Sunday, March 27, 2011

Chapter Seven of Hampton from the Halfway Line


Blockley, Gloucestershire

“This was a good idea,” Rosalie McMahon said to Peter, as they motored west in late morning on a perfect, first Saturday of September.
“What, meeting him in person?” Peter asked, spiritedly punching his Saab 9-5 Saloon Aero forward through the magical landscape of the UK’s largest AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty).
He may be a boring, City banker, but his car isn’t boring.
“No. Leaving London.”
Peter took a deep breath of Cotswolds air and turned up the CD – “No Guru, No Method, No Teacher.” The couple from W6, who’d recently celebrated twenty-five years together, delighted in the music -- an ethereal and subtly blinding effort from their early years just before starting a family.
“When is that ever a bad idea?”
Thirty miles or so past Oxford, just past the train station at Moreton-in-Marsh, Rosalie and Peter marveled at the … well, for want of a better word, the ‘quaintness’ of the northeast Gloucestershire countryside. It wasn’t just Americans, after all, who longed to motor and to ramble through what they imagined to be quintessential England. The English themselves relished the thatched cottages, bowling greens, ghostly beech trees, rustic arches, Norman churches, rolling hills, (please, oh please) a flock of sheep and their minder dog blocking the road, long-distance footpaths intersecting fields of barley, mill streams and golden limestone of the old wool and silk villages. Their destination was Blockley, somewhat off the beaten track, hidden and “ungot at” in a valley on the road to Chipping Campden.
Julius Novak had chosen, four years ago, to make his home in Blockley precisely because of its situation. For the most part, walkers rather than tour buses passed through its streets. His work now centered at Oxford; and everything else he needed, that couldn’t be had in the countryside villages and hamlets, could be gotten either in the famous university town or thirty miles in the other direction toward the Welsh border in the wonderful spa town of Cheltenham.
Rosalie looked away into the generous wood off the A44 and giggled.
“What is it?” Peter asked, in a mood seemingly as buoyant as his wife’s.
“I just remembered coming here as a girl,” she mused as she scanned the countryside with her hand to her cheek. “I had a little book about the Cotswolds I would read in the car on the drive out. The part I read over and over was where it said, ‘If you are quiet you may see deer.’ It was ages before I ever saw a deer in the wild on one of those trips. I always assumed it was because I couldn’t be quiet.”
“Ohh,” he smiled at her and placed his hand on her thigh. “Why would someone with such a beautiful voice and clever words ever want to keep quiet?”
She played with his hair. “Where have you been all my life?”
“I’ve been right here with you.”
When they turned north on to the B4479, they were just two kilometers from Blockley. The roads out here Peter found to be in pristine condition and very clearly marked. An English-speaking motorist would have to be quite dimwitted to become lost. At the crest of a hill, past the Bourton Woods and near the entrance to the Hailstone Farm, the village spread before the McMahons like a Brigadoon, a patchwork of pale yellow and many shades of green, laced through by a thin mile of sturdy, golden structures topped with gray and brown slate roofs.
“Do we need to go to the cottage for anything first before heading into the village?” Peter asked.
“I don’t,” Rosalie’s face began to show signs of excitement, first of being in such an unlikely gem of a town and also in anticipation of soon performing ‘phase two’ of selling Julius Novak on being the subject of a book by a famous author. “Is there time anyway?”
“Mm,” Peter checked the dashboard clock. “We’re all right, I’d say.”
They drove to what appeared the center of town at Saints Peter and Paul Church and turned back up the narrow High Street toward their meeting place.
“There’s the pub on the next block ahead – the green banner above,” Rosalie pointed. “Just there, darling. There’s a spot right across from what must be the entrance.”
“Is there a hydrant sign on the adjacent building?” Peter often believed perfect parking spots too good to be true.
“A hydrant sign? Peter, just get in there before that other car sees it.”
“What other car?”
“That one there, about to turn toward us from the lane on the right, just beyond the Crown.”
She was like a Spitfire pilot warning his buddy of approaching Luftwaffe, as the little English boys argue on the ground below.
"No they ain't, they're 'Einkels!"
“Just there,” she pointed now, getting agitated. “That old Land Rover or whatever. The dirty blue jeepy thing.”
“How do you know they’re stopping, and, anyway, who cares? There’ll be another one.”
“Well, we can talk about it, or we can park. Is this going to be another one of your interminable searches for the perfect spot -- on a busy autumn weekend in a tourist mecca? I’d just as soon not have to hike a kilometer.”
“I promise you we won’t have to hike a kilometer,” Peter spoke in his usual soothing tone. “If you’d not brought new shoes with heels, I’m thinking you wouldn’t care so much.”
She glared at him with one eye while keeping the other on the enemy poacher.
“I’ll thank you to leave my choice of footwear out of this, driver. What do you know about the proper impression? Only what I’ve told you, that’s what.”
Their high-performance vehicle suddenly ceased performing.
“Why have you stopped?”
Peter sat to allow two pensioners to cross the road and watched with rapidly panicking Rosalie as a man driving a twenty-year-old, cairns blue, Land Rover Defender turned onto the street from the west, just ahead of them, and eased into the good spot.
“Oh, that dirty fucker.” Rosalie cried, out of all proportion, her hands coming into contact with the passenger-side window and the passenger-side of Peter’s head. “He saw we wanted that spot. He saw your signal. He watched us let that elderly couple drag their useless legs in front of us; and he took our spot. Pull up there, Peter. Let’s get a look at this selfish arsehole.”
