“I pause beside the swirling red, white, and blue column outside the barbershop and peer in at the calendar on the wall. November 11, 1955.
… Meanwhile Back in Penny Lane…
“In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs, of every head he’s had the pleasure to know. And all the people that come and go, stop and say hello…”
The street corner is bustling with people of all ages. An old man wearing large oxfords stomps down the sidewalk. A little girl with pink ribbons tied in her pigtails holds her mother’s hand. Schoolboys looking smart in their uniforms run and shove down the street, playing foolish games. It’s raining, which is normal for England. I would know; I’ve lived here my whole life. But this street corner is unfamiliar.
Just a minute ago, I had slammed my bedroom door and flopped onto my bed in frustration over yet another confrontation with my Granddad. Following my routine, I popped in my earbuds to calm myself down, and began to listen to The Beatles album I chose for tonight’s insomnia playlist. So why do I now find myself wide awake on a busy street? I am surprised to see that I am no longer wearing my pajamas, but am dressed in a yellow gingham dress that I have never seen before. It has puffed short sleeves, a long cotton skirt, and a brown belt. I lift the foreign skirt between two fingers as if it is fragile china. It looks like something an old-fashioned paper doll would wear. My earbuds are still in and the Beatles album is still playing. I pause the song and tuck my iPod and buds into the convenient dress pocket for safekeeping.
I have suffered from insomnia ever since my Mum died. When I first started having sleepless nights, my father didn’t know what to do. I would come into his room and lay down on Mum’s side, which didn’t help the empty feeling in my chest, much less my sleep. The kids at school would tease and call me “Ruby Raccoon” because of the dark circles I had under my eyes. Actually, even now, without bags under my eyes, my classmates still tease me. We went to three different therapists, each prescribing different medications and solutions, which either nearly rendered me comatose or had no effect at all. It took four different paint jobs for us to figure out that changing the color of my bedroom was not helping or hurting my sleep patterns.
One night I finally discovered my cure. I had a funny song stuck in my head that Mum always used to hum. Obla-di Obla-da, life goes on… brah! I downloaded it on iTunes, synced it with my iPod and the next thing I knew, light was peeking through my thick “light absorbing” curtains.
It is music that lets me fall asleep. I guess it calms me because it reminds me of my Mum. When she was alive, she was always humming a tune, dancing in the supermarket to the Muzak, or playing her endless CD collection on our family room’s big stereo system. Morning and night that old clunky stereo was blasting rock ’n’ roll, bopping smooth jazz, or shrieking pop music. She even played it when no one was home as she said it was the best way to ward off burglars.
But she’s not alive anymore and I’m not at home. I’m on a strange street corner in who knows where, and I am still upset from the quarrel that I had with my Granddad at supper. My Grandmum had cooked her special shepherd’s pie and we all sat down to eat when Dad got home from work. From across the table, I watched my Granddad sulk and play with his food, making tiny mountains out of mashed potatoes, and rolling the peas around the plate. Even though this was his typical dinner-table behavior, it still bothered me how childish he acted. This was my Grandmum’s special dish, her own recipe, and she had spent all afternoon preparing it.
I continued reading the newspaper. It’s my habit and my prerogative to read while I eat. I call it “reating.” Although some people think it’s rude, no one really ever talks at my dinner table. I was reading the front-page story of The Guardian, when my Dad reprimanded me:
“Rube, put that away, we’re eating,” he said sternly, looking pointedly at the paper.
“But Dad, this is serious!” I protested. “Eighteen people were killed in a freak fire on the 4th story-”
“Ruby, put that away!” My grandfather pounded his fist on the table causing the peas to jump off his plate. He glared at me with burning eyes.
“Why can’t we just talk about it? It’s so tragic! Why not? Why can’t we talk about anything serious?” I asked.
It was always the same, I would try to bring something controversial or difficult up and then someone would chastise me and tell me to change the topic. Especially if it was about my Mum.
It has been nine years since Mum died. Yet there was still an unspoken rule; a boundary that I needed to stay within of “not talking about Mum’s death,” or anything related to it for that matter. There were only a few safe topics – the weather, school, sports, and Royal Family gossip. Everything else was censored.
I pushed back my chair with a screech, grabbed The Guardian, and stormed out of the room.
I am broken out of my trance by the siren of a fire lorry speeding out of the station. I watch it turn left and squeal down the street. The lorry looks too old to still be operating. There’s a ladder leaning over the top and the firemen are seated in uncovered open seats. On the side in gold letters it says, “Liverpool Community Fire Station.” I spy a bench and sit down, trying to get my bearings. I am in a suburban neighbourhood with several shops including a fire station, a bank, a barbershop, and a bus station. It appears to be a typical neighbourhood, except that everything looks dated.
