Authors: Matt Haig
‘It’s a lot of money. I upped it from ten.’
‘That’s very good of you.’
‘Well, I still get my twenty per cent. Hardly a sacrifice.’
Nora tried to think how she could unlock their shared history. How she could find out why, in this life, they were sitting together and getting along. It might have been money, but her brother had never been particularly money-motivated. And yes, sure, he’d obviously been upset when Nora walked away from the deal with the record company but that had been because he wanted to play guitar in The Labyrinths for the rest of his life and be a rock star.
After dipping it a few times Nora let the teabag free in the water. ‘Do you ever think of how our lives could have been different? You know, like if I had never stuck with swimming?’
‘I mean, what do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t my manager?’
‘I manage other people too, you know.’
‘Well, yeah, of course I know that. Obviously.’
‘I suppose I probably wouldn’t be managing anyone without you. I mean, you were the first. And you introduced me to Kai and then Natalie. And then Eli, so . . .’
She nodded, as if she had any idea who Kai and Natalie and Eli were. ‘True, but maybe you’d have found some other way.’
‘Who knows? Or maybe I’d still be in Manchester, I don’t know.’
‘Yeah. You remember how much I loved it up there. At uni.’
It was really hard not to look surprised at any of this, at the fact that this brother she was getting on with, and working with, was also someone who went to university. In her root life her brother did A-levels and applied to go to Manchester to do History, but he never got the grades he needed, probably because he was too busy getting stoned with Ravi every night. And then decided he didn’t want to go to uni at all.
They chatted a bit more.
At one point he became distracted by his phone.
Nora noticed his screensaver was of a radiant, handsome, smiling
man she had never seen before. She noticed her brother’s wedding ring and feigned a neutral expression.
‘So, how’s married life?’
Joe smiled. It was a genuinely happy smile. She hadn’t seen him smile like that for years. In her root life, Joe had always been unlucky in love. Although she had known her brother was gay since he was a teenager, he hadn’t officially come out until he was twenty-two. And he’d never had a happy or long-term relationship. She felt guilt, that her life had the power to shape her brother’s life in such meaningful ways.
‘Oh, you know Ewan. Ewan’s Ewan.’
Nora smiled back as if she knew who Ewan was and exactly what he was like. ‘Yeah. He’s great. I’m so happy for you both.’
He laughed. ‘We’ve been married five years now. You’re talking as if me and him have just got together.’
‘No, I’m just, you know, I sometimes think that you’re lucky. So in love. And happy.’
‘He wants a dog.’ He smiled. ‘That’s our current debate. I mean, I wouldn’t mind a dog. But I’d want a rescue. And I wouldn’t want a bloody Maltipoo or a Bichon. I’d want a wolf. You know, a proper dog.’
Nora thought of Voltaire. ‘Animals are good company . . .’
‘Yeah. You still want a dog?’
‘I do. Or a cat.’
‘Cats are too disobedient,’ he said, sounding like the brother she remembered. ‘Dogs know their place.’
‘Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.’
He looked perplexed. ‘Where did
come from? Is that a quote?’
‘Yeah. Henry David Thoreau. You know, my fave philosopher.’
‘Since when were you into philosophy?’
Of course. In this life she’d never have done a Philosophy
degree. While her root self had been reading the works of Thoreau and Lao Tzu and Sartre in a stinky student flat in Bristol, her current self had been standing on Olympic podiums in Beijing. Weirdly, she felt just as sad for the version of her who had never fallen in love with the simple beauty of Thoreau’s
, or the stoical Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, as she had felt sympathy for the version of her who never fulfilled her Olympic potential.
‘Oh, I don’t know . . . I just came across some of his stuff on the internet.’
‘Ah. Cool. Will check him out. You could drop some of that into your speech.’
Nora felt herself go pale. ‘Um, I’m thinking of maybe doing something a little different today. I might, um, improvise a little.’
Improvising was, after all, a skill she’d been practising.
‘I saw this great documentary about Greenland the other night. Made me remember when you were obsessed with the Arctic and you cut out all those pictures of polar bears and stuff.’
‘Yeah. Mrs Elm said the best way to be an arctic explorer was to be a glaciologist. So that’s what I wanted to be.’
‘Mrs Elm,’ he whispered. ‘That rings a bell.’
