The last time you see him, you're standing outside of Cecconi's after a shared lunch, tasting olives, wine and regrets. He's lost some of the weight all the years of drinking gave him, but it's not a good loss; there are black marks all over his face, and the superstitious part of you imagines you can sense it inside him as well, this mysterious new illness eating away at him. You're trying not to think of hospitals and blood on sheets. It's different, you tell yourself. He doesn't have cancer, as your mother did. Not that kind of cancer, anyway. You've asked Ivan, whom circumstances forced into medical expertise, to explain to you just what AIDS is, and he tried, but it hasn't been very enlightening.
"See you around," Linda says, a bit bemused at your silence, because usually you're the one saying goodbye, just as she's the one to greet your friends first. You can't explain why you're not capable of saying it this time, except for that silly belief that if you don't say it, there will be another meeting.
Which is something that patently doesn't work. You never said goodbye to Mal, either. Or to your father. Or to your mother.
Or to John.
Robert looks at you, lopsided smile unchanged since the Sixties. He hasn't eaten much, fondness for Italian food notwithstanding.
"Hang on," he says, and it's odd, isn't it, how his slight stutter never went away. "You're - you're one of them, aren't you? One of the Rolling Crickets?"
It's still painfully easy for him to make you smile.
"This is Robert," Marianne Faithfull tells you, not too long after 1966 has started, one January afternoon at her flat in Lennox Gardens. "Robert Fraser."
The adoring look that goes with this introduction makes you wonder whether this Robert Fraser is her lover. It's an open secret that Marianne and her husband are drifting apart, neither of them bothering much with the pretense of marital fidelity anymore. The man certainly is good looking enough; black hair, high cheekbones, strong eyebrows, thick-rimmed glasses that remind you of those John used to wear and trousers so tight that they wouldn't have looked out of place in Hamburg at 1 am in the morning on a Friday night.
"Hang on," he says before Marianne can complete the introduction, and his accent has the effortless privilege of public school written all over it, "aren't you one of them? The Rolling Crickets?"
By now, it's inevitable that wherever you go, you'll be instantly recognized, so introductions are always something of an awkward, faintly ridiculous formality. He gives you a lopsided smile to go with the mockery, and you decide to go with the flow.
"Piss off," you reply. "Beach Boy or nothing, that's who I am."
He throws his head back and laughs, and then proceeds to tell you that in that case, you should do your bit for the Empire and come with him to the Venice Biennale, where he represents one of the five showcased young British artists. "No beach quite like Lido di Venezia," he adds and you notice a slight stutter in his voice that comes and goes without particular rhythm.
"Maybe," you reply and forebear to mention the glaringly obvious; that you couldn't go anywhere in Venice, least of all the Lido, without being torn apart by a loving crowd. You decide to stop kidding around for a moment, because there's something you're genuinely curious about. "Isn't the Biennale a film festival? I thought Marianne said you're an art dealer."
He informs you that the film festival is only a part of the Biennale and that the Biennale is, in fact, one of the key markets for contemporary art. He manages to deliver the information without coming across as condescending, instead making you more curious. Within half an hour he's managed to convince you to check out the works of Harold Cohen, his client who will be represented at the British Pavilion in Venice, and to visit his art gallery as soon as possible. He has a way of describing paintings and sculpture that makes them almost tangible. Being no fool, you recognize a sales pitch when you hear one, but still: everyone, these days, tries to convince you to invest money in them. Not everyone is good at it.
Besides, Robert Fraser is just great company, and you don't blame Marianne one bit if she has a fling with him.
You say at much to Marianne's nanny, a gorgeous girl named Maggie whom you have sex with for the first time later that week. Maggie, who babysits little Nicholas to make some additional cash because she hasn't yet had her break as a model, and looks it, shakes her head: "Robert is gay," she returns with conviction.
You push her black hair out of her face and remember how you wanted to be a painter as a boy, before the music anyway.
The official Fraser Gallery in Duke Street isn't too different from other art galleries, all white walls, paintings and sculptures. But Robert Fraser's flat at 20 Mount Street, which, as you quickly find out, is basically a second gallery and a home, is something else again. It's located over Scott's Lobster and Oyster bar, which amuses you because the bar is such a contrast to the furniture of the flat, which is incredibly posh and incredibly eccentric, with several great day beds made of silver-lacquered wood in the living room. Beds that look as if they came out of medieval castles, with the posts carved into mermaids or dolphins, and grand black leather chairs. Not to mention the antique rugs. More paintings, of course, illuminated by Tiffany lights and candles, and Robert Fraser in between handing out cocktails and first class pot, which you appreciate.
