lennon/mccartney, 12509 words, rated towards the hard side of R.
By Candle Beck
Ringo woke up at close to three in the morning with a taste like dead rats in his mouth and his neck sore from lying funny. Also he had to pee.
He got out of bed and stumbled to the W.C. with only about a tenth of his brain running. His surroundings were familiar, his location momentarily uncertain--another hotel room with stiff white sheets, somewhere new in the world. Ringo went about his business and then cleaned his teeth in the dark, gulped water out of his cupped hands until his stomach hurt and he felt woozy, half-drunk again. Something about the taste of the water reminded him that they were in America now.
Heading right back to bed, Ringo spotted John sitting next to the window, legs folded up with his feet on the sill, a cigarette burning in his hand.
"Oi," Ringo mumbled. He rubbed at his eye with a loose fist. "Still up, son?"
John looked over at him, lidded behind his specs and blank-faced, arms crossed limply on his knees. Smoke wreathed pale grey around him. Beyond the window, the capital of this country was ageless and frozen, covered over entirely by snow. None of them had ever seen this much snow.
"Nightmares, Ring'," John said with a specific curl to his lip, that one that meant Ringo wasn't to take him seriously, nor ask any further questions.
Ringo yawned, nodding, and climbed back into bed. John took a drag, flaring orange, and then exhaled a long stream of smoke up towards the ceiling, dragonlike in the angle of his neck, the tilt of his chin. His bare wrists showed at the ends of his pyjama sleeves, as carved and colourless as marble, seeming fragile even though Ringo knew John's bones didn't break like normal people's.
The bed was so nice, so big and warm and clean. Lovely soft sheets and thick covers against the arctic night outside. On a material level, everything kept getting better and better. Ringo burrowed, wrapping himself up tight and banging the pillow into shape with his head.
"Night then, mate," Ringo said, his voice pulled long and low.
John sent a few smoke rings his way, like good dreams given circular form and set afloat. Ringo sighed contentedly and closed his eyes. What came to mind, bleary and bombing swiftly back to sleep, were screaming girls and stage lights and the backs of his bandmates, the view from above.
Somewhere between London and Liverpool
Paul woke up half-smothered, in a soft-pressure world. There was weight on his chest and legs, something musty and woolish smashing his face. He pulled his head free, sucking in a bolt of clean frozen air, blinking in the rumbling dark.
The pieces came back to him like twists of rhyme sorting themselves out. He was in the back of the van, heading home. Ringo was on top of him, George crushed under and sorta to the side, snoring against the door with Paul's arm wedged under his back. Everywhere that Paul's skin met the air he was going numb; it was a killer kind of cold in here, frigid wind and grimy bits of snow whistling through the van.
Broken windscreen, Paul remembered blearily, tucking his face down into George's shoulder. A pebble had skipped up and splintered a white starburst across the glass, one of those unexpected things that happened when you were hundreds of miles from home. Mal had wrapped his fist in shirts and punched a hole he could see through, and now they might as well have been travelling in an open sleigh. Once the whiskey ran out, body heat was the only viable remedy.
It wasn't so bad, Paul decided, thick-headed and pinned down by his friends. The button of George's coat was impressing itself into Paul's cheek. The road rushed by outside, rough spots jolting the three of them on the hard bench, snow sticking to Paul's hair.
Up front he could hear John talking to Mal. Mal sounded half-asleep himself, answering John shortly in monosyllables and vague hums. Paul could see Mal's sausage-fingered hand on the wheel, kneading with weary irritation.
Paul lifted his head, cleared his throat. "John--hey John."
John's face appeared between the seats, tight-skinned and thin-eyed and bluish. He looked frozen, miserable.
"Stop bothering Mal and come back here, get some sleep. There's room."
Quick immediate shake of John's head, his mouth pressed small. "Not tired. Oi, where exactly is your hand in relation to our dear George? Careful now, a lad wants to be able to wear white at his wedding."
Paul snorted and rolled his eyes. John flashed a shivering uneven grin, rubbing his hands together restlessly.
"At least for the warmth then, come on. Fingers're gonna freeze off, ya daft git." Paul was insistent, presuming that John would follow his instructions without undue argument. John accepted that tone from just two people on earth: the aunt who'd raised him and Paul McCartney.
John huffed and made like it was a massive imposition, but he clambered into the back of the van and wedged himself next to the door by shoving Ringo further onto Paul. Ringo woke up briefly to say in a startled tone, "Hullo," and then his head promptly dropped back down. John jammed his hands in under Ringo, worming inside Paul's coat. His fingers were like ice, even through Paul's shirt, and Paul swallowed a gasp, his stomach tightening reflexively.
He patted John's snow-damp hair, which made John growl, dog-voiced. Up front, Mal was mumbling an Elvis song, and Paul hummed along under his breath, closing his eyes and tucking his face down again. George's coat smelled like cigarettes and lint and sea salt, a good home kind of smell. John's fingers twitched and jerked on Paul's stomach, and Paul resolved to stay awake until John fell still, but of course that didn't happen.
Paul dreamt of the biggest theatre in the world. Millions of people seated in ever-heightening rows, stacked higher than skyscrapers, higher than planes could go, and way down at the bottom was their tiny white-lit stage, the centre of the whole universe.
They'd been onstage for hours.
George's fingers were bleeding, cracks in the calluses, crucified throb in the centre of his palm. His guitar was so heavy it might have been made of lead. He leaned on Paul, who was silver-eyed and shaking, having gone past exhaustion and into hysteria. Paul was still singing, doing a pretty good job of it too.
There was almost nobody left in the club, just a few drunken British sailors who'd been back and forth with John all night, and a bronze-haired stripper who was waiting for Pete. Broken glass under the tables and bluish smoke clouding the rafters, everything tinged and reeking of beer.
George was falling asleep on his feet, falling asleep slumped on Paul's back, cheek against a thin once-white shirt soaked with sweat. Paul was very warm, a heartbeat caught up under his skin, under George's cheek.
Then John, wild John with a flush like handprints on his face, like he'd been slapped hard, flew off the stage to attack a sailor who'd had the poor judgement to say something about his mother. Mad crashing tangle of bodies on the barroom floor, and Paul shouted, disappeared so suddenly that George almost fell on his face.
