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Helen FitzGerald

 

 

 

What first inspired you to write?

 

My Mum was a literature teacher. She loved reading and wrote beautiful poetry. As a child and as an adult I would listen to her read out loud. Her love of language was contagious. I left Australia to do the “big trip” when I was 23. I’d just finished an Honours degree in Literature at MelbourneUniversity. As I sat on the plane to Bangkok, I wrote in my diary “I’m sitting on top of the world sipping a Bacardi and coke. And now I am a writer…”

Unfortunately, I wrote nothing but very bad poetry for years, most of it about boys.  I studied literature for a year at LondonUniversity, where I met fantastic writers like Tom Keneally and Elizabeth Jolly.  I wanted to do what they were doing.

While I was in London, I met my husband. Our flirting and courting was all about writing. We wrote short stories to show each other and decided that we would both be full time writers one day. That way, we reckoned we could live anywhere in the world – Australia and Scotland and Italy – and do the thing we love the most.

He managed more quickly than I did, leaving his job ten years ago to do screenwriting full time. I was busy having babies and putting the world to rights as a social worker, but his dedication, enjoyment and success inspired me to get going. I wrote screenplays originally, but didn’t get very far with them, so sat down to write my first novel in 2006. I haven’t stopped since.

 

What inspires you now?

Anything that makes me cringe – in the news or in real life – is potential raw material for me. If I think “Thank God that hasn’t happened to me” it’s an idea that will probably sustain me for the length of a novel. So, basically, other people’s misery inspires me… terrible, hey?

 

What advice would you give to a new writer?

When you’re starting out, writing’s often seen (by friends and family) as a bit self indulgent and decadent. Doesn’t everyone have a novel in them? And isn’t it only the self-centred lazy ones, who aren’t busy and don’t have full lives, who actually have the time and ego to do it? I think it’s a bit like me saying I am a great accountant. I might be, but I haven’t done the degree and I have never had a job in an accounting firm. I’d need to put in a lot of hard work if I wanted to prove that I’m a good accountant. What I suppose I’m saying is that you have to ignore what everyone says and work hard. Don’t be discouraged, stop talking about it, stop going to “how to get published” seminars, and write. Not just half a book - half a book is pretty easy – write till you’ve reached the end.

 

What are you writing at the moment?

I’m just doing the final tweaks to a teen crime book called “Oops… I killed my Sister’s Boyfriend!” My agent is submitting it this week, so it’s time to sit by the phone and wait for the call.

 

What are you reading now?

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. It’s set in my hometown of Melbourne so I’m drinking in the familiar language and settings. The book centres around an incident at a barbecue, where one man slaps another’s young child. It then follows the individuals who were at the barbecue. It’s pacy and rude and funny and moving and intriguing. Loving it.

 

Who is your favorite literary character?

Akaky Akakievich in Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat. He’s a downtrodden, bullied, poverty stricken civil servant.  The pursuit of a new overcoat becomes his life’s goal, its attainment a glorious triumph, short-lived when two thugs steal it from him. The character is so sad and pathetic in life, it’s great to see him get his revenge as a ghost.

 

What future projects do you have planned?

I’m thinking of starting my next adult novel, The Duplicate. It’s about a young woman who is rejected and humiliated by the love of her life. She decides to use her scientific genius to set things right.

I also have a teen crime book buzzing in my head.

To decide which to do next, I’m going to write both ideas on a piece of paper, stick it on my wall, close my eyes, and throw a dart. Whichever it lands closest to, I’ll sit down and write.

 

What interests do you have outside of writing?

Mum keeps saying I need a hobby like knitting or gardening. She’s worried that the hobby which used to relax and sustain me – i.e. writing – is now my job and I don’t have an outlet to soothe my overactive mind. I’d rather stick knitting needles in my eyes and garden forks in my chest than do either of these things, so I really need to come up with something else. Ideas are welcome.

 

Any last words of wisdom?

