Turning red into gold

Quinacridone gold, also known as PO49, Pigment Orange 49, was a golden pigment used in the automotive and artist’s paint industries until 2001, when production reportedly stopped. The pigment had gathered somewhat of a following within the artists’ community. Artists such as Jane Blundell explored alternatives on the market, and others like Sandrine Maugy bemoaned the last supply of pigment having been used to mix lesser colours.

Quinacridone gold appears to have been special even by the standards of the quinacridone family of pigments, which Bruce MacEvoy at handprint described as follows: “Among the miracles of modern industrial chemistry […] one must include the discovery and development of the quinacridones.”

Quinacridone gold PO49 is described at The Color of Art Pigment Database as “a mixed crystal phase of Quinacridone & Quinacridonequinone; C.I.Pigment Violet 19 (C.I. 73900) and C.I.Pigment Red 206 (C.I. 73920) co-precipitated. The exact derivative has not been disclosed.” Bruce MacEvoy at handprint claims “PO49 is another mixed crystal form of PV19 alpha and beta.”

Not surprising that the formula was proprietary, but still, what is it? And what is PV19?

The discovery

PV19 stands for Pigment Violet 19 and is one of the forms of the original quinacridone, patented in parallel as alpha (bluish red), beta (violet) and gamma (bluish red) forms by DuPont in the 1950s.

Chemical structure of linear quinacridone

Let’s look at our glossary of terms before discussing further.

Polymorphism describes the existence of a solid compound (containing more than one type of atom) in different crystalline forms differing in the way molecules are arranged in the solid. Polymorphs have different properties, which is why controlling their formation is crucial in pigment manufacture. Polymorphs are often referred to as crystal phases.

Crystal phase refers to a form of a solid in which the comprising atoms or molecules are arranged in an orderly fashion throughout. The crystal is said to have long range order, i.e. it is possible to predict with a high certainty what atom will be found at a specified position.

Powder X-Ray diffraction pattern is a graphical representation of the crystal phase features still distinguishable in the powder, i.e. after the crystal has been ground up, or if only a collection of minute crystals is available. X-rays are diffracted through a crystal like visible light is diffracted through a prism. The X-ray diffraction experiment records where the light ends up and how intense it is.

Solid solution describes a homogeneous mixture with structure and properties different to those obtained by simply mixing the components in the same ratio. It shows an X-ray diffraction pattern different to the sum of the patterns of its components.

First (amusing) bit of information is the mention how better red pigments were needed in the 1950s due to it having recently become a popular colour for cars.

The alpha, beta and gamma crystal phases of quinacridone and the method for controlling their formation represents the scope of the three DuPont patents, together with the characteristic X-ray diffraction patterns each phase exhibits.

The crude quinacridone formed by oxidation of dihydroquinacridone (more on this later) is subjected to a milling process under defined conditions which generates a material fine enough to use as pigment, and with control over the crystal phase. The process looks deceptively simple: quinacridone is mixed with salt, mill balls or cylpebs (little cylinders) and nails (the latter to prevent caking), and the mixture rotated until the pigment particles are fine enough. The material is then washed with dilute sulfuric acid to remove the salt and any metal contamination introduced by the milling process. The quinacridone can then be used as a paste, or washed with methanol (to remove water) and xylene (to remove methanol) before drying to obtain the powder.

The chemistry

The control over phase formation is achieved using solvents. Milling without DMF (dimethylformamide) or xylene converts quinacridone to the alpha form. Adding 25% xylene with respect to quinacridone during milling results in the beta phase forming. Adding DMF during milling or stirring quinacridone in DMF either prevents the gamma phase from turning to alpha, or turns other phases to gamma. Long story short, the gamma phase is the most stable and will form (predominantly) when sparingly soluble quinacridone crystallises from solution.

Such crystallisation also occurs in the high temperature oxidation of dihydroquinacridone with nitrobenzene-m-sodium sulfonate under alkaline conditions in a water/alcohol mixture. DuPont patented their way of making dihydroquinacridone.

DuPont synthesis of dihydroquinacridone in Dowtherm A

The condensation of diethyl succinate was performed in Dowtherm A (23.5% biphenyl and 76.5% diphenylether) and after a quick water wash, the resulting diethyl succinyl succinate (name which I find terribly confusing) solution was treated with aniline and catalytic anyline hydrochloride and heated under vacuum (no further detail here). Another quick wash to get rid of the catalyst, a distillation to remove aniline and the resulting substituted dihydroterephthalate can be used as a suspension in Dowtherm. The discovery here is the closing of the quinacridone ring system by heating the dihydroterephthlate at a high temperature (which is why Dowtherm is used) in the absence of oxygen to give dihydroquinacridone. The last step is an oxidation to remove the extra two hydrogen atoms, which is preferably achieved using the soluble oxidant meta-nitrobenzenesodium sulfonate. The great thing about the (dihydro)quinacridones is they are so insoluble, and isolation by filtration provides pure products.

The background and chemistry covered, let’s return to the question of PO49.

Turning red into gold

A number of other developments made by DuPont over the following decade resulted in what is most likely PO49. This patent from 1964 describes a number of inventions which allowed for extending the range of colours quinacridone pigments can attain. First of them is the incorporation of a derivative of quinacridone called quinacridonequinone, which can be formed by extending the reaction time in the oxidation of dihydroquinacridone described above. This sounds like a cost effective solution – tweaking a known process rather than having to develop a whole new one.


A mixture of quinacridone and quinacridonequinone can be processed to form an intimate mixture either by milling or by co-precipitation from concentrated sulfuric acid in water (known as drowning). This mixture, on solvent treatment (DMF) converts to a solid solution. Solid solutions, having properties different to that of a simple mixture, can have a colour different to that of their components. A solid solution containing quinacridone and quinacridonequinone is reported to have a maroon colour, quite different to the reds that quinacridone alone can generate. By varying amounts of components and their nature (various other quinacridones) a whole range of colours shifting towards yellow or blue was reported. But no gold.

Finally, a technical improvement on the precipitation step from sulfuric acid afforded “a bright gold pigment.” This invention adds the sulfuric acid solution to a high velocity flow of water to form very fine particles, which is believed to favour solid solution formation. The resulting slurry is then heated to convert the solid mixture into the solid solution. There is no need for any solvent treatments, which makes the process even more attractive.

I would say the story of PO49 going out of production sounds plausible. For whatever reason, the automotive industry didn’t want PO49 anymore. No demand – I would imagine the amount of pigment used by industry is far greater than what artists go through – means no supply, even if to the outsider chemist the gold pigment does not stand out as anymore of a challenge than red. Quinacridones are still being produced, and since PO49 does not appear to have any special challenges associated, its demise really might be due to gold falling out of favour while red is still going strong. Perhaps PO49 was superseded; chemists are always mixing something up.

The value of trying and failing

I tried working a copywriter job. I wasn’t good enough, so I was let go. It was a positive experience because it was the first time I could accept rejection. My qualities were acknowledged alongside my failings. It was a balanced evaluation, it was based on evidence, and that is why I accepted it.

This was the first time I got sacked, but not the first time I failed. In the past I interviewed for patent attorney and consultant jobs. I didn’t even get hired. Some other things I interviewed for, got rejected and was very bitter over: undergrad student accommodation supervisor (or something along those lines), prestigious PhD studentship working on cancer research, posh doctoral training programme. There’s also all the things I applied for and never heard back, or only much later. If you send me a rejection email after two months without any other contact, I wasn’t really holding my breath at that point really. But thanks, better late than never.

I think this is good proof on the value of honest feedback. Not the ‘we’ve had a very strong selection of candidates.’ Not the ‘you’re good, but not good enough.’ Empty encouragement is wasting people’s time. Telling them what they can and cannot do right now will set them on the right track.

Looking at my puzzle of experience and its missing piece finally found I can write these three lessons:

  1. I like chemistry the way a nerd does, not like a professor or like an entrepeneur.
  2. I don’t care for lofty ideals. I care about a job well done.
  3. I’m not good at saying what needs saying, the way it needs saying. It’s bad for me whenever I do it.

I’m happy I tried doing all the things that are not for me, I failed with, I stopped caring for, or never cared for at all. I have a better idea what is for me, what I can do and what I like.

I am a bit more confident. Maybe I can make some better choices.

On and off topic – the disconnect between sodium ammonium tartrate and Gantt charts

Can I talk about chemistry? Can I be nerdy, veer off course and ramble?

Yes, I can. Unfortunately, it took me more than 15 years to learn this. In fact, I only had this revelation about 10 minutes before I started writing this post. The wonderful topic I was investigating was how could I make racemic sodium ammonium tartrate at home, crystallise it and separate the enantiomers the way Louis Pasteur did to make his way into history books in 1848. (Note: the series of reports made by Pasteur started in 1848 and culminated with this discovery in 1853. A list is available here)

My cause is not noble – I just wanted to make a Youtube video. But the flashback I had was of Proust eating his madeleine with jasmine tea proportions. Don’t worry, my prose is far more modest.

I was somewhat of a weirdo even in the chemistry enclave. My interests never lined up with those of others. Scientists, as you expect, tend to be pragmatic and think about the future, the next discovery. This is great, and necessary for their survival in today’s scientific environment. I, on the other hand, have always been inclined towards the past. I got excited about the stories of discovery usually reserved for textbooks and other materials made for the public.

If you’re not a scientist you might be thinking what is wrong with that? We learn from the past – that’s what history tells us. Scientists generally appreciate the teachings and will go searching the literature for information, but they don’t care that much about who did what and how they got there (not beyond the requirements of referencing anyway). And if the information is now common knowledge, any attempts to uncover the murky, distant past are scoffed at. This makes an onerous task a shameful one. Scientists don’t care much for the history of science.

Back to my experience; I remember working on my master’s project thesis. I had an intro that was a bit like a herpetologist touching on the likely anatomy of the biblical snake in the garden of Eden. Needless to say, it wasn’t well received by my supervisor. I had to cut out a lot of the work which made me so proud.

I was heartbroken and furious. That maybe some points were valid (the page count for example) is irrelevant. Always getting our work edited and aligned with the standards and interests of the majority is damaging. Yes, that is how we learn and improve. But in my case, that is how I completely lost direction.

I ended up being unhappy doing what I liked. I hated what I was doing because it was what someone else wanted. I always got told they wanted to help me. I eventually gave up on chemistry and tried doing something else.

I failed so far. I recently got sacked from a new job (not a chemistry one) after two weeks. But I am not bitter about it. I think it was actually the most honourable rejection I’ve ever received. There was objective evidence I couldn’t do it. I got given a chance for what I had to offer and for my dedication. This is opposite to what I had experienced in chemistry where what I had to offer and who I was never mattered. The only thing that mattered was whether I delivered exactly what was expected.

I am obviously being emotional and still bitter about my chemistry past. I can’t think of anything clever to say here to balance this statement. And the only problem is I feel I should. Here it comes (after hours of mulling). Part of being a scientist is seeing black and white at the same time. But no one cares about dull, grey complexities – Not even scientists.

And that’s a shame. I think part of the problem with modern science is that it’s focused on delivering scientific ‘products’ rather than knowledge. It’s focused on the future, on achievement. It’s creating solutions to predicted problems rather than current ones.

Problems are solved by experimentation, by study, by reflection. Solutions are always serendipitous. Asking scientists to plan their work and their discoveries is absolutely ridiculous. I remember I had to make a Gantt chart at the beginning of my PhD. I hadn’t even heard of one before – which is to say that the study experience doesn’t quite prepare you for this. What is worse, the work was planned around ideas that were already in place for my project. Ideas which were written before I had arrived.

How can you expect young scientists to develop the skill of coming up with ideas, if you waste all their time researching someone else’s ideas? Pasteur is famous for his statement: ‘In the field of observation chance favours only the prepared mind.’ I don’t think Gantt charts was what he had in mind.

Why is this relevant? Because scientists should care about what they are doing. If you kill their interest and their passion, you are losing your biggest asset: the scientist. I cared. I still want to care. It just bothers me seeing how few people care.

I probably can’t change that. I just hope I can find the strength and ability to convince other people how exciting science can be. To make them appreciate the story of sodium ammonium tartrate.

Frozen fingers – Part of the Little Blue Marbles Series

Winter that year had a strong bite, punishing people by freezing their cars solid and pushing needles in their bones through insulation, feeble house heating, and layers of woollen personal protection. Snow didn’t come. Most in the area had to decide between having a full stomach or feeling their toes and fingers at least once in a while. Freya’s parents made no exception, but unfortunately they were inclined differently: her dad kept warm on cheap beer and her mother plugged in the electric heater whenever he’d fall asleep.

Freya had just turned thirteen the day they opened the pond to skating. She had always loved to skate, but never got any good at it. Having two left feet would have been less of a problem than hers for skating, assuming the ice skates would fit. Her problem was functional rather than conformational as something in her brain stopped her balancing on one leg and pushing with the other. Her ability never improved and she was stuck awkwardly shuffling on the sides with the beginners every time she skated, every year the pond froze.

Her disappointment turned to desolation and, for this particular birthday, to resentment. She went to the pond with her run-of-the-mill skates in her bag, but on the way threw them in the bin. She climbed the small hill found next to the pond, sat on the frozen ground and looked down on the cheerful throng. The sun was setting behind, leaving her observation point in the shadows.

A lilac haze started slowly perspiring from between the frigid blades of grass, oozing like dense droplets out of the hill’s pores. Something started tensing deep within, something which was out of place, vast, much too large for the physical dimensions of the modest relief. For minutes dripping like spoiled honey from a dying hive, this vague curdling of the earth’s marrow was spreading with a precise rate, not so much up, but out. It grew out of the perimeter and started dawdling towards the pond. Immense but somehow lacking will, it was heading that way reluctantly. A sharp gust of wind marked a shift in growth from size to kind. It was now pulsating, ripples spreading from an epicentre of blood drops hitting an impregnable but malleable resin. The earth was losing control, something else was dictating, prescribing evolutionary course. The hill was growing taller, rising, escaping the sedimentary, ancient foundation it used to stand on. It was drawing back from the inchoate creation, yielding to what it seemed to want. The growing darkness was lit by the wispy lilac tendrils surrounding and permeating the frozen pond. They were somehow growing backward in that direction, like an entangled sillage left by the throng of skaters. Time passed slowly. The hill became enormous, a mountain. The pond grew deeper, the ice insubstantial. The air warmer, thicker, heavier. The mass of curious but reluctant tendrils grew so dense it congealed, it became solid, having no choice but to yield to pulsating. Pulsating with no clear purpose or intention.

An hour passed. Freya’s heart was beating with a strong thump, the echo resounding in her painful temples. She was frozen solid, but her fingers were screaming in pain, still alive. It was dark. She then wandered with lilac-glowing embers of hate tucked away between the folds in her mind.

Asphalt cravings – Part of the Little Blue Marbles Series

Irene’s voice was discovered because she couldn’t help singing along with the choir whenever she was taken to church. From nine years of age she didn’t miss a single practice session (Tuesday morning and Friday evening). From twelve years of age she was singing centre stage on every occasion, so popular was she and high the demand the growing church attendance made for her performance. She cared little for anything outside choir. She wasn’t anymore religious than required and never showed interest in singing any other style of music.

She attended get-togethers, but showed little interest in ball game and other childish nonsense. At first the teasing was growing with her choir girl reputation, but when she consistently failed to care, it eventually levelled off and the attention she received was diverted towards other insult avenues deemed appropriate in the name of social anointment: her puny stature, greasy hair, one ear bigger than the other and the eyes of a husky dog.

Irene spent long hours in the summer months lying on her back on the hot asphalt: in the road behind her house, on the side of the skate park, in the school parking area on a weekend, and her favourite, in the little alley behind the church. If people stopped to stare at her, asking whether she was alright, she would blink in an understanding and reassuring way until they gave up, called her mad, or both, and then left. In winter she would cover the floor of her bedroom in hot water bottles, throw a blanket over and, with arms splayed, practise her melismata until her voice went out or she started shivering, whichever came first.

Growing up brought into sharp focus that nature had not given Irene much beside her prodigious voice and dogged determination to passively endure existence. She turned sixteen and having failed all essential exams she could not apply for vocational school. The day her results arrived, she read the letter and then went to the skate park. For Irene it was just another summer afternoon.

The hot July sun softened the asphalt making it tacky to the sweaty touch of Irene’s back covered with a white tank top. The broken shade of a pine tree protected her enough so she wouldn’t end up peeling her skin off to the flesh. She had her eyes focused on the cold bluish green of the pine needles above her, not on their shape just on their colour. Her ability to completely disregard one feature and obsess over another had been her blessing and curse. She was so absorbed she did not observ the lanky boy staring at her for the best part of five minutes. His look was not dirty, but reverential, fascinated, and for a moment worried, checking her chest for the unlikely reason of making sure she wasn’t dead.

He stretched his hand holding his skateboard above her, forcing her to give him attention. She looked at him and spoke with her empty gaze.
‘I thought some extra shade would do you good, looks like you were burning your neck’ he said while still holding the skateboard above her. Irene had the corner of her mouth curl up, in what appeared to be her returning blonde-haired Dylan’s smile.

Irene had bypassed the torment of feeling adolescent shivers of love and had made her own the resentment of unrequited love. She had someone’s attention, and that was the only thing she wanted. She didn’t say a word and allowed two-years-younger Dylan to stare at will.

When his arms started to tire, he turned the skateboard round to show its bottom side, and having had plenty of time to gather courage, proceeded to talk about its custom paint job. Irene’s eyes were flicking open occasionally, looking past and through the eagle craddling a skull, set on a background of flames painted in the only style the guy at the skate shop knew of.

Irene attended the pine asphalt while Dylan was pining on the asphalt. He was actually a pretty talented skateboarder in spite of not being quite built for it, but with his mind somewhere else, but not very far, he failed more often than he should have and forgot about landing in a self-preserving manner. He only took a break when successful, and then he didn’t care for the cheer of fellow skaters and love-stricken girls. He would strut, mostly out of pain, over to the pine tree. The tree had become more welcoming that Irene, greeting him with its invariable sway in the hot wind. Irene would smile, Dylan would assume approval, and then go back for more. This ritual took place while pine needles grew slightly less blue and slightly more yellow, the scrapes and loose thuds of skateboard wheels hitting asphalt providing a fitting soundtrack to Irene’s wicked idleness.

When Dylan finally mastered a gazelle flip, he felt he had earned the right to Irene’s full attention. Irene was done for the day and proceeded to slowly peel herself off hot asphalt. She headed off, the back of her tank top stained in layers of sweat and bituminous matter providing ample opportunity for crowd entertainment. Dylan followed her, at first about 30 m back, but then he rapidly grew impatient and being wildly more fit than Irene he closed the gap in an instant. He wasn’t trying to stalk her, he wanted her to notice him, and when she finally did, she didn’t frighten. She spoke to him for the first time: ‘I’m going to church.’
‘Looking like that? It’s Wednesday. There’s no church today. Who goes to church anyway?’ said a befuddled Dylan.
‘I’m singing.’
‘I..I like music.’ mumbled Dylan.
By this point Irene was no longer a member of the choir. She didn’t fit the innocent child look the choir was built on. In an immature display of power, she plonked down under the open practice room window and outsang the poor choir children with every opportunity. When the choir leader had finally had enough, he came storming out, knowing well what he would find. He didn’t expect a lanky blonde skater boy standing dazed outside his window, staring at a sweaty, greasy Irene, who was, for the first time since he had known her, smiling. He found the scene so utterly surreal he couldn’t find a way of acting, not even one of the ones he had prepared on his way out. He went back in, closed the window, and tried once again for a Kyrie eleison.

The next day Irene didn’t turn up to the skate park. She never turned up again.

From the Little Blue Marbles Series:

Red pomegranate

Little Ellie stood on the bed’s edge, eyelids still heavy with sleep, staring dreamily out the roof windows at the sharp building edges, overlapping and blending, softened by the passing of time, and graced with a fuzzy charm by the misty morning light and a cold drizzle. The cold was making itself felt in the old town square which was now part of a bustling city filled with full-to-the-brim but deserted modern skyscrapers. Living on a budget in the coveted old neighbourhood took a toll on the home comfort Ellie’s mother could afford to provide. Their living there was a matter of history, rather than choice; still, they wouldn’t trade the early 20th century converted attic for the sterile warmth of modern apartments. It was only October but two pairs of socks, a jumper and a winter duvet were the bare minimum required to sleep through the night.

Ellie pulled the covers off, put her house shoes on, headed to the window and placed her hands on the crumbling, moist plaster of the windowsill. The piercing cold brought a smile on her face. Growing up in that place, she had developed a taste for living, for appreciating the feeling of time in her body, made possible by the thick buildup of historical layer in that old town market square, which she could analyse from above like a historian turning manuscript pages with soft white gloves.

Ellie sat listless on the gold embroidered cushion of a Chippendale chair, sipping her coffee in the extravagant comfort of the hotel room. She didn’t bother to open the curtains. Although the somptuous interiors made those unaquainted feel like they were sharing chambers with royalty, the ugly truth was the hotel was a steel and glass giant, overlooking a forest of equally belittling buildings. She had spent the best part of the previous five years living in such hotels, at one point being so caught up in work affairs that she actually did not bother to call a place home. When she did have a place rented, she often avoided staying there worried she might have to make her own coffee or toast. She didn’t like this life, but she had gotten used to the sickening comfort brought by her income, and kept telling herself that once she had enough saved she would quit. She had parted ways with her old self following her mother getting a better paid job and selling the old attic flat to fund a mortgage for a warm and lacking-mould apartment. Ellie believed herself understanding of her mother’s growing arthritic pains, but she was in response drifting more and more, literally and figuratively, into the new city centre. She was fighting fire with fire, and left completely lost by her time in university, she ended up working in public affairs for a multinational corporation. She was devilishly good at it.

Once, she left the hotel she was staying in in the middle of a cold November night, took her shoes off and walked the dark alleys hidden behind bars and clubs, cutting her feet on broken glass, and talking to herself until the sun rose. She sat on a bench next to a homeless man smoking handrolled cigarettes. He would lick them soaked before lighting them on fire, producing such a thick choking smoke it clinged onto the surface of clothes rather than penetrate them. She dipped her feet in a puddle beside the bench.

