Plague of Earworms

The two men circle each other, puffing up their chests like urban pigeons. Knuckles crack and whiten under bands of gold as they growl invitations of “come on then.” Everyone in the pub stares into their drinks, gripping their glasses tight. I have my back to the men. I glance over my shoulder with one foot twisted towards the door, ready to move. The barman waves his phone at them, threatening to call the police. They continue their tango of taunts as the larger man seizes the other by the shirt collar, spitting obscenities into his face. The smaller man rolls his tongue in his mouth, struggling to find a response.

The silence is heavy while we wait for the smack of that metal punch. We ready ourselves for the scramble towards the door, but just as the fist pulls back and the smaller man’s expression purples in anticipation, the jukebox snaps on.

I didn’t see who paid the machine and pressed J11, but I know the tune. There isn’t a person alive that doesn’t know that song. It’s been played over two billion times on Youtube with more than seventy million downloads. The new hit the Radio DJs call the “theme tune of the summer”.

The men freeze, distracted by the sudden noise. Their faces unfold into a pair of dopey smiles. Fists uncurl. Rage drains from them as they sing along to the sickly sweet lyrics dribbling out of the speakers. All is forgotten during their mutual appreciation of the song. The whole pub joins in on the chorus and the two men sway together like a couple at their first dance.

I drain my glass and go to leave. What’s happened to decent music? Blue Phoenix are just another boy band coughed up by the soulless talent show ‘Teen Idols’. Moloch of the music industry, it swallows children, strips personality and imagination and spits out clones. They’ve traded creative freedom for the screams of teenage girls and the contents of their daddies’ wallets.

My daughter, Maisy, loves them. Every weekend she pollutes my flat with their noise. No amount of Black Sabbath or Rammstein can bleach it from my mind. Not even the relentless screech of my tinnitus can completely drown out that sickly-sweet garbage. At least I only have to listen to Maisy’s autotuned crap at the weekend. I almost feel sorry for her mother. Almost.

The singing has drawn a crowd outside the pub. More people block my exit as someone drops another coin and the song begins again. I push past and head for the sanctuary of my van. Joining the long, hot queue of traffic, I flip on the radio and wince at the sound of that song. Blue Phoenix are not welcome here. I try a different station. The DJ shouts into the van.

“And now… it’s everybody’s favourite song, it’s Blue Ph…”  

‘No thank you.’ I yell back, pressing for the next station. But there it is again. And the next station. And the next. ‘Oh come on!’ I do a full loop, only to find it playing on every pre-programmed button. Giving up, I push Jeff Beck’s ‘Truth’ into the CD player and crank up the volume. I can’t stand silence.

In my youth I lived life at full volume with my band, Black Mucus. We never made it big, but we could play. I met Kelly at one of our gigs. She was the hot rock chic and I was the drummer. When she fell pregnant with Maisy we swapped drumsticks and bandanas for bottles and nappies. But I never stopped appreciating good music. I gave baby Maisy a real education. Naps were accompanied by Bowie and Kurt. Bath time was all about Elvis, Cash and Buddy Holly. Iron Maiden or the Pixies joined us for playtime and I could always rely on Kate Bush to quash a tantrum. Sixteen years later and she’s listening to the same mainstream crap as her friends. But I have hope.

A few years ago the guys decided to do a reunion gig. Rehearsing in Stuart’s garage, we turned back the clock and forgot about our bills, beer bellies and bosses. Back on stage at the Red Lion we stuck it to the man! The crowd welcomed Black Mucus back with open ears. During our favourite song, ‘Tory Whore,’ I thrashed out my drum solo so hard that I crashed through to another dimension. I was lost in the music when suddenly a red hot pain struck my right ear. I clutched the side of my face, still trying to bash out the beat with my free hand. The guys looked confused and Stuart saved me with a wailing guitar solo. Through the flashing stage lights was the dark shadow of blood on my fingers. I fought my way to the end of our set, necking beer after beer to try and numb the pain. Off stage, Kelly saw the blood dripping down my face and dragged me to A&E. I’d burst my eardrum. It healed later, but as the tissue knitted itself back together I developed a loud ringing in my right ear. Then the left. Doctors can’t do anything.

