The crunch of gravel and the crash of the front door.
"Go and show your Mum," he says.
"Mum, mummy, look what we found at the beach!"
I rest my book on the arm of the sofa and resign my peace to the scrap-heap.
Tom bursts in, still wrapped in his blue overcoat and smelling of fresh air. In his hand is a rock, smoothed like a skimming stone but too big. I'm surprised he can hold it in one hand.
"What is it, darling? Come on, take your coat off and tell me."
I begin to pull at his buttons as he wriggles in excitement. "It was on the beach, near to where we always let Snowy chase the seagulls. I wasn't going to pick it up, but then I thought it looked quite strange and went back to see it. Isn't it pretty?"
"What is it?"
"It's something, but not a rock like I thought." I inch him from the jacket and unravel his scarf.
"It looks like a rock, darling." He hasn't yet stood still and released his grip for me to get a decent look.
"No it's not. It's not heavy enough. See!"
Finally he forces it into my hand and, right enough, it's incredibly light. The colour and the shape remind me of a terracotta bathroom tile, one with irregular, smoothed edges. Is it made of polystyrene? A film prop?
"You’re right, Tommy."
Rolling it over in my hands I see that the other side has a multitude of faint scratches on the surface.
"It's writing." Tom says, softly.
"Mm-hmm." I can't make it out. It's English perhaps, or at least a Romanized language. I need a stronger light.
"Ooops!" My coffee mug takes a tumble. The rock is discarded in the living room as I shoo Tom out to save the carpet.
After dinner, with Mike slumped in front of some Bruce Willis rubbish and Tom in bed, I take the rest of a bottle of wine into my study. I clear some books and manuscripts to the corners of the desk and examine the 'rock' under a strong lamp. Its smoothness stands out immediately. There are no blemishes, no scratches. Amazing, I think, for something that's been lying on a pebble beach. Again I find the lightness hard to explain.
For something that is apparently just a rock it somehow makes me think of an expensive piece of technology. It has a dull, matt finish like the cover of my laptop. Impulsively I bang it off the edge of my desk. A light rap and a slight groove in the wood; but no mark on the rock.
I focus on the other side. It's undoubtedly writing, formed in a neat square, but even under a strong light I can't make it out. It's so faint. Staring at it is quite disconcerting: I feel like I've nearly made out a word when it seems to melt back in to the brown mass. I put it down and screw my eyes shut.
A loud thump from above. Tom's room is directly above. Through the open door I can see Mike now asleep, head slumped forward.
"Tom, are you OK?" I call up in to the darkness at the top of the stairs.
"I heard a loud noise. What happened?"
"I fell out of bed."
"How on earth did you manage that? I thought you were sleeping."
"I was, but then I woke up and wanted to look out the window, so I stood up”
"What have I told you about standing on your bed? Are you hurt?"
"Not really. I fell on to my back but it's not very sore."
"Go back to sleep, darling. It's late."
I give up on the rock for the night. I return to the living room, switch off the TV in the midst of a gun battle, and resume my book.
Mike snores loudly.
Monday night after work I spend an hour or so turning the rock over in my hands. I trace my thumb carefully around the marks but feel no indentations on the surface. It reminds me of an ant crawling on my skin; so delicate that you feel nothing.
Mike comes in and hovers over me for a few minutes, then leaves.
Next day I’m due to go to my yoga class, but call Julia to cancel. I don’t feel up to it. Around ten I leave the rock in the study, still with pride of place on my desk, and finish off some washing-up.
A noise draws me back. The squeak of a bare foot on the floor. Tom is hovering outside my study, weighing up whether or not to go in.
“Tom!” He jumps and for a second looks dazed. “It’s very late, sweetheart.”
“I wanted to see my rock.” A meek voice.
“Why right now? Let’s wait until morning.”
“Okay,” he agrees, eventually, after a lingering look in the door. I guide him slowly back up the stairs, my hand on his back.
I take the rock to work. What with my husband’s ambivalence and Tom’s curiosity I’m sure it’s for the best. On my desk I arrange it casually: papers clumsily stacked on one side, coffee mug on the other.
Jess, our secretary, goes by mid-morning with a half-second glance. “That a new iPad cover? Looks really sleek!”
Very little work gets done before lunch. Time and time again I realize that I’m leaning over the rock trying vainly, always vainly, to see the writing. I turn it around but still can’t concentrate because I know that it’s there. I have to show Mary while we have lunch.
“Your son found it? On the beach?” She’s testing its weight, one handed, with an expression of mild wonder on her face. “And where’s the writing?”
I show her. She swallows a mouthful of sandwich. “Is that… Is that even writing?”
“I really don’t know.”
Mary sits up and pushes her empty plate to one side. “Take it to Gregory!” It’s an order. Gregory is her husband, a distinguished linguist-cum-archaeologist working elsewhere in the university. I had half-hoped Mary would suggest this; while the other half hoped that she would dismiss the rock as nothing.
