Chapter no 16 – Chessboard

The Midnight Library

e shelves of the Midnight Library were quite still again, as if their movement had never even been a possibility.

Nora sensed they were in a dierent portion of the library now – not a dierent room as such, as there seemed to be only one infinitely vast room. It was dicult to tell if she really was in a dierent part of the library as the books were still green, though she seemed closer to a corridor than where she had been. And from here she could see a glimpse of something new through one of the stacks – an oce desk and computer, like a basic makeshi open-plan oce positioned in the corridor between the aisles.

Mrs Elm wasn’t at the oce desk. She was sat at a low wooden table right there in front of Nora, and she was playing chess.

‘It was dierent to how I imagined,’ said Nora.

Mrs Elm looked like she was halfway through a game.

‘It’s hard to predict, isn’t it?’ she asked, looking blankly in front of her as she moved a black bishop across the board to take a white pawn. ‘e things that will make us happy.’

Mrs Elm rotated the chessboard through one hundred and eighty degrees.

She was, it appeared, playing against herself.

‘Yes,’ said Nora. ‘It is. But what happens to her? To me? How does she end up?’

‘How do I know? I only know today. I know a lot about today. But I don’t know what happens tomorrow.’

‘But she’ll be there in the bathroom and she won’t know how she got there.’

‘And have you never walked into a room and wondered what you came in for? Have you never forgotten what you just did? Have you never blanked out or misremembered what you were just doing?’

‘Yes, but I was there for half an hour in that life.’

‘And that other you won’t know that. She will remember what you just did and said. But as if she did and said them.’

Nora let out a deep exhale. ‘Dan wasn’t like that.’

‘People change,’ said Mrs Elm, still looking at the chessboard. Her hand lingered over a bishop.

Nora re-thought. ‘Or maybe he was like that and I just didn’t see it.’ ‘So,’ wondered Mrs Elm, looking at Nora. ‘What are you feeling?’

‘Like I still want to die. I have wanted to die for quite a while. I have carefully calculated that the pain of me living as the bloody disaster that is myself is greater than the pain anyone else will feel if I were to die. In fact, I’m sure it would be a relief. I’m not useful to anyone. I was bad at work. I have disappointed everyone. I am a waste of a carbon footprint, to be honest. I hurt people. I have no one le. Not even poor old Volts, who died because I couldn’t look aer a cat properly. I want to die. My life is a disaster. And I want it to end. I am not cut out for living. And there is no point going through all this. Because I am clearly destined to be unhappy in other lives too. at is just me. I add nothing. I am wallowing in self-pity. I want to die.’

Mrs Elm studied Nora hard, as if reading a passage in a book she had read before but had just found it contained a new meaning. ‘Want,’ she told her, in a measured tone, ‘is an interesting word. It means lack. Sometimes if we fill that lack with something else the original want disappears entirely. Maybe you have a lack problem rather than a want problem. Maybe there is a life that you really want to live.’

‘I thought that was it. e one with Dan. But it wasn’t.’

‘No, it wasn’t. But that is just one of your possible lives. And one into infinity is a very small fraction indeed.’

‘Every possible life I could live has me in it. So, it’s not really every possible life.’ Mrs Elm wasn’t listening. ‘Now, tell me, where do you want to go now?’

‘Nowhere, please.’

‘Do you need another look at e Book of Regrets?’

Nora scrunched her nose and gave a minute shake of her head. She remembered the feeling of being suocated by so much regret. ‘No.’

‘What about your cat? What was his name again?’

‘Voltaire. It was a bit pretentious, and he wasn’t really a pretentious cat, so I just called him Volts for short. Sometimes Voltsy, if I was feeling jovial. Which was rare, obviously. I couldn’t even finalise a name for a cat.’

‘Well, you said you were bad at having a cat. What would you have done dierently?’

Nora thought. She had the very real sense that Mrs Elm was playing some kind of game with her, but she also wanted to see her cat again, and not simply a cat with the same name. In fact, she wanted it more than anything.

‘Okay. I’d like to see the life where I kept Voltaire indoors. My Voltaire. I’d like the life where I didn’t try and kill myself and where I was a good cat owner and I didn’t let him out onto the road last night. I’d like that life, just for a little while. at life exists, doesn’t it?’

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