Main The Midnight Library

The Midnight Library

5.0 / 5.0
How much do you like this book?
What’s the quality of the file?
Download the book for quality assessment
What’s the quality of the downloaded files?
Year:
2020
Publisher:
Canongate Books
Language:
english
ISBN:
89fcacf5-2895-4a8a-87ff-b03f5296a208
File:
MOBI , 548 KB
Download (mobi, 548 KB)

You may be interested in Powered by Rec2Me

 

Most frequently terms

 
8 comments
 
Andy
Thank you very much!
It’s awesome
30 December 2020 (05:40) 
onehamza
thank u, its amazing
04 May 2021 (17:54) 
penstylo
I agree! Read it, everyone!
13 June 2021 (14:50) 
Moyot
I think it's perfect for those who wants to find reason to look forward to tomorrow
11 July 2021 (09:17) 
milk&honey
I have added it to my read list.
20 July 2021 (07:52) 
bay2
I have started it; and the starting itself is so amazingly written.Cant wait to finish it.
30 August 2021 (11:43) 
Naren
I didn't expect that it was a good book. I finished it in one sitting. I loved it.
10 September 2021 (20:19) 
Travelina
I also didn't expect this to be a good book, but is was very much a page turner. I learned some great messages about life from it and a great read always gives perspective
16 September 2021 (08:19) 

To post a review, please sign in or sign up
You can write a book review and share your experiences. Other readers will always be interested in your opinion of the books you've read. Whether you've loved the book or not, if you give your honest and detailed thoughts then people will find new books that are right for them.
1

Whispering in the Wind

ภาษา:
english
ไฟล์:
PDF, 2.74 MB
0 / 0
2

Wolves

ภาษา:
english
ไฟล์:
PDF, 7.63 MB
0 / 0
Also by Matt Haig

The Last Family in England

The Dead Fathers Club

The Possession of Mr Cave

The Radleys

The Humans

Humans: An A-Z

Reasons to Stay Alive

How to Stop Time

Notes on a Nervous Planet

For Children

The Runaway Troll

Shadow Forest

To Be A Cat

Echo Boy

A Boy Called Christmas

The Girl Who Saved Christmas

Father Christmas and Me

The Truth Pixie

The Truth Pixie Goes to School





First published in Great Britain in 2020

by Canongate Books Ltd, 14 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TE

canongate.co.uk

This digital edition first published in 2020 by Canongate Books

Copyright © Matt Haig, 2020

The right of Matt Haig to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

Excerpt from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath by Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen V. Kukil, copyright © 2000 by the Estate of Sylvia Plath. Used by permission of Anchor Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC and Faber and Faber Ltd. All rights reserved.

Excerpt from Marriage and Morals, Bertrand Russell

Copyright © 1929. Reproduced by permission of Taylor & Francis Group.

Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and obtain their permission for the use of copyright material. The publisher apologises for any errors or omissions and would be grateful if notified of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book.

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available on

request from the British Library

ISBN 978 1 78689 270 6

Export ISBN 978 1 78689 272 0

eISBN: 978 1 78689 271 3



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 possibl; e 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?’





Contents





A Conversation About Rain

Nineteen Years Later

The Man at the Door

String Theory

To Live Is to Suffer

Doors

How to Be a Black Hole

Antimatter

00:00:00

The Librarian

The Midnight Library

The Moving Shelves

The Book of Regrets

Regret Overload

Every Life Begins Now

The Three Horseshoes

The Penultimate Update Nora Had Posted Before She Found Herself Between Life and Death

The Chessboard

The Only Way to Learn Is to Live

Fire

Fish Tank

The Last Update That Nora Had Posted Before She Found Herself Between Life and Death

The Successful Life

Peppermint Tea

The Tree That Is Our Life

System Error

Svalbard

Hugo Lefèvre

Walking in Circles

A Moment of Extreme Crisis in the Middle of Nowhere

The Frustration of Not Finding a Library When You Really Need One

Island

Permafrost

One Night in Longyearbyen

Expectation

Life and Death and the Quantum Wave Function

If Something Is Happening to Me, I Want to Be There

God and Other Librarians

Fame

Milky Way

Wild and Free

Ryan Bailey

A Silver Tray of Honey Cakes

The Podcast of Revelations

‘Howl’

Love and Pain

Equidistance

Someone Else’s Dream

A Gentle Life

Why Want Another Universe If This One Has Dogs?

