Little blue marbles were piled in a jar sitting open on the improvised desk, a third of the jar marbles, two thirds dust. Outside, a disgusting sleet was falling colourless in the darkness and orange in the dying glow of the decrepit street lamps. No one else was home. He was sweating silently next to the electric radiator, looking forward to a time when he could afford living in a place all of his own, where the joy of soothing silence was not a godsend, and the freezing winter air had fewer means of entering. A loose beam in the attic sang out of tune to the wind’s command.
That was the night before it happened. On the 7th January, at 11.30 in the morning, Rupert was running desperately trying to catch the only train of the day that would take him to the desolate seaside town where his only friend lived.
A bunch of lads shouting locker room talk waiting in line to buy cigarettes, a fat woman exuding the smell of fries and disregard for basic hygiene, a construction worker sat down at a rickety yellow table next to the fry-up kiosk, wiping the remains of his full English off the plate with a soggy piece of toast was the welcome committee that had been assembled by faith at the train station to welcome Freya back to a new semester in uni. Freya was a clever girl but suffered from having been born to an illiterate gardener and an insipid housewife. They had picked her name from a newspaper (the matrimonials section) and to this day had no idea of its origins. They will take that ignorance with them to the grave. They had navigated Freya’s upbringing using advice they got from others’ compasses, and in the process managed to create a librarian who didn’t like reading or a veterinarian who was afraid of dogs. The debate was ongoing. Freya went to uni because people had told her to, and having no idea what she would rather do, thought no more, and four months ago left to live outside her parents’ home for the first time in her life. She had hated every moment up to the Christmas break, hated the thought of going back home even more, and was now hating the timid glee felt on coming back. Dragging her suitcases off the platform, she got a thorough, hungry visual examination by the smoking lads, rotten teeth showing beside the cheap smouldering cigarettes in their mouths, and after clearing the frozen steps coming out of the station, she walked aimlessly for an hour, thinking she almost knew where she was going, failing to realise she was lost, and then failing to care enough until the bitter cold started burning holes in her fingers.
Rupert woke up in a dingy hospital room overlooking the cheapest, most disgusting pub the city had to offer. A nightstand in the mottled rust and white peeling paint version had his glasses and phone on top. He couldn’t figure out why he was in hospital, albeit he remembered falling, since his body seemed intact, he felt no pain and found no challenge in grabbing his phone. No one had called. 9th January. He had been out for two days. It was already dark, and feeling no desire to return to the world, he went to sleep, glad the heat of the hospital was uniform, the comfort it brought being enough to calm the rage he felt everytime drunk people were around, this time the unwelcome company throwing bottles outside the pub after the home team had lost the game. That night, for the first time in ages, he dreamt. A slightly colour-imbalanced Border Collie was chasing seagulls on the shore.
Freya was no stranger to villainy, and having been made to wait four hours for the accommodation officer, a title the lady holding the keys could in no circumstance spell, to give her her room, proceeded to set her radiator on max, knowing it would trip the fuse in the ancient building, thereby plunging everyone into cold darkness for the night. 9th January. She went to bed with all her clothes on, two blankets on top and the table covering for good measure. She dreamt of a year with no anticipatory seasons.
Rupert was discharged on the 10th January. He was disappointed, and somewhat surprised his friend Dylan hadn’t called to enquire about the three day delay. He didn’t find much reason for concern, and heading to the train station once more, decided to swing by his favourite kebab van, which not only sold the only meal he actually enjoyed, but did so from the convenient location that was the city park. He had spent many hours on a bench, eating kebabs and staring through the dusty windows of the derelict park museum. This was as close as the city got to offering culture, and someone receiving it. This time he didn’t rush and stayed clear of the frozen patches, thinking whether he should spend extra for the fries.
Having searched for and found the cause of the electrical mishap, the officer decided to throw Freya out of the student accommodation, prerogative she was completely lacking. Freya, enraged by the absurdity of the accusation (‘dangerous use of electrical equipment’), thrilled with having received credit for her actions for once, and excited with the thought of leaving, decided to say nothing, smile, and leave. She had been triggered just like the fuse to abort everything in the name of self-preservation. She had no idea what to do. But she knew it wouldn’t involve grammar studies.
Rupert had just finished his kebab when a text message arrived: ‘Dylan’s dead. Funeral tomorrow at 1. Paul’ He had no idea who Paul was. He felt no sadness. He immediately decided to swing by his room to grab the little blue marbles.
