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Chapter no 18 – Fire

The Midnight Library

She gasped. e sensations were sudden. e noise and the water. She had her mouth open and she choked. e tang and sting of salt water.

She tried to touch her feet on the bottom of the pool but she was out of her depth so she quickly slipped into breaststroke mode.

A swimming pool, but a salt-water one. Outdoor, beside the ocean. Carved seemingly out of the rock that jutted out of the coastline. She could see the actual ocean just beyond. ere was sunshine overhead. e water was cool, but given the heat of the air above her the cool was welcome.

Once upon a time she had been the best fourteen-year-old female swimmer in Bedfordshire.

She had won two races in her age category at the National Junior Swimming Championships. Freestyle 400 metres. Freestyle 200 metres. Her dad had driven her every day to the local pool. Sometimes before school as well as aer. But then – while her brother rocked out on his guitar to Nirvana – she traded lengths for scales, and taught herself how to play not just Chopin but classics like ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Rainy Days And Mondays’. She also began, before e Labyrinths were even a figment of her brother’s imagination, to compose her own music.

But she hadn’t really gone off swimming, just the pressure around it.

She reached the side of the pool. Stopped and looked around. She could see a beach at a lower level in the distance, curving around in a semi-circle to welcome the sea lapping on its sand. Beyond the beach, inland, a stretch of grass. A park, complete with palm trees and distant dog walkers.

Beyond that, houses and low-rise apartment blocks, and trac sliding by on a road. She had seen pictures of Byron Bay, and it didn’t look quite like

this. is place, wherever it was, seemed a little more built-up. Still surferish, but also urban.

Turning her attention back to the pool, she noticed a man smile at her as he adjusted his goggles. Did she know this man? Would she welcome this smile in this life? Having no idea, she oered the smallest of polite smiles in return. She felt like a tourist with an unfamiliar currency, not knowing how much to tip.

en an elderly woman in a swimming cap smiled at her as she glided through the water towards her.

‘Morning, Nora,’ she said, not breaking her stroke.

It was a greeting that suggested Nora was a regular here. ‘Morning,’ Nora said.

She stared out at the ocean, to avoid any awkward chatting. A flock of morning surfers, speck-sized, swam on their boards to greet large sapphire-blue waves.

is was a promising start to her Australian life. She stared at her watch. It was a bright orange, cheap-looking Casio. A happy-looking watch suggestive, she hoped, of a happy-feeling life. It was just aer nine a.m. here. Next to her watch was a plastic wristband with a key on it.

So, this was her morning ritual here. In an outdoor swimming pool beside a beach. She wondered if she was here alone. She scanned the pool hopefully for any sign of Izzy, but none was there.

She swam some more.

e thing she had once loved about swimming was the disappearing. In the water, her focus had been so pure that she thought of nothing else. Any school or home worries vanished. e art of swimming – she supposed like any art – was about purity. e more focused you were on the activity, the less focused you were on everything else. You kind of stopped being you and became the thing you were doing.

But it was hard to stay focused when Nora noticed her arms and chest ached. She sensed it had been a long swim and was probably time to get out of the pool. She saw a sign. Bronte Beach Swimming Pool. She vaguely remembered Dan, who had been to Australia in his gap year, talking about this place and the name had stuck – Bronte Beach – because it was easy to remember. Jane Eyre on a suroard.

But here was confirmation of her doubt.

Bronte Beach was in Sydney. But it most definitely wasn’t part of Byron Bay.

So that meant one of two things. Either Izzy, in this life, wasn’t in Byron Bay. Or Nora wasn’t with Izzy.

She noticed she was tanned a mild caramel all over.

Of course, the trouble was, she didn’t know where her clothes were. But then she remembered the plastic wristband with a key on it.

57. Her locker was 57. So she found the changing rooms and opened the squat, square locker and saw that her taste in clothes, as well as watches, was more colourful in this life. She had a T-shirt with a pineapple print on it. A whole cornucopia of pineapples. And pink-purple denim shorts. And slip-on checked pumps.

What am I? she wondered. A children’s TV presenter?

Sun-block. Hibiscus tinted lip balm. No other make-up as such.

