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Feeding Frenzy

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I.

George through his teenage years has never been a good eater, but it's not until Mrs. McCartney dies that he really grows sick of food. For a good while after Mrs. McCartney's death, his mother keeps giving him sausages, porridge, breadrolls and sweets to bring along to school for Paul and Mike, saying something along the lines of poor Mr. McCartney not being in a state to make sure the boys get properly fed.

"They're staying with one of Paul's aunts, Mum," George says, but his mother ignores him, and it's off to school with a cake, of all the embarassments. George gets taunted by each and everyone in the bus about being Little Red Riding Hood before he ever makes it to Allerton where Paul and Mike get in, let alone the Inny.

His mother means well, of course she does. But it's bloody awful, because every carefully wrapped up food parcel is a reminder that Mrs. McCartney is dead. At least Mike mumbles thank you and sniffles now and then while he grabs the cake, or the sausages, and starts to eat. Paul just gets this glassy look in his eyes and pretends he doesn't see a thing while asking George whether he's heard about the bloke who has a real, genuine record with The Searchers on it. Which George would love to talk about, only he still has the bloody parcel in his hands and Paul keeps pretending it's not there.

The thing is, Paul used to love food. There's a reason his younger brother used to call him Fatty. Some of the blokes at school called Paul and George Ollie and Stan when they first started to hang out together, after the some American silent film comedians from the stone age. But now he's rapidly losing weight, which only makes George's mother click her tongue in worry and bake more cakes when she gets to see him.

George has no idea what he'd do if his mother died as well. He doesn't know what to say about Paul's mother, either, whom he never thought about much before; she simply was his mate's mum, a nice lady, a bit serious, but nice, not often at home when he visited because she was a midwife, and then she was gone. It's a scary thought that mothers can die, without any warning sign, and he'd love to pretend it never happened like Paul seems to want to, except they can't do that if his mother keeps giving him food parcels for the McCartneys.

At school it's the same old boring stuff with the teachers droning on and on about things George isn't interested in. Why is it they never teach something useful, something George actually would like to know? Like more guitar chords, or how to talk to girls. Or how to get Paul to normal again, because whatever Paul's behavior right now is, normal it's not. Not just because of the pretending food parcels are invisible thing. He keeps walking into things, Paul who used to be so sure where he was going and always has had the gift of making everyone else believe he belonged there, like the time he dragged George in a film they were both too young to. At least that's why George thinks Paul has bruises now when he didn't before. But that's another thing George doesnt know how to talk about, how to even ask.

George snaps one day during lunch break when they're standing around in the playground. Paul is only nine months older than George, well, eight months and some days, but they're a grade apart and if they hadn't become friends, that would mean they'd never spend time together at school, no more than George would hang around Mike who is a grade below him, a mere child. Some of the guys from Paul's class still give George a weird look when he approaches. On this particular day, it's a boy named Ritter who pulls a face. Paul doesn't notice. He's having his glassy look again and staring somewhere at the wall. So George follows his instinct without thinking about it, and his instinct is to headbutt Ritter without hesitation, like his older brother once did the Everton fan when they went to a Merseyside Derby.

Ritter goes down with a yelp and a completely stunned look in his face, which would be funny if George hadn't felt so little like laughing. Paul stares at George, mouth half open.

"What," he exclaims, shakes his head, and starts again, "what the..."

His voice, which usually is even and downright melodic, sounds somewhat rusty.

"He's not worthy of being your friend," George says and feels stupid, but doesn't back down. While it's true that Ritter is an annoying prat, this is also not really why George has headbutted the other boy. If the stupid teachers with their stupid lessons had taught him a way to tell Paul how sorry he was that Paul's mum died and how he needed Paul to be alright again because Paul was his best mate that wouldn't make George sound soft, he'd have used that way instead.

Paul's dark eyes are wide, but they aren't glassy anymore. It's cold because it's winter, and their breath intermingles in little clouds while Ritter gets up from the ground.

