Chapter no 48 – A Pearl in the Shell‌

The Midnight Library

She opened her eyes from a shallow sleep and the first thing she noticed was that she was incredibly tired. She could see a picture on the wall, in the dark. She could just about make out that the picture was a mildly abstract interpretation of a tree. Not a tall and spindly tree. Something short and wide and flowery.

ere was a man next to her, asleep. It was impossible to tell, as he was turned away from her, in the dark, and given that he was largely hidden under the duvet, whether this man was Ash.

Somehow this felt weirder than usual. Of course, to be in bed with a man who she hadn’t done anything more with than bury a cat and have a few interesting conversations from behind the counter of a music shop should have felt slightly strange in the normal run of things. But since entering the Midnight Library Nora had slowly got used to the peculiar.

And just because it was possible that the man was Ash, it was also possible that it wasn’t. ere was no predicting every future outcome aer a single decision. Going for a coffee with Ash might have led, for instance, to Nora falling in love with the person serving the coffee. at was simply the unpredictable nature of quantum physics.

She felt her ring finger. Two rings.

e man turned over.

An arm landed across her in the dark and she gently raised it and placed it back on the duvet. en she took herself out of bed. Her plan was to go downstairs and maybe lie on a sofa and, as usual, do some research about herself on her phone.

It was a curious fact that no matter how many lives she had experienced, and no matter how different those lives were, she almost always had her phone by the bed. And in this life, it was no different, so she grabbed it and sneaked out of the room quietly. Whoever the man was, he was a deep sleeper and didn’t stir.

She stared at him.

‘Nora?’ he mumbled, half-asleep.

It was him. She was almost sure of it. Ash. ‘I’m just going to the loo,’ she said.

He mumbled something close to an ‘okay’ and fell back asleep.

And she trod gently across the floorboards. But the moment she opened the door and stepped out of the room, she nearly jumped out of her skin.

For there, in front of her in the half-light of the landing, was another human. A small one. Child-size.

‘Mummy, I had a nightmare.’

By the so light of the dimmed bulb in the hallway she could see the girl’s face, her fine hair wild from sleep, strands sticking to her clammy forehead.

Nora said nothing. is was her daughter. How could she say anything?

e now familiar question raised itself: how could she just join in to a life that she was years late for? Nora closed her eyes. e other lives in which she’d had children had only lasted a couple of minutes or so. is one was already leading into unknown territory.

Her body shook with whatever she was trying to keep inside. She didn’t want to see her. Not just for herself but for the girl as well. It seemed a betrayal. Nora was her mother, but also, in another, more important way: she was not her mother. She was just a strange woman in a strange house looking at a strange child.

‘Mummy? Can you hear me? I had a nightmare.’

She heard the man move in his bed somewhere in the room behind her.

is would only become more awkward if he woke up, properly. So, Nora decided to speak to the child.

‘Oh, oh that’s a shame,’ she whispered. ‘It’s not real, though. It was just a dream.’

‘It was about bears.’

Nora closed the door behind her. ‘Bears?’

‘Because of that story.’

‘Right. Yes. e story. Come on, get back in your bed . . .’ is sounded harsh, she realised. ‘Sweetheart,’ she added, wondering what she – her daughter in this universe – was called. ‘ere are no bears here.’

‘Only teddy bears.’ ‘Yes, only—’

e girl became a little more awake. Her eyes brightened. She saw her mother, so for a second Nora felt like that. Like her mother. She felt the strangeness of being connected to the world through someone else. ‘Mummy, what were you doing?’

She was speaking loudly. She was deeply serious in the way that only four-year-olds (she couldn’t have been much older) could be.

‘Ssh,’ Nora said. She really needed to know the girl’s name. Names had power. If you didn’t know your own daughter’s name, you had no control whatsoever. ‘Listen,’ Nora whispered, ‘I’m just going to go downstairs and do something. You go back to bed.’

‘But the bears.’

‘ere aren’t any bears.’ ‘ere are in my dreams.’

Nora remembered the polar bear speeding towards her in the fog. Remembered that fear. at desire, in that sudden moment, to live. ‘ere won’t be this time. I promise.’

‘Mummy, why are you speaking like that?’ ‘Like what?’

‘Like that.’ ‘Whispering?’ ‘No.’

Nora had no idea what the girl thought she was speaking like. What the gap was, between her now and her, the mother. Did motherhood affect the way you spoke?

‘Like you are scared,’ the girl clarified. ‘I’m not scared.’

‘I want someone to hold my hand.’ ‘What?’

‘I want someone to hold my hand.’ ‘Right.’

‘Silly Mummy!’ ‘Yes. Yes, I’m silly.’ ‘I’m really scared.’

She said this quietly, matter-of-fact. And it was then that Nora looked at her. Really, properly looked at her. e girl seemed wholly alien and wholly familiar all at once. Nora felt a swell of something inside her, something powerful and worrying.

e girl was staring at her in a way no one had stared at her before. It was scary, the emotion. She had Nora’s mouth. And that slightly lost look that people had sometimes attributed to her. She was beautiful and she was hers – or kind of hers – and she felt a swell of irrational love, a surge of it, and knew – if the library wasn’t coming for her right now (and it wasn’t) – that she had to get away.

‘Mummy, will you hold my hand . . .?’ ‘I . . .’

e girl put her hand in Nora’s. It felt so small and warm and it made her feel sad, the way it relaxed into her, as natural as a pearl in a shell. She pulled Nora towards the adjacent room – the girl’s bedroom. Nora closed the door nearly-shut behind her and tried to check the time on her watch, but in this life it was a classic-looking analogue watch with no light display so it took a second or two for her eyes to adjust. She double-checked the time on her phone as well. It was 2:32 a.m. So, depending when she had gone to bed in this life, this version of her body hadn’t had much sleep. It certainly felt like it hadn’t.

‘What happens when you die, Mummy?’

It wasn’t totally dark in the room. ere was a sliver of light coming in from the hallway and there was a nearby streetlamp that meant a thin glow filtered through the dog-patterned curtains. She could see the squat rectangle that was Nora’s bed. She could see the silhouette of a cuddly toy elephant on the floor. ere were other toys too. It was a happily cluttered room.

Her eyes shone at Nora.

‘I don’t know,’ Nora said. ‘I don’t think anyone knows for sure.’ She frowned. is didn’t satisfy her. is didn’t satisfy her one bit.

‘Listen,’ Nora said. ‘ere is a chance that just before you die, you’ll get a chance to live again. You can have things you didn’t have before. You can

choose the life you want.’ ‘at sounds good.’

‘But you don’t have to have this worry for a very long time. You are going to have a life full of exciting adventures. ere will be so many happy things.’

‘Like camping!’

A burst of warmth radiated through Nora as she smiled at this sweet girl. ‘Yes. Like camping!’

‘I love it when we go camping!’

Nora’s smile was still there but she felt tears behind her eyes. is seemed a good life. A family of her own. A daughter to go on camping holidays with. ‘Listen,’ she said, as she realised she wasn’t going to be able to escape the bedroom any time soon. ‘When you have worries about things you don’t know about, like the future, it’s a very good idea to remind yourself of things

you do know.’

‘I don’t understand,’ the girl said, snuggled under her duvet as Nora sat on the floor beside her.

‘Well, it’s like a game.’ ‘I like games.’

‘Shall we play a game?’

‘Yes,’ smiled her daughter. ‘Let’s.’

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