Authors: Matt Haig
‘It’s good to see you too,’ he said, but his tense forehead didn’t show it.
When she’d spoken to him in the shop, he’d always sounded breezy, but now his voice contained something heavy. He scratched his brow. Made another sound but didn’t quite manage a full word.
‘You running?’ A pointless question. He was clearly out for a run. But he seemed relieved, momentarily, to have something trivial to say.
‘Yeah. I’m doing the Bedford Half. It’s this Sunday.’
‘Oh right. Great. I was thinking of doing a half-marathon and then I remembered I hate running.’
This had sounded funnier in her head than it did as actual words being vocalised out of her mouth. She didn’t even hate running. But still, she was perturbed to see the seriousness of his expression. The silence went beyond awkward into something else.
‘You told me you had a cat,’ he said eventually.
‘Yes. I have a cat.’
‘I remembered his name. Voltaire. A ginger tabby?’
‘Yeah. I call him Volts. He finds Voltaire a bit pretentious. It turns out he’s not massively into eighteenth-century French philosophy and literature. He’s quite down-to-earth. You know. For a cat.’
Ash looked down at her slippers.
‘I’m afraid I think he’s dead.’
‘He’s lying very still by the side of the road. I saw the name on the collar, I think a car might have hit him. I’m sorry, Nora.’
She was so scared of her sudden switch in emotions right then that she kept smiling, as if the smile could keep her in the world she had just been in, the one where Volts was alive and where this man she’d sold guitar songbooks to had rung her doorbell for another reason.
Ash, she remembered, was a surgeon. Not a veterinary one, a general human one. If he said something was dead it was, in all probability, dead.
‘I’m so sorry.’
Nora had a familiar sense of grief. Only the sertraline stopped her crying. ‘Oh God.’
She stepped out onto the wet cracked paving slabs of Bancroft Avenue, hardly breathing, and saw the poor ginger-furred creature lying on the rain-glossed tarmac beside the kerb. His head grazed the side of the pavement and his legs were back as if in mid-gallop, chasing some imaginary bird.
‘Oh Volts. Oh no. Oh God.’
She knew she should be experiencing pity and despair for her feline friend – and she was – but she had to acknowledge something else. As she stared at Voltaire’s still and peaceful expression – that total absence of pain – there was an inescapable feeling brewing in the darkness.
Nine and a half hours before she decided to die, Nora arrived late for her afternoon shift at String Theory.
‘I’m sorry,’ she told Neil, in the scruffy little windowless box of an office. ‘My cat died. Last night. And I had to bury him. Well, someone helped me bury him. But then I was left alone in my flat and I couldn’t sleep and forgot to set the alarm and didn’t wake up till midday and then had to rush.’
This was all true, and she imagined her appearance – including make-up-free face, loose makeshift ponytail and the same secondhand green corduroy pinafore dress she had worn to work all week, garnished with a general air of tired despair – would back her up.
Neil looked up from his computer and leaned back in his chair. He joined his hands together and made a steeple of his index fingers, which he placed under his chin, as if he was Confucius contemplating a deep philosophical truth about the universe rather than the boss of a musical equipment shop dealing with a late employee. There was a massive Fleetwood Mac poster on the wall behind him, the top right corner of which had come unstuck and flopped down like a puppy’s ear.
‘Listen, Nora, I like you.’
Neil was harmless. A fifty-something guitar aficionado who liked cracking bad jokes and playing passable old Dylan covers live in the store.
‘And I know you’ve got mental-health stuff.’
‘Everyone’s got mental-health stuff.’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘I’m feeling much better, generally,’ she lied. ‘It’s not clinical. The doctor says it’s situational depression. It’s just that I keep on having new . . . situations. But I haven’t taken a day off sick for it all. Apart from when my mum . . . Yeah. Apart from that.’
Neil sighed. When he did so he made a whistling sound out of his nose. An ominous B flat. ‘Nora, how long have you worked here?’
‘Twelve years and . . .’ – she knew this too well – ‘. . . eleven months and three days. On and off.’
‘That’s a long time. I feel like you are made for better things. You’re in your late thirties.’
