The Black Marble

By Sue Simpson

Chain Border

Maisy couldn't wait to get her pocket money. It was Saturday, she had done her chores all week, and she knew exactly what she was going to spend her money on. Recently a new craze had rattled through town like brushwood on a desert breeze. It was new to the local kids, but their parents and past generations would have fond memories of playing in back streets when they were young. Marbles had come to town, and in a frenzy of anticipation the local shop owners had bulk ordered thousands of the little red plastic, net bags. They hung in rows from virtually every newsagents and sweet shop around. The kids couldn't get enough of them and confectionery sales had plummeted dramatically.

Maisy had a shiny pound coin. It felt warm in her palm, she was aware of its weight and could feel the little ridges along its edge digging into her hand as she clenched her fist ever more tightly round the money as insurance against loss or theft. She was still getting used to the new coins that had replaced pound notes, and marvelled at the feel of its comfortable weight. All week she had looked forward to the moment when she could rush down to Brockkies and make her purchase. She had enough money to buy two bags of marbles and two-penny sweets and she was very excited. As she walked towards the park where she was meeting some of the local kids for a huge battle of marble supremacy, the two net bags in her hand clacked together in time with her steps. Although she knew exactly how many marbles she had, she couldn't wait to open the bags and count out her glass treasure. Maisy had one hundred and forty six marbles in her special box at home, the pride of this a beautiful, big fifty-er. She hoped that she would never have to play it, because if she was beaten, she couldn't bear the thought of its loss. Today she had only brought out her two new bags so that if she suffered defeat, she wouldn't be tempted to dip into the ones she had already amassed. Last week she had barely broken even, and came home with only five new marbles after her morning's fierce battling. One of them had been a five-er with a green flash in the otherwise clear glass, the other four had only been basic one-ers such as she had just bought. She hoped to have a better day this time.

A travelling circus had come to town, a mixed band of foreign people who spoke broken English with arrogance as though the language was beneath them. The circus people always walked very tall, their postures erect and elegant despite the underlying traces of grime and poverty about them. Maisy was a little bit scared of these people who seemed so very different from her own. She had to walk past the circus ground to get to the park, and although the circus dwellers smiled with wide mouths their eyes invariably remained black and expressionless as they glanced down upon her. Maisy was eleven years old, but she knew enough of the world to know that she lacked confidence and self esteem. How she yearned to be like the brash circus girls who practised their acts around the grassed area outside the tent with such balletic sophistication.

Maisy hurried past the circus encampment and then slowed to a dawdle. For the moment her precious marbles were forgotten and in her mind she was Maisetta the world famous Hungarian trapeze artists who flew gracefully hundreds of feet above her adoring fans without the precaution of a safety net. She became so engrossed in her fantasy that she could almost hear the applause ringing in her ears. Her previously timid expression changed into a wide smile as in her mind she descended the ladder effortlessly to earth and took her bows.

She was so involved with her thoughts that she never saw the boy leaning on the park gate and almost bumped right into him. She reddened instantly and began to mumble a self-conscious apology with her head and eyes lowered.

He was tall and slim, and even though he couldn't have been very much older than Maisy, his upper arms swelled with defined muscle. Maisy had walked several streets from the circus ground now, but she knew instantly that he was one of the travellers. His skin was dark, not coloured exactly, but certainly darker than any of the English boys she knew. Both his eyes and his hair were jet black; he would have been good looking enough to take her breath away had he not been scowling at her so fiercely. Maisy despised herself for feeling so scared and intimidated.

"Eeey you watcha where you go eh?"

Again she repeated her mumbled and incoherent apology.

"You likea da Marbel eh leetle girl?"

Maisy bristled at being called a little girl, when he was no more than about a year or two older. She willed her cheeks to fade from furious red to a more acceptable colour, but they only deepened in their intensity the more she focussed on cooling them.

"I have special Marbel, you wanna buy?"

"Er no thanks," muttered Maisy. "I've just spent the last of my money on these." She clutched the bags of marbles protectively to her side in case the boy should decide to take them from her.

"Hey, I not steal Marbel, why you think Maurio wanna steal Marbel?"

"Er, um, er," said Maisy non-commitaly.

