The Alchemist's Apprentice
Like a murderer returning to the scene, I snuck home after five years of self-imposed exile, with a new girlfriend and baby, kept my nose and lungs clean. Stayed away from pubs and dealers. Tried to get a real job, a tax-paying job. Didn’t go out my way to discover who was doing what or where. But word gets around. There’s no hiding in small communities.
Danny was more cultured than other old acquaintances. Didn’t steal or lie too much, usually paid his debts, eventually. A keen grafter, when there was a chance of a quick buck. Musical tastes from Mozart to Motorhead and, being an avid reader on a wide range of topics, could hold a conversation beyond the daily updates of who’d bumped who. Not a real friend, but the closest to one I had.
Mostly hoping he wasn’t home, my knuckles barely touched his door. No one answered. I chapped again anyway, almost as loud, straightening his Welcome mat with my feet, cursing his mum, Isobel, for finding my door.
“He’ll listen to you, John,” she said. “He looked up to you. He still talks about the times the two of you did this and did that. We all thought you were a goner when you disappeared without so much as a cheerio. Let Danny see it’s not the end of the world. Show him it’s never too late to start again. He’s all I’ve got left since Stevie…well, you know what happened.”
From what I heard, her youngest son was staggering home with a pie supper after an all-day wet in The Old Ship, thinking of murdering nothing but Mack the Knife. Too drunk to recognise himself in a mirror, never mind warning signs of impending death, stabbed for talking back to a stupid wee boy with a bloody big knife.
The sound of bolts snapped me into character, almost. I had a good idea what to expect when the door opened, but still didn’t know what to say, or why I was really there.
“Jee-sus Christ almighty!” he said, which took me aback almost as much as his lack of hair. He’d never been one for religion apart from when it involved football. “I thought you’d be deid by now.”
“It’s good to see you too, Danny,” I said, squeezing a laugh. “I am deid. I’m back for that tenner you owe me.”
He laughed half-heartedly, showing me a few brown stumps among his otherwise healthy yellow teeth, and sharing a whiff of his last few meals, which I presumed to be rolls and cheese and onion crisps. “You actually look quite healthy, for a deid man.”
He’d lost a bit of weight since I last saw him, but he obviously thought the opposite about me. “You inviting me in? I’m standing here like the Provvie man.”
After we shook I wiped his flakes of dead skin from my hand. He ushered me into a small open-plan room, decorated with twenty year old woodchip covered in ten year old magnolia, and cluttered with bin bags behind the couch. A breakfast bar separated a tiny kitchen from the lounge. Yellow stains above the gas hob and more than a hint of what smelled like cat’s pish provided further evidence of frequent cooking.
“What you been up to then, Danny?” I asked, knowing the answer, which is probably why he ignored me.
I cleared a space among the piles of half-empty pizza boxes, selection of clothes and dated Glasgow Heralds, and sat down on the cleanest looking part of the couch. He fannied about in the kitchen, as if in the middle of a Generation Game challenge, clueless what to do next.
“Did you hear about the missus?”
“Aye. Isobel told me.”
“She was cheating on me. Can you fucking believe it?” he said, face screwed up like an Englishman with a Scottish banknote.
“Nah mate. I was gutted.”
“Och, you don’t need to hear all my shite. You know what I’m talking about.”
“Aye, well, that was a long time ago. I got over it, so will you, when you’re ready. You making a brew or what?”
“Aye, sure.” He started filling the kettle. “Seriously, it’s good to see you. What brings you here anyway? We getting the old team back together?”
“Isobel told me you’re dabbling in alchemy.”
“She what?” he laughed, without turning around, as the kettle overflowed. “I’m sure she never put it quite like that.”
“How would you put it then?”
“How would I put it?” He slowly turned and stared at the melting clocks of his Salvador Dali print on the wall. “I’m just looking for that…that…what was it you used to call it…the…the elixir…that’s it. The elixir of life.”
“You’ll not it find it chasing. Not in the long run.”
“Want to try?”
“Nah, don’t think so, mate.”
“Come on. It’ll be like the old days.”
“I’m trying to forget the old days.”
“That’s a bit harsh. Hope you’re not turning all judgemental on me. Remember what Heraclitus said: ‘To God all things are fair and right and good, but men hold some things wrong and some right.’ He knew what he was talking about.”
“Aye, well, he also said no man steps in the same river twice.” I lifted myself from the couch, hoping the air would be cleaner. “It’s roasting in here. Mind if I open a window?”
“I’ll put a quick one together. See what you think once it’s ready.”
I savoured the fresh air like a Chilean miner and watched Danny start to tremble with conditioned anticipation. He retrieved a charred tablespoon from his kitchen drawer, laid it on the worktop and reached inside his jeans pocket for the main ingredient; easing the white powdered contents of the wrap onto the waiting spoon, trying his best not to shake or spill a single grain. Stage one complete, he sighed with relief and wiped his brow with a snottery sleeve.
“Surely you’re not just here to give me the talk, tell me to get my act together, choose life, and all that shite?”
“Not at all, mate. I know you don’t want to hear that shite. Isobel wanted me to show you I’d come through it.”
“And have you?”
“One day at a time, Danny.”
We both smirked.