‘You’ve got so much going for you. You teach people piano . . .’
He brushed a crumb off his sweater.
‘Did you picture yourself stuck in your hometown working in a shop? You know, when you were fourteen? What did you picture yourself as?’
‘At fourteen? A swimmer.’ She’d been the fastest fourteen-year-old girl in the country at breaststroke and second-fastest at freestyle. She remembered standing on a podium at the National Swimming Championships.
‘So, what happened?’
She gave the short version. ‘It was a lot of pressure.’
‘Pressure makes us, though. You start off as coal and the pressure makes you a diamond.’
She didn’t correct his knowledge of diamonds. She didn’t tell him that while coal and diamonds are both carbon, coal is too impure to be able, under whatever pressure, to become a diamond. According to science, you start off as coal and you end up as coal. Maybe that was the real-life lesson.
She smoothed a stray strand of her coal-black hair up towards her ponytail.
‘What are you saying, Neil?’
‘It’s never too late to pursue a dream.’
‘Pretty sure it’s too late to pursue that one.’
‘You’re a very well qualified person, Nora. Degree in Philosophy . . .’
Nora stared down at the small mole on her left hand. That mole had been through everything she’d been through. And it just stayed there, not caring. Just being a mole. ‘Not a
demand for philosophers in Bedford, if I’m honest, Neil.’
‘You went to uni, had a year in London, then came back.’
‘I didn’t have much of a choice.’
Nora didn’t want a conversation about her dead mum. Or even Dan. Because Neil had found Nora’s backing out of a wedding with two days’ notice the most fascinating love story since Kurt and Courtney.
‘We all have choices, Nora. There’s such a thing as free will.’
‘Well, not if you subscribe to a deterministic view of the universe.’
‘It was either here or the Animal Rescue Centre. This paid better. Plus, you know, music.’
‘You were in a band. With your brother.’
‘I was. The Labyrinths. We weren’t really going anywhere.’
‘Your brother tells a different story.’
This took Nora by surprise. ‘Joe? How do you—’
‘He bought an amp. Marshall DSL40.’
‘He was in Bedford?’
‘Unless it was a hologram. Like Tupac.’
He was probably visiting Ravi, Nora thought. Ravi was her brother’s best friend. While Joe had given up the guitar and moved to London, for a crap IT job he hated, Ravi had stuck to Bedford. He played in a covers band now, called Slaughterhouse Four, doing pub gigs around town.
‘Right. That’s interesting.’
Nora was pretty certain her brother knew Friday was her day off. The fact prodded her from inside.
‘I’m happy here.’
‘Except you aren’t.’
He was right. A soul-sickness festered within her. Her mind was throwing itself up. She widened her smile.
‘I mean, I am happy with the job. Happy as in, you know, satisfied. Neil, I need this job.’
‘You are a good person. You worry about the world. The homeless, the environment.’
‘I need a job.’
He was back in his Confucius pose. ‘You need freedom.’
‘I don’t want freedom.’
‘This isn’t a non-profit organisation. Though I have to say it is rapidly becoming one.’
‘Look, Neil, is this about what I said the other week? About you needing to modernise things? I’ve got some ideas of how to get younger peo—’
‘No,’ he said, defensively. ‘This place used to just be guitars. String Theory, get it? I diversified. Made this work. It’s just that when times are tough I can’t pay you to put off customers with your face looking like a wet weekend.’
‘I’m afraid, Nora’ – he paused for a moment, about the time it takes to lift an axe into the air – ‘I’m going to have to let you go.’
To Live Is to Suffer
Nine hours before she decided to die, Nora wandered around Bedford aimlessly. The town was a conveyor belt of despair. The pebble-dashed sports centre where her dead dad once watched her swim lengths of the pool, the Mexican restaurant where she’d taken Dan for fajitas, the hospital where her mum had her treatment.
Dan had texted her yesterday.
Nora, I miss your voice. Can we talk? D x
She’d said she was
(big lol). Yet it was impossible to text anything else. Not because she didn’t still feel for him, but because she did. And couldn’t risk hurting him again. She’d ruined his life.
My life is chaos
, he’d told her, via drunk texts, shortly after the would-be wedding she’d pulled out of two days before.
