When we were kids, I looked up to my older cousin as if he were a god.
Only a couple of years separated us in age. Before I could talk, he spoke for me. The sandpit was his sphere – if another kid took my Tonka Truck, my cousin brought it back. He had me entwined in his stories before I had even started Catholic school. I didn’t know any better. I thought he did. He always had an explanation for everything. He taught me that flies were so small, because they only lived for twenty-four hours. I thought I’d hate to be a fly. They have one day on this Earth, so they spend it sniffing dog shit and annoying us. If there were such a thing as reincarnation, I’d hate to come back a fly.
A floppy-disk video game was used in his favour as a form of enticement. Play by his rules and I could take control of Commander Keen for the afternoon. He may have thought he owned me at one stage, but before I’d even heard the screech of a dial-up connection, my cousin was my Urban Dictionary for the necessary playground lingo. This, at an age where a large vocab was praised by other students rather than scorned.
Psalms were delivered in the form of unmarked compact discs, able to pass undetected under the nose of my parents. I hid Eminem within the ear buds of my Discman, only I could hear ‘these ideas, that are nightmares to white parents.’ And I had a taste for American Pie at an age far from ripe.
Before anti-bullying was a play put on by drama students with friendship games, my cousin had taught me how to disclose one’s personal details in the form of torment. I wouldn’t dare tease him though or he’d dob on me. My mother saw him as an angel. He could always get away with anything around my house.
At least I could tell him anything – he wouldn’t tell anyone. Even if it meant having to share almost everything with him. My cousin would come round and watch me do my chores, and when mum gave me my pocket money, she’d tell me to make sure I split it with my cousin.
* * *
‘That was your aunty,’ mum said after hanging up the phone.
‘Cool,’ I replied unsure of why she was telling me.
‘They asked me if you would like to go down to the snow with your cousin these school holidays and stay with nonno and nonna.’
‘Yes?’ I answered with anticipation, my attention affixed on the new information.
‘Go pack your bags.’
We referred to our grandparents in Italian to respect our heritage. In the late 70s, when their Sydney home was a nest all but empty, the idea of retirement had my grandpa ready to relocate. He purchased a small one-story dwelling in East Jindabyne after falling in love with the Snowy Mountains on a family ski trip and began taking my grandma south for the winter. As they grew wiser, they started spending their summers there too.
East Jindabyne was built by those looking to cash in on Australia’s fast growing snow industry. It didn’t take too long for my nonno to see the potential. He put an extra floor on the place so they could accommodate the working man, who couldn’t afford the high-priced hotels and lodges on the mountains.
Between my cousin and I, over the six-hour journey, a great amount of tension had been generated on the back seat of the car with one Gameboy. Our grandparents greeted us with sweets – first hot beverage of the trip and I had already scalded my tongue rinsing a stale wafer from my mouth.
Across the lake, the sun was in pursuit of the Snowy Mountain peaks. We had arrived with little light left in the day, but had six hours of energy to burn. We grabbed a jacket off one of the hooks by the door as we ran through it.
The lake wasn’t always there.
In the mid-twentieth century the government sought a way to increase the flow of inland rivers so it could be utilised for irrigation and renewable energy. When the snow softens in spring the Snowy River has an increase of water. As part of a grand scheme, the town was relocated to where the southern shore would soon be, before the old town was flooded in favour of hydro-electricity. In times of drought the church steeple rises from the water as it lowers.
‘Verse you?’ My cousin said, holding a skimming rock in his hand. ‘Who can bounce the rock off the water the most times in one go.’ I loved a competition. Not that it at all mattered which one of us could get a rock to stay above water for longest before it fell to the bottom of the pond.
‘This is boring,’ we agreed before long.
We traversed up the bank of Rushes Creek, which flowed into the lake. The creek was overgrown with bush land extending far further than where we had ever dared to journey. A small house, clearly abandoned in its early stages, was perhaps man’s only addition to the sanctuary; however it had long been reclaimed by the land. Not even the imprint of my fat-tongue skate shoes left a mark worth remembering.
‘What should we do?’ I said, leaping down off a rock onto a slightly smaller rock. It rocked hazardously under my feet.
‘Jesus!’ I exclaimed, lowering on to my hands to stabilise myself. I stepped off the upper side of the rock and with a bent knee, placed my right foot back on the face of the rock.
‘Watch this!’ I yelled to my cousin who was still on the rock above me. Extending my leg, the rock was released from its sediment and sent on a trajectory of chaos towards the creek bed below, releasing an echo that raced around Rushes Creek.
‘Come on. Let’s do it again,’ I cheered as my cousin lowered himself from the rock above me. Together, we worked to conquer as big a rock as we could find, every next rock increasing in size. Sticks were used as extra levers wedged into any crack we could create. When it was separated enough from the dirt, we made the final push. My cousin was bigger than I was, but I worked twice as hard with him there. I think the thrill would be just as satisfying as an adult as it was as a kid, getting to watch the boulder bounce from rock to rock before eventually settling in the river.
The sun had dipped below the mountains, leaving a mirror image imprinted on the lake. We made our way further up the creek in search of ‘our Everest’.
