Sunday, January 1, 2012

Chapter Twenty-Eight of Hampton from the Halfway Line

The publisher receives the manuscript and interrupts Rosalie's dinner party. You are correct. That is lobster (just-killed) in a Kilbeggan whiskey-flamed butter sauce.


Brook Green, London

Moving in and around the kitchen, hallway, and dining room of their home on Sterndale Road, Rosalie McMahon realized that all eight of her and Peter’s Saturday night dinner guests currently resided in Brook Green, Chiswick or Shepherd’s Bush.
“We may need to branch out,” she whispered to her helper, Fela. “Everyone here is a white Londoner from one of three post codes.”
The young Polish girl crossed her arms and nodded.
The women, all between the ages of forty and fifty-five, discussed their children and schools, their trials with aging parents, macabre scenes from the previous holiday with relatives, the latest diet, Clive Owen or Johnny Depp (which?), summer holiday plans and, topic of topics, Rosalie’s brilliant and dizzying Ben Hampton coup. The latter would be the focus of a rehearsed toast from Peter McMahon to their cherished friends at the appropriate moment. Fela would tell him when.
The talk among the men centered on Arsenal and Chelsea and how England had failed to qualify for the upcoming European Cup.
‘For such a rubbish side, I can’t recall their ever having been more rubbish.’
Or, ‘The worst football team in history if the standard is a comparison of results, performance and entertainment value to the combined player salaries, endorsements and egos.’
And ‘I wouldn’t pay to watch them. I don’t know how they’re going to half-fill New Wembley for the world cup qualifiers. I won’t fucking be there, and I’m not buying it on fucking Sky either; nor will I enter a pub where it’s on.’
“Twenty years ago,” Rosalie – unable to not overhear the men -- commented to her friend, Kay, “Londoners from our income bracket definitely were not chatting about football, unless the talk had to do with appalling crowd behavior and filth and national embarrassment and how the mandarins of the game never gave a toss about providing a safe experience for the fans who paid the bills.”
The agent had been reading up on English football since becoming the representative of the popular writer so associated with the national game. Further, she’d learned a thing or two hanging out with the muckrakers at JJI Sports Reform Press. Though, perhaps, much of her newfound knowledge had been there all along but had lain dormant.
That was Kay, having a go at a fabulous hors d’oeuvre.
Rosalie and Fela were starting everyone off with a shrimp pastry called Rissois de Camarão and glasses of Albariño. At table, they would tuck into a Nigella Lawson-inspired California Roll Salad with either champagne or more Spanish white. Then Rosalie and Fela would blow everyone completely away with the verve and expense of Dublin Lawyer with plain cooked beans and bottles of big, fat Meursault.
To complete the drama of the soiree (or pretension, depending on one’s point of view), Rosalie had instructed Fela to race back to Sterndale Road from the Cape Clear Fish Shop by 7:30 with only ‘freshly-killed’ lobsters.
“Pick out the lobsters, have them killed and get back here. No mucking about.”
Peter had selected what he assured his wife was just the right Irish whiskey (Kilbeggan) for the flaming butter sauce. Fela had been practicing throughout the afternoon setting fire to cheap whiskey and Banaspati ghee. On her way to the fish market, she was still seeing sparks and flinching at any sudden noise. In the back of her mind, as well, she remained unclear about what exactly would happen when she added whipped cream to the blazing booze butter and lobster meat.
The evening was going splendidly. Their friends delighted in the little puffy shrimp things and the welcoming, smart comfort always on offer at the McMahon’s. Lots of typical light chat and laughter. Not long after Fela snuck out the side door on her main-course errand, the phone rang.
“Rosalie,” Peter motioned her over to the breakfast nook, holding a hand over the receiver. “Jonathan James. Sounds a bit off.”
Rosalie McMahon was a pro so was rarely annoyed to have a party interrupted by work. In fact, the more comfortable she was (for example, luxuriating in the bath or reclining in the garden having her feet rubbed – by anyone) the more impressively she generated creative ideas or performed complicated negotiations or anything, really. What she was, however, regarding Ben’s book-in-progress, was nervous to the point of cold sores popping up around her mouth at any time. She never went anywhere without her little tube of Zavirex, and she had gotten to where she could feel an attack coming and head them off.