It's a bit like something out of the Arabian Nights, and Robert has a Moroccan servant. He also has a keen, utterly un-fairytale interest in the here and now, talking about what a wake-up call it had been to visit New York for the first time, in the 50s, after he got out of the army. He's only a few years older than you, but those few years make almost for another life. You can't imagine what would have become of you, John and George if national service would still have been a duty by the time you got off age. Ringo might have done well, if only because Ringo adopts to everything well.
"What was the army like?" you ask, and he shrugs.
"Boring," and it occurs to you that you never asked Brian about that. You wonder if John has.
"The absolute highlight was shooting a cobra, and that tells you everything. I'd say it also taught me how to beat up people, but really, one does master the art in Eton early on."
"Come on," you say. "A cobra? Does that mean you were stationed in Africa? You must have liked something there."
You want to go to Africa one of these days. Kenya, maybe, or Tanzania. Presumably the animals haven't caught Beatlemania yet, and you'll be able to watch them roam free. Back when you first came to London, you used to visit the zoo, but not anymore. Now the sight of anything in a cage makes you slightly sick, although you know, none better, that cages can be very comfortable indeed.
"Uganda," Robert says. "And well. I was somewhat fond of my sergeant major." He looks positively wicked now. "It's a bit awkward to see him on TV these days, I must confess, what with him having become the army commander of Uganda."
Because, as you later find out, Robert is an excellent liar, you never know whether or not he invented this story about Idi Amin, but you're constantly making up bullshit for the press these days as well, so you appreciate the art.
Still, you may have left it at this one visit to his flat and stuck to the art if not for the fact that you witness Robert, two days later, being very attentive in helping a middle aged woman into a car in front of his gallery. She bursts into tears and hugs him, an embrace which he returns fiercely.
"My mother," he says somewhat defensively when noticing you afterwards.
"My mum died when I was young but I think my dad is great," you find yourself saying, and there's a defensive undertone in your voice as well. It's not the done thing these days, declaring un-ironic love and respect for one's parents, and it's definitely not something you could do in front of John, who has his firm and very decided opinion about your father. "He's a really fine man, and I have a lot of respect for him, and I'm not ashamed to admit it."
You're waiting for the sarcastic retort, or maybe a quick change of subject. But instead, Robert clears his throat.
"Well," he says, and gets into his slight stammer, "I - I - feel the same way about my mother. I love her. My father, too, but the poor bastard died last year to the day. Screaming in agony because bloody Christian Science wouldn't let him use medication, so there is that."
He turns and goes back inside, briefly putting a hand on your shoulder as he does so. It's just a quick gesture, over almost as soon as its made, but it carries the acknowledgment of mutual confessions with it.
Pet Sounds is an experience that won't let go. You play the album to anyone who will listen, and to John even when he doesn't want to. The layers of vocal harmonies are beautiful enough to make you cry, multi-coloured as they are, and if they don't send you into raptures, they make you determined to somehow surpass them.
It's only when John asks exasperatedly if you could talk about something else that you notice you've been perhaps a bit too obsessive on the subject, because normally the two of you can talk endlessly about other records. Since you have no intention of letting him bring LSD and your unwillingness to drop acid with him up again, you quickly go for the next interesting topic you can think of, which happens to be Magritte, and Robert Fraser introducing you to his work.
John reacts strangely noncommittally, given he could blaze with enthusiasm when talking about art with Stu or Astrid back in the day, though he is curious enough about Robert Fraser to want an introduction as well. So you take the whole group to Robert's one evening, and John still is strangely neutral. George and Ringo aren't, but George, who is still in his honeymoon phase with Pattie, wanders off with her soon, and Ringo is chatting with an American cowboy actor while you, John and Robert are making pleasant if somewhat stilted conversation, until Robert brings up your upcoming tour, which is when John declares with a passion how much he utterly hates and despises touring.
"Come on, it's not that bad," you say, even though you don't believe yourself anymore on that subject. It has become that bad. You love performing, it's in your bones, always was, but now you can't hear yourself anymore on stage, let alone the others. Only the screams, the unending screams.
