this time was wonderful and satisfying. As Rosalie held a phone to her ear and negotiated with a printer, she glanced down at the dashboard on her laptop -- Wednesday, July 2, exactly ten months after she had first phoned Ben Hampton to set up their initial meeting about the Julius Novak ‘fascinating football character’ book.
Eight weeks ago, Jonathan James of JJI Sports Reform Press, to whom she (and Ben) had sold her book idea, refused to publish the book, essentially, because there was ‘not enough football’ in it. Rosalie recalls his having mentioned something about a “disconcertingly comic presentation of doubt.”
One week later, after much hand wringing, Tonya Sidney, Ben’s literary publisher at Brown Pelican Books, joined the all-too-tragic chorus of disconcerting doubt by choosing not to publish the book just now because there was ‘too much football’ in it. The next day, Ben’s agent, Dava Carson threw a very public fit at Tonya at The Children’s Society kickoff of Refugee Week at South Bank.
In spite of these two rollicking body blows, Rosalie believed the entire experience to have been categorically worthwhile and slam bang. She felt that way at every signpost along the journey. She felt that way even before Ben and Dava and some of their more influential friends (and her husband Peter’s bank!) had arranged the financing … for a publishing venture … and hired Rosalie as its president.
Ben, normally the epitome of unflappable, had shuddered (not to mention ‘flapped’ wildly) at the negative publicity and potential damage to his reputation were he and Rosalie to allow any more houses to reject his manuscript. He could scarcely force himself to utter the blasphemous phrase, ‘Reject my manuscript.’ In his career, which was not unlike a shooting star leaping through the sky, Ben Hampton had not heard the words, ‘Thanks but no thanks,’ since he was still a greenhorn in his twenties with no style, no resume and a fractured sense of self confidence.
“What a spectacular fall from grace this is,” he moaned to his wife over one of many alcoholic beverages consumed during a two-day binge of self-loathing and surrender.
To which she replied, “Just look at yourself in the mirror, you whingeing schoolboy. Listen to me. I will never have sex with you again if you don’t get your shit together – blowjobs, handjobs, nothing. You have had a go at pleasing this body for the last time.”
“Did Rosalie tell you to say that?” he asked with his palm smushed into his cheek.
“Yes, but I was thinking about saying it before she suggested it.”
The newest entrant into the Bloomsbury-based literary stakes went straight to work releasing its first publication, Ben’s Julius Novak book, a bit wobbly but not out and rechristened “One Man’s Loss.” They decided on the name, Fag & Lager Press, for their company because it was quintessentially English. Yet it sounded somewhat German, which they believed would make it easier to sell to Bertelsmann when the time was right.
Ben and Peter and some other very nice people sat on the board. Fag & Lager purchased the entire building containing Rosalie’s office flat on Coram Street, because, first of all, it was in Bloomsbury, which is a great place to be if you’re a UK publisher. Secondly, Rosalie already knew where it was and how to get there.
The only person not immediately disheartened by the initial setback of the manuscript rejection had been Rosalie McMahon. In the midst of Ben’s forgettable and self-pitying debauchery, she set up a conference call with the novelist and ex-footballer.
“It’s a numbers game,” she kept saying.
“Are you on your own planet?” Novak said incredulously, allowing panic and rudeness a place at his customarily ordered table.
“It’s a tits up,” Ben garbled, in between hungover apologies for having let the side down. “Do you think Jonathan will sue us?”
“Did your check clear, darling?”
“Of course it did … I think.”
“Then, no. It was his choice not to publish what you submitted. You can’t sue a writer because he wrote a crap book … not that yours is crap. But … you know what I mean.”
At the end of a useless ten minutes with both men acting like complete babies, Rosalie cut proceedings short by telling Ben to watch a funny movie or a Rob Brydon video or something, sleep it off, then go for a nice jog by the Thames and call her back tomorrow afternoon. And, above all, stop drinking.
She did not agree that they should sit on the manuscript for any length of time, but rather to strike now. Where and what to strike was another matter for which she had no answer.
The next day, when all parties’ heads were clear, Rosalie, Peter and Ben hatched the idea of a publishing company. And Fag & Lager was born. Rosalie went about pushing the big news to Publishers Weekly, Publishing News Online and as many major daily newspapers and major print and online magazines as she could squeeze into her workday. Peter flew with her to New York for a weekend, Soho shopping jaunt before she was due to embark on television co-appearances with Ben. Yes, Paris was closer, but the American dollar was a complete shambles. She had set up a TV interview on The Book Show on Sky Arts 1 with the enticing Mariella Frostrup as well as the German, online book program, Seite 4 TV with the sincere and playful Renata Schönbrunn.
In New York, the couple spent a romantic three nights at the Inn at Irving Place, a turn of the century, Edith Wharton kind of boutique hotel in two perfectly preserved townhouses, sporting but twelve guest rooms and no sign outside. They had dinner at Pastis, Tabla and Babbo. They saw a Broadway show – The 39 Steps at the Cort Theatre. Even though the show featured American actors doing British accents, the McMahons, like everyone else in the audience, were thoroughly entertained by the brilliant escapist comedy.
At Pastis, while a brasserie, raucous and communal with no privacy, Rosalie took the occasion to admit to Peter the personal doubts she had been having, the selfish feelings about her lack of success in life and its resulting sadness and frustration.
