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In The Bleak Midwinter

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The coldest winter in Britain since decades, they said on the radio. Ringo believed it without the shadow of a doubt, and he was old enough to renember the war, barely. It was so cold that you never stopped wearing your clothes, not even in bed and with a warm water bottle next to you. Not even for birds, and they returned the favour, wearing woolen stockings instead of nylons and refusing to get rid of them. In short, it was a winter anyone sane spent at home next to a functioning radiator or an open fire. Not on the road in an unheated bus. Which was exactly where he was. If his nose turned into ice during the next few minutes, he wouldn't have been surprised.

He had been wondering whether or not he did the right thing, leaving Rory and joining the Beatles for a while now. It had looked like a good deal at the time. Maybe they were kids, next to Rory and the Hurricanes, but as of the summer of 1962, they were kids with a record contract and an option for more if it all worked out, which was more than the Hurricanes had ever managed. They'd jammed often enough in Hamburg for Ringo to know that he could work with them. And they were fun to be with, so why not? If the record flopped, well, all he'd have lost would be his sideburns and the beard, and they'd be growing back soon enough.

He hadn't counted on his pride getting shorn off right away, though. It had been so humiliating, going to London, ready to rock, only to be told that the posh fellow in charge of the record studio had already hired a session drummer and couldn't be swayed. The song they recorded, that magical record they had the contract for, reached a respectable number 17 in the charts by the time it was Christmas. Which wasn't bad for a Northern group, not bad at all, but it was hard to enjoy when not a single note on that record was played by Ringo.

Then there was the realisation that hanging out with the lads in Hamburg and actually belonging to the group were two very different things. He'd thought he knew them pretty well, but as it turned out he'd barely scratched the surface. It was like learning a new language, and Ringo had never been that good in school. Early on, they'd been very impressed by the fact he owned a car. None of them did. So it had seemed natural to offer a ride, and when John asked to drive, Ringo had thought nothing of it. Not until Paul yelled at him whether he was insane, and George, white-faced, explained that you never, ever let John Lennon behind a wheel. It hadn't taken long to find out why, though the demonstration could have killed John. Who was blind as a bat, unwilling to wear his glasses and of course utterly without a driver's license.

Playing together was fun, granted, even more than his occasional guest stints had been. And their manager had gotten them as the opening act on Little Richard's tour in autumn, which was just plain cool, right until the point where the one and only Little Richard had asked Ringo to suck his cock. There was only so much one was willing to do for one's idol. At least that was what Ringo had thought, and had expected sympathy. Instead, the whole incident had served as the trigger for one of those conversations where he felt he needed a translator.

"Should have gone for it, mate," George had said, and with his deadpan expression it was impossible to tell whether he was joking.

"Paul would've," John had said, with that glitter in his eyes and the edge in his voice that Ringo had observed on stage when John was full of pills and insulting the audience a joke a minute, but John was stone cold sober now, and staring at Paul with an unmistakable challenge. "Anything to become a star. Make a star come. Bet you wish he asked you instead of Rings here, don't you?"

That was nasty enough to sound like the start of a serious argument, and Ringo had tensed. He hated arguments, always had done, especially between people he liked. But Paul had simply smiled placidly.

"How's Cyn then, John?"

Which had nothing to do with anything, except that John then muttered "fuck you" as if it had.

"We'll get the album," Paul said, suddenly sounding utterly serious. "Don't worry. We will."

They stared at each other, and then John shrugged. "We'd better."

They were due on stage again then, and John pointedly left off his tie, despite the fact Brian Epstein had insisted they were to wear it during performance. Paul saw it just as Ringo did, went to John, tie in hand, pushed him against the wall and started to put the tie around John's neck.

"You would've," John hissed, but he didn't just hold still without any physical resistance, he moved his head slightly to the side at one point as if to give Paul better access. At the next break, Ringo asked George what the hell all of that had been about.

