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.

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