Ellie felt like she had nothing left to live for. She came to understand that she had spent her life searching for that feeling of belonging, feeling which was lost temporarily when moving out of the attic, and then permanently when the old buildings were deemed unsafe for habitation, lacking historic value and summarily demolished and replaced by a new office building. She felt betrayed by her mother, then her friends, then her coworkers. After her husband left her, she went silent for months. She didn’t cry, she didn’t hate, she just felt like it was meant to happen and she deserved it. She couldn’t remember much from the past thirty years of her life. She didn’t care. She turned off the heating, opened all the windows, crawled under the covers and waited for the sparkling December air to fill the house. She started shivering violently, curled up in a ball and grabbed the soles of her feet with her hands. She read the scars like Braille. The moist and abrasive skin drew the heat out of her hands.

On Christmas morning she jumped out of bed, stretched like a gymnast, and devoured the sight of the shabby old table covered in layers of flaking drab greens, ochres, maroons, more greens, and a feeble white overcoat. On it stood glowing, proud and innocent, a red pomegranate.

Hold the line

Captain Ryan Hold had a feeling nothing would happen by the end of the day. It was unusually quiet, the dull grey of the sky compressing the atmosphere, making everything move a little more slowly than usual. There was no wind to rustle the leaves and no traffic on the dusty cobblestone roads. They were all closed for the parade. The discrepancy between the din expected of a public holiday and the reality of the still barracks life made Ryan feel like he somehow did something wrong, performed his morning rituals and did his chores incorrectly. He struggled to remember what might have caused this.

The soldiers had already left before Ryan arrived this morning. He wished he hadn’t moved up the ranks so quickly. He missed his friends, he missed performing the same tasks everyday in company, laughing at the same jokes and mocking those in higher ranks, not because they were bad, most of them were quite good, but because it was part of subalterns’ duty and the professional way to show affection. He was one of the higher ranks. And he mostly spent his time on paperwork, running inspections, attending meetings, and waiting for the phone to ring.

After lunch he went for his second patrol of the day, duty he had with all the soldiers being away. He finished the round and entered the communications office. It mostly served for respite and as a log book deposit since phones had been installed all over the base.
The old telegraph machine came to life and filled the room with a sense of urgency conveyed using simple tones:

BeepBeep…BeBeep…BeepBe – and carried on.

Having had Morse code drilled into his head in military school, Ryan didn’t miss a single thing, even while trying to figure out why anyone would be telegraphing in this day and age.

’Man with a gun’, the message read.

Whistlejacket – Part of the Little Blue Marbles Series

Rupert got in to work at 6.30 am, just like he always did. He was the first one of the day, before even the security staff had a chance to unlock all the doors and gates. His unusual habit of arriving so early was tolerated only because of how long he had been working for the recycling centre. Three years working there were an eternity by the average worker’s standard of six months or less. Those years felt like an eternity for Rupert. Nonetheless, he was always hardworking and serious, never having fun with the others, skipping tea breaks (all four of them everyday), all of which added up to him just not being liked by anyone. Just respected.

One person made for an exception. Dylan. He had been working there for six months, and during that time he became Rupert’s one and only friend, at work and outside. He didn’t raise an eyebrow when he heard about weird Rupert and his commitment, and that earned him the chance for Rupert to talk to him. Rupert was acutely aware of his surroundings, even though he never interacted.

There was only so much statistics could be cheated however, and now it was Dylan’s time to leave. He hadn’t told anyone besides management, not even Rupert, who while getting changed this morning, noticed that Dylan had cleared out his locker and turned in the overalls. Sadness flowed over Rupert’s face, and after the flash flood passed, bitterness remained in the gullies carved by the rapid waters, reminding him that, contrary to his strongest held beliefs, he did need people in his life, he wasn’t numb, but also feeding his ego with the thought that he had been right: people don’t care about him. He hoped for a fleeting moment that Dylan would at least say goodbye.

He ate lunch by himself, sat at the corner table, hoping someone would want to sit next to him, but not anyone who was there, not even Dylan if he turned up, and fearing that one of these people deemed inappropriate would actually want to sit at his table and ruin his comfort of finding solitude in a busy room. He checked his phone. Dylan had messaged him four hours before: ‘Should we get a pint after you finish work today?’ All his despair at having been abandoned by his only friend was for nothing. If only he learnt to trust his reasonable curiosity to check his phone every now and then, rather than submit to his phobia telling him to do the opposite of what he wanted out of fear of ‘giving in’. That was Rupert, a stoic without a purpose.


read the sign hanging over the entrance to the pub, below the lettering a rather well-made reproduction of George Stubbs’ masterpiece. Drawn by the warm glow flowing out the windows, Rupert overcame his hesitation and turned left, walking into the narrow courtyard separated from the street by a mostly dried out boxwood hedge, and then gathering his strength once more, into the loud but surprisingly welcoming pub. He stood frozen scanning the premises for any sign of Dylan, and having found none, decided to venture to buy himself a drink from the bar.

