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Everyone’s tan from their respective holidays was still very much present when Brian Epstein, all soothing benevolence, had to tell them Please Please Me had sunk in America without a trace. “Figures,” George said gloomily. “The Yanks just don’t go for overseas music. Never have. Why should they? They’ve got all the great ones themselves.”

George was the only one of them who had actually been to the States, thanks to his married sister, so he spoke with some authority.

“Nonsense,” Brian said and added some encouragement and tales of wisdom about how nobody got their foot in the door at a first attempt but contact was made. Still, George kept looking at Paul, unconvinced, and so Paul found himself falling into what had been his role since their first bus ride together.

“They don’t have us,” he said, polishing his cheerful optimism up to its shining best. “So the greatest are still missing, son.”

“The biggest head, that’s for sure,” George replied, quick as lightning, and grinned, comforted by the old routine.

John hadn’t said anything yet. There was a tension about him, though. He’d changed places four or five times already, had stolen a cigarette from Ringo only to light another one before it was finished, and Paul knew there was something John was bursting to say, and it wasn’t about the fact the Americans had yet to display the slightest bit of interest in a group from Liverpool with all of one album and a few singles to their credit.

“George Martin wants to do a second album, though,” Brian said, evidently having kept this bit of good news back in order to make up for the American disappointment. “He believes in you boys.”

This was the end of John’s restraint. “A whole new album of Lennon/McCartney crimes against ears,” he said with a grin as sharp as George’s had been innocent, not addressing the rest of them, only Paul. “Imagine that, Macca.”

It took Paul a second, because of course of course he’d been thinking about a second album since before they had finished recording the first one, and the significance of John’s phrasing really sank in only when John looked from him to Brian, who cleared his throat.

“Ah yes,” Brian said, and put on what Paul had privately dubbed his sell-that-Pat-Boone-record face. “Paul, Mr. Martin, myself and several other sources have given this a lot of thought, and it seems to me that the songwriting credit on your records should be consistent. We don’t want to confuse our growing audience, do we? As a record shop owner, I can tell you that it creates horrible disorder in any system. And the alphabetical order is certainly the most sensible, so....”

“It’s going to be Lennon and McCartney, mate,” John said impatiently, cutting Brian off. “Sounds better to everyone.”

“Not to me it doesn’t,” Paul said automatically, staring at John. You didn’t, he thought. You didn’t.

It had been Lennon/McCartney on their first single, but McCartney/Lennon on the next and on the entire album. Whatever Brian said, Paul knew very well George Martin didn’t have a problem with this. Or anyone else other than John, evidently, and this was one answer to how he’d spend his holidays with Brian in Barcelona.

“And here’s me thinking you’ve got perfect hearing,” John replied, mock-crushed. “But then you’re still wet behind the ears, aren’t you. For another month. Don’t worry, though.” He stepped next to Brian and put his arm around their manager’s shoulders. An odd mixture of embarrassment and pleasure flickered in Brian’s eyes. “The adults have it all sorted out, laddie,” he finished in a deliberately exaggerated version of Brian’s own posh way of speaking.

What Paul felt wasn’t just anger. Oh, he was angry, alright. Angry at how John could be a manoeuvring swine sometimes and spring this on him in front of the group instead of telling him when there wasn’t an audience. Angry, too, at the cleverness of it, because what could he do now, really? Keep protesting he didn’t want the order of their names at the credits changed, or suggest they’d take turns, he and John, for fairness’ sake? That would make him sound like a sulking child, and it wouldn’t get him what he wanted, anyway. But beneath the redhot anger lay a weariness that surprised him. Because this was familiar, wasn’t it? It was John’s favourite game. He’d done with with Stuart, too. Look here. This is my new friend, and he’s older and cooler than you, so you better struggle, you better compete if you still want me to give you the time of the day.

Except that Brian wasn’t the new Stu. This wasn’t school anymore, and it wasn’t Hamburg anymore. Brian was their manager, not John’s newest pal, and they were finally on the road to making it to the top, big time. If John thought he could still live as if there was nothing more important than to be close to the coolest kid in the room and he’d have everyone at his feet vying for his favour, Paul thought with an icy calm that felt good, he had a new thing coming.

New rules, he thought, and smiled, his new, professional smile for the cameras, while returning John’s look. New rules, mate. Right now.

Out loud, he said: “Lennon/McCartney, right. Speaking of my birthday next month…” he turned to Brian as John’s grin faltered just the slightest bit in surprise at Paul’s compliance, “Eppy, I’ve been meaning to tell you, there’ll be a special guest. I need some place for her to stay, something with style, you know, so I figured you’d be the man to ask.”

Brian just looked relieved at the lack of arguments, and eager to help. He promised he’d find suitable accommodations and then asked for whom, exactly, these would be.

“Miss Jane Asher,” Paul said as casually as possible. George whistled. Ringo looked deeply impressed. They’d met the delectable Jane just before their holidays, all four of them , something arranged by the Radio Times, and none of them had been so tired or exhausted that he didn’t try to flirt with her. They had all seen her on black and white tv where she’d been a guest panelist on Juke Box Jury, and had believed her to be a pretty blonde. The reality of her, with red hair so rich and vibrant that it knocked you over, was gorgeous beyond belief, and came with a way to put you at ease when talking to her that didn’t hide she was also smart and with a vocabulary that put theirs to shame, including John’s.