‘This is it,’ my cousin said, raising his hands wide above his head with enthusiasm, before thrusting them around the rock. Feet placed firmly, he threw his weight at the rock. I sat next to him with my back against the rock, my feet pressed up against the steep wall of rocks that separated us from the forest above. As it separated from the ground, my cousin shoved a stick under it so we didn’t lose progress.
‘I swear to God, if you pests make one more noise, I’m calling the police!’ We heard a voice growl from behind. My spine went stiff and I slowly shifted my head before the rest of my body span round. A grey-haired man appeared over the ridge without our recognizing. Rocks obstructed our view of the path we had taken.
To this day I’m unsure exactly what brought my cousin to his knees: a fall out of fright, or sheer repentance? Regardless, apologies on all fours tend to resemble the latter. I didn’t have to say much as my cousin was doing enough talking for two. It may be a hazy memory, but I can only remember broken English as he attempted an apology before the man left. We had worked for too long to forsake it now, just because it had interrupted Sale of the Century for Charles Montgomery Burns. I rubbed my hands together in the river, removing the dirt from my scratches. My cousin stood a little further down the river, dipping his head into the icy water. I’m not sure it had much effect – his face had already lost all its colour when the old man crept up on us. I ran back up the bank towards the boulder we had been working on. My cousin’s face was still as white as the mountains watching over us while he walked up the bank.
My work was done. A tremendous crash reverberated out of Rushes Creek.
An ‘Oi!’ was fired back from over the fold.
My cousin pushed straight past me, gripping onto the steep rock wall. My cousin remained silent, but the man’s bark had sent him soaring up the cliff face. The old man covered our pathway back to nonno and nonna’s and it was really our only option. The sound of ankle-supportive shoes hitting the dirt was increasing in volume before the silhouette appeared above the crest. I turned to follow my cousin. In his ascension stones were falling from under his feet. I dodged the rocks as they fell, complicating an already challenging task – just a few more scratches added to my already reddened skin. As I turned to avoid the rocks hurtling at my head, I picked up movement in my peripherals. The old man was already at the stage of the hill, where his legs were moving too fast for his body and he had to swing his arms in an attempt to equalise momentum. Each step he took, he applied more force in an attempt to stop himself. I wasn’t sure the old fella would hold up.
At the top of the rock wall we scattered amongst the forest.
I lay behind a rock with my hand over my mouth, holding onto the adrenaline. My cousin stood behind a tree a few metres away, eyes wide as they stared across at me, his pointer finger forming a cross with his lips.
We couldn’t hear any noise coming from behind us, so we came out of our cover. I snuck back and looked over the ledge. He was gone. Eventually, I spotted him making tracks towards the houses and waited until the checkers on the man’s flannelette shirt faded to a shade of red before making a move. What next? I thought. My cousin was still behind the tree.
‘I wonder if he’ll call the cops,’ my cousin said, coming out from behind the tree.
‘You think?’ I worried.
‘That’s what he said, you shouldn’t have done it!’ He raised his voice.
‘We shouldn’t have done it,’ I stated, staring into his eyes.
‘You were the one who made the last push.’ He held the stare.
* * *
Rudimentary questions over dinner felt like an interrogation. We weren’t even talking about what happened that afternoon by the lake, but any minute then I expected to see blue and red flashing through the window as the police came to take me away.
‘Nonna, when the water is low, can you still see the steeple?’ I asked.
She paused, squinting her eyes behind her spectacles, staring into space for a brief moment.
‘I seem to remember hearing that they removed it, for people’s safety.’
I sat across from my cousin at the dinner table, any eye contact made held angst. Paranoia convinced us that the grey-haired man was parked next to us in the Perisher car park the next day, however it didn’t go any further than that. We haven’t spoken of that day since. There was no more conflict for the remainder of our trip. Things were okay between my cousin and I, we just didn’t go anywhere near the lake again.
Holidays were over but I held a new perspective of my cousin. Contrary to his ‘creative ideas’, the teacher told me that ‘Abo’s’ are just like us. My cousin grew up eventually.
* * *
In high school, my cousin’s ideas were further disproven.
‘While many people believe that a fly lives for only twenty-four hours, when a fly has finally reached its adult form, they tend to live for about two to three weeks.’
I had gone my whole life off what my cousin said, and now I found he was wrong all along. A minute detail of my life, only every time I had swatted a fly for the last ten years I had told whoever I was with that minute detail, as a form of validation.
At Mater Maria Catholic College there were as many kids in my year as there were in the entirety of my primary school. It didn’t take long for me to realise there were more than seven girls my age. Between school, footy and maintaining a physical and online social life, I had little time for a cousin who was travelling in a totally different direction. Maturity seemed to mean repeating anything my mother would say.
I love my cousin, but the novelty eventually wore off for the sips of alcohol he gave me at family gatherings, as I too was allowed beer amongst kin. He was still always there to talk to though, hear my problems when no one else would. I just didn’t see him as the solution any longer.
I am taller than my cousin now. We don’t see each other as much – only when we are accepting new members into our family or bidding farewell to the old. We’ve never forgotten Christmas and Easter. I might not remember everything he told me, some of it may be better forgotten, but I wouldn’t be who I am today without my cousin. I tell my own stories now.