Straight In ~ fiction by Aaron Becker

30th March 1997: Around a thousand days left until the end of a thousand years. More pressingly, just two hours and forty-seven minutes for Clayton to crack the code. On the face of it, the atmosphere in the conservatory of 30 Lowfield Gardens was more placid than a month of Easter Sundays; for the four bright minds inside, this particular Easter Sunday was unlikely to be forgotten, unfolding as it had.

“That’s our safe talking,” householder Julian tauntingly remarked, as the song ‘ “Indestructible” by Alisha’s Attic was heard on his Bush radio cassette player, forever tuned to 97FM. Radio 1. The Top 40 chart. Four to seven pm. The agreed time limit for Clayton to unleash all the magic his mind could muster.

The safe to which Julian referred was none other than a premium Centurion 1200, its white color finish blending seamlessly with the conservatory decor. Body constructed from a galvanized steel plate with a hermetic curvature door, built to withstand temperatures in excess of 1000 Celsius, insulated with a Styronite combination lock of two letters, followed by two numbers. Nothing more, nothing less.

The prize inside: a Nintendo 64, newly released in the UK and worth some £250 in the shops. As computer programmers, Julian, Simon and Robbie received discounted deals on the latest games and consoles; a surplus N64 could afford to be given away to their longtime acquaintance, provided he was successful in cracking the safe. That is how the challenge started.

As half past four came and Monaco’s “What Do You Want from Me?”  filled the room (down from 26 to 35), Clayton thought it too obvious a question to answer. Simon reappeared with a pungent coffee press, making a few choice comments regarding Clayton’s likelihood of accomplishment in this time-bound safe-cracking exercise. Clayton grinned as the trio of computer programmers chortled in unison.

For someone who believed that music was the supreme exemplar of art as pure meaning, it is hard to imagine how Clayton could have done any more to get the best out of his own raw material; his unrivaled production techniques distilled the gifted personalities of his bands’ members into musical form, performing technical somersaults in the studio to decode their vitriolic lyrics into the realm of the performable, thereby ensuring their inventive music got out of the  “cult” box and into the minds of the record-buying public.

By placing fresh leather on his troubadour’s boots, a recurrent presence inside Goodier’s Top 40 was established for those bands, and everyone became a winner: The band members experience that intoxicating rush of their skyscraping ambitions becoming reality in a matter of months, Clayton’s reputation as a curio producer enhanced and some, the record label reaping the rewards (whilst continuing to assume the position of underdogs, sniping at the music establishment with untiring relish).

“And now, straight in at number 30 is a new entry from the dance act JT Playaz,” intoned the smooth voice of Mark Goodier. Clayton and Julian cheered, then danced around the cream DFS sofa throughout the following three minutes and fifty-two seconds, as Simon tapped his spoon metrically and Robbie (dour expression, clapped-out Kappa trainers) looked on in bewilderment. Julian had long been a fan of the Playaz, a dynamic duo who were known to Clayton personally, although he had wondered where—if anywhere—in the chart they might land. Now he had his answer!

In pursuit of his own answer, Clayton was allowed a brief respite inside the newly refurbished lounge, sipping his freshly ground coffee in quiet rumination and switching on BBC2 for distraction purposes, with Blueboy’s “Remember Me” audible from the conservatory (number 27). For reasons escaping normal logic, War Walks provided him with a reassured equanimity. Let’s turn the guessing to well-established reference points, he thought. Birthdays. Lucky numbers. Squad numbers of footballers we like. Release dates of favorite games.

And those reference points—adopted and discarded at mystifying speed—impressed the gaming trio, without ever troubling their collective conviction that the Centurion 1200 would not be cracked. Following a full-blast airing of Kula Shaker’s energetic cover version of “Hush” (down two places to 23), Robbie opined that the chances of Clayton walking away with the renowned N64 were roughly comparable to those of John Major outshining Tony Blair at the forthcoming general election.

“Well,” smiled the great entrepreneur, “you didn’t give him much of a chance last time round.”

There followed more failed guesses, as Clayton continued to play the game set out for him, without resorting to the other Svengali-approved extreme and storming out before seven pm. That would just not be cricket.

After revealing the Spice Girls were atop the Albums Chart for another week—much to Simon’s chagrin—Goodier proceeded on with the top 20: an exquisite ebb and flow of hip-hop, Eurodance, and boyband fare, the latter carrying all the emotional weight of a sewing needle.

In the few dull moments scattered across it, the boys speculated on whether Channel 5—to be introduced to the nation’s television screens in less than twenty-four hours—was going to be worth watching. For once, all four boys were unanimous in their agreement: Don’t waste your time.

Having previewed next week’s new releases, Mr. Goodier began unveiling the Easter top ten: 3T were a new entry at its foot, followed by Sash! at 9, during which the boys held a spontaneous rave in the conservatory—a flood of raw, unfettered, unfiltered feeling.

Clayton kept guessing inaccurately as the rap collaboration “Hit ‘Em High” was revealed as number 8, succeeded by Britpop stalwarts Cast, inventive and invigorating, with “Free Me” at 7. DJ Quicksilver served up more dance beats at 6, R Kelly believed he could fly at 5, and the indie-spensable Charlatans were new at 4 (Simon lacerating his larynx in a quest to sing along in tune).

There was No Doubt that “Don’t Speak” was a non-mover at number 3, just as there was no doubt in the programmer’s minds that Clayton would ultimately fail, the producer’s frantic and ill-thought-out final guesses all but confirming it.

After rating each song in Goodier’s countdown with a thumbs up or down, the boys rejoiced as it became apparent that the Chemical Brothers had supplanted the Spice Girls at number 1, and once the hypnotic kaleidoscope of “Block Rockin’ Beats” had come crashing to a close, Clayton offered his hand to Julian and conceded defeat, effectively sounding the death knell on the whole affair.

“Can’t win them all, I suppose!”

“But we thought you had a wicked way with safes, Clayts?”

“Well, you know …”

As Clayton headed for the exit, the boys suddenly saw a vulnerability behind the invincible swagger, a crushing sense of the music world’s transience and a prescient awareness of disappointments to come.

The next hour saw him driving back to his coastal studio-house, having done enough acting for one afternoon, laughing into the sunset until the cash cows came home. Easter Monday would see him return to his cash-in-band existence, going hell-for-charity-shop-leather in search of the next smash hit, interspersing those musical ideas with a preliminary play of his new Nintendo 64 console and its accompanying games. Well, why not?

By the time Clayton arrived back, Julian was in the early stages of an all-night Easter eggs, games, and lager fest with further invited guests; Easter Monday was to be the usual array of sore heads, overweight bedmates, and alcohol robustly refusing to leave the circulation. Yet there might just have been a moment of clarity when the bloodstream emptied, the remaining brain cells united as one, and reality hit like a stiletto spike to the brain: JT30.

With prior sighting of that week’s chart—as had Julian, owing to his music industry connections—Clayton knew in advance the position to which JT Playaz had ascended, and reasoned that the code may have something to do with them, such was his and Julian’s regard for the double act. Prior to four pm, as Julian showed Simon around his garden and Robbie became embroiled in a pager conversation with a fellow gamer, Clayton, finding himself alone with the Centurion 1200, attempted “JT30” as the code and was not disappointed. Making sure nobody was watching, he carefully carried the N64 out to his car, gently placing it inside the glove box. Straight in. At number 30.

This young British writer has so far had work published by a science-based journal in 2009*, screened at a theater festival in 2019**, and featured on two literary websites this year***, ****. The latter two disappointed him very much, as it ruined his record of only achieving publication when the year ends in 9!