“Certainly not. Who cares? How could he tell we saw it? You’re mad. And take it easy on the elderly. My god. That’s not like you at all.”
“Oh, who cares? Who cares?” she mocked him, somewhere between gently and earnestly. “Exactly what, if anything, in your opinion, are we to care about, Peter? I won’t get the book if I don’t call Ben Hampton. Who cares? I won’t get the book if I don’t find Julius Novak. Who cares? The girls don’t have knickers. Who cares? Stop the bloody car. I want him to get a good look at us.”
Peter rolled forward, starting to say something comforting about how she was just nervous, and there was nothing at all to be nervous about but chose not to. Nor did he chide his wife for her beginning to stray from the good-natured Cotswold spirit so otherwise present in the air. As Rosalie had suggested, he paused his shiny black Saab next to the now-parked, scruffy jeep as the driver got out and looked around. But the banker had paused for reasons other than acquiescing to the literary agent’s distraught plea.
“Fuckin’ hell. I think that’s him. That’s Julius Novak.” Peter sat, leaning forward, and stared. “Put on a little weight.”
“Drive the car, Peter. Peter, drive the car.”
Rosalie went stiff and stared straight ahead. Her hands searched the glove box for a large map or something else to hide her face.
“What the hell’s the matter with you?” Then, sounding as if she might cry, squeaked, “Peter, please make the car go. Please make this mindless extravagance of yours move. If you love me, accelerate.”
Novak looked at them, grinned and gave a polite, thanks-very-much nod of the head, as he crossed the road in front of the McMahons. Lots of tourists, he’d come to learn from many years living in the English countryside, have a good look at a place before deciding to get out of the car and enter. Peter eventually emerged from his trance and found a spot about twenty meters ahead on the same side of the street as that of the ex-midfielder’s car. He parked and looked at his wife. They stared at each other for a few moments before bursting into apologetic laughter and kissing.
They entered, hand in hand, past the Virginia Creeper-covered arched walls, a few of the vines’ leaves having already turned a brilliant red. Inside, Novak was selecting a suitable table when Rosalie approached him. He wore a pressed, tan, cotton, button-down shirt tucked into olive khakis. On his feet were scuffed, but expensive-looking work boots. He had wavy brown hair worn slightly shorter but no less unkempt than during his playing days. His nose had a slight break from, by many accounts, a Roy Keane elbow. Novak claims it was broken several years before by a Belenenses player in a UEFA Cup match in Lisbon. He would never admit to being hurt by someone like Keane. 
“Julius?” Oh, he’s tall, she thought.
“Yes. Rosalie?” Novak smiled.
“Yes, a pleasure to meet you. Thank you so much for taking time. Have you waited long?”
Peter trailed behind, thinking, ‘Of course that’s what she said. Incorrigible. The woman will never change. She’s marvelous.’
“The pleasure’s all mine. Welcome to Blockley; and, no, I just walked in.” He shook hands with Rosalie and, still smiling, looked at Peter, keeping his hand extended. “Hi. Julius.”
“Hello. Peter McMahon.”
They shook hands, Peter with a large smile reserved for meeting current and former professional footballers.
“Don’t worry, I’m not staying; just delivering my lady friend safe and sound.”
“Yes, I’m not what you’d call a champion motorist,” Rosalie added, all flirty-faced. “I find it all a bit stressful.”
“Well, you certainly don’t want to be behind a wheel in London, that’s for sure,” Novak smiled back. “And, as far as the country goes, it looks like you’re in good hands. Peter, you’re more than welcome to join us, of course.”
He had become increasingly more charming the longer he lived in England. It had now been seventeen years with two years abroad in the middle.
“In fact I must insist you at least stay for a drink.”
Rosalie marveled at his unusual accent. What would it be? Mostly American-European-Oxbridge-Lingua-Football Training Room English?
“If it’s all right with Rosalie, that’d be lovely.”
The agent nodded her approval.
“Good,” Novak said. “If you’re keen on beer, I’m sure you wouldn’t pass up the chance at a Hook Norton.”
“Hook Norton. Certainly not.”
“Now you’re talking Peter’s language, I’m afraid.”
“Yes, bit of a harmless enthusiast for real ale,” Peter craned toward the hand pumps.
“I’m afraid it’s my language as well,” Novak tugged at his snug belt then motioned to a table. “And a many-splendored tongue it is. Shall we?”
The 16th-century pub stood three-quarters filled and cozy, scents of wood smoke from two open fires, as well as life-affirming aromas of grease and fermented barley, drifting through the bar. They ordered three refreshing bitters, staying away from the immensely attractive-sounding but far too alcoholic seasonal offering brewed in honor of the Battle of Trafalgar.
“Where are you staying?” Novak asked.
“Um, do you remember the name Peter?”
“Honeysuckle Cottage,” he said to them both, then, after a pause, to Novak, “And Rosalie’s at Otter’s Abode.”
Novak laughed just more than politely at what was, given the situation, surely a premature thrust of matey banter. Peter McMahon. First blood! Back of the net!
“Mm.” Rosalie gave the sickly smile of a woman who had endured an adult lifetime of questionable humor.
“Do you know it?” Peter asked Novak, who was happy to play knowledgeable local.
“Honeysuckle Cottage.” Novak thought about it. “Do you remember the road?”
“Pasture Lane. Supposed to lead onto splendid footpaths and views.”