"You're bonkers, you are," Paul says.

"You are so going to get it," Ritter hisses, furiously. He's taller and heavier than George and only went down because of the surprise element, so that isn't an empty threat. Paul turns to him.

"No, he's not," he says coldly, and that's new. "He's my friend."

George tries very hard not to feel triumphant and decides he's relieved instead as Paul grabs him by the arm and steers him away from Ritter and the playground, back inside the school. "You're bonkers, " Paul repeats, but there's an unmistakable undertone of amusement and affection. So George risks asking whether Paul would come home with him today, even though he knows, and Paul does as well, that this will mean another food assault by George's mum.

Paul hesitates, then he nods. "Can't leave you on your own to headbutt the rest of the school bus, can I," he adds and ruffles George's carefully gelled hair, which is annoying because it takes almost an hour to get it into Elvis shape, and besides, it's what George's older sisters and brother would do, who are years older, not just a few months. But it's so blessedly normal for Paul that George could have cried in relief.


II.

It isn't the worst night of his life, but definitely the most embarassing. Paul has practiced relentlessly for his official debut with the Quarrymen. Impressing a bunch of boys who, truth to tell, all are somewhat worse at playing their instrument than he is was one thing, but now he'll play for a real audience. They have a gig at New Clubmoor Hall, in the Norris Green section of Liverpool, pretty posh, if you please, and despite a sum of zero when it comes to public appearances, Paul has persuaded the band that they need to look like professionals in order to be taken seriously. Well, he has persuaded John, which is why he and John are wearing creamy coloured sports coats like the frontmen of bands in the films. Like his dad in the old photographs of Jim Mac's Jazz Band.

He hasn't eaten anything the entire day which hasn't noticed until now, when they're waiting to be called in. His stomach growls, wouldn't you know it, at the only point where everyone isn't chatting, so everyone hears; John laughs and asks whether Paul has already started with the beer, and Paul makes himself laugh as well, saying that he has.

He'd rather die than admit he's been so terribly nervous he hasn't even managed proper breakfast, let alone anything else, and most definitely not beer. This entire thing depends on John taking him seriously. Everyone in this band except for Ivan is older than him, but he won't let them think "kid", not once. So he can't show any weakness, he has to come across as if he's Elvis or Little Richard, deigning to hang out with some amateurs. He knows he can pull it off, he already did, which is why John has asked him to join his band to begin with. John, of course, doesn't have to pretend he's cool. John simply is cool, even though he can't play properly, but he's catching up fast now that they're practicing together, and why can't it be one of these times where they just hang out and try to figure out which chords Carl Perkins used for his newest single and nobody else is listening?

Then it's time, they run on the small stage of the club which suddenly looks gigantic, and at least Dad isn't there, that would be terrible. His father loves music too much not to wince when something doesn't sound right, even if it's not his kind of music. Professional, Paul reminds himself. Really professional. He can do this.

Except he can't. He's practiced so much his fingertips were bleeding through this entire week, but now his fingers betray him and consist of butter anyway, and he hits clam after clam. It's horrible beyond words. The audience, mostly small time business men and their families having a social get together, stares and he imagines everyone of them must think: who is this stupid boy and why is he allowed to hold a guitar? He doesn't turn around, so he can't be sure, but he knows, he just knows, the other band members stare at him in disbelief. Who can blame them? Ever since John invited him to join the band, he's been bugging them to practice more. Ivan must be horribly ashamed he ever brought Paul to their attention.

And John. Oh God, John. Not only will John kick him out of the band with every reason, he'll never say a single word to Paul again. No more practice sessions. No more anything. Paul might just as well go into the desert and become a hermit, because clearly, his life is over. He has no idea how to get to a desert from Liverpool, but he'll manage somehow anyway, because the earth is utterly and completely merciless and doesn't open to swallow him whole.

