Paul rubbed the palm of his left hand against the floor. It felt cool and slippery, like polished metal. He tried to lower his right hand to the hard surface he was lying on, but it was pinned to his chest, his fingers clutching the fabric of his fine linen shirt.
Breathe, he urged himself. Breathe!
He opened his mouth to draw in a deep breath, but his lungs refused to cooperate. He felt the air pushing down on his face, begging to be sucked in. But he couldn't inhale, not even a shallow breath. The fear that had taken hold of him at the first chest pain grew stronger. His left arm went numb and he lost all sense that he was touching the floor.
Footfalls echoed quietly in the distance. Paul tried to focus on the sound, hoping to stave off his mounting terror. The steps grew louder as they approached, then stopped. Paul sensed a body crouching down beside him.
God, please! Let whoever this is know how to do CPR! he thought, his panic intensifying. Please, God, help me!
"Well, look at you," said a voice Paul hadn't heard in almost forty years. "Nah, I take that back. Keep your eyes closed. You look bloody awful."
Paul's right hand dropped to the floor. He felt air slipping slowly into his nostrils. He guessed that he was breathing again, though he couldn't be certain. If he could just open his eyes, then he could see if his ears were deceiving him too.
"Don't try to talk until you feel ready," the voice directed him. "It takes a while to learn how to do things here. Everything works differently."
Paul sensed the air flowing from his nose to his lungs and then back out again. His left arm started to tingle with a raw, prickly sensation. Instinctively, he lifted his hand and tried to bang it against the metal floor to wake up his limb.
"That's good, you can move a little now," the voice said gently. "Just take it slow. Imagine you're coming out of a bad trip. You don't want to do anything rash and hurt yourself."
Paul felt his eyelids fluttering. His breathing was becoming steady at last. He shaped his lips to form a word and let the air flow out of his mouth in sound. "John?" he whispered.
"That's right, mate, it's me," John replied. "Good to see you again after all these years."
The panic returned and Paul's breath became rapid and shallow once more. "Christ!" he swore between gasps. "I'm dead!"
"Not yet," John assured him. He rested his hand on top of Paul's chest and pressed gently against his heart. "You're just in the tunnel. You have to cross over that bright light at the end to be truly dead. You're still in no man's land. Or might I say, you're 'sitting in your nowhere land'?"
Paul smiled in spite of himself. His breaths grew slowly but steadily more regular. "Making all my nowhere plans," he mumbled.
"For nobody," John agreed. He lifted his hand off his friend's chest.
Paul felt a warmth spreading through him, pulsing in powerful waves from the spot where John had just touched him. He opened his eyes at last. His saw his old bandmate sitting cross-legged on the floor beside him, dressed in a pale gauze tunic and loose-fitting, white cotton pants. John's chestnut-colored hair was pulled into a ponytail. His long toes wriggled at the ends of his bare feet.
Paul eyed him warily. "You're not wearing glasses," he noted.
"Yeah, I'm not short-sighted anymore," John agreed. "I've been restored, in body and mind. I've been bloody saved."
"Bullocks, you're having me on," Paul replied.
John smiled. "You're right. I'm pulling your leg. I took on a form you could recognize when I came into the tunnel to check up on you. Didn't want to frighten you, y'know. You've been through enough these past few minutes as it is."
"I don't understand," Paul said.
"Don't expect you to," John replied. "The afterlife is pretty complicated. It takes a while for everything to sink in. But not to worry. As I said, you're just in the tunnel. You're not even in pissing distance of the white light. And the last part of the climb is steep. I don't think you've got the strength to pull it off yet."
Paul furrowed his brow. "What the fuck are you talking about?"
"You had a bloody heart attack!" John exclaimed. "You don't even have the strength to sit up yet, let alone march down that tunnel and walk the golden stairs."
"But…" Paul hesitated, struggling to form the words he didn't want to say. His awkward pause stretched to a breaking point. "But hell, John," he finally blurted out, "You were shot…How could you…?"
"Choirs of angels came and sang me to my rest," John replied smugly. "They raised me up, too, just like in that bloody Josh Groban song. Though of course that number hadn't been written yet when I passed. The world was just coming out of the disco era, so my angels sang Boogie Oogie Oogie when they carried me up the steps."
Paul sucked in the deepest breath he could muster and managed to prop himself up on his elbows. "How come you got a choir and all I have is bloody you?"
John raised one of his bushy eyebrows and scowled. "Well, it's good to see your deep wells of piss and vinegar haven't been swallowed up completely by your cherubic façade."
Paul stared at John in wonder for another long, drawn-out moment, then started to laugh. "You haven't changed a bit."