“Yes, take it to Gregory. He’s not busy this week, never bloody is, the sod. I’ll call him now.”
She picks up the phone and it’s decided that I’ll go over straight after lunch.
Mary smiles impishly. “I’ve piqued his interest!”
The day is grey and wintry. It’s barely two, but feels as if the sun has already set.
I don’t go over to the Holden Building very often. It holds the history, classics and literature departments and is a crumbling, red-brick square. The university houses its subjects quite appropriately, I think: science in a gleaming new ‘nerve-centre’, sports in a faded replica of a suburban leisure centre, arts in this.
The department secretary is expecting me. “I’ll pass it on to him. He’s asked that you give him an hour or so.”
I relinquish the rock, feeling more of a wrench than I wanted to.
“It is interesting. Extremely interesting.”
Gregory Huffman’s pokey office is actually a book-cave. On three sides of the room texts and tomes climb to the ceiling. In the dusty gloom I’m not sure if they don’t arch outwards at the top and meet in the middle of the roof, going against Newton and common sense. The door opened despite the books’ best efforts. I can see why: disparately shaped mounds form book-stalagmites around the floor.
The only light in the room comes from a table in the centre. It shines on my rock, with grey-bearded Prof. Huffman hunched over it.
“It’s English, Mrs Byron, but not as we know it,” he says. “To put it mildly.” In his hand he holds a magnifying glass.
“Mmm. Bit tricky at first to get your head round; but once you’re accustomed to reading it – no problem. Bit like Chaucer, really.”
“So it’s old English?” The rock isn’t old. It can’t be.
“No. Not unless it’s an ancient form of English that I’ve never come across.” The professor straightens up and looks at me for the first time. “And that’s highly unlikely.”
I wait for him to continue. He looks like he wants to explain, but can’t. “No, it’s quite the opposite. Come around here, if you can negotiate the books, and look.”
Doing as he asked, I work my way to his side and peer down into what must be the most powerful magnifier I have ever seen. The indistinct scratches and shapes I know so well suddenly leap out at me, defined and sharp. It is slightly shocking. A sharp pain lances through me, temple to temple. I grip the edge of the table but Prof. Huffman continues oblivious.
“It’s basically a stripped down version of English, with all the superfluous vowels, consonants and even whole syllables removed. Extreme text-speak, if you like. ‘X’ instead of ‘ex’, no double consonants, many spelling irregularities… Look here: H O W P for what I think is ‘hope’. And there: B U R A D A S. It’s not English, you’d think, except, when reading it out phonetically one gets, I believe, ‘brothers.’ There seems to be no rules, really, more someone making something approximating English up as they go along. It’s primitive; but not old. It can’t be. Just look at this thing – it’s extremely sophisticated. Don’t you agree? It’s not just a rock, I’m sure.”
The nausea has passed. “So what does it say?”
I sense him hesitate. “It’s a plea. Simply put.” Again hesitation, a vibration in the air. “I’ve not translated it all, yet.” He’s lying. “But it seems to be reaching out to someone, a ‘brother’, for ‘hope’. Whoever carved it seems to be in distress.”
I manage to peer unsteadily into the microscope again. “And these symbols at the bottom?”
“They don’t take much deciphering. It’s Chinese. A date. 2112. Twenty one twelve.”
A thick silence.
He clears his throat. “I’d like to keep it here a little longer. A day or two. Run some dating tests.”
“Sure. Of course.”
I return to an empty house. Tom is watching cartoons. A low hiss from the kitchen tells me that Mike is making a stir-fry, the one and only thing he can cook.
“Mike, I’m going straight to bed.”
He turns to look around his shoulder. “You alright?”
“My head’s splitting.”
“I’ve made beef and black bean…”
“Yeah, I’m sick. Sorry. Shove it in a tub.”
I sleep for a few hours, waking up regularly to see a darker and darker shade of daylight seeping around the curtains. I awake with a sense of finality, sweaty and unrested, and realize that Mike is lying beside me. It is completely black, now.
Slowly I rise and shuffle towards the bathroom. The air is stuffy, and an unnatural orange light tints the hall. My heart drops when I realize that it comes from my son’s room. I realise I can hear a soft murmur.
Tom is lying on his side, facing away from the door. The orange light lies beside him. I creep closer but he doesn’t stir. I can’t make out what he’s saying, but I know what he’s holding before I can see it.
His face, so pale and smooth and young, gleams and bathes in the unnatural light. His tiny thumbs lovingly caress the rock as he holds it. The words and markings are picked out by a brilliant whiteness glowing and shifting within.
“Tom…” I begin.
“Mummy, I found my rock again.” He doesn’t divert a single drop of concentration from the rock to me. I can’t move.
“Well, no, actually mummy,” he says ever so softly. “My rock found me.”
Writer and blogger. Originally from the UK, now teaching in Hong Kong. Lover of character led fiction, and a twist in the tale...