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."
Typically, the printing press chose Fish Night to act up, jamming half-way through a print session of the Holy Bible and turning the second half of Luke's account of the birth of Jesus into mere gibberish. Sebastian had to work an extra half an hour to solve the problem and, as a result, despite running all the way to the bus stop, still arrived late home for dinner.
His wife hugged him tight when he arrived and immediately served up the smoked salmon without another word.
Sebastian and Julia sat in silence on the long drive to the specialist clinic. The weather was becoming increasingly wet and Sebastian wanted to let his wife concentrate as she squinted through the rain and gloom, eyes fixed determinedly on the road, hands gripping the steering wheel tight. Drops of water pounded relentlessly against the windows and roof of the car, dripping steadily down the windscreen before being swept away by the equally relentless wipers. Sebastian let his eyes follow the hypnotic movement, the monotonous rhythm clearing his mind of thoughts as effectively as it cleared the window of rain. It was mid-morning but the weather suggested that the sun had simply forgotten to appear or had more pressing engagements. The gloomy sky did nothing to brighten Sebastian's spirits and by the time they arrived, he was thoroughly depressed.
The parking meter at the car park was obviously in on the conspiracy. It ate Sebastian's money and refused to give him a ticket.
"You stupid piece of shit!" Sebastian was shouting when his wife finally came to investigate what was taking so long. "You stupid, useless, fucking piece of shit!"
He kicked the parking meter repeatedly, adrenalin coursing through his veins. When that failed to have an effect, he closed his umbrella and started smashing it against the machine. The parking meter stood placidly, uncomprehending and uncaring.
"You shit!" Sebastian roared at it. "I'm turning into a pebble! Don't you care? Don't you fucking care?"
He paused and slowly turned around. Julia stood behind him, holding her own umbrella over him, her face a stunned mixture of horror and anguish. Her clothes and hair were utterly drenched.
"I..." Sebastian shook his head, appalled at himself. He turned back to the parking meter, suddenly confused and disorientated. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," he said to the parking meter and the mangled umbrella which lay forlornly by his feet.
"We better go in," said the parking meter softly. Sebastian stared at it.
"We better go in," said his wife again. She took him by the hand and led him, like a child, towards the dreary, concrete building framed against the emptying skies.
The doctor's office was covered from wall to wall with various certificates and awards as well as a pre-school drawing of something which might have been a rabbit. There was a small fan hanging from the ceiling, whirring quietly to itself as it filled the room with an unnecessary breeze. An old, bearded man sat behind a simple desk, his hands covering various pieces of paper that were threatening to blow away. Sebastian said nothing, his eyes fixed intently on the name tag on the doctor's white coat which identified him as Dr. Heckle. Julia sat, shivering, occasionally glancing up at the fan. The doctor failed to take the hint.
"Sebastian," he said eventually, sighing theatrically. His voice was deep and gravelly.
"Dr. Heckle," replied Sebastian. "Are you related to my GP?"
"I beg your pardon?" the doctor asked, scratching his beard.
"My GP is also called Dr. Heckle. It's not exactly a common name."
"Sorry, my good man, I don't believe I know of any other family members who entered medicine. An interesting coincidence for sure."
"He's a lot younger than you," Sebastian said.
"Be that as it may, I'm afraid I don't know him," the new Dr. Heckle replied, with a note of finality in his voice. "Now shall we attend to business?"
"I'm definitely going to turn into a pebble?" Sebastian asked simply. Julia squeezed his hand.
"I'm afraid so, my good man," the doctor said, arranging his face into a look of compassion and sympathy. "I've seen the results, there's no doubt at all."
"How can you even tell something like that?" Julia asked suddenly.
"Oh, it's all very technical," came the reply. "I won't bore you with the details now but I can certainly give you an information pack which will explain everything. Now I know this is an intensely difficult time for you both but I'm here to help you as best as I can. Now do you have any other questions?"
"When will it happen?" Sebastian asked, looking down at the floor. The doctor consulted his flapping papers.
"In about a month or so. We can't be sure of the exact date but it will most likely be late December. You probably won't see in the new year."
"What about Christmas?" Julia asked, choking back tears.
"Perhaps," Dr. Heckle said, looking thoughtful. "I can't promise anything."
"What's going to happen before then?" Sebastian kept his gaze firmly on his shoes.