John shoots you a withering gaze. "Hamburg was the last time we were any good on stage," he says. "Anything later was just rubbish."
That's wrong and over the top, as John's arguments often are, but at least now he's involved in the conversation, and so you say diplomatically, playing into his nostalgia and addressing Robert: "You should have seen us in Hamburg. Seven hours straight, that's what we did, and in black leather, too."
Robert laughs. "Oh, I'd love to have seen that," he replies, and John narrows his eyes. You're all in a club, and of course he's refused to wear his glasses again, so maybe he squints to get a clearer look at Robert, but you doubt it.
"Would you," John drawls. "Well, you know, when Tony Sheridan met us in Hamburg, he thought Paul was queer."
"Come off it," you say. But John is on a roll now.
"On account of the eyebrows," he goes on relentlessly. "And the girly taste in just about everything. He thought Paul was a faggot for weeks, that's what he told us, good old Tony."
"Horst is off to Vietnam with him, would you believe that," you say in a major effort change the subject, and dreg up news from the latest letter from Hamburg. "Entertaining the troops. The two nutters. Every Yank I know wants to stay the hell away, and Horst Fascher thinks that's just the gig for Tony Sheridan. They're bonkers, they are."
"What did you think when you met Paul?" John says, ignoring you entirely. "The same thing?"
Robert looks from one of you to the other, and his face is carefully blank.
"Oh," he says, "I'm more original than that." He gets out a cigarette, lights it, takes a puff and then hands it to you, and despite being aware that the gesture is probably meant as a demonstration in John's direction, you accept, being pissed off at John by now yourself.
“I know this gallery owner in Paris, Alexandre Iolas,” Robert says off handedly when you show up at midnight, worn out by another day of recording. The new album is going well, really well. It’ll surpass Pet Sounds, you’re sure of it. And you’ll even keep the tight schedule Brian has given you, will finish before the World Tour starts. Still, you need to wind down sometimes, try to think of something that’s not work, and going to Robert’s is a good idea for that. “He’s Magritte’s agent. If you want to check out some paintings before they’re even making the tours through the international galleries, well, he’s your man.”
It sounds like a great idea, a short trip to Paris, after the album and before touring, and you don’t start to have second thoughts until you mention it to the others in between takes. George looks at you in disbelief. “You’re not going to Paris with Groovy Bob,” he says and sniggers. “Man, he’s gay.”
“If that’s supposed to show you’re not a total square, it’s failing,” John adds. It’s the acid refusal he refers to; he’s starting to become downright obsessive on the subject.
“What if he’s scamming you?” Ringo asks, sounding downright concerned.
“What, by selling me fake Magrittes?” you scoff. “He’s not stupid, you know. It’s great publicity for him, having a Beatle as his client. He’s not going to risk that.”
“And what would you know about fakes?” John says, voice sore despite drinking all the milk George Martin tells him to stay away from to keep it smooth. “Everything , I guess.”
You’re not blind. He’s not just taking the piss like George is, it really bothers him, maybe because he’s not used to you making trips with people who are neither the four of you nor Mal or Neil, and maybe because it’s Paris. Part of you thinks if it means that much to him, you can turn down the Paris trip after all, but you’re too annoyed by the idea you’re some clueless idiot ripe for being plucked, for either money or sex. And besides, you really want to go.
Still, there’s now an uneasiness in you that wasn’t there before, or if it was, you hadn’t noticed until the others dragged it to the surface. It’s not like you don’t know how to handle a pass. Ever since you went to Hamburg where the only rule seemed to be anyone being game for anything unless you made it very clear that the answer was no, you’ve had practice. It’s now that the idea is there, you can’t get rid of it, and it shows up at the oddest moments, making you wonder. So you finally decide to say something, if only because otherwise you won’t be able to enjoy what’s supposed to be downtime before you have to be Beatle Paul, charming the world. Not if you constantly have to overthink every word and gesture between you and Robert.
“Listen,” you tell Robert on the way to the airport, deciding that openness is called for, “we’re clear on where we’re standing, right? We’re mates, and that’s it.”
He gives you his amused, sardonic smile. “You’re not my type, Paul,” he says, and it’s a relief that he’s not offended.