1. Marry a writer.

2. Make friends with writers you admire.

3. Always re-read sober what you've written under the influence.

4. Don’t be upset when words of absolute genius seem to mutate into words of utter bollocks the following day.

 

Bibliography

Dead Lovely

My Last Confession

The Devil’s Staircase

Bloody Women

Amelia O’Donohue is SO not a Virgin

Hot Flush

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Always die wearing clean underpants

Helen FitzGerald

 

 

My holiday nightmare stories hadn’t strayed beyond the usual: there was the one with the green pool, the one with bed stains and cockroaches, the one where Bob and I fought non-stop about food which was really about whether we should get married (We did, in the end, then divorced, which is another holiday story.) But this one took several cakes.

It was the one when Mum and Dad took me to Switzerland.

For some nice family time.

Good hotel, full buffet breakfast, included.

The Rhine falls.

The Museum of Time.

Cheese and chocolate and trams and lakes.

Last but not least, a taxi ride.

To an industrial wasteland.

Where a blue two-storey house stood, ordinary.

With an ordinary first-floor waiting room.

And before we got our breath back, a doctor pressed play and asked my father something and he nodded as he looked at me.

And I finally heard as he asked my mother the same thing… “No-one has forced you, no? You know what you are doing? You know if you drink this you will die?”

My father had already had his. He was holding mum’s hand as she nodded and drank hers. We were in a circle now and the cups had been taken away and I wasn’t drinking. I was numb, holding hands, thinking:

People with dignity die holding hands in armchairs in regular waiting rooms in small blue houses just outside Zurich.

Thinking:

But where is the song? I forgot to give the guy in the suit the song! I was distracted. It was my job to play the song. I burnt it for them specially – that Time to Say Goodbye one that makes you cry in English and Italian and probably would even in German and I forgot it. I left it in the taxi and when we got up the stairs, the guy in the suit had already poured the drinks. I’m yelling “But the song! You’re going too fast!” And I’m letting go of cooling hands even though I promised I wouldn’t and I can see my mother looks worried for me just before her eyes can look at nothing at all and my father wants to say something to me but before he can his mouth falls asleep like the rest of him and  I’m screaming at the guy in the suit to stop this, slow down, call the taxi back, get the song, get an ambulance and I’m putting my fingers down my mother’s throat and I’m pressing my father’s chest and people are holding me back as I yell:  But the song! The song! This is all wrong!

Maybe it’s me makes holidays crap. After all, I chose the hotel with the green pool, booked the one with bed stains and cockroaches, started the fights that led to marriage and divorce, told my parents about Dignitas.

Take heed - never take Leny on holiday. Something very bad will happen. She will snap it and film it, too, as proof for later.

 “Come over darling,” Mum had said a year earlier. “We’d like to talk to you about something.”

I’ve never been one to let a conversation end with an enticing comment like that. “Tell me now,” I demanded. “Something’s wrong, isn’t it?”

“Nothing, no nothing, darling, everything is fine. We’re thinking of having a holiday and we want to have a nice dinner with you to talk it over. Actually, we were wondering if you might come with us.”

Oh no. Another holiday with my folks, like the three-a-year I’d had to endure before turning seventeen, at which point I finally demanded to go to Ibiza with Jen and Maxie (see cockroach story above).

“I’m too busy,” I said, thinking so quickly I surprised myself. Not that I was. Massages, teeth whitening and exfoliating masks had been easy victims for the credit crunch - most days I sat at my manicure station doing my own nails. Also, my flat wasn’t so much an empty nest as no nest at all.

“Come over and we’ll talk about it… please. I’m making coq au vin.””

I liked coq au vin.

Dinner was thoughtfully presented, the first proper casserole Mum had made since Dad had become “rather forgetful”.

“Where do you want to go?” I asked, my mouth full with my first mouthful.

Mum looked at dad. Dad wondered why, his eyes three-years-old for a moment, then he returned to the present, and said, “We’re dying.”

