The Man Who Turned Into a Pebble: Part 3 (written 2006)
“You know, ever since I contracted this ridiculous disease, every single conversation I’ve had has been about pebbles. What I’d really like is just to go an entire day without anyone even mentioning the damn word.”
Approximately forty-seven minutes later, David turned up at Sebastian’s door to talk about pebbles at length. He brought a vicar.
“Oh, you found time to see your best friend in his last week as a human,” Sebastian said sarcastically, glaring at David. “How noble of you.”
“Seb…” David began, before he was swiftly interrupted.
“No, no,” Sebastian said. “Don’t apologise. I’m just impressed that you managed to make it this far from church on your own.” He glanced at the vicar, replete in black gown and white dog collar. “Well, maybe not quite on your own. I see you needed a bodyguard. God doesn’t own this neighbourhood yet, hmm?”
“Or were you under the impression that you had been invited to a fancy dress party? Is that what you thought all those calls were about? Because I actually wanted to talk about the little matter of my incurable, terminal illness.”
He stopped and waved his hands as if granting David permission to speak.
“I’m really sorry,” his friend began. “I had a lot to think about…”
“A lot to pray about.”
“…Well, yes. I had to get some things straight. I was questioning a lot of my beliefs. But I’m here for you now.”
“About time,” Sebastian said dryly. “I am not long of this world.”
“I’m so sorry,” David said again.
“I see you brought a friend.”
David suddenly looked uncomfortable and nodded awkwardly.
“Well, you better come in then.”
“I am not going to die!” Sebastian exclaimed yet again. “I’m just turning into a pebble! I’m assured by my excellent doctor that, technically, technically, I’m never going to die. Is this getting through to you?”
The vicar nodded. He was a tall man and much younger than most vicars Sebastian knew. He was also lively, talkative and half-way through his second beer. In fact, he seemed to be intent on breaking every stereotype in the book. Except the one that involved talking incessantly about God.
“You aren’t just a body though,” James continued. “You’re a human. As such, you were made in God’s own image and you have what I suppose we would term a soul. That’s what’s important. And that’s why David’s been so concerned about you…” He put his hand up to stop Sebastian who had been about to interrupt. “I know he didn’t show it very well! But he does care. And that’s why I’m here today. You see, when you die…”
“I am not going to die!” Sebastian almost shouted.
“Turning into a pebble is basically death,” James went on, undeterred. “You won’t ever know you’re a pebble. Pebbles don’t have souls. Thus it’s safe to presume that your soul will leave you when you…turn into a pebble…and it’s up to you what happens to it.”
“Why?” asked Sebastian. David and James just looked at him so he continued. “Why is it ‘safe to presume’ that my soul will leave me when I turn into a pebble? You don’t know that. When I’m a pebble, I fully intend to be the first pebble with a soul.”
“Seb, will you do me a favour?” David asked suddenly. “Come with me to church tomorrow. Look, I always ask you and this is about the last week that it’ll be possible. Please?”
“I dunno, David. It seems that it’d be much easier for you to drag me to church when I’m a pebble. Not much I can do to stop you.”
“What’s the meaning of your life?” James asked Sebastian during the silence.
Sebastian smiled. “Got that all figured out,” he said.
“Really?” James went on. “It’s just about the deepest, most important problem in the world. People have been desperately searching for the answer for thousands of years. And you just worked it out on your own?”
“Yep,” Sebastian agreed with mock cheerfulness.
“So how do you know?” James asked.
Sebastian leaned in close and whispered conspiratorially.
“I know the meaning of my life because I know exactly where I’m going. I know exactly what will happen after I close my eyes for the very last time. I know that I won’t be in heaven and I won’t be in hell…
I’ll be a pebble. The meaning of my life is to be a pebble.”
Outside, drops of rain were turning to ice. There might even have been a few flakes of snow drifting on the horizon.
Eventually, to make them leave, Sebastian agreed to go to church. James shook his hand as he left. David hesitated and then hugged him. It was, to Sebastian’s sudden dismay, a profoundly awkward moment.
“When did we stop being friends?” he asked the door, after it had shut.
The church was old and ornate, with huge stained-glass windows staring down on either side of the pews. The faint winter sunlight diffracted off the patterns in the glass and scattered across the dozy church air, illuminating flocks of dust particles, which floated sanctimoniously towards the archways far above. The atmosphere, however, was not what Sebastian expected. It was bright and loud, helped by a number of children and teenagers as well as a host of Christmas decorations. He looked at his family, standing in the pew with him, all smartly dressed for the occasion. Kate and Matthew fidgeted while Julia stared straight ahead, seemingly transfixed by an image on the far wall. When the opening hymn started, Sebastian was wondering if he had accidentally left the milk on top of the fridge.
