Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Chapter Three of Hampton from the Halfway Line


Köln, West Germany

The music was Debussy. Could you remember such a thing twenty-five years on? I know I couldn’t. Of course, I can remember things like the 1982-83 season as the year Arsenal wore a disastrous (and thought by some to be homoerotic), blue-and-green away strip; and as the season our good friends, Chelsea were nearly relegated … to the 3rd Division! So he remembered it as Debussy; or else he made it up, which is fine. I don’t really care. More likely than not, though, he said, one of the Arabesques. Julius Novak is not really up on his modern classical composers, who’s who, even today, but he knows it when he hears it. Intended to be inspirational or at least soothing, surely, by those who put it on in the background. There he sat, in his unfamiliar little chair, perspiring and desperate, making a play of gripping his pencil or charcoal or whatever. Honestly, he wasn’t even sure what was in his hand. He still knew where he was, southern sun streaming through the ten-foot-high windows. How could he not? Still, he had the remarkable sensation of a foreign heartbeat conducting every centimeter of his body – his scalp, his elbows, the balls of his soon-to-be, reasonably valuable feet.
So there was the blood pumping like all get out, yet this young émigré was limp in every way. His state, then, was not one for effecting any great result -- at least, not in his case, not at that moment, not in that particular setting. Too bad, really, because we might wonder or not if he had achieved some natural, creative nirvana only experienced by the masters.
For Novak (not the gritty and cultivated, holding midfielder version of the early 90s; but a much less savvy model), sitting there like an imbecile in 1982, the sensation was more like post-sex, earth-shattering sex, without, devastatingly, having had the sex by which to become electrified and damaged at the same time. That make any sense?
Well, not long after he’d made an arse of himself outside the café where Marianne Papineau worked … I’ll get to her. Let me start over. 1982, the year of the green and blue Arsenal away strip, was Novak’s second year in Germany -- West Germany. He’d just emigrated from the states, was enrolled at Cologne and still finding his feet as far as university and living in a strange place far from home. Full of himself in one sense but unsure and naturally groping around and a little scared in most ways. Eighteen-years-old, he was. Sophisticated? Mildly. No, strike that. Not. Not at all.
He had been dating a Hamburg girl, Sami, for about three months. Suppose you could call it dating. They don’t say that anymore, dating. Hooked up, I believe. Anyway, Sami. German father. Finnish mother. Novak’s very first European girlfriend. Sami was a Tatar on her mum’s side, which made for quite a mesmerizing appearance and some exotic traits in the bargain.
After three months of the usual stuff that goes on in a university romance of a certain kind, Novak decided that he loved her and was intent on telling her so. So he set up as romantic an evening as he could conjure at the time, given his limited means. Tiny Turkish restaurant. Candle on the table. He’d actually planned out telling her, “I love you.” Not “I think I love you,” like David Cassidy, but a full-on, heartfelt declaration. And he felt that it was … heartfelt.
A smitten cherub, he practiced in the bathroom mirror for days. The same way he had done for his Kindergarten class picture when he practiced smiling for the photographer. An older brother had gotten it into his head that this formal sitting was going to be some defining moment in his life so far. One would probably have to see the actual picture to fully realize the result of all his production. Apparently, he looked like some terrified and glum little orphan just arrived at Ellis Island like he’d seen his whole village burnt to the ground.
At their table for two by the window, Novak and Sami were doing that gazing at each other thing -- real cloud-nine stuff.
He said, “I love you.” “Ich liebe dich.”
And she, as he remembers it, said something like, “Me too.” “Ich auch.”
You know how that goes. One person says, “I love you,” and the other one goes, “Me too.” Well, Novak is living proof that it happens in languages other than English. Anyway, he said it; and, in his way, he meant it.
“I’d told girls I loved them back when I was a teenager in the Midwest,” he admitted. “But I guess I never truly meant it before. Or else I didn’t really know what I was saying or didn’t weigh the consequences of uttering something so momentous to someone whose sweater I was attempting to reach under. I would just blurt it out during a bout of intense kissing or exchanging Christmas gifts or something.”
Hopeless romanticism aside, now he was a European; and everything seemed different, more profound. Maybe he should have said, “I think I love you.” No way she would have heard the song, d’you think?
That night – the ‘I love you; me too’ night – the pair fell asleep together in their clothes at the apartment of Sami’s friends. They had taken the train to Nippes, a far-flung district of town, and walked to a café. Then a big group of them tramped really far, about fifteen minutes, to this apartment. In the morning out on the street, which looked unfamiliar in the light, neither was certain where exactly the nearest train stop was, so they boarded a bus. Holding hands, they compared their day’s schedules to plan seeing each other later. The two didn’t usually cross paths around the school; and it was a major city, the university spread out amid the altstadt. Both in a mild hurry now, Novak got out first. They kissed goodbye, said ‘see ya later,’ and everything. He walked about half a block, down a side street, toward home and passed a little coffee shop called Der Hirsch, which I understand is German for “The Deer.”
He says he’d never stopped at Der Hirsch before, even though he’d heard other students mention it. Late night coffee and cigarettes and lots of political arguments having mostly to do with nuclear proliferation and the Greens and the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall. Remember, the notorious Ronald Reagan had been elevated to the presidency the year before; so a lot of us in Europe were on pins and needles, given that he was now arm in arm with Margaret Thatcher. Completely coincidental, Novak was a kid going off to college; but, to this day, he is immensely smug to be able to tell people that he left America -- for good -- one week before Reagan’s inauguration.
“Is that not impressive?” he boasted, waiting for you to pat him on the back.
“Yes,” I assured him. “You’re like a dissident hero -- like Solzhenitsyn or someone.”
Seriously though, add this bit of trivia to the fact that he went on to endure a mere four months of Thatcher’s eleven-year reign after he moved to England (though it probably seemed like four years), and you’ve got an accomplishment that anyone would look back on with pride. Let’s just agree that he was fortunate.
Der Hirsch was the kind of café that had leaflets all over the walls, mix-and-match tables and chairs, original art and photography for sale. The floor was partly hand-painted and splotchy and partly shiny mosaic tiles. Some artists even lived and worked in the basement, which patrons could actually peer down into from one of the seating areas. It was like part Summer of Love; part Workers of the World Unite. A small riser in the front for jazz or punk or poetry or manifesto declarations. The kind of hangout that is utterly commonplace these days. In fact, if a non-chain coffee house doesn’t look like this, you probably just pass it by. But back then, to a young man from Illinois, the effect was something like avant-garde. You might even expect Nico or someone to ask you for a fag.
He claims not to have known why he stopped, some rot about being in a hurry and hungry and groggy. He paid for his coffee and his brioche. The woman at the register asked, you know, if he wanted it for here or to take away. Before Novak could reply, an employee, female, over in what looked to be the deli sandwich prep area, called out to the woman who was serving him -- something about how many salads for lunch. Her voice was … now, shall I quote my subject directly here or claim the descriptive adjectives as my own? Too late now. “… melodic and strange and quietly expressive.”
His initial thought, weirdly enough, was, “Whoever said that has freckles.”
In Europe, as you know, you immediately get used to hearing many languages and literally, even though it’s not exactly the Caucasus everywhere, lots of different accents for every language. But Novak was there, on the ground, studying for languages. When he heard anyone speak at that time, he would instinctively attempt to register what part of Germany he or she were from. Not only was he fluent, but he was now pretty far along, as well, branching out in different directions.
“Back then I thought I could conquer the continent,” he says, meaning languages but, to a football fan, implying far more important things like one of the major cup competitions.
The heavens parted, and Marianne Papineau appeared to him for the first time. He didn’t just stare to see if she had freckles. She had. And he no longer cared precisely which European country produced the sweet song that passed her full lips. He was to discover that her utterly intoxicating cadence was the happy result of five years as a teenager in France, preceded by thirteen years of childhood in New England. This sound, one is led to believe, represented spoken German to end all wars.
Once more, the woman at the register – the owner, as it turned out, “Fur hier oder zum Mitnehmen?”
“For here, please,” Novak said, still looking toward the girl who was busy chopping vegetables with the most strikingly sexy hands and wrists.
They were feminine, her hands, and tapered yet athletic seeming. ‘Fucking hell,’ I can only assume went through his mind as he struggled for air. She looked up, and he looked away. He knew enough, at least, to realize that he was being ungentlemanly and quite possibly a rude idiot.
That Kindergarten photograph? Not the seminal moment after all. This was it. The future West Köln, Bergisch-Gladbach, Wüppertal, Arsenal, Valencia, Bardejov and Stevenage Borough man fell instantly, madly in love. Gone. Everything in his life – meaningless before this moment.
I know what you’re thinking. This boy falls in love every five minutes. Was he not loved by his mother? Was he abandoned? Does he have a deficiency of love and belonging within Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Or is his psychosis better suited for an Eriksonian analysis? The basic trust stage. The intimacy stage.
“Probably a case for Maslow,” my wife, briefly a psych major, told me.
Not true. This had never happened before, he insists, and nothing like this has ever happened since. I should remind you that Novak is and will remain my only source on this narrow topic. He was perfectly loved as a child. Nothing bad ever happened to him. He was not beaten. I didn’t see the point in interviewing a bunch of corroborating witnesses as to whether or not he was a good boy and ate his greens. Fine childhood, then, relatively speaking. Working-class but not deprived. Encouraged but not pushed.
To hear him tell it, he was struck thus because Marianne was so overwhelming a vision in his eyes and the absolute perfect woman for him as though she’d stepped out of some Degas. You know, like, “Woman Spreading Mustard.”
