Not 1956. It’s not 1956 anymore.
Despite a lazy evening of takeaway pizza (New York-style with thin floppy crust, light on the tomato sauce), bad television, and a very nice joint, Paul still was having a hard time shaking the finality of John's words. I know it fucking well isn't, do I look daft? he wished he would have spat back. I just thought you'd like some fucking company, man.
“Get bent.” That was what Paul had sputtered before he turned on his heel, guitar slung across his back, and stalked off to the Dakota’s lift. John had called out something acidic as Paul retreated, but he was so used to the blade of John’s tongue that the insult hadn’t even registered.
He felt humiliated. Or worse than. He was embarrassed for himself. He felt like a fool for allowing himself even for a minute to think that they could step back into that easy camaraderie they’d enjoyed less than ten years ago. He was angry for forgetting how fickle John could be. John had played him as John was wont to do. And Paul had let him.
When he first showed up three days ago, John let him in without question. He’d passed the baby off to the nanny, made Paul tea, fed him on bread he’d made with his own hands, sat down with him in the TV room with a guitar, and handed him the best joint he’d tasted in a long time. They sat on the floor, headstocks of their guitars nearly touching, and strummed themselves into blissful silence. It was like meditating. Better than, really. Afterwards, they’d talked for longer than John had meant them too; Yoko arrived home late from the office around 11 p.m. and raised an eyebrow at her husband. Paul could see that she felt tense around him and he supposed he couldn’t really blame her. But she’d been polite, letting John take his time in seeing him off. He wondered ruefully if she’d been behind John’s sudden turn in mood tonight, though John as he well knew had never needed an excuse to lash out before.
No use regretting it; he was flying to Texas tomorrow afternoon to be reunited with Linda and the girls before the big tour. He did miss them dearly even though it had only been a week since he’d hugged them goodbye. Little Stella was five in a few months. He’d meant to do some shopping for the girls while he was here, but between sleeping late and— Well, what had he done the past four days? His mind had been entirely elsewhere.
Taking a drag from the joint in the ash tray and clamping his throat shut to let the smoke bloom in his lungs, he flipped through the television stations. 60 Minutes was on. They were talking about Tokyo Rose and that made him think of Yoko again and the smouldering resentment he’d nursed for years. He’d see a clip of her and John on the telly, read about them in the papers, and shovel more coal onto the fire, keeping those embers glowing, until one day at last he admitted to himself what he’d known all along: whatever had gone wrong, it was one-hundred percent John’s doing. Ironically, it was hearing one of John’s songs in the grocer’s that brought him to the realisation.
He say, ‘I know you. You know me . . .’
You know me.
He did know John, and yet in those post break-up years he hadn’t wanted to know John. It was easier to make Yoko the whipping boy, even as a stubborn part of him whispered, He’s been like this ever since you met him. All along.
All the signs of John’s restlessness were there years before Yoko had opened her show at the Indica. The aching, before-the-Beatles lust for stardom. When stardom came, the endless conquests, the marijuana, the LSD and psychedelic Rolls Royces and blinking boxes and murmuring television sets and Maharishis. He knew his pal. John had always been determined to have it his way and nothing else. He dove headlong into obsessions and snapped at any mention of the past. Fuck the past. John Goddamn Winston Lennon lived in the present.
Which was the trouble now. Babies and bread. What were the Beatles and Paul McCartney to that?
Pardon Iva Toguri. Paul’s thoughts began to drift away on the currents of fragrant smoke. The room had become dreamlike and distant. Lazily, he slipped a hand beneath the brim of his trousers. Hadn’t had a good wank since he landed in New York.
He was so stoned that it took him several moments to register the knock at the door.
“Just coming,” he said, yanking his hand away from his groin and heaving himself off the bed.
He noted with great interest his hand fumbling with the chain lock and turning the doorknob. The sensation was pleasant, like watching himself in a film. Probably shouldn’t do this, said his brain. Check the keyhole first, you don’t know what sort of nutter could be out there. But it was too late. Through the haze he thought, Maybe I ordered room service?
He pulled open the door and stopped cold. John was standing there with a guitar case on his back, shades on and the brim of his cap pulled low, looking irritable.
“Are ye going to stand there looking a daft bugger or are ye gonna let me in?”
If Paul were anything like John, he would have told him to fuck off and shut the door in his face, but Paul was soft. Always the soft one, always weaker.
“Right right right,” said Paul, pulling the door wider so John could pass. “But how did you . . .?
Instead of explaining why he was there or how he’d managed to track Paul to the hotel, John dumped his guitar in a chair and laid his hat on the desk by the door, asking, “Is that pizza?”
Paul had left the half-empty box on top of the dresser. “Christ, I haven’t had pizza in ages,” John said, not waiting for him to respond. He lifted a slice from the box and ate a third of it in one bite, congealed cheese and all.
“Haven’t you?” said Paul, cringing as he heard the small-talk leave his lips.
“Naw,” said John, licking his fingers. “We’ve been doing sashimi lately.”
Paul didn’t trust himself to comment on any of John and Yoko’s strange habits, diet included, and besides that the joint had made his tongue slow.
“You’re lucky the police haven’t knocked the bloody door down, you know. I could smell your room three miles away,” John said. He was down to the crust now. “Is that the stuff I gave you, then?”
“Uh, yeah,” said Paul, who still couldn’t manage to think of one intelligent thing to say. “D’ya want some?”
“I’ll get it meself,” he said, laying his crust down on the dresser. “You couldn’t even pick your nose right now.”
Paul squatted down to rifle through his suitcase. “You’re the one who bought it.”
“And you’re out of practise smoking it,” John said, taking the proffered kit from Paul’s hands. He sat down on the edge of the bed and produced a rolling paper, then the baggie.
Paul watched mesmerised as he took two pinches of mossy green and sprinkled them down the center of the rolling paper in a single expert motion. He patted the weed into place and began twisting the paper, back and forth, back and forth, gradually tucking the fore edge under. Finally, he gave the overlapping edge a loving lick and lit the joint. John closed his eyes and went still. Paul could see his ribcage expanding almost imperceptibly as he drew the smoke into his chest. He went still again, holding the smoke there for several moments, and pushed it out through pursed lips. A lush, earthy odor filled the air. Wordlessly, he passed the joint to Paul who had a vague comprehension that a few more good drags would incapacitate him, but he was too happy to see his friend to care. He took a long suck.
