"C'mon, John, lighten up!" Paul urged his friend. He punched John's shoulder playfully and smiled. "Just because our gig in Hamburg ended badly, that doesn't mean we're never going to perform on a stage again."
John hung his head and made no response, but continued walking down Slater Street alongside Paul to meet their manager Allan Williams at the Jacaranda Club.
"I just wish you'd have given me a ring to let me know you were coming home," Paul chided John gently. "I could have put Allan to work straight away, trying to book us a gig. With Christmas almost here, there's bound to be some parties and dances we can play."
John dug his hands deeper into his coat pockets. "I'm pretty sure all the holiday shows are already booked."
"Well, then we'll get a jump on the bookings for the New Year!" countered Paul. "I have a feeling in my bones that things are really going to turn around for us in 1961."
"Right," John mumbled in a discouraged voice. He stopped in front of the Jacaranda coffee bar and held the door open for Paul. "You go in first, since this was your idea."
"Don't mind if I do," Paul laughed. He stepped into the building, found Allan Williams sitting at a table going over his books, and pulled up a seat beside him. John walked up to the bar and asked for a cup of tea, then took a seat beside his friend.
Allan looked up from his paperwork. "Well, look who the cat dragged in. The college drop-out and the felon."
Paul made a face at his manager. "Who are you calling a felon? I only committed a misdemeanor. That fire Pete and I set hardly left a burn mark on the wall."
Allan frowned at him. "You can't even set a proper fire then, can you, Paulie? I'll add that to the list of things you can't do when I consider putting your name forward for another gig."
The waitress brought John his cup of tea. He smiled at her, then flashed an anxious look at Allan. "Is this on the house, or do I have to pay for my cuppa?"
Allan shrugged, then gestured to the girl to walk away. "So, lads, what brings you here?"
Paul cleared his throat. "We were hoping you could land us a new gig. We figured there might be some openings, what with the holidays upon us."
"And is your child prodigy guitarist old enough to join you on stage yet?" Allan replied with a smirk.
John swallowed a sip of tea and rested his cup back in its saucer. "You knew George was underage when you sent him to Germany. You saw his passport. That's your bad."
"But I didn't know Paul and Pete were pyromaniacs," Allan retorted. "Or that your bassist preferred the company of German fräuleins to the contractual obligations of sticking around with your band."
Paul exchanged a quick look with John, then turned back towards his manager. "We don't need Stu to play bass for us anymore. I can play the instrument as well as he ever could."
Allan stared at Paul for a long moment, then curled his lips into a twisted smile. "So, you'd be willing to fill in for another bassist then, would you, Paulie?"
Paul puffed out his cheeks proudly, then slumped his shoulders in defeat and exhaled his breath. "Well, I'm not looking at leaving the Beatles, if that's what you're asking."
"There's not much of the Beatles left to leave," John said sadly. He lifted his tea cup and stared into his drink. "We imploded in Hamburg."
Allan continued to stare at Paul. "You know, you might actually fit the bill for the gig I want to offer you, though I'm not so sure about our John here."
John lowered his tea cup and frowned. "What the bloody hell is that supposed to mean?"
"I just got a call from a friend of mine who's managing a group called 'Suzy and the Red Stripes'," Allan explained. "They're set to play a couple of concerts at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool this week. But their bass player and guitarist took ill all of a sudden with the flu. My friend was wondering if I knew any musicians who might be willing to take on a temporary, last-minute assignment as replacement band-members."
Paul broke into a huge smile. "We're in, Allan, we're in!" But then his face fell. He turned towards John. "Shit, did you bring Stu's bass back with you from Germany?"
"Hell no! I could barely carry my own guitar and amp and suitcase!" John replied in an indignant voice.
"The instrument won't be a problem," Allan said, his eyes sparkling mischievously. "You can use the regular band-member's bass, and just restring it cack-fisted for the concerts. The stage costume is a bigger concern to me."
"Why?" Paul challenged. "Is it something stupid looking, like a red and green holiday suit with jingle bells sewn onto a hat? Because I wouldn't mind wearing that, you know. I'm always up for a larf. Give me any costume, and I'll put it on."
"Is that so?" Allan replied. "I'd like to see you wear this one."
John threw him a dirty look. "Out with it, Allan! Just tell us how we'd be expected to dress if we filled in for these musicians at the Winter Gardens."
