My spirits dipped when I saw that Mrs. Hasell had entered the shop. She was a regular customer, but by no means a valued one. She was an older lady that delighted in bartering and asking incessant questions about antiques she had no intention of buying. She was, in technical terms, a nuisance.
“Oh, Mrs. Hasell,” I said with my most chipper voice, “Can I help you with anything?”
“Yes, young man, I would like to return this mirror,” she said, thrusting in my arms the offensive product wrapped in a green cloth. She was of an age that she could refer me to a young man, despite my forty two years and hearty grey moustache. I could not recall selling her a mirror recently, but I would not put it past her to return an item a significant time period after its purchase.
“That’s a shame, Mrs. Hasell,” I said, “Did it not suit the living room decor?”
“No, it matched my furnishings just fine,” she said, “I’m returning it as you sold me a broken mirror.”
I unwrapped the cloth and as I did so, I said “Mrs. Hasall, there was not a crack in this and also, I did not sell you this.”
“Excuse me, young man! I never said that there was a crack in it.”
I examined the mirror, now fully uncovered in my hands. It was a small but elegant piece. There wasn’t a crack, scratch or even dust on the glass. I looked at my reflection and saw no flaw in the glass. I did however see an ink blot on my shirt collar that I had failed to notice previously.
“I don’t understand, Mrs. Hasell,” I said, “It’s in perfect condition.”
“The mirror itself is fine; the problem is that it is running fast and that simply will not do.”
I chose the following words carefully, as I had experiences with dotty customers in the past and if you say the wrong thing, you could well end up with a shop full of broken antiques.
“Mrs. Hasell, it’s a mirror.”
She looked at me with a contempt usually reserved for sadists and murderers.
“Young man, I can see perfectly well. The issue is that this “mirror” is an hour ahead.”
“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Hasell.”
“It shows your reflection an hour from now. It is very irritating. I tried to put on some make up while using it, and according to the mirror, I was already wearing it. Do you know how difficult it is to apply blush in those conditions?”
“Mrs. Hasell, when returning products with which that you are unhappy, it is traditional to bring the product to the store you bought it and use reasons that are not some kind of hocus pocus harum scarum.”
“I am not some batty old lady, young man. Look!”
I looked in the mirror again. Same grey distinguished eyes I inherited from my father, the same Roman nose I took from my mother, the same fine facial hair I copied from a portrait in the National Gallery I saw once as a child. Everything was as I expected. I noticed the ink blot again on my shirt collar. I looked down.
My collar was spotless. I looked in the mirror again and the ink spot was on my reflection’s collar.
I frowned at this discrepancy. Noticing this reaction, Mrs. Hassel smirked at me with a self satisfied triumph. The smile said “Not some foolish old twit, am I now?”
I turned the mirror to reflect a nearby clock face, a grandfather clock whose German precision engineering meant it had never lost a minute in its decades of existence. In the reflection, it read 4:32.
I looked at the clock directly. It read 3:21.
The woman had folded her arms and coughed.
“Oh yes, that is quite something,” I said, maintaining my decorum.
“See, an hour ahead.”
I sniffed, “In fact, fifty one minutes, but that is only quibbling.”
“Well, do I get a refund?”
I hesitated. Magic mirror or not, the store had a strict policy on refunds.
“Do you have a receipt?” I said.
This time Mrs. Hasell frowned, and started to paw through her ginormous hand bag. She pulled out various pieces of loose papers. She stood at the counter, looking through them until she found what she was looking for.
“Here,” she said, smiling sweetly.
I picked it up. It had my signature, a lovely cursive swirl in black Indian ink. The date on it indicated I had written it that day. I was confused, but the mirror was valuable, so I reacted the same way my mother did when she learnt of my father’s extensive collection of famous hair pieces. I decided not to question it.
“As a general rule, we do not offer refunds. However in this extraordinary case, I would be perfectly happy to.”
I checked the receipt. The money involved was quite substantial. I took a moment to consider this amount. Mrs. Hasell made a noise that was part clearing her throat, part growl. I hurried and I refunded her the money.
She went on her way out the door, shouting something about ombudsmen and faulty mirrors. When the door closed behind her, I breathed a sigh of relief and picked up the mirror.
I turned the piece in my hands and felt the wood. It was smooth. I ran my fingers down one of the deep carvings. To my surprise, my fingertip found a circular hole. With my eyes, I located the hole hidden in the wood. It was the same shape as a keyhole for winding a clock.
I fetched my grandfather’s key for his grandfather clock from my key chain and tested it in the hole. It fitted, and I began to turn it. I heard cogs rotate and gears shift. I pressed my ear against the mirror. A bell rang and I almost dropped the thing.
It was the door bell, Mrs. Hasell had re-entered the shop. She seemed a much better mood then she had been earlier.
“Ah, Mrs. Hasell. So lovely to see you again.”
“My good man,” she said, “I’m looking for a mirror.”
“The one you just returned? I’m sorry all refunds are fin…”
She smiled a little confused smile.
“The one I just returned? Young man, this is the first time I’ve been in this shop today. It comes last on the list of antiques shops in this area I visit, a list made in order of convenience, not preference in case you are offended.”
“No, you were here a few minutes ago. You were returning a mirror.”
She laughed heartily.
“I believe you are going a little dotty before your time, young man.”
I turned the mirror to face her.
“You brought in this very mirror earlier this afternoon. Told me it was broken and demanded a refund.”
“It looks perfectly fine to me,” she said, “Exquisite, I would say. How much?”
“For the mirror. I think this would work very well in my living room.”
My head was spinning.
“You can’t buy it. You just brought it in.”
“Why in heaven’s name would I bring it in? It is a very charming piece.”
I was about to explain that it was running early. However I looked at the mirror again, there was no ink spot on my collar
“I will pay you this much for the mirror,” said Mrs. Hassel, holding out some crisp banks notes.
“No,” I said, “it’s not for sale.”
Mrs. Hasell made a huffing noise and pulled some more notes out of her purse.
“I see,” she said, “playing the game. Here, I will add a hundred more.”
I observed the reflection and I decided that perhaps I was going dotty. I tried turning the key again, and it did not budge.
“Fine, fine, fifty more but that’s it,” she said.
I looked at the counter. I was dreadfully confused, I’ll admit it, reader, I took the path of least resistance. I accepted her offer.
I took out my ledger from under the counter in order to fill out a receipt. I drew a pen from my breast pocket and began to write. However it was an antique pen that was prone to leaking, so when I lifted the nib from the paper a touch too swiftly, drops of ink flew into the desk.
I wrapped the mirror in the green cloth and handed it to her.
“Thank you” and she walked out the door.
For a second time, I breathed a sigh of relief in her absence. I sat down on my stool and contemplated the afternoon. I strongly suspected I was going mad. After all these years of making fun of my dotty bizarre customers, I was finally becoming one of them.
The thought filled me with such terror I immediately decided, No! That was not what was happening. No doubt Mrs. HaseIl was playing some elaborate trick on me. I took a deep breath, stood up and checked myself in a nearby mirror. I looked as spiffy as an army lieutenant, and ready to re-enter the world of antiquing. I smiled, but my contentment soon drained as I noticed a blemish in my uniform.
There was an ink spot on my collar.
I remembered my leaky pen.
The door of my small antique shop opened. I turned and saw a familiar woman holding a familiar item wrapped in a familiar green cloth. She looked furious.
“Oh, Mrs. Hasell,” I said in a cracked voice, “Can I help you with anything?”
Note: This story was longlisted in the Penguin Ireland/Rté Guide Short Story Competition .