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The Midnight Library / (by Matt Haig, 2020) -

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The Midnight Library /   (by Matt Haig, 2020) -

The Midnight Library / (by Matt Haig, 2020) -

, . , 2020 . ? (, ) . , . . , . . , . , -. , , . , .

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The Midnight Library / (by Matt Haig, 2020) -
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2020
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Matt Haig
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Carey Mulligan
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upper-intermediate
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08:51:00
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

The Midnight Library / :

.doc (Word) matt_haig_-_the_midnight_library.doc [617.5 Kb] (c: 16) .
.pdf matt_haig_-_the_midnight_library.pdf [2.09 Mb] (c: 22) .
audiobook (MP3) .


: The Midnight Library

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To all the health workers. And the care workers. Thank you. I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. Sylvia Plath Between life and death there is a library, she said. And within that library, the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices . . . Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets? A Conversation About Rain Nineteen years before she decided to die, Nora Seed sat in the warmth of the small library at Hazeldene School in the town of Bedford. She sat at a low table staring at a chess board. Nora dear, its natural to worry about your future, said the librarian, Mrs Elm, her eyes twinkling. Mrs Elm made her first move. A knight hopping over the neat row of white pawns. Of course, youre going to be worried about the exams. But you could be anything you want to be, Nora. Think of all that possibility. Its exciting. Yes. I suppose it is. A whole life in front of you. A whole life. You could do anything, live anywhere. Somewhere a bit less cold and wet. Nora pushed a pawn forward two spaces. It was hard not to compare Mrs Elm to her mother, who treated Nora like a mistake in need of correction. For instance, when she was a baby her mother had been so worried Noras left ear stuck out more than her right that shed used sticky tape to address the situation, then disguised it beneath a woollen bonnet. I hate the cold and wet, added Mrs Elm, for emphasis. Mrs Elm had short grey hair and a kind and mildly crinkled oval face sitting pale above her turtle-green polo neck. She was quite old. But she was also the person most on Noras wavelength in the entire school, and even on days when it wasnt raining she would spend her afternoon break in the small library. Coldness and wetness dont always go together, Nora told her. Antarctica is the driest continent on Earth. Technically, its a desert. Well, that sounds up your street. I dont think its far enough away. Well, maybe you should be an astronaut. Travel the galaxy. Nora smiled. The rain is even worse on other planets. Worse than Bedfordshire? On Venus it is pure acid. Mrs Elm pulled a paper tissue from her sleeve and delicately blew her nose. See? With a brain like yours you can do anything. A blond boy Nora recognised from a couple of years below her ran past outside the rain-speckled window. Either chasing someone or being chased. Since her brother had left, shed felt a bit unguarded out there. The library was a little shelter of civilisation. Dad thinks Ive thrown everything away. Now Ive stopped swimming. Well, far be it from me to say, but there is more to this world than swimming really fast. There are many different possible lives ahead of you. Like I said last week, you could be a glaciologist. Ive been researching and the And it was then that the phone rang. One minute, said Mrs Elm, softly. Id better get that. A moment later, Nora watched Mrs Elm on the phone. Yes. Shes here now. The librarians face fell in shock. She turned away from Nora, but her words were audible across the hushed room: Oh no. No. Oh my God. Of course . . . Nineteen Years Later The Man at the Door Twenty-seven hours before she decided to die, Nora Seed sat on her dilapidated sofa scrolling through other peoples happy lives, waiting for something to happen. And then, out of nowhere, something actually did. Someone, for whatever peculiar reason, rang her doorbell. She wondered for a moment if she shouldnt get the door at all. She was, after all, already in her night clothes even though it was only nine p.m. She felt self-conscious about her over-sized ECO WORRIER T-shirt and her tartan pyjama bottoms. She put on her slippers, to be slightly more civilised, and discovered that the person at the door was a man, and one she recognised. He was tall and gangly and boyish, with a kind face, but his eyes were sharp and bright, like they could see through things. It was good to see him, if a little surprising, especially as he was wearing sports gear and he looked hot and sweaty despite the cold, rainy weather. The juxtaposition between them made her feel even more slovenly than she had done five seconds earlier. But shed been feeling lonely. And though shed studied enough existential philosophy to believe loneliness was a fundamental part of being a human in an essentially meaningless universe, it was good to see him. Ash, she said, smiling. Its Ash, isnt it? Yes. It is. What are you doing here? Its good to see you. A few weeks ago shed been sat playing her electric piano and hed run down Bancroft Avenue and had seen her in the window here at 33A and given her a little wave. He had once years ago asked her out for a coffee. Maybe he was about to do that again. Its good to see you too, he said, but his tense forehead didnt show it. When shed spoken to him in the shop, hed always sounded breezy, but now his voice contained something heavy. He scratched his brow. Made another sound but didnt quite manage a full word. You running? A pointless question. He was clearly out for a run. But he seemed relieved, momentarily, to have something trivial to say. Yeah. Im doing the Bedford Half. Its this Sunday. Oh right. Great. I was thinking of doing a half-marathon and then I remembered I hate running. This had sounded funnier in her head than it did as actual words being vocalised out of her mouth. She didnt even hate running. But still, she was perturbed to see the seriousness of his expression. The silence went beyond awkward into something else. You told me you had a cat, he said eventually. Yes. I have a cat. I remembered his name. Voltaire. A ginger tabby? Yeah. I call him Volts. He finds Voltaire a bit pretentious. It turns out hes not massively into eighteenth-century French philosophy and literature. Hes quite down-to-earth. You know. For a cat. Ash looked down at her slippers. Im afraid I think hes dead. What? Hes lying very still by the side of the road. I saw the name on the collar, I think a car might have hit him. Im sorry, Nora. She was so scared of her sudden switch in emotions right then that she kept smiling, as if the smile could keep her in the world she had just been in, the one where Volts was alive and where this man shed sold guitar songbooks to had rung her doorbell for another reason. Ash, she remembered, was a surgeon. Not a veterinary one, a general human one. If he said something was dead it was, in all probability, dead. Im so sorry. Nora had a familiar sense of grief. Only the sertraline stopped her crying. Oh God. She stepped out onto the wet cracked paving slabs of Bancroft Avenue, hardly breathing, and saw the poor ginger-furred creature lying on the rain-glossed tarmac beside the kerb. His head grazed the side of the pavement and his legs were back as if in mid-gallop, chasing some imaginary bird. Oh Volts. Oh no. Oh God. She knew she should be experiencing pity and despair for her feline friend and she was but she had to acknowledge something else. As she stared at Voltaires still and peaceful expression that total absence of pain there was an inescapable feeling brewing in the darkness. Envy. String Theory Nine and a half hours before she decided to die, Nora arrived late for her afternoon shift at String Theory. Im sorry, she told Neil, in the scruffy little windowless box of an office. My cat died. Last night. And I had to bury him. Well, someone helped me bury him. But then I was left alone in my flat and I couldnt sleep and forgot to set the alarm and didnt wake up till midday and then had to rush. This was all true, and she imagined her appearance including make-up-free face, loose makeshift ponytail and the same secondhand green corduroy pinafore dress she had worn to work all week, garnished with a general air of tired despair would back her up. Neil looked up from his computer and leaned back in his chair. He joined his hands together and made a steeple of his index fingers, which he placed under his chin, as if he was Confucius contemplating a deep philosophical truth about the universe rather than the boss of a musical equipment shop dealing with a late employee. There was a massive Fleetwood Mac poster on the wall behind him, the top right corner of which had come unstuck and flopped down like a puppys ear. Listen, Nora, I like you. Neil was harmless. A fifty-something guitar aficionado who liked cracking bad jokes and playing passable old Dylan covers live in the store. And I know youve got mental-health stuff. Everyones got mental-health stuff. You know what I mean. Im feeling much better, generally, she lied. Its not clinical. The doctor says its situational depression. Its just that I keep on having new . . . situations. But I havent taken a day off sick for it all. Apart from when my mum . . . Yeah. Apart from that. Neil sighed. When he did so he made a whistling sound out of his nose. An ominous B flat. Nora, how long have you worked here? Twelve years and . . . she knew this too well . . . eleven months and three days. On and off. Thats a long time. I feel like you are made for better things. Youre in your late thirties. Im thirty-five. Youve got so much going for you. You teach people piano . . . One person. He brushed a crumb off his sweater. Did you picture yourself stuck in your hometown working in a shop? You know, when you were fourteen? What did you picture yourself as? At fourteen? A swimmer. Shed been the fastest fourteen-year-old girl in the country at breaststroke and second-fastest at freestyle. She remembered standing on a podium at the National Swimming Championships. So, what happened? She gave the short version. It was a lot of pressure. Pressure makes us, though. You start off as coal and the pressure makes you a diamond. She didnt correct his knowledge of diamonds. She didnt tell him that while coal and diamonds are both carbon, coal is too impure to be able, under whatever pressure, to become a diamond. According to science, you start off as coal and you end up as coal. Maybe that was the real-life lesson. She smoothed a stray strand of her coal-black hair up towards her ponytail. What are you saying, Neil? Its never too late to pursue a dream. Pretty sure its too late to pursue that one. Youre a very well qualified person, Nora. Degree in Philosophy . . . Nora stared down at the small mole on her left hand. That mole had been through everything shed been through. And it just stayed there, not caring. Just being a mole. Not a massive demand for philosophers in Bedford, if Im honest, Neil. You went to uni, had a year in London, then came back. I didnt have much of a choice. Nora didnt want a conversation about her dead mum. Or even Dan. Because Neil had found Noras backing out of a wedding with two days notice the most fascinating love story since Kurt and Courtney. We all have choices, Nora. Theres such a thing as free will. Well, not if you subscribe to a deterministic view of the universe. But why here? It was either here or the Animal Rescue Centre. This paid better. Plus, you know, music. You were in a band. With your brother. I was. The Labyrinths. We werent really going anywhere. Your brother tells a different story. This took Nora by surprise. Joe? How do you He bought an amp. Marshall DSL40. When? Friday. He was in Bedford? Unless it was a hologram. Like Tupac. He was probably visiting Ravi, Nora thought. Ravi was her brothers best friend. While Joe had given up the guitar and moved to London, for a crap IT job he hated, Ravi had stuck to Bedford. He played in a covers band now, called Slaughterhouse Four, doing pub gigs around town. Right. Thats interesting. Nora was pretty certain her brother knew Friday was her day off. The fact prodded her from inside. Im happy here. Except you arent. He was right. A soul-sickness festered within her. Her mind was throwing itself up. She widened her smile. I mean, I am happy with the job. Happy as in, you know, satisfied. Neil, I need this job. You are a good person. You worry about the world. The homeless, the environment. I need a job. He was back in his Confucius pose. You need freedom. I dont want freedom. This isnt a non-profit organisation. Though I have to say it is rapidly becoming one. Look, Neil, is this about what I said the other week? About you needing to modernise things? Ive got some ideas of how to get younger peo No, he said, defensively. This place used to just be guitars. String Theory, get it? I diversified. Made this work. Its just that when times are tough I cant pay you to put off customers with your face looking like a wet weekend. What? Im afraid, Nora he paused for a moment, about the time it takes to lift an axe into the air Im going to have to let you go. To Live Is to Suffer Nine hours before she decided to die, Nora wandered around Bedford aimlessly. The town was a conveyor belt of despair. The pebble-dashed sports centre where her dead dad once watched her swim lengths of the pool, the Mexican restaurant where shed taken Dan for fajitas, the hospital where her mum had her treatment. Dan had texted her yesterday. Nora, I miss your voice. Can we talk? D x Shed said she was stupidly hectic (big lol). Yet it was impossible to text anything else. Not because she didnt still feel for him, but because she did. And couldnt risk hurting him again. Shed ruined his life. My life is chaos, hed told her, via drunk texts, shortly after the would-be wedding shed pulled out of two days before. The universe tended towards chaos and entropy. That was basic thermodynamics. Maybe it was basic existence too. You lose your job, then more shit happens. The wind whispered through the trees. It began to rain. She headed towards the shelter of a newsagents, with the deep and, as it happened, correct sense that things were about to get worse. Doors Eight hours before she decided to die, Nora entered the newsagents. Sheltering from the rain? the woman behind the counter asked. Yes. Nora kept her head down. Her despair growing like a weight she couldnt carry. A National Geographic was on display. As she stared now at the magazine cover an image of a black hole she realised thats what she was. A black hole. A dying star, collapsing in on itself. Her dad used to subscribe. She remembered being enthralled by an article about Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. Shed never seen a place that looked so far away. Shed read about scientists doing research among glaciers and frozen fjords and puffins. Then, prompted by Mrs Elm, shed decided she wanted to be a glaciologist. She saw the scruffy, hunched form of her brothers friend and their own former bandmate Ravi by the music mags, engrossed in an article. She stood there for a fraction too long, because when she walked away she heard him say, Nora? Ravi, hi. I hear Joe was in Bedford the other day? A small nod. Yeah. Did he, um, did you see him? I did actually. A silence Nora felt as pain. He didnt tell me he was coming. Was just a fly-by. Is he okay? Ravi paused. Nora had once liked him, and hed been a loyal friend to her brother. But, as with Joe, there was a barrier between them. They hadnt parted on the best of terms. (Hed thrown his drumsticks on the floor of a rehearsal room and stropped out when Nora told him she was out of the band.) I think hes depressed. Noras mind grew heavier at the idea her brother might feel like she did. Hes not himself, Ravi went on, anger in his voice. Hes going to have to move out of his shoebox in Shepherds Bush. What with him not being able to play lead guitar in a successful rock band. Mind you, Ive got no money either. Pub gigs dont pay these days. Even when you agree to clean the toilets. Ever cleaned pub toilets, Nora? Im having a pretty shit time too, if were doing the Misery Olympics. Ravi cough-laughed. A hardness momentarily shadowed his face. The worlds smallest violin is playing. She wasnt in the mood. Is this about The Labyrinths? Still? It meant a lot to me. And to your brother. To all of us. We had a deal with Universal. Right. There. Album, singles, tour, promo. We could be Coldplay now. You hate Coldplay. Not the point. We could be in Malibu. Instead: Bedford. And so, no, your brothers not ready to see you. I was having panic attacks. Id have let everyone down in the end. I told the label to take you on without me. I agreed to write the songs. It wasnt my fault I was engaged. I was with Dan. It was kind of a deal-breaker. Well, yeah. How did that work out? Ravi, that isnt fair. Fair. Great word. The woman behind the counter gawped with interest. Bands dont last. Wed have been a meteor shower. Over before we started. Meteor showers are fucking beautiful. Come on. Youre still with Ella, arent you? And I could be with Ella and in a successful band, with money. We had that chance. Right there. He pointed to the palm of his hand. Our songs were fire. Nora hated herself for silently correcting the our to my. I dont think your problem was stage fright. Or wedding fright. I think your problem was life fright. This hurt. The words took the air out of her. And I think your problem, she retaliated, voice trembling, is blaming others for your shitty life. He nodded, as if slapped. Put his magazine back. See you around, Nora. Tell Joe I said hi, she said, as he walked out of the shop and into the rain. Please. She caught sight of the cover of Your Cat magazine. A ginger tabby. Her mind felt loud, like a Sturm und Drang symphony, as if the ghost of a German composer was trapped inside her mind, conjuring chaos and intensity. The woman behind the counter said something to her she missed. Sorry? Nora Seed? The woman blonde bob, bottle tan was happy and casual and relaxed in a way Nora no longer knew how to be. Leaning over the counter, on her forearms, as if Nora was a lemur at the zoo. Yep. Im Kerry-Anne. Remember you from school. The swimmer. Super-brain. Didnt whatshisface, Mr Blandford, do an assembly on you once? Said you were going to end up at the Olympics? Nora nodded. So, did you? I, um, gave it up. Was more into music . . . at the time. Then life happened. So what do you do now? Im . . . between things. Got anyone, then? Bloke? Kids? Nora shook her head. Wishing it would fall off. Her own head. Onto the floor. So she never had to have a conversation with a stranger ever again. Well, dont hang about. Tick-tock tick-tock. Im thirty-five. She wished Izzy was here. Izzy never put up with any of this kind of shit. And Im not sure I want Me and Jake were like rabbits but we got there. Two little terrors. But worth it, yknow? I just feel complete. I could show you some pictures. I get headaches, with . . . phones. Dan had wanted kids. Nora didnt know. Shed been petrified of motherhood. The fear of a deeper depression. She couldnt look after herself, let alone anyone else. Still in Bedford, then? Mm-hm. Thought youd be one who got away. I came back. My mum was ill. Aw, sorry to hear that. Hope shes okay now? I better go. But its still raining. As Nora escaped the shop, she wished there were nothing but doors ahead of her, which she could walk through one by one, leaving everything behind. How to Be a Black Hole Seven hours before she decided to die, Nora was in free fall and she had no one to talk to. Her last hope was her former best friend Izzy, who was over ten thousand miles away in Australia. And things had dried up between them too. She took out her phone and sent Izzy a message. Hi Izzy, long time no chat. Miss you, friend. Would be WONDROUS to catch up. X She added another X and sent it. Within a minute, Izzy had seen the message. Nora waited in vain for three dots to appear. She passed the cinema, where a new Ryan Bailey film was playing tonight. A corny cowboy-romcom called Last Chance Saloon. Ryan Baileys face seemed to always know deep and significant things. Nora had loved him ever since shed watched him play a brooding Plato in The Athenians on TV, and since hed said in an interview that hed studied philosophy. Shed imagined them having deep conversations about Henry David Thoreau through a veil of steam in his West Hollywood hot tub. Go confidently in the direction of your dreams, Thoreau had said. Live the life youve imagined. Thoreau had been her favourite philosopher to study. But who seriously goes confidently in the direction of their dreams? Well, apart from Thoreau. Hed gone and lived in the woods, with no contact from the outside world, to just sit there and write and chop wood and fish. But life was probably simpler two centuries ago in Concord, Massachusetts, than modern life in Bedford, Bedfordshire. Or maybe it wasnt. Maybe she was just really crap at it. At life. Whole hours passed by. She wanted to have a purpose, something to give her a reason to exist. But she had nothing. Not even the small purpose of picking up Mr Banerjees medication, as she had done that two days ago. She tried to give a homeless man some money but realised she had no money. Cheer up, love, it might never happen, someone said. Nothing ever did, she thought to herself. That was the whole problem. Antimatter Five hours before she decided to die, as she began walking home, her phone vibrated in her hand. Maybe it was Izzy. Maybe Ravi had told her brother to get in touch. No. Oh hi, Doreen. An agitated voice. Where were you? Shed totally forgotten. What time is it? Ive had a really crap day. Im so sorry. We waited outside your flat for an hour. I can still do Leos lesson when I get back. Ill be five minutes. Too late. Hes with his dad now for three days. Oh, Im sorry. Im so sorry. She was a waterfall of apologies. She was drowning in herself. To be honest, Nora, hes been thinking about giving up altogether. But hes so good. Hes really enjoyed it. But hes too busy. Exams, mates, football. Something has to give . . . He has a real talent. Ive got him into bloody Chopin. Please A deep, deep sigh. Bye, Nora. Nora imagined the ground opening up, sending her down through the lithosphere, and the mantle, not stopping until she reached the inner core, compressed into a hard unfeeling metal. * Four hours before she decided to die, Nora passed her elderly neighbour, Mr Banerjee. Mr Banerjee was eighty-four years old. He was frail but was slightly more mobile since his hip surgery. Its terrible out, isnt it? Yes, mumbled Nora. He glanced at his flowerbed. The irises are out, though. She looked at the clusters of purple flowers, forcing a smile as she wondered what possible consolation they could offer. His eyes were tired, behind their spectacles. He was at his door, fumbling for keys. A bottle of milk in a carrier bag that seemed too heavy for him. It was rare to see him out of the house. A house she had visited during her first month here, to help him set up an online grocery shop. Oh, he said now. I have some good news. I dont need you to collect my pills any more. The boy from the chemist has moved nearby and he says he will drop them off. Nora tried to reply but couldnt get the words out. She nodded instead. He managed to open the door, then closed it, retreating into his shrine to his dear dead wife. That was it. No one needed her. She was superfluous to the universe. Once inside her flat the silence was louder than noise. The smell of cat food. A bowl still out for Voltaire, half eaten. She got herself some water and swallowed two anti-depressants and stared at the rest of the pills, wondering. Three hours before she decided to die, her whole being ached with regret, as if the despair in her mind was somehow in her torso and limbs too. As if it had colonised every part of her. It reminded her that everyone was better off without her. You get near a black hole and the gravitational pull drags you into its bleak, dark reality. The thought was like a ceaseless mind-cramp, something too uncomfortable to bear yet too strong to avoid. Nora went through her social media. No messages, no comments, no new followers, no friend requests. She was antimatter, with added self-pity. She went on Instagram and saw everyone had worked out how to live, except her. She posted a rambling update on Facebook, which she didnt even really use any more. Two hours before she decided to die, she opened a bottle of wine. Old philosophy textbooks looked down at her, ghost furnishings from her university days, when life still had possibility. A yucca plant and three tiny, squat potted cacti. She imagined being a non-sentient life form sitting in a pot all day was probably an easier existence. She sat down at the little electric piano but played nothing. She thought of sitting by Leos side, teaching him Chopins Prelude in E Minor. Happy moments can turn into pain, given time. There was an old musicians clich?, about how there were no wrong notes on a piano. But her life was a cacophony of nonsense. A piece that could have gone in wonderful directions, but now went nowhere at all. Time slipped by. She stared into space. After the wine a realisation hit her with total clarity. She wasnt made for this life. Every move had been a mistake, every decision a disaster, every day a retreat from who shed imagined shed be. Swimmer. Musician. Philosopher. Spouse. Traveller. Glaciologist. Happy. Loved. Nothing. She couldnt even manage cat owner. Or one-hour-a-week piano tutor. Or human capable of conversation. The tablets werent working. She finished the wine. All of it. I miss you, she said into the air, as if the spirits of every person shed loved were in the room with her. She called her brother and left a voicemail when he didnt pick up. I love you, Joe. I just wanted you to know that. Theres nothing you could have done. This is about me. Thank you for being my brother. I love you. Bye. It began to rain again, so she sat there with the blinds open, staring at the drops on the glass. The time was now twenty-two minutes past eleven. She knew only one thing with absolute certainty: she didnt want to reach tomorrow. She stood up. She found a pen and a piece of paper. It was, she decided, a very good time to die. Dear Whoever, I had all the chances to make something of my life, and I blew every one of them. Through my own carelessness and misfortune, the world has retreated from me, and so now it makes perfect sense that I should retreat from the world. If I felt it was possible to stay, I would. But I dont. And so I cant. I make life worse for people. I have nothing to give. Im sorry. Be kind to each other. Bye, Nora 00:00:00 At first the mist was so pervasive that she could see nothing else, until slowly she saw pillars appear on either side of her. She was standing on a path, some kind of colonnade. The columns were brain-grey, with specks of brilliant blue. The misty vapours cleared, like spirits wanting to be unwatched, and a shape emerged. A solid, rectangular shape. The shape of a building. About the size of a church or a small supermarket. It had a stone facade, the same colouration as the pillars, with a large wooden central door and a roof which had aspirations of grandeur, with intricate details and a grand-looking clock on the front gable, with black-painted Roman numerals and its hands pointing to midnight. Tall dark arched windows, framed with stone bricks, punctuated the front wall, equidistant from each other. When she first looked it seemed there were only four windows, but a moment later there were definitely five of them. She thought she must have miscounted. As there was nothing else around, and since she had nowhere else to be, Nora stepped cautiously towards it. She looked at the digital display of her watch. 