Category Archives: LGBTIQ Equality

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.

Tank Water in the Pipeline

IT FEELS LIKE a lifetime ago that I embarked on my dream to write a novel and have it published. In fact it is… in 1988 I received the first of many rejections over three decades, for a Young Adult novel I wrote when I was 15.

If anyone had told me I would wait thirty-three years to see my first novel in print, I would probably have taken myself off to acquire a trade with a better strike rate for success.

But I never came close to giving up. Was it grit, ego, refusal to accept that my storytelling might be unworthy, or a combination? I’m not sure, but I will undoubtedly write about it one day because that’s how I am hard-wired.

Here is the announcement about my coming-of-age thriller set in rural Australia – Tank Water – from Books + Publishing, March 26 2021…  

MidnightSun acquires Burge debut novel

MidnightSun Publishing has acquired debut novel Tank Water by Michael Burge, a story of homophobic hate crimes and the dangers of growing up feeling different in rural Australia.

Burge met MidnightSun publisher Anna Solding at a pitch session hosted by New England Writers Centre in 2018.

‘From the first time I met Michael, when he pitched his manuscript to me in Armidale, I’ve known that Tank Water is an important Australian novel,’ said Solding, adding that ‘it delves into themes that don’t often appear in our national literature’.

‘Through the taut and haunting narrative spanning two decades, Michael articulates what it can be like to grow up gay in the country and how prejudice and hate crimes are an extension of people’s fear of difference. We are so honoured and proud to be publishing this book.’

Born in the NSW New England region, Burge returned to live there in 2017. He said Tank Water has a fictional rural setting and is not based on any one case.

‘In the country, there are many stories about gay hatred leading to extremes of violence, and fiction is a way to start the difficult but necessary process of telling them at a relatively safe distance. I’m so excited and grateful that Anna acquired this tale about how three generations of a country family deal with toxic masculinity and must dig very deep. Taking a risk on such edgy subject matter is a testament to MidnightSun’s vision.’

Burge is a former Fairfax journalist and is currently the director of the High Country Writers Festival, which takes place in the rural region of Glen Innes in northern NSW each October. He self-published his nonfiction debut Questionable Deeds: Making a stand for equal love in 2015.

Tank Water will be published by MidnightSun in October 2021.

Art and validation (and why they don’t mix)

WHEN I was fourteen living in the Blue Mountains of NSW, Australia, two life-changing things happened to me: I developed the ability to draw and paint well; and I realised I was gay.

“Capturing and generating emotion – not validation – is the real skill in all arts.”

One of these led me to years of study and training in visual, fine and applied arts, with others fostering my nascent skills. The other led me to fifteen years’ profound fear and confusion. It’s likely you’ve already worked out which is which.

Creative skills and homosexuality are traits I was born with. Although I had relatives who were artistic and same sex-attracted, both states came out of nowhere for this kid, who in the early 1980s had become quite accustomed to blending in with the furniture.

But when I sold my first artwork at the age of 14 and started receiving regular commissions, I was coaxed from behind the sofa. My single mother wouldn’t let me accept money, initially, but when I reached the age when others in my school year were earning pocket money pumping fuel or at the checkout, she shrugged and said that I should be paid for the work I was producing.

Exhibiting in group charity shows I earned a decent sum after the commission and framing was paid for. At the time, the Blue Mountains had a booming arts scene with prolific artists whose work was instantly recognisable, names like David Brayshaw, Robyn Collier, Fiona Craig and plenty more were sources of great inspiration for me.

It didn’t take long for people to open avenues for my artwork. One of the earliest was the encouragement from a teacher for me to enter the annual Gould League art awards, with a particular focus on the subject of birds. I entered several works and received three prizes.

‘Platypus’ (pen and ink on paper by Michael Burge, 1985)

There was a huge resurgence of wildlife art during the 1980s and despite my youth I rode the wave. Commercial prospects for my art opened wide when a school trip to New Zealand required a fundraising effort, and stationary was printed with a range of my wildlife studies. It sold like the proverbial hot cakes and suddenly my bespectacled, pimply demeanour had a creative context.

But to anyone paying close attention, I was entering an extremely dangerous phase.

Subtle poison

As the decade ended and I went off to tertiary studies that included a design diploma at Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art, I felt the creeping need for something to be done with my innate skills. Arts are defined as ‘fine’ or ‘applied’, after all, but my grasp on validation slipped during the post-recession era of the 1990s.

Validation… what a subtle poison it was for me, allowing one side of me to be singled out at the expense of the other. HIV/AIDS was tightening its terrible grip and while homosexuality had been decriminalised in NSW in 1984, any sign of it in my conservative community was treated with disdain.

