This was the magnum opus of my teenage years, a near 8000-word short story that I think still holds up as one of my favourite pieces. Inevitably there are some passages that I would totally re-write now, but actually there’s a lot I still like, particularly the end. I spend way too much time on endings, and this is one of the ones I’m happiest with.
I’ve decided to publish it over three weeks, because no-one wants to read an 8000 word blogpost. Do bear in mind that it’s one story and I’ve only divided it into three for the purposes of this blog.
The framing device is a diary-like structure that refers to dates in 2009. When I wrote this story in late 2006, the idea was to project it slightly into the future. Obviously 2009 is now way in the past (scary) so the framing doesn’t work so well. Never mind.
Final remark: I wrote this story so long ago that it’s DOUBLE SPACED. Unbelievable. So yeah, some weird formatting…
The Man Who Turned Into a Pebble: Part 1 (written 2006)
On 13th November, 2009, Sebastian went to see his doctor with a migraine. He returned with the knowledge that he was going to turn into a pebble. As a result, he overcooked the duck and forgot to put cornflour in the gravy.
Christmas dinner was almost ruined.
The waiting room was small, grey and nondescript. Sebastian sat in a corner near to a potted plant that looked dead and read an issue of Hello magazine from over a year ago. Of the ten or so seats arranged around the edge of the room, his was the only one with an occupant. He was the last appointment of the day and he was feeling impatient. He glanced once more at the digital clock above the reception. Just like all such timepieces, it was connected wirelessly to a quantum time signal which was bounced off any number of orbiting satellites, ensuring that the time was calibrated and adjusted to such perfection that the local time in any one place could be accurately displayed to one millionth of a millisecond. It was also broken.
Annoyed, Sebastian looked at his watch, which was always at least five minutes fast or slow. He could never remember which.
“Excuse me,” he said, after he had stood up and walked over to the reception. The overweight nurse behind the counter was reading an issue of Hello magazine that had been printed the very same day.
“Yes?” asked the nurse with practised patience.
“Sorry to be difficult,” Sebastian said, trying to sound sorry. “It’s just that it’s nearly five o’clock and I have to be home by six or my wife will kill me.”
The nurse raised her eyebrows.
“Not literally, of course,” Sebastian continued, hurriedly. “That would be…illegal. But, um, do you have any idea how long Dr. Heckle will be?”
“Sorry, sir,” said the nurse, trying to sound sorry. “I’m afraid I can’t promise anything. His last appointment was over half an hour ago, so he should definitely be done soon. I’m sorry for the delay.”
“I’ll wait a while longer,” Sebastian said, sighing. “But it’s Friday, right? That means it’s fish night at home. And my wife puts a lot of effort into her fish.”
“I’m sure she does, sir. I’m sorry.”
Sebastian nodded awkwardly and returned to his seat. Dr. Heckle called him in ten minutes later. There was still a game of Solitaire on his computer screen when Sebastian sat down.
“So…Mr. Graves,” the doctor said, glancing at the file he had in front of him on his desk. He was finding it hard to focus so late in the day. He could see his three-day weekend on the horizon. Losing concentration, he found he was actually just staring at his desk. It was a magnificent, sturdy, mahogany desk, of which he was very proud. He made a show out of polishing its surface with a tissue.
“So…Mr. Graves,” he said again, making an effort to read the file. “That’s a somewhat macabre name, no? Sorry, I’m sure you hear that all the time.”
Sebastian shook his head politely.
“I’ve been having these migraines,” he said. “Nothing much to worry about, I’m sure, but they’ve been going on for over a week so I thought I’d get them checked out.”
“Right,” said the doctor, nodding and making a few notes. “What are these migraines like?”
“They’re, um, like dull, throbbing headaches most of the time, but every now and then I’ll get these intense flashes of pain.”
“Interesting,” said the doctor, narrowing his eyes and making more notes. “Any other symptoms?”
“Erm, not really,” Sebastian replied. “Wait, some dizziness, I guess, but I figure that’s just because of the pain.”
The doctor’s eyes widened slightly and he stopped making notes.