John hadn’t cared for her at all once she’d made it clear her main interest was in Paul. He’d stopped flirting and been downright rude. So much so that Paul had been afraid she’d wash her hands off the lot of them. When she’d taken her coat, he’d gone with her, and miracles of miracles, she hadn’t sent him away. Instead, she had said, pityingly: “Your friend is very childish, is he?”

“You’re sure she’ll come to Liverpool for you?” George asked, teasingly. “I mean, you’ve been gone for weeks, and a bird like that must have dozens waiting. Probably three lords and six film stars at least.”

“We’ve written,” Paul said and looking not at George but at John, added. “But honestly, those hols dragged sometimes. I mean, with her to come back to. I’m meeting the parents tomorrow. Wish me luck, will you?”

By now, any trace of amusement and superiority had left John’s face, and it was most gratifying to watch.

“Luck, what luck?” George said. “You’re a dead cert with the Mums. Mine said you’re her favourite Beatle the other day. I’m thinking of disowning her.”

“No accounting for taste,” John interjected, which was bland by his standards. By now, Brian, who was many things but definitely not a fool, must have realized John was pissed off about something. Or maybe he had concerns of his own. Either way, he was starting to look uncomfortable.

“Paul, maybe your birthday party is too public an occasion,” he said. “After all, Miss Asher is hardly unknown, and some member of the press could get the wrong idea. We’re still building an audience for you boys, and the girls don’t like their romantic dreams to be inhibited by the presence of…”

That was the old song he’d sung ever since becoming their manager. Which was why Cynthia’s presence had been hidden even before she became pregnant and married John, and why first Dot and then Paul’s more recent girlfriend Iris had been asked not to stand near the band when visiting the Cavern. Why Ringo’s new girl, Maureen, who’d started out as one of their fans had been made to swear to tell none of her friends.

If he was honest, Paul hadn’t really minded until now. Because yes, appearing unattached had its perks, and all the girls swooning around you had yet to stop being an old teenage fantasy coming true. But the idea of asking Jane Asher to stand in the background somewhere was mindboggling, and maybe it was time to grow up anyway. After all, that was what becoming twenty-one was all about, wasn’t it?

“I think they’ll get the right idea,” he returned, dropping the smile. “That she’s my new girlfriend. What’s wrong with that? It’s not like we’ve been doing something illegal, is it? Now that would mean giving any number of people really wrong ideas.”

For a moment, Brian looked as if Paul had struck him. Then he rallied, but there was a sadness in his eyes when he said, tonelessly: “Quite.”

It was odd, feeling guilty for something unsaid. The credits, Paul reminded himself. That stunt might have been John’s idea, but Brian had given him the authority to execute it. And Brian had been asking for this, lecturing Paul about Jane and their audience after going to Barcelona with John. Still, it felt a bit like kicking a puppy.

“It’s my birthday, after all, Eppy,” he added in a more conciliatory tone. “It’ll be fine.”

***

He had been bluffing about the birthday invitation. It wasn’t an outright lie, because Paul had been writing postcards to Jane Asher from Teneriffe, had asked her out both times he’d been in London since returning, and it was true enough that he was invited to the Asher home at Wimpole Street. He just hadn’t mustered up the courage to invite her to Liverpool yet. This was unusual. He had never suffered from a lack of confidence when it came to girls, not even when he was still a chubby council estate kid called Fatty by his little pest of a brother, and certainly not once he’d dropped his last ounce of baby fat and milked the rock star persona for what it was worth. But Jane Asher was different. She was the definition of “out of your league” , for starters, which of course added to the challenge; and he had the uncomfortable suspicion that if she turned him down, he’d actually care, instead of just shrugging it off.

Visiting Wimpole Street did nothing to end his nervousness. It only heightened the sense that she was a creature from another world, straight out of Alice in Wonderland with her doctor father who could write upside down to save time signing his recipes, the two siblings who shared her red hair and porcelain skin and the mother who informed him cheerfully that as a music teacher, it had been her pleasure to rig the bells so they’d ring a different melody for every member of the family instead of the dull shrill noise everyone else used. He was fascinated and begged to be shown how it worked, and while Mrs. Asher was delighted when he recognized the melodies she’d chosen, there was a brief embarrassing silence when he had to admit he could neither write nor read scores.

“But you’re a musician!” Margaret Asher said, amazed. “And you compose, Jane tells me. If you can’t write notes…”

“We write the lyrics down, and we tape the melodies,” Paul said, trying not to feel flustered. “At least we used to, John and I. George Martin writes down the notes when we play new songs for him now.”

