Authors: Matt Haig
The woman – blonde bob, bottle tan – was happy and casual and relaxed in a way Nora no longer knew how to be. Leaning over the counter, on her forearms, as if Nora was a lemur at the zoo.
‘I’m Kerry-Anne. Remember you from school. The swimmer. Super-brain. Didn’t whatshisface, Mr Blandford, do an assembly on you once? Said you were going to end up at the Olympics?’
‘So, did you?’
‘I, um, gave it up. Was more into music . . . at the time. Then life happened.’
‘So what do you do now?’
‘I’m . . . between things.’
‘Got anyone, then? Bloke? Kids?’
Nora shook her head. Wishing it would fall off. Her own head. Onto the floor. So she never had to have a conversation with a stranger ever again.
‘Well, don’t hang about. Tick-tock tick-tock.’
.’ She wished Izzy was here. Izzy never put up with any of this kind of shit. ‘And I’m not sure I want—’
‘Me and Jake were like rabbits but we got there. Two little terrors. But worth it, y’know? I just feel
. I could show you some pictures.’
‘I get headaches, with . . . phones.’
Dan had wanted kids. Nora didn’t know. She’d been petrified of motherhood. The fear of a deeper depression. She couldn’t look after herself, let alone anyone else.
‘Still in Bedford, then?’
‘Thought you’d be one who got away.’
‘I came back. My mum was ill.’
‘Aw, sorry to hear that. Hope she’s okay now?’
‘I better go.’
‘But it’s still raining.’
As Nora escaped the shop, she wished there were nothing but doors ahead of her, which she could walk through one by one, leaving everything behind.
How to Be a Black Hole
Seven hours before she decided to die, Nora was in free fall and she had no one to talk to.
Her last hope was her former best friend Izzy, who was over ten thousand miles away in Australia. And things had dried up between them too.
She took out her phone and sent Izzy a message.
Hi Izzy, long time no chat. Miss you, friend. Would be WONDROUS to catch up. X
She added another ‘X’ and sent it.
Within a minute, Izzy had seen the message. Nora waited in vain for three dots to appear.
She passed the cinema, where a new Ryan Bailey film was playing tonight. A corny cowboy-romcom called
Last Chance Saloon
Ryan Bailey’s face seemed to always know
deep and significant things
. Nora had loved him ever since she’d watched him play a brooding Plato in
on TV, and since he’d said in an interview that he’d studied philosophy. She’d imagined them having deep conversations about Henry David Thoreau through a veil of steam in his West Hollywood hot tub.
‘Go confidently in the direction of your dreams,’ Thoreau had said. ‘Live the life you’ve imagined.’
Thoreau had been her favourite philosopher to study. But who seriously goes confidently in the direction of their dreams? Well, apart from Thoreau. He’d gone and lived in the woods, with no contact from the outside world, to just sit there and write and chop wood and fish. But life was probably simpler two centuries
ago in Concord, Massachusetts, than modern life in Bedford, Bedfordshire.
Or maybe it wasn’t.
Maybe she was just really crap at it. At life.
Whole hours passed by. She wanted to have a purpose, something to give her a reason to exist. But she had nothing. Not even the small purpose of picking up Mr Banerjee’s medication, as she had done that two days ago. She tried to give a homeless man some money but realised she had no money.
‘Cheer up, love, it might never happen,’ someone said.
Nothing ever did,
she thought to herself.
That was the whole problem
Five hours before she decided to die, as she began walking home, her phone vibrated in her hand.
Maybe it was Izzy. Maybe Ravi had told her brother to get in touch.
‘Oh hi, Doreen.’
An agitated voice. ‘Where
She’d totally forgotten.
What time is it?
‘I’ve had a really crap day. I’m so sorry.’
‘We waited outside your flat for an hour.’
‘I can still do Leo’s lesson when I get back. I’ll be five minutes.’
