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?”

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