"Nah, nobody ever really does," John agreed, his features softening once more. "Though we keep trying. That's what the afterlife is all about. Trying to make sense of our pasts and impart what grains of wisdom we've managed to accumulate to the unwashed masses who haven't shuffled off their mortal coils quite yet."
"Really?" Paul replied. He summoned his strength and pulled himself into a proper sitting position.
"Well, something like that," John said with a shrug. "I do what I can anyway."
"Like, for instance?" Paul asked, raising his eyebrows in his characteristic curious expression.
"I put a bug in Yoko's ear a few years back about remixing her old songs with dance club beats," John boasted. "And I wormed my way into the consciousness of the Pet Shop Boys, Danny Tenaglia and Felix Da Housecat too, to warm them up to the idea. And the rest, my friend, is history."
Paul slowly nodded. "Yeah, your missus has had a long string of number one hits on the Dance Charts. I've been gobsmacked. Whoever would have thought?"
"Well, I obviously did," John said, his voice dripping with condescension.
Paul smiled. The color started to return to his pale cheeks. "I think I saw you once," he confessed, blushing even more deeply. "When George and Ritchie and I went to the studio to lay some tracks over your Free as a Bird demo, then posed for some photos, I saw this albino peacock strutting around the field. I just knew somehow, in my soul, that it was you."
John rolled his eyes. "Don't be daft. That was just a bloody bird, you stupid git. I appear to people in their dreams, not in the actual flesh. I'm dead, remember?"
Paul's face fell. "So how come you never appeared to me?"
"I did. Don't you remember that nightmare you had before you started filming Give My Regards to Broad Street?"
Paul closed his eyes and let his mind wander back. "Yeah. I'd almost forgotten. It was horrid. I was driving to the studio, and suddenly the skies opened up and the whole world outside my car was engulfed in a storm of green and yellow bile. I turned on my wipers and twiddled the knob to wash the windshield, and streams of grey and brown vomit gushed out of the nozzles. When I woke up, I was sweating through my sheets."
"You should have listened to the color of your dreams, mate," John said. "That was me, warning you not to make that bloody film."
Paul chuckled. "Alright then. But why didn't you appear to me again before I married Heather Mills?"
John turned his gaze away from Paul. "Hell, I don't know," he said, his voice softening. "She was pretty, and I could tell you really fancied her. And what's more, after all I went through, I thought it best to never criticize another man's choice of wife, if you catch my drift." He looked back at his old friend with a wistful smile. "But it doesn't matter, does it? Your second marriage went straight down the toilet, but you got a lovely little daughter out of the deal, didn't you?"
"Yeah, that I did," Paul agreed. He felt his heartbeat quicken, then slow down again. His stomach lurched. "God, I feel like crap."
"Lie back down," John commanded. "Don't waste your strength trying to sit upright."
Paul lowered his back and closed his eyes. His heart continued pounding at a haphazard rate, though the waves of nausea wreaking havoc on his gut started to subside. After another long, protracted moment of silence, he opened his eyes once more. John appeared to be glowing. Paul immediately shut his lids to block out the incandescent image. "So where's George?" he whispered.
"Dunno. I suspect he's off somewhere plotting with Tom Petty," John replied. "Lord knows what they're up to. George and Roy Orbison masterminded that whole Nobel Prize scheme for Bob Dylan, you know. And now that there're three Wilburies in the great beyond, I'm guessing Jeff Lynne is up for a big surprise sometime in the near future."
Paul snickered. "So spirits in the afterlife work together in small groups, now, do they?"
"Not usually very competently," John admitted. "It's like the old saying, 'too many cooks spoil the broth.' There's this lovely barmaid from Bristol who teamed up with a lorry driver from Islington to try to put Brexit to rights. But then they realized they were out of their depths, so they decided to form a committee. And now it's all just a bloody mess."
Paul broke into a larger laugh. "Who's lending them a hand?"
"Let me see if I can remember everyone," John said. "There's Lord Snowdon, Roger Bannister, Roger Moore, Alan Turing, Peaches Geldof, Amy Winehouse, Oliver Reed, and this master distiller from Ardbeg with his head up his arse who keeps trying to retool their efforts into a plea for Scottish independence. And then there's the subcommittee, comprised of Sid Vicious, the Queen Mum, Benny Hill and…Christ, this is embarrassing…my dad."
Paul re-opened his eyes. "Seriously? Your father Alfred is on the angelic Brexit subcommittee?"
"You can see why nothing's gotten done, now, can't you? It's worse than bleedin' Parliament."
"Why isn't Winston Churchill helping out?"
"He's got bigger fish to fry," John replied, curling his lips into an impish grin. "He teamed up with Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin to try to do something about Trump. They're calling their project 'Yalta Two'."
"Bullocks," Paul muttered. "I thought when people died they moved onto an eternal rest."
