The First Year
By Candle Beck
In the middle of summer, John came over to Paul's house. Church bells had peeled back the layers of the sky to reveal a boiled blue colour.
Paul and George were sitting cross-legged on the floor of his bedroom, their knees almost touching, trading a song back and forth between their guitars. John knocked on the window, the structure of his hair collapsing, his face twisted comically with his cheeks blown out.
Paul stood up so fast he almost dropped his guitar. He said fast to George, "That's him, that's John," and went to open the window.
John leaned in, bony elbows sticking over the sill. "'allo, Paul."
A grin broke Paul's face open like a wedge. "Heya, John."
From the floor, George fingered through a small uncertain riff. Paul remembered he was there, and said, "This is George," without taking his eyes off John.
"Like 'em a bit young, don't ya," John said.
Paul flushed and scowled. George held his guitar reverently, like a father holding his dying child. He watched the two of them at the window with his head ducked down and his eyes angled up.
"He can play 'Raunchy' all the way through," Paul told John. "Are you coming in?"
John pushed his specs up his nose and looked away. Paul stared at the side of his face, the rough red place under his jaw where the skin wasn't used to a razor yet. Paul's hand was sweaty around the neck of his guitar, his head jammed and alight with song.
"Aye, I suppose," John said with a hefty sigh, a saint nobly accepting his cross.
He climbed in through the window, long legs canting and bending over Paul's little desk. The thump of his feet on the floor shook the room and made the picture of Paul's mother rattle on the wall.
John hadn't brought his guitar with him. He tried to commandeer Paul's, but it was re-strung so that Paul could play it upside down and left-handed, and so John took out his mouth organ instead. They all knew how to play 'Heartbreak Hotel,' and so they did, messy and uncoordinated but still, still.
As ever, Paul was effortlessly fascinated by John: heavy half-lidded eyes, forearms as hard as wood, the melting slouch of his oiled hair from the damp heat of the summer day. John's twisted smirk around the mouth organ, the brief sweet moments when he actually smiled. Looking at him for too long made Paul feel almost drunk.
After the song was over, and a lull had come and gone, George asked John as if proffering his hand to a snarling dog, "You want to try mine?"
John blew a low note through the mouth organ, giving George's three-pound guitar a sharp once-over. He sneered, but reached out.
"All right, give her here."
George obliged, and John's hands went to their proper places, began to play so quick and easy. Paul couldn't quite name the song, but he knew it; he picked out a soft rhythm line a half a second behind John.
"This is rock and roll radio," John said in a broad cowboy accent. "You're listening to the hits that fit, the platters that matter, the live jive, the true blues. Don't touch that dial, don't look away. We've got the Bird Man, the Bopper, Crickets and Comets and cats and kittens, Presley and Perkins particularly for the people's pleasure. Hold on tight, Radioland--this is the show that never stops."
Paul was grinning. He angled his guitar in such a way that it obscured his face, because he was sure he looked as dumb as a post. John was maybe the cleverest person Paul had ever known.
When he fell quiet at last, George asked somewhat breathlessly, "Where'd you learn to play?"
John stuttered over a note. He answered, "Me mum. She had a banjo," and said, "And who spent good money buying a guitar for an infant, I wonder?"
George went red, snatching his instrument back, and Paul laughed. John smirked at nothing in particular, hid half his face behind the mouth organ again.
Later, Paul's father called him for tea. John went back out the window because Jim McCartney hadn't liked him from the start, and with his heartbeat running fast and high as a bird, Paul shouted goodbye at his narrow retreating back.
Paul had met George on the coach that took them over to the better side of town for school every day.
George had been thin-wristed, shoulders like cane, hunched over his knees in a window seat. A torn piece of paper stuck out of his bag like a plume, covered in cramped hand-drawn pictures of guitars. Paul had sat down next to him, asked him if he played better than he drew.
They were friends right away. George was quiet and perceptive, a watchful wary look haunting the youngish planes of his face. Paul liked how George cocked his head to the side as he was playing his guitar. He liked George's scrawny spider hands rushing up and down, crooked and wringing music out of the catgut strings.
George was younger than Paul, and he stopped talking whenever Paul had something to say. Paul liked that about him, too.
Paul had met John behind the stage at St Peter's Church in Woolton. John had a guitar in his hands when Paul first saw him. He sang static into the microphone, squinted against the sunlight in his stiff red shirt. There was a specific snarl that lurked on John's mouth. There was an edginess in the way that he had offered Paul a cigarette behind the church, the twitch of his fingers against his lip as he sucked on his own.
John had a band, just whichever of his mates he could get together with a guitar or a washboard. It was ragtag, ramshackle, playing skiffle and American rock and roll and the hard sad songs that John came up with. John was the leader, the voice, the pale hands wrapped around the microphone.
The three of them, John and Paul and George, became something just shy of friends. Everything revolved around their guitars, their bruised and bloody fingertips. Music was all they ever talked about. They played together in the front room of Paul's house where the acoustics were better. They went down to the riverside at night, down to the lunar landscapes that had been bombed into being during the war. There was no one around past midnight, and they could sing as loudly as they wanted.
At the end of summer, John climbed in Paul's bedroom window as drunk as any sailor. He sprawled on the floor with one foot under the bed, and asked, "D'ye wanna join me band, son?"
Paul wanted to join John's band only slightly less than he wanted his mother to be alive again. He did not let his voice crack as he said, "Yeah all right," and squeezed his hands together so John wouldn't see how he was trembling with excitement.
George kept hanging around, hoping to get offered a spot as well. John said he was far too young to even be considered, which wounded George, Paul could tell, hurt him in a small pinched way that showed mostly around the eyes. George didn't say anything about it; it wasn't his way.
Paul took the kid along and John wouldn't bother protesting more than just for appearances. There were no possible arguments to be made against George once he started playing, anyway.
None of John's friends were a tenth as good. There was a constantly circulating cast that filled the empty spaces in the band, pocky gangly art students with ink under their nails and glue in their hair, gleeful wild boys in the streets at night but no better than chimps banging on the secondhand instruments John always managed to scrounge up. Paul was annoyed by them a lot of the time, Dennis with his donkey's laugh and Ned who called Paul Mackey even though Paul hated that name, all the single-afternoon friends who couldn't manage to keep a simple backbeat going for longer than a minute. Paul didn't know why John couldn't see that the band was better than that. They needed a real drummer. Someone who could play bass. And George, it was as clear as glass that they needed George too.
But Paul didn't say anything, either. There was something about John that he just responded to; he just followed. John had insane dreams. He treated the future like a colossal dare, certain of nothing except that he would make it or die trying.
Paul wasn't generally the sidekick type, but he found he was willing to give it a go for this sort of hero.
Down at the River Mersey, the filthy smoke-coloured water whipping along, Paul came upon John and his friend Stuart sketching with pieces of charcoal on a broken crag of wall. Paul stood at their backs waiting to be noticed for a minute.
Eventually, he said, "All right, lads?"
John glanced over his shoulder. An elephant with great slow-unfurling ears was arrested under his hand. "You again."
Paul formed a smile. "In the flesh."
Stuart laughed but not like he thought Paul was being clever, more of a sneer to it than that. They didn't get along, Stuart and Paul.
He watched the two of them drawing on the wall for a minute longer. Stuart was creating giraffes alongside John's tigers and elephants, tall trees bursting at the tops like fountains. Paul stuck his hands in his pockets, feeling hushed and awkward.
"So we're going to the Depths, aye?" Paul asked, rocking back on his heels.
"Later, later," John answered without even looking back at him. His bit of charcoal jumped borders and drew a bird in one of Stuart's trees. "We mean to have this finished before it rains again."
Paul glanced at the chilled autumn sky, which was the shade and weight of lead, pressing down upon them. His fingers were in claws inside his pockets as he looked at John's hands half black and half white, John's calculating sideways smile as he elbowed Stuart away from a particularly smooth patch of wall.
"You said we were going to the Depths," Paul said, and then heard himself, and winced.
John and Stuart were already smirking, rolling their eyes at each other.
"Don't whine, Paulie, it's unbecoming," John told him. Scolded, Paul looked down, wishing his face didn't go so swiftly and stupidly red.
"Can he draw?" Stuart asked John.
"Not a whit," John answered.
"Then what good is he?"
"Oi," Paul said, and was ignored.
"Need another bird here," Stuart said, indicating a place on the wall where John obligingly sketched a pelican with jagged wings.
Paul watched them for a minute longer. His hands itched, empty and anxious. John didn't look at him, wholly absorbed in the charcoal jungle he and Stuart were creating on this rubbled piece of wall. Paul thought of the Depths, a rough pub near Sefton with the walls slick from secreted violence and spilled beer. He and John had spent hours there last week, babbling about Elvis Presley and knocking into each other's hands on the table top.
But John had other things to occupy him now. He used the edge of his thumb to blur a charcoal line, and then swiped a black mark onto Stuart's cheek. Stuart grabbed him, shoved a dirty hand through his hair as John twisted and sniggered.
"Right," Paul said to no one in particular. "I'll see you later, I suppose."
John didn't answer. He was grappling with Stuart, reaching with stiff fingers, snapping his teeth at the air. John was grinning behind his mock-war face. His blackened hair slumped in front of his eyes.
Paul said, "Right," again, and then went back the way he came, crossing the strafed lots and tripping over loose pieces of blown-up buildings.
A few weeks later, stashed away in the warmth of a stairwell at the Liverpool Institute, Paul said:
"John was playing me this Little Richard record. He says Richard's a better singer than Elvis--fuckin' lunatic, right?"
George looked up from his guitar. He was bleary, disconnected, still lost in the song. His fingers travelled sleepily across the strings.
"Yeah sure," George said with a shrug. He didn't seem too interested.
"He got us a gig playing at Winston's, did I tell you?"
"Aye, you did."
Paul gave him a sideways look. "You can come along, fill in if someone fags out."
A sting of travelling music spurred from George's hands. The institutional grey stone of the stairwell echoed like a canyon. Paul picked out a rhythm line, humming under his breath. Several minutes slipped past unheeded. Paul's fingertips ached, splinters under the nails. They'd been at it for better than an hour already.
Their impromptu duet came unravelled. George fell sideways into a Gene Vincent song, and Paul couldn't keep up. He was distracted, not really at his best. He let his guitar fall across his lap, kept up a hollow thumb-beat on the body of it. George played happily onwards.
"You have to come and play for him again," Paul said. "He'll let you in the band this time, no question."
George's mouth curled in a faint smile. "Yeah?"
"It's a guarantee."
Paul was not actually as confident as he sounded. John couldn't be predicted or manipulated or talked into things the way that normal people could. Paul had learned that right away. It didn't stop him trying, of course.
"Maybe I will, then," George said. "Here, the middle eight," and then his fingers stung against the strings and Paul's heart fluttered against his ribs, that familiar rock-and-roll feeling.
"Getting better all the time," Paul said.
George rang the song off with a flourish. The stairwell was suddenly very quiet, as obtrusive and obliterative a silence as the noise had been before it. George glanced up at him, a touch of colour on his face.
"I've been dreaming in song," George told him. "People in my dreams open their mouths and music comes out. You ever have that happen?"
Paul shook his head. "You fell asleep with the radio on, yeah?"
A little scuffed laugh, George's fingers squeaking on the strings. "Nah."
"Think that means you're going mad, then."
"Probably," George agreed. He didn't sound overly upset about it.
"Well, rest easy, me lad," Paul said, playing up the Irish accent he'd learned from his grandfather. "The National Health has asylums like palaces, from what I hear."
George gave him an amused look. He was fiddling with his guitar still; he never really stopped.
