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Hamburg Blues

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"Did you really kill someone?" John asked Horst Fascher. It was two in the morning, and the bouncer had just kept him from getting beaten up by another pissed off member in the audience who hadn't found John's jokes funny. They had been on stage since four hours now, with two more to do, and only ten minute breaks now and then. At this point, they were running on beer, the white pills they'd been given since arriving here and sheer adrenaline. Maybe John was afraid to run out of adrenaline, Paul thought, because that wasn't something you went around and asked people. Even if it was a persistent rumour. "Stick to Horst," Tony Sheridan had told them, "and they won't make mince meat out of you. "

"We don't need..." John had started, all attitude, and Tony, clad in years more experience and craziness to match and surpass John's, had laughed. "Oh, you will. You with your big mouth and him with his girly looks and the kid with his pimples, and the runt with the sunglasses who can't play? They'll have you for breakfast, mate. You need some backup with muscles. And hey, if you piss him off, he'll kill you quickly, like the last guy who did that, so it's win-win either way."

With that kind of challenge, it was probably inevitable John would try to provoke Horst Fascher as well, sooner or later. Next to Paul, George got tense. Stu and Pete were off to get everyone some new beer.

"Well, did you?" John persisted.

Horst wasn't a tall man, but he had muscle, and teeth like a shark. His English was okay, an odd mixture of vocabulary picked up from American songs and British sailors, and there was no way he hadn't understood John the first time. Paul opened his mouth to launch another complaint about Stu's bass playing, which John wouldn't listen to but which might distract him from playing stupid I Dare You games.

"Yes," Horst replied shortly. He didn't come across as angry, and Paul kept quiet.

"In the war?" George asked, sounding half way between curiosity and fear.

"They don't teach you counting in England?" Horst returned with his rumbling voice. "How old do you think I am?"

He had thinning hair and lines on his face, so they had mentally cast him as somewhere in the nebulous region beyond 30. As it turned out, he had been born in 1936, which made him only four years older than John. It was a bewildering realisation.

"And here I thought you'd shaken Adolf's hand and got the Iron Cross or something," John said, and this time, Horst frowned and looked genuinely angry. Of course, John honed in on this immediately. "Or maybe you did. What was that called, the Nazi boys club, the Hitler Youth?"

Horst put his hands on John, pushed him to the ground and opened his own fly before they could move. Then he pissed on John. Not long, and John, after staring in a moment in shocked disbelief, was up again and out of the reach of the urine in a heartbeat. Paul and George were still gaping, mouth wide open, when Horst zipped his trousers shut and said: "My father, he refused to join the party. They sent him to the Eastern Front. No more Nazi jokes, yes?"

This time, Paul preempted whatever John was going to say. "Done, mate," he said hastily and dragged John to the direction of the bar where Pete and Stuart were taking their own sweet time. To his surprise, John didn't struggle. Instead, he actually grinned.

"Gives a new meaning to taking the piss out of someone, that does," he said. "What?"

"You're a mad bastard," Paul said with relief. They got their beer and when they returned to the stage, Horst had taken up his usual position in a corner, keeping one eye on the guests and another on the musicians. It was as if nothing had happened. They didn't take a break again until an hour later, and to their surprise, Horst came to them with some bread rolls that had cold fish on them. They hadn't eaten anything since the morning, and were far too grateful to do anything but accept.

"Koschmider, he's a pig," Horst said, referring to his boss, the club's owner, who was paying their meagre salaries as well. "Wants to keep all to himself. Stupid. You get better people if you feed them, in all the jobs."

"So you're not angry?" George asked, because George was both honest and young enough to ask that point blank. Horst waved his hands around in a dismissive gesture. There was a glint in John's eyes that told Paul what John was going to do only a second before John said it, so his own response was limited to aiming a kick in John's general direction.

"Great," John declared cheerfully. "Then you can tell us about when you killed someone. In a totally not-Nazi fashion."

