It took two hours to get back to the tiny port at Longyearbyen. It was Norway’s – and the world’s – most northern town, with a population of around two thousand people.
Nora knew these basic things from her root life. She had, aer all, been fascinated by this part of the world since she was eleven, but her knowledge didn’t stretch far beyond the magazine articles she had read and she was still nervous of talking.
But the boat trip back had been okay, because her inability to discuss the rock and ice and plant samples they had taken, or to understand phrases such as ‘striated basalt bedrock’ and ‘post-glacial isotopes’, was put down to the shock of her polar bear encounter.
And she was in a kind of shock, it was true. But it was not the shock her colleagues were imagining. e shock hadn’t been that she’d thought she’d been about to die. She had been about to die ever since she ﬁrst entered the Midnight Library. No, the shock was that she felt like she was about to live. Or at least, that she could imagine wanting to be alive again. And she wanted to do something good with that life.
e life of a human, according to the Scottish philosopher David Hume, was of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.
But if it was important enough for David Hume to write that thought down, then maybe it was important enough to aim to do something good. To help preserve life, in all its forms.
As Nora understood it, the work this other Nora and her fellow scientists had been doing was something to do with determining the speed at which the ice and glaciers had been melting in the region, to gauge the acceleration
rate of climate change. ere was more to it than that, but that was at the core of it, as far as Nora could see.
So, in this life, she was doing her bit to save the planet. Or at least to monitor the steady devastation of the planet in order to alert people to the facts of environmental crisis. at was potentially depressing but also a good and ultimately fulﬁlling thing to do, she imagined. ere was purpose. ere was meaning.
ey were impressed too. e others. With the polar bear story. Nora was a hero of sorts – not in an Olympic-swimming-champion way, but in another equally fulﬁlling kind of fashion.
Ingrid had her arm around her. ‘You are the saucepan warrior. And I think we need to mark your fearlessness, and our potentially groundbreaking ﬁndings, with a meal. A nice meal. And some vodka. What do you say, Peter?’
‘A nice meal? In Longyearbyen? Do they have them?’ As it turned out: they did.
Back on dry land they went to a smart wooden shack of a place called Gruvelageret perched oﬀ a lonely road in an austere, snow-crisp valley. She drank Arctic ale and surprised her colleagues by eating the only vegan option on a menu that included reindeer steak and moose burger. Nora must have looked tired because quite a few of her colleagues told her that she did, but maybe it was just that there weren’t many places in the conversation that she could enter with conﬁdence. She felt like a learner driver at a busy junction, nervously waiting for a clear and safe patch of road.
Hugo was there. He still looked to her like he would rather be in Antibes or St Tropez. She felt a little uneasy as he stared at her, a little too observed.
On the hurried walk back to their land-based accommodation, which reminded Nora of a university halls of residence but on a smaller scale and more Nordic and wooden and minimal, Hugo jogged to catch her up and walk by her side.
‘It is interesting,’ he said. ‘What is interesting?’
‘How at breakfast this morning you didn’t know who I was.’ ‘Why? You didn’t know who I was either.’
‘Of course I did. We were chatting for about two hours yesterday.’
Nora felt like she was inside some kind of trap. ‘We were?’
‘I studied you at breakfast before I came over and I could see you were diﬀerent today.’
‘at’s creepy, Hugo. Studying women at breakfast.’ ‘And I noticed things.’
Nora lied her scarf over her face. ‘It’s too cold. Can we talk about this tomorrow?’
‘I noticed you improvising. All day you have been non-committal in everything you say.’
‘Not true. I’m just shook up. You know, the bear.’
‘Non. Ce n’est pas ça. I’m talking about before the bear. And aer the bear.
And all day.’
‘I have no idea what you’re—’
‘ere is a look. I have seen it before in other people. I’d recognise it anywhere.’
‘I have no idea what you are talking about.’ ‘Why do glaciers pulsate?’
‘is is your area of study. It’s why you’re here, isn’t it?’ ‘e science isn’t entirely settled on the matter.’