‘That was it. You used to live in that library, didn’t you?’
‘Just think, if you hadn’t stuck with swimming, you’d be in Greenland right now.’
‘Svalbard,’ she said.
‘It’s a Norwegian archipelago. Way up in the Arctic Ocean.’
‘Okay, Norway then. You’d be there.’
‘Maybe. Or maybe I’d just still be in Bedford. Moping around. Unemployed. Struggling to pay the rent.’
‘Don’t be daft. You’d have always done something big.’
She smiled at her elder brother’s innocence. ‘In some lives me and you might not even get on.’
‘I hope so.’
Joe seemed a bit uncomfortable, and clearly wanted to change the topic.
‘Hey, guess who I saw the other day?’
Nora shrugged, hoping it was going to be someone she’d heard of.
‘Ravi. Do you remember Ravi?’
She thought of Ravi, telling her off in the newsagent’s only yesterday. ‘Oh yeah. Ravi.’
‘Well, I bumped into him.’
‘Ha! God, no. Haven’t been there for years. No. It was at Blackfriars station. Totally random. Like, I haven’t seen him in over a decade. At
. He wanted to go to the pub. So, I explained I was teetotal now, and then I got into having to explain I’d been an alcoholic. And all of that. That I hadn’t had a glass of wine or a puff on a joint in years.’ Nora nodded as if this wasn’t a bomb-shell. ‘Since I got into a mess after Mum died. I think he was like, “Who is this guy?” But he was fine. He was cool. He’s working as a cameraman now. Still doing some music on the side. Not rock stuff. DJ-ing apparently. Remember that band me and him had, years ago. The Labyrinths?’
It was becoming easier to fake vagueness. ‘Oh yeah. The Labyrinths. Course. That’s a blast from the past.’
‘Yeah. Got the sense he pines for those days. Even though we were crap and I couldn’t sing.’
‘What about you? Do you ever think about what could have been if The Labyrinths had made it big?’
He laughed, a little sadly. ‘I don’t know if anything
could have been
‘Maybe you needed an extra person. I used to play those keyboards Mum and Dad got you.’
‘Did you? When did you have time for that?’
A life without music. A life without reading the books she had loved.
But also: a life where she got on with her brother. A life where she hadn’t had to let him down.
‘Anyway, Ravi wanted to say hi. And wanted a catch-up. He only works one tube stop away. So he’s going to try and come to the talk.’
‘What? Oh. That’s . . . I wish he wouldn’t.’
‘I just never really liked him.’
Joe frowned. ‘Really? I can’t remember you saying that . . . He’s okay. A good guy. Bit of a waster, maybe, back in the day, but he seems to have got his act together a bit . . .’
Nora was unsettled. ‘Joe?’
‘You know when Mum died?’
‘Where was I?’
‘What do you mean? Are you okay today, sis? Are the new tablets working?’
She checked in her bag and started to rummage. Saw a small box of anti-depressants in her bag. Her heart sank.
‘I just wanted to know. Did I see much of Mum before she died?’
Joe frowned. He was still the same Joe. Still unable to read his sister. Still wanting to escape reality. ‘You know we weren’t there. It happened so fast. She didn’t tell us how ill she was. To protect us. Or maybe because she didn’t want us to tell her to stop drinking.’
‘Drinking? Mum was drinking?’
Joe’s worry increased. ‘Sis, have you got amnesia? She was on a bottle of gin every day since Nadia came onto the scene.’
‘Yeah. Course. I remember.’
‘Plus you had the European Championships coming up and she didn’t want to interfere with that . . .’
‘Jesus. I should have been there. One of us should have been there, Joe. We both—’
His expression frosted suddenly. ‘You were never that close to Mum, were you? Why this sudden—’
‘I got closer to her. I mean, I would have. I—’
‘You’re freaking me out. You’re acting not quite yourself.’
Nora nodded. ‘Yes, I . . . I just . . . yes, I think you’re right . . . I think it’s just the tablets . . .’
She remembered her mother, in her final months, saying: ‘I don’t know what I would have done without you.’ She’d probably said it to Joe too. But in this life, she’d had neither of them.
Then Priya arrived into the room. Grinning, clutching her phone and some kind of a clipboard.
‘It’s time,’ she said.
