Chapter no 3 – String

The Midnight Library


Nine and a half hours before she decided to die, Nora arrived late for her aernoon shi at String eory.

‘I’m sorry,’ she told Neil, in the scruy little windowless box of an oce. ‘My cat died. Last night. And I had to bury him. Well, someone helped me bury him. But then I was le alone in my flat and I couldn’t sleep and forgot to set the alarm and didn’t wake up till midday and then had to rush.’

is was all true, and she imagined her appearance – including make-up-free face, loose makeshi ponytail and the same secondhand green corduroy pinafore dress she had worn to work all week, garnished with a general air of tired despair – would back her up.

Neil looked up from his computer and leaned back in his chair. He joined his hands together and made a steeple of his index fingers, which he placed under his chin, as if he was Confucius contemplating a deep philosophical truth about the universe rather than the boss of a musical equipment shop dealing with a late employee. ere was a massive Fleetwood Mac poster on the wall behind him, the top right corner of which had come unstuck and flopped down like a puppy’s ear.

‘Listen, Nora, I like you.’

Neil was harmless. A fiy-something guitar aficionado who liked cracking bad jokes and playing passable old Dylan covers live in the store.

‘And I know you’ve got mental-health stu.’ ‘Everyone’s got mental-health stu.’

‘You know what I mean.’

‘I’m feeling much better, generally,’ she lied. ‘It’s not clinical. e doctor says it’s situational depression. It’s just that I keep on having new . . .

situations. But I haven’t taken a day off sick for it all. Apart from when my mum . . . Yeah. Apart from that.’

Neil sighed. When he did so he made a whistling sound out of his nose.

An ominous B flat. ‘Nora, how long have you worked here?’

‘Twelve years and . . .’ – she knew this too well – ‘. . . eleven months and three days. On and o.’

at’s a long time. I feel like you are made for better things. You’re in your late thirties.’

‘I’m thirty-five.’

‘You’ve got so much going for you. You teach people piano . . .’ ‘One person.’

He brushed a crumb off his sweater.

‘Did you picture yourself stuck in your hometown working in a shop? You know, when you were fourteen? What did you picture yourself as?’

‘At fourteen? A swimmer.’ She’d been the fastest fourteen-year-old girl in the country at breaststroke and second-fastest at freestyle. She remembered standing on a podium at the National Swimming Championships.

‘So, what happened?’

She gave the short version. ‘It was a lot of pressure.’

‘Pressure makes us, though. You start off as coal and the pressure makes you a diamond.’

She didn’t correct his knowledge of diamonds. She didn’t tell him that while coal and diamonds are both carbon, coal is too impure to be able, under whatever pressure, to become a diamond. According to science, you start off as coal and you end up as coal. Maybe that was the real-life lesson.

She smoothed a stray strand of her coal-black hair up towards her ponytail.

‘What are you saying, Neil?’

‘It’s never too late to pursue a dream.’ ‘Pretty sure it’s too late to pursue that one.’

‘You’re a very well qualified person, Nora. Degree in Philosophy . . .’

Nora stared down at the small mole on her le hand. at mole had been through everything she’d been through. And it just stayed there, not caring. Just being a mole. ‘Not a massive demand for philosophers in Bedford, if I’m honest, Neil.’

‘You went to uni, had a year in London, then came back.’

‘I didn’t have much of a choice.’

Nora didn’t want a conversation about her dead mum. Or even Dan. Because Neil had found Nora’s backing out of a wedding with two days’ notice the most fascinating love story since Kurt and Courtney.

‘We all have choices, Nora. ere’s such a thing as free will.’

‘Well, not if you subscribe to a deterministic view of the universe.’ ‘But why here?’

‘It was either here or the Animal Rescue Centre. is paid better. Plus,

you know, music.’

‘You were in a band. With your brother.’

‘I was. e Labyrinths. We weren’t really going anywhere.’ ‘Your brother tells a dierent story.’

is took Nora by surprise. ‘Joe? How do you—’ ‘He bought an amp. Marshall DSL40.’



‘He was in Bedford?’

‘Unless it was a hologram. Like Tupac.’

He was probably visiting Ravi, Nora thought. Ravi was her brother’s best friend. While Joe had given up the guitar and moved to London, for a crap IT job he hated, Ravi had stuck to Bedford. He played in a covers band now, called Slaughterhouse Four, doing pub gigs around town.

‘Right. at’s interesting.’

Nora was pretty certain her brother knew Friday was her day oe fact prodded her from inside.

‘I’m happy here.’ ‘Except you aren’t.’

He was right. A soul-sickness festered within her. Her mind was throwing itself up. She widened her smile.

‘I mean, I am happy with the job. Happy as in, you know, satisfied. Neil, I need this job.’

‘You are a good person. You worry about the world. e homeless, the environment.’

‘I need a job.’

He was back in his Confucius pose. ‘You need freedom.’ ‘I don’t want freedom.’

is isn’t a non-profit organisation. ough I have to say it is rapidly becoming one.’

‘Look, Neil, is this about what I said the other week? About you needing to modernise things? I’ve got some ideas of how to get younger peo—’

‘No,’ he said, defensively. ‘is place used to just be guitars. String eory, get it? I diversified. Made this work. It’s just that when times are tough I can’t pay you to put off customers with your face looking like a wet weekend.’


‘I’m afraid, Nora’ – he paused for a moment, about the time it takes to li an axe into the air – ‘I’m going to have to let you go.’

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