"John's still mad that Paul is siding with Brian about the suits," George said. "He thinks we're selling out."

"And do you think...?"

George shrugged. "The leather was getting old."

Which hadn't been what Ringo had wanted to ask. He himself hadn't had a problem with wearing collarless suits instead of the leather gear the Beatles had been sporting before he joined, especially not since Brian Epstein paid for said suits. And Brian was the one who got them bookings this way, at an impressive rate. Ringo was an old hand at touring, but Rory Storm and the Hurricanes had never made it to the Smoke, London, dazzling, heartbreaking London of the record studios, they hadn't shared billing with Little Richard, nor with Helen Shapiro, either, which was Brian's latest masterstroke, the reward for their second single being recorded, and a preparation for that album George "This is Andy White, boys, he'll do the drumming today" Martin had promised he'd produce with them. So Brian obviously had an instinct for what worked, and Ringo could understand Paul siding with him. He didn't think this explained the rest of that very odd conversation, though.

"And what was that with Cyn?"

This time, George hesitated, as if weighing his options. Then he said, not looking at Ringo but in the mirror of their tiny wardrobe: "John doesn't really like being married, you know. He hates it. He thinks it's like walking around with your fly open."

This was news to Ringo. He didn't know John's wife Cynthia very well, but she'd been John's girlfriend through all the Hamburg years, and it wasn't as if John had been lacking in other options then. Why would he have kept Cynthia around all this time before she got pregnant if not for love? And once the baby was on the way, well, you did what you had to do. Still, if John really was that resentful of the marriage, then Paul's seemingly harmless inquiry had not been harmless at all, but a blow to equal John's whore-for-fame slur, all presented with a pleasant face and in a way outsiders wouldn't get it. Ringo had previously assumed Paul to be the most easy-going of the group. He wondered what else he'd been missing in the Hamburg days. Then he remembered John holding still while Paul put that tie on him, and decided this was getting too complicated for him to dwell on.

"Hey, George, you don't really think I should've given Little Richard a blow job, do you?"

"Nah. Not your instrument, the horn" George said wrily. "You and I aren't the screamers around here, Rings."

It had been warm that night, a golden autumn following a really hot summer, but now that they were touring with Helen Shapiro instead of Little Richard, winter had come with a vengeance. They were fourth on a bill that held six acts, and Helen was the star of the show, tiny Helen who made even Ringo feel tall but had the lungs of a sailor, Britain's teenage sweetheart.

"The Queen of Mush", John said, but he also admitted he was impressed by the power she commanded. Not for Helen the tour bus; she had her own car, which supposedly actually had a heating system that worked. That wasn't the only reason why all four of them, unsuccessfully, tried to pull her, but it was one.

"Better hotel rooms, too," Paul said wistfully. "Maybe we should offer her a song?"

"I am not writing mush for Helen Shapiro with you," John said. "We're a rock band, Macca."

The song writing was something else Ringo only witnessed now and never had back in Hamburg. One of them, John or Paul, would catch the other's eye and then they'd sit in the back of the bus, guitars out and hands bare despite the cold, playing odd chords, communicating with half phrases that didn't really make sense, and two hours later, when it was time to leave the bus for yet another arctic cinema or dance hall to perform in, there'd be a song. To Ringo, it was a bit like magic. He'd never known people who composed music and had always imagined whoever was responsible for those Elvis tunes which changed his life to be like some dignified posh person on a piano, a bit like George Martin, truth be told. Not as two boys from home, both younger than he was.

They didn't mind being observed, but Ringo discovered they did mind being interrupted. Once Kenny Lynch, the act before them on the programme, sat down next to Ringo to watch and then offered some unsolicited comments. "Fuck off," John said distractedly, not even giving him a glance, and Paul who was busy scribling in what looked like one of the notebooks Ringo remembered from school didn't even seem to notice Kenny had been there at all and made no effort to apologize for John, in marked contrast to his usual behaviour when John pissed people off.