“Yes, I do. I actually know the owner. It’s fabulous.” Their pints arrived, along with menus. “Cheers. Good choice; ‘course it’s hard to go wrong round here. You will absolutely love it, assuming the bed’s comfortable. Exposed beams, antiques, wood burning stove. Just like stepping back in time, except for the DVD player.”
Rosalie and Peter chuckled.
“Sounds perfect,” Rosalie said.
“Rosalie says you usually stay in Brockhampton or thereabouts.” Novak said to Peter. “I was there once. I have some friends outside of Cheltenham, and we went there to eat.”
“Craven Arms?” Peter asked.
“Yeah, Craven Arms.”
“We love it there, too, don’t we Rosalie?”
They talked about his stonewall company; they talked about his house nearby at the end of a lane. It was a 17th-century dower’s house, one of only two buildings remaining on a large estate, the manor having burned to the ground in the 1920s. They talked about adjusting to life in a small village after so many years in London and Cambridge. Novak reminded Rosalie that he’d actually spent just as much time living in the Essex countryside as he had near Selwyn College or in Tavistock Square. They talked about Brook Green and the neighborhood around Rosalie’s office. They mentioned the children. Novak said he had a daughter Nicholas’ age. Rosalie knew nothing of his personal life (except the Emma Thompson bit) and let it sit for now. Then the subject turned to football.
“Rosalie tells me you’re an unrepentant Arsenal man, Peter. I’m very sorry for both of you.”
“Well, once you could pity me because it was a pathetic way to spend one’s time; now you can judge me loco because it’s breaking our bank account. I have actually gotten marginally more sane with age.”
“I’ve heard about that happening.” Novak then asked with a smirk, “How did you do it?”
“Yes, Peter, what exactly does that mean?”
“Well, I’d say what it means is, I don’t go to nearly as many matches as I did when I was younger, obviously; and I’m no longer a nutter about it.”
Rosalie looked to the exposed ceiling beams.
“You’re wife looks skeptical, as though she has a very different story to tell.”
“If I could find words, Julius, then, believe me, I would most certainly express an opposing viewpoint. Sadly, however, my dear husband has once again left me speechless.”
“Not easy to do, as you might guess,” Peter tapped in a sitter then looked sheepish. “I’m from the generation who, some of us, might say the peak was ’89, as far as raw, pent-up ecstasy and thrills; but, you know, since then there’ve been a lot of big days, which … uh … worthwhile days … and nights that you wouldn’t have wanted to miss. I don’t know. It’s not something that’s easily …”
Rosalie attempted to kick him put banged her shin on the gate leg of their French wine-tasting table, jiggling its tilt top.
“Oh, I know how it is,” Novak commiserated. “It’s hardly a straightforward affair for anyone.”
Was that a wistful look on his face? Peter took that sentiment in and adjusted himself in his chair.
“Well, as far as that goes, I think it’s only fair to say that … uh … I … uh …”
‘Peter, No!’ Rosalie begged him with her eyes. ‘Don’t try to explain your stupid, conflicted feelings about Julius Novak the Arsenal player. No one cares!! Why doesn’t he just kill me and get it over with?’
“ … think you had a nice few years there for the club, Julius. I do. Great stuff and … uh … a lot of pride out there and, well, your industry and graft … well-appreciated, a marvel at times; I don’t think anyone could question, and … uh … I know it couldn’t have been easy. But … we always saw you as a decent chap and …”
“Rosalie told me you thought I was shit.”
Peter froze. Rosalie looked down. Novak waited as long as he could bear before letting them off the hook by bursting into peals of laughter. Rosalie joined Novak in laughing at her husband’s expense.
“No, actually, if you want to know, what he said was … ”
Peter turned red and groaned, “That’ll be fine, Rosalie. Holy Christ. Bit of banter was all it was, mate. Bit of hyperbole.”
“No hard feelings,” Novak smiled at him. “I’m well aware that I didn’t always go down as smoothly as a pint of good bitter. I’ve moved on.”
He could have said winning the Champions’ League, with an overachieving Valencia the season after leaving Highbury, was all the sweet justification he required to walk the streets of North London, with no regrets, anytime he chose. But that was not his way.
After the pint, Peter excused himself to explore what Blockley Village had to offer -- he was particularly interested in the church and the architecture in general -- and to allow his wife to get down to brass tacks. After a few more minutes of chat sans husband, Rosalie outlined the literary project, as she saw it, for Novak. He did not appear completely uninterested. She was a little surprised by this, frankly; because, after seeing where he lived and the way he blended in, comfortably unbothered, her initial feeling was that this was a man who fiercely guarded his privacy and would shun any incursions.
“Do you have a writer?”
“I was actually saving the best news for last,” she said, ready to burst. “Ben Hampton has signed on.”
Novak was momentarily knocked off his parapet.
“You look surprised,” Rosalie chose to play it cool, at first, like a top, agency veteran. If that didn’t bring him along, then she would switch to lunatic enthusiasm and calculated sex appeal backed up with contagious and irresistible optimism.
“How is that possible?” Novak wrinkled his face. “I thought you said you were independent; Ben Hampton’s certainly represented and, I would think, under contract with a major publisher.”
“Yes, we’ll let the lawyers hash out the details. That’s why we pay them.”
“Simple as that? You sure?”
Novak knew a thing or two about the business. She nodded calmly.
“Ben’s driving it. And with his reputation, it’s all very good-natured. As far as his current publisher, Ben’s involved with so many different, far-flung pursuits that there is sufficient wiggle room in the language of that contract. His representation is less open to thirsty animals at the watering hole, but Ben is working on them and assuring them it was all very coincidental and absolutely nothing untoward took place and largely his idea; and he’s very excited and would like all the children to play nice. We often have to contort ourselves in this business, anyway; and nobody in his right mind would want to lose Ben Hampton.”
