Best's Laid Plains
Liverpool, England - 1969
The jukebox began Do You Want to Know a Secret?
And I cringed.
I shook it off, swiveled myself around on the barstool and faced the front door in this 3rd-rate pub on Cases Street. The late afternoon sun filtered through the smeary windows and bounced across orange flecks of dust in the air. I stared for a few secs, and then swung around to the bar again.
I blinked. A new barkeep must have just come on. Nick, the regular tap-puller here who pushed a foamy glass of Guinness toward me just a half minute ago, had vanished, into the air somewhere. Now, a fresh bird, no older than 17, maybe, was in his place, wiping short glasses clean with a bar towel. A glass slipped from her hands and crashed to the floor behind the bar.
"Damn," the new barkeep said.
She glanced at me, and it was hard not to glance back. She wore a plaid skirt, the kind young girls wear at Catholic school. The bottoms of her white blouse were tied in a small knot at the center of her belly, showing a circus full of copper skin. A small, paper rectangle was stuck to the upper left side of her blouse. One word was printed in black letters on the white rectangle: Britney.
"Afternoon," Britney said to me.
She smiled, still wiping glasses. Her eyes were trained straight down at the grooved wood on the bar.
She spoke with an American accent.
Another glass slipped from her fingers and shattered on the dark wood floor.
"Oops," Britney said. "I did it again."
I tipped my Guinness at her. "Just a glass, love."
"Get a little clumsy sometimes."
I nodded, as if I understood completely.
"Welcome to the worst pub in Liverpool," I said.
I studied her. "Pete. Yeah. That's me, alright."
"No different than every other long day."
"But thanks for recognizing me."
I took the last sip of warm Guinness from the bottom of my glass. "Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah."
She waited a few secs, and then said, "Your thick, wavy hair makes you stand out."
"Original drummer. Played with the band until..?"
She stared at me. I sighed, and said, "1962. August 16, if it matters."
"You know, your expression just turned toxic."
She brought her face up. The air suddenly chilled.
I said, "Toxic?"
"Well, sorry, love," I said. "Just a subject I'm not so fond of."
She kept nodding. "How was work today?"
She tilted her head at the side window where my delivery van was parked in the alley.
I said, "How's it you know that?"
"Well," she said as she leveled her eyes at me, "let's just say I've been around long enough to learn things."
I paused for a sec and felt a tiny shiver at the back of my neck. Britney's eyes were empty. There was no hint of light about them.
I said, "You're a bit young to be working in here, yeah?"
"Age is a state of mind, love."
Now her accent was British.
you don't mind me saying so, a girl your age should display a bit more modesty. Hell, any bird should."
I glanced at her midriff.
She smiled again and looked down at herself.
"Don't like it?"
"Not the point. Girls, especially young girls, dress like that and send the wrong signals to gentlemen in pubs and, well, men everywhere. All men. Hell, women, too."
I felt a vague pressure thump at my temples. "Shouts of moral decay. No offense."
"Oh, none taken. But you think this look might catch on then, yeah?"
"Nothing much shocks me anymore."
She chuckled to herself and put one hand on her hip.
"Wouldn't want to start the downfall of civilization by dressing trashy and having a new generation of pre-teen girls imitate me."
"A fab idea, Pete, but a little early for the times." She paused and seemed to be thinking. "'Nother Guinness, then?"
I nodded at her, as if I had no other choice.
Britney drew a stream of black gold from the tap and set it down in front of me. I took a sip of the thick liquid. The windows darkened, and the pub dimmed, as if the sun had suddenly been shoved into the cellar. At 4:30 on a hot July afternoon, it was hours before sunset. I looked up. Britney was staring at me.
She said, "How's the wifey, then?"
"Selling biscuits at the Woolworth's today, yeah?"
My stomach twisted, and the pressure at my temples thumped harder. I pushed away my dark glass of Guinness.
I said, "What's this about?"
"What about me?"
"Your rotten luck, mostly."
"It's not that bad."
"Some call Ringo Starr the luckiest man on the planet. A man with just adequate talent, in the right place at the right time."
I bit my bottom lip hard. "Not far off there."
"That means you might be the world's unluckiest man. Once part of the biggest rock band ever. Talented. Handsome. But sacked early on. Now Pete Best is toting bread loaves for three an hour, and the answer to a 60s trivia question."
