‘Oh, just a birthday present for myself, I suppose,’ said Tom. ‘I know I said I didn’t like MP3s, but I’ve come round to the idea that it’s a good gadget. I really like the design anyway.’
Martin passed it back to him. ‘So what have you got on it?’ he asked.
‘Not much,’ said Tom, ‘a few albums. I haven’t had a chance to do much with it. It holds up to thirty thousand songs or something anyway. I doubt I’ve got that many in my collection.’
‘You’d be surprised,’ said Martin, ‘it all adds up. I bet you’ve got more.’
‘Maybe. Be nice to get to listen to them once in a while. Anyway, I’ve got to get on, so I’ll speak to you later, yeah?’ Tom slipped the pebble, orange and illuminated by a mauve LED screen, back into his trouser pocket and strolled over to his desk. He picked up the first piece of paper from the tray and scanned it, pretending to pick out the salient points, but all the while thinking about the pebble.
Tom was looking forward to playing with the pebble - if play was the word, as it had already become more than the toy he had convinced himself it was when he bought it. The pebble was the key to clawing back whole chunks of his past: the memories of events and feelings embedded in the digital codes of the rows and rows of CDs that lined his workroom back home. More than that, it would finally justify the thousands of pounds he had spent on albums he had barely listened to over the years, especially since the children were born. But now that the kids were finally on the verge of adolescent sulkiness, and no longer demanded his attention with any enthusiasm, Tom was determined to claim at least a portion of those hours of deferred leisure.
If only music would sound the way it did when he was young, he thought. There was always time for it then. Through his teenage years, even during the long hours of study and partying at university, there was no album purchased that was not played over and over; artwork studied, lyrics scrutinised, song credits memorised. To listen was to enter enchanted space, with its own rituals of devotion. And he was rewarded for his faith with a taste of bliss, a glimpse of the eternal. But from the first day of full-time employment, gradually, hardly even noticeably, the door began to close. After he met Fiona, and that brief period when t the first flush of true love brightened the music to its previous lustre, domestic duty and routine pushed the door that much more. The children: Lucy, then William. Then the house had been filled with the seemingly eternal sound of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends. By the time he had a moment to even think about it, the door was nearly closed.
Try as he might, Tom could never push it back out again. He still followed the music press, although he switched from the inky weeklies in favour of shiny monthlies with free CDs. Yet more CDs not to listen to, on top of all the new purchases his income allowed him to make quite regularly. New releases; digitally re-mastered reissues; old favourites from his vinyl years replaced. No CD singles. He bought them by the bagful, nearly without fail, every time he went into town. The internet allowed them to turn up on his front door any day of the week. Up they piled, until they were finally filed away in his increasingly elaborate system of storage that required all his skills in carpentry and librarianship to maintain. Alphabetical by artist, along with a separate appendix for compilations, and an oversized section for box sets, the collection began to resemble a study resource for any student of the history of popular music. It impressed all who saw it.
By the time Tom had reached his thirties, he was spending more time maintaining the collection than actually listening to it. A new purchase might get one play at most; many would not be heard right through to the end. The odd thing that would have the privilege of being played in the car on the way to work, or if especially lucky, taken on a family holiday, where it would fight for listening space with children’s story tapes and then, in the last year or two, their McFly and Kylie CDs. But also, for the past five or six years now, there was the odd, unfortunate CD, usually of a ‘difficult’ nature - jazz fusion, minimalist composition, or critically re-evaluated ‘prog’ opus - that would get not one listen before taking its place in the great system of shelves and brackets on the workroom wall. His failure to absorb the more extreme music that he agreed with on principle, if not yet in fact, was one of the great regrets of Tom’s life.
The pebble will change everything, I promise, said Tom to his inner, younger self, as he thumbed through the paper on his desk. The pebble would set him, and the music, free. Free from the lost hours of working late to finish a project; free from children’s bedtimes and parents’ evenings at the school; free from the regular TV programmes watched by the whole family; from the visits of friends, now nearly all paired off with a family in tow; free from anniversary dinners; from squash; from the mid-evening car rides to pick up a child from karate or dance class. Not that he resented these things. Other than the parents’ evenings, he would not have it any other way. But there had to be space for music. And thanks to a slight change in his daily routine, and of course, to the pebble, now there would be.
