Monday, January 16, 2012

Chapter Thirty of Hampton from the Halfway Line


Bloomsbury, London

Rosalie McMahon was having a busy morning in the middle of a busy week in the busiest two months she had ever experienced. She hadn’t had such full days and nights since a hideous week in 1995 when all three of her children had pneumonia at the same time and Peter was in Zurich on business. But this time was wonderful and satisfying. As Rosalie held a phone to her ear and negotiated with a printer, she glanced down at the dashboard on her laptop -- Wednesday, July 2, exactly ten months after she had first phoned Ben Hampton to set up their initial meeting about the Julius Novak ‘fascinating football character’ book.
Eight weeks ago, Jonathan James of JJI Sports Reform Press, to whom she (and Ben) had sold her book idea, refused to publish the book, essentially, because there was ‘not enough football’ in it. Rosalie recalls his having mentioned something about a “disconcertingly comic presentation of doubt.”
One week later, after much hand wringing, Tonya Sidney, Ben’s literary publisher at Brown Pelican Books, joined the all-too-tragic chorus of disconcerting doubt by choosing not to publish the book just now because there was ‘too much football’ in it. The next day, Ben’s agent, Dava Carson threw a very public fit at Tonya at The Children’s Society kickoff of Refugee Week at South Bank.
In spite of these two rollicking body blows, Rosalie believed the entire experience to have been categorically worthwhile and slam bang. She felt that way at every signpost along the journey. She felt that way even before Ben and Dava and some of their more influential friends (and her husband Peter’s bank!) had arranged the financing … for a publishing venture … and hired Rosalie as its president.
Ben, normally the epitome of unflappable, had shuddered (not to mention ‘flapped’ wildly) at the negative publicity and potential damage to his reputation were he and Rosalie to allow any more houses to reject his manuscript. He could scarcely force himself to utter the blasphemous phrase, ‘Reject my manuscript.’ In his career, which was not unlike a shooting star leaping through the sky, Ben Hampton had not heard the words, ‘Thanks but no thanks,’ since he was still a greenhorn in his twenties with no style, no resume and a fractured sense of self confidence.
“What a spectacular fall from grace this is,” he moaned to his wife over one of many alcoholic beverages consumed during a two-day binge of self-loathing and surrender.
To which she replied, “Just look at yourself in the mirror, you whingeing schoolboy. Listen to me. I will never have sex with you again if you don’t get your shit together – blowjobs, handjobs, nothing. You have had a go at pleasing this body for the last time.”
“Did Rosalie tell you to say that?” he asked with his palm smushed into his cheek.
“Yes, but I was thinking about saying it before she suggested it.”
The newest entrant into the Bloomsbury-based literary stakes went straight to work releasing its first publication, Ben’s Julius Novak book, a bit wobbly but not out and rechristened “One Man’s Loss.” They decided on the name, Fag & Lager Press, for their company because it was quintessentially English. Yet it sounded somewhat German, which they believed would make it easier to sell to Bertelsmann when the time was right.
Ben and Peter and some other very nice people sat on the board. Fag & Lager purchased the entire building containing Rosalie’s office flat on Coram Street, because, first of all, it was in Bloomsbury, which is a great place to be if you’re a UK publisher. Secondly, Rosalie already knew where it was and how to get there.
The only person not immediately disheartened by the initial setback of the manuscript rejection had been Rosalie McMahon. In the midst of Ben’s forgettable and self-pitying debauchery, she set up a conference call with the novelist and ex-footballer.
“It’s a numbers game,” she kept saying.
“Are you on your own planet?” Novak said incredulously, allowing panic and rudeness a place at his customarily ordered table.
“It’s a tits up,” Ben garbled, in between hungover apologies for having let the side down. “Do you think Jonathan will sue us?”
“Did your check clear, darling?”
“Of course it did … I think.”
“Then, no. It was his choice not to publish what you submitted. You can’t sue a writer because he wrote a crap book … not that yours is crap. But … you know what I mean.”
At the end of a useless ten minutes with both men acting like complete babies, Rosalie cut proceedings short by telling Ben to watch a funny movie or a Rob Brydon video or something, sleep it off, then go for a nice jog by the Thames and call her back tomorrow afternoon. And, above all, stop drinking.
She did not agree that they should sit on the manuscript for any length of time, but rather to strike now. Where and what to strike was another matter for which she had no answer.
The next day, when all parties’ heads were clear, Rosalie, Peter and Ben hatched the idea of a publishing company. And Fag & Lager was born. Rosalie went about pushing the big news to Publishers Weekly, Publishing News Online and as many major daily newspapers and major print and online magazines as she could squeeze into her workday. Peter flew with her to New York for a weekend, Soho shopping jaunt before she was due to embark on television co-appearances with Ben. Yes, Paris was closer, but the American dollar was a complete shambles. She had set up a TV interview on The Book Show on Sky Arts 1 with the enticing Mariella Frostrup as well as the German, online book program, Seite 4 TV with the sincere and playful Renata Schönbrunn.
In New York, the couple spent a romantic three nights at the Inn at Irving Place, a turn of the century, Edith Wharton kind of boutique hotel in two perfectly preserved townhouses, sporting but twelve guest rooms and no sign outside. They had dinner at Pastis, Tabla and Babbo. They saw a Broadway show – The 39 Steps at the Cort Theatre. Even though the show featured American actors doing British accents, the McMahons, like everyone else in the audience, were thoroughly entertained by the brilliant escapist comedy.