As she pulled on her T-shirt, she noticed a couple of marks on her arm. Scar-lines. She wondered, momentarily, if they had been self-inflicted. ere was also a tattoo just below her shoulder. A Phoenix and flames. It was a terrible tattoo. In this life, she clearly had no taste. But since when did taste have anything to do with happiness?

She dressed and pulled out a phone from her shorts pocket. is was an older model than in her married-and-living-in-a-pub life. Luckily, a thumb-reading was enough to unlock it.

She le the changing rooms and walked along a beachside path. It was a warm day. Maybe life was automatically better when the sun shone so confidently in April. Everything seemed more vivid, more colourful and alive than it had done in England.

She saw a parrot – a rainbow lorikeet – perched on the top of a bench, being photographed by a couple of tourists. A surfy-looking cyclist passed by holding an orange smoothie, smiling and literally saying, ‘G’day.’

is was most definitely not Bedford.

Nora noticed something was happening to her face. She was – could she be? – smiling. And naturally, not just because someone expected her to.

en she noted a piece of grati on a low wall which said THE WORLD IS ON FIRE and another that said ONE EARTH = ONE CHANCE and her smile faded. Aer all, a dierent life didn’t mean a dierent planet.

She had no idea where she lived or what she did or where she was meant to be heading aer the swimming pool, but there was something quite freeing about that. To be existing without any expectation, even her own. As she walked, she googled her own name and added ‘Sydney’ to see if it brought up anything.

Before she scanned the results she glanced up and noticed a man walking on the path towards her, smiling. A short, tanned man with kind eyes and long thinning hair in a loose ponytail with a shirt that wasn’t buttoned correctly.

‘Hey, Nora.’

‘Hey,’ she said, trying not to sound confused. ‘What time you start today?’

How could she answer that? ‘Uh. Oh. Crap. I’ve totally forgotten.’

He laughed, a little laugh of recognition, as if her forgetting was quite in character.

‘I saw it on the roster. I think it might be eleven.’ ‘Eleven a.m.?’

Kind Eyes laughed. ‘What’ve you been smoking? I want some.’

‘Ha. Nothing,’ she said, stiy. ‘I’ve not been smoking anything. I just skipped breakfast.’

‘Well, see you this arvo . . .’

‘Yes. At the . . . place. Where is it again?’

He laughed, frowningly, and kept walking. Maybe she worked on a whale sight-seeing cruise that operated out of Sydney. Maybe Izzy did too.

Nora had no idea where she (or they) lived, and nothing was coming up on Google, but away from the ocean seemed the right direction. Maybe she was very local. Maybe she had walked here. Maybe one of the bikes she saw locked up outside the pool café had been hers. She rummaged in her tiny clasp wallet and felt her pockets for a key, but there was only a house key. No car keys, no bike keys. So it was a bus or by foot. e house key had no information on it at all, so she sat on a bench with the sun beating hard on the back of her neck and checked her texts.

ere were names of people she didn’t recognise. Amy. Rodhri. Bella. Lucy P. Kemala. Luke. Lucy M. Who are these people?

And a rather unhelpful contact titled, simply: ‘Work’. And there was only one recent message from ‘Work’ and it said:

Where r u?

ere was one name she recognised. Dan.

Her heart sank as she clicked on his most recent message.

Hey Nor! Hope Oz is treating you well. This is going to sound either corny or creepy but I am going to go all out and tell you. I had a dream the other night about our pub. It was such a good dream. We were so happy! Anyway, ignore that weirdness, the point of this is to say: guess where I’m going in May? AUSTRALIA. First time in over a decade. Am coming with work. I’m working with MCA. Would be great to catch up, even for a coffee if you’re around. D x

It was so strange she almost laughed. But she coughed instead. (Maybe she wasn’t quite so fit in this life, now she thought about it.) She wondered how many Dans there were in the world, dreaming of things they would hate if they actually got them. And how many were pushing other people into their delusional idea of happiness?

Instagram seemed to be the only social media she had here, and she only seemed to post pictures of poems on it.

