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Edition 35

Contents
Memoir

My mother and murder

I'M MEANT TO be writing a book about murder, a particular murder. It took place five years ago in Lismore, northern New South Wales. The victim was a young woman who came from a small village in Germany. I was initially drawn to her Missing Persons photo. It ran for days in the local paper: a picture of her standing on a white beach, barefoot, her mahogany mane tangled from a recent swim. Directly behind her a low-slung branch looped into the frame, protruding from the sides of her head, like antlers. The antlers gave the already statuesque girl a proud, majestic look.

She did not look like a victim, my mother and I agreed as we studied the front page of the newspaper in a café. I thought she looked familiar, but not like anyone I knew.

Six days after the girl was reported missing her naked body was found decomposing beneath a palm tree in the centre of Lismore, half an hour from where I live. It was a case that interested me very much. It also interested my mother.

Three years ago she and I attended the inquest into the girl's death. I couldn't quite see how this big case could be moulded to fit my usual length, eight thousand words, and I had a suspicion that it was me who'd have to expand: to broaden my thinking, move away from my short domestic fiction, take a bigger space in the world.

The second day of evidence I told my mother she was not to come with me anymore. 'The police won't take me seriously if they see you with me everyday,' I explained, as she sat next to me in the car in her red sneakers and jeans.

'But I have every right to be there.'

Silence.

'I won't sit with you,' she bargained.

'The trouble is, you look like me,' I told her. Although she was eighty-three and her hair was white, we had the same haircut. Her leather jacket was even similar to mine. 'And the police,' I continued, 'have already seen me with you. This is my career we're talking about. This is not entertainment.'

It was the bit about my career that finally got her. I was yet to publish, unless you count two stories in a student anthology. My mother didn't come anymore.

At the end of the inquest I approached the detective in charge of the case and asked him for full access to the evidence. He never mentioned seeing my old doppelganger. To reward my curiosity he gave me an office to work from at the police station. The sign on the door read Special Operations. I worked there for months. I was given carte blanche with the files.

 

SIMONE, THE VICTIM of this murder, my murder victim, led me back to her little village in Germany - her plan being, I imagine, to help her family come to understand what happened to her, and perhaps even solve the crime.

I kept up a steam I've never quite been able to account for, grappling to prove who killed her as much as to understand why exactly I'd become so intimately involved. But now that has all changed. I've lost my focus.

Von Hooklah, as I call my mother, affectionately, and for no reason other than it sounds vaguely pompous, has inserted herself into the middle of things again. She is about to die. She has cancer in an organ she never knew she had, the pancreas, and every time I try to write she keeps popping into my head, as though she has something to do with it all - murder, that is.

Lately, having plenty of time to speculate rather than write my book, I'm realising my mother and I have a long history with crime. When I was a child in New Zealand she'd take me out of school for the day to attend the criminal courts. Later, languishing in the latter stages of my pregnancies, we'd watch cases at the courts in Sydney for several days at a time. Independent of each other, we always seem to follow the same articles in the newspaper, identifying with murder stories involving unlikely female victims - those who, according to victimology studies I've since read, have less chance of being murdered due to their education and social habits, for example - in short, we were interested in victims not so dissimilar to ourselves.

When I was nine my mother might have had cause to mourn my own death, but I didn't drown. My best friend had invited another child that weekend, instead. I was sure I was involved in the poor girl's death, that somehow I'd psychically murdered her. 'You do realise that should have been me,' I told my mother years later, when I finally felt able to talk about it. 'I went to that house every other weekend.'

She looked intrigued. 'You know, the thought never crossed my mind.'

It continues to cross mine. Ineradicable guilt, a tendency to weep when watching a heft of water slowly shift down a river.

Shortly after the drowning I channelled my energies into a gang loosely based on Enid Blyton's Famous Five series. I called it Police Five. We identified and followed shoplifters at Coastland's shopping mall, and were paid by the in-house detective in hamburgers and milkshakes.