The Tree That Is Our Life
Five minutes later Nora was back in the hotel’s vast conference room. At least a thousand people were watching the first speaker conclude her presentation. The author of
Zero to Hero
. The book Dan had beside his bed in another life. But Nora wasn’t really listening, as she sat in her reserved seat in the front row. She was too upset about her mother, too nervous about the speech, so she just picked up the odd word or phrase that floated into her mind like croutons in minestrone. ‘Little-known fact’, ‘ambition’, ‘what you may be surprised to hear is that’, ‘if I can do it’, ‘hard knocks’.
It was hard to breathe in this room. It smelled of musky perfume and new carpet.
She tried to stay calm.
Leaning into her brother, she whispered, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’
‘I think I’m having a panic attack.’
He looked at her, smiling, but with a toughness in his eyes she remembered from a different life, when she’d had a panic attack before one of their early gigs with The Labyrinths at a pub in Bedford. ‘You’ll be fine.’
‘I don’t know if I can do this. I’ve gone blank.’
‘You’re overthinking it.’
‘I have anxiety. I have no other type of thinking available.’
‘Come on. Don’t let us down.’
Don’t let us down
She tried to think of music.
Thinking of music had always calmed her down.
A tune came to her. She was slightly embarrassed, even within herself, to realise the song in her head was ‘Beautiful Sky’. A happy, hopeful song that she hadn’t sung in a long time.
The sky grows dark / The black over blue / Yet the stars still dare / To shine for—
But then the person Nora was sitting next to – a smartly dressed business woman in her fifties, and the source of the musky perfume smell – leaned in and whispered, ‘I’m so sorry about what happened to you. You know, the stuff in Portugal . . .’
The woman’s reply was drowned out as the audience erupted into applause at that moment.
‘What?’ she asked again.
But it was too late. Nora was being beckoned towards the stage and her brother was elbowing her.
Her brother’s voice, bellowing almost: ‘They want you. Off you go.’
She headed tentatively towards the lectern on the stage, towards her own huge face smiling out triumphantly, golden medal around her neck, projected on the screen behind her.
She had always hated being watched.
‘Hello,’ she said nervously, into the microphone. ‘It is very nice to be here today . . .’
A thousand or so faces stared, waiting.
She had never spoken to so many people simultaneously. Even when she had been in The Labyrinths, they had never played a gig for more than a hundred people, and back then she kept the talking between the songs as minimal as possible. Working at String Theory, although she was perfectly okay talking with customers, she rarely spoke up in staff meetings, even though there had never been more than five people in the room. Back at university, while Izzy always breezed through presentations Nora would worry about them for weeks in advance.
Joe and Rory were staring at her with baffled expressions.
The Nora she had seen in the TED talk was not this Nora, and she doubted she could ever become that person. Not without having done all that she had done.
‘Hello. My name is Nora Seed.’
She hadn’t meant it to be funny but the whole room laughed at this. There had clearly been no need to introduce herself.
‘Life is strange,’ she said. ‘How we live it all at once. In a straight line. But really that’s not the whole picture. Because life isn’t simply made of the things we do, but the things we don’t do too. And every moment of our life is a . . . kind of turning.’
‘Think about it. Think about how we start off . . . as this set thing. Like the seed of a tree planted in the ground. And then we . . . we grow . . . we grow . . . and at first we are a trunk . . .’
‘But then the tree – the tree that is our life – develops branches. And think of all those branches, departing from the trunk at different heights. And think of all those branches, branching off again, heading in often opposing directions. Think of those branches becoming other branches, and those becoming twigs. And think of the end of each of those twigs, all in different places, having started from the same one. A life is like that, but on a bigger scale. New branches are formed every second of every day. And from our perspective – from everyone’s perspective – it feels like a . . . like a continuum. Each twig has travelled only one journey. But there are still other twigs. And there are also other todays. Other lives that would have been different if you’d taken different directions earlier in your life. This is a tree of life. Lots of religions and mythologies have talked about the tree of life. It’s there in Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity. Lots of philosophers and writers have talked about tree metaphors too. For Sylvia Plath, existence was a fig tree and each possible life she could live – the
happily-married one, the successful-poet one – was this sweet juicy fig, but she couldn’t get to taste the sweet juicy figs and so they just rotted right in front of her. It can drive you insane, thinking of all the other lives we don’t live.