She took a moment to read one:

FIRE

Every part of her

at changed

at got scraped o

Because of schoolyard laughter Or the advice of grown-ups Long gone –

And the pain of friends Already dead.

She collected those bits off the floor. Like wood shavings.

And she made them into fuel. Into re.

And burned.

Bright enough to see for ever.

is was troubling, but it was – aer all – just a poem. Scrolling through some emails, she found one to Charlotte – a ceilidh band flautist with earthy humour who’d been Nora’s only friend at String eory before she had moved back up to Scotland.

Hi Charl!

Hope all is fine and dandy.

Pleased the birthday do went well. Sorry I couldn’t be there. All is well in sunny Sydney.

Have finally moved into the new place. It’s right near Bronte Beach (beautiful). Lots of neighbourhood cafes and charm. I also have a new job.

I go swimming in a saltwater pool every morning and every evening I drink a glass of Australian wine in the sunshine. Life is good!

Address:

2/29 Darling Street Bronte

NSW 2024 AUSTRALIA

Nora X

Something was rotten. e tone of vague, distant perkiness, as if writing to a long-lost aunt. Lots of neighbourhood cafes and charm, as though it was a TripAdvisor review. She didn’t speak to Charlotte – or indeed anyone – like that.

ere was also no mention of Izzy. Have nally moved into the new place.

Was that we have or have? Charlotte knew of Izzy. Why not mention her?

She would soon find out. Indeed, twenty minutes later she was standing in the hallway of her apartment, staring at four bags of rubbish that needed taking out. e living room looked small and depressing. e sofa tatty and old. e place smelt slightly mouldy.

ere was a poster on the wall for the video game Angel and a vape pen on a coee table, with a marijuana leaf sticker on it. A woman was staring at a screen, shooting zombies in the head.

e woman had short blue hair and for a moment Nora thought it might be Izzy.

‘Hi,’ Nora said.

e woman turned. She was not Izzy. She had sleepy eyes and a vacant expression, as if the zombies she was shooting had slightly infected her. She

was probably a perfectly decent person but she was not anyone Nora had ever seen in her life. She smiled.

‘Hey. How’s that new poem coming along?’ ‘Oh. Yeah. It’s coming along really well. anks.’

Nora walked around the flat in a bit of a daze. She opened a door at random and realised it was the bathroom. She didn’t need the toilet, but she needed a second to think. So she shut the door and washed her hands and stared at the water spiral down the plughole the wrong way.

She glanced at the shower. e dull yellow curtain was dirty in a vague student-house kind of way. at’s what this place reminded her of. A student house. She was thirty-five and, in this life, living like a student. She saw some anti-depressants – fluoxetine – beside the basin, and picked up the box. She read Prescription for N. Seed at the top of the label. She looked down at her arm and saw the scars again. It was weird, to have your own body oer clues to a mystery.

ere was a magazine on the floor next to the bin, National Geographic.

e one with the black hole on its cover that she had been reading in another life, on the other side of the world, only yesterday. She sensed it was her magazine, given she had always liked reading it, and had been known –even in recent times – to buy it on the occasional spontaneous whim as no online version ever did the photos justice.

She remembered being eleven years old and looking at the photos of Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic, in her dad’s copy. It had looked so vast and desolate and powerful and she had wondered what it would have been like to be among it, like the scientist-explorers in the article, spending their summer doing some kind of geological research. She cut out the pictures and they ended up on the pinboard in her bedroom. And for many years, at school, she had tried hard at science and geography just so she could be like the scientists in the article and spend her summers among frozen mountains and ords, as puns flew overhead.

But aer her dad died, and aer reading Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, she decided that a) Philosophy seemed to be the only subject that matched her sudden inward intensity and b) she wanted to be a rock star more than a scientist anyway.

Aer leaving the bathroom, she returned to her mysterious flatmate.

She sat on the sofa and waited for a few moments, watching.

e woman’s avatar got shot in the head.

‘Piss o, you zombie fuckface,’ the woman snarled happily at the screen. She picked up the vape pen. Nora wondered how she knew this woman.

She was assuming they were flatmates. ‘I’ve been thinking about what you said.’ ‘What did I say?’ Nora asked.