But, Marianne … peerless. Based on Novak’s description and from several period photos, she was a highly developed, sexy and mature version of the 80s actress, Ally Sheedy – same brown eyes but with depth and curves and a story and a ponytail. Just more magnificent in every way. More compact with meat on her bones. These days, I can tell you, she looks more like Lena Olin in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” I know. Not bad. And she seemed serious there, as well, dicing the celery in a white, sleeveless t-shirt. That part scared him, but he couldn’t help himself. Novak began to frequent Der Hirsch, funnily so. In the process he learned the name of the owner, Teresa, and became friendly with two Ghanaian guys who worked there, Owusu and Bismark. And there was Christophe and Carla who made the espresso drinks and other offerings. Der Hirsch fairly bustled at times.
Can I say ‘The Hirsch’? I feel quite stupid writing a book and saying ‘Der.’
The problem, as Novak saw it, was timing. Well, one of the problems. He had little time to spare for calculated wooing. Of course he could do some reading or homework in the coffeehouse. That might not look too suspicious. And he was quick to point out that not once did he consider himself a stalker in the negative sense.
The other problem was that Novak was now, in effect, cheating on this Sami person, if we’re being honest. He can only acknowledge, in hindsight, that he was living what some might call “two lives in conflict.” Others might be more frank and simply file it under “sordid display.”
There were a couple of things working to prevent Novak from approaching his quarry. First, he was afraid that he’d look like a fool … or a stalker. Each time Novak went to The Hirsch and didn’t introduce himself or interject something clever within Marianne’s hearing, he knew that he was fouling the waters as far as her buying the fact that he was not a fool at all but rather some kind of a normal chap with a bit of appeal.
Secondly, guilt. Shame that he was in the early stages of actively pursuing another girl (if you can call furtive glances around potted plants and piles of pastries “active”) when he was already involved with a perfectly nice one. He had decided, a few days after first entering that coffee shop, that he would immediately “scale back the intimacy” with Sami in preparation of a hopefully painless transition “from girlfriend to friend.” My, he was inexperienced, wasn’t he?
But, ask yourself, had he indeed roundly erred? After all, why go on intimately with someone – especially when you’re only eighteen – when your heart and such are irretrievably, you know, reprogrammed. Novak accepted the fact that this crazy path he was on might result in his being involved with neither one nor the other in the end.
Some people might say, rightfully or not, “he doesn’t deserve any girlfriend at all, the shit.”
But how do we know, really, that this Sami person would even care all that much? Remember, she didn’t exactly throw her arms round his neck in the Turkish restaurant and cry and go on about how she’d waited for this moment for weeks. She said, “me too.” Fucking “me too,” eh? What is that? The Tatars, as I know them, are not a demure people. They are very demonstrative. They dance and sing and rage all around. They don’t say, “me too.” They throw torches.
Meanwhile back at The Hirsch, Novak had formed a friendship with Bismarck, one of the guys from Ghana. Bismarck was living with some of his countrymen who were students; but he was not a student. And they were living in an upper floor of Novak’s building, as it turned out. Something like seventy-three of them in a two-bedroom apartment, or so it seemed to Novak. I don’t believe they had a lot of Ghanaians in Illinois. From what I gather they mostly had guys in John Deere hats named Roy.
A few of Bismarck’s friends, as well, were on a football team in Novak’s amateur league where some very exciting things were happening, which Novak insisted would be more topical, more in tune with the book I was writing than what was going on when he first saw Marianne Papineau, to be honest.
A Friday afternoon in late April found Novak’s little team, “a book in itself” he insists, going through light training with dead-ball situations and small-sided games with an eye toward their Sunday afternoon match. He had driven with a teammate to Volksgarten Park where several clubs trained. After practice, a few of the team were having a lager at a boathouse that had a lively beer garden overlooking a beautiful lake. There he saw Bismarck of Ghana, so Novak invited Bismarck’s African contingent to join him and his club mates. The young men talked football mostly, of course, and a bit about university. But mostly football. It was 1982, and the World Cup in Spain was approaching. So there was, plainly, little else of comparable weight to discuss, particularly between young men all from different parts of the world sitting have a beer together “in any country other than the United States.” Novak said that. Not me.
One of Bismarck’s mates warned the German boys, in some spotty but exuberant Deutsch flecked with, Tamale-accented English, to watch out for Cameroon. There was wild talk from the Africans of wagers that Cameroon would make it out of a group that would include Italy and Poland. The field was going to be expanded, as anyone who pays attention to such matters would know, from sixteen to twenty-four teams, so most Africans were thrilled to be getting a second entrant. Both of them – Cameroon and Algeria – ended up getting screwed beyond belief, but that’s another story.
Afterward, Bismarck offered Novak a ride.
“Didn’t know you had a car.”
“It is not mine. Come.”
On the drive back to the Old City, Bismarck asked if he could please stop at a friend’s house to pick something up. He would be just a moment and ran inside. About five minutes later he came out to the curb and cheerily announced a change of plan. He was going to spend the night. Novak, he said, could drive the car back to the apartment and give the keys to Bismarck’s friend, Charles.
“Oh, is it Charles’ car?”
“No. It is not the car of Charles.”
Novak mentioned he hadn’t a proper license.
Bismarck laughed and said, in English, “No worries.”
Listening to Novak, I’m inclined to recall that when one is of a certain age – late teens; early twenties, not only does it seem perfectly acceptable to tell a woman that you love her then to fall madly in love with someone else less than twelve hours later; but to drive a car, while in a foreign country, without a license nor knowledge of its owner’s identity.
In this case, who could blame him? The motor in question was a very smart, two-door Opel Senator, aka Vauxhall Royale – you know, the poor man’s Mercedes. Novak was quite keen, as he’d not driven in months. So off he went, a bit James Bond.
Behind the wheel and curling into traffic nicely, he decided, in his giddiness, to stop for a coffee drink at The Hirsch, sort of drive up for the first time in a car. Marianne, the woman he’s quietly craving, should be there. Novak had noticed, earlier in the week on the chalkboard behind the front counter, her glorious name substituted for the usual Friday night shift person. If you’re going to impress someone by turning up at opportune moments, then it helps to be observant in this way. I have never possessed this attribute.
Our language student and amateur footballer glanced in the rearview mirror of his new, well-found sedan and liked what he saw. Hair perfectly mussed from football, a ruddiness to his complexion from the running around and from the glass of Kölsch, Novak felt an enhanced social confidence and a certain natural daring. Enough of this mincing around the edges, trying to look interesting but nonchalant, befriending her Ghanaian co-workers, waiting for her to come over to him. He acknowledged as he navigated the strassen altstadt that he’d been ridiculous on this front, and that needed to change. After all, Julius Novak, even at that tender age, was not the sort of man who allowed life to happen to him. He dealt the cards. He put himself into good positions to receive a greater share of fortune’s favor. Everyone from his past were still back in Illinois absentmindedly eating horseradish and playing horseshoes. He was in Europe. Novak made up his mind.
“I will speak to Marianne.”
He eased the Opel off the Durener Strasse and onto Lindenburger Allee. The sound of a siren shattered his schoolboy reverie. Novak was being pulled over by the police right in front of The Hirsch coffee house. On the bright side, he was in friendly territory -- not East Berlin or Entebbe or some other forbidding place. True, he had no West German driver’s license, and this was not his car; but it’s not like he’d done anything wrong. He had used his signal. He hadn’t been speeding. He’d seen a prostitute while sitting at a red light but had made no gesture in her direction. He had looked the one time and perhaps once more. All right, the drivers behind him had to toot their horns when the light turned.
The officer reacted as Novak thought he might to the bit about “no license.” Not amused but not pulling out his sidearm either.
Unsolicited, Novak reported, “Ich bin ein Student,” showing the cop his university ID card as well as his surprisingly-expired Illinois driver’s license. Upon request, Novak rummaged through the glove compartment looking for and locating what resembled the registration documents.
The officer said, in German of course, which, if you’re not used to, you can’t help but be a little put off by when coming from an official with the upper hand, “Dieses Auto ist nicht in Ihrem Namen zu versenden.” You immediately think of like Charlotte Gray or someone being stopped by the Gestapo.
Novak said, without really thinking first, “It’s my friend’s car, sir.”
Before he could amend that to something like ‘roommate of a friend,’ the cop shot back with, “What is your friend’s name, please.”
Germans. Why don’t we set them on al Qaeda?
Novak paused longer than was prudent before chuckling, “The car is … actually friend of a friend is what I meant … I was at football and …” Unfortunately, chuckling and the German language don’t go very well together.
His eyes met those of the officer who cut him off at the knees, “Treten Sie aus dem Auto, sehr geehrter Herr, und halten Sie Ihre Hände, wo ich kann sie sehen.” In case it’s not obvious … Oh, look it up.
Novak emerged from the auto as slowly as he could do without falling over. He looked like he was doing a tai chi exercise. The Schupo asked his snail-like suspect to put his hands on the roof of the car and bend slightly forward. Novak thought, for once, logically, ‘Christ, I’m being frisked.’
Novak looked straight ahead past the car and saw Owusu staring out from the window of the coffee house. Owusu looked at Novak, looked at the car, put his hand over his mouth and disappeared from view.
Once the policeman determined that Novak was unarmed, he let the boy stand at ease. He motioned his partner forward and handed over Novak’s evidentiary documents. At this point, the inevitable second and third police cars arrived, and the unfortunate scene began to resemble something out of “Dog Day Afternoon.” Novak looked over toward The Hirsch again. There, looking out the window, were Owusu, Carla, two other people he recognized and, horror of horrors, Marianne. She’s wiping her hands on a kitchen rag, smoothing her hair back out of lovely, almond eyes and talking to the others. And it’s Germany, so of course no one’s laughing.
The officer spoke impersonally, “I’m afraid you’ll have to leave the car here, Herr Novak. There’s a problem with the registration.”
“Can I get my bag out of it? My gear is in the bag.”
“Hand me the bag, please.”
