The Alchemists
by Clare Reddaway

The young man stood on the hill and looked over the city.  In the distance, the great glass towers jostled for position.  As a cloud scuttered across the sky, the sun was released.  It licked a single spire into pure gold.

    “That’s the one,” said the young man to his friend.    They looked each other up and down for the final time.  Bespoke black suits, black shoes shined to mirrors, creaseless white shirts of the finest linen, ties, carefully knotted, denoting a school revered in the kingdom.  Their jawlines were sharp and freshly shaven.  Their hair tamed and smoothed.   They held slim briefcases of the softest calf leather.

    The young man pinched an invisible thread from his friend’s lapel.



    They shook hands and turned as one towards their future.

The streets in the city were dark as no light filtered down between the towers.  The young man worried that they would lose their way.

    “Look!” said his friend and the young man craned his head back so far it nearly snapped and saw, high above, the golden spire.  They had arrived.

    The doors slid open and they entered a sumptuous hall where pink marble lined the floor and walls and the ceilings hung with chandeliers of crystal.  A fountain tumbled into a pool surrounded by plants so grotesque the friends knew they must be rare and precious.  A woman of flawless beauty greeted them.  They told her their business and she left on silent feet.

    They waited and waited.  When they had begun to feel they could wait no longer even though they had supped on the purest, coldest water, the flawless beauty returned.

    “He’ll see you now,” she said and led them to a room.  This room was not sumptuous.  The walls were thin and beige and the desk was small.  The man who sat behind the desk was tired and grey and although his suit was not frayed, it was not at all new.  The young man frowned and drew himself up.

    “We do not speak to the little people,” he said.

    The man behind the desk giggled and a button popped from his shirt.

    “You have five minutes,” he said and he yawned.  “I’m as good as you’ll get.”

    The young man sat down.  He pretended to hesitate, then said:

    “We have a secret formula.  We know that it will create riches you do not have the imagination to dream of.”

    The man snorted.

    “Prove it,” he said.

    The young man opened his briefcase made of the softest calf leather and pulled out a sheaf of thick white paper.  Each page was covered with numbers and equations, with square roots and brackets and letters squared and cubed, with fractions and double fractions and triple fractions, with pi and infinity and prime factors, with squiggles that denoted averages and approximates and squiggles that denoted other more arcane mathematical concepts.  The man behind the desk looked at it.

    “There.  You see.”  The young man sat back in his chair and folded his arms.

    “It’s obvious,” said his friend.

    “Obvious, unless you are too stupid to see it, or unfit for your job,” said the young man.

    The man behind the desk gulped.  He flicked through the sheaves of paper. His eyes skittered back and forth.  It looked meaningless to him.  Was he too stupid to see it?  He liked his job.  He wanted to keep it.  He pressed a button on his desk.

    “I’ve got some people here I think you should see.  They’ve got an idea that really adds up,” he said into the microphone.

    The young man smiled and returned the sheaf of paper to his briefcase.

    “Up the stairs, straight ahead,” said the man behind the desk and when the friends had left he wiped his sweating brow and took a swig of the whisky which is what he kept in his briefcase, glad that he had passed that buck.

The young man and his friend had meeting after meeting that day, each one with a courtier more important and further up the tower than the one before.  Each time the young man showed them the sheets of paper and told them that the figures contained a formula for unimaginable wealth and that only the stupid or those unfit for their jobs did not realise it.  By the end of the day the friends were near the top of the tower.  They were in a room with a view over the kingdom.  They could see little people scurrying in the streets below and boats on the river that looped around the towers.  The woman they were meeting was thinner and younger and sharper than her lowlier colleagues.  She was the henchwoman of the Director.  She looked at the formula.

    “So you see,” concluded the young man, “It is a recipe for unimaginable wealth, unless you are too stupid to see it, or unfit for your job.”  The woman smiled and as she smiled she showed her teeth and they gleamed in the evening sun.

    “Who are you?” she asked.

    The young man’s friend opened his briefcase and took out his own sheaf of thick white paper.  These were certificates and testimonials from the greatest universities of the kingdom and from the most prestigious institutions abroad.  There were references and letters and awards and degrees for the two men.

    “You have one hour,” said the young man’s friend and he snapped his briefcase shut.   “Or we take the formula there.”  He pointed out of the window to the tower next door.

    The henchwoman picked up the sheaves of paper and exited, backwards.

She climbed the stairs to the top of the tower and knocked on the door.  In a room of light and gold sat the Director. 

    “Sir,” she said, “I think I have found a secret formula that will create unimaginable wealth.”  He smiled and his teeth gleamed, not because they were caught in the rays of the sun but because he had employed some of the world’s most expensive dentists. 

    “Show me,” he said.  The two of them looked at the formula.  They took out their calculators and they punched in numbers and they looked wise.  Neither could make head or tail of the calculations.

    “The two young men are the finest minds of their generation,” said the henchwoman.  “The others -” and she named the courtiers who had interviewed the young man and his friend that day, “They all say the formula is brilliant, quite one of the greatest they have ever seen.  They are astonished by its beauty and complexity, but say how extraordinary it is because it is ultimately so simple.”

    “Hmmm,” said the Director, “Hmmm.”

    “The young men said that only those who are stupid or unfit for their jobs would not understand it.”  And the laugh she laughed was a tinkling one of fear and trepidation.

    “Hmmm,” said the Director and he wondered what it would be like to topple from his throne at the top of the tower.  “Complex but simple.  I see it.  An exquisite formula, a perfect formula.”  And he put a big red tick on the top of the paper. 

