Chapter no 22 – Tree at Is Our Life

The Midnight Library

Five minutes later Nora was back in the hotel’s vast conference room. At least a thousand people were watching the first speaker conclude her presentation. e author of Zero to Heroe book Dan had beside his bed in another life. But Nora wasn’t really listening, as she sat in her reserved seat in the front row. She was too upset about her mother, too nervous about the speech, so she just picked up the odd word or phrase that floated into her mind like croutons in minestrone. ‘Little-known fact’, ‘ambition’, ‘what you may be surprised to hear is that’, ‘if I can do it’, ‘hard knocks’.

It was hard to breathe in this room. It smelled of musky perfume and new carpet.

She tried to stay calm.

Leaning into her brother, she whispered, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ ‘What?’

‘I think I’m having a panic attack.’

He looked at her, smiling, but with a toughness in his eyes she remembered from a dierent life, when she’d had a panic attack before one of their early gigs with e Labyrinths at a pub in Bedford. ‘You’ll be fine.’

‘I don’t know if I can do this. I’ve gone blank.’ ‘You’re overthinking it.’

‘I have anxiety. I have no other type of thinking available.’ ‘Come on. Don’t let us down.’

Don’t let us down. ‘But—’

She tried to think of music.

inking of music had always calmed her down.

A tune came to her. She was slightly embarrassed, even within herself, to realise the song in her head was ‘Beautiful Sky’. A happy, hopeful song that she hadn’t sung in a long time. e sky grows dark / e black over blue / Yet the stars still dare / To shine for—

But then the person Nora was sitting next to – a smartly dressed business woman in her fiies, and the source of the musky perfume smell – leaned in and whispered, ‘I’m so sorry about what happened to you. You know, the stuff in Portugal . . .’

‘What stu?’

e woman’s reply was drowned out as the audience erupted into applause at that moment.

‘What?’ she asked again.

But it was too late. Nora was being beckoned towards the stage and her brother was elbowing her.

Her brother’s voice, bellowing almost: ‘ey want you. Off you go.’

She headed tentatively towards the lectern on the stage, towards her own huge face smiling out triumphantly, golden medal around her neck, projected on the screen behind her.

She had always hated being watched.

‘Hello,’ she said nervously, into the microphone. ‘It is very nice to be here today . . .’

A thousand or so faces stared, waiting.

She had never spoken to so many people simultaneously. Even when she had been in e Labyrinths, they had never played a gig for more than a hundred people, and back then she kept the talking between the songs as minimal as possible. Working at String eory, although she was perfectly okay talking with customers, she rarely spoke up in staff meetings, even though there had never been more than five people in the room. Back at university, while Izzy always breezed through presentations Nora would worry about them for weeks in advance.

Joe and Rory were staring at her with baed expressions.

e Nora she had seen in the TED talk was not this Nora, and she doubted she could ever become that person. Not without having done all that she had done.

‘Hello. My name is Nora Seed.’

She hadn’t meant it to be funny but the whole room laughed at this. ere had clearly been no need to introduce herself.

‘Life is strange,’ she said. ‘How we live it all at once. In a straight line. But really that’s not the whole picture. Because life isn’t simply made of the things we do, but the things we don’t do too. And every moment of our life is a . . . kind of turning.’

Still nothing.

ink about it. ink about how we start off . . . as this set thing. Like the seed of a tree planted in the ground. And then we . . . we grow . . . we grow

. . . and at first we are a trunk . . .’ Absolutely nothing.

‘But then the tree – the tree that is our life – develops branches. And think of all those branches, departing from the trunk at dierent heights. And think of all those branches, branching off again, heading in oen opposing directions. ink of those branches becoming other branches, and those becoming twigs. And think of the end of each of those twigs, all in dierent places, having started from the same one. A life is like that, but on a bigger scale. New branches are formed every second of every day. And from our perspective – from everyone’s perspective – it feels like a . . . like a continuum. Each twig has travelled only one journey. But there are still other twigs. And there are also other todays. Other lives that would have been dierent if you’d taken dierent directions earlier in your life. is is a tree of life. Lots of religions and mythologies have talked about the tree of life. It’s there in Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity. Lots of philosophers and writers have talked about tree metaphors too. For Sylvia Plath, existence was a fig tree and each possible life she could live – the happily-married one, the successful-poet one – was this sweet juicy fig, but she couldn’t get to taste the sweet juicy figs and so they just rotted right in front of her. It can drive you insane, thinking of all the other lives we don’t live.

‘For instance, in most of my lives I am not standing at this podium talking

to you about success . . . In most lives I am not an Olympic gold medallist.’ She remembered something Mrs Elm had told her in the Midnight Library. ‘You see, doing one thing dierently is very oen the same as doing everything dierently. Actions can’t be reversed within a lifetime, however much we try . . .’

People were listening now. ey clearly needed a Mrs Elm in their lives.

e only way to learn is to live.’

And she went on in this manner for another twenty minutes, remembering as much as possible of what Mrs Elm had told her, and then she looked down at her hands, glowing white from the light of the lectern.

As she absorbed the sight of a raised, thin pink line of flesh, she knew the scar was self-inflicted, and it put her off her flow. Or rather, put her into a new one.

‘And . . . and the thing is . . . the thing is . . . what we consider to be the most successful route for us to take, actually isn’t. Because too oen our view of success is about some external bullshit idea of achievement – an Olympic medal, the ideal husband, a good salary. And we have all these metrics that we try and reach. When really success isn’t something you measure, and life isn’t a race you can win. It’s all . . . bollocks, actually . . .’

e audience definitely looked uncomfortable now. Clearly this was not the speech they were expecting. She scanned the crowd and saw a single face smiling up at her. It took a second, given the fact that he was smartly dressed in a blue cotton shirt and with hair far shorter than it was in his Bedford life, for her to realise it was Ravi. is Ravi looked friendly, but she couldn’t shake the knowledge of the other Ravi, the one who had stormed out of the newsagent’s, sulking about not being able to aord a magazine and blaming her for it.

‘You see, I know that you were expecting my TED talk on the path to success. But the truth is that success is a delusion. It’s all a delusion. I mean, yes, there are things we can overcome. For instance, I am someone who gets stage fright and yet, here I am, on a stage. Look at me . . . on a stage! And someone told me recently, they told me that my problem isn’t actually stage fright. My problem is life fright. And you know what? ey’re fucking right. Because life is frightening, and it is frightening for a reason, and the reason is that it doesn’t matter which branch of a life we get to live, we are always the same rotten tree. I wanted to be many things in my life. All kinds of things. But if your life is rotten, it will be rotten no matter what you do. e damp rots the whole useless thing . . .’

Joe was desperately slicing his hand in the air around his neck, making a ‘cut it’ gesture.

‘Anyway, just be kind and . . . Just be kind. I have a feeling I am about to go, so I would just like to say I love my brother Joe. I love you, brother, and I

love everyone in this room, and it was very nice to be here.’

And the moment she had said it was nice to be there, was also the moment she wasn’t there at all.

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