The Midnight Library (25 page)

BOOK: The Midnight Library
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He was smiling and holding two cups of coffee, one of which was for Nora. She wondered how many coffees they had shared together, since the first.

‘Oh, thank you.’

‘Oh no, Nor, did you sleep in here all night?’ he asked.


‘Most of it. I meant to go back to bed but Molly was in a state. I had to calm her and then I was too tired to move.’

‘Oh no. I’m so sorry. I didn’t hear her.’ He seemed genuinely sad. ‘It was probably my fault. I showed her some bears on YouTube yesterday before work.’

‘No worries.’

‘Anyway, I’ve walked Plato. I’m not in the hospital till midday today. It’s going to be a late one. Are you still wanting to go into the library today?’

‘Oh. You know what? I might give it a miss.’

‘Okay, well, I got Mol some brekkie and will drop her off at school.’

‘I can take Molly,’ said Nora. ‘If you’ve got a big day.’

‘Oh, it’s an okay one. A gall bladder and a pancreas so far. Easy street. Am going to get a run in.’

‘Right. Yes. ’Course. For the half-marathon on Sunday.’


‘Nothing. It doesn’t matter,’ Nora said, ‘I’m just delirious from sleeping on the floor.’

‘No worries. Anyway, my sister phoned. They want her to illustrate the calendar for Kew Gardens. Lots of plants. She’s really pleased.’

He smiled. He seemed happy for this sister of his who Nora had never heard of. She wanted to thank him for being so good about her dead cat, but she obviously couldn’t so she just said, ‘Thank you.’

‘For what?’

‘Just, you know, everything.’

‘Oh. Right. Okay.’

‘So, thank you.’

He nodded. ‘That’s nice. Anyway, run time.’

He drained his coffee and then disappeared. Nora scanned the room, absorbing every new piece of information. Every cuddly toy and book and plug socket, as if they were all part of the jigsaw of her life.

An hour later, Molly was being dropped off at her infant school and Nora was doing the usual. Checking her emails and social media. Her social media activity wasn’t great in this life, which was always a promising sign, but she did have a
of a lot of emails. From these emails she divined that she was not simply ‘stopping’ teaching at the moment but had officially stopped. She was on a sabbatical in order to write a book about Henry David Thoreau and his relevance for the modern-day environmentalist movement. Later in the year she planned to visit Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, funded by a research grant.

This seemed pretty good.


A good life with a good daughter and a good man in a good
house in a good town. It was an excess of good. A life where she could sit down all day reading and researching and writing about her all-time favourite philosopher.

‘This is cool,’ she told the dog. ‘Isn’t this cool?’

Plato yawned indifference.

Then she set about exploring her house, being watched by the Labrador from the comfy-looking sofa. The living room was vast. Her feet sunk into the soft rug.

White floorboards, TV, wood-burner, electric piano, two new laptops on charge, a mahogany chest on which perched an ornate chess set, nicely stacked bookshelves. A lovely guitar resting in the corner. Nora recognised the model instantly as an electro-acoustic ‘Midnight Satin’ Fender Malibu. She had sold one during her last week working at String Theory.

There were photos in frames dotted around the living room. Kids she didn’t know with a woman who looked like Ash – presumably his sister. An old photo of her deceased parents on their wedding day, and one of her and Ash getting married. She could see her brother in the background. A photo of Plato. And one of a baby, presumably Molly.

She glanced at the books. Some yoga manuals, but not the second-hand ones she owned in her root life. Some medical books. She recognised her copy of Bertrand Russell’s
History of Western Philosophy
, along with Henry David Thoreau’s
, both of which she’d owned since university. A familiar
Principles of Geology
was also there. There were quite a few books on Thoreau. And copies of Plato’s
and Hannah Arendt’s
The Origins of Totalitarianism
, which she did own in her root life, but not in these editions. Intellectual-looking books by people like Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. There were a lot of works on Eastern philosophy that she had never read before and she wondered if she stayed in this life, and she couldn’t see why not, whether there was a
way to read them all before she had to do any more teaching at Cambridge.