    “Hire them,” he said.

So the young man and his friend found themselves in control of an entire floor in the tower, a floor which teamed with minions scurrying to do their bidding.  The young man assumed an authoritative frown and his friend a supercilious glare as they sat at their desks and commanded.  If some of the minions who tried to put the formula into action worried at all, they did not dare to say anything for fear of appearing stupid or unfit to do their jobs. 

    Soon they were glad they held their tongues as the money started to mount up.  For rumours had spread all over the kingdom of the magic formula with its promise of unimaginable wealth.  Loyal subjects from Dukes to scullery maids had scrabbled for the privilege of giving the Director their inheritances, their salaries and the contents of the jam jars they had buried under their rose bushes.  Sacks of gold were delivered to the tower by the day, the hour, the minute. 

    The Director tried to spend it.  He bought pictures by the best artists of the day, paying prices especially selected for him.  He hung the pictures on all the walls of the tower, even in the meanest room, the one with the thin, beige walls where the man was still behind his desk with a shirt which had lost a button.  The Director bought the most exquisite meats shaved from the rarest beasts and wines made from grapes so scarce and by craftsmen so skilled that a single bottle cost the same as a whole month’s labour by the cleaner who washed the marble floors of the atrium. The Director laid out feasts for the occupants of the tower and their families, feasts so fulsome that some courses were to be savoured purely for their smell.  He bought helicopters to whisk his people through the air to the emptiest beaches or coldest snow slopes or most overpriced shopping malls with the smallest possible loss of time.   All of the lucky men and women who worked in the tower were given sacks of gold to take home, and they used it to buy palaces and parkland, jewels and spouses.  But however hard he tried the Director could not keep pace with the sacks of gold.  The prime minister of the kingdom came to the Director and bowed and scraped and asked for favours and the Director kept him waiting and bestowed a small amount of bounty on him because it didn’t do to let him expect too much.  The Director grew fat on the plenty.   If the young man and his friend, when they found themselves alone in the tower, danced jigs of joy so wild that their bespoke suits nearly split, it did not matter as no-one saw them.  And anyway, was this not wealth?

One day a girl got a job at the tower.  She was very young, barely out of school.  Her suit was not bespoke and her job was extremely lowly but she knew she was very very lucky because the sacks of gold had become legendary and nothing seemed to stop them coming.  On her first day her boss who was old and bored gave her a letter to deliver to the young man and his friend on the special floor devoted to the formula. 

    “They are the most important people in the tower,” he said.  “Take care to be polite.”

    The young girl climbed the stairs, up and up the tower (only those with bespoke suits could use the lifts,) carrying the letter.  She was out of breath when she reached the floor where the friends worked so she paused and looked up onto the wall.  Those original sheets of thick white paper covered with the squiggles and equations of the formula were framed and hanging for all to see.  She stared at them and started to laugh.  The young man and his friend who happened to be standing nearby giving commands to their minions stared at her.

    “Please, share the joke,” said the young man icily.

    “It’s gobbledegook,” she spluttered.  “Rubbish.  Doesn’t make sense.  You can’t turn debts into gold, it’s impossible!”  And she roared with laughter, although she didn’t laugh for long and she certainly wasn't laughing when she found herself out on the street, dark as it was because the light didn’t filter down between the towers.  She wasn’t laughing because she was angry and she was angry because she saw the sacks of gold as they were delivered every minute to the front door of the tower and none of them were for her.  So she did what any girl would do and she went to a bar to meet a journalist.

    All was not well on the young man and his friend’s floor.  The girl’s comments had unsettled the minions.   They took down the framed formula and looked at it, puzzled.

    “Ignore her.  She’s stupid,” said the young man but he looked at his friend and they knew that it was time.

    That evening they packed their belongings into the slim briefcases made of the finest calf leather and they left.  When they did not come to work the next morning the minions thought they were in New York or Tokyo or Sydney and they did not worry.  But when they did not appear for a week, one of the minions took his courage in his hands and told the henchwoman.  She came to look at the desks of the young man and his friend and they looked completely normal until the henchwoman realised that there was nothing on the computer and the drawers were empty.  She gritted her teeth and knocked on the door of the Director.

    The Director was looking out of his window.  He could see a long line of people outside the tower next door.  He could see their tiny arms waving in the air.  He turned on his television and saw the line of people in close-up, with his tower as the backdrop.  They were waving pieces of paper that looked like savings certificates, cheque books and payslips.  Their faces were thin and desperate and they had no coats or shoes, which was odd, he thought, as there was snow on the ground.   He drew back as he saw his face fill the screen.  He didn’t understand what was happening.  Then the henchwoman explained.  He turned to his windows and tried to open them, but they were sealed.  That was no way out.  He straightened his tie which denoted a very prestigious school, although not one as revered as the young man’s.  It would be all right.  He’d explain.  He hadn’t understood the formula, who could have?  It wasn’t his fault, it was the young man and his friend.  Where were they when he wanted to someone to blame?


The young man and his friend returned the bespoke suits to the tailor on the corner of the street where they had been born.  Their filled their van with sacks of gold and they drove away from the city of towers to the two yachts that were bobbing in the harbour, waiting for them.

The girl from the post room did not become a hero.  No-one likes the messenger.  Now, she works on a pig farm and is very grateful for her job.  The next time she sees a tower of fools, she’ll keep her mouth firmly shut.