Don’t come home: a sample of Tank Water

JAMES Brandt didn’t look back when he got away from his rural hometown as a teenager. Now, he’s returned to Kippen for the first time in twenty years because his cousin Tony has been found dead under the local bridge.

The news that Tony has left him the entire family farm triggers James’s journalistic curiosity – and his anxiety – both of which cropped up during his turbulent journey to adulthood. But it is the unexpected homophobic attack he survives that draws James into a hunt for the reasons one lonely Kippen farm boy in every generation kills himself.

Standing in the way is James’s father, the town’s recently retired top cop, who is not prepared to investigate crimes no-one reckons have taken place. James must use every newshound’s trick he ever learned in order to uncover the brutal truth.

A coming-of-age story and crime thriller with a large and gentle heart.


The prologue of Tank Water

Daniel listened to his son’s idiotic answering machine for the fourth or fifth time, waited for the beep, cleared his throat and went to say everything; but when the right words still wouldn’t come, he threw the receiver down and went for another drink.

Bottles rattled in the fridge door as he yanked it open. He twisted the top off one and threw his head back for the first gulp. From that angle the leftover sausages on the top shelf looked like his best option for tea, but their yellowed skin reminded him of his nephew’s bloated body inside the freezer at the police station.

Even after shutting his fridge the smell was there. It’d been hanging around for days, like there was mortuary fluid on his shoes. Whenever he noticed that sickly blend of chemicals, Daniel couldn’t help but picture the photographs of Tony’s remains before they’d removed him from the river below the Kippen Bridge.

He turned to the sink and washed his hands again, but the mossy scent coming down the pipes from the tank didn’t help. What water did to a corpse — filling it with more death than it seemed to have room for — was the very worst thing he’d seen in twenty-five years of police work. The head, shoulders and most of the torso had been submerged, swelling the guts. The legs were broken and lying at awkward angles, entirely concealed by reeds and the thicket of poplars.

Daniel reached for his beer and flicked the radio on. Music he didn’t recognise unsettled him, but the news would come on in a few minutes. Word was already getting around town. He hoped no one had contacted the Kippen station with the worst of the stories. Tony would probably still be lying there if a jogger’s dog hadn’t sniffed him out. The park below the bridge was known for attracting lonely types, and his nephew certainly fit the bill. Every ten years or so, one of them jumped.

He reached into the bread bin. Only crusts left. Everything else was in the fridge, but Daniel wasn’t game to open that again. Nothing much in the cupboards. He wasn’t in the habit of going into Kippen just for shopping, not since he’d finished up at the police station. Anyhow, there were beers left from his retirement party on the back seat of his car.

As he pushed through the screen door onto the verandah, rabbits scurried off the last patch of lawn by the tap. A cloud of dust in the middle distance partly shrouded his brother inside his tractor cabin, heading for home. Beyond that, already out of the sun’s reach, Deloraine’s homestead blended into the dark furrows that would push up Bill’s cheeky early sorghum crop soon enough.

Daniel sucked at his drink and swirled each mouthful around his teeth before swallowing, testing whether it could somehow be right to head over there and hang around for something to eat. For more than twenty years, Doris had told him to come around for a meal whenever he needed. He had a whole unopened carton of beer to offer.

Sitting up in his cabin, Bill was a bloody wonder. He never let the farm go, even after the worst life threw at him. With the chance of frost right through to November it was dicey to plant so early, but Daniel knew why his brother did things that way. It was like they couldn’t lose no matter how much they gambled. Bill planted crops even if the conditions were all wrong. He loved feeling like a winner in spite of the weather reports, and there was no one out here to overlook your failures. It had been a huge risk, but he’d pulled the tough older brother act and forced Daniel into sowing sorghum on every square inch of Deloraine and The Mulgas, less than a month after little Gregory had died.

Daniel gnawed the inside of his cheek, remembering his own dead boy. The hard work of that huge crop had paid off richly for them, but it had been Daniel’s last full season of farming before he’d pulled the skittish younger brother act, sold the land and applied to become a cop. Harvesting his share of nearly five thousand acres in the solitude of his cabin while he’d sobbed for Gregory had done him in. All that was left of The Mulgas’ perfect cropping country was the home yard.

‘Thank Christ,’ he muttered as though someone was there. His colleagues were right. He’d started talking to himself. Former colleagues. Bill changed gears and the tractor disappeared behind the tall pine trees that obscured the machinery shed at Deloraine. As Daniel watched, he felt the air cool and noticed the gloom of his own house stretching over the field between the homesteads. The unmistakeable shadow of The Mulgas’ water tank steadily covered the dried grass, the gravel laneway and the bare fruit trees along the fence.

He shouldn’t go and bother his brother and sister-in-law. The Mulgas had him in its grasp, and staying in was better than witnessing poor old Bill having to go home to Doris. He’d be trying to disappear into the woodwork even more than usual, and she would be busy with funeral arrangements like it was a bloody dance at the town hall.

Daniel heaved a sigh, drowned it with another mouthful, and prepared to sit with the sorrow in the homestead that once rattled with a wife and kids. There was just one more thing to do before he’d put the lock on the top gate, fetch the beers in and call it a night.

He flung the door open, killed the radio, went for the phone and dialed the number he’d circled in the newspaper next to his son’s photograph. While he waited for the comedy act of Jamie’s message, still with that girlish tone, Daniel finished his beer.

‘You’ve reached James Brandt, journalist at the newspaper everyone loves to hate. I’m not available to take your call at the moment, but please leave me a message if you’ve got the scoop.’

Right off the beep, Daniel spoke.

‘Jamie,’ he said and burped. He wasn’t about to let his son imagine anything had changed. ‘It’s Dad. Look, I’ve been trying to catch you for a few days. It’s just that, well there’s no easy way to say it. There’s been a death in the family. Just call me, son. Funeral’s next week. There’s a couple of things to discuss, but you don’t need to be here.’

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

The pudding’s in the proof: Tank Water spills onto the page

I RECENTLY EXPERIENCED a series of very sweet ‘just desserts’ while working on the final stages of releasing my first novel, Tank Water.

Proofreading is an art. It’s best done as part of a team, and a team is what I was treated to with the polishing of Tank Water, recruited by Anna Solding of MidnightSun Publishing .

The interior of our book was formatted by Zena Shapter. Like the cover designer Kim Lock, Zena is an author in her own right. So is MidnightSun’s editor Anna Solding. There is something rather wonderful about being part of a team of writers who know how to nurture a new book into life.

When I independently published my other books in 2015, I had plenty of assistance for the proofreading stage. Other writers, mainly, but I also learned to rely on my first readers. When you don’t need to print hundreds of copies due to the luxury of Print On Demand (POD) services, you can afford to capitalise on the first eyes that experience a limited run of your paperbacks.

Confronted with a series of gradually improving proofs of Tank Water to check over, I did what I always do when it comes to checking my own work: I read the whole thing a few times. No-one will ever read Tank Water more than me, which is as it should be. Over the years since the full manuscript was completed, I’ve consumed the whole thing so many times I have forgotten the number.

It had been around a year since I’d experienced my coming-of-age Outback Noir tale, a hiatus I took from the work in order to make the proofreading all the sweeter.

Finally, I did what I advise all authors to do at this stage: put the dogs out, turn the phone off, shut down social media, make copious cups of tea and read my work as though it’s the last time I’ll ever do so.

FONT FAVES: The opening page of Tank Water ready for readers

Proofreading surprises

How thrilling it was to see that Zena chose two of my favourite fonts: Garamond for the body copy, and Bradley Hand for the chapter headings.

Garamond is one of those classic serif typefaces borne of the invention of the printing press, more ‘open’ and rounded than Times and designed to suggest hand-written penmanship.

Bradley Hand emerged in the mid 1990s and is a font I have often chosen for publishing projects of my own. In Tank Water, it’s used to suggest protagonists James’s handwriting, since he’s a journalist attached to his notebook and unable to switch off from the task of recording his thoughts and reactions.

Seeing my chapters and the narrative arc that binds them together so beautifully laid out took my breath away. It feel surreal. Suddenly, internal processes that have taken a lifetime are set to burst into the consciousness of many other people.

I also came face-to-face with exactly what I’d created: a story that takes place in two time zones, with multiple inner thoughts from different characters. These required differentiation in the formatting, and Zena worked extremely quickly, efficiently and creatively to format these ideas on the page.

It rained all week, and I spent the whole time inside my very own tale.

TESTING THE WATER: My husband Richard and our newest pack member putting Tank Water through its paces

The husband test

Uncorrected proofs of Tank Water arrived by post soon after. In three dimensions, the publication has a wonderful, moody style to it which I immediately fell in love with. There’s plenty of Outback Noir out there right now, and we’re hitting a phase of this genre that deals reaches further into diverse territory than ever.

I always wanted the novel to be the type of book I would be drawn to on the shelf of a bookshop, to appeal to me visually. Having a stack of fully-fledged proofs in the house inspired by husband Richard to pick up a copy and begin reading; while I had the luxury of doing my final proofread with a paperback version to rest in my hand, not a computer screen.

All the hard work has paid off. Thanks to a team that includes professional proofreaders (who picked up several typos ans literals), Richard (who picked up two) and a good friend Jo (who picked up one that no-one else noticed), plenty of eyes have been on this publication, and it’s gone to press.

Richard’s biased, of course, but he couldn’t put Tank Water down!

Please preorder yours today, it’ll be out on October 1.

Surface ripples: Tank Water cover reveal

THE COVER OF my debut novel Tank Water is ready to share with the world!

Created by Kim Lock, lead designer of MidnightSun Publishing since 2013, this cover stood out from the group of samples I was sent, and didn’t need much tweaking at all.

Life-giving water captured in tanks comes from rainfall, so the approaching storm in Kim’s design is apt, but it’s also prescient. Facing it is a young person, who could be any one of several characters.

The railway causeway says everything about the rural decrepitude of the novel’s country setting. The person on it is walking into the storm, whereas flocks of birds are escaping in the other direction.

Yet there is hope in the light at the horizon… and the neon-strong pink should flag to those who know me that this work is like just about everything I write: bursting with messages of equality.

Tank Water will be published in October 2021 and is available for pre-order on Booktopia and Amazon.

Pre-ordering assists a book’s launch because pre-ordered purchases are counted in a title’s first week of sales, the strength of which can generate positive buzz about a book… so if you feel like buying your copies ahead of Tank Water’s release, you’ll be helping us!

My novel will also be available in bookshops nationally. Stockists will be able to order it in for you, if you’d like to support your local.

Soon, I’ll be releasing dates on a year-long book tour, with dates in Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and more!

See you out there on the road. Meanwhile, thanks Kim (an author in her own right with a new book out this month), you really ‘got’ my story!

%d bloggers like this: