Ho­tel Golf

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - Helen Garner on life, anger and judge­ment by Erik Jensen

“I’ve had mo­ments of in­tense, wild, vi­o­lent rage and I’ve de­stroyed things ... I’ve thrown crock­ery but missed. I’ve had mo­ments of rage where I was walk­ing around my house with a carv­ing knife in my hand, look­ing for things to de­stroy.”

The first anger is do­mes­tic. She calls it “the in­sane rage of the per­son who does all the house­work”. Helen says this anger was for­bid­den. She says, “in those days, in our cir­cles, judge­men­tal was a dirty word”. She says the trou­ble with anger is that it has to go some­where. If it doesn’t, it will dev­as­tate ev­ery­thing around it. “I’ve had mo­ments of in­tense, wild, vi­o­lent rage and I’ve de­stroyed things,” she says. “I’ve never at­tacked a per­son. I’ve thrown crock­ery but missed. I’ve had mo­ments of rage where I was walk­ing around my house with a carv­ing knife in my hand, look­ing for things to de­stroy and de­stroy­ing them, alone, hav­ing dis­cov­ered an in­crim­i­nat­ing let­ter. I once cut up a hat from Em­po­rio Ar­mani with a pair of big, sharp scis­sors. Gee, I en­joyed that. And I threw a Le Creuset saucepan of red soup at the kitchen wall.” The scene is fa­mil­iar, from the open­ing of her book Cosmo Cos­molino. “Yeah, it’s in Cosmo,” she says. “Yeah.” She pauses to check the dates, does a sum in the space just be­yond the limit of her eyes. She re­alises they don’t match. “No,” she says. “That can’t be the same one. No, it’s a dif­fer­ent soup …” Later, she ex­plains that she found a love let­ter open on a ta­ble. It be­gan with an en­dear­ment her part­ner used for her. She was half­way down the first page be­fore she re­alised he had writ­ten it for some­one else. “And I sort of went berserk. And I’d never gone berserk be­fore, re­ally. Yeah, well, there was a hat and I jumped on it and this hat ac­tu­ally be­longed to my ri­val, who I didn’t know then was my ri­val: I thought she was just a friend. And some­how it was in our flat, and I jumped on it with both feet, and it was a very ex­pen­sive hat from Em­po­rio Ar­mani. It was a lit­tle straw hat, dark blue, and I jumped on it and it just kept go­ing ba-do­ing up into a perfect round shape. And I thought, This won’t do. So I got the big shears and I just cut it with great strokes with the blades. God, it was won­der­ful.” Helen mimes the pull of the shears up through the hat. The plea­sure at it is ob­vi­ous in her telling. She catches on the mem­ory: it wasn’t a carv­ing knife; it was a bread­knife with a heavy blade and a ser­rated edge, a Wüsthof her mother had given her. She re­mem­bers call­ing a friend who told her to get out of the apart­ment. She took a tooth­brush and her nightie and the knife. “I was walk­ing down the street, hold­ing this huge knife,” she says. “But, in­ter­est­ingly, no­body re­marked on it. I was prob­a­bly cry­ing and curs­ing and ev­ery­thing as well, and car­ry­ing this big knife. This was – I’m not telling you where it was. Well, you’ve prob­a­bly guessed, but I’m not telling you.” I ask Helen Garner how old she was when this hap­pened. “Oh, let me think,” she says. “Fifty-six.” The nap­kin Helen is hold­ing is brown and made of soft pa­per. She has scrunched it into a ball and is in the process of iron­ing it with the flat of her hand, fuss­ing at the creases. It is as if she is try­ing to make it whole again, to fix it. She is al­ways try­ing to undo mess. As she talks, her eyes rest on the nap­kin. She seems un­trou­bled by the hope­less­ness of the task. “We’re get­ting back to the judge­ment stuff I couldn’t think of be­fore,” she says. “I re­mem­ber think­ing when I was a teenager that I al­ways seemed to be in the wrong but no­body ever told me what was right. I didn’t know what was the right way to be­have. Be­cause if you be­haved rightly you weren’t praised or any­thing: there was just an ab­sence of pun­ish­ment. Not pun­ish­ment, but dis­ap­proval.” Helen says her mother was prob­a­bly pu­ri­tan­i­cal if she thought about it. She says her fa­ther was roar­ing and cen­so­ri­ous. He was stern, by which she means he was im­pa­tient and short-tem­pered. Later, Helen de­scribes her­self both ways, a kind of un­con­scious shar­ing of traits. “I al­ways thought of my­self as be­ing a rather stern, pu­ri­tan­i­cal per­son, even when I was liv­ing a stupid life with a lot of sex and a few drugs and crash­ing around the world.” As ev­i­dence, she mentions a house in Prahran where a boyfriend lived in the 1970s. She re­mem­bers her own house in North Fitzroy. Her house had rules – it was well run in the sense that the peo­ple liv­ing there had a fem­i­nist con­scious­ness, that they knew how they wanted to live. The men weren’t fa­thers but they did a lot of the work. She says that at her boyfriend’s house only one of the women was a sin­gle mother. Life was dis­or­derly and un­equal. “There was this chaos and her boys run­ning around and she was try­ing to keep things on an even keel. She was a terrific woman, with­out a fa­ther for the kids. She bore a lot of lone­li­ness with pa­tience and gen­eros­ity. But un­like our house they didn’t have ros­ters, so the women did all the house­work. It was the ab­sence of struc­ture I dis­ap­proved of. I used to feel quite prim-lipped with dis­ap­proval. I thought, Gee, they’re kind of drift­ing here.” She re­mem­bers an­other house, an­other group of chil­dren. “They were wild kids com­pared with ours, be­cause we kept ours on a fairly short leash, and it got to the point that when they came around some of us would get fu­ri­ous, which we weren’t sup­posed to.” A house meet­ing was called to re­solve this. Helen can’t re­mem­ber if she was the one who called it. She prob­a­bly was. She re­mem­bers that she was the first to speak. She de­scribed the prob­lem as she saw it, which was that the chil­dren needed to be con­trolled. She says every­one sat back and their faces closed. She mimes this with one hand, like a beak shut­ting. “I re­alised that I’d some­how crossed a line of what was sayable. I wasn’t shout­ing an­grily, I was just lay­ing down points. I thought that when your kids come over, this is what hap­pens, and we don’t like it. And maybe it was be­cause I was say­ing ‘we’ with­out per­mis­sion – but we had all talked about it be­fore­hand, this is my mem­ory of it any­way – and there was a very bad feel­ing and some­how it was not well seen that I’d made th­ese crit­i­cal com­ments. I can’t re­mem­ber the out­come, but I re­mem­ber the feel­ing that I had been ex­ces­sively judge­men­tal,

