The Midnight Library (15 page)

BOOK: The Midnight Library
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The banging wasn’t working. The bear was close. She wondered if she could reach the rifle, lying on the ice, just slightly too far away. She could see the bear’s vast pawed feet, armed with claws, pressing into the snow-dusted rock. Its head was low and its black eyes were looking directly at her.


There was no hatred in the polar bear’s stare. Nora was just food. Meat. And that was a humbling kind of terror. Her heart pounded like a drummer reaching the crescendo. The end of the song. And it became astoundingly clear to her, finally, in that moment:

She didn’t want to die.

And that was the problem. In the face of death, life seemed more attractive, and as life seemed more attractive, how could she get back to the Midnight Library? She had to be disappointed in a life, not just scared of it, in order to try again with another book.

There was death. Violent, oblivious death, in bear form, staring at her with its black eyes. And she knew then, more than she’d known anything, that she wasn’t ready to die. This knowledge grew bigger than fear itself as she stood there, face to face with a polar bear, itself hungry and desperate to exist, and banged the ladle against the saucepan. Harder. A fast, staccato bang bang bang.

I’m. Not. Scared.

I’m. Not. Scared.

I’m. Not. Scared.

I’m. Not. Scared.

I’m. Not. Scared.

I’m. Not. Scared.

The bear stood and stared, the way the walrus had. She glanced at the rifle. Yes. It was too far away. By the time she could grab it and work out how to fire it, it would already be too late. She doubted she’d be able to kill a polar bear anyway. So she banged the ladle.

Nora closed her eyes, wishing for the library as she carried on making noise. When she opened them, the bear was slipping
headfirst into the water. She kept banging the saucepan even after the creature had disappeared. About a minute later, she heard the humans calling her name through the fog.


She was in shock. But it was a slightly different kind of shock than the others on the dinghy assumed. It wasn’t the shock of having been close to death. It was the shock of realising she actually wanted to live.

They passed a small island, teeming with nature. Green lichens spread over rocks. Birds – little auks and puffins clustered together – huddled against the Arctic wind. Life surviving against the odds.

Nora sipped the coffee that Hugo handed her, fresh from his flask. Holding it with cold hands even under three pairs of gloves.

To be part of nature was to be part of the will to live.

When you stay too long in a place, you forget just how big an expanse the world is. You get no sense of the length of those longitudes and latitudes. Just as, she supposed, it is hard to have a sense of the vastness inside any one person.

But once you sense that vastness, once something reveals it, hope emerges, whether you want it to or not, and it clings to you as stubbornly as lichen clings to rock.


The surface air temperatures in Svalbard were warming at twice the global rate. Climate change was happening faster here than almost anywhere on Earth.

One woman, wearing a purple woollen hat pulled down over her eyebrows, talked about witnessing one of the icebergs doing a somersault – something that happened apparently because the warming waters had dissolved it from beneath, causing it to become top heavy.

Another problem was that the permafrost on the land was thawing, softening the ground, leading to landslides and avalanches that could destroy the wooden houses of Longyearbyen, the largest town in Svalbard. There was also a risk of bodies surfacing in the local cemetery.

It was inspiring, being among these scientists who were trying to discover precisely what was happening to the planet, trying to observe glacial and climatic activity, and in so doing to inform, and to protect life on Earth.

Back on the main boat, Nora sat quietly in the dining area as everyone offered sympathy for the bear encounter. She felt unable to tell them she was grateful for the experience. She just smiled politely and did her best to avoid conversation.

This life was an intense one, without compromise. It was currently minus seventeen degrees, and she had nearly been eaten by a polar bear, and yet maybe the problem with her root life had partly been its blandness.

She had come to imagine mediocrity and disappointment were her destiny.

Indeed, Nora had always had the sense that she came from a long line of regrets and crushed hopes that seemed to echo in every generation.

For instance, her grandfather on her mother’s side was called Lorenzo Conte. He had left Puglia – the handsome heel in the boot of Italy – to come to Swinging London in the 1960s.