“You’re a hell of a lot more of a success than I’ve ever been, for starters,” he said, seriously. “Even before Ben Hampton.”
“Don’t take it personally. And don’t look it as some kind of comparison or contest between the two of us.”
He took her hands.
“Rosalie, can I just quickly say that I am a twat before getting to how fabulous and accomplished you are? I take a 45-minute train ride, five days a week, to a job at a fucking bank for which I have damned little interest. Maybe … just maybe I earn what I deserve, but honestly I don’t consider myself as even being in the same league as you as far as importance in our lives. You and the children, but mostly you, are the greatest part of my life; and there’s not a close second. I’m not going to repeat to you what I’ve said a hundred times and what I’m sure Kay and all of your other friends have told you. You’ve made our family what it is. And we have an outrageously beautiful and strong and close family. You know that’s what really matters. That might be why you’ve dedicated your life to cultivating us.”
“My friends have been a great help. It’s true, Kay slapped me around a little when I became overly pathetic and stupid. And you … you, Peter McMahon … there is not a man on this earth who could possible be a better husband than you’ve been. You’re funny. You make me laugh every single day. I can’t go an hour without wanting to hear your voice and to see you. You are the most handsome devil, and you keep getting prettier and more sexy with each passing year. And we travel perfectly together. And you always save me. And you’ve calmed me down.”
“I know. You were a complete mess when we met.”
“Thank you so much,” she twisted her mouth and stroked his cheek. “Why did you stay with me?”
“The sex and the personal challenge.”
The server appeared at their table from out of the crowd to list the dessert specials. This place really is in constant motion, almost like a train station in the middle of a stadium concert. The Pavlova with raspberries sounded intriguing.
“What do you think, sweetheart,” Peter asked. “Chocolate pot de crème or just straight back to roll around in those lovely Frette linens?”
“Both.” She bit her lower lip and gazed at the only man she’d ever loved.
When Rosalie arrived at Fag & Lager that morning, her secretary (her … secretary!) told her that Ben Hampton had called and would be stopping by with someone to say hello. Rosalie thanked Valerie and went to her glass-walled office with exposed brick, passing and greeting her three other employees. Her employees! She was the boss! Of a publishing company! In bookish Bloomsbury! Down the street from where Virginia Woolf suffered the most alarming collapses yet was so avant garde and prolific.
Ben came by, as promised, with a young writer from the BBC he had wanted to introduce to Rosalie. After a nice chat, the writer stopped to talk to one of Rosalie’s acquisitions editors whom he knew from a magazine where they both previously had worked. He left Ben and Rosalie alone.
“So how’s everything going?” he asked.
“Don’t you read your e-mail? Valerie updates the trustees every … I’m sorry. Did you mean … what did you mean?”
“I mean, are you happy? Do you love it? Do you hate it? Or you sorry you stopped being an agent? Do you wish we hadn’t done this? Is Peter shitting himself?”
“I’m ecstatic, sir. I’ve never been so fulfilled by work. I love the book world; I love you. I love Peter McMahon and his stuffy, buttoned-up bank. I even love Julius Novak, for god’s sake. I love books. Did I already say that? But I do so. I’d just never found my place, you know. It’s not going to be easy, but we’re going to make a go of it. We have smart, hard-working, hungry people here and an innovative and supportive and cute board.”
He looked at her with the smile that graced bookshop displays around the world, and she knew what he meant.
“And … we have me, my beauty. And that means it would take a perfect storm to sink us, and maybe not even that would be enough. We’re going to make “One Man’s Loss” work, and we’re going to nudge it along until it joins your other books as million sellers. And we’re already attracting loads of agents and authors, the right kind of authors for what we’re about, coming to us. We know what we’re doing, we’re up for it, and it’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun.”
“Well, that I knew. Maybe you’ll think about working with me again in the future; that is, if you think I fit in with the brand.”
“Let’s see, Fag … and Lager? Hm, I wonder.”
“Well, you look like you were born to be here. That was meant as a compliment. You were born to do an unlimited number of things. What I’m trying to say, Rosalie, is, you’re precious.”
“Did Kate tell you to say that?”
“Yes, but I …”
“You were thinking about saying it before she suggested it. Mm, quite.”
Ben stopped at her door on his way out and looked back.
“Bye the way, I heard about the Shreddies argument.”
Rosalie looked up, froze and turned red. Ben’s face gave nothing away.
“For what it’s worth,” he smiled that smile once more. ”I thought it was brilliant.”
Rosalie sighed with relief. “It’s worth everything, Mr. Hampton. It’s worth absolutely everything.”
As Ben Hampton gathered his friend and left the Coram Street offices, Rosalie returned to her laptop, her phone and her to-do list. She flipped through the fattest, most colorful Rolodex in WC1 and opened a gift-wrapped package from her friend, Kay. Inside was what appeared to be a next-generation Garmin Nuvi 880 GPS with voice recognition.
The note from Kay read, “Only three months until the Frankfurt Book Fair. You’ll need this. At the shop, they assured me this thing can help you even if you just scream, ‘Where the fuck am I?’ Everyone loves you … except the shits. And we just ignore them, don’t we?”

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Chapter Twenty-Nine of Hampton from the Halfway Line


Derry, Vermont

“Well, you said yourself you weren’t as cold as you thought you’d be,” Marianne said, in a tone suggesting a tacit admission of having gone somewhat beyond the touchline.
“That was a ‘Curate’s Egg,’ darling.”
Novak and Marianne were driving back down Route 100, toward the Papineau property, after an eventful afternoon.
“I don’t know what that is.”
“The mention of a small part that was good but not nearly good enough to redeem the larger whole that was … extremely bad,” Novak was emotionally exhausted into a kind of calm. “Irony, I’m afraid, from having lived too long among the British.”
“Well, you carried off your contribution like a professional. You’ve seriously never done that before?”
About being sat motionless in room temperature, Novak had imagined having a body temperature considerably below normal, far enough under normal to result in certain, shall we say, diminishing … abnormalities.
He had awakened that morning just before the sunrise as always. He normally dozes, hugs his pillow for a few more luxurious minutes before stumbling to the bath in the partial light. He has no set routine with his toilette. Sometimes he does everything right away, other times he goes to the kitchen, lets the dogs out, feeds the cat, guzzles a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice and prepares a strong, dark coffee.
Novak had never become a morning tea person. What’s more, he no longer used the acronym ‘O.J.’ for orange juice ever since, you know, O.J. Simpson and everything. When Novak had left America in 1981, Simpson was something of a household name in a benign-to-good way, except for his useless acting performances. The majority of those familiar with the man most likely thought of him as a gifted and accomplished athlete to admire as well as something of a rather goofy but harmless clown who took himself slightly more seriously than was called for. No better and no worse than, like, a Joe Namath or Wilt Chamberlain or someone. You have to hand it to him, though, for not disposing of his estranged spouse in the predictable way with a handgun like so many seem to do. Think about it. The guy dressed up in black like a cat burglar and fucking rang the doorbell. How eccentric is that? He probably managed to work in one last bitchy argument to get his points across before going off like Lizzie Borden. Crass? Maybe.
So, orange juice, the fresh-squeezed variety. In England, that means shipping the fruit up from Spain pronto and, in a perfect world, having a purveyor that squeezes the fruit into his own containers. Novak, former Valencia resident, had a student at Wolfson whose father, an Irish fella, is an importer in Lower Lynwood and member of the Soil Association. His guys squeeze the oranges, all organic, all inspected, bottle the juice themselves and lorry it over to, say, Cheltenham, Gloucester and other major points of west country trade. Novak gave him the number of a little market he frequents a few kilometers from Blockley in Mickleton (yes, home of the world-famous Pudding Club), and now Sean and Twylah Brady, props., carry his beloved juice, his life-affirming nectar.
As Novak had expected, the Papineaus keep a very nice juice. Not as expected, he woke for the third consecutive morning next to another adult person. Other than having his little girl in bed with him, which mostly stopped when she reached adolescence; then happily picked up again recently, Novak would estimate that ninety percent of the time in the last twenty years he has slept alone. Not since living with Marianne all those years ago, has he experienced sleeping through the night with a woman without something of an intimate nature necessarily having occurred between them. Well, of course, he admits, there have been spurts (sorry!) of minor relationships involving platonic or at least sexual incident-less type sleepovers involving himself and various degrees of fascinating females (all of whom he claims to have admired in one way or another). But, for the most part … all right, you get it.
For Novak, waking next to Marianne was, well, it was bizarre. They didn’t actually have sex on the Tuesday night, her parents having returned from the city. Granted, a lot has happened in their lives since 1988. But looking over and seeing a head with what is clearly Marianne’s hair on it, resting on the pillow, and her shoulder … her perfect, perfect shoulder … caused Novak to feel as though just a few months had elapsed since they were a young couple.
“I don’t feel forty-four years old,” he had remarked to Marianne as they lie together. “You certainly don’t look forty-three years old – whatever that’s supposed to look like.”
He had to be careful here.
“I don’t feel like we’ve lost twenty years, in that way,” he continued perilously. “Though I understand that we have.”
The sex had been a bit mad. All the refreshing, climactic bits that are supposed to happen happened – extraordinarily so. But, again, it was mad and not exactly tender and loving, though there was some of that. Mostly, though, the two appeared to be trying to prove to the other that each was the greatest lover this side of the Humber. Novak believed ‘tender’ would eventually follow. In fact, he was quite confident it would.
Roger had walked into his house ahead of Joanna, having just come off a four-hour drive, strode over to Novak, bellowed “C’est magnifique!” and practically lifted the 200-pound man off the ground with a hug and a double-double cheek kiss.
Novak had peered over at Marianne, whose look implied, ‘I didn’t say a word.’
Evidently, the whole family was in on what was happening. Isabel, as we know, was adamantly lobbying for it, as well as scheming with her grandmother. But what if it hadn’t happened? What if Novak had quailed and not taken the leap -- out of his famous stupidity?
What if Marianne had said, “That’s very sweet of you, Julius; but, seriously, have you taken a knock on the head?”
This was heady stuff all right. For once, in his personal life, he had successfully (or so it seemed) assessed a situation and acted appropriately and, there can be little question, demonstrably. Luckily as well, Novak felt OK, not ashamed, at having slept with the man’s daughter in his house for the first time since he’d had all his hair and didn’t require reading specs. Roger Papineau kept referring to Novak as ‘my boy,’ which was nice.