“You have a type?” you ask, because falling into banter comes easiest to you when a crisis has been averted, and because, as you discover, you’re genuinely curious. Someone, probably Marianne or Miles, once said something about Robert having “expensive habits”.
“You don’t?” he asks back, and actually, that’s a good question. You used to think you had, back when you were a teenager. You used to think there was something like a dream girl. Before women of all colouring and age became available for the taking, in any combination, in any possible fashion. Which you certainly aren’t complaining about, it’s great and just about the only time on tour when you forget the series of hotel rooms and limousines your world has shrunk to, but it does make you wonder. There’s Jane, of course, and being with her still carries something of the old sense of awe and tenderness with it, but it also becomes increasingly indistinguishable from all the other women, except when you two are arguing.
Meanwhile, Robert is still waiting for your reply, and you open your mouth to say “sure”, but then you decide that this reply belongs to Beatle Paul whom right now, at this moment, you’re not, and so you say “I don’t know anymore” instead.
“Hm,” Robert comments. “Well, to answer your question, I do, and you’re not it. “
You don’t know what possesses you to ask, except that you’re on to your second joint, and he just might give you an honest answer, but you ask anyway.
“How about John?”
“Are you his type, you mean?” Robert asks back, willfully misunderstanding. “Well, if you don’t know…”
Or maybe he’s not misunderstanding at all, but either way, a line has been crossed. “That’s not funny,” you say in your coldest manner.
“I bet,” Robert retorts, unruffled, and that’s one reason why you like him so much in a world where everyone catering to your every whim and mood gets increasingly old. Another reason is that, having demonstrated a lack of intimidation, he’s smart enough to change the subject nonetheless.
“Have you ever tried cocaine?” he says. “It’s like liquid fire through your veins.”
You haven’t. Your memory supplies a Cole Porter song immediately, “I got no kick from cocaine,” or some such, and there’s something by Johnny Cash, too, isn’t there. You hum a few bars and shake your head.
“Something to look forward to in Paris, then,” Robert says.
The tour is the tour from hell. You all had assumed you had seen it all, but no. Turns out you were naive. There are death threats in Japan, and that's for starters. In Manila, they actually want to kill you, due to some fuck up with the president's wife. For the first time, police protection is deliberately withdrawn, and you swear you'll never complain about a copper again. Even Mal, twice your size and brave to his bones, is shaking, not to mention roughed up, by the time the lot of you are back in an air plane. And no sooner are you back in Britain for a breather before heading to the US that it turns out the Americans have gone insane because John said you four were more popular than Jesus. You all try to laugh it off from a distance, but when you're sitting in a tour van and a child's face, for fuck's sake, a child, is contorted in hatred pressed against the glass, it's not remotely funny any more.
The fact that most of the crowd still loves you isn't comforting. One day in a town where you don't even remember the name , as you're standing in the rain, playing despite being not able to hear a single note and in danger of getting electrocuted by your own equipment, you catch George's eye as you're singing into the same microphone, and though he doesn't say anything, you know what he's thinking. He'd been the first to say he's sick of touring, then John, then, after Manila, Ringo, and right now, you can't think of a single reason anymore to disagree. You know you had plenty, you know you did, but you can't seem to remember a single one.
When you tell the others, there's subdued jubilation; no one seems to be able to muster more than exhausted relief, which in itself is a comment on how bad things have gotten. You get out of your wet suit, grab some whiskey to get warm again and imagine yourself far away while sharing the whiskey with the others who are all sitting around in hotel bathrobes like you.
"Anywhere but here, eh," John says, demonstrating that you're still able to read each other when you try. He shivers, and it's probably not just the weather. Most of the threats have been aimed at him.
"Paris," you say, smiling at him, ready to distract. Also, it's true. You can always go to Paris in your mind; it's your favourite place to be for any kind of fantasy and always has been since you were nineteen, and John twenty one.
John smiles back, for a moment unguarded, and then his expression shuts down.
"With whom?" Me or him, he doesn't say, but the moment of reading each other still holds, and you're shocked out of your numb relief at having made a decision.
"I thought you were going to Spain," George says, addressing John, and you've never been so glad for his increasing tendency to interrupt. "With Dick Lester. For that war film."
"I always liked Spain better anyway," John says, not looking at George but at you, and you catch the Barcelona reference immediately. "Paris is too vanilla."