Paul shifted on the stairs, looking for a comfortable position but it wasn't much use. Whole parts of him were numb and cold from the stone. It was all much more intolerable now that he wasn't playing anymore.
"Come on, are you hungry?" Paul asked. George yawned and shrugged, which meant yes. They stood up carefully, tilting and clutching each other's wrists, stamping their feet to restore the feeling.
"We should go to the Lance," Paul said, picking up his scarf and wrapping it three times around his neck. "Everybody ends up there."
George said all right because that was George's automatic response to everything. He didn't look at all surprised when they walked into the café and found it empty save for John Lennon and three of his tuneless friends, Stuart among them. George, Paul could tell, was learning to anticipate this sort of thing.
John had Paul over to listen to records and then supper. John's Aunt Mimi didn't like Paul any better than Paul's dad liked John, a lemony glare on her face every time he caught her eye. Paul was always disconcerted when confronted with people who were immune to his charm. He pasted on a nervous grin, and didn't ask for a second helping of anything.
Leaving the house, Paul turned to look up at John's lit bedroom window above the front door. It was something he did unconsciously, like tapping his foot to the beat of a bass drum, humming along with songs under his breath.
It was just recently dark, the sky stained deep purple and bruised with pale clouds. Across the narrow street, a small pack of loutish fellows huddled, smoking cigarettes and squinting against the smoke. Paul recognised a couple of them from school, and others in a vague neighbourhood kind of way. He tipped his chin up in a mute acknowledgement, but they weren't content to let it stay there.
"Oi, Macca, has he turned you yet?" That was one of the boys from the Institute, the one who always wore a tattered airman's jacket. He was rewarded with a rustle of mean-spirited snickering.
Paul hesitated, his hands itching at his pockets. "You what?"
"Your mate Lennon. He's a batty boy, or hadn't you heard?"
A rush went through Paul, something like adrenaline but glassy at the edges. His face heated, sweat breaking out of the back of his neck. His mind spun, thinking that if they said that about John, then they would say it about him, and it was very important that they didn't say it about him.
Paul's back teeth were clenched. His voice came out strange and tight. "Shut your filthy mouth."
The boys laughed, jeering at him and sucking their cheeks hollow. The one in the airman's jacket rolled his shoulders off the wall and came closer to Paul, a smirk plainly etched on his face.
"Lookit him, lads, he wants to defend his honour. Bloody Lancelot, here."
Paul took a step forward, forcing his shoulders up. "Shut it, or I'll make you."
"Aye, I'd like to see that. Runty little poofter-"
Paul punched him in the face. Something popped in his hand, a miniscule bomb erupting, and he was worried about that from far away. He hit the boy in the airman's jacket again as he stumbled back, and then the others were on him, wrenching his arms back.
There were six of them. Paul ended up in a heap on the ground, bleeding from his nose. There was a cigarette burn on the pale skin of his arm, just below the crook of his elbow.
Paul lay there for some unmarked length of time. Eventually he picked himself up and limped back to John's house. He tossed pebbles until John appeared in the window, leaning forward on the sill. Paul turned his beaten face up into the light, saw John's eyes go wide.
Only moments later, John was there in the street with him, closing a hand around Paul's elbow. John was too loud, too fast and disjointed.
"That fuckin' Dalton, was it him? What'd you do? C'mon, hey, you're bleeding everywhere. What, what'd you do?"
Paul shook his head. His face felt hugely swollen. Slick coppery blood trickled down his throat and made him sick to his stomach. He liked the press of John's fingers against his arm, the way they were huddled together like conspirators in the dark.
"He said you were queer," Paul said, his voice abused and rough. "Talking rot."
John went still for a moment, and then his hand was back pinching around Paul's arm. He showed a brief wild grin.
"Was it Dalton? Fred Dalton?"
"Wears an RAF jacket?"
"Yeah he does, it was his father's. I'll bloody well kill him."
Savage light gleamed in John's eyes. Paul gazed at him, entranced. His mouth felt tacky and sore, pressed into an eager shape. The cigarette burn on his arm itched like something crucial that had been forgotten.
"He said you were," Paul heard himself saying. There was a strange giddy tone in it. "But you're not."
John pulled his lip up over his teeth, and said, "C'mon, you can't go home like that. Your old dad will only blame it on me."
"It was your fault," Paul said, somewhat hazy. His face hurt a great deal.
John led him around the back of the house, silently slipping inside to the quiet motherless kitchen. John ran the tap over a rag and then handed it to Paul, leaning back against the counter. Shadows crawled up his chest in claws and wings. Paul pressed the cold wet rag to his nose, his swelling lip. He watched John, feeling the moment become crystalline around them.
Paul took the rag away. "You're not," he repeated softly, and it was a question.
A long minute passed. John leaned against the counter, arms crossed over his chest. His eyes, better than half-lidded most of the time, appeared closed now, blind. Paul couldn't stop staring at him.
"No," John said eventually, which didn't necessarily answer anything. "Clean your face."
"Just clean your face, Paul, all right?" and the hard snapping edge in his voice shut Paul's mouth, made him quiet and obedient. Paul didn't know what he had meant to say, anyway.
He cleaned his face and then John turned him out onto street. Paul wanted to say, wait wait, and he wanted to show John the cigarette burn on his arm, feel John's cool fingertips at its edges. He wanted to push his hands through John's hair, and touch the skin stretched taut over his collarbone.
But he only went home, battered. Defeated.
Some time passed.
Paul continued to haunt the cafés and pubs and alleyways of the city where he had grown up. He took his guitar with him everywhere he went; the strap wore thin patches in the shoulders of his shirts. Days became indistinguishable, lost to strings of cigarettes and the bits of melody that floated in and out of his head like leaves on the river.
John let George fill in with the band more and more often. George was wearing him down with steady understated hero worship, listening captivated every time John played them one of his songs, laughing through his nose at every minor quip and jibe. John thrived on that kind of attention, burned that much brighter. He still mocked George for being a mere child, but he wouldn't let his ill-mannered friends do the same.
Sometime towards the end of winter, a hulking wreck of a council house near the art college was condemned due to appalling structural instability. It had been partially destroyed during the war and shoddily reconstructed, a relic that looked dug up from the bottom of the ocean. It was rotting in its foundations, sagging with melancholy. The boarded-up windows didn't survive John and his prise bar, and then the band had a place to play whenever they wanted.
The dilapidated house appealed to Paul's mood. He was feeling trapped and destructive these days, haunted by thoughts that would have made his mother cry. Back home he kept becoming irrationally angry with his father for still carrying his grief so heavily, so obviously--it had been better than a year and a half now since Mary had died--and shoving his little brother out of the bedroom they shared. Mike's sardonically piping voice drove Paul out of his mind on a good day, and those were few and far between lately.
So Paul scotted off with John and George and whoever else was around that night, went to the council house where the floorboards bent and gave alarmingly under them, an eerie wooden chorus of creaks summoned by their footsteps. There were holes in the walls because when John got pissed he needed to hit something, and the walls didn't hit back.
Paul carved his initials in the baseboards. He played guitar until his fingers bled and then had John and Stuart lift him by his legs so he could print a perfect red handprint on the ceiling.
John said, "They'll tear this place down in a year at most."
"It's here now," Stuart answered, and passed George a cigarette.
Paul snorted because it was an obvious thing to say, and Stuart was always coming out with crap like that, things that were only deep on the surface.
They were sitting in a loose circle around the gas lantern that fizzed and sputtered with dark gold light. Taking a break because Paul's hands weren't the only ones ravaged, their instruments were cast aside. George was smoking with quick tight puffs, sideways eyeing how John went about it.
"Who's playing drums for the show in Lime Street?" Paul asked.
John lifted a shoulder in an elegant shrug. He was slumped against the wall, his legs bent in front of him. "Reichert maybe. Maybe Blake."
"Blake is bloody awful."
"Yeah, but he'll do it for free. More dosh for us, son."
Paul huffed; it wasn't a good enough reason. He watched the light play across John's face, catch in the hollows of his throat. His fingers picked at the floorboards, chipping tiny splinters free of the wood.
"Terry Moran took a bottle to Bilcher's head coupla days ago," Stuart said. "So I'd say that band is breaking up. Get their drummer, that weedy bloke with the sexy girlfriend--what's his name?"
"Will Valence, he's worse than Blake," Paul said. He didn't know why Stuart was butting in. He wasn't even in the band.
Stuart hunched over John's guitar, drawing a fantastical cityscape with a chinagraph pencil. It would smear, Paul thought, and paint John's hands. It would make a terrible mess.
Later that night, nothing had been decided, and they had finished the bottle of gin John had bought and all the cigarettes were gone. They split up by the college, Paul and George going one direction, John and Stuart the other. Paul didn't turn to watch John leaving like he wanted to, but he did hear him laughing at something Stuart said, and that was almost as bad.
In the idle way of a just-remembered question, George asked if John's parents were alive. Paul said yes. He had met John's mother a few times; they had spent a day or two practising shut up in the bathroom at her house in Blomfield Road, where the acoustics were pure and crystalline. Julia was an inconstant light-voiced woman who lived two miles away from her son. She had all of John's wit and charm and most of his jagged edges, too, his sharp appeasing smile. John had been living with his Aunt Mimi since he was six years old, and Paul had never asked why. He wasn't sure John knew himself.
Paul told George that John's father was out at sea, and his mother lived in town. George said, "Hmm," and asked no further questions, which Paul found exasperating but characteristic.
They went their separate ways when Paul veered off for the shortcut through the graveyard behind the Catholic church. Hands in his pockets, guitar on his back, Paul followed a familiar trampled path through the tilted and sinking headstones. There was a teasing bit of melody stuck in his head and he wasn't even humming because it was bad luck to sing in a graveyard.
He was thinking about John again. His mind was sodden, half-drunk and stomped flat by weariness. Behind his eyes, John was grinning and stretching and rolling his hips like Elvis.
Things were getting bad, Paul knew, but he was in no condition to worry about it just now. He thought about the boy in the airman's jacket who had called John queer, and he thought about how John watched Stuart's swift sketching hands, and a cold stony pocket opened up inside him. When Paul got home, he sat down at the piano and worked out the song twining in his brain, his head resting on the music rack and his eyes closed.
Eventually his father came out in his pyjamas and told him to get to bed or get a cuff. Paul complied, and lay down fully dressed on top of the covers, his hands lifted above him to play the invisible song.
That night, Paul dreamt of John in the crippled council house, the ceiling falling in chunks around him and systemic cracks like vast spiderwebs spreading on the walls. He dreamt of John lying on the ravaged floor, stripped bare to the waist and smirking.
Paul woke up panting, sweating, hands wrenched in the bedcovers. His heart was a hummingbird in his mouth, his chest echoing and hollow in its absence.
It was a curse beyond bearing, Paul thought, hunching in the washroom a few moments later. This devastating focus. These darkhot thoughts of his. This wasn't how he'd been raised. He splashed cold water on his face. He slumped on his shoulder against the shut door, long careful breaths and a song dredged up from somewhere to give him something else to think about, and soon, soon he'd be all right again.
The school term was over.
John had hovered on the verge of being expelled from the Liverpool College of Art all year due to his grossly disrespectful and destructive behaviour. His escapades were always outlandish and improbably brash, and he never mentioned the consequences, that surfeit of trouble in which he perpetually existed. As the weather got warmer, John often hadn't bothered to show up at all, which could have been only a relief to the college faculty.
