by Matthew John Cook
This short story was published in Issue 8 of The Stockholm Review:
Ben Paladene stood perfectly still in the empty year 9 cloakroom trying to work out why he had just swallowed Alan Fennig’s giant marble. Fat Alan had been shoving it in everybody’s faces before assembly, and as soon as he saw it Ben wanted it so much his whole body began to vibrate. He had known instantly what was going to happen; he was going to excuse himself from geography at 10:15am exactly then sneak into the cloakroom and put his hand into Alan Fennig’s hiding place (the sweaty inside pocket of his tan pea coat) and then he was going to take it. Which is exactly what had happened, finally gazing into the exquisite inch-wide galaxy at the marble’s heart until his eyes crossed. He hadn’t foreseen the next part though, the part where he swallowed it, which was strange. Also strange, now he came to think of it, was the fact that he had very little recollection of doing any of these things. He remembered planning to do them, but not actually doing them. It was all weirderoo. Exceedingly weirderoo.
The marble was, without a doubt, going to be missed and the likelihood of violent retribution medium to high. The previous Friday Miss Wern had told all the boys in Ben’s class to bring a meaningful object for a ‘Special Memories’ writing project. Ben had eventually chosen the flint arrowhead he and his father had uncovered on a campsite that summer, three days before his 13th birthday. It was a squat little thing with a rippled edge. His overwhelming (though distinctly unspecial) memory of it was how quickly their triumph had fizzled right up into nothing when his mother told him it was just a pebble and ‘the only thing pre-historic in the vicinity are your father’s shorts’. To which his father had screamed, ‘Thanks Harriet, thanks a million! As ever!’ then read his book in silence all evening, refusing to eat even a small bowl of cheesy pasta. Keith Paladene worked for a company that made sports therapy products. Oversized technicolour models of wrists and ankles and vertebra were always appearing and disappearing around their house. Harriet was a speech therapist who wore calming pastel shades exclusively and was unusually, well, actually one might say borderline freakishly, tall for a woman. Ben had once heard two strangers describe her in exactly this way whilst hiding under a bed during a family party. The same disembodied voices had also described his father as ‘asinine’, a word Ben didn’t know but felt had an appealing aura of supervillainy. Keith was not a supervillain. He was a world-famous pushover. His meekness was generally considered the reason why Simon, Ben’s older brother, had become so out of control and now lived at a special residential-type school three plus hours drive away, his name mentioned in hushed tones when it was mentioned at all.
Leaning weakly against a locker, Ben closed his eyes. Even tiny little baby type swallowing seemed to make the marble restless and to radiate fierce waves of pain. Could a person actually die from marble poisoning? The glass had been perfectly smooth, but he had once deliberately smashed one of his own unimpressive marbles underfoot, creating two half moons, each with a coarse crystalline landscape that was painful to touch. Harriet was working at home today: no point trying to get back there. Ben knew that he was now being observed. Just a few days before there had been a family meeting where, over peanuts, he had been told to please enjoy growing up and be himself but to inform them immediately if he found he was feeling ‘disorientated’ or ‘impulsey’ or ‘too hot when there was no reason to feel too hot’ and to write down any thoughts or feelings that felt, in Harriet’s words, ‘abnatural’.
Ben knew the strangeness that ran in his family rippled right through him, growing up and around inside like a runner bean. He just didn’t know how big it wanted to get.
With the marble now a cool ice cube somewhere in the middle of his chest, Ben went to the library in search of the one person he knew could make him feel better. Dennis Wilkes had been his brother Simon’s best friend and Ben found him where he always did, in the Quiet Study Zone. He was sitting alone, scribbling ferociously onto the back of a book. The Quiet Study Zone was a low, mote-filled room full of journals that nobody read, some of which contained photographs of bewildered African women with bare drooping breasts, if you knew where to look. Dennis was six foot tall with a dense looking forehead, mottled pink cheeks and grassy sideburns. Ben liked the fact that he had the same long slick hairstyle his brother had. More than one person had observed that he was something of a human optical illusion, seeming to visibly grow in real time the longer you stared. There were always new rumours about Dennis; that he had once wrestled his mother’s boyfriend at a picnic; that he had trained his cat to do weird, perverted tricks; that he had done something to a woman in a shopping precinct and the police were still tracking him. These myths retained their power precisely because Dennis gave the general impression that he never did much at all.
