BACKBITES

VENGEANCE IS VINYL: In Nick Hornby's new novel, his hero reaches fever pitch at 45rpm

Exactly one week after Laura has gone I get a call from a woman in Wood Green who has some singles she thinks I might be interested in. I normally don't bother with house clearance, but this woman seems to know what she's talking about: she mutters about white labels and picture sleeves and all sorts of other things that suggest we're not just talking about half a dozen scratched Electric Light Orchestra records that her son left behind when he moved out.

Her house is enormous, the sort of place which seems to have meandered to Wood Green from another part of London, and she's not very nice. She's mid-to-late forties, with a dodgy tan and a suspiciously taut-looking face; and though she's wearing jeans and a T-shirt, the jeans have the name of an Italian where the name of Mr Wrangler or Mr Levi should be, and the T-shirt has a lot of jewellery stuck to the front of it, arranged in the shape of the CND sign.

She doesn't smile, or offer me a cup of coffee, or ask me whether I found the place OK despite the freezing, driving rain that prevented me from seeing my A-Z in front of my face. She just shows me into a study off the hall, turns the light on, and points out the singles - there are hundreds of them, all in custom-made wooden boxes - on the top shelf, and leaves me to get on with it.

There are no books on the shelves that line the walls, just albums, CDs, cassettes and hi-fi equipment; the cassettes have little numbered stickers on them, always a sign of a serious person. There are a couple of guitars leaning against the walls, and some sort of computer that looks as though it might be able to do something musical if you were that way inclined.

I climb up on a chair and start pulling the singles boxes down. There are seven or eight in all, and though I try not to look at what's in them as I put them on the floor, I catch a glimpse of the first one in the last box: it's a James Brown single on King, thirty years old, and I begin to prickle with anticipation.

When I start going through them properly, I can see straight away that it's the haul I've always dreamed of finding, ever since I began collecting records. There are fan club-only Beatles singles, and the first half-dozen Who singles, and Elvis originals from the early sixties, and loads of rare blues and soul singles and...there's a copy of "God Save The Queen" by the Sex Pistols on A&M! I have never even seen one of these! And oh no oh no oh God - "You Left The Water Running" by Otis Redding, released seven years after his death, withdrawn immediately by his widow because she didn't...

"What d'you reckon?" She's leaning against the door frame, arms folded, half-smiling at whatever ridiculous face I'm making.

"It's the best collection I've ever seen." I have no idea what to offer her. This lot must be worth at least six or seven grand, and she knows it. Where am I going to get that kind of money from?

"Give me fifty quid and you can take every one away with you today."

I look at her. We're now officially in Joke Fantasy Land, where little old ladies pay good money to persuade you to cart off their Chippendale furniture. Except I am not dealing with a little old lady, and she knows perfectly well that what she has here is worth a lot more than fifty quid. What's going on?

"Are these stolen?"

She laughs. "Wouldn't really be worth my while, would it, lugging all this lot through someone's window for fifty quid? No, they belong to my husband."

"And you're not getting on too well with him at the moment?"

"He's in Spain with a twenty-three-year-old. A friend of my daughter's. He had the fucking cheek to phone up and ask to borrow some money and I refused, so he asked me to sell his singles collection and send him a cheque for whatever I got, minus ten per cent commission. Which reminds me. Can you make sure you give me a five pound note? I want to frame it and put it on the wall."

"They must have taken him a long time to get together."

"Years. This collection is as close as he has ever come to an achievement."

"Does he work?"

"He calls himself a musician, but..." she scowls her disbelief and contempt. "He just sponges off me and sits around on his fat arse staring at record labels."

Imagine coming home and finding your Elvis singles and your James Brown singles and your Chuck Berry singles flogged off for nothing out of sheer spite. What would you do? What would you say?

"Look, can't I pay you properly? You don't have to tell him what you got. You could send the forty-five quid anyway, and blow the rest. Or give it to charity. Or something."

"That wasn't part of the deal. I want to be poisonous but fair."

"I'm sorry, but it's just...I don't want any part of this."

"Suit yourself. There are plenty of others who will."

"Yeah, I know. That's why I'm trying to find a compromise. What about fifteen hundred? They're probably worth four times that."

"Sixty."

"Thirteen."

"Seventy-five."

"Eleven. That's my lowest offer."

"And I won't take a penny more than ninety." We're both smiling now. It's hard to imagine another set of circumstances that could result in this kind of negotiation.

"He could afford to come home then, you see, and that's the last thing I want."

"I'm sorry, but I think you'd better talk to someone else." When I get back to the shop I'm going to burst into tears and cry like a baby for a month, but I can't bring myself to do it to this guy.

"Fine."

I stand up to go, and then get back on my knees: I just want one last, lingering look.

"Can I buy this Otis Redding single off you?"

"Sure. Ten pee."

"Oh, come on. Let me give you a tenner for this, and you can give the rest away for all I care."

"OK. Because you took the trouble to come up here. And because you've got principles. But that's it. I'm not selling them to you one by one."

So I go to Wood Green and I come back with a mint condition "You Left The Water Running", which I pick up for a tenner. That's not a bad morning's work. Barry and Dick will be impressed. But if they ever find out about Elvis and James Brown and Jerry Lee Lewis and the Pistols and the Beatles and the rest, they will suffer immediate and possibly dangerous traumatic shock, and I will have to counsel them, and...

How come I ended up siding with the bad guy, the man who's left his wife and taken himself off to Spain with some nymphette? Why can't I bring myself to feel whatever it is his wife is feeling? Maybe I should go home and flog Laura's sculpture to someone who wants to smash it to pieces and use it for scrap; maybe that would do me some good. But I know I won't. All I can see is that guy's face when he gets his pathetic cheque through the mail, and I can't help but feel desperately, painfully sorry for him.

`High Fidelity' is published by Victor Gollancz on Thursday, price £14.99

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