The Evil Headphone Goblin
One hundred thousand people were crammed into the largest concert hall in Britain, not a single seat was free; tickets had been sold out for weeks. Every single person in the hall was here for one thing, and one thing only. To see another legendary performance by Dazz “The Axe Man” Wild, the world’s greatest rock guitarist.
The man stood quietly in the wings; his Bumper Orbit-Slinger guitar hung snugly around his neck. He checked his designer trainers, jeans, and hand-made hoody one last time. Yes, very expensive, just the way he liked them. Finally, it was time. The announcer was introducing him, the curtains sliding open. His nerves vanished as he strolled onto the darkened stage. The super trooper spotlight slammed on, lighting him in brilliant white like someone from a washing powder advert. The crowd erupted into a frenzy of cheers, a whirlwind of clapping, an almost deafening shriek of whistles. A storm of tiny flashes lit up the amphitheatre as every camera phone in the place went off almost at once.
Silence fell in an instant as he positioned his fingers on the frets, lifted one of the gold-plated titanium picks from the mic stand and prepared to play his first power chord. And he knew, from the first second he just knew, that tonight was going to be legendary. This is where he belonged, where he was born to be. He owned this crowd.
“Dazz!” They chanted in unison, clapping and stamping in time to his soaring riffs.
“Darren!” The girls screamed, those on the front row reaching up for just a touch of his body. The successful ones cried and vowed never to wash again. The unsuccessful ones just cried.
“Darren! Get up! Your auntie will be here soon.”
The bubble burst with an audible groan. Darren Wildgust emerged from the best dream he’d had in years not too happy.
“But Mum, it’s Sunday!” Darren replied, perfectly reasonably in his opinion.
“I don’t care,” came her voice from the landing. “Auntie Jo is coming today, and I don’t want her thinking you sleep all day. She’ll be here in half an hour, so move it.”
“I don’t sleep ALL day,” he mumbled.
“What was that?”
“I said I’m already up anyway.”
“Good. Come and get your breakfast.”
Darren snuggled back into his quilt and tried to get back to sleep, desperately chasing the brilliant dream.
“And another thing,” his mother said, bursting into the room, “I wasn’t born yesterday. Get your body out of that smelly pit and get downstairs before I send your father up.”
“Why, is he tired as well?”
“Watch your manners, young man. You’re not too big for a smack. And I thought I told you to tidy this room?”
“I tidied it,” Darren insisted, somewhat insulted.
“What, that tiny bit over there, where I can see the carpet?”
“Yeah, and there.” A hand emerged from under the quilt and he gestured roughly towards another spot near the wardrobe. This bit was tidy because he’d had to stuff it all under the bed to get his favourite t-shirt out, the one with the picture of guitar band “Broken” on it. His mother glared at him. “Get it tidied or you’re grounded.” She closed the door and went downstairs.
“It’s not fair. They don’t have to tidy their room, stupid little girls. Can’t wait to get my own place. Wish I was eighteen now,” he mumbled, referring to his sisters’ bedroom. Of course, it never needed tidying because it was never messy, but that wasn’t the point.
Darren made a special effort and reached the table in a respectable forty-four minutes, where his dad and two younger sisters sat in front of empty bowls. It wasn’t a very big room, what his mum called a kitchen-diner, which to him looked like a kitchen with a small table and four chairs crammed into it between the back door and the washer/dryer combo. It was done out mostly in yellow, with a blue blind and woodwork, although Darren wouldn’t have been able to describe the décor when later questioned.
“Oh, it lives!” his dad said for the thousandth time, looking up from his TV Guide. “Glad you could join us.”
“We’ve eaten all the toast,” sneered Cheryl before Darren could even sit down. Twelve years old and just like her mother. “You’ll have to have cereal.”
“And I got the Mega-Super-Ripper-Babe from the Weetyblox, and it’s the special purple one that transforms into a squirrel.” This was Sara, eight years old and talked for England. Under the action of taking his seat, Darren turned his head away from his father and leered threateningly at them.
“Dad, he’s pulling faces at me,” Sara whined.
“I’m not!” he protested. “Hell, I can’t even yawn now.”
“Pack it up all of you. You know Jo’s coming today. I don’t want any messing about from any of you.”
“He started it, ugly pig,” Sara mumbled.
“No surprise he hasn’t got a girlfriend yet,” Cheryl added.
“How would you know?” Darren yelled, throwing a rice krunchy at her.