Dinner with Dylan

Last Chance Saloon

Buena Vista Vineyard

The Many Lives of Nora Seed

Lost in the Library

A Pearl in the Shell

The Game

The Perfect Life

A Spiritual Quest for a Deeper Connection with the Universe

Hammersmith

Tricycle

No Longer Here

An Incident With the Police

A New Way of Seeing

The Flowers Have Water

Nowhere to Land

Don’t You Dare Give Up, Nora Seed!

Awakening

The Other Side of Despair

A Thing I Have Learned

Living Versus Understanding

The Volcano

How It Ends





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, it’s 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, you’re going to be worried about the exams. But you could be anything you want to be, Nora. Think of all that possibility. It’s 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 Nora’s left ear stuck out more than her right that she’d 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 Nora’s wavelength in the entire school, and even on days when it wasn’t raining she would spend her afternoon break in the small library.

‘Coldness and wetness don’t always go together,’ Nora told her. ‘Antarctica is the driest continent on Earth. Technically, it’s a desert.’

‘Well, that sounds up your street.’

‘I don’t think it’s 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, she’d felt a bit unguarded out there. The library was a little shelter of civilisation.

‘Dad thinks I’ve thrown everything away. Now I’ve 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. I’ve been researching and the—’

And it was then that the phone rang.

‘One minute,’ said Mrs Elm, softly. ‘I’d better get that.’

A moment later, Nora watched Mrs Elm on the phone. ‘Yes. She’s here now.’ The librarian’s 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 people’s 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 shouldn’t 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 she’d been feeling lonely. And though she’d 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. ‘It’s Ash, isn’t it?’

‘Yes. It is.’

‘What are you doing here? It’s good to see you.’

A few weeks ago she’d been sat playing her electric piano and he’d 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.

‘It’s good to see you too,’ he said, but his tense forehead didn’t show it.

When she’d spoken to him in the shop, he’d always sounded breezy, but now his voice contained something heavy. He scratched his brow. Made another sound but didn’t 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. I’m doing the Bedford Half. It’s 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 didn’t 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 he’s not massively into eighteenth-century French philosophy and literature. He’s quite down-to-earth. You know. For a cat.’

Ash looked down at her slippers.

‘I’m afraid I think he’s dead.’

‘What?’

‘He’s lying very still by the side of the road. I saw the name on the collar, I think a car might have hit him. I’m 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 she’d 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.

‘I’m 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 Voltaire’s 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.

‘I’m 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 couldn’t sleep and forgot to set the alarm and didn’t 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 puppy’s 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 you’ve got mental-health stuff.’

‘Everyone’s got mental-health stuff.’

‘You know what I mean.’

‘I’m feeling much better, generally,’ she lied. ‘It’s not clinical. The doctor says it’s situational depression. It’s just that I keep on having new . . . situations. But I haven’t 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.’

‘That’s a long time. I feel like you are made for better things. You’re in your late thirties.’

‘I’m thirty-five.’

‘You’ve 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.’ She’d 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 didn’t correct his knowledge of diamonds. She didn’t 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?’

‘It’s never too late to pursue a dream.’

‘Pretty sure it’s too late to pursue that one.’

‘You’re 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 she’d been through. And it just stayed there, not caring. Just being a mole. ‘Not a massive demand for philosophers in Bedford, if I’m honest, Neil.’

‘You went to uni, had a year in London, then came back.’

‘I didn’t have much of a choice.’

Nora didn’t want a conversation about her dead mum. Or even Dan. Because Neil had found Nora’s backing out of a wedding with two days’ notice the most fascinating love story since Kurt and Courtney.