The whole service passed in a blur. Sebastian took his cues from the people in front of him, sitting and standing when necessary and letting the words wash over him. There was a great deal of singing and an appropriately festive sermon by the vicar that had turned up at his house the day before. It was all slightly less painful but just as tedious as Sebastian had imagined. Kate and Matthew continued to fidget while Julia seemed strangely captivated by it all. When the closing hymn finished, Sebastian was wondering if milk would eventually turn into cheese. It distracted him sufficiently to stop him from noticing that his wife might have been crying.
“Hello again,” James said, shaking Sebastian’s hand near the exit of the church. Sebastian gazed longingly at the door, mere metres away.
“Hi there,” he replied reluctantly.
“What did you think of the service?” James inquired.
Sebastian sighed. “I haven’t felt the magic touch of God, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“You have to be open, you know,” James persisted. “You have to be willing to listen.”
“Well perhaps I’m not.” Sebastian shrugged. “Perhaps I just don’t care.”
James touched him lightly on the arm. “I’ll keep praying for you then. Ezekiel tells us that God can work miracles on anyone.”
“Good for Ezekiel,” Sebastian said. He turned to leave.
“Ezekiel, Chapter thirty-six, verse twenty-six,” James continued.
Sebastian began to walk away.
“Don’t you want to know what it says?” James asked.
Sebastian kept on walking.
“I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
Sebastian stopped. The world was suddenly very silent. In a flash, everything felt like nothing more than someone’s sick and twisted joke. After a long pause, he grabbed Julia by the hand and, without turning around, led his family out of the church and down the street, leaving the building far behind.
“Dr. Heckle called.”
“The old one.”
“You mean the one you’ve known longer?”
“No, I mean the one who’s old.”
“So the new one?”
“What did he say?”
“I get to spend Christmas Day as a human.”
“Oh, thank God! That’s great! Then what?”
“Then I get to spend Boxing Day as a pebble.”
If this was a work of fiction, Sebastian would have woken up (on his last day as a human being) to a glorious White Christmas. The sky would have been crisp and clear and glistening snow would have covered the ground. Perhaps there would even have been the sound of bells resonating through the frozen morning air.
Sadly, real life is rarely so picture perfect.
Sebastian woke up (on his last day as a human being) to a glorious White Christmas. The sky was crisp and clear and glistening snow covered the ground. He could even hear the sound of bells resonating through the frozen morning air.
It was picture perfect.
“I have to say,” he said to no-one in particular, “I’m feeling rather optimistic about life today.” He laughed to himself and put on his slippers for probably the very last time.
He was still choosing the very last clothes he wanted to wear when his dramatically over-excited offspring whirled into his room, leaving the door shaking on its hinges and almost knocking him off his feet. The hybrid being that was Matthew-Kate spoke an unintelligible language that Sebastian thought might have distant connections with English.
“Merry-christmas-daddy-look-at-all-the-toys-santa-brought-us-mummy-wants-your-help-in-the-kitchen!” it said.
Sebastian smiled broadly. “Merry Christmas Matty. Merry Christmas Katie.”
For the last time, he added to himself.
In the kitchen, Julia appeared to be butchering carrots.
“Good morning, dear,” he said brightly.
“Can you help, please?” she replied shortly, wiping sweat off her brow as if to make a point. Sebastian thought he could see pieces of carrot in her hair.
“Merry Christmas to you too,” he replied.
She smiled thinly and handed him a knife. “If you cut up the carrots, then maybe it will be.”
Matthew spent some time playing with his new train set while Kate spent the same time playing with the train set box, but eventually the call of the snow was too great and they fidgeted impatiently while Sebastian made them put on boots and scarves and gloves. Then they were off, bounding into the garden and rolling around happily, before beginning work on the worst snowman Sebastian had ever seen.
“That’s probably the best snowman I’ve ever seen,” he told Kate, who gurgled happily and threw snow in his ear.
“Dad?” asked Matthew, still absorbed with packing snow onto the misshapen snow creature. “Do adults get to build railways?”
“Sure, Matty. Some do.”
“Can I do that?” his son asked.
“Yes, Matty,” Sebastian replied, nodding. “Of course you can.”
Soon after, he went back inside to rescue Julia.
“Please take a break,” he implored her. “I can take care of stuff in here.”
She hugged him tight and kissed him on the forehead.
“Merry Christmas, Seb,” she said. She paused. “Watch the duck. It needs to come out in about twenty minutes. And if you really want to be helpful, you can make the gravy.”
“I’m sure I can manage that,” Sebastian said, smiling.
He stood by the cooker, stirring a saucepan, and watched through the kitchen window as his wife helped turn the snowman into a work of beauty. He could think of nothing he would rather be doing. In fact, he could think of nothing.
Time passed and he stared, transfixed, out of the window. His wife was now running around the garden shrieking as her children threw snow at her. He let the sounds wash over him and, still, thought of nothing.
Not even the duck, which felt ignored and set off the fire alarm.
“The duck! The duck!” shrieked Julia, bursting into the kitchen and frantically pulling on oven gloves. Sebastian was still at the stage of peering dutifully through the billows of smoke, trying to ascertain what to do. His wife practically threw him to one side as she reached into the blackness and pulled out a smouldering bird.
