It was the summer I turned fifteen, our first summer at the lake house and – as my father insisted on informing us as we drove through the thinning traffic on our way out of the city – it was the summer that the ISON comet, long predicted to be among the brightest ever seen, burned up and disintegrated during its maiden passage around the sun.
My father, an amateur astronomer, had inherited the house (which was barely more than a shack) from a childless aunt and, despite my mother’s protestations, was determined to keep it. It was in a part of the country where his family had originally settled and although none now remained, it was a place he’d spent his childhood summers, and it was, he said, a place he wanted to return to.
“Just wait ‘til you see how bright the stars are out there, boys – no light pollution,” he told us before we left, as he’d fussed about with the ’79 Corolla, checking the oil, wiping his hands on an old greasy rag before topping up the coolant in the radiator. I didn’t have to turn my head to know the exact look of bemused exasperation that would be on my mother’s face as she watched us from the living room. She only barely tolerated that car, and the thought it would be carting us all out to the middle of nowhere for us to spend our holidays in a dilapidated shack was almost more than she could bear.
My brother Tristan, who was eight at the time, threw his head back and gazed up at the sky.
“What’s light pollution?” he said.
That summer was one of the rare times I recall my father acting on his own desires and it resulted in the only arguments I can remember my parents having. My mother wanted to sell the lake house and renovate our house in town, or even perhaps move suburbs, but my father wouldn’t budge. The afternoon he took possession of the keys he packed the car with sleeping bags, food supplies, mozzie nets and camp-beds and, after securing his telescope on the ledge behind the back seats, we set off, my mother continuing to say, at intervals,
‘I don’t understand why you’re being so stubborn! We could use the money for the boy’s education, for a new car, to fix the house we actually live in.”
He made no attempt to answer her, just drove on steadily, occasionally whistling. Tristan was asleep within a short space of time and I lay back, shutting my eyes in a determined effort to block out all noise except the familiar murmuring of the engine. Eventually, my mother stopped speaking altogether and stared out the window, only occasionally turning around, as was her habit, to touch Tristan’s cheek and adjust the blanket she’d drawn over him.
I remember very clearly the day Tristan was born. My father pulled me out of school to take me to the hospital. I was seven years old. I was excited at the prospect of a brother – excited and afraid without the least idea of what I was afraid of. But when I stepped into that hospital room – I knew.
“Look,” my mother said, without shifting her gaze from the baby in her arms. “Look.”
Her voice was breathy, and she had an expression on her face I’d never seen before. She looked up at me then, but her eyes weren’t quite focused, as if she couldn’t bear to tear them away from her new son.
“Ben,” she said, “This is Tristan, this is your new brother.”
But I barely glanced at him – I only had eyes for her face, the face I wanted – more than anything – to gaze at me like that.
Years later I realised my father must have felt it too but at the time I was only aware of a slight stiffening in his body as he watched them, as if he were bracing himself against some unseen force. Afterward, he took me out for a milkshake but what a pair we made! A crumpled middle-aged man and a forlorn boy sitting on plastic chairs outside the hospital canteen. A nurse offered us congratulations, then stopped mid-sentence, afraid she’d made some dreadful mistake.
At home things settled into a routine. My father carried on as though nothing had changed, as if being supplanted in his wife’s affections was something he’d always expected. I resisted it tooth and nail and created as much drama as I could. It wasn’t that she did not love me – she did and always had. I know that. Just not in the way she loved Tristan. We weren’t the only ones who noticed. I overheard one of my mother’s friends say once, in a whisper, to another friend after my mother had left the room,
‘Such a difficult birth the first time, and Ben so colicky as a baby. I don’t think they ever truly bonded.’
My mother, who had returned to work soon after I was born, stayed at home with Tristan, saying, by way of explanation,
“Well, he is my last, so I might as well enjoy it.”
