Three months after the breakup, Toby Virtue came across the record player in the electronics shelf of the Second Time Around shop for “pre-loved and sustainably obsolete artefacts”. He was getting back into vinyl, and his experiments with the beautiful variance of different players led him to sink every spare dollar into collecting as many old turntables as he could find.
“It’s fancy, isn’t it?” said the young man with the rolled-up sleeves and serious reading glasses behind the counter. “A 1975 Magnavox Stereo Phone portable.”
“It looks like a sewing machine,” said Toby, laughing for the first time in forever. “I’ll take it.”
He didn’t even have to think about the first thing to play on it when he got it home. He unsleeved his copy of Benchley Hicks’ Unbreathable Ashes – the one Ben had bought for him after the Wisdom Street gig in 2003 – and dropped the fresh new needle onto track 8, ‘Made of Reappearances’.
The very second the bass line kicked in, he was transported back to that night in the converted police station: the stifling late summer heat, the cigarette haze dimming the light from only a handful of unblown bulbs, the bodies pushing against the stage and each other while bandmates Hicks, Bellamy and Shimizu prowled and roared like lions above them.
An elbow caught him in the ribs. His arm was wet where beer sloshed from a nearby dancer’s glass. His throat was dry from dust and cheering.
Panic and wonder fought for the right to seize control of him. This wasn’t just a vivid memory.
“I’m really here,” he shouted, inadvertently coinciding with the three-beat lull just before the song’s bridge.
“Yeah, it’s great isn’t it?” shouted a voice in return. Toby stared wild-eyed at a much younger Ben; fit, lean, wearing the blonde surfer locks he’d brought with him from the coast. He couldn’t tear his eyes from Ben’s wild, fearless dancing, his ecstasy-fuelled grin, his arms around anyone and everyone who wanted to share the love. Toby’s body remembered the feeling of those arms around it. He took a step forward, blinking away tears.
He was back in his too-tidy flat, the winter chill pushing through a gap somewhere as the needle crackled its way to Track 9. Toby lifted it off the vinyl and sat looking at the Magnavox for a long time.
He chose another album. “Let’s see what you can do with ‘Just in Case We Don’t’ by the Telltale Signs,” he told the Magnavox, as he positioned the arm. He swallowed hard, wondering too late if he should have poured himself a drink.
He was in the lounge of their old share house, the one on Terrabulla Drive with the leaking roof and the crack that ran the front length of the building. Ben was shivering in his arms; the phone in Ben’s hand was beeping a disconnected signal; tears of rainwater were bubbling out of the crack and tracking down the wall behind their heads. Ben was sobbing unintelligibly, but Toby both remembered and knew in the moment that the caller was Ben’s mother, telling him that his sister Beth’s fight with cancer was over. Toby wished he could stay there, holding Ben, but the CD player turned down for the phone call had almost reached the end of ‘Just in Case We Don’t’ and –
Toby went back to Second Time Around. The same attendant was on duty, cleaning ornamental Japanese sake mugs with a toothbrush. “Where did you get that Magnavox I bought yesterday?”
The attendant pushed back his glasses. “Everything comes from charity bins or the rubbish tip. We clean it, test the electricals, that’s it. We don’t keep records, sorry. My name’s Lucas, by the way.”
They shook hands and Toby went home troubled.
He made a table out of the boxes Ben had still not returned to collect, and set the Magnavox on it. He thought of songs, of associations, of memories pleasant and otherwise. He turned Ophelia Vernon’s 2016 album Pick Someone Else over and over between his fingers, unable to decide on a song until he dropped it on the platter and slid the needle to the final track. ‘Is This About You?’ was the dramatic Side One closer. One of Toby’s favourite things about the album was how it pandered to neo-vinyl enthusiasts like him with its pre-digital song order.
The rolling piano decrescendo began. Toby slammed the car door on the radio playing the week’s Top Ten hits. He shielded his eyes as sleeting rain hammered the roof, drowning out the song and the sound of his cries. “Ben! Ben!”
Ben stood on the far side of the safety rail. His shirt was gone. The rest of him was soaked to the skin. His grip on the wet railings looked tenuous and it was a long way down the face of the escarpment to the rocky gorge below.
Toby walked one step at a time, speaking just above the volume of the rain, just loud enough to push at whatever dark voices Ben was listening to. Neither of them could hear the song but it played in Toby’s mind. He continued talking, and the song ended before the memory did.
Back in his own time, he remembered his soft words coaxed Ben away from the ledge and into an argument, one that never really ended. For Toby it started with that song, and now, at last, he could feel it end the same way. He lifted the needle, played the song again, and stayed right where he was.
The next day, he brought the Magnavox back to the Second Time Around shop. “I’m donating this back, okay?”
Lucas smiled as he took the case and set it back on the same display shelf. “Not what you needed?”
Toby shrugged. “Just the opposite,” he said. “Can I buy you a drink after work to say thanks?”