Monday, August 29, 2011

Chapter Eighteen of Hampton from the Halfway Line

This bloke was one of Novak's non-soccer playing heroes in the 1970s. The Johan Cruijff of weightlifting. An indominatable enigma from behind the Iron Curtain.


Maidenhead, Berkshire

For the last three days I’ve been reading through my notes and my assistant’s transcripts of the taped Novak interviews. Christ. At one point of acute despair I put on some really loud Wilco on the stereo (the jam segment of “At Least That’s What You Said” from “A Ghost is Born”) to clear my head and return me to something approaching peace, love and understanding.
Kate burst in, looking frayed. “Sweetie, not that I’m not glad that it’s not The Smiths,” she said, “but could you either turn it down please or put on headphones?”
I swiveled in my chair to face the CD shelf, pulled out “Meat is Murder,” then thought better of it and switched over to Nelly Furtado. Something we could agree on.
I think now it was a mistake, or perhaps merely a waste of time, to allow Novak simply to extemporize endlessly about his football upbringing. I blame myself. I suppose my skills as journalistic interrogator were a little rusty.
Or, as Kate says, “You’re not exactly David Frost.”
I had asked him straightaway, “Could you explain how a kid from the American Midwest, born in ’63, became a professional footballer in Europe, the sport’s grandest stage.”
And he did … explain. He “explained,” as I discovered over the weekend, in the shape of approximately 120 pages and upwards of 50,000 words of rambling shite about steel mills and German coaches and Mexicans and Slovaks and alley fights and drainage ditches and Catholic wedding receptions and going to Confession and dreams of Johan Cruijf and Rainer Bonhof and “getting about” and “getting on with it” and “puffing out his chest” and “putting his head down” and “having a go” and “rolling up his sleeves” and “lacing up his boots” and “takin’ it on the chin” and “showin’ em what for.”
Listening to him and chatting while drinking good English beer seemed pleasant and OK and even worthwhile as it was happening. Reading the visual product of those many hours, lost for good, was another thing entirely.
I should have said, “Could you explain in something resembling a nutshell …” Or asked him, “Tell me what it looks like when someone puts his head down while puffing out his chest.” Isn’t that just asking to be knocked over? He kept ‘setting the scene.’ I believe, his being something of a fellow writer, he was trying to be helpful. Or else he just … I don’t know.
“I’ll just set the scene for you, Ben … I should probably set the scene.” And then he would … set the scene. And I quote:
“… The little school ground was located in the concave exterior of an L-shaped, red-brick, one-storied school building built in 1956. Our town possessed an abundance of brick similar to the marble store of Mt. Pentelus in Ancient Athens.”
This is the sort of worthless jive I’ve been drowning in all weekend. Just so much trash I can’t use. Was I not sitting there to stop him, to stop this? I am never doing this again – writing a book about someone. Well, at least someone alive who … speaks. I don’t mean to sound boastful, as though I think I’m better than biographers or anything. I’m not better at all. I’m crap at it.
I must say though, mixed in with his bombast, Novak could display unexpected warmth quite effortlessly or sense of humor and a casual irony. Such as when I asked him the basic, even banal question, “What was the worst moment during your Arsenal career?”
I was expecting something about Wrexham or the defeat to Benfica in the European Cup or when Graham got the sack or Nayim chipping Seaman. Instead he answered, without skipping a beat, completely serious, “The day Freddie Mercury died.”
What is one to make of that?
Well, then, only because I have an evil side, here’s one more little segment of unbearable bloviation from Julius “I Just Hate Talking About Myself” Novak. You wouldn’t know it.
“You could quickly go from the playground for the smaller children (us) to the playground for the upper schoolers by walking through a door, crossing a hallway and going out through an adjacent door. You didn’t do that, however. You might peek through the glass, but you didn’t dare show your face where it didn’t belong. Sometimes kids would grab someone’s personal property – a hat, a notebook – and throw it out that forbidden door onto the upper schoolers’ playground. Then the victim, if he or she wanted their hat back, would have to dart out the door to retrieve it before sprinting back. Of course, the tormenters would lean against the door from the inside preventing the tormented from reentry. It was a risky business for both parties, as you might imagine.”
Not exactly high jinks to make an Old Etonian hide under his bed. I do believe he thought he was writing his own autobiography at that point, and I was just a spittoon with arms and legs holding a micro recorder. Or else he fancies himself the second coming of Harper Lee or J.D. Salinger. Who bloody knows?
I can’t decide whether I’m dismayed, disgusted or merely disillusioned. I think it’s important, though, for people to understand some of what a writer has to endure for the benefit of readers. I’m suffering now, for you, so that you might have an easy time of it as you bask by the pool at your favorite resort, book in hand. I take the time (in this case, an entire weekend) to slash pages and pages of confusing babble from a Word file-cum-manuscript so that you can look up from your reading, poolside, as an attractive person in a swimsuit sits near to you and begins applying tanning oil. Then, when it’s obvious you’re staring, you can take a sip from your fifth slushy, boozy drink with the pineapple chunk and cherry on top and return to your Ben Hampton book at the precise point at which you stopped -- the writing so clear-eyed and compelling and accessible and matey you couldn’t possibly lose your place merely by peeking up at a tanned and toned backside.
I could have spent Friday evening and all of Saturday and Sunday with my children. But, no. I had to sort things for you so you could play the lit-up, tropical-travel perv and ogle someone else’s spouse. All they’re trying to do is enjoy their holiday with a bit of privacy and sunshine. They can hardly help it they happen to be fitter than you. Now my kids have grown up by three whole days that I will never get back. For all I know little Beverly uttered something adorable or extraordinary while tucking into her vindaloo on Saturday evening.
I don’t mean to sound so snippy. Obviously, this transcript’s got me mental. But I had a go earlier this afternoon attempting to put his words right in a way that will lead me to the next level of composition. By ‘next level’ -- inviting you up into the writer’s dusty garret -- I mean what I normally try to do with a book once I feel comfortable with the characters’ voices and have some sort of framework within which the story can take shape. My goal, at the end of the day, is to have accompanied the reader – you lot -- on some sort of authentic emotional journey. And it is authentic. And I do care about you, kidding aside. I would say, if nothing else, I’m in the uppermost echelon of artists who truly care about their audience. Right up there with The Flaming Lips.
So here’s my first take on what Novak was trying to get at as we spoke on one of the terraces of his overwhelming, centuries-old dower’s house with sweeping country views -- as they say in the rental brochures -- and, later, at The Volunteer Inn in nearby Chipping Campden. His home lies at the end of the lane off the High Street, at the foot of the Dovedale Woods, in beyond-picturesque Blockley.
We did indeed share a Ploughman’s Plate.
All right, well. Novak at about age seven used to come home from school and talk with his family round the dinner table about this simple, yet peculiar ball game being contested on the school playground. Two teams of varying sizes each trying to kick a ball into the other’s goal. A real mêlée, this. Football, or soccer, in this case, was not something his family knew much about. St. Louie, the nearby city, had only just been granted a franchise team in the new national league, about to become the NASL. You know, Tampa Bay Rowdies. They played baseball, of course, American-style football and basketball. Soccer was foreign, literally. It wasn’t on telly. It wasn’t in the newspapers. The sport had been growing in popularity across the river in the city, steadier but more slowly in the factory towns on the east side in Illinois. Granite City, Novak’s town, was among the first.
So there was a rudimentary awareness of soccer’s existence. But if it were ever mentioned then it paled in comparison to everything else going on in the world -- meaning, everything else going on in Madison and St. Louis Counties.
And, remember, when I’m speaking of all these weighty matters, I’m generalizing in order for you to see a landscape. I’m not suggesting absolutely everyone felt this way or absolutely everyone did things that way. Right?
Midwesterners in 1970, as today, loved the other sports. The only way that soccer could ever have come into most American homes was via a show that the ABC network presented on the weekends, by all accounts a fantastic program back then called Wide World of Sports. Everyone knew about Wide World of Sports. The name itself connoted an image of athletic competition of the highest order and presented to viewers with state-of-the-art production. As far as icons go, it was just like saying Statue of Liberty or Pearl Harbor or Declaration of Independence. You know how national treasures or iconic moments tend to evolve into being ‘one word’ in the mind of the people, rather than multiple words. My culture has them. Her Majesty the Queen. Battle of Waterloo, Never Mind the Bollocks, 1966 World Cup Finals. That last one especially, wouldn’t you say? Definitely one word, not four. 1966WorldCupFinals.
Wide World of Sports was the venue for the Novaks and the Roths and the Maguranys and the Mendezes to view snippets of the final. Not “The Finals,” that magical rollercoaster month of heartache and triumph, but merely a montage of selected action from the championship match only – a week after the match took place. After all, the USA weren’t competing, so how could it be important? The American broadcast might condense ninety minutes of pulsating joy and unbearable trauma into twenty or thirty minutes of running highlights to give the viewer the illusion of having participated in the world’s preeminent event. The commentator would delight and confuse his fellow countrymen by saying that in many places around the world, normal life actually ceases during the World Cup. Fancy that. And if your country is playing a match, or, manna from heaven, the Final itself, then you’d be able to hear a pin drop in the High Street. A good time for looting.
However, other than football (soccer), the network did an admirable job of informing. Most viewers came away from WideWorldofSports feeling as though they could comment knowledgeably about whatever it was they saw. Who’s that chubby Soviet weightlifter? Oh yeah, Vasily Alexiev. Have you seen that thing like the toboggan where they lie on their backs in Switzerland? You mean the luge? I saw this thing last week; you won’t believe it. It’s like Finland or somewhere. These sons a bitches ski through the fuckin forest for like nine hours with a rifle over their shoulder. Then they lie down on their stomachs and shoot at a target. It’s like Siberian commandoes or something.
The first soccer Novak claims ever to have seen on TV was on that show. It was, of course, the seminal event that transformed the game for millions of people around the world – even some Yanks. Pele and Brazil, in dazzling color, dismantling the Italians in the 1970 Finals. Even though the Novaks didn’t have a color TV, the seven-year-old Novak recalls it as having been in color.
“I would like to be able to say I saw the 1966WorldCupFinals, but I was too young – not yet three years old. That final, your country’s great moment, was seen by a lot of Americans and led pretty directly to the formation of our first professional soccer league.”
Amid this cauldron of bubbling interest, February 1969, Novak’s mother had noticed in the church bulletin, as moms will, that St. Elizabeth of Hungary were having ‘signups’ for their youth soccer teams for the upcoming YMCA league in the spring.
At this point in the interview, Novak went off on what seemed to be another ale-fueled soliloquy. We were now attracting attention from a group of cricket dart throwers.
“I should point out … this just popped into my head; don’t know why. Well maybe I do … that Johan Cruijff, by this time, had been a star in the Dutch League for five years. He was about to play in his first European Cup Final where Ajax would lose to AC Milan. But I had never heard of him. Never heard of any footballers. Not one. In a few years, he would be my soccer idol. I couldn’t really relate to Pele, but I could get my hair to look like Cruijff at least, right? My Mexican friend, Mike, went for Pele and always wore Pumas. I think I’m probably mentioning the Cruijff thing to illustrate just how innocent or how backward I was at the time as far as what was taken for granted by the football world as a whole.”
Thank you for that.
And, while we’re being cynical, none of you could have the slightest idea how many pages I’ve already thrown out. It’s actually somewhat defeating, because I tend to find one useable line buried within a thousand insipid, walking wounded words.
Right. Back to work.
Fact:  Joan, the mother, called the coach to see about getting her youngest child hooked in. Fact: Novak did not attend the Catholic school. Fact:  He and his brothers before him attended public school. Fact: His father hated Catholics. Fact:  Novak was quite happy not to have gone to St. Elizabeth of Hungary School even though it was just a two-minute walk down the street. Opinion: Novak considered the majority of the boys at St. E of H to be, and I quote, “shits.”
Are you still with me?
Fact: When his mum approached him about the soccer team, then, Novak had several reactions, none of which were positive.
For starters, Novak was gun shy about jumping into something unknown. Not the man we know his having become, eh? Second, he assumed the team would consist of these shits. Finally, he had actually been full-on fantasizing about being on a soccer team, tearing down the wing and scoring some impossible game-winner in front of delirious, cheering multitudes. Nowhere in the fantasy could Novak be seen dressed in the royal blue and gold of St. E of H.
No. The future fan favorite of Wüppertal Sport Verein, had imagined himself a bit higher up the food chain. On the school black stuff at playtime, he had acquitted himself well enough among some half-decent and bruising players. Some of the older kids had noticed Novak and began picking him for their teams. Not that there was an abundance of little Kevin Keegans from which to choose. He was no wunderkind by any means, simply useful and bright. He appeared then as the type of player willing to put himself about and get stuck in to some areas not, on the face of things, welcoming to the faint of heart.
The trick to playing on a black-top surface, from my own experience, is to appear unfazed at the prospect of being sent headlong. One would find it impossible to trip or be knocked over and not be injured in some way, whether it’s a scraped elbow or knee or, at worst, a broken bone or concussion. Novak certainly was afraid of falling but was so thrilled that invariably he would lose his head and play like a Norwegian nasty cat.
Again, Novak, waving a pint. He wasn’t really waving it, but in the final edit I might say that he was – for style.
“Well, I don’t need to tell you that when the big boys picked me, I did not look back for a second. I was not loyal in the least to my peers in the first grade, such as begging for them to come along or offering regrets to those who presented me with this longed-for, gilt-edged invitation. None of my customary honor for which I’m sure I’ve become known. I just left them high and dry for greener pastures. I took my chance, so the saying goes.”
Every time Novak says, “I don’t need to tell you,” you can bet the farm you’re about to be told.