Tinnitus invades every second of the day and raids my sleep. I dream of mosquito swarms and choirs of screaming banshees. I’ve tried stuffing my ears or holding my head underwater, searching for one moment of relief. The ringing never changes pitch, never goes quiet and I can’t ignore it. The only way to find peace from the noise and anger is to drown it out with music and drink. Kelly took the brunt of my temper. Being married to a middle-aged, half deaf plumber wasn’t the life that young rock chic had dreamed of. So she left me. For Colin.

Heading upstairs to the flat I spot my neighbour Jen struggling to get out of her front door with a pushchair.

‘Hey, hang on.’ I call up, taking the steps two at a time. She’s already over the doorframe when I reach the top. ‘Alright Jen?’ I say. She ignores me, her eyes are blank and she’s humming something under her breath. That song.

‘Everything okay?’ I ask. No reply. I peer into the pushchair to say hello to her son Oliver, but the seat in empty. I hear a child crying inside the flat. ‘Jen?’ I wave my hand in front of her face and grab her arm as she locks the door. ‘Jenny, what’s wrong?’ Her eyes finally focus and she stops humming. 

‘Oh hi, Martin. You just got in?’ she says, snapping back to her usual cheery self.

‘Yeah. You alright Jen? You seem a bit… distracted.’

‘Yeah, fine. We’re just popping to the shop. Do you need anything?’

‘No I’m good. Is your mum round watching Olli?’ I ask. I still hear him crying inside.

‘No, he’s here. Bit grumpy today though. Say hello Olli.’ She pulls back the pushchair’s rain hood to reveal the empty seat. ‘Olli?’ She spins around on the landing, looking for the toddler. ‘Where are you?’

‘Jen love, can’t you hear him?’ I nod towards her front door.

‘Oh god!’ She fumbles to unlock it. Oliver’s face appears, dribbling snot and tears. He holds his arms out and shrieks. ‘Oh baby! Mummy’s sorry.’ She scoops him up. ‘I can’t believe I left him.’

‘Didn’t you hear him crying?’ I ask.

‘I was… I don’t… Oh Martin, you won’t tell anyone will you?’ she begs.

‘No harm done I suppose.’ I shrug, unlocking my own front door.

‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t even remember getting dressed today. I put on some music and then… that song. it’s a total earworm isn’t it?’ She says.

‘Earworm?’

‘Yeah, you know, where a song gets stuck in your head on a loop and then…and then the next thing you know you’ve gone and left your baby home alone. Oh god, what was I doing?’

‘Look, I remember what it’s like having a little one. You probably just need some sleep.’

‘Yeah prob’ly. Thanks Martin. How is your Maisy these days?’

‘She’s still a teenager, so she’s horrible and speaking another language.’ I laugh. ‘I’m taking her to her first concert tonight at the O2.’

‘Oh wow, is it some rock metal type thing?’

‘I wish. No. It’s Blue Phoenix.’ I resent the words. ‘Not my choice.’

‘Oh god! Yes! I was just listening to them. I’m so jealous.’

‘I’m only dumping her off. Dad’s taxi service.’

‘She’ll appreciate it.’ Jen says, wiping a bubble of snot from her son’s face with her sleeve.

‘She won’t. Anyway I have to pick her up in bit. I’m glad to see Olli’s okay. See you both later.’

‘Ok. See you later. Thanks again Martin. I’ve never done that before, promise.’ She says nervously.

‘Sure, don’t worry about it. I guess you were just caught up in the music.’ I reassure her. I wave goodbye to the toddler and lock the door.

Caught up in that song more like. How could Jen forget her son? The kid’s a chubby little sound machine. Hard to miss.

I throw a frozen meal for one in the microwave and turn up the TV. I always imagined that I’d buy Maisy the tickets to her first gig. It would have been something epic. But her stepfather had other ideas. I complained to Kelly, but she told me not to spoil it and offered me the honour of driving her there. A consolation prize for a second-place dad.