“Ouch!” Cheryl cried, overacting for maximum attention and sympathy. “Dad, he’s throwing things at me.”
Father lowered the magazine to his chin and glared at each in turn, his stern look that mostly made you want to laugh. “Pack it in, now!”
The room fell quiet, except for a very low hum as the three continued to argue using glances, gestures, and almost inaudible speech.
Harmony was restored when the front door opened and a voice shouted, “Only me!” Deefer, the dog, and the two girls ran to greet Auntie Jo. Much hugging and kissing was heard. Darren cringed. He knew what was coming next.
“We’re in here!” Mum yelled from the kitchen sink, desperately trying to get dried tomato sauce off the windowsill.
“Hello, everyone,” Auntie Jo marched in with her escort of children and a small brown dog. She hugged and kissed her sister, then turned to the table.
Brace yourself, here it comes.
“Hello Ian, all right? Hello Darren….”
This is it!
“Oh, hasn’t he grown! Look at him, he’ll be shaving soon and borrowing the car. Have you got a girlfriend yet?”
Darren forced a smile. “Hello, Auntie Jo.”
“He’s not borrowing my car. He can get his own,” his dad laughed, punching Darren’s arm really quite hard. He didn’t rub it until no one was looking, just smiled bravely.
The room filled with the sound of sisters gossiping and small girls fighting for attention. Deefer barked a few times then gave up, retreating to his basket in the hall. Darren took the opportunity to slip from the room, grabbing some bread and a bag of crisps on the way. But as he crept out of the door, his mum’s radar kicked in.
“Don’t go too far, Darren. We’re taking Auntie Jo to the car boot sale later, and we are all going.”
His shoulders slumped and his stomach clamped up like a fist. He knew that tone, and short of breaking his own leg—and even then, he wasn’t certain—there was no way he was getting out of going. Slowly, stuffing crisps into his mouth, he went back to his room and sat on the bed. A car boot sale? A car boot sale! What if someone saw him! It would be all ‘round school. Darren Wildgust gets his clothes from car boot sales. What was he going to do? He looked around his room, looking for something, anything, that would give him an idea. Like most of the rooms in the house it was small, not quite a box room but certainly the smallest bedroom. Between the door, bed, wardrobe and window, which looked out onto the plain brick wall of the house next door, there wasn’t much room for a lot else. He’d managed to squeeze a chest of drawers between the wardrobe and the bed, on top of which sat his most prized possessions, a flat screen television and his PlayStation.
The once-lime walls were hidden under hundreds of posters, some several layers thick. Most of the top layer was of his favourite band “Broken” or pictures of highly polished and weirdly shaped guitars. The floor and most other flat surfaces were practically buried under a variety of objects. A pile of CDs, some of which were in the right cases. Clothes, dirty and clean. A plate with half a polony sandwich on it. His mum had sneaked a slice of tomato onto it, and he’d almost eaten it before noticing. Three mugs, a fork, and one of his mum’s books, Whitney Arrows: I’m a Babe, Ain’t I! The one that had a picture of her in a bikini. And numerous other bits of junk, including his science project that was supposed to be a volcano but looked like a giant zit. None of it gave him any ideas. So, he was going to have to break his leg.
He’d not actually had this problem before, but he’d seen people who had broken bones and stuff, on the telly and in real life. Most of them seemed to involve fast cars or bikes, or being blown off roofs, although Simon Diggery told him he broke his by sitting down too fast. Well, he didn’t have a fast car yet, or a super bike, and he didn’t think he could get onto the roof. But how can you sit down too fast? He tried it a few times, on the edge of his bed and on the floor. He gave up when it started to hurt. That was it then, not yet fifteen and his life was over.
But wait, his super sharp brain said, you don’t need to avoid going. You just need to not be identified. What you need is a disguise. Brilliant! Darren dived on the floor and began hunting through the clothing until he found his black hoody and a cap. Pulling on the cap and the hoody, he then pulled up the hood and checked himself in the mirror. Wicked, you could hardly see his face at all. It was a plain face, he thought, with common grey eyes and shoulder-length mousy hair. But today that was a good thing. He wasn’t immediately recognizable like Mitch Ritchie who was at least three metres tall and still growing, or little Tobias Swamp, who looked like R2-D2 in a school uniform. Today, his average height and build would be an advantage.
With one minor change—he had swapped the yellow Paul the Plumber cap for a sportier Dididis one—he left the house first, managing to get to the car door before anyone else so he could avoid sitting next to his auntie.