“I do love the guy,” Novak had said to Marianne while her parents unpacked. “I love the whole family. You still scare me a little, but … “
“I know,” she smiled. “C’est la vie.”
And he was, honestly, right to be scared, if you want to know. All those years ago in Cologne, Novak thought he wanted to be part of her art clique, hang around her pale, waifish friends with the henna-colored hair and tattoos (before absolutely everyone had them); leather jackets, Johnny Rotten and Iggy Pop wannabe, deranged Europeans clinically attached to cigarettes, Soviet chic and wild, anarchist fantasies. Even the normal-looking ones of her set were deceptively severe, quietly suicidal or secretly dangerous.
They just don’t think like the rest of us, these artists. Something has gone horribly wrong in their minds or never was right in the first place. Defective from the start.
Otherwise, how else to explain why, after having asked Novak to sit nude as an artist’s model for her donated, ten-person sculpture class, she would then (in the mad belief that it was some kind of good “art” idea) open the class up to her artist acquaintances who also were directing classes in watercolor, oil, pastel, woodcarving, and, for all anyone knows, fucking party balloon sculpture? And wait until the drive over before telling the first-time model?
Was Marianne trying to deceive her soon-to-be-again … whatever he was? Was she playing a cruel joke? Was she one-upping him in some hostile way? She thought like an artist, you know, clothing the ideal in a perceptible form and all that rot. She broke somewhat with her classical and realist and emotion-laden mentors. Perhaps too much Ezra Pound in her spare time, but who’s to say?
And, frankly, the enormity of what was about to take place didn’t immediately sink in to Novak’s conscious mind. He can be a bit thick – something about being a university professor most of his adult life. You’ve read the studies.
He didn’t even realize or ask why they were driving to the sculpture class. Wouldn’t he have known or assumed to know that Marianne had been, up to now, conducting these little amateur sessions in the family studio up in the remodeled Gourlie-Papineau barn, where Bill once parked his Case 500? Why then the change of venue? And where exactly were they going?
“Flood Brook School. I’ve invited a couple of very talented artisans and their protégés to participate, and I was afraid there was not enough room in the studio.”
Are you kidding me?”
“No. It should be quite good. My friend Neda, the fabric artist from Shaftesbury, said she’d bring two interns from Taiwan in residence at her farm. This is what we do around here.”
Are you kidding me?”
“Relax. It’s just art.”
“But … I agreed to be nude.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Uh … being a little bit nude in your cozy, family studio, where I’m mildly comfortable and being very much nude at a grammar school with the forty-three presidents staring down at me are two slightly different propositions … Marianne.”
Pas du tout.”
“Not at all, my aunt!!”
“Are you feeling not O.K. with this?”
Novak could only think that she had him by the artistic balls, cosmically so. The inner calm he had spent his entire adult life nourishing and harvesting had flown.
“I’m … no. It’s … bahhh, just, you know … pfff … I just, uh, need to work myself into a, sort of, Left Bank … mentality. I’ll … I’ll … “
“Would you like to smoke a joint?”
“Absolutely not! Tell me you’re not carrying drugs. Can we stop for a beer?”
“You’ve already had one. And we can’t have you needing to pee while you’re sitting there.”
“Oh, you’d rather I hallucinate?”
Marianne ignored that and imagined the artistic space and possible poses and placement. They entered Derry proper. Novak sat at the junction of Route 11 before turning toward Bromley. They were less than five minutes from the school. Marianne’s perfectly tranquil face looked as though the two merely were driving to the store for milk.
They just don’t think like the rest of us, these artists.
“This is going to be very cool, Julius darling. I’m actually excited. I feel a little like a … regisseur or something.”
“Believe me, I’d be happy to wear a tutu.”
So, one would think Novak might have been chilly and … not … himself, sitting there in front of, actually, far fewer unfamiliar faces than he’d had good reason to expect. He had mentally prepared for the small handful of cackling hens from the village whom he’d met on the street on Saturday afternoon. He rather honestly dreaded being naked in front of those women – art or not. In the few minutes Marianne provided him to digest the reality of what awaited him, he imagined an additional two or three, maybe, sober and detached students of art. Real pros, dedicated only to their craft and the higher calling of beauty. They wouldn’t see him naked. They would see what was there:  a model. Therefore, he figured, other than gazing off into the middle distance at some pre-selected point on his eye’s horizon, he could key in on the few legitimate imaginers of the beaux-arts technique – Madame Papineau version.
From the evidence of the standing-room-only crowd in Ms. Brennan’s third grade classroom at Flood Brook Union School, however, the verdict could only be that every single novice artist and would-be arbiter of taste in Windham and Bennington Counties – and several people with nothing better to do just pulled in off the street -- were on-hand to see Marianne Papineau’s former boyfriend naked.
Novak’s first thought upon entering the impromptu studio space and removing one of Roger’s spare robes was, “I wish I’d made it down to Greece a couple of weeks ago for some sun.”
He was at least relieved that he had had next to nothing to do with these people during his time visiting Marianne’s family. To say that, up to now, his behavior, vis-à-vis the year-round residents of southern Vermont, had been aloof would be to understate the case. In the twenty-five years he’d been coming to New England, Julius Novak had breezed through the local populace with little interest in adding new relationships or even acquaintances. If the Papineaus were suspect, Novak was even more so. A pompous professor at two of the world’s most celebrated universities who used to be some kind of soccer star? Well, that’s what they heard.
