She had been asleep.
A deep, dreamless nothing, and now – thanks to the ring of a phone alarm – she was awake and didn’t know where she was.
e phone told her it was 6:30 a.m. A light switch beside the bed appeared, thanks to the glow of the screen. Switching it on, she could see she was in a hotel room. It was rather plush, in a bland and blue and corporate kind of way.
A tasteful semi-abstract sub-Cezanne painting of an apple – or maybe a pear – was framed on the wall.
ere was a half-empty cylinder-shaped glass bottle of still mineral water beside the bed. And an unopened collection of shortbread biscuits. Some printed-out papers too, stapled together. A timetable of some sort.
She looked at it.
ITINERARY FOR NORA SEED OBE, GUEST SPEAKER, GULLIVER RESEARCH INSPIRING SUCCESS SPRING CONFERENCE
8.45 a.m. Meet Priya Navuluri (Gulliver Research) and Rory Longford (Celebrity Speakers) and J in lobby, InterContinental Hotel
9.00 a.m. Soundcheck.
9.05 a.m. Tech run-through.
9.30 a.m. Nora to wait in VIP area or watch ﬁrst speaker in main hall (JP Blythe, inventor of MeTime app and author of Your Life, Your Terms)
10.15 a.m. Nora to deliver talk
10.45 a.m. Audience Q + A
11.00 a.m. Meet and greet
11.30 a.m. Finish
Nora Seed OBE. Inspiring Success.
So, there was a life in which she was a success. Well, that was something.
She wondered who ‘J’ was, and the other people she was supposed to meet in the lobby, and then she put the sheet of paper down and got out of bed. She had a lot of time. Why was she getting up at 6:30 a.m.? Maybe she swam every morning. at would make sense. She pressed a button and the curtains slid open with a low whirr to reveal a view of water and skyscrapers and the white dome of the O2 arena. She had never seen this precise view from this precise angle before. London. Canary Wharf. About twenty storeys up.
She went to the bathroom – beige tiles, large shower cubicle, ﬂuﬀy white towels – and realised she didn’t feel as bad as she usually did in the morning.
ere was a mirror ﬁlling half the opposing wall. She gasped at her appearance. And then she laughed. She looked so ridiculously healthy. And strong. And in this life had terrible taste in nightwear (pyjamas, mustard-and-green, plaid).
e bathroom was quite large. Large enough to get down on and do some push-ups. Ten full ones in a row – no knees – without even getting out of breath.
en she held a plank. And tried it with one hand. en the other hand, with hardly a tremor. en she did some burpees.
No problem at all. Wow.
She stood up and patted her rock-hard stomach. Remembered how
wheezy she had been in her root life, walking up the high street, technically only yesterday.
She hadn’t felt this ﬁt since she was a teenager. In fact, this might be the ﬁttest she had ever felt. Stronger, certainly.
Searching Facebook for ‘Isabel Hirsh’, she found out that her former best
friend was alive and still living in Australia and this made Nora happy. She didn’t even care that they weren’t social media friends, as it was highly probable that in this life Nora hadn’t gone to Bristol University. And even if
she had, she wouldn’t have been doing the same course. It was a bit humbling to realise that, even though this Isabel Hirsh might never have met Nora Seed, she was still doing the same thing she was doing in Nora’s root life.
She also checked in on Dan. He was (seemingly) happily married to a spin-class instructor called Gina. ‘Gina Lord (née Sharpe)’. ey’d had a wedding in Sicily.
Nora then googled ‘Nora Seed’.
Her Wikipedia page (she had a Wikipedia page!) informed her that she had indeed made it to the Olympics. Twice. And that she specialised in freestyle. She had won a gold medal for 800m freestyle, with a ridiculous time of eight minutes and ﬁve seconds, and had a silver for 400m.
is had been when she was twenty-two years old. She had won another silver medal when she was twenty-six, for her participation in a 4 x 100m relay. It got even more ridiculous when she read that she had brieﬂy been the world record-holder for women’s 400m freestyle at the World Aquatic Championships. She had then retired from international competition.
She had retired at twenty-eight.