Novels, some Dickens,
The Bell Jar,
some geeky pop-science books, a few music books, a few parenting manuals,
by Ralph Waldo Emerson and
Silent Spring
by Rachel Carson, some stuff on climate change, and a large hardback called
Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape

She had rarely, if ever, been this consistently highbrow. This was clearly what happened when you did a Master’s degree at Cambridge and then went on sabbatical to write a book on your favourite philosopher.

‘You’re impressed by me,’ she told the dog. ‘You can admit it.’

There was also a pile of music songbooks, and Nora smiled when she saw that the one on top was the Simon & Garfunkel one she had sold to Ash the day he had asked her out for a coffee. On the coffee table there was a nice glossy hardback book of photographs of Spanish scenery and on the sofa there was something called
The Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers

And in the magazine rack there was the brand-new
National Geographic
with the picture of the black hole on the cover.

There was a picture on the wall. A Miró print from a museum in Barcelona.

‘Have me and Ash been to Barcelona together, Plato?’ She imagined them both, hand-in-hand, wandering the streets of the Gothic Quarter together, popping into a bar for tapas and Rioja.

On the wall opposite the bookshelves there was a mirror. A broad mirror with an ornate white frame. She no longer got surprised by the variations in appearance between lives. She had been every shape and size and had every haircut. In this life, she looked perfectly
. She would have liked to be friends with this person. It wasn’t an Olympian or a rock star or a Cirque du Soleil acrobat she was looking at, but it was someone who seemed to be having a good life, as far as you could tell these things. A
grown-up who had a vague idea of who she was and what she was doing in life. Short hair, but not dramatically so, skin looking healthier than in her root life, either through diet, a lack of red wine, exercise, or the cleansers and moisturisers she’d seen in the bathroom, which were all more expensive than anything she owned in her root life.

‘Well,’ she said to Plato. ‘This is a nice life, yeah?’

Plato seemed to agree.

A Spiritual Quest for a Deeper Connection with the Universe

She found the medicine drawer in the kitchen and rummaged through the plasters and ibuprofen and Calpol and multivitamins and runners’ knee bandages but couldn’t find any sign of any anti-depressants.

Maybe this was it. Maybe this was, finally, the life she was going to stay put in. The life she would choose. The one she would not return to the shelves.

I could be happy here

A little later, in the shower, she scanned her body for new marks. There were no tattoos but there was a scar. Not a self-inflicted scar but a surgical-looking one – a long, delicate horizontal line below her navel. She had seen a caesarean scar before, and now she stroked her thumb along it, thinking that even if she stayed in this life she would have always turned up late for it.

Ash came back home from dropping Molly off.

She hastily dressed so he wouldn’t see her naked.

They had breakfast together. They sat at their kitchen table and scrolled the day’s news and ate sourdough toast and were very much like a living endorsement for marriage.

And then Ash went to the hospital and she stayed home to research Thoreau all day. She read her work-in-progress, which already had an impressive word-count of 42,729, and sat eating toast before picking Molly up from school.

Molly wanted to go to the park ‘like normal’ to feed the ducks, and so Nora took her, disguising the fact that she was using Google Maps to navigate her way there.

Nora pushed her on a swing till her arms ached, slid down slides with her and crawled behind her through large metallic tunnels. They then threw dry oats into the pond for the ducks, scooped from a box of porridge.

Then she sat down with Molly in front of the telly and then she fed her her dinner and read a bedtime story, all before Ash returned home.

After Ash came home, a man came to the door and tried to get in and Nora shut the door in his face.



‘Why were you so weird to Adam?’


‘I think he was a little bit put out.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You acted like he was a stranger.’

‘Oh.’ Nora smiled. ‘Sorry.’

‘He’s been our neighbour for three years. We went camping with him and Hannah in the Lake District.’

‘Yes. I know. Of course.’

‘You looked like you weren’t letting him in. Like he was an intruder or something.’

‘Did I?’

‘You shut the door in his face.’

‘I shut the door. It wasn’t in his face. I mean, yes, his face was there. Technically. But I just didn’t want him to think he could barge in.’