Before the end of term, John would come round Paul's school at the midday break and they ate fish and chips off wilting wax paper, leaning on the hoods of cars that didn't belong to them. Paul showed him the stairwell where the acoustics were best, and John tested it by playing a brief rag on the mouth organ that lived in his front pocket, its pale blocky outline rubbed through the fabric of his trousers. Paul drummed a pencil against the wall in time, sang vague gibberish sounds to fit John's song. The other students coming up and down the stairs fell silent as they passed the two of them, and Paul liked that very much.
Now the nights were short, the moon looking like a tattered moth in the coaly sky. Sometimes, they went into a club at sunset and didn't come out again until dawn, and it was as if darkness itself were only a myth, something disproven by modernity.
John had a huge row with his Aunt Mimi around then, and he left home, went to stay at the flat Stuart had in Percy Street with another bloke named Rod. Paul didn't know the specifics, only that John didn't want to go home yet, nor to his mother's place in Blomfield Road, nor anywhere where he was related by blood. John slept on the paint-spattered floor of the flat's tiny cold-water kitchen, wrapped in a tatty blanket and nibbled at by the rats.
Paul rode his bicycle over to Percy Street on a Saturday morning, found John and Stuart up on the roof. Stuart had his legs hanging over the side, heels tocking on the building, a sketchbook across his lap. John was throwing bits of gravel at wheeling black birds. Paul went into the building through the broken front door, climbed up every stair and out of the trapdoor onto the roof, his hands scuffed by the rough tar-paper.
"Hey John," Paul said.
John whipped his arm sideways, and across the way a bird squawked and exploded with a flurry into the air. He looked back at Paul with that familiar half-annoyed flatness in his eyes.
"What are you doing here?" John asked, largely uninterested.
Paul flinched under his skin. His mouth made a smile. "That place we're playing tonight, the pub? I forgot the name."
"Whores and bastards," and John's lip curled, a gouging kind of look. Paul felt his face grow hot for some reason.
Stuart sighed extravagantly, not looking up from his sketchbook. "The Horse and Bridle, actually."
"Over in King Street, yeah?"
"Sure," Stuart said, as airy as if it were no more than an opinion. Paul scowled at the neat curve of his back, his down-tilted face. Stuart never did anything but draw, and draw, and draw.
"I'm bringing George," Paul said.
John made a harsh scoffing sound, and Paul's skin tightened defensively as he belatedly recognised John's awful mood.
"Bit soft, aren't you?" John said on a sneer. "How many times are you going to make me tell you--he's not joining the band."
"But he's good," Paul insisted. John never argued with that, his logic following strange other paths.
"It's bad enough, you and your fuckin' baby face making us look like a bloody church band," and this was dangerous, this savage coruscating gleam in John's eyes. "One more manky public school boy is two too many, you follow?"
Paul noticed that his hands were closed into hard-knuckled fists at his side. He spoke without thinking.
"Quite a band you'd have without me, is that it? Quite a band you had before I joined, you and your mate who only knew two chords and your mate who couldn't play a bloody washboard."
John came striding towards him, his fingers clutched around a handful of gravel and the wind blowing his hair wild. Paul almost took a step back but then he forced himself to stay still, forced the sneer to fix on his face.
"Aye, but they were my mates, weren't they, Paulie? Rather have them around than some cow-eyed nancy boy who never shuts his goddamned mouth."
Paul recoiled as if hit with a dart. Mortified horror raked through him, his mind rushing heedlessly to the dark places it had revelled in so completely for so many months now. John could see--of course John could see. It was a weakness, and John had an eye for that, if nothing else.
Stuttering, Paul managed, "You can sod off then," and then he turned his back sharply because something was burning in his eyes and he couldn't stand it. John laughed, cruel and high. Paul yanked open the trapdoor, also fell through it in his haste.
He stood over the basin in Stuart's kitchen, his hands braced on the counter. Eyes squeezed shut until his heart rate settled, and then he ran water over his hands and froze the colour off his face. With his palms tucked into his eye sockets, Paul whispered to himself, "You're not," some crooked kind of echo.
The trapdoor clapped shut, and a second later a body thudded into the hallway. Paul wiped his face hurriedly on his sleeve, adrenaline tasting bright in his mouth because he thought it would be John, John come to tear into him again, tear him to pieces, but instead Stuart came in with a smirk and a pencil tucked behind his ear.
"Aw, is he gonna cry?" Stuart asked in a false lilt of a voice. Paul's face wrenched in a sudden snarl.
"Bugger off, you fuck."
"Watch your mouth, son," and Stuart cuffed him hard across the back of the head, jarring Paul into the counter.
Paul whirled, red drenching across his vision and something like sulphuric acid running hot in his veins. He was going to hit Stuart until he wasn't smirking anymore, nor breathing or moving or speaking.
Stuart dodged his first swing, and then shoved him hard. Paul tripped, overbalanced, and would have fallen but for Stuart's quick hand wrenched in his shirt, dragging him upright. Paul found himself pushed up against the wall, Stuart's thin painter's hand fisted against his collarbone.
"Get a hold of yourself," Stuart said. "You're acting like a fool."
"Shut up, you, you don't know-" and Paul jerked to attack him again but Stuart was stronger than he looked, keeping him pinned in place.
"Quit it," Stuart told him sharply. "Why are you listening to him? You can't--don't listen to him when he's like that, all right?"
Paul shook his head, felt something pop painfully in his neck. His teeth dug into the inside of his lip; he couldn't answer because he couldn't speak because if he spoke his voice would crack, and he might actually cry, and then he would have to throw himself in the river to drown.
Stuart blew out an irritated breath. His eyes were an odd dark silver, narrowed as thin as pound coins. He had freckles, Paul noticed in an extremely distant way, dozens of them.
"It's not him," Stuart said. "He says those things because he can. He thinks he has to. But it's not really him."
Paul stared hard past Stuart, and didn't answer. His face was so hot it felt like he was melting. He wanted to get out of here, run and run and run.
Stuart pushed him aside with a vaguely disgusted sound, and went to the cabinet for a fresh pack of cigarettes. Paul stayed against the wall, breathing measured and careful, pressing his fingertips against his thighs in calming piano chords. His eyes fell on the wadded-up blanket in the corner where John had been sleeping, and a lump jammed itself into his throat.
Stuart offered him a cigarette. Paul took it because he needed something to do with his hands. Three matches died on him before he was able to light it. Stuart watched from the other side of the room, that obnoxious smirk back on his face.
They smoked, sharing a silence that was only moderately tense, and then Paul was feeling more stable, so he lied, "I've got somewhere to be," as he flicked his fag end into the basin and moved to leave.
"Shall I tell John you won't be coming tonight, then?" Stuart asked, a terribly subtle tone of mockery in his voice.
Something flared in Paul, penny firecrackers rattling like gunfire along the insides of his ribs. It suddenly seemed insufferable, all this cringing and second-guessing and shame. Paul's mother used to tell him, keep that chin up, love, and she'd say it now, he knew, if he came home looking like this. If she were still home to see him.
Paul pulled his shoulders straight, looked back at Stuart with a glare. "No," he answered. "You can tell him I'm bringing George. Tell him it's my bloody band too."
And then he walked out, letting the door slam behind him. For a moment, he felt like a gangster, a cowboy, a legend who would never be forgotten, but then he caught himself looking up to the roof for a glimpse of John against the clear blue sky, and straightaway, Paul was just a boy again.
So they played that night at the Horse and Bridle, and when John's friend Eddie got too pissed to provide his usual incompetent guitar work, John let George come onstage to fill his space. John was drunk himself, or halfway there, anyway. The rush had allowed him to abandon all his grudges, everything that was bleak and unsatisfied in him. He cradled his hands around the microphone, sang love songs as if he really meant them. Paul was dazzled, huddling near the wall and trying not to show it.
Their brief rooftop row seemed the furthest thing from John's mind. He grinned at Paul, hooked an arm around his neck and dragged him to the front of the small stage so that they could sing Jerry Lee Lewis into the same microphone. Paul should have been still angry with him, cool and aloof, but it was a physical impossibility. John's face from two inches away was flushed as red as roses, looking slick and soft to the touch.
Paul's voice gave out sometime in the second hour. He fell off the microphone and rolled his back on John's, feeling the shifting war of their shoulder blades through sweat-damp cotton. The pub was cramped and packed to overflowing, people jammed in corners and folded into each other, dancing too close. Paul could feel every one of them, every individual heart in the room thumping a unique rhythm. Every breath he took was the admixture of a hundred blood-hot exhales.
John was singing. Sweat stung at Paul's eyes and so he closed them, let John's coarse lovely voice wash over him, his fingers moving blind and flawless on the guitar.
John was singing, shredded up and pleading, "She's the woman that I know, she's the woman that loves me so."
And then John howled, a primal sound that was the difference between rock and roll and everything else in this world: that single joyful scream. It had barely been absorbed by the crowd before he stepped aside to let George come tearing into the guitar solo and John was laughing, shouting, "Go son, go," and George beamed like Paul had never seen before and for a moment it was exactly how he wanted his life to be.
It was their best show yet. Afterwards they crowded around a too-small table and drank and drank, softening their edges, soothing their ragged voices. Paul was next to John and circumstances were such that he had the thrill of John's leg knocking against his, their shoulders nudging like blind creatures seeking space.
Paul was feeling dizzy, or giddy, or somewhere in between. He wrapped both hands around his cold pint, hoping to siphon off some of the heat from under his skin.
All the way drunk now, drunk and past drunk, John accused George of having sold his soul to be able to play the guitar like that. George looked so pleased Paul had to laugh, and John pounded his fist on the table, demanding to know what the devil looked like.
"Like Elvis," George said, swaying slightly in his seat. "Elvis in a suit made of black leather and he's ten feet tall with red eyes, and his guitar is also a sword."
John barked an amused sound. "That's not bad, boyo. Somebody with talent could probably make a song out of that."
Across the room, a fight broke out like a mortar shell dropped into the crowd. A chair was smashed over someone's back, and then it was a general scrum, five or six guys whipping elbows and throwing wild looping punches. John leaned forward across Paul, shouting out raw-voiced encouragement in his casually miscreant way.
The move pressed him up against Paul's side, warm and intensely there, John's arm heavy around his shoulders, and Paul wasn't really breathing so well. He wondered if John could tell. He wondered if the faint sweat still shimmering on John's throat would taste like liquor or salt.
Paul had to get out of here.
He slid out from under John's arm, riding out the shiver that went through him as John's calloused fingertips scraped across the back of his neck. Paul stood beside the table, shot George a wide-eyed look that was probably mistaken for panic, but that wasn't it, not really. Paul just had to get out of here.
He begged exhaustion and John called him a dozen unforgivable names but none of them could touch Paul, not after the night they'd had. He let Stuart's irritated voice run on a loop in his head, ever-reminding: it's not him, it's not him.
Paul smiled and said, "Brilliant show, lads, just brilliant," and he was looking right at John as he said it, everything and more written all over his face.
John didn't seem to notice. He booed fiercely when George staggered to his feet as well, and made as if he would hurl his pint glass at them, but Paul was not too worried. This wasn't one of John's violent drunks; if it were he would have already joined the momentary brawl across the room.
Paul barely managed to keep from looking back as he and George left the pub. That was the first habit to break, he decided in a drunken fit of absolute sincerity. No more looking back.
On the pavement, out in the hushed fish-smelling night, George elbowed him. "You're humming that song of John's. That 909 song."
A breath caught in Paul's throat. "Am I?"
"Christ, man," George said, trying to deepen his voice like John did but it didn't quite work. "Where's your head?"
Paul didn't tell him. It wouldn't do to traumatise the kid before he even got into the band.
They said their goodnights and then Paul set off towards his home. He was cutting through the cemetery when he heard his name being called, and for a split second his blood was frozen, his skin as still as glass, thinking it had to be a ghost.
