Authors: Matt Haig
‘I asked for the life in which Voltaire was still alive.’
‘Actually, you didn’t.’
She put her book down. ‘You asked for the life where you kept him indoors. That is an entirely different thing.’
‘Yes. Entirely. You see, if you’d have asked for the life where he was still alive I would have had to say no.’
‘Because it doesn’t exist.’
‘I thought every life exists.’
life. You see, it turns out that Voltaire had a serious case of’ – she read carefully from the book – ‘
, 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
Volts would be dead. And Volts
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
. They understand when their time is up. He went outside
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
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
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
‘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.
‘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.
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?’
‘There are an
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
‘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.’
‘What if I am dead?’
‘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,
. I mean, you could
in that life, but you won’t have died
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
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.
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 was probably time to get out of the pool. She saw a sign.
Bronte Beach Swimming Pool
. She vaguely remembered Dan, who had been to Australia in his gap year, talking about this place and the name had stuck – Bronte Beach – because it was easy to remember. Jane Eyre on a surfboard.
But here was confirmation of her doubt.
Bronte Beach was in Sydney. But it most definitely wasn’t part of Byron Bay.
So that meant one of two things. Either Izzy, in this life, wasn’t in Byron Bay. Or Nora wasn’t with Izzy.
She noticed she was tanned a mild caramel all over.
Of course, the trouble was, she didn’t know where her clothes were. But then she remembered the plastic wristband with a key on it.
57. Her locker was 57. So she found the changing rooms and opened the squat, square locker and saw that her taste in clothes, as well as watches, was more colourful in this life. She had a T-shirt with a pineapple print on it. A whole cornucopia of pineapples. And pink-purple denim shorts. And slip-on checked pumps.
What am I?
A children’s TV presenter?
Sun-block. Hibiscus tinted lip balm. No other make-up as such.
As she pulled on her T-shirt, she noticed a couple of marks on her arm. Scar-lines. She wondered, momentarily, if they had been self-inflicted. There was also a tattoo just below her shoulder. A Phoenix and flames. It was a terrible tattoo. In this life, she clearly had no taste. But since when did taste have anything to do with happiness?
She dressed and pulled out a phone from her shorts pocket.
This was an older model than in her married-and-living-in-a-pub life. Luckily, a thumb-reading was enough to unlock it.
She left the changing rooms and walked along a beachside path. It was a warm day. Maybe life was automatically better when the sun shone so confidently in April. Everything seemed more vivid, more colourful and
than it had done in England.
She saw a parrot – a rainbow lorikeet – perched on the top of a bench, being photographed by a couple of tourists. A surfy-looking cyclist passed by holding an orange smoothie, smiling and literally saying, ‘G’day.’
This was most definitely not Bedford.
Nora noticed something was happening to her face. She was – could she be? –
. And naturally, not just because someone expected her to.