These games of soccer, taken further in his dream world, involved boys at least three years his senior. In his mind, they might as well have been professionals. This was soccer at its highest level – the apex of the modern game. It was fast; it was skillful; it was rugged; it was frightening, and it was exhilarating. Granite City, Illinois, 1969 – the white-hot, footballing core of the earth’s crust. The epicenter of the universe. Manchester City? St. Etienne? Celtic? Steau Bucarest? They were nothing.
Remember Hector Mendez, the Mexican footballer and sporting goods merchant? His son, Tino was in real life a fourth grader at Novak’s public school. He was in real life the star of a YMCA team sponsored by Dog-n-Suds, a park and eat root beer stand in Novak’s neighborhood. Best root beer in the world, by all accounts (about which I heard a single account), the perfect beverage for any occasion.
To Novak, Dog-n-Suds’ star Tino Mendez enjoyed near mythical status. In Novak’s fantasies, it was he who would pass the ball to Mendez and receive it back in a neat little give-and-go that would mesmerize the opponent and hasten their back line to open up like the Red Sea.
Tino had auburn, curly hair and very slight freckles on skin the color of the Grand Canyon at sunset. His physique was powerful. He was obviously a sex symbol. You know, someone whom you could imagine having sex before most of his peers were ready for that crevasse. He was sort of like a Greek God and a bull and a street thug and Diego Maradona all rolled into one. Maradona, by the way, was born three years before Novak, which would have made him a “fourth grader” in this story. Just thought I’d throw that in.
Novak described his infatuation.
“I did not yet own a proper soccer ball. In my backyard, I would use whatever sort of round-ish ball was on hand. Rubber, plastic, whatever. I know what you’re thinking – Pelé in the dirty backstreets of Três Corações juggling a grapefruit wrapped in an old sock.”
That’s not what I was thinking.
“But it was here that I would imagine myself in the red shirt with yellow trim and the yellow Dog-n-Suds badge over the heart. Black shorts; black socks.”
The emblem’s design, symbolic of the root beer hut, featured a smiling cartoon dog, who, according to Novak, sort of resembled Walt Disney’s Pluto, wearing a chef’s hat and carrying a tray that balanced two overflowing mugs of foamy root beer. Sheer class.
His mum approached him about the church team. Novak, like most kids, preferred not to hurt his beloved mother’s feelings. But … these things happen. Doff of the cap, really, to Joan, who had seized the day initially by cleverly navigating the church bulletin and offering to follow through on the whole soccer sign-up. By merely joining the team of shits, Novak could have made one of those simple gestures that helps make being a parent a rewarding calling.
Like the clever tactician and survivor he was to become, Novak was diplomatic if non-committal about tying his future soccer fortunes to this particular club. They just didn’t do anything for him. He had seen them play. In his heart, he knew there had to be something better going on in the league. He couldn’t put his finger on it in a proper sound bite to satisfy his mum. But he just could not put pen to paper here, so to speak, and give the woman any kind of go-ahead to make the phone call.
I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek here obviously. In fact, I rang Novak up at about this point and told him where I was and what was happening. I was not obliged to do so. I may have just needed a shot of his voice for inspiration. He laughed that Joan would be pleasantly surprised to learn that she was his very first agent and would therefore feel entitled to an even bigger piece of the action.
“Seriously, though, I seem to remember her trying gently to talk me into it, thinking I was going to miss out on something fun by dragging my feet because of a childish fear, an unwarranted fear. Kind of like when I tried to get out of the tonsillectomy at the last minute. But I must have seemed genuinely apprehensive because she just said something like, ‘Well, you let me know, and either we’ll do it this season or wait ‘till next season. It’s up to you. This soccer team’s not going anywhere.’
Exactly, I thought! She understands after all.”
Novak, sort of a hero to some I suppose, had been offered the chance to get his feet wet by playing on a real team. But he’s balked at it, he claims, without regret.
One of his greatest strengths, during the time I watched him at football, seems to be his decision-making and a confidence in making good, informed assessments and choices. We’ve watched him on the pitch make impressive snap judgments that help turn a match. This is not a character, then, who just shuffles blindly forward like peasants in a Breughel painting or who glides along like a lemming simply for the sake of it.
Once more, the pints of beer.
“Thank you for steering me to this memory, Ben. Don’t you find this intriguing? This whole seemingly innocent episode of not joining my church team – what a fucking smart move for a seven-year-old. Are you kidding me? I mean, seven-years-old, and I’m like, ‘No!’”
So what does he do now -- Mr. Free Agent who still takes bubble baths with army men at his gran’s on Saturday nights? What he did was continue to play at break, watch other teams go at it on the weekends and fantasize like nobody’s business about setting new goal and assist and victory records alongside Tino Mendez as Dog-n-Suds win the league, the challenge cup and some make-believe tournament with championship sides from all over the country. The red, black and yellow (Watford?) are unstoppable, and they are being talked about. He may be but seven, but he is becoming a superstar in a sport that is writing its own story on the fly.
And we drink. And we have a go at darts. And I wonder if he’s told this story before, while drinking pints and playing darts. Am I not his first?
I picture Novak kicking the ball around at the St. E of H fields with the uniformed players of any league before and after their games. His plan is that perhaps he will be noticed, like a starlet hanging out on Hollywood and Vine. Make them want me, he’s thinking. Maybe even fight over me in something resembling a bidding war.
But was it only soccer about which this little American fantasized? Does the dreamer limit his fanciful longings to but one of life’s broadways? Shit! Now I sound like Strachey. See what happens when you hang around too much with one person? You get influenced. My mojo is disappearing. I’ll have to sit on a rubber donut to avoid compulsory military service and chuck the lad lit forever.
I shift through pages and pages.
This is where it starts to get disturbing. Starts? And I became sorry we went to the pub. For now I’m waylaid by how Novak pretended he was a guest musician on Beatle albums among other things and that he had his own pop group. By 1969, of course, the inscrutable mop tops had become drug-addled hippies on the verge of disintegration the way he tells it. The White Album. Abbey Road. Let it Be. But since Novak didn’t identify with real life at the time, he had his own agenda. And that agenda did not include dwelling on reality. The Beatles he focused on were like, the “Hard Day’s Night” and “Help” soundtracks. He placed himself in these films, as many of us did. Yeah, there was a whole alternative scene where Novak is walking sadly on the towpath of the canals to the tune of “This Boy.” And he was definitely in the stupid downhill ski scene during “Ticket to Ride,” part of the whole James Bond send off. And, not too many people know this, but Novak appeared in “Guns of Navarone,” “Sons of Katie Elder,” “Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Dirty Dozen” and, famously, “Zulu.” That’s how he knew about ‘Men of Harlech’ before having set foot on British soil.
The worst was yet to come. He’d never revealed this to anyone and admitted that he’d probably suppressed it psychologically. He asked me if I could assent to going off the record because this next bit was not for print.
“Do we understand each other? A simple nod will do if you can stop laughing.
“All right, when I was little, my favorite Beatle … was … not John. It was Paul. Yeah, fine. Fuck off. In public, of course, later in life, I would make like my favorite Beatle was John because you had to, didn’t you? If you wanted to go anywhere in intellectual and literary circles or academe, or if you lusted after brainy women, you had to align with John Lennon all the way. Ringo was a clown. George was pure musician and dull and, I guess, mystic. Pretty boy Paul was kind of a fraud and a poser and a stab you in the back kind of character. John developed into, or was merely anointed by the media as, the clever one, the inscrutable artist, the pure political icon. But you know what? I’ll tell you the truth. When I was a kid, John actually made me uncomfortable. The guy scared me. I liked Paul, all right? Maybe it was a left-handed thing. My favorite Beatle was Paul.
“And I’ll tell you another thing. I’ll bet you that millions of people around the world pretended to like John best. Because, if you ask me, the world consists of personalities who, if they’re honest with themselves, associate with one of the four Beatles. And I’ll bet that it’s divided equally. One-fourth of the world’s population – and you know I’m right – are therefore Ringo sympathizers. One-fourth George enthusiasts, and so on. That was their appeal. They had all the bases covered like no other pop group in history.”
So now we know. This is what Julius Novak, Europaeum lecturer, had done with his four-star education at Köln and Cambridge Universities – a half-baked anthropological theory about human behavior vis-à-vis the Fab Four.
I was more interested in knowing who was Marianne Papineau’s preferred Beatle. Based on what Novak had shared with me up to now, I guessed ‘John Lennon.’
“When I met her, she was practically a female John Lennon. She’d been dating a German art student who kind of thought he was John Lennon. It’s a bit comical how a pair of granny glasses and a little acid can really overtake you. As I was hot for her, I easily transformed myself into a John-man. I almost said ‘overnight,’ but it was more like ‘on-the-spot.’
Fast forward a couple of months to May 1969. The spring soccer season in Granite City, sans the opted out Novak, is winding down.
One overcast, late Saturday afternoon, at the soccer fields found Novak kicking a ball with some boys near the largest of the three pitches. A boy from his class at public school approached him. Eftimoff was a friend, and he wasn’t a friend. The boy was an unsettling puzzle to Novak. Eftimoff had a big personality, but he hadn’t learned how to make it work for him consistently. So Novak alternately admired and enjoyed him and was annoyed and embarrassed by him. His mature side looked on Eftimoff favorably and behaved gentlemanly toward him. The small part of himself, the boy (and, later, the man) of which he is most ashamed, shunned and mocked the pudgy Eftimoff and acted despicably and hurtfully.
Good for Eftimoff that any actual or perceived mistreatment from Novak was water off his back. He saw something in Novak, similar to how the future Arsenal man couldn’t help but notice that there was real substance to Eftimoff beneath the unorthodox presentation. Young Eftimoff’s pushiness and perseverance and crackpot ideas were, in essence, the seven-year-old stirrings of entrepreneurship and marketing genius, which is the path he was to follow.
Eftimoff’s father was a small businessman through whose connections the soccer team, on which his uncoordinated little boy played, acquired sponsorship. The name of Eftimoff’s team was Madison County Bar Association (MCBA). Pando Eftimoff was an accountant for a handful of lawyers in town. So half the team were sons of attorneys. They might have called them Sons of the Attorneys, like Sons of the Pioneers or Knights of the Garter. Mind you, this was Granite City, Illinois, so they weren’t big corporate types. Rather, the bulk of their clients were, according to my only source on the matter, victims of industrial accidents, deadbeat dads and instigators of bar fights.
So Eftimoff, absolute shit footballer, but his dad’s a real sports nut and an awfully decent guy. Looks a little like James Coco, the character actor. Eftimoff is a very clever young fellow with aptitude in non-traditional subjects, like opera and cabaret and an uncanny knowledge of sex. He shared with Novak certain pieces of information, which our hero seriously doubted were possible.
“Come on,” he would say, “why would a girl put a penis in her mouth?”
This kind of unfounded crazy talk led most of the boys to believe there was something seriously off about this Eftimoff. When, as it turned out, his were the only parents around who were straight up with him about how the world operated.
He would pass irresistible nuggets covering a variety of subjects, on to his peers, whereupon he was pegged as an unrepentant loony to be shunned. Shut up, they would all hiss. Eftimoff had a lot of objects thrown at him. No one wanted to know. Well, they did; but they didn’t – not from him. There lies the conflict.
The poor kid could barely put one foot in front of the other on the soccer pitch or the baseball ‘diamond.’ Did you know it was a diamond? But, like his dad, he had a knack for bringing people together to achieve a common goal and designing and implementing strategic initiatives. At the age of seven, he was already “managing director” material. At school, he was forever pushing Novak into things and egging him into refining his projects and stretching and demonstrating self-confidence.
“It was so annoying.”
On more than one occasion, he actually grabbed Novak’s arm in the school classroom to make it look like Novak was volunteering.
He would whisper, “Julius, you know the answer,” or “Julius, you’re the best one for this. Get in there!”
Not that I expect you to, but do you remember Novak’s quote about having not looked back when the big boys picked him for their soccer team? Well, he was being metaphorical. He did look back. There stood Eftimoff, in the back of the group, nodding his approval. Eftimoff was never picked as a child, but he was a survivor – kind of like the Emperor Claudius as played by Derek Jacobi.
Back at the church fields on the grey Saturday afternoon, Eftimoff called out to young Novak, luring Julius in his direction by passing a ball to him. Well, not exactly to him. The possessor of the ball had called out “Jules.” The recipient of the ‘pass’ looked up and noticed a soccer ball lolling on the high grass about half the distance between himself and the passer. Eftimoff shouted, very upbeat, “Pass.”
Eftimoff was with MCBA, engaged in a pre-game shooting drill in front of goal. They were attempting the standard pass-and-move-toward-goal during which each player would ideally run on to something like a one-touch setup from their coach – someone’s dad. Given that they were all six and seven years old with very little experience at the game and that the dad/coach was looking himself quite new to the sport, the result could best be described as sloppy.
Eftimoff came right to the point, asking Novak, with a twinkle in his eye, if he would fancy a shot at goal. Novak stared out at the coaches shouting encouragement and the players all horsing around with each other and said, something like, “No.”
Eftimoff kept it up, “Come on. It’s fine. Just get in line. Show ‘em how you score.”
Novak continued to shake his head, petrified, and was just about to ease away toward the safety of home, when Eftimoff without warning bellowed to the coach, “Hey, Mr. Siegfried, here’s my friend I told you about. He wants to play on a team.”
The moment struck Novak completely dumb. How could he not have expected something like this to happen? Had he not been putting himself out there on the auction block, so to speak? All the fantasizing; all the daydreams of glory; all the swaggering on the playground, and now … is this how it was fated to happen? Tricked into a corner by his publicist, his nemesis?
He was frozen, rooted to the spot. If they’d had cell phones back then, he would have called his mother so she could tell them some lie about how “we’ve already been approached. I’m afraid there’s a wrinkle, Mr. Siegfried … Eftimoff. We have a call in to our parish side. They’re quite keen.”
But of course Joan, as I understand her character, would never have agreed to such a con. No. The boy was on his own, and he quite possibly had it coming what with all the secrecy and all the “he shoots … he scores” bathtub commentary.

