"--oh my god, what've you done, you've killed him, you've fucking killed him ...."
John looks up with a smile that spreads his thin mouth too wide and Paul instinctively pulls back, startled out of his fretful panic. There's a comma of blood curling under John's ear, almost prettily. There's more blood in the unfocused burning of his eyes.
"Never you mind, Paulie," John says, voice lullaby gentle. He gestures with cramped fingers, stiff and raw on the knuckles and nails. "Young master Stuart won't come between us no more." He starts to laugh but it cracks through the middle and falls over lopsided, and when Paul reaches out one careful hand John skitters back, away from him. The toes of his boots (his single good-quality pair, slept in, sometimes) leave smears and dabs of dusty red on the ground.
Paul watches as the dabs and smears slowly get swallowed over by the thick dark blood coming out of Stu's motionless head, and for a moment he thinks he'll be sick, but John makes a sudden gasping noise -- dangerously close to a sob -- and then everything gets glass-clear.
"Right, then," Paul says briskly. "Let's sort this out before anybody else gets here. Come on, Lennon--" he grabs John's elbow, shakes him hard, "--snap out've it and give me a hand."
It takes them two hours to follow through on Paul's hasty plan. Two hours before they can crawl back into the tiny room they're all sharing this week and Paul thanks the stars that they'd been kicked out of the flat that Stu and John were living in before. If he'd had to come back to yellow and black bumblebee walls he'd've gone clean mad.
Instead there's four dingy grey walls with hardly any furnishings inside, a rattly window and the possibility of mouse droppings. Familiar even if it's not nice, and there's George in a knobbly inert mound under a pile of coats, and John hissing as he peels off the socks he'd run down to and back up from the canal in. Paul takes the cot without asking and curls up. He tells himself that binning the stained boots first thing was necessary, but if he's really honest, hearing John grunt every time he stepped too hard on something pointy was what kept him focused those two hours. You'd think it would be impossible to have a productive relationship built on schadenfreude, but you wouldn't know Lennon and McCartney.
The police find Stu's body the next afternoon, and Astrid rings them up and just screams down the phone, deep bawling sounds interspersed with Stu's name made shapeless by her grief. George holds the receiver away from his ear and looks uncomfortable, but only tearoom uncomfortable; like Astrid came back from the loo with her skirt tucked into her knickers instead of found out her boyfriend was dead and drowned. John is pale and tight-lipped today, lunging between the door and the window, a metronome of nerves. On the phone Astrid's wail goes even more unformed, shrill, and Paul winces at the elevated noise. He's always hated abstract art.
"They found Stu," George tells them after the ten minutes it takes for Astrid to calm down and say anything intelligible. He hovers the receiver over the phone cradle before letting it drop. "Head was bashed in, they said. Suspected foul play, they said."
"Mother Mary," Paul says, which is the first thing he thinks of. John eats his thumbnail.
George looks from one of them to the other, then stands up, exasperated. "Well, I hope you covered your tracks, anyway," he says as he angles himself into his coat. "I've got to meet Ringo down the bar and it would be shit if we had to cancel the gig now he's here already."
His quick steps have faded through the hall and down the stairs completely before John and Paul even dare to glance at each other, and they almost burst into laughter. Not quite, though. Stu's blood and Astrid's screams are still too fresh for that.
By the time they meet up with George and Ringo at the strip club, congregating around the drum kit pre-show, John is back to normal and doling out the prellies with a flourish. "Good to have you on board for the night," he declares, and they toast with beer to wash down the pills.
It's a long set and the mood in the club is one of barely-restrained violence. This is something to which the three Silver Beetles are accustomed due to playing exclusively in crap clubs, so between My Bonnie and Three Cool Cats they check in with Ringo to see how he's taking it. Pete tends to grow sullen, which reflects in his drumming getting muddy and sloopy-sloppy as the night spurts on.
Ringo, though, twirls the stick in his left be-ringed hand, looking sleepy despite the pace and volume of his drumming carrying that unmistakable amphetamine tang. "How now, Ringo?" John shouts over the drunk, beery din of hollering for them to mach schau. Ringo nods and drawls, "Keeping a stiff upper chin, mate," and Paul and George note the look of delight on John's face with a feeling like something has just clicked into place.