‘He was bringing the hose back.’

‘Oh, right. Well, we don’t need the hose. Hoses are bad for the planet.’

‘Are you okay?’

‘Why wouldn’t I be?’

‘I just worry about you . . .’

Generally, though, things turned out pretty good, and every time she wondered if she would wake up back in the library, she didn’t. One day, after her yoga class, Nora sat on a bench by the River Cam and re-read some Thoreau. The day after, she watched Ryan Bailey on daytime TV being interviewed on the set of
Last Chance Saloon 2,
in which he said he was ‘on a spiritual quest for a deeper connection with the universe’ rather than worrying about ‘settling down in a romantic context’.

She received whale photos from Izzy, and WhatsApped her to say that she had heard about a horrid car crash in Australia recently, and made Izzy promise she would always drive safely.

Nora was comforted to know she had no inclination whatsoever to see what Dan was doing with his life. Instead, she felt very grateful to be with Ash. Or rather, and more precisely: she imagined she was grateful, because he was lovely, and there were so many moments of joy and laughter and love.

Ash did long shifts but was easy to be around when he was in, even after days of blood and stress and gall bladders. He was also a bit of a nerd. He always said ‘good morning’ to elderly people in the street when walking the dog and sometimes they ignored him. He sang along to the car radio. He generally didn’t seem to need sleep. And was always fine doing the Molly night shift even when he was in surgery the next day.

He loved to gross Molly out with facts – a stomach gets a new lining every four days! Ear wax is a type of sweat! You have creatures called mites living in your eyelashes! – and loved to be inappropriate. He (at the duck pond, the first Saturday, within Molly’s earshot) enthusiastically told a random stranger that male ducks have penises shaped like corkscrews.

On nights when he was home early enough to cook, he made a great lentil dal and a pretty good penne arrabbiata, and tended to put a whole bulb of garlic in every meal he created. But Molly had been absolutely right: his artistic talents didn’t extend to
musical ability. In fact, when he sang ‘The Sound of Silence’, accompanied by his guitar, she found herself guiltily wishing he would take the title literally.

He was, in other words, a bit of a dork – a dork who saved lives on a daily basis, but still a dork. Which was good. Nora liked dorks, and she felt one herself, and it helped make her get over the fundamental
of being with a husband you were only just getting to know.

This is a good life,
Nora would think to herself, over and over again.

Yes, being a parent was exhausting, but Molly was easy to love, at least in daylight hours. In fact, Nora often preferred it when Molly was home from school because it added a bit of challenge to what was otherwise a rather frictionless existence. No relationship stress, no work stress, no money stress.

It was a lot to be grateful for.

There were inevitably shaky moments. She felt the familiar feeling of being in a play for which she didn’t know the lines.

‘Is anything wrong?’ she asked Ash one night.

‘It’s just . . .’ He looked at her with his kind smile and intense, scrutinising eyes. ‘I don’t know. You forgot our anniversary was coming up. You think you haven’t seen films you’ve seen. And vice versa. You forgot you had a bike. You forget where the plates are. You’ve been wearing my slippers. You get into my side of the bed.’

‘Jeez, Ash,’ she said, a little bit too tense. ‘It’s like being interrogated by the three bears.’

‘I just worry . . .’

‘I’m fine. Just, you know, lost in research world. Lost in the woods. Thoreau’s woods.’

And she felt in those moments that maybe she’d return to the Midnight Library. Sometimes she remembered the words of Mrs Elm on her first visit there.
If you really want to live a life hard
enough, you don’t have to worry . . . 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 dream. A memory so vague and intangible it will hardly be there at all

Which begged the question: if this was the perfect life, why hadn’t she forgotten the library?

How long did it take to forget?

Occasionally she felt wisps of gentle depression float around her, for no real reason, but it wasn’t comparable to how terrible she had felt in her root life, or indeed many of her other lives. It was like comparing a bit of a sniffle to pneumonia. When she thought about how bad she had felt the day she lost her job at String Theory, of the despair, of the lonely and desperate yearning to not exist, then this was
nowhere near

BOOK: The Midnight Library
11.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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