Authors: Matt Haig
Then she noted a piece of graffiti on a low wall which said THE WORLD IS ON FIRE and another that said ONE EARTH = ONE CHANCE and her smile faded. After all, a different life didn’t mean a different planet.
She had no idea where she lived or what she did or where she was meant to be heading after the swimming pool, but there was something quite freeing about that. To be existing without any expectation, even her own. As she walked, she googled her own name and added ‘Sydney’ to see if it brought up anything.
Before she scanned the results she glanced up and noticed a man walking on the path towards her, smiling. A short, tanned man with kind eyes and long thinning hair in a loose ponytail with a shirt that wasn’t buttoned correctly.
‘Hey,’ she said, trying not to sound confused.
‘What time you start today?’
How could she answer that? ‘Uh. Oh. Crap. I’ve totally forgotten.’
He laughed, a little laugh of recognition, as if her forgetting was quite in character.
‘I saw it on the roster. I think it might be eleven.’
Kind Eyes laughed. ‘What’ve you been smoking? I want some.’
‘Ha. Nothing,’ she said, stiffly. ‘I’ve not been smoking anything. I just skipped breakfast.’
‘Well, see you this arvo . . .’
‘Yes. At the . . . place. Where is it again?’
He laughed, frowningly, and kept walking. Maybe she worked on a whale sight-seeing cruise that operated out of Sydney. Maybe Izzy did too.
Nora had no idea where she (or they) lived, and nothing was coming up on Google, but away from the ocean seemed the right direction. Maybe she was very local. Maybe she had walked here. Maybe one of the bikes she saw locked up outside the pool café had been hers. She rummaged in her tiny clasp wallet and felt her pockets for a key, but there was only a house key. No car keys, no bike keys. So it was a bus or by foot. The house key had no information on it at all, so she sat on a bench with the sun beating hard on the back of her neck and checked her texts.
There were names of people she didn’t recognise.
Amy. Rodhri. Bella. Lucy P. Kemala. Luke. Lucy M.
Who are these people?
And a rather unhelpful contact titled, simply: ‘Work’. And there was only one recent message from ‘Work’ and it said:
Where r u?
There was one name she recognised.
Her heart sank as she clicked on his most recent message.
Hey Nor! Hope Oz is treating you well. This is going to sound either corny or creepy but I am going to go all out and tell you. I had a dream the other night about our pub. It was such a good dream. We were so happy! Anyway, ignore that
weirdness, the point of this is to say: guess where I’m going in May? AUSTRALIA. First time in over a decade. Am coming with work. I’m working with MCA. Would be great to catch up, even for a coffee if you’re around. D x
It was so strange she almost laughed. But she coughed instead. (Maybe she wasn’t quite so fit in this life, now she thought about it.) She wondered how many Dans there were in the world, dreaming of things they would hate if they actually got them. And how many were pushing other people into their delusional idea of happiness?
Instagram seemed to be the only social media she had here, and she only seemed to post pictures of poems on it.
She took a moment to read one:
Every part of her
That got scraped off
Because of schoolyard laughter
Or the advice of grown-ups
Long gone –
And the pain of friends
She collected those bits off the floor.
Like wood shavings.
And she made them into fuel.
Bright enough to see
This was troubling, but it was – after all – just a poem. Scrolling through some emails, she found one to Charlotte – a ceilidh band
flautist with earthy humour who’d been Nora’s only friend at String Theory before she had moved back up to Scotland.
Hope all is fine and dandy.
Pleased the birthday do went well. Sorry I couldn’t be there. All is well in sunny Sydney. Have finally moved into the new place. It’s right near Bronte Beach (beautiful). Lots of neighbourhood cafes and charm. I also have a new job.
I go swimming in a saltwater pool every morning and every evening I drink a glass of Australian wine in the sunshine. Life is good!
2/29 Darling Street
Something was rotten. The tone of vague, distant perkiness, as if writing to a long-lost aunt. The
Lots of neighbourhood cafes and charm
, as though it was a TripAdvisor review. She didn’t speak to Charlotte – or indeed
– like that.
