By Helena FoxYoung AdultPan Macmillan Australia

How It Feels to Float

Biz knows how to float. She has her people, posse, her mum and the twins. She has Grace. And she has her dad, who tells her about the little kid she was, and who shouldn't be here but is. So Biz doesn't tell anyone anything. Not about her dark, runaway thoughts, not about kissing Grace or noticing Jasper, the new boy. And she doesn't tell anyone about her dad. Because her dad died when she was seven. And Biz knows how to float, right there on the surface – normal okay regular fine.

Portrait of Helena Fox

Helena Fox

Helena Fox lives in the seaside city of Wollongong, Australia, with her endlessly creative and kind family. She mentors and runs writing workshops for young people, and is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College in the U.S. Helena has travelled and lived all around the world, but of all her adventures, working with young people and helping them find and express their voice has brought her the greatest joy. How It Feels to Float is her debut novel.

Judges’ report

How It Feels to Float introduces a powerful and original voice that blends poetry and prose, written with mysticism and a sharpness that illuminates the reality and turbulence of mental illness. It sucks the reader into Biz’s grief and pain in a way that breaks the reader’s heart and heals it with humour and hope. This is a story about loss, and the things we gain in its spaces.

Elizabeth ‘Biz’ Grey seems to be doing okay, on the surface, with her ‘posse’ of friends, her mum and twin siblings, and her best friend, Grace. But Biz is also regularly visited by her father, who died many years ago, and her thoughts have begun spiralling into a frightening, dark place. Through conversations with her father, Biz grapples with their shared history of mental illness, and struggles to come to terms with the trauma of her past, and the potential shape of her future.

How It Feels to Float is an honest and engaging depiction of grief, and life with anxiety and depression. The prose is striking and arresting, lyrical and magical, without ever feeling bogged down by its subject matter; even in the darkest moments, Biz (and the reader) are never left without hope. The cast of supporting characters are equally well-drawn, each with their own battles and internal struggles, and the author renders a sensitive examination of the effects of mental illness on not only the protagonist, but those around her. An exciting and exquisite debut.

Extract

At three in the morning when I can't sleep, the room ticks over in the dark and all I have for company is the rush of words coming up fast like those racehorses you see on television, poor things, and when their hearts give out they are laid on the ground and shot dead behind a blue sheet.

At 3 a.m., I think of hearts. I think of candy hearts and carved-tree hearts and hummingbird hearts. I think of hearts in bodies and the rhythm inside us we don’t get to choose.

I lay my hand over mine. There it is.

It beatbeats beatbeatbeats skipsabeatbeatbeat beatbeatbeats.

A heart is a mystery and not a mystery. It hides under ribs, pumping blood. You can pull it out, hold it in your hand. Squeeze. It wants what it wants. It can be made of gold, glass, stone. It can stop anytime.

People scratch hearts into benches, draw them onto fogged windows, tattoo them on their skin. Believe the story they tell themselves: that hearts are somehow bigger than muscle, that we are something more than an accidental arrangement of molecules, that we are pulled by a force greater than gravity, that love is anything more than a mess of nerve and impulse –

‘Biz.’

A whisper. ‘Biz.’

In the dark.

‘Biz.

In my room.

I open my eyes, and Dad’s sitting on the edge of the bed. ‘You need to stop,’ he says.

What? I squint at him. He’s blurry.

‘The thinking. I can hear it when you breathe.’

Dad’s wearing a grey sweatshirt. His hands are folded in his lap. He looks tired.

‘You should sleep like you did when you were small,’ he says. He looks away, smiles. ‘Your tiny fingers, tucked under your chin. There’s a photo . . .’ Dad trails off.

Yeah, Dad. I’ve seen it.

‘The one of us in hospital, after you were born –’

Yeah. The one just after Mum got her new blood and you fainted and they gave you orange juice. The one where Mum’s laughing up at the camera as I sleep in her arms. Yeah. I’ve seen it.

Dad smiles again. He reaches across to touch me, but of course he can’t.

That photo has been on every fridge door in every house I’ve ever lived in. It sits under a plumbing company magnet and beside a clip holding year-old receipts Mum can’t seem to  throw away.

The photo was taken an hour after I came bulleting out   of Mum so fast she had to have a transfusion. In the picture,  I look like a slug and Dad looks flattened, like he’s seen a car accident. But Mum’s face is bright, open, happy.

