Authors: Matt Haig
She remembered buying him the
T-shirt on his twenty-sixth birthday. Ten years previously.
‘The answers tonight were something else. One of the teams – the one Pete and Jolie were on – thought Maradona painted the Sistine ceiling.’
Nora nodded and stroked Volts Number Two. As if she had any idea who on earth Pete and Jolie were.
‘To be fair, it was a tricky one tonight. Might take them from another website next time. I mean, who actually knows the name of the highest mountain in the Kara-whatsit range?’
‘Karakoram?’ Nora asked. ‘That would be K2.’
‘Well, obviously you know,’ he said, a little too abruptly. A little too tipsily. ‘It’s the kind of thing you would know. Because while most people were into rock music you were into
‘Hey,’ she said. ‘I was literally in a band.’
A band, she remembered then, that Dan had hated her being in.
He laughed. She recognised the laugh, but didn’t entirely like it. She had forgotten how often during their relationship Dan’s humour hinged on other people, specifically Nora. When they’d been together, she had tried not to dwell on this aspect of his personality. He’d had so many other aspects – he had been so lovely to her mum when she was ill, and he could talk at ease about anything, he was so full of dreams about the future, he was attractive and easy to be around, and he was passionate about art and always stopped to chat to the homeless. He cared about the world.
A person was like a city. You couldn’t let a few less desirable parts put you off the whole. There may be bits you don’t like, a few dodgy side streets and suburbs, but the good stuff makes it worthwhile.
He had listened to a lot of annoying podcasts that he thought Nora should listen to, and laughed in a way that grated on her, and gargled loudly with mouthwash. And yes, he hogged the duvet and could occasionally be arrogant in his opinions on art and film and music, but there was nothing overtly
with him. Well – now that she thought about it – he’d never been supportive of her music career, and had advised her that being in The Labyrinths and signing a music deal would be bad for her mental health, and that her brother was being a bit selfish. But at the time she had viewed that not so much as a red flag but a green one. Her thinking was: he cared, and it was nice to have someone who cared, who wasn’t bothered about fame and superficialities, and could help navigate the waters of life. And so when he had asked her to marry him, in the cocktail bar on the top floor of the Oxo Tower, she had agreed and maybe she had always been right to agree.
He stepped forward into the room, placed his pint down momentarily and was now on his phone, looking up better pub quiz questions.
She wondered how much he had drunk tonight. She wondered if the dream of owning a pub had really been a dream of drinking an endless supply of alcohol.
‘What is the name of a twenty-sided polygon?’
‘I don’t know,’ Nora lied, not wanting to risk a similar reaction to the one she’d received a moment ago.
He put the phone in his pocket.
‘We did well, though. They all drank loads tonight. Not bad for a Tuesday. Things are looking up. I mean, there’s something to tell the bank tomorrow. Maybe they’ll give us an extension on the loan . . .’
He stared at the beer in his glass, swilled it around a little, then downed it.
‘Though I’ve got to tell A.J. to change the lunch menu. No one in Littleworth wants to eat candied beetroot and broad bean salad and corn cakes. This isn’t pissing Fitzrovia. And I know they’re going down well, but I think those wines you chose aren’t worth it. Especially the Californian ones.’
He turned and looked behind him. ‘Where’s the board?’
‘The chalkboard. Thought you’d brought it in?’
was what she had been outside for.
‘No. No. I’m going to do it now.’
‘Thought I saw you go out.’
Nora smiled away her nerves. ‘Yes, well, I did. I had to . . . I was worried about our cat. Volts. Voltaire. I couldn’t find him so I went outside to look for him and then I found him, didn’t I?’
Dan was back behind the bar, pouring himself a scotch.
He seemed to sense she was judging him. ‘This is only my third. Fourth, maybe. It’s quiz night. You know I get nervous doing the compering. And it helps me be funny. And I was funny, don’t you reckon?’
‘Yes. Very funny. Total funniness.’
His face fell into a serious mode. ‘I saw you talking to Erin. What did she say?’
Nora wasn’t sure how best to answer this. ‘Oh, nothing much. The usual stuff. You know Erin.’