“Ah,” Novak was willing, for now, to go along with Rosalie’s simple explanation of the frantic and sometimes arcane UK publishing world.
“I’m confident that everyone who deserves it will get his precious pound of flesh. There are too many to name who’ve gotten richer off of Ben Hampton’s labors than he’s ever managed to rightfully squirrel away for himself.”
“Like agents?” He meant it to sound lighthearted, not insulting.
“Well, you rarely get rich off one client, dear; you have to gather a whole company of scribblers. But back to what we can control, Julius. From a creative standpoint, though, our standpoint, we’ve got the green light. Ben is keen to get started and wants to talk about schedules. He’s not sure yet as to how long the interviewing will take. His first thought was the two of you could wrap up your time together during a couple of weeks in December. Would that be possible from your end?”
“You don’t mess around, do ya sis?” Novak chuckled. “Seriously, though, you’re jumping a few steps ahead of me.”
“Of course,” Rosalie shrugged, shook her head and waved her hands like ‘no big deal.’
And she loved that he called her ‘sis.’
“Right. I know; too much, too soon; but it is nice for publishers, as I’m sure you know, to have some idea at the beginning of the calendar year about what it is they’ve got lined up or can expect to have slated for the various …”
She slowed down to veer onto a more familiar road.
“Tell you what,” Rosalie continued. “Why don’t you talk a moment about any misgivings you have about Ben Hampton writing a book on your … uh … unique experience in football.”
“When you put it that way, a person would have to be daft to object; but let me give it a shot anyway.”
He motioned to the server for another pint.
“First of all,” he went on, “it was all rather a long time ago; and I don’t know that I have much to say about it, or that I want to talk about it at the length required to fill a book. For me, you either do it or you talk about doing it. It’s like … uh … well, once I saw Elvis Costello at the Astoria, and he said, referring to being asked what a particular song means, that ‘if I could explain it in words other than those that are in the song, I would’ve written another song.’”
Rosalie nodded blankly.
“What I mean is, I fail to see the relevance or the efficacy or the fascination in people talking about their accomplishments as a way of enlightening or entertaining others – mostly others who watched them perform the accomplishment in the first place.”
“But, where would we be without biographies?” Rosalie said. “As a researcher yourself … ”
“It’s like, let’s watch Ingemar ski cross-country. Now let’s listen to him talk about skiing cross-country. Let’s go to the museum and look at the painting. Now let’s hear the artist explain how she went about painting it. All her account of the creative act has done is confuse me and bore me. I thought I’d understood the art from having absorbed it visually. Now, after listening to the artist masturbate about her moments of inspiration and the personal experiences and hardships that opened the doors of perception, I no longer care if I ever see her work again. And I couldn’t possibly put into words anything of what I thought I’d enjoyed at the gallery in the first place.”
Oh dear, she thought, a pedant.
“You sound as though you’ve been disillusioned by the world of modern art,” Rosalie finally shoved her foot back in the door. “Do you mind telling me what it is you teach?”
“Um, yeah, sure. It might sound more distinguished than it really is. For many years I taught advanced topics in various European languages – symbolism, nuance, the relation between language and communities, between Latin and its vernaculars, dominant and subordinate vernaculars, the mixing of languages or eradication of languages for particular social or political reasons. I do monitoring trips and stuff with the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, and I helped create the European Language Portfolio for the Council of Europe. Since then, they’ve developed it into the Europass Language Passport.”
“What does that do?”
“It helps terrorists and other criminals move undetected from country to country.”
“Oh, dear.”
“Get yourself into Cyprus, and you might as well have been born on Canvey Island. Linguists aren’t much into foresight and blowback.”
“You’re having me on, aren’t you?”
“Mildly, yeah.”
“First my husband; then Ben Hampton; now you. I can really pick ‘em. Oh well, more fodder for the analyst’s couch.”
“So, what else?”
“I’m afraid any CV from my Cambridge years would make me look a bit of an egghead. But we’ll just keep it under the umbrella of Modern European Languages.”
“And why did you leave? What drew you to Oxford after all those years?”
“Do you mean academic, professional or personal?”
“These things tend to be all one … thing.”
“You’re probably right. Let’s see. I suppose it began, like everything should do, as personal. Then I trailed the other two along behind. Like when I left West Germany. I wanted to leave Rhine-Westphalia and live in a place where English was the spoken language of choice. But I absolutely wanted to stay in Europe. I had family in Paris, so London was the primary target. Then I looked for a job. Cambridge had more opportunities for me than London University, so I looked into that possibility and figured out a way to make it work. I wanted to carry on playing football, if I could, as high up the pyramid as possible. If you’d asked me in 1985, ‘could you see yourself playing for one of the top clubs in England,’ I would have laughed in your face or more likely just ignored you. By 1990, that notion had become no longer quite so far-fetched. Clearly, I couldn’t just fall out of bed and land in the first team of a giant club; I would have to work harder than ever, and that could cause continued problems in the career that was always going to see me into old age – teaching and everything related. So, I suppose the decision to leave Cambridge for Oxford followed along similar lines – only I no longer had to worry about the soccer because, by then, I was already half-way to that old age thing I mentioned. Quitting football was the biggest relief of my life. I’ve never missed it once. I had been visiting this area for many years, and I loved it so much that I wanted to live here. That’s the reason I’m here. After I decided where I wanted to spend the next big chunk of my life, I just went about arranging my little ducks in a row behind me like I’ve always done.”