“Robert!” my mother scolded.

I rolled my eyes, assuming this was just another of his bizarre comments, noticing that his eyes had turned back time again.

“He’s getting worse,” I said, not worried that he’d understand me. I knew the ways of his ins and outs.

“Actually, what he said, honey, my darling… is right.” My mother placed her fork on the plate gently, her hand trembling, and then looked down into her lap, as if praying.

“Sorry?” Un-chewed food muffled my query.

“Well you know about your father’s… situation. Darling it doesn’t get better.”

Mushy chicken was now in my napkin.

My mum’s face had all the earmarks of a smile, but she was crying. “The thing is… well, the thing is, they’ve found this shadow.” She patted her chest.

“Shadow,” I whispered, the word doing as it should.

“It’s going to be hard, and boring, especially for you, and while we can, we’d like to have… a holiday.” She said the last word with determined cheerfulness, tears retreating with a bounce into her sockets.

I’ve always been the practical one. If you’re going to make dinner, write a list, do the shopping, cook it, eat it, clear it up. If you’re going to have babies, pick who you hope will be a nice father, get a decent house, choose good schools, be kind, be loving, be there, then don’t be: let them go. If you’re gonna die, don’t shy away from it, organise it. Make it the best it can be.

 “I bought you the paper,” I said one cold Tuesday afternoon. We hadn’t managed the holiday yet. After the coq au vin, Dad’s brain had suddenly stopped communicating with his bowels which had started communicating very unpleasantly with my hairless mother’s nose.

I watched her read it as I poured a cup of tea, wondering if she’d dwell on the article on page eleven, and if she did, what she would say.

She read it slowly, folded the paper, and said: “So, how are the boys?”

 

Don’t die by fire. It is impossible not to scream.

And you look very ugly afterwards.

 

After Dignitas, the boys collected me from the airport, as requested. They seemed enormous – both over six feet tall, one smart and posh looking, the other still a skater type.

They hugged me, drove me to the flat, and sat me on the couch, where I would stay, until it was time to go.

“I don’t want to watch it,” Gregor, my oldest, said.

“I do,” said my skater boy.

The door slammed. Gregor was gone. Home to his tailored blonde girlfriend, his bare cold loft, his tap-tap job.

Mikey pressed Play, sat beside me and put his arm around my shoulders.

“It’s nice we have no unresolved issues,” my mother tells me on screen. “We’re lucky, aren’t we Robert?”

 

Yes, dying with unresolved issues is very distressing.

 

“We are lucky” he says. He’s been present these last days. As if God retracted his ailments as a parting gift.

“Oh, I put everything in a box file on the kitchen table. Don’t forget, will you?”

“The song,” I say.

“Don’t worry about the song,” my mother slurs.

The screen fills with my anger and chaos, with the eyes of two people who assumed I would not do this to them, worried eyes, then scared eyes, then regretful eyes, then closed, then a nurse and a suit holding me back, holding me back.

You idiot,” my youngest said, howling, his arm gone from my shoulders. “You crazy selfish bitch.” And then he’s out the way of his older brother.

Slam.

The week after my gentle nudge with the newspaper article, I had arrived at Mum’s chemo unit with a brochure.

She read it slowly, then put it down.

“Is Gregor in love?” she asked.

 

Don’t drown.

The body bloats and crinkles.

 

Two weeks later, I was still on the couch. Play, pause, play, rewind, play.

“No-one has forced you, no? You know what you are doing? You know if you drink this you will die?” the suit says.

They take turns to nod. Take turns to sip. Turns to hold one of my hands, one of each others. They are smiling. This is going as it should.

I let the whole idea rest for a while. I would never have forced the issue. But one day Dad went missing and Mum walked around the neighbourhood looking for him. She threw up three times along the way then collapsed beside Oxfam on the high street. A kindly fellow picked her up and drove her to the hospital, where she discovered that Dad, having waited in the middle of the highway for a tram (the trams had not existed for decades) was hit in the left leg by a Fiat.