Later that year, we became ambitious and decided to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a young woman who never returned from her day at the beach. We arrived at the area of last sighting after a two-hour trek along the sand, only to find that it looked nothing like a crime scene at all. People were swimming, hordes being tossed about like sticks in rolling surf. There was nothing for us to do but join them.

Two days later, after a news flash on the kitchen radio, my mother drove me back to the site. I discovered that the exact place where I'd changed into my swimsuit in the bush-clad dunes was now bare: in its place, a hole where a body had been buried in a shallow grave.

'I was standing on top of her,' I told my mother.

I've never forgotten the sensation on realising that the sand covering a murdered woman had been sifting between my toes.

 

IN THE TWO years between Simone's death and her inquest the state attorney of Wurzburg declared in the German media that her three travelling companions were suspects. They were all German nationals. Two were siblings: Tobias and Katrin Suckfuell. They made an odd pair. Tobias was tall and elegant, with flowing blond hair and a pubescent tuft on his chin - more romantisch than contemporary. His sister looked stronger than her little brother: quite the man, with her short crop and heavy features. It was as though they'd been genetically rewired.

As I sat in the Lismore courtroom with the national media and the police, all gathered in Simone's honour, I could see several people were missing. For starters, the Suckfuell siblings, under no obligation to attend, had declined an expenses-paid trip back to Australia. Only the third traveller had made the effort to come.

Tobias's friend Jens Martin was a quiet young man with long brown hair and the face of Jesus. He'd been depicted as a silhouette in previous news coverage and proved to be just as elusive in the flesh. Despite being present the night Simone disappeared, he insisted he saw and heard nothing.

Her family was also missing at the inquest. That I couldn't understand.

'They're pig farmers,' a journalist told me. 'And they don't speak English.' They were also very religious and came from a tiny, centuries-old village in Bavaria. I pictured them cut off from the rest of the world - reality, even - living in sepia.

The word around the traps was that since the Suckfuell siblings had been named suspects, Simone's family had bizarrely closed ranks, protecting them. I couldn't fathom why.

The coroner wound up the week-long proceedings by saying that the siblings needed to clear their names, as two detectives had taken the stand and accused them of murder. He would write personally, extending yet another invitation to visit our shores. How civil. How genteel. How like an invitation to high tea.

 

AT THE TIME I decided to write a book I didn't know that there was a body of research and theory about 'true crime'. Lately I've been wading through the academic texts. I've learned that theorists fashionably describe reading the newspaper reports of murders as 'synthetic witnessing' - as though we wear polyester. We, apparently, are witnessing representations of crime, constructions of the real world otherwise made fairly unreal, in a media that is little more than a machine. We come through the other end of this machine having happily spent our own pains and fears on other people's problems: vicarious experience. I'm disappointed by this reductive approach, this attempt to stereotype and make common a phenomenon I've always felt was unique and personal.

When I wasn't sifting through files at the police station I was thinking about Simone. I couldn't stop. The evidence had me hooked. Except I wasn't just reading, I was living it. Like her, I started to drink beer. I hung around the places where she'd last been seen. I ate the Gollan Pub nachos, her last meal. I got the feeling she was following me, and I would catch glimpses over my shoulder of other dark-haired girls. Often I'd wake in the night, my eyes opening like a shutter lens, hoping to snap her ghost at the side of my bed.

Where was I going with all this? The shelf space devoted to true crime is a section I avoid. I can't bear the black covers, the tabloid starbursts and drips of gloss red, the grinning murderers with their walrus moustaches. If I couldn't even bring myself to read a book in this genre, I wondered why I was trying to write one that might join them.

So far my book begins, not with Simone, the victim, but with me. A banal scene that, abbreviated, looks something like this:

I'm sitting at my laptop. An oil painting of a giant pear hangs over my head - a birthday present from my husband. That year, the year of my forty-second birthday, he'd bought me a scarf, a mix of silk and wool, expensive, but brown. It's 2005 - otherwise known as the year of the brown scarf.

