An Alternate History
By Lorraine J. Anderson
Henry Purcell sat in an ale house, dejected. Once again, his wife had locked him out of his house; once again, while his latest endeavor in the theater was well received, he felt—well, he wasn’t sure how he felt, but it seemed like nothing was quite enough. Sure, he was well received in England, but all of the great musicians were in Germany. Or Austria. Or some other country. They certainly weren’t in this tiny little ale house in Westminster.
He scratched under his periwig – it must be time to de-louse it — then stared into his ale without seeing it. He had lost count of his works. Still, he felt proud of what he had accomplished, from his first attempts at nine to his latest composition for Henry Dryden’s plays.
He sometimes wondered if his wife, Frances, appreciated this. Perhaps that was why she kicked him out tonight. He knew she was tired of his late nights and his talk of the theatre. He knew she wanted him to slow down and spend some time at home. But he couldn’t. He had too much to do.
Why was he thinking this way? Maybe he was just tired. He shifted his collar. And he was hot. It was very warm in this small ale house.
Then the lute quartet in the corner started, and he forgot what he was thinking about.
John Lennon took a seat in the corner of the ale house, glancing at the other men in his quartet. The other three lads were good friends and good mates, but they were all getting tired of trying to be a success in London. Just tonight, at their break, Paul brought up the idea of maybe going back home to Liverpool, finding a stable job and settling down.
John wasn’t ready for that. He was talented — he knew that. Collaborating with all of them —but especially Paul — they created musical magic. Not that George or Richard were any slouches of musicians.
They just needed an opportunity in front of the right man to show what they could do.
But he couldn’t deny that going back to Liverpool had a certain appeal. He remembered fondly a young, pretty girl. What was her name? Cynthia. Was she still free? He shrugged.
He finally convinced them to stay another month, then they would decide.
The lads were staring at him. He shook his head to clear his thoughts. Time to work. Accidentally, he kicked at the rushes on the floor, then wrinkled his nose at the sour smell of old ale and vomit. Paul rolled his eyes. It was a job, and, as an ale house, it wasn’t the worst place they had played in.
He nodded, and Richard, the weakest lute player, set the beat. One by one, the four joined in a tune that Lennon had composed the night before. In his mind, he called it “Strawberry Fields,” thinking of a meadow where he had played as a child. His bass lute player, Paul McCartney, nodded in time, and George Harrison and Richard Starkey joined in on the dissonant chord. The song rose to a crescendo, then faded out, repeated the crescendo three times. It ended on a lone B flat.
He looked around.
No-one had even noticed them, and had, in fact, most of them had gone back to whatever conversations they had started before the song started. Lennon sighed, and signaled for the old song, “Give us a Drink,” followed by several old moldy tunes. The crowd warmed up and started singing along, and, as they did, John Lennon died a little more each time.
Gradually, he noticed a man at the bar staring at them. He was dressed in finer clothing than the rest in the bar, but rest of the patrons ignored him, so he must be a regular. “The World turned upside down,” he said, in a low monotone. McCartney grinned, and started in the old ballad — since they hadn’t planned to sing anything, the crowd would know it as “When the King Enjoys his own again,” but the new lyrics ran through Lennon’s mind. He noted that the stranger staring at them started grinning, himself, as the crowd started singing the old tune.
Purcell grinned at the lute ensemble in the corner. He was used to seeing semi-talented musicians in this ale house, but this ensemble was something different, entirely. They were dressed as peasants, but their instruments seemed of high quality. Their hair seemed natural – no wigs for them – tied so that it hung loosely down the back and didn’t interfere with their lute playing. Rather an anomaly here in this ale house, and he wondered where the owner had found them.
They finished the cheeky version of “The World Turned Upside Down.” The owner brought them some drinks. They finished playing, then talked to each other in the corner.
He knew he couldn’t afford to get into the lives of some street musicians, but he couldn’t help himself. He picked up his drink and approached them in the corner. The leader looked up, warily. Well, he supposed the life of ale house musicians were rather chancy and strange men approaching them could mean trouble.
He smiled broadly. “Henry Purcell,” he said, sticking his hand out.
The musician’s eyes widened, and he glanced at his ensemble. He took Henry’s hand and shook it warmly. “John Lennon. An honor to meet the organist of Westminster Abbey and the Organist of the Chapel Royal.”
“The honor is all mine,” Henry said automatically. So, not just any street musicians, but someone who knew him.
John grinned ruefully. “You compliment us unjustly.” He turned to his ensemble. “Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Richard Starkey.”
“I enjoyed the first song in your set. It was an original composition, was it not?”
“John and I wrote it,” Paul said.
“Do you have any others?”
“We do,” John said, “but these crowds just want the…” he paused, as if searching for a word. “…tried and true.”
Henry waved them off. “The masses don’t know what they want until those of us with true talent show them.”
John smiled. “You don’t suffer from false pride, do you?”