I can’t take it anymore. I don’t believe I’ll be able to use any of this. I’m thinking I may have to call Rosalie and explain what’s happening, about how we may want to make allowances for the fact that the Marianne bits are more interesting to me than the football bits.
I could send her the following two paragraphs of Novak speaking as proof of what I’m up against.
“In a matter of half an hour, my life changed. I was transformed. It was like being shot out of a cannon. The coach called that evening and spoke to my mom. My father wasn’t the type who did well with that kind of thing. Not a phone person. Mr. Siegfried explained that the YMCA spring season was coming to an end. And while he was not allowed to add anyone to the roster for the remaining league matches, he had entered MCBA into a couple of tournaments. So I would be able to participate in those games. I should come to the practice on Tuesday evening, where I would receive my uniform. My mom took notes to make sure she got it all.
“The real excitement was in rushing home with my very first authentic kit to be immediately modeled for my mom’s hungry Kodak Instamatic. Those photos are still in the family album – blue shirt, white shorts, blue socks. Big smile. Hands behind my waist. Chest out. The shirt was a very smart, cadet blue with silvery-gray collar, cuffs and lettering – MCBA right across the chest. The open neck had string laces. But what struck me about the picture were my socks. I had no idea how to properly fold them, so I have them stretched up over my knees like John Terry and others do these days. I wish they’d stop that. Why do they do it? They’re forever having to pull them up. It’s stupid. I’ve always liked how some of the cooler Italians have the sock folded back and behind the shin pad – very macho. I tried that briefly at Valencia. It’s not easy to pull off … as it were.”

Monday, August 8, 2011

Chapter Seventeen of Hampton from the Halfway Line


Central London

Christmas 2007 had been unlike any other in Rosalie’s life. Always her favorite of holidays, Christmas (Peter, don’t ever write it ‘Xmas’ again) found Rosalie going about making all and sundry as festive and memorable as possible for her children – first Nicholas, then Lauren, then soon after Dani. Peter administered the storage boxes and took care of the high up things. When it came to Christmas, Rosalie McMahon could give any high-end gay florist a run for his money. She had grown up in a mixed, Jewish/C of E household, in Golders Green in the sixties, where Christmas had been a muted celebration. Still, Rosalie the girl had absorbed much of the mysterious nativity, combined with the pagan magic of Saint Nick and the breathless visits to London department stores. The sights, sounds, feel and tastes of the traditional western yuletide filled little Rosalie Silver with a deep appreciation, now that she was a mum, for stuffing more fancifully-wrapped presents under the tree than could possibly fit without spilling over into adjoining rooms and perhaps even a few gifts like toy motorcycles and such (assembled after midnight by Peter) having to appear fantastically on the porch or the terrace. For her, Christmas was not Christmas without bits of ribbon and bows strewn about, holiday music playing at all hours on the stereo, at least one day coursing amid the throngs before the mercantile icons of Oxford Street, and color, color, color.
Peter allowed her free reign – not that he could stop her if he’d wanted to. Decorating the house (from top-to-bloody bottom, according to Peter), throwing big sweeping parties (actually better than anyone else’s), taking in the occasional wastrel (Please, no!) and shopping like crazy (can we take it a bit easy this year?) meant a great deal more to Rosalie than it meant for Peter that these things not happen. Part of his shtick involved channeling Scrooge, but it was an act. In Peter’s mind, probably, his wife behaving so outrageously puckish led to his unconsciously performing as a counterweight with fun-loving sarcasm and a studied weariness.
Such as, when driving through the countryside and spotting a forty-foot spruce, exclaiming, “Oh, darling, just there. We could probably knock through the parlor ceiling and fit that tree in the house. The children could decorate the top half from their beds like in some West End musical.”
This year, though, she had all the emotional touchstones she’d cultivated over the years -- a tight-knit, loving, if argumentative family; dear friends; a beautiful home in Brook Green ripe for trimming with pine roping and holly berries – plus the added riches of exquisitely meaningful work. Well, maybe not meaningful like feeding starving Sudanese children; or helping prevent war or pestilence; or rebuilding the wrecked bits of Sichuan province. She had her local charity work, and that was nice. But, just after Peter and the children, Rosalie loved books most of all. Commercial and literary fiction first. Travel and food second. They were part of who she was as a woman. And now, amidst the usual joys, she was knee deep in the business of books with one of its heavy hitters. Ben Hampton would not describe himself as a heavy hitter – more like a lucky blighter.
Just after Ben had alerted Rosalie that his actual agent, Dava Carson, sought a huddle of sorts with her – his quasi-agent, Rosalie immediately set about arranging a summit. His actual agent, Ms. Carson, of whom Ben was quite fond and proud, was, along with dozens of her colleagues, in the act of a protracted, nasty and very public battle with Sizemore and Callus. Sizemore had been an independent literary agency, one of London’s originals. Now they were the talent agent tentacle of a vast entertainment supernova. The last thing Dava needed at this chaotic time was her dear friend and plum client nibbling the fruit of a mysterious rival.
‘He wouldn’t dare leave me, would he? And who was this Rosie McGregor or whatever? What sort of low life?’
Ben assured Dava that the collaboration with Rosalie was out of the blue, completely his idea and just for this one harmless little sport book. It was nothing. Of course he wanted to remain Dava’s client. Absolutely he was indebted to her and relied significantly on her as a creative, editorial and business partner. Ours is a bond, he even said. Ben Hampton had never uttered anything of the sort in his life.
He didn’t apologize (as she might have expected), and he didn’t request for this peculiar indulgence to be considered any kind of favor needing to be paid back. Ben Hampton was his typically friendly and easy-going blokish self. As irritated as Dava Carson had every right to be by such a ghastly revelation, she also realized what the famous author was implying in his innocent and uncalculated tone. Don’t rock the boat!
Ben held, by far, the upper hand at this point in their relationship, and he didn’t even have to acknowledge that he knew it. Over a twenty-year period he had cultivated, by his personality allied crucially with his runaway success and well-earned reputation, a community of literary associates who could best survive and prosper, as can we all, by endeavoring to behave well and get along. Ben Hampton et al were a professional niche, within the larger village of the book business, possessing a variety of shared, intertwined interests very much like a family.
Dava knew it too. Besides, she loved him like a brother. She did ask permission, however, to at least chat with Rosalie ‘just to get to know her.’ And to make it clear that any additional boat rocking on Rosalie’s part would constitute much more of a risk than the one this renegade took in turning Ben’s head in the first place. And to negotiate some manner of face-saving share of the agent fee, without resorting to threats, just so this Rosalie McMahon knew where things stood going forward. On top of everything else, Dava was itching to know what really happened to set this Julius Novak bullshit in motion.
Sizemore and Callus were of mixed opinion when they first got wind of the whole ‘Ben Hampton proposal sold to JJI by some interloper’ gossip. Their first instinct, as a corporation, had been to just unleash a torrent of ravenous solicitors on anyone even tangentially connected. Legal ‘shock and awe,’ as it were. Cool heads having prevailed, though, the directors at Sizemore figured if they were going to lose Ben Hampton anyway in some kind of mass agent exodus – barring an eleventh hour miracle at the bargaining table – then why not sit back and enjoy watching the popular novelist stick it to one of the mutineers?
The week before Rosalie met Ben and Julius at The Dove, she therefore had a meeting with Dava Carson at the Coram Street office. Peter was told to be available if the encounter were to go all pear shaped. Dava, at first, sought home-field advantage by inviting Rosalie down to Sizemore’s historic and imposing Bow Street building in Covent Garden. In the end, she decided not to add any shots of booze to the water cooler chatter by presenting in the flesh the infamous Ben Hampton poacher. A term, by the way, which Ben asked Dava please not to use – not around Rosalie; not around anyone. The Julius Novak project, he insisted, did not constitute a poach.
“Technically, it does,” Dava said to her client over dandelion, broad bean, cherry tomato and shaved pecorino salad at a bustling Orso. “But, never mind. What shall we call it then?”
“Why do we have to call it anything?” he asked.
“Because others will.”
Ben really hated the part of the book business having fuck all to do with reading, writing, browsing, sipping cappuccino and getting paid.
“Look, you’re my friend. Rosalie’s my friend. This has not got in the way of anything else I’m doing – much. Dava, really, by next week half a dozen other of your clients will have caused you much more catastrophic bother than this.”
“Great. How very soothing.”

