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©2018 Mike Chapman

Volume 2.3: 'Tenacity'

On my twenty-fifth birthday, my car broke down in a dramatic fashion as I’d been driving to work down a quiet country road. I phoned for a mechanic as soon as the car sputtered to a halt to the side of the lane but hours would pass before they arrived. Little did I know that a crash on the major road nearby had brought traffic to a standstill and my would-be rescuer had wedged straight into an immobile wall of traffic.


At first, I’d entertained a foolish delusion that I might actually make it to work before anyone noticed my absence but as time wore on, I realised that I’d probably be here for most of the day, especially seeing as my phone had died. Organisation was not a strong point of mine. Neither was car maintenance.


After the first hour passed and my sense of urgency had drained away, I sat on the bumper of my battered blue car and decide to take the time to revel in the fine weather. The narrow road stretched away into the far distance, tarmac shimmering with heat, bordered by scrubby dead vegetation. I yawned, leaned back and closed my eyes.


My doze was interrupted by a cheerful humming. It came from a man walking slowly along the verge towards me, a man who I would come to call Pebble. He was about my age, dressed in shabby blue jeans and an immaculate white shirt rolled up to the elbows, and he was carrying a large duffle bag over his shoulder that was obviously extremely heavy. The weight of it was making him stagger occasionally and the exertion was making him sweat. From time to time, he would be forced to brush his damp blonde hair away from his dark eyes.


He raised his gaze from scrutinising the dusty soil and acknowledged me with a casual wave and a shy smile. I couldn’t help myself but wave back.


He headed closer but, before he reached me, he stopped and took the heavy brown duffle bag off of his shoulders and placed it delicately on the ground. The thing that had caught his eye was a pebble: flat, dark grey and about the size of his palm. To my eyes, it was entirely the same as every other stone on the verge. He picked it up, scrutinised it and buffed it hard with the cuff of his shirt until it began to shine a little. With a satisfied sigh, he loosened the ropes at the top of the bag and dropped the stone in. It made a clinking sound. Smile renewed, he hoisted the heavy bag over his shoulder and, humming under his breath once more, he resumed ambling along the road.


I watched him for a few more minutes, slowly picking his way, head bent as he methodically examined pebble after dusty pebble for another satisfactory candidate.


As he drew level with me, he whistled in cheerful surprise and picked another unremarkable rock from the soil. Again, it was weighed and measured, polished and buffed and placed reverently in the duffle bag. In the brief time that it was open, I saw that the entire bag was full of nothing but shiny pebbles. I opened my mouth to ask, but he just shook his head.


“You’d only laugh,” he murmured shyly.


For the next hour, until the repairman finally fought his way through the traffic and arrived, I placidly watched Pebble slowly comb the verges of the road. When the mechanic arrived though, my anxiety at missing work immediately returned in a tsunami of panic and I strutted back and forth like a caged lion while they peered under the car’s bonnet. It turned out that the fix was easy enough; the mechanic even managed to fix it with the stock he carried in the back of their grubby van.


As I drove away, grit spitting out from under my tyres in my haste to get to my office, I saw Pebble place one last rock into his duffle bag, assess the ground carefully with a keen eye, stare up at the sky and then dump the bag on an exact spot with an air of finality. He extracted a folded blue duffle bag, nearly identical to the first, from inside and gave the rope of the first bag a firm pull which closed the top securely. As I raced away, I could see Pebble in my rear-view mirror as he hoisted the new, empty, duffle bag over his shoulders and began combing the verge for suitable rocks once again.


On my thirty-fifth birthday, I met Pebble for the second time. I’d finished the big weekly shop in town and had loaded it all into the car’s boot with more exertion than I would have liked to admit to. As I tried to conceal how out of breath I was, I spotted a familiar shape moving along the scrub-infiltrated edge of the thronging car park: an anomalous bubble of calm in the melee of clashing supermarket trolleys and screaming children. Memory of this strange little man slowly surfaced.