00:00:00 Midnight, as the clock had told her. She waited for the next second to arrive, but it didnt. Even as she walked closer to the building, even as she opened the wooden door, even as she stepped inside, the display didnt change. Either something was wrong with her watch, or something was wrong with time. In the circumstances, it could have been either. Whats happening? she wondered. What the hell is going on? Maybe this place would hold some answers, she thought, as she walked inside. The place was well lit, and the floor was light stone somewhere between light yellow and camel-brown, like the colour of an old page but the windows she had seen on the outside werent there on the inside. In fact, even though she had only taken a few steps forward she could no longer see the walls at all. Instead, there were bookshelves. Aisles and aisles of shelves, reaching up to the ceiling and branching off from the broad open corridor Nora was walking down. She turned down one of the aisles and stopped to gaze in bafflement at the seemingly endless amount of books. The books were everywhere, on shelves so thin they might as well have been invisible. The books were all green. Greens of multifarious shades. Some of these volumes were a murky swamp green, some a bright and light chartreuse, some a bold emerald and others the verdant shade of summer lawns. And on the subject of summer lawns: despite the fact that the books looked old, the air in the library felt fresh. It had a lush, grassy, outdoors kind of smell, not the dusty scent of old tomes. The shelves really did seem to go on for ever, straight and long towards a far-off horizon, like lines indicating one-point perspective in a school art project, broken only by the occasional corridor. She picked a corridor at random and set off. At the next turn, she took a left and became a little lost. She searched for a way out, but there was no sign of an exit. She attempted to retrace her steps towards the entrance, but it was impossible. Eventually she had to conclude she wasnt going to find the exit. This is abnormal, she said to herself, to find comfort in the sound of her own voice. Definitely abnormal. Nora stopped and stepped closer to some of the books. There were no titles or author names adorning the spines. Aside from the difference of shade, the only other variation was size: the books were of similar height but varied in width. Some had spines two inches wide, others significantly less. One or two werent much more than pamphlets. She reached to pull out one of the books, choosing a medium-sized one in a slightly drab olive colour. It looked a bit dusty and worn. Before she had pulled it clean from the shelf, she heard a voice behind her and she jumped back. Be careful, the voice said. And Nora turned around to see who was there. The Librarian Please. You have to be careful. The woman had arrived seemingly from nowhere. Smartly dressed, with short grey hair and a turtle-green polo neck jumper. About sixty, if Nora had to pin it down. Who are you? But before she had finished the question, she realised she already knew the answer. Im the librarian, the woman said, coyly. That is who. Her face was one of kind but stern wisdom. She had the same neat cropped grey hair shed always had, with a face that looked precisely as it always did in Noras mind. For there, right in front of her, was her old school librarian. Mrs Elm. Mrs Elm smiled, thinly. Perhaps. Nora remembered those rainy afternoons, playing chess. She remembered the day her father died, when Mrs Elm gently broke the news to her in the library. Her father had died suddenly of a heart attack while on the rugby field of the boys boarding school where he taught. She was numb for about half an hour, and had stared blankly at the unfinished game of chess. The reality was simply too big to absorb at first, but then it had hit her hard and sideways, taking her off the track shed known. She had hugged Mrs Elm so close, crying into her polo neck until her face was raw from the fusion of tears and acrylic. Mrs Elm had held her, stroking and smoothing the back of her head like a baby, not offering platitudes or false comforts or anything other than concern. She remembered Mrs Elms voice telling her at the time: Things will get better, Nora. Its going to be all right. It was over an hour before Noras mother came to pick her up, her brother stoned and numb in the backseat. And Nora had sat in the front next to her mute, trembling mother, saying that she loved her, but hearing nothing back. What is this place? Where am I? Mrs Elm smiled a very formal kind of smile. A library, of course. Its not the school library. And theres no exit. Am I dead? Is this the afterlife? Not exactly, said Mrs Elm. I dont understand. Then let me explain. The Midnight Library As she spoke, Mrs Elms eyes came alive, twinkling like puddles in moonlight. Between life and death there is a library, she said. And within that library, the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be different if you had made other choices . . . Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets? So, I am dead? Nora asked. Mrs Elm shook her head. No. Listen carefully. Between life and death. She gestured vaguely along the aisle, towards the distance. Death is outside. Well, I should go there. Because I want to die. Nora began walking. But Mrs Elm shook her head. That isnt how death works. Why not? You dont go to death. Death comes to you. Even death was something Nora couldnt do properly, it seemed. It was a familiar feeling. This feeling of being incomplete in just about every sense. An unfinished jigsaw of a human. Incomplete living and incomplete dying. So why am I not dead? Why has death not come to me? I gave it an open invitation. Id wanted to die. But here I am, still existing. I am still aware of things. Well, if its any comfort, you are very possibly about to die. People who pass by the library usually dont stay long, one way or the other. When she thought about it and increasingly she had been thinking about it Nora was only able to think of herself in terms of the things she wasnt. The things she hadnt been able to become. And there really were quite a lot of things she hadnt become. The regrets which were on permanent repeat in her mind. I havent become an Olympic swimmer. I havent become a glaciologist. I havent become Dans wife. I havent become a mother. I havent become the lead singer of The Labyrinths. I havent managed to become a truly good or truly happy person. I havent managed to look after Voltaire. And now, last of all, she hadnt even managed to become dead. It was pathetic really, the amount of possibilities she had squandered. While the Midnight Library stands, Nora, you will be preserved from death. Now, you have to decide how you want to live. The Moving Shelves The shelves on either side of Nora began to move. The shelves didnt change angles, they just kept on sliding horizontally. It was possible that the shelves werent moving at all, but the books were, and it wasnt obvious why or even how. There was no visible mechanism making it happen, and no sound or sight of books falling off the end or rather the start of the shelf. The books slid by at varying degrees of slowness, depending on the shelf they were on, but none moved fast. Whats happening? Mrs Elms expression stiffened and her posture straightened, her chin retreating a little into her neck. She took a step closer to Nora and clasped her hands together. It is time, my dear, to begin. If you dont mind me asking begin what? Every life contains many millions of decisions. Some big, some small. But every time one decision is taken over another, the outcomes differ. An irreversible variation occurs, which in turn leads to further variations. These books are portals to all the lives you could be living. What? You have as many lives as you have possibilities. There are lives where you make different choices. And those choices lead to different outcomes. If you had done just one thing differently, you would have a different life story. And they all exist in the Midnight Library. They are all as real as this life. Parallel lives? Not always parallel. Some are more . . . perpendicular. So, do you want to live a life you could be living? Do you want to do something differently? Is there anything you wish to change? Did you do anything wrong? That was an easy one. Yes. Absolutely everything. The answer seemed to tickle the librarians nose. Mrs Elm quickly rummaged for the paper tissue that was stuffed up the inside sleeve of her polo neck. She brought it quickly to her face and sneezed into it. Bless you, said Nora, watching as the tissue disappeared from the librarians hands the moment shed finished using it, through some strange and hygienic magic. Dont worry. Tissues are like lives. There are always more. Mrs Elm returned to her train of thought. Doing one thing differently is often the same as doing everything differently. Actions cant be reversed within a lifetime, however much we try . . . But you are no longer within a lifetime. You have popped outside. This is your opportunity, Nora, to see how things could be. This cant be real, Nora thought to herself. Mrs Elm seemed to know what she was thinking. Oh, it is real, Nora Seed. But it is not quite reality as you understand it. For want of a better word, it is in-between. It is not life. It is not death. It is not the real world in a conventional sense. But nor is it a dream. It isnt one thing or another. It is, in short, the Midnight Library. The slow-moving shelves came to a halt. Nora noticed that on one of the shelves, to her right, at shoulder height, there was a large gap. All the other areas of the shelves around her had the books tightly pressed side-by-side, but here, lying flat on the thin, white shelf, there was only one book. And this book wasnt green like the others. It was grey. As grey as the stone of the front of the building when she had seen it through the mist. Mrs Elm took the book from the shelf and handed it to Nora. She had a slight look of anticipatory pride, as if shed handed her a Christmas present. It had seemed light when Mrs Elm was holding it, but it was far heavier than it looked. Nora went to open it. Mrs Elm shook her head. You always have to wait for my say-so. Why? Every book in here, every book in this entire library except one is a version of your life. This library is yours. It is here for you. You see, everyones lives could have ended up an infinite number of ways. These books on the shelves are your life, all starting from the same point in time. Right now. Midnight. Tuesday the twenty-eighth of April. But these midnight possibilities arent the same. Some are similar, some are very different. This is crackers, said Nora. Except one? This one? Nora tilted the stone-grey book towards Mrs Elm. Mrs Elm raised an eyebrow. Yes. That one. Its something you have written without ever having to type a word. What? This book is the source of all your problems, and the answer to them too. But what is it? It is called, my dear, The Book of Regrets. The Book of Regrets Nora stared at it. She could see it now. The small typeface embossed on the cover. The Book of Regrets Every regret you have ever had, since the day you were born, is recorded in here, Mrs Elm said, tapping her finger on the cover. I now give you permission to open it. As the book was so heavy Nora sat down cross-legged on the stone floor to do so. She began to skim through it. The book was divided into chapters, chronologically arranged around the years of her life. 0, 1, 2, 3, all the way up to 35. The chapters got much longer as the book progressed, year by year. But the regrets she accumulated werent specifically related to that year in question. Regrets ignore chronology. They float around. The sequence of these lists changes all the time. Right, yes, that makes sense, I suppose. She quickly realised they ranged from the minor and quotidian (I regret not doing any exercise today) to the substantial (I regret not telling my father I loved him before he died). There were continual, background regrets, which repeated on multiple pages. I regret not staying in The Labyrinths, because I let down my brother. I regret not staying in The Labyrinths, because I let down myself. I regret not doing more for the environment. I regret the time I spent on social media. I regret not going to Australia with Izzy. I regret not having more fun when I was younger. I regret all those arguments with Dad. I regret not working with animals. I regret not doing Geology at University instead of Philosophy. I regret not learning how to be a happier person. I regret feeling so much guilt. I regret not sticking at Spanish. I regret not choosing science subjects in my A-levels. I regret not becoming a glaciologist. I regret not getting married. I regret not applying to do a Masters degree in Philosophy at Cambridge. I regret not keeping healthy. I regret moving to London. I regret not going to Paris to teach English. I regret not finishing the novel I started at university. I regret moving out of London. I regret having a job with no prospects. I regret not being a better sister. I regret not having a gap year after university. I regret disappointing my father. I regret that I teach piano more than I play it. I regret my financial mismanagement. I regret not living in the countryside. Some regrets were a little fainter than others. One regret shifted from practically invisible to bold and back again, as if it was flashing on and off, right there as she looked at it. The regret was I regret not yet having children. That is a regret that sometimes is and sometimes isnt, explained Mrs Elm, again somehow reading her mind. There are a few of those. From the age of 34 onwards, in the longest chapter at the end of the book, there were a lot of Dan-specific regrets. These were quite strong and bold, and played in her head like an ongoing fortissimo chord in a Haydn concerto. I regret being cruel to Dan. I regret breaking up with Dan. I regret not living in a country pub with Dan. As she stared down at the pages, she thought now of the man she had so nearly married. Regret Overload Shed met Dan while living with Izzy in Tooting. Big smile, short beard. Visually, a TV vet. Fun, curious. He drank quite a bit, but always seemed immune to hangovers. He had studied Art History and put his in-depth knowledge of Rubens and Tintoretto to incredible use by becoming head of PR for a brand of protein flapjacks. He did, however, have a dream. And his dream was to run a pub in the countryside. A dream he wanted to share with her. With Nora. And she got carried away with his enthusiasm. Got engaged. But suddenly she had realised she didnt want to marry him. Deep down, she was scared of becoming her mother. She didnt want to replicate her parents marriage. Still staring blankly at The Book of Regrets, she wondered if her parents had ever been in love or if they had got married because marriage was something you did at the appropriate time with the nearest available person. A game where you grabbed the first person you could find when the music stopped. She had never wanted to play that game. Bertrand Russell wrote that To fear love is to fear life, and those who fear life are already three-parts dead. Maybe that was her problem. Maybe she was just scared of living. But Bertrand Russell had more marriages and affairs than hot dinners, so perhaps he was no one to give advice. When her mum died three months before the wedding Noras grief was immense. Though she had suggested that the date should be put back, it somehow never was, and Noras grief fused with depression and anxiety and the feeling that her life was out of her own control. The wedding seemed such a symptom of this chaotic feeling, that she felt tied to a train track, and the only way she could loosen the ropes and free herself was to pull out of the wedding. Though, in reality, staying in Bedford and being single, and letting Izzy down about their Australia plans, and starting work at String Theory, and getting a cat, had all felt like the opposite of freedom. Oh no, said Mrs Elm, breaking Noras thoughts. Its too much for you. And suddenly she was back feeling all this contrition, all that pain of letting people down and letting herself down, the pain she had tried to escape less than an hour ago. The regrets began to swarm together. In fact, while staring at the open pages of the book, the pain was actually worse than it had been wandering around Bedford. The power of all the regrets simultaneously emanating from the book was becoming agony. The weight of guilt and remorse and sorrow too strong. She leaned back on her elbows, dropped the heavy book and squeezed her eyes shut. She could hardly breathe, as if invisible hands were around her neck. Make it stop! Close it now, instructed Mrs Elm. Close the book. Not just your eyes. Close it. You have to do it yourself. So Nora, feeling like she was about to pass out, sat back up and placed her hand under the front cover. It felt even heavier now but she managed to close the book and gasped in relief. Every Life Begins Now Well? Mrs Elm had her arms folded. Though she looked identical to the Mrs Elm Nora had always known, her manner was definitely a little more brusque. It was Mrs Elm but also somehow not Mrs Elm. It was quite confusing. Well what? Nora said, still gasping, still relieved she could no longer feel the intensity of all her regrets simultaneously. Which regret stands out? Which decision would you like to undo? Which life would you like to try on? She said that, precisely. Try on. As if this was a clothes shop and Nora could choose a life as easily as a T-shirt. It felt like a cruel game. That was agony. I felt like I was about to be strangled. What is the point of this? As Nora looked up, she noticed the lights for the first time. Just naked bulbs hanging down from wires attached to the ceiling, which seemed like a normal kind of light-grey ceiling. Except it was a ceiling that reached no walls. Like the floor here, it went on for ever. The point is there is a strong possibility that your old life is over. You wanted to die and maybe you will. And you will need somewhere to go to. Somewhere to land. Another life. So, you need to think hard. This library is called the Midnight Library, because every new life on offer here begins now. And now is midnight. It begins now. All these futures. Thats what is here. Thats what your books represent. Every other immediate present and ongoing future you could have had. So there are no pasts in there? No. Just the consequence of them. But those books are also written. And I know them all. But they are not for you to read. And when does each life end? It could be seconds. Or hours. Or it could be days. Months. More. If you have found a life you truly want to live, then you get to live it until you die of old age. If you really want to live a life hard enough, you dont have to worry. You will stay there as if you have always been there. Because in one universe you have always been there. The book will never be returned, so to speak. It becomes less of a loan and more of a gift. The moment you decide you want that life, really want it, then everything that exists in your head now, including this Midnight Library, will eventually be a memory so vague and intangible it will hardly be there at all. One of the lights flickered overhead. The only danger, continued Mrs Elm, more ominously, is when youre here. Between lives. If you lose the will to carry on, it will affect your root life your original life. And that could lead to the destruction of this place. Youd be gone for ever. Youd be dead. And so would your access to all this. Thats what I want. I want to be dead. I would be dead because I want to be. Thats why I took the overdose. I want to die. Well, maybe. Or maybe not. After all, youre still here. Nora tried to get her head around this. So, how do I return to the library? If Im stuck in a life even worse than the one Ive just left? It can be subtle, but as soon as disappointment is felt in full, youll come back here. Sometimes the feeling creeps up, other times it comes all at once. If it never arrives, youll stay put, and you will be happy there, by definition. It couldnt be simpler. So: pick something you would have done differently, and I will find you the book. That is to say, the life. Nora stared down at The Book of Regrets lying closed on the yellow-brown floor tiles. She remembered chatting late at night with Dan about his dream of owning a quaint little pub in the country. His enthusiasm had been infectious, and it had almost become her dream too. I wish I hadnt left Dan. And that I was still in a relationship with him. I regret us not staying together and working towards that dream. Is there a life where we are still together? Of course, said Mrs Elm. The books in the library began to move again, as though the shelves were conveyor belts. This time, though, instead of going as slow as a wedding march they moved faster and faster and faster, until they couldnt really be seen as individual books at all. They just whirred by in streams of green. Then, just as suddenly, they stopped. Mrs Elm crouched down and took a book from the lowest shelf to her left. The book was one of the darker shades of green. She handed it to Nora. It was a lot lighter than The Book of Regrets, even though it was a similar size. Again, there was no title on the spine but a small one embossed on the front, precisely the same shade as the rest of the book. It said: My Life. But its not my life . . . Oh Nora, they are all your lives. What do I do now? You open the book and turn to the first page. Nora did so. O-kay, said Mrs Elm, with careful precision. Now, read the first line. Nora stared down and read. She walked out of the pub into the cool night air . . . And Nora had just enough time to think to herself, Pub? After that, it was happening. The text began to swirl and soon became indecipherable, in fast motion, as she felt herself weaken. She never knowingly let go of the book, but there was a moment where she was no longer a person reading it, and a consequent moment where there was no book or library at all. The Three Horseshoes Nora was standing outside in crisp, clean air. But unlike in Bedford, it wasnt raining here. Where am I? she whispered to herself. There was a small row of quaint stone terraced houses on the other side of the gently curving road. Quiet, old houses, with all their lights off, nestled at the edge of a village before fading into the stillness of the countryside. A clear sky, an expanse of dotted stars, a waning crescent moon. The smell of fields. The two-way twit-twoo of tawny owls. And then quiet again. A quiet that had a presence, that was a force in the air. Weird. She had been in Bedford. Then in that strange library. And now she was here, on a pretty village road. Without hardly even moving. On this side of the road, golden light filtered out of a downstairs window. She looked up and saw an elegantly painted pub sign creaking softly in the wind. Overlapping horseshoes underneath carefully italicised words: The Three Horseshoes. In front of her, there was a chalkboard standing on the pavement. She recognised her own handwriting, at its neatest. THE THREE HORSESHOES Tuesday Night Quiz Night 8.30 p.m. True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing. Socrates (after losing our quiz!!!!) This was a life where she put four exclamation marks in a row. That was probably what happier, less uptight people did. A promising omen. She looked down at what she was wearing. A denim shirt with sleeves rolled halfway up her forearms and jeans and wedge-heeled shoes, none of which she wore in her actual life. She had goose-bumps from the cold, and clearly wasnt dressed to be outside for long. There were two rings on her ring finger. Her old sapphire engagement ring was there the same one she had taken off, through trembles and tears, over a year ago accompanied by a simple silver wedding band. Crackers. She was wearing a watch. Not a digital one, in this life. An elegant, slender analogue one, with Roman numerals. It was about a minute after midnight. How is this happening? Her hands were smoother in this life. Maybe she used hand cream. Her nails shone with clear polish. There was some comfort in seeing the familiar small mole on her left hand. Footsteps crunched on gravel. Someone was heading towards her down the driveway. A man, visible from the light of the pub windows and the solitary streetlamp. A man with rosy cheeks and grey Dickensian whiskers and a wax jacket. A Toby jug made flesh. He seemed, from his overly careful gait, to be slightly drunk. Goodnight, Nora. Ill be back on Friday. For the folk singer. Dan said hes a good one. In this life she probably knew the mans name. Right. Yes, of course. Friday. It should be a great night. At least her voice sounded like her. She watched as the man crossed the road, looking left and right a few times despite the clear absence of traffic, and disappearing down a lane between the cottages. It was really happening. This was actually it. This was the pub life. This was the dream made reality. This is so very weird, she said into the night. So. Very. Weird. A group of three left the pub then too. Two women and a man. They smiled at Nora as they walked past. Well win next time, one of the women said. Yes, replied Nora. Theres always a next time. She walked up to the pub and peeked through the window. It seemed empty inside, but the lights were still on. That group must have been the last to leave. The pub looked very inviting. Warm and characterful. Small tables and timber beams and a wagon wheel attached to a wall. A rich red carpet and a wood-panelled bar full of an impressive array of beer pumps. She stepped away from the window and saw a sign just beyond the pub, past where the pavement became grass. Quickly, she trotted over and read what it said. LITTLEWORTH Welcomes Careful Drivers Then she noticed in the top centre of the sign a little coat of arms around which orbited the words Oxfordshire County Council. We did it, she whispered into the country air. We actually did it. This was the dream Dan had first mentioned to her while walking by the Seine in Paris, eating macarons they had bought on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. A dream not of Paris but of rural England, where they would live together. A pub in the Oxfordshire countryside. When Noras mums cancer aggressively returned, reaching her lymph nodes and rapidly colonising her body, that dream was put on hold and Dan moved with her from London back to Bedford. Her mum had known of their engagement and had planned to stay alive long enough for the wedding. She had died four months too soon. Maybe this was it. Maybe this was the life. Maybe this was first-time lucky, or second-time lucky. She allowed herself an apprehensive smile. She walked back along the path and crunched over the gravel, heading towards the side door the drunken, whiskery man in the wax jacket had recently departed from. She took a deep breath and stepped inside. It was warm. And quiet. She was in some kind of hallway or corridor. Terracotta floor tiles. Low wood panelling and, above, wallpaper full of illustrations of sycamore leaves. She walked down the little corridor and into the main pub area which she had peeked at through the window. She jumped as a cat appeared out of nowhere. An elegant, angular chocolate Burmese purring away. She bent down and stroked it and looked at the engraved name on the disc attached to the collar. Voltaire. A different cat, with the same name. Unlike her dear beloved ginger tabby, she doubted this Voltaire was a rescue. The cat began to purr. Hello, Volts Number Two. You seem happy here. Are we all as happy as you? The cat purred a possible affirmation and rubbed his head against Noras leg. She picked him up and went over to the bar. There was a row of craft beers on the pumps, stouts and ciders and pale ales and IPAs. Vicars Favourite. Lost and Found. Miss Marple. Sleeping Lemons. Broken Dream. There was a charity tin on the bar for Butterfly Conservation. She heard the sound of clinking glass. As if a dishwasher was being filled. Nora felt anxiety constrict her chest. A familiar sensation. Then a spindly twenty-something man in a baggy rugby top popped up from behind the bar, hardly giving any attention to Nora as he gathered the last remaining used glasses and put them in the dishwasher. He switched it on then pulled down his coat from a hook, put it on and took out some car keys. Bye, Nora. Ive done the chairs and wiped all the tables. Dishwashers on. Ah, thanks. Till Thursday. Yes, Nora said, feeling like a spy about to have her cover blown. See you. A moment after the man left, she heard footsteps rising up from somewhere below, heading across the tiles she had just walked down, coming from the back of the pub. And then he was there. He looked different. The beard had gone, and there were more wrinkles around his eyes, dark circles. He had a nearly finished pint of dark beer in his hand. He still looked a bit like a TV vet, just a few more series down the line. Dan, she said, as if he was something that needed identifying. Like a rabbit by the road. I just want to say I am so proud of you. So proud of us. He looked at her, blankly. Was just turning the chiller units off. Got to clean the lines tomorrow. Weve left it a fortnight. Nora had no idea what he was talking about. She stroked the cat. Right. Yes. Of course. The lines. Her husband for in this life, that was who he was looked around at all the tables and upside-down chairs. He was wearing a faded Jaws T-shirt. Have Blake and Sophie gone home? Nora hesitated. She sensed he was talking about people who worked for them. The young man in the baggy rugby top was presumably Blake. There didnt seem to be anyone else around. Yes, she said, trying to sound natural despite the fundamental bizarreness of the circumstances. I think they have. They were pretty on top of things. Cool. She remembered buying him the Jaws T-shirt on his twenty-sixth birthday. Ten years previously. The answers tonight were something else. One of the teams the one Pete and Jolie were on thought Maradona painted the Sistine ceiling. Nora nodded and stroked Volts Number Two. As if she had any idea who on earth Pete and Jolie were. To be fair, it was a tricky one tonight. Might take them from another website next time. I mean, who actually knows the name of the highest mountain in the Kara-whatsit range? Karakoram? Nora asked. That would be K2. Well, obviously you know, he said, a little too abruptly. A little too tipsily. Its the kind of thing you would know. Because while most people were into rock music you were into actual rocks and stuff. Hey, she said. I was literally in a band. A band, she remembered then, that Dan had hated her being in. He laughed. She recognised the laugh, but didnt entirely like it. She had forgotten how often during their relationship Dans humour hinged on other people, specifically Nora. When theyd been together, she had tried not to dwell on this aspect of his personality. Hed had so many other aspects he had been so lovely to her mum when she was ill, and he could talk at ease about anything, he was so full of dreams about the future, he was attractive and easy to be around, and he was passionate about art and always stopped to chat to the homeless. He cared about the world. A person was like a city. You couldnt let a few less desirable parts put you off the whole. There may be bits you dont like, a few dodgy side streets and suburbs, but the good stuff makes it worthwhile. He had listened to a lot of annoying podcasts that he thought Nora should listen to, and laughed in a way that grated on her, and gargled loudly with mouthwash. And yes, he hogged the duvet and could occasionally be arrogant in his opinions on art and film and music, but there was nothing overtly wrong with him. Well now that she thought about it hed never been supportive of her music career, and had advised her that being in The Labyrinths and signing a music deal would be bad for her mental health, and that her brother was being a bit selfish. But at the time she had viewed that not so much as a red flag but a green one. Her thinking was: he cared, and it was nice to have someone who cared, who wasnt bothered about fame and superficialities, and could help navigate the waters of life. And so when he had asked her to marry him, in the cocktail bar on the top floor of the Oxo Tower, she had agreed and maybe she had always been right to agree. He stepped forward into the room, placed his pint down momentarily and was now on his phone, looking up better pub quiz questions. She wondered how much he had drunk tonight. She wondered if the dream of owning a pub had really been a dream of drinking an endless supply of alcohol. What is the name of a twenty-sided polygon? I dont know, Nora lied, not wanting to risk a similar reaction to the one shed received a moment ago. He put the phone in his pocket. We did well, though. They all drank loads tonight. Not bad for a Tuesday. Things are looking up. I mean, theres something to tell the bank tomorrow. Maybe theyll give us an extension on the loan . . . He stared at the beer in his glass, swilled it around a little, then downed it. Though Ive got to tell A.J. to change the lunch menu. No one in Littleworth wants to eat candied beetroot and broad bean salad and corn cakes. This isnt pissing Fitzrovia. And I know theyre going down well, but I think those wines you chose arent worth it. Especially the Californian ones. Okay. He turned and looked behind him. Wheres the board? What? The chalkboard. Thought youd brought it in? So that was what she had been outside for. No. No. Im going to do it now. Thought I saw you go out. Nora smiled away her nerves. Yes, well, I did. I had to . . . I was worried about our cat. Volts. Voltaire. I couldnt find him so I went outside to look for him and then I found him, didnt I? Dan was back behind the bar, pouring himself a scotch. He seemed to sense she was judging him. This is only my third. Fourth, maybe. Its quiz night. You know I get nervous doing the compering. And it helps me be funny. And I was funny, dont you reckon? Yes. Very funny. Total funniness. His face fell into a serious mode. I saw you talking to Erin. What did she say? Nora wasnt sure how best to answer this. Oh, nothing much. The usual stuff. You know Erin. The usual stuff? I didnt think youd ever spoken to her before. I meant the usual stuff that people say. Not what Erin says. Usual people stuff . . . Hows Will doing? Er, really well, Nora guessed. He says hi. Dans eyes popped wide with surprise. Really? Nora had no idea what to say. Maybe Will was a baby. Maybe Will was in a coma. Sorry, no, he didnt say hi. Sorry, Im not thinking. Anyway, Ill . . . go and get the board. She put the cat down on the floor and headed back out. This time she noticed something she had missed on entering. A framed newspaper article from the Oxford Times with a picture of Nora and Dan standing outside the Three Horseshoes. Dan had his arm around her. He was wearing a suit she had never seen before and she was in a smart dress she would never have worn (she rarely wore dresses) in her original life. PUB OWNERS MAKE DREAM A REALITY They had, according to the article, bought the pub cheaply and in a neglected state and then renovated it with a mix of a modest inheritance (Dans) and savings and bank loans. The article presented a success story, though it was two years old. She stepped outside, wondering whether a life could really be judged from just a few minutes after midnight on a Tuesday. Or maybe that was all you needed. The wind was picking up. Standing out on that quiet village street, the gusts pushed the board a little along the path, nearly toppling it over. Before she picked it up, she felt a buzz from a phone in her pocket. She hadnt realised it was in there. She pulled it out. A text message from Izzy. She noticed that her wallpaper was a photo of herself and Dan somewhere hot. She unlocked the phone using facial recognition and opened the message. It was a photo of a whale rising high out of the ocean, the white spray soaking the air like a burst of champagne. It was a wonderful photo and just seeing it caused her to smile. Izzy was typing. Another message appeared: This was one of the pics I took yesterday from the boat. And another: Humpback mother Then another photo: two whales this time, their backs breaking the water. With calf The last message also included emojis of whales and waves. Nora felt a warm glow. Not just from the pictures, which were indisputably lovely, but from the contact with Izzy. When Nora backed out of her wedding to Dan, Izzy had insisted that she come to Australia with her. Theyd mapped it all out, a plan to live near Byron Bay and get jobs on one of the whale-watching boat cruises. They had shared lots of clips of humpback whales in anticipation of this new adventure. But then Nora had wobbled and backed out. Just like she had backed out of a swimming career, and a band, and a wedding. But unlike those other things, there hadnt even been a reason. Yes, she had started working at String Theory and, yes, she felt the need to tend to her parents graves, but she knew that staying in Bedford was the worse option. And yet she picked it. Because of some strange predictive homesickness that festered alongside a depression that told her, ultimately, she didnt deserve to be happy. That she had hurt Dan and that a life of drizzle and depression in her hometown was her punishment, and she hadnt the will or clarity or, hell, the energy to do anything. So, in effect, she swapped her best friend for a cat. In her actual life, she had never fallen out with Izzy. Nothing that dramatic. But after Izzy had gone to Australia, things had faded between them until their friendship became just a vapour trail of sporadic Facebook and Instagram likes and emoji-filled birthday messages. She looked back through the text conversations between her and Izzy and realised that even though there was still ten thousand miles between them, they had a much better relationship in this version of things. When she returned to the pub, carrying the sign this time, Dan was nowhere to be seen so she locked the back door and waited a while, in the pub hallway, working out where the stairs were, and unsure if she actually wanted to follow her tipsy sort-of husband up there. She found the stairs at the rear of the building, through a door that said Staff Only. As she stepped on the beige raffia carpet heading towards the stairs, just after a framed poster of Things You Learn in the Dark one of their favourite Ryan Bailey movies which they had watched together at the Odeon in Bedford she noted a smaller picture on a sweet little window sill. It was their wedding photo. Black and white, reportage-style. Walking out of a church into a shower of confetti. It was difficult to see their faces properly but they were both laughing and it was a shared laugh, and they seemed as far as a photograph can tell you anything to be in love. She remembered her mum talking about Dan. (Hes a good one. Youre so lucky. Keep hold of him.) She saw her brother Joe too, shaven-headed and looking genuinely happy, champagne glass in hand and his short-lived, disastrous investment-banker boyfriend, Lewis, by his side. Izzy was there, and Ravi too, looking more like an accountant than a drummer, standing next to a bespectacled woman shed never seen before. While Dan was in the toilet Nora located the bedroom. Although they evidently had money worries the nervous appointment with the bank confirmed that the room was expensively furnished. Smart window blinds. A wide, comfortable-looking bed. The duvet crisp and clean and white. There were books either side of the bed. In her actual life she hadnt had a book by her bed for at least six months. She hadnt read anything for six months. Maybe in this life she had a better concentration span. She picked up one of the books, Meditation for Beginners. Underneath it was a copy of a biography of her favourite philosopher, Henry David Thoreau. There were books on Dans bedside table too. The last book she remembered him reading had been a biography of Toulouse-Lautrec Tiny Giant but in this life he was reading a business book called Zero to Hero: Harnessing Success in Work, Play and Life and the latest edition of The Good Pub Guide. She felt different in her body. A little healthier, a little stronger, but tense. She patted her stomach and realised that in this life she worked out a bit more. Her hair felt different too. She had a heavy fringe, and feeling it she could tell her hair was longer at the back. Her mind felt a little woozy. She must have had at least a couple of glasses of wine. A moment later she heard the toilet flush. Then she heard gargling. It seemed to be a bit noisier than necessary. Are you all right? Dan asked, when he came into the bedroom. His voice, she realised, didnt sound like she remembered. It sounded emptier. A bit colder. Maybe it was tiredness. Maybe it was stress. Maybe it was beer. Maybe it was marriage. Maybe it was something else. It was hard to remember, exactly, what he had sounded like before. What he had been like, precisely. But that was the nature of memory. At university she had done an essay drily titled The Principles of Hobbesian Memory and Imagination. Thomas Hobbes had viewed memory and imagination as pretty much the same thing, and since discovering that she had never entirely trusted her memories. Outside the window the streetlamps yellow glow illuminated the desolate village road. Nora? Youre acting strange. Why are you just standing in the middle of the room? Are you getting ready for bed or are you doing some kind of standing meditation? He laughed. He thought he was funny. He went over to the window and pulled the curtains. Then he took off his jeans and put them on the back of a chair. She stared at him and tried to feel the attraction she had once felt so deeply. It seemed to require a Herculean effort. She hadnt expected this. Everyones lives could have ended up an infinite number of ways. He collapsed heavily on the bed, a whale into the ocean. Picked up Zero to Hero. Tried to focus. Put it down. Picked up a laptop by the bed, shoved an earphone into his ear. Maybe he was going to listen to a podcast. Im just thinking about something. She began to feel faint. As if she was only half there. She remembered Mrs Elm talking about how disappointment in a life would bring her back to the library. It would feel, she realised, altogether too strange to climb into the same bed with a man she hadnt seen for two years. She noticed the time on the digital alarm clock. 12:23. Still with the earphone in his ear, he looked at her again. Right, listen, if you dont want to make babies tonight you can just say, you know? What? I mean, I know well have to wait another month until you are ovulating again . . . Were trying for a baby? I want a baby? Nora, whats with you? Why are you strange today? She took off her shoes. Im not. A memory came to her, related to the Jaws T-shirt. A tune, actually. Beautiful Sky. The day she had bought Dan the Jaws T-shirt had been the day she had played him a song she had written for The Labyrinths. Beautiful Sky. It was, she was convinced, the best song she had ever written. And more than that it was a happy song to reflect her optimism at that point in her life. It was a song inspired by her new life with Dan. And he had listened to it with a shruggish indifference that had hurt at the time and which she would have addressed if it hadnt been his birthday. Yeah, hed said. Its okay. She wondered why that memory had stayed buried, only to rise up now, like the great white shark on his fading T-shirt. There were other things coming back to her now too. His over-the-top reaction when shed once told him about a customer Ash, the surgeon and amateur guitar player who came into String Theory for the occasional songbook casually asking Nora if she wanted to go for a coffee some time. (Of course I said no. Stop shouting.) Worse, though, was when an AandR man for a major label (or rather, a boutique former indie label with Universal behind them) wanted to sign The Labyrinths. Dan had told her that it was unlikely theyd survive as a couple. Hed also heard a horror story from one of his university friends whod been in a band that signed to a label and then the label ripped them off and theyd all become unemployed alcoholics or something. I could take you with me, she said. Id get it in the contract. We could go everywhere together. Sorry, Nora. But thats your dream. Its not mine. Which hurt even more with hindsight, knowing how much before the wedding shed tried to make his dream of a pub in the Oxfordshire countryside become her dream as well. Dan had always said his concern was for Nora: shed been having panic attacks while she was in the band, especially when she got anywhere near a stage. But the concern had been at least a little manipulative, now she thought about it. I thought, he was saying now, that you were starting to trust me again. Trust you? Dan, why wouldnt I trust you? You know why. Of course I know why, she lied. I just want to hear you say it. Well, since the stuff with Erin. She stared at him like he was a Rorschach inkblot in which she saw no clear image. Erin? The one I was speaking to tonight? Am I going to be beaten up for ever about one stupid drunken moment? On the street outside, the wind was picking up, howling through trees as if attempting a language. This was the life she had been in mourning for. This was the life she had beaten herself up for not living. This was the timeline she thought she had regretted not existing in. One stupid mistake? she echoed. Okay, two. It was multiplying. Two? I was in a state. You know, the pressure. Of this place. And I was very drunk. You had sex with someone else and it doesnt seem you have been seeking much . . . atonement. Seriously, why drag all this up? Weve been through this. Remember what the counsellor said. About focusing on where we want to go rather than where we have been. Do you ever think that maybe we just arent right for each other? What? I love you, Dan. And you can be a very kind person. And you were great with my mum. And we used to I mean, we have great conversations. But do you ever feel that we passed where we were meant to be? That we changed? She sat down on the edge of the bed. The furthest corner away from him. Do you ever feel lucky to have me? Do you realise how close I was to leaving you, two days before the wedding? Do you know how messed up you would have been if I hadnt turned up at the wedding? Wow. Really? You have yourself in quite high esteem there, Nora. Shouldnt I? I mean, shouldnt everyone? Whats wrong with self-esteem? And besides, its true. Theres another universe where you send me WhatsApp messages about how messed up you are without me. How you turn to alcohol, although it seems like you turn to alcohol with me too. You send me texts saying you miss my voice. He made a dismissive noise, somewhere between a laugh and a grunt. Well, right now, I am most definitely not missing your voice. She couldnt get beyond her shoes. She found it hard maybe impossible to take off another item of clothing in front of him. And stop going on about my drinking. If you are using drink as an excuse for screwing someone else, I can go on about your drinking. I am a country landlord, scoffed Dan. Its what country landlords do. Be jovial and merry and willing to partake in the many and manifold beverages we sell. Jeez. Since when did he speak like this? Did he always speak like this? Bloody hell, Dan. He didnt even seem bothered. To seem grateful in any way for the universe he was in. The universe she had felt so guilty for not allowing to happen. He reached for his phone, still with his laptop on the duvet. Nora watched him as he scrolled. Is this what you imagined? Is the dream working out? Nora, lets not do this heavy shit. Just get to bloody bed. Are you happy, Dan? No ones happy, Nora. Some people are. You used to be. You used to light up when you talked about this. You know, the pub. Before you had it. This is the life you dreamed of. You wanted me and you wanted this and yet youve been unfaithful and you drink like a fish and I think you only appreciate me when you dont have me, which is not a great trait to have. What about my dreams? He was hardly listening. Or trying to look like he wasnt. Big fires in California, he said, almost to himself. Well, at least were not there. He put the phone down. Folded his laptop. You coming to bed or what? She had shrunk for him, but he still hadnt found the space he needed. No more. Icosagon, she told him. What? The quiz. Earlier. The twenty-sided polygon. Well, a twenty-sided polygon is called an icosagon. I knew the answer but didnt tell you because I didnt want you to mock me. And now I dont really care because I dont think me knowing some things that you dont should bother you. And also, I am going to go to the bathroom. And she left Dan, with his mouth open, and trod gently on the wide floorboards, out of the room. She reached the bathroom. Switched a light on. There were tingles in her arms and legs and torso. Like electric static in search of a station. She was fading out, she was sure. There wasnt long left here. The disappointment was complete. It was an impressive bathroom. There was a mirror. She gasped at her reflection. She looked healthier but also older. Her hair made her look like a stranger. This was not the life she imagined it to be. And Nora wished the self in the mirror Good luck. And the moment after that she was back, somewhere inside the Midnight Library, and Mrs Elm was staring at her from a small distance away with a curious smile. Well, how did that go? The Penultimate Update Nora Had Posted Before She Found Herself Between Life and Death Do you ever think how did I end up here? Like you are in a maze and totally lost and its all your fault because you were the one who made every turn? And you know that there are many routes that could have helped you out, because you hear all the people on the outside of the maze who made it through, and they are laughing and smiling. And sometimes you get a glimpse of them through the hedge. A fleeting shape through the leaves. And they seem so damn happy to have made it and you dont resent them, but you do resent yourself for not having their ability to work it all out. Do you? Or is this maze just for me? Ps. My cat died. The Chessboard The shelves of the Midnight Library were quite still again, as if their movement had never even been a possibility. Nora sensed they were in a different portion of the library now not a different room as such, as there seemed to be only one infinitely vast room. It was difficult to tell if she really was in a different part of the library as the books were still green, though she seemed closer to a corridor than where she had been. And from here she could see a glimpse of something new through one of the stacks an office desk and computer, like a basic makeshift open-plan office positioned in the corridor between the aisles. Mrs Elm wasnt at the office desk. She was sat at a low wooden table right there in front of Nora, and she was playing chess. It was different to how I imagined, said Nora. Mrs Elm looked like she was halfway through a game. Its hard to predict, isnt it? she asked, looking blankly in front of her as she moved a black bishop across the board to take a white pawn. The things that will make us happy. Mrs Elm rotated the chessboard through one hundred and eighty degrees. She was, it appeared, playing against herself. Yes, said Nora. It is. But what happens to her? To me? How does she end up? How do I know? I only know today. I know a lot about