With the practice of an accomplished hostess, Mrs. Asher asked whether this George Martin might be identical with one George Martin she had taught the oboe, and the subject was successfully changed. It wasn’t that he minded admitting there were things he didn’t know. He just minded being thought ignorant and inferior. There was a difference. And one thing Paul discovered about the Ashers was that none of them gave him the impression they thought of him this way. They also weren’t affected or putting on airs; Jane’s younger brother Peter teased her the same way Mike did with Paul, and she grimaced or giggled without bothering to hide it. The way her mother watched both of them while making sure her youngest daughter would keep an appointment she’d made, half rushing her out of the door, half looking at Peter, Jane and Paul, reminded Paul of his own mother, though he shot down the thought at once and buried the memory as quickly as he could. The Ashers were simply great people to be with, and he ended up so thoroughly charmed that by the end of his visit, faced with the prospect of either the ghastly empty flat Brian had rented so they’d have a place to stay overnight in London or the late train back to Liverpool, he wished he could stay. Not just to score with Jane, though this was more urgent than ever. To stay with her family, became part of that world of warmth and knowledge with a dash of weirdness and glamour that made it even better. Reluctantly, he was almost out of the door before he remembered he still hadn’t invited her, and that he couldn’t go back to Liverpool before doing so.

He wanted the invitation to be clever and cultured, some allusion to “The Barretts of Wimpole Street”, but he remembered in time Elizabeth Barrett’s father had been some sort of crazy tyrant and such a comparison would make him sound like he was insulting her parents, so he fell back on a joke.

“You’re not letting me turn 21 on my own, are you?” he asked. “Just me and my aunties and my dad and my brother and my mates and half of Liverpool. I’ll be completely alone if you don’t come, Jane. Please say yes.”

The last sentence didn’t quite sound like a joke anymore, but he kept smiling, because he didn’t want her to know how desperately he meant it. Because she was herself, and because John would never let him hear the end of it if she didn’t come after his announcement. Jane tilted her head and declared it might be good for his music and therefore his general income if she didn’t come, because such loneliness would undoubtedly lead to inspiration, but he could hear the laughter in her voice, and she ended up flinging her arms around him and whispering in his ear: “Of course I’ll come, Paul.”

“Paul,” some young girlish voices screamed as if in an echo, which was how he found out that he got recognized on a London street now, at least by some girls who promptly ran to surround him. One of them even aimed a kick at Jane before she hastily drew back into the house.

Things were definitely changing.
****

Brian had given John and Cynthia his own flat as a wedding present, but Paul wasn’t surprised to hear from Cynthia that John wasn’t at home when he called.

“Well, I wanted to see the baby, anyway,” he said, which wasn’t true because on the on the way back to Liverpool a bit of song had come to him he hand wanted to try out on John, and it was all he could do not ring John up in the middle of the night. Not to play John’s game, but because priorities were priorities, and the songs came first. They were professionals now, not schoolboys, weren’t they?

Still, not a surprise to hear John was at Mendips. As far as Paul knew, his aunt Mimi was still ticked off because of the wedding, and no matter how much John loved playing the tough guy, they all knew he’d do a lot to mollify Mimi. Cyn looked like she hadn’t slept in ages, which, come to think of it, she probably hadn’t, left alone with the baby who chose this moment to cry. Cyn’s tentative smile faltered and she rushed to what presumably had been once Brian Epstein’s bedroom and now hosted a nursery, with a crib and a very red faced baby smelling of poo.

“Sorry,” Cynthia muttered. Her hair wasn’t made up, and belatedly it occurred to Paul that she needed holidays as much as the four of them had done, if not more so. But with her mother in Canada and Mimi refusing to help her, there was no chance of that. She picked up the baby and gave every impression of being ready to burst into tears.

“I’ll change him,” Paul said hastily. He wasn’t good with crying women, but with all his younger cousins in various stages of age, he had ample practice with babies. For the first time since he’d known her, Cynthia gave him an impressed look as he put his money where his mouth was and took the baby from her, holding him with practiced skill and muttering soothing sounds while they headed towards the bathroom.

“Have you thought of a name yet?” Paul asked. “He’s not going to be John Jr., is he? Don’t do that to him, Cyn.”

John had picked “John Charles Julian” for his son, but hadn’t been sure which one they’d actually use, so Paul really didn’t know.

“Julian,” Cynthia said. “Brian’s going to be the godfather. John says it’s funny, a Jewish godfather, and Brian says he’s really honoured. He’s a sweet man, isn’t he?”

Paul didn’t reply and focused on the baby, who didn’t seem to resent having a stranger wash and wrap him. Of course, at that age their eyes couldn’t really focus, but they still appeared to watch him with fascination as Paul started humming.

“You’re good at this,” Cynthia stated, sounding surprised. He was about to explain about his cousins when she added: “I saw Dot the other day.”

For a moment, he felt short of breath as it all came back to him. This was why he understood John and the way John handled being a father, or didn’t, all too well. He hadn’t been in love with Dot for a long time, but he had been in love with her when she got pregnant. In love and still short of his A-Levels, and about to go to Hamburg. “No grandchild of mine will be born out of wedlock,” his father had said, and that would have been the end of just about everything. No more band; a steady job to support Dot and the baby. No more music. He’d wanted children, he still did, but not then, and not right now. Some time in the future, absolutely. A family, a big family. Just not before he’d done anything, just not when it would condemn him to be never more than a worker in Liverpool who could play the guitar and the piano for his mates in the pub on weekends. Then Dot had miscarried, and he would never forget the horrible mixture of guilt and relief he’d felt.

