John pulled his wallet out of his trouser pocket and carefully counted out the pound notes. He briefly cursed his manager Brian Epstein for giving him such small wage packets. After the tremendous year he'd just had, he should be carrying thousands of pounds in his billfold! But then he remembered how money always seemed to fly out of his hands the moment he received it, and sighed.
Brian knows me too well, John thought.
"Here we go," said his chauffeur Alf Bicknell. Alf drove the band's Rolls Royce up against the curb. "Shall I wait for you right here?"
John put his fingers to the inside door handle and thought for a brief moment. "Why don't you just drive around the block a few times instead? I don't want the parked Rolls to attract attention. I shouldn't be long, but you never know. I'll keep an eye out for you when I'm done shopping."
"Very good," Alf replied.
John stepped out of the car and pulled the collar of his coat a little tighter around his neck. The cold December air nipped at his exposed cheeks and earlobes. He jogged to the door of the small boutique that was tucked inside the cobblestone alley, and stepped into the shop. The air inside the store was dry and warm. His glasses momentarily fogged up, but quickly cleared.
"Welcome, Mr. Lennon," said the shopkeeper. He stepped around the counter to greet his customer, then locked the shop's door. "I'll close the blinds to give you a little privacy," he said as he tugged the cord by the front window.
"Thanks," said John. "I'm almost used to the fame by now, but it's still a challenge. If it's not the fans pestering me, it's the photographers."
"You have the shop all to yourself," the proprietor assured him. "I cleared everyone out when your assistant called to tell me you were on your way. Now, can I help you find anything in particular, or would you like to browse first?"
"I'm not sure, Mister…" John began. "Sorry, I've forgotten your name."
"It's James Dillingham Young," the shopkeeper said. "But please, just call me Jim."
"Jim it is," John agreed. "So…I've already bought gifts for my wife and son and auntie, and for my manager as well. And I picked up some prezzies for George and Ringo this summer when I was Down Under, and set them aside for Christmas. So now I just need to buy something for Paul."
"Ah, your songwriting partner," Jim said. "The two of you have had quite a run of hits on the charts this past year. In England, America, the continent. And in Australia as well, I gather."
"Damn right!" John said with a laugh. "The crowds in Australia were ridiculous. Three hundred thousand people lined the streets of Adelaide, trying to get a glimpse of us from our hotel balcony. It was mad!"
"Well, you certainly have cause to celebrate then," Jim noted. "You'll be wanting to give Paul something special to commemorate this most successful year."
"Yes, but I'm not sure what," John said. "He made as much money as I did, so if there was something he really wanted, he would have bought it for himself by now. But he's a man of very simple tastes. He was raised on a tight budget when he was young, counting every penny, and he hasn't quite given himself over to throwing away his hard-earned cash on useless trinkets like I have."
"Ah," surmised Jim. "So you'd like to buy him something expensive and frivolous, that he wouldn't think of purchasing for himself?"
"Well, somewhat expensive," John demurred. He thought about the cash in his billfold, and remembered that he needed to set aside a few pounds to give Mal to buy marijuana.
"Might he like a watch, perhaps?" Jim suggested, calling John's attention back to the matter at hand. He pulled a beautiful, hinged, golden watch out of the pocket of his suit jacket and showed it to John. "This is my pride and joy. Isn't it lovely? My wife Delia gave me the attached chain. It's the same color as her hair. I have a few similar watches I could sell you."
"Paul already has a nice wrist watch that his dad gave him for his twenty-first birthday," John replied.
"I see," Jim said with a brief shrug of disappointment. He slipped the watch back inside his pocket and looked up at John with an inquisitive expression. "So tell me a bit about your friend Paul. I know he likes rock and roll music, but what are his other interests? Does he like to read? Or play sports? Or drink fine wines? Or smoke cigars?"
"Sometimes, no, not especially, and definitely no," John said, answering the shopkeeper's questions in rapid succession. "Our manager Brian gave us some Cuban cigars to smoke not long ago, but Paul and I both agreed that we preferred plain old ciggies."
