Paul Lyndon skidded to a halt as the train doors slammed shut in front of him, the engine chugging as the train set off from the platform, disappearing down the subway tunnel, the yellow glow of its rear lights fading into the gloom. He threw his half-drunk cup of coffee to the floor, kicking the cup onto the tracks for good measure. ‘1:32’ his watch declared; there was no way he was going to make that interview now. A few people shuffled past them with their heads bent down, no wish to engage with his anger or to find out what sparked it. When they cleared, Paul was surprised to find a man with thick ginger sideburns and dressed in green tweed half smiling at him while looking over an open silver pocket-watch.
‘Missed your train, did ye?’
The accent was strange. It sounded almost Irish but so thick as to almost be a piss-take.
‘Yeah. If only I hadn’t stopped to get this bloody coffee!’
‘That’s the problem with mistakes,’ said the stranger, snapping his pocket-watch closed. ‘They’ll haunt ye for the rest of your life, but ye can never do anything to change them.’
‘Yeah, true.’ Paul was barely listening at this stage. Perhaps if he ran and managed to get a taxi straight away, he’d only be five minutes late?
‘Or perhaps,’ continued the stranger. ‘Ye could do something about this one?’
‘Whatever. If you’ll excuse me.’
He tried to elbow past the stranger, but the latter only smiled and snapped open his pocket watch once more. Paul blinked.
And opened his eyes to find himself at the back of a queue, light drizzle falling on his shoulder, and weak sunlight fighting its way through the clods as best it could. The smell of diesel that haunted the subway station was replaced with rich aroma of coffee. He recognised the coffee stall immediately, some brand he’d never heard of before with a logo just different enough from Costa to avoid a lawsuit, the student who badly needed a haircut taking his sweet time counting out change… and giving it to the woman with the poofy pink jacket who had been ahead of him before. In fact everyone in the queue had been ahead of him before: the blue-haired woman in an anorak who took an age deciding what to order, the boy with the hoop earrings, the businessman in the long coat with an even longer umbrella that kept nearly stabbing Paul in the groin every time the man shuffled forward. And how had Paul got here anyway; hadn’t he been in the subway station? He gazed down at his watch: ‘1:14’. Was this a dream? Was missing the train the dream? Paul had no time to ponder metaphysics and certainly no time to queue for a coffee. Dashing from the queue, he raced down the crowded street, dodging past irate passers-by and leaping over a puddle left by a surly bloodhound on his way to the subway.
Paul grabbed a seat on the busy train next to a middle-aged man struggling with a broadsheet. As he settled into the soft seat and let himself get his breath back, he pondered when he would wake up. Surely he had never had a dream this vivid? And if he had been dreaming before, why had everything been so similar this time? He had even recognised the woman who exited the train before he climbed aboard as one of those who had shuffled past him, head down. Although he hadn’t noticed the stranger in green tweed on the platform – maybe he had come later? At any rate, the train was hurtling along at good speed and unless and until he awoke, he was going to take this for reality and ace that interview.
Forty-five minutes later, he said goodbye to the panel and closed the mahogany door behind him, having spectacularly failed to ace that interview. Maybe he had been too focussed on the odd experience earlier, but whatever the reason he’d been dumbfounded at many of their questions. Of course, he could think of the answers now but that wouldn’t do him much good. He could see the other candidates sitting in a row along the corridor, a mixture of expensive suits, power skirts and smug expressions. And then, in the very last seat, a familiar red-haired man in green tweed.
‘Made it then, did ye?’ he asked, a twinkle in his eye.
‘Yeah, I guess so.’ Paul looked at the other applicants, but none of them seemed to be paying him or the man in green the slightest bit of attention. ‘Who are you anyway?’
‘Ah, how rude of me. Here’s my card.’
Paul stared down at the card handed to him.
Mr Seamus O’Shaunnessy
‘A time leprechaun?’ asked Paul as he stuffed the business card in his back pocket.
‘Sure. Most leprechauns offer people pots o’ gold. Me, I offer them something far more precious. Weren’t ye wondering how ye got that second crack at catching the train?’
‘But… how could you do such a thing?’
‘Says right on me card: “time leprechaun” I can manipulate time to me heart's content, so long as I don’t let things fall too badly into arrears of course.’
The other applicants still showed no sign of hearing any of this. One of them seemed to be staring right through Paul.
‘So how did the interview go?’ said Seamus.
‘Not great. Bit of a waste of time magic I guess.’ He scratched his chin. ‘Say, you couldn’t give me another go at it?’
Seamus smiled. ‘Of course! That’s what I’m here for. But only the first taste was free.’
‘How do you mean?’
Seamus shrugged. ‘Like I said, I can’t let things fall too badly into arrears. I gave ye some free time earlier, but if I were to do it again, the deficit would be too great. No, if I were to give ye another shot at your interview, I would need ye to give me some time in return.’
