Authors: Matt Haig
Maybe Australia had been her empty fish tank, once Izzy had gone. Maybe she just had no incentive to swim above the line. And
maybe even Prozac – or fluoxetine – wasn’t enough to help her rise up. So she was just going to stay there in that flat, with Jojo, and never move until she was made to leave the country.
Maybe even suicide would have been too
. Maybe in some lives you just float around and expect nothing else and don’t even try to change. Maybe that was most lives.
‘Yes,’ said Nora, aloud now. ‘Maybe I got stuck. Maybe in every life I am stuck. I mean, maybe that’s just who I am. A starfish in every life is still a starfish. There isn’t a life where a starfish is a professor of aerospace engineering. And maybe there isn’t a life where I’m not stuck.’
‘Well, I think you are wrong.’
‘Okay, then. I would like to try the life where I am not stuck. What life would that be?’
‘Aren’t you supposed to tell
Mrs Elm moved a queen to take a pawn, then turned the board around. ‘I’m afraid I am just the librarian.’
‘Librarians have knowledge. They guide you to the right books. The right worlds. They find the best places. Like soul-enhanced search engines.’
‘Exactly. But you also have to know what you like. What to type into the metaphorical search box. And sometimes you have to try a few things before that becomes clear.’
‘I haven’t got the stamina. I don’t think I can do this.’
‘The only way to learn is to live.’
‘Yes. So you keep saying.’
Nora exhaled heavily. It was interesting to know that she could exhale in the library. That she felt entirely in her body. That it felt normal. Because this place was definitely
normal. And the real physical her wasn’t here. It couldn’t be. And yet it was, to all intents and purposes, because she was – in some sense – there. Standing on a floor, as if gravity still existed.
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I would like a life where I am successful.’
Mrs Elm tutted disapprovingly. ‘For someone who has read a lot of books, you aren’t very specific with your choice of words.’
‘Success. What does that mean to you? Money?’
‘No. Well, maybe. But that wouldn’t be the defining feature.’
‘Well, then, what is success?’
Nora had no idea what success was. She had felt like a failure for so long.
Mrs Elm smiled, patiently. ‘Would you like to consult again with
The Book of Regrets
? Would you like to think about those bad decisions that turned you away from whatever you feel success is?’
Nora shook her head quickly, like a dog shaking off water. She didn’t want to be confronted with that long interminable list of mistakes and wrong turns again. She was depressed enough. And besides, she knew her regrets. Regrets don’t leave. They weren’t mosquito bites. They itch for ever.
‘No, they don’t,’ said Mrs Elm, reading her mind. ‘You don’t regret how you were with your cat. And nor do you regret not going to Australia with Izzy.’
Nora nodded. Mrs Elm had a point.
She thought of swimming in the pool at Bronte Beach. How good that had felt, in its strange familiarity.
‘From an early age you were encouraged to swim,’ said Mrs Elm.
‘Your dad was always happy to take you to the pool.’
‘It was one of the few things that had made him happy,’ Nora mused.
She had associated swimming with her father’s approval and enjoyed the wordlessness of being in the water because it was the opposite of her parents screaming at each other.
‘Why did you quit?’ asked Mrs Elm.
‘As soon as I started winning swimming races, I became
and I didn’t want to be seen. And not only seen but seen in a
swimsuit at the exact age you are self-obsessing about your body. Someone said I had boy’s shoulders. It was a stupid thing but there were lots of stupid things and you feel them all at that age. As a teenager I’d have happily been invisible. People called me “The Fish”. They didn’t mean it as a compliment. I was shy. It was one of the reasons why I preferred the library to the playing field. It seems a small thing, but it really helped, having that space.’
‘Never underestimate the big importance of small things,’ Mrs Elm said. ‘You must always remember that.’
Nora thought back. Her teenage combination of shyness and visibility had been a problematic mix, but she was never bullied, as such, probably because everyone knew her brother. And Joe, while never exactly tough, was always considered cool and popular enough for his most immediate blood relation to be immune to schoolyard tyranny.