I sup­pose. I don’t know what they thought they were go­ing to say. They hadn’t said any­thing.” Helen has a way of con­sid­er­ing some­thing, then agree­ing with em­phatic re­luc­tance. I ask whether Mon­key Grip is in part about des­per­ately want­ing some­one to yell out in judge­ment, if per­haps this urge is the spine of all her writ­ing, and she says, “Yes, yes, okay, all right, yeah.” Helen moves on to fam­ily. Look­ing back, she thinks her fa­ther mar­ried the wrong per­son. Mar­riage is ev­ery­where in the con­ver­sa­tion. “I think if he mar­ried a dif­fer­ent sort of woman he prob­a­bly would have been a much more fun guy,” she says, “be­cause he loved danc­ing and he could re­ally tell a story and he loved to laugh and re­ally loved mu­sic and Mum was more timid and she came from a big fam­ily and Dad kind of dragged her away from them down to Gee­long and I think she was home­sick for her fam­ily, and he didn’t get on well with them, and I think a lot of the time Mum was kind of re­sent­ful to­wards Dad.” Helen didn’t want to sit for this in­ter­view. When I asked, she tried to avoid it. “I imag­ine peo­ple open­ing the magazine and groan­ing: ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake. Not her again.’” She rea­soned that she has been do­ing this for 40 years, writ­ing books and an­swer­ing ques­tions about her­self. “Se­ri­ously. Isn’t every­one fed up with hear­ing me or about me?” This wasn’t the first time I had asked. In 2015 I sent Helen a let­ter, hop­ing she would let me write her bi­og­ra­phy. I had given her a copy of the Jen­nifer Cle­ment book Widow Basquiat as a model. She sent back a post­card from the New Eng­land Re­gional Art Mu­seum in Ar­mi­dale. It was of a paint­ing by Joshua Smith, of an old woman peel­ing veg­eta­bles into an enamel basin. She was wear­ing a jacket over an apron, her face pressed down by dili­gence. “Widow Basquiat is a won­der­ful book, quite stun­ning. But there’s no way I would ever make my life avail­able to a writer as she did. Also – see over for an im­age of me. Lack­ing in wild self-de­struc­tive drama, zany clothes and splen­did beauty, you must agree. Thanks for giv­ing me the book, though. I loved it. Af­fec­tion­ately, Helen.” A decade and a half ago, my grand­mother saw Helen com­ing out of a cafe in Thirroul, out­side Wol­lon­gong. “I’ve never,” she told me, “seen a woman look more un­happy.” As I pay for our cof­fees, a lady asks if that’s Helen Garner I am sit­ting with. “I’ll def­i­nitely read the ar­ti­cle,” she says. “I’m a big fan.” This is an es­say about judge­ment. It is also an es­say about anger and writ­ing. Helen has torn the nap­kin into pieces. She gath­ers them up into a lit­tle pile, her hands cupped gen­tly around them, as if in­side she is hold­ing a small bird. She is re­mem­ber­ing a ra­dio in­ter­view she did, seven or eight years af­ter she moved out of the Mon­key Grip house. She can’t re­mem­ber the topic or the pro­gram but she re­mem­bers one of the pan­el­lists was a psy­chol­o­gist. She re­mem­bers say­ing some­thing like, “Oh, well, I think jeal­ousy is just ter­ri­ble, I think it’s a use­less emo­tion.” She says this would have been a line she was run­ning back then, con­sciously or un­con­sciously. “The psy­chol­o­gist looked at me and said, ‘Oh, no, I com­pletely dis­agree.’ And I looked up with shock, and he said, ‘You can’t say jeal­ousy is use­less; it makes it clear to us that life is not un­der our con­trol.’ And I was rocked by this. And it was a mo­ment of lib­er­a­tion for me. I thought, He’s ab­so­lutely right, and why have I been tor­tur­ing my­self all th­ese years? I mean, the worst thing you could say to some­one was ‘jeal­ousy and pos­ses­sive­ness’. Those were the two things that went to­gether. So in a sense it was kind of a Marx­ist for­bid­ding. Not that I would know Marx from a hole in the ground, but there you are. Be­cause it was bour­geois. Be­cause it was about pos­ses­sion.” Helen takes the straw out of her drink and holds it as she would a pen. She uses it to test parts of the ta­ble. She puts the mid­dle of it be­tween her teeth and bites down, leav­ing a tide­mark of lip­stick either side of what is now the bro­ken sec­tion of straw. Hav­ing done this, she threads the straw through two holes in the table­top and reaches un­der to twist it off like a pipe-cleaner. She does this with­out think­ing, talk­ing as she goes. “See, in those days,” she says, then takes a long pause. “In those days we were com­pletely ig­no­rant of psy­chol­ogy. None of us – well, I would think among the peo­ple I par­tic­u­larly knew – no­body knew any­thing about it. We were hos­tile to it. We thought it was – we thought that any­body who would need to go and see a psy­chol­o­gist or ask for help in the mess they were in – it was un­think­able for us to do that. We didn’t even know any­thing about them, but it was con­sid­ered to be sort of wimpy and self-in­dul­gent.” Helen re­mem­bers the big houses in which she lived and the mute strug­gle that would go on be­tween two peo­ple, not talk­ing for months un­til one left or the house broke up. She says the peo­ple in th­ese houses were ig­no­rant of the dy­namic of groups. They had noth­ing to fall back on ex­cept what she calls naive and an­ar­chis­tic ideas. She says jeal­ousy was for­bid­den, es­pe­cially be­tween women. She never thought of jeal­ousy as only a fe­male emo­tion but that if men felt it they would hit you or smash the car head­lights or some­thing. Later, she says she didn’t know any­one who did that, ex­cept maybe one bloke but that was a dif­fer­ent story. She says the point is that men act out their jeal­ousy and women tend to swal­low it. She says the anger was “dumb and silent and inar­tic­u­late and very, very pow­er­ful”. When some­thing didn’t work out, she says, it was “ex­tremely fright­en­ing, and house­holds broke up over that sort of thing”. I ask if jeal­ousy is a kind of judge­ment. “No,” she says. “Jeal­ousy is a scream of pain, I think. I got off the track of judge­ment fur­ther back.”

