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.”

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