Somehow, he manages to slink back in the general direction of the drummer, and that's when he hears John explode in laughter. Raucous, uproarious laughter, and though a minute ago Paul has been sure nothing could be worse than John's disappointed anger, he's now not sure whether John finding his failure hilarious isn't worse.

Then again, the laughter has the effect of making him determined not to run away like the child John now undoubtedly thinks he is. He'll stick this out until the gig is over, get the humiliation over with, and walk away with whatever dignity he can muster.

As soon as they have their first break, John takes him aside and says, face distorted in an over the top serious grimace: "Christ, Elvis, that was something. However will I be able to compete with this, I wonder?"
Paul has had an apology prepared, but when he opens his mouth, it's not "I'm so sorry" that comes out. Nor is an indignant "piss off".

"You can't," he says instead, because if he goes down, he'll go down looking even more unfazed than John bloody Lennon. "Takes real style, that does."

John gives him a measuring look, and then he grins. "Cheeky bugger," he says, and wouldn't you know it, that's when Paul's stomach decides Paul hasn't been humiliated enough today and growls again. By now, Paul is sure that the heat in his face means his cheeks are flaming red, which even someone as short sighted as John must have noticed.

"You know," John says thoughtfully, "I think they serve some chips here."

Paul says nothing.

"Because I'm hungry. And I don't play well when I'm hungry. But that's just me," John finishes cheerfully, slaps Paul on the back and wanders off. Which is when Paul notices the other Quarrymen have been listening to their exchange in silence. Actually, this is when Paul notices the other Quarrymen still exist, and are presumably profoundly unimpressed by embarrassing them all with his guitar playing.

"Wow," says Colin Hanton. "What's that you said about my drumming again?"

Paul steels himself and looks Colin square in the eye. "That it could be better. Me fucking up on guitar doesn't mean I'm wrong about that."

"See why his dad wants him to become a teacher?" Ivan comments, but his teasing is good-natured, and apparently he's not cursing the day he introduced Paul to John yet.

John doesn't seem to be, either, because already he comes back, and he really, genuinely carries a plate with fish and chips.

"Better get something before the break is over," he says to the others, and once they've scattered, he shoves his plate at Paul. "You, too. Because you can clam up all you want, but you're not sabotaging my Gene Vincent impression with your bloody bear routine."

It's then that it dawns on Paul that John really, genuinely is not angry, and his amazed gratitude allows him to notice that his, in fact, somewhat hungry. No, make that really hungry. Really, really hungry.
Saltiness and fried oil fill his mouth as he shoves in more and more chips, and in between chewing gets out a "thanks, mate".

"Do that again and I'll kill you," John says matter off factly, in between chewing chips himself. Their fingers briefly touch on the plate John brought, and they grab for more.

III.

John has always known life is a bitch who has it in for you and has a tendency to fuck with you just when you think you finally nailed her. The day they finally get to record their first album being a case in point. He’s got a cold, thank you, Helen Shapiro tour, and the recording day can’t be postponed, thank you, Brian Epstein. Maybe he should be more gracious, because the bloody tour gained them a lot of new fans, not to mention some lovely cash, but being grateful is just a tad hard when your throat hurts and you’re up for a schedule that makes those seven hours in Hamburg look like a picknick. The entire album in a fucking day, thank you, George Martin.

But what a day that is.

He forgets about being pissed off early on, right between George M. arguing Paul out of singing Falling in Love Again which shouldn’t amuse John as much as it does, because that song got them a lot of attention in Hamburg, and is always good for teasing Paul about giving a good Marlene, and getting the harmonies right for There’s A Place, cold or not. It’s not a little satisfying, watching the engineers in their white coats being impressed, and why not? Their voices are bloody perfect together, John has known that for ages, but it’s nice to see a bunch of tight-arsed Londoners admit it, too. He’s brought a stock pile of Zubes throat lozenges with him, and they’re well within his own reach, on the piano, but he tells Paul “give us one in the mouth, will you” anyway. Which Paul does.