I recall believing that if I could express myself in other places I might find true acceptance, and part of my journey to tertiary studies in Sydney and in the United Kingdom was an attempt to shuffle off the kid who could draw in order to find the adult in another art form altogether.

But it was harder than it should have been, and trying to manifest other skills and dreams led me down several blind alleys, because every one of them brought me face-to-face with myself, and, being deeply closeted, my basic composition was squeezed into a frame that left me looking and feeling terrible.

‘The Pursuit of Saint Valentine’ (ink on paper by Michael Burge 1995)

For years I didn’t paint or draw. Living in the United Kingdom and trying to earn a crust in the post-Thatcher economy, I eventually picked up the paintbrush and generated a portfolio that no-one I showed it to was the least bit interested in.

Art wasn’t enough. The talents of the kid meant nothing in Thatcher’s world, which also trampled on LGBTIQA+ rights at every opportunity.

Brushtrokes

So I came home, came out, and did something outrageous: I went and studied acting. I was determinedly playing catch-up and wasn’t content to replicate what I saw on canvas, I wanted to be the art, in every cell.

Life outside the closet got suddenly very tough when my partner Jono died in 2004. I struggled for creative direction for many years. It wasn’t until I found myself in a new relationship that I started, quite tentatively, to paint again.

‘Nocturnal Opening’ (oil on canvas by Michael Burge, 2007)

It was stop/start for a few years, and it took a while for others to get their heads around my artwork, which was often staunchly abstract instead of a replication of nature. I came to realise that my realistic works were not much more than the ability to keenly observe what I saw, and that capturing and generating emotion – not validation – is the real skill in all arts.

‘Emerald Screen’ (oil on board by Michael Burge, 2016)

In 2016, friend and artist Ellen Paxton gave me some paints and told me to just get going. She purchased the first work I executed and I have not stopped painting since.

The smell of oils when I squeeze colour onto my palette is a great motivator, because it calls to mind almost four decades of art as second nature. All those years of discipline in composition, perspective, colour theory, life drawing; all those exhibitions when work walked off the walls, and all those when it didn’t… every single part of the journey is a brushstroke on my psyche. I wouldn’t be without a single one.

Carelessly cut

This month, some of those 35-year-old Gould League-winning works came back to me. They arrived in a dangerously inadequate envelope with a miserly amount of postage, but thankfully the postie alerted me before delivering, saying he’d have had to fold it if I hadn’t been home.

When I opened the completely uninsured, unregistered correspondence, my past came rushing at me in these original sketches. I recall the hours spent solo in my childhood bedroom, every line of the Artline pen (I went through hundreds of the things in the 1980s); but also the loneliness, confusion and the desperate need to hide in that room.

CRUELLY CROPPED: The artworks returned to me this month.

Their appearance in my letterbox is a timely lesson in validation, because I have watched young, artistically-skilled people rise into the world in the decades since I did, and I have quietly reminded people – emotionally immature teachers and mentors, particularly – to take great care with them.

It’s hypocritical to validate someone for their innate skills, yet refuse to respect something equally as innate, such as their sexual orientation. In the case of the people who were gifted these artworks, returned to me after being carelessly cut from their frames, acceptance of my sexuality (and that of many others in our community) was painfully piecemeal.

But I’m very glad to have these precious early brainchildren of mine back. Considering the open-hearted manner in which I donated the reproductions to send clueless private school kids to New Zealand 35 years ago, then gave the originals to people who no longer value them, or me, they’re wonderful proof that I have always been much bigger creatively and emotionally than the narrow frame others envisaged for me.

Depths of acceptance

A decade ago, while paying for new tyres, the bloke who’d done the job read the name on my credit card and asked: “Are you Michael Burge, the artist?” and I nearly fell over. He described the pen-and-ink sketch of galahs that he and his wife had been gifted for their wedding and shook my hand with gratitude for a piece of art they love, another from my Gould League-winning collection.

‘Change Coming, Deepwater’ (oil on canvas by Michael Burge, 2020)

It was a pivotal year when more of my teenage works came to the surface, including my first work of non-fiction, which failed to launch because of jealous adults but came rushing at me while on assignment for a piece of journalism. “Could you please sign my copy of your book?” a guest at the same event asked. Again, the shock was profound since I’d lived for many years without the validation of such moments.

Validation… too many are unaware of just how much of it you relinquish when you come out, but I have lived long enough to learn how shallow it really is when compared with the depths that flow with just a little acceptance.

Coming on top of a self-determined life that includes the right to marry and the broadest equality rights Australian LGBTIQA+ have had in our history (despite there being much, much more to achieve), these days I treat validation as more of an incentive.

It’s a reminder to keep up the hard work and the difficult, vital process for creatives to put ourselves right out there in a way that very few who live within the safe walls of validation will ever understand.