today. But I dont know what happens tomorrow. But shell be there in the bathroom and she wont know how she got there. And have you never walked into a room and wondered what you came in for? Have you never forgotten what you just did? Have you never blanked out or misremembered what you were just doing? Yes, but I was there for half an hour in that life. And that other you wont know that. She will remember what you just did and said. But as if she did and said them. Nora let out a deep exhale. Dan wasnt like that. People change, said Mrs Elm, still looking at the chessboard. Her hand lingered over a bishop. Nora re-thought. Or maybe he was like that and I just didnt see it. So, wondered Mrs Elm, looking at Nora. What are you feeling? Like I still want to die. I have wanted to die for quite a while. I have carefully calculated that the pain of me living as the bloody disaster that is myself is greater than the pain anyone else will feel if I were to die. In fact, Im sure it would be a relief. Im not useful to anyone. I was bad at work. I have disappointed everyone. I am a waste of a carbon footprint, to be honest. I hurt people. I have no one left. Not even poor old Volts, who died because I couldnt look after a cat properly. I want to die. My life is a disaster. And I want it to end. I am not cut out for living. And there is no point going through all this. Because I am clearly destined to be unhappy in other lives too. That is just me. I add nothing. I am wallowing in self-pity. I want to die. Mrs Elm studied Nora hard, as if reading a passage in a book she had read before but had just found it contained a new meaning. Want, she told her, in a measured tone, is an interesting word. It means lack. Sometimes if we fill that lack with something else the original want disappears entirely. Maybe you have a lack problem rather than a want problem. Maybe there is a life that you really want to live. I thought that was it. The one with Dan. But it wasnt. No, it wasnt. But that is just one of your possible lives. And one into infinity is a very small fraction indeed. Every possible life I could live has me in it. So, its not really every possible life. Mrs Elm wasnt listening. Now, tell me, where do you want to go now? Nowhere, please. Do you need another look at The Book of Regrets? Nora scrunched her nose and gave a minute shake of her head. She remembered the feeling of being suffocated by so much regret. No. What about your cat? What was his name again? Voltaire. It was a bit pretentious, and he wasnt really a pretentious cat, so I just called him Volts for short. Sometimes Voltsy, if I was feeling jovial. Which was rare, obviously. I couldnt even finalise a name for a cat. Well, you said you were bad at having a cat. What would you have done differently? Nora thought. She had the very real sense that Mrs Elm was playing some kind of game with her, but she also wanted to see her cat again, and not simply a cat with the same name. In fact, she wanted it more than anything. Okay. Id like to see the life where I kept Voltaire indoors. My Voltaire. Id like the life where I didnt try and kill myself and where I was a good cat owner and I didnt let him out onto the road last night. Id like that life, just for a little while. That life exists, doesnt it? The Only Way to Learn Is to Live Nora looked around and found herself lying in her own bed. She checked her watch. It was one minute past midnight. She switched on her light. This was her exact life, but it was going to be better, because Voltaire was going to be alive in this one. Her real Voltaire. But where was he? Volts? She climbed out of bed. Volts? She looked all over her flat and couldnt find him anywhere. The rain patted against the windows that much hadnt changed. Her new box of anti-depressants was out on the kitchen unit. The electric piano stood by the wall, silent. Voltsy? There was her yucca plant and her three tiny potted cacti, there were her bookshelves, with exactly the same mix of philosophy books and novels and untried yoga manuals and rock star biographies and pop science books. An old National Geographic with a shark on the cover and a five-month-old copy of Elle magazine, which shed bought mainly for the Ryan Bailey interview. No new additions in a long time. There was a bowl still full of cat food. She looked everywhere, calling his name. It was only when she went back into her bedroom and looked under the bed that she saw him. Volts! The cat wasnt moving. As her arms werent long enough to reach him, she moved the bed. Voltsy. Come on, Voltsy, she whispered. But the moment she touched his cold body she knew, and she was flooded with sadness and confusion. She immediately found herself back in the Midnight Library, facing Mrs Elm, who was sat this time in a comfy chair, deeply absorbed in one of the books. I dont understand, Nora told her. Mrs Elm kept her eyes on the page she was reading. There will be many things you dont understand. I asked for the life in which Voltaire was still alive. Actually, you didnt. What? She put her book down. You asked for the life where you kept him indoors. That is an entirely different thing. Is it? Yes. Entirely. You see, if youd have asked for the life where he was still alive I would have had to say no. But why? Because it doesnt exist. I thought every life exists. Every possible life. You see, it turns out that Voltaire had a serious case of she read carefully from the book restrictive cardiomyopathy, a severe case of it, which he was born with, and which was destined to cause his heart to go at a young age. But he was hit by a car. There is a difference, Nora, between dying in a road and being hit by a car. In your root life Voltaire lived longer than almost any other life, except the one youve just encountered, where he died only three hours ago. Although he had a tough few early years, the year you had him was the best of his life. Voltaire has had much worse lives, believe me. You didnt even know his name a moment ago. Now you know he had restrictive cardio-whatever? I knew his name. And it wasnt a moment ago. It was the same moment, check your watch. Why did you lie? I wasnt lying. I asked you what your cats name was. I never said I didnt know what your cats name was. Do you understand the difference? I just wanted you to say his name, so that you would feel something. Nora was hot with agitation now. Thats even worse! You sent me into that life knowing Volts would be dead. And Volts was dead. So, nothing changed. Mrs Elms eyes twinkled again. Except you. What do you mean? Well, you dont see yourself as a bad cat owner any more. You looked after him as well as he could have been looked after. He loved you as much as you loved him, and maybe he didnt want you to see him die. You see, cats know. They understand when their time is up. He went outside because he was going to die, and he knew it. Nora tried to take this in. Now she thought about it, there hadnt been any external signs of damage on her cats body. She had just jumped to the same conclusion that Ash had jumped to. That a dead cat on the road was probably dead because of the road. And if a surgeon could think that, a mere layperson would think that too. Two plus two equals car accident. Poor Volts, Nora muttered, mournfully. Mrs Elm smiled, like a teacher who saw a lesson being understood. He loved you, Nora. You looked after him as well as anyone could. Go and look at the last page of The Book of Regrets. Nora could see that the book was lying on the floor. She knelt on the floor beside it. I dont want to open it again. Dont worry. It will be safer this time. Just stick to the last page. Once she had flicked to the last page, she saw one of her very last regrets I was bad at looking after Voltaire slowly disappear from the page. The letters fading like retreating strangers in a fog. Nora closed the book before she could feel anything bad happen. So, you see? Sometimes regrets arent based on fact at all. Sometimes regrets are just . . . She searched for the appropriate term and found it. A load of bullshit. Nora tried to think back to her schooldays, to remember if Mrs Elm had said the word bullshit before, and she was pretty sure she hadnt. But I still dont get why you let me go into that life if you knew Volts was going to be dead anyway? You could have told me. You could have just told me I wasnt a bad cat owner. Why didnt you? Because, Nora, sometimes the only way to learn is to live. Sounds hard. Take a seat, Mrs Elm told her. A proper seat. Its not right, you kneeling on the floor. And Nora turned to see a chair behind her that she hadnt noticed before. An antique chair mahogany and buttoned leather, Edwardian maybe with a brass bookstand attached to one arm. Give yourself a moment. Nora sat down. She stared at her watch. No matter how much of a moment she gave herself it stayed being midnight. I still dont like this. One life of sadness was enough. What is the point of risking more? Fine. Mrs Elm shrugged. What? Lets do nothing then. You can just stay here in the library with all those lives waiting on the shelves and not choose one. Nora sensed Mrs Elm was playing some kind of a game. But she went along with it. Fine. So Nora just stood there while Mrs Elm picked up her book again. It seemed unfair to Nora that Mrs Elm could read the lives without falling into them. Time went by. Although technically, of course, it didnt. Nora could have stayed there for ever without getting hungry or thirsty or tired. But she could, it seemed, get bored. As time stood still, Noras curiosity about the lives around her slowly grew. It turned out to be near impossible to stand in a library and not want to pull things from the shelves. Why cant you just give me a life you know is a good one? she said suddenly. That is not how this library works. Nora had another question. Surely in most lives I will be asleep now, wont I? In many, yes. So, what happens then? You sleep. And then you wake up in that life. Its nothing to worry about. But if you are nervous, you could try a life where its another time. What do you mean? Well, its not night-time everywhere, is it? What? There are an infinite number of possible universes in which you live. Are you really saying they all exist on Greenwich Mean Time? Of course not, said Nora. She realised she was about to cave in and choose another life. She thought of the humpback whales. She thought of the unanswered message. I wish I had gone to Australia with Izzy. I would like to experience that life. Very good choice. What? Its a very good life? Oh, I didnt say that. I merely feel that you might be getting better at choosing. So, its a bad life? I didnt say that either. And the shelves sped into motion again, then stopped a few seconds afterwards. Ah, yes, there it is, said Mrs Elm, taking a book from the second-to-bottom shelf. She recognised it instantly, which was odd, seeing that it looked almost identical to the others around it. She handed it to Nora, affectionately, as if it was a birthday gift. There you go. You know what to do. Nora hesitated. What if I am dead? Sorry? I mean, in another life. There must be other lives in which I died before today. Mrs Elm looked intrigued. Isnt that what you wanted? Well, yes, but You have died an infinite number of times before today, yes. Car accident, drug overdose, drowning, a bout of fatal food poisoning, choking on an apple, choking on a cookie, choking on a vegan hot dog, choking on a non-vegan hot dog, every illness it was possible for you to catch or contract . . . You have died in every way you can, at any time you could. So, I could open a book and just die? No. Not instantaneously. As with Voltaire, the only lives available here are, well, lives. I mean, you could die in that life, but you wont have died before you enter the life because this Midnight Library is not one of ghosts. It is not a library of corpses. It is a library of possibility. And death is the opposite of possibility. Understand? I think so. And Nora stared at the book she had been handed. Conifer green. Smooth-textured, again embossed with that broad and frustratingly meaningless title My Life. She opened it and saw a blank page, so she moved to the next page and wondered what was going to happen this time. The swimming pool was a little busier than normal . . . And then she was there. Fire She gasped. The sensations were sudden. The noise and the water. She had her mouth open and she choked. The tang and sting of salt water. She tried to touch her feet on the bottom of the pool but she was out of her depth so she quickly slipped into breaststroke mode. A swimming pool, but a salt-water one. Outdoor, beside the ocean. Carved seemingly out of the rock that jutted out of the coastline. She could see the actual ocean just beyond. There was sunshine overhead. The water was cool, but given the heat of the air above her the cool was welcome. Once upon a time she had been the best fourteen-year-old female swimmer in Bedfordshire. She had won two races in her age category at the National Junior Swimming Championships. Freestyle 400 metres. Freestyle 200 metres. Her dad had driven her every day to the local pool. Sometimes before school as well as after. But then while her brother rocked out on his guitar to Nirvana she traded lengths for scales, and taught herself how to play not just Chopin but classics like Let It Be and Rainy Days And Mondays. She also began, before The Labyrinths were even a figment of her brothers imagination, to compose her own music. But she hadnt really gone off swimming, just the pressure around it. She reached the side of the pool. Stopped and looked around. She could see a beach at a lower level in the distance, curving around in a semi-circle to welcome the sea lapping on its sand. Beyond the beach, inland, a stretch of grass. A park, complete with palm trees and distant dog walkers. Beyond that, houses and low-rise apartment blocks, and traffic sliding by on a road. She had seen pictures of Byron Bay, and it didnt look quite like this. This place, wherever it was, seemed a little more built-up. Still surferish, but also urban. Turning her attention back to the pool, she noticed a man smile at her as he adjusted his goggles. Did she know this man? Would she welcome this smile in this life? Having no idea, she offered the smallest of polite smiles in return. She felt like a tourist with an unfamiliar currency, not knowing how much to tip. Then an elderly woman in a swimming cap smiled at her as she glided through the water towards her. Morning, Nora, she said, not breaking her stroke. It was a greeting that suggested Nora was a regular here. Morning, Nora said. She stared out at the ocean, to avoid any awkward chatting. A flock of morning surfers, speck-sized, swam on their boards to greet large sapphire-blue waves. This was a promising start to her Australian life. She stared at her watch. It was a bright orange, cheap-looking Casio. A happy-looking watch suggestive, she hoped, of a happy-feeling life. It was just after nine a.m. here. Next to her watch was a plastic wristband with a key on it. So, this was her morning ritual here. In an outdoor swimming pool beside a beach. She wondered if she was here alone. She scanned the pool hopefully for any sign of Izzy, but none was there. She swam some more. The thing she had once loved about swimming was the disappearing. In the water, her focus had been so pure that she thought of nothing else. Any school or home worries vanished. The art of swimming she supposed like any art was about purity. The more focused you were on the activity, the less focused you were on everything else. You kind of stopped being you and became the thing you were doing. But it was hard to stay focused when Nora noticed her arms and chest ached. She sensed it had been a long swim and was probably time to get out of the pool. She saw a sign. Bronte Beach Swimming Pool. She vaguely remembered Dan, who had been to Australia in his gap year, talking about this place and the name had stuck Bronte Beach because it was easy to remember. Jane Eyre on a surfboard. But here was confirmation of her doubt. Bronte Beach was in Sydney. But it most definitely wasnt part of Byron Bay. So that meant one of two things. Either Izzy, in this life, wasnt in Byron Bay. Or Nora wasnt with Izzy. She noticed she was tanned a mild caramel all over. Of course, the trouble was, she didnt know where her clothes were. But then she remembered the plastic wristband with a key on it. 57. Her locker was 57. So she found the changing rooms and opened the squat, square locker and saw that her taste in clothes, as well as watches, was more colourful in this life. She had a T-shirt with a pineapple print on it. A whole cornucopia of pineapples. And pink-purple denim shorts. And slip-on checked pumps. What am I? she wondered. A childrens TV presenter? Sun-block. Hibiscus tinted lip balm. No other make-up as such. As she pulled on her T-shirt, she noticed a couple of marks on her arm. Scar-lines. She wondered, momentarily, if they had been self-inflicted. There was also a tattoo just below her shoulder. A Phoenix and flames. It was a terrible tattoo. In this life, she clearly had no taste. But since when did taste have anything to do with happiness? She dressed and pulled out a phone from her shorts pocket. This was an older model than in her married-and-living-in-a-pub life. Luckily, a thumb-reading was enough to unlock it. She left the changing rooms and walked along a beachside path. It was a warm day. Maybe life was automatically better when the sun shone so confidently in April. Everything seemed more vivid, more colourful and alive than it had done in England. She saw a parrot a rainbow lorikeet perched on the top of a bench, being photographed by a couple of tourists. A surfy-looking cyclist passed by holding an orange smoothie, smiling and literally saying, Gday. This was most definitely not Bedford. Nora noticed something was happening to her face. She was could she be? smiling. And naturally, not just because someone expected her to. Then she noted a piece of graffiti on a low wall which said THE WORLD IS ON FIRE and another that said ONE EARTH = ONE CHANCE and her smile faded. After all, a different life didnt mean a different planet. She had no idea where she lived or what she did or where she was meant to be heading after the swimming pool, but there was something quite freeing about that. To be existing without any expectation, even her own. As she walked, she googled her own name and added Sydney to see if it brought up anything. Before she scanned the results she glanced up and noticed a man walking on the path towards her, smiling. A short, tanned man with kind eyes and long thinning hair in a loose ponytail with a shirt that wasnt buttoned correctly. Hey, Nora. Hey, she said, trying not to sound confused. What time you start today? How could she answer that? Uh. Oh. Crap. Ive totally forgotten. He laughed, a little laugh of recognition, as if her forgetting was quite in character. I saw it on the roster. I think it might be eleven. Eleven a.m.? Kind Eyes laughed. Whatve you been smoking? I want some. Ha. Nothing, she said, stiffly. Ive not been smoking anything. I just skipped breakfast. Well, see you this arvo . . . Yes. At the . . . place. Where is it again? He laughed, frowningly, and kept walking. Maybe she worked on a whale sight-seeing cruise that operated out of Sydney. Maybe Izzy did too. Nora had no idea where she (or they) lived, and nothing was coming up on Google, but away from the ocean seemed the right direction. Maybe she was very local. Maybe she had walked here. Maybe one of the bikes she saw locked up outside the pool caf? had been hers. She rummaged in her tiny clasp wallet and felt her pockets for a key, but there was only a house key. No car keys, no bike keys. So it was a bus or by foot. The house key had no information on it at all, so she sat on a bench with the sun beating hard on the back of her neck and checked her texts. There were names of people she didnt recognise. Amy. Rodhri. Bella. Lucy P. Kemala. Luke. Lucy M. Who are these people? And a rather unhelpful contact titled, simply: Work. And there was only one recent message from Work and it said: Where r u? There was one name she recognised. Dan. Her heart sank as she clicked on his most recent message. Hey Nor! Hope Oz is treating you well. This is going to sound either corny or creepy but I am going to go all out and tell you. I had a dream the other night about our pub. It was such a good dream. We were so happy! Anyway, ignore that weirdness, the point of this is to say: guess where Im going in May? AUSTRALIA. First time in over a decade. Am coming with work. Im working with MCA. Would be great to catch up, even for a coffee if youre around. D x It was so strange she almost laughed. But she coughed instead. (Maybe she wasnt quite so fit in this life, now she thought about it.) She wondered how many Dans there were in the world, dreaming of things they would hate if they actually got them. And how many were pushing other people into their delusional idea of happiness? Instagram seemed to be the only social media she had here, and she only seemed to post pictures of poems on it. She took a moment to read one: FIRE Every part of her That changed That got scraped off Because of schoolyard laughter Or the advice of grown-ups Long gone And the pain of friends Already dead. She collected those bits off the floor. Like wood shavings. And she made them into fuel. Into fire. And burned. Bright enough to see for ever. This was troubling, but it was after all just a poem. Scrolling through some emails, she found one to Charlotte a ceilidh band flautist with earthy humour whod been Noras only friend at String Theory before she had moved back up to Scotland. Hi Charl! Hope all is fine and dandy. Pleased the birthday do went well. Sorry I couldnt be there. All is well in sunny Sydney. Have finally moved into the new place. Its right near Bronte Beach (beautiful). Lots of neighbourhood cafes and charm. I also have a new job. I go swimming in a saltwater pool every morning and every evening I drink a glass of Australian wine in the sunshine. Life is good! Address: 2/29 Darling Street Bronte NSW 2024 AUSTRALIA Nora X Something was rotten. The tone of vague, distant perkiness, as if writing to a long-lost aunt. The Lots of neighbourhood cafes and charm, as though it was a TripAdvisor review. She didnt speak to Charlotte or indeed anyone like that. There was also no mention of Izzy. Have finally moved into the new place. Was that we have or I have? Charlotte knew of Izzy. Why not mention her? She would soon find out. Indeed, twenty minutes later she was standing in the hallway of her apartment, staring at four bags of rubbish that needed taking out. The living room looked small and depressing. The sofa tatty and old. The place smelt slightly mouldy. There was a poster on the wall for the video game Angel and a vape pen on a coffee table, with a marijuana leaf sticker on it. A woman was staring at a screen, shooting zombies in the head. The woman had short blue hair and for a moment Nora thought it might be Izzy. Hi, Nora said. The woman turned. She was not Izzy. She had sleepy eyes and a vacant expression, as if the zombies she was shooting had slightly infected her. She was probably a perfectly decent person but she was not anyone Nora had ever seen in her life. She smiled. Hey. Hows that new poem coming along? Oh. Yeah. Its coming along really well. Thanks. Nora walked around the flat in a bit of a daze. She opened a door at random and realised it was the bathroom. She didnt need the toilet, but she needed a second to think. So she shut the door and washed her hands and stared at the water spiral down the plughole the wrong way. She glanced at the shower. The dull yellow curtain was dirty in a vague student-house kind of way. Thats what this place reminded her of. A student house. She was thirty-five and, in this life, living like a student. She saw some anti-depressants fluoxetine beside the basin, and picked up the box. She read Prescription for N. Seed at the top of the label. She looked down at her arm and saw the scars again. It was weird, to have your own body offer clues to a mystery. There was a magazine on the floor next to the bin, National Geographic. The one with the black hole on its cover that she had been reading in another life, on the other side of the world, only yesterday. She sensed it was her magazine, given she had always liked reading it, and had been known even in recent times to buy it on the occasional spontaneous whim as no online version ever did the photos justice. She remembered being eleven years old and looking at the photos of Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic, in her dads copy. It had looked so vast and desolate and powerful and she had wondered what it would have been like to be among it, like the scientist-explorers in the article, spending their summer doing some kind of geological research. She cut out the pictures and they ended up on the pinboard in her bedroom. And for many years, at school, she had tried hard at science and geography just so she could be like the scientists in the article and spend her summers among frozen mountains and fjords, as puffins flew overhead. But after her dad died, and after reading Nietzsches Beyond Good and Evil, she decided that a) Philosophy seemed to be the only subject that matched her sudden inward intensity and b) she wanted to be a rock star more than a scientist anyway. After leaving the bathroom, she returned to her mysterious flatmate. She sat on the sofa and waited for a few moments, watching. The womans avatar got shot in the head. Piss off, you zombie fuckface, the woman snarled happily at the screen. She picked up the vape pen. Nora wondered how she knew this woman. She was assuming they were flatmates. Ive been thinking about what you said. What did I say? Nora asked. About doing some cat-sitting. You know, you wanted to look after that cat? Oh yeah. Sure. I remember. Bad fucking idea, man. Really? Cats. What about them? Theyve got a parasite. Toxoplas-something. Nora knew this. She had known this since she was a teen, doing her work experience at Bedford Animal Rescue Centre. Toxoplasmosis. Thats it! Well, I was listening to this podcast, right . . . and theres this theory that this international group of billionaires infected the cats with it so that they could take over the world by making humans dumber and dumber. I mean, think about it. There are cats everywhere. I was talking to Jared about this and Jared said, Jojo, what are you smoking? And I was like, The stuff you gave me and he said, Yeah, I know. Then he told me about the grasshoppers. Grasshoppers? Yeah. Did you hear