‘We all have choices, Nora. There’s 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 weren’t 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 brother’s 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. That’s interesting.’

Nora was pretty certain her brother knew Friday was her day off. The fact prodded her from inside.

‘I’m happy here.’

‘Except you aren’t.’

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 don’t want freedom.’

‘This isn’t 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? I’ve 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. It’s just that when times are tough I can’t pay you to put off customers with your face looking like a wet weekend.’

‘What?’

‘I’m afraid, Nora’ – he paused for a moment, about the time it takes to lift an axe into the air – ‘I’m 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 she’d 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

She’d said she was stupidly hectic (big lol). Yet it was impossible to text anything else. Not because she didn’t still feel for him, but because she did. And couldn’t risk hurting him again. She’d ruined his life. My life is chaos, he’d told her, via drunk texts, shortly after the would-be wedding she’d 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 newsagent’s, 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 newsagent’s.

‘Sheltering from the rain?’ the woman behind the counter asked.

‘Yes.’ Nora kept her head down. Her despair growing like a weight she couldn’t carry.

A National Geographic was on display.

As she stared now at the magazine cover – an image of a black hole – she realised that’s 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. She’d never seen a place that looked so far away. She’d read about scientists doing research among glaciers and frozen fjords and puffins. Then, prompted by Mrs Elm, she’d decided she wanted to be a glaciologist.

She saw the scruffy, hunched form of her brother’s 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 didn’t tell me he was coming.’

‘Was just a fly-by.’

‘Is he okay?’

Ravi paused. Nora had once liked him, and he’d been a loyal friend to her brother. But, as with Joe, there was a barrier between them. They hadn’t parted on the best of terms. (He’d 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 he’s depressed.’

Nora’s mind grew heavier at the idea her brother might feel like she did.

‘He’s not himself,’ Ravi went on, anger in his voice. ‘He’s going to have to move out of his shoebox in Shepherd’s Bush. What with him not being able to play lead guitar in a successful rock band. Mind you, I’ve got no money either. Pub gigs don’t pay these days. Even when you agree to clean the toilets. Ever cleaned pub toilets, Nora?’

‘I’m having a pretty shit time too, if we’re doing the Misery Olympics.’

Ravi cough-laughed. A hardness momentarily shadowed his face. ‘The world’s smallest violin is playing.’

She wasn’t 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 brother’s not ready to see you.’

‘I was having panic attacks. I’d have let everyone down in the end. I told the label to take you on without me. I agreed to write the songs. It wasn’t 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 isn’t fair.’

‘Fair. Great word.’

The woman behind the counter gawped with interest.

‘Bands don’t last. We’d have been a meteor shower. Over before we started.’

‘Meteor showers are fucking beautiful.’

‘Come on. You’re still with Ella, aren’t 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 don’t 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.’

‘I’m Kerry-Anne. Remember you from school. The swimmer. Super-brain. Didn’t 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?’

‘I’m . . . 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, don’t hang about. Tick-tock tick-tock.’

‘I’m thirty-five.’ She wished Izzy was here. Izzy never put up with any of this kind of shit. ‘And I’m not sure I want—’

‘Me and Jake were like rabbits but we got there. Two little terrors. But worth it, y’know? I just feel complete. I could show you some pictures.’

‘I get headaches, with . . . phones.’

Dan had wanted kids. Nora didn’t know. She’d been petrified of motherhood. The fear of a deeper depression. She couldn’t look after herself, let alone anyone else.

‘Still in Bedford, then?’

‘Mm-hm.’

‘Thought you’d be one who got away.’

‘I came back. My mum was ill.’

‘Aw, sorry to hear that. Hope she’s okay now?’

‘I better go.’

‘But it’s 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 Bailey’s face seemed to always know deep and significant things. Nora had loved him ever since she’d watched him play a brooding Plato in The Athenians on TV, and since he’d said in an interview that he’d studied philosophy. She’d 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 you’ve imagined.’

Thoreau had been her favourite philosopher to study. But who seriously goes confidently in the direction of their dreams? Well, apart from Thoreau. He’d 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 wasn’t.