Allan leaned back in his chair and laughed. "Suzy and the Red Stripes are a novelty act. An all-girls band. You two would have to dress the part. Skirts, stockings, high heels. And wigs and make-up too." He focused his gaze at John. "Lots of make-up, I'd venture. Paul's pretty enough to pass for a lass, Johnny, but you'd need a complete, professional make-over."
John bolted up from the table and sent his chair crashing to the floor. "Fuck you, Allan! I've had enough of your bullshit to last me a lifetime!" He stormed out of the Jacaranda, knocking a table and two more chairs to the floor as he left to emphasize his point.
Paul jumped up and followed John out of the coffee bar, but called over his shoulder to Allan before he left the building. "I'll see if I can talk some sense into him! Don't offer that job to anyone else yet!"
"C'mon, it'll be fun!" Paul urged John as they strode down Penny Lane at a brisk pace. "It'll be like dressing up in drag for a Christmas Panto. Lots of male entertainers do that!"
"I didn't spend the past five years practicing guitar till my fingers bled so I could don a frock and wiggle my arse on a stage for people to laugh at me," John replied. He approached the bank tucked into the corner of the street, kicked a rock on the pavement, and set it flying into the air. The rock hit the face of a person who was leaving the bank.
The injured man stopped dead in his tracks and glowered at John. "What the hell do you think you're doing, arsehole?" He tightened his grip on the large cloth bag he was carrying in his right fist.
A man wearing a Macintosh coat ran out of the bank and crashed into the first man. "Get a move-on, Charlie. Spats is waiting for us in the motorcar!"
"That bastard just threw a rock at my face!" the first man said, pointing his free hand at John.
"Yeah?" the second man replied. He dug his hand into the pocket of his Macintosh, pulled out a gun, and pointed it at John and Paul. "Which one? Four-Eyes or Pretty-Face?"
"Fuck," John and Paul muttered simultaneously under their breaths.
A black Rolls Royce barreled through the round-about and screeched to a stop in front of the bank. Its back door flung open, and a voice cried out from the inside of the car. "Get in! What are you buggers waiting for?!"
"Those two wankers saw us!" shouted the man holding the large bag.
"No, we didn't!" John called back to him. "My glasses are old. I need a new prescription! And my mate's even blinder than me, but he forgot his specs at home! We didn't see you clearly! Not at all!"
The man in the Mac pointed his gun back-and-forth between John and Paul's faces. "So which one of you should I shoot first?"
John and Paul gulped and broke into sweats.
"Wait a minute…I know these blokes," said the man with the bag. "I've seen them perform at the Grosvenor Ballroom in Wallasey. They're in a band called the…"
The scream of sirens drowned out his last words. A gleamingly bright fire engine raced up Penny Lane, followed by three police cars in a row. The two bank robbers exchanged quick looks, then ran into the Rolls. The man in the Mac called out to John and Paul before he slammed his car door shut, "We'll be coming after you!"
The Rolls pulled a fast U-turn and took off like a rocket. Two of the police cars spun their cars around and followed after it in hot pursuit.
The Rolls nearly hit her a pretty nurse who was walking across the traffic circle. She screamed in terror, then starting running back to the shelter in the middle of the roundabout. The first police car screeched to a stop to avoid hitting her. The second police car barreled into the back of the first car, and set it careening across the roundabout. The robbers' get-away car disappeared into the distance.
John grabbed Paul's elbow and pulled him away from the bank, then took off at a tear and ran down a quieter side street. Paul followed at his heels, then passed John and ducked behind a tall lorry parked along the side of the road. John leaned his back against the lorry and closed his eyes in worry. Then he opened his eyes slowly and turned towards his song-writing partner.
"My Auntie Harriet's got some wigs we could borrow," he panted between shaky breaths. "And some large size stockings too."
"We could probably fit into my Auntie Gin's frocks and shoes," Paul offered.
John nodded, then looked down at his feet. "And my sisters saved a box of my mum's old trinkets. Hats and scarves and paste jewelry. They play dress up with her things all the time."
"Righto," Paul said. "And maybe we could borrow Cyn and Dot's overcoats."
John lifted his head and glared at Paul. "We're not breathing a word of this to Cyn or Dot. This gig is strictly off the record books."
John teetered awkwardly on his high heels as he strutted down Blackpool's Northern Promenade towards the Imperial Hotel. "How do birds move in these goddamned shoes?" he cursed under his breath.