The smile of satisfaction was soon knocked right off his face as the rest of the family emerged, Deefer and all. “We aren’t going in the car,” grinned his dad. “We’re walking.”
No, no, not walking, not the double-u word! He’d already been dragged out of his bed with far too little sleep, the sky was full of grey clouds which meant it was probably going to rain, and the sports field where the car boot sale was held was on the street where SHE lived. Paige Turner, Paige long-blonde-hair-blue-eyes Turner. They would have to walk straight past her house. What if she saw him? What if she spoke? What if she didn’t see him, didn’t even acknowledge his existence? Could this day get any worse?
Dragging his feet, he followed after the rest of the family. Not too far back so his mum would yell at him in the street (yes, she would!), but not too close so he was definitely with them. Keeping his head down and the peak of his cap as far forward as it would go as they passed Paige’s house, he managed to reach the car boot sale without incident. Paige wasn’t in sight, nor anyone else from school. But the worst was yet to come. The car boot sale itself.
As usual, the place was packed. Most of them would be locals, hundreds of pairs of eyes that might know him. He pulled the peak of his cap a few millimetres lower. This is it, the very last day he would have any friends.
And now the third test of his powers, arriving in the shape of his auntie and her trendy fur-covered purse. “Here you are girls, and you Darren, here’s a quid each. Go and buy yourself something nice.” She smiled broadly at them as if she’d done each a massive favour. The girls smiled in delight and thanked her with a kiss. Darren’s heart sank, but he managed a very unconvincing “thank you” fuelled by his mother’s glare, then turned away.
Oh hell. Now he would have to actually look around, even buy something. Did this woman not know anything? Something nice from a car boot sale? Was she mental? Nice was from the music shop in town near Fattyfast Burgers. Nice was going into Garry’s Games with money to spend. Nice was Whitney Arrows in a bikini. What the hell was he going to get from this mobile junk shop?
There was one small piece of luck though. “We’ll meet you over at the hot dog stand when you’ve done, Darren. Don’t get lost,” his mum said, then walked away, sister and two daughters in tow, all talking at once. Dad had already disappeared, in the direction of the beer tent, small brown dog leading the way as though he’d been before.
Checking his disguise, Darren wandered over to the nearest stall, hoping to get lucky the first time and find something to spend his money on quickly. Only his ninja-like reflexes saved him from terrible embarrassment as he realized the stall was selling women’s underwear. Phew, close. The next stall was selling old toys spread out on a curtain. And after that the usual car boot crap: caravan magazines from 1978, ancient videos and even older console games, assorted spoons wrapped in an elastic band, an ornament that read “ouvenir of Scotlan,” several plastic cameras, and that battery-operated parrot that he swore was on another stall the last time he’d seen it. And at each stall stood someone haggling. Nothing was ever cheap enough. They’d pick up an item priced at five pence and say, “I’ll give you four.” It made Darren angry. Nobody could be that desperate for a penny, surely?
Then, between the man selling free samples and the sagging pasting table filled with rusty tools, he found something he liked: a stall selling homemade cakes. He was tempted by a huge chocolate-chip chocolate-covered chocolate muffin, but then he’d eat it and have nothing to show for it, and his mum would go into one of her “ungrateful” moods. His mouth watering, Darren turned reluctantly away and continued his search.
Several more stalls drifted by in a blur of old people and pushchairs. Then, disaster. He spotted Rhiannon what’s-her-name, a friend of Cheryl’s, a big mouth and a grass. She was heading straight for him. He did a quick Beckham swerve, ducked between a fat woman with huge shopping bags and a man carrying a large clock with no hands, and ended up against a stall made from patio tables. Nice footwork, he congratulated himself, let’s just hope it wasn’t wasted. He checked his disguise was in place and pretended to look at the things for sale. His luck held at this point—the stall was selling a mixture of stuff, old and new. If you were going to be spotted at a car boot sale, there was no extra shame in being seen at a stall like this.
The woman behind the stall moved towards him. A quick look showed Rhiannon to be just a few paces behind, but rapidly passing by. He picked up a small object, just to convince the woman he was interested. It turned out to be a pendant. An eagle’s head design on a chain, possibly silver, but at the moment a sort of greenish black. It actually wasn’t too bad. This is what he would buy, if he had enough.
He held it out to the woman and said, “How much for this?”
