Monday, November 28, 2011

Chapter Twenty-Three of Hampton from the Halfway Line

Here it is, the chapter you've all been waiting for. Well, perhaps not all of you. It's the chapter my friend Grange has been waiting for, having to with the delicious story of what really happened during that quarterfinal between Portugal and North Korea at Goodison Park in 1966.


South Derry, Vermont

Ben and Marianne rejoined the gathering in the manor house after another ninety-minute interview in the peace and solitude of the cozy guest cottage. Ben Hampton normally kept his sessions with Novak to ninety minutes as well, though he found his subject well able to carry on full bore for two solid hours and a replay if necessary.
Most of the party were talking and laughing near the fireplace. Some of the Christmas decorations, such as the tree and ornaments, had been taken down so that the captain’s table topped by a chessboard could be returned to its normal, corner place in front of the A-L fiction titles on the shelf of the library, but the outdoor lights and other winter finery such as festive greenery, beads, candles, crèches, poinsettia and holly had remained. Joanna, as she had done for more than twenty years in their spacious, Paris apartment, began with winter decorations, ratcheted up to full-on Noël for a few weeks, then back to straight winter until she couldn’t stand it anymore and felt she needed to force the spring.
The two partners in literary crime had made their way past towering evergreens down a cleared section of cedar steps joining the two buildings. Roger Papineau had the old marble slabs removed because too many people slipped and hurt themselves in the winter. No matter how well and how often you scrape away the snow and ice, marble has a way of confounding even the surest pedestrian in the uneven Green Mountain State. He relocated the marble sections to various sites throughout the property – the floor of Marianne and Joanna’s shared art studio in the old and glorious, gambrel-roofed barn; a terrace near the pond; the border of a new flower garden; and a flat place for the oil and gas men to stand when they made their deliveries.
Marianne, a deep flush to her cheeks, neck and chest, was experiencing a sublime sort of high after having let loose, once again, accumulated thoughts and emotions -- and not a little bile -- having to do with Novak. Marianne had revealed herself to Ben Hampton, the novelist who was now most assuredly and resolutely chronicling the rise and fall of her love affair with the subject of what was once a football biography. Whether she’d meant to or not, Marianne had likewise revealed, it was plain to Ben, that Novak had been and remained the love of her life. For an Arsenal supporter, Ben Hampton was shockingly insightful.
Novak and Ben had not spent any time together, since the author arrived at Château Gourlie-Papineau, other than being at the same formal dinner table. First of all, the two were sleeping in separate buildings on the rambling property. And this morning Novak had departed with the first wave to the ski mountain, while Ben breakfasted on homemade biscuits and fresh local jam, in something close to repose, with Marianne and her mother.
Later, but long before the lifts had closed, Novak, along with Marianne’s big brother, Danny, after a dozen injury-free runs of ever-increasing difficulty and exhilaration, decided to quit while they were ahead and planted their buzzing muscles at the lodge’s crowded bar. Just before that, however, Novak had entered the bar, looked over to say something to Danny and saw that his old friend -- and sort of brother-in-law -- had stopped in the entryway just outside Stratton’s main tavern.
“What’s the matter?” Novak asked him.
“I’m not going in there,” Danny said, frowning and turning to leave.
“Why not? Someone you don’t want to see?” That actually happens every day with full-time Vermont residents.
“No. The music.”
He looked disappointedly at Novak as though the man were a stranger. The song blaring through the sound system was ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart.’
“Yeah,” Novak commiserated, “I get you, Danny, but it’s probably a three-minute song, so …”
“Well, doctor, if this is what they’re playing, then we have to believe they’re committed to this sort of appalling, classic-rock filth. And can we really enjoy a beer under these circumstances?”
“If we let it get to us, no, you’d be right. But I’d like to think by the next song, unless we’re both suddenly untreatable OCD paranoids, we’ll no longer notice it.”
“Really,” Danny answered, not budging and looking positively sorry for Novak, who calmly waited and tried to look understanding. He was used to debating small points with university students. “So if we’re then assaulted by … oh … ‘We Built This City,’ or ‘Wheel in the Sky,’ or ‘More Than a Feeling,’ followed with something by Loverboy or REO Speedwagon or Bob Seger, then that would be fine with you. And we’d … no longer notice it? Isn’t that what you said?”
“All right, Dan,” Novak was ready to deal, and he was thirsty. “If the song after this admitted horror show is at least mildly acceptable – I mean, I think we can forget about the Buzzcocks, George Jones, Arctic Monkeys or Taj Mahal for a moment -- then you’re buying for the remainder of our time here. Are we on?”
“You haven’t got a prayer.”
Novak lost the bet, and there was no argument. ‘Crazy on You,’ by Heart.
Still, they enjoyed Vermont beer with familiar faces from the past as well as locals and tourists they’d met for the first time. They caught a ride back down to South Derry, with Danny’s teenage daughters and Roger, where they picked up the dinner from The Village Pantry. They hoped apple-stuffed roast chickens; grilled vegetables; swordfish steaks; goat cheese quiches; crab cakes remoulade; spinach spanakopita; bacon-wrapped scallops; carrot cake and triple chocolate cake would be all right with everyone. They remembered chicken wings, chicken fingers, and macaroni and four cheeses for any kids who didn’t like the more gourmet stuff. They looked wisely to Kermit Lynch’s logo on the backs of bottles for help with the French and Corsican wine selection.
Ben had planned on skiing, but time got away from him and Marianne as they talked, had tea (twice), noshed on leftovers and walked in the woods and down the lane to the post office and the market. She introduced him to people who approached them and who seemed to insist on introductions. She believed most of these townsfolk didn’t truly care about her, and not one local had ever heard of Ben Hampton, which left the literary celebrity feeling mixed.
Her family, impossibly both moneyed and liberal-hippie, had always been a source of great interest and mistrust to the country club types in town and their web of dissemination. Just like her mother, however, Marianne had spent enough time in South Derry to know who the decent people were, and there were enough of them.