“How did you find me?” he said, after he’d stopped coughing.
John looked over the rim of his glasses at him and just stared. “‘Cos you fucking well told me. Don’t you remember?”
Paul giggled. He was at that stage now. “No-ooo,” he said.
“Christ,” said John, grabbing the joint back from Paul’s fingers. “You even told me the bloody name you checked under. You are out of practise.”
“The stuff’s not that strong in Scotland,” said Paul.
“Save it,” said John, taking his own long drag.
“Sod off,” Paul said. Because his words were failing him, he walked over to the other side of the bed where he’d propped his guitar. He propped himself up on some pillows on the right side and strummed an A.
Impaired though he was, he remembered that their positions were reversed the last time they’d seen each other, just over two years ago. He’d been jittery walking into the studio with Linda. It was the first time he’d seen John without Yoko since she appeared at his side in mid-‘68, and the first time they’d done anything not business-related since the Beatles, really. He wasn’t certain that he’d get a friendly welcome—one could never be sure of that with John.
He needn’t have worried though, because John was absolutely laggered. Paul could have been the janitor and John would have greeted him with the same enthusiasm. The room was strewn with bottles and, after John had pulled him into a boozy-smelling hug and told he and Linda to sit down, Paul sighted LPs with rather a good deal of cocaine atop them. May Pang was sitting at John’s side looking trés Californian in short-shorts and a tie-dye top with spaghetti straps, sunglasses perched on the crown of her head. There was Stevie Wonder in a red turtleneck, leather cap, and a string of beads, and stout, ginger-haired Harry Nilsson mumbling instructions through a cigarette. Good ol’ Mal was there, already as potted as John. Some others Paul recognised only glancingly. Linda, he recalled, smiled at everyone but her lips were drawn. He’d squeezed her hand, trying to communicate to his wife how much he needed to see his old friend even if he was in this deplorable state.
The session was a bust.
Harry and John had done what the Beatles never did in the studio, overindulging to the point of stupor. Yet Paul, when in Rome, found himself sniffing lines off of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and thinking that at least they hadn’t marked out Band on the Run for the job.
It was a flaccid attempt at music-making, no more successful than trying to get it up with a tart you brought home from the pub after too many pints. The drugs made them impotent. The chemistry that John and Paul had enjoyed even as they were at each other’s throats in ‘69 was blunted by too much toot and too many loud opinions from too many other people in the room. John was distracted, not himself, not the friend that Paul remembered.
The only other detail that stuck out to Paul was the way that John clung to May, stroking the small of her back, drawing her into his lap, rubbing her arm, and pawing for her when she strayed too far. It made Paul embarrassed for him. John didn’t look like a practised lover so much as a small boy reaching out for his mummy. He was lonely, Paul realised at the time. Lonely and afraid.
Now Paul was the one barely able to form a sentence. “The tables have turned,” he murmured out loud, drawing John’s attention.
“Nothing.” He strummed another A.
John had wandered over to the dresser, foraging for another slice of pizza. Paul watched him eat it standing up with the changer aimed at the TV, flicking through the small handful of channels.
“Oy! Where’s my joint, Lennon?”
John inclined his head to an ashtray on the desk.
“Give it here, then,” said Paul. What he really wanted to demand from John was why he was here casually eating cold pizza when hours before he’d all but slammed the door in Paul’s face, but no purpose looking the gift-horse in the mouth now that it’d turned up. It was only apt to bite him, at any rate.
John took another suck and passed the joint to Paul, then bent to remove his guitar from the case. “Move over.” He sat down next to Paul, situating the guitar in his lap.
Paul played a few more chords. C, F, G7.
“At my door, the leaves are falling,” he sang. F, G7, C. “The cold wild wind will blow.” He’d been on this kick the past few weeks, revisiting old country standards and folk songs.
“Hold on, hold on a minute,” said John. The still-glowing joint had made its way back between his lips. He strummed and paused, and made minute adjustments to his pegs. A few more strums, a few more listens, and the guitar was in tune. Not waiting for Paul to resume, he came back: F, G7. “La-da-da-da, da-da-daaa. And I still miss someone.”
Paul laughed. “That’s the best you can do? La-da? You used to make up all sorts of rubbish when you didn’t remember the words.”
John gave him a look. “I’ve been watching a baby all day, remember?”
“Yeah? How is that?” He didn’t say it in a flippant way. John’s historic apathy toward Julian and the sneering way he’d ridiculed Paul’s own family life a few years ago made it hard to imagine him as a doting father.
But Paul watched as the hard eyes looking at him softened. “He’s bloody fantastic.”
The words began rushing out of John in a torrent. Sean was crawling now, trying to talk, loved being sung to, having the guitar played for him, grabbed for the cats and laughed from his belly when they scrabbled away, was discovered the other day with a cigarette butt in his wet toothy little mouth, tangled his hands in Yoko’s long hair and yanked, drank down his bottles on his back whilst playing with his toes and earlobes, loved water and being naked, had discovered his tiny penis and always wanted to be holding it (“just like his old man!”) during nappie changes, got hypnotised by ceiling fans and overhead lights if he looked at them long enough, bashed his head against the coffee table a fortnight ago and got goose-egg, causing him to wail for two hours which brought John to tears too out of empathy and, okay, maybe a bit of frustration as well, and every night when John laid him down to sleep in his crib he took out his guitar and sang him lullabies.
“I put him down to bed just before I came here,” he said. His eyes were soft and wistful.
Paul smiled. He wanted to say ‘What did I tell you?’ but John knew at last and that was enough.
“I wonder if she’s sorry,” he took up again, “for leaving what we’d begun.” F, G7, C. “There’s someone for me someone, and I still miss someone.”
John was strumming again, too. “Oh, I never got over those brown eyes—”
“Blue eyes, John.”
