The Fool on the Hill
Billy Shears moved about the room with the exaggerated stealth of a man on a pantomime stage, his feet lifting high off the floor while his toes pointed down to tread softly across the cold bare floorboards, his arms held slightly away from his body to steady himself and guard against any stumble or chance collision with the furniture. Not that there was all that much to blunder against, though, for the room was no more than a basic shell with basic fixtures: there was a bed, the soiled mound of off-white linen he had recently vacated, a free-standing wardrobe which he crept towards as if stalking it, a single upright chair and a narrow Formica-topped table. A naked bulb offered a weak light, the window was grimy and through its rain-streaked panes the grey morning seemed to scoff at him, as if to say ‘here we are, Billy, here’s another day come to trouble you’.
The room was a Spartan shelter, all Billy could afford, yet even this would soon be beyond his means, in fact already might be, with so much rent owing and no funds to cover it. There was the reason for his stealth, then, to avoid waking the landlady below; she was a large-boned, loud-mouthed Irish woman, and at the first sound of him stirring she would station herself at the foot of the stairs, the bulk of her body blocking the way, demanding settlement of the money she was due. He had to leave the house unseen and unheard, then. Even so, if he did escape unchallenged and unmolested, he could not hope to return to his room unless he had cash in hand; the woman would remain at her post all day and all night, if need be, and not let him pass unless the rent was paid. Though Billy might be poor in many respects, however, he was rich in optimism and felt that this day, more than any other, held prospects in store.
It was just a pity that the sun wasn’t shining.
The contents of the wardrobe gave an idea of just how dire Billy’s circumstances had become. He inched open the door a fraction at a time, straining on the rusted hinges to prevent them creaking, and regarded the clothes inside. There were just two suits and a single overcoat hanging there and all were smooth to the touch, the weave of the cloth worn thin, the nap of the fabric long lost. One suit, though, was in slightly better condition than the other, not quite as stained by drink or soiled by spillages, and it was in this that he decided he would conduct the day’s business; he took it from the rail, licking his fingers to brush at the lapels before hooking it over the door. The sweater and jeans he had slept in he hurriedly removed, the cold of the room biting at his chest as he began to pull on the clothes of the day, the cream shirt which had been pressed almost neat by the weight of the mattress on top of it, then the trousers and the jacket. In the splintered mirror which was fixed to the inside of the wardrobe door his pale skin shone, a translucent white darkened here and there by cold blue shadow. Though of average height his build was slight and the muscles about his arms and chest were wasted; there were concave surfaces where there should have been convexities, as if he was withdrawing in upon himself, muscles and all. It was a feeble joke, this, and during such icy winter months it was difficult to keep up the jolly pretence.
With his shirt fastened and the suit buttoned Billy looked a little more substantial, as though his sixty odd years amounted to something. The trousers sagged about the crotch and there were loose folds of skin, like a poorly tied cravat, at the open neck of his shirt, but the cut of the jacket was crisp, the cuffs not too frayed. The topcoat, a necessary item in view of the weather, added bulk to his shoulders, and his shoes, provided he shuffled slightly to hide the worn soles, were quite presentable enough. Yes, he thought, after studying himself in the mirror, he was the man to do business with, and he went confidently but quietly down the stairs.
The day was as grey as it had seemed from the window, it had been no trick of the unclean glass, and there was a fine drizzle falling, misting the street and covering the parked cars with a dull sheen. He hurried from view of his lodgings, head bowed and collar upturned, then slowed when he had rounded the corner. He considered walking into the city but the drizzle, though slight, was persistent enough to saturate his clothes. The bus, then? He deliberated, finger and thumb thoughtfully stroking his chin. He felt whiskers there, a prickly two day growth; he could have done with a shave, but that had not been possible, there was no wash-basin in his room and the bathroom was on the lower floor, next door to Mrs Molloy’s bedroom. The whiskers were grey, though, like a dusting on a piece of confectionery, and there was that much in their favour, that they would perhaps lend an air of dignity to his otherwise ordinary countenance. He hoped so, for dignity would be useful today, it would not do for him to seem too much in need of cash, and with this reminder that there would surely be some money coming his way he decided in favour of catching the bus.
He had a couple of minutes to wait, hunched against the rain, before a bus came along.
