Germaine Johnson doesn’t need friends. She has her work and her Sudoku puzzles. Until, that is, an incident at her insurance company leaves her jobless—and it turns out that there are very few openings these days for senior mathematicians with zero people skills.
Desperate, Germaine manages to secure a position at City Hall answering calls on the Senior Citizens Helpline. But it turns out that the mayor has something else in mind for Germaine: a secret project involving the troublemakers at the senior citizens center and their feud with the neighboring golf club—which happens to be run by the dashing yet disgraced national Sudoku champion, Don Thomas.
Don and the mayor want the senior center closed down and at first, Germaine is dedicated to helping them out—it makes sense mathematically, after all. But when Germaine actually gets to know the group of elderly rebels at the senior center, they open her eyes to a life outside of boxes and numbers and for the first time ever, Germaine realizes she may have miscalculated.
Filled with a unique and (occasionally) cranky cast of characters you can’t help but love, The Helpline is “delightful feel-good fun” (Toni Jordan, author of Addition) that is bound to capture your heart.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Helpline – 1 –
The night before I started work, Sharon called. She was as encouraging as always.
“You’re still planning on going? It’s not too late to change your mind.”
“Of course I’m going. I can’t wait, I’m so excited.” This was an overstatement, but contradicting Sharon is a kind of compulsion. Like a form of Tourette’s.
She sighed. “You know, when that insurance place gave you the flick, I hoped you’d see the light. Take some time out and think about what you really want to do.”
“They didn’t give me the flick,” I said. “I tendered my resignation, and they were quite upset about it.”
“I mean, you’re not stupid. You’re not great with people, obviously. And you’re a bit of a self-promoter. But that’s the Douglas in you.” She says it casually, like the Douglas family has been a feature of my existence, but that’s not the case. I’ve never met my father—he left before I was born. I try not to take it personally; it was her he was getting away from.
I checked the clock. “I better go. I have to . . . get to bed.”
“Now? It’s seven-thirty.”
“The early bird gets the worm, Sharon.”
“Oh, please, not the early bird again. The one I feel sorry for’s the poor bloody worm. That worm got out of bed early, too, for all the good it did . . .”
I didn’t hang up the phone, not officially. I put it facedown on the table and left the room. Sharon could be very sympathetic to things like hypothetical worms. Not so much daughters.
It was raining in the morning, which I anticipated. I brought with me an umbrella that was very large, and very waterproof. When I got out of the car and walked towards the front doors of the town hall, it covered me, my disposable hooded poncho, the matching pants, and my wheeling briefcase.
Unfortunately, my timely arrival had not taken into account the opening hours of reception and, as it was 8:57 a.m., the sliding glass doors remained stubbornly inert.
Lucky I had a sudoku in the inner pocket of my jacket. I wiggled one arm from the sleeve of the poncho and maneuvered inside the plastic sheath to get it out. Then I stood and filled it in.
This was called Making the Best of Things. I’d become a seasoned veteran of Making the Best of Things these last few months. Specifically, since the day I left Wallace Insurance.
About a year ago, just after Easter, Peter called me into his office. He and I used to meet there on Friday nights after everyone else went home. I’d stay back filing difficult claims and drafting advisory notes for my inferiors, while they laughed and joked over after work drinks in the kitchenette downstairs.
During the week Peter could be gruff. He was under a great deal of stress—as manager, he had a lot on his plate. But on Friday nights, between 7:32 p.m. and 8:17 p.m. (approximately), he was a different person. I’d sit in his chair and he’d massage my shoulders. He was a lazy masseur—maybe he’d lost some of the strength he once had in his hands—but it was nice to be touched. I’d feel my back soften, the knots unraveling, and then he’d say how much he liked me and how smart I was. “Germaine,” he’d say, “you’re the only one with any intelligence around here.” He told me that several times.
But the last time I saw Peter was not on a Friday night; it was a Wednesday afternoon. And it was not only him in the office; Helen from the HR department was also present.
I wasn’t worried. There’d been a recruitment process; I was pretty sure they were going to tell me . . . I thought it was good news, as shown in Figure 1:
But when I entered the room, it had an air of formality that made my skin prickle.
“Germaine,” said Peter. His voice was stiff. “This has been a very difficult decision. We had lots of high-quality applicants, and some of them had been team leaders before.” His eyes wandered to Helen from the HR department, who gave an encouraging nod. “And I know you’ve been here before, too, Germaine. I know you’ve been down to the last few candidates more than once.”
Four times, in fact, in the seventeen years I’d been at Wallace Insurance (five as senior mathematician). Once upon a time there were six mathematicians, one whole department, but the others had moved on and their replacements were statisticians and computer programmers. I was the last of the old guard, and it was my time, my turn.
And Peter knew that. We’d talked about it, on a Friday. He’d intimated things were about to change.
But now look at him. He was perspiring. Little beads of sweat had appeared on his brow, highlighting the silver regrowth at the hairline. “Did I say it was a difficult decision? It was a very difficult decision, but unfortunately—”
I don’t know what he said after that because I stopped listening, but I got the gist of it, and the gist was they were promoting Susan Reynolds from the Customer Service team.
“But I’m older,” I said, “and I’ve been here longer. I have seniority.”
“Actually, no,” said Helen. “Susan will have seniority.”
I looked at Peter.
Peter looked away.
“We don’t want to waste your skills on managing people, Germaine,” said Helen. “We want someone like you sitting in a room crunching numbers all day long. Not everyone can do what you do, you know.”
I said, “But . . . Susan doesn’t know basic calculus. Her appreciation of polynomials is worryingly limited.”
Helen used the soothing voice. “I know . . . It’s hard. And Germaine, you are a very valued employee.”
I said if I was so valued, maybe they’d like to give me a pay rise? Helen said they weren’t in a position to increase my wages, but perhaps she could see about some movie tickets. To acknowledge all my hard work.
There was some conjecture about what happened next. As I recall, I expressed a degree of disappointment and asked them to reconsider.
Helen and Peter alleged I kicked the table over. They claimed I called Peter an expletive—a word I would never use—and exited the room in such a manner that the door required attention from the Maintenance department. That is not my recollection. For clarity, in Figure 2, I have accurately apportioned blame.
In any case, the next morning my security pass didn’t work. Helen informed me through the intercom that they’d accepted my resignation and requested that I not contact Peter.
In the search for another job I approached every insurance company in Melbourne, Sydney, and Adelaide, outlining my capabilities. I explained that given a few simple data points I could estimate the probability—using a calculator and pencil, no less—of any conceivable scenario. I could say with ninety-three percent accuracy that a sixty-eight-year-old smoker (male) on holiday in Thailand would lose his wallet within a week of arrival. I could tell them a family of four from Melbourne en route to the Gold Coast was unlikely to miss a flight but highly likely to require medical assistance at some point. Age, place of residence, claims history—whatever the variable, I could make the numbers not only sing, but extemporize in four-part harmony. I could devise algorithms that estimated the likelihood of an event occurring and cross-reference this against the cost of that occurrence. I could identify the sweet spot, the point at which we were insuring people for things that wouldn’t happen and not covering them for things that would. “I can save you millions,” I assured them—correctly.
They were, to a person, unconvinced. It seems people no longer understand what mathematics is and uniformly fail to see the possibilities it presents. “We’ve got computers for all that,” they said. And: “Can you do Twitter?”
I had to broaden the search, sending letters for positions in finance, bookkeeping, payroll, and real estate, but it was all for nothing. Not one phone call; not one interview.
I went for a job in the café down the road.
“Why should we hire you, Germaine?” said the manager, whom I’d hitherto avoided because his lattes were always lukewarm.
“Well, Graham,” I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, “I think you know what a people person I am.”
The arsehole hired some other people person.
As each month passed, life seemed to get bleaker. It wasn’t just that no job meant no money, and not going anywhere and not speaking to anyone. It meant . . . no Peter.
I sat on the couch watching old sudoku competitions on YouTube and eating beans out of the can.
Enter Cousin Kimberly.
“Auntie Sharon says you’re having a breakdown,” she said through the receiver.
“I can’t hear you, Kimberly. It’s a terrible line.”
“Might be able to get you a job at the council. I know the mayor. Verity and I go way back.”
This gave me pause. Maybe Cousin Kimberly wasn’t entirely useless.
“Something in management? I’d like to be a team leader.”
“You’d have to promise not to fuck it up, Germaine. Promise you won’t be weird. No asking questions and no arguing. You just shut up and do whatever it is they tell you to do. I’ll let you know what she says.” She hung up quickly.
At eight minutes past nine, the disposable poncho and pants had been removed, folded, slipped into a ziplock bag, and secured in my briefcase. Then, the doors to reception finally slid open. Two women had appeared and were sitting at the desk. Neither looked the slightest bit sheepish. “Hello,” called one. She smiled brazenly. “You’re early,” said the other, without a hint of irony.
I gave a chastising smile, which, in hindsight, was probably too subtle. The women were oblivious.
“I’m Germaine Johnson,” I said. I expected they would have heard of me, being the cousin of the mayor’s oldest friend, but their faces remained blank. Perhaps this was their default position; it was difficult to say.
“Here for Francine Radcliff,” I added. Francine was my new manager. She was in her fifties and had frizzy hair and big teeth. In my interview she’d worn a brown dress and the kind of ergonomic shoes you get at the chemist, the ones with the built-in orthotics.
With what appeared to be considerable effort, the one holding the phone receiver placed a call, and Francine appeared a few minutes later, sticking her head through the security doors like a turtle peering out of its shell.
“You’re here,” she said.
“I’ve been here for ages. Since at least a quarter to.” We went inside.
I’d been in the staff area for the interview, but this time it seemed smaller and sadder. Low partitions formed a corridor, and on either side were cubicles. Neat little boxes, one after the other.
“We’re a bit short on space at the moment,” said Francine. “We used to be down the other end, but last week they decided to move us. The team’s still adjusting to the new layout.”
We turned a corner and wound our way through the partitioned maze. I kept waiting for Francine to stop and point out my seat. I was prepared to appear enthusiastic or, at the very least, not horrified when this occurred, but she didn’t stop. She didn’t slow down, and it struck me that perhaps the mayor had moved the team, anticipating my arrival? Perhaps she felt I ought to sit somewhere a little more salubrious? It wouldn’t be the first time I’d had an upgrade.
At Wallace I’d had my own office—I wasn’t really senior enough, but Peter said it was better that way—and I loved it. Often I went in early just to soak it up. I’d sit in silence and imagine the future, spending time perfecting each part of the fantasy, restarting when I came up with additional good bits that needed to be slotted in. One day, I’d have a whole team that reported to me. One day, the people upstairs would say things like, Don’t know what we did before you, Germaine or What a great idea, Germaine. I’d have special open-door times when people could come and ask me questions or get my opinion on things. I’d be the one with the answers if there was a problem. Germaine will know, they’d say. Germaine should be able to answer that.
As it was, no one much did come to visit. I kept the door open permanently so I could participate in conversations, but the people around me seemed to talk in whispers. I had to come out and tinkle a bell if I wanted to make an announcement or tell a funny story.
Francine and I kept walking. “How’s the mayor today?” I said. I thought Francine might have a special message for me, but she didn’t seem to.
“The mayor? Fine, I guess.”
Our feet padded softly against the carpet.
“You know,” said Francine, “you won’t even notice the space after a while, Germaine. You’ll be too busy answering the phone. Some days I think every senior citizen in the country is trying to get through.”