"Biggest band ever?"
"Not even close."
"Bit early to tell about that, isn't it?"
She shook her head. "Trust me on this one."
Her voice was brittle and somehow unsettling. I grabbed my glass of Guinness and took a long pull. "Thanks for the talk, Britney." I clacked the glass down and pushed myself to my feet.
"Ever think what your life might be like?" she said.
"You know what I mean."
Her British accent was gone. Back to American.
"Yeah. I do."
"I'd like to hear." She patted the bar with her fingertips. "Sit and tell me."
I glanced around. The place was empty and growing colder. She Loves You came from the juke.
"It's really a stupid question, Britney, if you don't mind me saying. Beatle, or bread truck driver? Money and screaming fans, or, or..."
My words echoed a bit, like I was talking in a house with no furniture. I felt that shiver at the back of my neck again.
Britney nodded, and said, "Guess you're right, Pete. Guess you're right."
"So why ask?"
She waited a sec, then reached beneath the bar, pulled out a gleaming revolver, and set it beside my Guinness.
She said, "What if you could change things?"
I couldn't take my eyes from the pistol. It was a cowboy gun, a six-shooter with a long, silver barrel and pearled grips.
"What's this?" I said.
"I can help you, Pete."
"With a gun."
"Should I shoot myself?"
"I know I missed out, okay? I know what could have been." I pushed my hands back through my hair. "This is a bad joke. I don't know who put you up to this, but it's not funny."
"Who sacked you?"
My mouth was filled with sand. "Was Brian showed me the door. Yes."
"But I'm not sure it was him that..."
I stared at the cowboy pistol again.
"Pulled the trigger."
"Then who?" she said.
I thought about it. "Somehow, I think you might already know the answer to that question."
The jukebox buzzed with All You Need is Love.
Britney said, "I really hate that song."
She shook it off and settled her elbows on the bar.
"What about George?"
"Look, even if it was Martin's idea, even if it was Epstein, Martin, McCartney and Lennon together, what the bloody difference would it make now? It's long since past. Long ago, and far away."
I felt the heat rise to my face.
She pulled a lit fag from somewhere and took a long pull on it. "Pete. Please. Sit?"
I didn't move.
"I'll explain, Pete. I want to explain about the gun."
"Makes me edgy."
"They usually have that effect."
"Is it loaded?"
She grinned. In one quick motion she scooped up the gun with both hands, pointed over my shoulder, and fired across the room into the jukebox.
"Holy Mother," I said.
It boomed like a cannon. The air swirled with pistol smoke, and the jukebox was silenced.
Britney said, "I really do hate that song."
She carefully set the pistol on the bar in front of me as if it were a piece of fine crystal.
It was either listen to what Britney had to say or run screaming out the door. I knew I should run, I knew it, but, instead, for a reason I didn't quite understand, I gathered myself, and slowly settled onto a barstool.
"Well, so go ahead, then," I said after a few secs. "I'm sitting. Explain."
She stepped out from the side of the bar and sat on the barstool beside me. She crossed her legs, leaned toward me a fraction, and said, "You know of H.G. Wells."
"Still required reading for every English school boy, I bet."
"What about him?"
"The Time Machine?"
I nodded. "Read it. Twice."
"Wells describes the flow of time as a river."
I said, "Yeah, the river flows from upstream to downstream. Upstream is the past, downstream is the future. Right?"
Britney smiled. Her teeth sparkled, impossibly white.
She said, "What if I were to say, I can send you upstream."
"You mean, in time?"
"The past. 1962, to be exact."
She glanced down at the gun. I felt all the breath vanish from my lungs.
"You can't be serious," I said.
"I'm afraid I'm always serious."
I studied her bottomless, black eyes. "You want to send me to 1962."
She shook her head. "It's you who wants to go."
"With this gun?"
"To shoot somebody."
"Who do you think?"
I shook my head. "They sacked me to be rid of me, not so they could get Ringo."
Britney blinked, and said, "Then who?"
"The bloke that decided to sack me, I suppose."
I felt my eyes widen. "You're talking about sending me back before I get the sack."
"Go back to before August, 1962, and put a bullet into who, then?"
Britney just stared.
I said, "Don't really know if it was Martin or Epstein. But my guess is one of them, and probably..."
"You have five shots left," she said.