Like other men in the desolate port town of Brindisi, he’d emigrated to Britain, exchanging life on the Adriatic for a job at the London Brick Company. Lorenzo, in his naivety, had imagined having a wonderful life – making bricks all day, and then of an evening he would rub shoulders with The Beatles and walk arm-in-arm down Carnaby Street with Jean Shrimpton or Marianne Faithful. The only problem was that, despite its name, the London Brick Company wasn’t actually in London. It was based sixty miles north in Bedford, which, for all its modest charms, turned out not as swinging as Lorenzo would have liked. But he made a compromise with his dreams and settled there. The work may not have been glamorous, but it paid.

Lorenzo married a local English woman called Patricia Brown, who was also getting used to life’s disappointments, having exchanged her dream of being an actress for the mundane, daily theatre of the suburban housewife, and whose culinary skills were forever under the ghostly shadow of her dead Puglian mother-in-law and her legendary spaghetti dishes, which, in Lorenzo’s eyes, could never be surpassed.

They had a baby girl within a year of getting married – Nora’s mother – and they called her Donna.

Donna grew up with her parents arguing almost continually, and had consequently believed marriage was something that was not only inevitable, but also inevitably miserable. She became a secretary at a law firm, and then a communications officer for Bedford council, but then she’d had an experience which was never really discussed, at least not with Nora. She’d experienced some
kind of breakdown – the first of several – that caused her to stay at home, and, although she recovered, she never went back to work.

There was an invisible baton of failure her mother had passed down, and Nora had held it for a long time. Maybe that was why she had given up on so many things. Because she had it written in her DNA that she had to fail.

Nora thought of this as the boat chugged through the Arctic waters and gulls – black-legged kittiwakes, according to Ingrid – flew overhead.

On both sides of her family there had been an unspoken belief that life was meant to fuck you over. Nora’s dad, Geoff, had certainly lived a life that seemed to miss its target.

He had grown up with only a mother, as his dad had died of a heart attack when he was two, cruelly hiding somewhere behind his first memories. Nora’s paternal grandmother had been born in rural Ireland but emigrated to England to become a school cleaner, struggling to bring in enough money for food, let alone anything approaching

Geoff had been bullied early on in life but had grown big and broad enough to easily put those bullies in their place. He worked hard and proved good at football and the shot put and, in particular, rugby. He played for the Bedford Blues youth team, becoming their best player, and had a shot at the big time before a collateral ligament injury stopped him in his tracks. He then became a PE teacher and simmered with quiet resentment at the universe. He forever dreamed of travel, but never did much of it beyond a subscription to
National Geographic
and the occasional holiday to somewhere in the Cyclades – Nora remembered him in Naxos, snapping a picture of the Temple of Apollo at sunset.

Maybe that’s what all lives were, though. Maybe even the most seemingly perfectly intense or worthwhile lives ultimately felt the same. Acres of disappointment and monotony and hurts and rivalries but with flashes of wonder and beauty. Maybe that was the only
meaning that mattered. To be the world, witnessing itself. Maybe it wasn’t the lack of achievements that had made her and her brother’s parents unhappy, maybe it was the expectation to achieve in the first place. She had no idea about any of it, really. But on that boat she realised something. She had loved her parents more than she ever knew, and right then, she forgave them completely.

One Night in Longyearbyen

It took two hours to get back to the tiny port at Longyearbyen. It was Norway’s – and the world’s – most northern town, with a population of around two thousand people.

Nora knew these basic things from her root life. She had, after all, been fascinated by this part of the world since she was eleven, but her knowledge didn’t stretch far beyond the magazine articles she had read and she was still nervous of talking.

But the boat trip back had been okay, because her inability to discuss the rock and ice and plant samples they had taken, or to understand phrases such as ‘striated basalt bedrock’ and ‘post-glacial isotopes’, was put down to the shock of her polar bear encounter.

