Oscar Burchell discovered the marvellous black stone that would forever change his life amid the oily puddles of an alleyway.
He was running. A glinting caught his eye and he came to a stop. Gazing down, he saw a small, dark, shiny pebble. Bending to pick it up, he became aware of a prickling sensation on the back of his neck, an uneasy awareness, as though he was embarking upon an action that would bear remarkable, momentous consequences. The stone felt light in his palm. He stared at it for a few seconds, catching his breath, then – remembering the meeting – slipped it into his trouser pocket and set off at a faster pace than before.
Despite his best efforts, he was late. His secretary, Diane, was waiting outside the meeting-room. “Really, Oscar? Can’t even find the time for an afternoon slot?”
He scowled. “Bloody cash-point was broken.”
Her brow arched. “Since when do you need cash? . . . Just get in there!”
With a grin he slipped past her and took his seat at the head of a large rectangular oak table. Nodding to the men and woman also gathered there, he said, “Sorry I’m late, shall we begin?”
Hours later he stood by the vast window that enclosed one half of his office and gazed down on the bristling streets of Mayfair far below. Staring past his own reflection, he breathed deeply, a small, quizzical smile lighting the corners of his mouth. A light began to wink on his desk. Diane’s voice: “It’s Mary for you.”
“Thanks, Diane, put her through.”
His wife’s voice drifted up from the speakers. “How are you?”
“Fine, Mary, won’t be much longer.”
“Did the meeting go okay?”
“Uh-huh, all ironed-out.” He moved to the desk, laid a palm next to the speaker, as though her voice was something he might touch. “I was thinking we could go out later, perhaps a meal at La Mauvaise?”
“Darling!” Her tone was chiding, but edged with concern. “Well, if you’re sure you’re up for it, I don’t see why not.”
He sat down with a laugh. “Be careful, I might take you dancing after.” He felt a lump and lifted his hand; an unfamiliar, disc-shaped bulge on his thigh. Slipping his fingers into his trouser pocket, he felt around. His fingers touched the stone. Mary was laughing. God, he loved to hear her laugh! Such a rare sound of late. Pulling the stone from his pocket he stared at it with a quizzical frown. A tiny black, flattened oval, completely smooth, fashioned from some unknown material. His fingers squeezed experimentally. “Just give me an hour, okay, Mary? Still a few bits and pieces to tidy. Should be back around five.”
He examined the stone, wondering what it could be and why he’d felt compelled to possess it in the first place. A long time seemed to pass before he glanced up with a frown. “Mary?” He stared at the speaker. “Mary?” Tapped the grill. Then he pushed himself back in the chair with a shrug. All at once a strange sensation crept over him. A prickling awareness; it was completely silent. Not just the speaker; even the sounds of traffic from the street below had stopped. He stood up, gazing around, tapping the stone with his thumb.
“That’s fine, darling,” her voice said, making him jump.
He returned to the desk. “Lost you for a second.”
“Okay, I’ll see you soon, don’t work too hard. Love you.”
“Love you too.” Oscar eased back in the chair, and, without thinking, slipped the stone back into his pocket.
The reason he’d given Diane for his lateness to the meeting was true; the only cash-point between his private garage and work had been vandalised – but what he hadn’t mentioned was that he’d spent a further ten minutes hunting around for another one before giving up. Now that business had been concluded he felt the cravings return.
He finally located a working dispenser in a local off-licence. Withdrawing a crisp fifty he went to the counter, purchased one packet of cigarettes, then – as an afterthought – a packet of chewing gum. Before he’d even stepped from the store his fingers had fumbled the wrapper from the carton, and taken out a tube. He dug out a zippo, lit the tip and finally inhaled with a small, pleasurable sigh.
Later that night (after an immensely enjoyable dine and dance), he laid a tender kiss on Mary’s cheek, and – with a promise not to be long – retreated to his study. The screen of his computer flashed to life as he approached. Taking a seat, he placed his thumb on the screen till it scanned then brought up his inbox. He clicked on the email from Dr Sehgal, and read it through again. Then he read it again. When he’d read it through enough times he returned to his bedroom, washed, changed for bed, this time kissed his wife goodnight and told her that he loved her.