By Tim Porteus

GEORGE wrapped his scarf tight around him as he waited for the bus. It was a snell wind: cold, damp and biting. The first day back to work after the Christmas and New Year holidays was never easy for him. The whole time had taken its usual emotional toll, not to mention the financial one.

In some ways he was glad to be back in the routine, but the thought that another year had passed depressed him.

He was getting old, well into middle age now and what to show for it all? Maybe he’d win the lottery this year, he thought.

Where was that bus? The 26 is usually regular and on time, but this morning it was late.

The other people waiting shuffled in the shelter, wrapped up trying to keep warm, looking at the ground. They shared the small space, and the same frustration, but didn’t speak.

George leaned against the wall and closed his eyes for a moment.

“I hate January,” he whispered under his breath, “cold, dark, skint, a year closer to the grave.”

When he opened his eyes there was an old woman standing next to him. Well his initial thought was that she was old, but when he looked at her more carefully she didn’t seem that old after all. She had a youthful sense about her and was dressed in wonderfully coloured clothes. She smiled at him and it was like a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day, and it lit his face too.

“That’s better,” she said to him, “you were looking so sad and depressed.”

George nodded: “Well you know, it’s the time of year, January. I hate it. I’m now looking forward to my summer holiday but that seems so far away, then before you know it January comes round again and another year gone.”

The lady nodded her head in understanding.

“Life goes fast doesn’t it?” she said

George just nodded.

“Perhaps I could help,” said the lady.

“In what way?” he asked.

“Well as we wait for this bus, I can tell you a story about a man who felt just like you.”

This was too weird – an offer of a story from a stranger at a bus stop? George suddenly felt awkward but he didn’t want to offend her. Perhaps she was not quite normal he thought.

“You’re right,” she said

“Sorry? Right about what?” asked George.

The lady smiled at him. “You are right that I’m not quite normal.”

He was taken aback.

“But I didn’t say that,” he said defensively.

“Yes that’s true, you didn’t say it,” she said.

George glanced towards the other people waiting in the shelter. They were standing silently in the cold. They looked like an image of penguins he had seen in a programme by David Attenborough, all huddled together looking at their feet, not moving. They hadn’t seemed to notice the lady, or their conversation, and so to humour her he agreed.

“All right, you can tell me the story,” he said to her, thinking that the bus would arrive in a minute anyway and put a stop to it.

“Very well,” she said, “and I assure you the bus will not arrive until my tale is finished.”

And so she began her story: “Once there was a man just as you are, who came across a faery woman who was in a good mood”.

George sighed, and she paused.

“Sorry, I’m listening,” he said.

She continued her tale: “The faery woman had noticed how heavy the world seemed to rest on his shoulders and wanted to help. So she offered him a wish to change something in his life. He replied that he wished he could relive his life. And so the faery woman offered him two way of doing this.

“The first choice was to relive his life exactly as it had been lived: to relive every moment of joy and anguish, make all the same decisions, experience exactly all the same mistakes, accomplishments and failures. He would not know he was reliving what he had already lived, so every emotion would be as new and raw as it was when first experienced.

“The second choice would be to live his life again from the same beginning, but relive it as a second chance, a clean slate, nothing determined in advance.

“The man thought for a moment and then chose the second option. The faery woman asked: ‘Why did you choose the second option?’

“‘Because the second time I will know where I went wrong,’ he said.

“She smiled and shook her head: ‘But you will have no knowledge of your life as previously lived, so you will have no wisdom from it.’

“The man said despondently: ‘Then I will probably make the same decisions and mistakes.’

“The faery woman nodded: ‘Yes, and experience the same joys.’

“The man reflected for a moment, then said: ‘I thought faeries gave three wishes.’ ‘Well actually we do,’ she agreed.

“’So what is my third option?’ asked the man. ‘The third option is the one you already have,’ she said. The man was now confused and asked the faery woman what she meant.

“She explained: ‘You have already spent most of your life. But you have the wisdom and understanding gained from living it. You know what brings joy, you have seen how failure can be the mother of success. You have felt pain and loss which has taught you to value what is meaningful. You understand hatred is poison and that love can heal. You know nothing lasts forever, but a moment can encapsulate the universe.

“‘So your third choice is to use this wisdom gained in the life you have lived, to relive the life you have left.’

“’But that’s not a magic wish,’ protested the man, ‘I already had that.’

“’Yes,’ said the faery woman, ‘now you understand the magic is yours and it’s your choice to use it or not while there is still time.’

“The man nodded and the faery woman vanished. And that is my story.”

George just stood, absorbing the meaning of it. He glanced back at the other people to see if they’d been listening, but they stood as before.

“What’s your name?” he asked her. But she was gone. He had only glanced away for a second, but in that time she had managed to vanish.

Then the bus came round the corner. As he waited in the queue to get on, he asked one of the other passengers: “Did you see where that lady went?”

“What lady?”

“The one who was speaking to me,” said George.

“You were standing there by yourself mate, didn’t see anyone else,” said the other passenger as he headed onto the bus.

George sat in his usual place at the back of the bus. It was January, cold and dark. The first day of the rest of his life and he was looking forward to reliving it.