The six o’clock news is full of the usual headlines; an epidemic in Africa, celebrity scandal, terrorist attacks, the mess of American politics and the state of the NHS. The next segment is supposed to cheer us all up, but give me anthrax and dirty bombs any day. Backstage at the O2 an excited young reporter knocks on a dressing room door. Blue Phoenix band members pour out, flashing their bleached smiles at the camera.

“So guys, tonight is the first gig of your world tour, how are you all feeling?” Each talentless boychild flicks his blue hair and announces his love for the fans. What happened to rebellious youth? To musical revolution? Hell, to just learning to play an instrument and writing your own stuff. One of the boys catches my eye. He’s the only one not smiling. Not performing like the other monkeys. The microphone works its way towards him.

“Milo, anything you want to tell the fans?” She says. He stares down the lens.

“Is this live on the news?” Milo asks.

“Er, yes. Anything you want to say to all the fans coming tonight?”

“Don’t come.” He blurts into the mic.

“What?” The reporter laughs.

“I said don’t come.” shouting now. “You have to stop the concert. You have to stop that song.” The camera jerks away into the pimpled face of another band member.

“He’s only jestin’, aren’t you Milo?” The two boys are left tussling for the microphone when they cut back to the studio. The surprised newsreader tries to laugh off Milo’s behaviour. I liked him.

The traffic has thinned and I’m making good time to Kelly’s house. I glance at the CD player for a second when someone steps in front of the van. I slam on the breaks and thump the horn, but the young man bounces off the side of my bonnet. He’s on the floor for a moment before pulling himself up and stumbling off across the road. He’s nodding along to his headphones, oblivious. I lean out of the window.

‘Oi! What the fuck? Stop, look and listen mate! You alright?’ My words don’t cut through the noise wrapped around his head. I know what he’s listening to. The same as Jen, lost in that sodding song. I watch him disappear around a corner before driving off. He’s fine. Not my problem.

At Kelly’s house, Maisy and her friend Abbey clamber into the front of the van. They’re wearing band T-shirts and ripped jean shorts. Maisy’s blonde hair is died cyan blue and she’s wearing thick purple lipstick.

‘Someone punch you in the mouth?’ I tease. ‘And what’s with the blue rinse?’

‘Dad, you don’t know nothing about fashion, yeah? Just drive.’

‘Yes boss.’

‘And we’re not listening to this.’ She switches off my CD player.

‘You used to love decent music.’

‘I think we have a different opinion about what’s decent, Dad.’

The girls pull out their phones and document the drive to the concert with a series of pouting selfies.

‘OMG, Abbey! Check it.’ Maisy is swiping across her phone screen. ‘Milo’s quit the band!’

‘Shut up! An hour before the concert?’ Abbey exclaims.

‘I know right. For reals, look. It says he’s quit after an argument with the others.’

 ‘Does that mean the gig is cancelled?’ I ask, hopeful.

‘Nah, it says the band are going on without him.’

‘Oh goodie.’ I say.

‘Wait, he’s posted some video that’s gone viral.’ Maisy jabs the screen and shows us. Milo stares out through a tangled blue fringe, purple lipstick smeared down his chin.

“I know you all hate me yeah, but you don’t know the truth.” The kid’s words are slurred and angry. “That song. It’s not really music…it’s… and they make us sing it. They make us… control us. And it gets worse when more people sing it. At the concert. Don’t sing. Don’t go. Just don’t let them…” He wipes wet, black eyeliner across his face. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry mum and dad. I’m sorry everyone. I can’t stop it now.” The video ends.

‘Tragic.’ Says Abbey.

‘Totes.’ Maisy agrees. ‘Well cray. He must be wazzed.’

‘Translation?’ I ask.

‘Off his face Dad.’

‘Right. Girls, I don’t think this concert is a good idea.’

‘Don’t you dare!’ Maisy snaps.

