by Dave Cornford
We’d always wanted to buy our own house, and we’d finally pulled it off. Even if it was smaller than the place we were renting, it would soon be ours. The signed paperwork as secure in a folder in the back of the car – there was no turning back. I tried not to think too much about the family who were selling their house, about the fact that our new dream home had been their own nightmare.
I’d seen them once as they were leaving the place when we came back for our second inspection. They looked broken and tired as they climbed into their equally broken and tired car. The selling agent was very guarded about what was going on with them, not wanting to put blood in the water while bargain hunting sharks like us circled around. I guessed that one of them had lost their job, and had been holding out to get another one – but they’d held on through the market crash, and now couldn’t sell for what they’d paid for it seven years ago. Poor bastards.
Apart from the bank owning our souls, and us not having any spare cash for the next who knows how many years, there was one major downside to our first venture into property ownership, and it only applied to one person in the family: me. It was me who’d have to commute to the city everyday on the damn train. Every day, with no escape from nearly an hour of just sitting there. And that was if the trains ran on time. The traffic was horrendous on the south-side of the city as well, so driving to work wasn’t an option, just a guarantee of spending an hour on the parking lot laughingly called a freeway.
I tried to stay positive, and let the excitement of the new house be the thing that occupied my mind. I knew it was time I could spend reading or doing work. It all seemed fine as we were playing in the park after making an offer on the new place, all wide-eyed with excitement.
It was a little sneaky, but I slipped “Dad’s new headphones” into the “Moving House” budget so there would be no arguments. Given that I’d lost the last set weeks ago, it was as essential as the other things on the “Essentials” list: replacing the hideous light fittings in the lounge room, and repainting our bedroom so it didn’t look like a modernised scene from Little House on the Prairie.
Miraculously, the move went without a hitch. We hired a truck, and friends all helped out. We even had phone and internet operating by the end of the second day. I begged a few days off work, so we hit the unpacking hard. By the end of the week, you could walk in and know that it was our place.
First day back at work I went shopping at lunch time. I tested out every type of headphone I could find. I settled on a discreet set of bluetooth headphones, so I wouldn’t be attached to my iPod. I clutched my backpack and its precious cargo all the way home as I suffered through my last silent trip home.
That Monday morning was the start of the new commuting routine. Get on the seven o’clock train, find a seat on the west side away from the sun, position the headphones just so and let them pair with the iPod, select an album, press play, shove the iPod into my bag – and drift into a world that was as far away as possible from the train and the job at a bank that awaited me at the end of the trip.
It may have been a bit predictable, but I decided that the only choice for the first album of the new routine had to be Dark Side of the Moon. The last track faded away a few minutes before the train trip ended, but I just sat there in my own silence, in total awe of what I’d just listened to – as fresh and arresting as when I’d first heard it – leaping
off vinyl at a party I can’t remember much about.
It was a jolt when I realised the train had just reached my stop. I drifted off to work, renewed and refreshed, and nothing could prevent me arriving at work with a relaxed smile rather than the harried frown of the commuter. There are no bogans pushing and shoving their way to work on the dark side of the moon.
This new routine, morning and afternoon, went brilliantly for eight weeks.
* * *
I can remember the day my commuting life fell apart very clearly. I was listening to 16 Lovers Lane by The GoBetweens. Because it’s a shortish album at thirty-seven minutes, I had reached the end and gone back to the top, and even then decided to leave the headphones on and listen to the last few songs of the repeat play while walking to the office. I was walking up the stairs from the station when the You Can’t Say No Forever fell silent.
Flat battery, I thought – but headphones still had little blue light on the side. I reached into the little side pocket in my backpack where I always stored the iPod, and it was empty.
There was no panic, no rummaging in the rest of the bag – just stunned stillness. I stood on the steps, as the tide of people pushed past me, and I knew straight away what had happened. The iPod was on the seat, next to the window, where I’d absent-mindedly put it after pressing repeat to go back to the start of the album.
Somehow I got some work done that day, but I don’t know how. The trip home was murder, sitting silently in the carriage with the ritualistic headphones on, but no music coming out. I chucked a sicky the next day, but had to brave the train the day after. I arrived at work stressed and disoriented, and it showed.
After a few days it dawned on me that it was likely that someone had picked up the iPod, and I went to lost property at the train station. No luck, although there were plenty of other iPods there. I put up some LOST posters at the local station, but only one
of the mobile phone number tear-offs was ever taken, and the less said about what that caller wanted, the better.
What if someone had picked it up and decided to keep it? What if they were regulars on the train? The next morning I sat in the middle of my regular carriage, got the headphones out, and waited. Sure enough, after a while they paired with my iPod. It was in the carriage. I played it cool, not looking around. They were listening to Powderfinger Odyssey Number 5, but when My Happiness followed These Days, I knew they had it on shuffle. Ew. They skipped to the end of a track every now and
then. I tried to spot who in the carriage was screen-tapping in sync with the changes – but it was hard to pick as most people were messing around with a phone or a Blackberry.
Then I tried to see if I could see someone gently moving their head in time with the music – but no luck. If only the train was as smooth as they made out in the public transport promotional adverts.