‘And how would I do that?’
‘Nothing could be simpler! If I send you back thirty minutes, you agree to give me the last day of your life. Just whenever you are fated to die, you’ll actually die twenty-four hours sooner.’
Paul ran his tongue over dry lips. ‘I dunno...’
‘Don’t be silly!’ said Seamus, leaping from his chair, the other applicants still oblivious. ‘It’s only one day which you’d probably spend hobbling about in decrepitude. And think of the days you’ll waste trying to get a chance for a job this good again.’
‘Well, that’s a fair point.’
‘Sure it is! I’m a very fair man! Shake?’
Paul took a moment. He looked at the other candidates with their self-satisfied faces. He looked at Seamus’ wide grin. With a deep breath, he clasped the leprechaun’s hand.
‘Tea of coffee?’
Mr Hardcliff raised an eyebrow, clearly thinking him an imbecile, but Ms Alton gave him a kindly smile.
‘No need to be nervous,’ she said, Mr Carson on her right nodding along.
‘Yes,’ he said, leaning back on his leather chair. ‘Take a breath and then we’ll get stuck in.
This is it, thought Paul, the start of the interview. Only this time I’m going to be ready.
And he had been ready. He remembered every question and this time he had given the answers he should have given previously. Even Mr Hardcliff was smiling by the end of it. When Paul had left the interview, he’d outdone all the waiting applicants with the smug grin he gave them. Now, one week later, he gazed upon his ringing phone, recognising the number immediately.
‘Ah, Mr Lyndon? Juliet Alton here. I hope you’re well?’
Get on with it, thought Paul as they rattled through the pleasantries.
‘Anyway, I’m afraid we have bad news for you. It was very close, and we gave it a great deal of thought, but we feel one other candidate had a slight edge over you and have offered her the position.’
Damn. ‘Can I ask what was the decider?’
‘Yes, of course. There was really nothing between you in terms of experience and qualifications, but the successful candidate just seemed a bit more enthusiastic, she seemed to know details about the company that even I had to check with Mr Hardcliff!’ She laughed. ‘So really with the two of you so close in all other respects that’s what it came down to. I know this will be a disappointment for you, but rest assured we shall keep your details on file. It’s possible another position may open up in six months’ time and we will of course consider you for the role.’
Paul muttered his thanks and quickly brought the conversation to a close. Hanging up, he strode into his spartan kitchen and turned the kettle on. Six months. And that was only to be reconsidered, no guarantees. And it had taken him almost a year to come that close. So much time wasted and so much ahead to be wasted still. Unless.
He took Seamus’ card down from the mantelpiece and dialled the oddly long number.
‘Ah, Mr Lyndon,’ came the thick brogue, answering the call immediately. ‘And what can I do for ye?’
‘A week,’ said Paul. ‘Could you take me back a week?’
‘Of course, of course. No length of time is too great. But I will have to charge ye a bit more, ye understand?’
‘Well, I’ll let ye have a little bit of a bargain. I give ye one week and ye give me another three days from the end of your life.’
Three days? Not as bad as he had expected.
‘Okay,’ said Paul. ‘Bring me to the start of that interview again. But not just yet. I’ve got some research to do first.’
‘Sure, sure. You take your time and then hit “three” on your phone when you’re ready. I’ll do the rest.’
Paul hung up and fired up his computer. He was going to spend the next few hours learning all he could about Alton, Carson and Hardcliff Accountants.
As soon as he had hit three on his phone, Paul once again found himself before the oak desk and the stares of he firm’s three senior partners.
‘Tea of coffee?’ asked Mr Hardcliff.
‘If it’s all the same to you, Mr Hardcliff, I would rather get stuck in.’
The grey-haired man smiled. ‘Then by all means, Mr Lyndon, show us what you’ve got.’
And show them he did. And this was just the start of Paul Lyndon’s meteoric rise in the company. To any observer, the time in which Paul made junior partner and then, when Mr Carson retired, senior partner was incredible. Only Paul knew the amount of failures, disasters and near-misses that he was able to undo with a little help from a time leprechaun. Seamus was always happy to help and never charged too much: a day here or there, perhaps a week if Paul really needed to go back a good while. As far as Paul was concerned, a bit less time in decrepitude was worth the fantastic life he was leading now. And it wasn’t just his professional life that had improved, he was now married to model and heiress Sabrina Dawson. It had taken quite a few false starts for him even to get her attention, even more to actually get her to go out with him. And here they were married. At the start of their relationship, he messed things up a lot, but a quick call to Seamus was all that was ever needed to put things right again. And as time went on, the fact that he could undo any catastrophe gave him a confidence that made Sabrina find him even more attractive. He found he could now get away with things that previously would have brought his relationship crashing down. And it wasn’t just Sabrina who appreciated this invulnerable confidence, Paul had accumulated a fair number of mistresses over the years. Occasionally Sabrina would find out and he’d have to make a quick call to Seamus to put everything right again. He was particularly taken with his latest mistress, Carla, a blonde with curves that would put Marilyn Monroe to shame. Maybe next time Sabrina finds out about his dalliances, he would just cut his losses and move on to Carla. He might even get a share of the Dawson fortune in the divorce if the case went his way, which Seamus could ensure it did.