‘You going into Liverpool?’ he asked the driver, as the doors sighed open for him.
‘Where else?’ said the driver, hands impatiently tapping the wheel, keen to be off.
‘It says Penny Lane on the front.’
‘It says ‘Mantunna Tea’ on the side but that don’t mean I sell the fucking stuff.’
Billy waited for a more civil reply. He had heard similar jokes many times before, sometimes spoken in good humour and other times, as now, with undisguised sarcasm.
‘I’ve just come from Penny Lane,’ the driver finally responded, eager to get on. ‘Now I’ve got the bus pointed in the direction of town, so that’s where I’m going. So what about you, pal? You coming or not?’
Billy smiled and paid for his ticket, then climbed the stairs to the upper deck. It was a good start to the day. Bus drivers served the public and sometimes had to be reminded of the fact.
Settling himself, looking about him at the other passengers, he saw a young girl at the front of the bus, five foot and an inch or two, pale and thin in jeans and windcheater. He felt the irony in the word -‘windcheater’- as if the thin material of her jacket could actually cheat the elements on such a chilly day. Fingering a worn patch on her knee, the girl perched on the edge of her seat with her shoulders embracing her like a shroud, hunched forward almost eagerly, as if to beat the other passengers in the dash to their final destination. A plastic bag, the name on it scrubbed and faded, was clutched so tightly in her lap that she might have been holding a carrier bag of love songs. She looked out onto the gloomy morning ahead of her, searching for private visions, spent a few agitated moments striking a match against the flaking chromium trim of the seat beside her and then touched the light to the tip of her crumpled cigarette; at the same time something about her touched Billy’s heart, for she seemed to be in silent communion with his own sad life, offering no reason for her presence and asking for none in return.
He watched her all the way into the city, along Kensington -not at all as grand as its London namesake- past the hospital which had somehow earned the title ‘Royal’, right by the University and the School of Tropical Medicine and then down to Lime Street.
When the bus slowed to pull up outside the railway station Billy followed the girl down the stairs to the lower deck, stood beside her and smiled down at her as they waited for the driver to edge the bus the final few yards to the stop. The girl’s only response to his attentions, which had perhaps not been as discreet as he thought, was to glare back with an adolescent disdain, then leap to the pavement and lose herself in the crowd.
Twenty years ago today, thirty years ago or maybe more, and it would have been a different matter; then the girl would have been begging for his attention, or her mother would have, rubbing her breasts against him as she sidled past, or twitching her thighs and shaking her hips for him to see. All those years ago -twenty, thirty, however many- women had wanted Billy Shears.
He walked forward, not remembering if it was the direction the girl had taken. About him it was a mad early morning in the city, vehicles roaring and people bustling; an elderly man crossed four lanes of rush hour traffic from Lime Street Station to St Georges Hall, oblivious to the danger and the cars which zipped past, swerving to the accompaniment of curses and burning brake pads; at another junction a little further on, where the road turned down to the river and the Pier Head, two youths ambled leisurely between as cars filtered, now fast now slow, from left and from right, and one of them stumbled over his own feet and sat arse down on the low bonnet of a flash sleek Jaguar. It could have been the weather, it could have been the phase of the moon or it could have been chance, pure and simple, which encouraged the recklessness of these people and brought it to Billy’s attention. A fine distinction it was to him, the line between sense and insanity, and a fever which was easily communicated; but then, he would smile philosophically, it was a senseless tragic world, with no rhyme nor reason nor cogent plot.
Billy avoided the traffic and the hubbub as best he could, suffered the madness of the morning as he went about his business, but by midday he grew weary, for the business he was engaged upon seemed to consist of apparently aimless wandering. His meanderings centred about the business district of the city, the only two stations at which he paused being the offices of the local newspaper and the local radio. He spent rather less time outside the ‘Liverpool Post and Echo’ than he did on the steps of ‘Radio City’, for the newspaper offices were situated close to the river and the sharp wind which blew along the Mersey from the Irish Sea whipped the fine drizzle into a flurry which stung his eyes. He could have entered either of these buildings, of course, and enquired after the man he sought; if the man was in neither then there might at least be someone who would know where he could be found. He lacked the confidence, though, despite being dressed in the finest that his wardrobe could supply; the reception areas of these places were too intimidating, altogether too plush an environment for the journalists who worked there. In a noisy smoke-filled bar, with a glass of whisky leaving amber coloured stains on his notepad, that was how Billy pictured a newspaperman.