"I think you have to put a little wiggle in your walk," Paul replied. He stepped a few paces ahead of John and started demonstrating an exaggerated feminine stride.
A man in a long black coat jogged beside Paul and pinched his bottom as he passed. Paul stopped dead in his tracks. John started laughing.
Paul clenched his free hand into a fist. "Why, I oughta…" he growled under his breath.
"Watch your voice, Paula," John commanded him. He pitched his own voice into a high falsetto. "Don't make a scene. It's not ladylike."
Paul rolled his eyes, then lifted his own voice into a higher register. "I'll try to do better, Joan."
"Make it Jane," John corrected him. "Or Janet. Or better yet, Johanna. Then I can model my voice off the German tarts we shagged in Hamburg."
"Well, you'd better decide on your new name soon," Paul replied. "We're almost at the hotel. I can see the porter helping some bird with her luggage."
"How does Ivana sound to you?" John asked. "I could try out a Russian accent, and pretend I'm a spy."
Paul and John reached the front door of the hotel. The porter nodded politely at John, then looked Paul over carefully and smiled. "May I help you ladies?"
"Yes," said Paul in a high-pitched voice. "We're here to meet Desmond and Molly Jones. Our manager sent us from Liverpool. We're the replacement musicians for their band."
The porter noted the guitar case John was holding, then looked back at Paul. "Forgot your instrument at home, sweetheart?"
"She plays the mouth harp," John interrupted in a sweet voice. He slipped his hand inside the top of his dress and squeezed his false bosom. "Paula likes to keep it close to her heart, so she can grab it at a moment's notice." He massaged the socks he had stuffed inside his bra and pursed his lips at the porter.
The porter looked back and forth between John and Paul's padded chests, then laughed. "I can see the advantages of that!" He turned to a bellhop and told him to help the ladies with their bags.
The bellhop lifted John's and Paul's suitcases onto a luggage cart, then reached for John's guitar case.
"Don't touch that, you little wanker!" John shouted, dropping his voice an octave. Then he blushed and cleared his throat. "Sorry," he added, resuming his forced falsetto. "I'm just very possessive of my instrument, that's all."
"Her father gave it to her for a Sweet Sixteen gift," Paul added, fluttering his false eyelashes.
"And then he died the next day," John added, hamming up his performance. "It's all I have left of dear Daddy."
"Right then," said the porter. He rolled his eyes at the bellhop and directed him to lead the ladies into the lobby so they could check into their rooms.
Paul looked up at the high ceilings inlaid with intricate woodwork, and stared in amazement at the glittering chandeliers shining down on him. Then he followed John and the bellhop to the front desk. John rested his hand on the heavy oak desktop and smiled at the receptionist. "We're with the Desmond and Molly Jones party."
"Indeed," said a man standing directly behind John and Paul.
John and Paul both turned and stood face-to-face with a fat man in a loud, checkered, three-piece suit.
"I'm Desmond Jones," the man said. "You must be the musicians Allan Williams send up for my wife's band."
John and Paul nodded in unison.
Desmond asked the front desk clerk for the key to John and Paul's room and signed the register on their behalf. Then he sent the bellhop ahead to the room with their luggage and led the boys to the elevator.
"'Suzy and the Red Stripes' is Molly's newest pet project," he explained as they crossed the lobby. "I don't have much to do with the band. But I thought I'd tag along for this set of holiday shows, so I could stay at this magnificent hotel for a few nights. You girls ever been to Blackpool before?"
"Yes," answered John. "I came here with my father and uncle for a holiday when I was little, right after the war ended. But we just stayed at a cheap cottage by the fairgrounds."
"This is a rather posh place," Desmond replied, casting a look around the luxurious foyer. "Molly spends a fortune on her girls. Treats them almost like royalty. But she expects them to act like ladies in return."
"Oh, we're very good at acting like ladies," Paul chirped in, forcing a giggle.
"And your names are…" Desmond asked.
"Paula," Paul said, extending his hand.
Desmond lifted Paul's hand to his lips and kissed it.
Paul giggled nervously.
"Leila Parkes," John said. He offered his right hand to Desmond and winked.
Desmond laughed and kissed John's hand as well. Then he looked over John's shoulder and broke into a large grin.
"Pardon me for a moment, girls," he apologized. "I just saw someone I need to greet."
Paul watched Desmond walk away, then turned toward John. "Leila Parkes? I thought you said you were going to call yourself 'Ivana'!"