Later, when they all shared some booze before going on stage, Ringo asked whether they didn't already have enough songs for the fabled album, if they were ever allowed to record it.

"Sure we do," Paul said. "But what about the next one?"

"What if there isn't a next one?" George interjected suddenly. "What if it's a flop?"

There was something in his voice that was either fear or aggression or both, and it was directed at Paul. "We could fail, you know. What if nobody wants your songs?"

"They're my songs, too, infant, and you better believe they're genius," John said. "Good point, though. The world is full of idiots. What if we never get more than number 17 and the monkey suits, Paul? Back to making dad happy? Think they'll still let you back in school?" He turned to Ringo and started doing a Marlon Brando parody. Ringo, who loved films, knew the right one at once: Brando in "On the Waterfront". "Paul coulda have been someone," John declamed in a really bad American accent. "He coulda've been a con-tenda!" Then he dropped the accent and said in his normal voice, not mocking at all, but serious and surprisingly sad: "A teacher or a doctor. I ruined his life, you know."

Maybe it was Ringo's ears that were frozen by now, and he was wrong about the sadness. Maybe it was just another Lennon taunt. You couldn't tell from Paul's reaction. There was a long silent look that made Ringo realise Paul's eyes that the birds went wild over were slightly uneven, which you only noticed when he didn't move, smile or talk. Then he started to sing, an old song from the Del Vikings, Come Go With Me, only he sang it with the wrong lines. "Down, down, down," Paul sang, "to the penitentiary."

Ringo was surprised; this kind of spontanous wordplay was more John's style, and besides, Paul had a fiendish memory for song lyrics and melodies. He never seemed to get them wrong. In any event, that Del Vikings verse with the wrong lyrics for some reason made John grin, a smile that transformed his entire face and made it look like a mischieveous boy's who just received an unexpected present.

"You're such a sap," he said, sounding utterly delighted, and while Ringo wondered whether or not to ask George for a translation later, George harrumphed.

"If we never get anywhere," he insisted.

"Then John and I write songs for Helen Shapiro," Paul said, and they all laughed, George included. But Ringo wasn't completely sure Paul had been joking. Later, when Paul had organized some unfrozen water to take to clean his teeth with because he was a toothbrush fiend, Ringo, who shared rooms with him if they even got rooms instead of another night in the tour bus, took the opportunity for an ambush and asked point blank.

"Did you really want to become a teacher or a doctor?"

"My Mum wanted me to," Paul said. "She was a midwife and a nurse."

"I hate hospitals," Ringo said before he could stop himself, but it was true, he did. He had spent years of his childhood in them.

"Me too," Paul said. "I never want to see one again. So that worked out well."

He said it very quickly and with a vicious bitterness that was completely at odds with his usual cheerful demeanour. It occured to Ringo that he had only seen Paul's father during those lunchbreaks at the Cavern. Death-by-hospital for Mrs. McCartney, concluded Ringo, whose own father had walked away before he could walk, and wasn't sure whether or not to say something. Then, as if a ripple on a lake passed and smoothed into a placid surface again, reflecting only what an onlooker wanted to see, the moment was gone, and Paul started to brush with a vengeance. He was still spitting out bits of cold water and tooth paste when George ran into the room.

"Please Please Me is on the radio," he cried, brown eyes gleaming with excitement. That was good to know, but not the first time this happened; their second single got faster airings than the first one had done. George Martin had prophecied it would be their first Number 1, but that was so much better than Love Me Do had done that they weren't sure whether or not to trust him on this. In any event, it ran just for two minutes, so Ringo wasn't sure what brought George here. By the time they were downstairs and in the landlady's living room, the song would be over.

"...and they said it's on second place already," George finished. Paul whooped, grabbed George and waltzed him around a few steps, then grabbed Ringo who felt slightly dizzy, if still cold. He wanted to ask where John was, and the question became redundant when the man himself burst into the room, back to displaying bad American accents.