Ringo hesitates at first, outside in the thin wallpapered hallway that does nothing to muffle the voices bouncing from inside the cubbyhole flats. It isn't merely just a matter of barging in on what sounds to be a typical argument between typical lads; this hesitation is also a reminder to Ringo that he's still technically a Hurricane, sort of, even here back home in the 'pool. Ringo envisions a 'please! do not disturb' sign swinging from the greasy brass doorknob of Paul's flat, and he stands there for a few minutes, mesmerized by his own fiction. It's as if George senses this, and when the door opens -- with more force than Ringo expects from George -- Ringo is quickly beckoned in. He pauses outside to deliberately light his fag first. When he enters, the room is brimming with warm staleness, airtight after being in the drafty hallway.
"He's drunk," Paul states flatly, staring at a rather untidy Pete, who lies sprawled face down somewhere between the shoe-beaten floor and Paul's cot.
"He don't look drunk, he looks purple," Ringo responds loudly, with mild alarm; but John's bark of laughter crouched behind the toilet door turns his response into a punchline. Ringo inhales smoke into the back of his throat, keeps it there before -- "Erm, Paul, what--"
"We're just taking him back home now," Paul says, because it's clear he hasn't heard a word Ringo's said, hasn't even looked at him. And yet, suddenly, Ringo no longer feels like a Hurricane. He tries to get a better look at Pete: eyes closed, hardly breathing even, neck splotched with love bites. Or a rash. Or, there's a wormy, sweet smell in the flat now and Paul sighs. He makes a damp jerk of the hand. "George, help me out, won't you?"
It's when George unfolds and sets down his Gretsch that Ringo realizes all this time he'd been repetitively plucking a tiny three-bar riff. The resulting vacuum of noise feels almost absurd. George steps awkwardly over Pete's leg, slides paper thin between Ringo and Paul. "I'll give you a hand," he says, almost threatening, his cigarette lodged firmly between his teeth. He's watching Ringo.
The rustling is laboured and Ringo is sure that at one point George lets Pete's head thunk like a hammer against the woodboard. They finally parcel his weight between their hunched shoulders, scraping him out of the flat. "We'll be back," Paul seems to warn as he painstakingly closes the door behind him.
Ringo knows he's left alone with John, which isn't necessarily a comforting thought, not always. He turns and nods doglike, pretending he were just trying to find a place to stub out his cigarette. John is nearly finished his own, fingers stressed and tarred around it; and unexpectedly he's shot up close to Ringo, squishing the stub of filter on Paul's worn-down vanity.
"All right, Ringo? All right?" John warbles with the wide generosity of a priest over a congregation. But his voice is still brittle and shredded from last night's Cavern stint and it's barely more than a spongy beer-soaked whisper.
"Right in't wrong, John."
"All right." He clutches at Ringo's shoulder, smiles. Ringo smiles back before he even thinks to stop.
After that comes Brian and his connections, and after that comes George Martin and his production, and after that comes a progression of albums, and it's off to the races with barely a moment to spare. Germany and all those awful strip clubs tumble arse over tit into the past. They're The Beatles now. They're a professional four-piece rock 'n roll number with matching haircuts and heeled boots, giving interviews and posing for photographs, choosing their cars by the wideness of the doors so they can dive in to escape the mobs that follow them everywhere. It's easy to put the lean, ugly days behind them once they've reached the point where they're movie stars; Stu and Pete are something that happened once ages ago but won't again, just like them swearing or wearing blue jean trousers or eating chicken on stage. Even if Ringo now and again sits quietly behind his drums with his mouth screwed to the side, like he's trying to recall an important detail that's long since slipped from his memory.
But the lights are bright, and so are John and Paul and even George when he feels like it, so Ringo doesn't look too hard and just lets whatever it is recede into darkness and silence.