As a result, my father extended his work hours. After dinner when I’d bring out my toys to play, he’d be asleep in front of the news. Around the age of eleven I discovered if I took more interest in Tristan, I could supplant some of the energy my mother only seemed to possess when she was with him. I made an effort to do things as ‘the-three-of-us.’ After a while, my father began to make up an awkward fourth and we formed the habit on weekends of ‘Going Out’ – looking for all the world like a normal family, having picnics or playing in the park. Occasionally, when my mother had one of her famous migraines and it was just my father and me and Tristan, it felt odd, as if neither of us knew how to be around him without her. It was as if our family was one of the circumbinary solar systems my father had gone on and on about years later when they were discovered – like Keplar 47 – a system with two planets orbiting a pair of stars that in turn tightly orbit each other. My mother and Tristan were the twin Suns, my father and I the planets. This pattern became entrenched in us all and might have carried us through for the rest of our lives had things remained the same.
But that was not to be our story.
When we arrived at the lake house it was past midnight. My father lit a camping lantern and we set up the camp-beds in the living room, all of us next to each other. I fell asleep as my mother said, in a disgruntled way, seemingly without any expectation of being listened to,
‘It’ll trigger his asthma, all this dust, you should have at least got it cleaned before bringing us all this way.’
The next morning though, all her arguments had dissolved. I woke late, the sun streaming though the uncurtained windows. My mother was standing in the doorway, a broom held slackly in her hand, staring out at the lake beyond. Tristan was sitting on the verandah, his legs dangling over the edge, already dressed in boardshorts. My mother must have heard me stirring, and turned, her face flushed with pleasure.
‘Ben, Ben, come and look,” she said, turning back to the view again, and pointing.
‘It’s like a sea made of glass.’
The week before we were due to leave, I woke early one day and headed down to the lake for a swim. There was a girl about my age at the water’s edge, dragging two sticks through the water in a scooping action, a look of concentration on her face. She was wearing shorts and a sleeveless top and her skin was tan and smooth. Her hair was a luminous brown hanging below her shoulders, and the colour of her eyes seemed to shift from blue to green to grey, depending on the light. As she raised her arms, the net between the sticks became visible, it was full of tiny silver fish which she deftly tipped into a red bucket on the bank. When she saw me, she smiled.
“Hello,’ she said. ‘I’m Alicia.”
She’d been coming here since she was two, she said. Her grandfather owned the small houseboat that was the last one remaining on this side of the lake, moored in the only part close to shore that was deep enough, where the water jutted up against a rocky outcrop and created a clear pool. As I listened to her talk, Tristan ran up from behind and collided with me, catching me off balance. I stumbled and swore as he skidded forward and landed face-first in the sand at Alicia’s feet, giggling. I was about to tell him to clear off, but he picked himself up and peered into the red bucket.
“What are they?”
Alicia smiled at him.
“Whitebait. You can fry them up to eat or use them to catch big fish.’
He looked up at her, his face earnest.
“Can you teach me how to catch them?”
Alicia smiled at him again,
“Sure,” she said, “and then” – she glanced over at me as she said this – “then maybe, I could join you for a swim?”
I watched as she showed Tristan how to handle the sticks of the net, how to glide it through the water. After a few attempts she said,
“That’s it. You’ve got it. Now all you need to do is practise.”
As we walked into the water, Alicia took hold of Tristan’s hand but there was no need – he was a fish. He’d taken to swimming that summer like it was his whole reason for being. It was this that made me see him for the first time as himself and not as an extension of my mother. To comprehend fully, you need to understand the lake. It was a magical place, like something from a fairy-tale. Almost a kilometre across and shaped like a leaf, it was edged with a narrow strip of pale sand, hemmed in by rocks and slender eucalypts from which each evening a shuddering flock of budgerigars would rise into the sky. Its true magic though, was in its clearness and in the way it remained shallow until far, far, out, and in the way the sand underfoot did not turn to mud. Tristan and I would walk out until my mother was a small figure onshore, and still the water would remain calm, barely above our knees, filled with the darting fish that Tristan was so determined to catch. Not long after arriving, my father retrieved an old aluminium tinny from under the house. It was big enough for three and he, Tristan and I would row it out into the centre of the lake and spend the day catching redfish with hand-lines. My mother remained on shore. For the first time in Tristan’s life, she chose not to be with him.