She won races in local and then national competitions, but as she reached fifteen it became too much. The daily swims, length after length after length.
‘I had to quit.’
Mrs Elm nodded. ‘And the bond you’d developed with your dad frayed and almost snapped completely.’
She pictured her father’s face, in the car, on a drizzle-scratched Sunday morning outside Bedford Leisure Centre, as she told him she didn’t want to swim in competitions any more. That look of disappointment and profound frustration.
‘But you could make a success of your life,’ he had said. Yes. She remembered it now. ‘You’re never going to be a pop star, but this is something
. It’s right in front of you. If you keep training, you’ll end up at the Olympics. I know it.’
She had been cross with him saying that. As if there was a very thin path to a happy life and it was the path he had decided for her. As if her own agency in her own life was automatically wrong.
But what she didn’t fully appreciate at fifteen years of age was just how bad regret could feel, and how much her father had felt that pain of being so near to the realisation of a dream he could almost touch it.
Nora’s father, it was true, had been a difficult man.
As well as being highly critical of everything Nora did, and everything Nora wanted and everything Nora believed, unless it was related to swimming, Nora had also felt that simply to be in his presence was to commit some kind of invisible crime. Ever since the ligament injury that thwarted his rugby career, he’d had a sincere conviction that the universe was against him. And Nora was, at least
felt, considered by him as part of that same universal plan. From that moment in that car park she had felt she was really just an extension of the pain in his left knee. A walking wound.
But maybe he had known what would happen. Maybe he could foresee the way one regret would lead to another, until suddenly that was all she was. A whole book of regrets.
‘Okay, Mrs Elm. I want to know what happened in the life where I did what my father wanted. Where I trained as hard as I possibly could. Where I never moaned about a five a.m. start or a nine p.m. finish. Where I swam every day and never thought about quitting. Where I didn’t get sidelined by music or writing unfinished novels. Where I sacrificed everything else on the altar of freestyle. Where I didn’t give up. Where I did everything right in order to reach the Olympics. Take me to where I am in
For a moment it seemed as though Mrs Elm hadn’t been taking any notice of Nora’s mini-speech, as she kept frowning at the chessboard, working out how to out-manoeuvre herself.
‘The rook is my favourite piece,’ she said. ‘It’s the one that you think you don’t have to watch out for. It is straightforward. You keep your eye on the queen, and the knights, and the bishop, because they are the sneaky ones. But it’s the rook that often gets you. The straightforward is never quite what it seems.’
Nora realised Mrs Elm was probably not talking just about chess. But the shelves were moving now. Fast as trains.
‘This life you’ve asked for,’ explained Mrs Elm, ‘is a little bit further away from the pub dream and the Australian adventure. Those were closer lives. This one involves a lot of different choices, going back further in time. And so the book is a little further away, you see?’
‘Libraries have to have a system.’
The books slowed. ‘Ah, here we are.’
This time Mrs Elm didn’t stand up. She simply raised her left hand and a book flew towards her.
‘How did you do that?’
‘I have no idea. Now here’s the life you asked for. Off you go.’
Nora took hold of the book. Light, fresh, lime-coloured. She turned to the first page. And this time she was aware of feeling absolutely nothing at all.
The Last Update That Nora Had Posted Before She Found Herself Between Life and Death
I miss my cat. I’m tired.
The Successful Life
She had been asleep.
A deep, dreamless nothing, and now – thanks to the ring of a phone alarm – she was awake and didn’t know where she was.
The phone told her it was 6:30 a.m. A light switch beside the bed appeared, thanks to the glow of the screen. Switching it on, she could see she was in a hotel room. It was rather plush, in a bland and blue and corporate kind of way.
A tasteful semi-abstract sub-Cezanne painting of an apple – or maybe a pear – was framed on the wall.
There was a half-empty cylinder-shaped glass bottle of still mineral water beside the bed. And an unopened collection of shortbread biscuits. Some printed-out papers too, stapled together. A timetable of some sort.
She looked at it.