In the empty train compartment sat a slightly obese boy smelling of hospital disinfectant and kebab (no fries) and an over-confident looking girl. After having had his ticket checked, Rupert returned to shaking his jar of marbles, now covered with a lid, unaware of the annoyance he was causing.
‘Would you stop that rattling?’
Rupert stopped, but did not apologise.
An hour later he was getting off.
‘Aren’t you gonna get off? It’s the end of the line.’, said Rupert.
‘Mind your own business.’ Freya contemplated riding back, then decided against it remembering not just how expensive the ticket had been, but how much she had hated talking to the clerk to buy one. She just hated clerks. She hated asking for things. She jumped off and flipped Rupert the finger. She then realised she had no idea where she was, or what train ticket she had asked and paid for.
‘I work for the city recycling factory. I was supposed to come here on holiday three days ago. I hit my head and lost consciousness. For two days.’
‘Why would you come here on vacation? What is there to see here?’
‘Why are you here?’
Freya said nothing.
‘You’re the one who followed me from the station. What are you after?’, said Rupert.
‘I’m not following you. There’s not that many bloody streets in this hellhole. We’re going the same way.’
‘My friend Dylan lives here. Lived. We used to work together. I got a message saying he had died. I don’t know when or why. The funeral is tomorrow.’
Freya stopped walking in front of the last house on the street, turned her suitcase into a stool and sat down.
‘My parents live here. I gave them short notice, but they’re on their way.’
‘That house is clearly deserted. Most of the houses are.’
In the distance, the sandy field covered in wind-battered weeds ended with a steep drop into the sea. Rupert walked in that direction. The jar of marbles was rattling in his backpack, the sound dying more slowly than the 3 pm January light. He disappeared between the tall grasses.
The improvised funeral lasted less than 15 minutes. Paul, the town priest, undertaker, and mayor told the modest gathering comprised of Rupert and a crazy old lady neither one of them had seen before, they could seek shelter out of the wind and cold while he dealt with the burial. The crazy old lady had disappeared from behind Rupert’s back before he had the chance to turn around, but in her place he saw Freya.
‘I’m sorry about your friend.’
‘Yeah, he was my only friend. Paul found him dead. I guess people just die.’
‘They said I could find the mayor here. He’d have the keys to a place where I could stay for a while. Rent can’t cost much around here.’
‘We’ll meet him back at the pub.’ Rupert felt ashamed to ask her again why she was there.
A year passed. Freya had been allowed to stay in the barely inhabitable house, which was by far the best one the town had to offer to outsiders, after her money had run out in exchange for staffing the pub and reading to the town children, all four of them, every Saturday evening.
Rupert had taken up Dylan’s old house among the grasses on the cliff without anyone’s permission or objection.
One Sunday morning, during her only time off from staffing the pub, Freya wandered to the land’s end. The weak sunlight was so heavily filtered by the thick January clouds that ten o’clock in the morning could have been ten at night. She followed the bright light and heavy smoke coming out from the vague, wavy emptiness of that patch of land. She had seen the light glowing brightly more often lately, and was eventually drawn to it, curious to find out what its source could have been.
An inferno lighting the barely confined space of the workshop, consisting of two crumbling brick walls and a rusty piece of galvanised steel for a roof, all leaning against each other and somehow supported by a fairly solid-looking wall of the house, blazed in a wide-mouth furnace, black coals consumed by incandescent wisps blown away by the bellows worked by an eager but still severely underpowered Rupert. The light seeping out of the shop was bright enough to be seen all the way from town. Inside the furnace, a crucible with molten glass almost ready for working was slowly coming to the right temperature. On a table opposite the furnace was a single beautiful blue marble.
‘Where’s the rest?’, said Freya.
‘I buried them with Dylan. They belonged to him.’, said Rupert surprised, but not scared, catching his breath from working the bellows.
‘I kept that one for reference. When I got here after he died, I found all his tools and glasswork books neatly arranged on the table inside. He had been making glass marbles and selling them wherever a market visited by more than 10 people was held.’
Freya, stronger than Rupert and mesmerised by the orange-glowing blobs modelled gradually and clumsily into rough spheres of stolen before-the-dawn summer skies, worked the bellows hard until Rupert finished shaping all the marbles, and then gently while the batch ready to go into the next jar of wonders was annealing in the dying light of the last coals.