Chapter no 21 -Peppermint Tea

The Midnight Library

Ten minutes later she was sitting on her own with her brother in something called the ‘VIP Business Lounge’, which was just a small, airless room with some chairs and a table oering a selection of today’s newspapers. A couple of middle-aged men in suits were typing things into laptops.

By this point she had worked out that her brother was her manager. And that he’d been her manager for seven years, since she’d given up professional swimming.

‘Are you okay about all this?’ her brother asked, having just got two drinks from the coee machine. He tore a sachet to release a teabag. Peppermint. He placed it into the cup of hot water he’d taken from the coee machine.

en he handed it to Nora.

She had never drunk peppermint tea in her life. ‘at’s for me?’ ‘Well, yeah. It was the only herbal they had.’

He had a coee for himself that Nora secretly craved. Maybe in this life she didn’t drink caeine.

Are you okay about all this?

‘Okay about all what?’ Nora wondered. ‘e talk, today.’

‘Oh, um, yeah. How long is it again?’ ‘Forty minutes.’


‘It’s a lot of money. I upped it from ten.’ ‘at’s very good of you.’

‘Well, I still get my twenty per cent. Hardly a sacrifice.’

Nora tried to think how she could unlock their shared history. How she could find out why, in this life, they were sitting together and getting along. It might have been money, but her brother had never been particularly money-motivated. And yes, sure, he’d obviously been upset when Nora walked away from the deal with the record company but that had been because he wanted to play guitar in e Labyrinths for the rest of his life and be a rock star.

Aer dipping it a few times Nora let the teabag free in the water. ‘Do you ever think of how our lives could have been dierent? You know, like if I had never stuck with swimming?’

‘Not really.’

‘I mean, what do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t my manager?’ ‘I manage other people too, you know.’

‘Well, yeah, of course I know that. Obviously.’

‘I suppose I probably wouldn’t be managing anyone without you. I mean, you were the first. And you introduced me to Kai and then Natalie. And then Eli, so . . .’

She nodded, as if she had any idea who Kai and Natalie and Eli were. ‘True, but maybe you’d have found some other way.’

‘Who knows? Or maybe I’d still be in Manchester, I don’t know.’ ‘Manchester?’

‘Yeah. You remember how much I loved it up there. At uni.’

It was really hard not to look surprised at any of this, at the fact that this brother she was getting on with, and working with, was also someone who went to university. In her root life her brother did A-levels and applied to go to Manchester to do History, but he never got the grades he needed, probably because he was too busy getting stoned with Ravi every night. And then decided he didn’t want to go to uni at all.

ey chatted a bit more.

At one point he became distracted by his phone.

Nora noticed his screensaver was of a radiant, handsome, smiling man she had never seen before. She noticed her brother’s wedding ring and feigned a neutral expression.

‘So, how’s married life?’

Joe smiled. It was a genuinely happy smile. She hadn’t seen him smile like that for years. In her root life, Joe had always been unlucky in love. Although

she had known her brother was gay since he was a teenager, he hadn’t ocially come out until he was twenty-two. And he’d never had a happy or long-term relationship. She felt guilt, that her life had the power to shape her brother’s life in such meaningful ways.

‘Oh, you know Ewan. Ewan’s Ewan.’

Nora smiled back as if she knew who Ewan was and exactly what he was like. ‘Yeah. He’s great. I’m so happy for you both.’

He laughed. ‘We’ve been married five years now. You’re talking as if me and him have just got together.’

‘No, I’m just, you know, I sometimes think that you’re lucky. So in love.

And happy.’

‘He wants a dog.’ He smiled. ‘at’s our current debate. I mean, I wouldn’t mind a dog. But I’d want a rescue. And I wouldn’t want a bloody Maltipoo or a Bichon. I’d want a wolf. You know, a proper dog.’

Nora thought of Voltaire. ‘Animals are good company . . .’ ‘Yeah. You still want a dog?’

‘I do. Or a cat.’

‘Cats are too disobedient,’ he said, sounding like the brother she remembered. ‘Dogs know their place.’

‘Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. e obedient must be slaves.’

He looked perplexed. ‘Where did that come from? Is that a quote?’ ‘Yeah. Henry David oreau. You know, my fave philosopher.’ ‘Since when were you into philosophy?’

Of course. In this life she’d never have done a Philosophy degree. While her root self had been reading the works of oreau and Lao Tzu and Sartre in a stinky student flat in Bristol, her current self had been standing on Olympic podiums in Beijing. Weirdly, she felt just as sad for the version of her who had never fallen in love with the simple beauty of oreau’s Walden, or the stoical Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, as she had felt sympathy for the version of her who never fulfilled her Olympic potential.

‘Oh, I don’t know . . . I just came across some of his stuff on the internet.’ ‘Ah. Cool. Will check him out. You could drop some of that into your


Nora felt herself go pale. ‘Um, I’m thinking of maybe doing something a little dierent today. I might, um, improvise a little.’