To be sure, Vermont now had its fair share of idiosyncratic celebrities and downright bizarre overachievers from nearly every field of endeavor looking to hide behind ski goggles and be made invisible by wearing muck boots, Carhart work pants, Ibex fleece vests and driving Toyota Tundras with their dog in the front passenger seat. You know, everyone from Treat Williams to L. Paul Bremer III. But this whole soccer star knocking up that Papineau girl (who’s too good for everyone) and continuing to come around and lord it over us like we’re the ones who are beneath him … well, I don’t think so. Not in our village green.
What a turnout.
There was Gene, one of the post office clerks, who’s always reading the New York Post when customers stand there waiting for their oversized items that require a signature. How does one go from finding intellectual stimulation in a front page news story -- about a Long Island teenager-son-of-a-mafioso accused of driving with a car door open and a passenger vomiting out a window -- to the brushstroke contemplation of a serene row of haystacks in a meadow at the break of day? A legitimate debate in the future, on the art theory front, might center around whether Julius Novak sitting there in his birthday suit, was more ‘The Thinker’ by Rodin or rather a vulgar piece of reactionary propagandist commentary by Ralph Peters.
If there were gasps at the moment of his undraping (there were!), then Novak could not hear them for his ears were temporarily afflicted with a dull buzz. Besides, he was just trying to be professional.
Marianne walked over to him and set him contrapposto, not unlike Michelangelo’s David, most of his weight on one foot so that his shoulders and arms twisted off-axis from his hips and legs. She handed him a long, wooden staff to hold against the carpeted floor of the riser with his left hand, as though he were someone escaping from a nudist colony by hiking through a forest. Or perhaps he was meant to be a shepherd in an isolated tropical region. On a more practical note, Novak thought he might use the prop as a weapon if one of those horrid women attempted to touch him.
One of the women from the village, a frequent participant in local theatre productions, would appear to have brought her twelve-year-old daughter. What the hell could Novak possibly do about that? He had to remain largely motionless, as this little middle schooler glanced surreptitiously at his private parts.
Internally frantic and sickened, he darted his eyes around the room, like, ‘Is anyone going to do anything?’ Apparently not. The gathered artists and others carried on molding their lumps of clay and drawing with their little pastel crayons and chatting, while a pubescent child is potentially warped for life by being made to sit in public not ten feet from a strange naked man.
‘This is not art,’ Novak fretted. ‘It is an exhibitionist public spectacle.’
Were these people so far out in the middle of nowhere that moral civilization has been left behind? Yes, this was Vermont. And until that day, Novak had not allowed himself to imagine the minister from the local Methodist church, Reverend Steele, an amateur oil painter. In another setting, such a realization might have been refreshing.
Afterward, since Novak opted not to make himself available for Q&A, he attempted to sneak out the back hallway to the staff parking lot through which he had entered with Marianne ninety minutes earlier. Just as he was about to turn a corner toward a side door, Novak heard perfectly loud female voices belonging to two of Roger and Joanna’s neighbors from Winhall Hollow – Erin Naismith and Betty Tuttle. They weren’t even attempting to be discreet.
“Well, what did you think?”
“I’d heard he was supposed to be some kind of athlete. I was expecting Bruce Jenner or something.”
“Reminded me of walking in on my fat Uncle Ted in the changing room at the Chappy Beach Club.”
“I could have done with some more clay.”

Back in the car on the drive home to South Derry, Marianne took Novak’s right hand as it rested on the gearshift.
“I’m sorry about what those ladies said. I don’t know how they got in there. People like that just completely miss the point.”
“Mm,” he shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. I should have kept it to myself.”
“Nonsense,” Marianne was irritated. “They were talking out of their asses. It’s unacceptable.”
“No, Marianne, it’s art,” Novak kept an eye on the curving road ahead. “It’s open to interpretation.”

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Chapter Twenty-Eight of Hampton from the Halfway Line

The publisher receives the manuscript and interrupts Rosalie's dinner party. You are correct. That is lobster (just-killed) in a Kilbeggan whiskey-flamed butter sauce.


Brook Green, London

Moving in and around the kitchen, hallway, and dining room of their home on Sterndale Road, Rosalie McMahon realized that all eight of her and Peter’s Saturday night dinner guests currently resided in Brook Green, Chiswick or Shepherd’s Bush.
“We may need to branch out,” she whispered to her helper, Fela. “Everyone here is a white Londoner from one of three post codes.”
The young Polish girl crossed her arms and nodded.
The women, all between the ages of forty and fifty-five, discussed their children and schools, their trials with aging parents, macabre scenes from the previous holiday with relatives, the latest diet, Clive Owen or Johnny Depp (which?), summer holiday plans and, topic of topics, Rosalie’s brilliant and dizzying Ben Hampton coup. The latter would be the focus of a rehearsed toast from Peter McMahon to their cherished friends at the appropriate moment. Fela would tell him when.
The talk among the men centered on Arsenal and Chelsea and how England had failed to qualify for the upcoming European Cup.
