My cousin said she didn’t get why he was here if I’d already decided to break up with him before uni. We were lying awake on blow-up mattresses in the rumpus room, which was under the main bit of the beach house and used to be the garage. When the second batch of cousins started being born and everyone stopped being able to fit upstairs, my uncles converted it with gyprock and carpet tiles. The girls got it – every single year – which was unfair, according to the boys, who had to sleep on bedrolls in the carport and the big tent.
I told my cousin I hadn’t decided to. We just probably would – we’re 18 – it’s not like we were going to get married. My cousin said, exactly.
He was outside, in the tent. I wondered if he was asleep. When one of my aunts had asked him how he went, his first night, whether he’d been too hot in a sleeping bag because she could very easily get him a sheet, he said it was okay – he was a hot sleeper anyway, Mrs Mitchell.
My cousin sat up, kicked her doona off, and said, even if I wasn’t planning to dump him, it was weird I’d been allowed to bring him in the first place, since none of the others, the first batch of cousins who were married and got the bedrooms, had been until they were practically engaged.
I told her that wasn’t true, and listed all the Nathans and Kirstys and Scotts who’d come one summer and not the next. Forgotten, unless they’d done or said something which entered Mitchell lore and our shared lexicon. The one who’d backed into the trampoline and kept reversing until he was wedged. The one who couldn’t pronounce the word “secretary”, so we all, still, said “set-cha-terry”.
The fan was making that annoying noise again – my cousin felt around on the floor for something to throw at it and asked again why he was here. I couldn’t say, as a hedge against a thousand years of singleness. Instead, I told her it diluted the Mitchell energy, the more people here who weren’t Mitchells. She said, Ha. You’d literally need a hundred non-Mitchells to do that, and, rolling onto her stomach, we should fully go to sleep – another day of undiluted Mitchellness ahead.
Waking up, hot and freshly bitten, to the sound of whispering, the zipping and unzipping of bags. Cossies on.
My cousin meant: waking up, hot and freshly bitten, to the sound of whispering, the zipping and unzipping of bags. Up, one by one, cossies on, damp under yesterday’s shorts, upstairs, my dad and uncles at the table, “Good morning, or should we say afternoon, girls?” White toast, no-brand jam, Weet-Bix, my mum and aunts behind the bench, suncream on before you go, not once you’re down there, hot road, water, sand, sky, adults down later, with their chairs, their Dick Francis paperbacks, the jolly umbrella, salt, stinging faces, righto let’s wrap it up, everyone carry something please, hot house, bloody hell’s bells let’s get those doors open, ham and rolls and whatever’s left of that lettuce, kids hang your towels out – over the balcony wire, until they’re baked hard and heavy with salt – noon heat, no breeze, Ann’s an absolute mozzie magnet, adults, that’s me for a kip then, us, surf club, chips, home, shower, lino gritty with sand, nothing to do ’cept cards, swing ball, hotter still, Jonno just got yelled at – for mowing in thongs – near dinner, whoever’s going into town, we need Ajax and a thing of cream, strike up that barbie, everyone just serve themselves, kids on dishes, wet tea towels – Australian fauna and flora, bicentenary, royal visit – whipped at the back of burnt legs, cricket – dead grass, bindis – stumps called, telly, “Can you play anything else on that guitar Brendon, or just those two chords?”, the rest of those Roses, right troops, bed, and we might take the boat out tomorrow, see what the weather’s doing.
The only thing different that summer, me and him and us finding ways to be away from everyone in between, to kiss – in the TV room, the laundry, in the shed on a pile of damp life jackets. The car, the tennis courts, dunes. And once, night, everyone else asleep, lying on our backs on a tarp spread out on the lawn. He had just shown me that you could point out stars, individually, just with a normal torch.
A raised circle of red appeared on my chin. At the end of the week, it blistered and started weeping. Was it sunburn? Had I been bitten? Everyone speculated at lunch, on New Year’s Eve. Should someone run me to the medical centre?
My cousin said, der, it’s pash rash, and everyone laughed. One of the boys threw his rugby ball at my boyfriend and said, nice one.
He was meant to go home on the fourth but he left early because, also at lunch, my cousin said: something something her summer-only boyfriend. Then, oops, when everyone stopped eating and one of my aunts asked what she meant by that – summer-only.
I couldn’t find him all afternoon and he went to the tent before midnight. I cried into my mattress and my cousin said she was sorry but also, I was going to break up with him anyway. She’d basically saved me the job. As to my embarrassment – our whole entire family! – it’s not like he’s coming back. Swear no one’ll ever mention him again. Although, already, “I’m a hot sleeper anyway, Mrs Mitchell” was becoming our means of declining anything, so I knew he would remain present, in that way, forever.
I got a bedroom, although I was single. It was fine, I was happy. Just sometimes, it felt like it had already been a thousand years.
We packed up – back to reality, then – I quit the IGA, started university, became a lawyer and, every summer, went to the beach house. The second batch of cousins started getting married, and when their children overtook the downstairs, the tent, the extension on the carport, I got a bedroom, although I was single. It was fine, I was happy. Just sometimes, moments there, it felt like it had already been a thousand years.
But, this summer, this morning: water, sand, heat, sky. My husband, with me under the jolly umbrella, says right, final plunge, then we’ll wrap it up. I ask if he can take those two with him. Look how sandy they are. He says yep, swap, and hands me the baby.
As he walks off towards the water, child under each arm, one of my aunts, nearby, folding towels, says you proved your cousin wrong then. Summer-only! And, a moment later, because I’m too embarrassed to answer, she says unless I’ve had another idea about lunch, she’s thinking ham, rolls and whatever’s left of that lettuce.
Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss (HarperCollins, $33) was released in September. She lives in Sydney.