Tom would no longer be driving to and from work. He had previously combined the morning journey with the school run, but this was no longer necessary, as the kids did not want to be seen being dropped off by their dad at the school gates anymore. Now they wanted to walk. Tom was all in favour of this, even before the thought of the pebble first entered his head. They were old enough, and it was time they were given a little more independence. They could meet up with friends on the way, and more importantly, they would actually be walking. William was chubby already, and despite the dance class, Lucy was not as slender as a girl her age would probably need to be in order to survive the impending horror of secondary school undamaged.
If the kids were to walk, so should he. Not because of his health - his competitive squash sessions with Martin kept him lean enough - but because he was having more and more trouble living with his conscience now the polar ice caps could be seen to be melting. Tom’s interest in the environment had been first roused while at university in the first outbreak of global warming anxiety, and though he had passed his test age eighteen, he would only buy a car, reluctantly, at age twenty-three. Even then he told himself and others that he would only use it sparingly. But as the family grew, sparingly became regularly, and regularly became a lot. He knew it was wrong, but life was too busy and too complex for him to ever commit to cutting down. But now, with a lot of haranguing from the younger him, and a little prodding from the pebble, he was doing just that. He could walk to work, so he would walk to work. Thirty-five minutes each way on foot. One hour ten minutes of walking every day. One hour ten minutes alone with the pebble. One hour, ten minutes of music.
That weekend he inserted the pebble into the USB port of his computer and transferred onto it a week’s worth of listening. Tom respected the integrity of the album. He liked the dynamics, and the idea that some thought had gone into the structure. Build-up and release, ebb and flow. Even when an album was not a real album, such as a ‘Best Of’, or a ‘Greatest Hits’, he would treat it as if it were one. He hated to skip tracks, and only did so on rare occasions, such as when confronted by a comedy number, or a song written by a drummer. A walk to or from work would get him most of the way through one old-style forty minute LP. He could listen to the last few minutes at lunch, in the few minutes of the traditional fag break that many of his colleagues enjoyed, before the obligation to discuss projects and targets in the canteen over piping hot food on trays had to be met. A seventy-five minute compilation would last him the whole day, with a few minutes to spare for his lunchtime treat.
Tom had picked a selection of old favourites and lesser listened-to items, and on those walks to and from work, and especially the stolen five minutes at lunchtime, he had felt not only the thrill of discovery, but also the sweet breeze of lost moments from his adolescence and student days, some touched with sadness, but all of them happy in a way. The door was beginning to open again, he knew, and although he doubted it would ever be as wide as it once was - that was an impossible dream, like the hair on his bald spot magically growing back - he felt content. More so than he had been since that moment after he turned thirty those six years ago, when the children had ceased to be bundles of delirious wonder, and had just become ‘the kids’.
Tom’s faithfulness to the album format was observed up until the Friday of that first week. It ceased abruptly twenty-two minutes into the walk back home. The CD he had programmed for that day was only fifty-five minutes long, and his lunchtime treat had lasted twice as long as he had initially scheduled. Now, on the walk back, with the end of the final track of that album, the pebble moved on, with barely a second’s gap, to the first track he had listened to on Monday. Tom went to stop it, pondering what to do with the thirteen spare minutes. He switched the control of the pebble to ‘off’. But as he did so, he saw that strange setting that was neither ‘play’ nor silence, but marked SHUFFLE. In an act beyond thought, the product of pure desire, his thumb slid the control. First track. ‘Looking For the Next Best Thing’ by Warren Zevon. Followed by ‘Help Me Lift You Up’ by Mary Margaret O’Hara. Duke Ellington. Stepping through the front door, ‘Date With the Night’ by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. As he reluctantly slid the control back to ‘off’, Tom knew that, unexpectedly, feeling both guilty and elated, and knowing that he had betrayed everything he previously held dear, he had been converted to a whole new order. An order of no order. He had been seduced by random.
Over the weekend, he found himself surreptitiously sneaking off to his workroom at any opportunity to feed more albums into the pebble. He tried to make it as diverse as possible; whatever he had just put in, he would think of its polar opposite and stick it into the mix as well. Neither Fiona nor the kids got a share of his time that weekend, and he nearly cancelled a squash game with Martin, but if he was being neglectful, he could always disguise it with some paperwork that needed doing before Monday. He hated the deceit, but he was preparing for the future.