“I never got over those brown eyes,” he continued, fixing Paul with a stare, “I see them everywhere . . .”
“I miss those arms that held me when all the love was there,” said Paul, all at once aware, even through the fuzz in his brain, that his cheeks had gotten warm.
Nothing ever escaped John’s eagle eye. “What’s the matter, Paul? D’ya still miss someone?” he said, a teasing edge to his voice.
“No, not really,” he said, turning his head to look out the window at the city lights. “Do you miss someone?”
“There’s someone for me somewhere, and I still miss someone,” John sang, a smile playing about his lips. He stopped, resting his hands on the body of his guitar. “Do you miss Jane?”
“Who . . .?” Paul’s mind had been elsewhere and it took a moment to connect the name with a face. Then it dawned on him. “Oh, Jane. Christ, no!” He hadn’t thought about Jane Asher in ages. “Do you miss Cyn?” he retaliated.
“I miss Cyn like I miss a pimple on me arse.” He resumed strumming and said, “But I still miss someone.”
“Who’s that?” Paul’s heart had begun to beat faster.
“Jesus, it’s just a song. Don’t get your knickers in a twist.”
“Who says I’m getting my knickers in a twist?” Paul looked down at his fingers forming the chords, something he never did. F, G7.
“So you haven’t ever missed someone,” John said. Apparently it had taken him only a moment to forget that the game they were playing wasn’t literal. “Surely you’ve got one who got away.”
“Linda didn’t get away,” Paul said, with firmness.
“Neither did Yoko. That’s not what I’m talking about.”
They went quiet. Paul’s cheeks were flushed.
“Look, what I mean is we’re not just black-and-white, as people. I still want to shag half the girls I see on the street, and I’m more in love with Yoko than ever before.”
“I don’t think that way,” said Paul. This was getting heated and he didn’t know why.
“Like bollocks you don’t! I’m man enough to admit it if you aren’t, any road. I. Still. Miss. Someone.”
Curiosity bit at Paul, in spite of himself. May Pang, maybe? He tried to remember who they might have known back in the Beatles days, but the trouble was that most of the girls they shagged had been on stopovers during tours, never to be seen again. He did seem to recall John having a penthouse where he brought conquests so Cyn wouldn’t find out. Possible he’d carried on a months- or years-long affair without anyone even knowing about it.
“Who, eh, who is she?” he heard himself ask.
John’s lips curled into a coy smile. “I couldn’t say now, could I? Not if you’re not fessing up, too.”
“I got that out of my system, John. I mean it’s nice to look, but I’m quite happy with the way things—”
“She’s got long dark eyelashes and brown eyes and dark hair down to her shoulders,” John said. His eyes were practically boring into Paul. It felt aggressive.
“Ever shag her?” he said, for lack of anything better to say.
“. . . the most perfect fuck-me lips.”
Paul was horrified to feel his dick press against the denim of his jeans at that. It was because he hadn’t had that fucking wank. Just a bundle of nerves, like a randy schoolboy. Probably anything could have set him off at this point: a Levi’s commercial, one of the maids looking at him the right way.
“No, I haven’t ,” said John, still looking piercingly at Paul.
Paul stared back. “Yoko let you shag May.” He hoped that his distress wasn’t as obvious to John as was to him.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said.
“Do you?” Paul said. His heart was beating a ferocious rhythm in the hollow of his throat.
“‘Course I do, I haven’t gone that daft. You’re thinking Lennon’s pussy-whipped. I won’t go out and do it because of Yoko. Yoko knows everything, mate.”
“What’s she think of this?”
“She wants me to do it,” John said. “Thinks I need to get it out of me system.”
“What’s the hang-up then?”
“Well I don’t know if the girl’s willing, now do I? You can’t just walk up a girl and take your knob out without asking.”
Paul snorted at the thought of John being too shy to seduce someone. He always took what he wanted and there hadn’t been a woman yet who could resist his charm, cheeky and coarse though it could be. “Come off it. When’ve you ever had a problem getting your end away?”
“Easy for you to say,” John muttered, turning to his guitar again. “Listen to this, here.”
He started to strum a song that Paul had never heard before. E, F-sharp minor, D-minor, E. Then, A, F-sharp minor, D-minor, G, C, A-minor, Esus4, E. The chords were soft and melancholic, almost dirge-like. The joints had made Paul’s brain feel clearer, more receptive to the music. He let it wash over him, feeling at once both happy and sad. Here was John restored to him again, just the two of them in a quiet room together like it used to be when they were lads in Woolton working out how to best write a song that would stun Liverpool, not even thinking yet of the Palladium and that magic word America. He also felt the hours ticking down. John would go home to the Dakota before long, he would check out of the hotel at eleven tomorrow morning, his flight left at three p.m., and there would be once again be 3000 miles separating them.
I still miss someone, he thought.
“Free,” John sang, “as a bird. It’s the next best thing to be-e. Free as a bird.”
His fringe had tumbled into his eyes, which were closed.
“Ho-o-ome. Home and dry. Like a homing bird I fly. Like a bird on wings . . .” He stopped and looked at Paul.
“Go on! Don’t stop,” Paul said.
“I haven’t written that bit yet,” said John. “I only just started messing about with it after you left the other night.”
“Well play it again.”
John repeated it. Paul had learnt the chords and the melody by the lines “home and dry,” and he joined in with a soft harmony. He was surprised at how easy it was to step back into, songwriting with John. John may have ranted and raved to the press in the past few years, downplaying the importance of their partnership, but sitting here Paul didn’t see how he could deny it.
“Like a bird on wings.” John was smiling now.
Paul plunged in with an F-major 7. “Whatever happened to the life that we once knew. Da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-daaa.”
“Hold on, hold on! I seem to recall someone saying that la-da-da wasn’t cutting it,” John said. “How about—” he played a G “—can we really live without each other?”
“When did we lose the touch,” said Paul, the words and the chords coming in an intuitive rush, “that seemed to mean so much. Always made me feel so-o-o—”
“Free,” John finished. “As a bird. It’s the next best thing to be-e.”