She apparently now worked for the BBC during their coverage of swimming events, had appeared on the TV show A Question of Sport, had written an autobiography called Sink or Swim, was an occasional assistant coach at British Swimming GB, and still swam for two hours every day.
She gave a lot of money to charitable causes – namely to Marie Curie Cancer Care – and she had organised a fundraising charity swimathon around Brighton Pier for the Marine Conservation Society. Since retiring from professional sport, she had swum the Channel twice.
ere was a link to a TED talk she had given about the value of stamina in sport, and training, and life. It had over a million views. As she began to watch it, Nora felt as though she was watching someone else. is woman was conﬁdent, commanded the stage, had great posture, smiled naturally as she spoke, and managed to make the crowd smile and laugh and clap and nod their heads at all the right moments.
She had never imagined she could be like this, and tried to memorise what this other Nora was doing, but realised there was no way she would be able to.
‘People with stamina aren’t made any diﬀerently to anyone else,’ she was saying. ‘e only diﬀerence is they have a clear goal in mind, and a determination to get there. Stamina is essential to stay focused in a life ﬁlled with distraction. It is the ability to stick to a task when your body and mind are at their limit, the ability to keep your head down, swimming in your lane, without looking around, worrying who might overtake you . . .’
Who the hell was this person?
She skipped a little further into the video, and this other Nora was still talking with the conﬁdence of a self-help Joan of Arc.
‘If you aim to be something you are not, you will always fail. Aim to be you. Aim to look and act and think like you. Aim to be the truest version of you. Embrace that you-ness. Endorse it. Love it. Work hard at it. And don’t give a second thought when people mock it or ridicule it. Most gossip is envy in disguise. Keep your head down. Keep your stamina. Keep swimming
. . .’
‘Keep swimming,’ Nora mumbled, echoing this other self and wondering if the hotel had a pool.
e video disappeared and a second later her phone started to buzz. A name appeared. ‘Nadia’.
She didn’t know any Nadias in her original life. She had no idea if seeing the name would have inspired this version of her with happy anticipation or sinking dread.
ere was only one way to ﬁnd out. ‘Hello?’
‘Sweetheart,’ came a voice she didn’t recognise. A voice that was close but not entirely warm. She had an accent. Maybe Russian. ‘I hope you are okay.’
‘Hi Nadia. anks. I’m ﬁne. I’m just here in the hotel. Getting ready for a conference.’ She tried to sound jolly.
‘Oh yeah, the conference. Fieen thousand pounds for a talk. Sounds good.’
It sounded ridiculous. But she also wondered how Nadia – whoever Nadia was – knew this.
‘Oh yeah.’ ‘Joe told us.’ ‘Joe?’
‘Yeah. Well, listen, I need to talk to you at some point about your father’s birthday.’
‘I know he’d love it if you could come up and see us.’
Her whole body went cold and weak, as if she had seen a ghost.
She remembered her father’s funeral, hugging her brother as they cried on each other’s shoulders.
My dad. My dead dad.
‘He’s just come in from the garden. Do you want a word with him?’
is was so remarkable, so world-shattering, it was totally out of synch with her tone of voice. She said it casually, almost as if it was nothing at all.
‘Do you want a word with Dad?’
It took her a moment. She felt suddenly oﬀ-balance. ‘I—’
She could hardly speak. Or breathe. She didn’t know what to say. Everything felt unreal. It was like time travel. As though she had fallen through two decades.
It was too late to respond because the next thing she heard was Nadia saying: ‘Here he is . . .’
Nora nearly hung up the phone. Maybe she should have. But she didn’t.
Now she knew it was a possibility, she needed to hear his voice again.
His breath ﬁrst.
en: ‘Hi Nora, how are you?’
Just that. Casual, non-speciﬁc, everyday. It was him. His voice. His strong voice that had always been so clipped. But a little thinner, maybe, a little weaker. A voice ﬁeen years older than it was meant to be.
‘Dad,’ she said. Her voice was a stunned whisper. ‘It’s you.’
‘You all right, Nora? Is this a bad line? Do you want to FaceTime?’