The fight was brief and savage. Everyone got in on it, even Pete. Fists and boots and chair legs, the rough splintered floor, shattered brown bottles, John with a bright flag of blood thrown across his face. It was strange to be fighting Englishmen again, understanding the curses and slurs slung their way. George hadn't been called a feckin' Scouser in months and months.
Eventually the club's bouncers stirred themselves to break up the fight. It was the brothers Karl and Dolph on shift tonight, and no hope of sympathy from that quarter. They'd had a low opinion of the whole band ever since John had approached their little sister as a prostitute when he saw her on the Reeperbahn for the first time. Indiscriminately, the sailors and the Beatles were bodily removed from the club, tossed out into the street. Everybody was reeling drunk, different degrees of walking wounded. The fresh stinging wind and dented neon, not to mention the unimpressed whores across the street, sucked most of the violent urgency out of the scene.
Pete had vanished, as was his wont, and Paul dragged John down the street so he wouldn't start up with the sailors again. George followed them, checking his fingers and hands for any palpable damage.
John hooked a possessive arm around Paul's neck, acting like he wasn't being led. They were arguing about who should be singing lead on that song about the girl who was hit by a train. John was bleeding freely from a gash in his lip, but it didn't seem to bother him much.
An uneven bit of pavement thrust itself up under George's feet and he almost crashed onto the pavement. His eyes felt thick and sticky, and he said, "Home, Paul, yeah?"
Paul shot him a look, half his face hidden by the curl of John's arm. "Bedtime, is it?"
Paul might have been smiling; from this angle, George couldn't tell. He nodded, head feeling unscrewed. "Soon as possible, if you please."
"Yeah, all right," Paul answered. "Inclined that way myself."
John didn't like that, tightening his arm around Paul's neck and pulling him closer. George edged along next to them, watching Paul's face scrunch up and his fists push without strength against John's body. George thought that Paul could have broken away easily enough if he really wanted to.
"Night's young, lads," John said, a flash of red-tinted teeth. "Wouldn't do to leave it undone, eh? With this bloody carnival around us, seventh circle of hell and all that--where else would a right-thinking soul want to be? Tell him, Paulie."
"Seventh circle of hell will still be here tomorrow," Paul said. "I'm knackered, home's right enough."
"Fuckin' useless, you are," John said on a sneer, and shoved Paul away from him, quick-turning like that, fickle. "Hardly worth bringing you to Germany at all."
Paul scowled, weaving faintly but certainly not half as drunk as John was. "Won't trouble you by not sticking around then, will we? C'mon George."
George shrugged his shoulders at John and went with Paul, stumbling but not too badly. They left John in a patch of tarnished gold neon, in front of lit-up pictures of half-naked girls.
John called after them, "And it's not home, you stupid wanker."
Paul looked back over his shoulder and George saw that his eye was swelling up, his mouth in a tense pained shape. He looked angry, and exhausted, and dissatisfied with leaving John alone on the Reeperbahn.
"He's not going to sleep tonight," Paul said, sounding irritated.
"Can't do anything about that," George replied, elongated by a yawn.
Paul turned and walked backwards, his hair stuck to his forehead and sweat-darkened to curls of ink, his eyes trained on John from half a block away. George glanced back and John was still in the same place, pale black-dressed figure under the flickering burlesque lights, watching them go.
And still there was Paul, walking backwards with a strange faraway look on his face, something hostile in the typically sweet bend of his mouth. George wanted to tell him not to worry about it so much, what good was it worrying so much about someone like John, but instead he yawned again, huge, jaw-popping, mind-fuzzing. He was so tired it was all he could do to keep walking, and he figured if it was really important he'd still remember to tell Paul tomorrow.
Thirty thousand feet over the Atlantic Ocean
Flying away from home through the vast black cloth of night, the album just finished, Ringo had a dream about a house made of tins of beans, stacked up in dull-gleaming towers, labels turned out. Holes missing from the walls, times when hunger had overcome architecture, and Ringo-in-the-dream knew the whole history, it seemed so ordinary to him. He woke up with an odd gasp, clutching the arms of his seat.
The plane was mostly dark, lit unevenly by small floating gold lights. As Ringo shifted, one of the stewardesses looked up from where she was a reading a paperback in the bulkhead, made as if to stand and attend to him, but Ringo waved her off with an easy smile. Not so famous he couldn't go to the loo by himself.
George was stretched out in the wide aisle (he never did have a problem sleeping on less-than-merciful surfaces), an airplane blanket pulled up above his shoulders so that his feet stuck out the other end. Ringo stepped over his skinny askew form, holding onto the seats for balance. The plane hummed in that vague overloud way that was the only hint of the speed at which they were travelling.
Awake in the back, John tapped his biro on the little notebook he carried with him everywhere, lifted his eyebrows at Ringo over his specs. John looked foggy and distant, at a great remove.
Lopsided smile, and Ringo said, "Already starting the next one, are we?"
John's answering smirk was a second too late, the timing off. "Gotta stay one ahead of Paul, at least."
Paul was sleeping in the seat across from John, head tipped against the window and his mouth slack, neat dark mustache making him look like his own older brother.
Ringo chuckled and went on to the loo, and on the way back he noticed how John was slumped down, scribbling lyrics in his notebook as if with his own blood, and with a weird feeling that this had happened before, Ringo told him, "Get some sleep, mate."
"Never could sleep on planes, hadn't you noticed?" John said, swift glance up.
"Aye, I suppose." Ringo thumbed through his memory briefly, deciding that John was probably right. "Still, it's a long way."
John coughed. "I wouldn't worry about it if I was you."
That was John's default way of dismissing someone, and Ringo was too tired himself to properly counter, so he mumbled g'night and went back to his seat, where the view out the window was bereft of light or object.
The roar of the plane engines eradicated the sound of John's pen scratching against the page, and it was easy enough for Ringo to fall back asleep.
New York City, New York/Campbeltown, Scotland
Nothing echoed more than a phone call in the middle of the night in a Scottish castle. Paul almost fell out of bed, yanked abruptly from a dream about airplanes that disappeared as soon as he thought about it.
The phone was ringing in the small anteroom off the bedroom, and God knew Linda could sleep through the Blitz, so Paul stumbled over the thick carpets and cold stone, mentally checking on the kids and they were all under this roof, all near at hand. Phone calls in the middle of the night were always either drunken friends or tragedy; it was important to go in properly braced.
