Chapter no 19 – Fish Tank

The Midnight Library

e shrewd-eyed librarian was back at her chessboard and hardly looked up as Nora arrived back.

‘Well, that was terrible.’

Mrs Elm smiled, wryly. ‘It just shows you, doesn’t it?’ ‘Shows me what?’

‘Well, that you can choose choices but not outcomes. But I stand by what I said. It was a good choice. It just wasn’t a desired outcome.’

Nora studied Mrs Elm’s face. Was she enjoying this?

‘Why did I stay?’ Nora asked. ‘Why didn’t I just come home, aer she died?’

Mrs Elm shrugged. ‘You got stuck. You were grieving. You were depressed. You know what depression is like.’

Nora understood this. She thought of a study she had read about somewhere, about fish. Fish were more like humans than most people think. Fish get depression. ey had done tests with zebrafish. ey had a fish tank and they drew a horizontal line on the side of it, halfway down, in marker pen. Depressed fish stayed below the line. But give those same fish Prozac and they go above the line, to the top of their tanks, darting about

like new.

Fish get depressed when they have a lack of stimulation. A lack of everything. When they are just there, floating in a tank that resembles nothing at all.

Maybe Australia had been her empty fish tank, once Izzy had gone. Maybe she just had no incentive to swim above the line. And maybe even Prozac – or fluoxetine – wasn’t enough to help her rise up. So she was just

going to stay there in that flat, with Jojo, and never move until she was made to leave the country.

Maybe even suicide would have been too active. Maybe in some lives you just float around and expect nothing else and don’t even try to change. Maybe that was most lives.

‘Yes,’ said Nora, aloud now. ‘Maybe I got stuck. Maybe in every life I am stuck. I mean, maybe that’s just who I am. A starfish in every life is still a starfish. ere isn’t a life where a starfish is a professor of aerospace engineering. And maybe there isn’t a life where I’m not stuck.’

‘Well, I think you are wrong.’

‘Okay, then. I would like to try the life where I am not stuck. What life would that be?’

‘Aren’t you supposed to tell me?’

Mrs Elm moved a queen to take a pawn, then turned the board around. ‘I’m afraid I am just the librarian.’

‘Librarians have knowledge. ey guide you to the right books. e right worlds. ey find the best places. Like soul-enhanced search engines.’

‘Exactly. But you also have to know what you like. What to type into the metaphorical search box. And sometimes you have to try a few things before that becomes clear.’

‘I haven’t got the stamina. I don’t think I can do this.’ ‘e only way to learn is to live.’

‘Yes. So you keep saying.’

Nora exhaled heavily. It was interesting to know that she could exhale in the library. at she felt entirely in her body. at it felt normal. Because this place was definitely not normal. And the real physical her wasn’t here. It couldn’t be. And yet it was, to all intents and purposes, because she was – in some sense – there. Standing on a floor, as if gravity still existed.

‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I would like a life where I am successful.’

Mrs Elm tutted disapprovingly. ‘For someone who has read a lot of books, you aren’t very specific with your choice of words.’


‘Success. What does that mean to you? Money?’

‘No. Well, maybe. But that wouldn’t be the defining feature.’ ‘Well, then, what is success?’

Nora had no idea what success was. She had felt like a failure for so long.

Mrs Elm smiled, patiently. ‘Would you like to consult again with e Book of Regrets? Would you like to think about those bad decisions that turned you away from whatever you feel success is?’

Nora shook her head quickly, like a dog shaking off water. She didn’t want to be confronted with that long interminable list of mistakes and wrong turns again. She was depressed enough. And besides, she knew her regrets. Regrets don’t leave. ey weren’t mosquito bites. ey itch for ever.

‘No, they don’t,’ said Mrs Elm, reading her mind. ‘You don’t regret how you were with your cat. And nor do you regret not going to Australia with Izzy.’

Nora nodded. Mrs Elm had a point.

She thought of swimming in the pool at Bronte Beach. How good that had felt, in its strange familiarity.

‘From an early age you were encouraged to swim,’ said Mrs Elm. ‘Yes.’

‘Your dad was always happy to take you to the pool.’

‘It was one of the few things that had made him happy,’ Nora mused.

She had associated swimming with her father’s approval and enjoyed the wordlessness of being in the water because it was the opposite of her parents screaming at each other.