‘Okay. Bien. Name me one of the glaciers around here. Glaciers have names. Name one . . . Kongsbreen? Nathorstbreen? Ring any bells?’
‘I don’t want this conversation.’
‘Because you aren’t the same person you were yesterday, are you?’
‘None of us are,’ said Nora, briskly. ‘Our brains change. It’s called neuroplasticity. Please. Stop mansplaining glaciers to a glaciologist, Hugo.’
Hugo seemed to retreat a little and she felt a bit guilty. ere was a minute of silence. Just the crunch of their feet in the snow. ey were nearly back at the accommodation, the others not too far behind them.
But then, he said it.
‘I am like you, Nora. I visit lives that aren’t mine. I have been in this one for ﬁve days. But I have been in many others. I was given an opportunity – a rare opportunity – for this to happen. I have been sliding between lives for a long while.’
Ingrid grabbed Nora’s arm.
‘I still have some vodka,’ she announced as they reached the door. She held her key card in her glove and tapped it against the scanner. e door opened.
‘Listen,’ Hugo mumbled, conspiratorially, ‘if you want to know more, meet me in the communal kitchen in ﬁve minutes.’
And Nora felt her heart race, but this time she had no ladle or saucepan to bang. She didn’t particularly like this Hugo character, but was far too intrigued not to hear what he had to say. And she also wanted to know if he could be trusted.
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I’ll be there.’
Nora had always had a problem accepting herself. From as far back as she could remember, she’d had the sense that she wasn’t enough. Her parents, who both had their own insecurities, had encouraged that idea.
She imagined, now, what it would be like to accept herself completely. Every mistake she had ever made. Every mark on her body. Every dream she hadn’t reached or pain she had felt. Every lust or longing she had suppressed.
She imagined accepting it all. e way she accepted nature. e way she accepted a glacier or a puﬃn or the breach of a whale.
She imagined seeing herself as just another brilliant freak of nature. Just another sentient animal, trying their best.
And in doing so, she imagined what it was like to be free.
With Hugo, it wasn’t a library.
‘It’s a video store,’ he said, leaning against the cheap-looking cupboard where the coﬀee was kept. ‘It looks exactly like a video store I used to go to in the outskirts of Lyon – Video Lumière – where I grew up. e Lumière brothers are heroes in Lyon and there’s a lot of things named aer them.
ey invented cinema there. Anyway, that is beside the point: the point is that every life I choose is an old VHS that I play right in the store, and the moment it starts – the moment the movie starts – is the moment I disappear.’
Nora suppressed a giggle.
‘What’s so funny?’ Hugo wondered, a little hurt.
‘Nothing. Nothing at all. It just seemed mildly amusing. A video store.’ ‘Oh? And a library, that is entirely sensible?’
‘More sensible, yes. I mean, at least you can still use books. Who plays videos these days?’
‘Interesting. I had no idea there was such a thing as between-life snobbery. You are an education.’
‘Sorry, Hugo. Okay, I will ask a sensible question. Is there anyone else there? A person who helps you choose each life?’
He nodded. ‘Oh yeah. It’s my Uncle Philippe. He died years ago. And he never even worked in a video store. It’s so illogical.’
Nora told him about Mrs Elm.
‘A school librarian?’ mocked Hugo. ‘at’s pretty funny too.’
Nora ignored him. ‘Do you reckon they’re ghosts? Guiding spirits?
Guardian angels? What are they?’
It felt so ludicrous, in the heart of a scientiﬁc facility, to be talking like this.
‘ey are,’ Hugo gestured, as if trying to pluck the right term from the air, ‘an interpretation.’
‘I have met others like us,’ Hugo said. ‘You see, I have been in the in-between state for a long time. I have encountered a few other sliders. at’s what I call them. Us. We are sliders. We have a root life in which we are lying somewhere, unconscious, suspended between life and death, and then we arrive in a place. And it is always something diﬀerent. A library, a video store, an art gallery, a casino, a restaurant . . . What does that tell you?’
Nora shrugged. And thought. Listening to the hum of the central heating. ‘at it’s all bullshit? at none of this is real?’
‘No. Because the template is always the same. For instance: there is always someone else there – a guide. Only ever one person. ey are always someone who has helped the person at a signiﬁcant time in their life. e setting is always somewhere with emotional signiﬁcance. And there is usually talk of root lives or branches.’
Nora thought about being consoled by Mrs Elm when her dad died. Staying with her, comforting her. It was probably the most kindness anyone had ever shown her.
‘And there is always an inﬁnite range of choices,’ Hugo went on. ‘An inﬁnite number of video tapes, or books, or paintings, or meals . . . Now, I am a scientist. And I have lived many scientiﬁc lives. In my original root life, I have a degree in Biology. I have also, in another life, been a Nobel Prize-winning chemist. I have been a marine biologist trying to protect the Great Barrier Reef. But my weakness was always physics. At ﬁrst I had no idea of how to ﬁnd out what was happening to me. Until I met a woman in one life who was going through what we are going through, and in her root life she was a quantum physicist. Professor Dominique Bisset at Montpellier University. She explained it all to me. e many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics. So that means we—’
A kind-faced, pink-skinned, auburn-bearded man whose name Nora didn’t know came into the kitchen to rinse a coﬀee cup, then smiled at them. ‘See you tomorrow,’ he said, in a so American (maybe Canadian) accent,
before padding away in his slippers.
‘Yes,’ said Nora.
‘See you,’ said Hugo, before returning – in a more hushed tone – to his main thread. ‘e universal wave function is real, Nora. at’s what Professor Bisset said.’
Hugo held up a ﬁnger. A slightly annoying, wait-a-minute kind of ﬁnger.
Nora resisted a strong urge to grab it and twist it. ‘Erwin Schrödinger . . .’ ‘He of the cat.’
‘Yes. e cat guy. He said that in quantum physics every alternative possibility happens simultaneously. All at once. In the same place. Quantum superposition. e cat in the box is both alive and dead. You could open the box and see that it was alive or dead, that’s how it goes, but in one sense, even aer the box is open, the cat is still both alive and dead. Every universe exists over every other universe. Like a million pictures on tracing paper, all with slight variations within the same frame. e many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics suggests there are an inﬁnite number of divergent parallel universes. Every moment of your life you enter a new universe. With every decision you make. And traditionally it was thought that there could be no communication or transference between those worlds, even though they happen in the same space, even though they happen literally millimetres away from us.’
‘But what about us? We’re doing that.’
‘Exactly. I am here but I also know I am not here. I am also lying in a hospital in Paris, having an aneurysm. And I am also skydiving in Arizona. And travelling around southern India. And tasting wine in Lyon, and lying on a yacht oﬀ the Côte d’Azur.’
‘I knew it!’ ‘Vraiment?’
He was, she decided, quite beautiful.
‘You seem more suited to strolling the Croisette in Cannes than an Arctic adventure.’
He widened his right hand like a starﬁsh. ‘Five days! Five days I have been in this life. at is my record. Maybe this is the life for me . . .’
‘Interesting. You’re going to have a very cold life.’
‘And who knows? Maybe you are too . . . I mean, if the bear didn’t take you back to your library maybe nothing will.’ He started to ﬁll the kettle.
‘Science tells us that the “grey zone” between life and death is a mysterious place. ere is a singular point at which we are not one thing or another. Or rather we are both. Alive and dead. And in that moment between the two binaries, sometimes, just sometimes, we turn ourselves into a Schrödinger’s cat who may not only be alive or dead but may be every quantum possibility that exists in line with the universal wave function, including the possibility where we are chatting in a communal kitchen in Longyearbyen at one in the morning . . .’
Nora was taking all this in. She thought of Volts, still and lifeless under the bed and lying by the side of the road.
‘But sometimes the cat is just dead and dead.’ ‘Sorry?’
‘Nothing. It’s just . . . my cat died. And I tried another life and even in that one he was still dead.’