"Yeah, hello?" he said in a stage whisper, his hand cupped around the mouthpiece of the phone.
"Paul, hey Paul, do you want to hear a new song?"
"John?" Paul knuckled his eye, casting about for a clock of some kind and there, the mantle, strange green-glowing hands. "It's gone bloody five in the morning here, mate."
"Ach, that fuckin' time change again," and John sounded like the whole concept was a personal affront.
"And what, what is it," Paul fumbled for a minute, "one o'clock in New York, you should be asleep anyway."
"Tell that to the wee bairn," John said in the bad Scottish accent that he liked to affect when he remembered that Paul lived there now. "Likes to get his old man out of bed, it seems."
"Aye, they'll do that." Paul slumped down in an old-fashioned velvet armchair, leaning heavily on his elbow. "Ring someone in California next time."
"I'd rather ring you," and John sounded distracted, piano in the background, probably a little drunk or stoned if Sean had had him up for longer than an hour or so.
"Not very practical, son," Paul said, thick-throated for some reason.
John sighed gustily against the receiver. "Will you hear the song, for fuck's sake? Sean starts crying again if I stop playing for too long."
Resting his head in his hand, Paul closed his eyes and said honestly, "I might fall asleep."
"Don't, don't, it's a good song. Here, I'm putting the phone down, just stay on for a little while, okay Paulie? Can you still hear me?"
Paul said, "Yeah man," even though he didn't know how John was planning on hearing him if he'd put the phone down.
They'd been getting on better recently, after a very long time of not. Paul and Linda had been in New York only a few weeks ago, sitting up smoking joints and watching Saturday Night Live with John and Yoko, and it was easy like it hadn't been since the mid-sixties, falling into the old banter with John, finishing the same jokes. Paul was entirely unsurprised to find that he was still wholly susceptible to John's charm when John chose to grace him with it. The worst of their history was a half-dozen years behind them and receding like boats over the horizon. There was no cure for what they had meant to each other--which was everything, at one point or another, absolutely every different thing--but at least they could move on.
Now John rang him up all hours, and Paul recognised it as an instinctive reaction, this immediate pressing forward to capitalise on the gains made. John did have a tendency to take advantage of people's affection for him, but Paul had never really minded that much.
If Paul was going to be John's friend again (which he was, no matter how many years it took; Paul was convinced that someday they would be as close as they ever were, old men on tour together or something similarly far-fetched), he was going to have to humour the five a.m. phone calls and oblique demands and painful nostalgia and everything else that went with it. It was worth it, really, especially when you could understand the subtext, the intractable history. They'd spent almost two decades being everything to each other but indifferent, and Paul was old enough now to recognise that that was how love worked in the world outside of songs.
John was playing the piano, tinny and secondhand and what Paul could make out sounded just lovely. With his eyes closed he could see John on the other side of the ocean with his infant son lying on a blanket on the floor, the room dark except for the small gold light spilling over the keys and the skyline shining all cobalt and silver through the windows.
It all came through so clearly: John's clever hands moving over ivory, that ducking sway of his head, lips mouthing the melody. Paul was stuck in a halfway world between asleep and awake, the phone caught between his shoulder and his ear, forgetting for long seconds that the band had ever broken up.
It was pouring rain, well past midnight. John and George were the last two awake, sitting under the covered front porch watching the rain hammer the court into red mud. They were trading a cigarette and a joint back and forth, not talking much because they'd gotten to that point in their friendship where they didn't talk that much.
Last two awake and it felt like the last two in the world, like there had been a terrible flood. There were so many people here usually (so many people everywhere they went, something he was supposed to have gotten used to by now), so much colour and action and vibrant life, and now the windows were dark and the hallways were empty. Even the monkeys were gone, drowned or seeking higher ground, and George thought there might be a parable in there somewhere, or a song, anyway. He considered telling John about it but decided against; the world only needed so many stories about floods.
He was very stoned, George realised in that pleased hazy way that came part and parcel with it. He felt muzzled, smothered, but in a good way. He passed the joint back to John.
"Finish it, I'm done in." George breathed deep of the drenched botanical air, jacaranda and jasmine and something viscerally green underlying it all.
"Dropping out of the race, son?" Lazy John, his legs stretched out before him, stub of the jay eking smoke from between his fingers. "Surely we raised you better than that."
"Sod off," George mumbled, eyes half-closed and heavier by the minute. Mantras and chord structures filled his mind, his fingers picking faintly against the wooden chair arm. This place appealed to him very much in its details and specificities, all the little things.
John was humming, his hand idly tracing the air as if there were an orchestra only he could see. They were both somewhat hypnotised by the rain.
When falling asleep in his chair became less possibility than likelihood, George sat up with an effort, swaying as John blinked at him, a single orangish light reflected in his specs.
"Coming in, then?" George asked, seeing how John was thick-eyed and limp as well.
"Think I'll stay for the rest of the show," John answered with a tip of his chin at the rain. He sounded hoarse, scraped dry, like back in the early days when he had to close the show with 'Twist and Shout' every night. It was the end of their third day on the other side of the world, and there was no chance John wasn't tired.
"Of course," George said, hiking his eyebrows. "I never did hear a good reason for why you don't fancy sleep."
John looked caught for a second, trapped, and then his soft unnerving blade of a smile cut through the scene. He shrugged, moving his gaze somewhere just to the left of George's.
"Not all the time," John said. "Mostly just when we're not at home."
George squinted down at him for a few seconds, his capacity for abstract thought interestingly re-shaped by the weed. He dug deep. Not at home, and that meant on the road. His mind went directly back to their years on tour, the endless chains of hotel rooms and planes and coaches, John awake at the window, drinking in the streets with waitresses after the pubs closed, hunching over his guitar in the hallway writing songs while the rest of them slept it off. John, roaming the world wide awake for years, a ghost that only showed up in the moonlight.
Odd otherworldly train of thought. George rubbed a tired hand over his face, and blamed the hour.
"World-famous rock and roll star wouldn't be a very good job for you, seems like," George said, little hooking smile to take any possible sting out of it (speak without malice, for there is no shortage in the world).
John tipped his head back against the chair, bloodshot eyes and chapped lips. "Ah, that's a shame. The great dream of my life, shattered on the tile. Had to come to India, I suppose."