After thirty minutes together that afternoon in Coram Street, Rosalie was standing behind a seated Dava Carson vigorously massaging her neck as the super literary agent sobbed the tears of a million agents throughout recorded history. Rosalie had gotten Dava to unload a year’s worth of anxiety about the agency turmoil, breast cancer scare, separation from her husband and the ongoing upset of her adopted Egyptian girl having quit school to follow a muslim street gang in Brent.
“Poor Dava. There, there, dear. Let it out. Let your body go limp. Yes. There you are. How does that feel?”
“Oh my god. That’s extraordinary. Is this how you got Ben to do the football book?”
“Shhhhh …”
     For the next two hours, Rosalie laid out a savvy game plan for Dava and her colleagues to successfully negotiate a solution to their Sizemore and Callus disorder. By the time they kissed goodbye and Dava headed in the direction of the Russell Square tube, Ben Hampton’s longtime agent was committed to not getting in the way of the Julius Novak project and to her new friend and confidant, Rosalie McMahon.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Chapter Sixteen of Hampton from the Halfway Line

You know those middle chapters in some novels that you just have to get through because they move the story along but are not all that powerful compared to more stirring or robust chapters? This chapter is perhaps one of those. However, there are some competently written and funny bits. And, yes, that is Maurice the Celebrity Psychic.