At my stop, I got out of the train, and had the same drop-out from the headphones about 1/3 of the way up the stairs as the train pulled out of the station. So I knew that the thief got off the train at the station after me.
Days of sleuthing yielded nothing. I sat in the front and the back of the carriage, on the left and the right, trying to work out where the signal was stronger. No luck. Without staring I tried to remember every face of the regular commuters, but I could never work out who was missing on the days the iPod didn’t connect to the headphones. I kept a diary of when the iPod wasn’t there to connect with, but there was no pattern in those
My iPod had a scratch across the screen, which was a little distinctive, but there was no way of inspecting all the iPods in the carriage with any degree of discretion. I took to pretending to get off the train one stop early so I could walk slowly past everyone and look for the distinctive scratch, but no luck.
I made the mistake of telling my family about my loss over dinner one night. The children had been talking about their new schools, and how they were settling
in, and I just blurted it out. At first they were sympathetic, but when I described my covert techniques for attempting to catch the person now in possession of the lost iPod, they couldn’t stop laughing.
Meanwhile, The Thief, as I referred to them, worked through my music collection. It was kind of like visiting a house I used to live in. Things were familiar, but it didn’t feel like home – shuffle play, albums played that didn’t suit the day or the time of day, skipping
tracks I liked, and repeating ones I didn’t like so much. I got to know what they liked and didn’t. Some days were shuffle play through the whole collection, which I loathed, but it did sometimes yield some interesting playlists.
This routine did not deliver me to work in a relaxed state of mind. At all. But on the other hand, I had been intrigued and sometimes horrified, so I was in a heightened state of mental awareness, and this wasn’t a bad thing.
Then one day, the betrayal became complete. They’d tired of my collection, and worked out how to put some new music onto the device. I was cringing through a shuffle play of Cold Play’s X&Y, when all of a sudden there was Neil Diamond singing Sweet Caroline. Just as I started glancing around the carriage for an older culprit, the thief skipped to the next track, which was Tik ToK by Ke$ha.
I ripped the headphones off. I felt violated.
It took me a few days to have another go. I put the headphones on tentatively, turned them on, and waited for the two devices to find each other. There was a beep, and the music started – here’s the list of songs from that morning
So Lonely – Police
Are you going to be my girl? – Jet
Boys Don’t Cry – The Cure of course
Kiss – Prince
Fishes – Cat Empire
Are you ready to be heartbroken? – Lloyd Cole
Give in to my Love – Paul Kelly
Let’s go to Bed – Cure again
The train was cruising through the badlands of the southern suburbs when it dawned on me – not only were all these songs mine, but it seemed like a coded message. Was The Thief flirting with me? It was time to end this stupid game. I calmly took the headphones off, turned them off for the last time, and packed them away along with my failed private detective ambitions. I sat perfectly still until the train reached my stop, and headed up the stairs without haste or any other sign of my despair.
At lunchtime, I went back to the station and claimed one of the orphan iPods from the Lost Property Office, making sure it was a large capacity model like my last one, and that it had headphones attached. The clerk at Lost Property was giving me a look as I signed the declaration stating that this was indeed my lost article. I just smiled, eager to find out what music awaited me on my new travelling companion.
As I turned to leave, someone else came in through the door. I held it open for him, and saw he was carrying an iPod. My eyes fixed on it. There were no headphones, and
it was in a familiar looking scruffy black case, and I could just see its distinctive scratch on the screen. I closed the door, and stayed in the room, pretending to read a faded poster about what to do if you see unattended luggage on a platform.
“I found this iPod, thought I’d better hand it in.”
“Eventually,” I thought.
I heard the clerk take out a pad of forms and slap it on the counter.
“Let’s see. iPod music player. Where did you find it?”
“Southern Line. On the train.”
“When?” The Thief paused. “Last week sometime. Maybe Wednesday?”
“Liar,” I said to myself.
The clerk wrote on the form. I kept reading the poster.
“Thanks. Now, if you could fill in your details here, just in case we need to contact you . . .”
“I’ve handed it in, that’s all you need. See ya.”
So, The Thief was feisty as well as brazen. Something to be admired.
I timed my exit so we met at the door. Our eyes met briefly. After all that time I spent observing my fellow travellers, I couldn’t recall his face. I had hoped it would come to me in a flash. “Oh, he sits at the back near the young woman with the piercings.” But there was nothing.
I held the door open for him, and he nodded politely as he left. I watched him as he walked away. Reasonably well dressed, close to my age and build. Average. I slumped onto a bench seat that just happened to be placed in the corridor outside the Lost Property Office.
What next? The iPod I knew and loved was sitting in a plastic crate on the other side of that door, and I had no idea what music was on the iPod that was in my pocket. I certainly couldn’t go back inside and claim another one.
There was no option but to go back to work, and start the adventure again. There was every reason to feel optimistic. It had started out so well the last time I got a free iPod from Lost Property.
Lost is one of the eleven stories in Cracks in the Ceiling – Tales of Turbulent Times. It’s available for kindle and kindle apps for iPad, iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Mac and PC at amazon and amazon uk