It was the water. It frightened her.
“I can swim,” she said, “but I prefer not to,” and after a few attempts to coax her we desisted, perturbed by the panic that lit in her eyes the moment she thought we might really force her in. Tristan stayed out of this, watching from the water, his head tilted to one side as if trying to work out what this new turn of events might mean. For him, the water was home. He seemed truly alive in it, a dolphin-creature, utterly himself and from there-on in my father and I began to be almost as transfixed by him as my mother, as if, finally we understood the pull he had. Others noticed it too – other parents, people in the street, other children. It was as if out there, in that small town by the lake, he shone in the same way the lake did.
As we dried ourselves off, I could hear my mother’s voice calling from the house,
Tristan turned to Alicia and said,
“Will you be here tomorrow? Can I help you with the net?”
Alicia bent down. “I’m sorry Tristan, I’m going home tomorrow, but I tell you what. How about you take this with you and practise?”
She handed him the net.
“You can keep it,” she said, “I have another one at the boathouse.”
He looked at the net in his hands, then at her, his eyes dark and serious.
“We’ll be here next year,” he said.
Alicia smiled, and at that moment it felt to me like the world shifted sideways.
“Me too,” she said. “I’ll see you then.”
Then she kissed his cheek and stood up. She looked into my eyes and held my gaze.
All I could do was nod, then she laughed and gathered up her bucket and towel, heading off up the beach.
For the remainder of that whole year, I thought about her. I imagined I might bump into her on the way to school, or in the street – even though I knew she lived far away in another town. The year passed uneventfully. Tristan grew, I grew, and the four of us settled back into our usual imitation of Keplar 47, my father and I steadily circling the twin stars that were Tristan and my mother. But something had changed. The bond between Tristan and I deepened. For one thing, he was the only person I could talk to about Alicia – not that I did often – but it was nice to hear someone else mention her name now and then to remind myself she was real.
I had a lot of pent-up energy. My voice had deepened, my shoulders had broadened, and I was several centimetres taller by the middle of the year, but I remained awkward and tongue-tied around girls. Not that I was thinking of anyone other than Alicia. Tristan was changing too – slowly he’d begun extracting himself from the cocoon that was my mother’s love. Once I caught a glimpse of acute pain cross my mother’s face, contorting her features momentarily before she composed herself and smiled as Tristan gently refused her embrace and ran off to play with friends. It was the first time I felt compassion for her and began to think of the connection they had not as something to be jealous of, but as something to pity, as a kind of affliction. In the month before we were to return to the lake, I was struck with a terrible fear Alicia would not be there. What if she didn’t come? What if I’d imagined her entirely? And what if – and this was by far the worst alternative – she came with someone else? The irony was that I had much worse things to worry about, but I did not know that yet.
She was there. Standing in the same spot, same red bucket, her net on the sand at her feet. For a moment, it seemed she hadn’t heard us approaching but then she turned and smiled. She raised an eyebrow in my direction.
“You’ve changed,” she said.
“You too,” I said, and reddened.
She hadn’t, except perhaps that her face was a little more defined. A little older. Tristan ran between us and hugged her.
“Wow,” she said – “you’ve grown!”
He puffed out his chest and said,
“I’m nine!” then turned and ran into the water and leapt forward, flattening his body and executing a perfect shallow dive, so that his head skimmed an inch below the surface.
After a while he sat cross-legged on the lake floor, his head above the water, gazing out across the surface of the lake. Then he crawled along the lake floor towards us until he reached the edge and stood up, his face beaming.
I tossed him a towel.
“Dry yourself off, you idiot.”