“You want to look in the bag?” It was an Adidas bag with his boots and shin pads and water bottle and whatever.
“Hand me the bag, please.”
Just here, as Novak and I sat in a quiet corner of The Volunteer Inn, Chipping Camden, he paused the narration of his story to ease my mind.
“Well, I’m sitting here all smiles with you now, Ben. Plus you’re reasonably familiar with my life story, so you know I wasn’t sent to penitentiary for life. You’re not a suspense writer. I’m not a suspense storyteller. I haven’t lived a suspenseful life, other than a few cup finals.”
Neither Bismarck nor anyone had stashed drugs in his kit bag. This was not “Midnight Express” starring someone you know. They did, however, take him in as Marianne looked on. The Schupo popped the kit bag into the boot of the squad car and helped Novak squeeze into the back seat. As the three cars silently departed, all the familiar faces looking out from the coffeehouse had been replaced by strangers’ faces – customers whom Novak had never seen before. He didn’t go there on Friday nights.
“I really was going to say hello to her. I ended up going to the nick.”
Novak took this entire episode, this mildly traumatic but ultimately harmless episode (which would involve his participation in a rather uncomfortable identity parade), as a sign. The sign was not that he was not meant to meet the woman in the cafe. Just the opposite. These were minor hurdles to be cleared. It was a test … a test, and Novak was going to come top of the class.
Now these naive-lamb-abroad incidents were happening as all the overwhelming incidents of a sporting nature began to happen. These football bits, Novak believed, would be well placed at the fulcrum of my manuscript. Fulcrum. Is that the word I was trying to think of earlier when I said linchpin? I’m talking about the part where the sport story went into a sustained, higher gear. You know, sport, as in sport biography? Believe me, I understand. This concatenation of football events (if someone were to tell you about them) would have the potential of aiding your grasp of Novak the athlete. Of this I am confident. It’s all there in black and white, or it will be as soon as I manage to put it there.
My hope is that your primary questions, the reason you bought this book (unless you’re a much-appreciated Ben Hampton first-edition collector), will be answered. To wit, how could an American of suspect talent last five seasons near the top of English football’s first division -- early nineties model -- the cusp of the mighty Premiership? And, the part Rosalie McMahon likes, how could he do it while being employed as a don of language at university as well?
I propose that a third band of color can be seen when Novak’s story is cast through the prism of thoughtful speculation. Love.
These clownish moments, where he is in the middle of major sting operations in the back streets of Cologne like something out of a John Le Carré novel, were isolated. But I had asked him how he came to meet Marianne Papineau. What else could I do? He’d mentioned her name every few minutes during our several interviews over a span of a few weeks.
Life began to shift for Julius Novak, not a little bit, with the Karlsruher tryout in a month’s time. Nothing was to come of that, but it did lead indirectly to productive conversations between Novak’s amateur club and Wüppertal. Beloved Wüppertal. And the step up in soccer status coincided with the initial Marianne sighting. He would soon be awarded his first university degree, begin graduate work and then to teach.
He put ‘meeting Marianne’ on the back burner. Novak learned she had a steady boyfriend as well. Some dour Stüttgarter, a fellow art student, who thought he was John Lennon right down to the granny glasses and the doodling on napkins. Marianne, like Novak, was a student at the University of Cologne, though of sculpture -- plastik Kunst. The sculpting accounted, in part, for the strength and irresistible appearance of her hands. Novak was in the Linguistik department, with the whole Modern European Languages sequence, which was housed in a row of some rather unpretty concrete buildings on Meister Ekkehart Strasse. Not exactly reminiscent of a Cambridge or an Oxford, but much of old Köln was destroyed in the war. The art complex of buildings sat many blocks north up near Grönewald Strasse not too far from The Hirsch. Like other urban campuses, the university spread over many blocks of the city – the old city, kind of like being at NYU in Greenwich Village.
Marianne was deep into fellow artists and musicians and poets and actors then. Not only was Marianne Papineau beautiful in a way that he had never experienced, she was into all things artistic and sensuous in a way that Novak believed he could never touch. He was already trying to be too many things without watering himself down to the nub. What was he going to do, declare an art minor? Not quite. Novak did make an appointment with his advisor, however, to see about substituting an art class for his registered, elective course. A couple of things could come out of this. He could broaden his group of friends and meet some art and drama students and, most importantly, enhance the opportunity of running into Marianne on her turf.
In August of that year, Novak began dedicating a much greater portion of time to playing football and to training. He was now being paid as a semi-professional to play in the Oberliga Nordrhein, one of the many regional, fourth divisions of the West German football setup -- roughly akin to the English pyramid. Novak had been hired then assigned to Bergisch-Gladbach, one of second-division Bundesliga, Wüppertal’s reserve squads in the North Rhine-Westphalia who had their own club affiliation and their own history. But for mostly economic reasons they had hitched their wagon to a bigger, more financially sound club. It would be like Crystal Palace reserves actually being members of Hampton & Richmond Borough or Maidenhead FC.
So Novak was hooked into a new football league, coping well and not finding the level of competition too terribly different from his amateur league, frankly. He’d already told me that part of the story, which I will share with you when I feel you’re ready.
Right. In the back of his mind, then, he was still dying to meet Marianne, the sculptor and café food prep person of his dreams. He knew that, beyond stimulating his beastly male senses, she represented a world from which he had been hitherto excluded or about which he had been ignorant. Novak hadn’t grown up in the city, the place where he believed, at the time, everything of significance happened. He had a pretense of intellectualism but knew nothing and felt awkward about it.
He bought the art materials for the upcoming drawing course at one of the university’s recommended supply stores. The newly more involved football training and match schedule left him in a bit of a muddle, his compartmentalized life veering toward what for him was dysfunction. He was doing well at the football and bringing in a little cash on the side. He was handling all of his primary language and literature courses yet not quite finding his way up to the part of the city where his drawing seminar gathered.
His world was ordered by the twenty-minute train commute that dropped him two blocks from club headquarters in Bergisch-Gladbach and by the pedals of his Schwinn that transported him everywhere he needed to be in the Old City. He phoned the art department to explain his excuse for missing the first two weekly meetings scheduled by the instructor. The Germans are sticklers for a person’s whereabouts.
This, the peculiar elective chosen as a ruse to be near a woman he was lusting after, probably wasn’t a great idea. Having been a teacher myself in the past, I know that you can spot the kids whose hearts aren’t really in the program the way the vast majority’s are. His motives for adding the course, quite honestly, were extraordinary. Novak certainly was not going to back away from Bergisch-Gladbach 09. He was part of a serious, if relaxed, squad; and he was already being picked for a regular spot in the midfield alongside some decent players. The competition and the challenge were invigorating. Novak felt as though the side were counting on him. So, for now, he was inclined to sort out his university schedule to suit the needs of the firm.
But on the second Thursday in September of 1982, he was on for drawing class. That day everything for Novak was running over time. Meetings with colleagues about projects or with professors regarding this, that and the other. A last-minute dentist appointment to squeeze in. Unless he raced frantically uptown, he would miss his art elective for the third straight week; and that was not going to happen.
Novak was late as he raced into 2 Grönewaldstrasse, a four-storied, 1960s glass cube, and up the staircase to the second floor. He peeked inside the double door, but on the other side was only another hallway with hooks on the walls and supplies stacked everywhere. The time was 3:09, according to the clock at the end of this alcove above another open doorway, through which stood a space that resembled an art studio of the type he expected to find. Novak entered the workspace and caught the attention of the instructor, who kept speaking but motioned the new boy down toward where he was standing at the front. Only a few students out of a near capacity looked back toward the anonymous young man who, in a few years, would regularly have his picture in the national papers attempting to dispossess the finest footballers in the land.
The room was an auditorium in miniature, very well lighted from the south, with three levels of chairs for approximately eighteen novices. At the lowest level, nearest the instructor, were four chairs, one of which was vacant. As he spoke to the class, the teacher directed Novak front-and-center to fill the last spot. Well, he was late. You can’t pick your place when you’re late.
The way Novak described the scene, it all very well could have had the potential to be relaxing and enjoyable – therapeutic in a way that the rest of his life was a chaotic din and often disturbing. By disturbing, I mean being hit in the face by a free kick on a cold, rainy day or being clattered from behind, momentarily unable to feel like you still have a working ankle. Settling in as quickly as possible, Novak for the first time noticed the tinkling music, which he was able to identify – several years later -- as Claude Debussy.
“I described the melody to someone as sounding like a classical version of Thelonius Monk,” he said. “That person corrected me by saying Monk was a bebop Debussy.” Fair enough.
The instructor was in his forties with bottom-of-the-ear length, graying hair parted on one side. His glasses were attached to a chain that draped his neck, and he had a lightweight sweater knotted around his waist in the German fashion, but Novak guessed by his dialect he was Dutch.
He was moving about the room and up the steps discussing techniques of “life drawing.” Novak felt a gentle tap on his left shoulder. He turned to see, in the next row up, a young black woman of about his age. She whispered to him, in impeccable German, that he would find a small, extendable easel on the metal rack under his seat and that he should set it up because they were about to start. Very nice of her.
“What are we drawing?” he whispered back, almost inaudibly.
“I thought, ‘Shit, I’m not ready to draw a person.’”
He was thinking more like a vase on a windowsill or something shaped like a sphere. Maybe some geometric depth perception or the teacher’s pet münsterlander lying on a pillow or a large photograph of a cow or a woodpile in a field. The instructor was going over some of what he had presented in the first two sessions as well as some of the assigned exercises, all of which Novak had missed. He talked about the challenges of “too much information” for the human eye to take in and process. He went on.
