Short Fiction: Brown Lake

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When they got him home, Frank was running a high fever. He was in bed for three weeks and barely recognised who came and went and what was said to him. A hush fell over things and some ice formed between his mother and father; she should never have agreed to him doing the stupid race.

Brown Lake 4 (c) Harry ChapmanWhen he finally appeared in the kitchen unassisted, Frank was changed inside and out, completely. The once bronze and energetic outdoorsman was now thin and pale. He kept to the walls, almost clinging to them like a gecko as though the rooms might swallow him up. Purple circles surrounded his staring eyes which looked as though they had seen things a child shouldn’t – things that couldn’t and shouldn’t be described. His smile was more terrible than his customary expression of woe. He never laughed.

He became uncommunicative and insular and gradually his friends stopped calling. His schoolwork suffered too and slowly his grades fell. But perhaps the most striking thing, so total in its reversal, was his attitude to the water. He wouldn’t enter it, or go near it. If he was passing the sea he couldn’t even look at it and would avert his gaze. His bedroom, which once looked proudly over the harbour, was moved to the back of the house. Even bath time was difficult. His one true love was dead and his interest in everything else was drained away. He would haunt the house, like a ghost.

His father believed that given time, his old son would return. But he didn’t. They even sold their beloved waterside property and moved inland. It had become intolerable watching their son shut his eyes every time he passed a window with a harbour view. They thought the move west might kick-start something in him. It didn’t. But Frank Senior, attached as he was to life by the harbour, resented the move. Against his desire he began to despise his son. Frank sensed this but all it did was to drive him deeper into himself. A black pall hung over the family. It was as though each chamber of the mansion was being shut down, one at a time.

The years passed. Spending so much time indoors, Frank began to divert himself with his schoolwork. His grades improved and in time he became thought of as something of a boffin. It was as if the great energy he once expended on his swimming and physical pursuits he had tapped and re-channelled into his academic ones.

It was the year of his Higher School Certificate finals and Frank was working harder and more intensely than ever. Apart from to go to school, he now barely left his room. His parents feared that he was heading for burn-out. His constitution was weak and his mind delicately balanced; there was no way he could take another blow. So when the call came from his cousins that they hired a place up on Stradbroke Island for a couple of weeks and that Frank was invited to join them, his mother acted fast. But carefully. Frank had little interest in holidays and the place was an island, which meant sea all around. But his mother felt strongly that in this invitation there was the possibility of rehabilitation. If they could get him to go, perhaps it would be the old Frank that would return.

He responded to the proposition with glum indifference. He agreed to go mainly to humour his parents. But he was surprised to find that buried in himself was a splinter of curiosity. He was told that the house they would be staying at was away from the coast and shrouded by trees. He wouldn’t have to see the ocean unless he wanted to.

On the ferry journey over Frank didn’t leave the car. He slid down in his seat and alternately gazed at a rip in the fabric of the roof and the flashing of the white sky beyond. He let the sun dazzle him and when he closed his eyes he saw dancing points of light on the apricot curtains of his eyelids.

After they docked they drove along the sun-dappled roads of dry sclerophyll forest. The island was long and tapered to a southland of swamp and high dunes. There were no roads there, just a few rutted tracks and a sort of exquisite loneliness.

A lizard streaked across the road in front of them. It was dark and heavily built. A species of dragon, probably. Perhaps even a Frilled Lizard. It ran as if it was pursued, head down, limbs bicycling. His uncle remarked that the year before he had seen an old koala lumber across the road. Frank was silently sceptical. No one ever saw koalas in the wild anymore. It had most likely been a wombat.

They pulled into the driveway of the house. It was modern and rambling with verandas, porches and patios at different levels. Frank wandered through the sleepy, shuttered rooms as luggage and ice-packed eskies were heaved from the boot. The shouts and laughter of his cousins receded the deeper he went when suddenly he was surprised by a feeling. At first he tried to ignore it, then dismiss it. But it wouldn’t go, and finally he reluctantly admitted to it. Excitement. He hadn’t felt it for a while. For a long time. But there it was, and here he was, in the house on an island. On holiday.

“Do you need some help?” Frank asked, appearing back at the car.

His cousins, like most of his family, knew of Frank’s history. His uncle was a game man, though, and had decided to try something different. There were a number of fresh water lakes on the island. Most were in the south and inaccessible and were left to the goannas and kangaroos. One, called Blue Lake, was apparently very beautiful but could only be reached by dirt track and four wheeled drive. There was one though in the bulbous north end of the island, slap bang in the middle. It could be gained by a metal road and was popular with picnickers. It was called Brown Lake and it was here that the uncle suggested they all go the next day.

It was midday when they got there, and hot. The air was heavy, and when they slipped from the car they had to labour through it as though it were substance. Brown Lake was a so-called ‘Perch Lake’. It was sandy-bottomed and sat in an old volcanic basin above sea level. Low hills ranged all around and the bush crept down to the water’s edge. Surrounding it were the feathery hides of paper barks and tea trees, which stained the water an inky brown that gave the lake its name.

His aunt flung an old blanket under the shade of some trees and his cousins, two boys and a girl – all younger than him – hurried down to a thirty-metre stretch of sand which acted as a natural beach. Frank stood under the trees and watched. The shadows slashed his face leaving long striations of white which made him look like an Aboriginal warrior. His eyes glinted in the gloom, burning with a fierce and ambiguous light. His uncle and aunt exchanged a look and then resumed talking in a slightly loud, artificial way.

The next day the family went to the beach. Frank stayed behind but became increasingly restless as the day wore on. When they returned he was flushed and agitated. Falteringly he asked if anyone was interested in going back to Brown Lake the following day.

This time Frank sauntered down to the lakeside beach itself. He wore about him a sort of studied casualness. He turned over a stick and dug his toe into the sand. Peeling a shred of bark from a tree he shaded his eyes and squinted out over the water. His cousins were all there, playing, cajoling, sleek-bodied, full of energy, full of life.

“Come on Frank!” shouted Kyle, the younger, more adventurous of the two boys, “The water’s beautiful!”
A barely discernable jolt went through Frank. Dropping his hand he stared blankly through them before turning and wandering back to the car.

It was night and they were back at the house. The children had gone to bed. Frank stood at the open lounge room door, looking in. His uncle sat in a rattan armchair reading a paper by the light of a shaded table lamp. He knew his nephew was there but playfully allowed the silence to draw out.

Eventually, without looking up: “Is everything alright Frank?”
He was certain of the question lurking but didn’t want his bird to fly.
The silence continued. Frank shifted his weight. His uncle turned a page of the paper and coughed slightly.
“Would it be boring if we went back to Brown Lake again, Uncle?”

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