‘Too late. He’s with his dad now for three days.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’
She was a waterfall of apologies. She was drowning in herself.
‘To be honest, Nora, he’s been thinking about giving up altogether.’
‘But he’s so good.’
‘He’s really enjoyed it. But he’s too busy. Exams, mates, football. Something has to give . . .’
‘He has a real talent. I’ve got him into bloody Chopin. Please—’
A deep, deep sigh. ‘Bye, Nora.’
Nora imagined the ground opening up, sending her down through the lithosphere, and the mantle, not stopping until she reached the inner core, compressed into a hard unfeeling metal.
Four hours before she decided to die, Nora passed her elderly neighbour, Mr Banerjee.
Mr Banerjee was eighty-four years old. He was frail but was slightly more mobile since his hip surgery.
‘It’s terrible out, isn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ mumbled Nora.
He glanced at his flowerbed. ‘The irises are out, though.’
She looked at the clusters of purple flowers, forcing a smile as she wondered what possible consolation they could offer.
His eyes were tired, behind their spectacles. He was at his door, fumbling for keys. A bottle of milk in a carrier bag that seemed too heavy for him. It was rare to see him out of the house. A house she had visited during her first month here, to help him set up an online grocery shop.
‘Oh,’ he said now. ‘I have some good news. I don’t need you to collect my pills any more. The boy from the chemist has moved nearby and he says he will drop them off.’
Nora tried to reply but couldn’t get the words out. She nodded instead.
He managed to open the door, then closed it, retreating into his shrine to his dear dead wife.
That was it. No one needed her. She was superfluous to the universe.
Once inside her flat the silence was louder than noise. The smell of cat food. A bowl still out for Voltaire, half eaten.
She got herself some water and swallowed two anti-depressants and stared at the rest of the pills, wondering.
Three hours before she decided to die, her whole being ached with regret, as if the despair in her mind was somehow in her torso and limbs too. As if it had colonised every part of her.
It reminded her that everyone was better off without her. You get near a black hole and the gravitational pull drags you into its bleak, dark reality.
The thought was like a ceaseless mind-cramp, something too uncomfortable to bear yet too strong to avoid.
Nora went through her social media. No messages, no comments, no new followers, no friend requests. She was antimatter, with added self-pity.
She went on Instagram and saw everyone had worked out how to live, except her. She posted a rambling update on Facebook, which she didn’t even really use any more.
Two hours before she decided to die, she opened a bottle of wine.
Old philosophy textbooks looked down at her, ghost furnishings from her university days, when life still had possibility. A yucca plant and three tiny, squat potted cacti. She imagined being a non-sentient life form sitting in a pot all day was probably an easier existence.
She sat down at the little electric piano but played nothing. She thought of sitting by Leo’s side, teaching him Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor. Happy moments can turn into pain, given time.
There was an old musician’s cliché, about how there were no wrong notes on a piano. But her life was a cacophony of nonsense. A piece that could have gone in wonderful directions, but now went nowhere at all.
Time slipped by. She stared into space.
After the wine a realisation hit her with total clarity. She wasn’t made for this life.
Every move had been a mistake, every decision a disaster, every day a retreat from who she’d imagined she’d be.
Swimmer. Musician. Philosopher. Spouse. Traveller.
. Happy. Loved.
She couldn’t even manage ‘cat owner’. Or ‘one-hour-a-week piano tutor’. Or ‘human capable of conversation’.
The tablets weren’t working.
She finished the wine. All of it.
‘I miss you,’ she said into the air, as if the spirits of every person she’d loved were in the room with her.
She called her brother and left a voicemail when he didn’t pick up.
‘I love you, Joe. I just wanted you to know that. There’s nothing you could have done. This is about me. Thank you for being my brother. I love you. Bye.’
It began to rain again, so she sat there with the blinds open, staring at the drops on the glass.
The time was now twenty-two minutes past eleven.