“It’s ruined!” she cried in horror, as Sebastian quickly opened all the windows. They stood in silence, surveying the duck through the smoky gloom, the fire alarm plaintively whining in the background.
“That’s all you had to do,” Julia said quietly. “All you had to do was watch the duck.”
“Well, technically, I had to make gravy as well,” Sebastian replied, trying to smile. The fire alarm continued to wail.
“You’re making jokes?” Julia continued. “Here I am, slaving away to make you a lovely meal for the last ever time, and you couldn’t even do this one simple thing for me?”
“I’m sorry,” Sebastian said softly. “But it’ll be all right. It’s just slightly overcooked. And look, I made the gravy.”
Amidst the incessant shriek of the fire alarm, now clearly annoyed at the lack of attention it was getting, Julia peered at Sebastian’s gravy. She started to cry.
“You didn’t put cornflour in it, did you? You didn’t even do that.” The fire alarm screamed one time too many. Julia screamed back.
It was the loudest scream Sebastian had ever heard, an ear-piercing cry of pain that sent shivers down his spine. His wife picked up a chair and threw it at the ceiling. The fire alarm shut up and fell, dying, to the floor.
“You insensitive, selfish shit,” she said, looking at the floor, her voice as cold as ice.
“Julia!” Sebastian said. He reached out to grab her.
“Get off me!” she screamed, and Sebastian recoiled in shock. “Get away from me, you horrible, horrible man!”
“Shut up, just shut up! You idiot! You pathetic, awful, terrible excuse for a human being! Fuck off, Seb! Fuck off and die!”
She collapsed onto the floor, sobbing uncontrollably, whilst a small boy and an even smaller girl stood in the doorway, staring at their mother, utterly aghast.
Sebastian sat, silently, on the kitchen floor. Outside, his children dutifully tried to continue building their snowman. His wife was slumped against a wall on the other side of the kitchen, head in her hands. Eventually, Sebastian took the plunge.
“See, now I remember why I’m so scared of you. This last month or so, I’d almost forgotten. You’ve been so subdued. I love that you tried so hard. I love that you’ve been so brave.”
Julia kept her head in her hands and her reply was muffled. “I nearly managed it as well.”
“Julia, I’m so sorry.”
“No you’re not, Seb.”
Sebastian paused. “I know. I don’t know why.”
“Seb, you’re a pebble. You’re made of stone.”
He smiled. “Not yet I’m not.”
Julia lifted her head and stared at him across the kitchen floor.
“Yes you are, Seb.”
Sebastian stared back. Then he nodded once, closed his eyes and let his smile fade.
They salvaged Christmas dinner and did their best to enjoy eating it, even if the atmosphere was slightly subdued. They reassured Matty and Kate over and over that they loved each other and were just having a silly fight and they were very sorry and there was no need to repeat the words mummy had said. They pulled crackers and laughed about the duck and ate far too many potatoes. Matthew had three helpings of Christmas pudding and Kate mashed her single helping into the floor. Then Sebastian took his wife by the hand and led her outside, where the snow, incredibly, was still falling, and the snowman, incredibly, looked almost like a man.
That night, Sebastian said goodnight to his children and tucked them into bed. He stayed with them both until they fell asleep. He did not say goodbye.
Soon after, he walked round the house one last time, locked the doors one last time, and switched off all the lights. One last time.
They had sex one last time because it was the right thing to do, then they lay for a while in the dark, gazing at nothing as it spiralled away forever.
“I wish I could feel,” said Sebastian.
“Perhaps it’s better this way,” said his wife.
The darkness continued to spiral.
“I’m sorry, Seb. You know that, right?”
There was a pause for the very last time.
“I loved you, Julia.”
“I loved you too, Seb.”
In her dream, Sebastian was as normal as he’d ever been, except he had no face. They had gone for a walk along a busy road and the time came when they had to cross. He looked left, then right, then left again, but he had no eyes. When he stepped out into the road, Julia screamed, but he had no ears. Then, with an articulated lorry mere seconds from running him over, time stopped. In the age that followed, Sebastian slowly turned to face his wife. She waited desperately for him to speak, but he had no mouth. The faceless creature stared at her.
Then time resumed and his body was smashed into oblivion.
Julia awoke in the middle of the night, breathing heavily, a thin layer of sweat covering her shivering body. She sat up and looked over to her husband, fast asleep, breathing deeply and regularly, as content as he had ever been. She reached out to touch him and ran her fingers gently over his face. Gradually her breathing slowed to a gentle rhythm, rippling in time with her husband’s breaths. She hugged him tight, infinitely glad that her dream was not real. Then she closed her eyes, infinitely glad that her husband was still alive.
When Julia’s eyes opened again, it was still dark outside and her husband had turned into a pebble. There he lay, on his pillow, small and round and smooth. She nodded once and quickly dressed. Then she put Sebastian in her pocket, left the house under brightening skies and, while her children were still asleep, walked briskly down to the lake.