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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.