Monday, October 31, 2011

Chapter Twenty-One of Hampton from the Halfway Line

I think, humbly, this is the chapter I would read at book events -- and not just because the overflowing audience would delight in my British accent.


Brook Green, London

In a megalopolis like London, similar to New York and other gargantuan cities, those who make it their home tend to treat their patch of existence like a small town. Many residents of a given district or neighborhood or postcode in places like London or New York find it possible, even preferable, to live ninety percent of their lives in an area smaller than half a square mile. People who live in the West Village, for example, can find much of what they need on Perry, Christopher, Bleeker, Bank or W. 4th Streets. And that’s if they leave their apartment.
Rosalie McMahon feels about Brook Green in the Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham in West London the same way those New Yorkers do who prefer to barricade themselves roughly between 6th Avenue, Houston, Hudson and W. 13th. She’s thought seriously of moving out of her office in Russell Square and maybe setting up shop at home on Sterndale Road. There’s room for it now that Nicholas has gone away to university and the girls have such full schedules. Of course, knowing Nick as she does, the boy could show up any day with his suitcases, armed with some well-considered explanation of why quitting school at this point was actually a step forward on the road of life.
The other hallmark of urban living is eating out slightly-to-staggeringly more often than you can actually afford. With such an array of available delights, in every price range, from every conceivable world cuisine and prepared by experienced professionals, the choice between popping out for an exotic takeaway or spending at least an hour preparing food at home, having to think about what you’re doing at the end of a traumatic workday and there being no guarantee that anyone will even like it besides – well, that’s really no choice at all.
And it’s in the manner of things how so many couples agree on what is their first-choice neighborhood eatery, their fallback restaurant, if you like, when they can’t decide where to go. They step outside their house or flat or apartment building onto the street and begin an aimless walk while they discuss, among other things, reasonable possibilities for dining out. The film they’re going to see starts at 9 p.m., affording them more than two hours for a relaxing meal at any one of two-dozen fine establishments. A ten-minute, underground train ride increases the choices exponentially. This is true of Paris or Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague or Milan.
How about the Thai place?
No, we were just there with the Pasquals.
They walk.
The little place on Crisp Road where they make those sexy omelets any time of day?
No, it’s gone modern-European, and I heard the service is shocking.
Remember that restaurant in the hotel by the Shepherd’s Bush Vue, where everyone was having funny martinis?
Yes, I hated it.
Raj of India?
I had curry twice for lunch this week.
And on they walk. It’s a lovely evening, and it’s good for them.
The little family-run Italian place. It’s near the cinema.
Yeah, maybe.
Snows on the Green. Right around the corner?
Two things:  we’re not dressed for … I’m not dressed for it. And every time we’ve been there we see that horrible friend of Martin and Shel’s who always wears a shiny, silver shirt.
Oh, I forgot about him.
The brasserie on Hammersmith Grove that Fela’s cousin owns, the Polish chef. They have those unusual roe herrings for starters and that Basque seafood stew thing. Remember? We could sort of walk to that.
We’d never get in.
Call them.
Nothing before 9:30.
The Pelican is good.
How close are we?
Notting Hill by the Westway. But we could keep walking to the Shepherd’s Bush tube, and it’s just a couple of stops … or … not.
They list half a dozen other potentials until, after five or so more minutes of walking in the general direction of the cinema, they are standing on a familiar street corner, famished and tired of having the same conversation they’ve been having for years. So they do what they do nine times out of ten when they talk about where to eat.
They go to the Havelock Tavern where they are greeted, as the neighbors they are, with familiar, welcoming smiles. The staff recognize Peter and Rosalie and treat them like family – well, like someone you like. They are comfortable, and they know they’ll love whatever they order; and the beer is good. Their children love it. When friends visit from out of town, the McMahons take them to the Havelock Tavern.
Any time Peter steps up to the bar, the bartender on duty might as well just hand him a frothy pint of Marston’s Pedigree to prevent the following, superfluous exchange:
“What can I get for you, Peter?”
“Open the batting!”
But that’s part of the fun of being a regular and of serving a regular. Rosalie, on the other hand, likes to fish around the wine list (she can never remember which fruit-forward, low-tannin, soft, velvety-finish red was recommended to her last time and which she just adored) or maybe just have a tea (traditional or iced).
Or she might say, clutching Peter’s arm, “Half of whatever this gorgeous bloke is having.”
The Havelock Tavern is revered and reviled in equal measure – a true sign of a great pub, which is one of the reasons Peter and Rosalie loved it. Whether or not someone liked The Havelock Tavern was a fairly accurate indicator of whether or not the McMahons would be able to get on with them and possibly forge a relationship or continue a current one. If they weren’t quite sure about so-and-so, they would casually ask him or her for an opinion of The Havelock Tavern. So far, everyone they had met, who held a negative view of the Havelock after having tried it, the McMahons considered to be an appalling specimen -- usually having at least tangential, and sometimes extreme, right-wing tendencies – and, therefore, not worthy of the couple’s much-cherished energy.