“I envy you that.”
“Throughout the 90s, I’ll tell you, from excellent advice, I’d begun to slowly add to the land holdings around my property up near Thaxted where I had a lovely cottage and a pond and some rambling space. The main reason was, like many other people do, to create a bigger privacy buffer of undeveloped land around you that, once it’s yours, you can be sure it remains unspoiled. I frankly don’t trust too many developers. I planned to keep it and live there forever. Then, after falling in love with this part of Gloucestershire and having begun to seriously look at coming out here, I’d found the value of all my property combined – including the house – had swollen to twice the value of what I’d paid. So I cashed in my chips, sold the land in two pieces (and, I believe, responsibly), sold my Cambridge rooms and the flat in London, leaving me with a ridiculous amount of capital to set up stakes in the west country. Unfortunately, I fear, in the process and after the fact, I looked like just another speculator.”
“I don’t think so. Tell me, what’s your position at Oxford?”
“I was offered a fellowship in ‘02, through Wolfson College, with the Europaeum.”
“Now, I’ve heard of it,” Rosalie leaned forward, showing great interest in what Novak was saying, “but I’ve never looked into what exactly it is.”
“It’s the academic part of the whole ‘Europeanization’ that’s been happening at least as long as I’ve been here – 1981 is when I came over. The marketing of it, and, frankly, the reality of it in practice, is ‘international university without walls.’ You know, ‘think European,’ share common learning; confront common concerns. Oxford is one of the ten, member universities.
“When you think about it, and if you know all the different things I was interested in doing with myself as a young man, then you’ll see it’s a dream come true for me. If I could have designed my own personal work environment as a teenager, dreaming of studying, teaching and researching in Europe, then I would have imagined exactly what my life is now and the things I do for work and a regular paycheck. It’s like, there is a God; or I was really good in a previous life, like I spent an entire lifetime pulling children and the disabled out of burning buildings or something; and I’m being rewarded for it with the career of my wildest fantasy.”
“How brilliant for you. And what do you do with the Europaeum?”
“Anything I want. I set up classes of the brightest kids from the member colleges, and we pick our own topics to explore – new ideas related, or not, to language; pan-European initiatives. Plus I teach post-graduate students at Wolfson, and I once got to go to a Bologna match with Umberto Eco. I’ve actually died and gone to heaven.”
“I must say, you don’t fit the stereotype of the white-haired, old codger in bow-tie and waistcoat with hair coming out of his ears.”
“Nice of you to say. No. I was the perfect candidate to be recruited during what they called their ‘innovation stage.’ Young, bright academic mind, I suppose; multi-linguist, student-assessment scores through the roof – Mr. Popular with the little scholars but appropriately stern when required,” he held up an index finger. “And the freakishly-impossible, added benefit of having played top-flight football in three EU countries.” He smiled broadly. “I’m brought along from time to time on select, fundraising calls with potential key benefactors as well.”
“I take it you’re in for a piece of the action.”
“I learned from a revered academic back in Cologne to always pay to have an assistant to coordinate your billing.”
Rosalie looked into Novak’s eyes and grinned. They were both quiet for a moment, as the pub patrons came and went.
“What’s on your mind over there?” he asked.
“I was just thinking how nice this is and how truly fascinating you are. I mean it. A week ago, we didn’t know each other, and here we are in the Cotswolds, getting on like cousins and having a lovely lunch in a great pub. I’m so happy to have met you – no matter what happens in the future.”
“Well, thank you Rosalie. I feel the same way – and Peter too. Very nice man. You two make an excellent pair. Hope I didn’t put him off with the little crack about Arsenal.”
“No, he was laughing. He does it to everyone besides. Taste of his own medicine.”
She took a deep breath and let it go.
“What I noticed, though, Julius, was how naturally and with such power and emotion you were able to … talk about yourself. It made for very compelling listening, and you seemed to tell a quite personal story but the kind of story where people would root for you and put themselves in your place. And, to be perfectly honest, if a run-of-the-mill book person like me, a stranger, can prompt you, in a pub, to put forth with such easy-going energy, then imagine how comfortable you would be, what fluid prose you could produce in the hands of a genuine craftsman, a journalist of the caliber of Ben Hampton – a man around whom everyone feels at ease and as though they’ve known him for ages.”
“I actually do know him. We’ve sat together at Highbury a couple of times. We met back when he first came into the public eye; the club brought him round for one thing or another after he did ‘Out in the Cold.’”
“Then you’re a length ahead of the pack right out of the gate.”
“Very … ‘Gold Cup’ of you to say,” Novak commented, alluding to the famous races at nearby Cheltenham.
“Another thing … and, someone like you would understand. I’ve been enjoying myself the past week looking over the highlights of your dual careers. You certainly aren’t someone who backs off something just because there are those who say you can’t do it. And I’m assuming you had to put up with resistance from the critics in one field because of your continued, high-profile association with the other.”
Novak nodded.
“In that regard, Julius, the ‘having to endeavor and even to fight for the privilege to go on doing what you’re good at and what you love doing,’” she looked him squarely in the eye, “I think you’ll find you and I are cut from the same cloth.”
Novak didn’t speak right away. He relaxed into his chair and took some breaths. Rosalie was quiet as well. And if Rosalie McMahon was quiet, that probably meant she felt she was close to a signed contract.
“I’ve been on sales calls before,” Novak stared her right back. “You can sit there mum all night, Ms. McMahon, I am not speaking first.”
Rosalie bit the end off a carrot stick and wrinkled her nose. “You just did.”

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Chapter Six of Hampton from the Halfway Line


South Derry, Vermont
Montparnasse, Paris

“Well, just tell her we can have her entire wardrobe shipped here if she likes. We can have it stored in the new bedrooms in the barn. Do you remember Willy Reeves? He’s just putting on the finishing touches. There’s more than enough closet space.”

Yes, Marianne Papineau remembered Willy Reeves. He was one of the many wild and (in a way) exciting local boys whom she imagined would put finishing touches on restored barns within a fifteen-mile radius of his home village and then go have many beers with skiers, snowboarders and other tradesmen at the Wild Boar or, in the off-season, the Red Fox. He might even be pulled over on VT11 or VT30 or VT100 for speeding and weaving; but the trooper would know the entire Reeves family from way back and would follow Willy until the master carpenter was safely parked near where he would wish to sleep it off.
“I told her basically the same thing, mom, but she worries ‘what if I want to come back home for whatever reason like the holidays to see Abeline and Kanna or what if I hate it and drop out and crave France and none of my clothes are here or none of the clothes and jewelry and things that I didn’t have room to pack for school.’ She’s very emotional. This is all new for her.”
“You don’t have to rent out the apartments, Marianne,” Joanna said, sitting on the terrace with her cell phone and morning coffee, looking out at some of her fifty acres of mountain property off Winhall Hollow Road in South Derry. They still held on to another two hundred acres further up the mountain. “Let us help so we can keep the building in the family. There’s money we can get to from property and other things. My dad did very well once upon a time, he and his investor pals.”
“Mom …” Marianne knew all about Grampa Bill having been a shark.
“Just take it easy. I know how you feel. You’re very independent, and you don’t like handouts. I was the same way, kiddo. My impulse was to reject anything your dad and I didn’t earn for ourselves. But now that I’m … a woman of a certain age, I see that my parents – and, I suppose, most parents – crave the peace of mind that comes from knowing their kids will be operating on a level playing field after we’re gone and, more enjoyably, even while we’re still here. I didn’t make all this money; I’m just watchin’ it.“
Bill and Penelope Gourlie, Joanna Papineau’s parents, bought the land in 1948. The family moved, from Rye, New York, to Vermont full-time, nearly ten years later, when Joanna was heading for college. Bill Gourlie had left his Wall Street investment firm at the age of fifty-one, during the second Eisenhower administration, pockets stuffed with three lifetimes worth of cash and stock, to pursue the life of a country gentleman, replete with his very own Case 500 tractor.
The smallholding sat at an elevation of around 1,900 feet above sea level. The outbuildings – including the 1820s manor house and barn painted white with Essex green shutters -- lay on six manicured, hilly acres; the hay meadow, pond, and a good part of the pristine and annually-repaired stone wall covered ten acres; and the rest was second-growth woods with a tributary stream of the West River meandering throughout. Mountain views abounded around every corner and through every clearing. Joanna inherited the land in the late-eighties upon the sad death of both elderly parents. She and her husband, Roger Papineau, holidayed there every year and finally took up permanent residence eight years ago when Roger retired from teaching at the Tolbiac campus of the University of Paris.
“Mom, that’s ridiculous,” Marianne said. “The taxes keep going up. They’re twice what they were when you and dad left.”
“Have you ever heard of taxes going down?”
“We should actually look into selling it.”
“Maybe add even more money to the money we already have and lose our place to stay in Paris that we’ve owned since 1976?” Joanna asked rhetorically. “No amount of money in the world is worth giving it up.”
Their place to stay in Paris was their home, not far from the Carrefour Vavin, now known as Place Pablo Picasso, the famous junction of the Boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail. When Marianne was fourteen, she moved with her parents and her brother Danny to the mythical 14th arrondissement – the Promised Land of freedom of expression, of surrealism and existentialism. The district to which the great artists – Picasso, Modigliani and Apollinaire – fled from Montmartre before the Great War when the famous slopes became too touristy. The Montparnasse neighborhood, and its lively, historic cafes, was the haunt of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Miller; Stein, St. Vincent Millay and de Beauvoir. The Papineau apartment looked down on Square Delambre, around the corner from Paris’ second-most-famous cemetery, bursting with the capital’s intellectual and artistic elite – among them Baudelaire, Maupassant, Huysmans, Beckett and Sartre.
“Mom, that’s a sentimental and simplistic way of looking at it.”
“Don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it. Sentimental and simplistic have gotten me pretty far.”
“Well, anyway, Isabel is not in a good place today; just too much to think about at once.”
“You were the same way when you went away to Cologne the first time,” Joanna reminded her only daughter.
“Was I?” Marianne looked around the fridge for some of the St. Nectaire cheese – with the gray rind and flavored with hazelnut -- she’d bought this morning at the tree-lined, Boulevard Edgar-Quinet Market. “That was a five-hour drive though. And I knew where my home was, and my mom and dad were both there – for a while anyway. Dad, of course …”
Joanna broke in. “Were you in Cologne when daddy took that teaching post in Lyon for a few months? That’s when that was?”
“Do you mean when you two split up, and he was gone for two years and living with Annette Chinon?”
Joanna, after a few beats of silence, followed by nervous giggling, answered playfully, “OK, Marianne. Must we dwell on the unsightly episodes of life?”
