Authors: Matt Haig
You can have everything and feel nothing.
@NoraLabyrinth, 74.8K Retweets, 485.3K Likes
A Silver Tray of Honey Cakes
It was wild to think of this life co-existing with her others in the multiverse, like just another note in a chord.
Nora found it almost impossible to believe that while in one life she was struggling to pay the rent, in another she was causing such excitement among people all over the world.
The handful of fans who had filmed the tour bus arrive at the hotel were now waiting for autographs. They didn’t seem too bothered about the other band members but they did seem desperate to interact with Nora.
She looked at one, as she crunched over the gravel towards them. The girl had tattoos and was wearing an outfit that made her look like a flapper girl who had somehow got caught up in a cyberpunk version of a post-apocalyptic war. Her hair was styled exactly like Nora’s, complete with matching white stripe.
‘Nora! Noraaaah! Hi! We love you, queen! Thank you for coming to Brazil! You rock!’ And then a chant started: ‘Nora! Nora! Nora!’
While she was signing autographs in an illegible scribble, a man in his early twenties took off his T-shirt and asked her to sign his shoulder.
‘It’s for a tattoo,’ he said.
‘Really?’ she asked, writing her name onto the man’s body.
‘This is the highlight of my life,’ he gushed. ‘My name is Francisco.’
Nora wondered how her writing on his skin with a Sharpie could be a highlight of his existence.
‘You saved my life. “Beautiful Sky” saved my life. That song. It’s so powerful.’
‘Oh. Oh wow. “Beautiful Sky”? You know “Beautiful Sky”?’
The fan burst into hysterics. ‘You’re so funny! This is why you are my idol! I love you so much! Do I know “Beautiful Sky”? That’s brilliant!’
Nora didn’t know what to say. That little song she had written when she was nineteen years old at university in Bristol had changed the life of a person in Brazil. It was overwhelming.
This, clearly, was the life she was destined for. She doubted that she would ever have to go back to the library. She could cope with being adored. It was better than being in Bedford, sitting on the number 77 bus, humming sad tunes to the window.
She posed for selfies.
One young woman looked close to tears. She had a large photo of Nora kissing Ryan Bailey.
‘I was so sad when you broke up with him!’
‘I know, yeah, it was sad. But, you know, things happen. It’s a . . . learning curve.’
Joanna appeared at her arm and gently guided her away, towards the hotel.
When she reached the elegant, jasmine-scented lobby (marble, chandeliers, floral displays) she saw that the rest of the band were already in the bar. But where was her brother? Maybe he’d been schmoozing the press somewhere else.
As she started to move towards the bar, she realised that everyone – concierge, receptionists, guests – was looking at her.
Nora was about to finally seize the opportunity to ask about her brother’s whereabouts when Joanna beckoned over a man who was wearing a T-shirt with THE LABYRINTHS printed on it in a retro sci-fi movie font. The guy was probably in his forties, with a greying beard and thinning hair, but he seemed intimidated by Nora’s presence. He did a tiny bow when he shook Nora’s hand.
‘I’m Marcelo,’ he said. ‘Thanks for agreeing to the interview.’
Nora noticed another man behind Marcelo – younger, with piercings, tattoos and a big smile – holding recording equipment.
‘We’d reserved a quiet space in the bar,’ Joanna said. ‘But there’s . . . people. I think we had better do this in Nora’s suite.’
‘Great,’ said Marcelo. ‘Great, great.’
As they walked over to the lift, Nora glanced back at the bar and saw the other band members. ‘You know, maybe you’d like to speak to the others too?’ she said to Marcelo. ‘They remember things I don’t. A lot of things.’
Marcelo smiled and shook his head and delicately said, ‘It works better this way, I feel . . .’
‘Oh, okay,’ she said.
Every eye was on them as they waited for the lift to arrive. Joanna leaned into Nora.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Of course. Yeah. Why?’
‘I don’t know. It’s just, you seem different tonight.’
‘Just . . . different.’
As they got in the lift Joanna asked another woman, one Nora recognised from the coach, to bring some drinks from the bar – two beers for the podcasters, a sparkling mineral water for Nora and a caipirinha for herself.
‘And bring them up to the suite, Maya.’
Maybe I am teetotal in this life, thought Nora, as she walked out of the lift and along the plush salmon-pink carpet to her suite.