When twelve o’clock came he decided that a bar was where the man he sought would be, and still having a few pounds in his pocket courtesy of that same man he went along to the nearest pub. It was one of those places which remembered Liverpool’s past glories, when it had been a prosperous city and the second seaport of a vast British empire, a place which had once been grand but was no longer elegant, with too many plastic parts grafted onto it for it to retain any of the beauty which older drinkers like Billy remembered. It would do for the moment, though, since he rarely took in his surroundings these days, seeming to dwell more on things as they had been rather than things as they had become.
The woman behind the bar was blonde, dressed all in black as if making a conscious attempt at some morbid harmony, and she was young enough to be out of place among the predominantly middle-aged drinkers. Her only concession to colour was her lipstick, a dark red against the pale white skin; her eyes were clear and her fingernails natural, varnished but not painted, with a large ring on one hand sparkling like a weapon. She went about her work with a peaceful air, in serene contrast to the noise around her, and her beauty prompted no crude remarks from the customers, which surprised Billy, who always expected the worst of people when they had a drink or two inside them. While one hand held down a tap to pour out draught beer the other wound hair in a caress behind her ear, her head tilted, her hair long and heavy and of varied tones of blonde; he could imagine it tumbling like a fragrant curtain over thighs and faces and the things she might love and adore.
Ah, twenty years ago, Billy remembered, taking his drink from her and feeling her nails scratch his palm as she handed him his change; then the things she adored might have been his mouth, his groin, his cock. If only he had been able to catch her twenty years ago. Or was it really thirty years ago now? My, how time flies!
He moved to a small room adjoining the main bar, sitting by the open doorway so that he could see the barmaid when he chose to but spending much of the time with his head bowed, deep in thought. When she came into the room to collect empty glasses he caught stolen glimpses of her moving past in the light reflected from copper-topped tables, her hair burning like a halo as if her spirit was a shimmering thing. Pyrotechnic fantasies were kindled as he followed her back to the bar to buy another drink, but then were immediately doused and dampened as he saw her laughing, in congress with some other nameless face, her teeth surely too big to allow her mouth to close again on her laughter. She was tumbled from her exalted station, then, seen to be human and a part of every day, for Billy was forever handicapped by a search for the sublime which made all dreams unattainable and removed reality to one step beyond the compass of his imagination.
He decided against a second drink and quickly moved on.
The rain had stopped but the cold had become a few degrees harsher, frost would soon start creeping across the streets to make a mat of icy crochet patterns which would be treacherous underfoot. He turned up his collar, then thrust his hands deep into his pockets, felt the keys and cigarettes and matches in one, the used bus tickets and scraps of paper and miscellaneous trivia in the other. Billy’s pockets were becoming overcrowded, like grubby rooms crammed with illegal immigrants, and his fingers fought possessions for what space was available. He was almost tempted to jettison any superfluous junk, hating the feel of the trash against his fingers, but persuaded himself that each item might serve a purpose.
And one day there might be so much rubbish that he would carry it about in a tattered carrier bag or two, or maybe in a rusted supermarket trolley, like some he saw on the streets of the city!
The possibility worried Billy, but it did not encourage him to lighten his load.
The day was cold and getting colder, but he had to make his money last and for the moment he resisted the temptation to go into another bar. Mindlessly he threaded his way through the city streets, cursing them for being so many right angles, asking why there couldn’t be a few more arcs and curves, perhaps one or two acute angles if angles were really necessary. As it was the landscape was like a composition by Mondrian and he made a slow and painful progress.
A bus passed, stopped yards in front of him, and people spilled from it as though spat out, forcibly ejected. One young woman who strode towards him was cocooned in white fur, as though she had expected the change in the weather, her boots ringing heavily along the pavement, sending out such a clear piercing sound that it might have shattered icicles. Nice, he thought, covetous of the warm perfume she exuded as she passed him, and for moments after he tried to cling to it, as it might have clung to him in warmer weather, holding his breath and savouring the comfort it suggested; soon it was dissipated, though, diluted by the dismal mist of rain which had begun to fall once again.
