Brook Green, London
“Ben Hampton? Are you mad? Why on earth did you say that?” Peter McMahon shrieked at the wretched thought of his wife, whom he adored, losing all credibility – and perhaps finding ostracism -- in her chosen field. He tried awfully hard to always watch out for her and to make things as easy going for her as he could. He had always taken his responsibility as Rosalie Silver’s spouse very seriously. This, he feared, could be a major setback.
“Take it easy, Peter.” She cut up some broccoli and onions for a soup. “Could you see if we have Holland Black & White? If not I’ll need you to pop round to Tesco. Unless there’s heavy cream. I suppose I could use heavy cream instead.”
“Why Ben Hampton?” he asked, laughing. “Why not Salman Rushdie or … or F. Scott Fitzgerald?”
“Look, darling,” Rosalie said, surprisingly nonchalant at having put herself right in it. “I realize I have it all to do, but at this point I can either go to bed and stay there or get hold of Ben Hampton’s phone number one way or another and ring him up. If I could meet him before Friday then that would be perfect. If not, I can postpone seeing Jonathan James until I get Ben squared away.”
“Ben,” Peter said, as though his wife had just claimed to know Christ personally. “We’re going to get Ben squared away.”
“Oh, please. The problem is not the project itself. My chief concern is the man’s calendar, which, I assume, is rather backed up. But, you never know. I can see being able to position this as an almost irresistible proposition and a simply monster book idea. I’ve been putting myself in his place all evening, Peter, and writing a book about Julius Novak at this point in my … his career makes good sense. Enough time has elapsed since “Out in the Cold.” Can you believe it’s been fifteen years?” And she was off.
“Ben Hampton attracts a legion of new readers with every book, people who’ve never read “Out in the Cold” and, most likely, wouldn’t even have liked it. So now we offer him the opportunity to return, in a manner of speaking, to his breakthrough success yet show off the mature power of his prose. He’s at the top of his game. This book can have everything, the way I see it. The main character succeeds, more or less, in two wildly different worlds. Talk about intellectual/thematic cohesion.”
“Have you considered what this would mean to the people who look after him?” Peter asked in his City-schooled, risk averse manner.
“Everyone knows there’s a major upheaval there. The whole enterprise could go anywhere at all. I’ve already made a few calls. From what I hear, Mr. Hampton is dis-illusioned, to say the least. I don’t think a conversation will be worth a hill of beans in reality.”
“But you’ve never even …” Peter began but bit his tongue, like the good man he was, and put his hand on his wife’s cheek. “Well, if anyone can light the fires of interest, you can, love. I say, give it a go.”
“At least this has gotten me off my arse and forced me to play with the Best XI,” she said, kissing him. “I do love you terribly, you know.”
“I adore you.” Peter answered, lovingly returning the kiss and giving the tip of her nose a playful twist.
He turned on the garden lights, and the couple took their glasses of red Loire wine outside. Its rare blend of grapes suited the kind of pair the two had become. Peter remembers being surprised upon learning the wine was four parts Pinot Noir to one part Gamay – the grape used to concoct the lighter yet mercurial wines of Beaujolais. Peter’s simple, blue-collar tastes in wine ran towards the spicy, lunch table variety of Provençe and Languedoc. A pint of good English bitter for him any day of the week. His amusing personality was light on the senses. His softly penetrating eyes, sometimes periwinkle; sometimes coral blue, warmed the hearts of their object.
If it weren’t obvious already, Rosalie was far the bolder of the two, loud and often brash. She could single-handedly lift a dull dinner party from the doldrums, and her infectious energy inspired. But she liked her red wine to splash its tender fruit all around her mouth and then disappear like a breeze might after kissing velvet.
The vegetables and spices simmered in a broth as Peter and Rosalie sat outdoors. In about ten minutes’ time one of them would add a simple roux, the sweet milk, more spices and a splash of wine. The landscaped garden was bursting, and the late summer night was cool enough for Rosalie to put on a sweater. Peter, as usual, had leapt from his pinstriped suit the minute he entered their Sterndale Road home and thrown on a pair of jeans and a stylishly-wrinkly, cotton-linen shirt. Rosalie forbid him to wear his beloved linens after September 1, even in private; even if it was sweltering.
“Take that off this instant,” she was known to scold him. “I told you to put them in the attic!”
“Fuck off! It’s 30 degrees!”
So he made the most of the remaining ‘official summer fashion’ days. He wasn’t particularly gung ho about that banking career of his in the City but it helped pay the bills. The firm on Gresham had employed his father and uncle before him. Peter was always thought of as the ‘boy least likely to,’ when it came to settling down and moving up in the firm, but the birth of a child will do strange things to a man.
This was their twenty-first year in the three-floored terraced house on the tree-lined streets of Brook Green. Both sets of parents had given the young couple a leg-up with the down payment on the proviso from Charlie McMahon that young Peter get his shit together, do something with his Cambridge education and join the firm … or any firm. But he preferred his son land somewhere where his elders could keep a helpful eye on him for a while and support him when needed. Today, one floor of what is now considered hot London real estate would cost twice what the couple paid for the entire property.
Their son was off to college, but they still had the teenage girls in tow on the third floor – each in her own bedroom for the first time in their lives. When the parents suggested that Rosalie’s newly-widowed mother move in with them when Nicholas went away to university, the girls responded as one, “Are you fucking kidding me?” And the subject was dropped.
Rosalie and Peter lounged on the terrace as they talked and sipped the wine, lazily caressing each other’s fingers and touching their wedding bands together like super heroes re-energizing. Her red and brown, curly hair flecked with a sexy gray was somewhere between a high-end, stylish bird’s nest and Peter Frampton 1975.
“So,” she asked. “Do you know anyone who knows Ben Hampton?”
“Afraid not.” Peter said. “Suppose I could ask around tomorrow at the office.”
“Don’t bother. I’ll have probably reached him by the time you get off at Cannon Street. How hard could it be? Unless he’s off to the Maldives or already begun his book tour. Oh shit. He’s probably already in the states. No, wait. The American release comes later.”
“Relax,” Peter rose and moved toward the kitchen. “More wine?”
“Yes, please, not much,” she craned her head back to watch him. “Oh, how about a long weekend in the Cotswolds? Only not the Brockhampton cottage this time. I’m thinking Blockley or Chipping Campden. Try some new pubs, different rambles.”
He had stopped before reaching the wine. He turned and looked back at his wife.
“Let me guess. Would Julius Novak happen to live there?”
“Thereabouts. Where’s that wine?”