"Oh, nothing at all, my good man," the doctor said, suddenly sounding cheerful. "You shouldn't experience any other symptoms or side-effects at all. If you're still experiencing headaches, even those should fade in time. No, no, the whole process is very quick and clean. Most likely you'll fall asleep as a human and wake up as a pebble. You won't feel anything."
"You're sure he won't suffer?"
"Quite sure, my dear. I promise you."
"Wait," said Sebastian quickly. "What do you mean, I'll wake up as a pebble? Pebbles don't wake up."
"Well, sure," the doctor replied. He paused and scratched his beard again. "It's a question of semantics, I suppose. Technically, you're not going to die. Thus, when you turn into a pebble, you'll still be alive."
"I know, I know, it sounds stupid and I suppose it's somewhat misleading. You will, for all intents and purposes, be...well, dead, I suppose. You certainly won't still have a consciousness or be able to think or anything. You'll just be a regular pebble."
"My husband will certainly not be a regular pebble," Julia replied indignantly.
Sebastian smiled at her as he thought of another question to ask. "Is there any chance that...um, you know..."
"The process might reverse itself? Again, I'm afraid not, my good man. The whole thing is quite incurable and...permanent."
"What if a cure's invented in the future?" Julia asked. Sebastian could hear a note of desperation in her voice.
"I find that unlikely," Dr. Heckle admitted. "It's not like there's a lot of research going on into this particular...affliction. In fact, I believe you're the first documented case in the world."
"That's me," Sebastian nodded. "Unique." He stopped and screwed up his eyes in concentration. An interesting thought had just occurred to him. "So this means that, technically, technically, I'm never going to die?"
"Well, I suppose so, yes." Dr. Heckle nodded, smiling. "You're going to live forever." He smiled even more broadly and then let out a huge guffaw. The deep, baritone laugh startled Sebastian and Julia so much that they both jumped in their seats. The doctor ignored them and continued to chortle. "An immortal pebble!" he gasped. "Who would believe it?"
Julia stood, eyebrows raised, lips pursed in a thin line. Sebastian could almost feel her anger. She had never looked more beautiful.
"Dr. Heckle," she said through gritted teeth, enunciating each syllable with icy clarity. "I would appreciate it if you showed my husband just a little more respect. Otherwise, I might just come back when he's a pebble and jam him down your throat. And then we'll see how funny you find it when you're choking to death on an immortal pebble." She paused. "Oh, and one more thing. Switch off the damn fan. I'm freezing my nipples off in here."
"You're so sexy, you know that?" Sebastian whispered, almost choking on his silent laughter.
When they got back to the car, they found a parking ticket stuck to the bonnet. Sebastian chuckled happily, carefully removed it, systematically ripped it into shreds and threw the remains into a puddle.
They had finished eating dinner, the children were in bed and the tuna casserole dish stubbornly continued to resist all of Sebastian's attempts to clean it. His wife sat on the kitchen table, legs resting on a chair, the newspaper spread out in front of her.
"Are you actually going to read that?" Sebastian asked. "Or just watch me wash up."
"You're not really washing up," Julia pointed out. "That dish is still as dirty as when you started."
"What did you put in that casserole, woman?" Sebastian asked indignantly. "Glue? Cement?"
"Hey, it's not my fault you're incompetent at even the simplest household tasks. It's about time you learned properly!"
"I'm going to turn into a pebble, honey," Sebastian said sweetly. "Do you know how little I care about clean casserole dishes right now?"
"Don't honey me," Julia replied. "You think I like cleaning casserole dishes? Someone has to do it, you know. Why should it be me?"
"Because I'm turning into a pebble, honey," Sebastian reiterated. "I have much loftier and noble thoughts on my mind. Like how to be round."
"Is this going to be your excuse for everything now? Pebble this, pebble that. We all have problems, you know!"
Sebastian laughed, took off his yellow gloves and attacked his wife with them. "Get away from me!" she shrieked, leaping off the table and grabbing both his wrists.
"Apologise!" Sebastian whispered in her ear.
"Never!" Julia replied with mock severity.
"You have to," Sebastian continued. "I'm turning into a pebble, you know."
He leaned in close as his wife dissolved into another fit of giggles. When she finally stopped, he gently kissed her. She let go of his wrists and he dropped the gloves. He kissed her again and again, holding her gently without ever planning to let go. Eventually, she put her arms around his head and he carried her upstairs to a world where no-one cared about washing-up and dirty casserole dishes were left in peace.