I'm writing a short story set in a mental institution, a really nice one surrounded by a sea of undulating mowed grass. As yet, I don't know why the first-person narrator is in this place, nor do I know what's going to happen to her, and I'm wondering if that's the point of the story, her dilemma, that nothing ever 'happens' to her.

It's a recurring problem in my stories, I've been told by my tutor at uni, nothing happening. 'It's fiction - make something up! Stick in a car crash, sex, murder!'

'But I can't. It won't feel real.' I can only write what I think I know.

What's always captured my imagination, and my mother's, about crime is the sense that the story is not made up, that it at least feels real. We like the disturbance of reality; better still, the breakdown of domestic order. Perhaps this relates to the sense of possibility in our own lives, the idea that a normal day can continue on as a normal day, until something goes terribly wrong. It keeps us on edge. We've never been interested in the garish spectacle of mass murder, nor the meaninglessness of random violence. We're interested in relationships, the small gestures and details of middle-class ordinariness, its fences and hedges and civility that contain life to a cliché, the capriciousness of it all. Not that we expected anything to happen to us. In fact, I'd become despondent with the comforting thought that nothing ever would.

 

THEY HAD BEEN expecting me, and I was prepared with a briefcase filled with dictaphone, cardboard-covered notebooks, pens and a set of freshly printed cards listing my name and address. Despite having the right paraphernalia for non-fiction and a letter from the university verifying I was a student, plus a prayer from my mother for luck, I was wondering how crime writers did this. How did they write with such authority and omniscience, as though they had a god-given ticket to enter into the living room of grieving strangers?

A grey light filtered through a small window behind Simone's father. He looked in his mid-fifties, physically very strong, and his eyes were small and kind, glittering with emotion as he leaned forward on a low chair.

Simone's younger sister, twenty years old, sat beside her father. Diametrically opposite to her sister, she had pale skin and pale blond hair that she wore like a thick Elizabethan veil. Between them, a tea-light flickered inside a glass holder.

'For Simone,' her sister said as she bent to light it. Whenever they entered a room, they always lit a candle for her. Eighteen months, I calculated. How long could this continue? How could it stop?

I sat on a '70s-style brown leather sofa beneath a black and white enlargement of Simone that had made me gasp as I walked through the door. I couldn't see her now, but I knew she was hovering above me, her larger-than-life head resting sideways in the palm of her hand.

'Sie wissen mehr als wir. Bitte sagen Sie uns alles, was Sie wissen,' Simone's father said. You know more than us. Please tell us everything you know.

'Perhaps,' I began hesitantly, 'it would be better if we begin by you telling me what you want to know.'

After all, I was meant to be on the outside of the story. I was the newspaper reader trying to imagine what was going on within.

Simone's father sat with his elbows on his knees. He let his head fall. He scrutinised his hands, clasped and squeezed them before looking back at me.

'How did my daughter die?'

Why do you need me to answer that, I wanted to counter. Surely he'd read it in the newspaper, or heard it broadcast, as I had. Or the police must have told him.

He was waiting.

'She was suffocated,' I heard myself say. I was surprised to hear the voice sounded like me, as though it should have changed to suit the circumstances and I'd have sounded more like a policeman or an actor playing a policeman, but it was just me - the tone too thin, too light for the words.

'With either a pillow or a plastic bag,' I added.

He sucked in a shot of air, nodded slowly.

The reason for his question, I learned that afternoon, was that nothing in the media had penetrated the family's bunker. I also learned that die Polizei, under the directive of the state attorney, had decided not to tell Simone's family anything about the inner workings of their investigation. Asked how Simone died, all they were prepared to say to her parents was She did not suffer.

'I think they're not able to tell us,' her father explained when I looked askance, 'because of our close relationship with Tobias and Katrin.'

I nodded slowly, wondering how it was in this age a state's relationship to a victim could be more important than that of grieving parents. And surely if the family had been more enlightened, the bond with the Suckfuell siblings might not have been what it was.

