Colin turns the page of the old photograph album and suddenly there is Louise smiling at me again from twenty years ago. I remember that party. In the background my younger sister is standing with my girlfriend of that time and they are watching Louise and the man with the camera with amusement. Louise’s boyfriend, Mike, is there, too; partly obscured and looking at something out of shot. Everyone is laughing.
“Hell,” I say. “She was really beautiful, wasn’t she.”
“We all were,” Colin looks at me closely and adds, “What ever happened to your cousin Louise?”
I can feel him looking at me.
“Oh, she’s married with a kid. I saw her about three years ago when I was at a conference in Adelaide.”
I have known Colin since we were both twelve. “You and her were pretty close for cousins,” he says with forced nonchalance. I look up. So this is what he wants to know after all this time.
I look at the photograph. “Yeah,” I say. “You know, Colin, I think I was secretly in love with Louise for a while.”
Colin snorts but not unkindly. “Shit, mate, everyone thought you were in love with each other.”
The years blur. I am sitting in the kitchen of my home with my fourteen-year-old cousin. I am sixteen. It is after midnight and we are the only ones awake. We are talking about life and love and music and dreams. We talk like this at every chance we get. She is on holidays with us from the other side of Australia. When she leaves I go to my bedroom and lie there feeling this deep hollowness grow inside me and it is the first time that I miss someone. For a while we send each other clever, sentimental letters and then we stop.
Four years later we are both back in the little town. I am home from completing university; she is about to start her studies in Adelaide. I have become witty and cynical; she even more gentle and idealistic than before. But something deeper has also changed. We still hang out but now we clash. I hate her faith in everything; she is hurt by my careless dismissal of everything she cares about. One night we are playing pool in the local hotel. She walks up to me and looks me in the eyes saying softly so only we can hear, “Why do I hate you when I’m sober and love you when I’m drunk?”
There will be many little moments like this over that brief summer. I remember the tiniest things. Like watching movies at the Drive In, six of us packed into Colin’s car, she in the front and me in the back. I say, “Can you move your head a bit, Louise, so I can see?”
“Absolutely!” she laughs.
“Louise, can I have a lick of your ice-cream?
“Can I have a kiss, Louise?”
She turns awkwardly in her seat and leans her cheek towards me. “Absolutely” Now her tone is mockingly seductive. For the first and only time I kiss her. I do it quickly and everyone laughs.
But mostly we annoy each other and eventually become overly tender to the most innocent comments of the other. On the day she is to leave we are sitting in my car and trying to find the words for goodbye. We are not being very successful and our jokes fall flat. I desperately want her to leave and yet I can’t bear the thought of it. But I do not show this.
“Say hello to your mum and dad for me,” I say. Then I mention her little sister, “And tell Pippa not to grow…” I stop quickly but it is too late. The colour rushes to Louise’s face, so sensitive has she become to even my silences. There are tears in her eyes. Her voice is soaked with anger and hurt, “Tell her not to grow up like me! That’s what you were going to say, weren’t you?” I sit there mutely, staring ahead and feeling suddenly like I will throw up, like I have just killed some animal. “Weren’t you?” Louise chokes into silence, opens the car door and rushes away into a life that is mostly a mystery to me.
The album of photographs is still lying there. I want to ask Colin, “Do you really think she loved me?” But he turns the page and says, “Any chance of another tea, mate? This one’s gone cold.”