“Mommy I love you,” Marianne was half-sorry she’d made such a gratuitous and tasteless comment about a painful time in her mother’s life. “I’m also rather fond of reality.”
“I love you too, sweetheart,” Joanna ignored her artfully -- reality, like the truth, being overrated. “We’re pinching ourselves that we’re going to all be together again and working near one another – if you’re still up for it. We’ve modified the studio. It’s all done; and it was no big deal. Daddy says we were going to make some upgrades anyway.”
“Yes, I’m up for it. That’s one of the things I’m looking most forward to, mom, putting down my rifflers and rasps and walking across the barn to see you painting. And we do see each other more than one would expect, given the ocean between us. But I know what you mean,” Marianne smiled and held the phone with her shoulder as she sliced slivers of cheese. “I can’t wait to wake up and know that you’ll both be there; and that it doesn’t have to end with the end of a holiday. I feel like a little girl again … but … I’m not, you know.”
“Well, you’re my little girl and you’re my grown-up, adult woman and my colleague and my friend; and, yes, I know we’ve seen each other a good amount under the circumstances, and we talk; and now your father has me set up in the office and made this e-mailing easier for me.”
“I must say, you’ve improved. I told you, it was getting the wireless cable. That changes everything. If we do nothing else, we just need to stay in the avant garde of technology. It makes everything easier.”
“Easy for you maybe,” Joanna said. “I’ve always fancied myself as cool and hip and natural and against the machine; now I’m old and I’m forced to bow down to Bill Gates and all the rest of them because no one writes letters anymore.”
“You are not old,” Marianne laughed. “What’s the matter with you? Sixty-nine is the new … fifteen, based on how you behave. My God. You’re beautiful and … your talent continues to evolve, mommy. I’m serious. You’re the finest woman I know. There’s not even a close second.”
“What about my Seven Sisters-bound granddaughter?”
“She’s not a woman. She’s a teenage pain-in-the-ass freak.”
“Let me talk to her.” Joanna put on her grandma hat. No one, not even Marianne, was going to disparage her favorite grandchild.
“No, mom. That’s just the excuse she needs to stop packing her room. She has Abeline and Kanna helping her; still she’s making it into a bigger thing than it is.”
“Marianne, it is a big thing ...”
“I know, I know. You’re right. I didn’t really mean that. She’s the best daughter any mom could hope for,” Marianne’s life of motherhood flashed before her. “I still think she’s making a meal of it, as her father says.”
“She’s leaving her home,” Joanna said, “and that home will be vacant because you won’t be there.”
“Won’t be there? I’m going to be ninety minutes away from her by car – with her granny and gramps in her country vacation playland -- instead of an entire day of driving to Boston and flying to Paris. What do you people want from me? I can’t be everywhere.”
“Well, don’t expect me to talk you out of moving back to Vermont or waiting to see if she likes being in America full-time before you uproot your lives completely. You get selfish in old age. Even you will, darling.”
What was that supposed to mean? Marianne wondered. “I guess it’s never too late to fall back to another option if this one proves untenable.”
“Untenable.” Joanna pondered as she began walking up the cedar path to her paint studio. “Why don’t the two of you stop what you’re doing, leave the apartment and go down the street for a café crème or a Breton crepe. But … just so we understand each other, if you change your mind now, you can find my body at Hamilton Falls.”
“Oh, there’s a pleasant picture while I drift off to sleep tonight. Thank you, mom.”
Joanna, as was her way, moved on. “Yesterday morning when I talked to Isabel she was fine and very upbeat. What happened between then and now?”
“Gee, I don’t know. Do you think it has something to do with being a high-achieving, emotional, OCD, transition-challenged, 18-year-old female whose whole family are artists … and French … and intellectuals?”
“Then take her away from the packing. Bring her friends along and let her talk your ear off. Let her whine and sniffle and worry out loud and bitch at you. Do what she wants to do tonight, as long as you get to come along. And at bedtime, bring her into your big bed and give her cocoa and massage her head and tell her stories until she falls asleep. She’s scared … so are you.”
Marianne wrinkled her lips and felt a bit foolish for having to be told what she should have already known to do. What she’d done a hundred times before for a daughter who’d never given her a stitch of the kind of misery Marianne had heard, from her friends, about their daughters heaping on them. She had been lucky, and that notion made her feel as though she’d been a good person after all. Because that was big; that was earth-shattering in her circle – having a daughter who wasn’t a basket case, a potential runaway and a constant source of impending doom.
“Well, you’ve calmed me down again, damn you.”
“I learned it from your Grandma Pips, and now I’m lucky enough to watch you be a wonderful mother to Isabel. Pretty fabulous, life.”
“Pretty fabulous.”
Mother and daughter seemed almost to sigh as one. Joanna entered the studio and looked over yesterday’s work – Hamilton Falls no less. Marianne peeked into Isabel’s rooms as the girls listened to music and laughed as they read their school’s yearbook, chatted online and spoke on the phone.
“How about our Julius?” Joanna asked. “How is he managing at the thought of his daughter and his … you moving so far away?”
“He moved further away first … out to the country, practically in Wales. We used to just be a Chunnel away – a little over two hours if he were in London. Cab or Metro to Paris Nord. He would meet us at St. Pancras, you know, or else we would just make our way over to his flat somehow. Another half-hour or so we could all be at the cottage in Essex or another hour on the train up to his rooms at Cambridge -- whatever.”
“Can you stop complaining about that man for one moment? You love him. We all love him. Is it really any different whether you catch another train to Cambridge or whether you go to Gloucestershire?”