A silence fell between them. He’d gotten thin, Paul saw. Whatever rubbish he was or wasn’t eating had sucked all the fat out of him. His face now seemed made up of a series of angles, and frankly he looked damn gaunt. The hair on his head had lightened with age and Paul noticed for the first time that fine lines had erupted around his eyes, like craquelure on an old painting. He wondered if he had answering lines in his own face.
“It’ll be twenty years next year,” he said.
“Twenty years what?”
“Twenty years we’ve known each other.”
“God that’s a long bloody time, isn’t it? What do you get someone for their twentieth anniversary?”
“China, I think,” said Paul.
“And they call me the fecking househusband!” John said, laughing. “I suppose you expect Yoko and me to send you some Wedgwood.”
“Bugger off, okay?” But he smiled despite himself.
John grinned and played: E, F-sharp minor, D-minor, E. “Free as a bird. It’s the next best thing to be.”
For the next three hours they sat there working on John’s new song and two others John called “Real Love” and “Now and Then.” The songs were just as somber as the first. Paul caught bits of “Moonlight Sonata” in “Real Love,” whilst “Now and Then” was less formed, more meandering. All three songs were supplicating and submissive, reflecting (Paul assumed) John’s gratitude at having been received back by Yoko a year ago. In the stoned, blissful calm following the initials effects of the marijuana, Paul imagined that as John looked sideways at him singing “Now and then, I miss you” with a pleading lilt to his voice, that it was directed at him. At some point they ordered Chinese takeaway, greasy and stinking and positively delicious, and had room service send up two bottles of white wine.
Though wine was not John’s drink of choice, Paul knew he would have polished off both bottles two or three years ago during his exile from Yoko, no problem. Tonight he stopped himself at three of the wide-brimmed plastic cups the hotel had supplied, leaving Paul to start on the second bottle alone. Paul was only too aware of how deep and plunging rock bottom was when it came to boozing. He’d gone through it himself in the post-Beatles months, feeling panicked and unmoored, unsure of his artistic identify after John had broken up the band. He didn’t blame John for his caution.
After half the second bottle of wine had been drunk down, he found himself cycling back to the Johnny Cash tune, though actually he’d been channeling the Fairport Convention version that he’d heard on the Beeb God-know-how-many years ago. John, maybe a bit tipsy as well, joined him and started in again with his line about “brown eyes.” It always came back to Yoko with him. Paul still didn’t pretend to understand half the things they did together, but John’s happiness after L.A. was palpable, even if he was still a crabby, contrarian bastard to his friends.
Paul could sense their time together winding to an end as he sang, “Sweethearts walk by together, and I still miss someone,” feeling warm and content from the wine and marijuana.
“Is it me you miss?” John asked, his hands going still on the guitar.
Paul’s stomach all but dropped through the floorboards. “Come again?” he managed to choke, his face heating.
“D’ya miss me?” said John. His expression was neutral, unreadable.
“Ah, er, course I miss you,” said Paul, trying to keep his features similarly nonchalant. “Twenty years, remember?” His voice sounded insincere.
John had already looked away from him, strumming idly, but he suddenly belted out, “Oh I never got over those brown eyes!”
Brown eyes and hair down to her shoulders, John had said of his unrequited love. Paul could feel the blood drain straight from his face as a thought occurred to him. His own hair didn’t quite brush his shoulders, but it was pretty bloody close. Don’t you be daft, he thought in a rush, Don’t you be fucking daft McCartney, he would never in a million years I couldn’t dream of such a thing Linda and the girls he’s got a baby for Christ’s sake it’s your imagination running away from you and you’ve had too much to smoke tonight it’ll all be better in the morning once you’ve had a good wank just put it out of your head you’ve got mad.
He couldn’t look away from John, though. That would give up the game. John was still singing, all innocence but with an odd glint in his eye. Paul barely heard the words. We’re old friends, he thought. Two old friends who miss each other and what should be unusual about that? Nothing that’s what.
In typical John fashion, he’d led an unsuspecting Paul straight to the brink and left him standing there, giddy with anxiety as he regarded the precipice.
Paul remembered (and he had to admire John’s present cleverness as the memory took shape) being a lad of fifteen, traipsing across town to a trestle bridge suspended high above a stream. Probably the drop had been something like twelve feet, but at the time it felt like twenty-five at least. John had talked the entire time about how he was going to jump off that bridge into the shallow, stony tributary below. Why the act had been so important Paul didn’t recall, but at the time it seemed a perfectly reasonable goal for a teenage boy to possess. John probably intended to brag to his mates all about his derring-do. Maybe that glory would have rubbed off a bit on Paul, who was always conscious, at least back then at any rate, of the one year and eight months that separated them.
All that talk, forty minutes of damn talk, and when they finally looked over the edge of the bridge, peered through the overgrown summer foliage overhanging the stream and into the shadowy depths beneath, John fixed him with that superior, older-person look he’d had even as a seventeen-year-old and said, “Well, Paulie. Weren’t you going to jump?”
And somehow when they were trudging home with limbs whole and unbroken from a jump that neither one of them had taken, Paul was the one derided for bottling it.
Would he jump this time, he wondered. Two roads diverged in a hotel room and sorry he could not run far, far away from both.
His hands seemed to move over the neck of his guitar of their own accord. F, G7.
“I wonder if he’s sorry,” Paul heard himself sing, “for leaving what we begun. There’s someone for me somewhere, and I still miss someone.” His heart was hammering in his throat again and he found he couldn’t finish the song. He trailed off.
Raising his eyes to meet John’s was one of the hardest things he’d ever done. He found John staring back at him, quiet. He knew he wouldn’t be able to deny why his cheeks were so hot if asked, but he was certain John knew. Finally knew. And now that he did, Paul wasn’t sure what to do. Feeling panicked, he said the first thing that came to mind.
“Right, I’ve got to have a shower.” He broke off their gaze and hopped off the bed. “Bloody roasting in here.”