Improvising was, aer all, a skill she’d been practising.

‘I saw this great documentary about Greenland the other night. Made me remember when you were obsessed with the Arctic and you cut out all those pictures of polar bears and stu.’

‘Yeah. Mrs Elm said the best way to be an arctic explorer was to be a glaciologist. So that’s what I wanted to be.’

‘Mrs Elm,’ he whispered. ‘at rings a bell.’ ‘School librarian.’

at was it. You used to live in that library, didn’t you?’ ‘Pretty much.’

‘Just think, if you hadn’t stuck with swimming, you’d be in Greenland right now.’

‘Svalbard,’ she said. ‘Sorry?’

‘It’s a Norwegian archipelago. Way up in the Arctic Ocean.’ ‘Okay, Norway then. You’d be there.’

‘Maybe. Or maybe I’d just still be in Bedford. Moping around.

Unemployed. Struggling to pay the rent.’

‘Don’t be da. You’d have always done something big.’

She smiled at her elder brother’s innocence. ‘In some lives me and you might not even get on.’

‘Nonsense.’ ‘I hope so.’

Joe seemed a bit uncomfortable, and clearly wanted to change the topic. ‘Hey, guess who I saw the other day?’

Nora shrugged, hoping it was going to be someone she’d heard of. ‘Ravi. Do you remember Ravi?’

She thought of Ravi, telling her off in the newsagent’s only yesterday. ‘Oh yeah. Ravi.’

‘Well, I bumped into him.’ ‘In Bedford?’

‘Ha! God, no. Haven’t been there for years. No. It was at Blackfriars station. Totally random. Like, I haven’t seen him in over a decade. At least. He wanted to go to the pub. So, I explained I was teetotal now, and then I got into having to explain I’d been an alcoholic. And all of that. at I hadn’t had a glass of wine or a puff on a joint in years.’ Nora nodded as if this wasn’t a

bomb-shell. ‘Since I got into a mess aer Mum died. I think he was like, “Who is this guy?” But he was fine. He was cool. He’s working as a cameraman now. Still doing some music on the side. Not rock stu. DJ-ing apparently. Remember that band me and him had, years ago. e Labyrinths?’

It was becoming easier to fake vagueness. ‘Oh yeah. e Labyrinths.

Course. at’s a blast from the past.’

‘Yeah. Got the sense he pines for those days. Even though we were crap and I couldn’t sing.’

‘What about you? Do you ever think about what could have been if e Labyrinths had made it big?’

He laughed, a little sadly. ‘I don’t know if anything could have been.’ ‘Maybe you needed an extra person. I used to play those keyboards Mum

and Dad got you.’

‘Did you? When did you have time for that?’

A life without music. A life without reading the books she had loved.

But also: a life where she got on with her brother. A life where she hadn’t had to let him down.

‘Anyway, Ravi wanted to say hi. And wanted a catch-up. He only works one tube stop away. So he’s going to try and come to the talk.’

‘What? Oh. at’s . . . I wish he wouldn’t.’ ‘Why?’

‘I just never really liked him.’

Joe frowned. ‘Really? I can’t remember you saying that . . . He’s okay. A good guy. Bit of a waster, maybe, back in the day, but he seems to have got his act together a bit . . .’

Nora was unsettled. ‘Joe?’ ‘Yeah.’

‘You know when Mum died?’ ‘Yeah.’

‘Where was I?’

‘What do you mean? Are you okay today, sis? Are the new tablets working?’


She checked in her bag and started to rummage. Saw a small box of antidepressants in her bag. Her heart sank.

‘I just wanted to know. Did I see much of Mum before she died?’

Joe frowned. He was still the same Joe. Still unable to read his sister. Still wanting to escape reality. ‘You know we weren’t there. It happened so fast. She didn’t tell us how ill she was. To protect us. Or maybe because she didn’t want us to tell her to stop drinking.’

‘Drinking? Mum was drinking?’

Joe’s worry increased. ‘Sis, have you got amnesia? She was on a bottle of gin every day since Nadia came onto the scene.’

‘Yeah. Course. I remember.’

‘Plus you had the European Championships coming up and she didn’t want to interfere with that . . .’

‘Jesus. I should have been there. One of us should have been there, Joe.

We both—’

His expression frosted suddenly. ‘You were never that close to Mum, were you? Why this sudden—’

‘I got closer to her. I mean, I would have. I—’

‘You’re freaking me out. You’re acting not quite yourself.’

Nora nodded. ‘Yes, I . . . I just . . . yes, I think you’re right . . . I think it’s just the tablets . . .’

She remembered her mother, in her final months, saying: ‘I don’t know what I would have done without you.’ She’d probably said it to Joe too. But in this life, she’d had neither of them.

en Priya arrived into the room. Grinning, clutching her phone and some kind of a clipboard.

‘It’s time,’ she said.

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