Authors: Matt Haig
‘For instance, in most of my lives I am not standing at this podium talking to you about success . . . In most lives I am not an Olympic gold medallist.’ She remembered something Mrs Elm had told her in the Midnight Library. ‘You see, doing one thing differently is very often the same as doing everything differently. Actions can’t be reversed within a lifetime, however much we try . . .’
People were listening now. They clearly needed a Mrs Elm in their lives.
‘The only way to learn is to live.’
And she went on in this manner for another twenty minutes, remembering as much as possible of what Mrs Elm had told her, and then she looked down at her hands, glowing white from the light of the lectern.
As she absorbed the sight of a raised, thin pink line of flesh, she knew the scar was self-inflicted, and it put her off her flow. Or rather, put her into a new one.
‘And . . . and the thing is . . . the thing is . . . what we consider to be the most successful route for us to take, actually isn’t. Because too often our view of success is about some external bullshit idea of achievement – an Olympic medal, the ideal husband, a good salary. And we have all these metrics that we try and reach. When really success isn’t something you measure, and life isn’t a race you can win. It’s all . . . bollocks, actually . . .’
The audience definitely looked uncomfortable now. Clearly this was not the speech they were expecting. She scanned the crowd and saw a single face smiling up at her. It took a second, given the fact that he was smartly dressed in a blue cotton shirt and with hair far shorter than it was in his Bedford life, for her to realise it was Ravi. This Ravi looked friendly, but she couldn’t shake the
knowledge of the other Ravi, the one who had stormed out of the newsagent’s, sulking about not being able to afford a magazine and blaming her for it.
‘You see, I know that you were expecting my TED talk on the path to success. But the truth is that success is a delusion. It’s all a delusion. I mean, yes, there are things we can overcome. For instance, I am someone who gets stage fright and yet, here I am, on a stage. Look at me . . . on a stage! And someone told me recently, they told me that my problem isn’t actually stage fright. My problem is
. And you know what? They’re fucking right. Because life is frightening, and it is frightening for a reason, and the reason is that it doesn’t matter which branch of a life we get to live, we are always the same rotten tree. I wanted to be many things in my life. All kinds of things. But if your life is rotten, it will be rotten no matter what you do. The damp rots the whole useless thing . . .’
Joe was desperately slicing his hand in the air around his neck, making a ‘cut it’ gesture.
‘Anyway, just be kind and . . . Just be kind. I have a feeling I am about to go, so I would just like to say I love my brother Joe. I love you, brother, and I love everyone in this room, and it was very nice to be here.’
And the moment she had said it was nice to be there, was also the moment she wasn’t there at all.
She arrived back in the Midnight Library.
But this time she was a little away from the bookshelves. This was the loosely defined office area she had glimpsed earlier, in one of the broader corridors. The desk was covered with administrative trays barely containing scattered piles of papers and boxes, and the computer.
The computer was a really old-fashioned-looking, cream-coloured boxy one on the desk by the papers. The kind that Mrs Elm would once have had in her school library. She was at the keyboard now, typing with urgency, staring at the monitor as Nora stood behind her.
The lights above – the same bare light bulbs hanging down from wires – were flickering wildly.
‘My dad was alive because of me. But he’d also had an affair, and my mum died earlier, and I got on with my brother because I had never let him down, but he was still the same brother, really, and he was only really okay with me in that life because I was helping him make money and . . . and . . . it wasn’t the Olympic dream I imagined. It was the same me. And something had happened in Portugal. I’d probably tried to kill myself or something . . . Are there any other lives at all or is it just the furnishings that change?’
But Mrs Elm wasn’t listening. Nora noticed something on the desk. An old plastic orange fountain pen. The exact same kind that Nora had once owned at school.
‘Hello? Mrs Elm, can you hear me?’
Something was wrong.
The librarian’s face was tight with worry. She read from the screen, to herself. ‘System error.’
‘Mrs Elm? Hello? Yoo-hoo! Can you see me?’
She tapped her shoulder. That seemed to do it.
Mrs Elm’s face broke out in massive relief as she turned away from the computer. ‘Oh Nora, you got here?’
