tinctumutant (noun): an animal that changes colour

You see them in tons of social media posts, eyes on the swivel and tails flicking. You’ll be scrolling through photos of food and babies and then, suddenly, there’s the crested snout of one beside some pouting girl. The girl will have purple lipstick and the chameleon will be the same shade. Wealth, that is. Or it’ll be pinkish and some couple will be pointing at it, fingers crossed for a baby girl. Orange for a new romance; yellow for positive news at work; blue for good health, or a record half-marathon time, or a discount on a superfood smoothie. No colour for cancer, cot death, colitis. Chameleons are good-news creatures.

                That makes them expensive and that, in turn, makes them of interest to Francis. He’s a young chap with a curl to his hair and suits that look they might, at a push, have been tailored. If the market was more buoyant, he’d be an estate agent. As it is, he’s an entrepreneur. He frequently tells clients that he’s an interpreter. He’s also a grafter, but that sometimes gets translated to grifter.

                Now Francis uses social media, of course he does, and he’s seen these chameleons. He’s never slow to hitch onto a bandwagon, so he gets himself online and he searches for ‘them lizard things’. If asked, he’d swear that he knows he’s buying monitor lizards but, if truth be told, he doesn’t read beyond the pricing. Thirty of them ordered in one click and our Francis already off to post that he has the colour-changers in stock, give him a holler.

                There’s a juice-bar he sometimes uses. For a fee, they let him set up in a corner and, for a larger fee, they allow him to bring his lizards. He has them in a bird cage – an aviary really – and they’re happy under the bright lights. None of them, of course, are anything other than green, but he explains that away by saying that they have no need to camouflage when they’re in a pack. He doesn’t know that the collective noun for lizards is ‘lounge’.

                The early customers are sceptical, but they’re half the going rate so word soon spreads. By lunchtime, Francis is down to only five lizards, so he orders himself another thirty on rush delivery. Then he picks up the final five and takes them back to the flat. Through the evening, he sells them on social media. The buyers turn up at his door with cash. He invites one girl, with eyebrows threaded up like she’s expecting a question, to join him for an amaretto cocktail. She says no.

                It’s still a successful day, though, and Francis begins the next by hiking up the price. With a fresh delivery of lizards, he’s back at the juice-bar by lunchtime. He has a homemade sign that says ‘Korma Chameleon’. The mistake is pointed out to him and his day only gets worse from there.

                He only manages to sell one before his customers from the previous day start to show up. They want refunds. One of them slept with his boss and the bloody thing didn’t turn orange; another went to the gym for the first time in two years and her chameleon didn’t show the slightest bit of blue. The most damning one, though, is the couple who won big on a scratchcard overnight. How are you supposed to share that news with the world if your lizard remains stubbornly green?

                Francis gives six refunds in total and then beats a hasty retreat. He goes back to the flat with an aviary filled with thirty-five monitor lizards. Before he even sits down he edits his social media posts – all chameleons are now delivered direct to the customer’s door and there are ‘no returns, no reruns’. Francis knows the word, he’s just flustered.

                He makes himself a wine spritzer and drinks it through a straw. It calms him down. With the money from the day before against the delivery invoices, he’s breaking even. And he’s still got thirty-five lizards in his kitchen. Get them shifted and then go to ground. He has no need to ever go back to the juice-bar; they won’t miss him.

                There’s a knock at the door. He frowns and something about the movement of his eyebrows reminds him of the five customers from the night before. He goes to the peephole and, sure enough, it’s the girl.

                ‘Shit,’ he hisses.

                ‘Heard that, genius,’ she calls out. ‘What the fuck is this anyway? Is it a newt?’

                He doesn’t open the door, but the girl stays outside and she’s soon joined by another customer. Francis hears him saying that he’s had a promotion at work. That sparks an idea. He runs to the kitchen and scrabbles through the spices in the cupboard. The tiny bottles tinkle. At the back is the one he’s looking for – turmeric. He’s never used it, but a magazine told him it was good for muscle-repair.

                When he opens the door, the girl has her lizard in his face right away, but he manages to get them inside. He takes the man’s lizard first, of course, and brings it through to the sink. He sprinkles it with turmeric and, bingo, the scaly skin takes on a bit of colour. Back through it goes and the man is out the door with it, already bringing his phone out of his pocket to take the photo. That leaves the girl with a bit less wind in her sails. If you’d stayed for that drink, Francis tells her, maybe your chameleon would be orange by now.

                The yellow worked well, but Francis knows he needs a bit of variety. As soon as the girl takes her refund and leaves, he goes to the supermarket. Purple is Ribena, so that’s easy enough, and he gets a couple of bags of Wotsits in the hope that the orange dust will do the job. From there, though, he’s struggling. He sees some red food colouring – to make pink – but all he can find for blue is acrylic paint. He stands with it in his hand for a couple of seconds, before dropping it into the basket. Pots of yellow, purple, orange and pink follow. The Ribena and Wotsits go back on the shelf.

                For the rest of the afternoon, Francis deals with the line that forms at the door to his flat. Underneath his online posts are comments with his address and the juice-bar has put up a notice with it on as well. No matter, all he has to do is listen to the jist of the complaint and then shuttle the lizard back to the kitchen for the painting and hairdryer treatment. One or two refuse the colourful result, but most are happy enough as long as they have something for their photos. He even begins to sell to some new customers.

                He’s given out eight of the blue and orange, seven of the purple, and two of the pink and the yellow when it happens. He’s painting a return purple when he glances across at the aviary and sees the cage lid open. There’s only a handful of lizards in there, which seems odd, so he steps away from the sink and he sees them – a dozen or more – swaying their way across the lino. Their skin is flared red. He doesn’t need to look at the paint pots to know that he didn’t buy red. He backs up against the sink, but the purple one is there and he feels its talons pierce the skin between his neck and his shoulder. He screams and flings it to the ground. It leaves a purple splat, but manages to right itself. Then, as one, the lounge of lizards open their mouths wide and let out a hiss that sends Francis scampering for the door.