Rosalie had gone along with Ben’s “approach” to Julius Novak’s story, and she was on board with the big picture of what the highly-respected, beloved, blockbuster author was attempting to convey. She had delighted in the chapters that came her way, via e-mail attachment, every few days for the past month. She laughed; she cried; she cheered; she became even more inspired than usual. How exciting. She truly felt part of something big, for the first time, in a world she loved – the world of books.
Her early years in publishing, and, after she began having the children, writing about the business of books for trade magazines, never came close to providing the primal thrill of guiding something of this magnitude toward its El Dorado. Rosalie McMahon, always supremely fulfilled by husband, children, friends and pets, was wildly satiated by her work with this humble, Everyman superstar, Ben Hampton.
In the process of moving this book forward, she embarked on a course of easing the editor along a path to help all concerned become more comfortable with the notion of this being a ‘bigger’ kind of book than they were used to putting out on the market. At the same time, she couldn’t insult them by suggesting they’d never rowed their scull into the mainstream. The editor, Trevor Ball, mentioned to Rosalie several times his work on the book about Kofi Annan. The U.N. Secretary-General’s family owned a cocoa company whose football team or some such had been amateur champions of Ghana. Michael Essien’s dad had kept goal. She knew of Kofi Annan, but she had no idea who Michael Essien was – let alone his dad. She read (the) review of the book and was soothed to see that it broached the idea of football as ‘the great leveler’ in international relations. She saw as a good sign that this publisher was open to certain intellectual avenues related to the world’s game.
Rosalie’s method of success relied, from her end, on doggedness and on leaving as little as possible to chance. She possessed all the qualities of an effective political whip as far as getting all her ducks in a row and, if necessary, putting a bit of stick about. She’d frankly left the stick in her briefcase on this one out of a need for extra grace. So the agent was anxious about the editor’s reaction to the finished product. Somewhat uncharacteristically, she was not certain how exactly Trevor would position, to his boss -- Jonathan James, founder and president of JJI Sports Reform Press, what it was they now had.
“Hello, Jonathan. So good to hear from you.”
“Could you explain exactly what it is your office delivered to us yesterday?”
She thought she had heard him wrong, going, as she had, from cacophonous dinner party listening to straightforward phone listening.
“I’m referring to a manuscript entitled ‘90 Minutes of Posing’? Has there been some mistake?”
Peter had turned back toward his wife before rejoining the party. His body language asked, ‘Rosalie, what’s wrong?’ He gripped her free arm because she appeared in danger of sliding down the slate counter toward the hardwood floor. She immediately shook her head briskly and righted herself.
“I’m sorry, Jonathan, what? We’re having a little get together here, and I don’t believe I quite …”
“Were you aware that your client was going to be ripping off fucking ‘Footballers’ Wives’?”
His voice was trembling slightly, coming off somewhere between bemused and furious – not at all his normally urbane self.
“Jonathan, please. With all due respect, ‘90 Minutes of Posing’ is hardly ‘Footballers’ Wives,’ for God’s sake,” she chuckled at his comparison, trying to express a state of being benevolently appalled.
“This is the story of a fascinating man’s life in football, the whole man. This is what people crave nowadays, and no writer in the English-speaking world could render this rich slice of life more brilliantly than Ben Hampton. I still get chills every time I say the man’s name. The manuscript you’re holding in your hands is classic Hampton. All of our readers who lent a hand in the initial proofing are calling it the next big stride forward for one of the world’s most cherished authors.”
“I’m no longer holding it. I’ve thrown it across the room.”
Shit. She lowered herself onto a cushioned barstool, put her feet up on another one, gulped a nearby flute of Nicolas Feuillate and took a deep breath.
“Oh, Jonathan. Well, go and pick it up. It’s going to be worth a lot of money someday – perhaps even more so seeing as you’ve … gone and tossed it on the floor.”
She unleashed one of her signature, infectious laughs to help signal a lighter mood, before continuing. Rosalie could not allow Jonathan James to dispel any more philistine dross just yet.
“I’m telling you, what Ben has created is, well, a work of art here in telling a story, an organic, iconic morality play, really, of a man who brought to his football … Football, which is what this book is primarily about …”
Her momentary fade let slip a crack in the door.
“Aha! There it is in a nutshell, Ms. McMahon. Primarily … about … football. I ask you, do you know of any other publication in the canon of our humble, little unsophisticated house that is primarily about sport, or …?”
