Authors: Matt Haig
‘People with stamina aren’t made any differently to anyone else,’ she was saying. ‘The only difference is they have a clear goal in mind, and a determination to get there. Stamina is essential to stay focused in a life filled with distraction. It is the ability to stick to a task when your body and mind are at their limit, the ability to keep your head down, swimming in your lane, without looking around, worrying who might overtake you . . .’
Who the hell
She skipped a little further into the video, and this other Nora was still talking with the confidence of a self-help Joan of Arc.
‘If you aim to be something you are not, you will always fail. Aim to be you. Aim to look and act and think like you. Aim to be the truest version of you. Embrace that you-ness. Endorse it. Love
it. Work hard at it. And don’t give a second thought when people mock it or ridicule it. Most gossip is envy in disguise. Keep your head down. Keep your stamina. Keep swimming . . .’
‘Keep swimming,’ Nora mumbled, echoing this other self and wondering if the hotel had a pool.
The video disappeared and a second later her phone started to buzz.
A name appeared. ‘Nadia’.
She didn’t know any Nadias in her original life. She had no idea if seeing the name would have inspired this version of her with happy anticipation or sinking dread.
There was only one way to find out.
‘Sweetheart,’ came a voice she didn’t recognise. A voice that was close but not entirely warm. She had an accent. Maybe Russian. ‘I hope you are okay.’
‘Hi Nadia. Thanks. I’m fine. I’m just here in the hotel. Getting ready for a conference.’ She tried to sound jolly.
‘Oh yeah, the conference. Fifteen thousand pounds for a talk. Sounds good.’
It sounded ridiculous. But she also wondered how Nadia – whoever Nadia was – knew this.
‘Joe told us.’
‘Yeah. Well, listen, I need to talk to you at some point about your father’s birthday.’
‘I know he’d love it if you could come up and see us.’
Her whole body went cold and weak, as if she had seen a ghost.
She remembered her father’s funeral, hugging her brother as they cried on each other’s shoulders.
My dad. My dead dad
‘He’s just come in from the garden. Do you want a word with him?’
This was so remarkable, so world-shattering, it was totally out of synch with her tone of voice. She said it casually, almost as if it was nothing at all.
‘Do you want a word with Dad?’
It took her a moment. She felt suddenly off-balance.
She could hardly speak. Or breathe. She didn’t know what to say. Everything felt unreal. It was like time travel. As though she had fallen through two decades.
It was too late to respond because the next thing she heard was Nadia saying: ‘Here he is . . .’
Nora nearly hung up the phone. Maybe she should have. But she didn’t. Now she knew it was a possibility, she needed to hear his voice again.
His breath first.
Then: ‘Hi Nora, how are you?’
Just that. Casual, non-specific, everyday. It was him. His voice. His strong voice that had always been so clipped. But a little thinner, maybe, a little weaker. A voice fifteen years older than it was meant to be.
‘Dad,’ she said. Her voice was a stunned whisper. ‘It’s you.’
‘You all right, Nora? Is this a bad line? Do you want to FaceTime?’
FaceTime. To see his face. No. That would be too much. This was already too much. Just the idea that there was a version of her dad alive at a time after FaceTime was invented. Her dad belonged in a world of landlines. When he died, he was only just warming to radical concepts like emails and text messages.
‘No,’ she said. ‘It was me. I was just thinking of something. I’m a bit distant. Sorry. How are you?’
‘Fine. We took Sally to the vets yesterday.’
She assumed Sally was a dog. Her parents had never had a dog, or any pet. Nora had begged for a dog or a cat when she was little but her dad had always said they tied you down.
‘What was wrong with her?’ Nora asked, trying to sound natural now.
‘Just her ears again. That infection keeps coming back.’
‘Oh right,’ she said, as though she knew Sally and her problematic ears. ‘Poor Sally. I . . . I love you, Dad. And I just want to say that—’
‘Are you all right, Nora? You’re sounding a bit . . . emotional.’
