The first time Chris and Annie kissed, they were in school and well on their way to becoming the next Mrs. McCartney and the next Mrs. Harrison, respectively. Armed with a pinched bottle of sherry from Annie's mum's cupboard and a joint sweet-talked from a townie boy by Chris, Project Beatle had begun in earnest.
They sat in Annie's bedroom, all pink and ruffles, outgrown and pasted over with pictures torn from glossy magazines, plotting their seduction of the two sexiest Beatles. It wasn't just their future romantic and sexual bliss at stake, but the honor of Yorkshire itself. After all, why should Liverpool's most famous sons succumb to the charms of gold-digging foreigners, floozies from Hollywood or Paris or Milan, when their hearts' desire could blossomed fresh and waiting, right here in Knapely?
It was serious business, perfecting the stare, the look-away, the proper angle of the smile, the come hither glance.
But the kiss, oh, that first kiss had to be perfection. The right tilt of the head, the softness of the lips. Chris and Annie took turns playing the boy, allowing the other a chance to perfect her maidenly charms.
When it was Chris's turn to be the boy, she leaned over and whispered in her deepest Liverpudlian accent, "That was lovely, Annie dear. But next time, could you perhaps use a bit more tongue?"
They dissolved into laughter. Later, much later, after much discussion on their futures as first ladies of British pop, they fell asleep in each others arms.
The first (and last) Annual Knapely W.I. Charity Vodka Tasting was in full swing the next time they kissed.
To be fair, there was generous bussing all around, and arses being pinched, rowdy shot contests, and a ripping quarrel between Eddie and Ruth Reynoldson to add to the entertainment.
The kiss they remembered, what Chris and Annie could remember later, took place on the veranda of Celia and Frank's house while the party continued inside.
It was too hot indoors, and Chris and Annie had stumbled out of doors for a little fresh air. And, of course, an opportunity to compare notes on the numerous indiscretions they planned to store for future ammunition against W.I. president and all-around party pooper (though not tonight, they giggled) Marie.
"I didn't thank you," Annie slurred as she draped her arms over Chris's shoulders in a loose embrace.
"You are very, very, extremely welcome," Chris said graciously as she pulled at Annie's waste. "For what for?"
"For forgetting those bloody spit buckets," Annie giggled, and then burst into full-blown laughter as Chris dropped her head, groaning at her own disastrous mistake. "'Let's all just stand around the sink and spit,' she says," Annie teased. "'Or go out into the garden.'"
"Shut it, you," Chris groaned, laughing in spite of herself.
"Celia threatened you with in an inch of your life if you intoxicated her begonias."
"Shut up," Chris laughed again, cutting off Annie's next comment with her mouth, holding her there until the joke was forgotten, until the party was forgotten…until they heard John's voice behind them.
"Is this a private party, or can anybody join in?" He and Rod were in the doorway, Rod's arm draped casually over John's shoulder. They'd switched from vodka to ale, promising a glorious hangover in the morning.
"Leave it to them two," Rod grunting, taking another swig, then wiping his mouth with a sleeve. He never took his eyes off the two women. "Start off with a W.I. fundraiser, and wind up starring in a bloody Playboy video."
There was laughter all around and, as Annie and Chris disentangled themselves with as much dignity possible, John leaned over to Rod and asked in a loud stage whisper, "Ain't married life grand?"
Rod sent a soft wolf whistle in the general direction of the mortified women before agreeing, "Bloody fucking brilliant, it is?"
There was no liquor involved at all the next time they kissed. They'd had their bows, and made their peace after Hollywood. The letters kept coming, of course, and some nights Chris would stay until will after midnight, helping her sift through, holding her hand through the worst, laughing with her at the hopeful ones.
It was as if the calendar had stripped them of more than just their clothes. No more pretenses now, just Chris and Annie, Annie and Chris, best mates and sisters' keepers forever.
She was sobbing over one of the worst letters, both of them crying really. It was too much to stay apart, too much not to draw closer to each other.
The kiss was tender, if not particularly innocent, two best friends giving and receiving comfort. They'd touched each other more since John died, clung to each other when things got too hard, when the world wasn't looking.
It was just a kiss, hands touching, breath slow and synchronized, a simple act of love that deepened as the moments passed. For Chris, it was like coming home, safe in that warm place Annie had created for her all their lives. But Annie tasted the kiss as oxygen, pure and rare after too long closed up in a dark cold room.
They weren't children anymore, and they weren't drunk either. And when they took that next step, that inevitable step, it was with eyes and hearts wide open.
Afterwards, Chris told Rod immediately, without hesitation or shame. Annie had insisted, and she had agreed. This was too big a secret too hide. And though she loved Rod with all her heart, she knew something like this would fester and grow until it destroyed everything.
She didn't cry, nor did she hang her head in shame, because she felt no shame. She just spoke plainly, gently, breaking it to him with love and with as much tact as she could muster.
Rod was silent for a long time after she finished, a pondering silence that culminated in a slow nod and a sigh. "She's your best mate," he said softly. "I suppose it was inevitable."
"She's your best mate," he insisted, pulling Chris into his arms. "You two will do what you do."
"I'm sorry," she breathed into his shoulder. "I never meant to hurt you."
He didn't address that, but maintained an enigmatic silence, rubbing her shoulder, her upper and lower back, kissing her hair. Try as she might, she couldn't get him to elaborate on his feelings about what had transpired, or on Chris's blatant omission of any promises against future similar acts.
In the end, all she got out of him was more of the same, soft murmurs, deep kisses, and a whispered reminder that he would always love her, and would always be her husband.
It was hardly an invitation to the orgy, but as time went on, in word and deed, Rod proved that he never begrudged the deepening of his wife's friendship with Annie.
Nor did he ever once ask for permission to watch.
The last time Annie kissed Chris, it was snowing. But Annie felt nothing at all as she walked through the parking lot to the funeral home.
There were no secrets in a town the size of Knapely, and for the second time in her life, Annie found herself buffered against grief by a coterie of mourning-draped friends. Dear Celia, still trim and beautiful. Cora with her daughter and grandchildren up from London. Ruth, somber and silent, and Kathy and Marie representing the W.I. with respect and dignity.
Jem and his wife were there at the front of the parlor, holding vigil in front of the casket. Jem didn't bat an eye when Annie came up and kissed Chris's lips, tears streaming down her face. He pulled her into an embrace, all questions and awkward silences years behind them now.
They had come to celebrate her life, to laugh at the stories and remember how much she had changed them all. Annie gave Jem her memories, the sunflower, the wine, and the tiny lipstick-stained picture of Paul McCartney. "She would want them," she whispered as Jem put the items into the casket with his mother.
"I feel sorry for heaven now," Jem muttered, with one last look at the face, still lovely, of his mother. "With those three up there."
Annie grinned at him, a wicked glint in her eyes. "Who says they're going up there?"