Suddenly he was apprehensive. Was he making a terrible mistake? What was the point in all this? He wished now that he’d made an excuse and cancelled.
He looked across the narrow street. A troupe of Polish tourists was gazing respectfully as a guide pointed up at a red neon sign. The Cavern, it read in vertical letters that glowed weakly in the afternoon drizzle. The tourists, mostly middle-aged, smiled knowingly among themselves, and then followed the guide down to the cellar below.
Turning away he looked down the cobbled, souvenir alleyway that was Liverpool’s Mathew Street. It hadn’t been like this then, he thought: heritage tatty had replaced warehouse grotty – as they used to say.
He checked his watch. He’d got there early – his daughter Cathy’s idea. ‘After keeping her waiting for forty five years, Dad, you don’t want to be late, do you? She might get off with someone else before you get there.’
He hadn’t bothered to remind Cathy that he hadn’t kept anyone waiting, and that this whole venture had been at her suggestion after she’d seen a television documentary about the Sixties. ‘It got me thinking,’ she’d told him on the phone the following day. ‘That girl you met when you saw the Beatles at the Cavern – have you ever tried to find her?’
‘Why would I want to do that?’ he’d asked.
‘Why wouldn’t you? You must have told Mum and me a thousand times about her, and how pretty she was. Aren’t you just a little bit curious about what happened to her?’
‘No. I probably only remembered her because it was the one time I went to the Cavern and the last time the Beatles played there,’ he’d replied. ‘It became a sort of historic moment. August 3, 1963. A Saturday night. They sang Baby It’s You.’
‘So you said a hundred times,’ Cathy had come back. ‘But this girl you met…even Mum used to wonder what became of her.’
‘She wasn’t jealous…?’ he’d said quickly, hearing the crack of worry in his voice. ‘Mum and I hadn’t even met then.’
‘No, of course not. She was just amused that you should remember her so vividly. She used to laugh to me about it.’
‘Yes, well, it was a long time ago. She’s probably a grandmother now.’
‘Just a thought,’ Cathy had finished. ‘Anyway, I have to pick up the boys. Bye.’ And, with the seed of mischief sown, she’d been off.
At first he’d tried to forget the conversation. Since he’d retired from the partnership, he’d been doing an Open University history degree and had an essay to write on religious fundamentalism in the sixteenth century. But Cathy had distracted him.
Now in the middle of a paragraph he would find himself gazing through a screaming crowd at a pretty, slight, dark haired girl wedged against the brick Cavern wall. Wearing a red shift dress, a pale blue cardigan tied by the sleeves around her shoulders, she alone seemed not to be frenzied or weeping. She simply looked fascinated.
And when suddenly the Beatles had left the little stage and the fans had dashed outside to wave goodbye for ever, he’d found himself picking up the blue cardigan from the cellar floor where it had fallen in the chaos.
‘I’m sixty three,’ he told himself repeatedly as the memories had pursued him. ‘I was eighteen then. I can’t go back in time, even if I wanted to. And I don’t.’
But the girl? What had happened to her? Had she remembered the night in the way he had?
The advertisement he’d placed, at Cathy’s urging, in the personal columns of the Liverpool Echo had been to the point. ‘Were you Helen from Southport, who, in 1963, was at the Beatles last gig at the Cavern? And did a boy called Mike accompany you to Exchange Station?’ Details of a box number had followed.
For three weeks he’d heard nothing, and the whole subject had been slipping away. Then a letter had arrived. It was from Harrogate. From her – Helen. A friend called Sally has sent her the cutting from the newspaper. So she had remembered.
He’d felt a flush of excitement when he’d read her note, then immediately a stab of guilt. Was he being disloyal? ‘Don’t be silly,’ he’d told himself. ‘Jill would have understood. It’s a just a little bit of nostalgia.’
Quickly emails had followed, then photographs, as details of two lives had been exchanged.
Naturally, it was daughter Cathy who’d demanded that the two met. He’d offered to go over to Harrogate… But, no, Helen said, she was coming to see Sally in Southport.
There’d been only one place they could possibly meet…and now here he was, waiting outside the Cavern.
The Polish tourists had left on their minibus for a visit to Penny Lane when finally he saw her, walking through the rain up the narrow street, a now not-quite-slim, smart woman in a red raincoat, her face partly hidden under a bright blue umbrella. She stopped as he moved to meet her, seemed about to speak, and then, in what looked like a moment of uncertainty, glanced up at the neon Cavern sign, as if seeking confirmation that she was in the right place.
‘Hello, Helen,’ he said quietly. Then, unsure whether to kiss her cheek or shake her hand, he collided with her face in the confusion.
She smiled nervously, tilting her umbrella back so that he could see her better. All these years he’d been picturing a teenager with thick, black hair in a bob which looped up at the sides of her face, as had been the fashion in 1963. Now she was fuller faced and her iron grey hair was pulled back above her ears with two blue butterfly clips. She wasn’t the girl he’d remembered. How could she be?
That, though, wasn’t a surprise. He’d known how she now looked from the photograph she’d sent him. What astonished him was how familiar she seemed. Almost immediately he felt as though he knew her very well.
It should have been difficult talking to someone he’d only known for a couple of hours nearly half a century ago, but it wasn’t. They were completely at ease together, and, after deciding not to go inside the club, to better recall that fateful night, within minutes they were in a Starbucks round the corner, chuckling over their recollections.
‘I think you were the only boy that night who didn’t have a Beatle haircut,’ she told him.
‘I would have had, if it had suited me,’ he admitted. ‘My hair was always too curly. If only I still had enough to curl.’