Sometimes he still wondered. Whether the child would have been a boy or a girl, and whether he’d traded it for what he had now, somehow. It didn’t work that way, he knew it didn't, and yet. And yet.

“She’s fine,” Cyn said with a touch of sharpness, for her, when Paul didn’t ask about Dot. Dot had been her friend. They’d travelled to Hamburg together to visit them; they’d even shared rooms in Liverpool for a while.

“That’s great,” Paul said blandly. He hadn’t been in love with Dot for a while before ending things with her, and it probably started to end with the pregnancy, and the sense of guilt she invoked in him from that moment onwards. He finished wrapping up Julian, presented him to Cyn and didn’t wonder what John felt when he looked at Cynthia, because he knew that all too well.

“Do you think you can get a babysitter for one night?” he asked impulsively.

“Well, yes,” Cyn began hesitatingly, “but…”

“For my birthday party,” Paul said. “I want you to be there, Cyn.”

John might or might not have left her at home otherwise, but suddenly it seemed important that she’d be there and have fun, dance, get a bit drunk maybe. And if he and Jane could be in public together, it was past time for Cynthia and John to be.

She looked at Julian in her arms, then at him.

“Alright then,” she said, with cautious joy.

****

John, as it turned out, wasn't at Mimi's, either, but a couple of fans were, standing outside and crying "John, we love you, John!". The hostile glare in Mimi's eyes that had the power to make Paul feel fifteen again was equally shared between these girls and him, as he rushed through the door, the girls, who had recognized him almost instantly, in hot pursuit.

"Now that you're here, they'll never leave," she said accusingly. "Don't you dare to give autographs in front of my home."

Mimi was the one person he'd never managed to charm or impress, which was a disconcerting feeling, though as a teenager he'd been secretly pleased as well, because nobody else considered him a bad influence, and to be accused of corrupting John, of all the people, was just plain cooler than to be padded on the head and told what a good boy he was. Besides, he had his own aunts for that. By now, Mimi's continued disapproval had stopped being cool, but it was almost nostalgically reassuring.

"I'll take them with me, I promise," he said to Mimi, and she harrumphed.

He had walked through the golf course to get to Mendips, and wanted to take the bus back to Allerton, for old times' sake, but it proved to be impossible with the girls in tow. He wondered how soon he'd be able to afford his own car. Ringo already had one, but then Ringo had been a professional longer than they had. In the end, he had to phone Neil and ask for a lift, and spent another uncomfortable fifteen minutes with Mimi waiting for their roadie to show. She made a point of telling him that she had only planned lunch for herself and the student she was subletting to.

It was Neil who told him that John was, of all the places, at Paul's home at Forthlin Road. By now the whole thing was starting to resemble a farce, and Paul had to laugh, half sure John would already be gone by the time he arrived. His father had warmed up to John a bit since the days when he disliked him on sight, and had been downright impressed by John "doing the decent thing", as Jim McCartney had put it, in marrying Cynthia, but they still were hardly soulmates. Also, these days Dad was busy answering fan mail in the morning, which he enjoyed doing diligently, surpassed in this only by Louise Harrison as far as their parents were concerned. Paul could just imagine the kind of quips John would make at the sight of Paul's father knee deep in fan mail, and he urged Neil to drive a bit faster.

As it turned out, they were in luck. Dad had gone for a bit of birthday party planning to Auntie Jin's, whose house at 147 Dinas Lane in Huyton had a far larger garden, and Mike, whose attitude towards John was pretty much George's in terms of hero worshipping and who'd never leave voluntarily during a Lennon visit, was due to visit the mates he was planning to form a band of his own with and couldn't delay any further though he tried after Paul arrived.

"I've got something," John said in lieu of a greeting, and Paul felt that rush again, that sense of awareness and just plain being alive, more than at any other point unless they were playing on stage, that came with these words. The whole name order business with the credits and whatever was going on between John and Brian seemed utterly unimportant by now, though Paul knew he would probably think about it again the next time John pissed him off.

"Other than an ugly face, you mean?" he said.

"See, that's what hanging out with fancy London birds is doing to you. Your insults are getting lame," John said. "Just your luck that I'm here to help you out."

"I thought that's what I was supposed to," Paul said and sat down next to the fireplace as John had occupied Dad's rocking chair already, guitar in his hands.

"Ah, but you've got something as well, haven't you?" John asked. "Besides cow eyes. Let's have it."

"Now who's lame?" Paul returned, but his fingers were already strumming, teasing out that riff that had come to him in the train.

"Of course you do," John said, satisfied, head cocked, listening. He usually insisted on playing his fragments first, but not today. They traded the riff back and forth, together with nonsense words until something better emerged, and John came up with a lick that gave the whole melody an extra punch. It was an hour before Paul asked to hear John's new one, and John, until now focused, on fire and his best self, grew suddenly vague again.

"It's not ready yet."