Exuberant around the roaring fire, the hosts and their guests had carried on famously without Ben and Marianne but greeted them with happy fanfare on their return. Novak was surrounded by his legion of adoring … what were they? They weren’t officially in-laws. He and Marianne were never married, nor had they ever submitted to any kind of ritualized ceremony with salt or dirt or wind or the four directions or poems they’d written or anything. Their daughter was born seven months after they had broken up amid rancor and tears. So the three were never a family in many of the ways people used to think of families and the general order of things – courtship, engagement, wedding, honeymoon, baby, PTA. Because of this notion, Novak hit something of a temporary sea wall in his relationship with the Papineaus in the period just before and somewhat after Isabel’s birth.
The family, including both sets of grandparents, were polite and sympathetic with Novak back then but naturally supported their Marianne and her baby before anything else. And that included the father of the baby – nice as he was. Over time, as Marianne’s heart appeared to mend, and Novak seemed a half-decent dad, the Gourlie-Papineaus slowly returned the woebegone outcast to le cercle intime.
Novak and Marianne considered themselves and Isabel to be a family; and, then again, not. They discussed the situation from time to time and, together, resigned themselves to the satisfactory notion that, “we are what we are.” The phrase attains rather a greater depth, Novak claimed to Ben, when Marianne says it in French.
Novak’s status in his former lover’s family rose relatively quickly, helped by the fact that Marianne’s older brother, Danny, had moved to London in 1987 and had become an Arsenal supporter. The friendship between the two men blossomed when the accomplished footballer arrived in the capital, leaving Danny something of a celebrity among his band of friends.
As mates got together to watch the 1990 World Cup, in which Novak performed so competently for the American side, Danny said, “Yeah, that’s my brother-in-law there taking on all comers. Go on, Jules!”
He and a lucky friend found themselves in prime, Row 18 seats in the West Stand at Highbury, every other Saturday, for Novak’s inaugural season. Fellow supporters asked him where he got the tickets.
“My brother-in-law is in the side,” he would answer with pride. “Number fourteen there. He’s a great bloke. We’re mates.”
Ben was actually quite impressed by the ease of intimacy between Novak and the individuals in Marianne’s family. Isabel, of course, had always been a valuable link for Novak’s membership in the club. More importantly, these were people of goodwill and moral integrity who saw the situation simply for what it was – two fine, young kids who tried but failed to navigate one of life’s major humps. And, really, how long could a person stay angry with Julius Novak?
“Twenty years and counting.” Marianne answered that very question from Ben.
The novelist parked himself amidst a feng shui Shangri La of love seats, big chairs, cushions and hassocks near his fellow Englishman. Novak had earned British citizenship ten years ago last autumn. Ben Hampton held forth his wine glass while Novak filled it with one of Roger’s several varieties of Domaine St. Martin de la Garrigue. This Languedoc red was a spicy blend of Cinsault and Syrah and quite something, as the assembled nibbled at the leftover hunks of roast chicken and some of Joanna’s lavender and thyme potatoes.
“Jules,” Danny called out. “Have you told Ben the old Portugal, World Cup story?”
“I don’t think so,” Novak shook his head, as he looked toward Ben for confirmation. “Have I?”
To the room, Ben said, “I haven’t been able to get him to talk about anything but himself.”
Much laughter except from Marianne, who sat biting her lower lip wondering what he’d said about her.
“You’ve not heard one of the greatest football stories of all time?” Danny asked Ben.
Ben Hampton, a pretty fair historian, looked suspiciously at Novak, a man who would take the piss out of Gandhi if he’d had the chance.
“Is it legitimate?”
“Legitimate, yes.” Novak said. “Unsubstantiated, maybe, but cracking nonetheless.”
“I’m all ears,” Ben settled in.
Marianne had heard the highlights of the story. It had made little impression on her. She went to the dining area off the kitchen to join a different group – her parents and their friends. One of the friends, Coen, a fan of Ben Hampton’s books, stuck around to listen as Novak assumed center stage.
“Does everyone have a drink?” Novak began, giving most of his attention to Ben. “Right. So last summer I was here in Vermont for a couple of weeks when Isabel was set to start at university – momentous occasion. And we decided to drive up to Montreal to, you know, eat, shop, mess around and spend the night. We’re walking along one of those cool, French grungy shopping streets near McGill, and the girls see this salon, and they go in to see if they can get their hair styled and baliage and all that stuff. So I keep walking, looking for a bar or a bookstore or coffee shop or something to kill some time. I don’t really know the city.
“A few blocks past that famous smoked meat takeaway, I come to this little place with a string of these plastic Portuguese flags draped along the window, so I look inside and it’s some sort of café. There’s a TV going above the bar, and it’s a football match.”
“Tell us,” Ben said with a straight face. “Did you go in?”
“Thank you, yes. I went in. The match was the Super Cup between AC Milan and Seville. It was a bit of a tribute to Antonia Puerta, as well, who had just died, I think, that week.”
“Oh, seriously, that was awful,” Ben groaned. “And they’d gotten him to walk off the pitch, and then I heard, like, one cardiac arrest after another at hospital. Just fucking sad.”
“Get on with your funny story, Julius,” Danny said.
“So, OK, Milan-Seville, second half, don’t remember the score; doesn’t matter. I sit down at the bar and order un café. On my right is a dapper older gentleman with thick white hair and a white moustache, sort of Cesar Romero. He’s tucking into some kind of plate du jour and he’s drinking a bottle of Budweiser. On his right is a really big guy, heavy, about forty. It’s a family place. A little boy, who looks like he belongs to the owners, is running around and stopping every now and then with a woman at a table who seems like his gran. So, mom’s behind the bar; dad’s in the open kitchen pulling linguica or something out of a meat grinder.”
“Good football story, Julius,” Ben laughed. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll go re-fold my underwear.”
