Sunday, December 11, 2011

Chapter Twenty-Four of Hampton from the Halfway Line


Union Square, New York

In January most New Yorkers wish they lived somewhere else. Life can, in many cases, become a little depressing – in other words, a good time to go to any number of Caribbean Islands. There is rarely any good, natural light in the sky; and on days the sun can manage to peek through the gloomy midwinter clouds, its rays are hardly strong enough to penetrate through the numbing chill and down to street level past more than a thousand Manhattan buildings ten stories or higher.
If there’s been anything like a White Christmas, the streets are now a wet, black, sludgy mess from all the buses and other endless traffic. The ever-present street department crews, demolition and renovation teams and seemingly 24-hour movers and deliverers block your favorite shortcuts. You dread the end-of-the month credit card bill because you certainly were unable to make any payments the last week of December. It’s New York, so you had to spend probably an entire month’s wages on presents because of all the parties you attended. And the later you waited to buy the gift for that special someone, the more extravagant the gift needed to be since it was so impersonal. The few Christmas decorations that remain up now seem pathetic and add to the frigid and irritating malaise.
January is one, long horrendous hangover from the effort you expelled in December convincing yourself that everything was great and life was overflowing with the eggs en cocotte of possibility rather than the gray oatmeal of reality. January in New York is better slept through like a bear in a cave.
Unless you’re a Londoner in town for your book tour, pockets filled with U.S. dollars traded for with half the amount of British pounds than the last time you were in town. Well, you knew there had to be something good about Bush, even if it were only that his policies have helped devalue his country’s legendary currency. What do you care? It won’t stop anyone buying your new book. You’re Ben Hampton, and your books cheer everybody up. And the really great news for Ben, about his latest novel, is that a critic at the New York Times, other than Michiko Kakutani, reviewed it.
New York in January can be an overwhelming downer unless you appeared practically ‘in concert’ last night with Josh Rouse, cool American singer who lives in Spain and doesn’t make you look exactly ancient standing next to him even though he has most of his hair and it’s cool hair and he’s cool and very nice because he’s from Nebraska and so he can’t help it. You get along famously and easily with him and can even pretend he’s your younger brother or something. He thinks you’re the cool one. And your name is actually much better known than his. Still, it’s fantastic to have people think you’re cool, even though you’re appearing with a cool, talented, handsome singer with a beautiful voice.
And you often think of yourself as just a beer-loving Arsenal supporter who got blind lucky because people thought your diary was funny and tender, and you inadvertently helped millions around the planet realize that a guy can regularly attend football matches and not drag his knuckles on the ground when walking. Sure, you had talent all along, but would anyone have found out if it weren’t for Arsenal? Might you still be a frustrated teacher somewhere or, worse, Charlie the Drunk’s stand-in if the headliner had an out-of-town gig?
All the New Yorkers Ben Hampton saw last night seemed pretty happy. The crowd at the Barnes & Noble were in buoyant mood. The streets were filled as usual because no one wants to be alone in his or her microscopic apartment. A line of people waited to get into Balthazar at 10:30 on a Wednesday night as Hampton’s party of eight reveled in raw oysters and Muscadet, followed by steak frîtes with béarnaise, Vieux Télégraphe and Saint Marcellin cheese.
Ben and Novak, as had become their way, attempted to beat one another to the punch in the pretentious jokes department. Such as when a large group of noisy and very hungry-looking Manhattanites, without reservations, waited for their table and glanced at Ben’s party enjoying themselves.
“Julius, remember to chew the cheese slowly to release more of the flavor.”
They are recognized by no one. Or at least that’s the way it seems because no one approaches them nor stares at them. Ben’s face, reasonably recognizable in Britain these days (“only because of your shameless self-promotion,” according to Novak), is, outside of book readings where he is the scheduled author, mostly unknown in the states. As far Rouse, how many New Yorkers could pick out an alternative country/folk singer who lives in Spain? And Novak has been stopped on the street but a handful of times in twenty-five years, usually by one of his students.
Strangely, from the moment the book and CD release event ended, Novak had been gently vying with the bookstore, publishing and music representatives for the role of official host for the remainder of the evening. He darted into 17th Street, arm raised confidently, to hail a couple of cabs. Barnes & Noble has drivers. He suggested a place to grab a bite. The actual hosts already had a large table being prepared at the unbeatable brasserie down on Prince. Everyone besides Ben, Novak and Josh Rouse live and work in New York; but Novak wants to tell the novelist and the musician all about the Village and where Dylan and Velvet Underground performed and where the Stones were walking around in the ‘Waiting for a Friend’ video (Joanna had shown him). He behaved as though he’d finally gotten the opportunity to convince Ben Hampton that he really was an American after all. Even though he left the country when he was seventeen and had not lived there for twenty-seven years.