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 Banerjee’s 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?’

She’d totally forgotten. What time is it?

‘I’ve had a really crap day. I’m so sorry.’

‘We waited outside your flat for an hour.’

‘I can still do Leo’s lesson when I get back. I’ll be five minutes.’

‘Too late. He’s with his dad now for three days.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’

She was a waterfall of apologies. She was drowning in herself.

‘To be honest, Nora, he’s been thinking about giving up altogether.’

‘But he’s so good.’

‘He’s really enjoyed it. But he’s too busy. Exams, mates, football. Something has to give . . .’

‘He has a real talent. I’ve 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.

‘It’s terrible out, isn’t 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 don’t 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 Leo’s side, teaching him Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor. Happy moments can turn into pain, given time.

There was an old musician’s cliché, 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 wasn’t made for this life.

Every move had been a mistake, every decision a disaster, every day a retreat from who she’d imagined she’d be.

Swimmer. Musician. Philosopher. Spouse. Traveller. Glaciologist. Happy. Loved.

Nothing.

She couldn’t even manage ‘cat owner’. Or ‘one-hour-a-week piano tutor’. Or ‘human capable of conversation’.

The tablets weren’t working.

She finished the wine. All of it.

‘I miss you,’ she said into the air, as if the spirits of every person she’d loved were in the room with her.

She called her brother and left a voicemail when he didn’t pick up.

‘I love you, Joe. I just wanted you to know that. There’s 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 didn’t 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 don’t. And so I can’t. I make life worse for people.

I have nothing to give. I’m 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 didn’t. Even as she walked closer to the building, even as she opened the wooden door, even as she stepped inside, the display didn’t change. Either something was wrong with her watch, or something was wrong with time. In the circumstances, it could have been either.

What’s 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 weren’t 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 wasn’t 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 weren’t 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.

‘I’m 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 she’d always had, with a face that looked precisely as it always did in Nora’s 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 she’d 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 Elm’s voice telling her at the time: ‘Things will get better, Nora. It’s going to be all right.’

It was over an hour before Nora’s 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.’

‘It’s not the school library. And there’s no exit. Am I dead? Is this the afterlife?’

‘Not exactly,’ said Mrs Elm.

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Then let me explain.’





The Midnight Library





As she spoke, Mrs Elm’s 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 isn’t how death works.’

‘Why not?’

‘You don’t go to death. Death comes to you.’

Even death was something Nora couldn’t 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. I’d wanted to die. But here I am, still existing. I am still aware of things.’

‘Well, if it’s any comfort, you are very possibly about to die. People who pass by the library usually don’t 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 wasn’t. The things she hadn’t been able to become. And there really were quite a lot of things she hadn’t become. The regrets which were on permanent repeat in her mind. I haven’t become an Olympic swimmer. I haven’t become a glaciologist. I haven’t become Dan’s wife. I haven’t become a mother. I haven’t become the lead singer of The Labyrinths. I haven’t managed to become a truly good or truly happy person. I haven’t managed to look after Voltaire. And now, last of all, she hadn’t 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 didn’t change angles, they just kept on sliding horizontally. It was possible that the shelves weren’t moving at all, but the books were, and it wasn’t 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.

‘What’s happening?’

Mrs Elm’s 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 don’t 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 librarian’s 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 librarian’s hands the moment she’d finished using it, through some strange and hygienic magic.

‘Don’t 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 can’t 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 can’t 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 isn’t 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 wasn’t 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 she’d 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, everyone’s 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 aren’t 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. It’s 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 weren’t 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 Master’s 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 isn’t,’ 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





She’d 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 didn’t want to marry him.

Deep down, she was scared of becoming her mother. She didn’t 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 Nora’s grief was immense. Though she had suggested that the date should be put back, it somehow never was, and Nora’s 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 Nora’s thoughts. ‘It’s 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. That’s what is here. That’s 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 don’t 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 you’re 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. You’d be gone for ever. You’d be dead. And so would your access to all this.’

