Six days before Christmas, Good for Nothing Lennon found himself alone in the Dakota. Utter Waste of Space Lennon had tried to watch some television, but without Sean underfoot giving his teddy a pram ride or stacking sofa cushions into forts and making a comfortable din, he couldn’t concentrate. Lacking the usual goodbye kiss from Yoko on her way out the door to meet that morning’s board of dictators, Perpetual Disappointment to Everybody Lennon couldn’t get on with his day. So smoking ciggie after ciggie, Perfect Failure Lennon sat in the window and wished he hadn’t been born.
Strangers all across the world were unhappy with his decisions, his family was unhappy with his decisions. No one had been satisfied with his decisions for as long as he could remember.
Case in point: You shouldn't waste your time with that rock 'n' roll. Shouldn't dress like a Ted. Shouldn't squander your education like that. You shouldn't have gotten that tramp pregnant. Shouldn’t have said you were bigger than Jesus. Shouldn't have stopped touring. You shouldn't take so much LSD. Shouldn't have fallen in love with that Jap tart. You shouldn't break up the band. You shouldn't sleep with only me, I'm simply not enough for you. You shouldn't hang around Harry. Shouldn’t get so drunk all the time. You shouldn't have abandoned your son. Shouldn't have stopped making music. You shouldn't have yelled at Sean like that. We're leaving.
He'd tried to write his dread down in the journal he kept on his bedside table, but he felt as though something with an icy hand had reached in and squeezed his guts. It was impossible to concentrate over the cresting panic and fear. He tried to remember the last time he had felt completely free and couldn't.
He stood up and paced. The white walls always seemed exceptionally high during times like this. He bent down to stroke Micha, but she evaded his touch and trotted off in the direction of the kitchen, wanting her afternoon ration of calf’s liver no doubt.
All alone in his ivory tower. Except people in ivory towers were supposed to know things. The more certain he was of something, suddenly the more wobbly it seemed. Easier to believe that there were guidebooks that could get you through life, patterns you could observe in the numbers, predestination written in the stars. Often he mistrusted Yoko’s psychics, even Charlie and his clever cards. He was so irritated by people who seemed to have it worked out without having to observe cautious rituals. Like Paul, for instance, bouncing through life like a stupid neighbourhood dog, rewarded with pats and the choicest bones wherever he went. John stubbed his cigarette into an ashtray and looked down seven stories to the street below, then up at the sky. Snowflakes were drifting feather-light on the currents of air. He tried to count nine, but there were too many to pick out single ones. Remembering it was already 19 December, he ached for Sean. Sometimes he felt beyond help.
In the other room, the buzzer to the door sounded. His heartbeat picked up. Maybe it was Yoko, feeling out his mood before she would come up with Sean. Had he really been that much of a prick, though?
"Yes?" he said, punching the button. He wasn't in the humour to make witticisms.
"Visitor for you, Mr Lennon."
There was a time when that might have been enigmatic and therefore enticing, but Paul always arrived in the same way, thinking John's visits were so nameless and numerous that the designation "visitor" would go unrecognised. Strangely enough, he felt a wash of relief at this. There was something to be said for a familiar face when you were feeling desolate and out of sorts, even if Paul did get under his skin half the time.
A minute later, Paul was standing inside the door looking perfectly absurd, wrapped in too many layers and weighted down by bags and parcels and luggage, his face half-swallowed by a muffler.
“Looking shabby there, Father Christmas,” said John.
“It’s nice to see you too,” Paul said. “Take some of these?” Without waiting for a yes, he dumped some boxes in John’s arms. They were damp with snow.
John set them on the table in the entryway. “Shoes,” he said. Paul had already started to make his way toward the sitting room.
“Don’t act so happy to see me,” Paul said, sliding them off and pushing them next to the neat line of Sean’s and Yoko’s against the wall. He wiggled out of his anorak and handed it to John.
“I thought you were on tour,” John said, curiosity getting the best of him.
“We are,” said Paul, unwinding his muffler and draping it on top of the coat. “We’ve got the next ten days off.”
“And you just decided to spend them in New York?” John said, hoping that his voice sounded as dry as he wanted it to. The curiosity was really stabbing him now.
“Something like that, yeah,” said Paul. “Yoko and Sean about?”
Paul looked surprised.
“They’re out,” John said and, since turnabout was fair play, “What about the rest of the McEastmans?”
“At home,” said Paul, just as unhelpfully.