Just as Cologne had become his adopted German city, similar to the way he felt about London and in a lesser way Valencia, New York was Novak’s American hometown. He’d never lived there. He’d never been there (other than flying out of JFK which certainly doesn’t count) until he was twenty-one. Ben Hampton figured Novak probably realized that if he never moved back to the U.S., then he would never have a real hometown. The novelist guessed it was important for a man, even though he seemed to have everything else (except Marianne), to have a home in his native country. Novak obviously wasn’t returning to his birthplace nor anywhere in the Midwest unless he by chance met and married some corn-fed gal from Davenport, Iowa – and she drugged him.
The connection to the Big Apple was tenuous however. He’d actually resided in Cologne for nine years and London/Thaxted/Cambridge for another thirteen. Now, having entered his reading glasses years, he was settled snugly in Oxford and the Cotswolds with regular forays to the continent. Novak and Marianne began traveling together to New York in 1983 whenever she went to visit the homestead in Vermont. New York in the eighties was a demonstrably dodgier prospect than New York in 2008. Novak had been and remained enthralled by everything about it. He loved the noise, the food, the people, the attitude, the way it seemed like he was in the true center of the world – the way Rome must have seemed 2,000 years ago or London 100 years ago. He had given up his American home for life as a European, so he added ‘honorary New Yorker’ to his dubious wardrobe of identities. Or so Ben Hampton concluded.
Novak didn’t know a thing about New York back then other than what he’d seen on TV and in movies and read in newspapers and magazines and maybe a few books. But what he’d learned from those sources turned out to be fairly accurate. What he came to learn about the city, however, was that a great many of its residents didn’t seem like the classic gruff, gritty New Yawkuhs at first. Then, at various times, every single person he came to know, without warning, would release his or her inner-De Niro. One-hundred pound, female floral arrangers from North Carolina would suddenly elbow three large men out of the way from taking what she believed to be her cab. Little old ladies pulling their groceries along in a little wheeled, wire cart would bellow, in the voice of a South Street Seaport fishmonger, if a fellow pedestrian failed to clean up properly after their dog.
Both Ben and Novak continued to harmlessly overdo it throughout dinner, and the group ended the night at Pete’s Tavern, in Gramercy, within walking distance of their hotel. The next morning, Novak took a cab to catch an early flight to Madrid. Ben’s flight to Atlanta wasn’t set to depart until the afternoon, so he stepped outside the W in Union Square and walked the short distance to a bakery-café chain that Novak told him was quite nice and spacious and doesn’t seem like a chain.
As he sat at one of the long, communal tables of Le Pain Quotidien awaiting the server, Post peeking out from beneath his Times, he checked his watch – 1 p.m. in London. He rang up Dava to check in. Then he called Rosalie to share his latest thoughts on the book. He was worried that it was becoming a tangle, yet he felt on the verge of sorting it out. But he needed to talk about it with a kindred spirit who might be able to reflect his ideas back to him constructively. She was at the office working on some correspondence, shopping online, preparing to go over the monthly books with her bookkeeper, instant messaging her son and generally managing her family’s affairs and several aspects of her thrilling Ben Hampton project.
“Rosalie, hi. It’s Ben.”
“Hey you. How was Boston? And, have you done … where are you now, New York?”
“Yeah, I stayed round the corner from the Barnes & Noble. It’s going well. Boston was good. Very warm reception. I was a bit more nervous than usual.”
“Nothing I can do about that, I’m afraid,” Rosalie commiserated. “Suppose a Rod Stewart walk-on wouldn’t be quite for you.”
“I could try a Thierry Henry,” he laughed. “Funny you should mention music. Last night was the Josh Rouse thing, so that took a bit of the attention off me. Very comforting. Great bloke as well. I think you’d like his music.”
“Oh, I wish I could have been there. That sounds brilliant. Was it well received?”
“I think so. It’s a great series, and the store does a top-shelf job of it. I’d do it again if they’d have me.”
“Wonderful. I think they just might. Did you see Julius?”
“Yeah, I did. As I think I mentioned, I did end up meeting him in Vermont for a few days with his daughter and his … ex. And he was with us last evening showing support. Fantastic dinner after.”
“Lots of time with our main character, then. Very nice. Well, I’m glad you called. I’m meeting Jonathan for drinks later, and he’s been asking – and I don’t mean to rush you or be a bother – whether or not you think you might have anything to show him, say, perhaps April 1.”
‘Well, Rosalie, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“Mm-hmm?” She was checking to see if Zegna had her proper shipping address.
“Yeah. I feel I need to run a few things by you regarding plot and stuff,” Ben spread some praline sugar cream on the final bit of his croissant.
“Excuse me, plot? Did you say plot?”
Aren’t plots usually to do with fiction, she thought?
“Er, yeah. I’ve come upon some compelling … layers of, I guess, narrative possibilities … um, and, I must say … Let me start over.”