After several deep breaths to muster composure, Danny leaned far into the cupboard under his sink. In that underworld lived an extended family of cleaning products. Bleach, washing-up liquid, window cleaner, surface cleaner, turpentine and a host of other nondescript chemicals, awaited the call of duty in time of need, each a specialist in its field. But only one performed black magic.
Hardly a mystic potion of the highest order, but used for many great things ranging through plant growth, livestock feed, furnace brazing and industrial refrigeration systems. It stinks, it burns, and although it destroys all known germs, it’s definitely not the modern housewives’ choice.
Danny snatched the bottle of ammonia from its guarded position and unscrewed the lid, releasing the first wave of odious fumes. He winced as they grabbed his nose and poked his eyes before setting up camp at the back of his throat and digging for his chest. Undeterred, he stood tall, with arms outstretched over the sink, and measured a capful with utmost caution. Slight spillage occurred. He didn’t blink. No fresh skin left to burn.
The kettle boiled, but only I noticed. There was more chance of Pete Docherty waltzing in and asking Danny for an autograph than me getting a cup of tea.
He turned to the spoon on the worktop. Only two steps away, but by the time he reached it just over half the ammonia remained. He poured it and mixed the ingredients with a small screwdriver.
“It’s not as good as the old days but I’ve seen worse,” he said, without taking his eyes off the mixture. “We’ll get not too bad a return after washing this back.”
Balancing the shallow cauldron above the low burning flame of the cooker, he secured his right hand in a stable position to prevent spillage, while his left stirred and toyed with the simmering soup, eyes ever watchful on the temperature.
“Remember when you first showed me?” he asked.
I nodded, keeping my eyes on the spoon. “Too cold, no magic. Too hot, it evaporates. The secret is in the timing. Too soon, all you taste is the poison, and you’ll be sick. Too late, it disappears into the night. Get it just right, the goodness gathers in the middle of the spoon, looking like a yolky fried egg. Don’t think I don’t remember.”
His silence told me he was in the zone.
Guilt landed on my shoulders like a vulture at a corpse. Was I really there because Isobel asked? I wasn’t responsible for Danny’s demise. Was I testing my own resolve? Or did I secretly want to start it all again? As I watched the process I got progressively excited. An itch, born on the back of my hands, crawled up my arms and settled on my head like a swarm of midges, before dripping down my back like one of Dali’s clocks. I started to notice what looked like rocks on his carpet but refrained from picking up what I knew to be imposters.
On removing the spoon from the heat, the gram of powder cooled to one solid mass, about half its original weight. Reduction is a natural result of the transmutation. All foreign bodies destroyed with the pungent compound of nitrogen and hydrogen, leaving a rock of freebase more expensive than a gold nugget of similar weight.
“What do you think?” he asked, holding up his philosopher’s stone like a communion priest, snapping off a couple of small pieces for immediate consumption. “Am I a fucking alchemist or what?”
There was no doubt he’d learned well. I tried to keep a straight face and scratched my palms.
He reached into the food cupboard above his head and pulled down a small plastic Coca Cola bottle. Its bottom-half filled with water and the top coated with residue from previous sessions.
“Isn’t she beautiful, John?”
His pipe had the insidious looks of a Bangkok Lady Boy, complete with phallic paradox in the shape of a plastic Bic pen standing 45° erect halfway up the bottle, as if demanding oral attention.
I wondered if he’d started scraping bottles yet.
So close to nirvana for at least a few seconds, he struggled to place pieces of his rock on the soft cushion of fresh cigarette ash at the top of the foil-rimmed pyre, but managed to land four fragments as his hand shook over it.
Full of nervous energy, muscles primed and ready for anything but stability, sweat dropped from his face as he bent forward. He couldn’t actually hold the bomb and light the fuse at the same time. In its headlong rush to destroy the already depleted reserves of serotonin and dopamine, his adrenalin wouldn’t allow his hands such graceful co-ordination.
He straightened himself up and looked me in the eye longer than a glance for the first time. “Do you want to go first?”
My stomach nearly fell out my arse. I knew my eyes told him I longed to float into outer space at least one more time.
"Just this once…” he said, offering me the lighter, hand trembling like he had Parkinson’s. “…for old Danny boy…the alchemist’s apprentice.”
His gaze pulled my heart while my feet stuck to the carpet. I blinked and looked at the desperate wreck in front of me, and saw the ghost of Christmas past.
“I often wish I could, Danny, but there’s no such thing as just the once down that road.”
He smiled. “Well, have one for you and one for the road.”
“Look Danny, you know the old saying about taking a horse to water.”
He started singing, wearing a broad grin. “We’re on the one road, it may be the wrong road, we’re on the road to God knows where.”
“Just remember, Danny, the longer the walk in…”
“…the longer the walk back out. I know.” Looking more relieved at my refusal than disappointed, he urged me. “Pass me those books over then.”
He wedged his pipe between the solid foundations of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. With left hand steadying his right as it held the lighter, he edged forward, bowed to the mouthpiece and, after licking and pursing his cracked lips, completed the docking, becoming one with his new best pal, sleazy lover and nemesis whore.
Gently sucking the pen, drawing the lighter’s flame down, rocks began to melt and bubble, smoke snaked and swirled in the chamber, darkening like a storm cloud. Danny’s face told me the sound of crackling fell on his ears like Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and I knew that in less than a minute, he’d be back down from the ceiling to start all over again, and I’d be closing his front door behind me.