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Good evening, Rob. Your first challenge follows.

These challenges have nothing to do with impressing


Destry Camberwick. They are all to do with
Rob Fitzgerald impressing Rob Fitzgerald.
Challenge 1. You will enter the
Milltown’s Got Talent competition.

Introducing Rob Fitzgerald: thirteen years old and determined


to impress the new girl at school. But it’s a difficult task for a
super-shy kid who is prone to panic attacks that include vomiting,
difficulty breathing and genuine terror that can last all day.
An anonymous texter is sending Rob challenges and
they might just help. Or not.

Full of heart and humour, A Song Only I Can Hear


is a delightful and moving novel by the
award-winning author of My Life as an Alphabet.

‘Funny, heartfelt and surprising. A Song Only I Can Hear


is as timely as it is entertaining. A must-read.’
MICHAEL GERARD BAUER

ISBN: 978-1-76063-083-6

Cover design: Debra Billson


Cover images: Paitoon/Shutterstock 9 781760 630836

FICTION

21mm
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For
Stephanie Spillett
Lucy Gunner
Ira Racines

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You don’t love someone for their looks,
their clothes or their fancy car, but because
they sing a song only you can hear.
Oscar Wilde

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Prologue
-
‘Mum,’ I said. ‘When you look at Dad, do your pupils
dilate? Is there a rush of blood to your epidermis and a
fluttering in the pit of your stomach?’
Breakfast is the perfect time for serious conversation.
A new day is starting but it’s the calm before the day’s
metaphorical storm.
Mum looked at Dad.
Descriptive note: father. Name: Alan Patrick Fitz­
gerald. Age: . . . who knows such things? Old. Not really
old, like Grandad, who is little more than a collection of
wrinkles in a nest of greyness, but averagely old. Could
be forty-­­
five. Could be fifty-­ eight. An age, I imagine,
when you’ve stopped caring how old you are. Or
possibly even remembering. Dad, at least when sitting at
the kitchen table, is a sphere on top of a sphere, like a
fleshy snowman. His head is bald and he has more chins
than standard. I sometimes get the urge to put my fingers
up his nostrils, such is the resemblance to a bowling ball,

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although I have resisted this, for obvious reasons. Alan
Patrick Fitzgerald also has a belly like a sail in a strong
wind. It stretches the fabric of his white shirt to the extent
that gaps between buttons gape. Dark and wiry hairs
protrude from those gaps as if he keeps either a dark rug
or a dead primate tucked down there. Maybe his head hair
migrated south.
Mum looked at Dad. Dad looked at the sports pages
of our local newspaper, lost in the US Open golf tourna-
ment, and deaf to my words. She glanced back at me.
‘I don’t know about fluttering,’ she said, ‘but he some-
times turns my stomach.’
I gave a small, disapproving frown and cocked my
head to one side. Mum buttered toast.
‘Why do you ask, Rob?’ she said.
‘I have become a student of love,’ I replied. ‘It’s a
mystery and I hoped you and Dad could shed some light
on it, since you’ve been together for many, many years.
Do you still display all those signs of love?’
Mum chewed her toast and considered the question.
‘The thing is,’ she replied finally, ‘it’s impossible to
maintain that first heady flush of love. No one’s got the
stamina.’
I thought about this. If Mum was constantly blushing,
with pupils dilating and stomach fluttering, it would be
difficult to carry on a normal daily routine. You’d bump
into things, for example, and be permanently orange, like
Donald Trump.
‘So love fades. Is that what you’re saying?’

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‘No. “Fades” isn’t the right word. It changes.’ She
gazed at the dining table as if for inspiration. Or maybe
it was just to avoid my eyes. Some people, according
to reading I’ve done on the subject, find the topic of
love embarrassing, if not distasteful. Then she did meet
my eyes, as though a decision had been made. ‘You’re
probably old enough to talk about this kind of stuff,’
she said. ‘And maybe it’s time we did. The thing is, all
those things you described – the rush of blood, the eyes
dilating, the butterflies in the stomach – well, those are
more to do with physical love, with desire. Do you know
what I mean?’
I looked at Dad and tried to imagine someone finding
him physically attractive. I couldn’t, but that didn’t mean
it was impossible.
‘Sure,’ I said.
‘Proper love is more than that,’ she continued. ‘It’s to
do with trust and affection and knowing what the other
person is thinking without being told. It’s to do with the
ordinary stuff of life shared with someone special. It’s
doing the dishes together, paying bills, watching television,
laughing. Laughter is vital. Love is often not glamorous.
You find it in the humdrum. Is this making sense?’
I nodded. Parents often assume their kids are stupid.
‘It’s a complex emotion,’ I said.
‘Very true,’ said Mum. She started collecting plates.
‘And why have you become a “student” of this particular
subject?’ I could hear the quotation marks.
‘I think I’m in love,’ I said.

