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
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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?”
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?”
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.”