‘For such a rubbish side, I can’t recall their ever having been more rubbish.’
Or, ‘The worst football team in history if the standard is a comparison of results, performance and entertainment value to the combined player salaries, endorsements and egos.’
And ‘I wouldn’t pay to watch them. I don’t know how they’re going to half-fill New Wembley for the world cup qualifiers. I won’t fucking be there, and I’m not buying it on fucking Sky either; nor will I enter a pub where it’s on.’
“Twenty years ago,” Rosalie – unable to not overhear the men -- commented to her friend, Kay, “Londoners from our income bracket definitely were not chatting about football, unless the talk had to do with appalling crowd behavior and filth and national embarrassment and how the mandarins of the game never gave a toss about providing a safe experience for the fans who paid the bills.”
The agent had been reading up on English football since becoming the representative of the popular writer so associated with the national game. Further, she’d learned a thing or two hanging out with the muckrakers at JJI Sports Reform Press. Though, perhaps, much of her newfound knowledge had been there all along but had lain dormant.
That was Kay, having a go at a fabulous hors d’oeuvre.
Rosalie and Fela were starting everyone off with a shrimp pastry called Rissois de Camarão and glasses of Albariño. At table, they would tuck into a Nigella Lawson-inspired California Roll Salad with either champagne or more Spanish white. Then Rosalie and Fela would blow everyone completely away with the verve and expense of Dublin Lawyer with plain cooked beans and bottles of big, fat Meursault.
To complete the drama of the soiree (or pretension, depending on one’s point of view), Rosalie had instructed Fela to race back to Sterndale Road from the Cape Clear Fish Shop by 7:30 with only ‘freshly-killed’ lobsters.
“Pick out the lobsters, have them killed and get back here. No mucking about.”
Peter had selected what he assured his wife was just the right Irish whiskey (Kilbeggan) for the flaming butter sauce. Fela had been practicing throughout the afternoon setting fire to cheap whiskey and Banaspati ghee. On her way to the fish market, she was still seeing sparks and flinching at any sudden noise. In the back of her mind, as well, she remained unclear about what exactly would happen when she added whipped cream to the blazing booze butter and lobster meat.
The evening was going splendidly. Their friends delighted in the little puffy shrimp things and the welcoming, smart comfort always on offer at the McMahon’s. Lots of typical light chat and laughter. Not long after Fela snuck out the side door on her main-course errand, the phone rang.
“Rosalie,” Peter motioned her over to the breakfast nook, holding a hand over the receiver. “Jonathan James. Sounds a bit off.”
Rosalie McMahon was a pro so was rarely annoyed to have a party interrupted by work. In fact, the more comfortable she was (for example, luxuriating in the bath or reclining in the garden having her feet rubbed – by anyone) the more impressively she generated creative ideas or performed complicated negotiations or anything, really. What she was, however, regarding Ben’s book-in-progress, was nervous to the point of cold sores popping up around her mouth at any time. She never went anywhere without her little tube of Zavirex, and she had gotten to where she could feel an attack coming and head them off.
Rosalie had gone along with Ben’s “approach” to Julius Novak’s story, and she was on board with the big picture of what the highly-respected, beloved, blockbuster author was attempting to convey. She had delighted in the chapters that came her way, via e-mail attachment, every few days for the past month. She laughed; she cried; she cheered; she became even more inspired than usual. How exciting. She truly felt part of something big, for the first time, in a world she loved – the world of books.
Her early years in publishing, and, after she began having the children, writing about the business of books for trade magazines, never came close to providing the primal thrill of guiding something of this magnitude toward its El Dorado. Rosalie McMahon, always supremely fulfilled by husband, children, friends and pets, was wildly satiated by her work with this humble, Everyman superstar, Ben Hampton.
In the process of moving this book forward, she embarked on a course of easing the editor along a path to help all concerned become more comfortable with the notion of this being a ‘bigger’ kind of book than they were used to putting out on the market. At the same time, she couldn’t insult them by suggesting they’d never rowed their scull into the mainstream. The editor, Trevor Ball, mentioned to Rosalie several times his work on the book about Kofi Annan. The U.N. Secretary-General’s family owned a cocoa company whose football team or some such had been amateur champions of Ghana. Michael Essien’s dad had kept goal. She knew of Kofi Annan, but she had no idea who Michael Essien was – let alone his dad. She read (the) review of the book and was soothed to see that it broached the idea of football as ‘the great leveler’ in international relations. She saw as a good sign that this publisher was open to certain intellectual avenues related to the world’s game.
Rosalie’s method of success relied, from her end, on doggedness and on leaving as little as possible to chance. She possessed all the qualities of an effective political whip as far as getting all her ducks in a row and, if necessary, putting a bit of stick about. She’d frankly left the stick in her briefcase on this one out of a need for extra grace. So the agent was anxious about the editor’s reaction to the finished product. Somewhat uncharacteristically, she was not certain how exactly Trevor would position, to his boss -- Jonathan James, founder and president of JJI Sports Reform Press, what it was they now had.
“Hello, Jonathan. So good to hear from you.”
“Could you explain exactly what it is your office delivered to us yesterday?”
She thought she had heard him wrong, going, as she had, from cacophonous dinner party listening to straightforward phone listening.
“I’m referring to a manuscript entitled ‘90 Minutes of Posing’? Has there been some mistake?”