"When did you know?" you ask Robert over dinner at one of his favourite Italian restaurant's. It's an experiment; you're wearing one of your fake moustaches and have gelled your hair back, and so far, nobody has caught on. People are leaving you in peace while you enjoy dinner, and so you're relaxed enough to ask. "That you were gay? Did you always know or was that something you figured out when falling for someone?"
"You know, going to Eton helps with that," Robert replies and pours himself another glass of wine. His tone is lighthearted, but his expression is anything but. "Here's to public schools."
"You hated it," you say, slightly surprised, and he looks at you, stunned.
"Public school," you clarify. "Not being gay."
"Do you really want me to bore you with my school days?"
"It wouldn't be boring to me. I - I'm just curious what it's like. Being a grammar school boy meself."
He looks at you, and you both know what you're asking for aren't just descriptions of life at one of those elite institutions that would have regarded the likes of you as only fit to play shoeshine boy a decade ago, when you were all still at school.
"You could ask your manager," he says slowly. "He strikes me as a former public school boy several times over."
"No, I can't," you return. There is no way you can ask Brian. Because Brian is your manager, because it would almost certainly result in incredibly awkwardness between both of you, and you need relationships to be smooth, especially now that all of you will have to figure out how to be a band who doesn't tour. And because there is no way you can ask Brian that Brian would not hear as a question about Barcelona. A question which will never, ever be posed.
Of course, there are people other than Brian in your social circle whom you're reasonably certain off to be gay. Unfortunately, they all work for him, except for Kenny Everett, and Kenny is so in awe of you that he bungled the first interview he was supposed to conduct with you, and you had to improvise for an hour because he couldn't get a word out himself. But Robert isn't in awe of you. And he's not about to run off to the papers with a story of his chats with Paul McCartney, either, which puts him ahead of your first housekeeper and her husband whom you had to fire the other day for doing just that, and of, by now, a great many other people, none of whom heard anything as incriminating as what you're really asking for.
"I didn't need public school to figure it out," Robert says abruptly, slight stutter increasing, "but having to fag for the older boys certainly helped. And yes, I hated it. The serving, not the sex." He tells you about the fag system, the ways the youngest boys have to become servants to the oldest, having to accept any sort of punishment from them, the teachers who weren't any help at all and the parents who thought they were doing you a favour, and it leaves you with the odd sensation of feeling sorry for Robert the sublimely self assured. Not for Robert now, but for Robert back then. It seems just about the only thing your time as teenagers has in common are wanking games with friends.
"If you're not really thinking about the actress you're supposedly wanking off to," Robert says drily, "but about the boy rubbing his dick in front of you, it's, shall we say, a clue. Well, it was for me."
You take another sip of wine, but for all that they call it Dutch courage, it's not, really. You wish you could lit up a joint, but for all that nobody has identified you yet, the smell is too unmistakable, and this is a public restaurant.
"What if you were thinking of both?" you say at last, low enough that he can pretend he never heard you. Still, as soon as you've spoken you feel as if you were in freefall. You're not good at confidences. Not really, not anymore. Suddenly the fake moustache and the cheesy hairstyle feel less like protection than your moptop, suited self does. Overexposed, like an X-ray, you think, and can't remember where you've heard that line before.
"Then there are a lot of lucky girls in the world, and maybe some lucky boys, too," Robert answers quietly.
"Cocaine? What are you, mad?" John asks.
He's back from Spain and you're sitting at the pool of his house in Weybridge. You've woken him up, again, when you arrived here around one o'clock, and while you like to sleep in late, too, this is getting worrying. Once you've managed to almost finish a song waiting for him to wake up, and Cyn says that when he is awake, he stares endlessly into the television, trips on acid, and doesn't talk to her or Julian. For days at an end. Given all this, the reaction to hearing Robert has introduced you to a new drug gives a new meaning to the old saying about stones and houses of glass.
On the other hand, he's definitely not tripping now.
"Let me get this straight," he says, starting to pace. "You're letting him put this stuff up your nose, a fucking stranger, and you're afraid to do acid with me. With me, Paul. That's bloody sick."
You'd love to dismiss this as John's insane type of non-logic, but a part of you suspects he's onto something. Still, out of reflex, you argue back.
"He's not telling me what a fucking square I am every time I say no," you retort.
"Oh, so you do say no? That's news. I thought you were living in the fucking gallery these days."