“Jonathan, just one minute please. Your tone, I believe, is completely un…”
“Or, Ms. McMahon …”
Rosalie, Jonathan. Are we … what’s … ?”
“Or, do you think of us -- if, in fact, you ever deign to ponder such tripe peddlers -- as a publisher that conjures books ab-so-lute-ly and com-plete-ly about sport? Sport! Sport! JJI Sports Reform Press.”
This isn’t going well, she thought. In fact, it’s a complete tits-up. She spoke in her most calm and soothing tone.
“This book is about sport. I’m afraid I must disagree and point that out. Tell me, how far did you read, dear?”
“How Julius Novak, the subject of this sport biography, got arrested and then took an art class at university whereupon he got a woody from having to draw a nude woman.”
Rosalie choked, before regaining herself with something like a titter.
“So, there’s chapter one done and dusted.”
She discerned a thin opening and stuck a toe in.
“Tell you what. It’s a delightfully mild spring evening. Friday night. A beautiful weekend to look forward to. Why don’t you have a cup of tea and snuggle in with a few more chapters, Jonathan. We can always talk about placement of certain scenes and biographical timeline and narrative style and all the very important editorial details once we’ve gotten round to digesting the entire … banquet of delights.
“I think, at the end of the day, you’ll agree with me – and you’ll agree with Ben -- that what you have is a book about sport, a book that only a writer of Ben Hampton’s talent and pedigree could produce. We strongly believe this is the way to go. We’re excited on this end and extremely confident. I admit what we’re talking about is certainly not an old-fashioned or, rather, tried-and-true take on the game we love. I’d call it a real cutting edge, modern, sort of – even post-modern perhaps … it’s … it’s … just keep reading, dear. You won’t be disappointed. I promise you.
“And remember to treat it as a whole and not become bogged down in elements that, at first glance, you might consider, I don’t know, peculiar or distracting, maybe, as you come to learn about who this footballer really was … and is today. Everything’s connected, after all. It’s not like he’s Clark Kent one minute, runs into a phone booth across the street from Highbury and comes out Julius Novak wearing the red and white -- dogged competitor and motivational teammate. He’s always Julius Novak, even away from the pitch.
“Remember, Jonathan, you first became interested about this project precisely due to the dichotomy apparent between the two sides of his character. Hard-tackling midfielder? Professor of modern languages? Improbable, right? The inner battle, Jonathan. The drama. Don’t forget how this all came about. The fire and ice clashing atop the Bunsen burner to produce what we call life. The dark. The light. The yin and yang. That was always the story. It was never all about one thing – football. Football is the thread, mind you, the indispensable cable conducting the character’s life. But without these other aspects and qualities of intellectualism and creativity and psychology and, yes, love, the character doesn’t stand up.
“Without a nourished heart, any footballer falls flat on his face. And then what do you have? I don’t know what you have, but what you don’t have is a book that anyone would care about, Jonathan. That’s what you don’t have. And we all know that’s the crux of why we’re in this business. We have accepted the charge to deliver to our ultimate and cherished audience a product for which they will walk across burning sands to possess and place proudly on their bookshelves at home and give as a gift and what have you and be only too glad to fork over a hard-earned ten pounds to their local bookseller when they could have gone out for a curry and a Cate Blanchett film instead. Then we’re satisfied. Then we’ve all done our jobs, Jonathan.”
Rosalie exhaled and looked around for her albuterol inhaler and more champagne as Fela crept into the kitchen with the boxes of executed lobster.
“I understand what you’re saying … Rosalie. However, Trevor tells me there are significant sections of the book that are frankly beyond the pale, particularly in the area of sexuality and sentimentality.”
‘What the hell does that cretin know?’ Rosalie thought but thankfully and professionally said instead, “What’s the bottom line, Jonathan, in your opinion?”
“The bottom line is that I paid for one thing and received quite another. The bottom line is, I was played for a fool.”
“No. What’s the real bottom line, Jonathan?” She reached for a Rissois de Camarão as Peter carried a tray past. “What is everyone’s … bottom line?”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“Tell me, what’s your favorite guilty-pleasure, American breakfast cereal?”
“My what??”