"So he smokes then," Jim said with a knowing smile. He stepped behind his cash register and pulled a mahogany display case out from a shelf beneath it. Then he rested the long, flat wooden box on top of the counter so that John could inspect its contents. A dozen shiny gold and silver cigarette cases and lighters rested on top of a folded cloth of dark blue velvet. They sparkled in the store's incandescent overhead lighting. An intricate Art Deco pattern was etched into one of the lighters. One of the cigarette cases was inlaid with a pattern of diamonds and rubies.
"Wheww," John whistled under his breath. "Those must be dear."
"Some are more dear than others," Jim agreed. "How much were you planning to spend?"
John thought again about the money in his wallet. I probably didn't bring enough to buy any of those, he worried. He cleared his throat. "I'm not sure if Paul would really fancy any of these, to be honest. Like I said earlier, he's a man of simple tastes."
"Ah," Jim agreed. "Well, perhaps I can help you find something else then."
He started picking up the case, but then John noticed a strange golden item behind an engraved cigar cutter, tucked inside a fold in the velvet lining in the very back of the box.
"What's that?" asked John.
"Oh," Jim laughed awkwardly. "I forgot that I had left that there. I hadn't meant to display it." He lifted the mahogany case a little higher off the counter.
"No, I'm curious," John insisted. "Let me see it."
Jim sighed, then rested the box back on the countertop. He took out the strangely shaped object and handed it to John.
John fingered the item curiously and pinched the small clip that jutted out of one end. He admired the smooth sheen on the golden prongs, and the unusual design engraved on the other side of the object. He looked back at the shopkeeper with a puzzled expression.
"It's, um, a type of…cigarette holder," Jim explained. "For hand-rolled cigarettes, that is. For cigarettes that don't come with a ready-made filter. You know, like, um, well…a jazz cigarette. Or an herbal cigarette. If you catch my drift." He reached for the clip.
John clenched his hand tighter around the object and smiled. "I catch your drift. Show me how it works."
Jim frowned. "I don't have any such cigarettes on me. This isn't the type of item that my store usually sells." He cleared his throat again. "What I mean is, I generally don't sell accoutrements for jazz cigarettes at my shop. But I had a client come in last month who asked me to order some rather extravagant clips for him, and he selected not to purchase this one. He could only afford the gold-plated clips. This one is twenty-four carat. I meant to return it to my dealer. I mean…to my supplier. That is, um…I meant to return it to my wholesale supplier, of course." He fiddled nervously with the collar of his starched white shirt.
John laughed. "Don't be so worried, Jim. I won't rat you out. Paul and I and the rest of the band discovered the pleasure of 'jazz cigarettes' at the end of our American tour this past August. Bob Dylan turned us on. It was grand."
"Ah," Jim said, noticeably relieved. "Well, then, imagine if you will a hand-rolled, marijuana cigarette. You place the end of the spliff in this clip so that you can hold the cigarette without burning your fingers on the hot rolling paper. Now you can smoke the cigarette down to almost the very bottom, without wasting any of the…um…the…"
"The good shit," John surmised. He mimed smoking a joint with the clip and smiled. "How much is this?"
Jim smiled back and quoted John a price.
John winced. He had just enough money in his wallet to buy the clip, but that would leave him with nothing to hand over to Mal for purchasing pot.
Paul's bound to have some marijuana at his house, he decided rashly. I think he liked smoking it even more than I did.
"I'll take it," John said. He handed over the cash. "Could you wrap it in a little box for me? I'll just wait by the window and see if I can catch a glimpse of my driver. He's going round the block a coupl'a times while I shop."
Paul opened the front door of the London townhouse that he shared with his girlfriend's family and smiled at his visitor.
"Merry Grimble!" exclaimed John.
"And Happy Christmas to you too!" Paul replied with a chuckle. He opened the door a little wider and gave John a brief hug.
John stepped inside the house and wiped his feet on the mat. "I've brought you a Christmas prezzie."
Paul looked John up and down. "On your person, I presume?"
"In me pocket, it is," John answered, affecting a strong Scouse accent.
"So it's a small gift," Paul surmised.
"Good things come in small packages," John replied. He dug his right hand into the pocket of his overcoat.
"No, no, not here," Paul said. "Come upstairs to my room. I've got something for you up there too."
John nodded and followed Paul up the stairs and into his bedroom. He spied a large, wrapped box sitting on top of a tall wooden dresser.
"Hhmm," John said excitedly. "Is that for me?"
"It is," answered Paul. "You want to open yours first?"