"You know he's stealing most of our money," George says. He's cross-legged on the big floor cushions they like in the studio and cradling his cheap Indiacraft sitar, the bowl snugged in the crook of his knee and elbow like a bulbous lacquered baby. John finds it amusing how natural George looks with the thing, practically in love. He entertains himself by thinking about George lugging it around the place and up on stage, Budokan and Shea, Candlestick and wherever, arranging himself matchstick-thin and lotus-legged on top of the amps. George reaches out and pinches him insistently, a nasty trick but one he picked up from John himself so John can't very well complain.
"What're you on about?" he asks instead, resisting the urge to rub the pinched spot as pain radiates pinkly out. George dips his head and says, "Brian. He's taking more off us than managers are supposed to, and he's making a shambles of the merchandising and profits." There's a leaden pause, and then George adds in fractions, "--should ... address this. Somehow."
The naked suggestiveness of George's statement takes John aback, and he casts about the studio to find Paul for a touchstone. Old habits die hard; the two of them have always giggled together over George's unabashedly avaricious streak, glossed over for outside consumption with the more fan-friendly label of "The Quiet One". But Paul's over by Ringo, wearing his glasses and looking terribly earnest as he goes over ideas for tape loop and double tracking while Ringo listens and drinks tea. When John catches Paul's attention, all he does is glance at George -- still glowering over his sitar -- and roll his eyes. The two of them are squabbling; rows are tiresome but inevitable when they're the only blokes who can be them, and pop up unbidden like mushrooms whenever there's a hint of decomposition.
"Well," John finally says because George is obviously waiting for some sort of reply, "Brian's a good sort. Whatever he's doing, it's a hell of a lot better than we could do ourselves."
George lets that sit for a moment before observing, "And he wants us to start touring and playing stadiums again." His fingers pick out an arpeggio of spherical, persistent minor notes to underline the words, which have made John's stomach and throat instantly clog up. Feeling miserably flushed and fat under George's thin dark stare, he mutters, "fuck that, son, never again," and when he looks up again George flashes his teeth before pressing his cheek against the neck of his sitar, arms curling around to hug it.
When they get the news that Brian's been found dead on too many sleeping pills and too much gin, Paul drags John into a BBC broom closet and shoves him against the wall. "We can't afford this sort of thing now," he snaps in the peculiar tight pizzicato voice he has when he's angry, and the high neat arch of his incredulous eyebrows gives John the sudden urge to brush Paul's hair off his forehead. "T'waren't me, Paulie," he says instead, and they're not in the habit of lying to each other so Paul lets up, rather to John's disappointment. Paul twists his pinkie finger, frowns for a moment, and then groans, "Oh, don't tell me--"
John shrugs. "Suppose so." He takes out a ciggie and lights it with overly-studied nonchalance. Paul is too busy with formulating plans to notice the tremble of John's fingers, which gives him a chance to marshal both his shaking body and his shaken mind -- brian, jesus christ, not brian too -- before Paul comes to some sort of decision in his head and opens the cupboard door. "At least I'll never have Ringo to worry about," he sighs, plucking the cigarette from John's grasp and taking a deep drag, and he must not be that angry after all because he doesn't even scowl when John teases, "The long-suffering Father McCartney, herding his flock." He does flip John the bird, but that's practically affection.
George is serene after that, and he really does tote his sitar everywhere. John keeps an eye on him.
They've travelled the world the wide over but haven't seen barely any of it, just the insides of a lot of hotel rooms and the famous homes of their famous friends. The four of them end up feeling inordinately safe and happy in bathrooms after years of this. They can't really say what any of the places they've been are actually like, and one screaming face becomes rather the same as the others after a while.
India changes that all.
The Maharishi's ashram is like a wildlife preserve for them, a place where they're allowed to roam free without being hunted down and collected (John still hasn't forgiven that one bastard toff who snipped off a bit of Ringo's hair at a party, once, like it were a trophy). Ostensibly they're here to learn transcendental meditation, and when you break it down and average it out among them -- Paul's polite standoffishness, John's rabid curiosity, Ringo's complacent indifference, George's quiet fervour -- they're more or less open to the process.