about grasshoppers? Jojo asked. What about them? They are all killing themselves. Because this parasitic worm grows inside them, to become like a full-grown aquatic creature, and as it grows it takes over the brain function of the grasshopper, so the grasshopper thinks, Hey, I really like water and so they divebomb into water and die. And its happening all the time. Google it. Google grasshopper suicide. Anyway, the point is, the elites are killing us via cats and so you shouldnt be near them. Nora couldnt help thinking how different this life was to her imagined version of it. She had pictured herself and Izzy on a boat near Byron Bay, marvelling at the magnificence of humpback whales, and yet she was here in a small pot-scented apartment in Sydney, with a conspiracy theorist as a flatmate who wouldnt even let her near a cat. What happened to Izzy? Nora realised she had just asked the question out loud. Jojo looked confused. Izzy? Your old friend Izzy? Yeah. The one who died? The words came so fast Nora could hardly absorb them. Um, what? The car crash girl? What? Jojo looked confused, as curls of smoke wisped across her face. You okay, Nora? She held out the joint. Wanna toke? No, Im okay thanks. Jojo chuckled. Makes a change. Nora grabbed her phone. Went online. Typed Isabel Hirsh into the search box. Then clicked News. There it was. A headline. Above a picture of Izzys tanned face, smiling. BRITISH WOMAN KILLED IN NSW ROAD COLLISION A woman, 33, was killed and three people hospitalised south of Coffs Harbour last night when the womans Toyota Corolla collided with a car travelling in the opposite direction on the Pacific Highway. The female driver, identified as British citizen Isabel Hirsh, died at the scene of the accident just before 9pm. She was the only person in the Toyota. According to her flatmate, Nora Seed, Isabel had been driving from Sydney back to Byron Bay, to attend Noras birthday party. Isabel had recently started working for Byron Bay Whale Watching Tours. I am totally devastated, Nora said. We travelled to Australia together only a month ago and Izzy had planned to stay here for as long as possible. She was such a force of life that it feels impossible to imagine the world without her in it. She was so excited about her new job. It is so unbearably sad and hard to comprehend. The passengers of the other car all suffered injuries, and the driver Chris Dale had to be airlifted to the hospital at Baringa. New South Wales Police are asking anyone who witnessed the collision to come forward to help with their enquiries. Oh my God, she whispered to herself, feeling faint. Oh, Izzy. She knew that Izzy wasnt dead in all her lives. Or even most of them. But in this one it was real, and the grief Nora felt felt real too. The grief was familiar and terrifying and laced with guilt. Before she could properly process anything, the mobile rang. It said Work. A mans voice. A slow drawl. Where are you? What? You were meant to be here half an hour ago. Where? The ferry terminal. Youre selling tickets. Ive got the correct number, right? This is Nora Seed Im talking to? Its one of them, sighed Nora, as she gently faded away. Fish Tank The shrewd-eyed librarian was back at her chessboard and hardly looked up as Nora arrived back. Well, that was terrible. Mrs Elm smiled, wryly. It just shows you, doesnt it? Shows me what? Well, that you can choose choices but not outcomes. But I stand by what I said. It was a good choice. It just wasnt a desired outcome. Nora studied Mrs Elms face. Was she enjoying this? Why did I stay? Nora asked. Why didnt I just come home, after she died? Mrs Elm shrugged. You got stuck. You were grieving. You were depressed. You know what depression is like. Nora understood this. She thought of a study she had read about somewhere, about fish. Fish were more like humans than most people think. Fish get depression. They had done tests with zebrafish. They had a fish tank and they drew a horizontal line on the side of it, halfway down, in marker pen. Depressed fish stayed below the line. But give those same fish Prozac and they go above the line, to the top of their tanks, darting about like new. Fish get depressed when they have a lack of stimulation. A lack of everything. When they are just there, floating in a tank that resembles nothing at all. Maybe Australia had been her empty fish tank, once Izzy had gone. Maybe she just had no incentive to swim above the line. And maybe even Prozac or fluoxetine wasnt enough to help her rise up. So she was just going to stay there in that flat, with Jojo, and never move until she was made to leave the country. Maybe even suicide would have been too active. Maybe in some lives you just float around and expect nothing else and dont even try to change. Maybe that was most lives. Yes, said Nora, aloud now. Maybe I got stuck. Maybe in every life I am stuck. I mean, maybe thats just who I am. A starfish in every life is still a starfish. There isnt a life where a starfish is a professor of aerospace engineering. And maybe there isnt a life where Im not stuck. Well, I think you are wrong. Okay, then. I would like to try the life where I am not stuck. What life would that be? Arent you supposed to tell me? Mrs Elm moved a queen to take a pawn, then turned the board around. Im afraid I am just the librarian. Librarians have knowledge. They guide you to the right books. The right worlds. They find the best places. Like soul-enhanced search engines. Exactly. But you also have to know what you like. What to type into the metaphorical search box. And sometimes you have to try a few things before that becomes clear. I havent got the stamina. I dont think I can do this. The only way to learn is to live. Yes. So you keep saying. Nora exhaled heavily. It was interesting to know that she could exhale in the library. That she felt entirely in her body. That it felt normal. Because this place was definitely not normal. And the real physical her wasnt here. It couldnt be. And yet it was, to all intents and purposes, because she was in some sense there. Standing on a floor, as if gravity still existed. Okay, she said. I would like a life where I am successful. Mrs Elm tutted disapprovingly. For someone who has read a lot of books, you arent very specific with your choice of words. Sorry. Success. What does that mean to you? Money? No. Well, maybe. But that wouldnt be the defining feature. Well, then, what is success? Nora had no idea what success was. She had felt like a failure for so long. Mrs Elm smiled, patiently. Would you like to consult again with The Book of Regrets? Would you like to think about those bad decisions that turned you away from whatever you feel success is? Nora shook her head quickly, like a dog shaking off water. She didnt want to be confronted with that long interminable list of mistakes and wrong turns again. She was depressed enough. And besides, she knew her regrets. Regrets dont leave. They werent mosquito bites. They itch for ever. No, they dont, said Mrs Elm, reading her mind. You dont regret how you were with your cat. And nor do you regret not going to Australia with Izzy. Nora nodded. Mrs Elm had a point. She thought of swimming in the pool at Bronte Beach. How good that had felt, in its strange familiarity. From an early age you were encouraged to swim, said Mrs Elm. Yes. Your dad was always happy to take you to the pool. It was one of the few things that had made him happy, Nora mused. She had associated swimming with her fathers approval and enjoyed the wordlessness of being in the water because it was the opposite of her parents screaming at each other. Why did you quit? asked Mrs Elm. As soon as I started winning swimming races, I became seen and I didnt want to be seen. And not only seen but seen in a swimsuit at the exact age you are self-obsessing about your body. Someone said I had boys shoulders. It was a stupid thing but there were lots of stupid things and you feel them all at that age. As a teenager Id have happily been invisible. People called me The Fish. They didnt mean it as a compliment. I was shy. It was one of the reasons why I preferred the library to the playing field. It seems a small thing, but it really helped, having that space. Never underestimate the big importance of small things, Mrs Elm said. You must always remember that. Nora thought back. Her teenage combination of shyness and visibility had been a problematic mix, but she was never bullied, as such, probably because everyone knew her brother. And Joe, while never exactly tough, was always considered cool and popular enough for his most immediate blood relation to be immune to schoolyard tyranny. She won races in local and then national competitions, but as she reached fifteen it became too much. The daily swims, length after length after length. I had to quit. Mrs Elm nodded. And the bond youd developed with your dad frayed and almost snapped completely. Pretty much. She pictured her fathers face, in the car, on a drizzle-scratched Sunday morning outside Bedford Leisure Centre, as she told him she didnt want to swim in competitions any more. That look of disappointment and profound frustration. But you could make a success of your life, he had said. Yes. She remembered it now. Youre never going to be a pop star, but this is something real. Its right in front of you. If you keep training, youll end up at the Olympics. I know it. She had been cross with him saying that. As if there was a very thin path to a happy life and it was the path he had decided for her. As if her own agency in her own life was automatically wrong. But what she didnt fully appreciate at fifteen years of age was just how bad regret could feel, and how much her father had felt that pain of being so near to the realisation of a dream he could almost touch it. Noras father, it was true, had been a difficult man. As well as being highly critical of everything Nora did, and everything Nora wanted and everything Nora believed, unless it was related to swimming, Nora had also felt that simply to be in his presence was to commit some kind of invisible crime. Ever since the ligament injury that thwarted his rugby career, hed had a sincere conviction that the universe was against him. And Nora was, at least she felt, considered by him as part of that same universal plan. From that moment in that car park she had felt she was really just an extension of the pain in his left knee. A walking wound. But maybe he had known what would happen. Maybe he could foresee the way one regret would lead to another, until suddenly that was all she was. A whole book of regrets. Okay, Mrs Elm. I want to know what happened in the life where I did what my father wanted. Where I trained as hard as I possibly could. Where I never moaned about a five a.m. start or a nine p.m. finish. Where I swam every day and never thought about quitting. Where I didnt get sidelined by music or writing unfinished novels. Where I sacrificed everything else on the altar of freestyle. Where I didnt give up. Where I did everything right in order to reach the Olympics. Take me to where I am in that life. For a moment it seemed as though Mrs Elm hadnt been taking any notice of Noras mini-speech, as she kept frowning at the chessboard, working out how to out-manoeuvre herself. The rook is my favourite piece, she said. Its the one that you think you dont have to watch out for. It is straightforward. You keep your eye on the queen, and the knights, and the bishop, because they are the sneaky ones. But its the rook that often gets you. The straightforward is never quite what it seems. Nora realised Mrs Elm was probably not talking just about chess. But the shelves were moving now. Fast as trains. This life youve asked for, explained Mrs Elm, is a little bit further away from the pub dream and the Australian adventure. Those were closer lives. This one involves a lot of different choices, going back further in time. And so the book is a little further away, you see? I see. Libraries have to have a system. The books slowed. Ah, here we are. This time Mrs Elm didnt stand up. She simply raised her left hand and a book flew towards her. How did you do that? I have no idea. Now heres the life you asked for. Off you go. Nora took hold of the book. Light, fresh, lime-coloured. She turned to the first page. And this time she was aware of feeling absolutely nothing at all. The Last Update That Nora Had Posted Before She Found Herself Between Life and Death I miss my cat. Im tired. The Successful Life She had been asleep. A deep, dreamless nothing, and now thanks to the ring of a phone alarm she was awake and didnt know where she was. The phone told her it was 6:30 a.m. A light switch beside the bed appeared, thanks to the glow of the screen. Switching it on, she could see she was in a hotel room. It was rather plush, in a bland and blue and corporate kind of way. A tasteful semi-abstract sub-Cezanne painting of an apple or maybe a pear was framed on the wall. There was a half-empty cylinder-shaped glass bottle of still mineral water beside the bed. And an unopened collection of shortbread biscuits. Some printed-out papers too, stapled together. A timetable of some sort. She looked at it. ITINERARY FOR NORA SEED OBE, GUEST SPEAKER, GULLIVER RESEARCH INSPIRING SUCCESS SPRING CONFERENCE 8.45 a.m. Meet Priya Navuluri (Gulliver Research) and Rory Longford (Celebrity Speakers) and J in lobby, InterContinental Hotel 9.00 a.m. Soundcheck. 9.05 a.m. Tech run-through. 9.30 a.m. Nora to wait in VIP area or watch first speaker in main hall (JP Blythe, inventor of MeTime app and author of Your Life, Your Terms) 10.15 a.m. Nora to deliver talk 10.45 a.m. Audience Q + A 11.00 a.m. Meet and greet 11.30 a.m. Finish Nora Seed OBE. Inspiring Success. So, there was a life in which she was a success. Well, that was something. She wondered who J was, and the other people she was supposed to meet in the lobby, and then she put the sheet of paper down and got out of bed. She had a lot of time. Why was she getting up at 6:30 a.m.? Maybe she swam every morning. That would make sense. She pressed a button and the curtains slid open with a low whirr to reveal a view of water and skyscrapers and the white dome of the O2 arena. She had never seen this precise view from this precise angle before. London. Canary Wharf. About twenty storeys up. She went to the bathroom beige tiles, large shower cubicle, fluffy white towels and realised she didnt feel as bad as she usually did in the morning. There was a mirror filling half the opposing wall. She gasped at her appearance. And then she laughed. She looked so ridiculously healthy. And strong. And in this life had terrible taste in nightwear (pyjamas, mustard-and-green, plaid). The bathroom was quite large. Large enough to get down on and do some push-ups. Ten full ones in a row no knees without even getting out of breath. Then she held a plank. And tried it with one hand. Then the other hand, with hardly a tremor. Then she did some burpees. No problem at all. Wow. She stood up and patted her rock-hard stomach. Remembered how wheezy she had been in her root life, walking up the high street, technically only yesterday. She hadnt felt this fit since she was a teenager. In fact, this might be the fittest she had ever felt. Stronger, certainly. Searching Facebook for Isabel Hirsh, she found out that her former best friend was alive and still living in Australia and this made Nora happy. She didnt even care that they werent social media friends, as it was highly probable that in this life Nora hadnt gone to Bristol University. And even if she had, she wouldnt have been doing the same course. It was a bit humbling to realise that, even though this Isabel Hirsh might never have met Nora Seed, she was still doing the same thing she was doing in Noras root life. She also checked in on Dan. He was (seemingly) happily married to a spin-class instructor called Gina. Gina Lord (n?e Sharpe). Theyd had a wedding in Sicily. Nora then googled Nora Seed. Her Wikipedia page (she had a Wikipedia page!) informed her that she had indeed made it to the Olympics. Twice. And that she specialised in freestyle. She had won a gold medal for 800m freestyle, with a ridiculous time of eight minutes and five seconds, and had a silver for 400m. This had been when she was twenty-two years old. She had won another silver medal when she was twenty-six, for her participation in a 4 x 100m relay. It got even more ridiculous when she read that she had briefly been the world record-holder for womens 400m freestyle at the World Aquatic Championships. She had then retired from international competition. She had retired at twenty-eight. She apparently now worked for the BBC during their coverage of swimming events, had appeared on the TV show A Question of Sport, had written an autobiography called Sink or Swim, was an occasional assistant coach at British Swimming GB, and still swam for two hours every day. She gave a lot of money to charitable causes namely to Marie Curie Cancer Care and she had organised a fundraising charity swimathon around Brighton Pier for the Marine Conservation Society. Since retiring from professional sport, she had swum the Channel twice. There was a link to a TED talk she had given about the value of stamina in sport, and training, and life. It had over a million views. As she began to watch it, Nora felt as though she was watching someone else. This woman was confident, commanded the stage, had great posture, smiled naturally as she spoke, and managed to make the crowd smile and laugh and clap and nod their heads at all the right moments. She had never imagined she could be like this, and tried to memorise what this other Nora was doing, but realised there was no way she would be able to. People with stamina arent made any differently to anyone else, she was saying. The only difference is they have a clear goal in mind, and a determination to get there. Stamina is essential to stay focused in a life filled with distraction. It is the ability to stick to a task when your body and mind are at their limit, the ability to keep your head down, swimming in your lane, without looking around, worrying who might overtake you . . . Who the hell was this person? She skipped a little further into the video, and this other Nora was still talking with the confidence of a self-help Joan of Arc. If you aim to be something you are not, you will always fail. Aim to be you. Aim to look and act and think like you. Aim to be the truest version of you. Embrace that you-ness. Endorse it. Love it. Work hard at it. And dont give a second thought when people mock it or ridicule it. Most gossip is envy in disguise. Keep your head down. Keep your stamina. Keep swimming . . . Keep swimming, Nora mumbled, echoing this other self and wondering if the hotel had a pool. The video disappeared and a second later her phone started to buzz. A name appeared. Nadia. She didnt know any Nadias in her original life. She had no idea if seeing the name would have inspired this version of her with happy anticipation or sinking dread. There was only one way to find out. Hello? Sweetheart, came a voice she didnt recognise. A voice that was close but not entirely warm. She had an accent. Maybe Russian. I hope you are okay. Hi Nadia. Thanks. Im fine. Im just here in the hotel. Getting ready for a conference. She tried to sound jolly. Oh yeah, the conference. Fifteen thousand pounds for a talk. Sounds good. It sounded ridiculous. But she also wondered how Nadia whoever Nadia was knew this. Oh yeah. Joe told us. Joe? Yeah. Well, listen, I need to talk to you at some point about your fathers birthday. What? I know hed love it if you could come up and see us. Her whole body went cold and weak, as if she had seen a ghost. She remembered her fathers funeral, hugging her brother as they cried on each others shoulders. My dad? My dad. My dead dad. Hes just come in from the garden. Do you want a word with him? This was so remarkable, so world-shattering, it was totally out of synch with her tone of voice. She said it casually, almost as if it was nothing at all. What? Do you want a word with Dad? It took her a moment. She felt suddenly off-balance. I She could hardly speak. Or breathe. She didnt know what to say. Everything felt unreal. It was like time travel. As though she had fallen through two decades. It was too late to respond because the next thing she heard was Nadia saying: Here he is . . . Nora nearly hung up the phone. Maybe she should have. But she didnt. Now she knew it was a possibility, she needed to hear his voice again. His breath first. Then: Hi Nora, how are you? Just that. Casual, non-specific, everyday. It was him. His voice. His strong voice that had always been so clipped. But a little thinner, maybe, a little weaker. A voice fifteen years older than it was meant to be. Dad, she said. Her voice was a stunned whisper. Its you. You all right, Nora? Is this a bad line? Do you want to FaceTime? FaceTime. To see his face. No. That would be too much. This was already too much. Just the idea that there was a version of her dad alive at a time after FaceTime was invented. Her dad belonged in a world of landlines. When he died, he was only just warming to radical concepts like emails and text messages. No, she said. It was me. I was just thinking of something. Im a bit distant. Sorry. How are you? Fine. We took Sally to the vets yesterday. She assumed Sally was a dog. Her parents had never had a dog, or any pet. Nora had begged for a dog or a cat when she was little but her dad had always said they tied you down. What was wrong with her? Nora asked, trying to sound natural now. Just her ears again. That infection keeps coming back. Oh right, she said, as though she knew Sally and her problematic ears. Poor Sally. I . . . I love you, Dad. And I just want to say that Are you all right, Nora? Youre sounding a bit . . . emotional. I just didnt . . . dont tell you that enough. I just want you to know I love you. You are a good father. And in another life the life where I quit swimming I am full of regret over that. Nora? She felt awkward asking him anything, but she had to know. The questions started to burst out of her like water from a geyser. Are you okay, Dad? Why wouldnt I be? Just. You know . . . You used to worry about chest pains. Havent had them since I got healthy again. That was years ago. You remember. My health kick? Hanging around Olympians does that to you. Got me back to rugby-fit. Coming up to sixteen years off the drink too. Cholesterol and blood pressure low, the doc says. Yes, of course . . . I remember the health kick. And then another question came to her. But she had no idea how to ask it. So she did it directly. How long have you been with Nadia now again? Are you having memory problems or something? No. Well, yes, maybe. I have just been thinking a lot about life recently. Are you a philosopher now? Well, I studied it. When? Never mind. I just cant remember how you and Nadia met. She heard an awkward sigh down the phone. He sounded terse. You know how we met . . . Why are you bringing all this up? Is this something that therapist is opening up? Because you know my feelings on that. I have a therapist. Sorry, Dad. Thats all right. I just want to know that youre happy. Course I am. Ive got an Olympic champion for a daughter and have finally found the love of my life. And youre getting back on your feet again. Mentally, I mean. After Portugal. Nora wanted to know what had happened in Portugal but she had another question to ask first. What about Mum? Wasnt she the love of your life? Once upon a time she was. But things change, Nora. Come on, youre a grown-up. I . . . Nora put her dad on speaker. Clicked back to her own Wikipedia page. Sure enough, her parents had divorced after her father had an affair with Nadia Vanko, mother of a Ukrainian male swimmer, Yegor Vanko. And in this timeline her mother had died way back in 2011. And all this because Nora had never sat in that car park in Bedford and told her dad that she didnt want to be a competitive swimmer. She felt that feeling again. Like she was fading away. That she had worked out that this life wasnt for her and was disappearing back to the library. But she stayed where she was. She said goodbye to her dad, ended the phone call and continued to read up on herself. She was single, though had been in a relationship with the American Olympic medal-winning diver Scott Richards for three years, and briefly lived with him in California, where they resided in La Jolla, San Diego. She now lived in West London. Having read the entire page she put the phone down and decided to go find out if there was a pool. She wanted to do what she would be doing in this life, and what she would be doing was swimming. And maybe the water would help her think of what she could say. It was an exceptional swim, even if it gave her little creative inspiration, and it calmed her after the experience of having a conversation with her dead father. She had the pool to herself and glided through length after length of breaststroke without having to think about it. It felt so empowering, to be that fit and strong and to have such mastery of the water, that she momentarily stopped worrying about her father and having to give a speech she really wasnt prepared for. But as she swam her mood changed. She thought of those years her dad had gained and her mother had lost, and as she thought she became angrier and angrier at her father, which fuelled her to swim even faster. She had always imagined her parents were too proud to get divorced, so instead let their resentments fester inside, projecting them onto their children, and Nora in particular. And swimming had been her only ticket to approval. Here, in this life she was in now, she had pursued a career to keep him happy, while sacrificing her own relationships, her own love of music, her own dreams beyond anything that didnt involve a medal, her own life. And her father had paid this back by having an affair with this Nadia person and leaving her mother and he still got terse with her. After all that. Screw him. Or at least this version of him. As she switched to freestyle she realised it wasnt her fault that her parents had never been able to love her the way parents were meant to: without condition. It wasnt her fault her mother focused on her every flaw, starting with the asymmetry of her ears. No. It went back even earlier than that. The first problem had been that Nora had dared, somehow, to arrive into existence at a time when her parents marriage was relatively fragile. Her mother fell into depression and her father turned to tumblers of single malt. She did thirty more lengths, and her mind calmed and she started to feel free, just her and the water. But when she eventually