On a mild, but sunless January day, Rosalie McMahon met one of her dear friends at the Havelock Tavern for a catch-up lunch. Kay Bennett-Lyons, a writer and great friend to Rosalie, drove her car everywhere she went in London. She was afraid of being underground – long before the bombings, which only served to convince her that she’d been right all along. Kay never set foot in the cellar of her white, stucco-fronted Victorian on Belsize Square, and she wasn’t too keen on department store basements. Her bus-riding days were long past, and cabs were a prohibitive luxury. Her in-laws and some friends (but not Rosalie, who understood perfectly) had been urging her to attend the Phobia Clinic in Clapham.
‘They do the most brilliant, Virtual Reality Rehab,’ her friends insisted. ‘It’s what they do with miners who can’t go down the pits anymore.’
Kay recoiled from the thought.
Yes, she knew, motorists average less than ten miles per hour crawling through central London; and gas prices are astronomical.
“You’d think kowtowing to the American Empire would bring us a better return in the energy market.” That was her husband, Reg. “Clearly, the yanks have got a thing or two still to learn about imperialism.”
As to getting about, Kay had been told that a well-crafted combination of riding the tube and walking the vibrant streets was the most sensible, the most popular and the most efficient and least costly means of negotiating the capital. Look around you, they’d say. All the same, thin-as-a-reed Kay loved her little Renault Clio V6. And it was from that funky, yet powerful motor she emerged after maneuvering into a hard-to-come-by, Masbro Road parking spot tailor-made for a Clio.
Of course, Reg had taken it out for a test drive and pronounced it to be a “typical little surrender monkey, French car when it comes to turning at speed. It just sits there in a cloud of its own smoke with its hands up.”
Rosalie had just arrived by foot and waited at the bar with a cup of tea. She was considering ringing up Ben Hampton, who was in America for his ‘Fit but You Know It’ book tour. Not that she hesitated at possibly catching him in the middle of something important and thus seeming like a bother. More that she simply had nothing of value about which to talk at the moment. So she sat at the bar attempting to concoct a reason to call him. Just a wedge in the door was all Rosalie needed; just a centimeter, then she’d wing it from there. She desperately feared losing him. She still felt, after all these months, that she was tenuously straddling a higher-than-normal wire. Besides, she liked him. Rosalie truly enjoyed talking to Ben Hampton. Because he was ‘Ben Hampton’? Or because he was a good, decent, warm, honest, funny, generous and entertaining man?
Rosalie waved Kay over. They kissed, talked about traffic like a couple of blokes as they were shown their table, and continued to talk about traffic as they sat. But it wasn’t your typical Y-chromosome sort of car talk. This was a continuation in the highly politically-charged palaver as to the western extension of the central London congestion zone charge.
“Don’t tell me you got all the way here in fifteen minutes,” Rosalie marveled. “You live practically in Hampstead.”
“I think I left right at noon,” Kay seemed as surprised as her friend. “I just zipped along as though a golden cord pulled me this way and that. And I avoided the Congestion Charge.”
“I’ve heard all the Congestion Charge debate from attending the children’s’ school events and at their football matches. It’s all people talked about for a while – one more piece of evidence that we’re living in an Orwellian police state, they said, what with the CCTV cameras recording our every move and the registration database. Bloody Berlin Wall, they say. Gives me chills. How the hell did you get round it?”
Kay leaned forward and made her eyes big.
“The Westway is a free zone between Royal Oak and the West Cross Route, if you know where to get on.”
“Aren’t you clever?” Rosalie meant it.
“Yes, well, if I’d kept going south on Baker Street toward Marble Arch, I’d have been screwed. Before I learned you could pay them by mobile phone, I had 500 pounds worth of penalty charge notices for not paying within twenty-four hours. I thought I was going to be taken away. Reg called our solicitor so we could get it reduced.”
“That is ghastly.”
Kay’s husband always says, ‘Ken’s not reducing congestion, he’s just moving it to where he can get away with it politically.’
“You want to talk about ghastly,” Kay said. “I heard about a small trader in Knightsbridge who had so many congestion-charge violations and 120-pound PCNs from commuting in to her little shop that she committed suicide.”
“I don’t doubt that for a minute. Well, fortunately, I don’t know anything about driving in London. I wouldn’t dare. It would probably take me an hour to find Kensington Palace from the Albert Hall.”