He trudged along in rather worse humour, annoyed that he was being deprived of all consolation. With his hands in his pockets his shoulders were necessarily hunched, adding to the padded bulk of his overcoat, and occasionally he was jarred by people, or was guilty himself of barging into others. He felt no need to apologize, though; his pose was comfortable, with his head bowed and his chin tucked into his chest, and it could not be disturbed for something as trivial as offering a simple ‘mea culpa’.
Eventually the bitterness of the day and the aimlessness of his wanderings drove him back indoors, he took his ill humour into another bar and imagined it placed like a burden on the table before him, together with his drink. As if the load was too much to bear, the table swayed as it took the weight. Then two more glasses banged down, full pint glasses flanking his own half measure, rocking the table again and spewing beer across its surface.
He looked up to see two young men facing him. He recognized one, Dougie, but not the other.
‘This is him, Mac,’ said Dougie to his companion. ‘Billy Shears. The man who knew the Beatles.’
Billy, detecting the note of sarcasm, ignored the comment. Of course he had known the Beatles, and he would often talk about those times, but only with people who enjoyed listening, people who could appreciate what he had passed by, who would laugh when he laughed but would also share the sadness of what might have been. There was never any sympathy from young Dougie, who was too hard to be compassionate, too proud of his bullying build to admit any such weakness.
‘He’s the man, eh?’ said the one named Mac. ‘I must say, he doesn’t look like superstar material to me.’
‘That was the problem; the wrong image, too old. Isn’t that right, Billy?’
Billy was forced to admit that this had been so.
‘Much too old, if you ask me,’ Mac decided, after considering Billy for a moment or two. ‘Too old even to have liked the Beatles, let alone known them.’
‘But I did,’ said Billy, having to defend himself even if it meant being drawn into the conversation. ‘Didn’t I, Dougie?’
‘So you say,’ Dougie smiled, as if to suggest that he had his doubts.
‘I did, and played with them a couple of times. That was all, just the once or twice, but it’s something. You ask around, try Alan Williams or Bob Wooller, they’ll tell you. I played drums for them when they were stuck, it was over the river, New Brighton way. I could have done better than I did, if only I’d been younger and hadn’t had a job.'
Dougie laughed. ‘Over-qualified, were you? You can’t be a superstar unless you’re out of work, is that it?’
The two young men grinned at each other, smirking in that way that is intended to hurt old men and their dreams. Regretting having spoken, Billy drained his glass and stood.
‘No, Billy, don’t go,’ said Dougie. ‘Tell us some more.’
‘Fuck off. You don’t want to listen, you just want to laugh.’
‘Rubbish. Come on, have a drink with us.’
It was the offer of a free drink which persuaded Billy; pride was all very well, but there were times when it was a luxury which could be sacrificed. Dougie passed some money to his friend, who went to the bar and returned with three pints of Cain’s bitter.
‘Go on, Billy, tell us,’ said Dougie. ‘Was Lennon really as nasty as people say?’
‘He had a spark of genius, did John,’ Billy replied, sipping at his beer, not answering the question directly but saying what he always did, as though his part was now so familiar. ‘A wicked wit, but a spark of genius.’
‘Which you were the first to recognize?’
'I wouldn’t say that,’ said Billy, this time missing the sarcasm, ‘though I did sense it, the first time we met.’
‘Where was that? The Cavern? The Blue Angel?’
Billy sniffed derisively at the mention of the names. ‘You youngsters, you only know the places you’ve read about, the places the tourists visit that are part of history. They were dives, those places, but there were ones even less glamorous. No, the first time I came across John Lennon was in Litherland Town Hall.’
‘North end of the city,’ he told them, and they laughed with him as he told them of trips to Bootle and Garston and other pre-historic places, never touching on the glory of venues such as Shea Stadium or the Hollywood Bowl for he had missed out on those later times. They laughed with him, too, as he recalled reeling drunk from the door of the Jacaranda, not allowed in there with his bottle of cheap wine because the place was unlicensed in those days, and as he related arguing with George Harrison, who was still no more than a schoolboy at the time and too young to know what was what.