When Francine had called and said they had an opening for someone interested in working with old people, I thought it was a joke, some elaborate Gotcha. “Very funny, Kimberly,” I said, and went to the mirror to fluff out my hair. I didn’t want a flat bob if cameras appeared and started to film my reaction.
But it was not a joke.
At the interview, Francine explained the position was on the Senior Citizens Helpline, which was a number old people could call if they needed help showering or cooking or whatever it was they couldn’t do for themselves. This initial description made me shudder. I didn’t want to clean toilets or towel anyone’s crevices dry.
But Francine said that wasn’t how it worked. I wouldn’t have to do the things that needed doing, I just had to organize for them to be done.
“And a lot of people don’t even need anything,” said Francine. “They’re lonely and they just want someone to talk to. In fact, that’s probably the most important skill you can have in a position like this: the ability to listen. And empathy. People really open up over the phone; they’ll tell you all sorts of things. You get someone’s whole life story some days.”
“And what would my key performance indicators be?” I said. “Do you operate on a bonus system? I’m very motivated by incentives.”
I heard Francine swallow. “The pay is twenty-five dollars and twenty-seven cents an hour,” she said.
I accepted the position.
Reading Group Guide
This readers group guide for The Helpline includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Katherine Collette. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Germaine Johnson doesn’t need friends. She has her work and her sudoku puzzles. Until, that is, an incident at her insurance company leaves her jobless—and it turns out that there are very few openings these days for senior mathematicians with zero people skills.
Soon enough though, Germaine manages to secure a position at city hall answering calls on the Senior Citizens Helpline. But it turns out that the mayor has something else in mind for Germaine: a secret project involving the troublemakers at the senior citizens center and their feud with the neighboring golf club—which happens to be run by the dashing yet disgraced national sudoku champion, Don Thomas, a celebrity of the highest order to Germaine.
Don and the mayor want the senior center closed down. At first, Germaine is dedicated to helping them out—it makes sense mathematically, after all. But when Germaine actually gets to know the group of elderly rebels there, they open her eyes to a life outside of boxes and numbers and for the first time ever, Germaine realizes she may have miscalculated.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. As Germaine is let go from her job as a senior mathematician, there is “some conjecture about what happened next” (p. 4) during a conversation called “the incident.” How do these opening pages establish Germaine’s personality?
2. A number of graphs and figures are used to illustrate Germaine’s points. How do they add to the storytelling?
3. Why do you think that competitive sudoku resonates so much with Germaine?
4. Germaine fixates on a number of routines and relationships. She was Alan Cosgrove’s number one fan and traveled to major events to see him, saying, “He was hardly ever there, and we spoke only one time, but we had an unspoken connection: It didn’t require acknowledgment on his behalf.” (p. 46) How does this mirror her relationship with Peter?
5. When Germaine learns that the mayor intends to shut down the senior center, not just remove Celia from her position, Germaine thinks about those who rely on the center, wondering “what were they doing, invading my private thoughts?” (p. 108). How does this differ from her early impressions of them?
6. When Jack warns Germaine that Mayor Bainbridge may be self-interested, Germaine notes that “Jack’s misgivings didn’t deter me. The opposite: They reminded me that it’s important to have vision in life” (p. 135). What kind of vision do you think Germaine is talking about here?
7. Germaine is thrilled to have a secret project, in addition to her early attempts to get call time down at the senior center. What does the focus on the secret project mean for Germaine?
8. When Germaine learns that the senior center will be sold, the mayor “said his name. Don. And that one word seemed to change everything. It brought clarity: Don. I was helping Don” (p. 165). How does the mayor exploit Germaine’s affection for Don/Alan?
9. Although her relationship with Sharon can be strained, Germaine clings to the idea of John Douglas as her father, noting that “if there was a degree of uncertainty about something, I’d say to myself: What would Professor John Douglas do in this situation?” (p. 181). What happens to Germaine’s sense of self when she learns that John Douglas isn’t her father?
10. How does Germaine’s relationship with her mother improve as she gets to know the members of the senior citizen’s center?
11. The book ends with Germaine’s plan to move in with Jack and the line: “He was going to be so excited when he found out” (p. 292). What do you think happens when Jack finds out? Will he interpret this as a romantic gesture?
12. Why do you think Germaine misinterprets the relationship between Marie and Jack?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Bring sudoku puzzles to your book group and see who can complete one the fastest to feel the thrill like Germaine.
2. In honor of Biscuit Tuesday, bring cookies to your book group.
3. The Helpline was originally published in Australia, where it is set. Bring some Australian wine to share with your book club friends.
A Conversation with Katherine Collette
Where did the character of Germaine come from?
I’m an engineer, which probably explains everything. Germaine would make a great engineer.
My job involves planning and designing sewers. In my work we often say the engineering is the easy part—you can come up with a technical solution to anything—the hard part is people. They always make things so difficult.
I like when the point of something gets lost. Working on sewers, it’s easy to get stuck on what will make the sewer great, how to make it perfect operationally, forgetting that it’s in a terrible location or the manholes are ugly or inconvenient or that people will hate it.
Germaine is that compulsion, taken to an extreme. Hitting the target but missing the point. With Germaine there is no bigger picture.
You also worked at a helpline. What was your experience there like?
I’ve worked on a helpline but not for senior citizens. It was a government-run phone line, advising people on the terms and conditions of their employment. So, a truck driver would call up and say, ‘I drive a double tractor trailer. How much should I get paid on Sundays?’ Or a waiter might call wanting to know what breaks they should get—that sort of thing.
You had to be very meticulous and check different awards to make sure what you were saying was accurate. I cut a few corners. So many corners that my first week I distinguished myself by answering the most number of calls. Quite a to-do was made of this and I thought, Wow, I’ve really impressed people. It was only when my manager came and said, “We think you need more training” that I realized they weren’t impressed, they were worried.
It was a hard job, talking on the phone all the time. I didn’t love it.
Germaine has a singular view of the world. What was it like to get inside her head and write from her perspective?
Germaine was great fun to write. What I like about her is she’s not a do-gooder. She’s not there to change the world—she just happens to. To me, that’s the best kind of hero.
One of things that helped in writing her was she always had very clear motivations. Like, she desperately wants accolades, even for things that are not at all important. That’s funny to me. Germaine wants to be a big fish in a small pond. Only problem is she’s a medium-size- fish, so she just needs to find the right-size puddle.
This novel also says a lot about the working of local government and the relationship between bureaucracy and small businesses. Do you think the two can work in tandem?
I’ve always worked in government. I like it. I think it’s challenging and meaningful, especially working in sewerage. I can sit in a room and write and wonder if something should be red or scarlet or the perfect shade of pink, but then I’ll go into the office and someone will have raw sewage spilling in their yard and suddenly you realize what a real problem looks like.
Government/the bureaucracy can have a sense of ridiculousness about it. Like, at my work they recently removed all the Band-Aids from the first aid kits. This was because they didn’t want to people to administer their own first aid, not even for a paper cut. (It is a paperless office, though. . . .) I don’t think you’d get that in the business world.
The ideal is bureaucracy and small businesses working together. In practice . . . Maybe they have different agendas.
There are a number of great intergenerational friendships in this novel. Did you initially plan to include these, or did they come about organically?
Actually, even before Germaine, the concept for the book started with a senior citizens center. I met a very unusual, almost tyrannical senior citizens club president and was mesmerized by her. My original thought was she’d make a great documentary film subject but I didn’t know anything about film, so I wrote a short story about her and the short story evolved to become a novel and the novel is The Helpline.
So the intergeneration aspect was always there.
I think I was very conscious of wanting to write a book in which most of the characters were female, but they weren’t necessarily seeking “female” things. Germaine is a woman in her late thirties, she’s single, she doesn’t have children. Generally, a story about her would center on her wanting a romantic relationship. But that’s not what Germaine’s after. She’s after friendship. Friendship and loneliness are two things I gravitate toward writing about.
