Sunday, 1 August 2010

A New Midas 5

: 5 :

All morning, Leo’s dilemma distracted him from his classes; and distracted Peter too. At break, Pete came over with a suggestion: ‘I’ve been thinking about it, OK? It must be chemistry.’

‘What do you mean, chemistry?’

‘I mean—it can’t be magic, can it?’

Leo didn’t answer. The truth was, he didn’t know. As far as he was concerned, it was as likely to be magic as anything else. Of course, if somebody asked him ‘do you believe in magic?’ he would probably say no. He no longer believed in the tooth fairy either, and didn’t want his friends thinking he was a baby. But the thing that had happened to him was so weird, he did wonder if magic could be the only explanation.

Pete was more hard-headed. ‘There must be a scientific explanation. The question is: which science? Not geography or economics, obviously. Not physics, either. We’re talking either biology or chemistry.’


‘So I reckon chemistry.’

‘Why do you reckon chemistry?’ Leo asked. ‘Why not biology? Biology is all about living systems, isn’t it? What’s happened to me has happened to my living system, hasn’t it?’

‘True,’ said Pete. ‘But Biology is Mrs Armitage. And Chemistry is Mr McAuslan.’

Leo saw what he meant at once. Only a fool would approach Mrs Armitage with a story like theirs and expect to receive anything except sarcastic dismissal. But Mr McAuslan was a different proposition. He wasn’t like the other teachers, in fact; a loner who spent his lunchtimes in his classroom reading science fiction novels rather than hanging out in the staff common room. Rumour said that he wasn’t liked by the other teachers. Rumour also said he drank.

Leo didn’t know about that; but he knew that he liked Mr McAuslan, despite the fact that he only had one eye. He wore a pair of regular spectacles, with the left lens blacked out, to hide it; but when you got close to him, especially at the side, it was easy enough to see the socket itself—all puckered skin, like an Egyptian mummy’s shut-eye incongruously placed in the face of an otherwise ordinary man in his forties. But somehow the eye didn’t matter; because Mr McAuslan was friendly, and approachable. If you asked him questions about chemistry he got genuinely involved and tried to answer them for you, even if they had nothing to do with the curriculum—‘why is the sky blue?’, for instance; 0r ‘why doesn’t the polar ice cap and the Antarctic ice-cap suck all the heat out of the rest of the world?’; or ‘why don’t they build cars that move around the way snakes move around?’’ and ‘if some drugs are illegal and bad for you and some drugs are good and help you get better from being sick, why don’t people just mix in some of the second type into the first type to stop them being bad for people?’ and ‘who would win in a fight between the city of New York and the city of Tokyo, if the cities grew legs and lifted themselves off the earth?’ and ‘is it possible to freeze things so quickly that they don’t even get cold?’

Any other teacher would get angry if their students tried to derail classes like this; but Mr McAuslan took every question seriously, no matter how stupid it sounded at first, and tried to answer it in a way that brought real science into the matter.

‘We could ask Mr McAuslan what he reckons,’ said Leo, excitedly.

‘He might be able to help. Maybe it’s happened before, and he knows how to cure it!’

‘If it’s happened before,’ said Leo, ‘then wouldn’t we have heard about it?’

Pete shrugged. ‘Maybe the government covered it up? They do that all the time.’

‘If it happened before but the government covered it up,’ Leo replied, reasonably enough, ‘then how could Mr McAuslan know about it?’

‘Look,’ said Pete. ‘Do you want to ask him about it, or not?’

‘Sure,’ said Leo.

They found him in his classroom at lunchtime, eating salad out of a plastic bowl with a plastic spoon, and reading a fat book called The Chronicles of Count Brass. ‘Hello boys,’ he said, sitting up straight in his chair.

Leo pulled a chair up and sat down opposite him. He placed a quarter of a ham sandwich, from Pete’s lunch box, on the desk. Then he placed a fifty-pence piece next to it. ‘Please just watch, Mr McAuslan,’ he said.