“The exercises were to start the process of tricking your mind into seeing what is really there before you rather than merely drawing what your mind believes it sees.”
Novak tried now to make a connection between what the instructor was suggesting and how he had coped in life up to this point.
“I think I do see reality when I consider a thing or scene or situation,” he remembered thinking at the time. Perhaps he could wing it.
“Unser Modell ist angekommen,” announced the instructor, “also können wir anfangen.”
Without realizing, Novak was sitting with his left elbow resting on the arm of his chair and his left hand had wandered up to his mouth. His thumb held the underside of his chin and the nail of his index finger balanced gracelessly on his bottom row of teeth.
The model walked through a doorway and into the studio. Novak very nearly bit the tip of his finger off. Marianne was wearing an above-the-knee, pale-blue, cotton robe and a pair of flip-flops. Oh, to have been there. Yes, well, of course, for the artistic challenge, but more so to see if I could have knocked over a future Arsenal midfielder with an ordinary feather.
‘Our model is going to be a nude model,’ Novak thought, wisely allowing the reality of the situation to sink in – just as the instructor had suggested.
And that nude model was Marianne Papineau. Her hair was not in a ponytail but loose and falling on the tops of her shoulders, the way Novak had often imagined it. He was distraught.
“Christ!” he thought. “Marianne is a nude, artist’s model. She’s going to take her robe off, and I’m in the fucking front row. Will she sit, or will she stand? Does it matter? Please, not this cushioned riser ten feet in front of my chair.”
Marianne kicked off her little sandals and unfastened the belt on her robe like she was alone in her own bath. The woman for whom Novak had been quietly yearning is splendidly naked and fit as a butcher’s dog. He looked beyond her to a shelf lined with plastic storage tubs. Debussy’s rich harmonies and textures, evoking Novak’s absurd detachment and singular embarrassment, splashed on dreamily. The instructor asked the model please to sit in one of the normal poses, something she could hold comfortably for thirty minutes.
With cold, trembling fingers conducted by a sluggish mind, Novak opened his case to look at his new pencils. There was the H5, H4, H3, and so on. So that’s a 1B. Head down (but not harrow for goal), he peeked up at Marianne who was preparing herself on the rectangular cushion. Perhaps this was a job for the 4B, he thought. The instructor announced that everything was in order. The model set her pose, and it was quite a nice one indeed. Sitting, her long, perfect feet tucked under her thighs, she reclined so as to balance her upper torso with her hands, palms down on the riser. Her shape in repose created a marvelous angle of no more than forty-five degrees. An arm was one line segment. Her side, where her barely visible ribcage throbbed rhythmically down toward her hips, was the other. Her armpits were the intersecting point.
Her shoulders, then, pulled in slightly toward her neck, resulting in a posture both pouty and confident and uplifting and completely in control of her surroundings. Novak, always deft at swiftly sizing up an opponent, was certain she would be able to hold this pose for the required time. In fact, were he charged with assembling an Artist’s Model Nude XI, this one might easily have been the mainmast of his ship. Her position, by the way, left her well able to scan the room with her eyes, if she liked, without moving her head. Her chin pointed directly at the back of Novak’s easel, behind which he sought to hide.
Am I making it clear just how close Novak is to Marianne? She’s naked, as well. I mean, do you not get it?
Once more, a nudge from behind.
The black classmate whispered, pointing down to Novak’s drawing case, “Holzkohle,” with a generous, toothy smile fit for a Kindergarten photo. The girl was quite fetching, herself, but did Novak notice? She might as well have been a talking broom. Back in the first row, some queer stimulus had inspired what was left of Novak’s brain to rub his free hand firmly down the length of his face in the hope that this brief physical therapy would be all the brace required to proceed. Again, the instructor (in German).
“Think about what feelings and emotions the model is conveying in you.”
Good one. Novak’s feelings, both immediate and lasting, were that if he had said, ‘Guten tag,’ or anything really, the first or second time, or even third, fourth, fifth or sixth time he’d seen this woman; then the two of them would have, at the very least, some elementary relationship (like, both clothed) thus preventing this tragicomically-unmoored young man from having landed completely off the mark by taking an art course in the hopes of casually bumping into her. His feelings were that he could have bumped into her anytime he wanted, over the last four months, at the god damned coffee shop, particularly that first month in springtime when he was there every few days. Why had such basic consciousness eluded him, all along, and suddenly revealed itself to him like the morning sun through a large window? Personally, I put it down to the power of the female breasts working as a team. On the bright side of the road, he might have been slightly reassured that his instincts, as concerned the fair chance of running into her in the art department, could not have been more spot on. Novak had officially been on the premises for less than fifteen minutes, and ‘Ici elle est!’ as they say across the Channel. But now he was worried that he would neither meet her nor build any sort of friendship supported by an equal footing.
‘I’ve already seen her naked in public,’ he fretted. ‘How could we possibly go forward from there?’
Well, true, before she was a perfectly straightforward university student of fine art and a kitchen-worker-to-make-ends-meet in a typical Bohemian café. Novak was a moderately straightforward university student of language and a part-time footballer. Both had physical attractiveness and intelligence in common. The possibilities were quite delicious and very … possible. With one lunatic move after another, however, he’d rendered the whole potential romance, at least in his immediate state of mind, patently impossible.
Speaking of impossible, he was utterly unable to enjoy the impossible creaminess of her skin; could not even bear to study the curves of her stomach, as it pulled and shoved almost imperceptibly from her contained and even breaths. An equilateral triangle of cottony dark hair (oh!) pointed out toward her hips and down to the shadowed line between her closed thighs.
The instructor had turned away to his own well-ordered workstation, allowing the interactive lesson to unfold in a natural way. A group of students learned the art of ‘Life Drawing’ by sketching a live human model. In addition to Debussy, the sounds were of the light rubbing of charcoal on paper and of scuffling feet and scooting chairs. Novak must begin to draw something having to do with a close-up of Marianne Papineau’s naked body.
Have I mentioned that Novak had been interested in her sexually? But what he craved, and anyone would understand, was the part that comes before seeing her body, like finding out her last name or her favorite fruit. Flirting. Being funny. Opening doors for her. Having a drink. Telling her how he came to be in Köln, in West Germany, in Europe; and she him. Where was she from? What kind of books and films did she like? He wanted to see her sculptures. He wanted her to watch him play football. He wanted to know if they would like each other, be attracted to each other, maybe someday fall in love with each other. Did she know who he was? How would she react if she knew he pictured her face while riding the train to Bergisch-Gladbach? Her face; not her nipples, which would appear to be geometrically perfect … twins. Until this moment, Novak had always assumed nipples were like snowflakes.
‘Oh, well,’ he thought, ‘there are other fish in the sea. No, there aren’t. She is the only fish in the sea. The moment I laid eyes on her, the heavens rendered the sea devoid of all other fish but her.’
And if he wanted to land her, then he would have to remain underwater where breathing, for man, is a tricky proposition. This Marianne Papineau, then, was going to be a woman for whom, in order to experience properly or deeply, one must put oneself in a life-threatening or at the very least problematic state. If Novak truly desired her in his life, then he must be brave. Brave like the young man who left home at seventeen to study in West Germany. Brave like the relatively un-schooled American kid from the Midwest, who, every day but Saturday, laces up his boots and takes on boys and men from one of the great footballing nations of the world. Out on the training pitch he is tricked, left for dead, bruised, beaten and sometimes bloodied. Yet he rises. Now he must be brave once more, take a deep breath, hold it … forever … and draw. He must do like the chap next to him and attempt to convey on sketching paper the sense of wonder that anyone would experience were Marianne Papineau to undress in front of them – say, near a stream in the dappled wood or anywhere in Novak’s new apartment.
One inescapable blot on his beaux-arts résumé was the fact of his being a Southern Illinois Catholic male, some of the most sexually repressed of Americans. Neither art nor nudity was a common theme in either his childhood or teenaged years. Novak loved the idea of naked women; it’s just that he’d never seen any in public before.
‘Marianne must have had a far different upbringing,’ he thought. ‘What must she be thinking as she looks down and sees me?’
‘Isn’t that the guy who used to stare at me through the yucca plants while I work and then got arrested out on the street? How did he find out that I model? Blecchh! I’ve never seen him around here before. I guess he’s just looking for cheap thrills.’
“Get ready to change,” the instructor said softly to Marianne. “Rotate your body without thinking about it.”
Are they having a kind of sex? Is this art sex? How would Novak know?
Then, to the class, “Capture the model’s energy in your drawing. This model has significant energy. Make her energy your own. Take advantage of how relaxed this model is. Sense her commitment -- her patience.”
And on it went into the late afternoon. Every footballer has stories about miserable matches he’s endured throughout his career. Cold rain. January. Somewhere in the upper reaches of the northern hemisphere. A hostile crowd or, worse, an insipid, disinterested crowd. A lashing wind. Soaked to the skin. Every muscle aches. A teammate sent off in the first half. An opponent bent on kicking chunks out of you when they’re not running you into their native soil. But the longest ninety minutes of Julius Novak’s life was that day in the Kunst Fachschaft at 2 Grönewaldstrasse. Focus your mind, Novak. Just as you’ve done your whole life in the classroom; just as you do on the pitch against players more skilled than yourself. Hold your nerve … and draw. You must draw this beautiful nude woman, then drop the class and reevaluate how you’re living your life, because this … was … stupid.
I have to tell you, the other day I tried listening to the entire “Claire de Lune,” and it about made me mental.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Chapter Two of Hampton from the Halfway Line

