As The Quarrymen played in Julia’s cramped living room, they blew me away. My poker face was hard to hide. Not that I expected little baby George or baby Paul to be as magical or talented as their grown-up counterparts, but they still had something. Recovering from surgery, I had listened to hours and hours of The Beatles. And to find out that they had always had great sound even when they were basically kids? Well, that was kind of irritating in a way. Why couldn’t I have had that magical dose of whatever they had? I must have had the antidote.
John was so effortless about it. Right in the middle of everything, he unwrapped a piece of chewing gum and popped it into his mouth. And he sang like that. That loud rock n’ roll tearing voice of his. He did that while he somehow kept a piece of gum in his mouth. Like, who does that? Lennon was by far the most smug, talented, quirkiest son of a bitch I had ever met in my entire life.
When the band had stopped playing, Julia immediately leapt to her feet and cheered. She put her fingers in her mouth and whistled so loud, I could hardly hear the neighbors banging on the attached wall to silence them all.
John had an absolute beaming grin on his face as his mother showered them with all the praise and affection that would be multiplied by the millions in another timeline. He took a bow.
“Thank you, thank you.” He nodded at me. “Miss Hollywood, what did you think of the show?”
Everyone turned and looked at me. The room went dead quiet. My stomach practically flopped on the floor.
The truth was. I loved it. Obviously. It was great. Their natural talent made me want to puke with jealousy. But how could I say anything really? This was the crucial moment. The moment to tear away the band and alter the timeline.
John could see my hesitation. He glanced at Paul and then back to me, his shoulders drooped. “Alright, out with it. No need to give us the bread pudding. How were we?”
“Um, it was— I mean, you know.”
My heart was whirring. Julia’s once applauding hands cupped under her chin, waiting for my response.
“It was what?” John asked in a biting tone.
“It was… It was alright,” I said.
John’s expression didn’t change. “You didn’t like it,” he said.
“I mean, it’s not that,” I said, feeling like I could shrink into the couch cushions and disappear.
What was wrong with me? I was already failing my mission. Why couldn’t I tell him that he was horrible, and he should give up music forever?
“Well, go on, if you hated it, just say you hated it,” he said, his voice harsh and angry again.
“Well, what didn’t you like about it?” Paul quickly stepped in as the mediator. “Is there anything we can improve on? You have any suggestions?”
“Uh…” I scrunched my skirt in my hands, thinking of how to respond, while the boys all waited. “If you all tightened the tempo on the intro, then Colin would have an easier time keeping up with George through the rest. Um… the chord progression is one, six, four five one. But you could always substitute the four for a two… And John is playing banjo chords… not guitar chords…” I swallowed and then quickly added. “Or if that’s too hard you could just give it all up.”
The group shot each other stunned expressions, except for John who stared at me, his cheeks growing red.
“Do you know a lot about music, dear?” Julia asked resting her elbow on the couch. “How do you know about chord progressions?”
“I— I do, yeah.” I let go of the sweaty folds of skirt. “I went to school for it. A conservatory. For a little while.” Not totally a lie anyway.
Paul stepped forward with his guitar in his hand. “Alright. I say we try out Emmeline’s suggestion.”
“Yeah, wow, a conservatory!” Julia added.
Paul nodded to a solemn Lennon. “John?”
John turned his mouth down hard. “No.”
Everyone’s shoulders tensed as they looked around to each other. Finally, George quietly peeped from the back of the room. “Why not?”
“C’mon, love,” Julia said softly and calmly from the couch. “If you have an opportunity to better yourself you should take it.”
John shot her a look. “Because we’re rubbish, is that it? You think we should give it up?”
“I didn’t say that did I? Emmeline sounds like she really knows what she’s doing. She could help you be even better. She could be your manager.”
I pressed into the couch. Yikes.
“Nope, sorry. Already have a manager. Nigel Walley.” John ducked out from under the guitar strap. “We get on fine as it is.”
“But Nigel doesn’t know a thing about composing music,” Julia said with a laugh. “I think Emmeline is right about the tempo—”
“Oh, of course you think that!” John scoffed. “Knowledgeable little Hollywood! Pretty little Hollywood! Thinks-she’s-better-than-everyone Hollywood!”