Each morning Alicia would stay and swim with us, only disappearing when my mother would call us for lunch. Often we’d meet again in the afternoon, and sometimes I’d head out after dinner and meet her at the lake for a night swim. At times I would lose her in the dark and panic, but she would glide up beneath the water and slide her hands along my body sending shivers through the whole length of me. I’d turn and pull her close, fear and desire mingling together in the evening air. The night the full moon appeared, I snuck back into the house and borrowed my father’s telescope. We lay on our backs on the spiky summer grass, counting stars in the Milky Way, examining the craters of the moon, hunting the sky without success for a glimpse of Saturn’s rings.
“My father could find it,” I said.
She leaned into me and shook her head. “I don’t need your father to find it.”
The next week she took me to meet her grandfather at his cabin and she and I sat with our thighs touching while he talked about the lake before the tourists, before anyone other than his father’s family fished the lake. As we walked back down the beach I turned and kissed her, and she kissed me back. Tristan was waiting for us. He looked at Alicia and smiled, and she bent down and whispered in his ear.
“What did you say to him?” I said, but she wouldn’t answer me, just ran laughing back up the beach.
“I like her,” Tristan said, unusually solemn. “She smells like sand.”
It was the perfect summer, and it was all about to change.
On the last day of our second last week there, we went into the local town to see the annual street parade – the kind of event Tristan loved. My mother had been taking him to musicals and circuses and the like ever since he was three. Neither my father nor I had ever been much interested but Tristan loved it, loved the pomp and ceremony; loved the crowds. The year before I’d stayed at the lake house when the parade was on, but this year my father asked me to come along to be with Tristan, so he could take my mother to a local doctor. She’d been getting more migraines that year than usual.
“Kill two birds with one stone,” my father remarked as we were leaving, without the smallest idea how ironic that statement would turn out to be.
While my father and my mother were waiting at the doctor’s office, Alicia and I took Tristan to see the parade. As we waited by the roadside eating ice-cream cones, a brightly coloured float depicting marine creatures passed by, spooking the Clydesdale horse that carried tourists up and down the street in a buggy for a nominal fee. It reared high up in the air. When it came down, it struck Tristan hard on the head, knocking him to the ground. I lifted him up and held him as we waited for the ambulance.
“Ben, Ben,” he said – “I can see the glass sea,”
Those were his last words.
The tumour in my mother’s brain had probably been there for years, the doctors thought, but had grown so slowly it had never caused her much of a problem. Until now. Although it was benign it was inoperable and likely to be fatal, though not – and here the doctor hesitated, a grimace crossing his face – before she was likely to suffer some distressing symptoms.
Chemotherapy would help, they said, but not much. My father said,
“We’ll try it,” but I don’t think my mother cared.
We held Tristan’s funeral in the small weatherboard church in the local town. My mother sat like a stone in the front row. Not one of us cried, except Alicia. She’d arrived a little late and stood at the back, dressed in a pale-yellow sundress, leather sandals on her feet. She was carrying the red bucket. At the end of the service I tried to get through the crowd of townsfolk to reach her, but she was gone. She’d left the bucket sitting on the church pew, filled with sand and silver fish. I picked it up and took it back to the house, hoping she might be there. As my father packed the car, I busied myself, checking under beds, checking cupboards – trying to delay our leaving in case she returned. Which she didn’t.
We’d argued the day after Tristan’s death – I’d shouted, blamed myself. She’d called once or twice afterward but I hadn’t answered. Now, in spite of my dawdling, in spite of that desperate desire to see her one more time, part of me was relieved not to have to witness again the fierce concern in her eyes when she looked at me, or the way her anguish seemed written into her body, robbing her of her usual carefree way of moving. As if she, too, had become something fragile.
Finally, with uncharacteristic impatience, my father barked at me to get in the car. As I walked down the track to the Corolla, I resolved to put Alicia out of my mind. Thinking about her was too hard, reminded me too much of Tristan.
For the rest of that year my mother, my father and I were three aimless people stumbling blindly around each other. My mother’s illness gave my father and me a semblance of purpose, but she became increasingly unaware of what was happening. The doctors said it was the effects of the tumour and the chemotherapy drugs, but my father and I knew better. Tristan’s ashes sat on a shelf in her room. My father thought we should remove them, but she said they gave her comfort. At one of her appointments, I asked the doctor if the tumour could have made her obsessive. He considered for a moment then said,
“Possibly, but there is no definitive way to tell.”
