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I’ve never kept a journal but I have to get these thoughts down. I can’t talk about this with anyone, not even Maggie. Especially not Maggie. If she listened to the old CDs now, watched the footage of musicians playing, she would hear what everyone else hears, what I hear: a piercing scramble of noise, unintelligible. Unlistenable.
One morning, the world woke up and music was gone, we just couldn’t understand it anymore. I remember turning on the radio and hearing the DJ, one of those brash types who boom their voices across the airwaves. But he sounded confused, vulnerable. He kept trying to play songs but the unbearable noise made him hit the pause button within a few seconds of each track. After a while his voice began to shake and you could hear someone leading him gently out of the studio. All the stations stopped trying to play anything; now it’s all talk, talk, talk when you scroll through the channels.
All the recorded material, the memories of people going to concerts, the books and films about music: they have all become nonsense, absurd. It’s like discovering that Dickens or Shakespeare had just made random marks on paper, a mass of indecipherable jibberish.
Anyway, there it is. I must record things because I’m not handling this very well, not like others who seem to have accepted it without question.
This evening we were watching TV. Maggie said this new drama sounded good so we switched it on. I couldn’t concentrate. My eyes kept wandering to my guitar sitting on its stand in the corner: it’s the phantom limb I want to scratch but can’t.
Overnight, it turned into a hunk of wood with strings attached. Maggie called it an oversized egg slicer, in the days when she was lighthearted about the whole thing. Now she keeps asking when I’m getting rid of it.
A big cock-up at work. I got the Belgian spreadsheets in the wrong order for Morgan’s presentation. He looked like a fool, apparently. Half of me is happy when I hear this; the other half wonders what fresh hell he’s going to dump on my desk. I can’t concentrate anymore. I used to play music in the background while I worked; it acted like air conditioning for my brain. Now, in the silence or with the incessant talk from the radio, my mind just overheats and I can’t tell one spreadsheet from another.
Morgan calls me into his office. It’s not pleasant.
I go to see Lawrence of Arabia to cheer myself up. They’ve cleaned the soundtrack now, like they have with all the old films. Whole swathes of sweeping desert scenes with no music at all, like you’re climbing inside Lawrence’s head. An empty head. I used to love that film. Now it’s like watching your neighbour’s home movie of his holiday.
Another day, another dollar. Waiting at the train station in the morning, I stare across the tracks. A long line of grass is swaying on the verge at the other side. Swaying, swaying. I can almost hear something in its rhythm.
At work, Morgan is having his office repainted. (He’s busy then.) He wants me to tell him which colour to choose. I walk into his room and see five daubs of paint in a row on the wall.
Something strange happens. When I run my eyes across the colours, I hear something, like a series of signals meshed together. It mixes up my insides. I do it again: such a strange mass of noise.
“Well?” says Morgan.
“You hear it, too?” I say.
“Hear what? You’ve gone pale. Not that bad, are they? Never been good with colours.”
I feel like I’m going to vomit. “The middle one,” I say, and rush to the toilets.
Poets have never had it so good. After years of being marginalised, they are superstars. We see Marcus Comma at the O2 Arena. I look around the cavernous space: 18,000 people sitting reverently. Something’s missing. Don’t get me wrong, I like poetry, but the type I loved were song lyrics, wrapped up in music, but most of them don’t seem to work anymore, not when you just say the words. They are held up to ridicule now.
A-wop bop-a loo-bop, a-wop bam boom.
Saturday. We go to the refuse tip. I take an old toaster and a kettle to the large skip in the corner of the yard. After lobbing them in, I look at what everyone else has been throwing away. TVs. Fridges. Tables.
Then I see part of a bass drum poking out, the wrinkled snake of an accordion stretched to full length, a battered neck of a guitar rising out of a mass of boxes like Excalibur. I can’t stop looking for them: a whole world of incomprehensible instruments now destined for landfill.
I need to keep hold of my guitar, keep faith. I’m amazed Maggie didn’t force me to take it here this time; I guess she’s still hoping I’ll do it myself.
Maggie emails – she has tickets to a book event this evening, meet me at seven. I’m too busy to ask what it is, so I’m surprised when I find her outside the venue and see the poster: The Devil’s Noise by Karl Jacobsen. Maggie and I have argued about this book for weeks.
“I’m not listening to that charlatan,” I say.
“At least hear him out. For me. Please?”
Jacobsen has a goatee and a ponytail. He looks bohemian but he and his book are anything but. He’s an extremist, he believes that music was a delusion, the work of the Devil. Music was witchcraft, he says. Black magic.
He talks in a loud voice about how music altered people’s moods. Music that lifted you up was taking you to a state of dangerous euphoria, altering your brain chemicals. Music that consoled you, made you cry, was accessing areas of your psyche that took your mood to a far lower level than was safe. Either way, you were weakened and all the more ready to be influenced by dark forces.
It’s just ridiculous. Music wasn’t a delusion, it was real, and it was incredible precisely because it altered your mood, took you to a level of consciousness you couldn’t put into words. That was the whole point of it.
