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.”
“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.”
“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.”