Helen rea­sons that her fa­ther was jeal­ous. She says her mother was jeal­ous, too, but only of Helen’s re­la­tion­ship with her fa­ther. Helen was 60 be­fore she re­alised this. She says she heard the mock­ing in her mother’s voice and was rocked by it. “I sud­denly thought, She’s jeal­ous of me and Dad.” Helen says her fa­ther’s jeal­ousy de­stroyed her first mar­riage. He couldn’t let her go. He told one of Helen’s sis­ters that if she went to the wed­ding she would not be al­lowed to at­tend univer­sity. Helen calls it “crazy shit”. She says he was driven by ran­cour. He would burst into houses, hop­ing to catch her with a boy. He read her mail and con­fis­cated her birth con­trol. It wasn’t un­til her mother died that she got close to him. “Mum died and that tri­an­gle be­tween us broke, and that was when I started to get on with him, and in the last few years of his life we got on re­ally well. We were al­ways laugh­ing and driv­ing round the coun­try­side and go­ing for a cof­fee and ev­ery­thing.” Helen re­mem­bers read­ing her grand­mother’s obit­u­ary in The Hopetoun Courier, a pa­per from the Mallee district in the north of Vic­to­ria. Her fa­ther showed it to her when she was in her 40s. “Let me get this straight,” she says, which she says a lot when she is re­mem­ber­ing. “It was the death no­tice of his mother. ‘Mrs El­iz­a­beth Ford died on Fri­day night, blah, blah, blah, loved by every­one, blah, blah, blah’ … My eye just went down the col­umn. Un­der­neath the death no­tice there was a lit­tle news item and it said, ‘Lit­tle Bruce Ford was taken to hos­pi­tal on Fri­day evening with con­vul­sions. He was treated with strych­nine and was al­lowed to go home on Satur­day af­ter­noon.’ “That’s Dad: his mother died and he went into con­vul­sions that were so vi­o­lent that they had to in­ject him with strych­nine to calm him down.” The page was marked Au­gust 11, 1916. It de­scribed Bruce Ford’s seizures as the “ver­i­est of bad luck”. It de­scribed his mother as a cham­pion player of ten­nis and golf, “a bonny lassie in ev­ery way”. She was 33 when she died. Bruce was not yet five. A psy­chol­o­gist told Helen that peo­ple who lose their moth­ers at a young age can never re­ally trust again. She thinks that is what was wrong with her fa­ther: he was al­ways sus­pi­cious, al­ways thought you were do­ing some­thing that you shouldn’t be do­ing and you never knew what it was you were sup­posed to be do­ing. “I think there are mark­ers in your life that deeply, deeply shape the way you en­ter into re­la­tion­ships with peo­ple and most of them are un­con­scious, and that’s where the trou­ble starts,” Helen says. “And that’s why ther­apy and analysis are so in­ter­est­ing, be­cause those things can be dis­cov­ered and ar­tic­u­lated, and lit by the light of day, and you can see the pat­terns ac­cord­ing to which you’ve lived your life and wrecked your life, and it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean that you are free of those pat­terns or those shapes that your early ex­pe­ri­ence im­posed on you, but at least you can see it com­ing down the pike.” Helen re­mem­bers be­ing 25, stand­ing be­side the kitchen ta­ble. She re­mem­bers a flash of anger at some­thing her fa­ther said to her, the specifics of which she can no longer grasp. “Be­fore I knew what I was do­ing I grabbed the back of a chair as if I was go­ing to pick it up and hit him across the head with it,” she says. “And I wouldn’t have dreamed of do­ing it, I wouldn’t have done it. I was shocked to see that I’d gripped the chair in rage. I was mad with rage. I don’t think he even no­ticed. He was in the act of turn­ing. He’d made a char­ac­ter-de­stroy­ing re­mark and he made to turn to walk out of the room. I didn’t even pick it up off the floor, but I’d gripped it with mur­der­ous in­tent.” The re­mark­able thing about Helen’s anger is how un­afraid of it she is. I start keep­ing notes af­ter drinks with Helen. I am in a pe­riod of writ­ing down ev­ery­thing, won­der­ing what my next book will be. We meet ev­ery month or so and have one mar­tini. Some­times, we have two. “This is the first time I’ve had two mar­ti­nis in 16 years,” Helen says one af­ter­noon. “But they’re quite small. And I feel like a drink.” I con­tend with my­self that Helen’s books are shaped by the peo­ple who won’t speak to her. The First Stone is like that. Joe Cinque’s Con­so­la­tion is like that. She writes the asym­me­tries of ac­cess. I set down my notes in a rush af­ter she leaves and think that I might still write the book. I put it that all writ­ing is a kind of be­trayal. I am writ­ing down other en­coun­ters, too. My notes have con­ver­sa­tions with my boss in them, odd mo­ments I have seen in the street, con­ver­sa­tions I’ve over­heard, and my drinks with Helen. I hold that notes are just notes: no one is go­ing to read them. Af­ter one ses­sion, I write: We talk about a film star­ring Har­ri­son Ford. She says it was called Ran­dom Hearts. She saw it af­ter her third mar­riage failed. She plots it out with her hands. She has a black nail on her wed­ding fin­ger. We are at the Gin Palace. We moved be­cause the light was bad. Helen usu­ally sits in the booth at the back. She says, “I’ll write them a let­ter about that.” She says there are two char­ac­ters. No, four char­ac­ters. And two of them are dead. They were meet­ing to have an af­fair, and they died in a plane crash. And that brings to­gether the other char­ac­ters, who are the sur­viv­ing part­ners of the char­ac­ters hav­ing the af­fair. One of them is Har­ri­son Ford, who is a cop. Helen likes him. She says, “That was me. I was the cop. I wanted to read the let­ters and see the room and kill every­one.” She says, “I’d prob­a­bly roll my eyes if I saw it now.” She had three rings made, one for each of her mar­riages. “They weren’t con­nected. Ex­cept by my fin­ger. There was a gold one and an­other one and a black one.”

