THREE STEPS TO HEAVEN
A short story by Dan Lewis
It was the sign I noticed first, scrawled in red chalk on a little blackboard:
I thought it was something to do with cuts of meat at first, then when I realised it was outside a pub, and that the bloke who was propping it up against a lamppost was dressed like Elvis Presley, the penny dropped: legends, not leg ends. He was an oldish guy: dyed, greased back hair, pot belly, tired, washed-out face. And wearing a stained jumpsuit – not exactly Las Vegas, more Johnny Vegas after a bad night.
I’d lost my way looking for a short cut. I’m always doing that. If the traffic’s heavy I’ll nip down a side road and hope for the best. Sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. Anyway, it was a Sunday and the traffic was ok but I was looking for a different way back from my sister’s. She’d just moved to Ormskirk and every time I’d gone there it had taken me ages to get home. I’d been there since lunchtime helping her decorate the living room.
It was coming up to eight o’clock and I suddenly felt like checking the pub out. I’m always on the hunt for places that put on live music and I don’t mind listening to the old stuff. My dad had a massive record collection, and I inherited most of it – all the records my sister didn’t want, which was more or less everything. I grew up listening to everyone from Nat King Cole to Van Morrison, and old songs are floating in and out of my head all the time.
When I walked in the place was deserted except for a solitary drinker sitting on a stool at the bar. Elvis was nowhere to be seen. I noticed a stage though, which looked like it had been set up for the night. I nodded to the guy on the barstool, a middle-aged bloke in a black rollneck jumper.
‘Bit dead in here, isn’t it?’ I said. ‘When’s it all get going?’
‘It’ll soon fill up,’ he answered. ‘Johnny’s just gone round the back – should be out again in a sec.’ He put his hand out. ‘I’m Ian. I do John Lennon – Imagine. My uncle was at school with him. Saved him from getting beaten up once.’ I gathered from this that it was going to be some kind of karaoke night, which suited me because I love singing. I’ve not got a great voice, but it’s not bad and it’s about the one area of life where I seem to have some talent.
Johnny appeared behind the bar, then looked at Ian with raised eyebrows when I asked for a lemonade. ‘I’m driving,’ I said, trying without much success to put a bit of toughness into my voice.
A minute or two later the door of the Gents opened and a tall bloke with an immaculate dark blue suit and a serious head of hair walked really slowly over to the bar. He asked Johnny for another Jack Daniels.
‘Who’s he?’ I whispered to Ian.
‘My dad loved him. Does he do That’s Amore?’
‘No. He just drinks.’
Dino looked over, raised his glass and winked at me.
Ian was right and within twenty minutes the pub was full. There were a lot of obvious lookalikes (Jimi Hendrix, Dusty Springfield, Sid Vicious), but most people looked fairly normal. Everyone seemed to know each other though, which made me feel a bit of an interloper.
Once the entertainment started it was all pretty surreal. Within the first ten minutes we’d had George Formby, Amy Winehouse and Michael Jackson, one after the other. At one point a young guy came on and sang Don McLean’s American Pie. He had long hair but otherwise didn’t look a bit like him, and he didn’t sound much like him either. But the crowd loved him for some reason, and when he got to the chorus everyone – honestly, the entire pub – joined in:
So bye bye Miss American Pie,
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry,
And them good ole boys were drinking whisky and rye,
Singing this’ll be the day that I die,
This’ll be the day that I die.
Then they brought out a cake for Dean Martin and this fabulous Marilyn Monroe lookalike sang Happy Birthday to him. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, and when she’d finished I watched her go back to a table in the corner, thinking if I had the nerve I’d go over and try to strike up a conversation. Then when I saw who she was sitting with I nearly shouted out loud with surprise. Bernadette Coleman. She’d been in the year above me at school and I’d always…well, idolised her – that’s the only way I can think of describing the mixture of awe, admiration and lust I’d felt then, and was now feeling again.