‘That’s what I want. I want to be dead. I would be dead because I want to be. That’s why I took the overdose. I want to die.’

‘Well, maybe. Or maybe not. After all, you’re still here.’

Nora tried to get her head around this. ‘So, how do I return to the library? If I’m stuck in a life even worse than the one I’ve just left?’

‘It can be subtle, but as soon as disappointment is felt in full, you’ll come back here. Sometimes the feeling creeps up, other times it comes all at once. If it never arrives, you’ll stay put, and you will be happy there, by definition. It couldn’t 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 hadn’t 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 couldn’t 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 it’s 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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t 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. I’ll be back on Friday. For the folk singer. Dan said he’s a good one.’

In this life she probably knew the man’s 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.

‘We’ll win next time,’ one of the women said.

‘Yes,’ replied Nora. ‘There’s 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 Nora’s mum’s 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 Nora’s 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. Vicar’s 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. I’ve done the chairs and wiped all the tables. Dishwasher’s 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. We’ve 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 didn’t 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. ‘It’s 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 didn’t entirely like it. She had forgotten how often during their relationship Dan’s humour hinged on other people, specifically Nora. When they’d been together, she had tried not to dwell on this aspect of his personality. He’d 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 couldn’t let a few less desirable parts put you off the whole. There may be bits you don’t 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 – he’d 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 wasn’t 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 don’t know,’ Nora lied, not wanting to risk a similar reaction to the one she’d 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, there’s something to tell the bank tomorrow. Maybe they’ll give us an extension on the loan . . .’

He stared at the beer in his glass, swilled it around a little, then downed it.

‘Though I’ve 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 isn’t pissing Fitzrovia. And I know they’re going down well, but I think those wines you chose aren’t worth it. Especially the Californian ones.’

‘Okay.’

He turned and looked behind him. ‘Where’s the board?’

‘What?’

‘The chalkboard. Thought you’d brought it in?’

So that was what she had been outside for.

‘No. No. I’m 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 couldn’t find him so I went outside to look for him and then I found him, didn’t 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. It’s quiz night. You know I get nervous doing the compering. And it helps me be funny. And I was funny, don’t 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 wasn’t sure how best to answer this. ‘Oh, nothing much. The usual stuff. You know Erin.’

‘The usual stuff? I didn’t think you’d ever spoken to her before.’

‘I meant the usual stuff that people say. Not what Erin says. Usual people stuff . . .’

‘How’s Will doing?’

‘Er, really well,’ Nora guessed. ‘He says hi.’

Dan’s 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 didn’t say hi. Sorry, I’m not thinking. Anyway, I’ll . . . 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 (Dan’s) 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 hadn’t 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.

They’d 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 hadn’t 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 didn’t 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 hadn’t 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. (‘He’s a good one. You’re 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 she’d 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 hadn’t had a book by her bed for at least six months. She hadn’t 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 Dan’s 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, didn’t 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 streetlamp’s yellow glow illuminated the desolate village road.

‘Nora? You’re 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 hadn’t expected this.

Everyone’s 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.

‘I’m 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 hadn’t 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 don’t want to make babies tonight you can just say, you know?’

‘What?’

‘I mean, I know we’ll have to wait another month until you are ovulating again . . .’

‘We’re trying for a baby? I want a baby?’

‘Nora, what’s with you? Why are you strange today?’

She took off her shoes. ‘I’m 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 hadn’t been his birthday.

‘Yeah,’ he’d said. ‘It’s 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 she’d 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 A&R 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 they’d survive as a couple. He’d also heard a horror story from one of his university friends who’d been in a band that signed to a label and then the label ripped them off and they’d all become unemployed alcoholics or something.

‘I could take you with me,’ she said. ‘I’d get it in the contract. We could go everywhere together.’

‘Sorry, Nora. But that’s your dream. It’s not mine.’

Which hurt even more with hindsight, knowing how much – before the wedding – she’d 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: she’d 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 wouldn’t 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 doesn’t seem you have been seeking much . . . atonement.’

‘Seriously, why drag all this up? We’ve 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 aren’t 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 hadn’t turned up at the wedding?’