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Mum’s jaw dropped a little.
‘But you’re thirteen,’ she said.
‘Is there an age limit involved?’ I asked. ‘Am I barred,
like trying to get in to watch a horror movie at the
cinema?’
Dad folded the newspaper and rejoined the land of the
living.
‘Dad,’ I said. ‘The greatest, most wonderful love of
your life?’
He didn’t hesitate.
‘Golf,’ he said.

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1
-
Because I’m in the top English class at school, I attended a
writing workshop at a local literary festival a few months
back. It was run by a well-­known writer for young adults
and children. I got a signed novel and I also learned some-
thing about the techniques of writing a book (which this
is). She went on quite a bit about establishing a narrative
voice. I’ve been thinking long and hard about it.
Hi! My name is Rob C. Fitzgerald (don’t ask what
the C stands for – I’m not telling you on the grounds
that it’s hideous and embarrassing) and I’m thirteen
years old.
Then I remembered what the author had said about
tone. I looked at the word ‘Hi!’ on the page. It struck me
as way too conversational and informal. I hit the back-
space button.
My name is Rob C. Fitzgerald (don’t ask what the C
stands for – I’m not telling you on the grounds that it’s
hideous and embarrassing) and I’m thirteen years old.

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I put my head in my hands. Think. Be critical. Are
the brackets and the words in them necessary? If I’m not
going to say what the C stands for (and trust me, I’m
not), then why mention it? A tip the writer gave came
back to me: the delete key is your best friend.
My name is Rob Fitzgerald and I’m thirteen years old.
Yuck. Ugly. Keep it simpler still.
I’m Rob Fitzgerald and I’m thirteen years old.
Two ‘I’m’s in the same sentence. That’s a basic mistake.
I’m Rob and thirteen.
Perfect. If I’m actually determined to be boring.
Look, maybe it’s best if we pretend this first chapter
doesn’t exist. If I don’t get any better as a writer, you have
permission to come round to my house, tie me to a chair
and have at my toes with a blowtorch.
Which is way better than getting your money back if
you’re not entirely satisfied.

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2
-
Daniel Smith was waiting for me at the entrance to school.
Daniel Smith always waits for me at the entrance to
school. Sometimes he also waits for me when school is
over. It depends.
Descriptive note: Daniel Smith. Age: fourteen (or
thereabouts – we don’t exchange birthday cards). Stocky,
but not like a good beef stew. Solid and muscular, with
red hair that sticks up at strange angles. This makes his
face resemble a drawing of a rising sun completed by
a three-­year-­old. Daniel is short, knows it and tries to
compensate by being a bully, especially to me. He has
freckles and a way of standing, with his hands clenched at
his sides, arms forming brackets to his torso, that makes
him look like he’s on the point of pooping his pants. He
has a habit of sticking his chin out as if it was a weapon.
‘Hey, Fitzgerald,’ he growled, his loaded chin only
centimetres from mine, ‘gonna fight me, huh? Whaddya
say? Cat got yer tongue? Gonna fight me, huh?’

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Daniel is a fan of repetition. He is also a fan of the
phrase ‘cat got your tongue?’ It is one of his favourite
taunts, because I rarely talk at school unless I really
have to. Most of the time, I keep quiet. Daniel finds me
irritating and my shyness makes things worse.
I tried to edge past him. If I could make it onto school
grounds, then a teacher on yard duty would spot us. Unfor-
tunately, Daniel was wise to this and blocked my path.
‘C’mon, Fitzgerald,’ he said. ‘Be a man, all right? Man
up.’ He laughed in my face, which was horrible since
his breath comes straight from a baboon’s bottom. He
also loves demanding that I ‘be a man’. Daniel obviously
thinks this is hilarious, proof that he’s a few toppings
short of a decent pizza.
‘Tellya what. You can have first punch. C’mon. Can’t
say fairer than that. Go on. First dig.’
I tried to stand my ground, despite his breath. We’d
had the same confrontation for months. Here is what
I wanted to say: ‘I am never going to fight you, Daniel,
because all of human history teaches us that fighting
solves nothing.’ But I kept my head down.
‘Cat got yer tongue?’ Daniel’s voice dripped with
contempt. ‘Unless you want me to beat yer head in here
and now, then say something. Doesn’t matter what.
C’mon. Be a man. Just one word.’ He poked me on the
shoulder. ‘Or can’t you speak?’
‘No,’ I mumbled.
‘Hah, loser,’ he chortled. ‘You said you can’t, but you
used a word to say you can’t. Ha . . .’