This secrecy of die Polizei highlighted how bizarre it was becoming that someone like me, a short-story writer, an otherwise fully engaged housewife who up until now had nothing more than a fascination with crime, had gained entry to this inner circle of knowledge. Perhaps I had a part to play, after all.

'I'll tell you everything,' I told them that evening as they gathered around, Simone's mother and brother as well, all leaning forward in their chairs. 'But first,' I warned, 'I should tell you that the further into the evidence I've gone, the more I've found myself forming opinions.'

I had spoken carefully, gently, yet Simone's mother cried an invocation, reached for her husband's hand.

'It would kill us if you told us you thought Tobias had anything to do with it,' he said. 'I have always said I would put my hand in the fire for him.'

Hand in the fire. Kill us. I looked at them, waiting to catch a slight curve of a smile on someone's face, a hint that this was all happening in my imagination. But no, they were still looking at me, to me.

I suspected that in the genre of true-crime writing this wasn't how it was meant to be, the writer potentially affecting the story. It was all beginning to feel too much like my fiction - something of my own creation loosely based around a set of facts.

 

FOR THE PURPOSES of writing the book I've had to consider my interest in murder as artistic and slightly academic. I'm meant to be a researcher, a professional. My mother's interest, on the other hand, I must distance myself from. She's a voyeur. She even confesses this in a salacious tone. I have to stand back from her, and myself, to observe myself as a sort of witness. I'm reading myself reading the newspaper, examining my responses to mediated information about crime, seeing myself as a reflection of society, no longer an individual simply indulging in lurid details like my mother. It's a kind of doubling-up. A splitting-away.

'Why are you doing this?' I'm always asked.

On this occasion the question came from Simone's parents.

'I felt compelled to know more about your daughter,' I told them.

But the more I know about Simone, the less I feel this is true. She'd barely had time to live a life. It's her murder I'm drawn to. The hours that remain unaccounted for still lure me like a good book and I'm ashamed by this, the spike of excitement I feel as I think I'm getting closer to the minutes, the exact moment of fully understanding her death. I've been wondering if her family realises there are two of me. The empathic, caring me - and the other one. The one that follows several steps behind, like a shadow on a lead. She looks a bit like my mother, this other one. I can't shake her.

Sometimes I think I'm even worse than my mother for having dared to personalise my relationship with crime. I've entered the murder scene. I've inserted myself into the text. It makes me recoil at times, as though I too am in part guilty of committing a crime.

'You don't intend to talk about the murder in this book, do you? I was asked by a German woman who Simone's mother introduced me to. She was the director of the kindergarten where Simone once worked, a prickly redhead.

'I wouldn't be writing a book if there hadn't been a murder,' I told her in a measured tone.

'And the family know you will write about this', she asked, hoarse with disbelief.

'Of course - there's nothing secretive about what I'm doing,' I explained.

'But it's just for yourself. No one else will read it.'

There's always the possibility that no one will want to read your work, but I was not prepared to make this admission to her. 'It will be published,' I said quietly.

That day, she wrote a note to Simone's family. She told them to beware Frau Peters. This book would be forher, not them. She said I'd asked her scandalous questions about their family relationships.

I happened to be there the day after the note arrived. They were all very upset - not with me, as it turned out - but with the woman from the kindergarten, for casting aspersions about my character.

'Of course you must write about the murder,' Simone's mother said, incredulously. 'What does she think you're going to write?'

I mirrored her surprise, but at the same time I was considering Frau M, wondering why she'd tried to frame me. She'd spoken to me patronisingly, as though she was teaching something as basic as the alphabet. It was all about the letter E, I suspected. Ethics. She found the premise for my book to be nothing more than snooping - at worst, scurrilous exploitation.