All the other photos are in albums on our living room bookshelf, next to the non-working fireplace. The albums hold every picture of me Dad ever took until he died, and all the ones of me Mum took until smartphones came along and she stopped printing me onto paper. I’m now partly inside a frozen computer Mum keeps meaning to get fixed, and on an overcrowded iPhone she keeps meaning to download.

And I’m in the photos friends have taken when I’ve let them and the ones the twins have taken with  their  eyes since they were babies. I’m in the ocean I walk beside when I skip school and in the clouds where I imagine myself some- times. And I’m in the look on my friend Grace’s face, a second after I kissed her, five seconds before she said she thought of me as a friend.

I blink. Dad’s gone again. The room is empty but for me, my bed, my walls, my thoughts, my things.

It’s what – four in the morning? I have a physics test at eight.

My ribs hurt. Behind them, my heart beatbeats beatbeat- beats beatskipsabeat

beatbeat beats.


My name is Elizabeth Martin Grey, but no one I love calls me that.

The Martin is for Dad’s dad who died in a farm accident when he was thirty and Dad was ten.

I was seven when Dad died. Which means I had less time with Dad alive than Dad had with his.

There’s never enough time. Actually, there’s too much and too little, in unequal parts. More than enough of time  passing but not enough of the time passed.

Right?

Ratio of the time you want versus the time you get (a rough estimate) –

1 : 20,000.

Ratio of Dad’s time as the son of Martin : as the living  father of Biz : as my dead dad, sitting on the edge of my bed telling me stories –

1 : 0.7 : .


Monday morning, seven-thirty, and it's so hot the house feels like it’s melting. Cicadas scream through the windows. The dog pants on the kitchen floor. I had a shower five minutes ago and already I’m sweating through my shirt. ‘Ugh,’ I say, flopping over the kitchen counter, crumpled uniform on, shoes untied.

Mum reads my face and sighs. She’s making breakfast for the twins. ‘Be grateful you get to have an education, Biz.’ She waggles a spatula. ‘Not everyone’s as lucky.’

I peer at her. ‘You might have read me wrong, Mum. Maybe I meant, “Ugh. How I wish school lasted all weekend, I have missed it so very much.”’

I’m a month into Year 11, which is ridiculous because I  am nano and unformed but I’m still supposed to write essays about Lenin and Richard III and urban sprawl. Year 11 is a big deal. We are only seconds away, the teachers say, from our final exams. The teachers can’t stop revving us up about our impending future.

This is a big deal! say the teachers of English, science, art, maths, music, geography, and Other Important Subjects in

Which We Are Not Remotely Interested But Are Taking So We Can Get a Good Mark.

You need to take it seriously! You need to beprepared!

You need to not freak out, then have to go to the counsellor because we’ve freaked you out!

I open the fridge. ‘I’m going to sit in here, okay? Just for a minute. Let me squat next to the broccoli.’

Mum laughs. She’s making banana pancakes. Billie and Dart drool over their waiting plates. The twins have the morning off school. They’re going to the dentist! They love the dentist—it’s where Mum works, so they get extra tooth- brushes, and as many little packs of floss and toothpaste as they can carry in their hands.

‘Are they ready yet?’ says my brother, Dart, six years old. ‘Come on, Mum! I’m starving to death,’ says my sister,

Billie, nineteen minutes younger than Dart.

‘Give me a second,’ says Mum. ‘A watched pancake never boils.’

She flips one over. It looks scorched. Mum doesn’t love cooking.

I can’t see how she can be anywhere near a stove in this heat. I grab some coconut yogurt and grapes out of the fridge.

‘Did you study for your test?’ Mum says.

‘Absolutely,’ I say, and it’s true, if you count watching YouTube videos and listening to music while reading the textbook studying. I don’t know if I’m ready – there’s the lack of sleep thing, and the not-having-spoken-properly-to-Grace- since-I-kissed-her thing, which  makes  today  impossible and complicated before it even begins.

I hug Mum goodbye and smooch the twins’ cheeks as they squirm.

I grab my bike from the shed, ride it for thirty seconds before I realise the front tyre is flat.

Ah, that’s right.

When did the tyre go? Friday? No, Thursday.

Shit, Biz! You had one job.

A magpie laughs from a nearby tree. His magpie friend looks down, then joins in.

I could ask Mum to drive me but I know what she’d say: ‘Do I look like a taxi, Biz?’

I could skip school, but then I’d miss my test and ruin my impending future.

I shove the bike back in the shed. And start walking.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist