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.’”

No comments:

Post a Comment