Authors: Matt Haig
‘And that’s when you got it.’ Mrs Elm said this as a statement rather than a question. She
. Of course she knew.
‘It was moved into your room, and you welcomed it like a friend, and started learning to play it with steadfast determination. You spent your pocket money on piano-teaching guides and
Mozart for Beginners
The Beatles for Piano
. Because you liked it. But also because you wanted to impress your older brother.’
‘I never told you all this.’
A wry smile. ‘Don’t worry. I read the book.’
‘Right. Course. Yeah. Got you.’
‘You might need to stop worrying about other people’s approval, Nora,’ Mrs Elm said in a whisper, for added power and intimacy. ‘You don’t need a permission slip to be your—’
‘Yes. I get it.’
And she did get it.
Every life she had tried so far since entering the library had really been someone else’s dream. The married life in the pub had been Dan’s dream. The trip to Australia had been Izzy’s dream, and her regret about not going had been a guilt for her best friend more than a sorrow for herself. The dream of her becoming a swimming champion belonged to her father. And okay, so it was true that she had been interested in the Arctic and being a
glaciologist when she was younger, but that had been steered quite significantly by her chats with Mrs Elm herself, back in the school library. And The Labyrinths, well, that had always been her brother’s dream.
Maybe there was no perfect life for her, but somewhere, surely, there was a life worth living. And if she was to find a life truly worth living, she realised she would have to cast a wider net.
Mrs Elm was right. The game wasn’t over. No player should give up if there were pieces still left on the board.
She straightened her back and stood up tall.
‘You need to choose more lives from the bottom or top shelves. You have been seeking to undo your most obvious regrets. The books on the higher and lower shelves are the lives a little bit further removed. Lives you are still living in one universe or another but not ones you have been imagining or mourning or thinking about. They are lives you could live but never dreamed of.’
‘So they’re unhappy lives?’
‘Some will be, some won’t be. It’s just they are not the most
lives. They are ones which might require a little imagination to reach. But I am sure you can get there . . .’
‘Can’t you guide me?’
Mrs Elm smiled. ‘I could read you a poem. Librarians like poems.’ And then she quoted Robert Frost. ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – / I took the one less travelled by, / And that has made all the difference . . .’
‘What if there are more than two roads diverging in the wood? What if there are more roads than trees? What if there is no end to the choices you could make? What would Robert Frost do then?’
She remembered studying Aristotle as a first-year Philosophy student. And being a bit depressed by his idea that excellence was never an accident. That excellent outcomes were the result of ‘the wise choice of many alternatives’. And here she was, in the privileged position of being able to sample these many alternatives. It was a
shortcut to wisdom and maybe a shortcut to happiness too. She saw it now not as a burden but a gift to be cherished.
‘Look at that chessboard we put back in place,’ said Mrs Elm, softly. ‘Look at how ordered and safe and peaceful it looks now, before a game starts. It’s a beautiful thing. But it is boring. It is dead. And yet the moment you make a move on that board, things change. Things begin to get more chaotic. And that chaos builds with every single move you make.’
She took a seat at the chess table, opposite Mrs Elm. She stared down at the board and moved a pawn two spaces forward.
Mrs Elm mirrored the move on her side of the board.
‘It’s an easy game to play,’ she told Nora. ‘But a hard one to master. Every move you make opens a whole new world of possibility.’
Nora moved one of her knights. They progressed like this for a little while.
Mrs Elm provided a commentary. ‘At the beginning of a game, there are no variations. There is only one way to set up a board. There are nine million variations after the first six moves. And after eight moves there are two hundred and eighty-eight billion different positions. And those possibilities keep growing. There are more possible ways to play a game of chess than the amount of atoms in the observable universe. So it gets very messy. And there is no right way to play; there are many ways. In chess, as in life, possibility is the basis of everything. Every hope, every dream, every regret, every moment of living.’
Eventually, Nora won the game. She had a sneaky suspicion that Mrs Elm had
her, but still she was feeling a bit better.