"Leila Parkes is my cousin's name," John explained. "Don't you remember? You've met her, I'm sure. This way if I get paid with a check, I can have Leila cash it for me."
"Ah, good thinking," Paul said, nodding his head in understanding. "I wonder if I should have…"
Desmond Jones returned to their side, bringing with him a tall, fashionably-dressed young man. "Girls," he interrupted, "let me introduce you to my old college friend. Paula, Leila, this is Osgood Fielding the Third. We graduated from Oxford together eight years ago. Osgood's family owns a diamond mine in Rhodesia, but he sailed his yacht up to Blackpool for the holidays to visit his dear old mama. Wasn't that nice of him?"
Osgood eyed Paul curiously for a moment, then focused a long gaze at John. "Pleased to meet you both."
"Are you staying at this hotel too, Mr. Fielding?" Paul asked, laying on the charm.
"Well, I've checked into a room, though I might just sleep in my boat most nights," he answered. "I don't need to get too close to Mumsy, now, do I?" He smiled at John. "Might I ask your room number? I could stop by in an hour or two and collect you for dinner. Or if you'd prefer, I could ask my steward to prepare us a more private meal on my yacht."
John blanched, then forced a nervous smile. "I'm sorry, Mr. Fielding, I'm going to have to ask you for a raincheck. Paula and I have to go to a rehearsal as soon as we freshen up. We're playing a concert tonight, in a band managed by Mr. Jones' wife." He lifted his guitar case to back up his excuse.
"Ah, Molly always did have an eye for the beauties, didn't she?" Osgood said to Desmond. "So these are her newest protégés?"
"We're just filling in for two of her regular girls," Paul said defensively. He slipped his arm through John's bent elbow and pulled him closer. "I'm sure we'll both be very busy these next few days."
Osgood nodded. "I'm sure you will. I meant no offense. The women of rock-and-roll deserve to be treated with more respect. I'm a great admirer of Faye Adams and Sparkle Moore, and I had the good fortune of seeing the Poni-Tails perform in concert last year in New York City. Will your group be singing a cover of their hit, 'Born Too Late,' this evening?"
John backed away from Paul and looked directly at Osgood. "Come see us play tonight and find out for yourself, why don't you? And if you like what you hear, then maybe you could show me your yacht afterwards, Mr. Fielding. Or should I call you Osgood?"
"It's a date," Osgood laughed. He leaned forward and whispered his hotel room number into John's ear. Then he said goodbye to Desmond and stepped back into the lobby crowd.
Desmond finished walking John and Paul to the elevator, then handed them their hotel room key. "Why don't you two have a little lie-down, then come downstairs and meet me by the bar? I'll arrange a taxi to take you to the Winter Gardens after you freshen up."
John and Paul nodded at him, then stepped into the elevator. They got off at the third floor and found their room. As soon as they stepped inside, Paul pulled off his wig and kicked off his shoes. "What the hell were you doing down there, flirting with that Rhodesian millionaire?"
John sat down at a desk in the far corner of the room and inspected his hands. "Did you bring more nail polish along, dearest Paula? I chipped two of my fingernails." He lifted the first two fingers of his right hand and waved them at Paul in a rude gesture.
Paul put his hands to his hips and glowered at John.
John laughed at him. "You look just like my auntie Mater when you pose like that. She always was a bit of a sourpuss."
"I'm serious, John," Paul insisted. "You're going to blow our cover if you go out with that bloke. He'll see right through you."
"So?" John replied. "This was your daft idea to play dress-ups in the first place. I'm just going along for the ride to see where it takes me."
"But if Desmond and Molly Jones find out we're not girls, they'll send us back to Liverpool on the next train. And if we go home before the cops catch those bank-robbers, we'll…"
"We'll be fine," John assured him. "We don't have any gigs lined up for the indefinite future, remember? So that wanker won't see us playing on any stage. We'll just be crashing in our suburban homes, laying low. But we're here now, and I intend to have some fun."
John stood up from his chair and opened the suitcase that the bellboy had left on his bed. "I'm going to shave again before we head to the rehearsal. And you should too."
Paul rubbed his hands over his cheeks. "Really? You can see my stubble already?"
"I'm not talking about your face, Paula," John laughed. "I meant your legs. You've got a big patch of thick black fur sprouting through the run in your stocking."
To be continued…