‘It could be dangerous, love. What he’s saying about the song…’

‘Dad seriously? I’ve been looking forward to this concert for months.’

‘Colin only bought your ticket last month.’

‘Yeah,’ she says, ‘he did.’

I stamp on the accelerator. My tinnitus is screaming above the chaos of London traffic. I drop the girls off as close to North Greenwich station as I can get. They jump out and Maisy slams the door.

‘Oi!’ I yell out the window.

‘What?’

‘I’m only going to Greenwich. I’ll be in the pub, so if…’

‘What a surprise.’ She snaps.

‘Any sign of trouble, you ring me.’

‘Whatevs.’

They skip off into the crowd of teenage clones, all marching towards the dome. An alien generation returning to their mothership.

I’m relieved to find a band playing in the Pelton Arms. I need noise to drown out the ringing in my ears and this bad feeling. I keep picturing the fear in Milo’s face. He was right about one thing. That song isn’t real music. That’s what he said, right? I cradle my cider and soak in the band; real, raw, imperfect. I tap the screen of my mobile every few minutes, checking for a missed call or text. The band finishes their set. When the applause ends my tinnitus gets worse. It’s the same every time I listen to music. I’m being punished for taking a break from the constant engaged tone.

With only an hour left of the concert I decide to drive back to the O2 and wait in the car park. As I near Millennium Way a group of police cars scream past at full speed. They’re heading towards the arena. I pull off the roundabout in pursuit. Another three ambulances and a fire truck go by. Each wave of sirens shakes my ears. My heartbeat punches the inside of my skull until my head’s screaming.

The road ahead is blocked. Drivers abandon their vehicles and walk towards the O2. I screech to a halt and jump out to follow the crowd. Lasers project from the arena like homing beacons.

‘Hey.’ I catch up to a man in front of me. ‘What’s happened?’ He squints at me through the flashing blue lights.

‘Something at the O2’. He says.

‘Do you know what?’

‘That band, Blue Phoenix…’

‘What about them?’

He shrugs and turns back. I race ahead and ask others, but no one can tell me what’s happening, they just keep walking forward and I follow.

Police have set up a fence around the arena, but there isn’t a uniform in sight. I spot a crowd of people filing into a gap by the main entrance and shove my way through. In the food hall more people have gathered, surging towards the concert. The music is barely audible over the thumping in my head. As I’m crammed into the mass of bodies, I realise that they’re all singing. Their lips move but I can’t hear them anymore. Policemen, employees and passers-by, all singing and marching forwards. The song has infected them. What did Jen call it? An earworm. Spreading like a contagion from ear to ear. It’s spilling into the streets and sucking in more victims. More and more people push through the doors.

I fight my way into the main arena. An ocean of blue haired children are slumped in their seats, swaying and singing in unison.

‘Maisy!’ I scream into the vast space. I can’t hear my own voice. I shout again, but nothing. I try calling her but the phone screen tells me that “Maisy Baby is currently unavailable”. I spin around, looking for my daughter. They all look the same. Same T-shirt, same make-up, same vacant expression. All staring towards the band on stage, trapped together in the never-ending song.

I need help.

I force my way back onto the street and run through the crowds looking for anyone like me. Anyone who can help. Anyone not singing, but all lips mouth the same words over and over.

As I reach the North Pier I can see splashes on the other side of the Thames. People are throwing themselves into the river, desperate to reach the source of the song. Their limp bodies disappear under the dark water. Singing as they drown.

Litter whips up around me as a helicopter swoops over the dome. There is a flash of fire and rising smoke. I can feel the city vibrating. Trembling with the force of the helicopter crash. With the beat of the music inside the arena. With the thump of a million footsteps and voices heading this way. The song spreads across the city and they all keep coming. Staring. Smiling. Singing. On a loop as the earworm devours the entire population of London. And beyond.

I hit redial on my phone over and over, but I hear nothing. Except the constant ringing in my ears.

Published by KJHadley_writer

Just starting out, writing short stories, flash fiction and prose.

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