They met her on a bitingly cold day, two weeks into the new year after the last one had been their year of miracles, and the next one promised to be even more. America, Brian promised, America, and that was what they were thinking of when showing up for Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Yes, they'd meet and be on stage with a lot of Britain's most famous entertainers, but that was no longer new, no longer unheard of. America was.
Still, they did check out the names on the program, and John laughed when seeing Alma Cogan's among them. "Sugar in the morning", he sang with the fakest of fake accents and grimaced accordingly, "sugar in the evening..."
She'd been a favourite target of his in art college, Alma Cogan, the epitome of all that was stale and mumsy and boring. That's not music, he used to say, it's candy so fake it won't even damage your teeth. Bouncy Alma Cogan in her glittery gowns, on tv all the time, the girl with a giggle in her voice, the papers called her. Some girl, John said. An old hag over thirty by now, for sure. Hadn't she been recording since a few decades?
"Since 1952, I believe," Brian said mildly, because he had reason to remember. After all, Alma Cogan was the most successful female music star Britain had ever produced, and he had managed Liverpool's most successful record store. But while his private musical taste differed from the boys', he'd never been terribly interested in Alma Cogan, either. Still, his mother liked her, and he planned to ask for an autograph if the occasion arose.
Because the fans by now made it impossible for them to arrive and leave without attracting screaming mobs if the public knew of their appearances and did not care in the slightest who else performed while screaming for them, they were brought to the Palladium as late as possible, making their habitual dash from the limousine through the stage door to the area behind the stage where stagehands and presenters waited. They almost collided with a rush of silk and sequin.
"Cheer up, boys," said the sultriest brunette John had ever encountered, up to and including every single stripper in Hamburg, "running in high heels takes practice, and yours are almost higher than mine."
Then she turned to rush on stage, and he found himself mouth slightly open. To cover for this, he fell back on a childish prank and stretched his leg out. He did make her stumble, but instead of trying to cover it up, she converted it into a full time comic splash to the floor. Buster Keaton hadn't done more professional pratfalls than that.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," she said grandly, contralto voice somehow managing to be both smoky and, yes, giggly, "this is your wake-up call. Nobody sleeps during my performance!"
The audience exploded in laughter, with her, not at her, and they could see her rise gracefully, throwing kisses at the adoring crowd.
"This is Alma Cogan?" George muttered in disbelief. John said nothing. He was still staring in disbelief while the music started, playing one of those banal, bouncy, boring tunes. It was all familiar from the tv, the black bouffant hair, the arched eyebrows, the Hollywood smile, but somehow those black and white pixels had hidden the vitality of the woman who now sang her absurd song of not doing tangos with Eskimos. Instead of boring and stale, she came across as burningly alive.
"Perhaps some apology when she comes off stage would not be amiss," Brian said, using the tone he had when making it clear there really was no alternative to the bloody suits if they wanted to get a record contract. John shot his manager a look, but Brian's expression actually wasn't angry; Brian was too busy staring at the stage himself, looking charmed.
"You're good at apologies, I'm not, you do it," John said. "Anyroad, it was an accident, is all."
Nonetheless, he didn't want her to think of him as an oaf, and besides, why should she have the last laugh?
When she came off stage, bundles of flowers in her hands, he said: "So can you teach us how to?"
That arched brow looked as if it was actually real instead of painted. He made a mental note to later tease Paul about trading plucking tips with the woman.
"Pratfalls?" she asked back. "I think you can manage the prat part on your own."
"Running in high heels," John corrected and gave her a blatant come on of a smile, just to see how she'd react.
She threw head back and laughed. Then she patted him on the cheek.
"God loves a tryer," she said, and invited them all to her flat, which as it turned out was somewhere in Kensington, and wasn't just hers but her mother's and sister's as well. The furniture was all Italian leather, and the red lampshades and red glasses reminded him absurdly of Hamburg while the mother was the most respectable old lady you could think of and fussed over them at once. The sister was a younger version of Alma, and greeted Paul like an old friend. As it turned out, she was an actress, and Paul had seen her act with Peter Cook a couple of times.
"There's one thing I know for sure, son" John said in a low voice to Paul when it was Brian's turn to get greeted and be fussed over. "If we ever tour the Antarctic, there'll be a girl there whom you've fucked already, too."
"Did not," Paul said, but he evidently remembered the name of the sister, which was Sandra, and given the sheer number of girls who flung themselves at them by now, something must have happened to make her stand out. Sandra was pretty and cheerful enough, but she wasn't compelling. Not like Alma.
Damn it, John thought, wandering around the flat which Alma's mother had proudly decorated with photographs of her older daughter, finding that face with its mocking laugh staring back at him. Damn it.