George pushed himself carefully to his feet, testing his legs and standing at a tilt. John watched him with blunted interest, smudges on his spectacles making a skyful of clouds shift across his eyes.
"Well. Goodnight then," George said. "Until tomorrow."
"So written," John lifted his hand, and tucked a fresh cigarette in his mouth. George watched him angle his head to the side and spark a match into the cup of his palm, and then he went inside.
The storm was alive on the windows of George's room, beating on the glass like huge soaked wings. Somewhere in George's past existed a small boy hiding from the thunder under his older sister's bed, but this new faith must be working for him, because all he heard now was the everyday voice of God.
Los Angeles, California
Ringo liked the horseshoe-shaped house off Mulholland Drive very much, the smooth-wood decks under his bare feet, the steep sides of the canyon looming, the surreal floating blue of the pool in the daylight. Insane crackling heat in the brush, the temperature over thirty degrees every day and Ringo's drumsticks kept slipping out of his hands, his palms slick and his fingers feeling swollen from the weather.
This was the third of their four days off. Just yesterday, Ringo's ears had finally stopped ringing. They lay around the pool in their swimming shorts, smoking grass and listening to the radio. Every fifth song was one of theirs, but nobody was allowed to sing along. They were on holiday.
The girls had gone inside a minute ago, giggling and stumbling and drunk on sunlight and champagne and grass. Paul was dozing on an inflatable raft, hand trailing in the water. George sprawled like a dead man in a deck chair, his mouth cocked open and his sunglasses askew on his face. Ringo stared up at the astonishingly blue sky and considered taking a nap himself, clouds of smoke occupying his insides, too hot to move.
John emerged from the house with his guitar slung around his sunburnt shoulder, still wearing his Dylan cap even in this heat. He came to stand over where Ringo was lying in a deck chair of his own, his shadow cutting steeply across Ringo's face.
"Here, listen to this, it's brand new," John said, sounding eager and excitable, that lovely sweetening effect that marijuana had on him. He played a disjointed bit of melody, two or three songs stitched together in a way that made Ringo's fingers twitch.
"Brilliant," Ringo told him, smiling beatifically. "Best ever, maybe."
John made a scoffing sound but he was grinning, plucking away at his guitar. Ringo watched his hands run across the strings and it was like the hypnotist's swinging watch, weighting his eyelids and seeping peace through his body.
"There's words too, you wanna hear the words?"
Encouraging grin from John, who was ramped up to his very most charming, and usually Ringo would be happy to see it, but the mild drunk and three recent joints and dense sunlight were getting to him. He could barely keep his eyes open.
"Show us a little later, yeah?" Ringo gave him a sleepy smile. "Have a quick kip, mate, everyone's doing it."
John stopped playing, glancing around at George snoring in the chair and Paul in serious danger of overbalancing into the pool. He came back to Ringo, glaring behind his specs, fingers spidering urgently over the strings.
"Ah, but sleep is for the faint of heart. No surprise with that pair of tossers, but I had more faith in you, Ringo me lad."
Ringo grinned, terribly endeared to John at this moment, in the middle of this California day that was perfect in almost every detail and hardly seemed real. The sky alone--they'd been all over the world now, and Ringo would swear on his mother that he'd never seen sky this particular colour blue.
"Play it, Johnny," Ringo said, letting his eyes slip shut.
"Play you to sleep, is that what I'm good for now? And here was me thinking I'd reached a certain level of success in this business, silly boy."
John muttered on, but his hands were at work again, spurring an unfamiliar song out of the strings. Ringo sighed happily, feeling the dense sunlight soak through his eyelids, feeling himself fall asleep as tangibly as hands dragging him downwards, and the word that came to mind was paradise, but that was probably only the dope.
After the concert, they ate sandwiches in the back of the van, two smashed melted chocolate bars in Ringo's pocket that were shared out between the four of them. Paul licked his fingers and folded the bit of foil into a tight star shape, slow careful eyes squinting down.
He was tired; they were all tired. George slumped against the inside of the van with chocolate still in his mouth, looking too spent to chew. Paul's back ached and his throat was sore from singing all night, and he pictured the hotel bed waiting for him, wide white sheets, crushed pillows.
A glass bottle of Coca-Cola gleamed in John's hand as they alit at the hotel, his satchel slung around his shoulder. Paul followed the shine of it across the lobby and into the lift, all the way up to the top floor where their rooms were. Fanciful imagery clouded his mind, typical for this time of night, this level of exhaustion. The Coca-Cola bottle was a miner's lamp, a candle left burning in the window. It was there to light the way.
Ringo and George both stripped off and collapsed in bed without even cleaning their teeth, but Paul's mum would have a fit, so he retired to the other room and dutifully went about it, cold water on porcelain and regular weary face blinking back at him in the mirror.
Paul came out of the loo to find John still fully dressed, pacing between the two beds and fiddling with the Coke bottle. John showed a nervy little grin as Paul lifted his eyebrows at him.
"Sleeping, then?" Paul asked.
"Seems unlikely." John rolled the empty bottle between his palms. "Waste of time, anyway."
"Sure." Paul rolled his eyes and tugged the covers back on his bed, climbing in. "See what you have to say after passing out on stage tomorrow."
"Fie," John said in a distracted voice. He was standing by the window now, tapping glass against glass.
Paul kicked around until he got comfortable. The cold they had here was the kind that got in under your skin. His eyes stuck on John as a matter of course, white shirt that might as well have been illuminated from within, loosened skinny black tie, slumped against the wall like even pulling up a chair was too much to manage.
Paul fell asleep with that last image of John on the backs of his eyelids, and it seeped into a dream that took place on a train, tracks unbroken to the horizon, and John pressed up close against him in a compartment that seemed impossibly small, and worse by the second. John-in-the-dream had an arm wrapped around Paul's neck, their heads knocking together. Somewhere George was in the background playing incidental music, and close enough to touch John was grinning, true grin with the eyes and all.
Then Paul woke up. He was deeply confused for a minute, not sure why the room wasn't moving. His breath jammed in his chest, his mind clicking and catching like an engine in the cold.
Sweden, he remembered at last, the latest foreign place in this longest year of his life. The room was empty, the bed next to his still made up with tight corners.
"John?" Paul said in a voice not like his own, hushed rough sort of thing. No answer, and Paul got out of bed.