And his eyes looked straight into the blue eyes of Paige Turner. Paige everybody-fancies-her Turner. His heart raced, his mouth went dry, and every sensible thought in his head went and hid inside a concrete bunker and refused to come out.
“Twenty-five pence, if that’s okay? Probably clean up well.”
Darren tried to make conversation, but all that came out was a squeaky “Yes.” He handed over the money. Luckily there was only the one coin, as his hands wouldn’t have been able to manage more. Their hands touched as she gave him his change. They were soft and made the money smell of soap.
She leaned forward and smiled. “You can show me at school, when you’ve cleaned it.” Her teeth were white, and her breath smelled of soap.
“Yes,” he said and wandered away in a daze.
Almost instantly, he regained control of his body and brain. Wow, he thought, what a brilliant day. He’d got a wicked pendant with an eagle’s head design in solid silver, he’d spoken to Paige Turner, and she’d practically asked him out, he still had seventy-five pence left to buy that muffin, and mum said to meet them by the hot dog stand, so food as well! Not so bad these car boot sales. Now, if he could just get home without being recognized….
Later that night, after being allowed to escape from auntie hell, Darren went to clean the pendant. He wanted it as shiny as brand new to impress Paige when he saw her the next day. He’d gone into the bathroom, guessing there’d be all sorts of stuff here to clean with. On the windowsill was a toothbrush holder with six brushes. The grey one was his brother’s, eighteen now and away in the army. That would do—he didn’t need it. Then, of course, he could use toothpaste. After all, it got teeth clean, and they were hard like metal.
A good twenty-seven seconds of really hard scrubbing later, the pendant was cleaner. Well, at least the chain moved now, and you could see the open beak and the red eyes of the bird. He put it on. It didn’t look great with his Jackie Chan pyjamas, but it was okay. Paige was going to be impressed.
Back in his room, he sat on the edge of his bed and cradled his beloved axe. Black, sort of shiny, six strings, and real metal effect frets. Complete with practice amp, a book—Become a Guitar Legend in Thirty Days! —and hard case, and at just thirty-five quid for the lot from his dad’s mate at work. He selected a pick at random from the large collection kept in the jar he’d made at school, the one covered in seashells. As he stood to play, that familiar feeling came over him. I am Dazz Wild, master of the electric guitar. He let rip with a power cord, then another. The crowd began to roar. A series of riffs followed, with a neat piece of fingering and some cool sliding along the strings.
The door opened at this point, and a shrill voice shouted “Headphones!” His mum pointed to the offending articles half hidden under a pair of used boxer shorts.
How, he thought, how am I going to be rich and famous and have loads of fast cars and girlfriends and a swimming pool full of sharks if I can’t even practice properly? The headphone goblin was still glaring from the door, so he snatched them up and rammed them on his head. She didn’t leave until he’d plugged them in and the house fell silent.
Darren picked a few strings, let rip with a few chords, but his heart wasn’t in it. “I wish,” he said loudly, as people do while wearing headphones, “I wish I was somewhere different, far away from this lot, in a band touring around where they don’t have these stupid plastic headphones.”
The eyes on the pendant around his neck began to shine behind the dirt.
Now, as you have probably guessed, the eagle is no ordinary piece of jewellery. No, it’s actually a voice-activated, pseudo-sentient, quin-dimensional, matter-transporting, desire-fulfilment device.
Or magic pendant.
The device, upon hearing the correct syntax, activates. The wish is relatively non-specific, it thinks, subject to wide interpretation. The device, being pseudo-sentient, likes to use long words and is a bit of a joker. The eyes flicker as it hunts across time and space like a search engine to find just those conditions. Ah-ha, it says, what have we here? It’s a band, sort of, it’s definitely an alternative location, and you can’t get much further removed from all “this” than there! And a complete absence of plastic headphones. Excellent!
The matter transporter proceeded to transport our hero’s matter quin-dimensionally, with all the wavy lines and fuzzy bits you see on the telly. To be exact, it moved him three point seven centimetres down, twelve metres backward, two hundred and seventy metres east-northeast, eight hundred years back in time and, this is the tricky bit, across one and a half million alternative realities.
All Darren felt was a slight tingling on his skin and his stomach went funny, like the time his dad drove too fast over a hump-backed bridge. The scenery around him morphed from bedroom to dim, musty barn. The guitar flex swung limp as it was moved without its amp, but the guitar itself stayed intact. (Luckily for him, so did the bedroom carpet.) Despite everything, Darren was still in “at home” mode, so the best swearing he could manage was “Oh bum.”