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Chapter Nine

He accepted another pint and took a pull at it.

``Of course, I had my own personal alchemist too.''

``You what?''

He was getting silly and he knew it. Exuberance and Hall and Woodhouse best bitter was a mixture to be wary of, but one of the first effects it had is to stop you being wary of things, and the point at which Arthur should have stopped and explained no more was the point at which he started instead to get inventive.

``Oh yes,'' he insisted with a happy glazed smile. ``It's why I've lost so much weight.''

``What?'' said his audience.

``Oh yes,'' he said again. ``The Californians have rediscovered alchemy. Oh yes.''

He smiled again.

``Only,'' he said, ``it's in a much more useful form than that which in ...'' He paused thoughtfully to let a little grammar assemble in his head. ``In which the ancients used to practise it. Or at least,'' he added, ``failed to practise it. They couldn't get it to work you know. Nostradamus and that lot. Couldn't cut it.''

``Nostradamus?'' said one of his audience.

``I didn't think he was an alchemist,'' said another.

``I thought,'' said a third, ``he was a seer.''

``He became a seer,'' said Arthur to his audience, the component parts of which were beginning to bob and blur a little, ``because he was such a lousy alchemist. You should know that.''

He took another pull at his beer. It was something he had not tasted for eight years. He tasted it and tasted it.

``What has alchemy got to do,'' asked a bit of the audience, ``with losing weight?''

``I'm glad you asked that,'' said Arthur. ``Very glad. And I will now tell you what the connection is between ...'' He paused. ``Between those two things. The things you mentioned. I'll tell you.''

He paused and manoeuvred his thoughts. It was like watching oil tankers doing three-point turns in the English Channel.

``They've discovered how to turn excess body fat into gold,'' he said, in a sudden blur of coherence.

``You're kidding.''

``Oh yes,'' he said, ``no,'' he corrected himself, ``they have.''

He rounded on the doubting part of his audience, which was all of it, and so it took a little while to round on it completely.

``Have you been to California?'' he demanded. ``Do you know the sort of stuff they do there?''

Three members of his audience said they had and that he was talking nonsense.

``You haven't seen anything,'' insisted Arthur. ``Oh yes,'' he added, because someone was offering to buy another round.

``The evidence,'' he said, pointing at himself, and not missing by more than a couple of inches, ``is before your eyes. Fourteen hours in a trance,'' he said, ``in a tank. In a trance. I was in a tank. I think,'' he added after a thoughtful pause, ``I already said that.''

He waited patiently while the next round was duly distributed. He composed the next bit of his story in his mind, which was going to be something about the tank needing to be orientated along a line dropped perpendicularly from the Pole Star to a baseline drawn between Mars and Venus, and was about to start trying to say it when he decided to give it a miss.

``Long time,'' he said instead, ``in a tank. In a trance.'' He looked round severely at his audience, to make sure it was all following attentively.

He resumed.

``Where was I?'' he said.

``In a trance,'' said one.

``In a tank,'' said another.

``Oh yes,'' said Arthur. ``Thank you. And slowly,'' he said pressing onwards, ``slowly, slowly slowly, all your excess body fat ... turns ... to ...'' he paused for effect, ``subcoo ... subyoo ... subtoocay ...'' --- he paused for breath --- ``subcutaneous gold, which you can have surgically removed. Getting out of the tank is hell. What did you say?''

``I was just clearing my throat.''

``I think you doubt me.''

``I was clearing my throat.''

``She was clearing her throat,'' confirmed a significant part of the audience in a low rumble.

``Oh yes,'' said Arthur, ``all right. And you then split the proceeds ...'' he paused again for a maths break, ``fifty-fifty with the alchemist. Make a lot of money!''

He looked swayingly around at his audience, and could not help but be aware of an air of scepticism about their jumbled faces.

He felt very affronted by this.

``How else,'' he demanded, ``could I afford to have my face dropped?''

Friendly arms began to help him home. ``Listen,'' he protested, as the cold February breeze brushed his face, ``looking lived-in is all the rage in California at the moment. You've got to look as if you've seen the Galaxy. Life, I mean. You've got to look as if you've seen life. That's what I got. A face drop. Give me eight years, I said. I hope being thirty doesn't come back into fashion or I've wasted a lot of money.''

He lapsed into silence for a while as the friendly arms continued to help him along the lane to his house.

``Got in yesterday,'' he mumbled. ``I'm very happy to be home. Or somewhere very like it ...''

``Jet lag,'' muttered one of his friends. ``Long trip from California. Really mucks you up for a couple of days.''

``I don't think he's been there at all,'' muttered another. ``I wonder where he has been. And what's happened to him.''

After a little sleep Arthur got up and pottered round the house a bit. He felt woozy and a little low, still disoriented by the journey. He wondered how he was going to find Fenny.

He sat and looked at the fish bowl. He tapped it again, and despite being full of water and a small yellow Babel fish which was gulping its way around rather dejectedly, it still chimed its deep and resonant chime as clearly and mesmerically as before.

Someone is trying to thank me, he thought to himself. He wondered who, and for what.

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