That’s his taste for the day, lozenges and Paul’s fingers, and just as well Paul is so obsessed about cleanliness, wouldn’t you know. But they really don’t have time to eat properly, not if they want to keep their schedule, and if they want to do it before John’s voice gets southward, so he makes Paul feed him with lozenges and gets rid of the suit he wears in because part of him still can’t believe they got this recording gig and was impressed enough to dress up for the occasion. Paul belts out 17 which they’ll probably call the long name, She Was Just Seventeen. Mimi still hasn’t forgiven him for getting Cyn pregnant, or rather Cyn for getting pregnant, calling them idiot children, and sometimes he wonders whether she ever will. Just seventeen, you know what I mean, what I mean, Paul, is that I want to be seventeen again, with my mother alive, just getting started, no pregnant girlfriend, scratch that, wife, and no responsibility except to make my mind up whether to remain king of my world or let you in the band. The only kid was Georgie here and not a bloody baby on the way, and what do I know about being a father anyway?

George Martin and what’s-his-name in the coat, Normal, bugger off for lunch. London softies. “Shouldn’t we get something to drink, at least?” George asks, but John knows if he leaves the Studios for the pub down the road, he’s not coming back. George is just nervous because his solo number is coming up. Tough luck, kid.

“We’re on a roll. No dice,” John says harshly. Paul looks at George, then at him and says: “They have to have a canteen here.”

Turns out they do, not that it contains a lot that’s not throw-up worthy, and Paul organizes a milk raid. By the time George M. and Normal the Coated get back, they’re busy sharing milk bottles, and oh, that’s heaven on the larynx, thank you, EMI.

“Actually,” George M says, “milk only produces temporary relief and a wheezy…”

“It’ll be fine,” Paul says. This is Paul in know it all mother hen mode, Mr. Martin. Have fun.

“Give us another bottle,” John says. Milk and lozenges, and off they are again, going through those songs from their Cavern routine that found the blessing of the mighty Martin. John is vaguely aware Brian shows up at some point and leaves again, not before dispensing some soulful admiring looks. He’s turned down an offer to go with Brian on a short trip to Amsterdam already, but damn it, hols are looking better and better. Not in Amsterdam, though. Somewhere sunny, somewhere warm. They say this is the coldest winter in decades, it’s February and shows no sign of stopping. Who’d go on holidays with the likes of Brian Epstein, though? Not Aunt Mimi’s nephew and Cynthia’s bloody husband, that’s for sure. Something to think about.

John wonders if the baby will be a girl. If it is, he’s going to name her Julia and love her and hate her and make sure, somehow, no one is ever going to take her away.

The engineers mumble something about it being late, ten o’clock or some such, but something is still missing, and they all know it is. Paul is sitting next to him. Like John, like George, like Ringo he’s down to his shirt and drenched through and through. The Cavern has nothing on this.

“Here,” Paul says, and unbelievably, he hands over a banana. John remembers Paris and his birthday, when the both of them drank banana shakes for the first time. Paul is such a sap.

“Where the hell did you get that and why am I not surprised? You’re a hamster, that’s what you are. How many of those did you eat by yourself, eh?”

“Piss off,” Paul says, unimpressed, and John carefully peels it off, remembering some of the things the strippers they backed up in Hamburg did with fake bananas. To the tune of Falling in love again, no less, only in German. Maybe Paul isn’t such a sap after all. More like a fucking tease.

It’s a different taste at last, though, banana, neither milk nor bloody lozenges. He feels a bit less lightheaded, even though his throat burns by now, really, really burns.

“Someone once told me,” Paul says with his best choir boy face, “that they don’t play well if they’re hungry.”

“Hey,” John says indignantly when Paul steals back some of the banana by breaking off a piece and puts it into his own mouth.

“Shut up. I need that for being moral support when you do Twist and Shout.”

“I do Twist and Shout?”