‘The usual stuff? I didn’t think you’d ever spoken to her before.’
‘I meant the usual stuff that people say. Not what Erin says. Usual people stuff . . .’
‘How’s Will doing?’
‘Er, really well,’ Nora guessed. ‘He says hi.’
Dan’s eyes popped wide with surprise. ‘Really?’
Nora had no idea what to say. Maybe Will was a baby. Maybe Will was in a coma. ‘Sorry, no, he didn’t say hi. Sorry, I’m not thinking. Anyway, I’ll . . . go and get the board.’
She put the cat down on the floor and headed back out. This time she noticed something she had missed on entering.
A framed newspaper article from the
with a picture of Nora and Dan standing outside the Three Horseshoes. Dan had his arm around her. He was wearing a suit she had never seen before and she was in a smart dress she would never have worn (she rarely wore dresses) in her original life.
PUB OWNERS MAKE DREAM A REALITY
They had, according to the article, bought the pub cheaply and in a neglected state and then renovated it with a mix of a modest inheritance (Dan’s) and savings and bank loans. The article presented a success story, though it was two years old.
She stepped outside, wondering whether a life could really be judged from just a few minutes after midnight on a Tuesday. Or maybe that was all you needed.
The wind was picking up. Standing out on that quiet village street, the gusts pushed the board a little along the path, nearly toppling it over. Before she picked it up, she felt a buzz from a phone in her pocket. She hadn’t realised it was in there. She pulled it out. A text message from Izzy.
She noticed that her wallpaper was a photo of herself and Dan somewhere hot.
She unlocked the phone using facial recognition and opened the message. It was a photo of a whale rising high out of the ocean, the white spray soaking the air like a burst of champagne. It was a wonderful photo and just seeing it caused her to smile.
Izzy was typing.
Another message appeared:
This was one of the pics I took yesterday from the boat.
Then another photo: two whales this time, their backs breaking the water.
The last message also included emojis of whales and waves.
Nora felt a warm glow. Not just from the pictures, which were indisputably lovely, but from the contact with Izzy.
When Nora backed out of her wedding to Dan, Izzy had insisted that she come to Australia with her.
They’d mapped it all out, a plan to live near Byron Bay and get jobs on one of the whale-watching boat cruises.
They had shared lots of clips of humpback whales in anticipation of this new adventure. But then Nora had wobbled and backed out. Just like she had backed out of a swimming career, and a band, and a wedding. But unlike those other things, there hadn’t even been a
. Yes, she had started working at String Theory and, yes, she felt the need to tend to her parents’ graves, but she knew that staying in Bedford was the worse option. And yet she picked it. Because of some strange predictive homesickness that festered alongside a depression that told her, ultimately, she didn’t
to be happy. That she had hurt Dan and that a life of drizzle and depression in her hometown was her punishment, and she hadn’t the will or clarity or, hell, the
to do anything.
So, in effect, she swapped her best friend for a cat.
In her actual life, she had never fallen out with Izzy. Nothing that dramatic. But after Izzy had gone to Australia, things had
faded between them until their friendship became just a vapour trail of sporadic Facebook and Instagram likes and emoji-filled birthday messages.
She looked back through the text conversations between her and Izzy and realised that even though there was still ten thousand miles between them, they had a much better relationship in this version of things.
When she returned to the pub, carrying the sign this time, Dan was nowhere to be seen so she locked the back door and waited a while, in the pub hallway, working out where the stairs were, and unsure if she actually wanted to follow her tipsy sort-of husband up there.
She found the stairs at the rear of the building, through a door that said
. As she stepped on the beige raffia carpet heading towards the stairs, just after a framed poster of
Things You Learn in the Dark
– one of their favourite Ryan Bailey movies which they had watched together at the Odeon in Bedford – she noted a smaller picture on a sweet little window sill.
It was their wedding photo. Black and white, reportage-style. Walking out of a church into a shower of confetti. It was difficult to see their faces properly but they were both laughing and it was a shared laugh, and they seemed – as far as a photograph can tell you anything – to be in love. She remembered her mum talking about Dan. (‘He’s a good one. You’re so lucky. Keep hold of him.’)
