Her daughter was born on the day that the Beatles released their first single, Love Me Do. From the moment Helen first held her, all she wanted to do was protect her. But there had been times when she hadn’t known how to, and times when she hadn’t known what to say. It had been hard. She was on her own, back when it was still unusual.
While she was carrying her, somebody told her that once the baby was born, she would never be just her again. It proved true. Since Liz arrived, every waking moment of Helen’s life had been accompanied by a low hum of worry for her daughter, as constant as tinnitus.
This morning, when she heard the news, she knew she had to be with her. She instinctively knew which bus would take her to Liz’s workplace down near the docks. She walked to the corner, certain that her legs would buckle under her. Even so early, the news was the talk of the bus stop. People shared what little they knew, shaking their heads. One woman was sobbing quietly. Helen fixed her gaze on the clogged traffic and spoke to nobody.
Her big hope was that Liz hadn’t heard yet. It was certainly possible, given the time at which she usually left the flat. Willard’s, the coffee warehouse where she worked the early shift, was a family firm, as old-fashioned as they came. And the younger Willard was a tartar. Portable wirelesses, as he called them, were strictly forbidden, even in the staff room. Personal phone calls were only allowed in the event of family emergencies. And this couldn’t properly be called one of those.
On the bus, Helen’s mind drifted to Liz again. She’d always been shy as a child, self conscious about her appearance. Even now, she hated her glasses. For a while, she’d experimented with lenses, but she couldn’t abide the sensation of putting something in her eye.
Nowadays, people understood better the way kids were with each other. Back then it was all seen as part of the rough and tumble of school life, unless things got out of hand. Then parents would get involved. One dad would threaten to bash the other dad, and one way or another, the problem would be resolved. But for Liz there was no dad to bash anybody.
At the next stop, the bus began to fill up. A black man around her age smiled at her and sat in the adjacent seat. She smiled back at him. Perhaps, she thought, some things were better now. She thought of when she used to visit the Jacaranda. Her friend Marcia wouldn’t go with her to begin with. She’d protested at the suggestion saying, ‘It’ll be full of that lot. You know.’ She’d leaned forward and silently mouthed the word ‘darkies’.
But soon she’d relented, when she found out who would be playing there. The lads wore leather head to toe then, before Epstein found them, and tidied and tamed them. The Jacaranda had long since been flattened for a car park, which had long since been buried under flats.
The bus paused at some traffic lights. There was a newsagents at the corner. Helen read the placard for the early edition of the Echo and bit at her lip.
People told her he was neither use nor ornament, and there were plenty who said worse. He’d have been called a scally now. But he got that job as a coach driver and seemed to settle. Then the rumours started to reach her. Not quite a girl in every bus-station, but something like it.
It had always puzzled her how little curiosity Liz showed about her real father. He’d been a mistake and she wished she’d never met him, and it almost seemed like Liz was colluding with that wish.
The bus passed the end of Mathew Street, where the Cavern used to be. A crowd had gathered already, some of them weeping, some clutching candles, light as it still was.
The woman in the seat in front turned round and looked fiercely at Helen. ‘You what?’
Helen shook her head. ‘Sorry, love. Not you. Talking to meself.’
The woman didn’t look convinced.
Helen explained. ‘Just thinking about a mistake I made.’
It had been a daft lie she’d told Liz, but it was all she could think of on the spur of the moment. She could have bitten her tongue off, the moment the words were out of her mouth. She told her it had to remain a secret between them, because the other children might get jealous and make fun of her.
She could see her now, the six year old Liz, just in from school, sat on the put-you-up. Her round tortoise-shell glasses were fogged with tears. Helen leaned across and removed them, handed her a handkerchief to blow her nose on.
Liz’s shoulders shook. Jerkily she said, ‘They keep calling me four eyes. And big nose.’
Helen touched her face. ‘I think you’ve got a nice nose. You’ve got a Roman nose. Like the Romans in the old days.’
She began crying again. ‘I don’t want to be a Roman.’
Helen put an arm around her daughter’s shoulder. ‘Shall I tell you something the girls at school don’t know?’
Liz thought, then nodded.
Helen walked over to the card table in the corner. On it was a small Monarch record player, boxy and squat, like a child’s toy suitcase. Beside it was a scant pile of long players. She picked up her copy of Sergeant Pepper and took it over to where Liz was still crying.
It was the girl’s favourite. She had taught herself to work the record player, gently lowering the stylus into position, the tip of her tongue just visible between her lips. She would put on this album and sit for minutes at a time enjoying the collage on the sleeve and picking out the words she could manage from the printed lyrics.
Helen pointed to the collage. ‘You know who this one is, don’t you?’
