I hold it in my hand for a while before I buy it. I hold it and rub my palm up and down its jacket. It has been on the bookshop shelves for a few weeks now, perhaps months. I have come to know its first page almost by heart as I pick it up, put it down, pick it up, then put it down again.
I have been saving this book. As it becomes obvious that my father will not be getting out of bed again, as he sleeps more, as he talks less, I have felt that this book is coming out just for me. That it will be something to read and reflect on in the days and weeks after his death. That it will help me to understand what it is I had been seeing these last few years, months, weeks, days and what it is that I am feeling now.
It is the Thursday night of the week that Dad died. On the ground, between my feet, is the paper-bag that holds the new wrap-around shirt in a delicate shade of green that I will wear to the funeral on Saturday.
Shoes. What shoes will I wear? It will be a long day and they should be comfortable.
I hold the book for a moment longer.
I count on my fingers. Five days.
I almost cannot breathe.
At the counter, I remember my PIN, I do not forget to say, ‘I don’t need a bag’ and I shake my head when she asks whether I need a copy of the receipt. It is as if I never left the world, as if I have been here all along.
Now, nearly a year later, I am trying to work out what it is that I am writing. I look at the pencilled words and the printed pages and I wonder. Is this fiction or non-fiction? Whose story is it and who is telling it?
This question leads me back to, amongst many other essays and books, The Spare Room (it never did solve all my problems. I have read it – twice – but only lightly. It asks too many questions that I don’t feel like answering just yet).
But one thing I know: I like that she has called her protaganist Helen. I’m almost certain that once upon a time this aspect of the book would have troubled me. I think (though can’t know) that I would have turned my back on the book because of it.
I imagine that one of the reasons I’m so accepting of Helen-as-author and Helen-as-protagonist is because I’ve spent the last few years looking pretty carefully at stand-up comedy. In stand-up comedy, all narrators tell stories that may or may not be facts, but always have some truth.
Every week, after I’ve finished the shopping, I buy myself a copy of The New Yorker and go to a cafe and sit and read. It lacks romance – I shop at a supermarket and the cafe is part of a chain – but I am trying to establish a routine. For safety’s sake.
It isn’t working yet. But it will.
Sometimes every one is with me, but today, I am alone. I sit by the window that looks across the road and over date palms and sand and I try to ignore the people who sit smoking in the clearly-marked non-smoking seats.
I order, and start flipping through my New Yorker. In this week’s* Briefly Noted column, there is a brief note on Helen Garner’s The Spare Room. After a good summary of Helen Garner’s story so far, the reviewer writes, ‘Here the author’s aims seem to shift in the course of the novel, which at times seems very close to nonfiction: the Garner-like protagonist, attending a writers’ festival in Sydney, observes, in apparent reference to J. M. Coetzee, how “the big names had scrambled to see the Nobel laureate get his Australian citizenship in a tent”.
I happen to know, because I wasn’t there, that the tent of which they speak was pitched on a lawn in Adelaide. Not Sydney.
When I get home, I find the quoted passage in the closing pages of the book. The reviewer has misunderstood the Sydney-Adelaide part. It’s easy to see how – it is a clunky little passage – but what I’m trying to work out is why this simple little mistake is making me feel more awkward about the fiction/non-fiction line than I ever did before.
*this week’s for me, because I don’t live in New York