Her parents were both from the Caribbean; Mrs Coleman was a social worker and her husband used to be a professional boxer, which always impressed me. Their house was on my paper round, and it was the only one where I always used to knock, rather than just shoving the paper through the letter box. Looking back I had a cheek doing that at seven o’clock in the morning, but her father was always up and didn’t seem to mind. During the summer, if the day was shaping up to be hot, he’d sometimes offer me a glass of Coke. Of course I was always hoping to see Bernadette. That rarely happened, though she was friendly enough when it did. I never plucked up the courage to ask her out, and had always wondered if she’d guessed how I felt. I worked out she must be thirty now, but she looked a good five or six years younger.
I gulped down a mouthful of lemonade, gave my hair a quick comb with my fingers and made my way through the crowd. They both looked up at me, smiling in a way that somehow suggested they’d been expecting me to come over.
‘Hi,’ I said. ‘It’s Bernadette, isn’t it? We used to – ‘
‘I know,’ she interrupted. ‘How are you, Mick?’
We were soon chatting away – in fact we said more in the next half an hour than in all the years we’d been at school together. She was a good listener and kept asking me questions, about my job (I work at a place that services vending machines), my parents (they’d died within eighteen months of each other) and a whole load of other stuff. She was pretty vague about what she’d been up to, though I knew she’d moved to London to work. I asked her how long she was up here for and she said, ‘Oh, I’m back for good now.’ After she said that my head was buzzing. This was my chance and I wasn’t going to blow it.
By now I was on a real high and wanted nothing more than to get on stage and sing my heart out. I asked Bernadette and Marie (Marilyn Monroe) if they wanted another drink and went over to the bar. On the stage a guy in black horn rimmed glasses was singing Buddy Holly’s That’ll Be The Day.
Johnny was pulling a pint. ‘Any chance of me getting on?’ I asked. ‘If Buddy Holly lends me his glasses I could do Elvis Costello – A Good Year For The Roses.’ To be honest, I thought that a sad country number, sung with as much sensitivity as I could muster, might help my chances with Bernadette.
He didn’t look up. ‘Not dead yet,’ he said.
‘I should hope not.’
He gave me a quick glance then looked down again. ‘Elvis Costello – he’s not dead.’
‘Elvis Presley then.’
‘No, I’m Elvis,’ he said.
‘Yeah, but I could do Elvis in his prime. Jailhouse Rock.’
He finished pouring the drink. From the way he looked up at me I knew he’d registered the insult.
‘No, I’m Elvis,’ he repeated.
‘Hang on – you let that longhaired fella do Don McLean. He’s not dead either.’
‘That’s different. He’s on every week.’
‘All right, I’ll do Johnny Cash.’ He’d been another of my dad’s favourites. ‘Big River – you know:
The tears that I cried for that woman are going to flood you big river
And I’m going to sit right here until I die.’
I half-spoke, half-sang the words, then added, ‘Come on mate, you must be able to squeeze me in somehow.’
‘Sorry,’ he said (not that he sounded it). ‘It doesn’t work like that. Maybe next time.’ Then he picked up the pint he’d just pulled and walked away.
I went back to Bernadette, who said it was nearly closing time anyway. ‘What about next week?’ she asked. She glanced over to Marie, who was talking to Buddy Holly. ‘We’re always here. Is it a date?’ I didn’t want to spoil things by hanging around for too long, so I just said, ‘Definitely’, gave her a peck on the cheek and said my goodbyes to her and Marie.
When I got to my car I remembered I didn’t know where I was, but I stuck Otis Redding on the CD player and after a few wrong turns soon found myself back on the main road. I drove home, singing all the way.
The next morning at work I spoke to my mate Martin, an expert on all things alcoholic.
‘D’you know a pub called the Black Raven, down by the docks?’
‘Yeah. Closed down years ago.’
‘Well, it’s opened up again. I was there last night. Do you remember Bernadette Coleman, went to our school?’
Martin gave me a knowing look. ‘I’m sure you do.’
‘She was there as well.’
‘Is she back in Liverpool? I thought she lived in London.’
‘I’m seeing her next week – fancy coming?’
‘Won’t I cramp your style?’
‘No – I could do with some moral support. Some of the other people there are a bit…peculiar. You’d like Bernadette’s friend, though – looks like Marilyn Monroe.’ Martin gave a sceptical laugh, but after a bit more information about Marie and the pub (he’s a karaoke nut himself) he agreed to come along.
