Who Your Friends Are

Who Your Friends Are

 
Susan Day
 
You will have seen Rita, dancing behind Cathy McGowan. In those days she was still Rita, just starting out and only glamorous enough to impress girls her own age. That was before she left her job, left home, did this, did that, met Paul McCartney, met lots of other people too, lots of men; got married, got divorced, made a lot of money, got mildly famous. You will have seen her, if you were alive then and watching television – ITV, Friday nights: Ready Steady Go.

 
Lovely Rita
 
Rita met Paul McCartney at a party – a child’s party on a wet Saturday afternoon somewhere in West London, she never did know exactly where – and she saw him as soon as she came into the room, standing, talking to a young woman who was the mother of the child whose birthday it was. At least Rita surmised this because she was holding a large oval silver tray with pieces of birthday cake on it, but thinking about it later, she could just as well have been an aunt, or the au pair.
 
The party was coming to an end. Parents were arriving to collect children, standing around talking to each other, being offered drinks of wine. (At a child’s party! Rita had never heard of that before.)

Most of the children were in another room; there was the noise of some sort of organised game, but the organisation of it was beginning to break up and at least one small child came in tears to look for their mother, or at least an adult to hide behind.

Rita had come into the house walking behind Howard and Brian, wishing she had not come – she would have stayed in the car if she had not been desperate to find a bathroom.

When she saw Paul McCartney, she knew him instantly, and felt relief (though she was still looking for a bathroom) that here was at least someone – even if he didn’t know her – who she knew, who somehow made the whole day fall into place.

Because it started with Howard knocking on the door of her study-bedroom, saying he was going to London for the day, did she want to come?

‘London?’ she said, wrinkling her nose as if he’d just offered her something nastily incomprehensible to eat, like beetroot ice cream, say, as if she’d only vaguely heard of London, instead of telling anyone who asked that it was where she came from.

‘Yes, you know, London.’

‘Whereabouts?’ As if it made a difference. She didn’t know why she was so reluctant.

‘I want to see a bloke at I.C. I think, Clapham, I think he lives.’

‘I don’t know where that is.’

‘I’m not asking you to find it. We’ve got an A to Z. Borrowed it off Dave. Do you want to come?’

‘By train?’

‘By car. Brian’s car. He won’t mind if you come.’

She sat in the back of the Ford Prefect, behind Brian, where she had a view of Howard’s profile, but mostly watched the Saturday traffic on the A12. Howard and Brian smoked (‘Does she?’ ‘No.’ So they didn’t bother to turn round and offer her one.) and dropped names to each other.

‘Andy Fairweather Lowe? My mate knows his drummer.’

‘We can’t afford him. We can’t count on selling more than five hundred. The place is too small, that’s the trouble.’

Rita had told him that herself, when he complained that the Entertainments Committee wasn’t making any money. Howard, in between studying Politics, though not Economics, was in charge, in that no one else was doing it, of booking bands for the University.

‘The Flowerpot Men?’
‘Finished.’

‘I know.’

Rita did not contribute, not because she knew nothing but because they didn’t ask her. Howard had not taken an interest in her for her knowledge of music, but because he was, though younger than her, cocky enough to think it natural that he could pull the best-looking girl of the new freshers.

She had finished with her home boyfriend, on principle, believing that University was a new start that would not get off the ground carrying the weight of old boyfriends, old friends, old habits, and that space had to be made for the new, but so far that space had not been filled by anyone. The girls she had met were silly and tearful, and too young for her. Howard, at least, was refreshingly off-hand, and didn’t appear to be scared of her, and she accepted that the normal state of affairs was that she was there for the look of the thing.

When they passed Chelmsford and she saw the signs to Ongar and Epping, she felt a small pang at the thought of the ex-boyfriend, and also of her best friend and their outings, occasionally as a four, to the Forest on summer Sundays. As with the boyfriend, she’d made even her best friend understand that things were going to change.

‘I will miss you,’ she’d said, but they agreed that they would be leading different lives from each other, and from the ones they had been leading, each of them on the edge of something new. She’d told her parents and her aunt Ginny that she wouldn’t be seeing them again until Christmas.