The room was cold, colder than he remembered it being. A small sick feeling unrolled in Paul's stomach, unease prickling his skin. The window was standing open, and Paul cupped his elbows in his hands, holding his arms close to his body as he stuck his head out.
And there was John, sitting on the ledge with his legs hanging over, his heel tocking against the side of the building. He was smoking a cigarette, looking up at the stars.
For a long moment, Paul tried to remember how high up they were: was it ten stories, or eleven? He stared at John's feet swinging with nothing below them, the long long way down.
"John," Paul whispered, and experienced an instant of undiluted terror as John started violently, hands grabbing onto the ledge, delicate balance momentarily askew. The cigarette fell away, carried off on the wind in a brief comet's tail of orange sparks.
"Fuck, mate." John exhaled carefully, leaning back against the building. "What are you trying to do to me?"
"Come, come inside right now," Paul said, hearing a creaky high tone in his voice, just shy of panic. His heart was thundering, his whole life narrowed down John out on the ledge. Gravity was irrevocable; if he fell, nothing in this world would be able to stop him.
"Calm down, will you." John stretched out one leg just to make Paul's breath hitch, mean little smile. "Was quite peaceful out here, a minute ago."
"Don't mess about, just come inside." Paul leaned farther out, braced against the whipping wind, his eyes feeling overly wide, just shy of desperate. "I'll come out and get you, I swear I will."
John's mouth curled in a disbelieving smirk, and he reached a hand out to Paul mockingly. "Come on then, I'd like to see that."
Paul bit the inside of his cheek, glancing down the sheer side of the building to the street, the cars like electric toys, the pavement as dark as the sky. He looked back up at John, stricken and dizzy and muted by a dreamy kind of fear. John was watching him with keen interest, his face all shadow and flush. Paul swallowed hard, lifted his knee onto the sill and began to ease his body out of the window.
"Whoa, hey," and John was laughing, coarse shocked laughter, snatched out of his mouth by the wind. "Stop, Paulie, stop, I'm coming in. Fuckin' nutter, you'll get yourself killed."
The injustice in that was almost beyond reckoning, but John was inching gingerly back along the ledge, and Paul was inclined to forgive him. Paul exhorted him to be careful, be careful, and as soon as John was close enough, Paul latched onto his forearm and wouldn't let go.
They fell back into the room. Paul pulled too hard and John tripped over the windowsill, lurching forward and knocking them both to the floor. A lungful of air vanished and Paul gasped silently, breathless. John was heavy on top of him, squirming and bony and cold, so cold, paper-thin white shirt no real protection, the buttons like ice chips where they brushed Paul's arms.
"You're freezing," Paul managed once he'd gotten his wind back. "How long were you out there?"
"Dunno," and John was making no move to get off of Paul, shifting his legs so he could rest more securely. The top of his head bumped Paul's chin. "Weirdest thing, river city at this height. There's a whole other universe of birds, did you know?"
Paul grunted and shoved his hands between them, searching for John's. John's fingers were bloodless, so cold it made Paul hiss as he pressed John's hands between his own. Little hitching breath from John, fingers jerking against Paul's palms. There was this sense in the back of Paul's mind that this had happened before, rubbing the feeling back into John's hands, crushed too close together. Paul held him in place, adrenaline skimming away, leaving a pounding heart and dry mouth in its wake.
"Stupid, so stupid," Paul muttered. John was starting to feel it, starting to shiver. "What were you doing out there, where's your head that you think you can just sit on a bloody ledge a thousand feet up?"
There was a pause, a moment like a skipped note, and Paul was aware of every place where they overlapped, every other place they'd been before they ended up on this floor here in Sweden.
"Mad lad," John said in an oddly apologetic tone, and then he slid his hands out from between Paul's, and up under Paul's shirt instead.
Hard shocked gasp, like the wind knocked out of him again, and Paul's whole body flinched as John's arctic hands spread wide on his stomach, the thin skin over his ribs. John shifted up, brought his mouth to Paul's cheek, right near his ear whispering, "Hold still for a minute, yeah?"
And Paul, to his eternal bemusement, whispered back, "Yeah," without even thinking about it.
Fast then, everything speeding up, flash of a pawky grin across John's expression, his loveliest eyes thickly lidded and locked on Paul's face. John's hand slid into his pants, fingers still cool enough to make Paul arch up just a bit, breath stopping in his chest, pleasure jolting through him. He stared at John, unable to reconcile the rough hand working him hard with the face of his dearest friend.
John smirked at his confusion, and dropped his head into Paul's throat, his mouth sudden and hot and wet under the shelf of Paul's jaw.
"You're all right," John murmured. "It's gonna be grand, you'll see."
Paul shuddered and his hand leapt to John's shoulder, mysteriously not pushing him away. John's shirt collar crumpled under his grip and there were slashes of smooth clean skin over John's collarbone brushing against the backs of Paul's fingers. John nipped his ear, sucked a mark onto the throb of Paul's pulse, and at some point he'd gotten his own trousers open and now he was stroking them both together, slick skin and clumsy fingers and so hot, heat drenching over Paul when he chanced to glance down at the obscene sight they made.
He panted and turned his face away. John dragged his mouth down Paul's throat, ragged breath and smothered moans, and there was a specific rhythm to it, specific pitch that Paul hoped like hell he could replicate in a recording studio. Ridiculous thing to think, and a crazed sort of laugh punched out him, and then John twisted his wrist and did something unconscionable with his thumb and it was over for Paul, rush and glory and all. He came messily over John's hand and John made a low stunned noise, and followed shortly after, groaning hoarsely against Paul's shoulder.
John went limp against him. Paul could hardly breathe, but that was nothing new. He realised with a distant sense of astonishment that he had one leg hooked around John's, and they'd just had it off on a hotel room floor.
Paul disentangled, and pushed John off of him. John rolled onto his back easily enough, still recovering. Paul stared at the ceiling, his tongue against the back of his teeth, his skin feeling scalded.
"Christ," John said eventually, exhaling. "Wild times in strange places, huh mate?"
It hit Paul low in the gut, the regular lilt in John's voice, that old motto of their life applied to this most alien moment. He wondered helplessly if this was just another insane stunt of John's, just seeing how far Paul could be pushed. He wondered if this was something John had been thinking about for a long time.
There was an audible click as Paul swallowed. "Suppose you'll be able to sleep now, at least."
"You'd think that, wouldn't you?"
