mizzle-shinned (adj.): having one's legs red and blotched from sitting too near a fire
Greg has grown up too quickly – two kids and the type of mortgage that has you counting copper coins – whereas Andy is still essentially a teenager – shifts in a supermarket in the day, then eccies to see him through the nights out. The three of us meet once a month, on a Wednesday evening, to catch up.
I like to think I’ve charted a middle ground – one kid, no mortgage, a pint or two on the weekend – but it’s me complaining about the call-centre that gets us on to the subject of our worst-ever job.
‘For me,’ Greg says. ‘It was the call-centres. Sorry, pal. Not like yours, though; this was cold calling and I was right at the bottom of the pyramid.’
‘Promotion and that, you know.’
He’s a Loss Adjuster now, is Greg, which should mean that he’s able to budget well-enough to buy a round, but it’s still always myself or Andy who end up getting them in.
‘Mine was that chip shop,’ I say. ‘Just the grease of it, eh. And the embarrassment when the girls from school came in and I was standing there in a wee white apron and hat.’
‘Did you not give them free chips, no?’
‘Boss wouldn’t let me. They’d have been out my pay.’
I look at Greg, then at the pint Andy bought me. Over the months, it’s been at least a dozen rounds since Greg reached for his wallet. The moths in there must have fossilized by now.
‘What about you, Andy?’ Greg asks.
‘Eh?’ Andy blinks, re-focuses.
‘Your worst-ever job?’
Andy chews at his lip. He scrapes his fingernails over his stubble and it makes a noise like a match being struck.
‘Well…’ he says. ‘Probably that week or so I spent as assistant to an alchemist.’
I look at Greg, Greg looks at me. We burst out laughing. In that moment, I can see a glimpse of the young lad who used to play chappy on all the neighbourhood doors. Then he shakes his head, puts on his dad-voice.
‘Shall I take this one, or you?’ he asks.
‘Go for it,’ I say.
‘Andy, I think you might mean chemist. Or pharmacist, maybe.’
‘Do I, aye?’ Andy looks confused. Looking across at him, I raise my eyebrows. I don’t want to come across as patronising or that. Don’t want to give the impression that I think Andy’s brain is addled, that his memory’s only just this side of fucked.
‘Tell us about it,’ I say. ‘Then we can work it out.’
‘Right,’ he gulps at his pint before starting. ‘It was a wee card in the window of a newsagent that led me to it – red with gold lettering – and the house was one of them grand ones in the West End. It had this wee tower on the side of it.’
‘Sounds like one of the kids’ fairytales,’ Greg says.
‘Aye, so, the house was all overgrown and that; peeling paint, weeds out the gutters. And the door is opened by this man wearing a tweed suit and with grey hair that was thin as cobwebs in some places and thick as a duvet in others. Mental-looking fella, with wee sunken eyes that stared right through you…
So, I tell him why I’m there and he takes me through corridor after corridor. Then, on the landing, there’s like a zoo’s worth of stuffed animals – they’re all staring at me as well.’
‘Taxidermied,’ Greg says, taking a sip.
‘Aye, but he tells me to pay them no mind and leads me on to this wee spiral staircase. And, honest to god, there’s a baboon on one side and this wolf-thing on the other, like they’re guarding it. So we climb up these stairs and through a hatch into this tower-room. There’s shelves all around the walls, with books on half of them and jars filled with powders and herbs on the rest. Then, right in the middle of the room, is this massive fire-pit. Flames are leaping out of it, the rim’s only one-brick high. And hanging over it, from a chain, is this giant metal disc, like one side of a set of scales.’
‘Fucking hell,’ I breathe. ‘It doesn’t sound like a pharmacy anyway.’
‘He’s at the wind-up,’ Greg says.
It takes Andy a moment before he shrugs at Greg, but it takes him a beat before he does anything these days. If this is a wind-up, he’s been working on his poker-face for the best part of a decade now.
‘So what happened?’ I ask.
‘This fella – Dr Vata, he’s called – takes a wee bit of metal, looks like the hinge off a door, and throws it onto the disc above the fire. And it goes like molted-hot and all this smoke starts coming off it…’
‘Molten,’ Greg corrects him.
‘… And when the smoke clears there’s this glow to the metal, but not heat.’
‘Was it gold then?’ I ask.
‘He said it was, aye.’
Greg scoffs. He swirls his pint glass, trying to raise a head from the flat lager. ‘Fuck sake,’ he says.
‘But I only stayed about a week,’ Andy says.
‘Why did you leave?’ I ask.
Andy scrapes his chair back and pulls up the left leg of his jeans. He tugs his sock down to his tattered trainer. On his ankle are several silver flecks that catch the light. They’re scar tissue, the size of fingernail-clippings.
‘Couldn’t take the heat of that bastard-fire,’ he says.
I look up into Andy’s face. It’s like he’s showing us where he fell off his bike or fell from a swing. Greg leans across:
‘Bullshit,’ he says. ‘It’s from Scout bonfire or sitting too close to your nan’s electric heater. Bullshit.’ Then he swallows the rest of his pint and stands. ‘I’m away to the bog.’
Andy folds down his jeans. ‘Get a round on the way back then. I’m beginning to think that wife of yours has your pockets sewn-up.’
Greg looks back with his mouth open, but the best he can come out with is, ‘You’re the one who has a mate who can turn metal into gold.’
For a minute, we sit in silence. Andy is looking over my shoulder, at a TV screen with football news on it. He sniffs, but seems unaware that I’m staring at him. When he does look my way, he seems surprised.
‘What’s up with you?’ he says.
‘Was all that for real?’ I ask.
‘The alchemy stuff.’
‘Aye,’ he blinks. ‘I knew that fucker wouldn’t believe me, though.’
‘Then why didn’t you go back?’
‘Why didn’t you go back to the alchemist’s house, if he was making gold?’
Andy shrugs. ‘It wasn’t for me.’
I smile and sit back in my seat. ‘Greg’s right, you’re full of shite.’
Andy keeps his eyes on the TV screen, but he reaches into his pocket and pulls out his wallet. From the fold behind the notes, he pulls out something the size of a door-hinge. He places it on the table between us and I lean forward. It catches the light in the right way, it’s the right colour.
‘I might still have that wee red-and-gold card,’ Andy says. ‘If you’re not precious about your ankles…’