She says who the black one was for. “If you tell any­one, I’ll kill you.” The first ther­a­pist was Jun­gian. He was big on dreams, Helen says. She found him very use­ful. That’s the term she uses: use­ful. In ther­apy, she learnt that ev­ery­thing was not every­one else’s fault. “That’s the first great les­son in ther­apy, isn’t it? Stop whinge­ing. So you have to turn judge­ment on your­self, in other words.” Helen mentions Freud here and there. She says she hasn’t read him. “I’ve skipped in and out.” She tells a story about her grand­son coax­ing an­other child out from un­der a desk at school. The girl missed her par­ents. “I’ve had those feel­ings,” Helen’s grand­son told the girl. “They’re ter­ri­ble, but they’ll go away soon, so come out and sit at the desk and we’ll do our work.” Helen clasps her hands to­gether when she gets to this part of the story. She says she cried when she first heard about it. “That’s what Freud says: ‘Love and work.’” Later, she is talk­ing about the shame that ac­com­pa­nied feel­ings of anger or jeal­ousy when she was young. “There were un­der­cur­rents of re­ally quite vi­o­lent, I mean pow­er­ful, dark emo­tions, that peo­ple had and couldn’t ex­press. If you’re not al­lowed to ex­press things, you don’t de­vise any ways of ar­tic­u­lat­ing them, even to your­self. If you be­come pos­sessed by a cer­tain emo­tion, which you know would be frowned upon by ev­ery­body around you, you think, I’ll just shut up about that, I’ll just swal­low it, and I’ll just bite the bul­let and I won’t say any­thing. But things like that tend to – you know, what Freud calls the re­turn of the re­pressed – come back in worse ways.” Helen doesn’t know what her sec­ond ther­a­pist’s bent was. She wasn’t a Jun­gian and nor was she into Freud. Helen says the ther­a­pist was tough. She says she will love and re­spect her for­ever. “She was the sort of per­son I couldn’t charm, and I couldn’t make her laugh,” Helen says. “She wouldn’t laugh un­less some­thing was re­ally funny.” Helen no longer gets jeal­ous. “I would say that in the last years I’ve suf­fered from envy, but not from jeal­ousy, I think. I think it helps not to be in love. Helps not to be in a cou­ple. There’s no­body in my life now who, if they got in­volved with some­one else, would cause me to suf­fer. So this is a time of great bless­ing in my life.” She says envy is dif­fer­ent be­cause it is about what you want rather than what you have. “I read some­where envy is want­ing some­thing that some­one else has got and jeal­ousy is the feel­ing you get when some­thing you have got has been taken from you. I think that was a pretty clear dis­tinc­tion. I have suf­fered from envy, shame­ful envy about prizes. Prizes that I thought I should have won. And the shame of those feel­ings was worse than the feel­ing it­self. Be­cause it’s not like I’ve never won a prize. But, yeah, I did suf­fer from that. I have suf­fered from that, but I don’t any­more.” A while back, she fin­ished one of Knaus­gaard’s mem­oirs. “I re­alised for the first time that in that si­lence af­ter you sleep with a man he re­ally is think­ing about noth­ing at all.” Helen was at univer­sity when she first started go­ing to church. Her par­ents were ir­re­li­gious but she felt a kind of obli­ga­tion from the col­lege where she was liv­ing. In first year, or per­haps sec­ond year, she was bap­tised and con­firmed. Her first hus­band used to sleep in on Sun­days, and she would get up and sneak out to com­mu­nion. He was a ra­tio­nal­ist, un­sym­pa­thetic to Helen’s in­ter­est in church. “Some­times, when he was sleep­ing in with a hang­over, I would just sneak out and go to church and he wouldn’t even know. I’d go at eight o’clock in the morn­ing and when I got back he’d still be asleep. It was a pri­vate thing that I liked.” She says church is com­fort­ing and beau­ti­ful. She says judge­ment has noth­ing to do with it. “It’s sort of a feel­ing of sur­ren­der to the rit­u­alised: the words that are al­ways said, the prayers. I love that … I don’t think God is go­ing to judge me. I don’t think there’s go­ing to be …” Helen leaves off be­fore she gets to Rev­e­la­tion. She goes to dif­fer­ent churches, Angli­can and Catholic. She has never been to con­fes­sion. “It’s hard to find one that’s bear­able,” she says, “be­cause there’s an aw­ful lot of aw­ful­ness in them, bor­ing­ness and lack of beauty.” Helen likes to go early. The later the mass, the longer it takes. If the homily is stupid, she won’t go back. She says she does not want to be in­sulted and she doesn’t want peo­ple to be dreary. “I want them to cut to the chase. I want to get com­mu­nion and have some prayers and get blessed.”

“This is the first time I’ve had two mar­ti­nis in 16 years,” Helen says one af­ter­noon. “But they’re quite small. And I feel like a drink.”

I start an early draft of the book about Helen, just to see what’s there. I de­cide it will be called Ho­tel Golf.

“I could blurt out th­ese ugly thoughts that I had, or shame­ful things.”

I won­der at the im­pos­si­bil­ity of writ­ing down an­other per­son. The first pas­sage goes like this: It be­gins as a game to or­gan­ise drinks. She writes in the sub­ject line, “Our delta al­pha tango echo”. She an­swers ques­tions, “Yan­kee echo sierra”. She swears: “Sierra ho­tel in­dia tango”. For a kiss she writes “xray”. The next sec­tion reads: She says, “It’s in the delta in­dia al­pha romeo yan­kee”. She laughs, “Ho­tel al­pha ho­tel al­pha ho­tel al­pha”. She wins the game with an un­furl­ing acro­nym: “Bravo romeo al­pha vic­tor os­car”. She signs this cor­re­spon­dence with her ini­tials: “Ho­tel Golf.” Look­ing at it now, I see how ter­ri­ble it is. Helen calls at the waiter. The falafel hasn’t come. He says he is sorry. “Per­haps I could have judged him more harshly,” she says. “But I didn’t have an urge to. Did you?” Helen says writ­ing is a kind of self-analysis. She says it has to be. “I have to scoop out the things that are most un­ap­peal­ing about my­self. And I feel I have a duty to do that be­cause other­wise I’m not free to judge any­one else. I mean, it’s a bit of a cheat, re­ally … I judge peo­ple all the time.” A friend of Helen’s once com­plained that she would judge a per­son on the shoes they wore. She says he was right: she does. “It’s a re­ally handy sign. There are peo­ple I de­spise be­cause of the shoes they wear, and I judge them un­favourably. And it’s not just an aes­thetic judge­ment: it’s a judge­ment of … It’s some kind of moral judge­ment, some kind of moral qual­ity of theirs which is en­acted in their choice of shoe.” Helen makes a list of un­ac­cept­able shoes. The first are: “Cheap, ugly ones that give no sup­port to the foot.” Then: “Ones made in China. Black, square high heels – that sort of thing. Grey shoes, the sort some men used to wear in the ’80s. Hor­ri­ble shoes.” Later, she tells me about her friend’s shoes: “He wore heavy brown brogues. Good qual­ity and well cared for but also a bit clunky.” Helen won­ders whether ir­ri­ta­tion comes be­fore judge­ment. She is happy to feel both. “That piece per­haps you were think­ing of, called ‘The In­sults of Age’, where I pull that girl’s pony­tail,” she says. “I sup­pose that’s an act of judge­ment, be­cause she was be­hav­ing in a way that I think is com­pletely de­spi­ca­ble and rep­re­hen­si­ble, and I wished to alert her to the fact that I com­pletely dis­ap­proved of this. Is that judge­ment?” I say it is, and also a kind of sen­tenc­ing. “To sort of act on it, yeah,” she says. “And also there’s that poor waiter at the Gin Palace that I bit off when he pa­tro­n­ised me, or I felt that he was pa­tro­n­is­ing me and my friend. Any­way, I’ve no­ticed on the in­ter­net, ev­ery now and then, where I hardly ever go, but I do see that peo­ple have said, ‘Oh, Helen Garner, she pulls girls’ pony­tails in the street and takes her bad tem­per out on poor in­no­cent wait­ers.’ So when I read that, that makes me feel even more judge­men­tal. Re­ally, if peo­ple can’t call peo­ple out on dis­grace­ful be­hav­iour, I’m like, ‘Why? Why can’t you?’ I mean, what’s keep­ing us from it?” I no­tice the shoes Helen is wear­ing. They are Birken­stocks. We meet for drinks at the Ever­leigh in Fitzroy. Helen likes to meet early, so we are wait­ing at the door when it opens. The waitress walks silently be­tween ta­bles, her foot­fall masked like a dancer’s. She walks with one hand be­hind her back. Helen com­ments on this. Later, I read the scene in her pub­lished diaries: “In the cock­tail bar the waitress, turn­ing away from our ta­ble with her tray, placed her left hand, palm out, flat against the small of her back: a tiny ges­ture of pro­fes­sional com­po­sure. The first time she did it I was touched and wanted to laugh. The sec­ond time I felt more like cry­ing, it was so del­i­cate and grace­ful.” In the same diary, she re­calls tear­ing a page out of The Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment. She is on a plane and the woman be­side her asks if she is a writer. “How can you tell?” “I’m a psy­chol­o­gist.” When Helen leaves, I write: She takes her grand­daugh­ter to buy a pair of Doc Martens for her 16th birth­day. They get off at Flagstaff and her grand­daugh­ter asks if that’s where she goes for the tri­als. “I say, ‘Yes. We can go in if you like. We’ll sit in court 11. It might even be the same judge.’” It’s the McDon­ald’s case, the one where a stu­dent was stomped to death on St Kilda Road. They are giv­ing med­i­cal ev­i­dence. “I say, ‘You know, we can leave when­ever you like. We can just get up.’ She says, ‘I’m not up­set. It’s not emo­tional.’” Helen punches the air. “I thought, ‘Yes, she gets it.’ It was like an anatomy les­son, de­scrib­ing the parts of the skull.”