As Paul pulled up the winding gravel driveway of his nine bedroom house in his red Ferrari (he had previously had a yellow one, but upon deciding that was a bit much, he had phoned Seamus and opted for a red one instead), he was somewhat surprised to see his front door wide open, Sabrina standing in the porch with her arms folded as some burly men in overalls carried various items of furniture out to a waiting lorry.
‘What’s going on?’ he asked Sabrina.
‘As if you don’t know,’ she spat. ‘Credit card fraud, Paul, how could you? The police were round here earlier looking for you, and then these – ruffians – showed up and started emptying my house!’
‘Relax, babe,’ said Paul. ‘One little call and I’ll get this all sorted.
‘Seamus!’ he said upon hearing the time leprechaun’s thick accent. ‘How are you? Listen, I need to go back a bit. Probably three weeks should do it. That ok?
‘No, Mr Lyndon’ said Seamus, his voice oddly devoid of its usual mirth. ‘I’m afraid we need to talk.’
Paul shuffled uncomfortably in a wobbly seat in a crowded coffee shop, the aroma of freshly baked goods and strong coffee mingling in a way that made him feel strangely nauseated.
‘Why did you want to meet here?’
‘Because, Paul,’ said Seamus, still very grave, ‘if we met at your house, the police would have interrupted our conversation after three minutes to haul ye down to the station. Though that is the least of your worries.’
‘How do you mean? Can’t you just send me back and stop all this nonsense?’
‘And why not?’
‘Because ye have nothing to pay me with.’
Paul shook his head. ‘You mean you’re not interested in taking any more days off the end of my life?’
‘Oh I would be very interested, if ye had the days to give. Y’see, Paul, in about seventeen minutes, ye are going to die from a massive heart attack.’
Paul immediately felt his chest tighten. Christ, was it happening already?
‘But, how could that be? I’ve only spent a few days here and there.’
‘Actually, by my tally, ye’ve spent eight thousand, nine hundred and forty three days. You’re forty-seven now. Had ye not started burning through your days, you would have passed away at the somewhat early age of seventy-one following an unpleasant spell of renal cancer.’
Renal cancer. His dad had died of the same thing, he should have thought of that. But even so, could he really have spent so many days?
‘Don’t feel too bad. I mean with all that rewinding, ye technically lived a couple of decades longer than your physical appearance suggests. And forty-seven isn’t a bad old age anyway. Alexander the Great wasn’t even thirty-three when he kicked the bucket.’ Seamus looked at his silver pocket watch. ‘Fifteen minutes now. But who’s counting?’
Fifteen minutes! There must be some way out of this. For the first time in however many decades he had half-existed since first meeting the time leprechaun, Paul really had to think. No-one was going to save him now, he had to come up with something all on his own. Even above the roar of chatter and the hiss of steam from the percolator, he could still hear the ticking of the clock on the far wall. He had never seen a second hand move so fast. His heart seemed to be beating faster still.
‘Wait!’ he cried.
Seamus raised an eyebrow. ‘I’m in no hurry, I can wait as long as ye want. Or as long as ye’ve got at any rate.’
‘You said I had no days left to pay you. What if I could make new days?’
‘Not possible, I’m afraid.’
‘But don’t you see, it is!’ laughed Paul. ‘Send me back. Waaay back. To just before I met you. How much would that cost?’
Seamus shrugged. ‘Ten years. But as I said, Mr Lyndon, ye have no time left to pay with.’
‘But, don’t you see, I would! If I go back to before I met you, I’ll have never spent all those days so I’ll have years left to me. You can take ten of them.’
Seamus said nothing for a while. Then a smile slowly spread across his face, its edges practically touching his red muttonchops. ‘Oh, ye are a clever one, Paul, a clever one indeed. Very well then, I’ll be seeing ye.’
The train doors slammed shut before him, the departed passengers brushing past him, a cup of coffee falling from his grasp to land with a splash on the platform. The train hurtled on into the darkness, its rear light fading into the gloom. He shook his head. Had it all been a dream? He felt his chest, his heart beating normally.
‘Yes, Mr Lyndon, ye’re back,’ came a soft chuckle. He turned to see Seamus leaning against a pillar, gazing over his open pocket-watch. ‘And ye’re going to live until your sixty-one. Not the longest run, but not too bad either.’ He stared down the tunnel into which the train had just departed. ‘Still, seems a shame ye’re going to miss that interview now after all that. Want to have another go at making the train? I’d only charge a single day. Ye’ve got plenty o’ them now after all.’