She knew only one thing with absolute certainty: she didn’t want to reach tomorrow. She stood up. She found a pen and a piece of paper.
It was, she decided, a very good time to die.
I had all the chances to make something of my life, and I blew every one of them. Through my own carelessness and misfortune, the world has retreated from me, and so now it makes perfect sense that I should retreat from the world
If I felt it was possible to stay, I would. But I don’t. And so I can’t. I make life worse for people
I have nothing to give. I’m sorry
Be kind to each other
At first the mist was so pervasive that she could see nothing else, until slowly she saw pillars appear on either side of her. She was standing on a path, some kind of colonnade. The columns were brain-grey, with specks of brilliant blue. The misty vapours cleared, like spirits wanting to be unwatched, and a shape emerged.
A solid, rectangular shape.
The shape of a building. About the size of a church or a small supermarket. It had a stone facade, the same colouration as the pillars, with a large wooden central door and a roof which had aspirations of grandeur, with intricate details and a grand-looking clock on the front gable, with black-painted Roman numerals and its hands pointing to midnight. Tall dark arched windows, framed with stone bricks, punctuated the front wall, equidistant from each other. When she first looked it seemed there were only four windows, but a moment later there were definitely five of them. She thought she must have miscounted.
As there was nothing else around, and since she had nowhere else to be, Nora stepped cautiously towards it.
She looked at the digital display of her watch.
Midnight, as the clock had told her.
She waited for the next second to arrive, but it didn’t. Even as she walked closer to the building, even as she opened the wooden door, even as she stepped inside, the display didn’t change. Either something was wrong with her watch, or something was wrong with time. In the circumstances, it could have been either.
What the hell is going on?
Maybe this place would hold some answers, she thought, as she walked inside. The place was well lit, and the floor was light stone – somewhere between light yellow and camel-brown, like the colour of an old page – but the windows she had seen on the outside weren’t there on the inside. In fact, even though she had only taken a few steps forward she could no longer see the walls at all. Instead, there were bookshelves. Aisles and aisles of shelves, reaching up to the ceiling and branching off from the broad open corridor Nora was walking down. She turned down one of the aisles and stopped to gaze in bafflement at the seemingly endless amount of books.
The books were everywhere, on shelves so thin they might as well have been invisible. The books were all green. Greens of multifarious shades. Some of these volumes were a murky swamp green, some a bright and light chartreuse, some a bold emerald and others the verdant shade of summer lawns.
And on the subject of summer lawns: despite the fact that the books looked old, the air in the library felt fresh. It had a lush, grassy, outdoors kind of smell, not the dusty scent of old tomes.
The shelves really did seem to go on for ever, straight and long towards a far-off horizon, like lines indicating one-point perspective in a school art project, broken only by the occasional corridor.
She picked a corridor at random and set off. At the next turn, she took a left and became a little lost. She searched for a way out, but there was no sign of an exit. She attempted to retrace her steps towards the entrance, but it was impossible.
Eventually she had to conclude she wasn’t going to find the exit.
‘This is abnormal,’ she said to herself, to find comfort in the sound of her own voice. ‘Definitely abnormal.’
Nora stopped and stepped closer to some of the books.
There were no titles or author names adorning the spines. Aside from the difference of shade, the only other variation was size: the books were of similar height but varied in width. Some had spines
two inches wide, others significantly less. One or two weren’t much more than pamphlets.
She reached to pull out one of the books, choosing a medium-sized one in a slightly drab olive colour. It looked a bit dusty and worn.
Before she had pulled it clean from the shelf, she heard a voice behind her and she jumped back.
‘Be careful,’ the voice said.
And Nora turned around to see who was there.
‘Please. You have to be careful.’
The woman had arrived seemingly from nowhere. Smartly dressed, with short grey hair and a turtle-green polo neck jumper. About sixty, if Nora had to pin it down.
‘Who are you?’
But before she had finished the question, she realised she already knew the answer.