“Ben, is everything OK?”
“Fine. It’s just that, sitting here, from my vantage point, Rosalie, things look … not as they were. Right? Things look different, and, that’s fine. What I mean is, we started off, fair enough, thinking we had one thing, and, we may have another thing – an even better thing than we had … when we started.”
Rosalie’s heart was beating more noticeably, but she makes a living by solving problems. So.
“Share with me, then, from where you sit, dear, what did we have when we started, and what do we have now?”
“What I believe we had six weeks or so ago was perhaps a bit of a book-length New Yorker-style, maybe, project on a not very well known but interesting ex-footballer who came to the professional game in a peculiar way, was part of some successful teams and was a university student, as well, who went straightaway into a very respectable career as a lecturer at Britain’s finest colleges. Throw in some of my own observations and insights, about how the football culture has evolved since ‘Out in the Cold,’ was published. Come at it from the perspective of not only a lifelong fan but as a, I guess, literary figure?”
“Yes? And now?”
“I don’t know.”
Hold the phone, Rosalie thought – beginning to panic. She was an excitable woman.
“Ben Hampton, you know how fond I am of you, but ‘What the fuck?’”
“Yeah, I thought you might …”
She cut him off.
“Is there someone I could call, say, this afternoon, who might know … what we have now?”
“I apologize. I didn’t mean to alarm you. Really I didn’t.”
Ben Hampton was a gentleman and was fine with the familiar way she spoke to him. He had come to feel as though they had known one another much longer than the two months since she’d first phoned him.
“I do, sort of, know what we have,” he tried again to explain in a bite-sized way. “It’s just that I’m still trying to work it out in my mind. That’s why I called. I truly value your input. I trust you.”
Now she felt bad for snapping at him – and stupid. ‘Who the hell do I think I am?’ she thought. ‘He’s Ben bloody Hampton.’
“Do you have a minute?” he asked. ‘I could catch you up.”
“Of course. I actually have as many minutes, hours, days or weeks that you require to work it out, and please tell me if there’s anything I can do to help. You’re overworked, and it’s all my fault.”
“No, not at all, and thank you. All right, pardon me if I ramble. This is ex tempore, but I have been giving it a lot of thought. Like I say, I’m still working it out. So, the main reason I went to Vermont was to meet Julius’ ex-girlfriend/almost-wife way back when, Marianne Papineau. Have you heard of her?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Rosalie was trying not to sound confused nor become too bitchy. But a little bitchy never hurt anyone. “Should I have?”
“Not necessarily. Sculptor from Paris. Biennale about ten years ago. She’s shown a couple of times at London Sculpture Week, and I went to see some of her work at Alexia Goethe. Stunning. Heavily influenced by Camille Claudel, it seems.”
“Starring Isabel Adjani,” Rosalie injected.
“Eh?” Ben had been concentrating on presenting a cogent explanation of his method when Rosalie, as usual, said whatever she was thinking.
“What a magnificent performance in that film. Do you know how I remember? Peter and I saw it on one of those young, married couple dinner and a movie dates at the … uh … oh, the old Victorian cinema in … er … do you know the one I mean?”
“A Victorian-era theatre somewhere in England. That certainly narrows it down, Rosalie, but … er …”
“Ha, ha. Come on. Come on. I know you know it. Shit. I won’t be able to do a thing ‘till we think of the cinema.”
“OK … er … where were you, first of all? London?”
“Yes, of course, London.”
“Hammersmith? Shepherd’s Bush? Kensington?”
“We ate at that little tapas place on the Goldhawk Road.”
“Well, I hope you don’t want to go backward here and remember the name of that, because you must know there are probably …”
“Where’s the Portobello Road?”
“For such a brilliant woman, you are hopeless with simple geography. Notting Hill.”
“Notting Hill!”
“Do you mean the Coronet?”
“Yes!! Ben, I love you. Thank you, Jesus. The Coronet.”
“The Coronet’s not on Portobello Road. It’s right there on the …”
“Whatever,” Rosalie said. “The Coronet in Notting Hill. That was it. Breathtaking theatre. Brilliant film.”
“Yes. Gerard Depardieu was quite at his peak there, wasn’t he?”
“Hold on. I’m wrong. It wasn’t Camille Claudel. What’s the one where Depardieu tries to raise rabbits but those men won’t show him where the water source is and he dies?”
“Jean de Florette.”
“That’s what we saw at the Coronet. What a relief. But we’re talking about Julius Novak, aren’t we?”
“I barely remember, to be honest,” Ben said, rubbing his eyes. “But, yes. Vermont. Marianne Papineau. I mentioned Camille Claudel. You said Isabel Adjani.”
“Right. Tell me about Marianne.”
