A top hat, a half-eaten ham sandwich, and a game of chess. A young man encounters all these things when he sits down to have a quick snack before work, unaware that in doing so, he triggers a battle. A battle between order and chaos. A battle for his life and the lives of a thousand others...
Ray Pierce sat terrified on the cold curved concrete seat.
A surprisingly dry morning, but still it sent him shivering, the tremors no doubt exacerbated by the situation he currently found himself in. A chilly yet bright sun was beginning to peek over the newly-clothed trees, their leaves full of whispers and secrets. The ham sandwich in front of him, which at first had seemed so mouthwateringly salty, now lay grey and half-eaten on the ice white semicircular marble table. The sounds of the surrounding city were almost inaudible, but at a strain you could hear the distant sounds of the buses ferrying their passengers to their early workshifts, along with a convoy of trucks lumbering their way to and from countless warehouses, carrying the same goods as they had the day before, and would probably carry the next.
A perfectly normal day. A perfectly boring, mundane, static, colourless day. And oh how Ray found himself longing for those trappings of propriety and normalcy that morning, the chains most actively yearn to shrug just to provide some justification for their existence as pawns in the never-ending chess games of politicians and businessmen. Ray had wanted nothing to do with that game when he woke up that morning. He didn’t want any input, even going so far as to toss his polling card for the upcoming referrendum in the bin. The game was nothing to him, he had thought.
But now, he craved it, longed for it, needed it. Because it seemed as though he was going to get his wish.
When he had sat down that morning on the same bench in Merrion Square as he had done every morning since he began his current job in the department store on Grafton Street six years earlier, he had no idea that events had been set into motion that would see him removed entirely from the game. Permanently.
“Please try not to make a fuss,” said the well dressed man in the black suit with the posh accent. “This won’t take long, and with any amount of luck, you’ll be dead before you know it!”
The gentleman, as Ray had dubbed him, leaned back against the carved stone bench that formed Ray’s favourite alcove, and let out a deep sigh that seemed as weary as an age of living. Though the man did not seem particularly old, Ray was certain he had less wrinkles around his eyes now than he had when he had first approached him.
There Ray had been, minding his own business as always, thinking about the mindless drones that made up both his colleagues and customers awaiting his pleasure at the shop in thirty minutes. He didn’t love his job, not by any means, but he didn’t hate it either. For him, it was simply a way to waste away over a third of his life, just to afford to live the remainder. He had been halfway through his sandwich when the gentleman had surprised him.
Long, skinny, and wearing a ridiculously tall top hat, the gentleman was one of the strangest characters Ray had ever seen; and in Dublin, that was no small claim. The man’s face was middle-aged, adorned by a long hook nose, and its top half was framed by jet black hair Ray was sure was dyed.
Probably an American, Ray had thought, but there the genteman had caught him unawares again, if his accent was anything to go by.
“My dear old chap, I don’t suppose I could ask for a favour?” came the polished voice which sounded like it was straight from a BBC newsreader. Ray looked at him suspiciously. True, the man was old, and certainly well-mannered, which his mother had always told him meant a lot in this increasingly immoral world. But years of education at the hands of borderline fundamentalist republicans and patriots had fostered a deep sense of mistrust within him of anyone who had any sort of connection with the Place Across the Sea. Indecisive, Ray answered with a non-commital “You can ask, yeah.”
“Fantastic!” the gentleman exclaimed, and took a seat on Ray’s right. He pressed on without further ado.
“The problem, as you must be able to see, is that I am rather old. As I’m sure you can imagine, I find this rather distressing.”
Ray nodded and smiled, struggling not to laugh. This fella’s either locked, mental, or both, he thought.
“I do not like being old,” the gentleman continued, “But there is something you can do to help me.”
“Is there now?” Ray replied, secretly trying to work out which madhouse he’d managed to escape from.
“Quite,” the gentleman hurried along excitedly. “Now, I’m afraid the explanation is rather long and complicated, and I don’t have an awful lot of time to explain it, but what you have to do is quite simple.”
“Go on then,” Ray encouraged him, figuring he’d continue to humour this senile old man,
“Well it’s easy,” the gentleman explained. “You have to die.”
And here I am now, Ray thought miserably. About to die while the rest of the world goes on, uncaring, unnoticing. How pathetic is that? What will Ma think?
“Quite pathetic,” the gentleman said as though he could read Ray’s thoughts, his eyes closed and his expression the epitome of bliss. Ray couldn’t really argue with him, but it seemed the gentleman had no problem explaining himself in this regard.
“You see, old boy,” he began contentedly, “you could live for a very long time. You could even see the birth of your great-great grandchild, along with countless other far more important events that will shake the world. In fact, had we not met this morning, you would have done precisely all those things.”
The gentleman rose from his languid position, sitting up straight, and stared Ray right in the eyes.
“Yet you would have done nothing with that time,” he continued with a hint of malice in his tone. “You would have had over a century to change the world you live in, yet you would have carried on in your pointless job until you retired. You would have met some plain girl within this year, and after the most mundane of romances, you would have had the most typical of weddings, and the pair of you would have continued in your repetitive existences, occasionally punctuated by the arrival of children as ineffectual as the both of you.” At this, the gentleman gave a soft laugh. “And it was you that was chosen to have all those years.” He shook his head. “If anything Raymond, you should be thanking me for sparing you.”
Ray couldn’t even struggle against the genteman’s words, nor did he wonder how the gentleman knew his name. His words felt so right, they suited him so well. His family had never seemed to appreciate him, perhaps they wouldn’t even notice he was gone. He was easily replaceable at the shop, and... well that was it. That was the summation of his existence. Oh well.
Besides, even if Ray found the words offensive, there was nothing he could do about them. From the moment the gentleman had told him of his plans to kill him, Ray had been unable to get up, as though a huge weight was pressing down on him, a weight that was getting steadily heavier. Now though, he didn’t even see the point in getting up. Why fight the inevitable, he figured. His body was tired, his mind exhausted, and eyelids so, so heavy. He looked down and wasn’t even surprised to see his hands old and arthritic in his lap. He had been lifeless from the moment he was born. A corpse playing at being alive all this time. The gentleman’s right, I don’t deserve long life, he thought. Such time was better spent on those who could make a change.
“That’s it Raymond,” the gentleman said soothingly. “Death is easy, just like falling asleep.”
“And you’d know all about that wouldn’t you, old friend?” came a voice to Ray’s left, and the genleman hissed. Ray looked up wearily, wondering if this was some sort of saviour.
He was sorely disappointed.