Pebble looked as he always did and I cursed the genes that made him appear ageless. I had not been as fortunate: lines of stress and strain had etched themselves into my face. It had not been an easy decade since I saw him last. My career had reached its zenith in my early thirties, but I’d been unable to sustain it. I’d been given opportunities certainly, but friendly nods in corridors had slowly decayed into hastily averted glances. I worked hour after lonely hour in near-deserted offices at night, starting one project after another, but they bore little fruit. They might’ve done, if I’d finished any of them. Eventually, inexplicably, I was ushered out of the door.


Pebble raised his hand in recognition. For a moment, I didn’t know what to say. It’s not like I had anything in common with him to discuss. At the end of it all, what did I actually know about him?

“You look tired,” Pebble smiled, hefting a wide, flat grey stone from hand to hand.


“Difficult times,” I replied, trying for jocularity.


Pebble stored the stone in his duffle bag, in almost exactly the same manner as he had done the last time I had seen him.


“Would you like to join me? It looks like you could use a break,” Pebble offered kindly, indicating the wasteland generously with a wave of his hand.


I laughed.


“Thanks for the offer,” I chuckled. “But it’s all a bit pointless for my tastes.”


Pebble smiled, a little sadly perhaps, and shook his head as if I didn’t really understand what he had just asked. He wandered along again, scanning the dirt for that perfect rock.


On my forty-fifth birthday, I was contemplating leaving teaching. After my first career had imploded, I’d chosen teaching as a new profession. I’d always harboured a desire to go into the field and pass on some of the kind attentiveness that my teachers had shown me. Irritatingly, my prior experience hadn’t counted for much and I had needed to start at the bottom and slowly work my way up again. I hadn’t liked that at all and had begun to think through what my other options might be.


I was sat outside the canteen building, marking books on one of the benches, when a familiar silhouette fell across me.


I looked up but the blazing sun forced me to shield my eyes with my fingers.


“Afternoon,” Pebble said cheerfully as he continued on his way.


I looked puzzled for a second. The school’s safety policies meant that the site was locked up as tight as a drum during school hours. There should have been no way for him to get onto the school site at this time of day, but here he was.


“Hello Pebble,” I replied, finally remembering my manners. “How are you?”


“Can’t complain,” he said cheerfully as he wandered along the tall metal security fence that lined the school field. I wondered what had brought him to this grassy expanse seeing as it was so deficient in his usual prey.


“Thought I’d stop by and see how you were,” Pebble continued as he stooped and raised a likely candidate to his eyes, before throwing what was obviously a substandard specimen to one side. The change in his centre of gravity made him stagger slightly as the heavy dusk-pink duffle bag shifted unexpectedly on his shoulders.


I was taken aback by his concern. After years of mulling it over, I had come to the conclusion that Pebble had some sort of compulsion and I had tried to find him after our last encounter with an eye towards getting him some kind of help, but I hadn’t been able to find him. It was strange that he’d also been thinking of me.


“I’m fine,” I replied with a smile. “How’s the rock-collecting business going?”


Almost at once I felt bad for teasing him.


“You seem a little dissatisfied,” Pebble replied placidly.


I was startled to hear that. Hidden underneath the pile of school books was a pile of applications letters for jobs in a dozen different fields; I wondered how he’d known they were there.


“You could always help me, if you’re bored,” Pebble asked kindly.


I declined, with my usual thanks and the dusty figure left with a nod to stroll along the security fence, perfectly content to haul those bags of stones wherever his addled brain commanded. I waved absently at his back, but he didn’t see – his attention was already back where it had always been.


On my fifty-fifth birthday, I spent a great deal of time considering whether I should have left my sales job with the Castor Mining Machinery Corporation and started my own business. It wasn’t that I’d been dissatisfied with my pay, conditions or prospects while I had been there; it was more that I had recognised that time was passing along and that it was high time that I put my considerable experience to good use and made something for myself.


This particular birthday found me sitting in the coffee shop I had opened near the outskirts of town, waiting patiently for a customer. I was busy enough to keep the business afloat and fund a comfortable lifestyle for me. Seeing as the warm weather had brought the number of people seeking hot drinks to a low, I was taking the time to carefully think over whether the move from Castor had been a mistake. I enjoyed meeting people and being able to set my own hours but, of course, there wasn’t much in the way of career progression in a one-man business.