‘Were you expecting me not to? Did you think that life would be the one I wanted to live?’
She shook her head without really moving it. If that was possible. ‘No. It’s not that. It’s just that it looked fragile.’
‘What looked fragile?’
‘From the book to here. The
life you chose
to here. It seems there is a problem. A problem with the whole system. Something beyond my immediate control. Something
‘You mean, in my actual life?’
She stared back at the screen. ‘Yes. You see, the Midnight Library only exists because you do. In your root life.’
‘So, I’m dying?’
Mrs Elm looked exasperated. ‘It’s a possibility. That is to say, it’s a possibility that we are reaching the end of possibility.’
Nora thought of how good it had felt, swimming in the pool. How vital and alive. And then something happened inside her. A strange feeling. A pull in her stomach. A physical
. A change in her. The idea of death suddenly troubled her. At that same time the lights stopped flickering overhead and shone brightly.
Mrs Elm clapped her hands as she absorbed new information on the computer screen.
‘Oh, it’s back. That’s good. The glitch is gone. We are running again. Thanks, I believe, to
‘Well, the computer says the root cause within the host has been temporarily fixed. And you are the root cause. You are the host.’ She smiled. Nora blinked, and when she opened her eyes both she and Mrs Elm were standing in a different part of the library. Between stacks of bookshelves again. Standing, stiffly, awkwardly, facing each other.
‘Right. Now, settle,’ said Mrs Elm, before releasing a deep and meaningful exhale. She was clearly talking to herself.
‘My mum died on different dates in different lives. I’d like a life where she is still here. Does that life exist?’
Mrs Elm’s attention switched to Nora.
‘Maybe it does.’
‘But you can’t get there.’
‘Because this library is about
decisions. There was no choice you could have made that led to her being alive beyond yesterday. I’m sorry.’
A light bulb flickered above Nora’s head. But the rest of the library stayed as it was.
‘You need to think about something else, Nora. What was good about the last life?’
Nora nodded. ‘Swimming. I liked swimming. But I don’t think I was happy in that life. I don’t know if I am truly happy in any life.’
‘Is happiness the aim?’
‘I don’t know. I suppose I want my life to mean something. I want to do something good.’
‘You once wanted to be a glaciologist,’ Mrs Elm appeared to remember.
‘You used to talk about it. You said you were interested in the Arctic, so I suggested you become a glaciologist.’
‘I remember. I liked the sound of it straight away. My mum and dad never liked the idea, though.’
‘I don’t really know. They encouraged swimming. Well, Dad did. But anything that involved academic work, they were funny about.’
Nora felt a deep sadness, down in her stomach. From her arrival into life, she was considered by her parents in a different way to her brother.
‘Other than swimming, Joe was the one expected to pursue things,’ she told Mrs Elm. ‘My mum put me off anything that could take me away. Unlike Dad, she didn’t even push me to swim. But surely there must be a life where I didn’t listen to my mum and where I am now an Arctic researcher. Far away from everything. With a purpose. Helping the planet. Researching the impact of climate change. On the front line.’
‘So, you want me to find that life for you?’
Nora sighed. She still had no idea what she wanted. But at least the Arctic Circle would be different.
‘All right. Yes.’
She woke in a small bed in a little cabin on a boat. She knew it was a boat because it was rocking, and indeed the rocking, gentle as it was, had woken her up. The cabin was spare and basic. She was wearing a thick fleece sweater and long johns. Pulling back the blanket, she noticed that she had a headache. Her mouth was so dry her cheeks felt sucked-in against her teeth. She coughed a deep, chesty cough and felt a million pool-lengths away from the body of an Olympian. Her fingers smelt of tobacco. She sat up to see a pale-blonde, robust, hard-weathered woman sitting on another bed staring at her.
‘God morgen, Nora.’
She smiled. And hoped that in this life she wasn’t fluent in whichever Scandinavian language this woman spoke.
