Authors: Matt Haig
‘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
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.
It was multiplying.
‘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?’
‘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
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
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
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
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.
‘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 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
? 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
‘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?’
‘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.
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
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?
She climbed out of bed.
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.
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
with a shark on the cover and a five-month-old copy of
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.
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.’