There was also no mention of Izzy.
Have finally moved into the new place
. Was that
have? Charlotte knew of Izzy. Why not mention her?
She would soon find out. Indeed, twenty minutes later she was standing in the hallway of her apartment, staring at four bags of rubbish that needed taking out. The living room looked small and depressing. The sofa tatty and old. The place smelt slightly mouldy.
There was a poster on the wall for the video game
vape pen on a coffee table, with a marijuana leaf sticker on it. A woman was staring at a screen, shooting zombies in the head.
The woman had short blue hair and for a moment Nora thought it might be Izzy.
‘Hi,’ Nora said.
The woman turned. She was not Izzy. She had sleepy eyes and a vacant expression, as if the zombies she was shooting had slightly infected her. She was probably a perfectly decent person but she was not anyone Nora had ever seen in her life. She smiled.
‘Hey. How’s that new poem coming along?’
‘Oh. Yeah. It’s coming along really well. Thanks.’
Nora walked around the flat in a bit of a daze. She opened a door at random and realised it was the bathroom. She didn’t need the toilet, but she needed a second to think. So she shut the door and washed her hands and stared at the water spiral down the plughole the wrong way.
She glanced at the shower. The dull yellow curtain was dirty in a vague student-house kind of way. That’s what this place reminded her of. A student house. She was thirty-five and, in this life, living like a student. She saw some anti-depressants – fluoxetine – beside the basin, and picked up the box. She read
Prescription for N. Seed
at the top of the label. She looked down at her arm and saw the scars again. It was weird, to have your own body offer clues to a mystery.
There was a magazine on the floor next to the bin,
. The one with the black hole on its cover that she had been reading in another life, on the other side of the world, only yesterday. She sensed it was her magazine, given she had always liked reading it, and had been known – even in recent times – to buy it on the occasional spontaneous whim as no online version ever did the photos justice.
She remembered being eleven years old and looking at the photos of Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic, in her dad’s
copy. It had looked so vast and desolate and powerful and she had wondered what it would have been like to be among it, like the scientist-explorers in the article, spending their summer doing some kind of geological research. She cut out the pictures and they ended up on the pinboard in her bedroom. And for many years, at school, she had tried hard at science and geography just so she could be like the scientists in the article and spend her summers among frozen mountains and fjords, as puffins flew overhead.
But after her dad died, and after reading Nietzsche’s
Beyond Good and Evil
, she decided that a) Philosophy seemed to be the only subject that matched her sudden inward intensity and b) she wanted to be a rock star more than a scientist anyway.
After leaving the bathroom, she returned to her mysterious flatmate.
She sat on the sofa and waited for a few moments, watching.
The woman’s avatar got shot in the head.
‘Piss off, you zombie fuckface,’ the woman snarled happily at the screen.
She picked up the vape pen. Nora wondered how she knew this woman. She was assuming they were flatmates.
‘I’ve been thinking about what you said.’
‘What did I say?’ Nora asked.
‘About doing some cat-sitting. You know, you wanted to look after that cat?’
‘Oh yeah. Sure. I remember.’
‘Bad fucking idea, man.’
‘What about them?’
‘They’ve got a parasite. Toxoplas-something.’
Nora knew this. She had known this since she was a teen, doing her work experience at Bedford Animal Rescue Centre. ‘Toxoplasmosis.’
‘That’s it! Well, I was listening to this podcast, right . . . and there’s this theory that this international group of billionaires infected the cats with it so that they could take over the world by making humans dumber and dumber. I mean, think about it. There are cats
. I was talking to Jared about this and Jared said, “Jojo, what are you smoking?” And I was like, “The stuff you gave me” and he said, “Yeah, I know.” Then he told me about the grasshoppers.’
‘Yeah. Did you hear about grasshoppers?’ Jojo asked.
‘What about them?’