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‘Is there a problem here, guys?’ It was Miss Pritchett,
who has a nose for sniffing out potential fights, like a sixth
sense. She’d appeared outside the school gates, which was
impressive even for an expert battle bloodhound.
‘No, Miss,’ said Daniel.
‘No, Miss,’ I said.
‘Fabulous,’ she said. ‘Then please come in, and mill
around aimlessly until the bell goes. It’s what students do.’
We came in and milled around aimlessly until the bell
went. But Daniel kept looking at me. His hands were
clenched, his arms bowed and his eyes narrowed. He was
a boy who looked in desperate need of the toilet.

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3
-
Grandad was waiting for me after school, which threw
not just a spanner in Daniel’s works, but a whole toolkit.
Descriptive note: grandfather on father’s side. Name:
Patrick ‘Pop’ Fitzgerald. Age: . . . ancient. Once referred
to himself as ‘older than God’s dog’. When pressed,
admits to being as old as his tongue and slightly older
than his teeth. He is a collection of wrinkles in a nest of
greyness. Was once in the armed forces and served in a
war overseas, but never talks about it. Has a puckered scar
on his right arm that might be a souvenir of conflict, but
never talks about it. Lives by himself in a two-­bedroom
apartment for the aged in a serviced facility. Refers to
the facility as the ‘place where a bunch of old farts hang
around, waiting to die’. Or, occasionally, ‘God’s waiting
room’. Was married to my grandmother (duh) but she
must have died a long time ago because he never talks
about her. Neither do Mum or Dad. Grandad uses bad
language a lot and doesn’t like many people. He likes me.

10

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‘Hello, Pop,’ I said. He was leaning on his cane and
sucking at his teeth, which he does almost constantly.
Often this results in a high-­pitched whistling sound like
the ancient kettle he puts on the gas ring back at his
apartment. It’s eerie.
‘Hello, young Rob,’ he said. ‘Would you like to accom-
pany your old grandad to a fast-­food restaurant for an
after-­school snack?’
‘Yes, please,’ I said.
‘Tough,’ he said. ‘Never been in one and not starting
now. Blankety places use blankety offal.’ (You perhaps
need to know that he doesn’t actually say ‘blankety’ – use
your imagination.)
‘Awful?’
‘Offal. Guts, brains, bumholes. Dip ’em in batter, deep
fry ’em, serve ’em up. Blankety criminal it is.’
‘Deep-­fried bumholes?’
‘Exactly.’
‘So why did you offer to take me?’
‘Because I’m blankety kind and generous to a fault,
that’s why.’
‘So where should we eat then?’
‘Nowhere. I’m not made of blankety money, you
know.’
It takes a while to get used to Grandad. It’s been
thirteen years for me, and I’m still working on it. In the
end, we strolled back to his place and he made me a cup
of tea with the whistling kettle. He bustled about in a
cupboard, sucking his teeth, so I had the whistle in stereo.

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‘Pop,’ I said. ‘I’m in love.’
That stopped him bustling. And whistling. He turned
to face me.
‘Who with?’
‘A girl.’
He slapped his palm against his forehead.
‘Well, I didn’t think you were in love with a boy, yer
blankety bozo. What’s her name?’
‘Destry.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Destry. Destry Camberwick.’
‘That’s not a name. That’s an eighties rock band.’
‘She’s perfect.’
‘Well, her name isn’t.’
I sighed, probably quite dramatically. Grandad echoed
me.
‘C’mon, young Rob,’ he said. ‘I’ll break open the
Arnotts, you can dip ’em in yer tea and tell me all
the sordid blankety details.’

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