Blockley, Gloucestershire

“You’ve drifted off to sleep at night imagining scoring a game winner for Arsenal or lifting a major trophy. I’ve nodded off dreaming of winning the Booker Prize or writing a bestseller or signing books for people who tell me how much they enjoyed it. I’m interested in your thought process and your mechanics, and you want to know what Ray Parlour is really like.”
Novak shoved both hands into his jeans pockets, as he walked with Ben Hampton on a tree-lined gravel road surrounded by meadow and arable fields. The day was a sunless but mild December morning below the Wolds in northern Gloucestershire. It was Ben’s second visit to the ex-footballer’s dower’s house, secluded down a wooded country lane at Dovedale End. As they walked toward the town, they could look west up a steep incline of meadow forming an immediate setting to the hillside cottages. To the left and right of Novak’s lane were smaller lanes leading up the hill or down to the stream and mills. Looking that way, the men had a rather close-up view onto several rooftops as the old, workers’ cottages were set lower than the lane. A spring, jutting out from a high, dry-stone retaining wall with a view above the high street, provided the local residents with impeccable drinking water.
Blockley seemed larger to Ben than he imagined it would. Perhaps because the late-Georgian buildings were clustered together, rather than spread out, which gave the central village more of an urban effect. The terraced houses possessed fine architectural detail, made visually memorable to visitors by their roofscape with prominent dormer windows and chimneys. Small bay windows and railed front gardens completed the mesmerizing charm.
Their direction was the high street, where Novak had first met the McMahons for lunch in the autumn. Blockley’s high street was set apart from the busier town roads so it seemed tucked away, as though it were a secret.
“Perhaps we’ll end up writing books about one another,” Novak quipped. “A package. Wrap the two books together, like a ‘Hampton on Novak/Novak on Hampton.’ Two books for the price of … well, you’d pay for both books, obviously. But two books, say, for Christmas.”
“Not what I had in mind,” Ben stopped walking. “Actually, I struggle to come up with anyone but you who would have that in mind.”
The actual novelist was wearing a lined windbreaker and a New Orleans Jazz Festival baseball cap with Professor Longhair’s face on the front. Novak had on a hunter green, buttoned cashmere pullover on top of a wrinkled dress shirt that didn’t really go.
“You’ve not met Marianne,” Novak said, going back to her once again, predictably now.
Ben had yet to visit Marianne Papineau in Vermont. He’d not yet decided to do so or indeed where he was taking the story. They’d not even come to Novak’s take on Wrexham. That disaster might very well be half the book.
“I would describe her as … elusive, rare, bright, fascinating, desirable and tempting; yet affectionate, perceptive, protective, supple, maternal.”
“Based on some of your other memories, I was waiting for you to say unforgiving.”
Novak ignored him with a searching, through ball.
“She set me constantly to wonder, though, whether her true aspect, in how she chose to live her life, was assured or unsure.”
“And you still wonder?”
“I’m still in the dark as to what exactly I could have done to keep her in my life, short of sacrificing practically everything else I cared about.”
“She is in your life.”
“You know what I mean. We’ll never know if having Isabel is the only reason we have anything to do with each other.”
“Mightn’t you have remained friends if you hadn’t had a child to raise together?”
“Probably not, considering how much she hated me.”
Ben wanted to steer Novak away from self-pity. “How would you describe your relationship now – Isabel aside?”
“As far as I’m concerned, we’re very close.”
“You love her,” Ben said, completely without risk.
“I’ve never stopped loving her.”
“What happened?”
“The bottom line, I suppose,” Novak spoke as though these thoughts would never end up on the printed page, “is that I didn’t trust her motives back then, and I didn’t believe she had my best interest at heart. I did feel as though her priority was chiefly us as an entity, but only if a healthy us were predicated on her notion alone of what we as a couple should look like, and how we should function going forward. I strongly believed her idea of us chopped me off at the knees.”
Ben reacted ironically. “And as a holding midfielder who was expected to get forward once, maybe twice each half, you couldn’t very well have that, could you?” Ben could see that Novak didn’t know very much about what had just been said to him.
“I knew I was playing top-flight football on borrowed time, believe me. I took it year by year; and, every season, I did evaluate the pros and cons of continuing. Marianne knew that. We talked about it, and I genuinely weighed her opinions and misgivings.”
“Yeah, genuinely?”
“But her point of view seemed completely one-sided and ultimately offensive and threatening. She knew I would eventually – and very soon -- come back to the life I’d planned, whatever that was.”
“Something to do with learning every language on the planet, if I recall.”
“My decision to carry on with the football may not have been the most reasonable, in the grand scheme of things; but I made the choice from the position of being placed in a corner.”
“Like a badger,” Ben raised up little claws and showed his top row of teeth.
“Or else I placed myself in a corner.”
Ben thought, that one’s open to debate. “Not quitting before that 88-89 season, then, turned out to be …” the biographer lead his subject by the hand.
“… a grave error,” Novak finished the sentence for him, as was hoped. “I lost my family because of it. I realized Marianne and Isabel were my family only after I no longer had them with me. Before the baby was born, I was too immature to see that the two of them, together in Marianne’s body, were a vital part of myself.”
Ben wondered if Novak had meant that to sound quite so corny. He would play with it.
“I felt absolutely hollow for the first time in my life. I desperately wanted her to take me back. I say ‘desperately,’ but I wasn’t willing to change anything about my exhilarating football … I hate the word ‘career.’ I looked upon football as being like quicksilver, like trying to stay upright on a surfboard in a gale.”
“Perhaps you had some bizarre kind of competitive spirit that wouldn’t allow you to stand down until the final whistle.”
Ben had read a lot of football fanzines over the years. Most were ran through with ironic detachment.
“I must tell you, I had no interest in scaling back the determined, if now prolonged quest for my doctorate because I wanted to fall immediately back on academia, or something lucratively related, if the football ended abruptly; and even if it were to go on for a bit.”
“So you wanted everything without compromise.”
The two men, now nearing the high street, were quiet for several beats before Novak resumed. As they passed the junction of Watery Lane, the tower of St. George’s Church became visible. Gaps between the buildings appeared less often. The originally honey-colored stone had weathered to a warm brown russet.
“You see the stone in some of these retaining walls? It’s the same as that polished-looking stone used in the facades all around and in the walls to most of the nicer terraces. The stone in the retaining wall just there is called un-coursed rubble. When they wanted the stone to look more grand, they would give it a sort of rustication. Rough it up a bit by sculpting in some sophisticated texture.”
“Marianne would be proud at what you’ve … uh … retained, I guess.”
“Yeah, she had a laugh when I told her about the stone wall venture.”
Ben let that sink in before answering.
“Mad kind of symmetry, you must admit.”
They had switched from the gravel road to a tarmacadam pavement. Again, Novak veered where his memory took him, rather than logically following the prescribed conversational thread.
“These days, I seem to think she was just frightened, because she found a man whom she loved.”
“That would be you.”
“And she wanted to be sure that he was always going to be with her and not be as unavailable as she viewed her father as having been, for so many years, in relation to her mother and to herself as a little girl and a teenager.”
“Did her parents stay together?”
“Ultimately, yeah,” Novak said. “We, of course, didn’t.”
A twenty-five-year-old man, Ben concentrated. A bright, clever chap. What could he have been thinking? What went through the young mind of this now middle-aged bloke, this St. Louisan posing as an English country gentleman?
“Assuming your theory is correct, would you have quit Wüppertal had you been apprised of such insight by someone … like a therapist or Marianne’s mum or like that celebrity psychic on Sky TV?”
“I’ve thought about it, and I honestly can’t see it. I’m sorry to say. You’re thinking of Maurice, by the way.”
They entered the High Street proper and were within view of The Crown.
“What I assume now to have been fear and frustration and panic and confusion, on her part, I interpreted then as her being rather an overindulged, unbalanced little bitch who wanted to control me. She was young. That’s how it came off. I was young. That’s how it looked. If we’d managed somehow to have patched it all up and never to have separated, then I admit it might be less awkward and more amusing and harmless.”
“She’s single at the moment?”
“At the moment, yeah. Very nice man she was with for quite a few years, at least ten years. That was stormy too, I think, according to Isabel, who is a very keen and accurate reporter.”
There weren’t many tourists in Blockley this time of year. Still, the High Street was busy with what looked to be locals going about a daily routine. Ben started to ask Novak something, but Novak spoke first.
“Neither of us ever married.”
“I gathered.”
“Every time we spent a quiet moment alone, it seemed, after a certain point, she wanted to know if I thought this year was going to be my last season of ridiculous, adolescent football. ‘You’re twenty-five, Julius,’ she’d say. ‘Isn’t it time to grow up?’
“If quitting Wüppertal  -- just as we’d taken the Cup Winners’ Cup on our second try and, at the same time, somehow qualified for the UEFA Cup and were about to embark on playing some of the greatest clubs Europe had ever seen -- was her idea of growing up, then, ‘No!’ I mean, you remember the old UEFA cup, Ben. The European Cup was ‘league champions only.’ So, most often, UEFA was the real show in town. Anytime Madrid or Barça failed to win La Liga, then they were likely to be in the UEFA. Same goes for Bayern or Ajax or any of the top Italian sides. The clubs from the Soviet bloc were very strong. Those players rarely escaped to the west. What a tournament. I used to get goose bumps just imagining taking part. After moving to Germany, I would watch it, starry-eyed, on television.”
“So you start off in Germany with this plucky little lower division side.”
“And now I’m going to be, god willing, in the UEFA Fucking Cup? And my girlfriend wants me to beg off.”
“Was she mad?” Ben placed one foot back in fan mode.
“No. She was pregnant. But I wasn’t to know that. She told me when she was about three months along at the crescendo of a particularly horrifying shouting match between us. I was attempting, for the hundredth time, to defend why I had to carry on with playing soccer just now. She couldn’t understand. I couldn’t make her understand. And I didn’t really take her feelings on board about how her parents had been apart for so long and all that.”
“Sounds a bit complicated.”
“I don’t know. Marianne had a genuine need for me to be ‘normal’ and obviously more attentive.”
Ben thought Novak looked sorry.
“And I didn’t get it or, more likely, ignored her feelings completely. The two of us, tragically, were coming at the matter from entirely different perspectives. Neither of us thought we were being selfish. I certainly didn’t relate to her accusation of narcissism.”
Ben imagined himself saying to a girlfriend or a wife, ‘That’s what it is. I’m a narcissist. What a relief.’
“Sounds like the both of you could have gone either one way or the other at that moment,” Ben said. He was unused to speaking this candidly with another man, not even with his own brother. Especially not with his own brother.
“I behaved like someone who hadn’t grown up. She told me to pack up and leave. While I gathered a few things …”
“In one of your official Wüppertal duffels?”
“… she violated EU diplomacy protocol by calling me every name in the book. Marianne was behaving as though she genuinely wanted me out of there. I genuinely wanted out of there at that moment.”
“I think many of us have starred in this kitchen sink drama.”
“Unfortunately, my life changed for the worse because of how I acted that day. I’d say it was over in about an hour and a half.”
“Ninety minutes.”
“There’s the metaphorical angle for you, all nice and tidy.”
They turned back toward Dovedale End.
“Before I die, I hope to understand how I could successfully navigate ninety minutes with Hamburg or Möenchengladbach or the mighty Bayern, against world-class football talent, yet be so inept and harmful with the person I’d deeply loved for five seasons.”
“Years,” Ben corrected him.
“You said five seasons. You were talking about Marianne, not the football club.”