‘They are all killing themselves. Because this parasitic worm grows inside them, to become like a full-grown aquatic creature, and as it grows it takes over the brain function of the grasshopper, so the grasshopper thinks, “Hey, I really like water” and so they divebomb into water and die. And it’s happening all the time. Google it. Google “grasshopper suicide”. Anyway, the point is, the elites are killing us via cats and so you shouldn’t be near them.’
Nora couldn’t help thinking how different this life was to her imagined version of it. She had pictured herself and Izzy on a boat near Byron Bay, marvelling at the magnificence of humpback whales, and yet she was here in a small pot-scented apartment in Sydney, with a conspiracy theorist as a flatmate who wouldn’t even let her near a cat.
‘What happened to Izzy?’
Nora realised she had just asked the question out loud.
Jojo looked confused. ‘Izzy? Your old friend Izzy?’
‘The one who died?’
The words came so fast Nora could hardly absorb them.
‘The car crash girl?’
Jojo looked confused, as curls of smoke wisped across her face. ‘You okay, Nora?’ She held out the joint. ‘Wanna toke?’
‘No, I’m okay thanks.’
Jojo chuckled. ‘Makes a change.’
Nora grabbed her phone. Went online. Typed ‘Isabel Hirsh’ into the search box. Then clicked ‘News’.
There it was. A headline. Above a picture of Izzy’s tanned face, smiling.
BRITISH WOMAN KILLED IN NSW ROAD COLLISION
A woman, 33, was killed and three people hospitalised south of Coffs Harbour last night when the woman’s Toyota Corolla collided with a car travelling in the opposite direction on the Pacific Highway.
The female driver, identified as British citizen Isabel Hirsh, died at the scene of the accident just before 9pm. She was the only person in the Toyota.
According to her flatmate, Nora Seed, Isabel had been driving from Sydney back to Byron Bay, to attend Nora’s birthday party. Isabel had recently started working for Byron Bay Whale Watching Tours.
‘I am totally devastated,’ Nora said. ‘We travelled to Australia together only a month ago and Izzy had planned to stay here for as long as possible. She was such a force of life that it feels impossible to imagine the world without her in it. She was so excited about her new job. It is so unbearably sad and hard to comprehend.’
The passengers of the other car all suffered injuries, and the driver – Chris Dale – had to be airlifted to the hospital at Baringa.
New South Wales Police are asking anyone who witnessed the collision to come forward to help with their enquiries.
‘Oh my God,’ she whispered to herself, feeling faint. ‘Oh, Izzy.’
She knew that Izzy wasn’t dead in all her lives. Or even most of them. But in this one it was real, and the grief Nora felt felt real too. The grief was familiar and terrifying and laced with guilt.
Before she could properly process anything, the mobile rang. It said ‘Work’.
A man’s voice. A slow drawl. ‘Where are you?’
‘You were meant to be here half an hour ago.’
‘The ferry terminal. You’re selling tickets. I’ve got the correct number, right? This is Nora Seed I’m talking to?’
‘It’s one of them,’ sighed Nora, as she gently faded away.
The shrewd-eyed librarian was back at her chessboard and hardly looked up as Nora arrived back.
‘Well, that was terrible.’
Mrs Elm smiled, wryly. ‘It just shows you, doesn’t it?’
‘Shows me what?’
‘Well, that you can choose choices but not outcomes. But I stand by what I said. It was a good choice. It just wasn’t a desired outcome.’
Nora studied Mrs Elm’s face. Was she
‘Why did I stay?’ Nora asked. ‘Why didn’t I just come home, after she died?’
Mrs Elm shrugged. ‘You got stuck. You were grieving. You were depressed. You know what depression is like.’
Nora understood this. She thought of a study she had read about somewhere, about fish. Fish were more like humans than most people think.
Fish get depression. They had done tests with zebrafish. They had a fish tank and they drew a horizontal line on the side of it, halfway down, in marker pen. Depressed fish stayed below the line. But give those same fish Prozac and they go above the line, to the top of their tanks, darting about like new.
Fish get depressed when they have a lack of stimulation. A lack of
. When they are just there, floating in a tank that resembles nothing at all.