Chapter no 40 – Someone Else’s Dream

The Midnight Library

‘Life is always an act,’ Mrs Elm said, as they watched her brother being pulled back from the water’s edge by his friends. As he then watched a girl whose name she’d long forgotten make an emergency call. ‘And you acted when it counted. You swam to that bank. You clawed yourself out. You coughed your guts out and had hypothermia but you crossed the river, against incredible odds. You found something inside you.’

‘Yes. Bacteria. I was ill for weeks. I swallowed so much of that shitty water.’ ‘But you lived. You had hope.’

‘Yeah, well, I was losing it by the day.’

She stared down, to see the grass shrink back into the stone, and looked back to catch the last sight of the water before it shimmered away and the sycamore tree dissolved into air along with her brother and his friends and her own young self.

e library looked exactly like the library again. But now the books were all back on the shelves and the lights had stopped flickering.

‘I was so stupid, doing that swim, just trying to impress people. I always thought Joe was better than me. I wanted him to like me.’

‘Why did you think he was better than you? Because your parents did?’

Nora felt angry at Mrs Elm’s directness. But maybe she had a point. ‘I always had to do what they wanted me to do in order to impress them. Joe had his issues, obviously. And I didn’t really understand those issues until I knew he was gay, but they say sibling rivalry isn’t about siblings but parents, and I always felt my parents just encouraged his dreams a bit more.’

‘Like music?’ ‘Yeah.’

‘When he and Ravi decided they wanted to be rock stars, Mum and Dad bought Joe a guitar and then an electric piano.’

‘How did that go?’

e guitar bit went well. He could play “Smoke On e Water” within a week of getting it, but he wasn’t into the piano and decided he didn’t want it cluttering up his room.’

‘And that’s when you got it.’ Mrs Elm said this as a statement rather than a question. She knew. Of course she knew.


‘It was moved into your room, and you welcomed it like a friend, and started learning to play it with steadfast determination. You spent your pocket money on piano-teaching guides and Mozart for Beginners and e Beatles for Piano. Because you liked it. But also because you wanted to impress your older brother.’

‘I never told you all this.’

A wry smile. ‘Don’t worry. I read the book.’ ‘Right. Course. Yeah. Got you.’

‘You might need to stop worrying about other people’s approval, Nora,’ Mrs Elm said in a whisper, for added power and intimacy. ‘You don’t need a permission slip to be your—’

‘Yes. I get it.’

And she did get it.

Every life she had tried so far since entering the library had really been someone else’s dream. e married life in the pub had been Dan’s dream.

e trip to Australia had been Izzy’s dream, and her regret about not going had been a guilt for her best friend more than a sorrow for herself. e dream of her becoming a swimming champion belonged to her father. And okay, so it was true that she had been interested in the Arctic and being a glaciologist when she was younger, but that had been steered quite significantly by her chats with Mrs Elm herself, back in the school library. And e Labyrinths, well, that had always been her brother’s dream.

Maybe there was no perfect life for her, but somewhere, surely, there was a life worth living. And if she was to find a life truly worth living, she realised she would have to cast a wider net.

Mrs Elm was right. e game wasn’t over. No player should give up if there were pieces still le on the board.

She straightened her back and stood up tall.

‘You need to choose more lives from the bottom or top shelves. You have been seeking to undo your most obvious regrets. e books on the higher and lower shelves are the lives a little bit further removed. Lives you are still living in one universe or another but not ones you have been imagining or mourning or thinking about. ey are lives you could live but never dreamed of.’

‘So they’re unhappy lives?’

‘Some will be, some won’t be. It’s just they are not the most obvious lives.

ey are ones which might require a little imagination to reach. But I am sure you can get there . . .’

‘Can’t you guide me?’

Mrs Elm smiled. ‘I could read you a poem. Librarians like poems.’ And then she quoted Robert Frost. ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – / I took the one less travelled by, / And that has made all the dierence . . .’

‘What if there are more than two roads diverging in the wood? What if there are more roads than trees? What if there is no end to the choices you could make? What would Robert Frost do then?’

She remembered studying Aristotle as a first-year Philosophy student. And being a bit depressed by his idea that excellence was never an accident.

at excellent outcomes were the result of ‘the wise choice of many alternatives’. And here she was, in the privileged position of being able to sample these many alternatives. It was a shortcut to wisdom and maybe a shortcut to happiness too. She saw it now not as a burden but a gi to be cherished.

‘Look at that chessboard we put back in place,’ said Mrs Elm, soly. ‘Look at how ordered and safe and peaceful it looks now, before a game starts. It’s a beautiful thing. But it is boring. It is dead. And yet the moment you make a move on that board, things change. ings begin to get more chaotic. And that chaos builds with every single move you make.’

She took a seat at the chess table, opposite Mrs Elm. She stared down at the board and moved a pawn two spaces forward.

Mrs Elm mirrored the move on her side of the board.

‘It’s an easy game to play,’ she told Nora. ‘But a hard one to master. Every move you make opens a whole new world of possibility.’

Nora moved one of her knights. ey progressed like this for a little while.

Mrs Elm provided a commentary. ‘At the beginning of a game, there are no variations. ere is only one way to set up a board. ere are nine million variations aer the first six moves. And aer eight moves there are two hundred and eighty-eight billion dierent positions. And those possibilities keep growing. ere are more possible ways to play a game of chess than the amount of atoms in the observable universe. So it gets very messy. And there is no right way to play; there are many ways. In chess, as in life, possibility is the basis of everything. Every hope, every dream, every regret, every moment of living.’

Eventually, Nora won the game. She had a sneaky suspicion that Mrs Elm had let her, but still she was feeling a bit better.

‘Okey-dokey,’ said Mrs Elm. ‘Now, time for a book, I reckon. What do you say?’

Nora gazed along the bookshelves. If only they had more specific titles. If only there was one that said Perfect Life Right Here.

Her initial instinct had been to ignore Mrs Elm’s question. But where there were books, there was always the temptation to open them. And she realised it was the same with lives.

Mrs Elm repeated something she said earlier.

‘Never underestimate the big importance of small things.’

is was useful, as it turned out.

‘I want,’ she said, ‘a gentle life. e life where I worked with animals. Where I chose the animal shelter job – where I did my work experience at school – over the one at String eory. Yes. Give me that one, please.’

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