Then again, from not so far away, "Paulieee," like a mourning wail. Paul felt his heart kickstart, and he gasped quietly under his breath: it was John.
He turned in the foot-beaten path and watched John saunter into the cemetery, listing at a distinct angle with his shirt pulled out of his belt on one side, his hair falling gracelessly over his forehead. John moved into the blocky shadow of the church and grinned at him, that huge terrifying grin of his that could mean a thousand different things.
Paul swallowed, and sucked on the inside of his cheek to keep his expression clean of any soused idiotic glee. John had followed him.
"Can't shake you, can I," Paul said, trying for a bit of levity. His throat seemed to be getting smaller the nearer John came.
"You don't want to," John told him. He stepped too close, still tugging at Paul with his grin, his dare-filled eyes. "You don't want to shake me at all, do you?"
It was important not to look at John for too many seconds in a row. Paul flicked his eyes to the moss like tattered suede over the headstones, the murky promise of the road beyond the trees. John reeked of the night, beer and smoke and musty stage light all over him.
"I'd have reason enough," Paul answered, wanting to keep it easy, back and forth.
"Don't tell lies, son, it's bad for you," John said.
Strange to realise now how much it disconcerted Paul every time John called him son. It was terrible timing. Paul set it aside, stuck a careless smile on his face. The one thing Paul had always been able to do was smile.
"A bit of wisdom from the monk, eh?"
"It's fact," and John put his hand on Paul's shoulder. "Solid fact, true blue. I've seen how you look at me."
Paul's mouth opened but nothing came out. It was an apocalyptic moment, whole cities crashing to dust inside of him. He could feel each of John's fingers pressing into his shoulder, thumb hard against the bony curve of his collarbone. Paul tried not to move. It was a spell; it could be broken.
John tilted forward, bringing their faces together and stopping Paul's breath. "I've seen you, Paul," he whispered.
The space between their mouths seemed composed entirely of steam. Paul could feel his hands shaking as he lifted them to John's chest, taking hold of his shirt and walking them backwards very slowly and carefully. Paul wasn't thinking about what he was doing beyond the immediate: he stepped to avoid headstones and thick-grown weeds; he made sure John was mirroring his pace so they didn't step on each other's feet. John followed him with an intensely knowing glint in his eye, his hand hot against the skin of Paul's neck.
Behind the angle of the church wall, away from the road, away from any kind of light, Paul pressed his back against the stone and pulled John to him.
John breathed out, "Good man," against his lips, and then kissed him.
Somehow, after everything, Paul wasn't really expecting that. His legs gave out briefly, but there was the wall and there was John shored up against his front, John's hands like bridge struts on Paul's hips. John pushed his tongue into Paul's mouth and Paul's arms went around his neck without conscious thought. John kissed him again and again, unchecked, a desperation at the edges of it that Paul wished he could attribute to the drunk.
But Paul didn't care that they were drunk. He sank his fingers into John's hair and hooked his ankle around the back of John's leg. He didn't care what that made him, the wicked smile that John's lips formed against his. He didn't care when John mumbled, "Likes it, does he?" because he did, God help him, he liked John's narrow body over his own as much as anything short of the stage.
It was messy and uncoordinated, there in the shadow of the church wall. John unbuckled his own belt, took Paul's hand and pushed it into his trousers. Paul was grateful for the direction, lightheaded from lack of air and the punishing heat of John's mouth against his own. He curled his fingers against John through his pants and John hissed, biting at Paul's lip. Paul was panting, pulling John off through damp cotton with no grace or rhythm or melody, nothing like it.
It was lovely, he thought, lovely, and then John's head fell back on a moan, and he was done. Paul pressed his face, his open pleading mouth to the smooth stretch of John's throat, feeling driven just so slightly out of his mind at the feel of wet spreading under his hand.
John was limp against him for a long moment, breathing hard in recovery. His hands dangled bonelessly over Paul's shoulders. Paul didn't begrudge him, his tongue marking out John's pulse and their bodies pressed so close. Paul was suffocating, sick and spinning with arousal. Something akin to terror kept his fingers hooked in John's trousers, not letting him pull away.
But John didn't. He lifted his head and his eyes looked black and foggy and detached, whirring alien ships. He seemed to barely recognise Paul, barely even see him. Paul said something that tasted like "please," and John smiled a slow smile like a knife blade, slid his hands up under Paul's shirt.
Paul let his head tip back against the wall, his lips forming around the word please over and over again. Far above the church and the steeple, the fences and the trees, a heavy northern moon kept watch. Paul was conscious of John's fingers working his trousers open, John's hard mouth biting at his jaw, and a million miles away there was the moon, and that was all for him, that was all.
Paul woke up in the bedroom he shared with his brother, wreathed in a dream about submarines that clung to his mind like smoke or moss. For several long moments, he blinked up at the cracks in the ceiling, letting an ocean flow out of him, retrieving his commitment to dry land.
The night before came back like having the wind knocked out of him: John pressing him against the wall of the church, John's well-used hands searching under his clothes. Paul shivered, his body going tight with goosebumps and a thin excited sheen of sweat.
He lay in bed a few minutes longer, eyes closed, remembering, reliving until he woke up a bit more and discovered a breathless slither of mortification creeping under his skin. He pushed everything out of his head in favour of a Carl Perkins song, and went looking for breakfast.
The place was empty when Paul came out, his father's teacup resting neatly on its saucer in the sink, a small brown lake at the bottom. Paul made toast on the stove and ate it dry, the way he did when he was very young and they couldn't get butter. He ate standing up, studying the raw-silk sky out the window that looked the same as it did every morning.
It was too quiet and so Paul fetched his guitar and went round to the small garden around which their group of council houses was clustered. The garden was an industrial colour of green, rusty flowers wilting in the heat. Paul found a little patch of cool under a stunted tree that hunkered in the shadow of one of the houses, futilely waiting for the sun.
He turned off his mind, bent down over his guitar, and closed his eyes. He disappeared into it, not trying any new songs or any complicated, nothing but what his hands already knew by heart.
Some amount of time passed. Paul had no recollection of it. He was thousands of miles away.
Then George was saying his name as if for the third or fourth time, a curt parental demand that had Paul's head jerking up, his mind resurfacing a moment later.
George was standing in the sun, looking miserable in the cheap wool suit that his mother made him wear to church. His hair was slicked to the right instead of straight back like he usually wore it, and it made him look even younger. George scowled at Paul, but that might just have been the sun in his eyes.
"Ah, not gone deaf then. You had me worried, son."
Paul curled his lip without realising it. "Don't--don't call me that." Surprise flashed across George's face, and Paul hurried to any other topic of conversation. "Did you bring your guitar?"
"No, I came straight from church." George lifted a hand to scratch under his shirt collar. He'd already rid himself of the tie, and it hung out of his pocket like a dead pet snake. "This heat might kill me."
"Ain't that a shame."
"Tragedy, a tragedy is what it would be. The whole city would mourn."
Paul glanced at him, half a smile. "Policemen in black cotton gloves. Crepe bows around the necks of public doves."
"Oi, that's a song, innit?"
"Poem?" George's face screwed up, jeering and doubtful. "If you say so, Paulie."
Paul almost told him not to call him that, either, but he bit his tongue. He couldn't be in control of everything.
It felt awkward to be sitting with George above him, so Paul got to his feet, which were numb and heavy as blocks of wood. George stuck his hands in his pockets, rocking on his heels.
"It was good last night, yeah?" George said.
A little piece of electricity went through Paul, spark of panic before he realised that George was talking about the show. Paul shrugged, said, "You were all right."
"Are you gonna talk to John again? About me joining all official like?" George was talking fast, his eagerness showing through. "You said you would."
Paul blinked at him for a moment, and then a small laugh rattled from him. He shook his head, looking down.
"Yeah, I'll talk to him," he said, because it was easy to say that.
George grinned. "Gear. Let's go get a curry."
They cut through the backyards and under the wash lines blowing in the grey breeze, and Paul thought about the band. He thought about the wall of sound that came from the three of them, small stages where they could not stand abreast, cramped backrooms where they passed a flask of liquor back and forth before going on. The idea of the band was leeward and sheltered in his mind, polished to a high gold shine. Paul turned it over, rubbed at its edges, remembering the ancient Roman coin his brother Mike had found when they were kids and how he couldn't stop fiddling with it. The band was his good luck piece; he wanted to carry it around in his pocket.
Sitting at the counter waiting for their curries, George said, "I saw a picture of Elvis in his Army uniform the other day."
"Yeah?" Paul said, thinking about John Lennon's hands.
"He looked. I don't know. It looked like a costume. Like it was for a new movie."
"Hmm," Paul answered. He wondered where John was now, if he was still asleep in the clothes he had been wearing last night.
"Do you think he likes the Army?"
"What?" Paul asked.
George gave him a look, a quick folding-down on his eyebrows. "You're not paying attention again."
Caught, Paul shrugged and tried to pass it off. "I pay attention."
"Aye, when John's in the room," George sneered, and Paul went still.
"I don't--sod off," he managed. George's lip curled viciously as if he would say something more, but then he blew out an explosive breath and slumped back.
A moment or two of densely packed silence passed. Paul wouldn't look at George. He picked splinters out of the wood of the counter, wondering if his ears were as bright red as they felt.
"Anyway," George said eventually, sounding pinched and stilted. "You want to talk about Elvis now?"
A hard smile forced its way onto Paul's face. He ducked his head. "Yeah. Yeah."
It was safer all around. Rock and roll picked them up, patched the holes in their conversation. Soon enough, Paul was drumming on the counter with cheap metal spoons, and George was mumbling lyrics around his curry, and outside the sun broke through the cloud cover, splashing onto the street like a great blue wave crashing into California all those many miles away.
Several days went by, and Paul did not see John.
He was always running a step or two behind. Paul went around to the common cafés and pubs, the empty lot down by the river where the broken wall had once featured a jungle, and John had always just left, just missed him by a minute. Paul developed this sense of John like a mechanical rabbit at the dog races, barely out of reach.
Paul occupied himself with other things, the many other people in his life. He got pissed with some mates from school and ended up passed out in a bedsit in Dover Street, his face covered in garish girl's makeup when he awoke. He and George wrote half a song that was either really good, or a knock-off of something Chuck Berry had written years before. Neither of them owned the relevant record, and so they spent hours humming the melody at each other, trying to remember.
Paul was nervous and hyperaware most of the time, amplified by invisible tension that felt like static at the edges of his perception. He couldn't stop looking for John everywhere he went. His neck was sore from twisting to reconnoiter the familiar streets of their hometown. There was a rattling little thrill in his stomach every time he heard John's name, and of course he would have to have the single most pervasive name in the Empire, of course. Paul was ambushed, surrounded. He couldn't escape it.
It was feeble, pathetic beyond bearing. Recognising his own behaviour did nothing in helping him stop. There was a galaxy of things he was trying not to think about. There were so many things he had no interest in being.
And then it was a band day, and they were supposed to meet at Paul's house. Paul was frayed and short of temper in the morning, snapping at his father and getting twice back. He sulked over the piano playing the fast wild stuff that his dad couldn't stand, throwing in spiteful discordant notes just randomly enough to appear unintentional. His father took his paper and jammed a hat on his head, saying at the door, "That isn't music, Paul, play music," before leaving for the pub.
Paul let his hands spread out wide on the keys. He was feeling vaguely sick to his stomach. He wondered if John had been staying away from him on purpose. He wondered what was going to happen to the band.
George showed up first that afternoon, and Paul stayed at the piano as George unpacked his guitar, feeling more secure with an instrument that weighed as much as an anchor. They played idly, in and out of each other's tune.