Peter had turned back toward his wife before rejoining the party. His body language asked, ‘Rosalie, what’s wrong?’ He gripped her free arm because she appeared in danger of sliding down the slate counter toward the hardwood floor. She immediately shook her head briskly and righted herself.
“I’m sorry, Jonathan, what? We’re having a little get together here, and I don’t believe I quite …”
“Were you aware that your client was going to be ripping off fucking ‘Footballers’ Wives’?”
His voice was trembling slightly, coming off somewhere between bemused and furious – not at all his normally urbane self.
“Jonathan, please. With all due respect, ‘90 Minutes of Posing’ is hardly ‘Footballers’ Wives,’ for God’s sake,” she chuckled at his comparison, trying to express a state of being benevolently appalled.
“This is the story of a fascinating man’s life in football, the whole man. This is what people crave nowadays, and no writer in the English-speaking world could render this rich slice of life more brilliantly than Ben Hampton. I still get chills every time I say the man’s name. The manuscript you’re holding in your hands is classic Hampton. All of our readers who lent a hand in the initial proofing are calling it the next big stride forward for one of the world’s most cherished authors.”
“I’m no longer holding it. I’ve thrown it across the room.”
Shit. She lowered herself onto a cushioned barstool, put her feet up on another one, gulped a nearby flute of Nicolas Feuillate and took a deep breath.
“Oh, Jonathan. Well, go and pick it up. It’s going to be worth a lot of money someday – perhaps even more so seeing as you’ve … gone and tossed it on the floor.”
She unleashed one of her signature, infectious laughs to help signal a lighter mood, before continuing. Rosalie could not allow Jonathan James to dispel any more philistine dross just yet.
“I’m telling you, what Ben has created is, well, a work of art here in telling a story, an organic, iconic morality play, really, of a man who brought to his football … Football, which is what this book is primarily about …”
Her momentary fade let slip a crack in the door.
“Aha! There it is in a nutshell, Ms. McMahon. Primarily … about … football. I ask you, do you know of any other publication in the canon of our humble, little unsophisticated house that is primarily about sport, or …?”
“Jonathan, just one minute please. Your tone, I believe, is completely un…”
“Or, Ms. McMahon …”
Rosalie, Jonathan. Are we … what’s … ?”
“Or, do you think of us -- if, in fact, you ever deign to ponder such tripe peddlers -- as a publisher that conjures books ab-so-lute-ly and com-plete-ly about sport? Sport! Sport! JJI Sports Reform Press.”
This isn’t going well, she thought. In fact, it’s a complete tits-up. She spoke in her most calm and soothing tone.
“This book is about sport. I’m afraid I must disagree and point that out. Tell me, how far did you read, dear?”
“How Julius Novak, the subject of this sport biography, got arrested and then took an art class at university whereupon he got a woody from having to draw a nude woman.”
Rosalie choked, before regaining herself with something like a titter.
“So, there’s chapter one done and dusted.”
She discerned a thin opening and stuck a toe in.
“Tell you what. It’s a delightfully mild spring evening. Friday night. A beautiful weekend to look forward to. Why don’t you have a cup of tea and snuggle in with a few more chapters, Jonathan. We can always talk about placement of certain scenes and biographical timeline and narrative style and all the very important editorial details once we’ve gotten round to digesting the entire … banquet of delights.
“I think, at the end of the day, you’ll agree with me – and you’ll agree with Ben -- that what you have is a book about sport, a book that only a writer of Ben Hampton’s talent and pedigree could produce. We strongly believe this is the way to go. We’re excited on this end and extremely confident. I admit what we’re talking about is certainly not an old-fashioned or, rather, tried-and-true take on the game we love. I’d call it a real cutting edge, modern, sort of – even post-modern perhaps … it’s … it’s … just keep reading, dear. You won’t be disappointed. I promise you.
“And remember to treat it as a whole and not become bogged down in elements that, at first glance, you might consider, I don’t know, peculiar or distracting, maybe, as you come to learn about who this footballer really was … and is today. Everything’s connected, after all. It’s not like he’s Clark Kent one minute, runs into a phone booth across the street from Highbury and comes out Julius Novak wearing the red and white -- dogged competitor and motivational teammate. He’s always Julius Novak, even away from the pitch.
“Remember, Jonathan, you first became interested about this project precisely due to the dichotomy apparent between the two sides of his character. Hard-tackling midfielder? Professor of modern languages? Improbable, right? The inner battle, Jonathan. The drama. Don’t forget how this all came about. The fire and ice clashing atop the Bunsen burner to produce what we call life. The dark. The light. The yin and yang. That was always the story. It was never all about one thing – football. Football is the thread, mind you, the indispensable cable conducting the character’s life. But without these other aspects and qualities of intellectualism and creativity and psychology and, yes, love, the character doesn’t stand up.
“Without a nourished heart, any footballer falls flat on his face. And then what do you have? I don’t know what you have, but what you don’t have is a book that anyone would care about, Jonathan. That’s what you don’t have. And we all know that’s the crux of why we’re in this business. We have accepted the charge to deliver to our ultimate and cherished audience a product for which they will walk across burning sands to possess and place proudly on their bookshelves at home and give as a gift and what have you and be only too glad to fork over a hard-earned ten pounds to their local bookseller when they could have gone out for a curry and a Cate Blanchett film instead. Then we’re satisfied. Then we’ve all done our jobs, Jonathan.”