“Tea?” said John. Nothing solved a stalemate like tea.
“Would you?” said Paul. “I can’t believe how bloody cold it is here. It feels like minus twenty. A wonder you haven’t frozen your arse off.” He gestured at John, who hadn’t bothered to put on a shirt or socks when he’d gotten out of bed.
“At least I’m wearing trousers today.” He glanced Paul up and down, thought he detected a blush in his cheeks that had nothing to do with the cold. As usual when he came to visit, Paul had a guitar strapped to his back. But the suitcases were new. “What’re those?” he said, cocking his head. “This isn’t a hotel, you know.”
Bold as fucking brass, Paul walked past him. “Yoko told me to bring my things,” he said, setting them next to the sofa.
“Yoko told you to—what?” Setting Paul’s things on the table next to the parcels, John followed him into the sitting room.
“She told I was coming, didn’t she?” he said, raising an eyebrow.
“No, she didn’t bloody tell me you were coming!” said John, forgetting that he wasn’t supposed to be interested. “What is this?”
Cool as ever, Paul said, “Well, it looks like a visit.”
“What did she tell you?” John said. There was that cold, tight sensation in his middle again.
“Tea?” Paul said, sitting on the sofa.
“I want to know what the hell she told you, man,” said John. He could tell his voice was hard now and while he hated that Paul always seemed to catch him when he was in a bad mood, he hated the thought that the two of them had been colluding behind his back more.
“Hey wait a minute now, she didn’t tell me anything.” Paul looked taken aback. “She told me you could use some company, but Christ. I’m telling you, I didn’t fly eight hours here straight after a show so you could yell at me to fuck off. So can it with the bad humour.”
“It’s my fucking flat,” John said. Paul couldn’t push him around that easy.
“Yeah? It’s my fucking holiday and I’m not about to spend it with a murderous crosspatch. You’re as bad as one of the kids. Just, let’s have the tea, alright?” Paul pushed out his jaw, daring him to say anything.
They stared at one another.
At last, John laughed. Paul could be a tenacious bastard when he wanted to be. “Christ, and you’re as bad as Sean when he wants ice cream for supper! I’ll get you some bloody tea.”
“Thank you,” said Paul, crossing his legs and reaching for that morning’s Times.
John filled the kettle with water from the tap. Yoko preferred distilled, but today he felt compelled to make it the way he did in the old days, he and Paul practising for hours on end every afternoon at Forthlin Road while his dad was at work, trading fags and gulping tea, occasionally scanning for Elvis or Little Richard on the wireless. As he set the kettle to boil, the cats wound around his ankles, crying for a tidbit.
“$675 for an ice-cream maker?” Paul said, looking up from the paper when John returned. “You Americans are mad. I suspect you’ll be ordering one.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” said John, sitting on the arm of the sofa next to him and peering at the paper.
“Never mind,” Paul said, folding it back up and setting it aside. “Slow news day.” He looked up at John.
John met his eyes. He still wasn’t accustomed to thinking of a man in the same way he’d been thinking of women for twenty-five years, yet the same anticipatory sensation appeared in his throat when he locked eyes with Paul. It was a kind of electricity. The gaze lasted two seconds too long. Paul smiled and John had to look away.
You could get swallowed in Paul's eyes if you weren't careful.
He cleared his throat. “So you just decided to stop off in New York? Bit out of the way, isn’t it?” Not that he followed Wings Over the Goddamn Solar System that closely, but the American papers hadn’t been fellating them lately so he assumed they’d been playing in England.
“Well, I didn’t just decide, your wife phoned me about it,” said Paul. “Which my wife was not happy about, I’ll have you know,” he added, wagging a finger at John. “It being Crimble and all.”
“So you flew here …?”
“6:45 in the morning after playing Glasgow and getting three hours of sleep. And sitting on the jet for eight hours.”
“Come off it, I’m sure you had a nice kip on the way over.” Paul had always liked to dramatise things a little bit.
“Yeah, not the same as your own warm bed, though!” said Paul. “I was looking forward to having some long lie-ins over the holiday, you know.” His voice was insistent, but playful.
“Right, and I suppose you can achieve that with half a dozen mini-McCartneys stampeding ‘round the house,” said John, tossing him a smirk.
Paul yawned, as if envisioning it. “You get used to it.”