‘Salutations Quinthorpe,’ said Ben. ‘How goes it?’
Quinthorpe and Templeton were alter egos invented by Simon and Dennis, pompous twits that spoke about life in tired and wistful ways. Dennis had christened Ben ‘Templeton Minor’ in Simon’s absence, which pleased Ben a lot. Much like the shirts and pyjamas Simon had left behind, Ben felt that he was filling the void a little better every day. Dennis continued drawing for a moment then suddenly stopped, his arm falling dramatically away as he turned round.
‘Most excellently, Templeton Minor, most excellently indeed. And yourself?’
‘I must tell you,’ said Ben, hovering next to him, ‘it has been a most weirderoo a.m. and I daresay you shall spit out your cocoa when you hear -’
Dennis sighed. ‘Look, Ben,’ this in his normal voice, ‘I need to get this finished. Can it wait?’
Ben shrugged, a hot flush of shame pouring into his cheeks.
‘What is it?’ Ben asked, nodding at the drawing.
‘Dragonwolfe.’ For such a distant person Dennis had a remarkably vivid and violent imagination. Mindlessly prodding a large spot on his chin, he looked down at the drawing for a moment, detached and almost grandiose.
‘Yip.’ Dennis licked his fat bottom lip and got back to work.
Ben sat down on one of the rickety wooden chairs and took from his waist pocket the hummous and coriander wrap his mother had made him the previous evening, now bent wildly out of shape. He began to eat, forcing each swallow. Even with this effort it felt like the marble was pumping the food back up. Each new mouthful seemed to travel less far inside him, a nagging pressure was building in his throat. He leaned over to better see the drawing. The Dragonwolfe had the legs of a woman, and something complex and erotic was occurring just out of sight. He thought of his own poor attempts at art, how every person eventually deteriorated into a many-limbed monstrosity smoking a pipe. As he leaned Dennis scooped his arm protectively over his work, his movements becoming more and more frantic, until he finally threw his pen across the room and stood up, towering.
‘Dammit. I can’t concentrate with your chewing in my ear. Damn squishing.’ He jabbed a fat finger inside one of his ears rapidly. Ben stopped chewing.
‘Come on. Spit it out. What do you want?’ Dennis glowered at him. Ben swallowed anxiously. ‘You obviously have something to say, so say it.’ Ben’s voice came out in a hoarse whisper.
‘Fennig brought in a marble.’
‘Fennig brought in a crappy marble. For English.’
‘That fat kid?’
‘And I took it.’
Dennis smiled, revealing a dark stripe of gum.
‘Very good Templeton. Top marks. May I see?’
Ben took a bite of his wrap.
‘I’m afraid you may not.’
‘Come, come dear boy. Whyever not?’
Dennis gave a wry smile and shook his head.
‘Well, well. In which case it might befit one to get stuffed and piss off, so I may return to my endeavours.’
A horrible feeling of loss came over Ben. He wanted to explain everything, but there was a stopper somewhere. A mistrust that hadn’t ever been there before. Dennis’ head gave a little jerk forward, his eyes bulging in sync.
‘Ben. Go away.’
‘I’m not lying.’
Dennis walked over to the wall and retrieved his pen. ‘I don’t care. Sod off.’ He lisped a little as he said this and some spit speckled his drawing. Ben unsquinted his eyes. He didn’t know what to do. How had this happened? He wanted to punch Dennis and shock him and make him laugh at the same time. He wanted to shatter this false moment and return to the one before. His heart, or possibly the marble, began beating so hard in his chest it felt like it was going to burst through.
‘Hey Quinthorpe,’ Ben said, taking the arrowhead out of his pocket. ‘Chew this.’
Mr Hutchinson’s office was far more pleasant, Ben decided, than its reputation would suggest. Despite his white hair and beard, the old teacher still had enormous shoulders, still looked like the kind of man many boys could hang from at once, and be carried through life without troubles. Mr Hutchinson smoothed his paisley tie again and again, like a dynamo battery that required a good twelve or thirteen sweeps to provide enough energy to talk. The radiator emitted a soothing hum. Finally, Mr Hutchinson looked up.