He tried to eat the sandwich, biting down repeatedly. Taking it out, and showing the lack of bite marks in the bread, he said: ‘I’m trying to bite it as hard as I can, sir.’

‘I can see that,’ said Mr McAuslan.

Leo put the sandwich back in his mouth, clenched his teeth together and pressed hard together until his face went red. Then he put the unbitten sandwich back on the desk, picked up the coin and bit it straight through.

‘Bravo!’ said Mr McAuslan, smiling broadly. ‘Boys, that’s a brilliantly clever trick! How’s it done?’

‘It’s not a trick,’ said Pete.

‘Really, it’s not,’ said Leo.

They explained the situation, overlapping one another’s explanations. When they had finished Mr McAuslan looked at them with his one eye. Then he asked Leo to repeat what he had done. Then he looked at Leo with his one eye. Then he swivelled his head and looked at Pete. Then he looked at Leo again.

‘For real?’

They both nodded.

‘Good grief,’ he said.

‘We were hoping, sir,’ said Peter, ‘that you might be able to explain it—or if maybe you’d heard if it had happened before in history, or something?’

‘I have never heard anything like it in my life,’ said Mr McAuslan, tugging at his short black beard. ‘And I haven’t the foggiest notion how it is even possible.’

The boys must have looked pretty disappointed, because he immediately tried to rally them. ‘But if it’s a real phenomenon, it must have a real explanation! Science, boys! That will solve it. Let’s do a couple of instant experiments, and discover the limits of the phenomenon. So, Leo: you can’t eat sandwiches, but you can eat coins.’

‘It’s not just sandwiches, sir,’ Leo told him. ‘It’s all the food I used to eat.’

‘But you can eat coins. What about banknotes?’

Leo nodded. ‘They taste lovely, too,’ he added. ‘The higher the denomination of the note, the better it tastes.’

‘Well,’ said Mr McAuslan, scratching his beard. ‘That makes sense, I suppose. Alright: show me.’ He pulled a five-pound-note out of his wallet.

‘Are you sure, sir?’ Leo asked. ‘That’s your money.’

‘Go on—it’s fine.’

So Leo took the fiver; folded it in half and popped it into his mouth. He crunched it like a lettuce leaf—although more delicious and flavourful than any lettuce leaf. Afterwards Mr McAuslan made him open his mouth; but there was no trace of the banknote.’

‘We’re a little worried,’ Pete explained, ‘that if this really is all Leo can eat now, it’s going to get … well ruinously expensive, pretty quickly.’

‘I see what you mean,’ said Mr McAuslan, nodding, and scratching at his beard again. ‘What about monopoly money?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Leo, looking surprised. ‘I haven’t tried it.’

‘They’re banknotes, aren’t they?’ boomed Mr McAuslan. ‘It’s money isn’t it?’

‘Not real money, though,’ said Pete.

‘True. But we don’t know til we try it, do we? And if it’s just as delicious as real money, then that’s one problem solved – because it’s a whole lot cheaper than actual money. I tell you what: there’s a Monopoly set in the games cupboard. I’ll go and get it.’

Leo and Peter waited as he left the classroom. ‘If he’s right,’ said Leo, ‘it’d be great. I could settle down to a diet of monopoly money.’

‘It might be tastier too. The higher denomination notes are better tasting, you said? Well monopoly money goes much higher than regular money,doesn’t it? The highest real banknote is fifty pounds. But you can get a five hundred pound monopoly note! That might be the most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted!’

‘Or—the Game of Life,’ said Leo, excited at the prospect. ‘You get, like, million pound banknotes in that game! Imagine that!’

Mr McAuslan was back quickly, carrying the red cardboard Monopoly box under his arm. ‘Here,’ he said, pulling out a £100 note. ‘Try this.’

Leo looked at it, sniffed it, and then put it in his mouth.

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