I know; Foyles is not in Hammersmith. But later in the chapter, Rosalie finds herself in the Charing Cross Road looking in Foyles' window.


Hammersmith, London

Two parties on Rosalie McMahon’s cell phone held as she negotiated with the student financial services office of her son’s college, while adjusting her vision to a new pair of prescription sunglasses only just picked up at Specsavers in the King’s Mall. Rosalie McMahon could routinely juggle five or six, sometimes seven critical balls at a time. She spoke as she flowed among the late-morning pedestrians and unwrapped a small corner of her warm, avocado and bacon sarnie from Doorsteps, as she prepared to cross Beadon Road on her way to the Hammersmith tube. Rosalie’s destination was the office, the ground floor of a Coram Street flat. Or she may take a cab to Westbourne Grove for some shopping, depending on the outcome of the other phone calls. Perhaps one of those adorable, cotton Canali shirts with buttons of horn for her husband, Peter. Or pop round to peek at that giant, amethyst, lambskin Balenciaga city bag at Matches.

Rosalie didn’t really need to go the office, the tiny, ridiculously expensive and utterly superfluous space she shared with two other independent book people near Russell Square. In truth, she didn’t need to waste time in clothes shops because she bought much of her business and leisure apparel online from her two very favorite women’s wear outfitters. She discovered Eileen Fisher via the Sahara shop on the King’s Road in Chelsea. The whole, clothes for the oft-neglected real woman, sort of thing. Plus, the ethically responsible fair trade stuff. Rosalie liked that. Along arrived some junk mail from Eleganza Clothing. The UK distributor carried Sahara, as well as Eileen Fisher, in their online boutique. Since visiting the American designer’s location in New York’s Soho, she has begged them to open a London store. Somewhere around Notting Hill or Kensington would suit her. On one of those mad adventures, walking with Peter down West Broadway, Eileen Fisher bags in tow, and hanging a left on Grand, she ran smack into heaven-on-earth number two, CP Shades. Oh, the California look for those who happen not to be runway models.

Once, at an obligatory dinner party with Peter McMahon’s City partners and their spouses, the women in attendance were discussing the details of their various workout regimes. Rosalie, who could never be mistaken for a Rockette or those well-oiled actors who claim to be part of the Bowflex revolution, was uncharacteristically silent. When one of the slender, Butterfield Bank executive wives sought Rosalie’s opinion on exercise, the self-assured spouse and mother of three, after a glass of wine too far, responded, “Well, I’d have to say it’s a toss-up between shopping and rolling around with Peter.” She and her husband had discovered lovemaking to be outrageously satisfying in middle age.

Whenever she could steal away to New York for business, shopping and dining, Rosalie would spend an entire morning downtown literally floating amid the stores’ generous racks and dressing rooms with deliciously-slimming mirrors. The palette of these perfectly sophisticated boutiques, reflective of nature itself, lay somewhere between crunchy granola and cutting edge. The smells and the feel of the natural fibers and the bearing of the other casually chic browsers were beyond pleasure.

Rosalie chose simplicity and comfort over style or anything else. Once she found the right designers that provided a reliable fit, when she began concentrating on making money in an industry she loved, London’s cagier of middling literary agents mixed and matched billowy linens and layered in strangely seductive ways suitable to her sensual feminine whimsy. Camis, scarves, wraps, skirts, tanks, tunics and jackets. Breezy she was, a woman for every season – except winter. Then she would deign to add a dark leotard and a Rannoch wool cape.