got out of the pool and went back to her room she dressed in the only clean clothes in her hotel room (smart navy trouser suit) and stared at the inside of her suitcase. She felt the profound loneliness emanating from it. There was a copy of her own book. She was staring out from the cover with steely-eyed determination and wearing a Team GB swimsuit. She picked it up and saw, in small print, that it was co-written with Amanda Sands. Amanda Sands, the internet told her, was ghost-writer to a whole host of sporting celebrities. Then she looked at her watch. It was time to head to the lobby. Standing waiting for her were two smartly dressed people she didnt recognise and one she most definitely did. He was wearing a suit and was clean-shaven in this life, his hair side-parted and business-like, but he was the same Joe. His dark eyebrows as bushy as ever Thats the Italian in you, as their mother used to say. Joe? Whats more, he was smiling at her. A big, brotherly, uncomplicated smile. Morning, sis, he said, surprised by and a little awkward from the length of the hug she was giving him. When the hug was over, he introduced the other two people he was standing with. This is Priya from Gulliver Research, the people organising the conference obviously, and this is Rory, obviously, from Celebrity Speakers. Hi Priya! said Nora. Hi Rory. So nice to meet you. Yes, it is, said Priya, smiling. Were so pleased to have you. You say that like weve never met before! said Rory, with a booming laugh. Nora backtracked. Yes, I know weve met, Rory. Just my little joke. You know my sense of humour. You have a sense of humour? Good one, Rory! Okay, her brother said, looking at her and smiling. Do you want to see the space? She couldnt stop smiling. Here was her brother. Her brother, whom she hadnt seen in two years and hadnt had any semblance of a good relationship with in far longer, looking healthy and happy and like he actually liked her. The space? Yeah. The hall. Where youre doing the talk. Its all set up, Priya added, helpfully. Bloody big room, said Rory approvingly, as he cradled a paper cup of coffee. So, Nora agreed and was led into a vast blue conference room with a wide stage and around a thousand empty chairs. A technician in black came up and asked her: What do you fancy? Lapel or headset or handheld? Sorry? What kind of mic will you want up there? Oh! Headset, her brother interjected on Noras behalf. Yeah. Headset, said Nora. I was just thinking, her brother said, after that nightmare we had with the microphone in Cardiff. Yeah, totally. What a nightmare. Priya was smiling at her, wanting to ask something. Am I right in thinking youve got no multimedia stuff? No slides or anything? Um, I Her brother and Rory were looking at her, a little concerned. This was clearly a question she should know the answer to and didnt. Yes, she said, then saw her brothers expression, I . . . dont. Yes, I dont. I dont have any multimedia stuff. And they all looked at her like she was not quite right but she smiled through it. Peppermint Tea Ten minutes later she was sitting on her own with her brother in something called the VIP Business Lounge, which was just a small, airless room with some chairs and a table offering a selection of todays newspapers. A couple of middle-aged men in suits were typing things into laptops. By this point she had worked out that her brother was her manager. And that hed been her manager for seven years, since shed given up professional swimming. Are you okay about all this? her brother asked, having just got two drinks from the coffee machine. He tore a sachet to release a teabag. Peppermint. He placed it into the cup of hot water hed taken from the coffee machine. Then he handed it to Nora. She had never drunk peppermint tea in her life. Thats for me? Well, yeah. It was the only herbal they had. He had a coffee for himself that Nora secretly craved. Maybe in this life she didnt drink caffeine. Are you okay about all this? Okay about all what? Nora wondered. The talk, today. Oh, um, yeah. How long is it again? Forty minutes. Sure. Its a lot of money. I upped it from ten. Thats very good of you. Well, I still get my twenty per cent. Hardly a sacrifice. Nora tried to think how she could unlock their shared history. How she could find out why, in this life, they were sitting together and getting along. It might have been money, but her brother had never been particularly money-motivated. And yes, sure, hed obviously been upset when Nora walked away from the deal with the record company but that had been because he wanted to play guitar in The Labyrinths for the rest of his life and be a rock star. After dipping it a few times Nora let the teabag free in the water. Do you ever think of how our lives could have been different? You know, like if I had never stuck with swimming? Not really. I mean, what do you think youd be doing if you werent my manager? I manage other people too, you know. Well, yeah, of course I know that. Obviously. I suppose I probably wouldnt be managing anyone without you. I mean, you were the first. And you introduced me to Kai and then Natalie. And then Eli, so . . . She nodded, as if she had any idea who Kai and Natalie and Eli were. True, but maybe youd have found some other way. Who knows? Or maybe Id still be in Manchester, I dont know. Manchester? Yeah. You remember how much I loved it up there. At uni. It was really hard not to look surprised at any of this, at the fact that this brother she was getting on with, and working with, was also someone who went to university. In her root life her brother did A-levels and applied to go to Manchester to do History, but he never got the grades he needed, probably because he was too busy getting stoned with Ravi every night. And then decided he didnt want to go to uni at all. They chatted a bit more. At one point he became distracted by his phone. Nora noticed his screensaver was of a radiant, handsome, smiling man she had never seen before. She noticed her brothers wedding ring and feigned a neutral expression. So, hows married life? Joe smiled. It was a genuinely happy smile. She hadnt seen him smile like that for years. In her root life, Joe had always been unlucky in love. Although she had known her brother was gay since he was a teenager, he hadnt officially come out until he was twenty-two. And hed never had a happy or long-term relationship. She felt guilt, that her life had the power to shape her brothers life in such meaningful ways. Oh, you know Ewan. Ewans Ewan. Nora smiled back as if she knew who Ewan was and exactly what he was like. Yeah. Hes great. Im so happy for you both. He laughed. Weve been married five years now. Youre talking as if me and him have just got together. No, Im just, you know, I sometimes think that youre lucky. So in love. And happy. He wants a dog. He smiled. Thats our current debate. I mean, I wouldnt mind a dog. But Id want a rescue. And I wouldnt want a bloody Maltipoo or a Bichon. Id want a wolf. You know, a proper dog. Nora thought of Voltaire. Animals are good company . . . Yeah. You still want a dog? I do. Or a cat. Cats are too disobedient, he said, sounding like the brother she remembered. Dogs know their place. Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves. He looked perplexed. Where did that come from? Is that a quote? Yeah. Henry David Thoreau. You know, my fave philosopher. Since when were you into philosophy? Of course. In this life shed never have done a Philosophy degree. While her root self had been reading the works of Thoreau and Lao Tzu and Sartre in a stinky student flat in Bristol, her current self had been standing on Olympic podiums in Beijing. Weirdly, she felt just as sad for the version of her who had never fallen in love with the simple beauty of Thoreaus Walden, or the stoical Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, as she had felt sympathy for the version of her who never fulfilled her Olympic potential. Oh, I dont know . . . I just came across some of his stuff on the internet. Ah. Cool. Will check him out. You could drop some of that into your speech. Nora felt herself go pale. Um, Im thinking of maybe doing something a little different today. I might, um, improvise a little. Improvising was, after all, a skill shed been practising. I saw this great documentary about Greenland the other night. Made me remember when you were obsessed with the Arctic and you cut out all those pictures of polar bears and stuff. Yeah. Mrs Elm said the best way to be an arctic explorer was to be a glaciologist. So thats what I wanted to be. Mrs Elm, he whispered. That rings a bell. School librarian. That was it. You used to live in that library, didnt you? Pretty much. Just think, if you hadnt stuck with swimming, youd be in Greenland right now. Svalbard, she said. Sorry? Its a Norwegian archipelago. Way up in the Arctic Ocean. Okay, Norway then. Youd be there. Maybe. Or maybe Id just still be in Bedford. Moping around. Unemployed. Struggling to pay the rent. Dont be daft. Youd have always done something big. She smiled at her elder brothers innocence. In some lives me and you might not even get on. Nonsense. I hope so. Joe seemed a bit uncomfortable, and clearly wanted to change the topic. Hey, guess who I saw the other day? Nora shrugged, hoping it was going to be someone shed heard of. Ravi. Do you remember Ravi? She thought of Ravi, telling her off in the newsagents only yesterday. Oh yeah. Ravi. Well, I bumped into him. In Bedford? Ha! God, no. Havent been there for years. No. It was at Blackfriars station. Totally random. Like, I havent seen him in over a decade. At least. He wanted to go to the pub. So, I explained I was teetotal now, and then I got into having to explain Id been an alcoholic. And all of that. That I hadnt had a glass of wine or a puff on a joint in years. Nora nodded as if this wasnt a bomb-shell. Since I got into a mess after Mum died. I think he was like, Who is this guy? But he was fine. He was cool. Hes working as a cameraman now. Still doing some music on the side. Not rock stuff. DJ-ing apparently. Remember that band me and him had, years ago. The Labyrinths? It was becoming easier to fake vagueness. Oh yeah. The Labyrinths. Course. Thats a blast from the past. Yeah. Got the sense he pines for those days. Even though we were crap and I couldnt sing. What about you? Do you ever think about what could have been if The Labyrinths had made it big? He laughed, a little sadly. I dont know if anything could have been. Maybe you needed an extra person. I used to play those keyboards Mum and Dad got you. Did you? When did you have time for that? A life without music. A life without reading the books she had loved. But also: a life where she got on with her brother. A life where she hadnt had to let him down. Anyway, Ravi wanted to say hi. And wanted a catch-up. He only works one tube stop away. So hes going to try and come to the talk. What? Oh. Thats . . . I wish he wouldnt. Why? I just never really liked him. Joe frowned. Really? I cant remember you saying that . . . Hes okay. A good guy. Bit of a waster, maybe, back in the day, but he seems to have got his act together a bit . . . Nora was unsettled. Joe? Yeah. You know when Mum died? Yeah. Where was I? What do you mean? Are you okay today, sis? Are the new tablets working? Tablets? She checked in her bag and started to rummage. Saw a small box of anti-depressants in her bag. Her heart sank. I just wanted to know. Did I see much of Mum before she died? Joe frowned. He was still the same Joe. Still unable to read his sister. Still wanting to escape reality. You know we werent there. It happened so fast. She didnt tell us how ill she was. To protect us. Or maybe because she didnt want us to tell her to stop drinking. Drinking? Mum was drinking? Joes worry increased. Sis, have you got amnesia? She was on a bottle of gin every day since Nadia came onto the scene. Yeah. Course. I remember. Plus you had the European Championships coming up and she didnt want to interfere with that . . . Jesus. I should have been there. One of us should have been there, Joe. We both His expression frosted suddenly. You were never that close to Mum, were you? Why this sudden I got closer to her. I mean, I would have. I Youre freaking me out. Youre acting not quite yourself. Nora nodded. Yes, I . . . I just . . . yes, I think youre right . . . I think its just the tablets . . . She remembered her mother, in her final months, saying: I dont know what I would have done without you. Shed probably said it to Joe too. But in this life, shed had neither of them. Then Priya arrived into the room. Grinning, clutching her phone and some kind of a clipboard. Its time, she said. The Tree That Is Our Life Five minutes later Nora was back in the hotels vast conference room. At least a thousand people were watching the first speaker conclude her presentation. The author of Zero to Hero. The book Dan had beside his bed in another life. But Nora wasnt really listening, as she sat in her reserved seat in the front row. She was too upset about her mother, too nervous about the speech, so she just picked up the odd word or phrase that floated into her mind like croutons in minestrone. Little-known fact, ambition, what you may be surprised to hear is that, if I can do it, hard knocks. It was hard to breathe in this room. It smelled of musky perfume and new carpet. She tried to stay calm. Leaning into her brother, she whispered, I dont think I can do this. What? I think Im having a panic attack. He looked at her, smiling, but with a toughness in his eyes she remembered from a different life, when shed had a panic attack before one of their early gigs with The Labyrinths at a pub in Bedford. Youll be fine. I dont know if I can do this. Ive gone blank. Youre overthinking it. I have anxiety. I have no other type of thinking available. Come on. Dont let us down. Dont let us down. But She tried to think of music. Thinking of music had always calmed her down. A tune came to her. She was slightly embarrassed, even within herself, to realise the song in her head was Beautiful Sky. A happy, hopeful song that she hadnt sung in a long time. The sky grows dark / The black over blue / Yet the stars still dare / To shine for But then the person Nora was sitting next to a smartly dressed business woman in her fifties, and the source of the musky perfume smell leaned in and whispered, Im so sorry about what happened to you. You know, the stuff in Portugal . . . What stuff? The womans reply was drowned out as the audience erupted into applause at that moment. What? she asked again. But it was too late. Nora was being beckoned towards the stage and her brother was elbowing her. Her brothers voice, bellowing almost: They want you. Off you go. She headed tentatively towards the lectern on the stage, towards her own huge face smiling out triumphantly, golden medal around her neck, projected on the screen behind her. She had always hated being watched. Hello, she said nervously, into the microphone. It is very nice to be here today . . . A thousand or so faces stared, waiting. She had never spoken to so many people simultaneously. Even when she had been in The Labyrinths, they had never played a gig for more than a hundred people, and back then she kept the talking between the songs as minimal as possible. Working at String Theory, although she was perfectly okay talking with customers, she rarely spoke up in staff meetings, even though there had never been more than five people in the room. Back at university, while Izzy always breezed through presentations Nora would worry about them for weeks in advance. Joe and Rory were staring at her with baffled expressions. The Nora she had seen in the TED talk was not this Nora, and she doubted she could ever become that person. Not without having done all that she had done. Hello. My name is Nora Seed. She hadnt meant it to be funny but the whole room laughed at this. There had clearly been no need to introduce herself. Life is strange, she said. How we live it all at once. In a straight line. But really thats not the whole picture. Because life isnt simply made of the things we do, but the things we dont do too. And every moment of our life is a . . . kind of turning. Still nothing. Think about it. Think about how we start off . . . as this set thing. Like the seed of a tree planted in the ground. And then we . . . we grow . . . we grow . . . and at first we are a trunk . . . Absolutely nothing. But then the tree the tree that is our life develops branches. And think of all those branches, departing from the trunk at different heights. And think of all those branches, branching off again, heading in often opposing directions. Think of those branches becoming other branches, and those becoming twigs. And think of the end of each of those twigs, all in different places, having started from the same one. A life is like that, but on a bigger scale. New branches are formed every second of every day. And from our perspective from everyones perspective it feels like a . . . like a continuum. Each twig has travelled only one journey. But there are still other twigs. And there are also other todays. Other lives that would have been different if youd taken different directions earlier in your life. This is a tree of life. Lots of religions and mythologies have talked about the tree of life. Its there in Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity. Lots of philosophers and writers have talked about tree metaphors too. For Sylvia Plath, existence was a fig tree and each possible life she could live the happily-married one, the successful-poet one was this sweet juicy fig, but she couldnt get to taste the sweet juicy figs and so they just rotted right in front of her. It can drive you insane, thinking of all the other lives we dont live. For instance, in most of my lives I am not standing at this podium talking to you about success . . . In most lives I am not an Olympic gold medallist. She remembered something Mrs Elm had told her in the Midnight Library. You see, doing one thing differently is very often the same as doing everything differently. Actions cant be reversed within a lifetime, however much we try . . . People were listening now. They clearly needed a Mrs Elm in their lives. The only way to learn is to live. And she went on in this manner for another twenty minutes, remembering as much as possible of what Mrs Elm had told her, and then she looked down at her hands, glowing white from the light of the lectern. As she absorbed the sight of a raised, thin pink line of flesh, she knew the scar was self-inflicted, and it put her off her flow. Or rather, put her into a new one. And . . . and the thing is . . . the thing is . . . what we consider to be the most successful route for us to take, actually isnt. Because too often our view of success is about some external bullshit idea of achievement an Olympic medal, the ideal husband, a good salary. And we have all these metrics that we try and reach. When really success isnt something you measure, and life isnt a race you can win. Its all . . . bollocks, actually . . . The audience definitely looked uncomfortable now. Clearly this was not the speech they were expecting. She scanned the crowd and saw a single face smiling up at her. It took a second, given the fact that he was smartly dressed in a blue cotton shirt and with hair far shorter than it was in his Bedford life, for her to realise it was Ravi. This Ravi looked friendly, but she couldnt shake the knowledge of the other Ravi, the one who had stormed out of the newsagents, sulking about not being able to afford a magazine and blaming her for it. You see, I know that you were expecting my TED talk on the path to success. But the truth is that success is a delusion. Its all a delusion. I mean, yes, there are things we can overcome. For instance, I am someone who gets stage fright and yet, here I am, on a stage. Look at me . . . on a stage! And someone told me recently, they told me that my problem isnt actually stage fright. My problem is life fright. And you know what? Theyre fucking right. Because life is frightening, and it is frightening for a reason, and the reason is that it doesnt matter which branch of a life we get to live, we are always the same rotten tree. I wanted to be many things in my life. All kinds of things. But if your life is rotten, it will be rotten no matter what you do. The damp rots the whole useless thing . . . Joe was desperately slicing his hand in the air around his neck, making a cut it gesture. Anyway, just be kind and . . . Just be kind. I have a feeling I am about to go, so I would just like to say I love my brother Joe. I love you, brother, and I love everyone in this room, and it was very nice to be here. And the moment she had said it was nice to be there, was also the moment she wasnt there at all. System Error She arrived back in the Midnight Library. But this time she was a little away from the bookshelves. This was the loosely defined office area she had glimpsed earlier, in one of the broader corridors. The desk was covered with administrative trays barely containing scattered piles of papers and boxes, and the computer. The computer was a really old-fashioned-looking, cream-coloured boxy one on the desk by the papers. The kind that Mrs Elm would once have had in her school library. She was at the keyboard now, typing with urgency, staring at the monitor as Nora stood behind her. The lights above the same bare light bulbs hanging down from wires were flickering wildly. My dad was alive because of me. But hed also had an affair, and my mum died earlier, and I got on with my brother because I had never let him down, but he was still the same brother, really, and he was only really okay with me in that life because I was helping him make money and . . . and . . . it wasnt the Olympic dream I imagined. It was the same me. And something had happened in Portugal. Id probably tried to kill myself or something . . . Are there any other lives at all or is it just the furnishings that change? But Mrs Elm wasnt listening. Nora noticed something on the desk. An old plastic orange fountain pen. The exact same kind that Nora had once owned at school. Hello? Mrs Elm, can you hear me? Something was wrong. The librarians face was tight with worry. She read from the screen, to herself. System error. Mrs Elm? Hello? Yoo-hoo! Can you see me? She tapped her shoulder. That seemed to do it. Mrs Elms face broke out in massive relief as she turned away from the computer. Oh Nora, you got here? Were you expecting me not to? Did you think that life would be the one I wanted to live? She shook her head without really moving it. If that was possible. No. Its not that. Its just that it looked fragile. What looked fragile? The transfer. Transfer? From the book to here. The life you chose to here. It seems there is a problem. A problem with the whole system. Something beyond my immediate control. Something external. You mean, in my actual life? She stared back at the screen. Yes. You see, the Midnight Library only exists because you do. In your root life. So, Im dying? Mrs Elm looked exasperated. Its a possibility. That is to say, its a possibility that we are reaching the end of possibility. Nora thought of how good it had felt, swimming in the pool. How vital and alive. And then something happened inside her. A strange feeling. A pull in her stomach. A physical shift. A change in her. The idea of death suddenly troubled her. At that same time the lights stopped flickering overhead and shone brightly. Mrs Elm clapped her hands as she absorbed new information on the computer screen. Oh, its back. Thats good. The glitch is gone. We are running again. Thanks, I believe, to you. What? Well, the computer says the root cause within the host has been temporarily fixed. And you are the root cause. You are the host. She smiled. Nora blinked, and when she opened her eyes both she and Mrs Elm were standing in a different part of the library. Between stacks of bookshelves again. Standing, stiffly, awkwardly, facing each other. Right. Now, settle, said Mrs Elm, before releasing a deep and meaningful exhale. She was clearly talking to herself. My mum died on different dates in different lives. Id like a life where she is still here. Does that life exist? Mrs Elms attention switched to Nora. Maybe it does. Great. But you cant get there. Why not? Because this library is about your decisions. There was no choice you could have made that led to her being alive beyond yesterday. Im sorry. A light bulb flickered above Noras head. But the rest of the library stayed as it was. You need to think about something else, Nora. What was good about the last life? Nora nodded. Swimming. I liked swimming. But I dont think I was happy in that life. I dont know if I am truly happy in any life. Is happiness the aim? I dont know. I suppose I want my life to mean something. I want to do something good. You once wanted to be a glaciologist, Mrs Elm appeared to remember. Yeah. You used to talk about it. You said you were interested in the Arctic, so I suggested you become a glaciologist. I remember. I liked the sound of it straight away. My mum and dad never liked the idea, though. Why? I dont really know. They encouraged swimming. Well, Dad did. But anything that involved academic work, they were funny about. Nora felt a deep sadness, down in her stomach. From her arrival into life, she was considered by her parents in a different way to her brother. Other than swimming, Joe was the one expected to pursue things, she told Mrs Elm. My mum put me off anything that could take me away. Unlike Dad, she didnt even push me to swim. But surely there must be a life where I didnt listen to my mum and where I am now an Arctic researcher. Far away from everything. With a purpose. Helping the planet. Researching the impact of climate change. On the front line. So, you want me to find that life for you? Nora sighed. She still had no idea what she wanted. But at least the Arctic Circle would be different. All right. Yes. Svalbard She woke in a small bed in a little cabin on a boat. She knew it was a boat because it was rocking, and indeed the rocking, gentle as it was, had woken her up. The cabin was spare and basic. She was wearing a thick fleece sweater and long johns. Pulling back the blanket, she noticed that she had a headache. Her mouth was so dry her cheeks felt sucked-in against her teeth. She coughed a deep, chesty cough and felt a million pool-lengths away from the body of an Olympian. Her fingers smelt of tobacco. She sat up to see a pale-blonde, robust, hard-weathered woman sitting on another bed staring at her. God morgen, Nora. She smiled. And hoped that in this life she wasnt fluent in whichever Scandinavian