‘He had to end up a fucking mystic,’ said Billy, with a shake of the head. ‘He was always the naive one, George.’
‘He didn’t have your experience of life? Is that what you’re saying?’ asked Dougie.
‘But you didn’t have his luck,’ Mac ventured, and they laughed again, Billy a little more sadly this time.
‘You know what, Billy? You ought to write all this down, or get someone to do it for you. There’s still money to be made from the Beatles.’
‘Really, I mean it,’ said Dougie.
‘Well, it just so happens…’
‘He’s going to tell us he’s writing a fucking book!’ said Mac scornfully.
‘No, not exactly…’
‘For fuck’s sake, everyone and his sister knows somebody who knew the Beatles!’ Mac continued. ‘Half this fucking city’s been writing a book about it at one time or another!’
Dougie gave his friend a dig in the ribs to silence him. ‘Hush, let the man speak,’ he said, then turned to Billy. ‘You’ve got something lined up then, eh, Billy?’
Billy half inclined his head, as if reluctant to say too much. ‘There’s a newspaper reporter I met last night.’
‘He’s writing up your story, is he?’
‘He bought me drinks while he pumped my brain. Slipped me a tenner before he left, too. I’m waiting to meet him now.’
‘Hey,’ said Dougie, with a bright sparkle in his eye. ‘He wouldn’t be about my height, would he, wears a sports jacket and suede shoes?’
‘Yes, that sounds like him.’
‘And a card tucked in his hat-band that says ‘Press’?’ asked Mac, facetiously.
‘Stop pissing around,’ Dougie told him. Another nudge to the ribs, no hint of amusement now, and he said, ‘Don’t you remember the bloke we saw earlier, asking around the wine bar? It must have been him.’
‘Where?’ asked Billy excitedly, getting to his feet. ‘Which wine bar?’
Dougie caught his arm before he could leave. ‘Steady on, Billy, calm down. He left. Said he’d be back, though, at about half two. The wine bar on Lime Street, next to the railway station. You hang on here, Billy, you’ve got time to finish your drink.’
Billy nodded eagerly, said thanks for the information.
‘That’s okay, that’s what friends are for,’ Dougie replied, as he and Mac rose. ‘We’ll see you again, Billy. Buy us a drink when you’ve made your fortune.’
As they crossed the room Billy saw them look over their shoulders at him, their smiles amused and slightly pitying, and again he regretted having joined in conversation with them. It was always the same, a little drink was enough encouragement and he would start to ramble on, dwelling on the silly insignificant memories of just one or two nights so many years ago. Annoyed that he had fallen victim again, been unable to hold his tongue, disgusted with himself because he knew it would not be the last time, he gulped at his drink and then set the glass down on the table. The table upset him, it dipped towards him on uneven legs and then bowed away when he picked up his glass; it seemed almost subservient and it annoyed him, for he thought that even a table should behave with more dignity, a little more pride. He tried the glass in different positions -to the left, to the right, fore and aft, over each of the legs in turn- but every time the stupid altar dipped and rolled and all but genuflected, bobbing crazily on its four uneven legs like a cork on an ocean. He cursed it -‘stupid fucking table!’- and slammed his glass down hard, telling it to be still. The table paid no heed, merely dipped meekly, dazzling with broken glass; the landlord heard, came across and suggested that Billy leave.
‘It’s your idiot table,’ said Billy, and pushed it gently to demonstrate.
‘Why didn’t you put a beer mat under the leg?’ the landlord asked, and Billy picked up the coaster his glass had been on, read the legend on it as he began to fold it in two; it was too late, though, the beer had been spilt and he was led to the door.
He had little money left now, just a few coins jangling among the other treasures in his pocket; he still had the promise of some cash to come, though, and too excited to wait until two-thirty he hurried along to the wine bar on Lime Street.
The cries and jeers came as soon as he walked through the door, he had been expected, Dougie and Mac and others bursting into raucous fits of laughter. There was one among the crowd who wore a sports jacket and suede shoes, carried in the band of his trilby -like the Mad Hatter- a grotesquely oversize card which read ‘Press’.
‘It’s mean Mr Mustard!’ Dougie called out, and they all laughed.
‘Sergeant Pepper himself!’
‘The fool on the hill!’