"If you're a bad shot. Some things, I can't control."
My stomach twisted.
I listened to Abbey Road the other night, after Kathy was asleep. It was one of the best records I'd ever heard. Genius, really. And I could have been part of it.
I could have been part of it.
"You can really do this," I said.
"Told you before, Pete. I never joke."
I felt my stomach twist again. Darkness settled into the pub around me like an icy shroud.
"Who are you, Britney?"
"I'm the girl who's going to send you back to July, 1962."
"To Abbey Road studios, just after that first audition.
"Yeah." It seemed a lifetime ago.
"But two months before the Beatles' first official recording session."
I swallowed hard. "Tell me who you are."
She grinned. "I'm a girl of wealth and taste, Pete."
I thought about it.
I shook my head. "But you will send me..?"
She shook her head. "It will be my pleasure. You won't owe me a thing."
"What makes this my lucky day?"
She seemed to consider that. "Boredom, maybe. Or perhaps I like to experiment, just to see what might happen." She grinned and glanced over at the smoking jukebox. "Besides, some of this heartfelt goody-goody music annoys me to no end."
"So, nothing. Doesn't matter now."
My skin crawled with electric bugs.
I said, "Is there, do I have to, you know, sign something?"
She shook her head again. Strands of dyed blonde hair shifted across her forehead. "Just pick up the gun, yeah?"
I stared at the shiny metal.
"And after, if I do this?"
"Events will flow differently from what you do in 1962. And you will then immediately snap back here, to 1969, one moment after you left."
"I can promise, Pete, if you do this, you will not be sacked by Epstein, or anyone else, in August, 1962."
Her eyes seemed to burn right through me, so I blinked away and gazed down at the pistol.
"Can I think about it?"
She placed one hand on mine. A wave of pure cold pressed at my arm.
"Offer expires in sixty seconds."
"Wait. Okay? Just give me a little-"
"Fifty-two, fifty one..."
I was with the boys in Hamburg. I wake up at 3am sometimes and relive that time, the friends, the music, the life. Everything was perfect, we were rolling, the start of a musical revolution. I was indestructible.
And then I remember that meeting with Brian, and how the very bottom fell out of the world. The sourness returns in the middle of the night sometimes, eats at me, I bite down hard, and no matter how I try in the morning, I know it will be impossible to smile the entire day.
And now this crazy bird stands here counting, just staring at me with those lifeless eyes.
Nothing made sense. But I knew if I hesitated and thought about it, if I didn't do this right now, this very second, the moment would be lost, and maybe the one real chance for me to change things would be gone forever.
My stomach had been in a constant twist since the boys' first appearance on the Sullivan show years ago. And my stomach hurt like hell now.
This might be the way to make it stop. And Kathy would support me, want me to try.
I was sure of it.
I swallowed hard, and reached out for the pistol with both hands.
The air smelled like exhaust fumes and the sea. I pushed the fog away from my eyelids with the back of one hand, opened my eyes and focused. I was standing on a curb, a few hundred feet from Abbey Road studios. It looked just the same as when John, Paul, George and I recorded those four audition songs here in 1962. June 6, to be exact. From the look of things, it was early morning. The street was quiet, just starting to come alive. One other person was out and about, a man about my age in filthy denims, staring my way from the other side of the street.
A taxi stopped and a man stepped out. He was in his late 20s, and dressed in a suit and tie too expensive for anything but attending a concert at the Albert Hall. Brian Epstein was just as I remembered him.
I was shaken when I read of his death a couple years ago. Dead, instantly, at 32. He was so animated and alive when he managed the band, way back then, when I was still part of everything. When he spoke about his vision for the group, our clothes, hair, the manner in which he wanted the public to see us, I bought every word, and I was near certain he was brilliant. Now, to see him alive again, was downright eerie.
I just stood there, frozen. Brian noticed me as he walked toward the studio door. He stared for a few secs, obviously confused as to why I would show up unannounced at Abbey Road before the sun had fully risen. He halted in mid-stride and waved.
The cold metal of the pistol pressed against the bare skin of my back, under my shirt, as I walked closer to him.
"Hi, Mr. Epstein," I said.
"What brings you here this morning?"
"I, uh, I'm not sure."
"You okay? You look tired."
"Long few nights is all."
"Well, George Martin and I have an early meeting."