‘Ben. You’ve been giving us all a lot to think about recently. I know there have been a few mistakes of late, such as the paint pots and the thing we shall not mention, but one can only make so many mistakes before one’s teachers must consider them not mistakes but deliberate and possibly criminal, albeit subconsciously. But let’s just say they are mistakes, well, that is almost as troubling wouldn’t you say? Wilkes is going to need stitches.’
Ben opened his mouth but no words came out. He hadn’t imagined the arrowhead would do that. He had imagined it pinging off Dennis’ head like a pebble, not slicing the air and taking a fat bite out of his cheek. The blood just ran and ran, and the expression on Dennis’ face was so awful Ben had run too, with super-human speed, down the stairs and out of the fire door over the playground, across the field, a blur of grass and struggling bodies, to the far end where there was nowhere left to run, just a wire mesh fence, and this was where he threw up. There in the yellow mush on the ground he saw something hard and alien and he had just enough time before Mr Trivado arrived to wipe the marble on the grass and hide it in his pocket.
As he held it there now in the office it felt hot in his hand. The day had been warm and very few boys had taken coats outside at lunch. Alan probably didn’t even know it was gone. With a bit of luck he could return it as if it had never been away. His crime could be wiped clean like a blackboard. Through the window Ben saw a car parking up, a Mondeo that looked an awful lot like the one that had dropped him off that morning. His empty stomach began to revolve.
‘Benjamin. I am concerned. I am concerned and Mrs Gladridge the school counsellor who I believe you already know and who will be joining us shortly – is also concerned. Even before this incident with the weapon. Are you listening to me?’
Ben was listening. Mr Hutchinson’s words were booming around in his head. His blazer felt tight around the armpits, as if it were shrinking or he were growing rapidly. He looked up and stared at the very centre of Mr Hutchinson’s forehead.
‘The thing is I’ve got a soft spot for you, Ben. But you have a choice. We come now to a big fork in the road, a crossroads, you and I, well you and I and your parents and Mrs Gladridge, but the decision is yours, will always be yours, which way to go. Are you following me? For crying out loud where is Mrs Gladridge? I’m going to fetch Mrs Gladridge. Wait there.’
Mr Hutchinson left the room with the air of someone who would only be a moment but who in fact seemed to now be taking far longer than a moment and whose footsteps seemed to be getting further and further away. Deep inside Ben something was unfurling. Tiny warriors were preparing for war. A portal to another dimension was opening. It felt like a great deal was being decided then and there. The sky outside had lost its bright calm. The sun was gone and a billowing grey duvet had taken its place. The hum of the radiator changed pitch. Ben strained his ears to hear what the marble wanted to say.
Ben had known about the secret door just along from Mr Hutchinson’s office ever since the school’s production of The Pirates of Penzance. He had been part of the lighting crew, and had taken great pleasure in swinging the spotlight around with the action below. They had been allowed special permission to use the secret door, which wasn’t really secret, just painted the same colour as the walls and normally strictly out of bounds, to get quickly up to the hidden gangways above the stage. Very calmly, so as not to disturb the marble any more than he already had, Ben walked up the narrow staircase, listening to the voices seeping up from below. At the top he found his old spot, a little stool that gave a good view of the entire hall and, just visible beyond, the main reception. He had enjoyed that play. In fact it had probably been his favourite day of school ever, being so essential yet invisible.
In reception below there was quite a lot of activity now. He could see Harriet in her lilac jacket, looking flustered. There beside her was Keith, looking lost. His father would be pleased to know that the arrowhead had proven itself to be as dangerous as he had hoped. Mr Hutchinson and several other teachers were pointing and rubbing their arms with indecision. It was just like a play, a make-believe situation that hardly had anything to do with him at all. Mr Hutchinson called a number of boys over, among them a puffy faced Alan Fennig in his pea coat. No part of Ben inside or out made the slightest movement. He was a statue. He was a pile of bones. Perhaps that was how they would find him there, hundreds of years in the future.
Slowly, without taking his eyes off the figures below, Ben took the marble out of his pocket. And without really even thinking at all he placed it onto his tongue and swallowed.