He knew he was running away, couldn’t help himself. Let John be the one left on the precipice this time. He bent to lean his guitar against the corner of the wall and was surprised to see that his hand shook. What on earth had he just done? He never knew that simply walking around a bed could be so hard, could feel John’s eyes tracking his every step. His erection had come back and would have been impossible to conceal, so he didn’t even bother. His face burned with shame and—something else harder to pinpoint.
Thrill, he realised. For all the danger he’d just walked himself into, this was in a strange indescribable way thrilling. And relieving. It was a relief to have said it.
He found himself willing John not to speak. If he could make it to the loo, the world would arrange itself in the proper order again. He would have liked grab some clean clothes in his suitcase, but worried that stopping would attract a commentary. So he headed straight past the bed into the small hallway where the loo opened on the left. It was only until he was gripping the edge of the sink that he was aware that he’d made it inside without incident.
The enormity of what he’d done seemed to smash down on him from a great height. His mind was reeling. In a fog, he made his way over to the bath and turned on the cold tap, cutting it only slightly with water from the hot tap. The momentary high he’d felt had evaporated and in its place regrets began to trickle in. Whoever John’s mystery love might be, Paul had gotten it all wrong. Missed the mark by a mile. He pulled up the stem on the spout. And how long had that, what he’d thought out there, been stuffed into the recesses of his brain? When had it begun? He clawed off his shirt and tugged off his trousers and shorts, peeled off his socks.
He gasped as the water struck him, but gritted his teeth and rode it out. He’d heard of cold showers as a figurative term, but didn’t think anyone actually took them as a cure for—
His mind would not go there. He would not let it. He was washing away the effects of the booze and marijuana, nothing more. Goose-pimples had risen on his skin and he was grateful to see his erection deflate. Treacherous bugger, he thought, working some shampoo into his hair. What had happened in there, it was a matter of crossed wires that’s all. Of course he missed John, but he missed Linda too: her conversation, her smile, the way she squirmed underneath him, the heavy warmth of her breasts. Somehow he’d jumbled that together with seeing John again. Crossed wires, yeah. He unwrapped the slim bar of hotel soap and lathered himself up, even getting between each toe to prolong the shower.
When at last he couldn’t stand the icy jets of water needling into his skin, he turned off the taps and stepped out of the bath. He half hoped that John had already taken a taxi back to the Dakota, but the other half of him felt oddly gutted at the idea. He couldn’t hear anything from the other room, though. Noticing that his heartbeat had picked up speed again, he toweled off his hair and spent far too long a time mopping the water from his body. Brushing his teeth stalled him another two minutes and a fresh shave bought him another five.
From the other room came scuffling. So John was still here. Having run out of personal grooming to do, Paul found himself staring at the bathroom door with no small deal of apprehension, wondering how he was going to walk out in front of John in only a towel. He’d grown tired; the vivifying effects of the shower were already gone. It was his hotel room and by rights he ought to be pulling on his pyjamas and climbing in between the cool clean covers, but John had turned it into a lion’s den.
Mad to be lingering here like a brushing bride, though, nervous to be seen in a towel. He’d never done anything of the sort in the Beatles days. They’d had sex in the same room with not a pinch of shame, went around stark naked sometimes and no one lifted an eyebrow. The only time John’s nudity had drawn his attention was when he was flapping his dick at Paul or flashing him his bum in the daft, boyish way that they all did, and Paul would wrinkle his nose and say, “For God’s sake John, put your bloody pecker away.” Seeing him naked was almost as familiar as seeing him in a suit.
The self-consciousness about his own all-but-naked body was new, but his feelings toward John’s body had altered long ago. When had it begun? Paul couldn’t seem to remember. He shoved it (whatever it was) back, smothered it with drink, tired it out with crying children and a family that needed him, a wife and a band that needed him, sat down on it like a suitcase that wouldn’t close properly and clicked the latches shut. But he had been conscious of the relentless way he combed the paper for news of John’s activities, especially—and he hated himself for this—derisive mentions of his old band-mate Paulie.
Regardless of all that, he couldn’t hide out in the loo forever. He walked out before he could work himself into a further state, hoping like hell John hadn’t picked up on how rattled he was. He’d already made up his mind to snag his clothes and redress in the loo. Then he’d see John off and it would be like nothing had ever happened.
Whatever he thought he’d see when he stepped back into the room, it was not John lying on the duvet in his briefs wearing one of the T-shirts Paul had packed and thumbing through that morning’s Times.
“Hey!” he said, nervousness gone. It was ‘64, they were squabbling lads again. “You’ve nicked my shirt!”
John looked up from the paper coolly. “I got Chinese on mine. Don’t honestly expect me to come to bed starkers, do you? I usually save that for second dates, if you want me to make an exception.” He laid aside the paper and mimed as if to take off the shirt.
“What do you mean, come to bed?” said Paul, pulse quickening.
“You thought I would go home at this hour? It’s half midnight.”
That explanation, Paul knew, was no explanation at all. Taxis ran all night. He glanced about for a sleeper sofa, but of course there wasn’t one. He’d only booked a queen, thinking that was plenty room for one person. If he’d known . . .
Avoiding John’s eyes, he gripped his towel and rummaged through the suitcase for a change of clothes. Last time he looked they’d been neatly folded, but John had flung them asunder in the search for something to wear. He surfaced with some pyjama bottoms and his only other clean T-shirt.
“Where are you going?” John said, as Paul headed back to the loo. Paul ignored him. Instead of things calming down as it turned out, they’d simply gotten weirder.
“Since when have you ever dressed in the loo?” John said, when Paul emerged again.
He had no credible excuse and didn’t offer one. In fact, he didn’t say anything as he rounded the bed again and climbed into the other side. Let John be the one to worry and brood now. He had no energy for it and he’d worried himself into knots, besides. He grabbed his pack of Gitanes from the bedside table and lit one, hoping it would steady him. The drag he took was chokingly deep. Because the alternative was to look at John, he turned on the TV, but of course they’d stopped broadcasting for the night.
“Aren’t you going to look at me?” said John, after an absurdly long minute or two of silence. There was a strange note in his voice which Paul couldn’t place.