The universe tended towards chaos and entropy. That was basic thermodynamics. Maybe it was basic existence too.
You lose your job, then more shit happens.
The wind whispered through the trees.
It began to rain.
She headed towards the shelter of a newsagent’s, with the deep – and, as it happened,
sense that things were about to get worse.
Eight hours before she decided to die, Nora entered the newsagent’s.
‘Sheltering from the rain?’ the woman behind the counter asked.
‘Yes.’ Nora kept her head down. Her despair growing like a weight she couldn’t carry.
was on display.
As she stared now at the magazine cover – an image of a black hole – she realised that’s what she was. A black hole. A dying star, collapsing in on itself.
Her dad used to subscribe. She remembered being enthralled by an article about Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. She’d never seen a place that looked so
. She’d read about scientists doing research among glaciers and frozen fjords and puffins. Then, prompted by Mrs Elm, she’d decided she wanted to be a glaciologist.
She saw the scruffy, hunched form of her brother’s friend – and their own former bandmate – Ravi by the music mags, engrossed in an article. She stood there for a fraction too long, because when she walked away she heard him say, ‘Nora?’
‘Ravi, hi. I hear Joe was in Bedford the other day?’
A small nod. ‘Yeah.’
‘Did he, um, did you see him?’
‘I did actually.’
A silence Nora felt as pain. ‘He didn’t tell me he was coming.’
‘Was just a fly-by.’
‘Is he okay?’
Ravi paused. Nora had once liked him, and he’d been a loyal friend to her brother. But, as with Joe, there was a barrier between them. They hadn’t parted on the best of terms. (He’d thrown his drumsticks on the floor of a rehearsal room and stropped out when Nora told him she was out of the band.) ‘I think he’s depressed.’
Nora’s mind grew heavier at the idea her brother might feel like she did.
‘He’s not himself,’ Ravi went on, anger in his voice. ‘He’s going to have to move out of his shoebox in Shepherd’s Bush. What with him not being able to play lead guitar in a successful rock band. Mind you, I’ve got no money either. Pub gigs don’t pay these days. Even when you agree to clean the toilets. Ever cleaned pub toilets, Nora?’
‘I’m having a pretty shit time too, if we’re doing the Misery Olympics.’
Ravi cough-laughed. A hardness momentarily shadowed his face. ‘The world’s smallest violin is playing.’
She wasn’t in the mood. ‘Is this about The Labyrinths? Still?’
‘It meant a lot to me. And to your brother. To all of us. We had a deal with Universal. Right. There. Album, singles, tour, promo. We could be Coldplay now.’
‘You hate Coldplay.’
‘Not the point. We could be in Malibu. Instead:
. And so, no, your brother’s not ready to see you.’
‘I was having
. I’d have let everyone down in the end. I told the label to take you on without me. I agreed to write the songs. It wasn’t my fault I was engaged. I was with Dan. It was kind of a deal-breaker.’
‘Well, yeah. How did that work out?’
‘Ravi, that isn’t fair.’
‘Fair. Great word.’
The woman behind the counter gawped with interest.
‘Bands don’t last. We’d have been a meteor shower. Over before we started.’
‘Meteor showers are fucking beautiful.’
‘Come on. You’re still with Ella, aren’t you?’
‘And I could be with Ella
in a successful band, with
. We had that chance. Right
.’ He pointed to the palm of his hand. ‘Our songs were
Nora hated herself for silently correcting the ‘our’ to ‘my’.
‘I don’t think your problem was stage fright. Or wedding fright. I think your problem was
This hurt. The words took the air out of her.
‘And I think
problem,’ she retaliated, voice trembling, ‘is blaming others for your shitty life.’
He nodded, as if slapped. Put his magazine back.
‘See you around, Nora.’
‘Tell Joe I said hi,’ she said, as he walked out of the shop and into the rain. ‘Please.’
She caught sight of the cover of
magazine. A ginger tabby. Her mind felt loud, like a Sturm und Drang symphony, as if the ghost of a German composer was trapped inside her mind, conjuring chaos and intensity.
The woman behind the counter said something to her she missed.