As with everywhere now, they bring an entourage. Girlfriends, mates, roadies and stoolies. Cynthia's there and Magic Alex too, Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence and John gets a song out've it like he plucked it from the air. Songs seem to blossom in the warm, fragrant atmosphere. But tell the truth, after about a week of very earnestly attempting to perform the proper meditation, reciting his mantra of a nasalized "auh" with obedience for hours at a time, Paul is starting to think it's time to go home. The place is beautiful and he likes the people and he's composing furiously, but he wants to get back to doing recording work. And he wouldn't say this to John or George, but he misses England.
"You too, hey?" Ringo asks wryly when Paul nips over to rustle one of Ringo's smuggled tins of baked beans from his kit. Paul clutches the familiar can of Heinz and turns it over and over and says in a wan little voice, "ta, Ritchie," which prompts Ringo to push two more tins in his hands before he leaves. Paul likes the Indian food -- it's all vegetarian and fresh and rather simple, and he enjoys eating it rather than the cornflakes also offered at breakfast -- but he can't wait for the rich round softness of tomatoey beans popping against his tongue, tasting like endless mornings of toast and tea.
On a whim, he decides to take a longer route through the woods back to his own bungalow with Jane. They're well-maintained, these green areas, and even though some of the vegetation is familiar it's mixed in with oval-leaved, lush plants Paul's never dreamed of that he's sure can only grow here, fed by the blue Ganges. The fresh, heavy scent of vines and soil soaks into him, invigorating and languorous at the same time. This is the sort of meditation that appeals to him. He's just picking out the counter-melody of a silver song that's been in his head since morning -- bomp bomp, bang bang -- when he happens upon somebody else, and to his enormous displeasure it's Magic Alex. Grinning like a twat and reeking of booze.
"Awright, Paul," Alex says, waggling the bottle at him. "Picked this up in Dehra Dun, make this place a little more fuckin' lively." Paul shakes his head and he knows his face has rearranged into an expression of contempt, because Alex might be drunk but he's not ignorant and he draws himself up.
"This place's a fucking doddle, anyhow," he sneers, "walking around in pyjamas all day talking about peace and love and inner bullshit."
"Good for the music, though," Paul says, because it's true. They've among them racked up near thirty songs already and are showing no signs of slowing down. Magic Alex takes another slog and looks sly, which isn't a stretch.
""Be that as it may," Alex says, "I think it's time we went back. John's gone off his rocker for this Indian bloke's rubbish and it's no good."
At another time, with another person, Paul might have agreed a little bit. But John's always had intense relationships with new and exciting people; they've all learned to ride it out. And this is Alex, and Paul is already irritated because he's still trying to hang on to the melody in his head, so Paul instead primly tells him, "Well, you know, some people aren't cut out for higher thinking."
Alex's face gets very ugly at this. "Just you wait, Lord High-and-McCartney," he snarls, "just you wait and see what John says when I tell him his precious Maharishi tried to fuck one of the American birds. Maybe that Mia Farrow, John likes her. We'll be back in England before you can say boo."
The song Paul was working on starts spinning furiously about his skull, louder, insistent. He contemplates Alex's leer and his threat, the possibility of leaving this place of creative genesis and going back to England on Alex's terms and feeling like shit about the whole experience, and the song shakes out into a more regimented pattern, hammering. England can wait a little longer, Paul decides, and steps forward in time with the song blaring in his head. Bang, bang. Bang bang.
The beans taste even more wonderful in the morning than he'd anticipated they would. "Wonder where Alex got to?" John asks, hunched over a bowl of dhal; Paul shrugs and George offers with a sniff, "He was talking about leaving to go get pissed somewhere." John looks disappointed and Ringo yawns, stirring eggs into his beans. Paul flexes his fingers and says, "Let's get down to business, lads."
"GeorGeorGeorge," Paul says in a rush, trying to catch up with his spinning head. "George." He lurches closer, almost tripping over the scatter of twisted thick cords and microphone stands to get to George, who sat cross-legged, protected by an acoustic and really far away at the time. George reaches out and catches Paul's hand, holding it for a while. "George, I found this --" he pulls a leathery piece of paper folded and unfolded from his pocket, "--the seven levels; and George, it's nineteen-sixty-seven."