Liz nodded. ‘That’s John.’
‘What do you think of John?’
Half a smile formed on Liz’s face. ‘He’s your favourite isn’t he?’
‘Who’s he remind you of?’
Liz frowned, shoving out her bottom lip.
Helen held up the album cover, pointed again. ‘Glasses. Nose.’
Liz beamed. She sat for a moment, her head cocked on one side. ‘Is he my dad?’
Helen took a breath. Making the words sound as light as she could she said, ‘Of course.’
Now Lennon was dead. The details on the radio report sounded nonsensical, made up. When Helen heard, she gave a small yelp, covered her mouth and dropped the cup she was holding. The dregs of the tea splashed her, and the stains were still on her blouse. And now she had to tell Liz.
The bus pulled in near the entrance to the docks. Helen’s guts churned as she marched through the gates to Willard’s. Too much coffee always upset her stomach and even the smell of it made her insides gurgle.
The shift supervisor allowed them five minutes to talk. They stepped out into the small car park. Helen looked across the tarmac to a fire exit where workers lurked on a cigarette break. She turned to her daughter. ‘Liz, love, I wish there was somewhere to sit.’
Liz lit a cigarette. ‘What is it?’
‘There’s something I need to tell you about your dad.’
Liz bowed her head, pulling on her Consulate. ‘Mam, I know about Dad already.’
Helen put a hand to her mouth. ‘You heard, then. Did somebody phone up? Or have the radio on?’
‘The news. Have you heard the news?’
Liz thought for a moment, frowning. ‘What, about John Lennon? I know. It’s awful. I was going to go down Mathew Street at knocking off time. Mary said there’s already loads of people down there.’
Helen sighed. ‘When you were growing up, I didn’t always find it easy. I didn’t want you unhappy.’ She took a crumpled tissue from her cuff and wiped at her nose. ‘You had such an imagination.’
Liz looked at her with her head cocked, the way she did. ‘Aw, Mam. You didn’t think I still believed what you told me, did you?’
Helen couldn’t look at her. She looked again at the smokers across the way. ‘I don’t know, love. I suppose I thought you must’ve worked it out by now. Just panicked a bit when it was on the radio.’
‘I believed it for a few months, I suppose.’ She smiled unexpectedly. ‘Long enough to get me through the bullying, actually. Must’ve been carrying meself different. They seemed to lose interest.’
Her smile disappeared as quickly as it had come. She stubbed out her cigarette under foot and folded her arms against the cold. ‘Did you catch what I said, just back a bit?’
‘What bit, love?’
‘Knowing about Dad.’ She took out another cigarette and rolled it backwards and forwards in the palm of her hand. ‘I met him once. Well a couple of times. Met up with him.’
Helen moved closer and lowered her voice. ‘How come you didn’t tell me?’
Liz lit the second cigarette. ‘Don’t know. I couldn’t. Felt like I’d done the dirty on you, going behind your back like that.’
Her mother shook her head.
Liz went on. ‘I thought it’d bring up bad memories for you. All I remember from them days is you just crying and crying.’
‘How did it happen?’
Liz explained how her father had traced her through the Salvation Army. They’d forwarded a letter from him. She took more than a month to reply. She was having a think.
‘When I met him, I knew it was him from the smell.’
Helen looked surprised. ‘I didn’t think you’d have remembered anything from when he was around. You was only three.’
‘I’ve got this really sketchy memory of playing around his legs and thinking they were like trees because the material was like bark.’
Helen nodded. ‘Those corduroys. He was never out of them bloody things.’ She looked at her daughter. ‘Did you keep in touch?’
‘No. It fizzled out after a bit. I never felt comfortable with him. Caught him out in a lie the first time we met.’
Helen said, ‘Yeah, that’d be right.’
‘In the letter he said he was chauffeuring in Wigan, but he forgot what he’d written and let slip he was driving a minibus for divvies.’
Helen gave Liz’s shoulder a squeeze. She looked at her watch. ‘Talking of lying, I’m wagging it from work, you know. If you want me to hang about, I could come with you to Mathew Street when you knock off.’
Liz nodded. ‘That’d be nice, actually, yeah.’
Helen smiled. ‘They used to play down there of a lunchtime. Used to be sweat dripping off the ceiling. I always kept a spare blouse at work to change into when I got back.’ Her smile broadened. ‘I kissed him once.’
Liz’s mouth fell open. ‘Kissed who?’
Helen grinned proudly. ‘John. Just a quick one on the cheek, but I was like jelly.’ She looked into her daughter’s face. ‘He had a beautiful face, you know.’
Her daughter nodded. ‘I know.’