Although The Helpline was originally published in Australia, it’s also being released now in the United States, Canada, and the UK. What has the publication process been like as the book has traveled?
It’s an amazing experience. Writing a novel takes a long time and you do it thinking no one will ever read what you write, except my husband and my parents (and even then, probably under duress). So to have it published at all is pretty special. A lot of great writers don’t get that privilege. Seeing it come out in Australian was mind-blowing, the fact it’s now traveled to places I haven’t is even more exciting.
The best bit is seeing the different covers for the book. Funny how the same story can be encapsulated by completely different images. I love the American cover, the sense that’s Germaine is lurking behind a plant. It’s something she would do.
You don’t hear about competitive sudoku often. What inspired Alan’s and Germaine’s love of sudoku?
I am terrible at sudoku! I wish I were better at it. Germaine needed an antisocial hobby and it was sudoku or crosswords. I like that it involves numbers, you do it alone, and sudoku has levels (easy, hard, etc.), so she could claim to be better at it than she was.
In terms of Alan, I was very inspired by the King of Kong documentary, which is about people who are obsessed with playing Donkey Kong. The King of Kong features a Donkey Kong world champion who is exactly the sort of obscure, faded star Germaine would find appealing.
Who was your favorite character to write?
Germaine, definitely. But Eva was also fun. There’s an ironic subplot in the novel about the communal biscuits in the office kitchen. Eva’s very involved in it. It was one of the first things I ever wrote and it’s probably resonated the most with people.
In some ways Germaine and Eva seem to be opposites. Germaine’s very critical of Eva for being incompetent, but in fact Eva turns out to be surprisingly competent in her own way. And Germaine, the one most obsessed with competence, is the least competent of all.
There’s been an increase of what we call “uplit,” books with hopeful messages that promote kindness and community, a category this book falls in. Why do you think people are responding to these kinds of stories?
I think there are two reasons it’s gaining popularity. One is in response to the climate of the day, there’s a lot that doesn’t feel uplifting in the world right now. The other is maybe that what has been published, in terms of literary trends, has been dark too. When I think about the big books of the last few years it’s Gone Girl and Jane Harper and Girl on the Train—and those are great, compelling books to read—but I don’t know how hopeful they are. . . .
Having said that, I do think that even writing that is “entertainment” or escapism still responds to social issues. There’s power and corruption in The Helpline; it’s just because it’s at the local government level that it’s less troubling. The stakes seem lower.
What has been the most rewarding experience of publishing a debut novel?
I talk a lot about the behind the scenes of writing and publishing on the podcast, the First Time, that I do with another Australian author Kate Mildenhall. The podcast is supported by a few of the writers centers over here. It tracks my journey in the lead-up to the book’s coming out, what it was like seeing the cover for the first time, planning the book launch—that kind of thing. It’s a cool thing to have, a kind of audio diary.
Because I work as an engineer I’m not around people who love books and writing. In fact, when I used to say I was writing on the weekend or before work, people would generally mishear and think I was riding (a bike). . . . It’s way more normal as engineer to be into bike riding than writing or reading. That’s been wonderful, being around people who like to talk about books and ideas and what you love or hate.
What do you hope readers take away from this novel?
To my mind it’s novel about people who are invested in things that to an outsider seem small. Which on the one hand is funny, that sense of disproportionateness. But at the same time, we make things meaningful. They’re not inherently meaningful. Just because something seems small or unworthy, doesn’t mean it is.
Are you working on anything new?
I’m working on a novel set in the very weird world of competitive public speaking. It follows four characters as they compete to win the national impromptu speaking championship. It’s sort of has a documentary/mockumentary element to it. I’m actually competing in speaking competitions as part of my research, which is odd and fun and terrifying and thrilling all at once.