She saw her brother Joe too, shaven-headed and looking genuinely happy, champagne glass in hand and his short-lived, disastrous investment-banker boyfriend, Lewis, by his side. Izzy was there, and Ravi too, looking more like an accountant than a drummer, standing next to a bespectacled woman she’d never seen before.
While Dan was in the toilet Nora located the bedroom. Although they evidently had money worries – the nervous appointment with the bank confirmed that – the room was expensively furnished.
Smart window blinds. A wide, comfortable-looking bed. The duvet crisp and clean and white.
There were books either side of the bed. In her actual life she hadn’t had a book by her bed for at least six months. She hadn’t read
for six months. Maybe in this life she had a better concentration span.
She picked up one of the books,
Meditation for Beginners
. Underneath it was a copy of a biography of her favourite philosopher, Henry David Thoreau. There were books on Dan’s bedside table too. The last book she remembered him reading had been a biography of Toulouse-Lautrec –
Tiny Giant –
but in this life he was reading a business book called
Zero to Hero: Harnessing Success in Work, Play and Life
and the latest edition of
The Good Pub Guide
She felt different in her body. A little healthier, a little stronger, but tense. She patted her stomach and realised that in this life she worked out a bit more. Her hair felt different too. She had a heavy fringe, and – feeling it – she could tell her hair was longer at the back. Her mind felt a little woozy. She must have had at least a couple of glasses of wine.
A moment later she heard the toilet flush. Then she heard gargling. It seemed to be a bit noisier than necessary.
‘Are you all right?’ Dan asked, when he came into the bedroom. His voice, she realised, didn’t sound like she remembered. It sounded emptier. A bit colder. Maybe it was tiredness. Maybe it was stress. Maybe it was beer. Maybe it was marriage.
Maybe it was something else.
It was hard to remember, exactly, what he had sounded like before. What he had been like, precisely. But that was the nature of memory. At university she had done an essay drily titled ‘The Principles of Hobbesian Memory and Imagination’. Thomas Hobbes had viewed memory and imagination as pretty much the same thing, and since discovering that she had never entirely trusted her memories.
Outside the window the streetlamp’s yellow glow illuminated the desolate village road.
‘Nora? You’re acting strange. Why are you just standing in the middle of the room? Are you getting ready for bed or are you doing some kind of standing meditation?’
He laughed. He thought he was funny.
He went over to the window and pulled the curtains. Then he took off his jeans and put them on the back of a chair. She stared at him and tried to feel the attraction she had once felt so deeply. It seemed to require a Herculean effort. She hadn’t expected this.
Everyone’s lives could have ended up an infinite number of ways
He collapsed heavily on the bed, a whale into the ocean. Picked up
Zero to Hero
. Tried to focus. Put it down. Picked up a laptop by the bed, shoved an earphone into his ear. Maybe he was going to listen to a podcast.
‘I’m just thinking about something.’
She began to feel faint. As if she was only half there. She remembered Mrs Elm talking about how disappointment in a life would bring her back to the library. It would feel, she realised, altogether too strange to climb into the same bed with a man she hadn’t seen for two years.
She noticed the time on the digital alarm clock. 12:23.
Still with the earphone in his ear, he looked at her again. ‘Right, listen, if you don’t want to make babies tonight you can just say, you know?’
‘I mean, I know we’ll have to wait another month until you are ovulating again . . .’
‘We’re trying for a baby? I want a baby?’
‘Nora, what’s with you? Why are you strange today?’
She took off her shoes. ‘I’m not.’
A memory came to her, related to the
A tune, actually. ‘Beautiful Sky’.
The day she had bought Dan the
T-shirt had been the day she had played him a song she had written for The Labyrinths. ‘Beautiful Sky’. It was, she was convinced, the best song she had ever written. And – more than that – it was a happy song to reflect her optimism at that point in her life. It was a song inspired by her new life with Dan. And he had listened to it with a shruggish indifference that had hurt at the time and which she would have addressed if it hadn’t been his birthday.