‘at’s sad. I had a similar situation with a Labrador. But the point is, there are others like us. I have lived so many lives, I have come across a few of them. Sometimes just to say your own truth out loud is enough to ﬁnd others like you.’
‘It’s crazy to think that there are other people who could be . . . what did you call us?
‘Sliders?’ ‘Yep. at.’
‘Well, it’s possible of course, but I think we’re rare. One thing I’ve noticed is that the other people I’ve met – the dozen or so – have all been around our age. All thirties or forties or ﬁies. One was twenty-nine, en fait. All have had a deep desire to have done things diﬀerently. ey had regrets. Some contemplated that they may be better oﬀ dead but also had a desire to live as another version of themselves.’
‘Schrödinger’s life. Both dead and alive in your own mind.’
‘Exactement! And whatever those regrets did to our brain, whatever –how would you say? – neurochemical event happened, that confused yearning for death-and-life was somehow just enough to send us into this state of total in-between.’
e kettle was getting noisier, the water starting to bubble like Nora’s
‘Why is it always just one person that we see? In the place. e library.
Hugo shrugged. ‘If I was religious, I’d say it was God. And as God is probably someone we can’t see or comprehend then He – or She – or whichever pronoun God is – becomes an image of someone good we have known in our lives. And if I wasn’t religious – which I’m not – I would think that the human brain can’t handle the complexity of an open quantum wave function and so it organises or translates this complexity into something it understands. A librarian in a library. A friendly uncle in a video store. Et cetera.’
Nora had read about multiverses and knew a bit about Gestalt psychology. About how human brains take complex information about the world and simplify it, so that when a human looks at a tree it translates the intricately complex mass of leaves and branches into this thing called ‘tree’. To be a human was to continually dumb the world down into an understandable story that keeps things simple.
She knew that everything humans see is a simpliﬁcation. A human sees the world in three dimensions. at is a simpliﬁcation. Humans are fundamentally limited, generalising creatures, living on auto-pilot, who straighten out curved streets in their minds, which explains why they get lost all the time.
‘It’s like how humans never see the second hand of a clock mid-tick,’ said Nora.
She saw that Hugo’s watch was of the analogue variety. ‘Try it. You just can’t. Minds can’t see what they can’t handle.’
Hugo nodded, as he observed his own watch.
‘So,’ Nora said, ‘whatever exists between universes is most likely not a library, but that is the easiest way for me to understand it. at would be my hypothesis. I see a simpliﬁed version of the truth. e librarian is just a kind of mental metaphor. e whole thing is.’
‘Isn’t it fascinating?’ said Hugo.
Nora sighed. ‘In the last life I spoke to my dead dad.’
Hugo opened a jar of coﬀee and scooped out granules into two mugs. ‘And I didn’t drink coﬀee. I drank peppermint tea.’
‘at sounds terrible.’
‘It was bearable.’
‘Another thing that is strange,’ Hugo said. ‘At any point in this conversation you or I could disappear.’
‘Have you seen that happen?’ Nora took the mug Hugo handed her.
‘Yeah. A few times. It’s freaky. But no one else would notice. ey become a bit vague with their memory for the last day, but you would be surprised. If you went back to the library right now, and I was still standing here talking to you in the kitchen, you would say something like “My mind’s just gone blank – what were we talking about?”, and then I’d realise what had happened and I’d say we were talking about glaciers and you’d bombard me with facts about them. And your brain would ﬁll in the gaps and make up a narrative about what just happened.’
‘Yeah, but what about the polar bear? What about the meal tonight?
Would I – this other me – would she remember what I ate?’
‘Not necessarily. But I have seen it happen. It’s amazing what the brain can ﬁll in. And what it is ﬁne with forgetting.’
‘So, what was I like? Yesterday, I mean.’
He locked eyes. ey were pretty eyes. Nora momentarily felt pulled into his orbit like a satellite to Earth.
‘Exquisite, charming, intelligent, beautiful. Much like now.’ She laughed it oﬀ. ‘Stop being so French.’