"Nah," John replied. "Beauty before age." He pulled the small box out of his pocket and handed it to Paul, then slipped off his coat and threw it on top of the unmade bed.
Paul eyed the box with a disappointed look. "It's rather little."
"But it's precious," John insisted. He sat down on the bed and watched Paul open his present.
Paul pulled off the wrapping paper and ribbon, then examined the strange object nestled inside the embossed cardboard box. He looked up at John with a perplexed expression.
"It's a clip for holding the end of a spliff, so you can smoke it down to the bottom without burning your fingies," John laughed. "Twenty-four carat gold it is. To commemorate the twenty four gold records we scored in 1964!"
"Was it only twenty-four?" Paul replied with a gleam in his eye. "I thought for sure we'd racked up at least fifty by now." He lifted the clip out of the box and admired it. "This is really gear, Johnny! Thanks so much! A perfect memento for a perfect year."
"Right," John agreed. "You're welcome. Now, what'd'ya buy me?"
"I think you'll like it," Paul said. He took the large box off his dresser and handed it to John. "Be careful. It's fragile."
"Alright," John said. He rested the present on the mattress so he wouldn't drop it, then tore off the wrapping paper and opened the top of the box. He carefully lifted out a delicate glass container with an attached thin stem, and scrunched up his nose. "What is this? It almost looks like the hookah the caterpillar smokes in 'Alice in Wonderland'!"
"It is sort of like that," Paul agreed. "But it's called a bong. I bought it off an Indian gent who runs a little import shop in Canary Wharf. You use it to smoke pot."
John beamed in delight. "Great minds think alike! It's no wonder we're such successful songwriting partners! Let's try out our presents now!"
"You really think we should?" Paul asked nervously. "We have to be at rehearsal for our Christmas show in two hours."
"It's just a rehearsal," John said. "C'mon. You've got some pot, don't you?"
"No," Paul admitted sheepishly. "I spent the last of my wage packet buying this bong for you. I figured you'd have some."
John sighed theatrically, then fell back against the pillows by the headboard. "I spent the money I was going to give Mal to buy some on that golden clip for you! I figured you'd have a stash."
Paul sat down gingerly on the edge of the bed so as not to knock over the glass bong, and offered John a sympathetic smile. "I think my old high school English teacher would say this a perfect example of dramatic irony."
"It's a perfect example of a bloody missed opportunity!" John replied tartly. But then he sat back up and admired his elegantly shaped glass bong once more.
"I'll see if I can bum some cash off Brian at the rehearsal this afternoon. Then I'll give it to Mal to do some shopping, when he gets a chance," John said at length. "Until then, though, let's have a drink, and toast this amazing year we've had."
"We took America by storm," Paul replied with a smile.
"And Australia and New Zealand as well," John noted.
"We had a hit movie, and more hit records than I can count," Paul laughed.
"I published a best-selling book," John added with a smug grin.
"We made it," Paul laughed. "We made it to the very top!"
"The toppermost of the poppermost," John agreed.
"C'mon, let's raid Jane's parents' liquor cabinet," Paul said, stepping off the bed. "We can toast our success the old-fashioned way."
John climbed off the mattress and cast a brief forlorn look at the clip and the bong. "A Scotch and Coke it will have to be, then," he sighed. "And perhaps we can raid Jane's kitchen and make ourselves some butties for tea as well. They'll keep us going until we can have our own version of a British high tea."
Paul laughed and draped his arm around John's shoulder. "Remember how Dylan got the lyrics wrong to 'I Want to Hold Your Hand'?"
"I do," John replied. He opened his mouth wide and sang out in perfect harmony with his song-writing partner,
"I get high, I get high! I Get HIGH!"
Inspired by O. Henry's classic short story "The Gift of the Magi" (1905), and by a suggestion from my college-aged daughter Maria.
If you've enjoyed reading CremeTangerine's (a.k.a. Tracy Neis's) Beatles-inspired stories these past few months, please consider picking up a copy of her full-length novel, "Mr. R: A Rock and Roll Romance," as a Christmas present for yourself or a friend. This reimagining of "Jane Eyre" casts one of literature's most famous romantic heroes – Mr. Rochester – as a British Invasion-era rock star whose band (The Pilots) was inspired by The Beatles. It's available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Thanks! – T.N.