‘About doing some cat-sitting. You know, you wanted to look aer that cat?’

‘Oh yeah. Sure. I remember.’ ‘Bad fucking idea, man.’ ‘Really?’

‘Cats.’

‘What about them?’

ey’ve got a parasite. Toxoplas-something.’

Nora knew this. She had known this since she was a teen, doing her work experience at Bedford Animal Rescue Centre. ‘Toxoplasmosis.’

at’s it! Well, I was listening to this podcast, right . . . and there’s this theory that this international group of billionaires infected the cats with it so that they could take over the world by making humans dumber and dumber. I mean, think about it. ere are cats everywhere. I was talking to Jared about this and Jared said, “Jojo, what are you smoking?” And I was like, “e stuff you gave me” and he said, “Yeah, I know.” en he told me about the grasshoppers.’

‘Grasshoppers?’

‘Yeah. Did you hear about grasshoppers?’ Jojo asked. ‘What about them?’

ey are all killing themselves. Because this parasitic worm grows inside them, to become like a full-grown aquatic creature, and as it grows it takes over the brain function of the grasshopper, so the grasshopper thinks, “Hey, I really like water” and so they divebomb into water and die. And it’s happening all the time. Google it. Google “grasshopper suicide”. Anyway, the point is, the elites are killing us via cats and so you shouldn’t be near them.’

Nora couldn’t help thinking how dierent this life was to her imagined version of it. She had pictured herself and Izzy on a boat near Byron Bay, marvelling at the magnificence of humpback whales, and yet she was here in

a small pot-scented apartment in Sydney, with a conspiracy theorist as a flatmate who wouldn’t even let her near a cat.

‘What happened to Izzy?’

Nora realised she had just asked the question out loud. Jojo looked confused. ‘Izzy? Your old friend Izzy?’ ‘Yeah.’

e one who died?’

e words came so fast Nora could hardly absorb them. ‘Um, what?’

e car crash girl?’ ‘What?’

Jojo looked confused, as curls of smoke wisped across her face. ‘You okay, Nora?’ She held out the joint. ‘Wanna toke?’

‘No, I’m okay thanks.’

Jojo chuckled. ‘Makes a change.’

Nora grabbed her phone. Went online. Typed ‘Isabel Hirsh’ into the search box. en clicked ‘News’.

ere it was. A headline. Above a picture of Izzy’s tanned face, smiling.

BRITISH WOMAN KILLED IN NSW ROAD COLLISION

A woman, 33, was killed and three people hospitalised south of Cos Harbour last night when the woman’s Toyota Corolla collided with a car travelling in the opposite direction on the Pacific Highway.

e female driver, identified as British citizen Isabel Hirsh, died at the scene of the accident just before 9pm. She was the only person in the Toyota. According to her flatmate, Nora Seed, Isabel had been driving from Sydney back to Byron Bay, to attend Nora’s birthday party. Isabel had

recently started working for Byron Bay Whale Watching Tours.

‘I am totally devastated,’ Nora said. ‘We travelled to Australia together only a month ago and Izzy had planned to stay here for as long as possible. She was such a force of life that it feels impossible to imagine the world without her in it. She was so excited about her new job. It is so unbearably sad and hard to comprehend.’

e passengers of the other car all suered injuries, and the driver – Chris Dale – had to be airlied to the hospital at Baringa.

New South Wales Police are asking anyone who witnessed the collision to come forward to help with their enquiries.

‘Oh my God,’ she whispered to herself, feeling faint. ‘Oh, Izzy.’

She knew that Izzy wasn’t dead in all her lives. Or even most of them. But in this one it was real, and the grief Nora felt felt real too. e grief was familiar and terrifying and laced with guilt.

Before she could properly process anything, the mobile rang. It said ‘Work’.

A man’s voice. A slow drawl. ‘Where are you?’ ‘What?’

‘You were meant to be here half an hour ago.’ ‘Where?’

e ferry terminal. You’re selling tickets. I’ve got the correct number, right? is is Nora Seed I’m talking to?’

‘It’s one of them,’ sighed Nora, as she gently faded away.

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