They made love with a raw passion that neither of them had felt in years. Half-way through, with Julia on top and Sebastian honestly thinking of no-one but her, she suddenly stopped and leaned in, bringing him dangerously close to orgasm.
"What's the sex going to be like when you're a pebble?" she asked.
"Woman!" Sebastian breathed. "No conversations during sex! Especially no jokes!"
She kissed him hard and, just for a moment, his life, pebbles and all, was perfect.
They both lay, naked, breathing heavily, on top of the bed.
"So is this what you're going to do for the next four weeks?" Julia asked, breaking the comfortable silence. "Go to work, come home, see the children, knock me up?"
"Sounds like an awesome life," Sebastian ventured, smiling.
"Seb," said Julia, sitting up, suddenly serious. "This is your last chance to really live."
Sebastian sighed. "I know. And don't worry, I've thought a lot about it. I could spend my last weeks travelling the world, seeing the sights, eating a hundred different foods, sleeping under dozens of different roofs. And then I thought, I'd rather just stay here, see you, Matty and Kate, eat your food and sleep under our roof."
"You are so whipped."
"Yeah, well, I love you and I'm not going anywhere."
"You mean, until you turn into a pebble?"
"I'll still be here!"
Julia fondled his hair. "I love you too. I just don't want to see you spending your last weeks as a human helping to print books."
"I like printing books," Sebastian lied. "Look, the only reason that I do it at all is to provide for us. I was prepared to do it for my whole life, I don't see why that should change just because it may end a little sooner than expected. When I'm a pebble, you'll have to go back to work and I don't want you to have to worry about money."
"You just want an elaborate funeral, don't you?"
"I'm not going to die! I'm just going to turn into a pebble!" He rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Now, where were we?"
He reached out and gently stroked his wife's breasts. She closed her eyes in pleasure and fell back down on the bed. Outside, clouds moved across the darkened sky, silhouetted against a washed-out moon. Sebastian moved inside his wife, every movement bringing him closer to the point when time would lose all meaning and he would exist forever.
Frank and Sebastian sat together, as had now become custom, eating lunch on the factory floor.
"Have you heard from David?" Sebastian asked. "He won't answer my calls."
Frank shook his head. "I can't believe you haven't quit your job yet," he said.
With the sky looking a little more hopeful than most Saturdays in December, Sebastian and Julia took the opportunity to take the children down to the lake. Dying trees lined the western bank, forlorn and naked, most of their leaves already lost to the autumn winds. There was a heavy crunch of pebbles under their feet as they trudged down to the waterfront. Kate gurgled appreciatively and started jumping up and down in her thick winter coat. Matthew raced out onto the jetty to test out his remote control boat with his father.
Julia stayed with Kate to shout "Kate! Be careful, Kate!" at appropriate intervals.
"Dad?" asked Matthew, after a period of silence, during which the speedboat had almost collided with a startled duck. "What am I going to do when you're a pebble?"
Sebastian watched the duck take flight, uncertain what to say.
"Can I still bring my boat here?" his son continued.
"Of course, Matty."
"Can I still talk to you?"
Sebastian hesitated. "Of course, Matty. I just won't be able to talk back, that's all."
His son nodded as if this made sense, then cast his eyes back out onto the lake, where terrified ducks launched themselves off the water in all directions.
"This is going to be me," Sebastian said a while later, holding a small pebble that was perfectly smooth from years of being underwater. He tossed it in the air as the four of them walked along the western bank, winding their way through the tall, autumnal trees. "No point trying to fight it, right? May as well embrace it."
"You're not fooling anyone, dear," Julia whispered in his ear.
Sebastian shrugged. "Do you lot know how to skim stones?"
"Nope," said Julia.
"Of course," said Matty.
"Daddy!" said Kate.
"Well, maybe we all better learn," Daddy said. "After all, if you ever decide to skim me across the lake, I'd want to put on a good show. It'd be pretty pitiful if I just sank."
His son laughed and his daughter clapped her hands together happily.
"Now, what you need is a small, round, smooth pebble..."
The four of them remained by the lake, hurling pebbles with varying degrees of success. The wind continued to harass the trees, methodically removing their last remaining leaves, no matter how hard they clung to life.
"I can't believe you still haven't quit your job."
"You really hate it here, don't you?"
"Yes! In fact, sometimes I wish I could turn into a pebble."
"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.