‘Why did you quit?’ asked Mrs Elm.

‘As soon as I started winning swimming races, I became seen and I didn’t want to be seen. And not only seen but seen in a swimsuit at the exact age you are self-obsessing about your body. Someone said I had boy’s shoulders. It was a stupid thing but there were lots of stupid things and you feel them all at that age. As a teenager I’d have happily been invisible. People called me “e Fish”. ey didn’t mean it as a compliment. I was shy. It was one of the reasons why I preferred the library to the playing field. It seems a small thing, but it really helped, having that space.’

‘Never underestimate the big importance of small things,’ Mrs Elm said. ‘You must always remember that.’

Nora thought back. Her teenage combination of shyness and visibility had been a problematic mix, but she was never bullied, as such, probably because everyone knew her brother. And Joe, while never exactly tough, was always considered cool and popular enough for his most immediate blood relation to be immune to schoolyard tyranny.

She won races in local and then national competitions, but as she reached fieen it became too much. e daily swims, length aer length aer length.

‘I had to quit.’

Mrs Elm nodded. ‘And the bond you’d developed with your dad frayed and almost snapped completely.’

‘Pretty much.’

She pictured her father’s face, in the car, on a drizzle-scratched Sunday morning outside Bedford Leisure Centre, as she told him she didn’t want to swim in competitions any more. at look of disappointment and profound frustration.

‘But you could make a success of your life,’ he had said. Yes. She remembered it now. ‘You’re never going to be a pop star, but this is something real. It’s right in front of you. If you keep training, you’ll end up at the Olympics. I know it.’

She had been cross with him saying that. As if there was a very thin path to a happy life and it was the path he had decided for her. As if her own agency in her own life was automatically wrong. But what she didn’t fully appreciate at fieen years of age was just how bad regret could feel, and how much her father had felt that pain of being so near to the realisation of a dream he could almost touch it.

Nora’s father, it was true, had been a dicult man.

As well as being highly critical of everything Nora did, and everything Nora wanted and everything Nora believed, unless it was related to swimming, Nora had also felt that simply to be in his presence was to commit some kind of invisible crime. Ever since the ligament injury that thwarted his rugby career, he’d had a sincere conviction that the universe was against him. And Nora was, at least she felt, considered by him as part of that same universal plan. From that moment in that car park she had felt she was really just an extension of the pain in his le knee. A walking wound.

But maybe he had known what would happen. Maybe he could foresee the way one regret would lead to another, until suddenly that was all she was. A whole book of regrets.

‘Okay, Mrs Elm. I want to know what happened in the life where I did what my father wanted. Where I trained as hard as I possibly could. Where I never moaned about a five a.m. start or a nine p.m. finish. Where I swam every day and never thought about quitting. Where I didn’t get sidelined by

music or writing unfinished novels. Where I sacrificed everything else on the altar of freestyle. Where I didn’t give up. Where I did everything right in order to reach the Olympics. Take me to where I am in that life.’

For a moment it seemed as though Mrs Elm hadn’t been taking any notice of Nora’s mini-speech, as she kept frowning at the chessboard, working out how to out-manoeuvre herself.

e rook is my favourite piece,’ she said. ‘It’s the one that you think you don’t have to watch out for. It is straightforward. You keep your eye on the queen, and the knights, and the bishop, because they are the sneaky ones. But it’s the rook that oen gets you. e straightforward is never quite what it seems.’

Nora realised Mrs Elm was probably not talking just about chess. But the shelves were moving now. Fast as trains.

is life you’ve asked for,’ explained Mrs Elm, ‘is a little bit further away from the pub dream and the Australian adventure. ose were closer lives.

is one involves a lot of dierent choices, going back further in time. And so the book is a little further away, you see?’

‘I see.’

‘Libraries have to have a system.’

e books slowed. ‘Ah, here we are.’

is time Mrs Elm didn’t stand up. She simply raised her le hand and a book flew towards her.

‘How did you do that?’

‘I have no idea. Now here’s the life you asked for. Off you go.’

Nora took hold of the book. Light, fresh, lime-coloured. She turned to the first page. And this time she was aware of feeling absolutely nothing at all.

e Last Update at Nora Had Posted Before She Found Herself Between Life and Death

I miss my cat. I’m tired.

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