“You should have seen me,” Kay said, proud of herself. “About a dozen turns – both slight and sharp; kept a nice grip – always maneuvering into the right place at the right time and probably three roundabouts; including a rather dicey one just here at Holland Park. Third exit. Not easy.”
“People like you amaze me,” Rosalie grinned and shook her head. “I’m in absolute awe.”
“Don’t be,” Kay said. “It’s called GPS – Global Positioning System.”
“You mean what the army uses to drop missiles on terrorists as they drive along in their cars?”
“Satellites? Basically, yeah. It’s just like Map Quest on your laptop when you’re taking a motor trip. Only it sits on my dash and speaks to me if I want. Some of the newer cars have them built in to the console.”
“Peter wants one installed into his little phenomenon,” Rosalie made a face and threw a hand forward, letting it go limp at the wrist. “I told him he’d probably crash staring at it. You know how he loses track of what he’s doing.”
“Does he still say, ‘Watch me blow away this Jaguar?’”
“Every time we go to the Cotswolds.”
“Well, it’s changed my life, the GPS,” Kay smiled. “I’m rarely ever late anymore. I still couldn’t tell you where anything is; but I don’t need to. I just go wherever the voice tells me.”
“Sounds brilliant. What a comfort.” Rosalie said. “And how good for your confidence. Has it gotten Reg’s sister and Margo and Bianca and that crowd off your back about going to that Phobia Clinic?”
“Oh, don’t mention the Phobia Clinic. I can’t take it.”
“I’m sorry,” Rosalie frowned. “I’m on your side, you know.”
“I know,” Kay winced. “I actually succumbed to a low-cost consultation.”
“You didn’t. What was it like?”
“Well, it’s a form of psychotherapy called de-sensi-ti-zation.”
“God,” Rosalie gasped. “Sounds like something from the period between the wars.”
“Do you know about psychotherapy?”
“Well, I don’t have to tell you, when you do what we do, you have to be at least mildly-versed across a pretty liberal spectrum of arts and sciences. It helps to not sound completely daft if you happen to be trying to sell some kind of rollicking, obscure genius to an intractable publisher. Remember when I represented the man who invented the fungicide that increased the sugar content of beets by 500 percent? Or, like you, if you’re interviewing some Stephen Hawking type. People don’t appreciate what we go through.”
“Yes, well, the people who know better seem to consider ‘not voluntarily going below the surface of the earth’ as an extreme, unrealistic fear.”
“Unrealistic???” Rosalie practically shrieked in support. “Kay, in my humble opinion, I think you need to go with your instincts on this one.”
“They told me part of my consciousness was atrophied.” She looked like she might cry.
“Who are they?”
“The staff at the clinic.”
Rosalie looked grave. “They didn’t … strap you to anything, did they?”
“Oh God, no! I would have peed myself. No, they tried to ‘explain’ my fear to me, which I’ve heard all about before from therapists and friends who listen to therapy radio programs.”
‘She means me,’ Rosalie thought, then smiled and said, “Go on.”
“Well,” Kay paused as their drinks arrived, and they ordered their lunches. “You know about there being different parts of the conscience.”
“Of course,” Rosalie said. “Once, I was on a Beatles Walking Tour of Abbey Road, and I got lost. I kept walking and walking, trying to find the rest of the group.”
Knowing Rosalie, Kay assumed a point was coming and patiently nibbled on some bread.
“I eventually came to what Peter told me must have been Maida Vale, and I kept walking. But I was heading away from Abbey Road. So now I was tired and my feet hurt and I found myself standing in front of the British Psychoanalytical Society’s Institute of Psychoanalysis.”
“I’d always wondered where that was,” Kay said, “or if there even was such a place.”
“Oh, there is. Well, I spent the entire day there reading everything I could get my hands on. My friends, who were on the Beatles walk with me, were frantic -- this was prior to mobile phones; and they called Peter. He told them I’d turn up.”
“Dear Peter,” Kay laughed.
“Yes,” Rosalie nodded. “Well, if he panicked every time I was lost or in some kind of a muddle, then I’m afraid he’d have no hair left on his pretty head.”
“So,” Kay picked up where she’d left off. “I filled out the questionnaire and told them I wasn’t aware of any ‘causal traumas.’ They went on to bore me about how I was following only the developed side of my conscience, and the undeveloped side was defending itself from harm by creating a phobia.”
“Mm-hm,” Rosalie continued to nod as their Warm Leek, Spinach, New Potato & Gruyere Tart with Salad arrived. “Basic. What else?”
“They went on to say my one-sided human conscience was absurd and selfish.”
“You’re being selfish … with your self,” Rosalie said, incredulously.