At Pastis, while a brasserie, raucous and communal with no privacy, Rosalie took the occasion to admit to Peter the personal doubts she had been having, the selfish feelings about her lack of success in life and its resulting sadness and frustration.
“You’re a hell of a lot more of a success than I’ve ever been, for starters,” he said, seriously. “Even before Ben Hampton.”
“Don’t take it personally. And don’t look it as some kind of comparison or contest between the two of us.”
He took her hands.
“Rosalie, can I just quickly say that I am a twat before getting to how fabulous and accomplished you are? I take a 45-minute train ride, five days a week, to a job at a fucking bank for which I have damned little interest. Maybe … just maybe I earn what I deserve, but honestly I don’t consider myself as even being in the same league as you as far as importance in our lives. You and the children, but mostly you, are the greatest part of my life; and there’s not a close second. I’m not going to repeat to you what I’ve said a hundred times and what I’m sure Kay and all of your other friends have told you. You’ve made our family what it is. And we have an outrageously beautiful and strong and close family. You know that’s what really matters. That might be why you’ve dedicated your life to cultivating us.”
“My friends have been a great help. It’s true, Kay slapped me around a little when I became overly pathetic and stupid. And you … you, Peter McMahon … there is not a man on this earth who could possible be a better husband than you’ve been. You’re funny. You make me laugh every single day. I can’t go an hour without wanting to hear your voice and to see you. You are the most handsome devil, and you keep getting prettier and more sexy with each passing year. And we travel perfectly together. And you always save me. And you’ve calmed me down.”
“I know. You were a complete mess when we met.”
“Thank you so much,” she twisted her mouth and stroked his cheek. “Why did you stay with me?”
“The sex and the personal challenge.”
The server appeared at their table from out of the crowd to list the dessert specials. This place really is in constant motion, almost like a train station in the middle of a stadium concert. The Pavlova with raspberries sounded intriguing.
“What do you think, sweetheart,” Peter asked. “Chocolate pot de crème or just straight back to roll around in those lovely Frette linens?”
“Both.” She bit her lower lip and gazed at the only man she’d ever loved.
When Rosalie arrived at Fag & Lager that morning, her secretary (her … secretary!) told her that Ben Hampton had called and would be stopping by with someone to say hello. Rosalie thanked Valerie and went to her glass-walled office with exposed brick, passing and greeting her three other employees. Her employees! She was the boss! Of a publishing company! In bookish Bloomsbury! Down the street from where Virginia Woolf suffered the most alarming collapses yet was so avant garde and prolific.
Ben came by, as promised, with a young writer from the BBC he had wanted to introduce to Rosalie. After a nice chat, the writer stopped to talk to one of Rosalie’s acquisitions editors whom he knew from a magazine where they both previously had worked. He left Ben and Rosalie alone.
“So how’s everything going?” he asked.
“Don’t you read your e-mail? Valerie updates the trustees every … I’m sorry. Did you mean … what did you mean?”
“I mean, are you happy? Do you love it? Do you hate it? Or you sorry you stopped being an agent? Do you wish we hadn’t done this? Is Peter shitting himself?”
“I’m ecstatic, sir. I’ve never been so fulfilled by work. I love the book world; I love you. I love Peter McMahon and his stuffy, buttoned-up bank. I even love Julius Novak, for god’s sake. I love books. Did I already say that? But I do so. I’d just never found my place, you know. It’s not going to be easy, but we’re going to make a go of it. We have smart, hard-working, hungry people here and an innovative and supportive and cute board.”
He looked at her with the smile that graced bookshop displays around the world, and she knew what he meant.
“And … we have me, my beauty. And that means it would take a perfect storm to sink us, and maybe not even that would be enough. We’re going to make “One Man’s Loss” work, and we’re going to nudge it along until it joins your other books as million sellers. And we’re already attracting loads of agents and authors, the right kind of authors for what we’re about, coming to us. We know what we’re doing, we’re up for it, and it’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun.”
“Well, that I knew. Maybe you’ll think about working with me again in the future; that is, if you think I fit in with the brand.”
“Let’s see, Fag … and Lager? Hm, I wonder.”
“Well, you look like you were born to be here. That was meant as a compliment. You were born to do an unlimited number of things. What I’m trying to say, Rosalie, is, you’re precious.”
“Did Kate tell you to say that?”
“Yes, but I …”
“You were thinking about saying it before she suggested it. Mm, quite.”
Ben stopped at her door on his way out and looked back.
“Bye the way, I heard about the Shreddies argument.”
Rosalie looked up, froze and turned red. Ben’s face gave nothing away.
“For what it’s worth,” he smiled that smile once more. ”I thought it was brilliant.”
Rosalie sighed with relief. “It’s worth everything, Mr. Hampton. It’s worth absolutely everything.”
As Ben Hampton gathered his friend and left the Coram Street offices, Rosalie returned to her laptop, her phone and her to-do list. She flipped through the fattest, most colorful Rolodex in WC1 and opened a gift-wrapped package from her friend, Kay. Inside was what appeared to be a next-generation Garmin Nuvi 880 GPS with voice recognition.
The note from Kay read, “Only three months until the Frankfurt Book Fair. You’ll need this. At the shop, they assured me this thing can help you even if you just scream, ‘Where the fuck am I?’ Everyone loves you … except the shits. And we just ignore them, don’t we?”

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