The following Sunday the weather was great but I felt terrible. Bloody hayfever. I had a few antihistamine tablets to get me through the day. Martin was meant to be picking me up but at seven o’clock he rang to say he couldn’t make it – something about his parents needing a lift somewhere. I was feeling a bit drowsy after the tablets and didn’t fancy driving, but I didn’t have much choice.
Once I was in the car I just put my head down and drove. Then, before I knew it, I was walking into the pub and Bernadette, sitting at the same table as before, was waving to me. Suddenly I was wide awake, looking forward to a great night.
And a great night it was. I recognised most of the people in the pub from the week before, and they all seemed to recognise me. It was as if just by coming back I’d passed some kind of initiation ceremony, and every time I went to the bar people nodded and grinned at me. Johnny said I could sing and even gave me quite a nice introduction:
‘The next young man is making his debut tonight at the Black Raven, but I know this first performance won’t be his last. Appearing as Liverpool’s own Billy Fury, please welcome Liverpool’s own Mick Jackson.’
I sang Halfway To Paradise. It seemed appropriate, as it was a song that had always made me think about me and Bernadette – you know, ‘so near, yet so far away’.
And as for Bernadette, what can I say? She did more of the talking this time, telling me how pleased she was we’d met up again and how now fate had brought us together she was sure we wouldn’t be losing touch again. She sang as well: Etta James’s At Last. I thought she was unbelievable, especially as she kept looking at me as she sang:
At last, my love has come along.
My lonely days are over, and life is like a song.
I’d brought along an old photo, of me with my arm round Bernadette. It was taken the year I left school, at the leavers’ ball. Bernadette was already living in London by then, but she had a few friends in my year and came back for it. It was the last time I saw her before she’d suddenly caught my eye in the pub. I’d got one of my mates to take the photo, and Bernadette didn’t seem to mind, but in truth we hardly spoke more than half a dozen words that night. I was too tongue-tied and Bernadette seemed to spend most of the time catching up with her friends. But I’d kept the photo, often looking at it and thinking about what might have been. Now, incredibly, it seemed that where me and Bernadette were concerned, it wasn’t just a case of ‘might’ anymore.
I hadn’t mentioned the photo to her, but when she went to the Ladies after her song I went outside to get it from the car. I’d forgotten where I’d parked, though that was nothing new. The car park was empty, which seemed a bit odd considering the pub was still full. Then I remembered that the week before I’d parked down the side of the pub, so I went round there to look.
When I opened the door of the pub a minute or two later it was like flicking a switch. Every conversation seemed to stop simultaneously and as I walked in every head was turned in my direction.
‘Someone’s nicked my car,’ I said, to nobody in particular.
Johnny, who was standing behind the bar, looked over to Bernadette. ‘I thought you were going to tell him.’
‘He went outside before I had the chance,’ she said. She walked over to me. ‘Mick, come and have another drink.’
‘I’m driving,’ I said. ‘Or would be if I knew where my car was. Do you know something about it?’
We were sitting down now. ‘Mick,’ Bernadette said, ‘What have you always wanted to do?’
‘How d’you mean?’
‘You go round servicing vending machines, but if you could be anything you wanted, what would it be?’
I remembered how I’d felt on stage, half an hour before. ‘A singer I suppose, but I know I’m not good enough.’
‘Is that when you’re happiest?’ She was right. When I was on a stage, singing, I was – well, happy. I nodded.
‘And who do you want to be with?’
I looked at her. ‘You know the answer to that.’
She smiled, then shifted in her seat so she was looking straight at me. ‘Mick, you crashed your car three hours ago.’ As I returned her stare, she added, ‘It was your time.’
So that’s my story. You’ll have to tell me yours later. That’s Johnny over there, going behind the bar. Bernadette and Marie should be along soon – I’ll introduce you. Any idea who you’re going to be? You’ve both got to be dead of course, not just you. Other than that you can be more or less anyone you want. No one’s done Robin Gibb yet, if you feel like having a go. Fancy a drink first?