John fixed up his trousers with a quick rustle, and then got to his feet, canting briefly before he caught himself on the wall. He offered his hand to Paul, and Paul, operating at something of a remove, put his hand in his friend's and allowed himself to be pulled up.
They were near to each other, Paul swaying and John steadying him with a hand on his hip. Paul's head rushed with blood and he couldn't keep John in focus, only got the slightest sense of his twisting little smile.
"Right then, into bed with you," and John walked him over, pushed him down. Paul went pliantly, falling sideways onto the bed and squirming his way under the covers.
A match scratched and flared, and Paul watched through blurry eyes as John tipped his head and lit a cigarette, leaning against the window like he'd been posed to demonstrate moonlight.
"Stay off that ledge, will you," Paul said, his throat dry. He wanted to say something else. He wanted to say a lot of things, but there were no good words in his mind, just melody without lyrics and that would never do for a rock and roll record.
John looked over at him, faint trace of a humouring smirk on his mouth. "Okay man."
"And also, listen, I, I, I don't--I'm not," and then John cut him off, which was for the best because Paul didn't really know where he'd been going with that.
"It's okay," John said, not repeating himself but like it was supposed to mean something new this time, like Paul alone was meant to understand. Paul blinked at him from across the dark room, searching for direction. John gave him a crooked quietish smile, kinda sad at the edges.
"Go to sleep," John told him. "It'll be a long day."
Paul couldn't argue with that. He couldn't keep looking at John because it made something ache dully in his chest, something about the stiff line of John's shoulders, the too-practised bend of his hand around his cigarette. Paul rolled onto his side, and closed his eyes.
The sight that came immediately to mind was John out on the ledge, in the steep bitter wind, in that careless lovely way that he had perfected, and Paul shivered, curling up around a fistful of blanket. He didn't know what it was about John, never had. There had been a place carved out for him in Paul's heart for years now, the shape and size changing but always unmistakably there. It was going to be there forever, Paul was pretty sure, however long they had and wherever the two of them ended up.
Too much for this late at night, too deep. Paul filled his head with songs, their own stupid catchy songs, yeah yeah yeah until he drifted off, and the rest of his night was nothing but dreams about falling.
John never did come back that night.
After the show, he and Paul went with Brian to the latest horridly important and posh reception hosted by the local elites; the band drew straws to see which unlucky two would have to attend in each successive city. Paul stumbled into the hotel bar around one in the morning, led by a fiercely blushing waitress to where George and Ringo were hidden in a back booth, slumped and comfortable and mostly drunk.
"You've lost him?" George asked as Paul fell into the booth beside him.
"He knows where the hotel is," Paul answered, irritated at the edges.
George exchanged a look with Ringo, and asked, "He's still got those cops with him, right?"
"No, he shook them and now all of Italy's at Lennon's mercy," and Paul was sneering so prettily John might as well have been there after all. "You think I'd let him go off on his own?"
Easy enough for George to shrug, and lift his hands blamelessly. He didn't want to make guesses as to what Paul might let John do.
Paul stole Ringo's beer, earning him a mild reprimand coupled counterproductively with a genial smile because Ringo was pretty oiled as it was. George resumed telling his story about the crazy girl who'd broken into his parents' house back in Speke, the pictures she'd torn off the walls. An hour or two passed, companionable and unhurried, no screaming girls in the background, no bright lights on them, almost like normal life again.
Ringo fell asleep on the table in a comic heap, and there was spilled salt on his cheek when Paul and George hauled him upright. Ringo couldn't keep his eyes open, and so they ended up carrying their drummer up to the rooms, propping him up between them in the lift like a life-sized rag doll, tossing him into bed with little care for how he landed. George was breathing raggedly (Pattie was always telling him he smoked too much), one hand in a loose fist on his chest, his head spinning. He dragged off his jacket and shirt and belt, kicked away his shoes and collapsed on the other bed.
"Night Paul," George informed the pillow.
"Think that's my bed, Georgie," and Paul shook George's foot, flicked his nail on the hard nub of his ankle. George flinched away.
"Ringo's in mine. Needs must."
Paul sighed huffily, but there was no further argument, just the rustling sound of Paul getting undressed, sliding his watch off and clinking it onto the bureau.
George drifted for a minute, dipped into sleep and then resurfaced some short while later, too hot in his trousers. He staggered to his feet to take them off and spotted Paul smoking at the window, an odd jittering sense to the scene like two identical film strips laid over top each other. Paul was stripped down to his vest and pants, thin black-and-white reflection shining in the window glass.
"Oi," George mumbled, sitting down heavily and shoving his trousers off his feet. "You planning on sleeping at all?"
Paul glanced over at him, looking especially boyish in the dim light. "Yeah, soon enough."
George grunted, kicking his way under the covers and knuckling the pillow into the right shape. The muscles in his legs were twitching; he was falling swiftly back asleep.
"He'll be back," George told Paul, the words misshapen and slurred and maybe Paul didn't hear him. Paul didn't answer, anyway.
The next time George woke up, there was daylight spilling through the curtains and Ringo eating cornflakes and a radio playing, and Paul was exactly where George had last seen him, smoking what might as well have been the exact same cigarette.
John showed up within the hour, just in time to leave for Genoa, and his eyes were huge and white and dry, sunken and crippled with weariness. He wouldn't tell them where he had been all night, flashing hollow cheeky grins and teasing them with hints of debauchery and carnal excess. Paul yelled at him briefly in the car park while John hunched his shoulders and spat vicious comebacks, but that didn't last--never did, George had noticed.
The trip was directly south for almost two hours. John fell asleep almost immediately in their train compartment, loose-stringed and disturbingly still on the fine leatherish seats, all the fight sucked out of him. When his mind finally allowed him to, when his body couldn't hold out anymore, John slept like the dead.
George lit a cigarette of his own, watching Paul watching John sleep for a moment before turning his gaze out the dark-tinted window, the ever-twilight of the alien world outside the train.
It was two days after Christmas, and Paul biked over to John's house wearing a new jumper, scratchy faded blue wool too tight around his throat.
John's aunt answered the door, her face tightening up in that way it did. Paul tried out his best grin on her, hoping it would have more of an effect this time.
"Good morning, Missus Smith, happy Christmas," Paul said, big eyes and all.
"What do you want?" Mimi said, eyes narrow and as cold as the sky.