"That's the point, son," Paul said, confused. Their songs were rarely complete when they brought them to each other. Sometimes in pretty good shape already, but not complete. Not until they both had heard it and pronounced it good, or not. His favourite English teacher, Alan Durband, who had written an actually broadcast radio play for the BBC and thus had been the most impressive person at the Inny had once quoted a writer called Gertrude Stein, saying that her life began when her friend Alice Toklas said "Yes" to her work. Paul had already been in the process of disappointing Mr. Durband who once had had high hopes for him by spending most of his time on the guitar instead of school work. But that sentence had stayed with him, possibly because he had heard it in the autumn of 1957 when he'd played his first song to John, and John, not to be outdone, came back two days later with one of his own. He'd never have told John this, but that quote made so much sense to him, and it never stopped being true.

"It's not a song," John said abruptly. "It's - look, Spain was - I had time to think."

Paul's heart began to hammer. Completely sure he didn't want to hear this and superstitiously convinced that if he only managed to distract John and whatever it was remained unsaid, all would be well, he hastily interjected: "Well, me, too, and you know what, it's bad for your health. Made me turn red like a lobster, it did."

John ignored him. He wore his glasses, which meant he really had come for work, but now he took them off and stared at them.

"Remember when we went to Paris?" he asked, referring to their hitchhiking trip when John had turned twenty one, two years ago. "We just went. No bloody arguments with anyone. No fuss. It was the best birthday I ever had. And now look at you. Mike said there'll be a hundred people at your birthday, Lord McCharmley." He gave Paul a razor thin grin. "Aren't we mighty?"

"So?" Paul asked, playing for time, because he wasn't sure what the hell John was getting at. At least it didn't seem to be confessions relating to Brian Epstein, so that was good, and Paul relaxed a bit. If John just wanted to take the piss out of him for having a big birthday bash, fine. Except that John was entirely too serious right now for that. He had that electric air around him again, as he had when he and Brian had sprung the news about the credits, that urgent impatient need to make some sort of declaration, except this time he also was visibly bothered by whatever it was, not gleeful.

"If I asked you to go to Paris with me again instead," John said, not looking at Paul, "would you?"

Maybe Paul should have expected this. It was the craziest thing John could have come up with, and therefore of course exactly what John would suggest. Run away to Paris together as if they still could do that with no other consequences than blowing off a few gigs and get George mad at them. They'd traded being nobodies for being somebodies, and there were things you couldn't do anymore if you wanted to come back and still have other people take you seriously, produce more records with you and hopefully keep you on the road to the top. Where John wanted to go as much as anyone, no matter what bullshit he was talking right now. If John came back to England to hear that the Beatles were yesterday's very brief news and Gerry and the Pacemakers or the Foremost were the Northern band to make it big, or not even Northerners but those blazingly energetic guys they'd met in London, the Rolling Stones, John would go crazy with envy and frustration. And after finishing kicking himself, he'd kick and blame Paul. No, thanks.

Unbidden, Paul remembered Paris and how happy they'd been, just the two of them, every day something magical and corny right out of the old songs Dad loved playing on the piano. But you couldn't make a life out of that, you just couldn't.

Paul found himself gnawing his lower lip, a nervous habit he thought he had himself cured off, and because he was pretty sure in the next minute he would do or say something even more childish, he blurted out the first thing he could think of that sounded reasonably adult.

"You should take your wife. Really, you should. She needs some holidays, too, Cyn does, and Paris is great for that. Just a weekend, you know, before the tour starts."

John's head whipped around and he stared at Paul.

"I hope that redheaded bint sucked every actor's VD ridden cock in London before she gets down on you," he hissed, and left.

Professional meetings for radio, newspaper and tv interviews aside, Paul didn't see him again until the birthday party.

****

Jane had an audition the day before the party, and Paul borrowed Ringo's car to drive her from London to Liverpool. It was their first trip together; given that he'd lost his license last year for a month due to speed violations, he should have been extra careful, but he couldn't resist showing off a little. It was a bit like a fantasy come true, and imagining himself to be James Bond was fun.

James Bond didn't have trouble talking to his best mate, for starters.

If Jane was nervous at the prospect of meeting his family and spending a few days surrounded by strangers, she didn't show it. But then, Jane had had her first audition when she was five, as he found out when he asked her about what made her want to be an actress, and was used to charming strangers all the time. Her mother had been ambitious for all her children, she said, and didn't seem to be entirely joking when adding that where other children heard "don't be naughty", Jane and her siblings heard "don't be dull".

"What about your parents?" she added, and only then did Paul realise that in all their conversations together, he'd never once mentioned his mother was dead. He had told some stories of his childhood which included her, and some later anecdotes about his father and brother, but he had never outright gone and said "My mother died when I was fourteen".

It didn't go down too well now, not least because it turned out she'd brought along a little gift for his mother, but she seemed genuinely disturbed beyond that, even if she was prepared to admit that "oh, by the way, my mother is dead" wasn't something you could casually drop into conversation.

"But you said 'my mother is a nurse' the other time. Is, as in present day. You don't talk about dead people like that, Paul," she said accusingly, and against his will, he remembered John saying, before Julia died: "How can you just sit there with your mother being dead? If it was me, I'd go off my head."

"Look, I'm sorry. It was just - it's easier to say is because people don't get into their pity routine then about someone they never met, that's all, and anyroad, I'm telling you now, right?"