‘I just didn’t . . .
tell you that enough. I just want you to know I love you. You are a good father. And in another life – the life where I quit swimming – I am full of regret over that.’
She felt awkward asking him anything, but she had to know. The questions started to burst out of her like water from a geyser.
‘Are you okay, Dad?’
‘Why wouldn’t I be?’
‘Just. You know . . . You used to worry about chest pains.’
‘Haven’t had them since I got healthy again. That was years ago. You remember. My health kick? Hanging around Olympians does that to you. Got me back to rugby-fit. Coming up to sixteen years off the drink too. Cholesterol and blood pressure low, the doc says.’
‘Yes, of course . . . I remember the health kick.’ And then another question came to her. But she had no idea how to ask it. So she did it directly.
‘How long have you been with Nadia now again?’
‘Are you having memory problems or something?’
‘No. Well, yes, maybe. I have just been thinking a lot about life recently.’
‘Are you a philosopher now?’
‘Well, I studied it.’
‘Never mind. I just can’t remember how you and Nadia met.’
She heard an awkward sigh down the phone. He sounded terse. ‘You know how we met . . . Why are you bringing all this up? Is this something that therapist is opening up? Because you know my feelings on that.’
I have a therapist
‘That’s all right.’
‘I just want to know that you’re happy.’
‘’Course I am. I’ve got an Olympic champion for a daughter and have finally found the love of my life. And you’re getting back on your feet again. Mentally, I mean. After Portugal.’
Nora wanted to know what had happened in Portugal but she had another question to ask first.
‘What about Mum? Wasn’t she the love of your life?’
‘Once upon a time she was. But things change, Nora. Come on, you’re a grown-up.’
‘I . . .’
Nora put her dad on speaker. Clicked back to her own Wikipedia page. Sure enough, her parents had divorced after her father had an affair with Nadia Vanko, mother of a Ukrainian male swimmer, Yegor Vanko. And in this timeline her mother had died way back in 2011.
And all this because Nora had never sat in that car park in Bedford and told her dad that she didn’t want to be a competitive swimmer.
She felt that feeling again. Like she was fading away. That she had worked out that this life wasn’t for her and was disappearing back to the library. But she stayed where she was. She said goodbye to her dad, ended the phone call and continued to read up on herself.
She was single, though had been in a relationship with the
American Olympic medal-winning diver Scott Richards for three years, and briefly lived with him in California, where they resided in La Jolla, San Diego. She now lived in West London.
Having read the entire page she put the phone down and decided to go find out if there was a pool. She wanted to do what she would be doing in this life, and what she would be doing was swimming. And maybe the water would help her think of what she could say.
It was an exceptional swim, even if it gave her little creative inspiration, and it calmed her after the experience of having a conversation with her dead father. She had the pool to herself and glided through length after length of breaststroke without having to think about it. It felt so empowering, to be that fit and strong and to have such mastery of the water, that she momentarily stopped worrying about her father and having to give a speech she really wasn’t prepared for.
But as she swam her mood changed. She thought of those years her dad had gained and her mother had lost, and as she thought she became angrier and angrier at her father, which fuelled her to swim even faster. She had always imagined her parents were too proud to get divorced, so instead let their resentments fester inside, projecting them onto their children, and Nora in particular. And swimming had been her only ticket to approval.
Here, in this life she was in now, she had pursued a career to keep him happy, while sacrificing her own relationships, her own love of music, her own dreams beyond anything that didn’t involve a medal, her own
. And her father had paid this back by having an affair with this Nadia person and leaving her mother and he still got terse with her. After all that.
Screw him. Or at least this version of him.
As she switched to freestyle she realised it wasn’t her fault that her parents had never been able to love her the way parents were meant to: without condition. It wasn’t her fault her mother focused
on her every flaw, starting with the asymmetry of her ears. No. It went back even earlier than that. The first problem had been that Nora had dared, somehow, to arrive into existence at a time when her parents’ marriage was relatively fragile. Her mother fell into depression and her father turned to tumblers of single malt.
She did thirty more lengths, and her mind calmed and she started to feel free, just her and the water.