I opened my mouth, but I didn’t even know what to say. I felt a horrible churning in my stomach. Well, so much for getting a ring at the end of the summer.
“John, calm down,” Paul said softly, stepping toward John.
“Group practice is over,” John said, his voice breaking ever so slightly. He swung his guitar on his back and collected his shoulder bag. Everyone else in the room stared at him dumbfounded.
When no one moved he turned to the rest of the band. “Didn’t you hear? We’re shit. Now, pack it up.”
John tore out of the house. I awkwardly slunked on the couch while the rest of the boys sighed in frustration and packed up their instruments.
I walked myself to Mendips, John-less. He must have come home late because I didn’t hear the floorboards of his room squeak until the dark, cold hours of the night. I contemplated knocking on his door, but I didn’t know what I would say. Not only that, but the burning in my throat had spread all the way to the tip of my scalp and into my lungs.
Everything was hurt and weighted. Every joint in my body even my pinky toe. My nose was so swollen that it felt like heavy chains were wrapped around my head.
I wanted to cry. Panic. Contact Thorne on my IND and tell him to take me back through the portal. But then when I imagined trying to jump off that cliff with how sluggish and achy, I felt. I just hoped for the best. Galactica. I hoped this feeling would go away.
I lay in my bed as still as possible for the rest of the night and into the morning. My nose and throat were so constricted that sometimes I had to sit up and try to sleep that way. I could hear John shuffling in his room and humming. Well, anyway. Humming was good. At least his mood had improved.
He went on shuffling until early in the morning and then was quiet until early in the afternoon. Mimi banged on his door to inform him that he would begin rotting if he slept a minute longer.
When I heard his door open, I strategically opened mine.
John was about to step out sporting an extra fluffy bedhead. When he saw me, he stopped so fast at his doorway that he pulled back like a train braking too hard into a station.
“Hello,” I said, my nose so plugged that my voice came out like a housebot with a bad speaker.
He gave me a childlike scowl and slammed his door. I would have cried but my nose was already doing that for me.
Change of tactics. Change of plans.
Now I need to fix this mess. I was not about to forget our casual and friendly walk to his mother’s house. Or what he had said to his friends. At least I had some kind of a foundation with him. A cracked and decrepit one, but a foundation nonetheless. I clung to it for dear life as I pulled my sorry bones out of the house.
I slogged down the street. Were these my last moments on Earth? I had never felt like this before. My throat felt like it was coated with acid.
The bell at the record shop door sounded with a clang. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, I went through the records. Ding went the cash register. And clang went the bell a second time as I rushed with my gift back to Mendips.
I stayed in my room for the rest of the day. Catching cat naps in between choking on my own nose discharge, until finally I heard John’s voice from downstairs bantering with Mimi and making her unwillingly laugh.
I dragged my sorry sore bones out of bed and down the stairs. Coughing with each step I took. Somewhere in between the catnaps, Mimi had served dinner and cleared the table. I tried to get a good whiff of that rich savory roast smell, but as soon as I sniffed my nose gargled like a vacuum hose slurping up a muddy swamp.
I sauntered through to the front room where I found John kneeling and turning knobs on a radio. As soon as I entered, he gave me a miserable glance.
“Coming over here to give me music lessons?” He asked, as the radio caught its station.
“John, I’m really sorry about that,” I said, horrified at my own wispy strained voice. I pulled the album from behind my back. “I got this for you… Elvis’ Golden Records. Because he’s the king, baby,” I said, shaking my hips like John had done yesterday.
His face softened. “For me? I… thank you.”
He slowly reached forward and took the album from me. As he examined the album cover, a coughing attack began and did not stop. I stood there hacking up one of my lungs, I thought my own throat was going to suffocate me.
“You alright?” he asked.
I rubbed my discharge onto my sleeve. “I think I’m dying.”
He laughed. “Didn’t know you could die from the common cold.”
“This is a common virus?” I asked. “How do you people live like this?”
John’s lips curled into a smirk. “They don’t catch colds in California?”
“I never have,” I grumbled.
John gave me a gentle expression. His eyes flickered, his long heavy eyelashes following.
“Here, have a sit,” he said, sliding an armchair next to the radio.
I was too tired and sore to argue so I crumbled into it.
“I’ll get the tea on,” he said.