"Um. Is John around?"
There was a long moment of hostile scrutiny under which Paul determinedly did not fidget, and then Mimi sniffed imperially, stepped back.
"He's asleep, but I'll have him up, if you don't mind. He's been lazing about long enough. Up you go, come on."
Paul skirted inside and quickly over to the stairwell. He tried another charming smile on Mimi ("What mother couldn't love that face?" ringing in his ears, his own dear departed mum with her hands warm on his cheeks), earned another withering glare for his troubles. Paul hurried up to John's room, tugging the jumper collar away from his throat in an attempt to stretch it out. The stairs creaked under him like a warning.
John was asleep as promised, twisted around in his bed with his head jammed under a pillow, his bare foot hanging off the edge. His guitar was on the floor, near enough to touch if he reached down.
Paul closed the door and opened the window. Black-and-white pictures of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry kept watch from the walls. Paul stepped carefully over the guitar, sitting in the little cane-backed chair.
Nothing. John didn't so much as twitch. Paul picked up John's guitar and used it to give him a poke. A faint grumble, and John pushed his head farther under the pillow, his curled hand sliding up the bed. Paul smirked a little bit, tough old John pale and vulnerable in the bluing daylight.
"Come on, you lazy git, company's here. John, hey John wake up."
Another prod of the guitar, chipped wood and tuning pegs against John's hip, the edge of his vest riding up enough that Paul could see a curve of bare skin. It was a weird thing to see, weird to notice, stuck as an uncomfortable itch in the back of Paul's mind.
John mumbled, "Cor," and rolled abruptly onto his back, knocking the pillow to the floor with a soft thud. His eyes cracked open, and he peered at Paul as if from the bottom of a very deep well.
"Paul, bloody hell." John's hands went to his face, hard palms against his eye sockets. "I was asleep, a man needs his sleep."
"You get enough of that," Paul retorted easily, hefting John's guitar into his lap and picking out some sprightly wake-up music.
"Put that down, who knows where your filthy hands have been," and John made a sideways grab for the guitar, leaning off the bed with his hand gripping the edge of the thin mattress. Paul pulled back, grinning. Rumpled sleepy uncoordinated John was more interesting than many other versions.
"Come along, there's a snail on the thorn and a lark on the wing and such like."
"So he says," John muttered, but he pushed himself up sitting, pushed a flattening hand at his dishevelled hair. "Christ, what time is it?"
"When we're on hols? You ought to be strung up."
Paul smirked, liking the disgruntled look crunching John's features, the vague drowsy curl of his mouth around the words. Paul liked most things about John, he was learning. They had seen each other every day for the past week, and that was the first time that had happened.
"Such manners, dear me," Paul said in a granny voice that was known to eke a smile out of John and didn't fail today.
"What do you have, then?" John asked.
"I know you didn't knock me up empty-handed, Macca, what've you got?"
Paul flashed a shaded smile, neat little complicit feeling sprouting in his chest. John was cooler than anyone Paul had ever met, and Paul wanted private jokes and stories only the two of them knew, a history with him. Paul wanted to be his very best friend in the whole world. He tried to keep that from showing, of course.
"Pressed into service, and so young," Paul said with an exaggerated moue, and hitched John's guitar up on his lap. "There's this song in my head, I think I came up with it but it might be Gene Vincent, I dunno."
"Let's have it." John reclined, scratching at his stomach under his vest, tipping his eyebrows at Paul expectantly.
Paul blinked and looked down at the guitar, watched his hands start to play. Just a little snaking refrain, a cluster of high notes that felt like cold fingers rattling across the top of his spine. He played it twice and then three times, squeaking his fingertips on the battered strings. John rapped out a muffled beat against his leg, his bare foot swinging off the edge of the bed.
Paul sang a nonsense lyric on top of it, "ah doo wop shoo wop shoo wop," and came to a rousing finish.
"Yeah," John said, dazey eyes working over Paul, "didn't I come up with that?"
"I, I think I had a dream about that song." John rubbed his forehead, half-smiling.
That would be fantastic, Paul thought, his blood stirring at the idea. Maybe if you played music with another person for long enough, your brains started overlapping, or your souls or something.
"No, some other time. Maybe. I dunno, it's good though, better than fair."
Paul ran through the riff again, watching John's face and feeling the song like a living thing in his hands.
"Doesn't really matter who came up with it," Paul said. "You should come over and help me finish it, anyway."
"A reason to get out of bed, lovely," and John said it like he was taking the piss, lip curled wryly, but at the same time he was sitting up and putting his feet on the floor, flinching minutely at the chill.
Paul grinned, feeling as if he'd won a prize. John stretched his arms over his head, tugging on his elbow and yawning spectacuarly. He was humming, murmuring nonsense for the new song as he fisted the sleep out of his eyes, and Paul had a feeling that this was going to be a marvellous day.
Key West, Florida
A hurricane had diverted them from Jacksonville, something finally disturbing the intractable routine of the tour, and now they were on a small tropical island at the very tip of the country. Ringo was fascinated by the place, hens and roosters pecking across the narrow streets, trees slumping under the weight of damp green foliage, the people suntanned so dark they looked like another race entirely. The ocean surprised him at every turn, aluminium grey and edgeless.
They had dinner in a drafty overlarge shack on the water, local seafood and strange delicious fried corn patties, and then went back to the Key Wester Motel, which was by far the seamiest place they'd stayed since coming to America, though it did try its best, wacky colour scheme and modernish furniture everywhere you looked. To the good, there was a bedroom for each one of them, and a lounge for all of them together.
John sighed with extravagant contentment, sprawled across a dingy orange sofa, and said, "Like coming home, fellas."
"Like living behind the bloody kino again," Paul retorted, poking distrustfully at a sad-looking crack in the wall.
George prowled around, checking the windows and saying, "It's quiet, though."
"A little too quiet," John said in his ominous adventure-hero voice, and everyone snickered obligingly.
"Nobody screaming," George said, like it was a marvel. "Maybe nobody here knows who we are."
"That'd be a turn-up, wouldn't it," Ringo said, wrist-deep in his suitcase digging for the bottle of Scotch he'd been foresighted enough to pick up in Canada. "Ah here we are."
"Good man," Paul said approvingly as Ringo brandished the whiskey like a magic sword. "That's the night sorted then."