“Look, John,” he said, keeping his voice steady and his eyes fixed ahead. “I’m not—” He couldn’t bring himself to say it. So far nothing truly damning had been uttered aloud. They could still pull back from this. They’d wake up in the morning like the old days, trade barbs over some lousy overpriced eggs and toast from the hotel kitchen, and all would be forgotten. The thought occurred to him that maybe John hadn’t meant it to go this far.
“You’re not what?”
Paul stubbed out his half-smoked cigarette and rolled over to face the window. “I’m not in the mood for this.”
“In the mood for what?” John said, his voice rising. He was propped up on one arm leaning over Paul now. “What do you think this is?”
Paul turned over on his back and was glad to see that John’s face was angry. That was old hand, at least. “What do you think this is?”
They looked at each other for a moment. Paul was aware that both of them were breathing hard. He tried to read John’s eyes, which looked livid (what was new?) but tinged with something else. He looked almost wounded, Paul decided. That was fine. Let him stew.
In the end it was John who broke it off, taking his arm away and moving over to his side of the bed. Paul turned onto his side again and noticed he’d forgotten to shut the curtains. The city lights were bright. He had the impression of having escaped something dangerous and undefined, and was relieved. He’d wake up a bit hungover in a few hours and nurse himself with some of that shit-tasting American coffee while he and John watched the morning news. All would be forgotten. He was sure he’d never get to sleep now that John had gotten him all fired up, but he’d be damned if he wasn’t going to pretend. He reached out and turned off the bedside lamp.
“Are you just going to sleep then?” John asked. There was a strange note of something in his voice which Paul couldn’t place.
“Looks that way, doesn’t it?”
“Paul, don’t. Please.”
Again, Paul had the sensation of the blood escaping his veins. What the note sounded like, he realised, was anguish. Try as he might to be hard-hearted, he couldn’t carry it off the way John could. Once again he flipped onto his back. “Why are you here?” he said, looking at the ceiling and folding his hands under his head, trying to keep his face expressionless.
“I don’t know meself,” said John. He had been sitting atop the duvet, but now he wriggled under the sheets and Paul could feel the warmth of him mere inches away. He turned off the lamp on his side and Paul’s heart pounded. “Could ask you the same. I’m not the one flew all the way over from the bleeding other side of the world.”
“Guess you’ve got me there,” he said. The ceiling was blank, white.
“I just need to know if it’s in me head, alright?”
“What do you want me to say, John?”
“Just say it.”
“You say it.”
“Sounds like you just have.”
He could feel John’s eyes on him again. “How do I know this isn’t some kind of experiment?” he said, still looking at the ceiling. “You could be having one out on me.”
“‘Cos it ain’t, okay? I’d have done it with Brian if I’d wanted to, you know. I’m not fucking about, Paul.”
“Yeah, but Yoko’s sort of—” he grasped for the right words “—turned you on, you know? To stuff like that.”
“Yoko’s got nothing to do with it. You’re overthinking it.”
“Am I?” he said, allowing himself the briefest of glances at John. “I mean, when did this first occur to you? Last month? Last Wednesday?”
“You’re getting too cerebral about it.”
“I want to know,” he said. He took a deep breath. “Let’s say I need to know, to move forward.”
“When it first started?”
John laughed. “How do I know you won’t throw me under the bus? If anyone ever found about this . . .”
John was quiet for a moment. Paul was aware of his own quickened breathing, there in the dark. As the moments dragged past, he thought that perhaps John wouldn’t reply after all.
“I think it was ‘64. Maybe ‘63,” John answered at last. “It could have been before, I’m not really sure.”
“That long, eh?” Paul’s cheeks had gone warm.
“Don’t be a wanker.”
In the edge of his vision, in the light from the window, Paul could see John raise himself up on one elbow. It occurred to him that he did know the answer to John’s question, where he hadn’t earlier. Possibly had always known.
Guess you never saw, dear boy, that love was there.
“It was ‘65,” he said at last. “It was the LSD that did it. I was so bloody angry at you. Wanted to kill you.” He couldn’t quite believe he was saying this.
“Because it took me away from you?” There was a hint of fascination to John’s voice.
“Because it took you away from everything!” he said “The band, me, everything. You weren’t there anymore. Mentally, you were, I dunno, checked out.” It was difficult to keep his eyes trained on the ceiling, but he managed.
“That wasn’t about you.”
“Wasn’t it? Sure felt bloody personal. Everything was fantastic, and then you had to—”
Something inside Paul’s chest constricted. “Sure, that as well. I got jealous. I was so bloody jealous.” He could feel a prickling of that old resentment as he continued. “I reckoned it was the time you two took away from the band that made me so manic. I never connected it with—”
John leaned over and kissed him.
It happened so quickly, was over so quickly, that he had no chance to react. He was suddenly quite unable to remember why he’d been so furious a moment ago. The world had shifted into a shape he’d never seen before, unfamiliar but exhilarating. It was like stepping onto the surface of the moon. Part of him was frightened, but he knew as soon as it happened that it was what he had wanted ever since he’d landed in New York.
He turned onto his side, this time facing John who was up on one elbow. John’s left hand had gone, in a vulnerable way, to his throat. Without thinking Paul gathered it in his, was shocked to find that it trembled. He brought his right hand up and placed it on the back of John’s neck, then he pulled his head down and kissed him.
Amazing how he could know someone twenty years and never really see him.
The act of kissing John was new and as familiar as breathing at the same time. Next to Linda, to all the girls Paul had ever known and ever made love to, John’s head was heavy: face angular, bones stronger and thicker, skin stubbled and smelling of smoke. Paul drank the moment in, prolonging it, memorising the warmth of John’s skin, the movement of his neck under the pressure of Paul’s hand. Their accelerated breathing. The blood had roared back into his veins; he could feel it at the tips of his fingers and in his toes and most of all in his middle.