Maurio didn't seem to be waiting for an answer so she let her reply dwindle away on the gentle autumn wind.

He reached into his trouser pocket and with exaggerated showmanship brought out an enormous black Marble.

Maisy gasped in appreciation; not only was it the biggest marble she had seen, but it was not made of glass and it shone with an opaque pearlescence that was different from any other in town. It was the most beautiful marble she had ever seen and she longed to own it. Maurio held it up to the light and Maisy saw that it was not as she thought. At first glance it appeared to be a dense black all the way through to its core, only when it caught in the sunlight did she see that it had what looked like a coiling black embryo in its centre.

Maurio turned the marble slowly in his hands and Maisy became transfixed. She found that although she wanted to, she couldn't pull her eyes from the rotating sphere. It turned and turned like a small planet between his fingers until Maisy began to feel dizzy. It had become hot, very hot, and suddenly humid. She felt moisture under her arms and her shirt stuck to the damp skin of her back. Again she tried to disengage her focus from the marble but could not. The world had disappeared and all eternity and matter had become concentrated into that small ball of black light that spun in front of her gaze. Her thoughts refused to align themselves into any semblance of order and she was simultaneously awed and repulsed by the marble. She felt that she must have it, but at the same time felt an irrational fear building within her.

As abruptly as she had become transfixed the spell was broken. Maurio flicked the marble high up into the air and caught it deftly before he flicked it back into his pocket.

"You wanna buy, I let you have for only one pound."

The Marble must have had the value of being a ton-er at the very least, maybe even more; she would be the envy of everyone at the park. They would all want to fight for the beautiful black marble, but if she owned it, she would never put it into battle, it would be her special treasure, something that they would all want but that only she had possession of. The black marble was a symbol of power, a bartering token of the greatest magnitude, one that she knew she could never use in trade, battle, or bribe. There was something about the marble that terrified and repulsed her.

"I already told you I don't have any money. I only get a pound a week and I've just spent it."

"You borrow?"

"No I have no one that I could borrow off."

"You get from Mamma's purse?"

Maisy was horrified.

"I could never do that. I don't steal."

Maurio shrugged, her disdain did not seem to bother him.

She tried to push past, but he held out a strong arm to bar her way.

"You must get money. Marbel has spoken. It will be yours. Maurio tells you now; the marbel will go where it wants to go and if you do not pay the fee, eet will come with the bad blood, then you will be sorry. I can not be responsible for what Marbel will do."

Maisy had heard enough of this rubbish, she turned and ran in the direction that she had just come and heard Maurio's laughter behind her, chasing her up the street as her feet pounded faster with each heavy step along the pavement. He was ridiculing her, and she felt ridiculous for taking flight.

Maisy avoided the circus ground on her way home. She took the much longer route and arrived home breathless and feeling as though she had been bullied, when in fact it had been an attack of mild intimidation at most.

She flung herself on the bed and wondered how long the horrible boy would be hanging around the park. Maisy reached for her new marbles, still hopeful that soon she would be able to go out and play the game. Her hand fell onto the material of her corduroy trousers; there were no net bags between her and them. She had not heard the marbles fall to the ground as she had run from the park. The circus boy must have cleverly taken them from her without her even noticing. No doubt by now he would have sold them to one of the local kids along with the horrible black marble that she wanted so badly. What an awful morning it had been, all her precious marbles were gone and it would be a whole week before she had the money to buy some more.

Maisy had a decision to make, should she wait until the games the following week to play? Or should she gamble some of her 'safe' marbles? She decided to go through her box and choose which ones she was prepared to lose should she not fare well.

She lifted the large wooden carved box from her bookshelf, it was heavy and the shelf was high and it was quite a feat of precision and balance to get the box safely onto the bed without spilling its contents. The box itself made a wonderful treasure chest, she had bought it for one pound at an auction. Her mother had let her bid for it herself and she glowed pink with pleasure as the hammer had fallen in her favour.

She opened the lid, relishing the sight of all the marbles that covered the bottom of the box. The red, velvet interior set them off to perfection and made them look like sparkling jewels. This time when she opened the box, her eyes widened in a mixture of pleasure and revulsion. There, nestling in the centre of the other marbles like a stampeding hooligan trampling his peers underfoot, was the enormous black marble.