She didn’t love the tube, but she conceded its efficacy in time and cost. Fortunately, given her near-complete lack of spatial intelligence, the Piccadilly Line took her straight through to her Russell Square stop in the heart of bookish Bloomsbury. She recoiled at being so far underground, and she was made particularly uneasy whenever rough sleepers would scream at the top of their lungs for people to give them money.

Her husband had helped her become acclimated. Coram Street sat about two-thirds of the way, on the same line, to Highbury. When she first rented the flat, she rode with her husband on Arsenal match day Saturdays. He would get off with her at Russell Square, walk her round the corner to the flat, get her all settled, then continue his journey to the stadium with the other middle-class Gooners from his part of London and points west. Rosalie would spend the afternoon getting comfortable in the office and around the neighborhood. After the match, Peter, usually jubilant (these were heady days for his team), would arrive back at Coram Street, and they would return home together. On certain days, Peter would comment disparagingly on the Chelsea supporters disembarking pre-match and embarking post-match at Earl’s Court.

“Look at those self-satisfied, bandwagon-hopping lemmings. Did they even know football existed five years ago?”

Between two incomes, the couple and their three children were able to live in relative, if frantic comfort. Rosalie would periodically sell a book to a publisher in whose hands it might perform half-decently. With her contacts and friendships in the retail bookstore and wholesale sectors, she could often give her books that necessary, extra leg up. Like any industry, there are tricks to getting product into the hands of consumers. On the days she worked, Rosalie likened her particular style of operation to the slapdash stacking of a house of cards.

The two parties holding on her phone represented a three-storied Georgian flat and a twelve-flight apartment building, respectively.

Her last book sold was to the UK’s second-largest publisher of sport-related books – not her milieu, but it doesn’t matter. A sale is a sale. Peter’s boss had completed a marathon after having been nearly killed at Edgware Road in the 7/7 tube bombings. He ramped up his running as emotional therapy and wrote a book about competing in the London Marathon and his recovery from the tragedy. Rosalie was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the writing, over the moon to make the sale and completely floored when the book sold 250,000 copies.

Cause for celebration in June of 2007; but that was two months ago, she’s sold nothing at all since and for the past little while naturally has been feeling some professional chagrin. Rosalie McMahon, however, is no quitter. She is forever blowing on cinders, cajoling would-be writers, searching for leads, straining for possibilities – no matter how farfetched. She starts with a few cards and, with a steady hand, tries to urge them into standing on their own in the shape of a four-sided structure.

Peter always reminds her, “Foundation first, dear; mullioned windows later.”

At the break of day on this Tuesday morning in late August, strongly considering spending the day in her silky cotton, pale peach jammies, Rosalie came across a human interest feature in the Life & Style section of The Independent about a couple of men in the Cotswolds who have been operating a non-profit masonry business specializing in traditional, dry stone walls and mortared walls. The goal of the organization, in addition to extending the beauty of the rural Gloucestershire landscape, is to provide practical work experience in a coveted service for young men and women from the local towns and villages. One of the comments often made about the Cotswolds, she read as she sipped her coffee, is that it seems as though mostly pensioners live there – hardly any young people. In fact, thirty percent of Cotswolds residents are over the age of sixty-five, compared to about twelve percent in London and about nineteen percent in the rest of the country. Just as alarming to know, the percentage of residents between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five is one of the lowest in Britain.

So these men employ young locals with little or no experience, train them to be licensed, professional stonemasons and see that they are taught the ins and outs of running a small business. The hope is that more young people will stay on to earn a good living and raise families in the area instead of leaving for Birmingham, Swindon, Bristol, London or elsewhere. What they do for legal entertainment is for others to ponder.

Rosalie reads on to the end because she loves the Cotswolds. She and Peter have been frequent renters of a cottage in Brockhampton over the years. She also adores those sturdy and rambling, yellow limestone walls, suggestive of the English countryside as hedgerows. Who doesn’t?

In the article’s final paragraph, the writer mentions that one of the men who co-founded the altruistic company is Julius Novak, a former professional footballer now living outside of Chipping Campden. Oddly inspired, she decided to get dressed and pull herself together.

As she stood in the queue a few minutes earlier in the takeaway on Hammersmith Grove, Rosalie noticed just behind her an Englishman of about her age, as sturdy as those country walls, wearing a spiffy Arsenal training top.

“Pardon me,” she said. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but I was wondering – I notice you fancy football, there – have you, by any chance, ever heard of Julius Novak?”

“Julius Novak?” he answered politely and eagerly. “I do, yes, he … uh … played for the Arsenal there for a bit, as a matter of fact. Mostly in the George Graham years, I think.”

“Oh,” Rosalie was surprised. “My husband supports Arsenal. Wonder why I don’t recall the name?”

“Wasn’t a bad player, I suppose,” the man said, running his tongue along the inside of his lower teeth as he pondered the legion of Gunners come and gone. “Not exactly popular. Real tryer, though. Yank, originally.”

“Oh, really. Well, he was in the paper this morning. That’s why I ask. It seems he’s started a quite helpful business in the countryside. Well, thanks very much.”

“My pleasure,” he said with a smile. “Cheers.”

When Rosalie arrived at her office, she immediately pulled her laptop out of her briefcase and did a Google search of “Julius Novak.” She was astonished by what she found: Age forty-four. Born in the USA indeed. There it is. Member of Arsenal Football Club 1990-1995. League champion, 1991 ...

‘I thought it was 1989,’ she thought. ‘Was there another one?’

… F.A. Cup; League Cup; blah-blah-blah, etc. Position: Midfield. Currently teaches courses with the Europaeum? at Oxford?? Taught Modern European Languages? at Cambridge?? Writes books, including novels (that no one seems to purchase or read). Played in a World Cup. German Bundesliga Wüppertal, 1983-1990; League champion, 1989; UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup champion, 1988 (Wüppertal), 1994 (Arsenal); UEFA Cup runners-up, 1989 (Wüppertal); UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup runners-up, 1987 (Wüppertal) and 1995 (Arsenal); and UEFA Champions League winner, 1996 (Valencia). BSC Bardejov, Slovakia Division 2, 1996-1997. Non-league Stevenage Borough 1997-98. Fluent in several languages. Once dated Emma Thompson?? And would appear to be quite stunningly handsome.

“Bloody hell,” she muttered.

Why has she never heard of this man? How could a footballer, not to mention an Arsenal one, be an Oxbridge don as well? The Europaeum? Is this one of those Wikipedia hoaxes?

Then, ever thinking of advancing the cause of literacy and the likelihood of a second home on the Île de Ré, ‘Could this be a book? This could be a book. Perhaps it’s already been a book, and I’m the one person in British publishing who doesn’t know. Damn those two years in a row when I couldn’t afford to go to the Frankfurt Book Fair but had to pretend I went.’ She phoned Peter.

“Tell me dear. Julius Novak. What do you know about him?”

“Wanker,” Peter said, with distracted venom.

“How could you possibly think that?” Rosalie said. “Emma Thompson? Do you know the first thing about him?”

“We are talking about the footballer, right?”

“Yes, we are.”

“I know George Graham was committed to him for some reason. I always figured Novak had something on the boss like an old bung deal that brought him here.”

“He had secret financial information that could blackmail the manager,” Rosalie clucked, incredulously. “You are a very sad man, Peter.”

“Well, maybe,” Peter conceded with a chuckle. “Novak, though, he strutted in with this outsized reputation, I recall, and he was absolute bollocks. I know some at the club were very protective of him, and they let him run off teaching school instead of training properly and doing the things professionals should do, in my opinion. Tried to come off working class hero when he was just a posh git. Never spoke to the press. Special treatment, it seemed to the punters. And, not to mention that League Cup-tie away to …”

“Alright, calm down sweetheart.” She had stopped listening at ‘bollocks,’ Peter’s description of the great majority of Arsenal players for most of the years they’d been together.

“Why are you asking about football?”

“It’s probably nothing, darling. Talk to you later.”

Rosalie spent the next two hours pitching a Julius Novak book idea to several of her contacts in publishing -- friends and otherwise. As usual, she put no pre-thought or planning into her sales pitch. She made it up as she went along, and with each successive phone call the story angle took shape. In her mind, if not in the eyes of the editors with whom she spoke, the narrative possibilities began to seem more obvious with each new rendition. She would have to give it a bigger think, however, because she was flatly striking out. No interest.