John arrived with Stuart and his friends Roddy and Tony. They were already drunk though it was still shy of teatime, not yet disabled by it but made raucous, loud even from outside the house. As he opened the door, Paul's eyes met John's for just a moment, a glittering blank moment that washed a flush over his whole body. Paul escaped back to the piano. The floor under the thin carpet shook as they tromped in.
"Ah, me laddies," John said expansively. "Back together again."
Paul stared at the piano keys. His reaction was more visceral than he'd been prepared for; he knew how red his face must be.
Chatter filled the room, guitars unslung with the soft squeak of strings, scattered songless plucking as they were tuned. George was being given a casual amount of hell, which always seemed to happen when any two of John's friends got together. John was in top form, directing people around and blowing into his mouth organ in counterpoint to his punchlines.
Drunk, he's drunk, Paul thought, and that was possibly not a smart thing to think. Bad memories.
His right hand began moving over the keys without conscious direction, and after a moment it solidified into 'Greensleeves.' It surprised Paul because it felt like a forgotten dream; that was the first song he'd ever learned on the piano, sitting on his mother's lap a thousand years ago.
John said, "Oi, what century is this?"
Paul looked up. John had come to stand near him, a piquant gin cloud around him. Behind the smudged glass of specs, John's hazy half-closed eyes were fixed on Paul, sleepily dragging across his face and hands.
"Incidental music," Paul said. George laughed a little, thumping his fingers on the body of his guitar.
John smirked. Paul wanted to kiss him very badly, and he tore his eyes away, back down to the black and white.
"Needs a little something," John said, and then pulled out his mouth organ. He blew a jerky piece of rhythm to back up Paul's piano, and suddenly the regal medieval tune had transformed into rock and roll.
George stung his guitar to life and began screwing around with the theme. Paul brought his left hand up to play the chords, and as the ragged new song filled the room, he felt his damnable mood drain off him somewhat, replaced by more important concerns.
They played for an hour, this song and that and the other. The friends John had brought were slightly less useless than normal, beating on a toy plastic Indian drum and the tambourine with rust eating away at the metal jingles. Conversation was at a premium. Cigarettes burned to long cylinders of grey ash in the ashtrays, covering the dried lavender Paul's father crushed up for the smell. A flask of gin was emptied and left to lie forlornly on the carpet.
It was a pure relief. The music crowded into his head and left room for no shame or guilt or uncertainty. Paul grinned at John like old times. For that length of time, they had never committed any illegal indecencies in a churchyard; they were more like brothers, the deepest kind of friends.
Stuart, who knew a few chords on the guitar but always got bored after just a song or two, banged around in the kitchen and emerged with a kettle and a teetering stack of chipped teacups. They set aside their instruments, fingers aching, and the silence that fell was oppressive, disturbing.
Paul said, "I'll get some records," and went to his room because his dad didn't like his son's rock and roll getting all mixed up with the ragtime and brass band albums.
He was on his knees on the carpet, reaching under the bed to dig out the milk crate where he kept his small collection, and John came in. Paul looked up sharply, feeling the now-familiar clutch in his throat. John had followed him again.
"What are you getting?" John asked, and closed the door at his back.
Paul's breath caught. His fingers tightened on the skinny ribs of the records in their box. His mind sped, ratcheted up close to panic, because it was a different room with the door closed. It was a different world.
Paul pulled out the nearest record. He had to blink down at for several seconds before the obscure symbols on the front coalesced into letters and words.
"The Five Satins."
"Vocalists! Bite your tongue, sir. We're in the mood for genuine rock and roll today," John declared, magisterial in the wave of his hand. He came over to sit on Paul's bed, and things just kept getting worse and worse.
Paul swallowed, sat back on his heels. If he lifted his arm, he could place it on John's bent knee. If he leaned down, he could touch his mouth there.
"What would you recommend, then?" he asked.
John shrugged. He lay back on his elbows, his shirt pulling up and showing the metal gleam of his belt. There was the vague shadowy hint of skin, and Paul was staring. A fog was creeping over his better senses.
"That bloke from the telly, that Ricky Nelson." John flashed a brief hard grin. "You're keen on him."
"Go on. The very thought." Paul rattled off a little laugh. He was fiddling with the record, hating this conversation. The uncertainty was going to kill him.
"Those lovely blue eyes," John said, a faint sneer to it.
Paul shook his head, pushing out his lower lip with his teeth and trying to keep his gaze focussed anywhere but John laid back on the bed like that.
"You're talking rot," Paul just barely managed.
"Like to think that, wouldn't you?"
John was playing some different game. Paul wasn't sure of the rules or the objective, the boundaries, anything. He was wholly at sea.
"Here," Paul said, jerking another record out of the crate without looking at it and shoving it at John. "How's that?"
John sat up and looked blankly at the record, and then tossed it aside. His gaze on Paul was hazy and unnerving, a deathless flush warming Paul's face.
"Not blue eyes," John said. "That's not what you're keen on at all, is it?"
Paul looked helplessly away. He swallowed several times, compulsive.
"Don't," he said, but it was in a hushed whisper and so John didn't even bother acknowledging it.
"You might as well just come out with it, Paulie. It's not as if you're terribly subtle, you know. Not as if anybody here is blind. Aw, don't give me that face."
John pushed his fingers against Paul's cheek, a slap with no impact or pain. Paul twitched his head away. John was grinning, probably just short of laughing. Paul became caught in a memory of that night, that moment when he had put his arms around John's neck, hooked a leg around him. Of course John would laugh. Of course.
"You came after me," Paul heard himself saying.
It took John off-guard for a second. He blinked, his expression faltering and betraying his intoxication. Paul hadn't expected to say that, but he liked the effect, momentary though it was.
John rallied. "Aye, I hoped a quick toss off might stop you gazing at me like some soppy girl. More fool me, eh?"
It was exactly too much. Something gave in Paul like old floorboards rotting through, insistent memories of John's mouth working against his own, the shivering feel of thin muscle under thinner skin. Paul straightened up on his knees, surprising John with the sudden movement and taking advantage. He twisted a hand in John's shirt, adrenaline coursing painfully all through him.
"You're lying," Paul said, yanking John closer because anger was better than every other possibility at hand. "You don't mean that."
"Don't, don't think you know what I mean," John said, and Paul thrilled to hear him stammer. John's eyes were very wide, very dark. His bent leg was against Paul's side.
"Well enough, Johnny," Paul said with a half-mature sneer of his own, letting John know how he felt about certain childish nicknames. "I didn't start this. Maybe I, I, maybe I looked at you sometimes but I never started it. So who's keen on who?"
John's chest hitched as he made a strange sound that was part laugh and part choked breath. He took hold of Paul's arm but didn't shove him off, and Paul feared that his heart would give out if it was obliged to beat at this manic pace for much longer.
"Starting it doesn't mean-" John began, and then his voice withered suddenly as if he had been singing for three hours instead of just one. He looked down at Paul, his eyes shuttered and his mouth making an unstable curve. "It doesn't mean anything."
"Liar," Paul said without thinking, almost breathless. It felt so good in his mouth that he said it again, "Liar," and then pulled John down and kissed him.
John responded immediately, tipping his head to the side and opening his mouth, and giddiness rocketed through Paul. His mind sang like an aria, liar liar liar. John pushed his hand under his shirt collar and curled his fingers, still warm from the guitar, over Paul's bare shoulder.
Some small amount of time passed, heat and movement and John's tongue dragging against his own, and Paul didn't care about what any of it meant as long as it kept happening.
And then it wasn't happening anymore, John's grip tightening on his shoulder before he was shoved back, the kiss broken with deceptive ease.
Paul panted slightly. He swayed back in towards John instinctively, but was kept at arm's length.
"What?" Paul asked hoarsely. His eyes were locked on John's mouth.
"Not here," John said, hearteningly short of breath himself. "Stuart and, and everybody's right out there."
"Where, then? When?" Paul said. He shifted to feel John's rough fingers scrape against his skin.
John took his hand out of Paul's shirt. He was shaking, Paul noticed in a terribly distracted way. John wasn't generally the type.
"Meet me outside the offie on Beacon," John told him in a hurried slur like a spy passing information. "Midnight, all right?"
"Yeah, midnight." Paul pressed forward after another kiss but John forestalled him with a locked arm. John's throat dipped as he swallowed.
"Jesus, you're worse than I thought," John said. He got to his feet, deftly slipping away from any further contact. A fast hand went through his hair. "Who could guess at shameless deviance behind such a face?"
John was searching for solid ground, and Paul let him have it because he had his own problems. His body was demanding John with an intensity that Paul had never known.
"Midnight," Paul said again, the word dense and wonderful on his tongue.
John glanced at him. There was colour on John's face too, his arms tight against his sides. It occurred to Paul that John didn't know any more about what they were getting into than he did. It was a shockingly comforting thought.
"Yeah," John said, and then, "Bring Buddy Holly," and then he left the room.
Paul remained on the floor for a long moment. His box of records had been tipped over at some point, and they spilled out in a glossy cascade across the carpet. Paul lifted his hand to his mouth because it felt swollen, branded. His fingers smelled like the stuff John put in his hair.
Eventually he cleaned up the records and got to his feet on watery legs. The clock with a ship painted on it read four minutes past five o'clock, and the only thing that could find purchase in Paul's mind was seven hours, and the gleaming vision of the Beacon Street off-license shining like a city of gold in his future.
That night, Paul went to bed still wearing his trousers.
He waited until Mike was snoring in the other bed, and the smell of fresh cigarette smoke had faded from the front room where his father ended every day with Charles Dickens and the radio softly playing songs from Luxembourg. Paul counted very slowly, not seconds or blinks, just numbers steadily climbing. He picked up the dented metal clock to read its face in the moonlight through the window. At ten minutes till, he slid out of bed and snuck out of the house on muffled feet, his shoes and shirt cradled in his arms like a kidnapped child.
Paul dressed in the street, and ran to Beacon Street. Liverpool was sewn up tight by the night, the dark seams stitched into every building and parked car. Paul's lungs got smaller with each breath, his heartbeat throbbing in his ears.
The off-license still had its light on, though the door was locked and the windows battened. John was sitting on the kerb, his arms on his bent knees, and everything about the scene seemed surreal to Paul, impossible.
Paul came up to John, his mouth already dry, his hands already aching. John tipped his head back to look at him, his eyes sinking into deep hollows.
"And he's prompt as well. Teachers must just love you to pieces."
An imbecilic grin was apparently the only viable response. Paul mind had gone fantastically blank. John snorted, and imperiously held out a hand for Paul to grip and haul him up.
"Stupid git," John muttered in a kind of sideways-smirking way. "All right, come on."
Paul fell naturally into step beside him. He pushed his hands in his pockets, shoulders up against the stinging draughts of wind. John walked like he was taller than the truth of it, like some part of his brain was ever-replaying a John Wayne film. They didn't talk because even their footsteps on the pavement echoed in the quiet street.
They went to the condemned council house. John gave Paul a leg up into the window, their bodies dizzyingly close for a brief physical moment, and then Paul was in and it was pitch black. John climbed in through the murky square hole cut in the velvet fabric of the room.
There was a concentrated rustle, and then John sparked a match with his thumbnail. His face flared orange and grey, and Paul moved closer like a moth, a meteorite roped by gravity.
"Well," John said. He was whispering, though there was no one around. Two weeks ago, the band had played in this house until the sun came up; no one cared.
"Well," Paul agreed. He wondered if he was allowed to touch John yet.
The match burned down. Paul wanted to say, what should I do, but John might laugh at him for not knowing. He wanted to say, what do you want, but then John could answer with anything. It seemed like nothing but wrong choices.