language this woman spoke. Good morning. She noticed a half-empty bottle of vodka and a mug on the floor beside the womans bed. A dog calendar (April: Springer Spaniel) was propped up on the chest between the beds. The three books on top of it were all in English. The one nearest to the woman said Principles of Glacier Mechanics. Two on Noras: A Naturalists Guide to the Arctic and a Penguin Classic edition of The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer. She noticed something else. It was cold. Properly cold. The cold that almost burns, that hurts your fingers and toes and stiffens your cheeks. Even inside. With layers of thermal underwear. With a sweater on. With the bars of two electric heaters glowing orange. Every exhale made a cloud. Why are you here, Nora? the woman asked, in heavily accented English. A tricky question, when you didnt know where here was. Bit early in the morning, isnt it, for philosophy? Nora laughed, nervously. She saw a wall of ice outside the porthole, rising out of the sea. She was either very far north or very far south. She was very far somewhere. The woman was still staring at her. Nora had no idea if they were friends or not. The woman seemed tough, direct, earthy, but probably an interesting form of company. I dont mean philosophy. I dont even mean what got you into glaciological research. Although, it might be the same thing. I mean, why did you choose to go as far away from civilisation as possible? Youve never told me. I dont know, she said. I like the cold. No one likes this cold. Unless they are a sado-masochist. She had a point. Nora reached for the sweater at the end of her bed and put it on, over the sweater she was already wearing. As she did she saw, beside the vodka bottle, a laminated lanyard lying on the floor. Ingrid Skirbekk Professor of Geoscience International Polar Research Institute I dont know, Ingrid. I just like glaciers, I suppose. I want to understand them. Why they are . . . melting. She wasnt sounding like a glacier expert, judging from Ingrids raised eyebrows. What about you? she asked, hopefully. Ingrid sighed. Rubbed her palm with a thumb. After Per died, I couldnt stand to be in Oslo any more. All those people that werent him, you know? There was this coffee shop we used to go to, at the university. Wed just sit together, together but silent. Happy silent. Reading newspapers, drinking coffee. It was hard to avoid places like that. We used to walk around everywhere. His troublesome soul lingered on every street . . . I kept telling his memory to piss the fuck off but it wouldnt. Grief is a bastard. If Id have stayed any longer, Id have hated humanity. So, when a research position came up in Svalbard I was like, yes, this has come to save me . . . I wanted to be somewhere he had never been. I wanted somewhere where I didnt have to feel his ghost. But the truth is, it only half-works, you know? Places are places and memories are memories and life is fucking life. Nora took all this in. Ingrid was clearly telling this to someone she thought she knew reasonably well, and yet Nora was a stranger. It felt odd. Wrong. This must be the hardest bit about being a spy, she thought. The emotion people store in you, like a bad investment. You feel like you are robbing people of something. Ingrid smiled, breaking the thought. Anyway, thanks for last night . . . That was a good chat. There are a lot of dickheads on this boat and you are not a dickhead. Oh. Thanks. Neither are you. And it was then that Nora noticed the gun, a large rifle with a hefty brown handle, leaning against the wall at the far end of the room, under the coat hooks. The sight made her feel happy, somehow. Made her feel like her eleven-year-old self would have been proud. She was, it seemed, having an adventure. Hugo Lef?vre Nora walked with her headache and obvious hangover through an undecorated wooden passageway to a small dining hall that smelled of pickled herring, and where a few research scientists were having breakfast. She got herself a black coffee and some stale, dry rye bread and sat down. Around her, outside the window, was the most eerily beautiful sight she had ever seen. Islands of ice, like rocks rendered clean and pure white, were visible amid the fog. There were seventeen other people in the dining hall, Nora counted. Eleven men, six women. Nora sat by herself but within five minutes a man with short hair and stubble two days away from a full beard sat down at her table. He was wearing a parka, like most of the room, but he seemed ill-suited to it, as if he would be more at home on the Riviera wearing designer shorts and a pink polo shirt. He smiled at Nora. She tried to translate the smile, to understand the kind of relationship they had. He watched her for a little while, then shuffled his chair along to sit opposite her. She looked for a lanyard, but he wasnt wearing one. She wondered if she should know his name. Im Hugo, he said, to her relief. Hugo Lef?vre. You are Nora, yes? Yes. I saw you around, in Svalbard, at the research centre, but we never said hello. Anyway, I just wanted to say I read your paper on pulsating glaciers and it blew my mind. Really? Yes. I mean, its always fascinated me, why they do that here and nowhere else. Its such a strange phenomenon. Life is full of strange phenomena. Conversation was tempting, but dangerous. Nora smiled a small, polite smile and then looked out of the window. The islands of ice turned into actual islands. Little snow-streaked pointed hills, like the tips of mountains, or flatter, craggy plates of land. And beyond them, the glacier Nora had seen from the cabin porthole. She could get a better measure of it now, although its top portion was concealed under a visor of cloud. Other parts of it were entirely free from fog. It was incredible. You see a picture of a glacier on TV or in a magazine and you see a smooth lump of white. But this was as textured as a mountain. Black-brown and white. And there were infinite varieties of that white, a whole visual smorgasbord of variation white-white, blue-white, turquoise-white, gold-white, silver-white, translucent-white rendered glaringly alive and impressive. Certainly more impressive than the breakfast. Depressing, isnt it? Hugo said. What? The fact that the day never ends. Nora felt uneasy with this observation. In what sense? He waited a second before responding. The never-ending light, he said, before taking a bite of a dry cracker. From April on. Its like living one interminable day . . . I hate that feeling. Tell me about it. Youd think theyd give the portholes curtains. Hardly slept since Ive been on this boat. Nora nodded. How long is that again? He laughed. It was a nice laugh. Close-mouthed. Civilised. Hardly a laugh at all. I drank a lot with Ingrid last night. Vodka has stolen my memory. Are you sure its the vodka? What else would it be? His eyes were inquisitive, and made Nora feel automatically guilty. She looked over at Ingrid, who was drinking her coffee and typing on her laptop. She wished she had sat with her now. Well, that was our third night, Hugo said. We have been meandering around the archipelago since Sunday. Yeah, Sunday. Thats when we left Longyearbyen. Nora made a face as if to say she knew all this. Sunday seems for ever away. The boat felt like it was turning. Nora was forced to lean a little in her seat. Twenty years ago there was hardly any open water in Svalbard in April. Look at it now. Its like cruising the Mediterranean. Nora tried to make her smile seem relaxed. Not quite. Anyway, I heard you got the short straw today? Nora tried to look blank, which wasnt hard. Really? Youre the spotter, arent you? She had no idea what he was talking about, but feared the twinkle in his eye. Yes, she answered. Yes, I am. I am the spotter. Hugos eyes widened with shock. Or mock-shock. It was hard to tell the difference with him. The spotter? Yes? Nora desperately wanted to know what the spotter actually did, but couldnt ask. Well, bonne chance, said Hugo, with a testing gaze. Merci, said Nora, staring out at the crisp Arctic light and a landscape she had only ever seen in magazines. Im ready for a challenge. Walking in Circles An hour later and Nora was on an expanse of snow-covered rock. More of a skerry than an island. A place so small and uninhabitable it had no name, though a larger island ominously titled Bear Island was visible across the ice-cold water. She stood next to a boat. Not the Lance, the large boat shed had breakfast on that was moored safely out at sea but the small motor-dinghy that had been dragged up out of the water almost single-handedly by a big boulder of a man called Rune, who, despite his Scandinavian name, spoke in languid west-coast American. At her feet was a fluorescent yellow rucksack. And lying on the ground was the Winchester rifle that had been leaning against the wall in the cabin. This was her gun. In this life, she owned a firearm. Next to the gun was a saucepan with a ladle inside it. In her hands was another, less deadly, gun a signal pistol ready to fire a flare. She had discovered what kind of spotting she was doing. While nine of the scientists conducted a climate-tracking fieldwork on this tiny island, she was the lookout for polar bears. Apparently this was a very real prospect. And if she saw one, the very first thing she had to do was fire the flare. This would serve the dual purpose of a) frightening the bear away and b) warning the others. It was not foolproof. Humans were tasty protein sources and the bears were not known for their fear, especially in recent years as the loss of habitat and food sources had made them ever more vulnerable and forced them to be more reckless. Soon as youve fired the flare, said the eldest of the group, a beardless, sharp-featured man called Peter who was the field leader, and who spoke in a state of permanent fortissimo, bang the pan with the ladle. Bang it like mad and scream. They have sensitive hearing. Theyre like cats. Nine times out of ten, the noise scares them off. And the other time out of ten? He nodded down at the rifle. You kill it. Before it kills you. Nora wasnt the only one with a gun. They all had guns. They were armed scientists. Anyway, Peter laughed and Ingrid patted her back. I truly hope, said Ingrid, laughing raspily, you dont get eaten. I would miss you. So long as you arent menstruating, you should be okay. Jesus. What? They can smell the blood from a mile away. Another person someone who was so thoroughly wrapped up it was impossible to tell who they were even if she had known them wished her good luck in a muffled far-away voice. Well be back in five hours . . . Peter told her. He laughed again, and Nora hoped that meant it was a joke. Walk in circles to keep warm. And then they left her, walking off over the rocky ground and disappearing into the fog. For an hour, nothing happened. Nora walked in circles. She hopped from left foot to right foot. The fog thinned a little and she stared out at the landscape. She wondered why she was not back in the library. After all, this was definitely a bit shit. There were surely lives where she was sitting beside a swimming pool in the sunshine right now. Lives where she was playing music, or lying in a warm lavender-scented bath, or having incredible third-date sex, or reading on a beach in Mexico, or eating in a Michelin-starred restaurant, or strolling the streets of Paris, or getting lost in Rome, or tranquilly gazing at a temple near Kyoto, or feeling the warm cocoon of a happy relationship. In most lives, she would have at least been physically comfortable. And yet, she was feeling something new here. Or something old that she had long buried. The glacial landscape reminded her that she was, first and foremost, a human living on a planet. Almost everything she had done in her life, she realised almost everything she had bought and worked for and consumed had taken her further away from understanding that she and all humans were really just one of nine million species. If one advances confidently, Thoreau had written in Walden, in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. Hed also observed that part of this success was the product of being alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. And Nora felt similarly, in that moment. Although she had only been left alone for an hour at this point, she had never experienced this level of solitude before, amid such unpopulated nature. She had thought, in her nocturnal and suicidal hours, that solitude was the problem. But that was because it hadnt been true solitude. The lonely mind in the busy city yearns for connection because it thinks human-to-human connection is the point of everything. But amid pure nature (or the tonic of wildness as Thoreau called it) solitude took on a different character. It became in itself a kind of connection. A connection between herself and the world. And between her and herself. She remembered a conversation shed had with Ash. Tall and slightly awkward and cute and forever in need of a new songbook for his guitar. The chat hadnt been in the shop but in the hospital, when her mother was ill. Shortly after discovering she had ovarian cancer, she had needed surgery. Nora had taken her mum to see all the consultants at Bedford General Hospital, and she had held her mums hand more in those few weeks than in all the rest of their relationship put together. While her mum was undergoing surgery, Nora had waited in the hospital canteen. And Ash in his scrubs, and recognising her as the person hed chatted to on many occasions in String Theory saw she looked worried and popped in to say hi. He worked at the hospital as a general surgeon, and shed ended up asking him lots of questions about the sort of stuff he did (on that particular day hed removed an appendix and a bile duct). She also asked about normal post-surgery recovery time and procedure times, and he had been very reassuring. Theyd ended up talking for a very long time about all sorts of things, which he seemed to sense shed been in need of. Hed said something about not over-googling health symptoms. And that had led to them talking about social media he believed that the more people were connected on social media, the lonelier society became. Thats why everyone hates each other nowadays, he reckoned. Because they are overloaded with non-friend friends. Ever heard about Dunbars number? And then he had told her about a man called Roger Dunbar at Oxford University, who had discovered that human beings were wired to know only a hundred and fifty people, as that was the average size of hunter-gatherer communities. And the Domesday Book, Ash had told her, under the stark lighting of the hospital canteen, if you look at the Domesday Book, the average size of an English community at that time was a hundred and fifty people. Except in Kent. Where it was a hundred people. Im from Kent. We have anti-social DNA. Ive been to Kent, Nora had countered. I noticed that. But I like that theory. I can meet that many people on Instagram in an hour. Exactly. Not healthy! Our brains cant handle it. Which is why we crave face-to-face communication more than ever. And . . . which is why I would never buy my Simon and Garfunkel guitar chord songbooks online! She smiled at the memory, then was brought back to the reality of the Arctic landscape by the sound of a loud splash. A few metres away from her, between the rocky skerry she was standing on and Bear Island, there was another little rock, or collection of rocks, sticking out of the water. Something was emerging from the sea froth. Something heavy, slapping against the stone with a great wet weight. Her whole body shaking, she got ready to fire the flare, but it wasnt a polar bear. It was a walrus. The fat, brown wrinkled beast shuffled over the ice, then stopped to stare at her. She (or he) looked old, even for a walrus. The walrus knew no shame, and could hold a stare for an indefinite amount of time. Nora felt scared. She only knew two things about walruses: that they could be vicious, and that they were never alone for very long. There were probably other walruses about to haul out of the water. She wondered if she should fire the flare. The walrus stayed where it was, like a ghost of itself in the grainy light, but slowly disappeared behind a veil of fog. Minutes went by. Nora had seven layers of clothing on, but her eyelids felt like they were stiffening and could freeze shut if she closed them for too long. She heard the voices of the others occasionally drift over to her and, for a while, her colleagues returned close enough for her to see some of them. Silhouettes in the fog, hunched over the ground, reading ice samples with equipment she wouldnt have understood. But then they disappeared again. She ate one of the protein bars in her rucksack. It was cold and hard as toffee. She checked her phone but there was no signal. It was very quiet. The quiet made her realise how much noise there was elsewhere in the world. Here, noise had meaning. You heard something and you had to pay attention. As she was chewing there came another splashing sound, but this time from a different direction. The combination of fog and weak light made it hard to see. But it wasnt a walrus. That became clear when she realised the silhouette moving towards her was big. Bigger than a walrus, and much bigger than any human. A Moment of Extreme Crisis in the Middle of Nowhere Oh fuck, whispered Nora, into the cold. The Frustration of Not Finding a Library When You Really Need One The fog cleared to reveal a huge white bear, standing upright. It dropped down to all fours and continued moving toward her with surprising velocity and a heavy and terrifying grace. Nora did nothing. Her mind was jammed with panic. She was as still as the permafrost she stood on. Fuck. Fuck fuck. Fuck fuck fucking fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. Eventually a survival impulse kicked in and Nora raised the signal pistol and fired it, and the flare shot out like a tiny comet and disappeared into the water, the glow fading along with her hope. The creature was still coming towards her. She fell to her knees and started clanging the ladle against the saucepan and shouted at the top of her lungs. BEAR! BEAR! BEAR! The bear stopped, momentarily. BEAR! BEAR! BEAR! It was now walking forward again. The banging wasnt working. The bear was close. She wondered if she could reach the rifle, lying on the ice, just slightly too far away. She could see the bears vast pawed feet, armed with claws, pressing into the snow-dusted rock. Its head was low and its black eyes were looking directly at her. LIBRARY! Nora screamed. MRS ELM! PLEASE SEND ME BACK! THIS IS THE WRONG LIFE! IT IS REALLY, REALLY, REALLY WRONG! TAKE ME BACK! I DONT WANT ADVENTURE! WHERES THE LIBRARY?! I WANT THE LIBRARY! There was no hatred in the polar bears stare. Nora was just food. Meat. And that was a humbling kind of terror. Her heart pounded like a drummer reaching the crescendo. The end of the song. And it became astoundingly clear to her, finally, in that moment: She didnt want to die. And that was the problem. In the face of death, life seemed more attractive, and as life seemed more attractive, how could she get back to the Midnight Library? She had to be disappointed in a life, not just scared of it, in order to try again with another book. There was death. Violent, oblivious death, in bear form, staring at her with its black eyes. And she knew then, more than shed known anything, that she wasnt ready to die. This knowledge grew bigger than fear itself as she stood there, face to face with a polar bear, itself hungry and desperate to exist, and banged the ladle against the saucepan. Harder. A fast, staccato bang bang bang. Im. Not. Scared. Im. Not. Scared. Im. Not. Scared. Im. Not. Scared. Im. Not. Scared. Im. Not. Scared. The bear stood and stared, the way the walrus had. She glanced at the rifle. Yes. It was too far away. By the time she could grab it and work out how to fire it, it would already be too late. She doubted shed be able to kill a polar bear anyway. So she banged the ladle. Nora closed her eyes, wishing for the library as she carried on making noise. When she opened them, the bear was slipping headfirst into the water. She kept banging the saucepan even after the creature had disappeared. About a minute later, she heard the humans calling her name through the fog. Island She was in shock. But it was a slightly different kind of shock than the others on the dinghy assumed. It wasnt the shock of having been close to death. It was the shock of realising she actually wanted to live. They passed a small island, teeming with nature. Green lichens spread over rocks. Birds little auks and puffins clustered together huddled against the Arctic wind. Life surviving against the odds. Nora sipped the coffee that Hugo handed her, fresh from his flask. Holding it with cold hands even under three pairs of gloves. To be part of nature was to be part of the will to live. When you stay too long in a place, you forget just how big an expanse the world is. You get no sense of the length of those longitudes and latitudes. Just as, she supposed, it is hard to have a sense of the vastness inside any one person. But once you sense that vastness, once something reveals it, hope emerges, whether you want it to or not, and it clings to you as stubbornly as lichen clings to rock. Permafrost The surface air temperatures in Svalbard were warming at twice the global rate. Climate change was happening faster here than almost anywhere on Earth. One woman, wearing a purple woollen hat pulled down over her eyebrows, talked about witnessing one of the icebergs doing a somersault something that happened apparently because the warming waters had dissolved it from beneath, causing it to become top heavy. Another problem was that the permafrost on the land was thawing, softening the ground, leading to landslides and avalanches that could destroy the wooden houses of Longyearbyen, the largest town in Svalbard. There was also a risk of bodies surfacing in the local cemetery. It was inspiring, being among these scientists who were trying to discover precisely what was happening to the planet, trying to observe glacial and climatic activity, and in so doing to inform, and to protect life on Earth. Back on the main boat, Nora sat quietly in the dining area as everyone offered sympathy for the bear encounter. She felt unable to tell them she was grateful for the experience. She just smiled politely and did her best to avoid conversation. This life was an intense one, without compromise. It was currently minus seventeen degrees, and she had nearly been eaten by a polar bear, and yet maybe the problem with her root life had partly been its blandness. She had come to imagine mediocrity and disappointment were her destiny. Indeed, Nora had always had the sense that she came from a long line of regrets and crushed hopes that seemed to echo in every generation. For instance, her grandfather on her mothers side was called Lorenzo Conte. He had left Puglia the handsome heel in the boot of Italy to come to Swinging London in the 1960s. Like other men in the desolate port town of Brindisi, hed emigrated to Britain, exchanging life on the Adriatic for a job at the London Brick Company. Lorenzo, in his naivety, had imagined having a wonderful life making bricks all day, and then of an evening he would rub shoulders with The Beatles and walk arm-in-arm down Carnaby Street with Jean Shrimpton or Marianne Faithful. The only problem was that, despite its name, the London Brick Company wasnt actually in London. It was based sixty miles north in Bedford, which, for all its modest charms, turned out not as swinging as Lorenzo would have liked. But he made a compromise with his dreams and settled there. The work may not have been glamorous, but it paid. Lorenzo married a local English woman called Patricia Brown, who was also getting used to lifes disappointments, having exchanged her dream of being an actress for the mundane, daily theatre of the suburban housewife, and whose culinary skills were forever under the ghostly shadow of her dead Puglian mother-in-law and her legendary spaghetti dishes, which, in Lorenzos eyes, could never be surpassed. They had a baby girl within a year of getting married Noras mother and they called her Donna. Donna grew up with her parents arguing almost continually, and had consequently believed marriage was something that was not only inevitable, but also inevitably miserable. She became a secretary at a law firm, and then a communications officer for Bedford council, but then shed had an experience which was never really discussed, at least not with Nora. Shed experienced some kind of breakdown the first of several that caused her to stay at home, and, although she recovered, she never went back to work. There was an invisible baton of failure her mother had passed down, and Nora had held it for a long time. Maybe that was why she had given up on so many things. Because she had it written in her DNA that she had to fail. Nora thought of this as the boat chugged through the Arctic waters and gulls black-legged kittiwakes, according to Ingrid flew overhead. On both sides of her family there had been an unspoken belief that life was meant to fuck you over. Noras dad, Geoff, had certainly lived a life that seemed to miss its target. He had grown up with only a mother, as his dad had died of a heart attack when he was two, cruelly hiding somewhere behind his first memories. Noras paternal grandmother had been born in rural Ireland but emigrated to England to become a school cleaner, struggling to bring in enough money for food, let alone anything approaching fun. Geoff had been bullied early on in life but had grown big and broad enough to easily put those bullies in their place. He worked hard and proved good at football and the shot put and, in particular, rugby. He played for the Bedford Blues youth team, becoming their best player, and had a shot at the big time before a collateral ligament injury stopped him in his tracks. He then became a PE teacher and simmered with quiet resentment at the universe. He forever dreamed of travel, but never did much of it beyond a subscription to National Geographic and the occasional holiday to somewhere in the Cyclades Nora remembered him in Naxos, snapping a picture of the Temple of Apollo at sunset. Maybe thats what all lives were, though. Maybe even the most seemingly perfectly intense or worthwhile lives ultimately felt the same. Acres of disappointment and monotony and hurts and rivalries but with flashes of wonder and beauty. Maybe that was the only meaning that mattered. To be the world, witnessing itself. Maybe it wasnt the lack of achievements