FaceTime. To see his face. No. at would be too much. is was already too much. Just the idea that there was a version of her dad alive at a time aer FaceTime was invented. Her dad belonged in a world of landlines. When he died, he was only just warming to radical concepts like emails and text messages.
‘No,’ she said. ‘It was me. I was just thinking of something. I’m a bit distant. Sorry. How are you?’
‘Fine. We took Sally to the vets yesterday.’
She assumed Sally was a dog. Her parents had never had a dog, or any pet. Nora had begged for a dog or a cat when she was little but her dad had always said they tied you down.
‘What was wrong with her?’ Nora asked, trying to sound natural now. ‘Just her ears again. at infection keeps coming back.’
‘Oh right,’ she said, as though she knew Sally and her problematic ears. ‘Poor Sally. I . . . I love you, Dad. And I just want to say that—’
‘Are you all right, Nora? You’re sounding a bit . . . emotional.’
‘I just didn’t . . . don’t tell you that enough. I just want you to know I love you. You are a good father. And in another life – the life where I quit swimming – I am full of regret over that.’
She felt awkward asking him anything, but she had to know. e questions started to burst out of her like water from a geyser.
‘Are you okay, Dad?’ ‘Why wouldn’t I be?’
‘Just. You know . . . You used to worry about chest pains.’
‘Haven’t had them since I got healthy again. at was years ago. You remember. My health kick? Hanging around Olympians does that to you. Got me back to rugby-ﬁt. Coming up to sixteen years oﬀ the drink too. Cholesterol and blood pressure low, the doc says.’
‘Yes, of course . . . I remember the health kick.’ And then another question came to her. But she had no idea how to ask it. So she did it directly.
‘How long have you been with Nadia now again?’ ‘Are you having memory problems or something?’
‘No. Well, yes, maybe. I have just been thinking a lot about life recently.’ ‘Are you a philosopher now?’
‘Well, I studied it.’ ‘When?’
‘Never mind. I just can’t remember how you and Nadia met.’
She heard an awkward sigh down the phone. He sounded terse. ‘You know how we met . . . Why are you bringing all this up? Is this something that therapist is opening up? Because you know my feelings on that.’
I have a therapist. ‘Sorry, Dad.’ ‘at’s all right.’
‘I just want to know that you’re happy.’
‘’Course I am. I’ve got an Olympic champion for a daughter and have ﬁnally found the love of my life. And you’re getting back on your feet again. Mentally, I mean. Aer Portugal.’
Nora wanted to know what had happened in Portugal but she had another question to ask ﬁrst.
‘What about Mum? Wasn’t she the love of your life?’
‘Once upon a time she was. But things change, Nora. Come on, you’re a grown-up.’
‘I . . .’
Nora put her dad on speaker. Clicked back to her own Wikipedia page. Sure enough, her parents had divorced aer her father had an aﬀair with Nadia Vanko, mother of a Ukrainian male swimmer, Yegor Vanko. And in this timeline her mother had died way back in 2011.
And all this because Nora had never sat in that car park in Bedford and told her dad that she didn’t want to be a competitive swimmer.
She felt that feeling again. Like she was fading away. at she had worked out that this life wasn’t for her and was disappearing back to the library. But she stayed where she was. She said goodbye to her dad, ended the phone call and continued to read up on herself.
She was single, though had been in a relationship with the American Olympic medal-winning diver Scott Richards for three years, and brieﬂy lived with him in California, where they resided in La Jolla, San Diego. She now lived in West London.
Having read the entire page she put the phone down and decided to go ﬁnd out if there was a pool. She wanted to do what she would be doing in this life, and what she would be doing was swimming. And maybe the water would help her think of what she could say.
It was an exceptional swim, even if it gave her little creative inspiration, and it calmed her aer the experience of having a conversation with her dead father. She had the pool to herself and glided through length aer length of breaststroke without having to think about it. It felt so empowering, to be that ﬁt and strong and to have such mastery of the water,
that she momentarily stopped worrying about her father and having to give a speech she really wasn’t prepared for.
But as she swam her mood changed. She thought of those years her dad had gained and her mother had lost, and as she thought she became angrier and angrier at her father, which fuelled her to swim even faster. She had always imagined her parents were too proud to get divorced, so instead let their resentments fester inside, projecting them onto their children, and Nora in particular. And swimming had been her only ticket to approval.