But when she eventually got out of the pool and went back to her room she dressed in the only clean clothes in her hotel room (smart navy trouser suit) and stared at the inside of her suitcase. She felt the profound loneliness emanating from it. There was a copy of her own book. She was staring out from the cover with steely-eyed determination and wearing a Team GB swimsuit. She picked it up and saw, in small print, that it was ‘co-written with Amanda Sands’.
Amanda Sands, the internet told her, was ‘ghost-writer to a whole host of sporting celebrities’.
Then she looked at her watch. It was time to head to the lobby.
Standing waiting for her were two smartly dressed people she didn’t recognise and one she most definitely did. He was wearing a suit and was clean-shaven in this life, his hair side-parted and business-like, but he was the same Joe. His dark eyebrows as bushy as ever – ‘That’s the Italian in you,’ as their mother used to say.
What’s more, he was smiling at her. A big, brotherly, uncomplicated smile.
‘Morning, sis,’ he said, surprised by and a little awkward from the length of the hug she was giving him.
When the hug was over, he introduced the other two people he was standing with.
‘This is Priya from Gulliver Research, the people organising the conference obviously, and this is Rory, obviously, from Celebrity Speakers.’
‘Hi Priya!’ said Nora. ‘Hi Rory. So nice to meet you.’
‘Yes, it is,’ said Priya, smiling. ‘We’re so pleased to have you.’
‘You say that like we’ve never met before!’ said Rory, with a booming laugh.
Nora backtracked. ‘Yes, I know
met, Rory. Just my little joke. You know my sense of humour.’
‘You have a sense of humour?’
‘Good one, Rory!’
‘Okay,’ her brother said, looking at her and smiling. ‘Do you want to see the space?’
She couldn’t stop smiling. Here was her brother. Her brother, whom she hadn’t seen in two years and hadn’t had any semblance of a good relationship with in far longer, looking healthy and happy and like he actually
her. ‘The space?’
‘Yeah. The hall. Where you’re doing the talk.’
‘It’s all set up,’ Priya added, helpfully.
‘Bloody big room,’ said Rory approvingly, as he cradled a paper cup of coffee.
So, Nora agreed and was led into a vast blue conference room with a wide stage and around a thousand empty chairs. A technician in black came up and asked her: ‘What do you fancy? Lapel or headset or handheld?’
‘What kind of mic will you want up there?’
‘Headset,’ her brother interjected on Nora’s behalf.
‘Yeah. Headset,’ said Nora.
‘I was just thinking,’ her brother said, ‘after that nightmare we had with the microphone in Cardiff.’
‘Yeah, totally. What a nightmare.’
Priya was smiling at her, wanting to ask something. ‘Am I right in thinking you’ve got no multimedia stuff? No slides or anything?’
Her brother and Rory were looking at her, a little concerned. This was clearly a question she should know the answer to and didn’t.
‘Yes,’ she said, then saw her brother’s expression, ‘I . . . don’t. Yes, I don’t. I don’t have any multimedia stuff.’
And they all looked at her like she was not quite right but she smiled through it.
Ten minutes later she was sitting on her own with her brother in something called the ‘VIP Business Lounge’, which was just a small, airless room with some chairs and a table offering a selection of today’s newspapers. A couple of middle-aged men in suits were typing things into laptops.
By this point she had worked out that her brother was her manager. And that he’d been her manager for seven years, since she’d given up professional swimming.
‘Are you okay about all this?’ her brother asked, having just got two drinks from the coffee machine. He tore a sachet to release a teabag. Peppermint. He placed it into the cup of hot water he’d taken from the coffee machine.
Then he handed it to Nora.
She had never drunk peppermint tea in her life. ‘That’s for me?’
‘Well, yeah. It was the only herbal they had.’
He had a coffee for himself that Nora secretly craved. Maybe in this life she didn’t drink caffeine.
Are you okay about all this?
‘Okay about all what?’ Nora wondered.
‘The talk, today.’
‘Oh, um, yeah. How long is it again?’