Sat down at the table he was surprised to find the famed painting reproduced on the cork coasters, frayed and slightly falling apart from the chronic booze soaking. He swore he would one day go to see the real thing. He didn’t however feel out of place in the pub, which, beside the name and elevated choice of signage, was as regular as they got. He noticed for the first time how people don’t call the name of the place they are in. ‘Yeah mate, I’m here.. at the pub.. The pub, you know.. the one with the horse..’ Probably no one in the establishment had ever seen the painting. Or would be inclined to do so, if told where to find it. He fell into thought, squinting to study the colours of the hair, the eyes, the subtle gradation in the background, things he could see on the coaster reproduction mostly due to the creativity-inducing properties of alcohol. He finished his first pint of IPA in less than 5 minutes. He was in line for the second one when Dylan arrived.

An hour later, many, many pints of increasingly cheaper drinks, and a belated awkward conversation, Rupert and Dylan knew everything there was to know about each other. Rupert had been averse to the custon and process of formal education his entire life, and after breaking his right arm shortly after starting his A-levels, he decided to quit. He felt as the injury, which he never ascribed a cause to, entitled him to take the decision. He hated sports, both taking part in and watching them. His dislike of people severely reduced his job options, and after his arm healed and he got sick of being rejected from supermarket staff jobs, he applied for the recycling centre. His attention to detail got him the coveted job of sorting supervisor. In the past three years he had become quite fond of environment protection, and took with great pride to call the place ‘recycling factory’, because they were part of making new things just like other industries. Dylan had been much more academically successful, having made it all the way to first year in uni. At this point he got sent down after peddling marijuana, an enjoyable and profitable activity he had been engaging in since he was 15. Because the university didn’t want negative publicity he was not reported to the police. He saw the ad for sorting positions at the recycling centre and he ended up under Rupert’s supervision. Rupert’s dedicated nature earned him not only Dylan’s respect, but also occasional lessons in chemistry, subject Dylan had been quite fond of.

‘So how did you end up selling pot?’

Sandstone hills – Part of the Little Blue Marbles Series

Dylan woke up at the break of dawn hungry, but not willing to eat any of the crackers, nuts or cheese he had brought along for the trip. The thought of crossing the sandstone hills had kept him up for most of the night, and now, exhausted and with worry causing him a sick stomach, he had to find the strength to get out of the sleeping bag, out of the tent, and face the damned hills, which looked even more inhospitable grazed by the first rays of the sun than they did during the night like a darkness denser that the surrounding. There was in fact no good reason his drinking friends, and only friends around these parts, could present to justify their loathing for these hills: no one had gone missing travelling them, there were no venomous snakes, wolves or bears roaming there, and the trail crossing them only required some hiking boots to walk, was hard to get lost on since taking the wrong turn would take you to a precipice sooner rather than later, and only difficult because of the steep inclines.

Dylan was a strange nature, an intrepid explorer afraid of missing the direct train and having to change in stations along the route he hadn’t visited before. He embarked on this voyage to prove himself to his friends and also because in spite of liking the carefree lifestyle that living in a forgotten town offered, he would get quite bored and craved doing something out of the ordinary. So, instead of taking the train to the summer fair held in the village ten miles away, he had decided to pack his glass goods in his backpack along with essential supplies and walk the two-day journey there. His friends pointing out glass goods and backpacking don’t mix well only spurred him on, and having walked seven easy miles the day before, only had to cross the hills to get to the village on the other side.

Grinding his teeth, Dylan left the last patches of dusty green weeds and entered the hills. The first monolith soared to the sky, blocking the view of the sun and marking the entrance like the frame of a door. The abruptness of entering a cave, rather than climbing a hill, was making its way into Dylan’s heart like an expanding foam, pushing other feelings aside and then disappearing leaving behind only an empty space which constituted the dread Dylan, as others before him, was feeling intensely. The path was getting steeper and the effort of climbing increased the blood pressure causing Dylan’s ears to start ringing. The ripples of the earthquake shaking his eardrums reached his eyes, which were now protesting violently to the lack of light, the sudden severing of its flow brought about by one step crossing past another monolith soaring on the opposite side to the first.