He took my arm and pulled me aside as if preparing to whisper a military secret. I saw the man in denim watching us from across the street. "Dates for your first session," Brian said. "First real session, yeah?"
"Oh? That's all you have to say? This is it, Pete, a real session, real records. It's not fantasy any longer."
He smiled so big his face had to hurt.
"That's great, Mr. Epstein. Great."
I reached behind and pulled out the gun.
The man in denim sprinted at us.
Brian's eyes widened.
I aimed the gun at him.
I pulled the trigger five times and the street echoed with cannon fire.
The shovel in my hands crunched into the hard earth at my feet. I stopped, balanced the shovel against my thighs, and squeezed my hands open and shut, open and shut. My fingers were stiff and calloused, all of them, as if I had been digging for a hundred years.
I squinted at the late afternoon sky as the sun strained to break through a thick summer haze. I wiped a film of dirt and sweat from my forehead with one bare forearm. The sleeves on my filthy blue shirt were bunched up around my elbows.
I shook sweat from my hair, crouched down near the fresh pile of dirt, and pressed the button on my transistor radio. I Wanna be Your Dog, and static, came weakly out of the tinny speaker. Probably needed new batteries. It was the fourth time I'd heard Iggy Stooge sing that Dog song today. Since those U.S. groups from the slum-ridden Los Angeles and New York streets invaded these shores a couple years ago, muck-rock is all anybody listens to anymore. Even a bunch of U.K. muck groups have sprung up.
I gripped the shovel again. Looked like I had about two feet to go.
I turned. A young bird was perched, sitting on a headstone just a few feet from me, across the cemetery path, her tanned legs dangling underneath. She was blonde, and wore a plaid skirt, the kind young girls wear in Catholic school. Black letters written on a white, paper rectangle stuck to the front of her blouse read: Britney.
I said, "You're not supposed to up there like that."
"Yeah, well, I'm a rebel."
"Paying your respects, then?"
She nodded, and hopped down. "To a great, great man."
I waited a sec, and said, "I see."
"One of your original fans."
"That was years ago. You must have been a little bit of a kid back then, yeah?"
"Thanks, but I'm older than I look."
She pulled a pen and a small notebook out from behind her back. The pen was thin and sleek, with a clear body that glowed red. "Would you mind, Pete?"
"Autograph?" I said.
The blonde nodded.
"Last autograph I gave was after our final concert, here in Liverpool, 1964."
"Your career was bright."
I took the pen and scribbled my name on the first page of white paper in her notebook.
"Thanks," she said.
"She Loves You was your biggest, yeah?"
"Number eight on the charts," I said. The memory of it came flooding back. I leaned against a sycamore tree, pulled a stained kerchief from my back pocket, and wiped my face. "Nice of you to remember."
"And, I Want to Hold Your Hand got to, what, twelve?"
Britney sat on the grass in front of me and crossed her legs underneath. She set the shimmering pen and notebook on the ground.
"Thirteen," I said.
"And that was it."
"A few appearances on the BBC, concerts here and there, you know, local boys make good sort of thing. Two records. Two-hit wonders." I took a look around, and gestured broadly with an open palm. "Now, I have all this."
"At least you had two hit records, Pete. That's more than most blokes can say."
"For what it's worth."
"How's it for you here?"
"What's to complain?" I pulled a fag from by shirt pocket, lit it up and took a long drag. "Decent pay, got my own place to flop, right over there." I nodded toward the impromptu apartment the mortuary owners set up for me in an abandoned tomb a couple years ago. "And, course, business is regular. All folks got to die."
"Not much there for a bloke like me."
My transistor rattled with Disposable, by The Deviants, another muck-rock group. Mick Farren's voice never failed to set my nerves on edge.
Britney pulled a lit fag from somewhere and inched a bit closer to me. "In touch with the other boys?"
I shook my head. "John's still in jail in California, since he raised a ruckus at that college, some sort of movement against the VietNam War. Especially since Britain sent all those troops in. John hates the war."
"Imagine he does."
"Wrote some songs about it, but nobody will touch them. Peace, love, you know."
"I don't care much for those songs."
"Yeah, well, neither did any record producers."
"Met some bird at a pub, got hitched and moved to the States with her. Sells appliances for her father's store in, uh, Minnesota, I think."
Britney smiled. "That's nice."