 

I HAVEN'T BEEN thinking so much about Simone in the last few months. I've been too distracted with Von Hooklah. The book, half-written, sits in a computer bag next to my desk. I take it away with me whenever I travel, like an unnecessary brick that has no other purpose than to weigh me down. Stacks of exercise books, journals, evidence, newspapers and crime studies remain piled up on trestles, like traps sprung at opposite ends of the house, waiting to catch me. Sometimes I look at all these piles and ask myself if the story is really to be found in them, and if it's not more in me - and even more about me than Simone.

I still keep in touch with Simone's family. Her mother tells me she's lighting candles for me and my mother. I passed this on to Von Hooklah.

'I don't want any of that holy business.' She scowls and tosses her head, as though people on both sides of the world are already preparing her for burial.

We're keeping busy, going to appointments with the various doctors - Dunstan the spunky GP, James the deathly pale oncologist. My mother has developed a deep affection for these men. They woo her with their gentle talk about bowel obstructions, stomach distension and drainage. Last time she showed them photos of her final holiday, just so they can feel a little bit more involved.

I'm involved. I'm so involved I suspect a part of mother wants me to pop over the other side with her.

'I'm managing to do a little bit of writing at the moment,' I tell her, apprehensively. 'It's an essay about you. And murder.'

'Oh, really,' she says, vaguely.

We get talking about the link, about how her boredom as a housewife and her ghastly interest in crime became something more productive in my hands, something investigative and worthwhile, potentially artistic, how one day I might possibly even help solve the crime.

She tells me, 'That's wonderful, darling...' What a clever little girl I am.

 

WE'RE SITTING IN the car after having coffee at the Top Shop, our post-diagnosis hangout. She's about to move into my house, for her final days. I can tell she's distracted before she lets out a sigh.

'Are you okay?'

'I want to know what's coming,' she says.

'What do you mean?'

'I want to know how it will end.' She's looking out the window. 'Do you know?'

'One of your organs will fail,' I tell the side of her face. 'Depending on which one, we won't know how long it will take.'

'You won't feel anything,' I promise her. 'By then you'll be so dosed up. That's what the drugs are for.'

It sounds like an execution, I think, as I watch her nod, her eyes still looking out the window and down the street. I notice the new makeup we'd recently bought in an effort to make death more glamorous is a bit too peach for her complexion today, the skin on her cheek crumpling beneath the scientifically formulated light-reflecting shimmer. I'm numbed by this analysis of her skin, this distance from which I'm looking at her, not to mention how calmly I've described the process of her death to her, as smoothly as James the oncologist, who specialises in repeating this information daily. I watch her fingers smoothing the leather strap of her brand new handbag, back and forth, back and forth.

'Are you okay?'

'I'm not worried about me,' she says, breathily. 'It's only those I'm leaving behind I worry about.'

'I'll be all right,' I tell her, 'But of course I'll miss you, because we see each other...'

Every day, I was going to say, but I'm interrupted by a sharp yelp of air ripping through my throat.

She's looking at me sideways. 'Oh, darling,' she says, and I feel her cool, slightly withered pads rubbing across the bones in my fingers.

'It's probably all a big hoax,' she's saying now in her singsong voice. 'What's the bet I'll be here this time next year. I'm a fraud. I'm a con artist. Just you wait and see. I'll be here next Christmas.'

That's more than a year away, I think. I look away, out the window, at nothing. I have to quell a treacherous urge to blurt out that she must be joking. Even if it were possible, I can't keep this up that long.

I reread this essay for the umpteenth time. Shit. It still doesn't work. I'm beginning to wonder if it's the implausibility of the story itself, of someone like me, perhaps more suited to being a victim than an investigator, inserting myself in the middle of a murder inquiry. Or is it that everything in my life is now being funnelled through my mother's dying, no matter how remote the connection?

Whatever it is, the Simone strand is in conflict with my mother's. I've jammed the pair together: a garden-variety domestic death and a murder of international interest. I give up. I'm unable to cement the connection between the two, other than feeling that the parts are damn near inseparable, inside me - and that's aside from the realisation I can't come to grips with one without enduring the end of the other, my dying other.


From Griffith Review Edition 35: Surviving © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review