She didn't look convinced, and they feel silent for at least ten minutes. It wasn't a lie, but it wasn't the truth, either. There were places he had sealed off inside himself, and his mother dying was one of them, along with all the rotten months afterwards with Dad going to pieces and the aunties telling him and Mike that they needed to soldier on while everything stopped being real and was grey and colourless except for the music. And then John came along, and reality started again. John really had gone off his head when Julia had died, and in a weird way, that had felt as if John was screaming and raging for the both of them. It wasn't what Paul did. It wasn't. It was what John did, and that was enough.

"Dad is really looking forward to meeting you," he said to Jane to end the silence, and she accepted the implicit plea and did not mention his mother again. It was late by the time they arrived in Liverpool, but he had promised Dad and Mike he'd bring Jane before delivering her to the hotel suite Brian had rented for her, and she immediately agreed. Mike, as it turned out, was already in bed, but Jane sat down at the edge to say hello and kissed him on the cheek as if she'd known him all her life, and ate the late night dinner his Dad had prepared with gusto before saying goodbye. By the time Paul returned from her hotel, it was past midnight, and he found his wide awake little brother in his room.

"She's just using you to get to me, you know," Mike said, which was their way of expressing admiration.

"I know. It's a rotten fate, but I have to bear it."

"And don't you forget it," Mike said, but made no move to leave. They hadn't shared rooms since the last time they'd been at Butlins for the holidays, years ago, and hadn't shared a bed since the weeks after their mother died when Mike had been upset because Paul didn't cry but had clung to him in the night as if afraid otherwise he'd wake up with his brother dead as well. It occurred to Paul that between the next tour, recording the second album and who knew what other engagements Brian was booking them for, he probably wouldn't see Mike or their father for a few months now, and that he hadn't seen all that much of either of them this year before now anyway. It was as if Liverpool and the old life was a shore and he was on a boat with the group, moving ever further away.

He didn't say anything, and neither did Mike, but it was oddly comforting to hear his breathing while falling asleep.

***

Auntie Jin had put up a tent in her garden, the type they used for weddings, just in case, to serve the food and the cake in, but the weather was lovely, a beautiful summer afternoon turning into a mild evening, and people were more outside than not, except for those who wanted to dance and went to the basement where the Fourmost had agreed to play. Of his mates, George arrived earliest and helped introduce Jane to everyone. Ivan who shared a birthday with Paul and had his own party the day after because, as he said, there was no way he wanted to compete with this one was next, and then Paul lost count between all the handshakes, slaps on the shoulder and trying to share a few jokes with everyone until he spotted John with Cynthia coming closer to where he was sitting with Jane and two of the Shadows who'd taken him up on an invitation more issued as a joke and a dare in London the last time they'd crossed paths with the most famous band of the country.

"Happy birthday," Cynthia beamed and looked expectantly to Jane while Paul introduced them. She wore a pretty new dress, and apparantly John had gone with her to Paris after all, because when Jane complimented her on her shawl, Cyn confided it had been a fulfilled dream, one item purchased at Dior last weekend.

"My mother is visiting," she added, "so she could take care of Julian. She's even thinking of moving back from Canada."

"Imagine the joy," John said blandly. For a second, Cynthia's smile faltered, then returned as she said she'd never imagined being able to just go to Paris for the weekend, and how proud she was of John being so successful, how lucky she felt. Then they moved on while the next guests arrived, Alan Durband and his wife who recognized Jane instantly from tv, and Paul lost sight of John for a while.

He was in the middle of laughing and applauding one of Mike's comedy routines, especially prepared for the birthday, when George pulled him to one side and urgently asked whether he'd talked to John yet.

"Not really. He said hello."

"Well, he's getting pissed," George said matter of factly. "I mean, really pissed. Hamburg like pissed. So maybe you should."

"It's a party, Geo, people get pissed," Paul said, but he took George's point, because George wouldn't have said Hamburg if he didn't mean Hamburg. John getting drunk in Hamburg wasn't like John getting drunk in Liverpool. John getting drunk in Hamburg had meant John cutting loose on the audience with everything he had, nothing too crazy or too violent, except they weren't performing tonight, so how could he be Hamburg style drunk?

By the time Paul had made his way through yet more well wishers to where George said John was getting pissed with Billy J. Kramer and Pete Shotton, he could see what George meant because John was well into one of his Hamburg routines, playing spastic and holding forth about how everyone up the Smoke was a Southern sissy. But this time his audience didn't consist of German sailors, whores and art students, and an increasing number of Paul's relations looked on alternatingly amused and appalled as John grew louder and louder, while Cynthia, standing behind John and clutching an untouched glass, visibly cringed. Pete Shotton wasn't anywhere in sight, but Billy J. Kramer was, and next to him Bob Wooler, the Cavern DJ who still was somewhat ticked off at the lot of them because they'd gotten rid of Pete Best who'd been Bob's favourite Beatle. Bob used the opportunity of John taking a breath and said with a smirk: "So how was the honeymoon with Brian, John? I'm dying to hear about that one, love."

John stopped mid-movement. "What?"

"The plains of Spain, mate," Bob said with a wink. "Come on."