She noticed a half-empty bottle of vodka and a mug on the floor beside the woman’s bed. A dog calendar (April: Springer Spaniel) was propped up on the chest between the beds. The three books on top of it were all in English. The one nearest to the woman said
Principles of Glacier Mechanics
. Two on Nora’s:
A Naturalist’s Guide to the Arctic
and a Penguin Classic edition of
The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer
. She noticed something else. It was cold. Properly cold. The cold that almost burns, that hurts your fingers and toes and stiffens your cheeks. Even inside. With layers of thermal underwear. With a sweater on. With the bars of two electric heaters glowing orange. Every exhale made a cloud.
‘Why are you here, Nora?’ the woman asked, in heavily accented English.
A tricky question, when you didn’t know where ‘here’ was.
‘Bit early in the morning, isn’t it, for philosophy?’ Nora laughed, nervously.
She saw a wall of ice outside the porthole, rising out of the sea. She was either very far north or very far south. She was very far somewhere.
The woman was still staring at her. Nora had no idea if they were friends or not. The woman seemed tough, direct, earthy, but probably an interesting form of company.
‘I don’t mean philosophy. I don’t even mean what got you into glaciological research. Although, it might be the same thing. I mean, why did you choose to go as far away from civilisation as possible? You’ve never told me.’
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I like the cold.’
‘No one likes
cold. Unless they are a sado-masochist.’
She had a point. Nora reached for the sweater at the end of her bed and put it on, over the sweater she was already wearing. As she did she saw, beside the vodka bottle, a laminated lanyard lying on the floor.
Professor of Geoscience
International Polar Research Institute
‘I don’t know, Ingrid. I just like glaciers, I suppose. I want to understand them. Why they are . . . melting.’
She wasn’t sounding like a glacier expert, judging from Ingrid’s raised eyebrows.
‘What about you?’ she asked, hopefully.
Ingrid sighed. Rubbed her palm with a thumb. ‘After Per died, I couldn’t stand to be in Oslo any more. All those people that
weren’t him, you know? There was this coffee shop we used to go to, at the university. We’d just sit together, together but silent. Happy silent. Reading newspapers, drinking coffee. It was hard to avoid places like that. We used to walk around everywhere. His troublesome soul lingered on every street . . . I kept telling his memory to piss the fuck off but it wouldn’t. Grief is a bastard. If I’d have stayed any longer, I’d have hated humanity. So, when a research position came up in Svalbard I was like, yes, this has come to save me . . . I wanted to be somewhere he had never been. I wanted somewhere where I didn’t have to feel his ghost. But the truth is, it only half-works, you know? Places are places and memories are memories and life is fucking life.’
Nora took all this in. Ingrid was clearly telling this to someone she thought she knew reasonably well, and yet Nora was a stranger. It felt odd. Wrong. This must be the hardest bit about being a spy, she thought. The emotion people store in you, like a bad investment. You feel like you are robbing people of something.
Ingrid smiled, breaking the thought. ‘Anyway, thanks for last night . . . That was a good chat. There are a lot of dickheads on this boat and you are not a dickhead.’
‘Oh. Thanks. Neither are you.’
And it was then that Nora noticed the gun, a large rifle with a hefty brown handle, leaning against the wall at the far end of the room, under the coat hooks.
The sight made her feel happy, somehow. Made her feel like her eleven-year-old self would have been proud. She was, it seemed,
having an adventure
Nora walked with her headache and obvious hangover through an undecorated wooden passageway to a small dining hall that smelled of pickled herring, and where a few research scientists were having breakfast.
She got herself a black coffee and some stale, dry rye bread and sat down.
Around her, outside the window, was the most eerily beautiful sight she had ever seen. Islands of ice, like rocks rendered clean and pure white, were visible amid the fog. There were seventeen other people in the dining hall, Nora counted. Eleven men, six women. Nora sat by herself but within five minutes a man with short hair and stubble two days away from a full beard sat down at her table. He was wearing a parka, like most of the room, but he seemed ill-suited to it, as if he would be more at home on the Riviera wearing designer shorts and a pink polo shirt. He smiled at Nora. She tried to translate the smile, to understand the kind of relationship they had. He watched her for a little while, then shuffled his chair along to sit opposite her. She looked for a lanyard, but he wasn’t wearing one. She wondered if she should know his name.