Here, in this life she was in now, she had pursued a career to keep him happy, while sacriﬁcing her own relationships, her own love of music, her own dreams beyond anything that didn’t involve a medal, her own life. And her father had paid this back by having an aﬀair with this Nadia person and leaving her mother and he still got terse with her. Aer all that.
Screw him. Or at least this version of him.
As she switched to freestyle she realised it wasn’t her fault that her parents had never been able to love her the way parents were meant to: without condition. It wasn’t her fault her mother focused on her every ﬂaw, starting with the asymmetry of her ears. No. It went back even earlier than that. e ﬁrst problem had been that Nora had dared, somehow, to arrive into existence at a time when her parents’ marriage was relatively fragile. Her mother fell into depression and her father turned to tumblers of single malt.
She did thirty more lengths, and her mind calmed and she started to feel free, just her and the water.
But when she eventually got out of the pool and went back to her room she dressed in the only clean clothes in her hotel room (smart navy trouser suit) and stared at the inside of her suitcase. She felt the profound loneliness emanating from it. ere was a copy of her own book. She was staring out from the cover with steely-eyed determination and wearing a Team GB swimsuit. She picked it up and saw, in small print, that it was ‘co-written with Amanda Sands’.
Amanda Sands, the internet told her, was ‘ghost-writer to a whole host of sporting celebrities’.
en she looked at her watch. It was time to head to the lobby.
Standing waiting for her were two smartly dressed people she didn’t recognise and one she most deﬁnitely did. He was wearing a suit and was
clean-shaven in this life, his hair side-parted and business-like, but he was the same Joe. His dark eyebrows as bushy as ever – ‘at’s the Italian in you,’ as their mother used to say.
What’s more, he was smiling at her. A big, brotherly, uncomplicated smile. ‘Morning, sis,’ he said, surprised by and a little awkward from the length
of the hug she was giving him.
When the hug was over, he introduced the other two people he was standing with.
‘is is Priya from Gulliver Research, the people organising the conference obviously, and this is Rory, obviously, from Celebrity Speakers.’
‘Hi Priya!’ said Nora. ‘Hi Rory. So nice to meet you.’
‘Yes, it is,’ said Priya, smiling. ‘We’re so pleased to have you.’
‘You say that like we’ve never met before!’ said Rory, with a booming laugh.
Nora backtracked. ‘Yes, I know we’ve met, Rory. Just my little joke. You know my sense of humour.’
‘You have a sense of humour?’ ‘Good one, Rory!’
‘Okay,’ her brother said, looking at her and smiling. ‘Do you want to see the space?’
She couldn’t stop smiling. Here was her brother. Her brother, whom she hadn’t seen in two years and hadn’t had any semblance of a good relationship with in far longer, looking healthy and happy and like he actually liked her. ‘e space?’
‘Yeah. e hall. Where you’re doing the talk.’
‘It’s all set up,’ Priya added, helpfully.
‘Bloody big room,’ said Rory approvingly, as he cradled a paper cup of coﬀee.
So, Nora agreed and was led into a vast blue conference room with a wide stage and around a thousand empty chairs. A technician in black came up and asked her: ‘What do you fancy? Lapel or headset or handheld?’
‘What kind of mic will you want up there?’ ‘Oh!’
‘Headset,’ her brother interjected on Nora’s behalf.
‘Yeah. Headset,’ said Nora.
‘I was just thinking,’ her brother said, ‘aer that nightmare we had with the microphone in Cardiﬀ.’
‘Yeah, totally. What a nightmare.’
Priya was smiling at her, wanting to ask something. ‘Am I right in thinking you’ve got no multimedia stuﬀ? No slides or anything?’
Her brother and Rory were looking at her, a little concerned. is was clearly a question she should know the answer to and didn’t.
‘Yes,’ she said, then saw her brother’s expression, ‘I . . . don’t. Yes, I don’t. I don’t have any multimedia stuﬀ.’
And they all looked at her like she was not quite right but she smiled through it.