‘Wow. Really? You have yourself in quite high esteem there, Nora.’

‘Shouldn’t I? I mean, shouldn’t everyone? What’s wrong with self-esteem? And besides, it’s true. There’s 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 couldn’t 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. ‘It’s 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 didn’t 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, let’s not do this heavy shit. Just get to bloody bed.’

‘Are you happy, Dan?’

‘No one’s 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 you’ve been unfaithful and you drink like a fish and I think you only appreciate me when you don’t have me, which is not a great trait to have. What about my dreams?’

He was hardly listening. Or trying to look like he wasn’t.

‘Big fires in California,’ he said, almost to himself.

‘Well, at least we’re not there.’

He put the phone down. Folded his laptop. ‘You coming to bed or what?’

She had shrunk for him, but he still hadn’t 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 didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to mock me. And now I don’t really care because I don’t think me knowing some things that you don’t 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 wasn’t 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 it’s 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 don’t 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 wasn’t 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.

‘It’s hard to predict, isn’t 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 don’t know what happens tomorrow.’

‘But she’ll be there in the bathroom and she won’t 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 won’t 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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, I’m sure it would be a relief. I’m 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 couldn’t 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 wasn’t.’

‘No, it wasn’t. 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, it’s not really every possible life.’ Mrs Elm wasn’t 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 wasn’t really a pretentious cat, so I just called him Volts for short. Sometimes Voltsy, if I was feeling jovial. Which was rare, obviously. I couldn’t 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. I’d like to see the life where I kept Voltaire indoors. My Voltaire. I’d like the life where I didn’t try and kill myself and where I was a good cat owner and I didn’t let him out onto the road last night. I’d like that life, just for a little while. That life exists, doesn’t 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 couldn’t find him anywhere. The rain patted against the windows – that much hadn’t 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 she’d 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 wasn’t moving.

As her arms weren’t 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 don’t understand,’ Nora told her.

Mrs Elm kept her eyes on the page she was reading. ‘There will be many things you don’t understand.’

‘I asked for the life in which Voltaire was still alive.’

‘Actually, you didn’t.’

‘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 you’d have asked for the life where he was still alive I would have had to say no.’

‘But why?’

‘Because it doesn’t 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 you’ve 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 didn’t even know his name a moment ago. Now you know he had restrictive cardio-whatever?’

‘I knew his name. And it wasn’t a moment ago. It was the same moment, check your watch.’

‘Why did you lie?’

‘I wasn’t lying. I asked you what your cat’s name was. I never said I didn’t know what your cat’s 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. ‘That’s even worse! You sent me into that life knowing Volts would be dead. And Volts was dead. So, nothing changed.’

Mrs Elm’s eyes twinkled again. ‘Except you.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, you don’t 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 didn’t 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 hadn’t been any external signs of damage on her cat’s 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 don’t want to open it again.’

‘Don’t 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 aren’t 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 hadn’t.

‘But I still don’t 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 wasn’t a bad cat owner. Why didn’t you?’

‘Because, Nora, sometimes the only way to learn is to live.’

‘Sounds hard.’

‘Take a seat,’ Mrs Elm told her. ‘A proper seat. It’s not right, you kneeling on the floor.’ And Nora turned to see a chair behind her that she hadn’t 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 don’t like this. One life of sadness was enough. What is the point of risking more?’

‘Fine.’ Mrs Elm shrugged.

‘What?’

‘Let’s 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 didn’t.

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, Nora’s 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 can’t 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, won’t I?’

‘In many, yes.’

‘So, what happens then?’

‘You sleep. And then you wake up in that life. It’s nothing to worry about. But if you are nervous, you could try a life where it’s another time.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, it’s 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? It’s a very good life?’

‘Oh, I didn’t say that. I merely feel that you might be getting better at choosing.’

‘So, it’s a bad life?’

‘I didn’t 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. ‘Isn’t 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 won’t 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 brother’s imagination, to compose her own music.

But she hadn’t 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 didn’t 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 w