A Rolls Royce pulls up a few feet in front of me and a man in a tuxedo with long coattails strolls out and into the bank. Nobody seems surprised to see the fancy black car, even though it looks like it just rode out of a James Bond film.
The sky is filled with foreboding clouds and the rain is starting to pick up. The street is long with one end turning off onto another avenue, and the other ending in a roundabout. Why am I here? I wonder for the hundredth time since arriving. I scan the street for clues. Am I dreaming or is this real? It seems pretty real…
I’m afraid to ask anyone where I am or when I am, as I know I would receive strange looks. I stand up and begin to walk past the shops. Just then a couple approaches me, the man dressed in grey trousers and a striped sweater, and the woman in a short-sleeved white sweater and long blue skirt. They stop in front of me and say, “Hello!” and “G’day!” Then they keep walking, but my feet are frozen in place. Huh. That was really… nice. No one usually stops just to say hello.
I pause beside the swirling red, white, and blue column outside the barbershop and peer in at the calendar on the wall. November 11, 1955.
“Ey love! Why doncha step inside for a minute? It’s raining bloody buckets outside!” I turn and see a portly middle-aged man looking at me with kind, crinkled eyes. He beckons to me and I oblige, stepping into the shop and stomping off my wet shoes.
A line of black-cushioned chairs stand in front of a long mirror, all occupied by men and women getting a trim or shave. Each station is outfitted with a comb, a bottle of Brylcreem hair gel, curlers, scissors, hairspray, shaving cream and a brush. On the far side of the shop, I see women in curlers chatting and reading magazines while their hair is being dried under hooded salon dryers.
All of a sudden the woman under the middle drier lifts off the hood and winks at me, then lowers it back. I blink my eyes hard. That was weird. I recognize her… I turn away slowly and see a whole wall covered with a mosaic of black-and-white portrait photos of customers all modeling their new “do’s.” I take in the rows of pictures, two per person, one showing the front of their head, and one showing the back.
“Y’alright?” asks the man.
“I was just admiring your wall of photos.”
“Ah yes, these are the heads of all the customers that I’ve had the pleasure to know. Here at Pepper’s Hair, after you get your first cut, everyone always gets a picture taken. It’s one of our unique offerings. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Mr. Pepper, owner and main barber of this fine establishment.” Mr. Pepper is wearing a crisp white jacket, black bowtie and grey houndstooth pants. It is quite ironic that he owns a hair salon, for his hair is a shiny shade of bald. He gives me a firm handshake.
“And you are?”
“Ruby. Ruby Whittington.”
“I’ve never seen you before, and I know everyone in town! Are you from the area?”
“No, well, not exactly…” I look back at the wall of photographs, desperate to change the topic. It is then I see him. At the top right corner, there is picture of a man that looks just like my grandfather… well, a much younger version. His light blonde hair is coiffed and gelled in a side part.
“Who is that?” I ask Mr. Pepper.
“That young man, Ms. Ruby, is one of our best and brightest. He’s a fireman for our local station and he recently saved the lives of 30 people in a collapsing building. I’ve heard that he keeps a portrait of the Queen with him. He’s our town hero.”
“What’s his name?”
“His name is Michael Beckett.”
Beckett. Beckett is my Mother’s maiden name. Beckett is my Grandmum’s married name. Beckett is my Granddad’s last name.
I lean closer and notice the dimple in his left cheek; the one thing that we have in common. Could he be my grandfather? I start to shiver.
“Ruby, are you alright? You’ve gone stark white, child! Let me fetch you a cup of water.”
I need to leave. I need fresh air. Yes, fresh air would do me a lot of good… I feel sorry leaving Mr. Pepper, but I can’t stay there a moment longer. I hurry out the door. My grandfather, a hero? It can’t be him, it simply can’t!
The Granddad Mike I know is the opposite of a hero. He is a lazy curmudgeon who refuses to do anything except bum around the house all day, watching Antique Roadshow, soccer matches, and Wheel of Fortune. Although, I can still remember a time when Granddad was kind and fun to be around. We used to play “Pattycake” and compare the size of our hands, go on long walks by the river, and he would always read me bedtime stories.
I need time to think this through.
“Poppies! Poppies for vet-rans! Buy a flower for the man in your life that made an invaluable sacrifice!” The rain has let up and a petite young woman in her mid-20s is standing in the middle of the roundabout. She is wearing a Red Cross uniform and selling poppies from a tray.
“They’re our fathers, our mothers, do them a favor and give thanks today.” She trills. The way her silky dark hair curls under her white hat reminds me of – no it couldn’t possibly be. As I approach her, I notice that she looks a lot like my Grandmum.