The flame met John's fingers and he dropped it with a hiss. The room went dark again. John said, "Right," and reached out.
His hand collided with Paul's cheek, his fingers curling as he recognised where he was. John's hand smelled like sulphur. His thumb dragged across Paul's lower lip and Paul's whole body trembled. John stepped right up to him, his boot knocking Paul's feet apart. When their hips pressed together, Paul gasped, and John took advantage, kissing him hard.
It was like picking up a conversation hours later, Paul's body shifting a critical gear, curving to match the shape of John's. He gripped John's hips and groaned into his mouth, felt it clearly when John flashed a grin.
It was suddenly so easy. Not in the awkward moments just before, nor during the silent walk through the benighted city streets, but now, now that John was kissing him and touching him and pushing his shirt up, now Paul knew exactly what to do. He'd always had more luck learning things by ear.
John broke away, panting, and rolled his forehead on Paul's. His palms were hot and flat on Paul's ribs under his shirt.
"Always up for it, eh?" John said breathlessly, grinding his hips down into Paul's at a maddening pace.
"Not alone in that, it would seem," Paul answered, frankly surprised at his own coherence.
His mouth found its way to John's neck and stuck there for a long while. That particular gasping rustling chorus grew urgent between them. Paul scraped his teeth and John moaned. It struck Paul harder than the best music, the prettiest song.
John took Paul's head in his hands and drew him up, showing a blackly joyful grin.
"Try something for me, Paul."
"Yes," Paul said at once. John slid his fingers just into Paul's trousers, brushing the top of his hip.
"On your knees, love," John whispered against his mouth. Paul shivered hard, heat coursing through him. He knew John hadn't meant it like it sounded. Somehow that was better.
Paul succumbed to the weakness in his legs, slipped down to the floor. His hands hooked in John's belt, his knees hitting the soft floorboards with a sound like stones on sand. Paul's head spun, arousal smothering him, suffocating. He sucked on his lower lip, tilted his face up towards John.
"Yeah?" Paul said.
John nodded, staring down at Paul with blackened eyes as his hand worked blindly at his belt buckle. Without thought, Paul leaned forward and licked at the shine of metal and John's fingers, silver and ink. John blew out an explosive breath, and muttered a raspy curse. He jerked his fly open and slid his hand around the back of Paul's head.
"C'mon then," John said in an underground voice.
There should have been some hesitation, some last pale vestige of shame, but Paul was too far gone. He braced a hand on John's stomach and took him in his mouth with a small happy sigh. He was stunned to hear John cry out above him, his fingers twisting in Paul's hair, his hips wrenching forward.
Paul ripped open his own fly, just for some kind of relief, and dedicated himself to learning what else would cause John to make that noise.
It didn't take much, really. Paul learned the rhythm of it, the slick twist of his hand, the roll of his head. John clutched his hair and moaned through gritted teeth, all his cleverness and cruelty stripped away for exactly that long.
It was over suddenly, without any warning beyond John's stomach tightening, his back curving in. Strange white taste and Paul choked, rocked back on his heels, spitting and coughing. He pushed one hand into his trousers and took himself in hand, groaning and letting his head fall back.
John hissed, "Jesus," and then the floor thumped as he dropped to his knees. He shoved his hand in over Paul's, and Paul leaned into him, mouthing frantically at his neck. They stroked together blindly, without skill, without enough room to move. It didn't matter; nothing could have been better.
John ducked his head and kissed Paul, licking deeply after that taste in his mouth. Paul gasped and jerked and came all over both their hands, a boundless rush of pleasure crashing through him.
He collapsed onto John, breathing hard. John kept him propped up, holding Paul's head in his hand with his thumb on his cheekbone and fingers tucked behind his ear. Several long moments passed like that. Paul was floating ten feet above the floor. He could feel John's heart rate settling under his skin.
It became quiet. They were kneeling on the floor together, bodies braced together, long stretches of their throats touching. Paul thought in a slow-focussing haze that this was the kind of life he wanted to live, this kind of madness. He wanted it to be music and stage lights and smoky rooms, back alleys and condemned houses, sex like a reckless mistake, these spare sparse moments of quiet.
And he wanted John with him. Paul came to it at last. Wherever he was going, he wanted John there too.
It was a suicidal thought. Paul huffed out a silent laugh, and brushed his lips on John's neck.
John pushed him up and back, stroking his fingers across Paul's throat and then taking his hands away. He rummaged for a pair of cigarettes and lit both on the same match before passing one to Paul. They sat down on the floor and smoked for a moment in a dazed silence, blinking at each other dumbly.
Eventually Paul said in a scraped-up voice, "Will you come over tomorrow? Today?"
Ordinarily he would have flinched at hearing himself say that, but his body was still humming with satisfaction and nothing else could intrude.
John exhaled through his nose like a dragon. "Can't get enough, can you?"
"Suppose not," Paul answered. John let the corners of his mouth curl up.
"Well, maybe you'll get lucky," John said with a beatific smile.
Smoke drifted into Paul's right eye. He blinked fast as if fighting tears. He wanted to hear John promise, but he knew that was impossible to ask for.
They didn't linger much longer in the council house. Paul followed John out of the window and through the untended backyards until they reached Beacon Street again. There in the filter of the streetlamps, John touched his knuckles to Paul's jawline, the least effectual punch in the history of combat, and grinned like a rake before saying good night and walking away.
Paul stood on the pavement, in the dim, waiting to see if John would look back.
Of course, John did not.
John didn't show up the next day.
Paul whiled away the morning and afternoon trying to write a song. He didn't have much luck, treacherously distracted by recent history and his pie-in-the-sky dreams of the future. Every melody in his head was someone else's; everything had been done before.
He left the house before his father came home from work, not wanting to get into an argument about things that were or were not music, and friends who were or were not bad influences on a person. Guitar on his back, feeling like the greatest hero the world had ever known, Paul bicycled over to Stuart's house. Excitement ran hot and fast under his skin, wondering what John might ask him to do this time.
But John wasn't there. Stuart told Paul that John had been staying at his mother's place in Blomfield Road as a bridge to making an unsteady truce with his aunt. The whole thing was largely predicated on John's disregard for feeding himself properly since he'd been staying at Stuart's. What little money John had went to guitar strings and India ink and beer and cigarettes, until he'd been living on tea and toast for a week and his collarbones stood out in relief. His mother would baby him for a week or two and then it would be back to Aunt Mimi's and the standard grind.
Stuart said, "He doesn't like you following him around, you know."
Paul sneered, righteous and sincere. "You don't know what you're on about."
Stuart shrugged. He had paint on his face, just a few fingerprint smudges on his jaw, on the side of his nose. He looked stupid, Paul thought insistently.
"Believe what you like, laddie," Stuart said in that particular Scottish burr that he affected from time to time. "And hit the road, there's a girl coming over."
Paul was hustled out, dismissed. He cadged a cigarette off Stuart before the door slammed, and paced a slow circle around his bike as he smoked it. He half-heartedly considered just going home, giving up on it, resigning himself to dinner with his father and his brother and the empty chair, but it was never serious. There was never any real doubt as to where he would go next.
Blomfield Road was a long ride, and Paul's shirt was sweat-stuck to his back by the time he got there, hair itching high on his forehead. John's mother's house was shuttered, mewed up. Paul flicked stones at the windows, but there was nothing, no one.
Paul sat on the kerb and waited for two hours. People and dogs and cars passed him by as the sun sank behind the buildings. Paul sang to himself under his breath. He played his knees like ivory or catgut.
No one came, and eventually he went home, baffled and scared in an increasing way that was like an army's steady approach, a German bomb falling in slow-motion.
That night, Paul left his bedroom window open and he slept in his trousers, or anyway he lay there in his trousers staring at the ceiling until morning. John didn't turn up, and by dawn Paul felt beaten up, left for dead, sick with exhaustion and doubt and worse things.
George called before the morning report was off the radio, wanting to go to the record shop in Whitechapel. Paul put him off, not up to daylight and simple conversation right now. He rang off and picked up his guitar but it felt fragile and unwieldy in his hands, so he set it back down.
Stupid, Paul thought, and then again, like he could shock himself awake: stupid. It had become the leitmotif of his life.
His brother came home from playing footie, bringing two of his friends and filling their little house with the sour smell of dried sweat, the too-loud cracking laughter of boys. Paul escaped out the back door into the alley, not in the mood for any of it.
He was on foot, and he didn't know where to go. Blomfield Road was too far, and he had no good reason to go over there again. John would find him when John wanted to.
Paul walked down near the river. He sat in the back of a café, close enough to the jukebox that he could rest his head on it if he leaned back just a bit. He made a cup of tea last for two hours, sipping away a millimeter every five minutes. He was run out of the place eventually, when the docks let off for lunch and the place flooded with heavy-armed men who smelled like seaweed.
At odds, Paul wandered back towards the art college and found himself in Stuart's neighbourhood again. Paul stood on the pavement debating his options for a minute, the milky sun heavy on the back of his neck.
Before he could resign himself to going upstairs and making a fool of himself again, Stuart emerged. The door slamming shut behind him made Paul jump.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Stuart asked. There was something like crushed glass in his tone.
Paul braced himself unconsciously. "I, I was just nearby. I was wondering if John was around."
Stuart's face warped. He looked faintly sick. "Jesus, leave him alone, I've told you."
"You don't get to tell me anything," Paul said sharply, suddenly so tired of Stuart Sutcliffe he could scream. "And John doesn't need you picking his friends for him."
"Shut your mouth, Paul, you don't know," Stuart said, and his voice cracked, his hands clenched in fists.
Paul blinked at him, registering the furious colour on Stuart's face, the wheeling look of frustrated misery in his eyes.
"What?" Paul asked. "What happened?"
Stuart shook his head and looked away. Paul stared at the side of his face, the pale scatter of freckles and the finely drawn shape of his nose. There was a cold dense feeling gathering in Paul's stomach like a cloud full of icy rain.
"His mum," Stuart said, and he choked a little bit. "She was killed in the road yesterday."
No, Paul thought at once, it was cancer. He was impossibly confused for a moment before shock jerked through him, swelled his eyes. He lifted his hand and then let it fall.
"Have you lost your fucking hearing?" Stuart spat. "John's mother is dead. He doesn't want you hanging about. You can't do anything for him."
Paul took a shaky step backwards. Stuart was distraught, doing a poor job hiding it behind bluster and attack. His eyebrows were bent in a particularly helpless manner, his mouth noticeably weak. It frightened Paul worse than anger could have done--he couldn't imagine what John might look like at this moment.
A tar-coloured bird zipped past in Paul's peripheral vision, drawing his attention for an infinitesimal second. He exhaled a breath that tasted like dust, like a million years had passed since he'd breathed in.
"Mine too," Paul said, witless and incoherent.
"What, your what?" Stuart demanded, furious at all the things he couldn't do.
"My mum," and Paul's heart contracted, squeezed in on itself. He gasped silently, looking down at the pavement and blinking fast.
Stuart stared at him for a long moment, and then shook his head again. When he spoke, he'd lost most of his impotent fury, replaced by something as dull and colourless as grief.
"I'm sorry about that. It doesn't change anything, though."
"No," Paul said in agreement. He couldn't say why he had brought it up. The shock, most likely. The bone-deep shift of the world beneath their feet.
The two of them stood there in silence for a moment, in the wind and kindly sunshine of the day. They weren't looking at each other, fascinated by that ever-obscured vision of the middle distance.
"Is he all right?" Paul asked.
Stuart shot him an aggravated look. "Don't ask stupid questions, mate."