Out of a nearby copse of trees, brambles wrapped around his ankles, strode my old friend Pebble. He looked even more jolly than usual: he was whistling away to himself like a songbird and had even gone so far as to tuck a daisy behind his ear. His white shirt was stained a little with green, but it didn’t seem to bother him at all as he strode purposefully towards the road. I had never seen him walk without gazing at the ground in search of his round rocks, but today he strode as quickly as his bag would allow along the road away from this suburb.


I waved at him casually and he waved back.


“Pebble,” I laughed, coming to my cafe’s door. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”


He momentarily deviated from his beeline and wandered over to join me.


“The bag’s full,” he replied beaming widely and indicating the black duffle bag with his grime-streaked thumb.


“Do you not just put it down straight away and get another one out?” I asked,  trying to ignore how much my voice echoed in the empty café.


“Of course not!” Pebble laughed. “What would be the point of that?”


I laughed too. Kindly, I decided not to ask Pebble exactly how much point he thought his decades of exertion had.


“Where do your bags go then?” I asked charitably, as I began to eye up a customer approaching my little shop.


“With the others,” he chuckled, shifting the bag’s weight between his shoulders. “You could come and see.”


“Perhaps later,” I replied, waving him away with a mildly impatient gesture as the customer arrived.


On my sixty-fifth birthday, I sat outside my little cottage in the outskirts of the city and watched the sun go down. I wasn’t entirely surprised to see the humble figure of Pebble shambling contentedly along the country lane nearby.


“Come here, old friend,” I called out to him. I had long ago realised that I would only ever see Pebble mid-way through every decade of my life and had thoughtfully placed a cold glass of cider on the porch table while I waited for him to make an appearance.


He gave me a grateful, if dusty, thumbs up and ambled slowly over, weighed down by the mass of pebbles strapped to his back in a dull green duffle bag.


In a different light, it would have been deeply unsettling to find that this man’s path through the years had intersected with mine so regularly, but I found myself too pleased to see him again to care as he sat down on the porch chair and raised the cold drink to his lips.


“Much appreciated,” he said to me as he drained the last few drops from the bottom of the glass.

“Not a problem,” I replied, merely sipping at my own.


Pebble nodded but didn’t say anything.


“A productive year, old friend?” I enquired in the peaceful silence.


“Very productive, thank you,” he answered politely, stretching out his legs and relishing the popping sound they made as the joints loosened. “I think that I’ll be done soon.”


The silence lengthened again as I thought about that surprising statement. For some reason, I never thought that Pebble had had any kind of ultimate goal.


“How many of those duffle bags have you filled, Pebble?” I asked.


“More than I’d care to think about,” he chuckled. “This is a nice cottage, you have.”


The compliment was well-received, but I was a little ashamed to admit that it was all that a lifetime of gadfly-like labour had permitted me to buy. I had opened, run and sold three companies in the last decade, all of them profitable but not exceedingly so. All each sale had done was provide me with the money to start another one.


“Thank you again for the cider – it was a very kind gesture,” he said, standing and clearly intending to return to his efforts along the road.


“Pebble – wait!” I yelped. “You have to tell me. What’s any of this been for?”


Pebble just shrugged and heaved the bag of stones onto his shoulders once more. He turned to go, but stopped and turned back to me.


“You can come with me if you like,” he offered.


“I’d like that,” I smiled with a tired mouth and tired eyes. “One day maybe.”


Pebble had reached the road and, lit by the dying light of the day’s sun, began looking along the verge for the perfect pebble again.


“I’ll see you soon, my friend,” he waved, friendly and polite as ever.


On my seventy-fifth birthday, I returned to the stretch of road where I had first met Pebble. It was night time and the verge was deserted. Picked out by the headlights of my car was the duffle bag that I had seen Pebble place there fifty years ago. On top of it was another duffle bag full of shiny pebbles, and another. They had been stacked on each other again and again, stretching up and up into the cloudless sky until they just appeared as a hair-thin line reaching ever upwards. Directly over the line of duffle bags hovered the moon – silent, still and peaceful. There was no sign of Pebble, but why would there be? He had succeeded.


I turned off the lights on my car, locked it carefully and started to climb upwards, towards the sky.