Sometimes you wonder why you haven't dropped acid already, just to get it finally over with, but then people rave again about how nobody is the same anymore afterwards, or John heckles you again, and you remember. It's not just reacting badly to pressure, or the fact you really aren't that keen on exploring your subconscious, thanks a lot. There is so much in your life that's defined by John, about John, for John, ever even defined by the absence of John, that you're afraid that if you follow his lead in this last thing, too, there won't be anything left of you. You don't even know whether there is a you, a separate you, when you're with him, and sometimes that is thrilling and better than any drug provided high, even after all these years, and sometimes it makes you want to run for the hills.
If acid is what John and George swear it is, it might take away the part of you that's not John's entirely.
You look at John, who has started to lose weight, and who looks so strange and new with his National Health Glasses, and you hear Cynthia's voice in your head again, telling you how worried she is.
"I'm here now," you say.
"And for how long is that?"
What does he want you to say? You could offer to stay the night, or take him along to your house, since Jane is still in Bristol, but that would just be a temporary fix. He's miserable out here, you get that. But this is his house, where he lives with his wife and his son. Or should. They won't go away, no matter how long he stares into the television, they exist, they need him, they are real, and so is the fact that now that you're not touring anymore, the press is desperate for new stories about their much beloved Beatles. They find it adorable how close you all are.
They wouldn't find it so adorable if two of you were actually living together. Not for long. Because you're not children anymore, or even teenagers protected by their own ignorance and fears. You know exactly where living together would lead to.
"I'm here now," you repeat, somewhat desperately.
"Now is just no pronounced the posh way," he says, quick-witted and punning even when angry. "Figures you'd say it, with the company you keep."
You didn't need Robert to figure out how you feel about John. John has made his place in your life almost as soon as he entered it, and for better or worse, you can't imagine your life without him. It's like taking your voice away, or your ability to listen and catch the music in the world around you; something, someone as essential as breathing.
But what you haven't known, what you haven't wanted to know, truth be told, for the longest time, was whether John was the only man you have less than brotherly feelings for. It's not like Tony Sheridan has been the first or only one to taunt you about girly looks and behaviour, and sometimes you wonder whether some of the women you've sex with are there to make a point to everyone who ever called you a sissy, but then again, other than music sex is the best thing ever, and you enjoy it so much that it has to mean something. At least that's what you've always thought. Or hoped. That it means you're normal, and won't have to live the way Brian does, because if it's only John, if he's the John-shaped exception in your life, then that's still true. Maybe.
There is just one way to find out for sure, though, isn't there.
"What is it like?" Robert asks about writing music, one late night when you're playing something on your guitar for him that's half a Frank Loesser song and half something that may belong to you, you're not sure yet. He's in your house at Cavendish, it's a weed night, not a coke night, and anyone else who was visiting with him has already left. You haven't replaced the indiscreet housekeepers yet, but you'll have to, soon. It's not like you're much good at housework, and Jane, when she comes back from Bristol, certainly won't change her mind on that subject, either. She enjoys cooking now and then as a hobby, but that's about it.
Fair is fair, and so you reply with the same frankness he's given you. "That moment," you murmur, and something in the melody is plucking at you, teasing, begging to be explored, "when you come up with an idea is the greatest, it's the best. It's like sex. You're filled with a knowledge that you're right, which, when much of your life is filled with guilt and the knowledge that you're probably not right, is a magic moment. You actually are convinced it's right, and it's a very warm feeling that comes all over you, and for some reason it comes from the spine, through the cranium and out the mouth."
Robert takes this in and nods. Then his smile gets crooked.
"Every single song?" he asks. "I mean, are we talking about a full orgasm every time here, or is there something like the flag on half mast if the material isn't that exciting?"
"Robert," you reply, mock-stern, "if you're taking the piss of my song performance, I'm kicking you out."
He laughs, his loud, full-throated laughter, and suddenly you decide, what the hell. Why not now?
"You never told me, you know," you say. "What your type is, exactly."
Trust Robert to catch on immediately. He goes very still.
"Are you sure you want to know?" he asks slowly.
You're not, but almost, and that's as sure as you're ever going to be in this matter, so you nod. There's a shift in him. You've seen Robert making a sales pitch, both to you and to others, so you're familiar by now with his attitude when winning people, but the way he's now focused on you is different.