"No, I mean, I, uh," and Paul trailed off. He didn't really know what he meant. "Was he there?"
"No, thank God. He saw her a little while before it happened. She won a little dosh playing bridge and so she bought him a record at the shop. Little Richard, you know how he's always on about Little Richard."
Paul said, "Yeah," and then nothing else because Little Richard with his sculptured hair and his gemful rings and his giddy howl of a voice didn't fit in this conversation at all.
Silence again, and then Stuart said, "Give him a week or two. He--he's not himself."
Paul nodded by rote, thinking that that was right, that was what it was like. John wasn't himself; he wouldn't be. Two years ago Paul had been a boy with a mother, as John had been three days ago, as they never would be again. It was an intractable fact.
Stuart sniffed, digging his hands into his pockets and pulling his shoulders up as if facing a devil wind. He shot Paul glances that felt like scalpel cuts.
"I'm meeting somebody," Stuart said, jerking his head in the general direction of the college. "I'll--I'll see ya, all right?"
Another dumb nod. Even simple things were beyond Paul, even goodbye. Stuart tossed him one last probing look over his shoulder as he walked away. Paul raised his hand as if Stuart were going off to sea. He felt like a manikin, going through the motions with stiff wooden arms, no properly beating heart.
Paul began walking. He didn't let himself head for John's house and he didn't let himself head for his own. That was self-preservation, mostly. Everywhere else in this city was his to travel as he wished.
A week or two, Stuart had said, and of course Stuart was right, but that didn't stop Paul from showing up at the funeral.
Paul wasn't thinking things through. He wasn't sleeping and food didn't taste like much, all his senses rubbed raw. It wasn't exactly similar to what he'd gone through when his own mother died--he was no longer obliged to shut himself up in the loo three times a day and chew on his knuckles until he didn't feel like crying anymore, thank God--but it was near enough to make sick memory creep under his skin.
The idea had become stuck in his head that seeing John would fix some part of it. Paul didn't bother investigating his own logic; he was aware that it would prove sorely lacking.
He told his father he was going over to George's house (his dad liked George very much: "That lad will make something of himself one of these days" was a common refrain), and waited until he was on the coach before pulling on his good black jacket with the frayed seam at the shoulder. It was the same jacket he'd worn to his own mother's funeral, and now the prominent bones of his wrists showed at the ends of the sleeves.
Paul slipped into the back of the church. The place was less than half full, everyone gathered in the pews up front, an array of dark-clothed backs and shoulders. Paul recognised John by the back of his head, the particular tension with which he held himself. John was sitting beside his Aunt Mimi, whose greying head was bowed, making her look as small as a child.
Paul took a seat in an empty pew, fastening his hand on the smooth polished wood as if it were a ladder rung. He stared at the back of John's head because he didn't want to look at the plain casket at the front of the church, the weak spray of flowers, the priest with his inch-thick glasses and palsied fingers. Paul knew how this went, the formality of it, the futility. The grand sober spectacle of death playing out before its captive audience.
As the priest began to speak, John folded over into his aunt, collapsing with one hand hiding his face. He was trying not to cry and it wouldn't work, Paul knew. He dragged his eyes away from John. It wasn't the kind of moment you wanted other people to see.
Of all the things Paul had never expected to live through again, here he was at another mother's funeral. He tugged at the sleeves of his jacket, wondering what was wrong with him. There was a pit opened up in his stomach.
The sparse congregation murmured, "Amen," and rustled to their feet, began filing out. Paul was stuck in place, his hand locked on the pew in front of him.
John had his arm around Mimi's shoulders, the two of them staggering together. His eyes were swollen, dark-circled like he hadn't slept once in the five days since Paul last saw him. John looked faded, as if his blood had been diluted with water.
Paul watched the macabre procession coming up the aisle, saw the moment when John lifted his head and caught sight of him. Something flashed on John's face, more than recognition but less than whatever Paul had been hoping for--Paul didn't even know what that was.
John's jaw tightened, cloudy-eyed, and he tipped his chin at Paul. Paul tore his gaze away, an obstruction filling his throat. He shouldn't have come. It suddenly seemed overwhelmingly obvious that he never should have come.
Paul left in the opposite direction as the funeral crowd that broke up into separate cars and headed for the cemetery. He stripped off his jacket as soon as he was a block away, and ran back to his side of town with it flying behind his hand like a winged black flag.
After that, Paul managed to pull himself under some semblance of control. He stayed away from John because he didn't know what to say to him in regular everyday conversation, much less in the two weeks directly following his mother's accidental death. He kept Stuart's voice on a loop in his head, telling him, you can't do anything for him, and that was true--nobody knew better than Paul that that was true. There was nothing to do.
So Paul stayed away. Sometimes he imagined John's voice singing melody behind his when he was working out a new song, and sometimes he had hot suffocating dreams, but physically, at least, he stayed away.
He and George went to the condemned council house with their guitars knocking against their backs. They passed an hour in companionable non-silence, their fingers trilling on the strings, and then George said:
"Are we still a band?"
Paul's hands came to a screeching halt. He looked at George, feeling caught out.
"Of course, course we are."
George gave him a searching look. "Have you spoken to John?"
"No," Paul confessed. George blew out a breath.
"Then how are we still a band?"
Paul turned swiftly on the defensive. "What's all this 'we'? You were never in the band."
George went quiet for a moment, his eyebrows hunching into a scowl. A prickling feeling of guilt ran through Paul, but he pushed it aside.
"What if we had a new band?" George asked eventually. He punctuated it, stinging his hand on his guitar. "If John won't play-"
"John will play," Paul said. It immediately became the foundation of the world. "He just needs some time."
George nodded, but he was glaring at the weak floorboards, strangling his guitar. He played an aborted chord, the corner of his lip sucked into his mouth.
"How much time, do you think?" George asked, and something in it made Paul's blood run hot.
"I don't care how much. It's his band. It'll bloody well be here when he gets back."
Surprised, not anticipating such vehemence, George nodded again, ducking his head. Paul let out a breath that burned in his lungs, and rubbed his fingers on the strings. He felt helpless and useless and angry at everything, but that was just the moment, just this black span of days.
"Here," Paul said, and picked out the beginning of 'Ain't That A Shame.' George came in on the second bar, and they played clatteringly loud, racing each other.
Paul was sitting in roughly the same place where he had gotten on his knees for John two weeks before. The floor was familiar beneath him, accusatory, old splinters in his kneecaps. Paul thought about John's mouth on his, John's hands curving around the back of his head. He shoved it aside. He reminded himself that that didn't matter, none of that stuff mattered. They couldn't repair each other's losses; it didn't work that way.
If there was something Paul could save, it was the band.
It was almost a month after the funeral before Paul saw John again.
It was in the Cavern Club, subterranean and overflowing that night , black leather and the tweed jackets some of the skiffle bands had been sporting recently. The floor was sticky with beer and sweat, girls in the corners trying to keep their hair up with pins and prayer. The band onstage was some corrupted jazz affair with a stand-up bass, cheap shiny suits.
Paul was with George and a few other friends. They were in the back by the bar, shouting to be heard, breathing out smoke and roguish laughter. Paul was drunk.
Drunk was good, because when he was drunk he wasn't fully responsible for the things he thought or said. It had been a hard few weeks.
George was leaning on his shoulder as Paul slumped over the table, propped up on an elbow with his fist chocked under his chin. Paul was trying to recount the plot of a cowboy picture he'd seen a few days before. There had been brothers and vengeance and mysterious strangers, and it was all a sand-coloured blur in his mind now.
Then from onstage: "All right, you bloody sots, here's some real music," and a rock and roll scream that caught feedback from the speakers and flooded static through the club.
Paul jerked up, dislodging George and almost spilling his beer. It was John, up there onstage with his teeth on the microphone. He was singing 'Don't Be Cruel,' too loud and fast, far beyond his natural range. Falling down drunk, John clung to the microphone stand like the last handhold of a crumbling cliff.
"Is that John?" George asked, and Paul didn't even acknowledge it. His attention was wholly occupied.
John got through half a verse before the proper lead singer demanded the microphone back. John wrapped his arms around the stand, danced away. He laughed at the lead singer, his mouth sneered.
Paul stood up, shoving his chair back into the wall. George said, "What?" piping over the ruckus, but Paul was already shouldering through the tight-packed people.
Onstage, the lead singer took a swing at John. John's face split in a mad grin, rushing to swing back. The rest of the band dived in and it became a scrum with John somewhere at the bottom. The crowd roared, whether in approval or dismay Paul could not tell. A girl shrieked directly into his ear as he was making his way through, a brief throbbing spike of pain.
Paul jumped onstage, yanked the drummer back and then the bassist. Someone served him with an elbow to the jaw, his teeth snapping down on his tongue, and now he could taste blood. John was on his knees, protecting his head with one arm and still flailing with the other, still with that terrible grin on his face. He wasn't wearing his specs and like this he might as well have been blind.
Paul grabbed fistfuls of his shirt and hauled him out. He shouted at the homicidal band, "I'm taking him, he's going, get away," and they let John go, cursing him and spitting on his trousers. John kicked and twisted, fighting to get free but too disoriented to break Paul's hold. John's nose was bleeding, and his mouth.
Somehow, Paul managed to get John through the crowd and up the shoe-blackened stairs to the cleaner air of the street. John was muttering, wrenching backwards to scream new obscenities as they occurred to him. Paul wasn't sure if John knew who it was who had rescued him from the stage. He wasn't sure if John would care.
Outside, it was easier to think, quiet and cool. Paul propped John up against the wall and tipped his face into the light to see the damage.
John jerked his chin away. "Don' touch me."
Paul froze, then pressed his lips together and shuffled back half a step. "They got you pretty good."
"They didnae get me," John said, slurry. "They tried, and that's not the same thing."
He swiped the back of his hand across his mouth and blinked down at the streak of blood as if confounded. Paul could see how John's lower lip was beginning to swell. John's hand was shaking as he let it fall.
"John," Paul said, and it crashed between them like a plane shot out of the sky.
John brought his face up, his eyes shining and the blood darkening. He pressed back against the wall at his back, as if cornered. It was discordant, John with all his bluster and bravado and here he was cowering, hunted down by heartbreak and sorrow. It made Paul sick to see.
"Oi, Paul," and that was George, George emerging from the Cavern with his sharp-featured face and his scrappy voice. Paul jerked away from John, flushing even though he hadn't been doing anything.
"It's okay, mate," Paul said, barely sparing him a glance.
George hovered, uncertainty writ large and young on his face. He stared at John with morbid fascination.
"All right, John?" George asked in a poor attempt to sound normal.
A hideous false grin stretched on John's face, his teeth bloody. "Aye, wonderful. What joy we find in life, what glory. What love."
Paul shot George a frustrated glance. "He's all right, just let me--just give us a minute, yeah?"
George nodded, his dark eyes very wide, and slipped back into the Cavern, checking on them over his shoulder as he went. Paul watched him go, wishing he could follow, leave John here in the street and never worry about him again, but he was not built for that kind of thing.
A moment of silence passed between them. A few streets away, a dog howled, plaintive and haunting. John studied Paul from behind his half-lidded eyes, his beaten face. Paul withstood his scrutiny like a shower of pins.
"You were there," John said, hoarse from all the screaming. "At the funeral, you, what were you doing there?"
It was a fair question, albeit one with no good answer. Paul swallowed, his eyes dipping to the flushed edge of John's throat.
"I wanted to pay my respects," Paul said, and it sounded dull and tinny to his own ears.
John's eyes flashed, some bit of his own come back to him. "You didn't know her, hardly even fucking met her."
"But she's. She was your, your--she taught you how to play the guitar."