“Hang on, smart ass. I start up a conversation over the football. We all hit it off.  You know how it goes. The old guy is, in fact, Portuguese, and so is the heavy guy. They’ve known each other for a long time, perhaps even back in Europe -- probably about thirty years ago when so many Portuguese came over to Canada. So we’re talking, and it turns out this old man is a former first division footballer, news corroborated by the other guy. So now we’re really talking. Sky’s the limit. I mean, you’ve been there.”
“Did he tell you his name?” Ben asked.
“Why? How many Portuguese footballers do you know from the sixties?”
“Er … one.”
“Exactly,” Novak said. “That’s the only one I can name. So I ask him straight out, ‘Do you know Eusebio?’”
He throws his head back, ‘Know him?’ He looks at the other guy who gives him this knowing grin and sips his beer. ‘Eusebio is my great friend. Every time I return home we go out together, and I always buy the drinks. Eusebio never has to pay for anything.’”
“Well, sure,” Ben said. “Eusebio. Probably doesn’t even carry a wallet.”
“So, the old guy switches to sangria, and I ask him, ‘How about those 1966 World Cup Finals?’ He says, right off the bat, that Eusebio was never the same after the English assigned a player specifically, and I quote, ‘to break the great man’s legs.’”
“Rub-bish!” Ben said, wrinkling his face. “Unless, of course, he meant Nobby Stiles.”
“We can only assume,” Novak said. “But, he’s obviously still not over that semifinal, because he made a point of saying, with great disdain and a kind of forbidding certainty, ‘as you can see, the English will never beat us again. They are great for their clubs, but not for their country.’”
“A bit naive, perhaps,” Ben muttered. “The last two went to penalties, but the man has a point.”
“Yeah, it’s a touch more complicated than that.”
Just then Marianne walked by and weighed in.
“Complicated? Let me guess. The pros and cons of the 4-4-4 and the 3-3-3.”
“Uh, Marianne … ,” her older brother Danny prepared to set her straight.
Novak laughed and shifted to drown Danny out. Ben joined him. Given what she’d been telling him all day, Marianne didn’t strike the novelist as someone best to antagonize.
“All right. I’m getting to the good part. That wild quarterfinal at Goodison Park between Portugal and North Korea.”
“The shock three-nil to the Koreans at halftime, right?” Ben offered.
“That’s what I always thought,” Novak corrected him. “But the Portuguese actually pulled two back and went in, down only by 3-2, with not quite the mountain to climb. So, my new wine bar pal tells me that one of his other friends on the national team reported to him that, in the changing room, Eusebio declared, with blood in his eyes, ‘I will kill them.’ He was referring, of course, to our eminently brave and crowd-pleasing Koreans. I believe some of the Koreans had been accusing one of the Portuguese – maybe Eusebio -- of diving, and I remember a clip of Eusebio and an opponent in a little shoving match after the superstar coolly drilled home a penalty.”
“I think you’re right.”
“It was then that this mysterious old man struck me completely dumb. For according to Eusebio and the other Portuguese players who were on the pitch … Stop me if you’ve heard this one before …”
“No, go on.” Ben was absorbed.
Novak filled everyone’s wine glass. The scene resembled children listening to a spooky ghost story at summer camp.
“Well, we all know that Portugal, led by a Eusebio hat trick, eventually wore the plucky Koreans down and ran off 5-3 winners in an epic match. But, as the second forty-five minutes ebbed and flowed with heart-stopping action, providing an afternoon of ecstasy for every lucky spectator who managed to cram into the park … and, like Woodstock, ten times the capacity of Goodison claim to have been there … the Portuguese players, one by one, began to suspect that the North Koreans …”
Unbearable tension.
“… had put on ten fresh outfield players at the interval and dressed them in the sweat-soaked shirts of those who had run themselves into the ground during the opening forty-five minutes.”
“Bollocks!” Ben practically split a gut laughing in contemptuous disbelief.
Novak looked around the room, straight-faced, holding his hands up as if to declare himself ‘not guilty’ of anything he might be accused of.
Danny was grinning and nodding but not laughing. His daughters and the other under-21s had left for a party at a friend’s house nearby and might or might not be home later. They would call. So Danny was drinking wine, and he had poured himself a pint of McNeill’s as well. He didn’t like to drink in front of his kids. So when they weren’t around, sometimes he made up for lost time. What the hell. He could always crawl to his bed if it came to that. As long as he didn’t ‘pull a Brian Jones’ in the heated pool, what’s the big deal?
Coen was giggling mainly because Ben Hampton was giggling. He didn’t completely understand why Ben was reacting so, nor did he get why Novak and Danny were behaving in such stark contrast to their friend. But he thought if he stuck around he might become clued in to something.
“You heard me. Ten new players to have a go at outpacing these supremely talented Portuguese, these cup-favorites.”
“Julius Novak, decorated scholar,” Ben pointed a finger at the Oxford don. “If you’re about to say the Koreans all looked alike …”
“I’m not saying it. The old man is saying it. They all looked alike. Nobody could tell except the Portuguese players who’d been taking them on -- face to face; shoulder to shoulder -- all afternoon. Eusebio and his bewildered teammates started putting two and two together. By the end, they were sure. The officials? The spectators? The press? The record-breaking TV audience? Forget about it! One and all fooled by Asian trickery.”
“He was taking the piss out of you, you pillock,” Ben laughed.
“No. I asked him, directly. ‘You takin’ the piss?’ He said, ‘No. I am not taking the piss.’ In my experience, since living in England, when you ask someone that question, they are honor-bound to tell the truth. I believe there’s still honor in the world. If you were taking the piss, and someone said to you, ‘Are you takin’ the piss?’ Can you imagine saying, ‘No, I am not.” You can’t, can you? Because you wouldn’t do it.”
“Did he know who you were?”
“No. I don’t go around saying, ‘Hi. Julius Novak. Top that!’”
“I’m aware of that. Why wouldn’t we have heard about this at any time during the last forty years?”
“That’s a mystery, but señor assures me that this brazen attempt at unprecedented cheating is widely known among his countrymen and accepted as fact to this day. Don’t forget. The world was still in a sort of Manchurian Candidate mindset.”
“Well, why are they still fretting about it?” Ben asked, puzzled. “They won the bloody match, didn’t they?”
“Unreasonable levels of miserable self absorption and introspection à la the Portuguese?”
“One more thing,” Ben said, just about ready to move on. “Did your friend show any sign of recognizing that the crux of this anecdote is racist?”
“Blatantly racist,” Novak agreed. “Appalling. Anytime you point out a group of people, all from the same country, and say, ‘They all look the same to me,’ that’s not going to win you any friends.”
“I don’t know, Ben,” Danny was unsteadily holding his glass of red wine. Last time Ben looked, Danny was holding a glass of porter. “I would argue that it’s not all that racist. Because, in this case, we have a few Portuguese making a generalization about a few little Korean footballers. You know? How does that affect us? Now, if you’re from Portugal, then perhaps you have to look at it. And if you’re from Korea, then maybe … maybe you’re potentially offended. Who’s to say? But, is this really going to roll back the clock on international relations? I would say ‘no.’”
“How many drinks have you had tonight, Danny?” Ben looked straight at him.
“What do you mean?” Danny looked around at the others.
“What Ben is trying to say, Dan,” Novak said, “is … you’ve got it wrong.”
“Have I?” Danny scratched his chin. “Have I got it wrong … in my own home?”
“Point taken, sir,” Ben lifted his glass to Danny with a smile. “Cheers.”
“Yeah, cheers,” Novak stood up. “Let’s see what the others are doing. Well, see for yourself. I would imagine that’s Roger and Joanna demonstrating an interpretation of some kind of Haitian dance?”
They left Danny with Coen, the two of whom had already begun talking about a new business startup of Coen’s having something to do with office cleaning in New Zealand. Ben and Novak paused in front of a section of bookshelves, fiction M-Z.
“Who’s into Anthony Powell?” Ben asked.
“Well, any discriminating reader, for a start,” Novak answered, putting on his reading glasses and flipping through a Norman Rush. “But, in this case, Roger. I picked these up for him over the years, prior to Internet shopping, down along those Charing Cross side streets – specifically Cecil Court.”
“Ah, beloved Cecil Court.”
“You know, Ben, call it what you will, simply a delicious football myth gone mad if you like. And, now, maybe not before the cock crows three times, but you will be sharing the “they all looked the same” story with others – even those whom you respect.”
“Oh, without a doubt, I’ll be dining out off of this for the foreseeable future.” Ben delicately pulled a wrapped, first edition from its place. “Superb copy of ‘Eggs, Beans and Crumpets.’”

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Chapter Twenty-Two of Hampton from the Halfway Line

Yes, we know; this is not a snap of rural Vermont. This is a city where Julius and Marianne found and then lost love. can you guess?


South Derry, Vermont

With two, full glasses of Roger’s vin rouge de la soirée placed on the table between their matching comfy chairs, Roger’s daughter, Marianne faced the Papineaus’ eminent guest, Ben Hampton and his tape recorder for one, final, soul-cleansing assault on Julius Novak’s ever-spottier, spotless image. She wasted no time.
“He went to Spain with that pesky little Sami about a month after he first saw and supposedly fell madly in love with me. I’ll bet he didn’t tell you that.”
Ben was stunned and not stunned. He had been under the impression, ever since the ‘Marianne as nude artists’ model’ story, that Novak had sworn off women until he could somehow manage to capture the sculpture student’s heart.
Marianne folded her arms in front of her torso. “That was his idea of ending the intimacy after he’d been ‘hypnotized’ by my spell.”
“I think he said scale back the intimacy, actually,” Ben said, stupidly.
“So he scaled it back by taking her to Spain?” her voice rose. “He never took me to Spain.”
“Well you’ve been there together since, haven’t you? Benicassim and all that?”
“Yeah, with Isabel and my brother and sister-in-law and their kids and some other people.”
He and Sami went with a group,” Ben said, again stupidly.
“He did tell you??” Marianne sounded angry. “Why did you act like you didn’t know??”
“I didn’t know. I knew he went with a group,” Ben was flustered. “He said he went with a group from Cologne when he explained about seeing Valencia play for the first time back in ‘82. We were talking about football. He didn’t mention … Sami. So, now you say she went along. That means it was a group that included Julius and the girl. Enlightenment is all it is. The power of logic.”
“Guess how I found out?” she asked, with a sideways glance, tongue pushing out her cheek.
“Sami told you?” he asked, thinking nothing of it until he saw Marianne’s face explode. Then he flinched.
“He told you that too?? What are you playing at?”
“No! God. You said to guess! I guessed, ‘Sami.’ That’s what guessing is.”
“It’s just odd that she would be your first guess.”
“Honestly, I really don’t have all that many names from this period of your life that I can pull out of a hat – if you know what I mean. I did just meet you yesterday.”
“I just think it’s a load of crap he’s feeding you. That’s all.” She took a hearty pull on the wine. “He tells you he was dating Sami; met me and went over the moon, supposedly, with lust and heartache; went to Spain and saw a Valencia match; saw me nude in public; then finally I asked him out. Then we lived together for five and a half years. I just think it’s bizarre that he would mention Sami and mention Spain but fail to clarify that Sami and Spain were the same thing.”
“He’s still somewhat new at the whole ‘being interviewed’ thing,” Ben offered sheepishly.
“Whatever. No hiding the fact, then, that there was a rather tasteless and demeaning overlap between the two relationships. If we confronted him right now, Julius would scratch his head and claim it was all very hazy as to when one ended and the other began. Would you pour me some wine, please? He led that poor girl on while he followed me around Cologne like he was KGB. Why don’t we go down to the house and ask him?”
“Marianne, this is a book about a footballer’s life; not the Jerry Springer Show.”
“Yes, well if you’re serious about a book, then you should take a good look at the man.”
“I’m sorry you’re still upset about it. What was he, like, eighteen or nineteen at the time?” Ben could not hide his cynicism nor his mild annoyance.
“I suppose you’re going to defend his behavior by saying he was young and didn’t know any better?”
“I’d rather not be put in that position, to be honest, but … yeah.”
“What do you mean … yeah?” she said.
“I mean, he was eighteen bloody years old, Marianne, and still just twenty-five when you kicked him out. Fucking hell. You could have given the man a chance to grow up before you pulled the rug out from under him. When I was twenty-five, my only yearning was to get a proper Charlie Nicholas haircut …”
“I was going to have a baby …” Marianne tried to speak over him.
“… but I’d already lost too much hair.”
“ … I had to decide what to do quickly before everything was decided for me. I wasn’t going to follow him around for the rest of my life or always be waiting for him to come home, so I could suffer the way my mother did. How can you even say such a thing?”
“I was rendering a judgment.”
“Aren’t journalists supposed to just ask questions?”
“I was framing my question as a declarative intended to provoke a compelling quote, and you obliged me quite neatly. Thank you.”
“I just don’t understand how you can talk to someone like Julius Novak a few times, swallow every rotten fish he feeds you, then come into my home as a guest and throw accusations around like you think you know everything about me.”
“All right, I’m drunk.”
Marianne laughed and Ben joined her, if tentatively.
“How much time do I have?” she asked, having heard of his taste for 90-minute intervals of action.
“Go for it.”
“Let’s see, what else? He had relationships – at best, inappropriate -- with women everywhere he went.”
“As a journalist I’m going to need documentation on these … ‘liaisons,’ as you call them.”
“I didn’t follow him around or have him followed … exactly. I was very busy – university; two minimum-wage jobs; and hours apprenticing, on top of my studio hours with my classes. Then, after my first degree, I always taught, whether it was drawing or pottery for schools or wealthy kids in the summer. Our little community within the altstadt of Köln was like any other small village. You couldn’t pick your nose without everyone knowing the next day.”
“I would hate that,” Ben said, moving his hand away from his face.
“And don’t think of me as some woman who gets upset if her man flirts with other women. If it’s harmless, and it makes people happy, where’s the harm? I think it’s sexy. I can be in a relationship and flirt with men. I’m comfortable with my boundaries. How do you think you get your work into the best art galleries?”
“I’d as soon not tell you how many publishers I’ve had to sleep with,” Ben took a healthy drink of wine. “It’s a real sewer out there.”
“If making bad jokes allows you to listen to female emotions, then be my guest.”
“But with Julius, it was more than flirting. Every time there was the least little problem with us, his thoughts about what to do to strengthen the relationship simply vanished. His energy left the building. I was the only one putting anything into it. He was absent so often that the part of my mind that thought about our love had plenty of free time, you see, to conclude that he was never going to be in the … I almost said marriage. One woman after another.”
“What do you mean … affairs?”
Ben was not enjoying this. An interview too far, he reckoned.
“I think he tried and failed.”
“Failed … how?”
“You know, peeking through fica plants like he did when he first saw me.”
“He’d get arrested each time?” Ben asked, half-seriously.
“He would do nothing each time. He would wait for the woman to come to him.”
“And you’re telling me they didn’t? He’s not exactly a gargoyle, you know. Was he never approached by star-struck co-eds?”
“All the time. But that was beneath his ethical code. Julius wouldn’t dare compromise his position in the faculty. He’d worked too hard to let some little Twinkie bring him down. He kept a just-barely-wide-enough gulf between the junior professor and his female students. The men he would have a beer with, but he told me he didn’t even want to be alone with a young female student because you never know what they might do.”
“What they might do, or what he might do?”
“Ben, that’s a very female observation.”
“Thank you … I think. What type of woman are we talking about here -- these attractions?”
“A lot of times it would be the girl who ‘makes his cappuccino,’ so to speak. He had a thing for working girls – landscapers, bank tellers, women whose voice he heard on the radio, the girl who greeted everyone on the Rhine tour boats, out-of-work actresses, poetry readers, bakers, kitchen help, revolutionaries, girls with hairy armpits.”
“Ahead of his time, was he?”
“And all the women, one after another, whom he talked to, watched, thought about, fantasized about being with, were in addition to his having left the relationship by choosing mother fucking Wüppertal and Köln University as his primary loves. He dumped me into the third group with all his other flirtations.”
“You really believe that?”
“It’s the truth. After I asked him to please leave, he immediately had an actual physical affair with a black dancer whom he’d been salivating over after having met her in the painting class where I was the artist’s model. You know, your tentative chapter one?”
The fiction writer lit up.
“Why are you grinning?”
“Foreshadowing I didn’t even know I had!”
Marianne ignored him.
“Her father was a black American serviceman in Frankfurt and her mother was the product of a similar kind of thing – same basic category. Black serviceman gets it on with white German babe. This next part makes me sick …”
“By all means,” Ben waved her on and looked to be getting ill himself. He was fantasizing about a fag.
“He suggested we go see this black dance troupe. As a sculptor, he said, I would love it. Just so he could see her and the other glistening, athletic women squirm around practically nude under the hot stage lights. He had this adolescent, white boy fetish for black girls, and he had to satisfy it before he could get on with his life.”
Ben ran his hand around his mouth, looking guilty.
“It’s so pathetic to witness and so demeaning to women,” she continued. “These little punks with hard-ons fool themselves that we live in a color-blind world, and we just don’t. I felt his cock in the dark theatre. It was practically bursting at the seams. Fully erect, all right.”
“Thank you … for that, Marianne, really.” Ben shifted his weight.
“I’m just illustrating a point. Is it disturbing?”
“Funny,” Ben chuckled. “I was just about to say, ‘This is mildly disturbing.’”
“I’m glad it’s disturbing. It was disturbing to me and eventually to my child. Did he also tell you he was brokenhearted and devastated when we split up? That’s a laugh.”
“Well, uh …”
“His little Josephine Baker moved to London to join a company. I think he chased her there. Cambridge and Arsenal were just an excuse to keep her interested in him.”
Ben looked dubious.
“Yes, I really believe that. She was perfectly satisfied to be fucking a sexy footballer. But she wasn’t interested in him. He refused to take that on board. That’s why he didn’t retire and just teach. That’s why he didn’t move to Paris and get a job and be with his baby and me. He couldn’t manage to get Miss Dark Chocolate out of his system. She finally stopped answering his calls and sent a menacing-looking criminal guy to threaten him so he’d leave her alone.”
“Shit.” Ben honestly never suspected. And he was a little drunk. “Sounds like something out of an early Guy Ritchie film. You know, like, ‘Are you gonna fucking pay???’” He snarled and pretended to hold a man’s head under water in a barrel. “Are you gonna fucking pay???’”
Marianne ignored his dramatic allusion to modern cinema and, after her interviewer collected himself, continued.
“And did he tell you he never considered playing professional football when he first moved to Germany? That it just sort of happened?”
“Not true, eh?”
“Another lie to paint a certain picture of an intellectual who happened to be a sportsman, rather than the other way around, which he absolutely rejects. All along when we lived together, if you asked him what he was. What is your occupation, or whatever? He would say university student or grad student or teacher or getting my doctorate and lecturing and writing or professor and consultant and I’m doing field work with, you know, dead languages and nearly-dead languages -- like those Dalmatian dialects and the people who nearly-speak what’s left of the nearly-dead language.”
Ben found that Marianne was remaining surprisingly calm and even cheerful during this bitter criticism of Novak. She relaxed in her chair with her legs crossed delicately and one foot bobbing softly.
“And the Serbs thought they’d go in and just massacre them all and have dead people to go along with the dead language. Oh, my. As you can see, my teacher had an effect on me.” Marianne had a look of disgust.
“He used to walk around with his ragged copy of Das Dalmatische – like a couple thousand words written down a hundred years ago by some Italian. And the original Italian is gone, so the German one was the definitive text. So fucking weird. Notice I still remember it all. I actually gave an effort to listen to him when he spoke and show an interest in what interested him.”
Marianne was taking alarming swigs of her wine and refilling the glass herself.
“Furthermore, he was sexually attracted to suffering Croatian women and oppressed Albanian women and, generally anything downtrodden with a vulva.”
Ben winced. This was not how he had expected to wrap up his day of research. On the other hand, he recalled his conversation with himself, the day before, while driving to Vermont.
‘I should like to discover what motivated these two people to fuck up their personal lives by splitting (and, of course, pray the details are mildly interesting and workable).’
Well, now he could tick off the ‘mildly interesting’ box. He would worry about ‘workable’ at some later date.
“But did he ever say, ‘I’m a footballer.’ Period? Never. And he never led with it either. It usually came out after more questions. ‘I thought I’d seen your name with Wüppertal -- that small side that won the cup?’
“‘Yes, that’s me,’ he would humbly and undeservingly reply. ‘I’m monster fortunate to be in the side. It’s a bit of a struggle, bit of a reach. Every week I see my name on the team sheet, and I thank my lucky stars. It’s an honor and a marvel, really.’ Can’t you just hear him?”
Ben was still.
“He is humble,” she finished off her former lover, “as long as he’s the topic of conversation.”
“Is that really fair?” Ben took a hack at defending the man, who was becoming his friend, from the wicked assault or the cold-eyed character assessment – whatever it was. “I don’t get that sense at all.”
“Fuck fair.” Marianne proclaimed with zest.
All-righty, then.
“Did he leave out how I put everything aside to go to Yugoslavia with him for his research year abroad? I went to fucking Yugoslavia, because I loved his rat’s ass so much. I know he didn’t tell you that. Oh, Marianne kicked me out. She kicked me out. Your knowing how I allowed my life to be consumed by his wouldn’t help make his case as the victim, the hard-done-by wonder boy.”
Ben no longer had anything to say. He looked at his watch. Injury time. The home side looks to have a few more wallops at it.
“I went to fucking Yugoslavia for eight … months. They didn’t speak much English there or any French and they hated Germans, so they rejected speaking German even if they knew it. I was so lonesome. Julius would leave for days at a time to venture into the Balkan linguistic wilderness. Tito was dead. We were in the Serbian part. The politicians were whipping the Serbs into a nationalistic frenzy. It was sick, and we watched it begin to happen – or, if not begin, then to grow very quickly. This was just before Milosevic rose to power. I became depressed. I began to imagine what Nazi Germany was like in the 30s. I felt I was living it, and I was scared to death. And I was alone. Even when Julius was with me, I was alone.
“The whole time I’m there I’m thinking, ‘Well, I love him, and this is what you have to do sometimes. We’ll look back and say, boy, remember when we were in Belgrade? We made some nice friends. It was hard. It was spare, but it brought us closer together, Belgrade.’
“In reality, it was the first of countless times when I gave and gave and he gave back nothing of importance. I made a terrible mistake then, and I was so unhealthy I stayed with him three more years.
“I asked him to go to India with me for three weeks once in the next summer or maybe the summer after that.”
‘India? I can’t go to India.’
“Then he started listing all these reasons why he couldn’t possibly leave the country. It was just noise in my ears. By the time I grabbed a few things and made it to the door of our apartment, he was up to about reason number twenty. I suppose he left that out, how he could never be bothered.”
“Mm.” Ben scratched his ear, tightened his whole face and nodded almost imperceptibly.
“Guess what eventually lured him into staying closer to Belgrade? Was it the notion that the woman he dragged along with him was in Belgrade? No.”