“Well…Mr. Graves,” he said, glancing at his notes to remind himself of the patient’s name. “I’m sure you’re right, it’s probably nothing to worry about, but let’s do a perfunctory brain scan just in case and then I’ll give you some painkillers.”
“Any stress?” asked the doctor, as he positioned a camera-like device above Sebastian’s head. “At home? At work?”
Sebastian was lying down on a small, uncomfortable bed in a room that looked like it might never have been used before.
“Erm, not really,” he said, shaking his head.
(“Please don’t move your head, Mr. Graves.”)
“Although my wife will kill me if I’m not home by six,” Sebastian continued. He laughed nervously. “Not literally,” he quickly added.
“I see,” said the doctor. He clicked a button and there was a blinding flash of light above Sebastian’s head. Sebastian instinctively closed his eyes but the white-hot glare was already determinedly burned onto his retinas. He rubbed his eyes, trying to clear his temporary blindness.
“Right, well we’re done here, Mr. Graves,” the doctor said, already turning to a printer that was busily producing the results. “The wonders of modern medicine, eh?” he murmured, more to himself than anything.
There was a short pause. Sebastian watched in growing curiosity as the doctor stared at the sheet of paper in his hands. And then the doctor raised his head and looked Sebastian in the eyes. The sudden horror in the doctor’s expression, the sheer shock and pity, overwhelmed Sebastian. His face fell and his head shook in silent denial.
“It’s not serious, is it?” he asked timidly, already knowing the answer.
“Mr. Graves,” the doctor started, then seemed to lose his nerve. He took a deep breath and ripped Sebastian’s world apart.
“Mr. Graves, I’m afraid you’re going to turn into a pebble.”
He walked so slowly home that by the time he arrived, he was almost twenty minutes late for dinner. He carefully unlocked the front door and stepped into the porch, shutting the door behind him. He put his umbrella back on the rack, took off his coat and hung it up on the correct hook. Then he forced himself to smile, opened the inner door and followed the delicious aroma of fish into the kitchen.
When his wife stopped shouting, realising that something was wrong, he took her in his arms and explained everything. She was so upset that she let the children eat their meal in front of the television. Even though it was fish night.
Bright sunlight was streaming through the double windows when Sebastian finally opened his eyes. There was a light wind which rippled the curtains and darted furtively around the room, gently nudging him awake. On the table beside his bed was a plate of sausages and scrambled egg. He breathed in the smell of morning dew and fried fats, suddenly feeling remarkably hungry. The clock by his breakfast told him that it was nearly ten. He was almost overwhelmingly grateful that it was a Saturday. The thought of having to get up and go to work on such a day was inconceivable.
“How you feeling?” asked his wife, standing in the doorway, her long, brown hair buffeted across her face by the wind.
“Not too bad,” Sebastian mumbled, through a mouthful of egg. “I still feel pretty human.”
His wife came and sat next to him on their deluxe, king-size bed. He still remembered the day they had bought it. They had only been married a couple of years and their car had broken down in the furniture store car park. Annoyed by the lack of cooperation from the staff, Sebastian had gone back inside, bought a mattress and dragged it out onto the tarmac…
He started to laugh, despite himself. His wife, with her head against his shoulder, looked at him in puzzlement.
“Remember that time,” Sebastian said, chuckling, “when I dragged that mattress out onto the Ikea car park and we both pretended to go to sleep.”
Julia smiled. “I remember,” she said softly. “I was laughing so much I nearly threw up.”
“And then it started to rain!” Sebastian added, suddenly remembering. There was a pause and then Julia began laughing as well. Soon she was giggling uncontrollably, the way she always did once she started laughing. It was one of her most endearing traits, Sebastian thought.
“That security guard,” she breathed, in between laughs, as she wiped tears from her eyes. “He was so confused!”
She buried her head in the duvet and her laughs were suddenly indistinguishable from sobs. Sebastian idly stroked her hair and took a bite of sausage.
That night, they sat their two children down in the lounge and, with Julia sitting between them, holding their hands, Sebastian told them the news.
Kate stared blankly at him and continued to chew her blanket. Sebastian was relieved, in a way, that she was far too young to appreciate the significance of what he had said. Still, he felt a sudden surge of regret that she might not even remember him in years to come.
