“Are you the one that makes the Philosopher’s Stone?”
The bartender nodded at the stocky woman on the other side of the bar. She had short spiky hair, a look he despised on women. He had to force a smile onto his face. “One Philosopher’s Stone coming right up.”
“Two, please.” She grinned at someone across the pub, and he followed her glance. A far more attractive specimen sat fiddling with her phone at a corner table. She flicked back her long dark hair as she grinned at his customer. Sweet—a woman several tiers above the usual lot in the Limping Pig.
Simon whisked the ingredients together with the swiftness born of practice. He never revealed the precise process that went into mixing his signature drink. He was very particular about secrets, even when bartending. If you didn’t know how to keep secrets in one area of your life, how could you sustain them in another? He was lucky the Limping Pig’s owner Maureen was indulgent of his little ways. One night a few months back he’d mixed his new invention for her, and she’d been so impressed she’d added the cocktail to the pub’s meagre list. When Simon had insisted he be the only one in possession of the recipe, Maureen had barely batted an eyelash. After all, he worked most nights.
While he was counting her change, the spiky-haired woman sipped at her Philosopher’s Stone. “Wow, that’s pretty amazing. A right alchemist, you are!” She chuckled as she made her way across the room to her friend.
Simon merely smiled into his beard and shook his head. He felt his secret glowing inside him. Funny how people sometimes hit the nail on the head without the slightest inkling.
He wished his shift were over already so he could get home to his laboratory. He tolerated chatting with his customers every evening, but his experiments had been producing such tantalising results lately that the hubbub in the Limping Pig felt depressingly mundane. He could be sublimating sal ammoniac at this very moment!
At least the flowing-haired woman with the dusky skin was sweet on the eyes. He watched her and the plain woman drinking their Philosopher’s Stones, smiles never far from their faces. Her laugh rang across the room, bubbling like mercury in a crucible. He wished he’d been the one to provoke it, but he’d never been one for jokes.
When Simon’s shift ended at last, he sighed in relief. As he walked homewards along the empty streets, the village was filled only with the silence of an early-autumn night. At home he locked the door behind him for the night: the click of deadbolts, rim latch lock, and padlock soothed him. He checked his living room laboratory out of habit. It was undisturbed as always, but he had to be sure. He often had nightmares involving village children breaking into his house and ruining the great work.
His dreams that night were filled with kinder symbols. Ravens swooped through them, and the Phoenix rose through mercury fumes into a golden sky. When his alarm clock rang, Simon snapped awake with the word chrysopoeia running through his mind like a fleeing stag. Chrysopoeia: the transmutation of base elements into gold, his lifelong goal. In order to achieve chrysopoeia, he had to create a true philosopher’s stone, not just the unerringly delicious drink that he mixed several times a night. With his stone, he would be able to transform lead into gold–perhaps to transform anything he wished into gold, a Midas of the modern age. If he succeeded, his name would go down in history along with Jabir ibn Hayyan, John Dee, Paracelsus. The thought made him quiver with anticipation.
He rolled out of bed, mind whirring despite the early hour. For a while now he had felt his experiments were getting closer to the mark after all these years. His attempts at chrysopoeia were improving, and his other, nobler purpose went hand in hand with it. For while gold would ensure his financial stability, it had never been his ultimate goal. Simon had always felt he was made for greater things than one lifetime could accomplish. There was just so much to learn, so many books to read. If he succeeded in making a real philosopher’s stone, he could create the apotheosis of the great work: the elixir of eternal life.
As he brushed his teeth and shaved, he eyed each wrinkle and imperfection with a frown. He had to get the elixir ready soon. His fortieth birthday was fast approaching, and he was starting to look decrepit. That would never do for someone who meant to live forever.
Simon prepared his morning tea with the same care as he did his alchemical brews. Tea was not the elixir of life, but the ritual of it made him calm, prepared him for work. He measured out the curled-up leaves into a scrubbed-clean strainer and poured steaming water over it all. The scent of this particular Assam reminded him of his first forays into alchemy twenty years ago. He’d drunk countless cupfuls of strong Assam then, kept awake nightlong learning about the magical ancestor of chemistry and how it could be used to manipulate the universe. How young he’d been, how complacent that he would find out all the secrets in no more than a couple of years!
Instead, it had taken him two decades to get where he was now. Simon smiled ruefully and settled down at his oaken table, the site of his experimentations. He opened his latest notebook, a thick tome with empty pages, to read his notes from yesterday and orient himself into the work.
He knew it might make things easier if he wrote down his observations on the ancient computer he kept in the cellar. But he was reluctant to let go this affectation from his youthful explorations, to scribble all his alchemical notes by hand. To write down such secrets on a word processor would feel like gross sacrilege, even though it would make it easier to find things. He had kept all his notebooks. They took up two shelves of the bookcase beside his work table, alongside old books in Latin, Greek and sixteenth-century English, dredged from second-hand shops and the internet. The books spilled over onto the huge oaken table where all manner of alchemical instruments stood waiting.
He liked having his old scribbles beside him as he worked. Despite the innumerable errors and failed experiments they documented, they were a testament to the great work: all the years he had distilled, meditated, prayed and experimented.
He took a sip of his tea and breathed in the steam, clearing his mind. Now for the day’s work, the real work before he trudged up the street to open the pub. His heart beat like a taut drum as he read the sentence he’d finished with yesterday: Combination of mineral, vegetable and animal stones: final piece of the puzzle?
“Hermes, guide me to wisdom,” he muttered, and reached for his alembics.
“Are you all right, Simon? That beer’s overflowing—”
Simon realised his hand was wet with spilled beer from the tap he’d been drawing. “Damn it. Thanks, Katerina.” He wiped off the spill with a towel and smiled apologetically at old Ricky Davis, who was patiently waiting for his pint.
The Limping Pig’s second bartender gave him a quizzical glance, but went back to her customer once she’d made sure Simon wasn’t going to faint. He wasn’t. But he was also not concentrating on the job at all. Such a breakthrough, this morning! After all his years of trials and failed experiments, the secret of the philosopher’s stone was more than just a seductive glimmer on the horizon of truth. He would’ve taken the night off if he could have, but Maureen had sounded so irate when he’d called her to ask that he’d thought better of it.
Simon took a deep breath and forced himself to stay in the moment, instead of daydreaming about the substance he had created–the substance that was well on its way to becoming a true philosopher’s stone.
“Two G&T’s, please.”
It was the long-haired woman he’d seen the night before. He had thought her beautiful before, but now he saw her with reborn eyes. She was a veritable goddess, in fact a perfect match for him. Oh, yes!—now he knew who he wanted to spend eternity with.
“Anything for you, my dear,” he said, taking care to make his smile casual.
He checked her name from her credit card when she paid. Mira Patel. She was smiling as she went back to her friend with their drinks. What a victory! He was so close to living forever, and now he could do so with a gorgeous woman at his side.
Simon learnt how to transform lead into gold on a dead, cold December day. He felt the heavens sing and dance with him as the red philosopher’s stone performed its arcane transmutation and the dull block of lead changed. The ingot of new gold glimmered under the stark light of the fluorescent lamp. He could barely breathe.
“Chrysopoeia,” Simon muttered. Amidst the triumph, he felt incredulous: could the great work truly have come to fruition? He touched the gold with trembling fingers. It felt cold to the touch, cold and inexorably solid. He cradled the ingot in his trembling hands, kissed it, burnished it with his sleeve.
For an endless moment he felt wise, powerful, one step from deathless.
He had achieved transmutation. Pouring himself a stiff shot of whisky to celebrate, Simon was already leaping onto the next level. Now that he had the power of chrysopoeia, he could concoct the elixir of life. The whisky burned his throat—uisge beatha, falsely termed water of life. Ah, but he would construct a true source of immortality.
Simon couldn’t wait. Downing the rest of the whisky, he decided to attempt the elixir right away. His time was ticking away, new wrinkles appearing nigh daily. There was no time to lose.
Hours later, stomach shouting with hunger, Simon distilled a golden liquid with the help of his beautiful philosopher’s stone. The aroma reminded him of cut grass, summer’s first days when everything is possible. Watching the elixir sparkle in its beaker, he felt an urge to drink it right away.
His old grandfather clock chimed eight. Damn, his shift was starting in a matter of moments.
Simon clenched his fists, knuckles white. Breathe deep, breathe deep! He didn’t want to spoil his first sip of immortality. This would be his final test: to wait a while longer, until after his shift at the pub was done.
He couldn’t stand being separated from the triumphal fruit of his long labour, though. He bottled a small amount of the elixir and placed it in his pocket, just to have it there, to remind himself that he was both a goldmaker and soon to be deathless. Whistling happily, he started off down the road. For one more night, he would live as a mortal man.
Tomorrow he’d thumb his nose at death.
It was a quiet evening at the pub. Simon was glad of it, because it meant he didn’t have to engage in meaningless nattering. The few customers were regulars, busy with chess and their own chatter. They didn’t keep him too busy to dampen his joy, and by eleven, all of them had disappeared.
Simon contemplated closing early, going back home to make sure his philosopher’s stone was safe. Yes. He’d light a fire in the grate, and take his first sip of the elixir. You had to employ proper ritual in these things, after all.
Then the door opened, and in came Mira Patel. Simon’s heart beat furiously: she was alone. That had never happened before. Still buzzing with triumph and feeling the elixir bottle’s weight in his pocket, he felt the wings of destiny on him. This could be the day she realised his potential. It had to be. It fit in the great pattern of things.
She came up to the bar, leant her arms on the stained wood. Her eyes were dark and sad as she looked up at him.
Simon cleared his throat. “You look like you need a drink.”
She gave a feeble chuckle, a mere shade of her usual full-bodied laughter. “Make me a Philosopher’s Stone. I need something strong.”
They small-talked for what felt like an age. The weather, of course, was their starting-point: a subject which Simon, however, could contribute little to, since he spent so much of his time indoors. Mira made her way through her drink and asked for another. Simon didn’t charge for it.
“Things haven’t been good lately,” she confessed after her second Philosopher’s Stone. “Relationships, bloody difficult.”
Simon vaguely understood what she was implying: that she might have feelings for someone who wasn’t him. It didn’t really matter. Once she realised what a nice bloke he was—and how much gold he could create—he’d have a chance.
“How would you like to live forever?”
She looked up at him, eyes shining wide. “What?”
“I’m an alchemist.” Simon felt a sharp thrill at revealing to her what he had never told anyone else. “I’ve found the secret to eternal life and I want to share it with you. I”—he hesitated—”I want to share eternity with you.”
She laughed at him. Laughed! Simon hadn’t expected the love of his life to ridicule him. It stung him to the core.
“You’re off your rocker,” Mira said, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes. She glanced at Simon, who was gaping at her open-mouthed. She frowned. “Look. Firstly, there’s no such thing as eternal life. And secondly, I’m sorry, but if there was, I definitely wouldn’t want to share it with you. Anyway—I’ve got a girlfriend.”
Simon stared at her. Each word was like a knife slashing into his gut.
“I thought it was obvious. Abby and I spend a lot of time here.”
He found words again. “I thought you were… friends.”
She laughed again, more kindly this time. “We are friends. But despite our difficult patches, we happen to be in a relationship too. So I’m afraid you’ll have to find someone else to creep on.” She got up to leave.
Simon could feel anger bubbling up inside him, fueled by the cruel flames of her rejection. “Wait!” he said. “I’m sorry. Let me make you one more drink to make up for my mistake. On the house, of course.”
She looked uncertain, but sat down again. “All right then.”
Never underestimate the power of free drinks. He turned his back on her and took out a glass. So, she didn’t want to share his dream. Fool! Who wouldn’t want to live forever? What was wrong with her?
He made yet another Philosopher’s Stone. It was only fitting. After whipping in all the other ingredients, he stealthily removed the small bottle from his pocket. Once she’d taken her first sip of eternal life, once she felt health and vigour coursing through her veins—oh, then she’d realise his true worth.
Mira took the glass from him. She drank quickly, sloshing some of the liquid onto her blouse in her hurry. Simon looked closely at her. He wanted to observe everything so he could document it later in his notebook: the immediate effects of the elixir of life. There, a radiance was growing in her—yes, the truth and beauty of immortality was taking hold!
He realised what was wrong a second before the chrysopoeia gained strength and rampaged all through her body. First there was just a pale glimmer, a golden shimmer in her dark hair and her skin. Then, she dropped the glass and gave a piercing scream, tried to move but it was already too late—she was a statue of solid gold.
The silence in the empty pub was absolute, like the silence between stars. Simon stepped out from behind the bar and went to Mira Patel. He touched her golden shoulder. It was cold, just like the ingots he’d created. Theories filled his mind. She might be dead; but due to the arcane nature of the process, perhaps consciousness of sorts still resided behind those golden eyes.