‘Okey-dokey,’ said Mrs Elm. ‘Now, time for a book, I reckon. What do you say?’
Nora gazed along the bookshelves. If only they had more specific titles. If only there was one that said
Perfect Life Right Here
Her initial instinct had been to ignore Mrs Elm’s question. But
where there were books, there was always the temptation to open them. And she realised it was the same with lives.
Mrs Elm repeated something she said earlier.
‘Never underestimate the big importance of small things.’
This was useful, as it turned out.
‘I want,’ she said, ‘a gentle life. The life where I worked with animals. Where I chose the animal shelter job – where I did my work experience at school – over the one at String Theory. Yes. Give me that one, please.’
A Gentle Life
It turned out that this particular existence was quite easy to slip into.
Sleep was good in this life, and she didn’t wake up until the alarm went off at a quarter to eight. She drove to work in a tatty old Hyundai that smelled of dogs and biscuits and was decorated with crumbs, passing the hospital and the sports centre, and pulling up in the small car park outside the modern, grey-bricked, single-storey rescue centre.
She spent the morning feeding and walking the dogs. The reason it was quite easy to blend into this life was at least partly because she had been greeted by an affable, down-to-earth woman with brown curly hair and a Yorkshire accent. The woman, Pauline, said Nora was to start work in the dog shelter, rather than the cat shelter, and so Nora had a legitimate excuse to ask what to do and look confused. Also, the issue of knowing people’s names was solved by the fact that all the workers had name badges.
Nora had walked a bullmastiff, a new arrival, around the field behind the shelter. Pauline told her that the bullmastiff had been horribly treated by its owner. She pointed out a few small round scars.
Nora wanted to live in a world where no cruelty existed, but the only worlds she had available to her were worlds with humans in them. The bullmastiff was called Sally. She was scared of everything. Her shadow. Bushes. Other dogs. Nora’s legs. Grass.
Air. Though she clearly took a liking to Nora, and even succumbed to a (very quick) tummy rub.
Later, Nora helped clean out some of the little dog huts. She imagined they called them huts because it sounded better than cages, which was really a more apt name for them. There was a three-legged Alsatian called Diesel, who had been there a while apparently. When they played catch, Nora discovered his reflexes were good, his mouth catching the ball almost every time. She liked this life – or more precisely, she liked the version of herself in this life. She could tell the kind of person she was from the way people spoke to her. It felt nice – comforting, solidifying – to be a good person.
Her mind felt different here. She thought a lot in this life, but her thoughts were gentle.
‘Compassion is the basis of morality,’ the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had written, in one of his softer moments. Maybe it was the basis of life too.
There was one man who worked there called Dylan, who had a natural way with all the dogs. He was about her age, maybe younger. He had a kind, gentle, sad look about him. His long surf-dude hair golden as a retriever. He came and sat next to Nora on a bench at lunch, overlooking the field.
‘What are you having today?’ he asked, sweetly, nodding to Nora’s lunchbox.
She honestly didn’t know – she had found it already prepared when she’d opened her magnet- and calendar-cluttered fridge that morning. She peeled off the lid to find a cheese and Marmite sandwich and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps. The sky darkened and the wind picked up.
‘Oh crap,’ Nora said. ‘It’s going to rain.’
‘Maybe, but the dogs are all still in their cages.’
‘Dogs can smell when rain is coming, so they often head indoors
if they think it’s going to happen. Isn’t that cool? That they can predict the future with their
‘Yes,’ said Nora. ‘Way cool.’
Nora bit into her cheese sandwich. And then Dylan put his arm around her.
Nora jumped up.
‘—the hell?’ she said.
Dylan looked deeply apologetic. And a little horrified at himself. ‘I’m sorry. Did I hurt your shoulder?’
‘No . . . I just . . . I . . . No. No. It’s fine.’
She discovered that Dylan was her boyfriend and that he had gone to the same secondary school as her. Hazeldene Comp. And that he was two years younger.
Nora could remember the day her dad died, when she was in the school library staring as a blond boy from a couple of years below ran past outside the rain-speckled window.