And then, as she entered it, she tried to act like this was all perfectly normal. This gigantic room, leading to another gigantic room, leading to a gigantic bathroom. There was a vast bouquet of flowers for her, with a note signed by the hotel’s manager.
, she resisted saying, as she gazed around at the lavish furnishings, the sweeping floor-to-ceiling curtains, the pristine
white bed the size of an acre, the TV the size of a small cinema, the champagne on ice, the silver tray full of ‘Brazilian honey cakes’ as the card informed them.
‘Don’t suppose you’ll be having any of these,’ said Joanna, taking one of the little delicacies from the tray. ‘Now you’re on that new plan. Harley said I had to keep an eye on you.’
Nora watched Joanna bite into one of the cakes and wondered how good any plan could be if it didn’t involve eating something so clearly delicious as a Brazilian honey cake. She had no idea who Harley was, but she knew she didn’t like them.
‘Also . . . just so you know, the fires are still going on in LA and they’re evacuating half of Calabasas now, but hopefully it won’t get as high as your place . . .’
Nora didn’t know whether to be pleased at the idea of having a house in LA, or worried that it was about to go on fire.
The two Brazilian podcast guys took a few moments to set up their equipment. And Nora sunk herself into the vast sofa in the living area as Joanna – attending to a few rogue crumbs around her mouth with a heavily manicured finger – explained that their music podcast,
, was the most popular in Brazil.
‘Great demographics,’ Joanna enthused. ‘And the numbers are stratospheric. It’s totally worth doing.’
And she stayed there, watching like a hawk mother, as the podcast began.
The Podcast of Revelations
‘So, it has been a crazy year for you,’ Marcelo began, in his very good English.
‘Oh yeah. It has been quite a ride,’ said Nora, trying to sound like a rock star.
‘Now, if I may ask about the album . . .
. You wrote all the lyrics, yes?’
‘Mostly, yes,’ Nora guessed, staring at the small, familiar mole on her left hand.
‘She wrote all of them,’ interjected Joanna.
Marcelo nodded while the other guy, still smiling toothily, fiddled about with sound levels via a laptop.
‘I think “Feathers” is my favourite track,’ said Marcelo, as the drinks arrived.
‘I’m glad you like it.’
Nora tried to think of a way she could get out of this interview. A headache? A bad stomach?
‘But the one I’d like to talk about first is the first one you decided to release. “Stay Out Of My Life”. It seemed such a personal statement.’
Nora forced a smile. ‘The lyrics say it all really.’
‘Obviously there has been some speculation about whether it refers to the . . . how do you say it in English?’
‘Restraining order?’ offered Joanna, helpfully.
‘Yes! The restraining order.’
‘Um,’ said Nora, taken aback. ‘Well. I prefer to get it all out in the song. I find that stuff difficult to talk about.’
‘Yes, I understand. It is just that in your recent
interview you talked a little about your former boyfriend, Dan Lord, and mentioned how difficult it was to get the . . . the . . . the restraining order against him, after he stalked you . . . Didn’t he try to break into your house? Then tell reporters that he wrote the lyrics for “Beautiful Sky”?’
She hovered at the intersection of tears and laughter, and managed, somehow, to give neither.
‘I wrote it when I was still with him. But he didn’t like it. He didn’t like me being in this band. He hated it. He hated my brother. He hated Ravi. He hated Ella, who was one of the original members. Anyway, Dan was very jealous.’
This was so surreal. In one life, the life he’d supposedly wanted, Dan was so bored in his marriage to Nora he was having an affair, while in
life he was breaking into her house because he couldn’t stand her success.
‘He’s a dick,’ said Nora. ‘I don’t know the Portuguese swear word for a terrible person.’
‘Cabrão. It means someone’s a dick.’
‘Or an asshole,’ the younger guy added, stone-faced.
‘Yeah, well, he’s a cabrão. He turned out to be someone else entirely. It’s weird. The way when your life changes people act in different ways. The price of fame, I suppose.’
‘And you wrote a song called “Henry David Thoreau”. You don’t get many songs named after philosophers . . .’
‘I know. Well, when I studied Philosophy at university, he was my favourite. Hence my tattoo. And it made a marginally better song title than “Immanuel Kant”.’