London took forever to cross and none of it was familiar to Rita, not surprisingly, since she had always used public transport herself, bus or train to Liverpool Street, and the Tube for anything beyond that. She had never been south of the river before.

The two boys, she could swear, had forgotten she existed, and when they arrived at the door of a house in Peckham, she stayed in the car while they knocked, stood on the doorstep and were directed elsewhere. They utilised Dave’s A to Z to reach Chiswick, in the process visiting houses in Streatham, Clapham and Richmond, where the bloke from I.C. might have been but wasn’t.

At Richmond, she decided that she needed a pee, and that she would have to do something about it. The house looked respectable – actually it looked big and imposing and this indicated to Rita that the toilet would be clean, and she had hopes of a cup of tea too.

‘I’ll come in with you,’ she said. Brian almost jumped, he had forgotten her so completely.

Howard said, ‘Come on then.’

When the door opened though and she glimpsed the darkness of the flat, and smelled the smell of dirt, a smell both forgotten and familiar, she changed her mind. ‘I’ll wait here,’ she said. In Rita’s mother’s house, if it didn’t smell of Harpic, then it smelled of dirt.

At Chiswick, she stayed in the car, unwilling to try again without the protection of more make-up and some attention to her hair, things that she would not have thought of doing in front of the boys – they should never know that any effort went into how she looked. And at the last house, dubious as she was, she climbed out of the car inelegantly via the driver’s door, and stood in her very short skirt and new brown boots, gathering her resolve not to show shock whatever should be on the other side of the shiny red door. And what there was there besides Paul McCartney, she could hardly say, or she could, but it wasn’t important. She felt that nothing else in the room, or in the rest of the afternoon, remained in her memory like the sight of Paul did. ‘I can’t explain it,’ she said later to her friend. ‘He was just so real.’

Howard did find the elusive bloke from I.C. who, however, did not have on his person the address of the person who could get Tyrannosaurus Rex to come and play at the University. ‘But I tell you what, there’s a bloke I know works in the box office at the Marquee.’

Having come out of the bathroom (which had a vase of flowers on its windowsill, how amazing), Rita stood by the door, partly because she didn’t want Howard and Brian to go out and forget her, partly because she thought that Paul might not stay long and he would have to pass close to her on his way out. He had no children, everyone knew that, so it was not clear why he was there. He might stay all evening, or he might leave as soon as some undefined thing had happened. None of these people – grown-ups as she thought of them – let themselves appear impressed by being in the same room as a Beatle.

When he did turn and move towards the door, she moved out of the way, but slowly, so that he passed close by her. He smiled. She smiled back, crinkling her eyes as she’d practised rather than stretching her mouth and showing her teeth, which were slightly askew and tended to make her self-conscious. He spoke to her, though she could never recall precisely what he said, it was about her boots. He stretched out his foot and showed her his plimsolls, though he called them “pumps” – she always remembered that.

Then Howard came pushing through, knocking over a small child who was standing inoffensively in his way.

‘Rita!’ He pretended to be surprised at seeing Paul McCartney.

‘Hello, Paul,’ he shouted, and put out his hand as if they knew each other.

‘Got to go,’ said Paul McCartney. And he went.

Howard shrugged and grinned at Rita. Rita knew that she was blushing with shame. ‘You – twerp,’ she said, but he had already turned to Brian and was grabbing his arm. ‘Did you see that? Did you see who that was?’

Rita left the house – not to follow Paul, she would not have dreamed of that, but to get away from Howard and Brian, and the feeling of being ashamed of how pathetic they were – and managed to find her way, by bus, because buses were what she trusted, from St John’s Wood to Liverpool Street, where she picked up a 279; fifty minutes later she surprised her aunt and uncle with an unscheduled visit. After an evening of tea and television, she went to bed in her old room, and surprised herself by finding that as she lay under her old eiderdown, she cried quietly and steadily, like drizzle, until she fell asleep.

I’m Pat. It was me who wrote that about Rita and Paul McCartney, and although it sounds like fiction . . .

 

644w 300w 24w 36w 48w 644w 300w 24w 36w 48w 644w 300w 24w 36w 48w 644w 300w 24w 36w 48w 644w 300w 24w 36w 48w 644w 300w 24w 36w 48w