Horst folded his arms and leaned back.

"That was my new leather jacket you pissed on," John said, not taking his eyes from Horst. "You owe me."

It wasn't just bravado on John's part. They had arrived in Hamburg in the flannel trousers and jackets which English bands wore and had done since Paul's father's day; he'd even altered one of his Dad's treasured relics from the hallowed days of Jim Mac's Jazz Band so he'd have something truly professional to wear. Except that nobody did that on the Reeperbahn anymore. It was leather all the way, and that had eaten up the rest of their cash, hence the lack of meals except for breakfast.

"I was stupid," Horst said. "A stupid boy. Like you."

"No one's like me," John said and laughed.

"Truer words were never spoken," Stuart agreed drily, but he looked worried, and confused, since no one had told him or Pete about what had happened earlier. Some petty part in Paul hoped he'd remain confused, and he tried to squash it. When all was said and done, they couldn't have come to Hamburg if Stu hadn't spent all his prize money on buying that bass, and besides, he was good at defusing John. Sometimes.

"It was an accident, right?" Paul asked Horst as friendly as he could, to cut the story short and get the whole thing over with. It was a while since he'd taken one of the magic pills, and he started to feel the exhaustion coming back. Except going by the noise in the club, there were still enough guests around that Koschmider wouldn't let them go yet. Voices, noises, clashing around them like waves, and a tiny part of him wondered whether there wasn't a pattern in that you should be able to hear, some rhythm.

"It was a sailor," Horst said. "Going out with my girl. Not my girl yet. But I wanted to. So I tell her, why this guy, why not me, and he says, go away, you little runt, and I punch him. Once, twice, no more. But I was a boxer, you see. Featherweight champion of Hamburg, that's what I was. The Olympic victor in my class, Vladimir Jengibarjan, I was in training to fight him next. The big fight. But the sailor, something starts bleeding in his brain from that punch, and he dies the next morning. Just twenty one years, and he's dead. His family was at the trial. Mine, too. So no more boxing, no career, and the boy is dead."

They were silent.

"Life can be pretty shitty sometimes," John said, not even trying for wisecracks. Instead, he actually put his left arm around Horst Fascher's shoulder. That was the thing about John: if he was unafraid to piss people off, he was also unafraid of appearing soft, of showing kindness a moment later. Paul wouldn't have done something like that right then; he'd been too worried Horst Fascher wouldn't want the gesture, especially from someone he'd urinated on an hour earlier, and maybe he also would have been too annoyed about that later part to want to offer sympathy, never mind how much he'd deserved it. Paul knew he had more restraint than John, most of the times, but he also had a long memory and could carry a grudge.

"That it can be," Horst replied gravely, but then his shark grin returned, if somewhat strained. "Especially for the stupid ones, so don't be, eh?"

"I'm the most peaceful lad alive," John said. "It's young Master Harrison here who is the youthful delinquent. As for Paul, they don't call him Mack the Knife for nothing, you know."

Paul recognized a cue if he heard one and launched in to an impromptu rendition of the song Mack the Knife from the Three Penny Opera, complete with playacting grimaces. They had Horst in stitches in a short while, and most people who were looking. Unfortunately, that would be when Koschmider paid one of his occasional visits. The club owner insisted that he didn't pay them to sing and clown around off stage, only on it, and they were evidently not needing any more rest. Horst said something to him in German, and Koschmider harumphed.

"Nur noch fünf Minuten. Five more minutes!" he said to to them and went on the harangue the barmaid about delivering the tips she'd been given to him. There was no more serious talk that night, only jokes, but Paul couldn't get the story out of his head. His father had been worried about him going to Hamburg for all sorts of reasons, and the idea that something like that could happen had been among them. "I could get beaten up just as well in Liverpool," Paul had argued. "You're not saying that our sailors are less tough than the German ones, are you?"