They were still no nearer to the question of why Paul was here. Yoko was a force to be reckoned with, sure, but she’d never had any particular sway over Paul. Quite the opposite. It made him more than a touch suspicious and, irrational though it was, jealous. Perhaps she’d finally had enough of Shit for Brains Lennon and Mr Happy-Go-Lucky in the flesh was beginning to look good. The cheerier Paul was, the more hateful he wanted to be. Just to spite ‘em.
As if to prove his point, Charo hopped up onto the couch and began giving Paul the business, tail held high and paws flexing. Paul bent over her, speaking soft words, and she butted him with her forehead. Christ, even the cats liked Paul better.
“What did Yoko tell you?” John said. “‘Cos she didn’t tell me, whatever it is.”
“You know how she is,” Paul said, stroking Charo. “Not much. She told me you’d been a bit down lately and needed some company. I, uh—” His hand stilled.
“Hey, you didn’t sound in such bad shape to me. It didn’t sound that urgent. I asked why she couldn’t call on any of your New York mates, you know. I mean, there I am getting ready to go on stage and it’s a week ‘til Christmas. Not the most convenient time. Linda wasn’t happy with me.”
“Thanks,” said John, folding his arms.
Paul clucked. “You asked,” he said. “Any road, Yoko said it was me you needed. No question, only ol’ Paul would do. She’s hard arguing with when she’s got her mind made up. Figured it must’ve been important.”
“Wonder what she meant by that,” he said.
“What do you think?” Paul said. Charo chirped at him and he resumed stroking her. “You’re the one who’s down in the dumps here.”
“How do I look to you?”
Paul looked him down, then up. He considered. “Well,” he said, “you’ve not taken my advice about having a bit more to eat, but no better or worse than usual.”
John snorted. “Please, the flattery will go to me head.”
Paul shrugged. “Anyhow, I’m here now.”
“Are you happy to be?” John said. He couldn’t resist asking what was on his mind.
Paul looked into his eyes and gave him a partial smile. “Yeah, guess I am. You’d better make good use of me while I’m here.”
“And how long is that?”
“I’ve got to be back by the 22nd or the kids’ll never forgive me. I’ve promised them a tree no later than then.”
John prickled a little, hearing that. Paul had always been enviably good with children. Julian had never said it out loud, but John could always tell that he wished Paul was his dad. The effortless way Paul would get down on his hand and knees so three-year-old Jules could mount his back and command the clumsy Paul horsie over the carpet. How he’d sling Julian atop his shoulders and give him a faster, teeth-rattling version of the horse, or whirl him around full speed until they were both dizzy and screaming with laughter. John couldn’t crack him the way Paul could. In many ways Julian had always felt like a stranger, moulded to Cynthia’s conception of what a boy ought to be, a Powell and not a Lennon. At any rate, how did you talk to a kid? What did you do with ‘em? They were so full of daft ideas, so brimming with energy and noise when you least wanted it. Sean he’d had to learn from scratch and that’s when it clicked, but most times he doubted he was any good at being a father.
“What’s happening this afternoon, anyway?” Paul said.
“You’re looking at it,” said John.
From the kitchen the kettle was rising to a shriek, which gave John an excuse to excuse himself.
He’d seen Paul only twice since the spring of 1976, once after Wings had played New York and once when Paul had brought baby James over to meet them. Paul, in an embarrassed English sort of way, was quiet on the subject of their changed relationship, although he didn’t—John noted—object when John had pulled him into a side room and locked the door while Linda and Yoko and the kids visited in the sitting room.
Of course John hadn’t really expected Paul to drop everything for him. Not really.
Though he knew and it stung him that once upon a time, not too many years ago, Paul probably would have.
Still. What he had expected was to see the bastard more than twice in three bloody years. Somehow, he could never bring himself to broach the topic when Paul rang from Scotland or London or wherever he was farting around at the time. He didn’t want to grovel, to scrape for the crumbs of Paul’s attention, which was clearly focused on far more important things than Imperial Twat of the Year Lennon. God knew he was busy enough himself bringing up baby and plane-hopping from country to country trying to straighten out his cosmic shit.
He poured the steaming water into twin white cups and fished some tea bags out of the cupboard. Usually the whiteness of the Dakota was clean, calming, but some days he longed for the smirchy disorganisation of a faraway life in Liverpool. Some days he longed to muddy it over. There wasn’t a day he didn’t wish for something different. Same as it ever was. He pulled the milk out of the refrigerator and tucked it under an arm, kicked the door shut and grabbed the cups.
He laid it down on the coffee table in front of Paul and took a seat beside him.