“Yes,” Paul says determinedly, “you do.” And with that, he wanders off to tell George Martin.

John does Twist and Shout. Once, and once only, because afterwards he can’t even croak, but that take is so good that Paul shouts an unplanned and unguarded Hey in excitement and admiration during recording, Geo babbles something about John being the greatest afterwards, and even George M. looks impressed.

It’s a wonder what the right kind of nourishment can do for you, really.

IV.

Ringo isn't given to depression, much of the time. But it's hard not to feel down a bit if you're whisked from being on top of the world to being back in the bloody hospitals you already spent far, far too much time in as a child. Even the rest of the group doesn't go on without you. Which they did. He's trying not to let it get to him, honestly. There are any number of reasons, mostly those millions of sold tickets in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Hongkong and Australia, and it's not like this Jimmie Nichols bloke who fills in for him as drummer is meant to be a permanent replacement, is it.

Is it.

There are no news from abroad that the fans are up in revolt at seeing Jimmie Nichols drumming in Ringo's place or demanding their money back. Not like, say, that crowd at the Cavern who gave George a black eye the first time they played after the others had sacked Pete Best. No, the Scandinavian , Asian and Australian fans seem to scream for Jimmie just the same, and what does that mean, really? That Ringo could be anyone, and their ridiculous popularity still would have happened. He's telling himself this is yet another reason why he was lucky when they asked him to replace Pete, trying to be optimistic, but it works so little that when he finally is pronounced well enough to rejoin the others on the tour, he forgets his pass port at home, and poor Alistair Taylor is in a dizzy, calling Maureen, getting one of Ringo's neighbours who owns a motorcycle to bring it to the airport. It's no good, they've already held the machine back at Heathrow for over an hour and the pass port still isn't there. Ringo imagines all the passengers hate him now. Then a Pan Am guy declares a Beatle is a Beatle the whole world over and lets him get on the plane without his pass part, which should be a relief, but isn't, because right now it only reminds him how indistinguishable he is from anyone else wearing a haircut and a suit.

He's not travelling alone, of course. There's Brian, trying to cheer him up by declaring Richard Lester is ecstatic about the rushes of their film, that film they finished just before Ringo had his breakdown, and swears Ringo will emerge as the star of the group from it.

Nice try, Ringo thinks morosely, especially given he had a headache through most of the filming.

"In many ways," Brian soldiers on, "it is your film; after all, you came up with the title."

What actually happened was that John notes down things Ringo says now and then because he considers them funny and made a song out of this one. A hard day's night. Well, it would be nice to think of that as an important contribution, except that Ringo hasn't done it intentionally; words just sometimes come out of his mouth in an order he doesn' t mean them to. By now, Brian has caught on to Ringo's mood, if he hasn't known from the start. Ringo likes Brian, at least he thinks so, but fact is that it was Brian who insisted on the tour proceeding as planned and came up with the Jimmie Nichols idea.

Then again, it's Brian who would have had to pay for all those cancelled concerts, so you probably couldn't blame him.

"It seems," says Brian, still on a mission to provide cheer, "we are not the only prominent people on board. Vivien Leigh is there, and the young German actor who looks like Marlon Brando."

"Horst Buchholz," Ringo dutifully supplies , because he's a film buff, and that's why, headache or not, he'd been the most excited of them about making a real film. He can't deny this news perks him up a little. There is only one Scarlett O'Hara.

"Vivien Leigh, eh?"

"I'm sure they'd love to be introduced," Brian beams, by which he means he'd love to meet them, because Brian adores actors, and Vivien Leigh isn't just any actress. She's a living legend, acting royalty, with and without being married to Laurence Olivier. It's a bit like meeting the queen, that is, Ringo decides, and pronounces he'd love to meet her.