But what he was truly wondering now, in the early morning hours when he felt alternatively ready to drop asleep on stage or somehow so buzzed and energized as if every single note carried new life in it, was not about what he'd do if punched by a featherweight champion. Or how it felt to know you'd killed someone, because he really, really didn't want to know that. No, what he wondered was what it would feel to be on the verge of having a great life ahead of you, of becoming someone special because of what you could do, and then to lose that forever because of a stupid, stupid mistake.

Most of the remaining women in the club were older than them, some much older, but in the dim light one of them, with a pixie haircut, suddenly reminded him of Dot, and Paul flinched, knowing at last why what happened to Horst had felt, for one eerie moment, as if it could have happened to him. If Dot hadn't lost the baby, he'd have married her like his father insisted, and taken a job. A proper job, as Dad had put it, because to Dad music was great but simply could not pay for a family's living, and Dad knew that from his own experience. So: something like driving a lorry, because he didn't have the muscles for being a stevedore, and had failed in all his A-levels except one, so something like university and a scholarship was utterly impossible. No Hamburg, no more band, and goodbye to writing songs, too, in all likelihood.

But that hadn't happened. He'd been lucky, unlike Horst. Except that someone was still dead. They still had his mother's medical books at home, and he'd looked it up, how a foetus looked at two and a half months. It would have been good to feel grief, that would have been the right thing to feel, the normal thing, and he'd waited for the grief to come, staring at the pictures, instead of the numbness and the horrid, horrid sense of relief.

"What the hell is that?" John asked, and Paul, who'd changed from guitar to piano a good while ago, realised he'd stopped playing whatever they had been playing when Paul had drifted away, some Crazy Jay Hawkins probably, but what he was improvising now had nothing to do with that. The notes kept coming, though. Paul looked up. There were only two couples left on the floor, and they were too busy making out to notice. The others had, though. George looked at him, tired, but waiting to follow his lead. Stu had finally gotten rid of the stupid sun glasses and just looked confused. John, on the other hand, had walked over and stood right beside Paul and the piano. "What is that?" he repeated. "Beethoven? Cats yodeling?"

It was something dissonant that wasn't rock'n roll at all, and for a moment, Paul wanted to ask John to make sense of it with him, but they couldn't do that with everyone else around, and anyway, he wasn't sure he wanted John to drag it out of him just yet, before he could change it in his head to something that had nothing to do with that sense of guilt and relief only a bad person would feel.

"Some Marlene," he said, because fooling around with Mack the Knife meant the Kurt Weill songs he'd secretly practiced before they came to Germany, just in case, were first on his mind. "What with being in Hamburg and all."

He switched to Falling in love again, which didn't have anything to do with what he'd been playing, and he could see John knew that, but George gamely played along. Paul heightened the tempo, and he knew John's sense of humour wouldn't let him resist taking the mickey out of an old song form the Thirties by treating it as if it was some hot rock number.

It turned out to be one of the last things they played that morning, because Horst, apparently noticing the music had gotten stranger and stranger, made the last two couples leave and said he'd better escort them back to the Bambi, in case someone waited to take revenge outside for playing all that bullshit instead of American rock'n roll.

"Everyone's a critic," John said, putting on a snotty upper class accent from the radio, but Paul doubted Horst was even familiar with what John was parodying. When they stumbled through the Reeperbahn, Stu hastily putting his James Dean sunglasses back on when they realised it was dawn already, Paul found himself walking next to Horst.

"Did your father come back," he asked, because that had been a lose end in the story which had nothing to do with missed chances and guilt for taken ones, "from the Eastern Front?"

"He was a prisoner with the Russians first," Horst said. "Only 49 kilos of weight when he came back. But he came back, yes. "

"And he got better?"

"He did," Horst confirmed. Paul looked up to the sky, the pale foreign sky over a city which wasn't Liverpool and kept changing the rules on them, a city full of strangers and strangeness waiting to be explored and understood. Because they could. They had the chance. They did, and they would make something out of it.