“Julius’ words exactly. I see he’s gotten to you.”
As Marianne continued muttering, Joanna groaned loudly. “Enough, Marianne. How is he, in your opinion, handling the two of you leaving Europe?”
“ … Twice as far – his part of Gloucestershire as opposed to his part of Essex.”
“Sorry. It’s been sinking in with him all summer that it’s really happening – his baby off to college, leaving the country. Now he knows how his mother felt. I don’t believe he ever really thought about that before.”
“Things come to us eventually. How can a twenty-year old relate to what a middle-aged person feels, even if it is family?”
“Impossible. Now that I’m … I can’t even say it.”
“Forty-three next month?”
“See? Your mind is still intact – charmingly so. What I was starting to say is, nowadays I think about you at that age – my age, what your life might have been like and how you saw things and felt the experience of being a mother to me and our relationship and what sort of messes cluttered your mind.”
“Mm, that’s a basketful. Mid-80s, eh? It wasn’t perfect. I came back here for long stretches when I thought it was OK to be that far from you; when you seemed settled in what you were doing at college and after.”
“You did everything right, mom, as far as I was concerned,” Marianne assured her. “I understand the comfort of those mountains. I understood then why you needed to be there from time to time. You’re right. I was settled and very busy. And, to tell you the truth, when I was twenty-one or twenty-two, I was perfectly content to return to Square Delambre and be in an empty apartment.”
“Now you’re making me think back even further. When I was at Sarah Lawrence in the 50s, I used to go down to the apartment my parents kept in the city. Thirty-eighth Street, just off of Park.”
“I remember it.”
“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven the first time I stepped foot in the Village as a sort of adult. That was it for me – Bohemian for life.”
“And did you want Grandma Pips there to greet you when you walked in?”
“Only if I needed new Toreador pants. Bless her heart; but mostly, no! Please tell me more about Julius.”
“What do you want me to say? It’s been very nice having him around more often this summer; I’ve always encouraged him to spend as much time with us as possible. We’ve never really fought since Isabel was born, so her memories of us together have all been quite good.”
“Did he say anything about the two of you?”
“The two of who?”
“You know exactly what I mean, Marianne. I’m through with sitting back and watching and not saying what I think.”
“You’re kidding me, right? I mean, you see no irony in that statement?”
“I invented irony, young lady,” spoke Joanna, with the gravitas of a matriarch. “For the first twenty-five years, my marriage was one, long lesson in incongruity and discordance. But we set our chins, Roger and I, and got through it all. OK, we didn’t always live together; but we’re together now, and everyday I thank God that one or both of us didn’t screw it up irreparably along the way.”
“That’s a dig at me because you think I screwed it up with Julius.” Fifteen or twenty years ago, one of them would have slammed the phone down at this point.
“Project all you like; some would say it wasn’t meant to be. Your reasons for leaving him made a certain sense at the time, unfortunately; and I felt I was in no position to lecture or counsel. I blamed myself and your father for the conceptions you had about Julius and what you were going through then. But I made a terrible mistake being passive and allowing you to make every decision for yourself. You were young, and you needed me. I just said, ‘OK, honey, whatever you want’ to everything you came up with regarding how to live your life.”
“Maybe we should save this for when I get there,” Marianne suddenly sensed she’d been away from her tasks long enough. “I’m thinking, the screened porch and two bottles of wine.”
Now it was Joanna who felt her own transgression.
“Forgive me, Marianne. I love you so much. I have no right to start something so upsetting when you have too much on your mind already.”
When Marianne did not immediately reply, Joanna Gourlie-Papineau added, “On the other hand, what are mothers for?”
“Forget it, mom. I love you too, ya troublemaker. You make some valid points … and I didn’t really get pissed off.”
“Oh honey, you must be exhausted.”
Marianne let that one slide as well. At least in person she could observe her mother’s facial expressions. She thought she had learned most of Joanna’s theatrical aspects. “We’ll pick it up where we left off; I promise.”
“Mm,” Joanna doubted she were off the hook just yet.
“Let’s see,” Marianne pointed her eyes upward as if recalling something from the immediate past, wishing her mother could see her but knowing she most likely could anyway. “I think you’d just said it had been a mistake to let me make any decisions about my life when I was twenty-five. So, that’s where we’ll pick it up.”
“That’s really not … pahh … all right. Give my love to our angel.”
“I will … and mom?”
“Julius and I are fine the way we are. We would never have gotten to where you and dad have. We couldn’t have made it the normal way – or even your way for that matter. It was very sad. It’s been sad, from time to time, over the years. But, in the big picture – the grand mural of our days, staying apart was the best thing. We would definitely not have been happy together.”
“I agree with you about one thing,” Joanna said quietly.
“What’s that?”
“About it being sad.”
“I’m sorry.”
Joanna adjusted her workspace to catch the proper amount of morning light. “You promised we could talk about it while you’re here.”
“Yes, I did,” Marianne acknowledged, after mouthing ‘grandma’ to Isabel, who had entered the kitchen with a look of urgency.
“It’s just that there’s nothing exciting to do here,” Marianne’s mother giggled.
Back in the legendary haven of artists that was Montparnasse, Isabel put her hands on her hips, made an elegantly dissatisfied face worthy of something from the pen of Racine and anxiously tapped her foot. Marianne laughed, as she had many times before, at the garden of Papineau girls on display – herself included.
“Whatever I can do to entertain, mom, you can always count on me.”