“And absurd, apparently.” Kay tucked into her tart. “It’s like, if you’re agoraphobic, and you can’t stand closed and crowded places; unless you’ve suffered a trauma, the psychoanalysts – or at least this lot --believe you’re staying in closed places for too long or doing things that are too narrowly focused.”
“What, like crossword puzzles?”
“I suppose. And if you have a fear of the sea, then that means, so say the shrinks, that you’re afraid of the craziness in the wild side of your consciousness.”
“But you’re not afraid of crowds or the sea,” Rosalie said. “Are you?”
“No,” Kay said. “What I’m getting at is they told me I needed dream analysis to understand which ‘mistakes’ my conscience was making before I could correct the phobia with their stupid Virtual Reality. They suggested I might have a great load of hate; therefore my conscience believes all of my hate is accumulated underground. So that’s why I panic when I approach descending stairs at ground level.”
“Oh, poor Kay,” Rosalie reached out for her friend’s hand. “Do you know Felicity Andrews?”
“The Waterstone’s’ children’s’ buyer?”
“Yes, she took a Virtual Reality treatment at her office to help her get over fear of high places. Her staff put the head set on her, and she stumbled around what looked to her like a roof and peered over the virtual edge down to the street. She went through the whole program in an afternoon.”
“Did it work?” Kay eagerly asked.
“No,” the agent gave a ‘pff’ sound with her lips and teeth. “It just gave her a deathly fear of her teenager’s Xbox Live. So how did it end at the clinic?”
“They gave me a little book called, ‘Stop Being Crazy!’”

For dessert, they decided to share a Sauternes and Caramel Custard and eavesdrop on what was clearly the demise of an office romance.
“Rosalie, honestly, I didn’t come here to talk about traffic congestion charges and virtual-reality phobia cures. For heaven’s sake, tell me about the book. Tell me about Ben Hampton and that smasher, Julius Novak.”
Rosalie gathered herself with a delicious intake of air, which blushed her cheeks. She beamed.
“I was with them both, together, a couple of weeks ago for drinks and dinner. We met up with Peter, Ali and Mel. It was some of the most fun ever. My life feels … something like complete these last months.”
“It shows,” Kay smiled. “I’m so happy for you. But why are you suddenly fulfilled as though you weren’t before. I don’t get it.”
“Kay, I’ve spent my entire professional career on the margins. It hasn’t mattered so much, because, you’re absolutely right, I’ve had such a blessed life otherwise. First Peter, then the children … having babies and raising them was the greatest accomplishment of my life. I have loved every second of being a mum. There were some lean years when Peter was still working his way up, and I was stopping the gaps with industry articles. But our life together has always been a dream. The bit of sadness that comes when the kids grow up and leave home is mitigated by the extraordinary happiness and hope I feel for them and the pride and warmth inside for helping them get there. I had thought I wanted Peter to reverse his vasectomy, so I could have just one more baby. Just a little one, I would say to him.”
Kay grinned with genuine understanding, love and support for her fabulous friend.
“Every time I brought it up he clutched his testicles and gritted his teeth like he was trying to keep from vomiting. He gives me everything I want. But I could see the thought of untying his little knot and procreating, well into his forties, filled him with fear and foreboding. I knew, of course, that I could talk him into it, just like I’d talked him into having the first three.”
“You could have done, couldn’t you?” Kay said.
Rosalie didn’t need to answer.
“He’s fond of letting slip, at dinner parties, that he said ‘absolutely not’ every time I said I wanted a baby. It’s part of his comic repertoire.”
“He’s a dear man; and you’re a jewel for not persuading him.”
“Well, it wouldn’t have been perfect -- like anything is; and it would have required a complete about-face in every aspect of our comfortable life. I’m not saying anything that millions of women and couples haven’t faced for generations, I know. I’m just saying, I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m one of the luckily-marrieds. And the fact that I hadn’t ever had a professional success, at times, left me feeling sorry for myself or being just that little bit insecure wherever we went. You know, ‘What do you do?’ Oh, you know, I write little … pieces for Publishing News about … people who actually make things happen in the world of books – writers, agents, editors, publishers, booksellers. Now I’m an agent actually. Whom do you represent? Well, no one that anyone’s ever heard of … or ever will.”
“Rosalie, sweetheart,” Kay commiserated, “Your friends and your real family have always thought of you as part of the wide industry of books and as a knowledgeable book person and a mum and a wife and partner and the dearest, most reliable and indispensable friend any of us could ever wish for … and an inspiration and someone to look up to and rely on, no matter what, and someone whose advice we seek and take on and cherish; and, I almost forgot, an activist for women and children; and the most delightful and perfect company, whether it’s a dinner party or a day with the kids or the Île de Re or the Cotswolds or Tuscany – or lunch at the Havelock. None of us considered you as not having (what you perceived as) a career success. I know you felt that about yourself, you silly, silly woman … but you were the only one. Hasn’t Peter told you?”