Biographer and subject returned to the cozy library of the dower’s house where Novak opened two beers and the contents of his soul, such as it was.
“Is it a fact, rather than just one woman’s opinion, that I gave her nothing of myself?”
“Do you mean to ask,” Ben joined the fray with his narrative powers, “did you expend the entirety of your brain trying to draw the likes of Hansi Pflugler away from your side’s attackers or devising methods of keeping one eye on Roland Wohlfart’s lateral runs while minimizing Matthaeus’ impact on the tempo of the match?”
“Well done, Brian Glanville,” Novak said. “No, I just kept thinking the Bundesliga joyride would end at any moment, and that while it lasted I should just try my damndest, stay fitter than the others and strain to keep my place in a now rock-solid side. There’s really no way that I should ever have been any more than a part-timer when it came to skill and pedigree. But … people underestimated me.”
“A very foolish thing to do,” Ben said, looking away from Novak while perusing the handsome, built-in bookshelves.
“Sorry. You actually care more about the Marianne thing than my legendary path to the marble halls of Highbury, don’t you? Right.”
“Yes,” Ben agreed. “Back to your singular humiliation.”
“Of course. Why would I want to discuss the times I was applauded for my grit and industry and for punching above my weight?”
“Why indeed? When you could face your own ugliness, the beast in your pantry.”
“I couldn’t possibly let you down. Where were we?”
“You were an idiot.”
“Oh, yes. Cast me as your brooding, post-modern anti-hero. I had this magnificent woman all to myself, and I blew it. Would you like to hear about my Thomas Mann/Günter Grass/Rainer Maria Rilke period?”
“Some other time. If you wouldn’t mind, though, I am keen to learn what others, besides Marianne, thought about your dual identity.”
“The press? Your teammates? The supporters? As far as you know. I’ll make my own inquiries, of course.”
“That’s the thing. That’s what I’m trying to say. In Germany, rarely would a fellow player and never would a club official give me any stick for doing schoolwork or question that I was a student and then a grad student and was student teaching and running off after training to get to class or anything. I wasn’t the only one either. I met a player for Köln who was simultaneously in college, and I actually was a friend to two guys around school who were on the books at Uerdingen -- both reserves. The press didn’t care. The supporters didn’t care. The club bent over backward for me. It just seemed the intellectual life, for want of a better word, was treated with kind of a thoughtful acceptance or just pushed aside as irrelevant -- at least not detrimental -- to what was happening on the pitch. I didn’t see it as the intellectual life; I saw it as life, my life. Now if I were to string several poor performances together or appear not to be giving a proper effort, then I would say people have the right to ask serious questions about my priorities.”
“You said ‘in Germany.’ Does that mean it was different in England?”
Novak looked at Ben Hampton as though the author had two heads.
“You know damned well it was different in England. And think about it. Weren’t you worried every time your country played Germany that the English would be outfoxed or outthought by some clever German – that players from just about every major footballing nation were somehow more cultured, more sophisticated, less brutish?”
Ben did know that British footballers who appeared to use their brains, for anything other than calculating the foot speed required to reach the ball before that other chap, were regarded with suspicion. Who does he think he is, sort of thing?
“I heard the left back for Rovers reads the Guardian,” says the first football supporter.
To which the second football supporter responds, “Probably gay.”
“Everything changed,” Novak continued, irritated, “and it all became less comfortable. Early 90s. Football was rapidly evolving, thanks to you, into what it is today.”
“I wrote a memoir – period.”
“Mind, my schedule was mad. It was like having two full-time jobs, for both of which I couldn’t let my guard down for a moment. I was just able to handle it all. I loved it. Even in the middle of it happening I knew that I loved it.” Novak paused in the midst of his latest ramble to reflect. “I needed it. Being prepared. Being competent. Being reliable. Being professional.”
“Did you ever once entertain the possibility of simply doing what she asked to see where that might get you?”
“Of course. I’d say, maybe you’re right. I should quit the football club or just go with another outfit in the lower divisions, a little further down the pyramid, something more part-time. But there would go any decent income. That’s not why I was doing it. That was a bonus. I found, though, that I liked being able to stash some away for the future when I’m a poor professor of modern languages or whatever the fuck I was going to be.”
“Listen to yourself. You’re all over the park.”
“The extra marks helped keep my little shitty Opel running and to fly home to the states from time to time or to have an apartment that wasn’t a communist-bloc high rise or where the bath does more than drip rust.”
“Are you serious? A fool could see you didn’t really mean it then.”
For the first time, Ben could see what Marianne saw.
“You’ve got money, I’d say to her. You can pretend to be a bohemian sculptor with dust all over your face – which is sexy as shit, I admit. But you don’t have to worry. Your grandparents send you whatever you need. Your mom didn’t have to work. That’s fantastic. I love your mom. Your dad has made it. He’s comfortable. He’s respected. He’s accomplished. He’s just one example of what I’m aiming for; something I can do. I’m on that path. But I’ve got to keep moving forward.”
“You actually said pretend to be a bohemian sculptor?” Ben attempted social cues with his hands and face, but nothing stopped the runaway train.
“You have these built-in supports, and, again, I’m happy for you,” Novak continued, consumed by the past – the years of early adulthood that set the tone for the rest of his life. “But it’s a safety net. I don’t have one. Have I ever bitched about it? I don’t think so. In my opinion, I’ve just gotten on with it.”
Finally, Ben talked over him. “She’s an extraordinary talent.”
“… A virtuoso,” Novak agreed. “The longer I was with her, the more I admired her. Very hard working, that one. At the same time, she was the only thing in my life that stressed me out to unmanageable levels. I felt like she was trying to prevent me from achieving things. She didn’t want to hear anything about Wüppertal and how I was slowly becoming an actual footballer who could stand up to all these German lads without looking foolish. I’ve never been one to talk much sport outside of the actual arena, but the occasional mention of the activity that was taking up so much of my time and helping pay the bills … is it too much to ask? On television and in bars and by the water cooler, people are discussing my team, but I can’t bring up the subject in my own apartment.”
Ben sat forward, leaning in to Novak. His eyes urged the famously-reluctant midfielder forward. He toyed with the idea of remarking, ‘What a bitch,’ just to propel Novak into some amazing quote stream. Instead he remained silent and got the following:
“I think she wanted me to finish school, get a teaching job and devote my remaining waking hours to being her studio monkey or something. I resented the hell out of that.”
“Just when the side were coming along famously.”
“We were picking up useful players here and there and keeping all the lads who’d done well. We had no big names, but once a player came to the Zoo Stadion he wanted to stay. It was a big family.”
“Not to sound all cliché about it. So you found yourself part of something historic with this little club, all amid the game you loved.”
“I lived for the next match. Still, I tried to keep everything in balance. I tried to be a good … whatever I was … to Marianne. I don’t like the word ‘boyfriend.’ We were practically married. And ‘lover,’ when a man says it, sounds like he’s just referring to sex.”
“Look at ME!” Ben said, waving his hands in the air. “I’m getting laid, and you’re not.”
“When I am referring to sex, then certainly I’ll say lover.”
“When … would that be?” wondered aloud the Home Counties-born, middle-aged English male.
“Like, ‘Sorry, I have a lover.’”
“Sorry … I have a lover? What??”
“You know, like, when you want a woman to get away from you.”
Ben stared at Novak, genuinely perplexed. He scratched inside his ear.
“When you’re trying to look at the sea or find something in the grocery store.”
“Of course, yes. Elevators. Putting petrol in the motor. That sort of thing. But … you were saying you lived for the next match.”
“Right. I couldn’t think about walking away from that to …”
“To what?”
“Hand Marianne her chisels and serve tea and sponge off her family and teach English at a Gymnasium or some little école in France. I didn’t come all the way across the ocean to live someone else’s life.”
“Not even if that someone else …”
As Ben paused, Novak again went to the window to gaze onto his lush, secluded, lonely property.
“A potential one in a million catch? Is that what you were going to say?”
“It appears I didn’t need to.”
Ben was astonished at how swiftly he could become immersed in this tale of love lost and flung into thoughts of both of his own marriages.
“She undoubtedly was. She was beautiful. Or, should I say, is. And sexy. I would melt when I looked at her. When she held our baby, and I was on the outside looking in, I felt like my ribs had been ripped open. I thought my life was over because I couldn’t take them home with me.”
Ben wanted to say something like, ‘You might have fallen on your knees and begged,’ or ‘I would have slept outside the apartment door till she let me in.’ Instead he endured an awkward silence of half a minute before Novak spoke chokingly.
“She took the baby to Paris, and they lived with Marianne’s cousins.”
He turned back to the room and looked at a small, framed photo on a desk. It showed blue-scarved football supporters screaming and jumping up and down in the main square of a German city.
“I was in the process of helping shock the nation as Wüppertal won the league championship and shock Europe by making it to the UEFA Cup Final,” Novak said to the photograph, as if he’d fully expected the line to drop right into Ben’s book unedited. Then, to Ben, “Nothing’s perfect, eh?”
     The novelist was actually torn between which romance he wanted most to hear about. He kind of liked going back and forth. Marianne Papineau kicks Julius Novak out. Julius Novak makes a game-saving intervention versus Dynamo Dresden.
“I should have been on top of the world. Instead I was groping around. Some guys would have started drinking booze. I drank competition like it was booze. That was the period when I learned how to hate any man who tried to take my place in the side. Every coach’s dream player. Seeing number fourteen on the team sheet and competing against an opponent in the matches … was all I had.
“In the end, I missed out on everything that was truly important in order to be part of something that wasn’t important at all or at least something that was fleeting. But I thought the club were important.”
“Anyone would be caught up in it,” Ben, envious, commiserated. He used rhetoric to steer Novak back to the novelist’s territory. “You wanted Marianne in your life,” he said, leaving the idea open to discussion.
“Of course, I did. But I wanted there to be a life for her to be in, if that makes any sense. I wanted to be something. And, at the end of the day, I never figured out a way to be something and to have her as well.”
“So she was frustrated by the arrangement,” Ben stated the bleeding obvious.
“When she became angry with me, I’d be devastated by it. She would really get incensed.” He paused, drifting once again back to a comforting realization. “I knew when I met her that she was fiery.”
“That attracted you.” Ben knew about such things.
“I’ve always wondered what Marianne thinks now about that last, awful period, but I’ve been too afraid to ask. If she were to be dismissive of it all, as though it were stupid and meaningless, then that would most assuredly blow me away. It wouldn’t surprise me; but, you know, talk about diminishing. That’d be the ultimate.”
Neither man spoke for several seconds. Ben found the silence difficult.
“On the other hand,” Novak finished the thought. “Were she to divulge that she – we -- made a colossal error by allowing immature little problems to come between us during a turbulent time of life, when we should have taken a deep breath and looked for the good things and concentrated on them until we could slog through it, I don’t know that I’d be equipped to handle that emotion either.”
“Wow, you’ve grown.”