"If only," John sighed. "If only. Though a lot depends on who's running things here on any given day."
Paul propped himself back up on his elbows and squinted to shield his eyes from the shimmering waves of broken light radiating from his former bandmate. "What? Isn't God in charge?"
"God is a concept by which we measure our pain," John retorted.
"Oh," Paul said, copping a wince. "So you were right about that then? Above us only sky?"
John shrugged his shoulders and raised his hands in an ambiguous gesture. "Not exactly. Like I said earlier, it's complicated. The big guy, call him or her whatever you will, has the whole fuckin' universe to run, so he lets his minions watch over the comings and goings of us lowly earth-folk who have moved beyond the great white light."
"Really?" Paul replied, opening his eyes wider. His pupils dilated into large black pools as John continued to shine on. "Who gets to be a minion?"
"Could be anyone who made a lasting, good impression on the world during his or her lifetime," John answered. "Jonas Salk, Oskar Schindler, Cesar Chavez. Dr. King and Nelson Mandela usually work together as a team. That dried up old cow Mother Teresa has been taking a lot of shifts lately. She drives me nutters, always urging us to get our hands dirty doing good works. Gandhi lets us sit quietly and meditate. That's more my speed."
Paul laughed. John bit back a giggle. His aura started pulsing in fits and starts like a wonky lightbulb.
"Mr. Rogers tried to institute a puppet government," John continued with a smirk. "But Václav Havel complained to the higher ups, so they both ended up getting the sack. Anne Frank's in charge today, but she always steps down on Friday evenings for Sabbath. So Elvis will probably take her place for the rest of the weekend. He's kind of her partner now."
Paul guffawed. "Now I know you're having me on, John. C'mon now. Really? Elvis?"
"Really," John insisted, his laughing eyes belying his earnest voice. "The big guy loves his Gospel records. And now that the King is off the junk and spends his free time doing karate, he's grown all fit again. Presley puts us both to shame, I'll have you know. He's a hunk-a-hunk of burning love once more, just like he used to be back in the day."
Paul sized up his old song writing partner. "Are you ever in charge?" he asked with a rueful smile.
John broke into a full-throated laugh and returned to his pale, non-luminous form. "Hell, no! I came here with a couple of blots on my soul, as you no doubt suspected. I don't have it in me to be a spiritual leader. I've got too much of the devil in me."
Paul sighed. "Everyone on earth thinks you're a saint now," he groused, a hint of jealousy creeping into his voice.
"Well, you know me better than that," John replied. He rested his hand on Paul's shoulder and smiled.
"Yeah," Paul said. He lowered himself onto his back and closed his eyes once more. "So are you going to help me cross over that white light at the end of the tunnel now?"
"If you'd like me to, I can," John offered. "I know Linda and your parents would love to see you again. And Brian will no doubt throw you a big party, just like he did for me and George. Here. Take my hands."
Paul started lifting his hands off the ground, then felt a sudden jolt in his chest. The hairs on his skin stood up on end. He shuddered. "Christ, what the fuck was that?"
"Hhmm," John mumbled. "Did it feel like someone just tried to electrocute you?"
"Yeah," Paul replied. "I feel fried."
"It was probably a defibrillator," John surmised. "Someone on earth must not want to let you go."
"Nancy," Paul muttered under his breath. "Or Beatrice. She's so young. She still needs me."
"Right," John agreed. "Figured as much. So I guess this means goodbye. But hold on a sec. Before you go, I want to give you something."
Paul felt John's hand skimming the top of his trousers. "What are you doing?" he asked, squirming uncomfortably as John pushed something into his pants pocket.
"I'm slipping you a white feather to give Julian. He'll know what it means."
"Okay," Paul replied hesitantly. He opened his eyes. John's face and body had grown blurry. "What's happening to you? You look…a little…peaky…"
"Nothin's happening to me, mate," John replied, his voice growing fainter. "It's you."
"Don't go," Paul said, raising his right hand towards his friend. "I've missed you. I want to keep talking to you."
"We'll talk more soon," John promised. "Don't worry. It won't be long now. I died young and left a beautiful corpse. But you, mate, hell, you aren't exactly cute anymore, you grotty old codger."
Paul smiled. He felt his heartbeat growing stronger and more regular. A flush of warmth spread through his body. He closed his eyes again, but sensed John leaning his head closer to his. He felt John's breath against his ear.
"Now one more thing, old friend, before you go," John whispered. "You know that bit you always say at your shows when you perform Hey Jude? How the ladies should sing now, and then the gents? I want you to get woke. It's the twenty-first century already. Stop being so fuckin' gender-normative. Next concert, I want you to say, 'Now everyone who is neither male nor female but something very beautiful in between, sing with me! Na, na-na, na-na-na-nah…'"