She smiled. It had been her school holidays, she explained, and she’d only gone to the Cavern because her friend, Sally, who’d queued for a ticket, had been dismayed to discover that her parents were taking the family to Cornwall that very day.
‘So I went instead,’ she said, ‘having promised I’d describe every second to Sally when she got back. I had to concentrate very hard in case I missed anything. But when the Beatles had gone, I didn’t want the excitement of the evening to end. And then there you were, in the street, this very nice boy, holding out my cardigan to me. It was only then that I realised I’d dropped it.’
‘I was terrified to approach you,’ he said. ‘I think I’d spent the evening watching you instead of the Beatles.’
She laughed at that. ‘You can’t have been that terrified. You suggested we go for a coffee somewhere, but we couldn’t find anywhere and ended up down by the Pier Head watching the ferries…’
‘And talking about the brilliant futures we were both going to have,’ he completed the memory.
She nodded. ‘The world was nothing but a brilliant future then. I suppose everyone thinks that at that age. Did it turn out brilliantly for you?’
He thought for a moment. Then he said. ‘Until eight years ago it was just about perfect.’
She didn’t reply. There was nothing she could say. He’d told her in a letter about Jill and the cancer. But he’d told her about Cathy, too, the once difficult daughter who’d turned into a best friend.
‘If you got the right A-levels you said you were going to study law in London and become an MP,’ she reminded him. ‘I know you became a solicitor, what happened to the politics?’
He laughed. ‘I probably just said that to impress you and hope you’d fancy me?’
‘Oh, but I did fancy you. Sally was really jealous when I told her about this dishy bloke I’d met.’
‘Dishy!’ he thought. Only Jill had ever told him how nice looking she thought he was.
He continued the memories. ‘You had to catch the last train, and all the way to the station I was wondering if I dare hold your hand or ask you out… I mean on a date. I was scared that you’d say no.’
‘And I was wondering why you didn’t…’ she came in.
‘I was going to, when we got to the station. But then we realised we were late and we had to run for you to catch the train.’
‘The ticket collector saw me coming and held the gate open…’
They stopped talking and looked at one another. Their memories of the night tallied completely.
‘And as the train pulled out I realised I didn’t know your second name or your phone number,’ he said.
She nodded. ‘I think I cried when I told Sally that bit.’ Then she quickly laughed. ‘We were very young. We both got over it.’
That was true, he thought. It was now his turn to ask the questions. ‘So, you became a geography teacher…and eventually a head teacher.’
‘I could be very stern when I had to be.’
He hesitated now. ‘But you never married…’
‘No.’ Then she giggled. ‘But I had my moments!’
He waited for her to continue.
‘I suppose, the truth is, the man I thought I wanted to marry wasn’t available. I waited a long time before realising he never would be.’ She paused again. ‘On the other hand…’
‘Well, perhaps I chose him because he wasn’t available. I don’t know.’
He never knew where the afternoon went. When they left Starbucks, the rain had stopped, so, for old times’ sake, they decided to walk down to the Pier Head; and then, at Helen’s suggestion, along to the Albert Dock.
As they approached the renovated old warehouses he went quiet. He hadn’t been there since shortly before Jill had died. It had been one of the last outings they’d had together.
Somehow Helen noticed. ‘It’s all right,’ she said.
And it was all right. The sadness lifted. He took her hand.
She’d promised Sally she’d be home for dinner, and although he offered to drive her to Southport, she insisted the train seemed more appropriate. They arrived at the station early, and loitered together on the platform by the ticket barrier. And when the time to part came, though they didn’t kiss, this time he did ask for a date.
‘Yes, please,’ she said.
Then he stood at the gate and watched as she walked quickly away down the platform, before turning at her carriage for one last look, just as she’d done forty five years earlier.
That night he was wracked with confusion. Was he being disloyal to Jill’s memory, he fretted as he tried to work. And eventually, putting aside his essay, he took out the family photograph albums, and, year by year, relived their life together. On other occasions when he’d done this, tears had invariably fallen, as he’d seen again the slim, dark haired, happy girl he’d met in the college library, and then relived their honeymoon in Venice and the joys of their little family of three.
But now he found himself smiling as the happy memories rippled back. ‘What a blessed life I’ve had,’ he thought.
‘So, what was she like, Dad,’ were Cathy’s first words when she phoned the following morning.
He hesitated. What was she like? He could describe how she looked, what she wore, how pleasant and amusing she was, and how enjoyable their day had been. But there was something else about her which he couldn’t explain. ‘It was uncanny really. I felt as though I already knew her very well,’ he said at last.
The two women met the following Saturday, when, driving Helen back to Harrogate, he called in on Cathy on the way. Her husband and the boys were at school for football, so it was just the three of them.
He’d been nervous before they got there, and anxious when, for a moment, he thought he saw Cathy’s jaw drop in shock, as she saw Helen at the front door. But after that they got along perfectly.
The phone was ringing when he got home again that night. It was Cathy. ‘Dad, why didn’t you tell me?’ she demanded, sounding almost giddy.
‘Tell you what? Didn’t you like her?’
‘Oh yes, she’s lovely. But…’
‘Well…she’s just like Mum.’
‘Surely you could see that.’
He went silent. Yes, now he did see it. Cathy was right. That was why he felt he knew Helen her so well. She was like Jill. So very like Jill.
Or, perhaps, put another way, the girl he’d married had been someone who’d reminded him of that moment in August 1963 when the Beatles had played their last gig at the Cavern and he’d first fallen in love