“Of course Peter’s told me,” Rosalie wiped away the tears. “But you don’t believe everything husbands tell you. They have so many infantile motives.”
“But you had to know he was right, hadn’t you?”
“I went back and forth,” Rosalie exhaled a healthy amount of air. “On good days, I was happy and satisfied with who I was. On bad days, I ate ice cream.”
“Oh my God. What kind?”
“Ben and Jerry’s. Peanut Butter & Chocolate. Odeon Kensington. They know me on sight. I could have an orgasm just thinking about it.”
“Who can blame you?” Kay offered Rosalie the last spoonful of custard.
“I know I’m mad to have ever had a moment’s sadness that I’d never achieved anything professionally. But the circle I run with, every single person has a world-class CV and story to tell about accomplishments, businesses they’ve grown from scratch; original art enough to fill a street’s worth of galleries; a career at the top of their industry; inventors; published and well-regarded writers; lionized stage actors; educators; diplomats; think-tank scholars; professors; consultants; fundraisers; self-made millionaires; editors; publishers; and just anyone who cares deeply about what they do, thus doing it well – and achieving! Even though I have a life, which I acknowledge is the envy of everyone who knows me, still I’ve looked in the mirror and seen nothing. I look at my children and shudder that they have a mother who has never done anything of value in the world. When their friends ask them what their parents do, they say, ‘Well, dad’s a banker in the City; mum’s a … well, she used to … I think now, she’s … something with books and authors, but she’s around the house mostly. She’s always available when we need her.’ That’s just great, Kay.”
“So, even though I disagree with your premise, even you would have to admit that this project, this book, for a literary agent, is one for the ages. If you never did another thing – which, you will and plenty – making a book of this magnitude with an author of Ben Hampton’s standing in British lit, Rosalie, you will always be a person of merit in publishing. This is big. This is an accomplishment. You’ll be able to do anything you want.”
“I know. I know, Kay. I want it to happen so badly,” she squeezed her eyes shut, “more than I’ve ever wanted anything. And that’s what scares me.”
“Tell me.”
“Do I care more about myself and my stupid reputation and my asinine career more than I care about everything that really is important in my life or should be important? The day when I hold Ben’s book in my hand and see it on display in the megastores and Ben is being interviewed and people learn about who Julius is – when all that finally happens, well, I’m going to faint at some point. I don’t know when exactly. I’m going to scream and go down on my knees and beat my hands on the floor. There will be such a weight of relief lifted from every ounce of my body. I imagine being truly, 100-percent happy for the first time in my life. And that thought, that recognition makes me ashamed. Why would I need something like this to be happy? I have everything. What would I rather have, Peter and the children and our lives and our friends? Or would I rather have been the ‘middleman’ for a book about a footballer? I think the answer is obvious. So why do I need it? Why is it important at all?”
“I don’t know,” Kay was in mild shock. “It’s hard for someone who can’t even ride the subway to preach about just being happy and thankful for what you have and proud of this success and confident that there’ll be more like it if you want there to be.”
“You’re right. You have zero credibility.”
They both laughed. Rosalie signaled for the check.
“I’m sorry for being so stupid, Kay,” Rosalie fished in her purse for her glasses. “I must sound like a teenage girl.”
“A little,” Kay grinned. “But it’s good for you to talk to someone about whatever’s bothering you, and I’m glad and proud that it was me who could be here for you. Now that you’ve gotten it off your chest, stop it or I’ll thump you!”
Rosalie nodded and choked back even the suggestion of more tears. She believed that Kay might indeed attempt to thump her. As she walked Kay to her little, nicely-parked performance machine, Rosalie felt that things in her mind were better placed and that she was going to go forward proud of herself and clear-eyed as to how fabulous her life really was. Feeling and appearing foolish in front of someone else strengthened her resolve to be a functioning grownup. The literary agent, and everything else she was, would simply continue to try.
Lunch with Kay Bennett-Lyons reaped far better results and was vastly less expensive than any Virtual Reality phobia therapy. And by walking to the Havelock Tavern rather than driving across Holland Road to some restaurant in Kensington, she avoided the congestion charge.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Chapter Twenty of Hampton from the Halfway Line

Ben can not see what's out there. He's hoping Marianne will illuminate.


South Derry, Vermont

“What are your thoughts then on my, I dunno, quite possibly, I guess, writing about your … relationship with everybody’s favorite ex-footballer?” Ben asked Marianne as they stood outside under a clear black sky laced with January stars.
They accompanied the dogs on their nightly stroll along the secluded, dark lane. The red Cairn terrier took night patrol seriously. The Berner preferred rolling briefly in the snow and returning inside to be with her fellow humans. The moodle just enjoyed being included.