"Are you calling me a queer?" John said very slowly, and then, without warning, drew his fist and punched Bob in the eye, hard enough to make Bob Wooler fall down. The glass Bob had been holding rolled away on the grass while John started to kick at Wooler, yelling now, with a voice used to carry through noisy clubs and making everyone's heads turn: "Are you calling me a faggot?"

Out of the corner of his eyes, Paul noticed a white faced Brian Epstein who'd been talking to Paul's father, and next to him George muttered "shit, shit" while they tried to reach John who was kicking hard enough to break Bob's ribs while the disc jockey curled together and cried out in pain. Thankfully Billy Kramer, who was at least a head taller than John, rallied after a moment of shock, pulled him back and held him while John screamed "You're dead, you're dead!"

Paul once had seen a documentary about diving on the telly once, everyone moving in their big suits ever so slowly and clumsily on land before they got into the water, and that was how he felt: in the wrong element, sealed off and noises coming through only filtered and not really making sense. This wasn't really happening, none of it. Brian and another bystander helped getting the groaning Bob Wooler up from the ground and murmured something about getting him to the hospital. Cynthia had started to cry.

"What the hell, John?" George asked, which was what Paul wanted to ask but couldn't because right now, he couldn't open his mouth to save his life. This was what getting frozen in ice must feel like, he thought numbly, staring at John, who at least stopped yelling and quieted down.

"That bastard was calling me a fag," he muttered, voice not even slightly slurred, but then, Hamburg had trained them all into drinking a considerable lot without letting this affect their vocals. Billy Kramer waited until enough bystanders-turned-helpful-Samaritans were between Brian, Bob Wooler and John, and then let John go. Cynthia tried to put her hand on his arm and draw him away, but John immediately shook her of. Imploringly, she looked at Paul.

"What do you care?" Paul asked. His voice sounded alien in his ears, but at least he was still capable of speech. John narrowed his eyes at him.

"What do I - "

"You don't," Paul said, and decided he was furious, which was the safest name to give to the emotion making his own hands itch and damn near tremble right now. "You never care what people think. That's your spiel. The great John Lennon never gives a shit, so you know what, go on not giving a shit just long enough not to ruin my birthday party, thanks ever so."

"Right," John said, went for the next woman who wasn't Cynthia and happened to be standing between Billy Kramer and Kramer's drummer, and grabbed her breasts. "Right. Let's have a party!"

The girl pushed him back in shocked indignation and slapped him. Without hesitation, John slapped her back, only to find himself caught by Kramer and the drummer both this time.

"Go on," he taunted them. "Hit me. Doesn't change a thing. You're nobody, you two. We're the best band in Liverpool, and you're just here to kiss ass so Brian signs you up as well!"

The Fourmost's drummer made a move as if to punch him and then stopped, exchanging angry, humiliated looks with Billy Kramer. Because it was true, and even drunk and crazy, John had spotted it. John always did.

"And you two," he hissed at George and Paul, "you cowards, where's your help?"

"Call a taxi, George," Paul said, not letting John out of his eyes. "John and Cyn are leaving."

"Coward," John repeated, quietly this time, and the two Fourmost members let him go in relief. The drummer put his arm around his girl and drew her away, while Billy Kramer just shook his head and stepped back. George hastily went into the house, and when the crowed parted to let him through as they had Brian and Bob Wooler earlier, Paul realized that Jane was among them. She must have watched the entire thing.

"I'm sorry," Cynthia whispered, tears still streaming over her face. John didn't even appear to notice she was apologizing for him.

"Coward," he said a third time. Paul stepped closer, close enough to shut out the rest of them.

"See you later," he said, emphasizing each word, and after holding his eyes a moment longer, John nodded and finally allowed Cynthia to lead him away.

****

Jane remained with him till the last party guest had left in the early hours of the morning, and it was in no small thanks to her that the party could continue and revive at all. She didn't comment about John or the incident, as opposed to his father, who shook his head, muttered "poor girl" by which as it turned out he meant Cynthia, not the girl John had grabbed, and said something about having known in his bone that the boy was no good.

"He was drunk, Dad," Paul said tiredly.

"There are things you do and things you don't, son," his father said. "Even drunk."

"Or sober, Dad, and you..." Paul said before he could stop himself, and that was a sign of how much the whole thing had derailed him despite the fact he was able to keep up a pleasant facade for the guests throughout. There were things you just didn't say to your father, or even allude to. He loved his father, who was kind and heroic and always there for him and Mike where other parents, like John's, had not been. But Jim McCartney wasn't a stranger to hitting people, either, and in the dark year after Paul's Mum had died there had been times when he had taken out his helplessness and despair by giving his sullen teenage son a hiding.

Paul loved his father, but he was determined that if and when he had children of his own, he'd never hit them. Even if they did forget homework and spent all their time with record stealing friends.

There was an awkward moment of silence, and then Dad pretended not to have understood but didn't talk about John anymore, either, and helped calming down Auntie Jin who was upset her house might end up in local gossip as the site of a brawl.

"With Bob Wooler involved? Never mind gossip, you're going to get into the papers with that one for sure," Ivan said cynically. "If your manager doesn't pay him off. That why he went to the hospital with him?"

