Authors: Matt Haig
‘Make it stop!’
‘Close it now,’ instructed Mrs Elm. ‘Close the book. Not just your eyes.
. You have to do it yourself.’
So Nora, feeling like she was about to pass out, sat back up and placed her hand under the front cover. It felt even heavier now but she managed to close the book and gasped in relief.
Every Life Begins Now
Mrs Elm had her arms folded. Though she looked identical to the Mrs Elm Nora had always known, her manner was definitely a little more brusque. It was Mrs Elm but also somehow
Mrs Elm. It was quite confusing.
‘Well what?’ Nora said, still gasping, still relieved she could no longer feel the intensity of all her regrets simultaneously.
‘Which regret stands out? Which decision would you like to undo? Which life would you like to try on?’
She said that, precisely.
. As if this was a clothes shop and Nora could choose a life as easily as a T-shirt. It felt like a cruel game.
‘That was agony. I felt like I was about to be strangled. What is the point of this?’
As Nora looked up, she noticed the lights for the first time. Just naked bulbs hanging down from wires attached to the ceiling, which seemed like a normal kind of light-grey ceiling. Except it was a ceiling that reached no walls. Like the floor here, it went on for ever.
‘The point is there is a strong possibility that your old life is over. You wanted to die and maybe you will. And you will need somewhere to go to. Somewhere to land. Another life. So, you need to think hard. This library is called the Midnight Library, because every new life on offer here begins now. And now is midnight. It begins now. All these futures. That’s what is here. That’s what your books represent. Every other immediate present and ongoing future you could have had.’
‘So there are no pasts in there?’
‘No. Just the consequence of them. But those books are also written. And I know them all. But they are not for you to read.’
‘And when does each life end?’
‘It could be seconds. Or hours. Or it could be days. Months. More. If you have found a life you truly want to live, then you get to live it until you die of old age. If you really want to live a life hard enough, you don’t have to worry. You will stay there as if you have always been there. Because in one universe you
always been there. The book will never be returned, so to speak. It becomes less of a loan and more of a gift. The moment you decide you want that life, really want it, then everything that exists in your head now, including this Midnight Library, will eventually be a memory so vague and intangible it will hardly be there at all.’
One of the lights flickered overhead.
‘The only danger,’ continued Mrs Elm, more ominously, ‘is when you’re here.
. If you lose the will to carry on, it will affect your root life – your original life. And that could lead to the destruction of this place. You’d be gone for ever. You’d be dead. And so would your access to all this.’
‘That’s what I want. I want to be dead. I would be dead because I want to be. That’s why I took the overdose. I want to die.’
‘Well, maybe. Or maybe not. After all, you’re still here.’
Nora tried to get her head around this. ‘So, how do I return to the library? If I’m stuck in a life even worse than the one I’ve just left?’
‘It can be subtle, but as soon as disappointment is felt in full, you’ll come back here. Sometimes the feeling creeps up, other times it comes all at once. If it never arrives, you’ll stay put, and you will be happy there, by definition. It couldn’t be simpler. So: pick something you would have done differently, and I will find you the book. That is to say, the life.’
Nora stared down at
The Book of Regrets
lying closed on the yellow-brown floor tiles.
She remembered chatting late at night with Dan about his dream of owning a quaint little pub in the country. His enthusiasm had been infectious, and it had almost become her dream too. ‘I wish I hadn’t left Dan. And that I was still in a relationship with him. I regret us not staying together and working towards that dream. Is there a life where we are still together?’
‘Of course,’ said Mrs Elm.
The books in the library began to move again, as though the shelves were conveyor belts. This time, though, instead of going as slow as a wedding march they moved faster and faster and faster, until they couldn’t really be seen as individual books at all. They just whirred by in streams of green.
Then, just as suddenly, they stopped.
Mrs Elm crouched down and took a book from the lowest shelf to her left. The book was one of the darker shades of green. She handed it to Nora. It was a lot lighter than
The Book of Regrets
, even though it was a similar size. Again, there was no title on the spine but a small one embossed on the front, precisely the same shade as the rest of the book.
‘But it’s not my life . . .’
‘Oh Nora, they are all your lives.’
‘What do I do now?’
‘You open the book and turn to the first page.’
Nora did so.
,’ said Mrs Elm, with careful precision. ‘Now, read the first line.’
Nora stared down and read.
She walked out of the pub into the cool night air . . .
And Nora had just enough time to think to herself, ‘Pub?’ After that, it was happening. The text began to swirl and soon became indecipherable, in fast motion, as she felt herself weaken. She never knowingly let go of the book, but there was a moment where she was no longer a person reading it, and a consequent moment where there was no book – or library – at all.
The Three Horseshoes
Nora was standing outside in crisp, clean air. But unlike in Bedford, it wasn’t raining here.
‘Where am I?’ she whispered to herself.
There was a small row of quaint stone terraced houses on the other side of the gently curving road. Quiet, old houses, with all their lights off, nestled at the edge of a village before fading into the stillness of the countryside. A clear sky, an expanse of dotted stars, a waning crescent moon. The smell of fields. The two-way twit-twoo of tawny owls. And then quiet again. A quiet that had a presence, that was a force in the air.
She had been in Bedford. Then in that strange library. And now she was here, on a pretty village road. Without hardly even moving.
On this side of the road, golden light filtered out of a downstairs window. She looked up and saw an elegantly painted pub sign creaking softly in the wind. Overlapping horseshoes underneath carefully italicised words:
The Three Horseshoes
In front of her, there was a chalkboard standing on the pavement. She recognised her own handwriting, at its neatest.
THE THREE HORSESHOES
Tuesday Night – Quiz Night
‘True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.’
– Socrates (after losing our quiz!!!!)
This was a life where she put four exclamation marks in a row. That was probably what happier, less uptight people did.