Ben Hampton and Julius Novak talked casually for several minutes about European football, late eighties version, before returning to the matter at hand – Novak’s questionable character.
“I’m known, in some circles, for having this great poker face. No one really ever knows what I’m thinking, so the story goes, or what cards I might be holding, as it were. In football, most often I was successful in remaining largely unemotional no matter what was happening in a match.”
“Scoring the tying goal for Valencia in the Champions’ League final against Dortmund being the exception,” Ben cut in. He had watched that match on television, a year following the ‘Nayim from the Halfway Line’ debacle – Novak’s final match for Arsenal. The newly popular novelist had felt chills of pride in his spine as Novak spun toward his teammates in unbridled joy after having cannoned in the late equalizer with his weaker left foot.
“Yeah, that. But what I mean is, you’d rarely see me argue with, or even question, an official, for example, or respond to supporters unless it was just a wave or a hello. I never really took the bait when provoked, you know, like with Vinny Jones or half the United team or Leeds fans.”
“The one and only Vinny Jones.”
“Yeah, he used to follow me around the pitch, completely out of position, snarling, “Oy! Ya fink yer ard? Oy! Ya fink yer ard?” After what I’d experienced in the last several years, that kind of shit was never going to get a rise out of me.  I treated him like you would a vicious rooster on a farm.”
“Mm, tell me.”
“Try to be nice and never let him get behind you.”
Ben thought that kind of throwaway line would be just what the publishers were craving. Even use it as one of the marketing blurbs on the dust jacket as an example of Novak’s way of looking at English opponents.
“The only person who has ever seen through me in my life, who has known exactly what’s on my mind even if I’m trying to hide it, has been Marianne. Every time mistakes were made, as you said. Now, of course, our daughter is figuring me out. She’s eighteen.
“In America, this is another way of looking at it,” Novak said, “we sometimes refer to a person as ‘playing possum.’ With the animal, we’re talking actual tonic immobility – that physical state of actually appearing dead and stiff and even having an odor of death. I’ve never gone quite that far – Marianne might disagree – but I have been known to lie low or to radiate vulnerability. I want to come out on top in the end but do it in such a way as to arrive under the radar. If I feel I can’t win, I alter the playing field. Marianne calls it ‘passive aggressive.’ I’ve learned what that is over the years, and, it’s true, I used to be ‘p.a.’ But I recognized it, with her valuable and regular assistance, when I was doing it; and I believe I’ve stopped. Or at least I’ve improved greatly. Ask Marianne. I hope she’ll agree.”
“I don’t understand, Julius,” Ben called Novak by his first name, finally, after all this time together.
“This is what you want, Ben. This is why you’re here.”
Both men looked at one another like a therapist and his patient. But which was which? Novak broke the ice.
“It’s just that, upon reflection, I was tragically at fault because I didn’t commit myself to her. I had this beautiful, intelligent, talented, fantastic woman who was crying out for me to wed myself to her, and I chose everything but her. She wanted to be closer. By the time she had Isabel we weren’t even living together anymore.”
“There was no interest in taking you back?”
“I poked my head around all hangdog. I shuffled my feet and stammered instead of rushing to her side and bringing her a different flower every day for a month and singing my love for her. Or just change for the good and be a better man.”
“What exactly did you do? I’m having a hard time picturing.”
Novak tried to remember something that was good about how he’d behaved, a strand of memory that might result in a positive self-image.
“Whatever I did at the time in the months following Isabel’s birth – and I didn’t do much, Marianne was unimpressed. And that was that. The month Isabel was born, Wüppertal were in the final sixteen of the UEFA Cup.”
Back to football, thought the interviewer. But he wasn’t confrontational enough to stop it.
“The year you made it to the final.”
Novak nodded. “And we were charging up the league table. We overtook an astonishing five clubs in the final four months of the season. I must have been a maniac. It’s all a bit of a blur. As far as football, I didn’t really come out of it until my second year in England.”
The first two years of Novak’s daughter’s life, in fact, coincided with a Bundesliga championship, a UEFA Cup final, the march to the European Cup semifinal, the sudden collapse of Wüppertal, the World Cup, the move to Arsenal, the fight at Old Trafford, Gazza’s free kick at Wembley and an English league championship.
“The disaster at home to Benfica in ‘91 kind of shocked me into a type of sanity and peace. Things started to settle down for me. The bit of face-saving occurred a couple of seasons later when we shoved it up everyone’s arse in Copenhagen. But, too little too late; and, as you know, it was all down hill from there.”
“When I edit this, do you mind if I remove the clichés?”
Novak turned crimson but laughed.
“A month after I held the league trophy for Wüppertal, Marianne moved with the baby to Paris. We were able to agree to a cordial and flexible visitation schedule, generous really. I can’t really say how that all worked out the way it did. Well, her parents were wonderful to me. 1989. There was now a baby daughter whose life I was not completely in like normal dads. Marianne made it clear that I was redundant. She had parents and cousins and grandparents and friends, and if she needed a man in her life she would get around to finding one when she felt like it. I could have been that man, and I threw it away out of a lack of character or immaturity or something unappealing.”
Ben let that sit before asking, “When did you last speak to her? I mean … now … recently.”
“Funny you mention,” Novak stood again to stretch his legs and invite Ben onto one of the terraces. “I spoke to her Boxing Day. I’m actually going to be spending a few days with her at her family’s place in Vermont when I go over there. Marianne’s relocated back to her birthplace, about an hour and a half from the college. Isabel has taken the January term off from university to rest. She’s utterly exhausted from having overdone it.”
“A challenging school, I’ve heard.”
“And she’s never lived for that long a period away from France. These young women in her peer group are used to high achievement, and they burn the candle. This time it all caught up to her ‘round American Thanksgiving. She said her friends were wiped out as well. This is all new stuff to me – father of a college student.”
“Hard to believe, innit?
“I remember Köln, and how I pushed myself to do absolutely everything as soon as I got there. I got myself pretty overdone right off the bat. Marianne too was into everything and threw herself full tilt into the culture.”
“Yeah, nude modeling.” Ben looked off wistfully.
“But, uh, seriously, looks like we’ve created something of a next-generation copy. Isabel had planned on doing an internship with Hillary Clinton’s campaign in New Hampshire during what they call J-term, but after we all sat down and talked about it, she sensibly decided on a program of skiing and breakfast cereal and sleeping.”
 “Couldn’t Isabel come here?” Ben asked.
“I told her not to even think of coming to Europe for the holidays. She has her whole life for more Europe. What she needs at this moment is complete rest, and her grandparents’ house is the perfect spot. Talk about a spa. Mountain views. Guest cottages.”
“They all get along famously, do they, the Papineaus?”
Novak nodded. “Even I’m included in a terribly gracious and genuine way for which I’m tearfully grateful. They’ve always gone out of their way to help me feel part of the clan, even when Marianne was furious and disgusted with me. Even when she was with another man. If nothing else, I’m at least interesting fodder for dinner chat. We see Julius is in the news, sort of thing. And, what the hell, if they invite someone who only speaks some strange European language …”
“Besides French.”
“Besides French, then chances are I can lend a hand.”
“Never learned Tatar.”
“And you call yourself a linguist.”
“So I’m leaving Tuesday,” Novak gave a jerk of the head and fast up-down of the eyebrows. “What do you say, mate?”
“What do I say what?”
“Ever been to Vermont?”