‘How many lives have you had?’ she said eventually. ‘How many have you experienced?’
‘Too many. Nearing three hundred.’ ‘ree hundred?’
‘I have been so many things. On every continent on Earth. And yet I have never found the life for me. I am resigned to being this way for ever. ere will never be a life that I truly want to live for ever. I get too curious. I get too much of a yearning to live another way. And you don’t need to make that face. It’s not sad. I am happily in limbo.’
‘But what if one day there is no video store?’ Nora thought about Mrs Elm, panicking at the computer, and the ﬂickering lights in the library. ‘What if one day you disappear for good? Before you have found a life to settle in?’
He shrugged. ‘en I will die. And it means I would have died anyway. In the life I lived before. I kind of like being a slider. I like imperfection. I like keeping death as an option. I like never having to settle.’
‘I think my situation is diﬀerent. I think my death is more imminent. If I don’t ﬁnd a life to live in pretty soon, I think I’ll be gone for good.’
She explained the problem she’d had last time, with transferring back.
‘Oh. Yeah, well, that might be bad. But it might not be. You do realise there are inﬁnite possibilities here? I mean, the multiverse isn’t about just some universes. It’s not about a handful of universes. It’s not even about a lot of universes. It’s not about a million or a billion or a trillion universes. It’s about an inﬁnite number of universes. Even with you in them. You could be you in any version of the world, however unlikely that world would be. You are only limited by your imagination. You can be very creative with the regrets you want to undo. I once undid a regret about not doing something I’d contemplated as a teenager – doing aerospace engineering and becoming an astronaut – and so in one life I became an astronaut. I haven’t been to space. But I became someone who had been there, for a little while. e thing you have to remember is that this is an opportunity and it is rare and we can undo any mistake we made, live any life we want. Any life. Dream big
. . . You can be anything you want to be. Because in one life, you are.’ She sipped her coﬀee. ‘I understand.’
‘But you will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life,’ he said, wisely.
‘You’re quoting Camus.’ ‘You got me.’
He was staring at her. Nora no longer minded his intensity, but was becoming a little concerned about her own. ‘I was a Philosophy student,’ she said, as blandly as she could manage, avoiding his eyes.
He was close to her now. ere was something equally annoying and attractive about Hugo. He exuded an arrogant amorality that made his face something to either slap or kiss, depending on the circumstances.
‘In one life we have known each other for years and are married . . .’ he said.
‘In most lives I don’t know you at all,’ she countered, now staring straight at him.
‘at’s so sad.’
‘I don’t think so.’ ‘Really?’
‘Really.’ She smiled.
‘We’re special, Nora. We’re chosen. No one understands us.’ ‘No one understands anyone. We’re not chosen.’
‘e only reason I am still in this life is because of you . . .’ She lunged forward and kissed him.
It was a very pleasant sensation. Both the kiss, and the knowledge she could be this forward. Being aware that everything that could possibly happen happened to her somewhere, in some life, kind of absolved her a little from decisions. at was just the reality of the universal wave function. Whatever was happening could – she reasoned – be put down to quantum physics.
‘I don’t share a room,’ he said.
She stared at him fearlessly now, as if facing down a polar bear had given her a certain capacity for dominance she’d never been aware of. ‘Well, Hugo, maybe you could break the habit.’
But the sex turned out to be a disappointment. A Camus quote came to her, right in the middle of it.
I may have not been sure about what really did interest me, but I was absolutely sure about what didn’t.
It probably wasn’t the best sign of how their nocturnal encounter was going, that she was thinking of Existential philosophy, or that this quote in particular was the one that appeared in her mind. But hadn’t Camus also said, ‘If something is going to happen to me, I want to be there’?
Hugo, she concluded, was a strange person. For a man who had been so intimate and deep in his conversation, he was very detached from the moment. Maybe if you lived as many lives as he had, the only person you really had any kind of intimate relationship with was yourself. She felt like she might not have been there at all.
And in a few moments, she wasn’t.