Once, while waiting for Jonathan in his office, Rosalie had peeked at his laptop and saw that he was shopping online on something called, The Stateside Candy Company website, which specialized in American food and beverages like Oreo cookies and A&W Root Beer soda. The page was open to American Cereal.
“You know, those brilliant cereals from the States that are so bad for us. For me, it’s Corn Pops. What’s your favorite -- the one you don’t want anyone to know that you eat? Come on!”
The publisher didn’t speak. Rosalie poised to hear the telltale click of the receiver, which would signal not only a serious obstacle to their book being published anytime in the near future but also a real pisser for her dinner party mood. With great discipline she held her nerve and her tongue, forcing the customer to talk himself into initialing the contract.
I was wondering if you could just initial this form for me so my secretary can file it for the home office to show that I met with you and discussed our product -- just for our records.
For a woman who seemingly required speaking to remain conscious, Rosalie McMahon could ‘not speak’ with the best of them – kind of like those organized labor negotiators in the 1950s who clenched their calloused fists and glared across the table at the company brass, knowing that any moment the talks could degenerate from a meeting in a smoke-clogged hall to brass knuckles and clubs in a blood-spattered alley.
“Cap’n Crunch,” answered the distinguished publisher, feeling somewhere between chagrined and massaged. He knew the prime minister, for goodness’ sake.
“Cap’n Crunch,” Rosalie delighted with relief that she could keep the rally alive. “Perfect. Actually one of the greatest cereals ever invented. I assume it flies off the shelves over there. Everyone buys Cap’n Crunch. They can’t make enough of the stuff.”
“What’s your point, please?” Jonathan James was fast becoming unmoored.
“OK. You love Cap’n Crunch. You buy it every time you think to do so. If you weren’t so self-conscious you’d be recommending it to all your friends. You’d serve it for dessert. Now, imagine your box of Cap’n Crunch cereal contained five … Shreddies. Do you like Shreddies?
“No, not at all. But I fail to see …”
“Could you have known, when you bought the Cap’n Crunch at the store – or wherever, that it contained, somewhere within, these five Shreddies.”
“Not unless it said so on the box.”
“Not … unless it said so … on the box,” Rosalie was like a prosecutor tying a nervous witness in knots. “What did it say … on the box?”
“Cap’n Crunch.”
“So you cheerfully handed over your money to the purveyor. Now, would the fact that your beloved Cap’n Crunch had five little Shreddies mixed in, cause you or anyone to have not enjoyed those many bowls of cereal?”
“I don’t really see how they would,” Jonathan spoke for the first time in his normal voice. “Five little pieces out of several hundred of the type I liked.”
“Would the fact that the Cap’n Crunch had five insignificant Shreddies cause you, in the future, to stop buying Cap’n Crunch altogether?”
“Well, no.”
“There’s your bottom line, Jonathan. The bottom line for us is selling as many copies of Ben Hampton’s book – one of the all-time great guilty pleasures -- to as many consumers as we possibly can. People who love football love Ben Hampton, by and large. They’re all going to buy ‘90 Minutes of Posing’ or whatever we end up calling it. People who love comic novels or character novels with a bit of a lesson or a bit of common-man philosophy love Ben Hampton, for the most part. They’re all going to buy this book as well. Ben Hampton’s written it. You can’t change that fact. Both groups of consumers, book lovers, are going to find loads to love in these pages. A few Shreddies aren’t going to put them off.”
Ten seconds of silence.
“Fine, Rosalie.” Jonathan sounded exhausted. Peter looked over at his wife and sensed the publisher’s knackered-ness.
“Just keep telling yourself,” Rosalie spoke in hushed tones like a medium at a séance. “I, Jonathan James and no other publisher in the world, am holding – well, looking across the room, scattered all over the rug -- at a manuscript from Ben … Hampton, who has never sold less than a million copies of any book in his career and isn’t about to start now. He just keeps getting bigger. Most of them, the novels, are made into films.
“Hollywood, Jonathan. What do you think, Brad Pitt as Julius Novak? Helena Bonham Carter as Marianne Papineau? Don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it. Keep reading. Take it all in. We’re friends, Jonathan. Friends stand aside one another. Come for dinner tomorrow night. Peter was saying how it’s been too long. I was thinking of making a little Dublin Lawyer. Bring Eleanor. Can the two of you eat shellfish?”

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