An urge took over Dylan, who at this point was sweating and cursing his foolish decision to venture here, and he stopped, took off the backpack and from the main compartment took out a carefully wrapped glass vase, the layer of old newspaper so thick it barely allowed one to discern the shape of what’s inside, unwrapped it and having put the wrapping back into his bag, he lunged forward onto his left foot and with a massive swing of his right arm powered by the momentum of his jump, propelled the vase forward like an olympic thrower and smashed it less than a meter in front of him. The explosion sent glass shrapnel cutting his face. He didn’t move for what seemed like an eternity. His mind, his hearing, and vision regained clarity and he called himself lucky for somehow not having any glass in his eyes, as far as he could tell. He kept on walking. Eventually, his curiosity got the best of him and he run his hand over his face, feeling the stinging pain for the first time. He knew those tiny shards of yellow glass would accompany him beyond the end of his crossing, the summer fair or the year.

For the next five hours, whenever the pulsating pressure boxed him in, he would take another piece of glass, smashed it to pieces, and kept on walking as nothing ever happened. During periods of calm, as he was approaching the highest point of the crossing, he would have a name creep into his mind: Irene. When he made it to the highest point, he had run out of glassware in his bag, which was now filled only with blood-stained, old newspaper. The sun had made it to the top of the sky and had its best chance of seeing the vertical sandstone walls. For a brief period of time the murky brown of everything around had its strange purple tinge cut by the bright yellow sunlight, turning briefly a forgettable shade of vermilion. The light descended low enough that Dylan could see the lizards sunbathing in the noon sun, their presence betrayed by their movement and yellow eyes. The sun not long after descended gently in unison with Dylan on the path. He didn’t think ‘Irene’ again.

Next to the entrance to the tiny village square was a sign battered by the weather and reading ‘Sandstone Hills’, barely legible in a strange gothic font and with yellow letters on a rusted background. The place was packed with one massive fair ride offering folk the chance to ride round for £5 on tacky unicorns, dolphins, orangutans, and pigs until the insides of their thighs grew blisters. The contraption took up so much space it seemed to displace the atmosphere as well, and left for a suffocating fair experience. The whole event was actually just a Sunday market, which had brought in on command from some clever businessman the ride in order to call it a fair and put prices up dramatically. Not dissuaded, the local folk were going round the stalls in an orderly fashion. In counterclockwise sense from the entrance were arranged stalls in such a way to provide one with things they needed for the day, in the right order: greasy fried sausages wrapped in bacon and served on a slice of black pudding next to a ladlefull of baked beans (from a can, reheated over a fire for dramatic effect), a pint (or several) of apple cider, seventeen different kinds of cheese, the only one selling being the extra mature cheddar, a selection of underbaked and over-infused with baking powder scones, no jam (too much sugar is bad for the health), a pint (or several) of dark ale, so that by the time one had visited all the stalls and the shops selling ‘Ye ol’ knick-knacks’ situated behind them, they had passed the day and were ready to leave with all their money gone. In the corner of the square opposite the entrance, hidden behind the last stall selling watermelon and pork pies (a local tradition), was sat a haggard looking man with his face covered in bandages. In front he had a hat filled with coins and a paper bag filled with blue marbles. The adults barely noticed him, but he had made himself into an attraction for the kids. He gave the big marbles for 50p and the small ones for 30p. The slightly older and working towards becoming astute businesspeople among the children could get the imperfect ones for 20p. By the end of the day, Dylan had made enough to buy himself a pie and pint of lager (cheaper than ale), fix the hole in his budget left by the room where he had spent the night, and get himself a train ticket back.

On his way to the station, which was actually about half a mile outside of the village and consisted of a ticket kiosk and a platform with a leaky roof, he swung by a shack from where he knew he could buy pigments stolen from a chemicals’ factory which had closed down years before, but had never been cleared out. The jolly man inside was not bothered hiding the nature of his business and cried out when he saw Dylan:
‘Dylan, mate, haven’t seen you in ages, what can I help you with this time?’
‘Mate, some of that stuff you sold me last time lasted forever. If I put too much in made the glass so coloured I couldn’t see through it.’
‘There’s plenty more where that came from. What would you like? Some cad yellow?’
‘Neah, think I’m done with that for a while. You got some more of that cobalt blue?’
‘£50 for a 10 g bag’
‘Bloody hell, ain’t you got some smaller ones?’ Dylan knew the bag probably hadn’t even been weighed and must have had a couple of grams in it at most. He had saved £20 for his visit here and knew the man, whose name he never cared to enquire about, would give him as much as he wanted for as much money he had.

With his blue bag of wonder safely craddled among the newspaper in his backpack, Dylan turned up to the kiosk and asked for a one-way ticket to Larkham. On the train he fell asleep and dreamt of Irene.

Little Blue Marbles

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.
‘I’m Rupert.’
‘I’m Freya.’

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.