Chapter no 38 – Love and Pain

The Midnight Library

‘I hate this . . . process,’ Nora told Mrs Elm, with real force in her voice. ‘I want it to STOP!’

‘Please be quiet,’ said Mrs Elm, with a white knight in her hand, concentrating on her move. ‘is is a library.’

‘We’re the only two people here!’

at’s not the point. It is still a library. If you are in a cathedral, you are quiet because you are in a cathedral, not because other people are there. It’s the same with a library.’

‘Okay,’ Nora said, in a lower voice. ‘I don’t like this. I want it to stop. I want to cancel my membership of the library. I would like to hand in my library card.’

‘You are the library card.’

Nora returned to her original point. ‘I want it to stop.’ ‘No you don’t.’

‘Yes I do.’

en why are you still here?’ ‘Because I have no choice.’

‘Trust me, Nora. If you really didn’t want to be here, you wouldn’t be here.

I told you this right at the start.’ ‘I don’t like it.’


‘Because it is too painful.’ ‘Why is it painful?’

‘Because it’s real. In one life, my brother is dead.’

e librarian’s face became stern again. ‘And in one life – one of his lives –you are dead. Will that be painful for him?’

‘I doubt it. He doesn’t want anything to do with me these days. He has his own life and he blames me that it is unfulfilled.’

‘So, this is all about your brother?’

‘No. It’s about everything. It seems impossible to live without hurting people.’

at’s because it is.’ ‘So why live at all?’

‘Well, in fairness, dying hurts people too. Now, what life do you want to choose next?’

‘I don’t.’


‘I don’t want another book. I don’t want another life.’

Mrs Elm’s face went pale, like it had done all those years ago when she’d got the call about Nora’s dad.

Nora felt a trembling beneath her feet. A minor earthquake. She and Mrs Elm held onto the shelves as books fell to the floor. e lights flickered and then went dark completely. e chessboard and table tipped over.

‘Oh no,’ said Mrs Elm. ‘Not again.’ ‘What’s the matter?’

‘You know what the matter is. is whole place exists because of you. You are the power source. When there is a severe disruption in that power source the library is in jeopardy. It’s you, Nora. You are giving up at the worst possible moment. You can’t give up, Nora. You have more to oer. More opportunities to have. ere are so many versions of you out there. Remember how you felt aer the polar bear. Remember how much you wanted life.’

e polar bear.

e polar bear.

‘Even these bad experiences are serving a purpose, don’t you see?’

She saw. e regrets she had been living with most of her life were wasted ones.


e minor earthquake subsided.

But there were books scattered everywhere, all over the floor.

e lights had come back on, but still flickered.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Nora. She started trying to pick up the books and put them back in place.

‘No,’ snapped Mrs Elm. ‘Don’t touch them. Put them down.’ ‘Sorry.’

‘And stop saying sorry. Now, you can help me with this. is is safer.’

She helped Mrs Elm pick up the chess pieces and set up the board for a new game, putting the table back in place too.

‘What about all the books on the floor? Are we just going to leave them?’ ‘Why do you care? I thought you wanted them to disappear completely?’

Mrs Elm may well have just been a mechanism that existed in order to simplify the intricate complexity of the quantum universe, but right now –sitting down between the half-empty bookshelves near her chessboard, set up for a new game – she looked sad and wise and infinitely human.

‘I didn’t mean to be so harsh,’ Mrs Elm managed, eventually. ‘at’s okay.’

‘I remember when we started playing chess in the school library, you used to lose your best players straight away,’ she said. ‘You’d go and get the queen or the rooks right out there, and they’d be gone. And then you would act like the game was lost because you were just le with pawns and a knight or two.’

‘Why are you mentioning this now?’

Mrs Elm saw a loose thread on her cardigan and tucked it inside her sleeve, then decided against it and let it loose again.

‘You need to realise something if you are ever to succeed at chess,’ she said, as if Nora had nothing bigger to think about. ‘And the thing you need to realise is this: the game is never over until it is over. It isn’t over if there is a single pawn still on the board. If one side is down to a pawn and a king, and the other side has every player, there is still a game. And even if you were a pawn – maybe we all are – then you should remember that a pawn is the most magical piece of all. It might look small and ordinary but it isn’t. Because a pawn is never just a pawn. A pawn is a queen-in-waiting. All you need to do is find a way to keep moving forward. One square aer another. And you can get to the other side and unlock all kinds of power.’

Nora stared at the books around her. ‘So, are you saying I only have pawns to play with?’

‘I am saying that the thing that looks the most ordinary might end up being the thing that leads you to victory. You have to keep going. Like that day in the river. Do you remember?’

Of course she remembered.

How old had she been? Must have been seventeen, as she was no longer swimming in competitions. It was a fraught period in which her dad was cross with her all the time and her mum was going through one of her near-mute depression patches. Her brother was back from art college for the weekend with Ravi. Showing his friend the sights of glorious Bedford. Joe had arranged an impromptu party by the river, with music and beer and a ton of weed and girls who were frustrated Joe wasn’t interested in them. Nora had been invited and drank too much and somehow got talking to Ravi about swimming.

‘So, could you swim the river?’ he asked her. ‘Sure.’

‘No you couldn’t,’ someone else had said.

And so, in a moment of idiocy, she had decided to prove them wrong. And by the time her stoned and heavily inebriated older brother realised what she was doing, it was too late. e swim was well under way.

As she remembered this, the corridor at the end of the aisle in the library turned from stone to flowing water. And even as the shelves around her stayed where they were, the tiles beneath her feet now sprouted grass and the ceiling above her became sky. But unlike when she disappeared into another version of the present, Mrs Elm and the books remained. She was half in the library and half inside the memory.

She was staring at someone in the corridor-river. It was her younger self in the water, as the last of the summer light dissolved towards dark.

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