“Football,” Ben whispered, suddenly ashamed to be a supporter.
“Exactly. His club arranged for him to train with Red Star reserves. Then, when they liked him so much, they requested official loan papers to be put through so he could run out for their ‘B’ team. I trust he told you the rest of that story. I’m certain he’s covered anything that made him look good.
“And as far as coming to West Germany as a teenager to pursue his academic dream, that was the biggest lie of all – the lie that laid the foundation for all his other deceits.”
“How do you know for sure?” Ben asked, wanting to understand even though Marianne’s narrative delivery was becoming quite grave.
Surely, she couldn’t be talking about the same person whose company he’d actually come to enjoy – following the initial tedium. Besides, she’s making him sound like a double agent who sold secrets to the enemy. Of course, as big a fan of Graham Greene as Novak is, he might actually enjoy Marianne’s rendition of his life creeping amidst the dying embers of Cold War Germany.
“He drunkenly admitted it in a bar to teammates. Two of the players told their wives who then asked me if it were true. One week later it was over between us.”
“If what were true, Marianne?”
“That the only reason he left the United States for Europe as a young man was to make it as a professional footballer, as high up in the ranks as possible. But he had no confidence that he’d be successful, so he devised a way of covering his bases if he failed, or if the dream never got off the ground.”
“I don’t completely follow you,” Ben was overwhelmed.
“He made up his mind when he was fourteen years old, Ben, that he was going to play football in the Bundesliga, and his target club was F.C. Köln. He never told anyone – no one – because he thought he’d be the butt of jokes, and he was terrified of not being taken seriously. Every decision he made, every move was designed to get him closer to his goal. And the goal was not to be a teacher or something having to do with languages or academia, like he’d told everyone back home and everyone over here – even his … me.
“Even when he signed for the second-division club, basically realizing his dream then and there, he didn’t share his true feelings with me. That was 1983. We began living together while he was still with Wüppertal’s regional fourth division … sister side, or whatever you want to call it. When they moved him to the reserves of the big club, we had already been together for many months. Just one more season, he’d say. One more year, and then we’ll see where we are. It’s going to come to an end.”
“What’s the whole Cologne thing?” Ben asked, wondering if her football ignorance had been a put on.
“That was the club he fell in love with as an adolescent. You were already a hopeless Arsenal fan, and Julius, for some reason, lost his mind over Cologne.”
“The Billy Goats,” Ben said mistily. “Dieter Müller, Harald Schumacher.”
“Yeah, Die Geißböcke, everywhere you went in town, of course. Julius didn’t pick Köln University for its program offerings. He chose the city to be near his soccer heroes. The college was a convenience. Don’t get me wrong. He was a very talented student and linguist. But, Ben, think about it. Nobody can make it to the peak of anything without dedicating every thought, every deed to make sure nothing stands in his or her way. He dreamed of playing soccer in Germany, preferably for Cologne, every day and night of his teenage years.”
“Why didn’t this superhuman drive, then, land him with the club of his dreams?”
“Didn’t work out. Besides, his loyalty was to Wüppertal after they showed so much faith in him.”
“I read in old news reports on the Web that Köln was one of the teams that were plumping for him when he left Germany to come to England. Why didn’t he go then?”
“I guess he was over that particular obsession,” Marianne said. “And don’t forget the black dancer.”
“Oh, will you stop with the black dancer.”
Marianne drank the last of the wine.
“Have you heard of Gin-ev-ra Carlyle?” she asked, twisting her mouth in mockery of the Brontë-esque name.
“The grad assistant who ran Julius’ Cambridge office?”
Ben knew the name and her official and vital role in Novak’s hectic, early years in England but nothing else. Marianne nodded.
“Mm, yes. He thought of her as a sister, he said. Always made sure she knew it too. By the time he left for his first year abroad in Spain, she’d become crazy in love with him. She was now twenty-seven, no longer assigned to help keep his university life and his football club life running smoothly and both organizations happy and satisfied with his contributions. He’d left Arsenal, so that bit was over, and he was taking two years away from Selwyn College. He would be provided a new Ginevra, so to speak, to coordinate between the University of Valencia and his new club.”
“That wouldn’t have been Dora, by any chance,” Ben asked as he cowered.
“Ohh, you know about Xalbadora Guerra Valloso. Excellent,” Marianne seemed to grit her teeth as she stuck her chin out. “That’ll save time. Well, Julius stayed in contact with Ginevra, who had left the university to work with the Labor Party. Julius helped her secure some extra income doing little projects for the EU and, I think, UEFA. She dated men, but, by all accounts, never let anyone get too close because she longed for Mr. Wonderful’s return to England.”
“Did he know that?”
“He says not.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Listen, when you have a little girl who wants to see her daddy, and he’s a perfectly nice daddy in every way, you must arrange for them to spend as much time together as possible. I had no interest in keeping them apart. That would have been wrong. They’ve always loved one another deeply, and they’re so charming together. So I made it my business to know everyone Isabel might be around. I developed new relationships in Julius’ various worlds, and there was a lot of cross-pollenization. My brother, Danny, lived in London. He was always friends with Julius. The two of them and some of my new friends had friends in common, and there you are. I steered him toward couples with children who would be good for the baby to be around and play with once she was older. I even knew people who knew you, like Anthony Mirren and Stella Byrd.
“Isabel made London friends and Thaxted friends and Cambridge friends. I was in contact with all of them. We invited people to Paris – her little friends and their parents; you name it. Some people were under the impression Julius and I were married. We would show up places with Isabel – weddings; birthdays; country weekends; school performances. He and I apparently looked as though we went together, we were told. Julius and I have always been very much in each other’s lives, except for just a brief period when I sobbed and got sick every time I saw him or heard his voice. But that was just off and on for a couple of years. He was quite easy to keep track of, and I have no difficulty doing so. I was just being a momma bear looking out for my cub.”