Helen talks about a man she knew who made lit­tle an­i­mal noises be­tween sen­tences. She pulls down her mouth like a gar­goyle car­ry­ing plumb­ing. Helen fid­gets and opens her hands when she im­i­tates the noises, but ad­mits he made no move­ments. “I al­ways think peo­ple who make noises when they’re not talk­ing – they don’t want other peo­ple to talk. They’re fill­ing in the si­lence while they think of some­thing else to say.” The sta­tion where Helen gets on is New­mar­ket. It’s close to her house, but she usu­ally drives. “It’s only so I don’t have to go through the creepy un­der­pass.” The first mur­der trial Helen went to was in the 1980s. A friend’s step­daugh­ter had been killed while she slept in the back of a ute with her boyfriend. He was killed also. The ac­cused mur­der­ers were a cou­ple, both drug ad­dicts. They drove the ute to Kings Cross and went off to score. It was three days be­fore the bodies were found, stink­ing in the heat. Helen re­mem­bers be­ing thun­der­struck when the judge di­rected the jury to find the woman not guilty: the ev­i­dence against her did not sup­port a con­vic­tion. “Every­one stood up and bowed, and I thought, and I was go­ing, ‘But … But … She was there, she must have done some­thing.’ And then it hit: that this was what the law said. The law said you have to prove it. And it was a won­der­ful mo­ment for me, of as­ton­ish­ment and illumination. That this charge had not been proved, there­fore she couldn’t be found guilty.” In Helen’s work, courts be­gin as a place of frus­tra­tion, as a sys­tem un­able to rec­on­cile it­self with her anger. In her later books, they be­come a source of rev­er­ence. Helen says this is be­cause she un­der­stands them now. They ful­fil her need for or­der and jus­tice. In the first case, she says, she wheeled out of the court­house in a state some­where be­tween th­ese two points. “Every­one in that room thinks, That fuck­ing bitch should swing. But the law stood there and said, ‘No.’ I was thrilled by that.” Helen de­scribes that mo­ment as own­ing to the re­al­ity of a sys­tem. She calls this re­straint the earnest­ness of the courts. “I had a mob feel­ing. I liked the girl, but I knew the girl that was dead.” The sec­ond ther­a­pist was in a dou­ble-fronted bun­ga­low up the hill in Bondi. Helen wor­ried that peo­ple would see in through the win­dow. It was the kind of ther­a­pist’s of­fice with a couch for ly­ing on, and Helen would take the lit­tle blan­ket at the end of the couch and pull it up over her­self. She felt com­forted. She says this ther­a­pist freed her, that she con­nected Helen with the thoughts un­der her thoughts. “She sort of taught me to have the nerve to dig out that stuff,” she says. “I could blurt out th­ese ugly thoughts that I had, or shame­ful things, things that didn’t ac­cord with my idea of the per­son I wanted peo­ple to think I was. And then I found that when I did that, noth­ing bad hap­pened. In fact, good things hap­pened or en­light­en­ment came.” Helen talks about the ex­pec­ta­tions that ac­com­pany writ­ing. She calls it “that leg-rope feel­ing”. It is the feel­ing that cer­tain thoughts should not be writ­ten down, that they are too in­ti­mate or un­kind or em­bar­rass­ing. Helen says she has never been to ther­apy to help with a book. She was part­way through the Joe Cinque book when she started with the sec­ond ther­a­pist, but she was talk­ing mostly about her mar­riage. In the course of the ther­apy, how­ever, she re­alised she could put down what­ever weird or clumsy or am­a­teur­ish thought came to mind while she was writ­ing and no one was go­ing to run into the room and steal the page. “What I’m talk­ing about there is risk, re­ally,” she says. “Risk­ing re­veal­ing some­thing un­pleas­ant about my­self, and risk­ing be­ing wrong, be­ing seen to be wrong.” Helen can’t re­mem­ber the colour of the blan­ket at the end of the couch, the one she tucked over her­self at the be­gin­ning of each ses­sion. It might have been tar­tan. It was not a soft blan­ket, more like a pic­nic rug made of brisk-look­ing wool. It was six months be­fore Helen re­alised it was rolled up for pa­tients to put their shoes on. The ther­a­pist hadn’t said any­thing. Ev­ery ses­sion, Helen lay there un­der the muck of other peo­ple’s feet. Life is choked with clumsy metaphor. “She didn’t say any­thing but she was right not to, be­cause I was be­ing a child, you know?” Helen says. “She must have thought, Oh God, the poor girl. She ob­vi­ously needs to feel trea­sured and cud­dled and tucked in.” Helen doesn’t want to talk about her hus­bands. She says early on that she doesn’t want to read their names. I nod, anx­ious to keep the in­ter­view go­ing. Helen is hold­ing her knife, as she was the straw, like a pen. She is test­ing it against the table­top, mak­ing lit­tle cir­cles on the metal. She asks if I am find­ing this in­ter­view frus­trat­ing. “I’m sud­denly think­ing, I’m not an­swer­ing any of his ques­tions.” I re­as­sure her and she says, “Good.” I try an­other ques­tion, about her fa­ther. Sud­denly, it comes out in a rush. “I never re­ally thought ahead. I’m not re­ally very good at that. I just rush into things and sud­denly it’s not as good as it used to be and I don’t know why.” She is talk­ing about mar­riage, about be­ing young and then not be­ing young. “I’ve al­ways been quite risky in this re­gard, and fool­ish. But I also think that I’m prob­a­bly … I’m no good at be­ing neat. I’m good at it for a while but then I … I’m prob­a­bly not very … I don’t know. I was go­ing to say ‘com­pan­ion­able’.” I ask what she means when she says com­pan­ion­able. There is a long, care­ful pause, as if she is giv­ing space for the first rush of thoughts to pass through the sluice. “Well, I have seen peo­ple … I don’t think I’ve seen all that many good mar­riages in my life, or what