"I think he was just worried about Bob," George said quietly. He was still a bit shaken from what they had witnessed and trailed after Paul for a while which he had done in school when upset about something but unwilling to talk about it. Then he, too, took his leave, and when it was just family and Jane, they helped cleaning up a bit, which cemented Jane's standing with the Aunties, and then left for Jane's hotel.

It wasn't until they were alone in Ringo's car again that Jane said: "I think your friend John should go to a therapist. "

"He was drunk, and Bob Wooler was talking rubbish," Paul said defensively. "He's not like that normally."

"Paul," Jane said very seriously, "my father is a doctor. There's no shame seeking out help if you need it. And I think he needs it, if he really isn't like that."

He didn't remember right now what Dr. Asher's speciality was, though he did recall Jane said her father had identified something called Munchhausen's syndrome. In any case, his mind boggled at the idea of John asking Jane's father for help. Or, well, anyone.

If I asked you to go to Paris with me...

"You're probably not coming to Liverpool again now, huh," he said out loud, trying to change the subject.

"I don't think I'll have much reason to," she returned, and with a pang he realized that the idea of her ending whatever they had before it had properly begun was unexpectedly painful. The party had taken a toll on her, too. She still looked beautiful, not no longer like a fairy tale princess. Her mascara and lipstick were slightly smudged, and there were stains of martini and beer on her dress. He had felt in differing degrees awed of her and horny enough to fantasize about knee tremblers on sight, but this was the first time he also felt tenderness and the wish to just put his arms around her, keep her warm and drift to sleep together. It figured this would happen when she was breaking up with him.

"What with you moving to London for good," Jane ended, and he stopped the car, despite the fact the hotel was still a street away.

"Am I?" he asked, somewhere between curiosity, amusement and blinding relief.

"I think so," she said serenely. "I think you're moving into my house, too. Considering you told me you hate the flat, and now that I've met your family, I can see why. You want a home, not a place to stay. We've got a spare room next to Peter's, you know. And my parents would be delighted."

She suddenly moved forward and kissed him, expertly, without any virginal hesitation or pretense. He could taste a hunger that matched his own. "Consider it my birthday present."

****

Considering the tour started literally the day after the party and Neil was supposed to pick them all up at their homes, and considering John had been drunk enough to beat up Bob Wooler in to the hospital, one would think it was a safe bet he'd be at his flat with Cynthia and the baby. Unless, of course, one was familiar with John being John, and so Paul used the early morning hours to go to the cemetary behind the Woolton Village Church where they used to have a smoke between tombstones, not far from where Ivan had introduced them all those years ago.

Sure enough, John was there.

"My head is killing me," he said when Paul came closer.

"Not as much as it's going to in a few hours," Paul said without pity.

"You just wait," John said without heat, and for a while, they set next to each other on Mr. Russell, William, dearly beloved father and husband, soaking in the quiet and the first pale streaks of the dawn.

"You can't keep this up," Paul said at last.

"Give me a reason not to," John returned, getting out a cigarette. Paul could see the flame from John's lighter out of the corner of his eyes, but he didn't turn his head as John continued. "Without using the terms "band", "success" , "birds" or "baby", there's a challenge. You can use 'please', though. I'm very fond of 'please'. With or without whoa, yeah, because I wrote that anyway and do you think George M. tweaked it's all about blow jobs yet?"

Paul took the cigarette from John's hands, still without looking, with surety of a move repeated a thousand times. After he inhaled and felt the smoke leaving his lips, he said:

"I wouldn't go to Paris with you now. Or bloody Barcelona. Because we don't have to. You don't need to run away elsewhere for a while if you're planning to spend your fucking life together, you idiot."

"Trust you to imagine your life fucking," John retorted, with an audible grin that sounded genuine. He took the cigarette from Paul. "Also, did you just propose, Your Smugness?"
He really was the most irritating person alive. The smell of sweat and stale beer coming from him reminded Paul of that first meeting, and the mixture of thrill and annoyance he'd felt when John had bent over him so he could watch Paul's fingers on the strings playing chords John was unfamiliar with.

"Stating facts, is all," Paul said, feeling the cool morning dampness on his skin. "If you have a partner, you have a partner. Always. Not as some getaway thing but here and now, all the time, and that's what you're shitting on if you don't cut the crap already."

He could hear John exhale sharply and prepared for another outburst, but John didn't say anything. Instead, he threw his cigarette away, and they watched the glow in the dawn glitter ever so briefly before it vanished behind another tombstone.

"New rules, huh?" John murmured. It made for some odd kind of deja vu. Paul knew he had thought those same words not too long ago, but he didn't remember anymore when or why. There was a rightness to them, though.

"Guess so," he said, and turned his head to finally look at John. He knew they both meant more than just John not beating up any more hapless disc jockeys. It wasn't about not playing power games, either, because he doubted they'd ever end their competition; it was too ingrained in what they were to each other. All the same, there it was: something old, something new.

"Well," John said, leaning forward so their foreheads touched, and despite the fact they were alone among the dead, he was whispering as if confiding a secret. "leave it to you to want new rules for a present. And I haven't given you anything yet. So I guess that's a yes, Paul. Happy birthday."

Sunlight started to warm the air, and the first beams falling into the graveyard made John's auburn hair almost look red.