ITINERARY FOR NORA SEED OBE, GUEST SPEAKER, GULLIVER RESEARCH INSPIRING SUCCESS SPRING CONFERENCE
8.45 a.m. Meet Priya Navuluri (Gulliver Research) and Rory Longford (Celebrity Speakers) and J in lobby, InterContinental Hotel
9.00 a.m. Soundcheck.
9.05 a.m. Tech run-through.
9.30 a.m. Nora to wait in VIP area or watch first speaker in main hall (JP Blythe, inventor of MeTime app and author of Your Life, Your Terms)
10.15 a.m. Nora to deliver talk
10.45 a.m. Audience Q + A
11.00 a.m. Meet and greet
11.30 a.m. Finish
Nora Seed OBE
a life in which she was a success. Well, that was something.
She wondered who ‘J’ was, and the other people she was supposed to meet in the lobby, and then she put the sheet of paper down and got out of bed. She had a lot of time. Why was she getting up at 6:30 a.m.? Maybe she swam every morning. That would make sense. She pressed a button and the curtains slid open with a low whirr to reveal a view of water and skyscrapers and the white dome of the O2 arena. She had never seen this precise view from this precise angle before. London. Canary Wharf. About twenty storeys up.
She went to the bathroom – beige tiles, large shower cubicle, fluffy white towels – and realised she didn’t feel as bad as she usually did in the morning. There was a mirror filling half the opposing wall. She gasped at her appearance. And then she laughed. She looked so ridiculously healthy. And strong. And in this life had terrible taste in nightwear (pyjamas, mustard-and-green, plaid).
The bathroom was quite large. Large enough to get down on and do some push-ups. Ten full ones in a row – no knees – without even getting out of breath.
Then she held a plank. And tried it with one hand. Then the other hand, with hardly a tremor. Then she did some burpees.
No problem at all.
She stood up and patted her rock-hard stomach. Remembered how wheezy she had been in her root life, walking up the high street, technically only yesterday.
She hadn’t felt this fit since she was a teenager. In fact, this might be the fittest she had
felt. Stronger, certainly.
Searching Facebook for ‘Isabel Hirsh’, she found out that her former best friend was alive and still living in Australia and this made Nora happy. She didn’t even care that they weren’t social media friends, as it was highly probable that in this life Nora hadn’t gone to Bristol University. And even if she had, she wouldn’t have been doing the same course. It was a
humbling to realise that, even though
Isabel Hirsh might never have met Nora Seed, she was still doing the same thing she was doing in Nora’s root life.
She also checked in on Dan. He was (seemingly) happily married to a spin-class instructor called Gina. ‘Gina Lord (née Sharpe)’. They’d had a wedding in Sicily.
Nora then googled ‘Nora Seed’.
Her Wikipedia page (she had a Wikipedia page!) informed her that she had indeed made it to the Olympics. Twice. And that she specialised in freestyle. She had won a gold medal for 800m freestyle, with a ridiculous time of eight minutes and five seconds, and had a silver for 400m.
This had been when she was twenty-two years old. She had won another silver medal when she was twenty-six, for her participation in a 4 x 100m relay. It got even
ridiculous when she read that she had briefly been the world record-holder for women’s 400m freestyle at the World Aquatic Championships. She had then retired from international competition.
She had retired at twenty-eight
She apparently now worked for the BBC during their coverage of swimming events, had appeared on the TV show
A Question of Sport
, had written an autobiography called
Sink or Swim
, was an occasional assistant coach at British Swimming GB, and still swam for two hours every day.
She gave a lot of money to charitable causes – namely to Marie Curie Cancer Care – and she had organised a fundraising charity swimathon around Brighton Pier for the Marine Conservation Society. Since retiring from professional sport, she had swum the Channel twice.
There was a link to a TED talk she had given about the value of stamina in sport, and training, and life. It had over a million views. As she began to watch it, Nora felt as though she was watching someone else. This woman was confident, commanded the stage, had great posture, smiled naturally as she spoke, and managed to make the crowd smile and laugh and clap and nod their heads at all the right moments.
She had never imagined she could be like this, and tried to memorise what this other Nora was doing, but realised there was no way she would be able to.