"Gather 'round me, lads," Ringo said magnanimously, opening his arms, and they came to him grinning.
They drank out of bulky coffee mugs provided by the motel, ice-cold bottles of Coke from the machine outside to cut the worst of the taste. Paul found a murky rock and roll radio station that probably came from the mainland, probably Miami or summat, and they huddled around it like a fire. It came and went, static fuzzing, Paul's fingertips itching at the dial and John nagging him to stop fiddling.
Then, for a miraculous two-minute stretch, Carl Perkins came in as clear and crystalline as you could please, like an answered prayer or something just as unlikely. The four of them fell silent, spellbound, heads tilted in towards the radio in Paul's hand.
The song ended and immediately static washed over the signal again. Ringo said, "Fantastic," which was about one-tenth of the word he needed, but he was already sorta skunked. George had a look on his face as if he'd just had a religious experience, awed and shaken and round-eyed, both hands gripped around the mug with his slim fingers woven together.
John said, "Hey Paul, you remember how I nicked that album from the music shop in Bold Street?"
"After you broke mine, you mean?"
"I didn't break it, whose life are you remembering? I played it so many times I wore through the wax--it's chalk and cheese you see."
A magisterial sweep of John's mug, implicating everyone in his assessment, and Paul snorted into his drink, his face flushed a bit because he had that Irish in him. Ringo happily topped everyone up again, humming the Carl Perkins song under his breath. It was a spectacular night, he thought, and that was something he thought quite often despite the madness that surrounded them and the crippling nature of their fame. Sometimes it seemed like all they really needed was a room and a radio.
Near midnight the sky cracked open outside and the rain came pouring down, clattering on the windows and making the roof tremble. George became a bit skittish, typical for him once thunder was involved, scratching at the back of his neck and chewing on his lower lip for awhile before standing.
"Right. Bed," George said. He was tilting slightly to the side, his eyes swollen with drink.
John, flat on his back on the floor at that point, booed and hissed. "Bottle's not empty yet, I thought we had a rule about that."
"No rules in rock and roll," Paul and Ringo recited simultaneously, and then grinned at each other in triumph.
"Packing it in, son. Goodnight and things," George said, palming a weary hand over his face. Just looking at him made Ringo sleepier, sudden drag on his eyelids.
"Goodnight, goodnight," John chanted in a snarl, making it sound like a vicious curse. It set Paul off giggling, and John broke character for a triumphant grin of his own, eyes shining as he looked up from the floor at Paul on the horrid orange sofa.
Ringo fumbled for the bottle, thinking one more drink and then he'd follow George's example. He wasn't going to be staying upright for much longer, that was for sure.
John and Paul reached in with their mugs, jabbering quickly over each other, "Hey barman over here barman," and Ringo topped them both up, one eye squinted shut in concentration.
He set the bottle down and sat back, breathing out in general appreciation of the moment. The room tipped back and forth gently, shiplike, and Ringo wandered contentedly through a mental digression about getting some hammocks strung up if they had to stay here tomorrow night too. He'd always wanted to sleep in a hammock, rock-a-bye and all that. Ships of the line cleaved through gold-tipped seas in Ringo's imagination, and he drifted off seamlessly into an actual dream: John and Paul with their arms threaded through the rigging, singing pirate songs in perfect harmony.
Ringo woke up some time later with a terrible ache in his back from falling asleep in a chair.
It was dark in the lounge, seashell lamps switched off and the moon eradicated by the storm. Ringo blinked at the shadows of the hip maritime decor, feeling like he'd woken up in a discotheque at the bottom of the ocean.
Someone was talking in the background. Low tones from a room away, the door of the bedroom cracked and showing a strip of light. Ringo sat up, his back snapping, and bent his ear to it, muddled and unmoored and gathering his energy to make a move for his own sweet bed.
John said, "Can't expect it, Paulie, so how're you supposed to prepare for it? You see?"
He sounded disastrously drunk, well into earnest philosopher mode, and Ringo smirked, picturing the scene quite clearly, John leaning in towards Paul, red-faced with glassy eyes, Paul smiling dumbly back at him.
"Won't last, though," Paul said. "Can't keep up like this, surely."
"That's what we kept saying last year. You remember? The girls started showing up, and the screaming, and what'd we say? It can't last, can't fuckin' last. But so it did, look around. All that's changed is that now we play bigger places so more of them can scream at us at once. And still nobody knows why."
Clink of glass and ceramic, John mumbling, "Ta." Ringo dispensed with any hope of having a little Scotch left over for when they would go to the beach later today. He stretched his arms in front of him, twisting to pop his elbows.
"They'll all lose their voices eventually," Paul was saying, and John's scoff was just audible.
"Biased baseless optimism," John said, something he said to Paul a lot, and Ringo mouthed along with Paul's response:
"Sick senseless cynicism," hissing gleefully like he always did.
The two of them broke up, giggling in a higher pitch, egging each other on. Ringo yawned and got to his feet, testing his weight and curling his toes in the carpet. Bed, dear bed, looming heavy in the forefront of his mind, more dreams of pirates and carousels and whatever else.
"Soldier on, anyway," Paul said from the other room.
"Us against the world, innit?" and Ringo could tell from the slant of his voice that John was smiling.
"I think we're winning," Paul said, and that made John laugh again, sounding young and drunk and happy, and then Ringo was in his own room, tugging the door shut behind him. And it was quiet.
Ringo undressed and lay down, his mind whirring in a damp drunken way. Rain lashed at the windows and filled in the empty spaces, and Ringo left the curtains open because he liked watching it. It felt like the very end of the earth, and that thought pleased Ringo; it was somewhere he'd been meaning to go his whole life.
"So here we are, lads," Ringo murmured to no one in particular. He was feeling wonderful, really, safe and lucky and well-loved. In some back part of his mind, he wanted the hurricane to last forever.
The walls were thin and he could hear John and Paul still talking on the other side, just the muffled cadence but not the words themselves. Their voices wove together until they were indistinguishable, specific music behind the wall. Ringo fell asleep listening to them, dreamt of things he would never remember, and woke up the next day covered over entirely by sunlight.
Endnotes: Paul paraphrases Browning at one point:
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in his Heaven -
All's right with the world!
And, um, I found this article when I was already pretty close to done with this one, but man. In case you ever need any inspiration for this pairing, there ya go.