"And George is still in med school."
"No one writing any songs, then?"
"Well, John. But no one is listening."
Britney smiled and nodded to herself. "Pete, not that I'm nosey, but do you ever wonder how it could have been different?"
"The band, fame, money, yeah?"
I brushed dirt from the front of my dungarees.
"Sure. Everybody has those dreams, I guess."
"If you could go back, Pete, go back to the beginning, what could you do different?"
I waited a sec, and then said, "Look, I'm really not sure what you're doing here and all, dressed that way, talking to me about the band, but that was long ago, and far, far away. Better we left it all alone, right? Nothing to do about it now."
"Maybe. Maybe. But, just for the sake of discussion, just for my own curiosity, if you could go back, what would you change? Have you ever thought about it that way?"
I took a breath. "For the sake of discussion, yeah. I'd change something if I could."
I sat down in the grass beneath the tree.
"It was always Brian's vision, from the very start of things, you know?"
"Tragic about his murder."
I nodded. "Unsolved, to this day."
"Was Brian that planned our clothes, our hair, the way we would talk to the papers, on the radio."
"I've heard that."
"Remember before Brian took on the band, we were greasers, black leather, street toughs. We had a rough, dirty edge. Hell, the four of us were The Quarrymen before Brian. But Brian Epstein saw us clean-cut, with mod suits from Carnaby Street, and fresh scrubbed faces. He wanted our hair long, but neat. It was a new look along with a hip, positive sound, meant to appeal to all the young birds. But after Brian was killed, John and Paul, well all of us, decided to pick up that rough edge again. Most kids didn't like it, and we were no different than a hundred other groups. So, Brian's vision died with him."
Britney took a long pull on her fag. "You think if he had lived on..?"
"Don't know for sure. But I always thought Brian Epstein was the original heart of The Beatles."
She smiled. "You know, when you think about it, you boys may have been ahead of your time without Brian Epstein, with what the radio plays today."
"They do say timing is everything. And to tell you the truth, this muck-rock stuff got old for me really fast."
I shrugged and just stared at her.
She reached behind her back, pulled out a black pistol, and set it on the ground beside my transistor.
"Maybe you could change things," she said.
I stared at the pistol. "What's this?"
"Maybe Brian Epstein did not have to die."
I swallowed. The transistor played Guaranteed to Bleed out into the thick, humid air. "Look, I don't know what the hell this is about, but if you've got something to say, Britney..?"
"Maybe you could go back."
"Through time. To 1962."
"What, like H.G. Wells, you're saying?"
"Just like, yeah?"
"And, what then?"
"Stop the murder."
I let that sink in. "With this gun?"
She nodded. "You kill the killer, before..."
I really looked into her eyes for the first time. They were lifeless, like all the stiffs I cover over with dirt. I shivered, and it takes a lot to make me shiver. My temples started to pound.
I said, "Just who are you?"
She smiled. "A girl of wealth and taste, Pete."
"And what does that mean?"
"Nothing you should know, really. A reference from another time and place."
The sky seemed to darken, and my head pounded harder.
"Okay. For the sake of discussion, since that's all we're doing, right? How do I get back to 1962?"
"I send you."
"And then I bring you back."
She nodded. "1969."
"And things will be different then?"
"Not sure, really."
"I'm still experimenting. It's tricky."
"What I do in my spare time. Kills some hours. And, to be honest, I probably need to keep at it until I get it all just right."
I stared at the pistol again.
The band sure had its day in the sun back then, 1963. And there was nothing like hearing our songs on the radio for the first time. I remember the look on John's face, as if he didn't think it was real. The papers wrote about us. The birds followed us.
We were indestructible.
And then, two songs and one album later, the air escaped from the balloon, and silently, without any announcement from anybody, it was over. Nobody really cared much after that, and we all went our separate ways.
But it was fab while it lasted. And if I had my choice, a real choice, to either go back and reinvent the band, or stay here digging holes in the ground until my back finally gives out, hell, that's not much of a choice, indeed.
I looked over at Britney. Whoever or whatever she really happened to be, I was not smart enough to figure it out. She grinned at me with incredibly white, even teeth.
I said, "What do I have to do?"
"Just pick up the gun."
Another Stooge's song, No Fun, came from the radio.
I swallowed hard, held my breath, and reached out for the pistol with both hands.