Rational Paul was trapped on a train pulling out of the station, telling him as the train disappeared from sight that there was words for men who did this, men who fancied this. Their names were splattered all over the press and their family never lived down the shame if the press catches wind of you you’ll be ruined forever, but Mad Paul was nonplussed. So far, this felt as natural as his first time with a girl. Yet he couldn’t imagine doing it with another chap. Thought was a bit nauseating, in fact. So maybe there was no word for this. Maybe there was, but in a dead language. All Paul knew was that he wanted it. More of it, all of it.
At first John’s answering kisses had been dry, hesitant pecks, but they soon deepened. He was surprised, though he probably shouldn’t have been, to learn that John was a good kisser, the rhythm of his tongue steady and teasing. He dipped it in and just as Paul got used to it, ached for more of it, dipped it out again. It made Paul frantic with want.
He was vaguely aware of lowering John back to the pillow and anchoring himself with elbows on either side of his friend’s chest, clamping him there as he forced his open mouth against John’s lips. John’s hand had slid up his cheek and into his hair, gripping it, using it to tug their heads closer together. It hurt but was also pleasurable, sent a lick of electricity through his guts and to his groin. They couldn’t seem to get close enough. Paul was thinking of ways to ease the exquisite ache in his groin when John put a hand on his chest and pushed him away, breaking their kiss. He started to sit up, but John gripped the collar of his T-shirt and held him there. With a sly grin, he raised his head and brushed Paul’s lips with his own. When Paul tried to bend to kiss him back, John’s arm kept him at length.
“You’re good at this,” Paul said, quite out of breath.
“Shaddup,” said John. “You’re soft.” But it was clear that he was pleased.
Paul stilled as John’s hand touched his face. He held his breath as John outlined his nose, his cheekbones, the arc of his eyebrows. Paul closed his eyes and the fingers brushed his eyelids. The sensation was followed by John’s hot breath and the gentle pressure of his lips. It was distressingly good.
He opened his eyes and ran the pad of his thumb across John’s left cheek, watching himself being watched. With a careful finger, he traced the curve of the familiar Roman nose for the first time in his life. He expected John to spoil the moment with his usual antics, snapping at his fingers with teeth or the like, but he didn’t. His eyes were earnest and his face suffused with pleasure. He reached up and dragged a thumb across the plumpness of Paul’s bottom lip. Paul remembered what he’d said earlier and shuddered.
Then they were kissing again, a wet, warm, needy tangle of mouths. Paul was aware of having gone impossibly hard. He wasn’t sure what he wanted, how much he could get away with, but he knew he needed friction. He thought about touching himself, had a flash of John watching him touch himself, and groaned against John’s lips.
Before he realised what he was doing, he had slipped his hand into John’s lap, discovered John was just as hard as he was.
“Bloody hell,” whispered John, swallowing visibly. “You’re full of secrets, aren’t you.”
“Come here,” said Paul, by way of reply. He fisted John’s T-shirt and attempted to haul him over. John helped him, sitting up and clambering atop him. The feel of John—his weight, the jut of his bones, his hardness—against him sent him out of his mind. He arched up without thinking, reveling in the delicious sensation of his dick pressing into John’s belly.
His hands went to the warm small of John’s back and began towing off his T-shirt. Paul’s shirt that he’d nabbed. John wriggled out of it, put his hands at Paul’s sides, and eased him out of his own shirt. This wasn’t enough. Paul wanted to be naked, wanted John naked, but John had pinned his arms at his side.
“Hello, there,” he said, grinning.
“Hey,” said Paul, returning the smile.
John’s hand was stroking the territory of his chest and stomach now, deliberately avoiding sensitive areas like his groin and nipples. “You’re better than a girl at this, you know,” John said. “You know how the game is played. I just snap my fingers.”
Paul arched again, but John had moved out of reach.
“And you’re worse than a girl, you pricktease,” he said, fairly panting.
John licked a finger and trailed it from the hollow of Paul’s throat to his navel. Paul arched, not breaking eye contact. “Come again?” said John.
“One of us will,” said Paul, closing his eyes and giving up.
“I thought about that you know,” John said, bending close and speaking in Paul’s ear. “Making you come.”
“Yeah?” said Paul, writhing.
“For years, mate.”
Paul broke away from his grip and clutched for John’s cock, was able to give it two good strokes before John shifted away.
“Filthy bugger,” he said, pushing a finger into Paul’s mouth and watching with hooded eyes as Paul obligingly sucked.
And even when you fall in love, dear boy, it won’t be half as good as this, thought Paul.
He didn’t want it to end, but at the same time he was finding it more and more difficult to control himself. His hips bucked again, but John’s body was just out of reach. Agonised, he reached down to touch himself, but John grabbed his wrist.
“Fucking hell, John!”
“This’ll be over before it even starts if you do that, son.”
“Doesn’t matter, I’m a lost cause already,” Paul said, throwing back his head as John kissed his throat.
“I’m that good, eh?” John said in his ear.
“I haven’t had a proper wank since last week, for your information.”
John licked his ear and Paul squirmed. “You’re full of excuses. Dirty slag.”
“Sadist,” Paul said, groaning. Having never done anything of this sort with a fellow, he had no idea what he really wanted John to do, just that he needed the pressure relieved, and fast. Rational Paul may as well have never existed.
“If this is the only chance I get to do this, I want it to last,” John said, kissing him. His tongue found Paul’s again and Paul could not suppress a moan.
“Hmm? What makes you think this is the only chance you’ll get?” he said, running his hands over John’s shoulders and biceps. The lights from the city were so bright he could see the freckles on John’s skin, which made him seem somehow defenceless.
“I know how you get.” John was next to his ear again, running his tongue along the rim.
“How’s that?” Paul said, voice breaking a little as the tongue dipped into the whorl of his ear.
“Cold. You put up your mask and no one ever sees it crack,” he said. Paul was finding it hard to concentrate on John’s words, especially now that his earlobe was being sucked.
He panted. “What are you talking about?”
John pulled back. “I’m talking about the way you acted all these years. You’ve always got a smile on your face. You never let anyone in.”
“Coulda picked a better time for an argument,” Paul said, laying a hand on John’s bare thigh. John’s erect penis was lying lengthwise against his hip, the ridge very visible through the thin cotton of his shorts.
John brushed his hand off.