Over the next week and a half Tom thrilled to hear such miracles of chance as Sixties rock classics giving way to gospel, itself leading into post-punk, and then on to an old field recording of a sharecropper, and back to the Sixties - some girl-group this time - swallowed by a Steve Reich piece that would build and build and build until Prince would appear at the top of it all, singing ‘Alphabet Street’. It was like being in a musical pinball machine, being fired and flicked and bounced from track to track. A feeling of vertigo mingled with the exhilaration of it all, yet he could not get enough of the giddiness, disappearing for longer and longer at lunchtimes to linger in the corners of the office car park, pretending to be doing something with his phone.
Yet on the Tuesday of his second week in the random world, as Dinosaur Jr. faded and REM began, Tom found himself suddenly bored. Not just because REM was not working for him right then, but because in that moment, the whole spirit of chance had just lost its appeal, as quickly as it had emerged. If any track could be next, he found himself thinking, as reason began to gain back the ground previously lost to wild desire, then he may as well flick through until he happened upon something he particularly wanted to listen to at that moment, rather than suffering through music that he had decided he did not like or simply was not in the mood for. Or better yet, listen to something that someone had put some care into ordering and selecting. The time for foolishness was over. He would go back to the old way of listening to music, he concluded, as if none of this had ever happened, and went to adjust the control back to the continuous ‘play’ option.
As he did so, the pebble seemed to (although it could not have really) fly from his hand with some velocity: too much just to be a case of butterfingers (although it must have been) and, using his headphones that were still resting comfortably in his ears as anchors, fling itself into the nearest brick wall with an awful ‘crack’.
‘Shit! Fucking, fucking hell!’ Tom shouted, as loud as a suburban neighbourhood would allow, as he picked up the pebble dangling in thin air from both his ears, to check for the damage he just knew would be there.
It was. The LED screen was shattered and dull. The pebble was still set to ‘play’, but no sound was coming out. Tom checked the volume. It was still at a decent level and he pushed it up and up, but nothing could be heard. Defeated, and knowing that the warranty would not cover it, he turned it off.
Yet as soon as he did so, he had a thought. Maybe, just maybe, not that it would be much good but… Tom pushed the control up to SHUFFLE. There was sound. Some relief, he supposed, of a bittersweet kind. The Velvet Underground playing ‘Ride Into the Sun’. He did not recognise this particular version. But there was definitely more than one, he was certain. No doubt some bonus track on a reissue he had never got to the end of. But even though he was seething mad at his own clumsiness, and he could swear he had not caused the pebble to fly out of his hands like that (although he must have) he found this track interesting. The backing vocals did not sound that much like the Velvet Underground at all: very unusual for them, in fact. They sounded more like… the Stylistics. Tom was sure there never had been a Velvet Underground-Stylistics collaboration, but that is what it sounded like. And it was by far the best version of this song he had heard.
On the rest of his walk to work, Tom was treated to a previously unheard take of ‘Wild Horses’ by the Rolling Stones, slower and with a sumptuous Nelson Riddle-style string arrangement, followed by the Pixies playing ‘Bone Machine’ in what sounded suspiciously like a Southern Baptist Church, and an ambient version of ‘Mystery Train’ so extraordinary that he was considering sharing it with Martin when he reached the office. Only the shame of the cracked LED screen prevented him.
There must be a lot of alternative versions of tracks at the end of CDs he’d never got around to hearing, he told himself as he sat down to work, but the excitement and disorientation he felt throughout that morning while waiting for lunchtime gave away what he could not admit to himself, or anyone else. Something special was happening. Something strange and scary and magical. And thanks to his MP3 player, it was happening to him.
Tom disappeared entirely at lunchtime. His absence in the canteen was noted as he sat in the park under a tree, eating nothing, but feasting on the sounds from the pebble. There, and at any stolen moment he could find after, he heard things he had never even imagined. Bob Dylan in Sixty-Six produced by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. A psychedelic Beatles song better than anything on Revolver, with a middle-eight reminiscent of Portishead. Sandinista! era tracks from the Clash, but with the lyrical wit of Randy Newman. None of it made sense; none of it could have possibly existed; but he was hearing it, and it was sounding better than anything had sounded before. The door was wide, wide open. Tom felt young again.