that had made her and her brothers parents unhappy, maybe it was the expectation to achieve in the first place. She had no idea about any of it, really. But on that boat she realised something. She had loved her parents more than she ever knew, and right then, she forgave them completely. One Night in Longyearbyen It took two hours to get back to the tiny port at Longyearbyen. It was Norways and the worlds most northern town, with a population of around two thousand people. Nora knew these basic things from her root life. She had, after all, been fascinated by this part of the world since she was eleven, but her knowledge didnt stretch far beyond the magazine articles she had read and she was still nervous of talking. But the boat trip back had been okay, because her inability to discuss the rock and ice and plant samples they had taken, or to understand phrases such as striated basalt bedrock and post-glacial isotopes, was put down to the shock of her polar bear encounter. And she was in a kind of shock, it was true. But it was not the shock her colleagues were imagining. The shock hadnt been that shed thought shed been about to die. She had been about to die ever since she first entered the Midnight Library. No, the shock was that she felt like she was about to live. Or at least, that she could imagine wanting to be alive again. And she wanted to do something good with that life. The life of a human, according to the Scottish philosopher David Hume, was of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster. But if it was important enough for David Hume to write that thought down, then maybe it was important enough to aim to do something good. To help preserve life, in all its forms. As Nora understood it, the work this other Nora and her fellow scientists had been doing was something to do with determining the speed at which the ice and glaciers had been melting in the region, to gauge the acceleration rate of climate change. There was more to it than that, but that was at the core of it, as far as Nora could see. So, in this life, she was doing her bit to save the planet. Or at least to monitor the steady devastation of the planet in order to alert people to the facts of environmental crisis. That was potentially depressing but also a good and ultimately fulfilling thing to do, she imagined. There was purpose. There was meaning. They were impressed too. The others. With the polar bear story. Nora was a hero of sorts not in an Olympic-swimming-champion way, but in another equally fulfilling kind of fashion. Ingrid had her arm around her. You are the saucepan warrior. And I think we need to mark your fearlessness, and our potentially groundbreaking findings, with a meal. A nice meal. And some vodka. What do you say, Peter? A nice meal? In Longyearbyen? Do they have them? As it turned out: they did. Back on dry land they went to a smart wooden shack of a place called Gruvelageret perched off a lonely road in an austere, snow-crisp valley. She drank Arctic ale and surprised her colleagues by eating the only vegan option on a menu that included reindeer steak and moose burger. Nora must have looked tired because quite a few of her colleagues told her that she did, but maybe it was just that there werent many places in the conversation that she could enter with confidence. She felt like a learner driver at a busy junction, nervously waiting for a clear and safe patch of road. Hugo was there. He still looked to her like he would rather be in Antibes or St Tropez. She felt a little uneasy as he stared at her, a little too observed. On the hurried walk back to their land-based accommodation, which reminded Nora of a university halls of residence but on a smaller scale and more Nordic and wooden and minimal, Hugo jogged to catch her up and walk by her side. It is interesting, he said. What is interesting? How at breakfast this morning you didnt know who I was. Why? You didnt know who I was either. Of course I did. We were chatting for about two hours yesterday. Nora felt like she was inside some kind of trap. We were? I studied you at breakfast before I came over and I could see you were different today. Thats creepy, Hugo. Studying women at breakfast. And I noticed things. Nora lifted her scarf over her face. Its too cold. Can we talk about this tomorrow? I noticed you improvising. All day you have been non-committal in everything you say. Not true. Im just shook up. You know, the bear. Non. Ce nest pas ?a. Im talking about before the bear. And after the bear. And all day. I have no idea what youre There is a look. I have seen it before in other people. Id recognise it anywhere. I have no idea what you are talking about. Why do glaciers pulsate? What? This is your area of study. Its why youre here, isnt it? The science isnt entirely settled on the matter. Okay. Bien. Name me one of the glaciers around here. Glaciers have names. Name one . . . Kongsbreen? Nathorstbreen? Ring any bells? I dont want this conversation. Because you arent the same person you were yesterday, are you? None of us are, said Nora, briskly. Our brains change. Its called neuroplasticity. Please. Stop mansplaining glaciers to a glaciologist, Hugo. Hugo seemed to retreat a little and she felt a bit guilty. There was a minute of silence. Just the crunch of their feet in the snow. They were nearly back at the accommodation, the others not too far behind them. But then, he said it. I am like you, Nora. I visit lives that arent mine. I have been in this one for five days. But I have been in many others. I was given an opportunity a rare opportunity for this to happen. I have been sliding between lives for a long while. Ingrid grabbed Noras arm. I still have some vodka, she announced as they reached the door. She held her key card in her glove and tapped it against the scanner. The door opened. Listen, Hugo mumbled, conspiratorially, if you want to know more, meet me in the communal kitchen in five minutes. And Nora felt her heart race, but this time she had no ladle or saucepan to bang. She didnt particularly like this Hugo character, but was far too intrigued not to hear what he had to say. And she also wanted to know if he could be trusted. Okay, she said. Ill be there. Expectation Nora had always had a problem accepting herself. From as far back as she could remember, shed had the sense that she wasnt enough. Her parents, who both had their own insecurities, had encouraged that idea. She imagined, now, what it would be like to accept herself completely. Every mistake she had ever made. Every mark on her body. Every dream she hadnt reached or pain she had felt. Every lust or longing she had suppressed. She imagined accepting it all. The way she accepted nature. The way she accepted a glacier or a puffin or the breach of a whale. She imagined seeing herself as just another brilliant freak of nature. Just another sentient animal, trying their best. And in doing so, she imagined what it was like to be free. Life and Death and the Quantum Wave Function With Hugo, it wasnt a library. Its a video store, he said, leaning against the cheap-looking cupboard where the coffee was kept. It looks exactly like a video store I used to go to in the outskirts of Lyon Video Lumi?re where I grew up. The Lumi?re brothers are heroes in Lyon and theres a lot of things named after them. They invented cinema there. Anyway, that is beside the point: the point is that every life I choose is an old VHS that I play right in the store, and the moment it starts the moment the movie starts is the moment I disappear. Nora suppressed a giggle. Whats so funny? Hugo wondered, a little hurt. Nothing. Nothing at all. It just seemed mildly amusing. A video store. Oh? And a library, that is entirely sensible? More sensible, yes. I mean, at least you can still use books. Who plays videos these days? Interesting. I had no idea there was such a thing as between-life snobbery. You are an education. Sorry, Hugo. Okay, I will ask a sensible question. Is there anyone else there? A person who helps you choose each life? He nodded. Oh yeah. Its my Uncle Philippe. He died years ago. And he never even worked in a video store. Its so illogical. Nora told him about Mrs Elm. A school librarian? mocked Hugo. Thats pretty funny too. Nora ignored him. Do you reckon theyre ghosts? Guiding spirits? Guardian angels? What are they? It felt so ludicrous, in the heart of a scientific facility, to be talking like this. They are, Hugo gestured, as if trying to pluck the right term from the air, an interpretation. Interpretation? I have met others like us, Hugo said. You see, I have been in the in-between state for a long time. I have encountered a few other sliders. Thats what I call them. Us. We are sliders. We have a root life in which we are lying somewhere, unconscious, suspended between life and death, and then we arrive in a place. And it is always something different. A library, a video store, an art gallery, a casino, a restaurant . . . What does that tell you? Nora shrugged. And thought. Listening to the hum of the central heating. That its all bullshit? That none of this is real? No. Because the template is always the same. For instance: there is always someone else there a guide. Only ever one person. They are always someone who has helped the person at a significant time in their life. The setting is always somewhere with emotional significance. And there is usually talk of root lives or branches. Nora thought about being consoled by Mrs Elm when her dad died. Staying with her, comforting her. It was probably the most kindness anyone had ever shown her. And there is always an infinite range of choices, Hugo went on. An infinite number of video tapes, or books, or paintings, or meals . . . Now, I am a scientist. And I have lived many scientific lives. In my original root life, I have a degree in Biology. I have also, in another life, been a Nobel Prize-winning chemist. I have been a marine biologist trying to protect the Great Barrier Reef. But my weakness was always physics. At first I had no idea of how to find out what was happening to me. Until I met a woman in one life who was going through what we are going through, and in her root life she was a quantum physicist. Professor Dominique Bisset at Montpellier University. She explained it all to me. The many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics. So that means we A kind-faced, pink-skinned, auburn-bearded man whose name Nora didnt know came into the kitchen to rinse a coffee cup, then smiled at them. See you tomorrow, he said, in a soft American (maybe Canadian) accent, before padding away in his slippers. Yes, said Nora. See you, said Hugo, before returning in a more hushed tone to his main thread. The universal wave function is real, Nora. Thats what Professor Bisset said. What? Hugo held up a finger. A slightly annoying, wait-a-minute kind of finger. Nora resisted a strong urge to grab it and twist it. Erwin Schr?dinger . . . He of the cat. Yes. The cat guy. He said that in quantum physics every alternative possibility happens simultaneously. All at once. In the same place. Quantum superposition. The cat in the box is both alive and dead. You could open the box and see that it was alive or dead, thats how it goes, but in one sense, even after the box is open, the cat is still both alive and dead. Every universe exists over every other universe. Like a million pictures on tracing paper, all with slight variations within the same frame. The many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics suggests there are an infinite number of divergent parallel universes. Every moment of your life you enter a new universe. With every decision you make. And traditionally it was thought that there could be no communication or transference between those worlds, even though they happen in the same space, even though they happen literally millimetres away from us. But what about us? Were doing that. Exactly. I am here but I also know I am not here. I am also lying in a hospital in Paris, having an aneurysm. And I am also skydiving in Arizona. And travelling around southern India. And tasting wine in Lyon, and lying on a yacht off the C?te dAzur. I knew it! Vraiment? He was, she decided, quite beautiful. You seem more suited to strolling the Croisette in Cannes than an Arctic adventure. He widened his right hand like a starfish. Five days! Five days I have been in this life. That is my record. Maybe this is the life for me . . . Interesting. Youre going to have a very cold life. And who knows? Maybe you are too . . . I mean, if the bear didnt take you back to your library maybe nothing will. He started to fill the kettle. Science tells us that the grey zone between life and death is a mysterious place. There is a singular point at which we are not one thing or another. Or rather we are both. Alive and dead. And in that moment between the two binaries, sometimes, just sometimes, we turn ourselves into a Schr?dingers cat who may not only be alive or dead but may be every quantum possibility that exists in line with the universal wave function, including the possibility where we are chatting in a communal kitchen in Longyearbyen at one in the morning . . . Nora was taking all this in. She thought of Volts, still and lifeless under the bed and lying by the side of the road. But sometimes the cat is just dead and dead. Sorry? Nothing. Its just . . . my cat died. And I tried another life and even in that one he was still dead. Thats sad. I had a similar situation with a Labrador. But the point is, there are others like us. I have lived so many lives, I have come across a few of them. Sometimes just to say your own truth out loud is enough to find others like you. Its crazy to think that there are other people who could be . . . what did you call us? Sliders? Yep. That. Well, its possible of course, but I think were rare. One thing Ive noticed is that the other people Ive met the dozen or so have all been around our age. All thirties or forties or fifties. One was twenty-nine, en fait. All have had a deep desire to have done things differently. They had regrets. Some contemplated that they may be better off dead but also had a desire to live as another version of themselves. Schr?dingers life. Both dead and alive in your own mind. Exactement! And whatever those regrets did to our brain, whatever how would you say? neurochemical event happened, that confused yearning for death-and-life was somehow just enough to send us into this state of total in-between. The kettle was getting noisier, the water starting to bubble like Noras thoughts. Why is it always just one person that we see? In the place. The library. Whatever. Hugo shrugged. If I was religious, Id say it was God. And as God is probably someone we cant see or comprehend then He or She or whichever pronoun God is becomes an image of someone good we have known in our lives. And if I wasnt religious which Im not I would think that the human brain cant handle the complexity of an open quantum wave function and so it organises or translates this complexity into something it understands. A librarian in a library. A friendly uncle in a video store. Et cetera. Nora had read about multiverses and knew a bit about Gestalt psychology. About how human brains take complex information about the world and simplify it, so that when a human looks at a tree it translates the intricately complex mass of leaves and branches into this thing called tree. To be a human was to continually dumb the world down into an understandable story that keeps things simple. She knew that everything humans see is a simplification. A human sees the world in three dimensions. That is a simplification. Humans are fundamentally limited, generalising creatures, living on auto-pilot, who straighten out curved streets in their minds, which explains why they get lost all the time. Its like how humans never see the second hand of a clock mid-tick, said Nora. What? She saw that Hugos watch was of the analogue variety. Try it. You just cant. Minds cant see what they cant handle. Hugo nodded, as he observed his own watch. So, Nora said, whatever exists between universes is most likely not a library, but that is the easiest way for me to understand it. That would be my hypothesis. I see a simplified version of the truth. The librarian is just a kind of mental metaphor. The whole thing is. Isnt it fascinating? said Hugo. Nora sighed. In the last life I spoke to my dead dad. Hugo opened a jar of coffee and scooped out granules into two mugs. And I didnt drink coffee. I drank peppermint tea. That sounds terrible. It was bearable. Another thing that is strange, Hugo said. At any point in this conversation you or I could disappear. Have you seen that happen? Nora took the mug Hugo handed her. Yeah. A few times. Its freaky. But no one else would notice. They become a bit vague with their memory for the last day, but you would be surprised. If you went back to the library right now, and I was still standing here talking to you in the kitchen, you would say something like My minds just gone blank what were we talking about?, and then Id realise what had happened and Id say we were talking about glaciers and youd bombard me with facts about them. And your brain would fill in the gaps and make up a narrative about what just happened. Yeah, but what about the polar bear? What about the meal tonight? Would I this other me would she remember what I ate? Not necessarily. But I have seen it happen. Its amazing what the brain can fill in. And what it is fine with forgetting. So, what was I like? Yesterday, I mean. He locked eyes. They were pretty eyes. Nora momentarily felt pulled into his orbit like a satellite to Earth. Exquisite, charming, intelligent, beautiful. Much like now. She laughed it off. Stop being so French. Awkward pause. How many lives have you had? she said eventually. How many have you experienced? Too many. Nearing three hundred. Three hundred? I have been so many things. On every continent on Earth. And yet I have never found the life for me. I am resigned to being this way for ever. There will never be a life that I truly want to live for ever. I get too curious. I get too much of a yearning to live another way. And you dont need to make that face. Its not sad. I am happily in limbo. But what if one day there is no video store? Nora thought about Mrs Elm, panicking at the computer, and the flickering lights in the library. What if one day you disappear for good? Before you have found a life to settle in? He shrugged. Then I will die. And it means I would have died anyway. In the life I lived before. I kind of like being a slider. I like imperfection. I like keeping death as an option. I like never having to settle. I think my situation is different. I think my death is more imminent. If I dont find a life to live in pretty soon, I think Ill be gone for good. She explained the problem shed had last time, with transferring back. Oh. Yeah, well, that might be bad. But it might not be. You do realise there are infinite possibilities here? I mean, the multiverse isnt about just some universes. Its not about a handful of universes. Its not even about a lot of universes. Its not about a million or a billion or a trillion universes. Its about an infinite number of universes. Even with you in them. You could be you in any version of the world, however unlikely that world would be. You are only limited by your imagination. You can be very creative with the regrets you want to undo. I once undid a regret about not doing something Id contemplated as a teenager doing aerospace engineering and becoming an astronaut and so in one life I became an astronaut. I havent been to space. But I became someone who had been there, for a little while. The thing you have to remember is that this is an opportunity and it is rare and we can undo any mistake we made, live any life we want. Any life. Dream big . . . You can be anything you want to be. Because in one life, you are. She sipped her coffee. I understand. But you will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life, he said, wisely. Youre quoting Camus. You got me. He was staring at her. Nora no longer minded his intensity, but was becoming a little concerned about her own. I was a Philosophy student, she said, as blandly as she could manage, avoiding his eyes. He was close to her now. There was something equally annoying and attractive about Hugo. He exuded an arrogant amorality that made his face something to either slap or kiss, depending on the circumstances. In one life we have known each other for years and are married . . . he said. In most lives I dont know you at all, she countered, now staring straight at him. Thats so sad. I dont think so. Really? Really. She smiled. Were special, Nora. Were chosen. No one understands us. No one understands anyone. Were not chosen. The only reason I am still in this life is because of you . . . She lunged forward and kissed him. If Something Is Happening to Me, I Want to Be There It was a very pleasant sensation. Both the kiss, and the knowledge she could be this forward. Being aware that everything that could possibly happen happened to her somewhere, in some life, kind of absolved her a little from decisions. That was just the reality of the universal wave function. Whatever was happening could she reasoned be put down to quantum physics. I dont share a room, he said. She stared at him fearlessly now, as if facing down a polar bear had given her a certain capacity for dominance shed never been aware of. Well, Hugo, maybe you could break the habit. But the sex turned out to be a disappointment. A Camus quote came to her, right in the middle of it. I may have not been sure about what really did interest me, but I was absolutely sure about what didnt. It probably wasnt the best sign of how their nocturnal encounter was going, that she was thinking of Existential philosophy, or that this quote in particular was the one that appeared in her mind. But hadnt Camus also said, If something is going to happen to me, I want to be there? Hugo, she concluded, was a strange person. For a man who had been so intimate and deep in his conversation, he was very detached from the moment. Maybe if you lived as many lives as he had, the only person you really had any kind of intimate relationship with was yourself. She felt like she might not have been there at all. And in a few moments, she wasnt. God and Other Librarians Who are you? You know my name. I am Mrs Elm. Louise Isabel Elm. Are you God? She smiled. I am who I am. And who is that? The librarian. But you arent a real person. Youre just a . . . mechanism. Arent we all? Not like that. You are the product of some strange interaction between my mind and the multiverse, some simplification of the quantum wave function or whatever it is. Mrs Elm looked perturbed by the suggestion. What is the matter? Nora thought of the polar bear as she stared down at the yellow-brown stone floor. I nearly died. And remember, if you die in a life, there is no way back here. Thats not fair. The library has strict rules. Books are precious. You have to treat them carefully. But these are other lives. Other variants of me. Not me me. Yes, but while you are experiencing them, it is you who has to pay the consequences. Well, I think that stinks, to be perfectly honest. The librarians smile curled at its edges, like a fallen leaf. Well, this is interesting. What is interesting? The fact that you have so thoroughly changed your attitude towards dying. What? You wanted to die and now you dont. It dawned on Nora that Mrs Elm might be close to having a point, although not quite the whole point. Well, I still think my actual life isnt worth living. In fact, this experience has just managed to confirm that. She shook her head. I dont think you think that. I do think that. Thats why I said it. No. The Book of Regrets is getting lighter. Theres a lot of white space in there now . . . It seems that you have spent all your life saying things that you arent really thinking. This is one of your barriers. Barriers? Yes. You have a lot of them. They stop you from seeing the truth. About what? About yourself. And you really need to start trying. To see the truth. Because this matters. I thought there were an infinite number of lives to choose from. You need to pick the life youd be most happy inside. Or soon there wont be a choice at all. I met someone who has been doing this for a long time and he still hasnt found a life that he is satisfied with . . . Well, Hugos is a privilege you might not have. Hugo? How do you But then she remembered Mrs Elm knew a lot more than she should. You need to choose carefully, continued the librarian. One day the library may not be here and youll be gone for ever. How many lives do I have? This isnt a magic lamp and I am no genie. There is no set number. It could be one. It could be a hundred. But you only have an infinite number of lives to choose from so long as the time in the Midnight Library stays, well, at midnight. Because while it stays at midnight, your life your root life is somewhere between life and death. If time moves here, that means something very . . . She searched for a delicate word. . . . decisive has happened. Something that razes the Midnight Library to the ground, and takes us with it. And so I would err on the side of caution. I would try to think very keenly about where you want to be. You have clearly made some progress, I can tell. You seem to realise that life could be worth living, if only you found the right one to exist inside. But you dont want that gate to close before you get a chance to go through it. They both were silent for a very long time, as Nora observed all the books all around her. All the possibilities. Calmly and slowly, she walked along the aisle, wondering what lay beyond the covers of each book, and wishing the green spines would offer some kind of clue. Now, which book do you fancy? came Mrs Elms words behind her. Nora remembered Hugos words in the kitchen. Dream big. The librarian had a penetrating gaze. Who is Nora Seed? And what does she want? When Nora thought of her closest access to happiness, it was music. Yes, she still played the piano and keyboard sometimes, but she had given up creating. She had given up singing. She thought of those happy early pub gigs playing Beautiful Sky. She thought of her brother larking about on stage with her and Ravi and Ella. So now she knew precisely which book to ask for.
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  • Tales of mystery and imagination /     (by Edgar Allan Poe, 1993) -    Tales of mystery and
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  • The Wheel of Time /   (Robert Jordan) -   The Wheel of Time /

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