A Conversation About Rain

Nineteen years before she decided to die, Nora Seed sat in the warmth of the small library at Hazeldene School in the town of Bedford. She sat at a low table staring at a chess board.

‘Nora dear, it’s natural to worry about your future,’ said the librarian, Mrs Elm, her eyes twinkling.

Mrs Elm made her first move. A knight hopping over the neat row of white pawns. ‘Of course, you’re going to be worried about the exams. But you could be anything you want to be, Nora. Think of all that possibility. It’s exciting.’

‘Yes. I suppose it is.’

‘A whole life in front of you.’

‘A whole life.’

‘You could do anything, live anywhere. Somewhere a bit less cold and wet.’

Nora pushed a pawn forward two spaces.

It was hard not to compare Mrs Elm to her mother, who treated Nora like a mistake in need of correction. For instance, when she was a baby her mother had been so worried Nora’s left ear stuck out more than her right that she’d used sticky tape to address the situation, then disguised it beneath a woollen bonnet.

‘I hate the cold and wet,’ added Mrs Elm, for emphasis.

Mrs Elm had short grey hair and a kind and mildly crinkled oval face sitting pale above her turtle-green polo neck. She was quite old. But she was also the person most on Nora’s wavelength in the entire school, and even on days when it wasn’t raining she would spend her afternoon break in the small library.

‘Coldness and wetness don’t always go together,’ Nora told her. ‘Antarctica is the driest continent on Earth. Technically, it’s a desert.’

‘Well, that sounds up your street.’

‘I don’t think it’s far enough away.’

‘Well, maybe you should be an astronaut. Travel the galaxy.’

Nora smiled. ‘The rain is even worse on other planets.’

‘Worse than Bedfordshire?’

‘On Venus it is pure acid.’

Mrs Elm pulled a paper tissue from her sleeve and delicately blew her nose. ‘See? With a brain like yours you can do anything.’

A blond boy Nora recognised from a couple of years below her ran past outside the rain-speckled window. Either chasing someone or being chased. Since her brother had left, she’d felt a bit unguarded out there. The library was a little shelter of civilisation.

‘Dad thinks I’ve thrown everything away. Now I’ve stopped swimming.’

‘Well, far be it from me to say, but there is more to this world than swimming really fast. There are many different possible lives ahead of you. Like I said last week, you could be a glaciologist. I’ve been researching and the—’

And it was then that the phone rang.

‘One minute,’ said Mrs Elm, softly. ‘I’d better get that.’

A moment later, Nora watched Mrs Elm on the phone. ‘Yes. She’s here now.’ The librarian’s face fell in shock. She turned away from Nora, but her words were audible across the hushed room: ‘Oh no. No. Oh my God. Of course . . .’

The Midnight Library