It could express what we couldn’t.
I sit there, seething, wanting the audience to shout this idiot down and tear his theory to shreds. But as he warms to his theme and his face turns crimson, I hear rumbles of agreement around the room. Heads begin to nod. Soon he has most of the room on his side, cheering his every claim. I even think Maggie would join in if I wasn’t there. I don’t dwell on that thought.
I can’t believe he’s dead. John calls me at lunchtime, tells me Chris has gone: a heart attack at 38. I don’t know what to say. When I get home that evening I phone Chris’s wife, but the line is engaged. Shamefully I’m relieved because I have no idea what to say to her. Unable to sit still, I pace the house and then decide to dig out the old tapes of the band. Chris was a great drummer, he set the heartbeat for all of us. I try to listen to the tapes, but of course it’s impossible. What was it all about, meeting in Chris’s garage on cold winter nights, or that grubby rehearsal room in Harlesden?
There’s a photo of us in one of the cassette cases. We look exhausted and happy, standing there with our guitars and drums and equipment, with sweaty faces and our T-shirts clinging to us. How could it have been a delusion?
On the way home from work, I walk over Waterloo Bridge. I can hear a terrible noise carrying in the wind, getting louder and louder. It’s mixed with angry voices shouting. Up ahead, I see the source: a busker is sitting on a stool, playing a cello. The sound is unpleasant, but the look on the busker’s face as he plays it… the concentration. He wants to believe.
A small group of commuters is standing around him, but they’re not smiling and throwing coins. An angry man in shirt sleeves is shouting at him to stop. “You’re spreading evil,” he spits. Clearly people are latching on to Jacobsen’s book.
The cellist is in his fifties, with wild hair and a grey-flecked beard. Even I have to admit that he looks a bit like a wizard or a witch. Haunted. He’s not doing himself any favours. I can’t believe I’m even thinking this.
As I approach, I see the handwritten sign he has placed on the ground:
BACH’S CELLO SUITES.
A small boy, who is walking past with his mother, puts his hands to his ears and starts to cry. This is all Commuter Man needs: he rushes forward and tries to yank the cello out of the busker’s hands. My blood is pumping, I don’t know what to do. No one else is intervening. He manages to drag the busker to the ground, but the cello is being protected by a fierce grip. I look at the busker’s red and white fingers straining to keep hold. It seems like he’s trying to hold on to everything, not just the cello.
I snap and try to wrestle the man off. He knocks me in the face with his elbow, hard, and I fall to the ground. The busker can’t hold on any longer and loses his grip. He watches as the man raises the cello above his head – like a caveman with a boulder – and flings it over the side of the bridge into the Thames. I can’t believe what I’m seeing.
The crowd gasps and everyone rushes to the edge to follow the cello’s journey. Everyone except the busker and me. The man turns back to the busker, looks confused, horrified even. “I’m… sorry,” he says, walking slowly backwards before turning and running away down the bridge.
The busker picks up his sign, brushes it off, grips it as firmly as he did the cello. I don’t know what to say to him. On the tube, I work out what I should have said, saying it over and over in my head.
When I get home, I remember that Maggie is out tonight. I pick up my guitar. My fingers form shapes on the fretboard without me even thinking, shapes that feel natural, feel right.
But when I strum the strings the sound is appalling, repellent. I have to deaden the strings every few seconds, catch my breath, try again. This is not dark magic. It’s not. I’m willing it to make sense.
Eventually I put the guitar down, defeated, and realise I’m crying.
After a few minutes, I hear a noise and look up. Maggie is standing by the living room door.
“It’s got to go,” she says. “Look at you.”
A engineer comes into work to fix the drinks machine. The design on his T-shirt is a sheet of music manuscript paper. Above it are the words “Yesterday (Lennon/McCartney)”.
It’s all just a piece of ironic art on a T-shirt now.
I creep into Morgan’s office again and run my eyes along the paints. The sound makes me less nauseous the more often I do it. It’s starting to make some kind of sense, though I can’t put my finger on why.
At home, I do a Google search on a condition I remember someone talking about once: a medical phenomenon that linked colour with music. When I press Return, I half-expect not to find any references to music at all on the internet, like the virtual equivalent of book burning.
But here it is: synaesthesia. “This is a condition that joins together senses – vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell – that are normally experienced separately. For example, some people with synaesthesia may see colours when they hear music.”
In Morgan’s office, I’m doing the reverse. I’m hearing something when I see colours. Does that mean what I’m hearing is… music?
I daren’t tell Maggie about this.
Chris’s funeral. He always said he’d want our song Lanterns played at his service. I remember writing it with him in the back in a van before a gig.
His mum and brother have already told me I can’t play the song. Even John – who was in the bloody band with us – said it wouldn’t be appropriate. Maggie tells me to calm down.
His brother does a speech. He barely mentions the band and Chris’s love of music. When he does, towards the end, it’s talked of with a touch of embarrassment, as if it was all a daft mistake. I’m desperate to walk out but I don’t want to cause a scene.