That wasn't quite right; there was so much more to it than that. Paul knew it as he was saying it, confirmed by the way John's expression flinched. Paul wished he could put his hand on John's shoulder, maybe thumb away the smear of blood under his lip, but John had told him not to, and anyway, it wouldn't help.
"She was important," Paul finished lamely, his voice fading to a whisper.
John's face contracted, a shuttered kind of agony so terribly familiar to Paul that it felt almost nostalgic. John's throat ducked as he swallowed, and turned his eyes up to cold-glowing streetlamp and the ashy smudge of a yellow moon far above. Paul stared at the revealed line of John's throat for a moment, and then he snapped back, and pushed that forcibly aside. He kept telling himself, everything is different now.
Without taking his eyes from the sky, John said, "Stuart said--he said you know what it's like."
It wasn't a question, but Paul said, "Yes. I. Yes," as slight fractures began spreading their branches in his chest.
John swallowed again. "Does it always feel like this? Will it?"
"Yes," Paul said like his own echo, and then, "You become accustomed. Eventually."
Paul stopped talking. His throat was thick and he wasn't getting anything right.
John was shaking against the wall, subtle tremors under the skin. He lifted a hand to his temple. His eyes screwed shut.
"I don't-" John cut himself off. He drew in a ragged breath. "I don't know what I'm supposed to do now."
Paul shook his head, feeling godawful. "No one ever does."
"I, I," and John trailed off, a small choked sound. Paul couldn't stand seeing him like this.
"Steady on," Paul said. He reached out and set a tentative hand on John's shoulder. "We should go home."
"Home." John laughed like a sneer, humourless and wearied. He leaned into Paul's hand ever so slightly. "If you can find it, it's yours."
He was drunk, Paul reminded himself. They were both drunk, not culpable for any of this. The night had closed in around them, soft-sided and treacherous. The black solidity of the buildings and the streets made Paul feel slightly less than real, a hollow spectre drifting through the world and leaving no mark behind.
Paul took John home. Coming in through the front door, John stumbled and knocked over the little table for the post. Paul caught him around the shoulders, kept him upright, but the clatter brought Paul's father out of his bedroom and down the hall, pyjamaed and sour-faced, squinting through his silver-rimmed spectacles.
"What's all this, Paul?" his father asked as he turned on the light, a standard tone of disapproval in it. "Who've you got there?"
Caught, flush-faced, Paul twisted his hand in John's shirt. "It's John, Da."
His father came closer, his eyes narrow. Paul kept John tugged close to him. Jim got a look at John and his expression changed abruptly, opened up with fatherly concern.
"What happened to your face?" Jim asked.
John's eyes were fixed on the floor, his body tensely filling the space. "Just a fight," he said, sounding almost ashamed. "Doesn't even hurt."
Jim huffed, disbelieving, and told John to sit down in a tone that brooked no argument. Paul sank down onto the sofa next to his friend, listening to his father running the tap in the kitchen, staring at where his and John's knees were pressed together.
The black and white faces in family photographs watched them from the wall. Paul's father brought a wet rag and handed it to John, who began cleaning his face awkwardly, hunching forward. Paul watched his father watching John, grief like an empty reflection, a dark mirror.
When John's face was clean, he twisted the rag between his hands. Jim glanced at Paul, and Paul widened his eyes to show himself totally lost. He wanted his father to fix it.
Jim only sighed. "I heard about your mother," he said to John, and didn't say I'm sorry because all three of them knew exactly how much good that would do. "You'll stay here tonight."
John looked up, guarded. His leg tensed against Paul's, knuckles white on the pinkish rag. "I'm all right."
"No one said you weren't." Jim took the rag out of John's hand and efficiently swiped a stray spot of blood off his cheek. "You're staying. Paul, fetch him a blanket."
Paul obeyed thoughtlessly. He went back to his bedroom where Mike was slack and open-mouthed in sleep, pulled a blanket down from the closet and clutched it to his chest, stood there for a moment in the middle of the lightless room. He was shaken, stunned, locked on the image of his father cleaning the last bit of blood off John's face, the wounded colour in John's eyes.
When he came back to the front room, John and his father were sharing a silence that was at once wary and companionable. Jim was in his favourite chair, his hand looking odd without a cigarette smouldering. Paul hesitated, disconcerted by the visual of his father in pale blue pyjamas and John in battered grey tweed and denim. He sat down beside John again, and passed the blanket to him without a word.
"All right, lads," Jim sighed and hefted himself up out of the chair. He gave Paul a look of incipient remonstration. "Tomorrow you and I are going to have an abrupt chat about going to the pub when you're supposed to be at George's house."
Paul ducked his head, and said nothing.
"Get some sleep, the both of you," and then Jim said to John, "Keep that chin up, son," and went back to bed. The house creaked and settled behind him.
John and Paul sat side by side without speaking for a long moment. Paul stared at John's hands out of the corner of his eye, remembering them smooth and clever and now they were scuffed, rust-coloured scabs and bruises. A fighter's hands now, an artist no longer.
"So that's what it takes to make him like me," John said, his tone so low it could only have been heard in an empty room, in the middle of the night.
"Everybody likes you," Paul answered. It was supposed to be a joke, he was pretty sure. It landed awkwardly, a bird with a missing leg.
A slow side-eye was John's first response. He touched his lip carefully, feeling the swell of it, the asymmetry of the split.
"Some more than others, eh?" John said.
Paul tried out half a smile. "I suppose."
"You suppose." John sounded strange, wooden and quiet.
"No, I, I know," Paul said, trying to get it right, and he shifted closer, raised his hand to touch John's face like he'd been dying to all night, his heartbeat kicking into his mouth.
John flinched away. His shoulder rolled up as a shield. Paul froze, and then snatched his hand back, mortification rushing through him.
"Sorry," he said, breathless with shame, and John shook his head fast, his face wracked.
"Don't say that," John said unevenly.
Paul bit his tongue. He stared at John, keeping very still with his hands clutched on his own knees. John looked back, mouth twisted in despair. They were quiet, listening to the house murmur to itself.
"It's something gone wrong with me, Paulie," John told him, sad and insistently drunk. "Nothing is the same."
Paul caught his breath, caught himself leaning towards John without thinking. He dug his hand into the sofa cushion, willing his mind to calm.
"Some things are," Paul managed.
John shook his head, staring fixedly at the space between his shoes. The dip of his throat betrayed a painful swallow.
"Let me get some sleep," John said, dead-sounding and exhausted.
Paul didn't want to go, but John's eyes fairly pleaded at him, and he found himself on his feet. John looked suddenly vulnerable from this angle, the pale nape of his neck showing above his collar. Paul wanted to put his hand there, hide that brief stretch of skin from every other prying eye. It was another one of those impossible wishes of his, another thing he had to pick up and cast aside.
John lay back, covering his face with his arm. Paul looked at him nakedly for a moment, then whispered, "Goodnight," and turned off the lamp as he left the room.
In the morning, Paul awoke to his little brother singing to himself in the mirror as he combed his hair. Mike was cheerfully out of key, mumbling nonsense whenever he forgot a lyric, which was often. Paul fished a shoe off the floor and pegged it into his back, making him squawk and drop the comb.
"Learn the words, at least," Paul said, dragging a hand across his yawn. "You're butchering it."
Mike turned, ferocious glare etched on his face. "Oi, when I want your advice, I'll ask for it. And don't throw things at me, you great buggering prat."
"Come off it, Mikey, it's too early."
"So says you, the laziest wanker on this side of the river. Some of us have been up for hours."
Paul smothered himself with his pillow for a moment, his body moving grudgingly towards full awareness. He had been having lovely dreams, and reality felt like a horrible cheat just now.
"There are two eggs left," Mike said. "Also your mate John is still here."
The information sizzled through Paul's brain. The night before washed over him, imperfect in its details but all the crucial elements were there: John storming the stage at the Cavern, bloody and shaking in the street, sitting stiffly on the sofa cleaning his face with a damp bit of cloth, John pulling away from Paul's raised hand.
Nothing is the same, John echoed in his mind, and Paul shoved himself out of bed, not wanting to listen.
He splashed some water on his face, brushed the dead-thing taste out of his mouth, and put on old trousers and a fresh shirt. Low-level anxiety kept him warm and moving quickly, slicking his hair back with wet hands instead of combing it properly.
John was at the kitchen table when Paul emerged, slouched in the chair as if he had grown up there, a piece of toast with jam half-eaten in his hand. His shirt was untucked and wrinkled beyond quick repair, his hair a smashed wreck on his head. He looked at Paul, his eyes heavy-lidded and unreadable.
"I've eaten your eggs," John reported.
"All right," Paul said, opting for the path of least resistance. He took the seat across from John, covertly studying him.
John tapped a spoon on the table, keeping a small rhythm. He looked different in the light of day than he'd done in the shadows of the alley or the midnight lamp glow of the front room. He seemed older, a misplaced decade carved into the lines of his face. He seemed only half there.
Paul fixed himself a bit of toast with margarine and jam. He stuffed his mouth because he couldn't think of anything to say. John gazed out the window, his lower lip swollen and lopsided.
The feeling in the room was odd, doubtful and electric. Paul looked at John's hands, the steep line of his neck. He wondered if John would ever touch him again, and the thought was distant, almost rhetorical.
There was a knock at the door. Paul startled, rattling the silverware, and John gave him a faint mocking smirk. Paul kicked him under the table, and rose to answer the door.
It was George with his hands in his pockets, the wind blowing his hair hard to the side. He had his guitar on his back, the strap cutting a neat diagonal cross across his chest. He tipped his chin at Paul.
"Hullo," George said.
Paul leaned on the jamb. "Bit early, innit?"
George shrugged. "Never too early for rock and roll."
"He's right, you know," John said, coming up behind Paul. "Any time is the right time."
A fast smile took over George's face. "Hey, John. Long time, mate."
John pulled George into the house, turning him to get a look at the guitar on his back. George stood for the inspection, blinking at Paul.
"New one, eh?" John said, running his hands over the planished wood. "Let me give it a go."
George unslung the guitar and gave it to John. They settled in the front room, John folding himself onto the sofa where he'd spent the night. Paul fetched his own guitar from his room, followed the eking music back down the hall. John and George were huddled together, humming up and down and over each other, trying to work out a Bo Diddley song.
Paul sat down in his father's chair. His guitar covered him. He watched his friends, an alien sense of calm sinking through him.
"No, it goes like this," John said, and his fingers rang against the strings. "It's not so sweet as that."
George nodded, watching John's hands intensely.
"It's the rough edge," John continued, his face opening up as Paul watched, slow and lovely. "That scrape, the way you can feel it. And it follows you. It sticks."
John's fingers trilled and danced and sang. His grief and anger seeped away, a subtle kind of contentment smoothing the plane of his forehead. Paul's vision sparkled, gave John a halo of stars, and after a moment he realised it was because he'd been holding his breath.
"It's just like this," John murmured, and then looked up, caught Paul's eye.
Paul smiled at him, helpless. John's mouth curved, and he tipped his head to the side. He mugged at Paul, pushing out his lower teeth and bugging his eyes, stupid boyish face to make Paul laugh silently, to make genuine affection curl like a wisp of smoke in his chest. A wedding picture of his parents watched benevolently from the wall, and Paul thought that he'd been right, after all.
Some things were still the same. There was still family in this house. There were all different kinds of love in the world.
"Come on, are you in this band or not?" John asked, once again rakish and cocky, the beating heart of the world.
It was one of those very specific moments. Sunlight poured through the front window, cast rays of silver and gold across John's hands moving on the guitar strings. Paul took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and began to sing.