I nodded and sniffled. I felt so helpless and weak like a small little puppy in need of being rescued. John hurried off into the kitchen, when a voice on the radio announced a show called The Goons. I curled my knees to my chest until John returned with a cup of hot tea. He draped a woven blanket across me.
“There, see?” He chuckled. “Mummy’s here to make it all better.”
He handed me a piping hot mug of tea and patted my knee with the tips of his fingers. I furled my brow at this enigma. One minute he’s teasing you in front of everyone, then the next he’s chatting your ear off about aliens. Then the next thing you know, he’s slamming doors on you and tucking you into a chair and playing mother. Who was this guy? Everything I had read and studied on him had not truly prepared me for his complexities.
“You know,” I admitted out loud to him. “You’re different than I expected.”
“And what did you think I’d be?” he asked, grabbing his own mug of steaming tea.
“I thought you were going to be…” I looked around the room trying to think of the right word. “Rougher, I guess.”
His shoulders tugged up uncomfortably. “Why? Because I dress a bit like a Teddy Boy?”
I shifted my eyes. I had barely an idea what he meant by that, and I felt too dizzy to figure it out.
“You shouldn’t believe everything you read in the papers,” he said, giving me a warm smile and sipping his tea.
“Hmm.” I wondered how accurate his files were.
John looked at me with a curious tilt of the head. “Hollywood, can I ask you somethin’?”
I set my tea on my lap. “Yes?”
“You said you went to a conservatory,” he said, one eye squinting in scrutiny. “If you studied music for so long, what are you doing here at the Liverpool College of Art? Shouldn’t you be at the Albert Hall with a cello at your knee or something?”
“Oh, um,” I tried to suppress my grimace. “Yeah, I did the whole music thing for a while. It didn’t work out.”
“What do you mean, ‘it didn’t work out’?” he asked. “How can music ‘not work out’?”
“I, uh…” Man, this was painful as hell. Unattractive as hell. Maybe he would react like my ex-boyfriend Traegar. Maybe this would be the nail in his coffin. But I had to explain, otherwise why would I be here at the College of Art?
“I bombed an audition,” I said, my voice shaking.
“What? One audition?”
I sighed. “It was a big audition… like a music career-ending audition.”
I blinked at him. What did he mean, ‘and so’? That was it. That was the end of my music career. Was that not clear?
“I had to give it up after that. And whatever, it sucked, and I don’t want to talk about it,” I said.
His eyebrows raised and he broke into an opened-mouthed smile. “Ah, so that’s the reason.”
“What do you mean?”
“The reason you don’t like The Quarrymen.”
I doubled back, blinking rapidly. “What? No. That’s not the reason for anything.”
“Just because you made the mistake to give up music, doesn’t mean anyone else should.”
I closed my eyes and scoffed. “Now, hold on.”
“Alright, don’t get worked up. You need your rest.” He re-tucked the blanket around my legs. Then he gave me a sympathetic half-smile. “Um, you know, about yesterday… you were right… I do play banjo chords. I haven’t gotten good enough with guitar chords to give it a go at group practice, but… I’m learning anyway.”
I curled my fingers by my face, not knowing what to say. John stroked the head of an orange cat sitting on the coffee table.
“This is my favorite program,” John explained as he knelt next to the radio. “That’s Spike Milligan and he’s good. But my favorite is Peter Sellers, because they always give him the best bits, you know.”
I nodded cluelessly. Even extensive training in time travel courses couldn’t teach me every old British actor and radio program.
I couldn’t help but watch John. Curled up on the floor, his chin nestled into the crook of his elbow as he draped over the coffee table. He played with the tip of the cat’s paw, poking at it, and getting him to bat him back. Every once and a while, the actors would deliver a sharp punchline and he would laugh hard and loud. Other times he would squint and grin wildly to himself as if he were holding in the hard-loud laughs unsuccessfully.
Something about watching John share a normal and boring moment was fascinating to me. Eye-opening. History had painted him as this sullen and cynical person. But really, John laughed at everything. And yes, especially at things that should not be laughed at. Despite a confusing and heartbreaking childhood, he never took anything seriously.
Although I knew, the worst had not happened to him yet. The death that would traumatize him for life. Julia, Julia, ocean child…
Psst, the next three chapters are already live on Patreon…