Henry shrugged. “Pride is for the untalented.” He took a drink of his beer and coughed slightly. ‘I’d like to hear another of your compositions.”
John turned to Paul. “Paul?”
“Yesterday,” Paul said, and Henry looked confused. “This is a song I’ve been working on for months. I call it ‘Yesterday.’”
Starkey beat a slow beat, then Paul started. Henry listened. It started with an F chord, and, with a few trills, ended in D-minor. The crowd, apparently bored, ignored the quartet, but Henry Purcell was fascinated. “That’s beautiful.” He said, when they were finished.
“Thank you,” Paul said.
“You need to be in front of a wider audience.”
The four grinned at each other. “It will never work,” George said. “We’ve tried. Any patrons we try to interest seem bored after the first song.”
“Yet still you play them.”
“Not often,” John said. “The ale house customers prefer songs they can sing along with.” He shrugged. “We’ve tried to get a patron, but no one seems interested. In fact,” he added, looking at the other four, “we are talking of going back to Liverpool.”
Henry sat back. “You would be wasted in Liverpool. You need to be in front of a wider audience,” he repeated. “Have you ever thought of writing music for the theatre?”
“We’re just four lads from Liverpool,” Richard said, unexpectedly. “Why would anyone in the theatre listen to us?”
Henry coughed again. “I would.”
John grinned. “But you are just one man, sir.”
“A man with some influence in the theater world,” Henry said. He took another drink of his ale and stared at the four. “I should introduce you to John Dryden,” he said, almost under his breath.
“The playwright?” Paul said.
“Yes, of course,” Henry said. “But tomorrow, tomorrow, of course.”
“Are you certain?” Paul asked
“As certain as anything.” He took another drink. His hand trembled slightly.
John looked at him closely. “You do not look well, sir.”
Henry shrugged. “I’m fine. A good night’s sleep….” He smiled. “I will bring him by tomorrow.” He placed his ale down. “Now, gentlemen. Could you favor me with some more of your original tunes?” He pulled out his purse. “I shall make it worth your while.”
The ale house owner gently urged the five out in the early morning. “I truly enjoyed your music,” Henry said. The quartet grinned at each other. For the moment, they were rich, richer than they had been since leaving Liverpool.
“Shall I meet you here tomorrow?” Henry said.
“Of course,” John said.
“It’s not like we have anyplace else to be,” Starkey said, and George kicked him in the shin.
“Good. Good,” Henry said. “I look forward to it,” then he started coughing in the foggy London air.
“You had better get home, mate,” Paul said.
“Yes, of course.”
Henry turned toward home. This lute quartet was delightful! Young and energetic, much as he was earlier in his life. Not that he was elderly yet, at thirty-six.
He walked home slowly, in the fog, their tunes still going through his head. He tried the door and smiled when he found it unlocked. As soon as he entered his house, he collapsed in a chair, smiling.
His wife discovered him there, two hours later, immediately sending for the physician, then helping him into bed, where he fell into a coughing, fitful slumber.
His next stop was Westminster Abbey, in a burial chamber close to his beloved organ.
The four lute players came to the ale house the next day. They were disappointed not to find Henry Purcell. They played the ale house for the next week, and he never came.
“I told you,” George said. “I didn’t trust him.”
John pursed his lips. “By all reports, Henry Purcell is a good man.”
“Was, you mean,” said the ale house owner.
“Was?” Richard said.
“I heard he died yesterday,” the man said. “Coughing disease.”
“Oh,” John said, with a sinking feeling. “I am sorry to hear that. It’s a loss to society and the musical world.”
“I don’t know about that,” said the owner. “But he always paid his bills here.”
“And that’s important, too,” Richard said.
“Maybe we can find this John Dryden he talked about.” John said.
The group groaned. “And how are we going to do that?” Paul said. “Knock on his door and tell him we met a dead man in an ale house, and he said he was going to introduce us to him? I’d kick us out on our arse.”
John sighed. “You’re right.”
“Let’s go home,” George said.
John sighed. He could stay in London and try to find a job as a musician someplace, but perhaps it was time. They had given it a shot. If Henry Purcell had lived…
But he hadn’t.
And it seemed that opportunity had passed them by.
“Right,” John said. “We can always play in Liverpool.”
That night, they had their best set ever.
Approximately two hundred and thirty years later, a young man named Peter Noone stumbled across a sheaf of music that looked ancient. It was written by a John Lennon and a Paul McCartney, with contributions from two others. He brought the papers to his group, and they decided to try to play them, translating it to guitars and drums and performing it in a church hall.
The rest was history. Hermit-mania struck the world. But in all of their fame, the group attributed their success to the unknown quartet from Liverpool. “I’m sure,” Peter said to a reporter once, “that if they had lived now, Paul would be sitting here instead of me. They were born two centuries too early. A shame.” He shook his head, then smiled. “Here’s to you, Paul!” he said, raising his glass.