He’d failed to make the elixir of life. Above all else, this thought ravaged his mind. He was disappointed that he couldn’t share eternity with this woman, but even more terrifying was the thought that he’d failed. What if he’d drunk of the elixir before work like he’d planned, what if he’d been transformed? He had known that alchemy was a dangerous science, of course he had. But he hadn’t realised quite how lethal it was. Chrysopoeia through a liquid: this was a golden touch he didn’t want. How could he have gone so wrong—how could he have made a chrysopoeia-inducing concoction when he had aimed for the elixir of life?
The pub door burst open as he was contemplating the golden woman. “Mira?” came a voice. “You here?”
It was the spiky-haired woman, Mira’s girlfriend. Abby. Simon began to laugh, a painful, gut-deep hissing. His hopes of hiding the statue and pretending no knowledge of Mira’s whereabouts were ruined.
“What’s your problem?” Abby demanded. Then she saw the golden statue sitting by the bar.
Her mouth hung open. She touched the statue, traced the outlines of its face. It was unmistakable. “Mira,” Abby said in a low, breathless voice. “Mira!” She turned to Simon. “What the hell have you done to her?”
Simon tried to stop laughing and found that he couldn’t. “An alchemical mistake,” he said in between giggles. “I swear I didn’t intend to turn her to gold. Just a little glitch in my plans.”
Abby swore long and furiously. “A glitch? She’s my girlfriend! Change her back!” There was desperation in her eyes.
Simon shook his head, flooded with a sudden helplessness. His studies had not prepared him for anything like this. “I can’t. I don’t know how to.”
A middle-aged, deeply enamoured couple entered the bar just as Abby charged at him. Simon felt her fist strike his jaw. After that, pain was the only thing he knew till he woke up in an ambulance, blurry-headed and aching all over. A short distance away he could hear Abby trying to convince the police officers that she’d attacked him because he’d turned her girlfriend to gold.
“Yeah, that’s a likely story,” said one of the officers with a snort.
It sounded as if he wasn’t going to be convicted of anything. Despite the pain, Simon’s foremost feeling was profound relief.
The doorbell rang again. Grumbling to himself, rubbing sleep-sand from his eyes, Simon fumbled down the hallway to answer it. Whoever could be at his door at this hour? No one ever came to visit. Perhaps it was an early post delivery.
Upon seeing who it was, he almost slammed the door in her face, but Abby got a booted foot in before he had the chance. She looked none the worse for wear—unlike Simon himself, who had a fist-sized bruise purpling on his chin.
“What are you doing here?” he hissed.
“You,” she said, “are going to help me. You said you don’t have a cure for Mira. But there have to be other alchemists out there, right?”
Simon nodded cautiously. “A few that I know of, in various locations around the world.”
“Good. You’re going to give me their names and contact information.”
It seemed she wasn’t going to hit him again. Still, Simon gave her a wide berth as he let her into his house. “I can’t guarantee that anyone will know how to reverse the process.”
Abby’s jaw was set in a stubborn scowl. “I’m going to get my girlfriend back to life again.” Her eyes darkened. “Now give me the names.”
He didn’t like unmasking fellow practitioners of the art any more than he liked parading his own secrets. But this time, the scorn of his peers ranked lower on his list of fears than getting pummelled in the face again. He told Abby everything he knew.
It was more than a month before Simon found the will to recommence the great work. He tried to stay away at first out of a vague sense of guilt, but in the end the lure of the philosopher’s stone was impossible not to succumb to. After all, even if he couldn’t yet create the elixir of life, he could make cheap lead into gleaming gold. Soon it would be time to leave the village, give up bartending, and buy himself a manor. He dreamt of a massive laboratory in which to perform his experiments. Perhaps he could get a supply of rodents to test his elixirs on, so he himself could avoid danger.
When spring was greening in the fields, he received a postcard from Abby. She’d left the village after Christmas with a human-sized packing crate and her phone full of alchemists’ numbers. “Tangier is busy,” the postcard said. “Muslim alchemy promising. Good to meet up with some proper experts.” Simon didn’t know why she had sent him the card, but it was followed with regular irregularity by others, equally passive-aggressive. Perhaps she just wanted to keep reminding him of his misdeed; perhaps she had no one else to confide her progress in.
The last he heard, reclining on a divan in his modest country house, she was still wandering the world with her golden woman, ever searching for someone wise enough in the arts of alchemy to achieve the reversal of chrysopoeia. Ever seeking to transmute cold metal into flesh.