Leo munched the Monopoly banknote. 'Hmm,' he said, scrunching up his face.
'Are you pulling that face because it tastes so bad? Is that it?' asked Mr McAuslan.
'I'm making thsi face,' said Leo, 'because I'm eating paper.' He spat out a half-chewed soppy wad. 'Yuk!'
'It didn't turn rock-hard in your mouth, though,' Pete pointed out, as if this were a good thing. 'You were able to chew it.'
'I was able to chew it because it's not food!' said Leo. 'It's paper.'
'Paper has no nutritional value,' confirmed Mr McAuslan. 'So the limits of the ... if you'll pardon the word, but I can't think of a better one right now ... the limits of the spell you're under seem to be: chew what you like, but if you try and chew food, it will become hard as metal in your mouth. And the only thing that you will be able to eat is money -- real money, not toy money.'
'Bang goes the chance of the most delicious thing in the world,' said Leo, glumy: 'the million pound note from the Game of Life.'
'Spell?' said Pete. 'Like in a fairy tale?'
Mr McAuslan scrumpled up his beard with my hand, as if thinking really hard. 'I've an idea,' he said, suddenly. 'You can't eat Monopoly money because it's a plaything, it's not real money. Seems obvious in retrospect. But real money is acutally a kind of I.O.U. To be precise, it's the Bank of England's fancy-pantsy I.O.U. Look at any note and you'll see...' He pulled another banknote from his wallet: 'see here, I Promise To Pay The Bearer On Demand, The Sum of Five Pounds.'
'That's right,' said Pete. 'I've noticed that before. Though I've never really understood exactly what it means. The bearer is ... what, the person who has the five pound note?'
'Exactly,' said Mr McAuslan. 'And it gives me an idea.' He tore a piece of paper from a notebook on his desk, and wrote on it: I.O.U. £100, P. MCAUSLAN. Then he wrote the day's date underneath and signed it. 'There you go, Dragoman. See if you can eat this.' He handed it to Leo. 'If I'm right,' he added, 'then it should be twice as delicious, and nutritious, than a fifty pound note!'
Leo took the I.O.U, folded it, and put it in his mouth. For several long second he chewed, his jaw going round and round like a cow.
'The verdict,' Leo said, 'is yuch.' He went to the bin and spat the pieces of soggy paper out.
'Well, well,' said McAuslan, turning his forefinger in at his beard. 'Interesting, interesting. I wonder why the bank's I.O.U. works, but my I.O.U. doesn't?'
'I never thought of banknotes as I.O.U.s before,' said Pete.
'So,' Leo said, coming back over, 'if I took this to the bank and told them to make good on their promise, they'd have to pay me five pounds.'
'Indeed they would,' said the chemistry teacher. 'It's a legally binding contract!'
'So I go to the Bank of England in London, hand over this five pound note, and in return they give me ... another five pound note?' said Leo. 'What would be the point in that?'
'Maybe if I had a crumpled, frayed old fiver, and they gave me a brand new one,' said Pete.
'Not that,' said Mr McAuslan. 'They would have to give you five pounds worth of gold.'
The boys looked at one another. 'No kidding?'
'Five pounds of gold, though,' said Leo, 'would be, like -- a speck of gold.'
'Nevertheless,' said Mr McAuslan. 'That speck is what makes this banknote different to the Monopoly money. After all, otherwise they're both pieces of paper with numbers written on them, aren't they. The difference is that the banknote is backed by gold. But the real question is ... how does that explain what's going on?'
The afternoon bell rang: they would have to go back to classes. The boys stood up. 'Mr McAuslan, sir,' said Leo, a little tentatively. 'I guess we were hoping that you might have some sort of explanation for what has happened to me ...'
'...Something based, maybe, on your knowledge of chemistry.' Added Pete.
McAuslan turned his one good eye from Pete to Leo and back. 'Lads,' he said, in a deep bass thrum. 'I do not believe chemical science has the answer to this one. But I do believe we are getting closer. Science formulates hypotheses, and then tests those hypothesese by experiment. If the hypothesis is bad, science discards it. If it is good, then we move on. Now I have a hypothesis about what's occurred to you, Leo Dragoman. I can't say I understand this hypothesis. But I do intend to test it.'
Leo and Pete looked at one another.
'I believe that whatever ... strange thing has happened to you, Leo, has to do with gold. I believe you can eat money because money still has about it, even in our post-gold-standard age, the magical aura of gold. But if this is true, then you should be able to eat something even if it is not money ... provided it is gold.' He held up his left hand, and slipped off his wedding ring. 'Leo: please see if you can eat this.'
Leo was amazed. 'Your wedding ring, sir?'
Mr McAuslan blinked; or rather (since he had only one eye) he winked. But although it looked like winking, he was blinking. 'It's the only gold I have about me,' he explained.
'But,' said Pete. 'Your wedding ring? But won't your wife be awfully ... annoyed?'
'My wife,' said McAuslan, with a sigh. 'I'm afraid she ran off with my tax accountant. I only wear the ring for reasons of sentiment. Go on, hurry: you have to be back in class, and so do I. Try eating it.'
'I'm surer than sure.'
Leo looked at Pete, and Pete shrugged. 'Alright, sir. I'll do it to satisfy your scientific curiosity.' He popped the gold 'O' in his mouth.
He ground his teeth against it. It wasn't metal; it was like half-melted chocolate. And it tasted ... divine. It was the most exquisite taste he had ever known. I don't believe I can explain to you how extraordinarily tasty it was. Think of the most delicious thing you have ever eaten: the smoothest, creamiest, sweetest chocolate; the most savoury flavoursome meat; the perfect chip. Then multiply its deliciousness by about ten thousand times; and you would have some sense of how delicious this small, gold ring was to Leo.
'Well?' said Mr McAuslan. 'Can you eat it?'
Leo's mind was so overwhelmed with the deliciousness in his mouth that he could not form words; he could only nod.
'And ... does it taste good?'
Leo nodded again. Then, he swallowed, and the flavour drained away, leaving only the aftertaste and the memory -- as all the most delicious flavours do. He gasped. 'It tastes better than good,' he said, in a breathy voice. 'It tastes better than anything else I've ever eaten.'
The chemistry teacher pulled himself up to his full height. 'Boys,' he announced. 'We have not solved the mystery, here today; but we have taken a step closer to its solution. You can eat money, Leo; but it is only a second hand pleasure for you. The real food your altered body craves is ... gold!'