“I’m as confused as you are,” she replied.
Marianne had shoved her hands in the pockets of a knee-length cardigan. It was one of those mountain nights with a three-to-five minute limit on exposed fingers.
“It’s that obvious?” Ben laughed heartily.
He had chosen gloves and a glass of champagne. Marianne’s mother, Joanna had stayed close by to the famous author all evening and had catered generously to him throughout.
Marianne smiled broadly as she tried to pick out the animals from the shadows.
“And, so, where do I go with that?” Ben sipped from his flute.
Stuart the Cairn seemed to have cleared a snow bank bordering the lane, his bark ringing clearly about fifty feet into a light wood. Marianne prayed he didn’t emerge chin frozen to his chest with burdocks as had happened once before. That night, she and Isabel had carried the literally petrified terrier in the house, laid him on a towel by a radiator, found a blow dryer and scissored and tweezered the burrs from his coat for an hour. She turned to Ben and shrugged obliquely.
He continued to chuckle and be amused, if nervously so.
“You will tell me please if I overstep any boundaries as … whatever it is I am. Guest? Grand Inquisitor?”
“I’d say you’re the guest Grand Inquisitor,” she replied. “A very charming, entertaining and soulful model. Demotic, a linguistic person like you might say.”
“I’ll accept that. Cheers.”
The mountain property where Marianne spent most of the first thirteen years of her life, with her adolescent years taking place primarily in Northampton, Mass, perfectly mirrored Ben Hampton’s ideal of life in New England – at least the turn of a new year version. There was ever the smell of wood smoke in the air, the sound of water trickling and splashing over stones and the whistle of the wind which begins miles away before it makes one’s own evergreens and birches bend and sway. Marianne had moved back just last summer when Isabel left France to attend Mount Holyoke in nearby Mass. She was experiencing everything anew.
“You’ve succeeded in knocking my mother’s socks off. Not surprising. She’s always only ever liked honest, genuine types.”
“She’s fantastic. First … uh … woman of a certain age I’ve ever considered dating.”
“Well, I don’t believe she’s your first, but I’ll pass on the compliment.”
“I’m sure of it,” he smiled. “Julius warned me there are no secrets in the Papineau house, and now I’ve seen it for myself. The arguments you people get into. Everyone has so much on the other.”
The sculptor and the novelist had only met the previous afternoon but already were comprehensively comfortable and natural with one another.
Wait until I tell my wife about this one, he thought. A second woman, associated with his unexpected Julius Novak fun fair, who appears to have instantly become a friend for life. First Rosalie McMahon, the mad, inspired agent; now Marianne Papineau, the eloquent, ingenious, unpredictable artist. He wondered if he’d get to meet the ravishingly sagacious Catalonian girlfriend who, according to Novak, left him for a Jordanian arms dealer. Everything with him is a Graham Greene plot. It’s like ‘Travels with my Stay-at-Home Midfielder.’
“Julius, as well. He likes to pretend he’s not a gossip. Trust me, that first time in Paris he blended in with the … no-holds-barred antics and pace of the group in less than a day. A real closet sensationalist. Shameless, actually. The man really has no idea that we’re all on to who he is.”
“And who is he, exactly?”
“Exactly?” she looked off toward the sliver of moon. “Is this for your characterization or for your desire to understand a friend?”
“I’m afraid I can’t really answer that,” Ben admitted. “This has all happened much more swiftly than I’m used to. It’s partly being thrown at me. What’s more, I’m jumping in with both feet and splashing around and relishing it. I must say, I’ve experienced some brilliant things the last few years, but this is something new again. It’s all rather intense on some level. I don’t know if I can properly explain standing here.”
“Maybe your toes are cold,” she laughed.
“Getting there, actually,” he kicked his boots together. “No. Like I say, I just don’t have it all sorted yet to be able to utter anything adequate.”
“That’s why you’re a writer and not a TV evangelist or someone else who speaks for a living. If it were me, I would explore and share my feelings by shoving these hands into a heap of soft clay or by grabbing my chisel.”
“From what I’ve seen at London galleries and now here in your studio, you express yourself magnificently.”
“Thank you, Ben. I think you know the feeling is mutual.” She adjusted her wool hat. “Imagine my surprise when I opened an e-mail from the writer Ben Hampton saying he saw my sculpture in Mayfair and was blown away. What on earth were you doing in Mayfair, having a whiskey at your private club?”
Ben laughed again, “Yeah, the barmy bald old boys club.”