One or two people in the chapel are crying, but others just look numb, like they’re pregnant for release, for the flow of hot tears, but they can’t find the trigger. I have the trigger on a CD in my pocket. I hold it tight in my hand.
Drowsy Sunday morning. I lie in bed watching the wind blow the bottom edge of the net curtains into the room and then out again… in… out… in… out. A lulling rhythm. After a while, the rhythm seems to have something else in it, like that grassy verge at the station.
As I follow its pattern, drifting in and out of sleep, I feel a memory: another curtain blowing on another morning. A foreign holiday. Maggie and I lying in bed, limbs in a tangle. Music playing in the square below.
Music… I’m hearing music in the memory… a rhythm, a melody, harmony. As I wake up, the ghost of it lingers. I shake Maggie to tell her.
“I’m going to have a shower,” she says, getting out of bed. I can see she wants to say more but she’s stopping herself.
The news is full of lynchings and sudden acts of violence against anyone attempting to make music. Jacobsen’s gone from crackpot conspiracy theorist to global phenomenon.
I’m worried about my guitar. I wrap it in a bin liner and hide it in the attic, behind the water tank. Maggie would never come up here, with all those spiders in the dark. She’ll know I’ve hidden it, but at least it’s safe and out of sight.
As I push the attic ladder back up, I have a thought: what will happen when the strings rust and break? Do they even sell strings anymore? Of course they don’t. Have they all been melted down? I must look into it. My guitar could die forever.
After lunch, there’s a Post-It on my desk: See Lynn in HR.
I see Lynn. She tells me people have been watching me going into Morgan’s office, staring at the wall and moving my head from side to side. They say I’ve done it many times.
Lynn smiles in that corporate way. She’s writing everything down on letter-headed paper. Not good. I tell her that going into Morgan’s office, getting away from my desk for a minute, helps me to think, gets the little grey cells working. It’s the best I can come up with.
Lynn wants to “have a chat”. I listen. Other people have said things about my work and behaviour. “Your wife is concerned, too,” she says.
“My wife’s been talking to you?”
“We only want to help.”
“I don’t need to take any time off,” I say, heading her off at the pass. She nods sagely and does that corporate smile again.
I get home and a man I’ve never met before is sitting on my sofa. Maggie is standing by the kitchen door.
“I’ve brought someone to see you,” she says. “To have a chat.”
“Not another one.”
“My name’s Stephen,” says the man I’ve never met before. He stands and offers his hand. I decline.
“What are you doing in my house, Stephen?”
“I’m here to help.”
“I’m just –”
I grab his arm without thinking and try to drag him towards the door. He pulls it away, clearly much stronger than I am. I start to wonder if this is going to turn sinister, if his colleagues are about to burst out from behind the television and take me away.
“Are you a doctor?” I ask.
“No, I’m a counsellor.”
“That’s a relief. I’m off to the pub.”
“If you leave,” says Maggie, “I won’t be here when you get back.”
It’s such a line from a movie that I don’t believe it. Three hours later I return; Maggie’s gone.
I have to go away to a conference for a few days. I phone Maggie’s sister to pass on the message that I’m going. I miss her so much. I try to keep it together as I put the phone down, telling myself that a change of scene and Brighton’s fresh sea air will do me the world of good.
When I arrive at the exhibition hall, I’m told I’m not needed on the stand. “What do you mean?” I say. “Who will explain the new software?”
“Don’t worry about the software,” says Lynn. “Just help out in the back office, that’s what Morgan wants you to do.”
They don’t want me talking to customers, that’s what it is, they think I’m turning into some kind of nutter. I walk straight past the back office and go out a side door into the salty air.
Across the road I see sand dunes. When I reach them, the wind blows through my shirt, puffing me out like the Michelin Man. It feels good.
There’s no one around. It’s a perfect, empty, early morning beach. I walk further and then realise I’m not alone. A girl in a tracksuit is watching the long reeds on the dunes, her back to me. She is swaying from side to side, following the rhythm of the reeds. I look at them, too.
She starts to make a noise. I can hear it, scratchy in the wind but not unlistenable. I can make out parts of it, then more and more, like a tangled-up piece of string unravelling itself straight. Finally, it sounds like cut crystal. A clear signal. She’s… singing. It can’t be.
Her voice is music, it’s filling me up. I walk towards her, slowly. It’s all true: it really did exist.
It really happened and it’s happening again. And it’s beautiful.
I call to her and she turns, stops singing. Her face is beaten black and blue. My God. No wonder she came down here where it’s deserted.
She runs. “Wait! Hang on a minute! Please!”
I dash after her, desperate, but after a few steps I fall. I can see her disappearing down the beach, sand jetting up behind her heels. It did exist. It does exist. And I’m not the only one who knows it.
I’ve got to get back and tell Maggie. She’ll understand now. They’ll believe me about all this. They’ll believe me this time.