Rosalie exhaled and looked around for her albuterol inhaler and more champagne as Fela crept into the kitchen with the boxes of executed lobster.
“I understand what you’re saying … Rosalie. However, Trevor tells me there are significant sections of the book that are frankly beyond the pale, particularly in the area of sexuality and sentimentality.”
‘What the hell does that cretin know?’ Rosalie thought but thankfully and professionally said instead, “What’s the bottom line, Jonathan, in your opinion?”
“The bottom line is that I paid for one thing and received quite another. The bottom line is, I was played for a fool.”
“No. What’s the real bottom line, Jonathan?” She reached for a Rissois de Camarão as Peter carried a tray past. “What is everyone’s … bottom line?”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“Tell me, what’s your favorite guilty-pleasure, American breakfast cereal?”
“My what??”
Once, while waiting for Jonathan in his office, Rosalie had peeked at his laptop and saw that he was shopping online on something called, The Stateside Candy Company website, which specialized in American food and beverages like Oreo cookies and A&W Root Beer soda. The page was open to American Cereal.
“You know, those brilliant cereals from the States that are so bad for us. For me, it’s Corn Pops. What’s your favorite -- the one you don’t want anyone to know that you eat? Come on!”
The publisher didn’t speak. Rosalie poised to hear the telltale click of the receiver, which would signal not only a serious obstacle to their book being published anytime in the near future but also a real pisser for her dinner party mood. With great discipline she held her nerve and her tongue, forcing the customer to talk himself into initialing the contract.
I was wondering if you could just initial this form for me so my secretary can file it for the home office to show that I met with you and discussed our product -- just for our records.
For a woman who seemingly required speaking to remain conscious, Rosalie McMahon could ‘not speak’ with the best of them – kind of like those organized labor negotiators in the 1950s who clenched their calloused fists and glared across the table at the company brass, knowing that any moment the talks could degenerate from a meeting in a smoke-clogged hall to brass knuckles and clubs in a blood-spattered alley.
“Cap’n Crunch,” answered the distinguished publisher, feeling somewhere between chagrined and massaged. He knew the prime minister, for goodness’ sake.
“Cap’n Crunch,” Rosalie delighted with relief that she could keep the rally alive. “Perfect. Actually one of the greatest cereals ever invented. I assume it flies off the shelves over there. Everyone buys Cap’n Crunch. They can’t make enough of the stuff.”
“What’s your point, please?” Jonathan James was fast becoming unmoored.
“OK. You love Cap’n Crunch. You buy it every time you think to do so. If you weren’t so self-conscious you’d be recommending it to all your friends. You’d serve it for dessert. Now, imagine your box of Cap’n Crunch cereal contained five … Shreddies. Do you like Shreddies?
“No, not at all. But I fail to see …”
“Could you have known, when you bought the Cap’n Crunch at the store – or wherever, that it contained, somewhere within, these five Shreddies.”
“Not unless it said so on the box.”
“Not … unless it said so … on the box,” Rosalie was like a prosecutor tying a nervous witness in knots. “What did it say … on the box?”
“Cap’n Crunch.”
“So you cheerfully handed over your money to the purveyor. Now, would the fact that your beloved Cap’n Crunch had five little Shreddies mixed in, cause you or anyone to have not enjoyed those many bowls of cereal?”
“I don’t really see how they would,” Jonathan spoke for the first time in his normal voice. “Five little pieces out of several hundred of the type I liked.”
“Would the fact that the Cap’n Crunch had five insignificant Shreddies cause you, in the future, to stop buying Cap’n Crunch altogether?”
“Well, no.”
“There’s your bottom line, Jonathan. The bottom line for us is selling as many copies of Ben Hampton’s book – one of the all-time great guilty pleasures -- to as many consumers as we possibly can. People who love football love Ben Hampton, by and large. They’re all going to buy ‘90 Minutes of Posing’ or whatever we end up calling it. People who love comic novels or character novels with a bit of a lesson or a bit of common-man philosophy love Ben Hampton, for the most part. They’re all going to buy this book as well. Ben Hampton’s written it. You can’t change that fact. Both groups of consumers, book lovers, are going to find loads to love in these pages. A few Shreddies aren’t going to put them off.”
Ten seconds of silence.
“Fine, Rosalie.” Jonathan sounded exhausted. Peter looked over at his wife and sensed the publisher’s knackered-ness.
“Just keep telling yourself,” Rosalie spoke in hushed tones like a medium at a séance. “I, Jonathan James and no other publisher in the world, am holding – well, looking across the room, scattered all over the rug -- at a manuscript from Ben … Hampton, who has never sold less than a million copies of any book in his career and isn’t about to start now. He just keeps getting bigger. Most of them, the novels, are made into films.
“Hollywood, Jonathan. What do you think, Brad Pitt as Julius Novak? Helena Bonham Carter as Marianne Papineau? Don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it. Keep reading. Take it all in. We’re friends, Jonathan. Friends stand aside one another. Come for dinner tomorrow night. Peter was saying how it’s been too long. I was thinking of making a little Dublin Lawyer. Bring Eleanor. Can the two of you eat shellfish?”