Novak had said her sense of humor was not that great, but Ben would disagree. She’s just not outlandish, he thought. Her irony sneaks up on you. It might be a little weird coming from a beautiful woman, but up to now he’d not come across any New England birds who’d been Parisien for thirty-odd years and now were having a go at being American again. Certainly they exist. Maybe he should just do a book on her and chuck the football. On second thought, this project’s already weird and getting weirder. The football has become evermore his touchstone. That and the fact of his primary male protagonist being a convenient blend of sophistication and immaturity, characterizations of which that have served him well as a fiction stylist and helped make his name as a popular novelist.
Marianne called the dogs, and they all turned back toward the house. Roger and Novak had picked up boxes of gourmet dinners, breads and wines from a caterer friend of the family and fellow Gascon, the chef-owner of one of the best restaurants in Southern Vermont. The large group had gorged themselves in front of the fire after a day of skiing. Now they were lounging along with three more couples and their children invited from the surrounding hillsides and nearby towns. Novak assured Ben that it wasn’t all just for him. This was Gourlie/Papineau-style holiday entertaining. He, the British curiosity, was just one more cherry in the drink.
“But seriously though, Marianne,” Ben crunched along the hard snow and ice with her as the dogs emerged from the dark. He was beginning to feel the freeze of Vermont. “I did come here instead of going straight to New York where I would have done, you know, promotional interviews, which I believe I could now do in my sleep. I came, in part, simply to meet everyone whom Julius had repeatedly told me were so important to him as well as to see this magnificent place that I’d only ever read about. It’s breathtaking. I must say my nostrils are fucking frozen, but it’s like no place I’ve ever been.”
“Not half-bad.”
“If I may be so bold, it seems to be a strange mix of classic old, Victorian America and Norman Rockwell and salt of the earth blokes in their Chevy S10s, you know, and then all this money and swarms of tourists. And here I am standing under the stars in total natural silence and darkness, this great timeless hush, with an artist who’s shown at the Biennale, for God’s sake, and I’m drinking Gossett champagne. Maybe your mum didn’t have it all that wrong in her paintings. I reckon I’ll come away from these few days feeling a bit knocked off balance not unlike the effect produced by the Boschian characters in her scenes. It’s all a bit mad … but soothing at the same time.”
“Julius calls it a high-end Green Acres.”
“I’m not familiar with that, but I think I get it. What I’m trying to say, though, is that you’ve been very kind and very open in talking to me about what must probably be rather painful memories of, you know, you and Julius ending … all those years ago … breaking it off and deciding to …”
“Deciding,” she cut in, stopping in the light shining from the large den where the Papineaus entertained their guests. “Deciding … to enjoy each other – apart; rather than resent and hate each other – together.”
Marianne could see Novak talking to one of her nieces by the piano. The niece was holding her mouth, laughing, and then calling her friend over apparently to share what funny Uncle Julius had said.
“We’re fine, Ben. Really we are.”
“You’re private though, Marianne, and I’m monkeying with the idea of dramatizing what is, essentially, your cherished solitude. I mean, it’s supposed to be a football book. Why am I not able to shape this glut of workable material and merge it with my own amusingly experienced editorial in a way that I find satisfying and something approaching literary?”
“Are you thinking of your reputation?” she wondered sincerely.
“I don’t think so,” Ben took a sip of his bubbly and wondered whose reputation she was concerned about. “I’m thinking of what would be a perfectly acceptable and enjoyable and educational book for a lot of people who love football and maybe a few who don’t. And I’m thinking how I no longer believe that I can just close my eyes and write this easy book now that I’ve clocked on to the other dimension of the main character’s story – the emotional side that absolutely shaped everything about that character during the main action of the story and everything he’s done or felt since.”
“The other dimension being … me.”
“Basically, yeah.”
“Hmm,” she exhaled some cold air into the space between them, speckled and undulating now with glimmering snowflake dust, and thought about the implications of Ben’s honest dilemma. “Well, whether this is what you’re seeking or not, I’m going to get deep on you here.”
That actually sounded quite good to Ben Hampton at this moment. He focused his attention on Marianne Papineau, and he no longer felt all that cold.
“I believe in the artist,” she began, “and the ability of the artist to at least approach and reconcile and quite often solve whatever question either appears before us or is thrown at us. We won’t get into who is an artist and who isn’t and the infinite degrees of what is or isn’t art. Let’s just assume that you are an artist. Don’t worry; I’m not going to make you say it.”
They both smiled as the three dogs wandered around them, sniffing and hoping to be noticed.
“I believe your art, and your deep connection to your art, has the … power, I suppose, to lead you in the direction you were meant to go. The concrete message I’m trying in my ethereal way to convey to you is … write. Write, Ben. Stop thinking about it and twisting the artist into untenable shapes and write. You’re wadding up the artist and throwing him in the wastepaper basket. Stop. I think everything’ll become obvious to you if you do what you know how to do and what you are so undeniably talented at doing.”