Either chasing someone or being chased
. That had been him. She had vaguely liked him, from a distance, but without really knowing him or thinking about him at all.
‘You all right, Norster?’ Dylan asked.
‘Yeah. I was just . . . Yeah. I’m fine.’
Nora sat down again but left a bit more bench between them. There was nothing overtly wrong with Dylan. He was sweet. And she was sure that in this life she genuinely liked him. Maybe even loved him. But entering a life wasn’t the same as entering an emotion.
‘By the way, did you book Gino’s?’
Gino’s. The Italian. Nora had gone there as a teenager. She was surprised it was still going.
‘Gino’s? The pizza place? For tonight? You said you kind of know the manager there.’
‘My dad used to, yeah.’
‘So, did you manage to call?’
‘Yes,’ she lied. ‘But actually, it is fully booked.’
‘On a weeknight? Weird. That’s a shame. I love pizza. And pasta. And lasagne. And—’
‘Right,’ said Nora. ‘Yes. I get it. I completely get it. I know it was strange. But they had a couple of big bookings.’
Dylan already had his phone out. He was eager. ‘I’ll try La Cantina. You know. The Mexican. Tons of vegan options. I love a Mexican, don’t you?’
Nora couldn’t think of a legitimate reason for her not to do this, aside from Dylan’s not-entirely-riveting conversation, and compared to the sandwich she was currently eating and the state of the rest of her fridge, Mexican food sounded promising.
So, Dylan booked them a table. And they carried on talking as dogs barked in the building behind them. It emerged during the conversation that they were thinking of moving in together.
‘We could watch
Last Chance Saloon,
’ he said.
She wasn’t really listening. ‘What’s that?’
He was shy, she realised. Bad with eye contact. Quite endearing. ‘You know, that Ryan Bailey film you wanted to watch. We saw the trailer for it. You said it’s meant to be funny and I did some research and it has an eighty-six per cent on Rotten Tomatoes and it’s on Netflix so . . .’
She wondered if Dylan would believe her if she told him that in one life she was a lead singer of an internationally successful pop-rock band and global icon who had actually dated and voluntarily
broken up with
‘Sounds good,’ she said, as she stared at an empty crisp packet floating across the sparse grass.
Dylan rushed off the bench to grab the packet and dropped it into the bin next to the bench.
He flopped back to Nora, smiling. Nora understood what this other Nora saw in him. There was something pure about him. Like a dog himself.
Why Want Another Universe If This One Has Dogs?
The restaurant was on Castle Road, around the corner from String Theory, and they had to walk past the shop to get there. The familiarity of it felt strange. When she reached the shop she saw that something wasn’t right. There were no guitars in the window. There was nothing in the window, except a faded piece of A4 paper stuck on the inside of the glass.
She recognised Neil’s handwriting.
Alas, String Theory is no longer able to trade in these premises. Due to an increase in rent we simply couldn’t afford to go on. Thanks to all our loyal customers. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right. You Can Go Your Own Way. God Only Knows What We’ll Be Without You.
Dylan was amused. ‘I see what they did there.’ Then a moment later. ‘I was named after Bob Dylan. Did I ever tell you that?’
‘I can’t remember.’
‘You know, the musician.’
‘Yes. I have heard of Bob Dylan, Dylan.’
‘My older sister is called Suzanne. After the Leonard Cohen song.’
Nora smiled. ‘My parents loved Leonard Cohen.’
‘Ever been in there?’ Dylan asked her. ‘Looked like a great shop.’
‘Once or twice.’
‘Thought you would have been, what with you being musical. You used to play the piano, didn’t you?’
‘Yeah. Keyboards. A little.’
Nora saw the notice looked old. She remembered what Neil had said to her.
I can’t pay you to put off customers with your face looking like a wet weekend
Well, Neil, maybe it wasn’t my face after all
They carried on walking.
‘Dylan, do you believe in parallel universes?’
He shrugged. ‘I think so.’
‘What do you think you are doing in another life? Do you think this is a good universe? Or would you rather be in a universe where you left Bedford?’