As the afternoon waned Rosalie stepped out for a tea, brought along her cell phone and continued to speed dial publishers as she rambled through Russell Square, past the British Museum, and finally tucking into a touristy-looking pub. After her tea, she stayed on and had a few sips of a half pint of strong ale in frustration at her inability to wheedle anyone who mattered into sharing her newfound passion for Julius Novak: Sportsman. Intellectual.

She stepped outside, asked a man to point her toward Oxford Street and continued her walk, still talking on her mobile.

As she turned, absentmindedly, onto Charing Cross Road (did she plan on hoofing it all the way back to Brook Green?), finally, a bite. Jonathan James of JJI Sports Reform Press, asked several inviting questions before pushing back.

“Now, in the hands of a really talented writer, Rosalie, maybe a big name, we might have something to work with. Do you have someone in mind?”

Rosalie stopped walking and stood, the energetic sounds of central London pealing around her, pedestrians avoiding her still presence from both directions. She was standing directly in front of Foyles, only London’s most venerable bookshop and recently modernized for the first time since the Edwardian era. There, displayed in the window, was a large photo of Ben Hampton, British literary treasure and standard-bearer of the modern pop novel.

It’s here! Ben Hampton’s New Novel for Young Readers, “Fit But You Know It.”

His latest work, about a suburban hip-hop teen performer who idolizes Dizzee Rascal, was a departure in some ways from Hampton’s million-selling adult fiction titles, most of which had been made into films, West End musicals, and stage or radio productions. Alongside “Fit” were displays of his other books, household names all, in their most recent editions. Even the shock tour de force that first made his name – “Out in the Cold,” a vastly entertaining and groundbreaking narrative of his life as an Arsenal fan. The media phenomenon that single-handedly legitimized the sport of football for the educated and literary classes, spoke to and for a generation of post-Thatcher British and heralded the arrival of football as an unstoppable money-spinning and fashionable cultural entity – nevermore a slum sport for slum people.

In the sexy world of books, Ben Hampton equals ‘commercial dynamite.’ Ben Hampton’s name on a book cover translates into big business for the lucky publisher, practically all retail bookstores in the world and every subsidiary market connected with bookselling. Ben Hampton, a small-scale version of the Olympian, Harry Potter creator, J.K. Rowling, is simply golden for the world economy. He’s self-effacing. He’s a regular bloke. In short, there is virtually nothing bad and everything good about Ben Hampton.

“Ben Hampton … actually, Jonathan,” Rosalie answered, stunned motionless at the baldness of her own cheek, eyes transfixed on the Foyles window display.

“Excuse me?” James said. Could he have possibly heard right?

“I’ve been working with Ben on this one. We … we were at Cambridge together and … my sister and his brother are very close … and uh … he’s very excited about doing a football book just now. He’s actually been looking into a possible Julius Novak project for some time, but, you know, he’s so busy and so in demand and, well … I’ll tell you what. You think about it, and …”

“No, no, no,” James cleared his throat and pounced. “I’m excited. God. Well. Rosalie. Let me put you through to my assistant, and we’ll set up a lunch meeting for this week. Let’s do this, Rosalie. Let’s make a book. This is … very exciting.”

“Fantastic,” she said. “All right. I’m excited too. I’ll be seeing you then. Goodbye.”

After working out the meeting details for Friday lunch, Rosalie popped her cell phone into her purse and stared at Ben Hampton’s eminently-likeable, grinning face in the famous Foyles window. She stood up straight and held her right hand out for a firm handshake and smiled back.

“Hello, Ben. I’m Rosalie McMahon.”

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Chapter One of Hampton from the Halfway Line

Do you get the tone here? Sure, Paris. But the Eiffel Tower, arguably the city's symbol, nearly inconsequential in the background. And right beneath us, dominating our vision -- a football ground, looking as incongruous as anything imaginable.