“We’ll argue later,” Paul said, putting it back. His touch was firm as he searched for the right words. “Look, I want to do this again, okay?”
John smirked. “You’re saying that cos your prick is hard.”
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” Paul said. He sat up and caught John’s face between his hands, then kissed him so hard his teeth bit into the soft wetness of own inner lips. “I want you. I want you back in my life, I wish you hadn’t gone. What do you want me to say?”
“Suppose that’ll do,” John mumbled, clutching his hand in Paul’s hair.
Now it was Paul’s turn to push John away. He couldn’t take it any longer. He laid back, lifted his arse, and pushed down his pyjama trousers. Then, eyes fixed on John’s, he slowly spread his legs at a fifty-degree angle. His heart pounded fast as he cupped the back of his head with a hand, elbow pointed in the air. Not letting his gaze waver, he took himself into his left hand. Knowing that John was watching him was almost enough to send him over the edge right there.
He stroked himself with agonising slowness, licked his lips for John. He rubbed the butt of his palm across his chest, catching it on his nipple and gasping for John’s benefit. He’d never done this in front of Linda, ever. With them, it was handjob, blowjob, missionary position. Sometimes he’d take her from behind if he was feeling adventuresome. It was an ordinary sex life, but satisfied them. To be watched by another person—a man, he reminded himself, one who used to be his best mate—was beyond the pale. It rendered him naked in more ways than one. Yet there was something empowering about it, too. It was power to be able to turn someone on like this. He stroked himself faster, his tightened hand more than a little slick with precome.
John was staring at him like a jungle cat. Paul slowed his speed again, drew a finger across the head of his dick. He hadn’t planned on saying it out loud, but John’s predatory silence drug it out of him: “Will you finish me?"
“Shit, Paul.” John’s voice sounded wrecked.
He moved between Paul’s crooked legs and standing on his knees pulled down his own briefs at last, letting them settle below his testicles.
Paul groaned, seeing him laid bare like that. As John crouched over him, a nebulous image of what he was about to do sent him over the edge. The pressure had gotten to the point of no return and he wasn’t able to stop. A moment before the orgasm hit him, John’s hand was on him, pumping him, bringing him to climax. Pleasure surged over Paul and he cried out, lurching up and digging his fingers into John’s back. Again and again the waves came, and with them the heat of spunk against his chest.
The last pleasurable spasms were still flickering through him when John began to rut against his hip. Speechless from his own climax, he hugged John’s head to his shoulder and stroked his hair as John thrust. He let his other hand wander down the bare expanse of John’s back and to the curve of his arse, which stuck most of the way out of his shorts. His body was thin and reedy, but strong.
“God, you’re brilliant,” Paul said. “Keep going.” John panted against his neck and he pulled John’s hand to his face. “Look at me,” he said.
He took John’s finger and ran it over his lips, then closed his mouth around John’s forefinger and middle finger and sucked, trying to remember what Linda did when she went down on him. He teased the tips, fellating the fingers at an unhurried pace. John’s thrusts had gotten faster, building momentum.
Paul withdrew John’s fingers out of his mouth and wrapped his legs around him. On impulse he whispered, “I want you to come on me.”
That did it. John was shouting obscenities and gripping his hips as the thrusts built to a peak. He growled, fucking himself against Paul, and then the rhythm slowed and warmth spread across Paul’s belly. Eventually John went limp, and Paul lowered his legs. Rational Paul had returned to the station, but at the periphery where he was hardly noticeable. Mad Paul was warm and sleepy and euphoric, holding his friend in his arms and planting kisses on his shoulders and head.
He didn’t have words for what he felt, so he didn’t even try to speak, just tried to take a snapshot of the moment as Linda might have done. The scent of them together hung in the air: clean, heady sweat mingled with the coppery smell of semen. John’s breathing had slowed and his head was heavy on Paul’s shoulder. His hair smelled like cigarette smoke and eucalyptus. Twenty years, Paul thought. And ten of them spent concealing a forbidden desire he couldn’t articulate until tonight.
Convinced that John had dropped off, he was devising of ways to shift himself into a more comfortable position when John said, in a voice thick with sleep, “What I said earlier. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Hmm?” He stroked John’s head.
“I didn’t mean ‘don’t show up at all,’ what I meant was exactly what I said. Just call, okay? I’ve got Sean all day and most of the time I’m bloody tired, that’s all.”
“Oh,” Paul said. “Well, alright then.”
“I want you to show up more,” John said.
“Here,” Paul said, trying to conceal how pleased that made him. “My leg’s going numb. Let’s move a bit.”
He put out a hand and groped for the first piece of clothing he could find, which happened to be his purloined T-shirt. John rose to his hands and knees, and Paul mopped them up as best he could. As John rolled onto the left side of the bed and slid beneath the duvet, Paul located his pyjama trousers. Before he could begin wrestling them on, John had snatched them out of his hands and tossed them across the room.
“Oy!” Paul said.
“Not tonight,” John said, a small smile playing about his lips. “C’mere.”
“Tosser,” said Paul. He laid down on his pillow and stretched an arm across John’s chest. John laid a hand on it, hugging it close.
John was sacked out in two minutes flat, hand twitching on Paul’s arm and eyelashes fluttering, the perfect picture of peace. Paul closed his eyes. As he drifted into the twilight realm between waking and sleeping, he was back in the breakfast room at High Park Farm. Linda was at the table coaxing Stella to eat her oatmeal, while Mary was gulping toast and jam and swinging her legs against her chair, anxious to finish breakfast so she could go outside and play. Heather was reading a Nancy Drew mystery, her oatmeal abandoned. He and John were at the sideboard pouring tea for everyone. Paul was trying to impress upon him that Stella took double milk and sugar, while Linda took milk but no sugar.
The early morning sunlight in John’s eyelashes and hair made Paul grip him about the waist and pull him close. After breakfast, they would walk the moors and visit the sheep, maybe mend that broken bit of fence by the barn. Perhaps they’d accompany Linda and the girls on a trip to the seaside. He kissed John on the cheek, and John smiled back at him.