Grandmum grew up in Liverpool, in a two-story apartment house. Her whole family had a hand in the Allied war effort; her mother was a nurse, her father was a doctor, and her brother served and died in France. She was born in 1938, right before the start of the war and lived the first seven years of her life wrapped up in wartime turmoil. At the same time she was learning her ABCs, she was learning about food rations. She grew up accustomed to the sound of a blaring air raid siren in the middle of the night. My Mum told me that wherever there was an opportunity, she would volunteer, whether it was collecting supplies to send to troops, helping plant victory gardens, or writing letters to soldiers. When she was finally old enough, my Grandmum dove in headfirst. She joined the Red Cross.
“Dearie, do you have a brother, or an uncle, or a father that served our country?” The nurse looks at me inquisitively. “Well, no – not exactly, I mean –”
“Buy some poppies for them then!” she says cheerily, “All proceeds go to the Red Cross.”
She seems so kind, and I find myself drawn to her. Maybe this nurse can help me figure out why I am here.
“Um, no thank you! But could I help you sell them? The poppies? You look like you could use some help and I’ve, uh, always wanted to volunteer.”
“Of course! Thank you! Here, how about you put this on…” She takes her white peaked cap with a red cross on the front and places it on my head. “There, now you look the part.” She smiles and I swear that she resembles my Grandmum.
I murmur a thank you and assume position – next to a random girl on a random street in England selling flowers for Remembrance Day.
“So, what’s your name?” she asks me in between shouts.
“Oh, I love that name! If I was ever going to have a daughter, I would name her Ruby.” she flashes me a bright, full-toothed smile, “I’m Beth. Not as lovely as Ruby, but I like it. I want to be an actress, but it’s hard to make it in the acting world.”
I nod, but my head is spinning. My Grandmum was an actress and her name is Beth. I look at her out of the corner of my eye. What is going on here?
Right then a beautiful woman walks up to us. Beth asks her if she would like to purchase some flowers, but the woman looks directly at me and says, “Yes, I’ll take two please.” She is angelic and I am gobsmacked. She has bright green eyes and dark brown hair, just like me. I fumble with the flowers.
“Here you go.” I say. She hands me the money, but I feel a lump between the bills. I separate them and find my earbuds curled up in a nice ball. When I look up again the woman is nowhere to be seen.
“Do you know her?” asks Beth. I don’t answer. I am in shock. I realize too late that this woman was the same one that winked at me in Pepper’s Hair. I feel in my pocket for my earbuds but they aren’t there. I must have dropped them when I hurried out of the shop. I close my eyes and picture her face again. I see the face of my mother.
“Poppies! Buy some poppies for a loved one! Hello Michael, would you like to buy some poppies?” A tall, handsome young fireman stands in front of us and she grins at him from underneath her eyelashes. I suck in my breath. My Granddad, or future Granddad, is standing inches away from me.
“Sorry Beth, I have to run. I just heard about a fire across town. Apparently it’s a house fire and the family has three kids. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose someone you love, especially a child. I’ll come by later.” He gives her an apologetic smile and then rushes off. As he runs towards the fire station, he pulls a rectangular object out of his coat and kisses it, then tucks it back into his pocket.
“Go save some lives!” yells Beth. The next minute, the fire lorry roars by.
“That’s Michael. He’s really sweet.” She says, gazing after the red truck turning the corner.
“You like him, don’t you?” I blurt, then almost clap my hand over my mouth, astounded at what I just uttered.
“Yes, I do,” she giggles. “It’s hard not to. He’s always saving lives and helping others. Did you see what he did? He was kissing a portrait of the Queen. Isn’t that lovely? It’s his good luck charm. In fact, when he comes back, I’m sure he’ll buy us out of poppies. That’s the kind of chap he is.”
At this point I have no idea what to do. My Granddad is a town hero, my Grandmum sells flowers for vet’rans and my mother keeps making guest appearances.
“Thank you so much. This has been great, but I really need to go home. Can you please show me where the bus station is?”
On our walk to the station, I feel my mind slowly begin to slip into the past. Or from this past to the later past… I begin to think about my mother and how much I miss her.
My mother had only just turned 40 when she was killed in a house fire. Our house fire, and it was my fault.
I was six years old and my mother was cooking her own birthday dinner. Mum insisted that she cook because no one could make her favorite meal of Beef Wellington and Fried Potatoes as well as she could. My grandparents were over to celebrate, but my father wasn’t home yet. I was upstairs in my room, playing with my “wacky sounds” keyboard, and entertaining my teddy bear, who was wearing my “blankie” as a royal robe. I was bored and lonely. I had no siblings – and not many friends – so this was, and is, a common occurrence. I tried to get someone’s attention by banging on the keyboard, but the potatoes kept frying and my grandparents kept laughing and talking. I put my keyboard on dinosaur mode and hit a couple notes, but the roaring didn’t get their attention either. So I started to cry.
Finally I heard Mummy coming up the stairs, “I’m coming Rubes, don’t worry.” She appeared behind the childproof gate and walked me down the stairs and into the living room where my grandparents were talking and reading the newspaper. My Mum left the room to go back to cooking, but moments later I realized that I left my “blankie” upstairs. I started to cry again, “My blankie!”