“Financially, yes, it makes sense to rent out the Bloomsbury flat while I’m living abroad,” Novak thought to himself. Ten minutes left in the championship match and he's thinking about his budget? A couple of tackles, maybe a hard fall to the ground and a short pass or two away from the end of his football career, and he’s imagining a phone call to his movers or to his real estate agent?
“But that’s where most of my bulky items are. Shall I stuff everything into the Thaxted cottage? Wouldn’t it please Ginevra to live there while I’m away? Terribly convenient for her. But how would that look? And would she then not take it all the wrong way? And what would Marianne say? Isabel tells me you’ve got that hot little grad assistant of yours moved into your flat. Seriously, you need help.”
Not deviant thoughts, as you see, just that certain notions, impertinent to what he was supposed to be doing, would stir and distract him. But after a certain point, he lacked his customary, decent grip on what exactly that was – the doing. In Britain, we call that ‘losing the plot.’ He struggled, not for the first time, with the vexing question, “What exactly is expected of me?”
Why? Did he not believe he’d conducted himself properly? By any sane measure, he had pushed his abilities and his questionable talent past what was thought conceivable.
Novak thought about his daughter, little Isabel who was six at the time, and how she would jump into his arms, talking a mile a minute, as he entered her grandparents’ apartment on Square Delambre within a stone’s throw of the Montparnasse Cemetery. He imagined how, by the next day, they would be splitting a steaming plate of paella de marisco on a sunny veranda on the Costa Azahar, debating the identity of the colorful seafood. Squid? Langoustine? They would enjoy dance shows on the beach, street theatre in the squares. They would dive into the surf, race to the garden of floating orange trees and try to guess where the sea ends and the sky begins.
He thought again about Ginnie Carlisle and where that was going. For some unknown reason, he thought of an oil painting Marianne’s mother had done up for him featuring Scottish Highlander cows in her Vermont field. He thought about the kit man and how he’d never see him again.
As a gibbous moon shone faintly through a haze of clouds creeping over the 16th arrondissement, the opposing goalkeeper gathered the ball and unhurriedly lofted it toward Novak’s half of the pitch. Novak watched resignedly the flight of the ball as it dropped, beyond his position, from the sky. A clash of heads helped it forward. One of his teammates, a defender, steeled his jaw and put his noggin to it, clearing the ball half-heartedly, screwing it toward the touchline near the team benches. From the corner of his eye Novak saw a player, wearing the shirt of the other team, running onto it.
I should tell you, there will be no peaceful doves and pure white lilies in this story. Every character will be avant-garde … except me. Disturbingly, I’ve opted to exploit the tragic farce that was Paris, to have it act as a malleable linchpin for my main character or maybe a sort of hinge. I don’t know; I’m not mechanical. My dad didn’t have a workshop; he took me to football. What’s the correct word for novelists to use? Not that this is going to be another novel. It’s just, you know, Paris as literary device. We’ll always have Paris – in this case, grotesquely. I’m obviously mad.
Many of you already will have realized, by the nauseating advance publicity and perhaps by that first bit, that I have succumbed to a vast array of irritating pressures and accepted the task of writing a sport biography. Once immersed, I’m afraid I’ve rendered the whole exercise rather more barbed than a work of fiction. The reality of my situation is in its dawn; that is, either I get this right, or the mild celebrity I’ve created of my life will become nothing more than pantomime. But now that I’ve put myself in it up to my replica Liam Brady, I can either allow the “hero” and his story to swallow me; or I can grab onto a corner flag, lay it flat and try to balance myself while regulating my breathing until I can sort of shimmy over to the grassy bank and safety. I saw that maneuver illustrated in a general survival guide for getting out of quicksand.
Mind you, I didn’t read the whole book. I was in a Waterstone’s checkout line, browsing the table of contents and saw “How to Escape Quicksand.” Even though I’ve lived in or around London my entire life, I’ve always been terrified of stepping onto quicksand and slowly suffocating in what looks to be room-temperature oatmeal with weeds and bugs. I blame Hollywood: The Hound of the Baskervilles; Lawrence of Arabia; Tarzan; Flash Gordon.
So, the City of Lights. My use of Paris here, I suppose, is rather as abstraction, where the artist renders the familiar in an unfamiliar way. For, as the final curtain fell, my subject had become one of them, one of the bumbling, distrait eleven. Novak blended into the scenery like Parisians in a café or laborers on the docks. Neither he nor I could tell you the exact moment it happened, probably a slow, five-year drip. Novak had always fancied himself a person of great fortitude -- or something quite like it. You know, guts without the blood. The mettle, at least, that puts bread on the table and petrol in the Senator. But he’d thrust himself into a rather unnatural sort of world, a celestial firestorm of light, movement and sound, a location on the map of life where the man of action is unmasked and undone. Always before, huffing and puffing had been enough. Well, of course, there had been a soupçon of thought put into it as well, sort of like these days with his dry stonewalls or his students at Wolfson, the little buggers. It looks much easier now, without his having to endure the absurd bits of life – getting kicked and that.
Why did he carry on doing it, he wondered as he strained through the marsh of his chosen profession? Why didn’t he pack it in? What was it for? Admittedly, not the sort of thoughts that should course through one’s mind in the last minute of extra time in a cup final in front of 50,000 spectators, particularly if one is among the twenty-two direct participants. By that point in the terrible evening, a horror show that only could only be compared to some sort of natural disaster or, more aptly, to the mania of a shopping mall on Christmas Eve, Novak only mildly cared if his side won or lost. Though he was actually looking forward to ramming home a penalty, if only to release a large dose of pent-up frustration and anger. When called upon, he never missed. He was one of those types who considered that singular skill to be compulsory, elementary, like conjugating a verb in any number of languages. Besides, he’d been shown how to do it in West Germany.
If he were completely honest, which I have to doubt he’s capable of being, I would wager that he indeed wanted to win. But his motivation, as far as that goes, was impure. I suspect he only wanted to win because so many people wanted his club, my club, to lose. Sort of the contrarian in him. This team was used to being the people’s second choice out of two. They, like their supporters, had developed a rather requisite scar tissue. Even tonight, a microcosm of this dreadful season, Novak played as if he felt a real, existing persona that had to be lived up to. But it was waning, the mask slipping.
More than anything, he was angry. Angry at the majority of his teammates for their increasingly uninspired play. Angry at the manager for having gotten the sack. Angry at himself for not retiring years ago and quite a long list of other personal flaws detrimental to those close to him. Rather than being merely an important cog in a mighty machine, which he had at first been, he now found himself one of only a small handful of professionals in the squad who actually gave two shits about preparing properly and giving ninety-plus minutes of maximum effort every time. Where was the pride? The club was in tatters, and its performance on this night exemplified the chaos. It was a sad state of affairs, infuriating for their paying supporters. Yet here we were, cup holders -- in with a shout of keeping it. In the previous season’s competition, we were somewhat the upstarts. Tonight, at the opening whistle anyway, we were shaky favorites.
So, we were mere moments from penalties, a crapshoot made slightly more comfortable by the fact that we had England’s “Number One” minding the net. A second unlikely championship on one of the continent’s grand stages meant that my mates and I could once again mischievously shove it up the bum of our many detractors.
As I watched the match with friends at my flat, never suspecting I would now be writing about it a dozen years later, Novak was running around the pitch in both physical and existential distress. I, on the other hand, had just completed my first novel and was feeling understandably celebratory as the publication date drew near. We weren’t to know the red and white number fourteen was immersed in a private drama. On the outside, dressed up in the suit of our heroes, he was covering his usual twenty-plus kilometers, masterfully disturbing the opponent’s attack and attempting (in vain) to gee up his teammates. On the inside, he was badgering himself. The nail-biting faithful could only have been horrified to know that Novak, when he should have been otherwise engaged, was preoccupied with Virgilian supplications to Jupiter to restore him his bygone years.
Well, wasn’t it a bit late for that now? Not to mention ghastly and inappropriate? Extra time? Cup final? Turns out he and others had been so beseeching the gods for years – the whole time in West Germany and now the whole time in England. For a football supporter, it is hard to grasp just how someone could perceive extra time in a cup final, especially one who is in it, as having a suffocating banality. But we’re all different.
Tonight at the Parc des Princes, all of Novak’s doubts, all of his turmoil had, with the ingredient spices of the gathered soup of Europeans, Africans and Middle Easterners, cooked into a psychic dish of profound angst. If this match were a painting, from Novak’s perspective it would be a Jacek Malczewski – a joyous nightmare of Slavic melancholy.
Up until recently, and particularly during these last five seasons, cruelly would Novak blame himself every time the opponent scored. He always believed he could have done just that little bit more, at some point leading up to the goal, to have prevented it. Yes, when a goal is scored it is scored against all eleven men – not just the keeper, not just the last defender. That’s the crap your youth coach tells you. And it’s true up to a point. Perhaps he could have nipped in or something, earlier in the match, to obstruct the opponent’s temperamental, but fabulously in-form striker from wheeling round and leaving the keeper for dead from outside the penalty arc. He might have gotten a boot in as he’d done so many thousands of times before.
The value he added on a regular basis went for the most part unnoticed. Not the sort of thing the TV cameras picked up back then. The manager knew. His teammates knew. A few savvy supporters. Did it matter to him? On the contrary, he appeared to thrive on the relative anonymity and to feed on the clear respect felt by opponents.
Recurring, nagging pain flared in his ankles and knees while the spectators sang, swore and groaned in cacophonous preparation for the delicious agony of penalty kicks. Novak had initially strained a few rather vital joints and ligaments in 1986 when his previous club, Wüppertal had brought in new players from around the Bundesliga to keep its squad of pretenders in the first division and to advance on various European fronts. The uncertain young midfielder had felt compelled to redouble his efforts then to keep his place in the team.
All the stimuli he had come to know in twelve seasons of professional football were flashing and swirling around him on this familiar Paris ground. The rumble of the stadium, before always a motivator, tonight was getting on his nerves. The feel of his studs grabbing the cushioned sod, the impact of English shoulder on Spanish shoulder like Orwell and his International Brigade comrades in a Catalonian foxhole after a fascist explosion, made him nauseous. What he recognized as the last reserve of air in his lungs was fast nearing unmanageably low levels. It wasn’t exactly ‘Rocky in the fifteenth round’ stuff. He wasn’t out on his feet or anything, a punch-drunk contender from the wrong side of Hoboken. But when you can’t breathe properly you tend toward poor decision making, not to mention laziness and like you just want it to be over.
The evening’s exertions had all been rather typical for Novak in the sense of getting stuck in, knocking players about, causing as much mayhem as possible and constantly risking new injuries, exacerbating old ones. He had developed what looked to several respected commentators, when he was on-song, a cool-headed aggression. Now, though, because so much of the team had unraveled around him during the past year, he found himself forced into unfamiliar quadrants of the pitch – such as the opponent’s penalty area with the ball ludicrously at his feet. It was not unusual to hear someone bellowing, growling or merely sniping from the crowd, “What does he think he’s doing, the prat?” Football fans are not known for their motivational or sympathetic tendencies.
He knew himself. He knew his body. He knew his responsibilities. He thought he knew his place. Novak could have run for maybe ten additional minutes but no more. He’d already over-exerted himself for two solid hours with a fifteen-minute break at halftime and a five-minute breather before the commencement of extra time. His adrenalin was gone.
Self-centered thoughts and images flashed and crept through Novak’s mind as the seconds ticked irretrievably into the Parisian night. One of the many small parts of him wished one of his forwards would just latch onto the ball and somehow stuff it into the opponent’s net. It didn’t have to be a thing of beauty, museum quality. Even an own goal would suffice. Novak was ready for the end.
In a perfect world, his captain would lead the team up the triumphant staircase and hold the championship trophy aloft. Then Novak would trot off, change clothes, make his way a couple of miles east to the 14th arrondissement, pick up his little girl and head for Benicassim where they would await the arrival of the girl’s mother and other friends and relatives. In the real end to come momentarily, he would settle for a second-place-winner’s medal to go along with the ignominy of a comic and humiliating end to a turbulent five years in London. Actually one of the most talked-about humiliating ends in the history of European football.
Novak felt a sort of Gallic quiétude, then a bubble of concern as a player from the other team, a Spanish-Moroccan well known to him, took the headed ball in his stride and chested it onward as he squared his fireplug body. What on earth? After one bounce, the opposing player cracked the ball cheekily goalward from fifty yards away and watched with swiftly rising glee and unprecedented self-worth as it sailed majestically and dipped under the bar past the outstretched fingertips of the flailing, horrified goalkeeper.
Novak was free.
In the space of a few seconds, his life had returned to the way he liked it -- gloriously unrestrained. He would carry on, a rampant individual, until a time about six months ago when a woman, a stranger comprehensively adept in the art of persuasion, contacted both of us on the same day.