And she
in a kind of shock, it was true. But it was not the shock her colleagues were imagining. The shock hadn’t been that she’d thought she’d been about to die. She had been about to die ever since she first entered the Midnight Library. No, the shock was that she felt like she was about to
. Or at least, that she could imagine wanting to be alive again. And she wanted to do something good with that life.

The life of a human, according to the Scottish philosopher David Hume, was of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.

But if it was important enough for David Hume to write that thought down, then maybe it was important enough to aim to do something good. To help preserve life, in all its forms.

As Nora understood it, the work this other Nora and her fellow scientists had been doing was something to do with determining
the speed at which the ice and glaciers had been melting in the region, to gauge the acceleration rate of climate change. There was more to it than that, but that was at the core of it, as far as Nora could see.

So, in this life, she was doing her bit to save the planet. Or at least to monitor the steady devastation of the planet in order to alert people to the facts of environmental crisis. That was potentially depressing but also a good and ultimately fulfilling thing to do, she imagined. There was purpose. There was meaning.

They were impressed too. The others. With the polar bear story. Nora was a hero of sorts – not in an Olympic-swimming-champion way, but in another equally fulfilling kind of fashion.

Ingrid had her arm around her. ‘You are the saucepan warrior. And I think we need to mark your fearlessness, and our potentially groundbreaking findings, with a meal. A nice meal. And some vodka. What do you say, Peter?’

‘A nice meal? In Longyearbyen? Do they have them?’

As it turned out: they did.

Back on dry land they went to a smart wooden shack of a place called Gruvelageret perched off a lonely road in an austere, snow-crisp valley. She drank Arctic ale and surprised her colleagues by eating the only vegan option on a menu that included reindeer steak and moose burger. Nora must have looked tired because quite a few of her colleagues told her that she did, but maybe it was just that there weren’t many places in the conversation that she could enter with confidence. She felt like a learner driver at a busy junction, nervously waiting for a clear and safe patch of road.

Hugo was there. He still looked to her like he would rather be in Antibes or St Tropez. She felt a little uneasy as he stared at her, a little too observed.

On the hurried walk back to their land-based accommodation, which reminded Nora of a university halls of residence but on a
smaller scale and more Nordic and wooden and minimal, Hugo jogged to catch her up and walk by her side.

‘It is interesting,’ he said.

‘What is interesting?’

‘How at breakfast this morning you didn’t know who I was.’

‘Why? You didn’t know who I was either.’

‘Of course I did. We were chatting for about two hours yesterday.’

Nora felt like she was inside some kind of trap. ‘We were?’

‘I studied you at breakfast before I came over and I could see you were different today.’

‘That’s creepy, Hugo. Studying women at breakfast.’

‘And I noticed things.’

Nora lifted her scarf over her face. ‘It’s too cold. Can we talk about this tomorrow?’

‘I noticed you improvising. All day you have been non-committal in everything you say.’

‘Not true. I’m just shook up. You know, the bear.’

‘Non. Ce n’est pas ça. I’m talking about before the bear. And after the bear. And all day.’

‘I have no idea what you’re—’

‘There is a look. I have seen it before in other people. I’d recognise it anywhere.’

‘I have no idea what you are talking about.’

‘Why do glaciers pulsate?’


‘This is your area of study. It’s why you’re here, isn’t it?’

‘The science isn’t entirely settled on the matter.’

‘Okay. Bien. Name me one of the glaciers around here. Glaciers have names. Name one . . . Kongsbreen? Nathorstbreen? Ring any bells?’

‘I don’t want this conversation.’

‘Because you aren’t the same person you were yesterday, are you?’

‘None of us are,’ said Nora, briskly. ‘Our brains change. It’s called neuroplasticity. Please. Stop mansplaining glaciers to a glaciologist, Hugo.’

Hugo seemed to retreat a little and she felt a bit guilty. There was a minute of silence. Just the crunch of their feet in the snow. They were nearly back at the accommodation, the others not too far behind them.

BOOK: The Midnight Library
6.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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