"Where are we going, fellas?" he yelled, sounding like someone's nightmare of James Cagney. Ringo knew this one, though, and so he could join George and Paul in shouting back: "To the top, Johnny, to the top!"

"And where is that?"

"To the toppermost of the poppermost!"

The rest of the poppermost hadn't caught the transmission, as it turned out when they rejoined the tour bus the next day, but come the evening, the audience must have done. Kenny Lynch was still performing when the first cries of "We want the Beatles!" started. Ringo stared. It seemed only yesterday that the audience at the Cavern had yelled "Pete forever, Ringo never!"

The Carlisle audience, of course, had no idea Pete Best even existed Or Andy White, for that matter. Andy White, session drummer extraordinaire, was not here, hearing dozens and dozens of teenagers braving the cold and spending their pocket money to hear them.

"And now," Kenny said, caving, "it is my pleasure to announce those talented youngsters from Liverpool, John, Paul, George and..."

Ringo would never forget it, that moment when he first heard the screams. Unearthly, shrill, erupting like something from a volcano. Drowning out his name and embracing him at the same time. When he went on stage, he wondered whether this was how Elvis felt.

Except that Elvis was alone. Which had to suck in winters like these. This wasn't a cheap bed and breakfast night, it was a tour bus night, and on such nights, they huddled together because that was the only way to get some warmth. They had to look like a puppy pile from the outside, and it probably wasn't very manly, but Ringo didn't care. It was surprisingly comfortable, too, after you figured how to wear your coat inside out for the night so nobody would get the buttons printed in their faces. The others were good at spooning, all three of them.

"Number One next week," Paul said. The bass drum and the bass had to go together well in order for the song to work, so Ringo could say with some qualification that Paul had been on fire tonight, and he suspected he had been as well. Performing always gave you a rush, but performing in front of people who didn't want Britain's sweetheart or any of the other fine established acts, who wanted you, now that was something else again. "This is the life," Paul said, and Ringo was about to agree when he heard John scoff.

"This? Being in the middle of nowhere, squeezed together like a sandwich?"

George, who had an enviable gift of drifting off right away, muttered something and clung a bit tighter to Ringo's back. George was prone to wrap himself around whover was next to or above him, which at least in the British version of Siberia was great.

"Wouldn't want to be anywhere else," Paul replied, and Ringo could hear the laughter in his voice.

"Say that again tomorrow after you caught a cold from me," John commented. "I've got one coming up, I just know it."

This was somewhat worrying, given their touring schedule and the fact they were due in London next week to record the album. If John's voice was shot, they were doomed.

"Me Mum swears on hot milk," Ringo blurted out and regretted it as soon as he had said it, expecting John or Paul or both to tell him to fuck off; huddling together for warmth or not, he hadn't been part of the conversation.

There was a tiny pause, so short only a drummer would catch it, just a beat, and then Paul asked: "Who's helping me then to hold John down to make him drink it, Ritch?"

Something in Ringo started to relax, even more when John shot back: "You're not corrupting young Richard here into bondage, McCartney."

"I tied people up in the Dingle when you two were still in school, son," Ringo said, mock-stern, and he could feel the shudder of giggles beneath and above him. He was getting the feel of them, he thought. You had to, pressed together like this, with the smell of wool and your mates' sweat all around you.

"And here you are," John said, "living the high life of stardom with George's toe in your nose. Which is better than getting tickled to death by Paul's girly eyelashes, but hey."

"Poked to death by your bloody ellbows, you mean," Paul said. "Jesus, John, hold still for a moment, will you?"

"Wouldn't want to be anywhere else," Ringo said, repeating Paul's phrase from earlier on, and as he did, he discovered he meant it. He could feel John shift somewhat, one arm going under Ringo's, his left hand coming to rest on Paul's neck.

"Tell you what, son," John said, and Ringo, closing his eyes, felt himself succumbing to exhaustion at last, "neither would I."