When summer arrived, my father announced we were going back to the lake. My mother objected but he insisted. Since Tristan’s death – although I know he felt it as hard as I did – he’d been more assertive – as if free of a constraint. My mother protested feebly but gave in as he guided her to the fully packed car. Tristan’s ashes were already on the seat beside her.
We arrived after dark. I looked for Alicia at the lake, but she wasn’t there. I lay awake in my room, listening to the lapping of the waves on the sand and to the quietly raised voices of my parents in the kitchen. Not an argument – neither had the energy for that but rather an earnest discussion, over what I could not tell. The next morning my mother was pale, my father quietly triumphant. He said,
“Bring out the boat, Ben.”
We headed down to the beach, my mother clutching Tristan’s ashes. She seemed to be moving against her will. The surface of the lake was completely smooth.
“Just like glass,” she whispered.
Halfway down the beach I said,
I ran back to the house and grabbed the red bucket – still half-filled with sand and dried fish from the year before. It had been sitting on the porch the whole year, where I’d left it after the funeral. When I reached my parents, I held out my hands.
“May I have them?” I said to my mother.
She stared back at me for a long moment.
“Please,” I said.
Her eyes were bottomless pools. She handed me the urn. I knelt on the beach and unscrewed the lid, then gently poured the contents into the bucket. My father helped my mother into the aluminium boat and I placed the bucket on her lap. I saw a flash of fear in her eyes as I pushed the boat out into the water. My father rowed the boat out into the centre of the lake, where it was deep and silent. A full quarter of a mile out. I took the bucket from my mother’s hands and slowly tipped the ashes, the sand, and the tiny fish onto the water. The sand sank immediately, but the fish and the ashes floated sparkling and silver on the surface. My mother began to cry. We waited until all the ashes sank, watched them drift down through the clear crystal water until they disappeared. Then I picked up the oars and rowed us back to shore.
Alicia was waiting on the beach. She seemed thinner, her face drawn. She didn’t speak. I jumped from the boat and pulled it ashore. My father helped my mother out and they walked back to the house, his arm around her shoulders. I looked at Alicia.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Her eyes searched my face and I held out my arms and then she was next to me, holding me tight.
The next morning my mother left the house in the early hours, before anyone else was awake, and walked down to the beach and into the water. The search party found her body two days later, washed up in the rocky pool by the houseboat. After the cremation, my father handed me her ashes, and the key to the old house.
“It’s yours now Ben, if you want it. I won’t be coming back here again.” He turned to walk away, then turned back and said to me, “Keep the telescope, it’s no use to me now.”
You might think it strange I’d return to a place filled with such sadness, such grief. That it could remain a refuge, after the worst imaginable things had happened here. But it was the place that made me understand. I knew it was not the tumour that made my mother obsess over Tristan. I knew it was not an affliction. It was love. I came to understand we cannot choose who we love, or who we love the most. It could be a parent, a child, a lover, a friend. For my father, it was my mother and for my mother, it was Tristan. For me, five years on, it’s still Alicia. Where our story goes from here, I do not know, but for the moment, we are together. As too, I hope, are Tristan and my mother.
The last morning of that summer Alicia and I walked down to lake carrying the urn containing my mother’s ashes. We scattered them at the water’s edge, in the exact place my mother used to stand – her hand shielding her eyes from the sun – watching as Tristan and I walked all the way out into that glimmering glass sea.
Alison Thompson is an award-winning Australian writer whose poems and stories have been published internationally. She was selected for an Art Omi: Writers Residency for Spring 2019. Alison is a member of the Kitchen Table Poets, based in the Shoalhaven region of NSW. Her chapbooks – Slow Skipping (2008) and In A Day It Changes (2018) – are published by PressPress. (www.presspress.com.au).
Her website is https://alisonthompsonpoetry.wordpress.com Thompson Alison is currently working on her first full length short story collection.
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