Matthew, on the other hand, understood perfectly. His look of consternation almost broke Sebastian’s heart. He stood in silence as his eight-year old son stormed out of the room.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered to his daughter, who burped.
The pub was about half-full (or, more likely, half-empty) when Sebastian arrived. He pushed open the door, savouring the smells of beer and wood. It was intensely comforting, even if it did lack the heavy aroma of tobacco that had always been present when smoking was legal. His friends sat at the same table that they always sat, in the same corner of the same cosy, village pub, drinking the same drinks and telling the same old, tired jokes.
“Hello, he’s here at last,” said one of them as he approached.
“’Ello Seb,” added another.
“Are you lot drunk already?” Sebastian asked, slapping David on the back as he sat down.
“Well you’re very late,” David replied, looking slightly bleary-eyed. “And the footie’s not very interesting.”
“Who’s playing?” Sebastian asked, regretting it immediately.
“You’re such an ignorant fool,” Mike said, throwing a coaster at him. “Now are you getting a drink?”
Sebastian sighed and stood up, smiling. “Next round’s on me.”
It took Sebastian almost the entire evening to work up the courage to tell his friends what Dr. Heckle had told him, so that the bell signifying final orders echoed dimly into the silence which followed his remarks.
“You’re joking,” said Frank.
“A pebble?” asked Mike, looking bewildered. “Are you sure?”
“You’re joking,” repeated Frank.
“I’m not joking,” said Sebastian quietly. “I’m serious.”
David stared at him silently.
“Seb…” Mike ventured. Words failed him and he put his hand on Sebastian’s shoulder. “Bad luck, mate. I’m so sorry.”
“A pebble?” asked Frank. “As in, a small rock?”
“That’s the one,” Sebastian promised, smiling slightly.
“Does no-one else find this a little strange?” Frank asked slowly, looking around at them.
“Of course it’s strange, you idiot,” Mike replied. “You don’t see people turning into pebbles all the time, do you? Stop taking the piss.”
“It’s all right, Mike,” Sebastian said, placatingly. “It does sound ridiculous.”
It was then that Sebastian realised that David had yet to say anything. He turned to his best friend, the unasked question hanging in the air between them.
“How long?” asked David after an awkward pause. He spoke so softly that Sebastian could barely hear him. “How long till it happens?”
“I don’t know,” Sebastian admitted. “I’m going in for more tests but I don’t know yet. Soon though. It will happen soon.”
“Let me get this straight,” Frank said suddenly, cutting into the tension between the two men. “You’ve known this since Friday and you’ve still turned up to work the last three days?! You know you’re going to die and you’re still helping print books?!”
“I’m not going to die, Frank,” replied Sebastian. “I’m just going to turn into a pebble.”
“Whatever, man. You need to quit your fucking job.”
Sebastian turned up to work at Hoddingtons Printing Press at exactly nine in the morning. Frank looked over at him incredulously every once in a while but said nothing until the afternoon. Then, during his lunch break, he crossed the factory floor to keep him company. Both men sat, silently eating their sandwiches, shivering now and then as they felt the icy concrete beneath them and, far above, the swirling winds that whistled around the huge, dilapidated building. Even the printing press loomed large above their heads, filling the air with the sounds of rusty machinery as it clanked its way obliviously to an imminent breakdown.
With his back leaning against an enormous, wooden crate and the huge doors open to a sweeping countryside, Sebastian suddenly felt very small. In his mind’s eye, he pictured himself shrinking into his surroundings, becoming smaller and smaller, then finally disappearing without ever being noticed.
“What sort of pebble are you going to be?” Frank asked suddenly, wiping mayonnaise away from his mouth.
Sebastian stared at him in silence.
“I know, I know, I’m being insensitive,” Frank continued, waving the thought away as if it was irrelevant. “But I’m serious. There are some great pebbles out there and some really crappy ones.”
“What’s your point, Frank?”
Frank thought for a moment. “If you had a choice, what sort of pebble would you be?”
“Given a choice, Frank, I wouldn’t be a pebble at all.”
“Well that’s no use, Seb. You don’t have that choice.”
To be continued…