A promising omen.
She looked down at what she was wearing. A denim shirt with sleeves rolled halfway up her forearms and jeans and wedge-heeled shoes, none of which she wore in her actual life. She had goose-bumps from the cold, and clearly wasn’t dressed to be outside for long.
There were two rings on her ring finger. Her old sapphire engagement ring was there – the same one she had taken off, through trembles and tears, over a year ago – accompanied by a simple silver wedding band.
She was wearing a watch. Not a digital one, in this life. An elegant, slender analogue one, with Roman numerals. It was about a minute after midnight.
How is this happening?
Her hands were smoother in this life. Maybe she used hand cream. Her nails shone with clear polish. There was some comfort in seeing the familiar small mole on her left hand.
Footsteps crunched on gravel. Someone was heading towards her down the driveway. A man, visible from the light of the pub windows and the solitary streetlamp. A man with rosy cheeks and grey Dickensian whiskers and a wax jacket. A Toby jug made flesh. He seemed, from his overly careful gait, to be slightly drunk.
‘Goodnight, Nora. I’ll be back on Friday. For the folk singer. Dan said he’s a good one.’
In this life she probably knew the man’s name. ‘Right. Yes, of course. Friday. It should be a great night.’
At least her voice sounded like her. She watched as the man crossed the road, looking left and right a few times despite the clear absence of traffic, and disappearing down a lane between the cottages.
It was really happening. This was actually it. This was the pub life. This was the dream made reality.
‘This is so very weird,’ she said into the night. ‘So. Very. Weird.’
A group of three left the pub then too. Two women and a man. They smiled at Nora as they walked past.
‘We’ll win next time,’ one of the women said.
‘Yes,’ replied Nora. ‘There’s always a next time.’
She walked up to the pub and peeked through the window. It seemed empty inside, but the lights were still on. That group must have been the last to leave.
The pub looked very inviting. Warm and characterful. Small tables and timber beams and a wagon wheel attached to a wall. A rich red carpet and a wood-panelled bar full of an impressive array of beer pumps.
She stepped away from the window and saw a sign just beyond the pub, past where the pavement became grass.
Quickly, she trotted over and read what it said.
Welcomes Careful Drivers
Then she noticed in the top centre of the sign a little coat of arms around which orbited the words
Oxfordshire County Council
‘We did it,’ she whispered into the country air. ‘We
This was the dream Dan had first mentioned to her while walking by the Seine in Paris, eating macarons they had bought on the Boulevard Saint-Michel.
A dream not of Paris but of rural England, where they would live together.
A pub in the Oxfordshire countryside.
When Nora’s mum’s cancer aggressively returned, reaching her lymph nodes and rapidly colonising her body, that dream was put
on hold and Dan moved with her from London back to Bedford. Her mum had known of their engagement and had planned to stay alive long enough for the wedding. She had died four months too soon.
Maybe this was it. Maybe this was the life. Maybe this was first-time lucky, or second-time lucky.
She allowed herself an apprehensive smile.
She walked back along the path and crunched over the gravel, heading towards the side door the drunken, whiskery man in the wax jacket had recently departed from. She took a deep breath and stepped inside.
It was warm.
She was in some kind of hallway or corridor. Terracotta floor tiles. Low wood panelling and, above, wallpaper full of illustrations of sycamore leaves.
She walked down the little corridor and into the main pub area which she had peeked at through the window. She jumped as a cat appeared out of nowhere.
An elegant, angular chocolate Burmese purring away. She bent down and stroked it and looked at the engraved name on the disc attached to the collar.
A different cat, with the same name. Unlike her dear beloved ginger tabby, she doubted this Voltaire was a rescue. The cat began to purr. ‘Hello, Volts Number Two. You seem happy here. Are we all as happy as you?’
The cat purred a possible affirmation and rubbed his head against Nora’s leg. She picked him up and went over to the bar. There was a row of craft beers on the pumps, stouts and ciders and pale ales and IPAs.
Lost and Found
There was a charity tin on the bar for Butterfly Conservation.
She heard the sound of clinking glass. As if a dishwasher was being filled. Nora felt anxiety constrict her chest. A familiar sensation. Then a spindly twenty-something man in a baggy rugby top popped up from behind the bar, hardly giving any attention to Nora as he gathered the last remaining used glasses and put them in the dishwasher. He switched it on then pulled down his coat from a hook, put it on and took out some car keys.
‘Bye, Nora. I’ve done the chairs and wiped all the tables. Dishwasher’s on.’
‘Yes,’ Nora said, feeling like a spy about to have her cover blown. ‘See you.’
A moment after the man left, she heard footsteps rising up from somewhere below, heading across the tiles she had just walked down, coming from the back of the pub. And then he was there.
He looked different.
The beard had gone, and there were more wrinkles around his eyes, dark circles. He had a nearly finished pint of dark beer in his hand. He still looked a bit like a TV vet, just a few more series down the line.
‘Dan,’ she said, as if he was something that needed identifying. Like a rabbit by the road. ‘I just want to say I am so proud of you. So proud of us.’
He looked at her, blankly. ‘Was just turning the chiller units off. Got to clean the lines tomorrow. We’ve left it a fortnight.’
Nora had no idea what he was talking about. She stroked the cat. ‘Right. Yes. Of course. The lines.’
Her husband – for in this life, that was who he was – looked around at all the tables and upside-down chairs. He was wearing a faded
T-shirt. ‘Have Blake and Sophie gone home?’
Nora hesitated. She sensed he was talking about people who
worked for them. The young man in the baggy rugby top was presumably Blake. There didn’t seem to be anyone else around.
‘Yes,’ she said, trying to sound natural despite the fundamental bizarreness of the circumstances. ‘I think they have. They were pretty on top of things.’