"Working class," he says, and the off handed arrogance that comes with his accent gets more pronounced, as if deliberately. As if issuing a challenge. "Tough. Dark."
You remember his Moroccan servant, and for the first time, it occurs to you the man could be his lover as well. Though presumably not the only one.
"Just how dark are we talking about?" you ask back flippantly, though your mouth is somewhat dry, and you're nervous as hell. All that practice in presenting a cheerful facade to the public is really helpful, though. "African black? Arabian brown? Or is black Irish enough? "
"On that point, I'm flexible."
He's sitting next to you now. It is and isn't different to having a woman next you. You know the motions with a woman, all the unspoken signals, and some of them are here, too, but you're not entirely sure you're translating everything the right way. On the plus side, nobody is expecting you to be an expert here. In your thickest Scouse, strong enough that people from Liverpool would recognize it as a parody of the real thing, you say: "Working class, eh? Aren't I made up about that."
He may not be from Liverpool, but one of the nice things about Robert is that he has a sense of humour about himself and pretty good at recognizing when he's being teased. "Aren't you," he returns and grins. Suddenly a bit of your nervousness ebbs away as you smile back, because it's Robert, and he does have a gift for making you feel free.
"Fine," he says somewhat more seriously. "Then let's see how tough you are."
You've always disliked being not good at something you care about. Or not good enough. It's one reason why you've stopped painting as a teenager, that and the fact Stuart Sutcliffe was fantastic at it. Having sex with a girl for the first time was preceded by intent studies of your mother's old medical books, and when you switched from guitar and piano to bass in Hamburg, you made damn sure your bass playing looked effortless despite all the secret hours of practice while being vocal about Stu's general incompetence.
Sex with a man, as it turns out, is a bit like switching to bass: a lot is familiar, especially given all the variations you've already experienced, but still, some things have to be figured out anew, and the fact you don't find it as hard as you feared you might manages to be reassuring and disturbing at the same time. In fact, it's exactly like going from guitar to bass: the sense of something that was missing has been found. Some part in you coming alive you hadn't thought to be there.
(Bass players were the fat guys in the background. Or Stuart Sutcliffe. They weren't you, with your finally lost weight and ability to play lead or rhythm if George or John were taking a break. Except that bass is essential for the sound, it needs to be good, it needs to be great and when you start getting really into it, allow yourself to feel it, make it melodic, make it yours, you realize what a fool you've been before.)
"That's why I like musicians," Robert says, and suddenly you're struck by the fact his smell is familiar to you by now, ciggies and cologne and something that's uniquely Robert, mixed with your own sweat. "They know how to use their hands, and you don't have to explain about rhythm. Painters have horrible timing."
It makes you laugh and efficiently dispenses the incredible awkward moment where you're not sure about how to handle the aftermath. All the same, you ring up Maggie the next day because you need to know whether you're now fundamentally different, whether female bodies won't have the same affect anymore. Which turns out not to be the case: sex with Maggie is still fun. You watch her get dressed afterwards, pinning up her black hair, with the afternoon sun highlighting her cheekbones, and if there's a difference, it's only that you can't imagine talking with Maggie about what composing a song feels like. She does share a bit of gossip, though; Marianne will leave her husband for good and officially move in with Mick. The only part about this that comes as a surprise is that it's not Keith, because you had the impression he was the Stone Marianne preferred.
"I'd pick Keith, too," says Maggie who still works for Marianne and thus has seen a lot of all the Stones. "Who wouldn't?"
For some reason, you hear this was "wouldn't you?" and go cold for a moment until you realise the post coital glow has been playing tricks on you, and it wasn't what she said at all. Still, it's there now, the next thing for you to wonder about: whether you'll see men differently, after that night with Robert.
As it turns out, the answer to this is both yes and no. Ringo is still Ringo, and when you run across George in the Ad Lib, still celebrating his freedom from touring Beatledom and apparently over advertising the virtues of acid to the ignorant, you catch up on news from Liverpool and the only urge you have to fight is the one to tell him he shouldn't plan for any long solo trips because the four of you need to think about the next album soon. But then you drive out to Weybridge, play a bit with Julian while waiting for John to wake up, and as soon as he stumbles out into daylight, the old awareness of him turns out to have been sharpened into a new immediacy. There is no logic to this, because there isn't any detail of his body you're unfamiliar with, have been since years. But you still catch yourself staring at his thighs before you realise what you're doing.
This isn't what the night with Robert was supposed to result in.
On the principle that compromise in one area might spare you giving in another, you've decided to try out LSD after all, not with John, or for that matter Robert, but with Tara Browne, who is good company if none too bright, which in this context is a plus in your book. The trip isn't anything like the mindblowing revelation John and George have been insisting it was: mostly you see colours coming out of your sleeve, and it goes on far too long, leaving you feeling impatient, bored and vaguely frustrated. And that's before you and Tara manage to have an accident, which leaves you having to be stitched up at a hospital. You despise the very smell of hospitals and get out of there as soon as you can. The next time you see Robert, he reaches over and very quickly brushes with his finger over your stitched upper lip.
"Grow a moustache for real, that should cover it," he says. It strikes you that the quick gesture has more intimacy in it than all those endless seeming hours with lysergic running through your veins.
"Seems acid is not for me," you say, and describe the anticlimax that was your first trip. He's familiar with acid; of course he is. There is probably not a drug he hasn't already tried.
"Hm," he says.
"Maybe it's not for you," he says carefully, "and maybe it is, but it seems to me you'll never figure that out if you keep trying with the wrong person."
You look at him, Robert isn't a kind man, actually. The other day you've watched him being utterly indifferent to the desperation of one of his artists who has been waiting for his cheque for months. And when you came into his flat earlier this evening, Robert was in the middle of making a cuttingly sarcastic remark at the expense of his servant to various of his guests, which was cruel, whether or not his servant doubles as his lover. But what he's just told you, phrased in a way that means you'll never have to take it as advice about anything other than drugs if you don't want to, is probably the most sensible and helpful thing anyone told you this entire year.
Sometimes you don't think you've slept once during the entirety of working on Sergeant Pepper, but that's probably just your memory playing tricks on you. Still, you'll always associate those weeks with the profound sensation of being awake, the whole changing universe at your fingertips.
Nothing you can do that can't be done.
"The cover needs to be art," you tell Robert. "This - everyone needs to know it's not just more of the same. We're not the same. And we need an artist who can express that."
"Then you'll have to get rid off those bourgeois fashion designers," he says, distinctly unimpressed by the two Belgian artists calling themselves The Fool who delivered their own suggestion for the cover. It's over an hour later, when he has successfully talked you into commissioning Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, that he suddenly asks: "You did it, didn't you?"
The question hangs between you for a moment as you try to figure out how to reply. He deserves an honest answer. But as much as you trust him, as much as he has slipped under your barriers and somehow became a part of your life you can't imagine being without now, there are confidences you can't share. Not directly anyway. It's too ingrained in you; leaving yourself one last line, one last curtain. But he himself has given you a way to answer truthfully anyway. And if he wishes, he can take it as only referring to the fact you've finally dropped acid with John.
"As you said. You have to try it with the right person."
He holds your gaze a heartbeat longer, and then he smiles.
"If you make a habit of listening to me, I've got a few more paintings I want to sell you."
"You're one of them, aren't you?" Robert says, the last time you see him, and it's still painfully easy for him to make you smile. "The Rolling Crickets!"
You hate this decade already. This decade which decided the Sixties might as well not have happened and dresses itself in frozen distaste for the time of your youth. This decade of death, starting on a day in December. This decade of sickness, with Ivan struck by Parkinson's, Ringo so far gone into drinking that you can't remember the last time you've seen him sober, and now Robert. For a moment you want to scream.
Then you do what you always do. Well, almost always. You swallow your rage, and put on your smile. Because he's the one dying, not you, and throwing tantrums on his behalf would be presumptuous. Because making long and earnest declarations is not how you communicate. But you want him to know that he is your friend, that he shaped you more than a little and you loved him, more than a little, through all these years.
"Beach Boy or nothing, that's me," you say, remembering that first encounter in every detail, just as you remember the colour of John's shirt and the song he made his own lyrics up for when you first laid eyes on him.
Robert's eyes are bloodshot these days, the result of all too many years of heroin, booze or both, and even before the illness caught up with him, he looked far, far older than he was. But right here, right now he looks at you with the affection and amusement of a young man who just spotted an interesting opportunity in a Chelsea flat, twenty years ago, and the punishing present fades away as he throws back his head and laughs.