‘You’re sure you want to do this?’
‘Completely and utterly sure.’
Philippa stared into the eyes of the man sitting opposite her. Like thousands before her, she had come seeking assistance. Not financial assistance-she could have gone anywhere for that. What Philippa wanted was much more complex, and therefore much harder to come by.
She was amazed she’d managed to get an appointment, and at such short notice too. Given the nature of his work, he must have had hundreds of people clamouring to see him. As luck would have it, he’d been able to squeeze her in, and now here she was, sitting in his office.
His name was Vasily, and he was a demigod of sorts. At least, that was what people believed. In truth, no one knew what he was or where he had come from-only that he had the power to manipulate time, and thereby alter people’s lives. There were others like him scattered about the world. For the most part they posed as academics, hiding out in universities, museums and old libraries.
Vasily’s office was in Oxford. A three-storey limestone building on St Giles’, it was nestled between an old pub and a private dental surgery. On arrival, Philippa was shown up to a wood-panelled study where Vasily himself sat waiting behind a large mahogany desk.
Philippa didn’t know what she had been expecting, but the man who stood up to greet her was certainly not it. Tall and broad shouldered, he looked to be in his mid-thirties, although he was actually much older. He cut a sophisticated figure, in a black pinstripe suit with a crisp white shirt and red tie. His black hair was slicked back, showcasing angular features and dark, piercing eyes.
Once they were both seated and the preliminaries were out of the way, Vasily got straight down to business.
‘It is my understanding that you’ve recently been through a breakup,’ he said.
A file lay open on the desk in front of him. Philippa’s file.
‘It was a hostile breakup.’
‘He cheated on you with his flatmate.’
Philippa felt her cheeks flush crimson. It was painful enough, trying to grapple with the knowledge of Jacob’s infidelity in private. Having a stranger read out the details of her failed relationship was a whole new level of excruciating.
‘Are you sure you’re in the right frame of mind to be making decisions of this magnitude?’
It was a standard question, but it stung nonetheless.
‘I know what I want,’ said Philippa firmly, ‘I’ve thought long and hard about it.’
The man behind the desk laid down his pen and surveyed her with those piercing eyes. He seemed to be searching for something, some indication that she was indeed in full possession of her faculties. For a moment, Philippa was sure he was about to refuse her, but then he said, ‘Well, in that case, let’s crack on, shall we?’
He opened a draw and took out a set of old-fashioned weighing scales, which he placed on the desk between them. Next he took out two velvet drawstring bags, one considerably fuller than the other. Philippa held her breath as he emptied the contents of the first bag onto the left scale. Out fell a single diamond, a polished prism of star-like radiance. The sight of it made the breath catch in her throat.
The second bag was much heavier. It contained not just one diamond, but dozens of them. They clattered onto the right scale, tipping it so much it almost touched the mahogany desktop. For all their beauty, Philippa found the sight of them distasteful, and wrinkled her nose to show it.
‘I understand you wish to reallocate the time you spent with your ex-boyfriends,’ Vasily said once the scales had stopped moving. Philippa nodded. Her mouth had gone very dry all of a sudden.
‘This single diamond here represents the month you spent with your first boyfriend,’ he said, pointing to the left scale. ‘This pile here represents the three years and nine months spent with your most recent ex. That’s forty-six diamonds in total. By transferring these diamonds from one scale to the other, I would be shortening the longer relationship and prolonging the shorter one. That is what you want, is it not?’
‘Now before we go any further, can you explain to me in your own words why you wish to undergo this procedure?’
Philippa took a deep breath. This was it. The moment she had prepared for, and the reason she had come.
‘I have always felt that my first relationship ended far too soon,’ she said, looking Vasily straight in the eyes. ‘It could have been so much more than what it was, if only we had given it more time. Rhys was so lovely, and even after we split, it was obvious there was still something there. A spark that never went away. With Jacob…’
She broke off, shaking her head. Her brain was still struggling to make sense of everything that had happened in recent weeks.
‘It’s OK, take your time,’ Vasily said. He smiled at her, his business-like exterior softening just a little. Philippa gathered herself, inhaling deeply as she wrangled her thoughts.
‘With Jacob I never had that. I loved him, but I was never attracted to him, if that makes sense?’
When Vasily looked confused, she explained.
‘I wasn’t going to go out with him initially. One of my friends talked me into it. I came to love him through getting to know him, but for me there was never a spark there. Does that make sense?’
Vasily thought about it for a moment, twiddling his pen between his fingers.
‘Yes, I think it does.’
‘We had problems,’ Philippa continued, her voice growing stronger as she found her confidence and her courage. ‘Jacob was always insecure about the fact I found Rhys more attractive than him. It caused countless arguments. He was controlling, but in very subtle ways. So subtle I didn’t see them for what they were at the time. Then it all came to a head a few weeks ago when he kissed his flatmate. It just makes me so angry, knowing I spent more time with the boy who deserved it less.’