By Friday evening, he had lost the ability to integrate the pebble into his normal life. He had been slipping out of the office several times a day for quick hits, and the pile in his in-tray was not going down as fast as it once did.
‘You on hunger strike or something?’ Martin had said to him when he came back from lunch.
‘No, no,’ said Tom, ‘I’ve just had a lot of errands to run these past few days.’
‘Sure,’ said Martin. ‘Listen, are you OK? If you don’t mind me saying so, you seem a bit, I don’t know, distracted.’
‘Oh, I’m fine,’ said Tom. ‘Absolutely fine.’
‘Well,’ said Martin, lowering his voice as he leaned in, ‘don’t tell anyone I told you, but some people upstairs are maybe not as happy as they should be with the speed you’re, ah, doing some things.’
‘Really?’ said Tom.
‘Yeah, ’fraid so.’
‘Oh, well,’ said Tom.
‘OK, Tom,’ said Martin, ‘you can act like you don’t care if you want, just don’t say I didn’t warn you.’
As soon as Tom got through his front door that evening, he went straight upstairs to his workroom, still listening, and began uploading a whole batch of CDs to his hard-drive in preparation for more feeding of the pebble. They were the more obscure areas of his collection: all the more specialised styles he had never quite got round to absorbing or even listening to. The prog rock. The jazz fusion. It was silly, he knew, but he was curious to see how it would merge with the more mainstream stuff. He had no doubt that because of the magic of the pebble, it would be wonderful, and potentially bad music would be made into good. It was an idea that he had been toying with all day. Maybe now his sense of failure to deal with these things would be finally alleviated. At the very least it would finally justify their purchase.
Despite Lucy being sent to fetch him, he did not come down for the evening meal. A while later Fiona came into the workroom.
‘Tom,’ she said gently, rubbing his shoulders, ‘you haven’t eaten. What’s wrong?’
‘Nothing’s wrong,’ said Tom, not turning round. ‘Nothing at all. In fact, I want you to hear something.’
He had just finished adding the new tracks to the pebble. He put the headphones in, just to get a little taste of the marvel he was about to share before he did so, and pressed SHUFFLE. Fiona did not know nearly as much about music as he did, but even she would understand that she was hearing something very special, he was sure.
Except it was not special. It was horrible. The most bloated, pretentious self-indulgent noise he had ever heard. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, jamming with the Pat Metheny Group and Steve Vai simultaneously. That’s what it sounded like to him. He sat there, stunned.
‘What was it you wanted me to hear, love?’
‘Nothing,’ he said, quietly, ‘nothing at all.’
Fiona asked him what was really the matter, but he ignored her. Eventually his bad mood began to make the room unbearable, and so she left, saying: ‘Just come down when you’re ready.’
Every track was the same. Prog rock or jazz fusion on everything. The Beatles gone prog. The Human League gone jazz fusion. Fats Waller gone jazz fusion and prog. It was the whole history of popular music awfully desecrated.
Frantically, Tom tried to salvage the situation, and deleted every single track that might be deemed as being even remotely jazz fusion or prog rock from his playlist and plugging the pebble back in. But it was no good. Everything was still as terrible as ever. Once the other tracks had learned to noodle and twiddle it seemed, there was no stopping them.
Tom collapsed on his computer desk and cried. At some point, he fell asleep. When he awoke there was a blanket round his shoulders and his shoes were off. The headphones were by his side, with the pebble. It was nearly midnight.
He reached for the pebble. He did not want to, and he knew that the situation would not be fixed, but he had to check. Tom did not hear jazz fusion, or prog, when he put his headphones in. Instead, there was only an awkward strumming of strings; a half-hearted parp of a trumpet; a slight clatter of a drum kit. Someone coughed. He skipped through the tracks. They were all the same. The sound of musicians in a room, not knowing quite what to do, almost embarrassed to even be trying.
Tom skipped another track. It sounded like footsteps, lots of them. A whole, vast hall of feet moving steadily in one direction. The slight murmur of perfunctory conversation. The sound of walking, almost unbearably loud at first, gradually decreased. And then, there were just three, two, one set of feet. The last pair of feet stopped. A door closed quietly. And then there was silence.