Ben didn’t speak but looked as peaceful as a North London football supporter can do.
“What?” Marianne looked sideways at him.
“I was just imagining Julius reacting to words of this nature from you, his lover, girlfriend, you know, back when he was still in his twenties. You would have been quite something and quite a catch for most young guys, I think.”
“Trust me,” she looked serious. “I was nowhere near this serene back then. I’m sure I overwhelmed him. But back to your … second thoughts, is it?”
“There’s just a lot to think about.”
When he said it she glared at him.
“Once I do some writing, that is. No more thinking until after the writing.” He looked in the large window toward the merrymakers before adding, “One small matter though. Don’t get angry at my overthinking, but, as a father, I’m not too keen on exposing things that could upset Isabel.”
Marianne did not think twice before saying, “That’s generous and very noble, but Isabel is a big girl and she knows about the past and what it all means. And we do have somewhat of a connection to low-key ‘celebrity’ as it is. We’ve all been interviewed at one time or another. And of course we tend to brush up against recognizable figures from time to time – friends, colleagues and such. Though you’re right; we don’t go looking for the limelight. Honestly I can’t see the harm, and I can’t see my life changing because of a book. I assure you I’m not seeking any undue attention. I have no ax to grind. But I must admit I stand in awe of the process. It seems as though there is an inevitability and a raw energy to everything that’s happening. As a fellow artist, I couldn’t possibly stand in the way. I trust you. So does Julius. Now all that’s left is for you to trust yourself.”
“Thanks. It’s just that I’ve never done anything quite like this before, and I feel like I’m operating arse backwards,” Ben’s icy breath hung in the air before misting up toward the evergreens. “I’ve always just created characters and situations and theme from fragments of narrative that seemed to accumulate and resonate. I always attempt for the next book to be progressively more ambitious than the last, and this one certainly qualifies as a potential, great leap forward …”
“But?” she smiled in a way that made Ben feel she knew exactly what was happening, what was going to happen and that she’d planned the whole thing from the off.
“But … nothing, really, other than my getting to the MacBook and working it all out. I’m grateful for your blessing. I just don’t yet know what I’m going to do with it. I guess I’ll call my wife early in the morning before I head out. Between yourself and her jaded wisdom from having dealt with me for years, I’m sure I’ll get it sorted.”
They stopped at the mudroom door leading to the kitchen.
“The next time I’m in Paris, I would like very much to meet Kate,” Marianne said. “Either in London or out in Julius Novak country or somewhere in France if we can arrange it.”
“I would love that, and Kate is very keen to meet you. She’s come along with me, of course, to see some of your work. You’ve got two new English fans who really know sod all about sculpture, but we honestly both felt a kind of connection – as though we already knew you. Maybe it was that we already knew Julius and knew of him for many years. She’s surprised I’ve taken this on, frankly. There were quite a few other projects and ideas that I was, both of us were, quite excited about and up for. I’m sure Julius has told you about the redoubtable Rosalie McMahon and her role in all of this. But she’s eager, Kate is, to see what comes of it. That makes two of us. Well, I suppose you’d have to include Rosalie as well as the editor and every employee of the publisher right down to the guy who cleans the loo. You know they’ve never touched an author whom anyone had ever heard of. I think they’re all sort of dancing in the Docklands over this, which just adds to the pressure and anxiety I’m feeling – not to be whiny. Luckily, the word’s not got out just yet.”
“You should relax. I have a friend up here who does deep-muscle massage with eucalyptus steam wafting all around. You’d come out of a session with Trey Sanderson probably able to dictate three entire novels in an afternoon.”
“I’m actually a bit of a wuss with the whole pain and suffering of therapeutic … anything, to be honest. I’d rather just have a fag and another pint of one of those McNeill’s and get on with it.”
“Well, think about it,” Marianne moved on. “As I understand it, though, I think what you’re going for here has all the makings of a compelling book, a very enjoyable book and maybe even something historic. Who knows?”
“Who knows, indeed,” Ben said, closing the door behind the last returning dog. “I have to tell you, my wife is dying to meet the woman who Julius Novak let slip away. He’s somewhat known in his circle as someone who ends the relationships rather than being told it’s over.”
“What was that you said about no secrets in the Papineau family?”
“Oh, hell. That was rude of me,” Ben apologized. “I’m truly sorry. Then again, I partly blame the effect you people have on me. Perhaps I should see about a cup of coffee.”
She gave him the biggest, most glamorous smile he’d yet seen on her most uncommonly fine face.
“You weren’t rude at all, and I have so much more I want to tell you. Do you have a lot of blank tapes?”
“Grab a bottle of wine, and I’ll meet you in the guest cottage.”