As she finished reciting her tale, Philippa was stunned to find that she felt better. She had expected the retelling to be painful, but in fact it had been the exact opposite. She felt freer, lighter, as if her own internal scales were now more balanced simply for having spoken the words out loud.
‘I understand,’ said Vasily, who had listened to the story with rapt attention. ‘I am more than happy to proceed, if that is still what you wish. However, I must tell you that doing so will alter the course of your life irrevocably. There is no way of knowing exactly how, only that it will likely set you off on an entirely different path to the one you are currently on. Both your past and future will be changed, possibly for the better, but there’s no guarantee. Think about it. The places you will never go, the friends you will never meet, future relationships you will never have. I am not trying to talk you out of it. I am merely saying you need to be absolutely sure before you proceed.’
Philippa was sure. Or at least she thought she was. But as she sat mulling over Vasily’s words, her certitude began to dissolve.
‘Is it possible to transfer some of the diamonds?’ she asked.
‘It is, but the results will likely be similar. They may even be identical.’
‘And there really is no way of knowing?’
‘If there were, I would tell you.’
Philippa sighed. This appointment was not panning out the way she planned.
Since the breakup, the future had seemed like some wild, unfamiliar landscape-one she was never meant to end up in. The idea of trying to navigate that landscape was terrifying, and Philippa wanted nothing more than to go back. But not to Jacob. Jacob had had his chance, and he had blown it in spectacular fashion. There were no question marks hanging over him. Philippa had all the answers she needed.
She had always wondered about Rhys. For years she had tortured herself with dreams of what could have been, and now she had the chance to find out. The chance to rewrite not just her past, but her future as well. It was what she wanted, what she had come for. So why was she having second thoughts?
Vasily was watching her. His fingers hovered over the pile of diamonds, but his eyes were fixed on Philippa. He saw the way her gaze darted back and forth between the two sides of the scale, the doubts flickering behind her eyes.
‘Am I to proceed?’ he asked her, his voice soft and lilting
Philippa nodded, but it was little more than a slight downwards tilt of the head. She watched as Vasily’s long, tapering fingers strayed ever closer to the pile of diamonds. His fingertips had barely grazed the topmost stone when she leapt to her feet, knocking her chair over in the process.
‘No! I’m sorry. I can’t do this.’
Her heart was hammering, her palms clammy with sweat. Vasily froze, his fingers just centimetres from the heap of diamonds. Then, to Philippa’s amazement, he smiled.
‘Very wise,’ he said. ‘I knew you’d come round.’
‘Most people do, in the end.’
He sat back in his chair and made a steeple of his fingers. Philippa took the opportunity to right the overturned chair, mumbling an apology as she did so.
‘You turn twenty in a few weeks’ time, is that right?’ Vasily said, apparently unfazed by the abuse of his furniture.
‘That’s right,’ Philippa replied, taking a seat once more. ‘Why?’
‘If you want my advice, use your birthday as a new start. Take these next few weeks to focus on you. See your friends, buy some new clothes, listen to your favourite music. And when that new decade of your life begins, embrace the opportunities it brings you with open arms. Leave your past as it is. Can you do that?’
‘I think so,’ said Philippa.
‘I know it hurts right now,’ Vasily continued. ‘I know you’re angry. I know you’re racked with doubts about the future and what it may or may not hold. But you have so much to look forward to. Forward, not backwards. You understand?’
A lump had arisen in Philippa’s throat that made it hard to breath. She swallowed several times in a bid to dislodge it, with limited success. But the demigod behind the desk wasn’t done.
‘You will love again,’ he assured her, ‘and you will be loved again. You will get to experience the delights of a new relationship all over again. The magic, the wonder, the excitement. And if in the end it doesn’t work out, then you will get to do it again. If that’s not something to look forward to, then I don’t know what is.’
By the time Vasily finished his speech, the lump in Philippa’s throat was considerably smaller. She thanked him profusely before taking her leave. As he showed her to the door, she said, ‘I’m sorry if I’ve wasted your time.’
‘It’s not my time you need to worry about,’ he answered smoothly. ‘Besides, I have a great deal more of it than you will ever have. Just promise me one thing before you go.’
What he said next would continue to resonate with Philippa for years to come, long after the pain of the breakup had faded, and all her wounds had healed.
‘Promise you won’t keep looking backwards,’ he said. ‘You cannot live your life if you are constantly hankering after the past. There is nothing in yours that requires changing. Learn from it, but don’t long for it. You say you have wasted my time. You have done no such thing. But even if you had, it would not matter. Just make sure, when you leave this place, that you do not waste your own.’