“Absolutely. Funny, really, because Marianne actually named their daughter Isabel. Not sure about the level of inspiration there; but her art is less important, for my purposes, than the impact she and Julius Novak have had on one another’s lives,” he said, meshing his fingers together. “I’ve been looking into their relationship and what went wrong and noticing how they’re actually closer than most married couples,” Ben went on. “I’m leaning toward the conclusion that they might easily have stayed together and had a close, loving, fabulous and meaningful life with each other, more like a traditional family. But they didn’t, and I believe it’s broken their hearts – both of them.”
“I want to know more – at some point,” Rosalie said. “But you want to put their love story in the book?”
“I want it to be the book,” he said, “with all the initial stuff we planned as supportive material. What we started with is interesting, in a way, but once I buried myself in it and spent time with Julius, I have to think that the football and the teaching and the languages and the being from America and the Cambridge years, etc. is just a nice foundation from which to leap into the real story. All that biographical history is not compelling enough, by itself, to be a book, in my opinion. It’s just stuff like anybody else’s stuff.”
“I trust your instincts,” she was calm.
He seemed to be in no mood to be brought down to earth. On the other hand, he was Ben Hampton. Who was she?
“Are you sure? Is there anything you want to ask me?”
“Well, first of all, no, of course I’m not sure. But, to your last points, I don’t think anything is just “stuff” in your hands. People love your voice. They root for you and the characters they’re supposed to root for. And you’re one of a handful of writers for whom readers genuinely long for your next book. I know because my husband is one of them.”
“Not you?”
“Well, you’re certainly growing on me, dear, but don’t change the subject. So I take it you don’t have an outline or any kind of real framework yet. Not that that’s the end of the world.”
“No, I don’t. But I didn’t have before, when I thought I was just doing a football and culture piece, either. So I’m actually no worse off in that respect.”
“Well, tell me what you’re thinking,” Rosalie was a bit nervous but supportive. These things happen. “Talk about Marianne. Maybe something will pop for you.”
“I’m still processing it all. Julius started talking about her very early on, and kept going back to her no matter where we happened to be in his recollections. Our first conversation was about the football culture he grew up in. That was kind of bearable, possibly some things there that the average Brit wouldn’t know about the ‘ever-fascinating American saga.’ I was trying to get right at the natural question that nearly anyone would have about him, sort of ‘What was it about your football life leading up to your time in Germany that could possibly have indicated that you’d wind up playing at the game’s highest level?’ Or something equally banal.
He spoke about it for a couple of days, to be honest, but I can’t say I was exactly mesmerized by the account. Like I say, he kept alluding to Marianne Papineau, their life together (together), their life together (apart). Their bond, its composition was passionate and, to some degree, obviously, toxic. They couldn’t cope. They were too young to take so much on, and on the surface they seemed to want different things entirely. Scratch the surface, or just dust the furniture lightly, however, and you see a man and a woman who were, in most of the important ways, designed specifically for one another. They both hear the same tune, dance to the same music and recognize the same beauty. That’s what I think, anyway.”
“God, you’re good.”
Ben hated when people said things like that.
“I know what you mean there,” she went on. “Peter and I, I can’t tell you how completely connected we are and were from quite early on. I knew it immediately. He took a bit of doing; still a bit of a lad. Mr. Joy Division. Do you know he had a band when we met?”
“Peter McMahon was in a band?”
“Oh, yes. Did you ever hear, ‘I Don’t Want to Work for British Airways’?”
“Oh my God,” Ben laughed. “That was Peter’s band?”
“The very same. I loved him anyway, just about identically as I love him today and will do forever. But, just like with any couple, there were serious problems that come along; little tragedies occur; people grow and change and have to transform in sometimes hurtful ways. The two of us might not be where we are today without a very deep bond and a lot of talking and a lot of adjusting and a lot of tears …”
“And a bit of luck,” Ben said, thinking of his own first marriage.
“A lot of luck,” she said. “We were one of the fortunate couples who found the right person. And I don’t think ‘soul mate’ is a cliché at all. I know what it means because I found mine and held on and refused to let him go. And Peter became quite dogged himself.”
“Yeah, I had a feeling you’d get it – the ‘trials of love’ angle.”
“Oh, I get it all right. Now how are we going to wrap it up in a neat little package for the post-‘Nayim from the Halfway Line’ generation?”
“Rosalie. Is there anything you don’t know? My God! Nayim from the halfway line?”
“Ben, please. I’ve had to put up with this football nonsense every single year of my life for over twenty years. All right, so I don’t remember Julius Novak, but at least give me some credit for not being completely daft.”
“You have my word,” he said, as he left the tip for his café server. “Not to mention my undying admiration … and sympathy.”
“Thank you, dear.” She put her feet up on her desk and saw that one of her toes needed a bit of a touch-up with Hong Hanh round the corner. “Now have your hotel get you a taxi to the airport and tell me all about the couple of the century.”

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