As it turns out, it's a bit more than that. Because the flight to Melbourne takes 30 hours, all in all, with a stopover in Los Angeles, which is where Vivien Leigh and Horst Buchholz are headed. The former Lady Olivier is a poker game fiend, just like Ringo, and they proceed to clean out Brian and Horst, whiling the endless flight hours away. She doesn't ask him once about his hair or what he'll do when the bubble bursts, which puts her ahead of most of the world's press, and he returns the favour by not asking her about what Clark Gable was like, though he's dying to know.

She's still beautiful, Vivien Leigh is, even if she must be old enough to be his mother. He remembers watching that flawless face on the big screen as a child, adoring her. Mo is going to be chuffed he met her, though a bit angry if he doesn't ask for her autograph.

"Did you know," Vivien asks, "that they have to throw all the uneaten caviar away once we land, because of health regulations?"

"But that's a bloody waste," Ringo says, scandalized , remembering food rationing during his childhood.

"Isn't it just?" They decide it just won't do and proceed to eat up all the remaining caviar, mixed with champagne which they also order. At some point Brian disappears with Horst Buchholz. Good for Brian, Ringo thinks, because it's hard to remember about grudges when really, life is good. And is that Vivien Leigh giving him the eye? Why yes, it is.

She's small and slender enough to make him feel at least a bit tall, which is rare, but amazingly strong for a little thing like her, and apparently without a problem about knee-tremblers in confined spaces. Apparently women around 50 still like sex a whole lot, which, if you think about it, is good to know. He won't always be in his 20s himself, with girls throwing themselves left and right at him.

"There's nothing like being young, with the world at your feet," Vivien Leigh says as if able to read his thoughts, which given how good she is at poker she might be while reordering her clothes. "Enjoy it while you can." With a rueful smile, she adds. "And then enjoy the young."

He's feeling mellow and amazed, with the taste of caviar, champagne and her in his mouth, and so he dares to ask.

"Did you enjoy it, really?"

He doesn't just mean the sex right now. He means the whole package. Being so famous, so much so that people scream for you, and then not so much anymore. Finding out that they love the next fellow just as much, maybe. He can't imagine how she must feel when she opens the papers and there's a picture of Sir Laurence Olivier with what's her name, the girl from The Entertainer, Joan Plowright.

"You bet," she says carelessly, then realises what he really meant. In the artificial light of the air plane, he can still see the signs of age at her throat, the fine lines around her mouth and eyes, the strong veins in her hands. She has never troubled to disguise them, but when she's energetic and in motion, be it at poker or sex, you don't notice really, given the blazing vitality of her. Now she suddenly looks tired and worn out. Still beautiful, just with the signs of mortality all over her, as they'll never be on Scarlett O'Hara. When he's fifty, will he be looking at himself on the film they just shot with Dick Lester and wonder how they could be the same person, him and that Ringo?

"If you wonder about such things for too long," she says, suddenly very serious, "you won't be able to enjoy what you can get while it's there. Which would be a criminal waste, darling, so let's see whether there's any caviar still left, shall we?"

The rest of the flight, from Los Angeles to Melbourne, doesn't have anyone nearly as interesting, so Ringo catches up on some sleep, which turns out to be a good thing, because as soon as he and Brian get out of the plane in Australia, the screams start again. The way from the airport to the hotel where the others are waiting proceeds at snail pace because as soon as the coppers clear the road, the fans break through the lines once more, despite the fact there's just one Beatle in the limousine, and that Beatle is him.

"Good heavens," Brian says when one of the girls who can't be more than fourteen years makes it to the car and bares her breasts before getting dragged off.

"It's nice to be wanted," Ringo comments and decides Vivien Leigh knew what she was talking about. When he finally makes it into the hotel, he's greeted by the other three with hugs and slaps, presents they bought for him at Hongkong and a stripper in a giant Welcome Back Ringo cake.

"Sweets, Rings?" George asks with a mischievous smile.

"I'll have you know I've had caviar on the plane," Ringo replies with dignity and really, life is just fine from where he's standing.