George nods and his eyes slide over to Ringo, who has just come into the studio. He sits -- where else? behind his drums, and his eyes are ringed with a distinct lack of sleep. John only wanders like a hound back and forth in the hallway, but George's eyesight is clearer and he can see John working, chewing hard at paper.
"Pay-pah," George slowly enunciates, and drifts back to Paul, who is now holding his hand, stroking at it, palming the crumpled paper between them. The guitar strings strum lightly with every stroke; and George conscientiously holds G, then F, then A7 with his other hand. His own mouth tastes of sharp bright magic paper too, and it's soaked into Paul's voice as he keeps tumbling words out.
"This was Mal's, George. Well, written by Mal anyhow, for me; where is he? Mal? He's not here yet, is he? I found this the other day, thought I'd lost it for years! and it came to me, George. Nineteen sixty-seven. Nineteen seventy-six."
"Yes?" George wishes Paul would be more coherent. What he really wants is some tea, now.
"It'll happen again. One more time." Paul's huffy breathing is very close to George now, his thin sheen of sweat sliding over his smooth cheeks and hair; a dark, pretty frame for his pale face. He says "it" in a very specific way, to mean a very specific thing. George can tell. "Our last time. I had a vision about it just now, when I found this paper."
George hears John saying something, to George perhaps (Martin, that is) and Ringo seems to be participating in the conversation with an offbeat on his high hat. "How could you see it, Paul, you haven't yet been it." Sounds reasonable enough.
"No no, that's not the point," Paul is still holding George's hand. Stroking a G, an F, an A7. "I saw us we were -- we. We were part of a band. I mean, of course we are, but this one had uniforms. And I was called Lefftenant Rigby, you were called Krishna and John was, well. John was Lennon."
"John is always Lennon. And what about ...." George nods his head towards Ringo, his grown-out fringe falling in his eyes, but now his hands are both viced between Paul's, both being petted lovingly.
"I'm not sure. But George, Mal was there. In nineteen seventy-six. He was ... is there and he's high and threatening us with something, I'm not sure. A guitar, maybe. George, he will be our last, you see. Somewhere in America, it's hot. And I'll say to you, 'I don't think that's a guitar.' and you'll say, 'I think you're right.' and you - as Krishna - you will shoot him. Then Rigby - that's me - I'll shoot three shots. And Lennon will shoot at Mal, the last two shots, six shots. That'll be it, George. That's our last time. I just saw it, when I found this bit of paper. Our last time. It's got to stop."
His hands are wet against George's callouses, but for some reason George doesn't mind because Paul just sounds so very relieved, like an infant.
"I really like Mal he brings us tea and things," George muses, forgetting to punctuate. "It'd be a shame for Krishna to shoot at him, blood everywhere, just messy. And maybe Ringo isn't there because he's the one who makes sure it really is ... you know. Our last." Saying that makes George shudder and he desperately wishes he had the cigarette Ringo just lit up. Fortunately Paul releases his hands right then and George scrambles for his pack. Paul falls backwards on his heels, his mind swimming in a psychedelic sea. He must try to remember this, he write write this down so that nine years later, he'll find seven levels in his pocket.
"George, you don't think --" Paul starts up again, but --
"Alright, you bastards -- let's get more of me music burned, eh?" John crows and shoves himself into the studio, filling up the room with stomps and swinging guitars. "And yours too, Paul, wouldn't want to forget yours, oh heavens no." Ringo perks up, but Paul immediately forgets what he were thinking, he is so bloody annoyed with John bloody Lennon.
In the year nineteen sixty-eight, McCartney screams "Never again!" at Lennon, who looks like he will hit back, bounce another head against another wall. George is murmuring something, constantly murmuring like a stuffy-nosed bass guitar underneath them, a string of horrid, nonstop things about Johnny and Paulie where the only breath he pauses to inhale is filled with burning smoke. Paul will start every sentence with "But I think--" and "I just think tha'--" and John will say "Tosser," and "Shut up, Paul," while finger-picking a terrible rhythm until Ringo can't tell whether they three were arguing about making music, or about. Well. Or about that.
In a way, Ringo secretly hopes that they are sniping about that, because then he could bravely bear the burden of days and nights filled with mind-boggling, disagreeable harmonies. That would make sense to him. But when he tunes in long enough to witness John mocking Paul mercilessly for tripping up the second chorus of his fakey-Beach Boys riff, he finishes his cup of tea, announces, "Right then; I'm off," extricates himself (knees creaked; had he been sitting still and pointless so long?) and slouches out of Abbey Road. There aren't even any fans lurking outside that night. No pretty ones, anyway.
Ringo knows the lads won't realize that by "off" he didn't mean down the street for a well-deserved pint, that Ringo would be basking in the summer Grecian sun for a good long while, before he'd get a message from John saying "stop please please come back to us stop". It isn't even a telegram, not the first message anyway; and Ringo would remain on Peter Sellers' yacht for a few more days. When he finally returns, it's to gleeful skiffle jams and union jack flowers and a bottle of really fab whiskey.
They spend one small temporary day being kind to each other, the bickering mostly relegated around a disgusting saveloy takeaway that Ringo can't eat. And at the end of the day, completely tipsy, Ringo slurs to John, "Y'know, I wouldn't have said anything. I ... I didn't leave you so I could go tell anyone, about. That."
"But then, why did you leave? Why did you come back?" It's Paul who asks, sounding exhausted but proper anxious.
"S'why I joined yer band," Ringo murmurs, edging against George (whose shoulders are more comfortable than George ever lets on). "Because I just want to make music with you."
And so they do.
Tiny hands, Sean has, and John marvels over them as he counts out notes and funny words on his son's fingers. Sean giggles at first and then goes quiet and sleepy and makes sweeping blinks, his eyes unbelievably big and dark. Big and small in turns and pieces, that's what children are, and you can never tell which what or when. "Time to say good-night," John suggests, which Sean counters with, "You sleep too." This is a good idea. John's tired lately; happier than he's ever been, but his body feels like it's eating up every ounce of fat and muscle in him. "Bedtime for all cannibals," he says aloud, scooting down on the futon to curl up with his kid. Sean, accustomed to being adorned with unfamiliar words, merely pats his father's forehead, and John's mind makes a jagged screech --
-- cold concrete pressed to his face, smell of salt and tar in the air down the docks, and the others closed in, crouching over him. "Fuckin' hell," Paul's voice, fervent and rough from all-night reefer and thrumming with anxiety; "You hurt, Johnny? John? Give us a chirp, luv," with Ringo slipping off his specs and pressing his concerned hand firmly against John's brow; his own croaking guttural noise as his eyes roll like a snared rabbit's and his bare freckled arms scrape and scrabble. Ringo gives the glasses to George to hold and Paul tells John, "It's not the right time, John, you need to hang on, don't do anything we'll need to fix," and grips his shoulder hard. "Christ, would you fucking leave it out for a minute, Paul?" Ringo says furiously, but Paul turns to him and snaps white-lipped, "You can bloody well clean up after he kills this time then," and George --
-- "Dad?" Sean pokes John in the eyebrow with one finger, his peculiarly sharp child-nail leaving a scratch. John shakes himself out and offers a smile that seems to be reassuring enough, because Sean settles and is asleep, blameless and deep, within two minutes.
John pushes his nose into Sean's soft hair, inhaling milk and meadow love that slows his galloping heart to a canter as dark night upon night unfurls in his memories. He's different now, he tells himself. That sort've thing won't happen again, now, here. He's got Yoko and he's got Sean, and he's working on it, he's working on it.
Sleep comes for him eventually, but just as he drifts off John remembers George, that time in the salt-tar air: wearing the round glasses he'd been given to hold and making no attempt to help, watching from behind Ringo and Paul with blood in his unrepentant smile.
art used (full-sized)
beatles photo: group of four
stuart sutcliffe: bio
pete best: bio
brian epstein: bio
yanni (john) alexis mardas: bio
mal evans: bio