When they were both allowed to go home, I set up the computer for Mum. She could do her shopping online. Keep in touch with her grandsons. Never need to leave the house.

Mum, I emailed one day, Click on the attachment.What do you think?

 

Falling, as common a reason as it is, is an absurd death.

It is mortifying to die a klutz.

 

I stayed on the couch for ten days. Food appeared occasionally, my eldest rushing in and out, telling me to wash, get up, get over it. He’d called my work. Should he call my doctor?

It was half an hour all told. But each second – 18000 of them – was a story in itself.

There’s the second when I look at them afterwards. They’re on benches now, covered in dirty looking sheets. The camera is shaking from my sobs and a Swiss doctor is saying: “Sometimes the grief can become unbearable.”

There’s the second in a café where Mum’s eating the last chocolate she’ll ever eat. I’m in heaven already, her face says. I am loving the taste of this chocolate.

The second where Dad kisses Mum full on the lips. Old thin lips kissing. The camera jolts with my squirm. “I love you,” he says. “The day I met you was the best day of my life.”

The tram second. Dad’s holding the back of the seat in front of him like a seven year old schoolboy, smiling: at last, a tram!

The song second. The song, I forgot the song.

It was the doorbell that made me get off the couch. It rang incessantly. Gregor and Mikey had keys. No-one else would visit. Why was it ringing? I ignored it for a while. I was watching Mum and Dad take each other’s hands. Dad’s thumb stroking Mum’s palm.

Go away!

But whoever it was, wouldn’t, and I found myself walking towards the door and opening it.

“Parcel for Leny Hannah?”

I signed, closed the door, and opened the box. Inside was an ice-cream tub without a label. Two pieces of paper were Cellotaped to the lid. Death certificates. Inside, were the dusty remains of my parents, mixed together. Pralines and Cream.

My mother’s box file was on my kitchen bench. I was reminded of it each 15000 seconds or so. Inside, were the deeds to the house, bank cards, and a letter she gave me before we headed off to Zurich.

Darling, thank you for allowing us to die together, happy, close, with dignity. It seems such a relief, and so perfect to have you there with us. Give us a smile as we go, eh? I love your smile. The house and car are yours, of course. I’m afraid there’s not much in the accounts. £3000 or so. We love you so much,

Mum and Dad

xx

 

Dying alone is shameful.

And can turn very smelly.

 

Gregor hasn’t come for weeks now. Skater boy is in Australia, apparently, not growing up. I think they’re angry at me. I think they’ve always been. Many of their disappointments are my fault. And it comes to me one morning, in three steps:

Words,

An email,

A plan.

Words: “If the grief becomes too much,” the Swiss doctor says after they’ve calmed me down, “please do get in touch.”

Email: Hi Mum, click on the attachment. What do you think? Gregor.

Plan:

I prepare this exfoliating mask. Like my father in the months before I killed him, I have had an accident in my pants. It is the perfect texture to mix with the contents of my ice cream tub. I undress. With my head shaved, I am so like my mother as she withered towards Switzerland. I use a wooden spoon to knead the mixture. I smooth it onto my legs with an icing knife. I rub it into the contours of my neck with my fingers.

At last, I am covered.

I light this fire.

You cannot plan to fall over, I discover to my dismay, so instead I sit at the closed bathroom windowsill, the box file already safe in the garden shed, and listen to my holiday video one last time as the flames approach and as the bath fills.

We are so lucky, my mother says.

No-one has forced you? Why does my father look at me as he nods?

The song, the song, I yell, I scream.

Disgusting, naked, burning, indeed I do fall in the end, into the bath I have prepared, the one I will bloat and crinkle in before I’m found.

Gregor and Mikey, I have written in a letter, now safely in the box file in the garden shed. The houses and the cars are yours, of course. I’m afraid there’s not much in the accounts. £4000 or so.

I love you so much,

Mum x

The End

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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