She was getting into the swing of it now. It wasn’t too hard to act a life when it was the one she was destined for.
‘And “Howl”, obviously. Such a powerful song. Number one in twenty-two countries. Grammy award-winning video with a Hollywood A-list cast. I suppose you are done talking about it?’
‘I suppose, yes.’
Joanna went to get herself another honey cake.
Marcelo smiled, gently, as he pressed on. ‘For me it seemed so primal. The song, I mean. Like you were letting everything out. And then I discovered you wrote it on the very night you fired your last manager. Before Joanna. After you found out he’d been ripping you off . . .’
‘Yeah. That wasn’t good,’ she improvised. ‘It was such a betrayal.’
‘I was a big Labyrinths fan before “Howl”. But that was the one for me. That and “Lighthouse Girl”. “Howl” was where I was like,
Nora Seed is a genius
. The lyrics are pretty abstract, but the way you just let out that rage was so soft and soulful and powerful all at once. It’s like early Cure fused with Frank Ocean via The Carpenters and Tame Impala.’
Nora tried, and failed, to imagine what that could possibly sound like.
He started to sing, to everyone’s surprise: ‘“Silence the music to improve the tune / Stop the fake smiles and howl at the moon”.’
Nora smiled and nodded, as if she knew these lyrics. ‘Yeah. Yeah. I was just . . . howling.’
Marcelo’s face became serious. He seemed genuinely concerned for her. ‘You’ve had so much shit to deal with these last few years. Stalkers, bad managers, the fake feuds, the court case, the copyright issues, the messy break-up with Ryan Bailey, the reception of the last album, rehab, that incident in Toronto . . . that time you collapsed from exhaustion in Paris, personal tragedy, drama drama drama. And all that media intrusion. Why do you think the press hate you so much?’
Nora began to feel a bit queasy. Was this what fame was like? Like a permanent bittersweet cocktail of worship and assault? It was no wonder so many famous people went off the rails when the rails veered in every direction. It was like being slapped and kissed at the same time.
‘I . . . I don’t know . . . it’s pretty crackers . . .’
‘I mean, do you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you had decided to take a different path?’
Nora listened to this as she stared at the bubbles rising in her mineral water.
‘I think it is easy to imagine there are easier paths,’ she said, realising something for the first time. ‘But maybe there are no easy paths. There are just paths. In one life, I might be married. In another, I might be working in a shop. I might have said yes to this cute guy who asked me out for a coffee. In another I might be researching glaciers in the Arctic Circle. In another, I might be an Olympic swimming champion. Who knows? Every second of every day we are entering a new universe. And we spend so much time wishing our lives were different, comparing ourselves to other people and to other versions of ourselves, when really most lives contain degrees of good and degrees of bad.’
Marcelo and Joanna and the other Brazilian guy were staring at her wide-eyed, but she was on a roll now. Freewheeling.
‘There are patterns to life . . . Rhythms. It is so easy, while trapped in just the one life, to imagine that times of sadness or tragedy or failure or fear are a result of that particular existence. That it is a by-product of living a certain way, rather than simply
. I mean, it would have made things a lot easier if we understood there was no way of living that can immunise you against sadness. And that sadness is intrinsically part of the fabric of happiness. You can’t have one without the other. Of course, they come in different degrees and quantities. But there is no life where you can be in a state of sheer happiness for ever. And imagining there is just breeds more unhappiness in the life you’re in.’
‘That is a great answer,’ Marcelo said, after he was sure she was finished. ‘But tonight I would say, at the concert, you seemed happy. When you played “Bridge Over Troubled Water” instead of “Howl”, that was such a powerful statement. It was saying:
I am strong
felt like you were telling us, your fans, that you were okay. And so, how is touring going?’
‘Well, it’s great. And yes, I just thought I’d send a message that, you know, I am out here living my best life. But I miss home after a while.’
‘Which one?’ asked Marcelo, with a quietly cheeky smile. ‘I mean, do you feel more at home in London, or LA, or on the Amalfi Coast?’
It seemed this was the life where her carbon footprint was the highest.
‘I don’t know. I suppose I would say London.’
Marcelo took a sharp intake of breath, as if the next question was something he had to swim under. He scratched his beard. ‘Okay, but I suppose it must be hard for you, as I know you shared that flat with your brother?’