Maisy felt the breath leaving her body with a whoosh. The boy must have broken in to her house, worse into her bedroom, the very place that was her own, that was private. He could come back anytime and spy on her as she slept. Maisy was frightened. How had he found out where she lived? How had he known where she kept her marble collection? And how had he got past her parents and brother without being heard? She didn't have the answers to any of the questions. She certainly didn't tell him where she lived, and she was almost sure she hadn't been followed.

Why had he broken in and left the marble? Nothing seemed to have been taken, it didn't make sense to her. The best solution that she could come up with was that he had felt guilty about robbing her of her own marbles and had been pricked by some form of gypsy code of conduct that said that it was not good sport to steal marbles from pathetic little girls.

The mystery of the black Marble puzzled Maisy for some time. So much so that she didn't show the marble to anyone, she took it out of her collection, wrapped it in toilet paper, and put it in an old chocolate orange box. She hid the box at the back of the shoe cupboard under the stairs. On the rare occasions when she did unwrap it, she always felt apprehensive and troubled. No matter what the season the marble always felt warm to the touch. If Maisy had been able to put her feelings into words she would have said that she was scared of the marble because it seemed to pulse with an imperceptible energy of its own. She never threw it away and as time passed it gathered dust in the bottom of the cupboard. Once or twice over the next few years, she thought about the mystery of how she came to own the marble, but for the most part it was forgotten.

Marbles came and left town, once again consigned to the pages of 'The Way We Were' history books. They were replaced by jacks, which were replaced by space-hoppers, which were replaced by klackers. Maisy grew and married and moved. She had no idea what happened to the black marble, just as she had no idea how it had come into her possession in the first place. Her head was full of confetti and bouquets, then later of library books and PE kits and the trivialities of her childhood faded into that denim-tinged-sky that all the best memories are made of.

These days the innocent problems of childhood seemed a very long way away. Maisy had problems on her mind of a far weightier substance. She was sitting in a sterile examination room with a bubble wrap film of goosepimples mottling her skin. The split-back gown was thin and her nipples protruded rudely through the washed out blue cotton.

She was looking at her liver, or more precisely, at an ultrasound scan of her liver. A bone scan and liver biopsy had already been performed. The diagnosis was conclusive and this last performance was just a case of dotting the I's and crossing the T's.

In the detached manner characteristic of the medically shocked, Maisy marvelled at the technological advances that had been made in the last fifteen or so years. Her insides were clearly visible on a three-dimensional monitor screen. The consultant pointed her liver out to her in a voice reverent with pride. Maisy wondered if he believed he had personally conceived the malignant organ.

The biopsy had shown it to be grey and poisoned, that had been startling enough, but here it was displayed rotating on a screen like a prize exhibit at an alternative art gallery. The mass of her liver showed as a grey mottled density to the top left of the screen. The large black blotch that swarmed over its surface was the tumour that was eating her alive.

Maisy tilted her head slightly to look at it. She didn't feel anything except a mild irritation that she would never finish the galloping horses tapestry that was two-thirds done. As the liver and its offending appendage rotated slowly on the screen something niggled at Maisies memory. She fixed her gaze on the black object that was turning, turning, turning. At first she was only aware of the opaque fuzziness of its mass, but as she became more focused on the monitor, an embryonic tadpole of almost fluid blackness coiled in the middle of the tumour, made itself visible to her.

She was eleven years old, standing transfixed, as a black tadpole turned in a translucent planet. Words came to her from the fringes of her memory.

If you don't pay the fee, it will come to you with bad blood and then you'll be sorry.

Maisy was sorry. She was sorry that she had bad blood, and bad liver, and bad bones. She was sorry that her youngest child was only seven years old. She was sorry that she had only a few weeks left to live.

Other words were coming at her through a haze. Innoperable, comfortable as possible, chemotherapy not much point, pain relief.

In her mind she was playing the big black marble. She heard the clunk as her marble smashed into the throng of all the others just like it.

She'd won! She'd won!

Maisy scooped her cache of black marbles towards her, beaming in her victory.

In the real world the doctor was still talking.

You see it's not the only one, there are secondary, multiple tumours just like it. Not yet as large as this one, but they are multiplying all the time.

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