Mummy heard me and immediately went upstairs to retrieve it.
Several minutes passed. She came back down and handed me my “blankie.”
“There you go sweet pea.” Those were her last words. What came after is a bit blurry.
My Mum had gone back into the kitchen, unaware that a towel near the splattering potatoes had caught fire and had spread flames to the ceiling. I suppose she thought she could put it out herself, because I don’t recall hearing her yell for help. I remember my Granddad hustling us all out of the house and ordering us to stay put while he went back in for her. We watched in horror as the flames jumped out of the kitchen window. Those were the longest minutes and the worst day of my life. My Granddad couldn’t save my mother. It was too late.
From the bus, I watch Beth wave from the sidewalk, growing smaller and smaller. I retrieve my earbuds, put them back in my ears and am surprised to find that the same song is playing, even though I definitely remember hitting pause. I quickly turn around in my seat and look back at the street. “Penny Lane, there is a barber showing photographs of every head he’s had the pleasure to know…” My eyes dart to the swirling barber’s pole outside the shop. Mr. Pepper!
“Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout, a pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray…” Oh my god, Grandmum!
Just then, the fire lorry zooms past, “And the fireman rushes in from the pouring rain, very strange…” Granddad!
“Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes, there beneath the blue suburban skies. Penny Lane.”
I turn back around and close my eyes.
I open my eyes and I am back in my own bed. The room is dark and I look at the glowing face of my alarm clock. 6:30PM, only ten minutes have passed since I left the dinner table. I hear footsteps outside my door and the doorknob turns. My Grandfather walks in, looking more tired than usual, but wearing a surprisingly cheerful expression. He sits down on my bed.
“Ruby, I …” he pauses and still hasn’t looked at me. His face looks sunken, the wrinkles on his cheeks looks like the ripples in water after you’ve thrown in a pebble. And yet, he looks different, better, as if he’s resolved something.
“Your mother, she was a very special person. When she died, you were very young and didn’t fully understand. I want to explain…”
I raise my eyebrows. What is going on? Why now?
“I haven’t been able to forgive myself for not being able to save her. She was the reason that I retired. After that, I knew I could not continue. When she died, a little piece of me, of all of us, died with her.
“No, no Granddad. It was my fault. If she hadn’t gone upstairs to get my blanket then none of this would have happened.”
He finally looks up at me in earnest. “Ruby, dearie, it seems that we share the same burden. But you are not to blame. It was my fault. I was the fireman and her father. Why wasn’t I able to save her?” He looks pained. “Well Rube, I’ll tell you why. Do you know how many years I was in fire department?”
“No, I don’t Granddad.”
“45 years. 45 years I fought fires, battled blazes, attacked the heat. In most cases, we saved everyone, no fatalities. But there were times when the people didn’t make it.” Granddad’s eyes suddenly became glazed over, as if he was reliving the past. “Dogs burned alive, sons burned alive, mothers burned alive! And every time we were left staring at a crumbling building, family members and friends sitting crying on the sidewalk, their hair streaked with ash. And, do you know what I was always thinking? ‘What if that was me?’ What if someone I loved was hurt and I was powerless to save them? That was my greatest fear.” His gruff voice was getting wobbly and his hands were starting to shake.
“So when I went to get your mother out of that burning kitchen, I was suddenly paralyzed. I couldn’t move beyond the doorway. Couldn’t move my feet. My worst nightmare was coming true, happening right in front of my eyes. I was so scared Ruby.
“There is a rule that we follow in the fire department, after six minutes if you haven’t already gone in, then you should just stay out. I stood there for way more than six minutes. I was so cowardly, Ruby. She was my daughter. It was only when the fire started to spread towards me that I was broken out of my trance. I was way too late.”
His eyes are wet, but I can tell that a great weight has been lifted off of him in revealing this to me. I really don’t know what to say. But he does.
“I’m so sorry for the way that I’ve behaved these past several years. How I refused to cope with this and lived in denial. The way I ignored you. You are so, so precious,” he says.
We are quiet for a long time after that; each lost in our sadness. Finally I know what to say.
“When you were a fireman for the station in Liverpool, did you carry a portrait of the Queen in your pocket?”
He looks at me curiously, and I see a twinkle of young Michael Beckett in his eyes, the shared dimple in his cheek. He rises from the bed, and then returns moments later. He hands me a small frame with a black-and-white photo of a young woman wearing a dazzling crown.
“I used to take it with me wherever I went. I wanted to remember that I was serving our country. Why did you ask?”
“Oh, I just wanted to know,” I say, smiling up at him.
I raise my hand, fingers outstretched, palm facing out and he does the same. We put our palms together, and I see that his is still much larger than mine; bigger, stronger, protecting.