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.”

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