I would con­sider to be good. I think that when peo­ple get mar­ried – I mean ac­tu­ally mar­ried as dis­tinct from tak­ing up with a per­son and be­ing with them – I think that when you marry it trig­gers all sorts of un­con­scious archetypes or what­ever you want to call them, be­hav­iours and ways of be­ing that we’ve in­her­ited from our par­ents, or that you ab­sorbed from your par­ents all those years ago. And you can some­times find your­self act­ing in ways that you don’t un­der­stand be­cause there are th­ese things that you in­tel­lec­tu­ally re­ject, but which are nestling in some un­in­tel­lec­tual part of your psy­che, and they just sur­face. For ex­am­ple, I see that my habit in be­ing mar­ried was to …” Helen halts and an­other pause opens. Then again: “I’m just sud­denly flash­ing on some­thing that a woman film direc­tor said to me once, a very fa­mous one. She said to me, af­ter a mar­riage of hers had bro­ken down, she said, ‘I’m sick of mak­ing my­self smaller so some bloke’ll love me.’ “And I think that’s what I had a ten­dency to do, to make my­self smaller. And I think, es­pe­cially if you’ve been mar­ried more than once, you’ll think, Well, I must have fucked it up the first time, I’ll try and be a bet­ter per­son the sec­ond time and then that per­son won’t stop lov­ing me or it won’t all go to shit. “But con­sciously or other­wise I just cut bits off my­self, and bits off my­self, and bits off my­self, un­til there was nowhere for me to stand and it all went to shit. And it was quite painful. Aw­ful. And either I didn’t cut enough bits off my­self or …” Helen won­ders whether the self can re­ally be cut away like this, parts chopped off and dis­carded. She says that’s a judge­ment call. She says “Yeah”, as if that an­swers the ques­tion, or at least set­tles it for a time. “I think I was fun to be mar­ried to the first time,” she says. “I had a lot of fun with my first hus­band, un­til we had a baby and then our re­spec­tive im­ma­tu­ri­ties made them­selves felt, and ev­ery­thing went to shit. As com­pan­ions and friends, we had a ball. We were al­ways laugh­ing and danc­ing and we used to read plays out loud at night and put on funny ac­cents and that sort of thing. We used to go to a park and throw a ball around. I sup­pose we were still be­ing child­ish but in a good way. Okay, a baby comes along and you can’t do that any­more. It doesn’t work.” She pauses again, and I ask if we can talk more about anger. Helen is fond of court. It is where she feels whole. In court, she can trim the shadow be­tween rea­son and emo­tion. “I feel that all the dif­fer­ent parts of my­self are in­te­grated with all the other parts of my­self, and that my mind and heart are func­tion­ing to­gether, and not against each other, as they of­ten are in or­di­nary life.” She de­scribes it as be­ing in an ex­panded field. She is able to con­tem­plate more things at once than she might in any other cir­cum­stance. The de­tail of it im­presses her. She some­times feels in­tensely that a per­son should be pun­ished. The feel­ing un­set­tles her. She felt it dur­ing the Joe Cinque trial, felt the an­guish of his par­ents and the wrath they felt to­wards his killer. She shared their anger. She hates the way a good bar­ris­ter can dis­ap­pear a crime. “It sur­prises me when I look back on those tri­als … It shocks me when I look back at that book now, how lit­tle em­pa­thy or com­pas­sion I felt.” Helen says that as she gets older she can see the shapes in things, not just in her­self but in other peo­ple. She can see how self­ish and nar­cis­sis­tic peo­ple of­ten are. It has changed how she ex­pe­ri­ences anger. “I don’t feel that the per­son in the dock should be strung up, though I’ve of­ten thought that peo­ple should be strung up when I read about them in the pa­per,” she says. “Then when I go down to the court and see the ac­tual per­son, my heart is, as the Methodists say, strangely warmed.” Helen is good. She al­ways pays her fare on trams. When she uses the self-ser­vice counter in su­per­mar­kets, it never oc­curs to her she could run through the es­chalots as cheap brown onions. The sug­ges­tion fas­ci­nates her. She is silly. She is the only per­son I know who uses the “blow­ing reeds” emoji in text mes­sages. Some­times, when she is talk­ing about her­self, she uses the “an­gel” emoji. She puts her own books in street li­braries, then goes back to check on them. “I just stick one in,” she says. “And I al­ways look the next day to see if it’s still there and it never is. Other­wise I wouldn’t go back.” She is con­stantly read­ing but the books never stay in her head. She is the mem­ber of two read­ing groups, one for clas­sics and one for drink­ing. She is en­thu­si­as­tic about Pierre Ba­yard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. She has fin­ished it twice. “It’s very good.” When she lis­tens, her face moves, as if she is tak­ing the new pieces of in­for­ma­tion and try­ing to fit them down un­der her skin, twitch­ing as they move from cheek to cheek, squint­ing as they pass be­hind her eyes. Her mus­cles do the same thing as she talks, as if she is check­ing each phrase, squeez­ing it to see if it is ripe. She is anx­ious to be un­der­stood. Her head turns. She fid­gets her hands, then fits one to the side of her face. Helen likes to think about the way faces are trans­formed, how the fea­tures melt or swim un­der dif­fer­ent emo­tions. She tells me how peo­ple “thrash around when they drown”. She has talked to po­lice of­fi­cers who have seen it, have pulled up the bodies. It is an en­dur­ing fas­ci­na­tion. Very mat­ter of fact, she says: “It dis­torts their faces.” Helen walks ex­tremely fast, with a back­pack held high on her shoul­ders. I grow anx­ious about the notes. Fre­quently Helen will say some­thing, then add: “That’s in the cone.” I make sure not to note down th­ese parts. I write an­other sec­tion:

If she wasn’t a writer, she says she would be a po­lice­woman. She reads The New York Re­view of Books with a red pen in her hand and un­der­lines the mis­placed mod­i­fiers. At a set of traf­fic lights she stops next to a po­lice car and ad­mires the of­fi­cer’s fore­arm as it rests out the win­dow. It is thick, with gin­ger hairs down its length. The lights change and she re­alises she is star­ing. “I thought, ‘Jeez. Get a hold of your­self, Hel.’” She goes to a health spa where she some­times rents a room to fin­ish books. It is clos­ing be­cause it is not fancy. There are three men there, fast­ing. They have their bloods taken ev­ery day and can­not wan­der far in case they col­lapse. Helen says the food is very good. Maria Venuti is there also. Helen says Venuti is a show­girl but con­cedes that she is not. She sings a lit­tle bit of “Big Spender”. She honks out the brass parts, lift­ing one shoul­der and then the other. She has a shirt with a pan­elled col­lar, like a sailor’s suit. “But no­body sees it be­cause I al­ways wear a back­pack,” she says. “I’m no good at dress­ing up.” Helen says she used to feel anger at peo­ple who would not talk to her for her books. She says she feels it less so now. She says it is still there, though, in vary­ing ways. “I used to feel anger and frus­tra­tion when I was a begin­ner at this sort of work,” she says. “Now I recog­nise the power strug­gle that it is, and have more un­der­stand­ing of the other per­son’s re­luc­tance, anger or fear. And I’ve learnt how to build their re­fusal into what I write – to use their re­fusal as a form of free­dom.” She says some­times it’s bet­ter when they don’t talk. Morally, it’s eas­ier. “With­out it I don’t find my­self trapped in a sense of obli­ga­tion,” she says. “An obli­ga­tion that I might be­tray by bru­tal frank­ness about the sit­u­a­tion in ques­tion. I’m freer if the per­son hasn’t drawn me or al­lowed me into a re­la­tion­ship with them that con­strains me.” Helen is un­com­pli­cated about how she chooses sub­jects. She says it just hap­pens. “Usu­ally I’m just read­ing The Age in the morn­ing and a story will jump out, some­thing that makes me want to go down to the court and have a look at the ac­tual per­son.” Re­cently, a friend of Helen’s vis­ited from Syd­ney and asked if she would go with her to church. “I was thrilled to bits be­cause down here no one would ever say that to me.” Helen chose an Angli­can church where both her par­ents had their funerals. Helen and her friend went early and took com­mu­nion. There was no mu­sic. Two peo­ple brought their dogs and they lay silently on the floor of the chapel. “The whole thing was quiet and friendly and pleas­ant.” It doesn’t bother Helen that she doesn’t be­lieve. She just likes go­ing. She says it helps her to clean off, to get rid of things. “Even though I don’t have ro­man­tic messes or sex­ual messes any­more, I still act meanly some­times or self­ishly or vainly or en­vi­ously. I will just feel that I’ve be­haved like a shit in cer­tain cir­cum­stances. I don’t usu­ally go along with any par­tic­u­lar crime in mind, but just a gen­eral grub­bi­ness. And I like the fact that they say, ba­si­cally … there are the same words they use ev­ery time: ‘We ac­knowl­edge that we’ve be­haved rather poorly, and we’re sorry about that, we re­gret, and we’d like to do bet­ter in fu­ture.’ And then they ba­si­cally say to you, ‘Okay, well, now come up the front and we’ll give you some wine and some bread, some­thing to eat and drink.’ And then, yeah: that’s the ba­sics of it. I like that very much.” Helen doubts if many in church be­lieve. She thinks that is a myth main­tained by non-re­li­gious peo­ple. “I think if you went around the church and asked ev­ery­body what they were there for a lot of peo­ple wouldn’t even be able to come up with an an­swer. It’s just some­thing com­fort­ing about it or beau­ti­ful about it some­times. Or maybe it’s quiet, and you know what it’s go­ing to be, and you go back to hear it again. That’s what I think, any­way.” I’ve seen Helen at a church only once. It was for a fu­neral. I re­mem­ber think­ing how com­fort­ably rit­ual rested on her. At the grave­side she looked peace­ful and at home. Helen has started books and aban­doned them. Usu­ally she will write 10 pages and then re­alise it isn’t go­ing any­where or she isn’t ready. “This has al­ways hap­pened so early in the process that it wasn’t a sac­ri­fice to stop, more a relief,” she says. “If I go through old boxes of loose pa­per I come across open­ing pages of things that might have be­come short sto­ries if I hadn’t lost my nerve, or got bored, or stopped feel­ing the pull of what I’d thought was an idea.” She has never aban­doned a work of non­fic­tion. With The First Stone or Joe Cinque’s Con­so­la­tion or the book about Robert Far­quhar­son she wished plenty of times she could. She wanted to quit when it got too painful to go on, but al­ready the only way out was straight ahead and crawl­ing. “The stuff I aban­doned, it hardly even knew what it was or wasn’t,” she says. “It hadn’t even be­come any­thing yet. It was all wan­dery and waffly, so I guessed it would have been fic­tion. Aw­ful stuff, some of it: gothic, or whiny. Em­bar­rass­ing.” Writ­ing is sim­ple for Helen, which doesn’t mean it’s easy. She does it be­cause she has to. “I write be­cause it’s the thing I’m bet­ter at than any other ac­tiv­ity I’ve tried,” she says. “It feels nat­u­ral and right, to try to get sen­sa­tions and thoughts into words so I can show them to other peo­ple.” She jokes that she does this to check in on her­self, to “find out if I’m nuts or not”.

“If I’m not in a par­tic­u­larly con­fi­dent or ex­tro­verted mood, it starts to feel as if I’m hack­ing off pieces of my­self.”

Helen is al­ways first to court. She likes to see the room be­fore it fills, to feel the calm. “When you walk in in the morn­ing, when the courts are all clean and nice, and the tip­staff puts ev­ery­thing where it be­longs and there are al­ways glasses of wa­ter and jugs – I loved it. I used to get there early in the morn­ing, and I like to get there be­fore any­one else. I want to be the first per­son in af­ter the tippy be­cause, just be­cause there was this won­der­ful sense of or­der, and I re­mem­ber walk­ing in one day and the tip­staff was stand­ing there and he was a re­ally quite se­vere tip­staff and I said, ‘Oh, it’s lovely in here. It’s so peace­ful.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s good, isn’t it? Be­fore all this shit starts.’ And he made this ges­ture to­wards where all the ac­tion hap­pened. It’s a bit like a fairy­tale, where the princess has to make a gar­ment, and she sews and weaves and stitches all day, and when she comes back to do some more it’s all been un­done in the night.” Helen pauses and de­cides it’s the op­po­site of a fairy­tale: the work hap­pens back to front, it isn’t un­done, only re­ordered, the anger and ug­li­ness re­paired by for­mal­ity, by wa­ter glasses re­filled and chairs put back in place. “It’s just the sense that through the night all the chaos of the day was smoothed away and when you got back the next morn­ing ev­ery­thing looked pale and or­derly.” Helen no longer goes to ther­apy, ex­cept when she has a spe­cific ques­tion in mind. The en­dur­ing im­age of her analysis is of an un­wa­tered gera­nium on her ther­a­pist’s front porch. The soil in its pot was dried and cracked, and look­ing at it Helen thought how ter­ri­ble it was. She looked for a tap to wa­ter it but couldn’t find one. “I felt re­ally an­noyed and dis­ap­prov­ing be­cause of this,” she says. “And when I got in­side I learnt to say the first thing that came into my head so I said, ‘Your gera­nium is look­ing re­ally dead out there but I couldn’t see any wa­ter to put on it.’ And she of course in­ter­preted this as mean­ing ‘You aren’t wa­ter­ing me. I’m not get­ting what I need from you.’ And I can’t re­mem­ber if we laughed but af­ter that there was this theme be­tween us of the so-called tough lit­tle gera­nium, and the tough lit­tle gera­nium was me, grum­bling about not be­ing cared for.” To­wards the end of writ­ing this piece, I ask again why Helen doesn’t like in­ter­views. She sends the same re­sponse: “Be­cause I imag­ine peo­ple be­ing com­pletely fed up with me.” I tell her that is not enough. There must be an an­swer that is about her, not other peo­ple. “Well, what I said is about me, re­ally – in the sense that I don’t want to get the aw­ful feel­ing that peo­ple are sick of me, that I’ve be­come te­diously om­nipresent and thus a bore, which would be painful for me.” In her email, she un­der­lines the words “for me” and sets them in ital­ics. “But okay,” she writes. “I’ll think harder. I don’t have ‘a sub­ject’ to speak about, or a lot of opin­ions about or po­si­tions on things. I feel I don’t re­ally know any­thing, in the ex­ter­nal sense of ‘know’. “So I am obliged to talk from very close to my own ex­pe­ri­ences. And if I’m not in a par­tic­u­larly con­fi­dent or ex­tro­verted mood, it starts to feel as if I’m hack­ing off pieces of my­self to please or en­ter­tain or in­ter­est the in­ter­viewer.” She sends an­other email, be­fore I can re­spond. “Fur­ther thought: that al­low­ing a stranger to in­ter­view me and go away in pos­ses­sion of what I’ve said with the in­ten­tion of shap­ing it into a ver­sion of me is a stag­ger­ing hand­ing over of con­trol.” She says she hates hav­ing her pic­ture taken even more than be­ing in­ter­viewed. “I seem to my­self, spe­cially now, al­ways ugly in photos. A strained face. My nat­u­ral ex­pres­sion is not a smile and I can’t pur­posely put one on as most peo­ple seem to do on cue. This is some­thing I no­ticed about my fa­ther too when he was old. He laughed nat­u­rally and spon­ta­neously but his smile was al­ways ironic or de­fen­sive.” A minute later, she sends an­other mes­sage. “I never thought of my­self as good look­ing and all my life photos have re­in­forced that gloomy be­lief.” In the mid­dle of 2016, I wrote the last para­graphs of the book that was go­ing to be about Helen. I wrote two ver­sions. The rest of it was still just notes. In one ver­sion, the con­ver­sa­tion ran to the bot­tom of a drink. Helen talked about her sis­ter dy­ing, about the peo­ple who came and blocked up the holes, how for two days there was no smell and then, slowly, the bed­room grew a kind of sweet qual­ity. Helen con­sid­ered how it took only a few hours for the skin to go like china. She said the change was “awesome”. She ques­tioned the mean­ing of her own ac­count. “What, like the soul has left?” In that ver­sion, the book ended like this: Helen fin­ishes her drink. “When I die, I’d like to die in my sleep.” In the other ver­sion, her drink has only just ar­rived. This one is the truest glimpse I’ve had of Helen. She is hope­ful and spe­cific and alive to a sense of whimsy:

Helen or­ders a drink of gin and le­mon, not quite a gim­let, and ad­mires the cut glass in which it comes. “If I end up with a man again, and I don’t think I will, he would have to be a dancer. He couldn’t be em­bar­rassed about danc­ing.” Helen agrees that there is a hu­man need to judge. “Pretty much, yes.” She says the prob­lem is that peo­ple feel shame for do­ing it. “Peo­ple must feel great anx­i­ety about judg­ing and be­ing judged, or the word ‘judge­men­tal’ wouldn’t have be­come as pe­jo­ra­tive as it has in my life­time.” She says peo­ple feel anx­ious that mak­ing a judge­ment is the same as putting your­self above some­one, the same as think­ing you are bet­ter than them. She says that’s not it at all. “If you can’t ob­serve and an­a­lyse some­one’s be­hav­iour and de­cide whether you like it or not, or think it’s right or wrong, how can you live in the world, and make your­self a path through the mess of ev­ery­thing? Every­one does it all the time, don’t they?” Helen says she feels all right call­ing some­one a cheat or a ma­nip­u­la­tor or mean-spir­ited or de­vi­ous or ar­ro­gant. She won­ders whether judge­ment is only bad if you leave no room for a per­son to re­pent, if you just dump it on them like a block of con­crete and walk away. She was in­ter­ested by how an­gry peo­ple were when the Far­quhar­son book came out, an­gry that she didn’t de­liver a fi­nal judge­ment on him. They wanted him to be a mon­ster. They wanted her to say it. “That sort of judge­ment is aw­ful, I think, be­cause it de­nies a crim­i­nal – a sin­ner – the hu­man right to be thought about. The pur­pose of an ut­ter dis­missal is to re­lieve the judg­ing per­son from the pain and ef­fort of bring­ing the full force of their imag­i­na­tion to the con­tem­pla­tion of the crim­i­nal and his be­hav­iour and the rea­sons for it. And thus see­ing what they share with a crim­i­nal. Which is more than many peo­ple want to ac­knowl­edge.” I asked who Helen is to her read­ers, what she wants them to think of her. She says she writes in the voice of an av­er­age neigh­bour. The de­scrip­tion she gives is so much her I feel the sense of happy sad­ness you keep for cer­tain close friends, not that we are even that close: “A di­vorced grand­mother who’s seen a bit of life, had some trou­bles and sad­ness, lost things that she should have fig­ured out how to keep, caused pain to peo­ple through self­ish­ness and care­less­ness, but who likes peo­ple and wants to un­der­stand them, is good with chil­dren, likes a drink and a laugh, and tries hard to be gen­er­ous and to keep her word and not to be a pain in the arse – in short, some­one through whose eyes a reader might be in­ter­ested in look­ing at the story.” Life writ­ing is im­per­fect. The truth is too fine and there’s too much of it to gather up in one place. The best we can hope for is an assem­bly of facts. Helen takes out a note­book. On the front, it reads June 2016. “Do you mind if I write that down?” she says. She draws a line and then be­gins to write in a neat, child­ish script. Her hand­writ­ing is block­ish and learnt, in­no­cent of her life and the writ­ing she has done. “An assem­bly of facts. Erik.” She draws an­other line, her book ready for an­other thought. She tucks it in­side the back­pack rest­ing on the seat be­side her and idly loops her arm through one of the straps, just in case. Helen writes with cheap foun­tain pens, maybe Pilots. As soon as she leaves, I write this: Helen says she likes po­lice­men. She de­scribes one with a mous­tache like a cigar. “He’d fill in his note­book neatly, all the way to the margins. He was a good bloke.” She finds odd men in­ter­est­ing. She says Ben Men­del­sohn is beau­ti­ful. “He looks like he’s been dug up.” She goes to a 70th birth­day party and is struck by stomach pain. She asks the host’s wife for a hot wa­ter bot­tle. There are two hot wa­ter bot­tles but they are both per­ished. The wife brings a towel rolled up in a pil­low­case, warmed in the mi­crowave. “I lay down on the bed and took my boots off and pulled my legs up. She put a lit­tle mo­hair blan­ket on me. There was a lamp and the new Oliver Sacks au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. It was won­der­ful.” Helen says she doesn’t know what she will do when her grand­chil­dren grow up. Oc­ca­sion­ally, she calls them “my kids”. She cor­rects her­self: “My grand­kids.” She says: “They have a spark, chil­dren. The youngest is nine, so maybe I’ll die first. I don’t think so. I used to think I’d never die. But I had an ul­tra­sound to­day and I’d had a her­nia. The doc­tor asked me if I lifted any­thing heavy and I said, ‘A chair.’ Pa­thetic.” Mo­ments stick to her. She says Tim Win­ton saw a lady with greasy hair push­ing a pram and when he looked in he saw she was push­ing part of a car en­gine. Helen is early and buys a pair of pants. They are hound­stooth and soft. “Feel them. They’re like py­ja­mas.” Helen says a French lady sold them to her. The store was so dark, she could only see her when she moved.

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