“For two years, then, he mostly traveled between Spain, Slovakia and Paris with only a few quick trips to England. But he rented out the Cambridge rooms, had neighbors to look after the cottage, and he put his London solicitor’s office in charge of the Camden flat. They stayed in touch, but Ginnie-pooh lay very low when it came to being available for him while he was out of the country. I believe Julius was oblivious. Of course, I’ve never had any trouble coming to that conclusion.”
“You and Isabel saw him a lot during that time?”
“Oh, yes. Julius can create circumstances to be practically anywhere in Europe. I can imagine him saying to one of his assistants, ‘Find a reason for me to go the Aegean, and you and a friend can tag along.’ He came a lot to Paris. Isabel was just starting school, and that was so much fun for all of us, and so very important, especially for grandmère and grandpère. My father! You can imagine, now that you’ve met him, Roger Papineau questioning the headmaster and the staff and the teachers. What a comedy. But he was charming and harmless. Julius and I felt like we had accomplished something together as we peeked through the classroom doorway. She held hands with the other girls and sang songs and talked in her little grown-up voice to the teacher and the other adults. The college girls who interned at the école thought she was priceless the way she spoke – as though she were one of them, and they needed Isabel to help them with the little ones. Yes, Julius was around as much as most other dads for that part. He behaved responsibly and was very sweet for what must have been a trial in many ways.”
“But enough of how he was uncharacteristically appropriate.”
“So when he came back to England in, oh, I suppose it was … 1997, he offered the foolish girl more work, very challenging and gratifying work; and they basically picked up where they had left off two years before as far as time spent together and collaboration and the like. I could tell when I saw them together, a couple of months later, that either they were already fucking or at the very least that she was in love with him. When she was away from him, everyone said she looked like a librarian. But when she was with him, she was glamorous and looked to me like that Scottish actress, Kelly MacDonald – two different people. I couldn’t tell right away though what exactly his role was in all of it. As time went on, I kept a close eye on them. Isabel was eight or nine and very savvy and an excellent reporter of absolutely every word that was said anywhere. I discovered Julius’ role was ‘idiot.’ Many who knew them in England were pushing for it and often right in front of them. Ginevra would blush and be mortified, because she was afraid of losing him completely if he felt cornered. She didn’t know how right she was. Julius was, typically, on a different wavelength from every other person. All the talk, all the innuendoes, all the arranging by others so they’d be together went right over his head. I told him what I saw and that everyone saw it.”
“What did he say?”
“We were only on the phone, but I could tell that he was aware of what was going on. Even as he insisted on doing his tap dance, he was saying things that indicated to me that he was alert to her feelings and her state of mind. He allowed it to happen, in my opinion, subtly condoning it and even opening his heart to what one might call ‘concealed longings’ for the poor girl.”
“Why do I get the feeling there’s not a Cinderella ending here?” Ben said.
“Because, in spite of your Arsenal bullshit, you’re admirably feminine and perceptive. He invited her to some awards dinner, she showed up actually looking like Cinderella. Later that night they had an ooh-aah moment where they gazed into each other’s eyes and saw stars and heard angels strumming harps. Then they went to bed in Essex for about two weeks, occasionally driving into the village for food and rambling among the sheep. She was ecstatic. Unfortunately, our hero very soon freaked out, thought he’d made a terrible mistake and started behaving like an idiot.”
“What was his problem?”
“Have you not paid attention to anything I’ve said?” Marianne stared at him.
“All right, I’ll give it a go, since I’m half-bird. Selfishness and fear of commitment.”
“Close enough. He broke her heart, devastated her. Ginevra thought she’d found the perfect man. What she found was a perfect adolescent. Their friends were furious. She moped around London for a couple of weeks, then moved to Sweden for some job in the ministry there. I know exactly how she felt – deceived, foolish and alone.”
“There’s not going to be ten more years worth of this, is there?” Ben asked, exhausted.
“He’ll never commit, because he wants to make all the decisions about how his life is laid out. That’s who he is. He didn’t mean to hurt me. And I’m not angry anymore, Ben. I’m not even hurt. We’ve both moved on. We’re both in a different place. We have a daughter. And things are very nice. His good points were always very good: one of the funniest men I’ve ever known; he was a perfect lover ninety percent of the time; loves his mother; gorgeous; strong physically; great brain; responsible; politically liberal; kind to animals and children and the elderly; and very sweet and honest with facts.”
“But?” Ben asked, really hoping to wrap this up and rejoin the festivities in the main house.
“All of his poor marks, if you will, the things I could never find a way to overcome, stem from his emotional immaturity – some kind of gaping hole of insecurity in relating deeply and sincerely to other human beings, exposing himself and giving something truly meaningful to people who are important to him. He was emotionally dishonest, meaning he always had to hold something back. He still does. He’ll do the same thing with you.”
“I’m really not interested in him in that way.”
“You cause your wife to cry, don’t you?” Marianne’s sense of humor, Ben found, came and went like the wind.
“It’s been known to happen.”
“I could tell her a few things about men like you.”
“Really, that’s OK. She’s very busy. And, remember, it is my second marriage; and I am actually trying to make a go of it.”
“You can’t possibly make a real ‘go of it’ if you make a joke out of everything meaningful to her or discount her as your equal partner. You can’t make a go of it if you never try to discover whom she is and what she really needs from you. Your relationship with your wife or your lover cannot function and grow if the account is empty. You both must make deposits so you have money in the bank for the lean times.”
“Honestly? You’re scaring me.”
Marianne laughed a sweet, harmless laugh. “I get carried away. It’s not directed at you. You’re a wonderful man.”
“Have you ever tried sculpture? I hear it’s very relaxing.”
“See? That was funny. You’re very funny.”
They rose to go outside in the cold and head back down to the party, the music and laughter from which they could hear once they opened the door to the guest cottage.
“And, ask my wife, I’m perfect at sex … what was it, ten percent of the time?”