Her family moved from Sydney when she was young, travelling a few hours up the highway and settling in a small lakeside village many miles from the nearest settlement of any significance. Her father and mother ran the local boat hire and her younger brother grew up wearing a lifejacket, safeguarding him in the event that he wandered away and fell off the wharf. It happened frequently, so she tells it. She went on long bush walks with her twin sister, sailed catamarans on the lake and caught fish, eels and squid armed only with a hook and a line. She had her first kiss there - the boy with soft lips who became a man and who, years after her life had moved on from this lakeside settlement, would take his life and extinguish it for reasons he never explained. She did unspeakably cruel things to Toadfish, the kind of things you can only get away with as a child. Ants and magnifying glasses, Toadfish and stamping feet. Curiosity is a defence against a multitude of childhood crimes.
When she talks about these years at the lake, it always sounds idyllic to me. Winter never happens in these tales and I picture her existing in a blaze of heat and sunshine, her skin brown from a life spent outdoors, not inside playing on gaming consoles or glued to a computer. She shows me photographs taken during these years and I recognise the woman in those pictures of a girl. I wish I'd met her sooner, been her friend back then. My lips were as soft as his, I'm sure - but I'm equally sure that we'd not have kissed, her and I. She would have been kind and friendly but nothing more. I was trying too hard to be somebody else back then, somebody cool. Turns out that she never went for the cool kids much.
Inevitably there is a darker side to this life. She talks of nights barricading her door, protecting herself from the drunken, angry noises on the other side. She talks of shouting, of arguments, of crying. She talks of her brother, the boy who grew up in a lifejacket, and of slipping notes under his door when he was sad, when he had been banished in a maelstrom of harsh words for some minor offence, blown out of proportion by too many wines or beers. She speaks of tears and fear, of wishing she could leave and of her mother bundling the children into a bomby old car and leaving him again, this time for good. They always returned, the summers continued and the photographs from this time show the smiles, only the smiles. Photographs cannot tell a whole story though; all they can capture is a moment, an instant. Sometimes all we see are the smiles. Look at the eyes though, and sometimes you can see shadows there if you look closely.
Today, some thirty years later, that lakeside settlement has moved on. Her family moved on too, moving out long ago. The boat hire is gone but the house still stands, with new owners forming new memories within its walls. We have been back to the house and to the lake on a few occasions over these past years. When we do so, the memories she talks of are the good ones, the ones captured on film which show a time when summers seemed eternal and nothing bad ever happened. Sometimes when we are alone, we touch on the negatives hidden in the pouch behind those photographs. She accepts them as part of her life, who she was and who she is. I see her as strong, resilient and I tell her that. She tells me that some days she doesn't feel strong and I tell her that it's okay; that we all have days like that.
I look back at the photographs we take together now, photographs which her son will use one day to remember his own childhood. We look happy and carefree, smiles as fierce as the sun which blazed down upon her, a young girl in a small settlement on the side of a lake all those years ago. I look back at the photographs we take that day, looking for shadows in her eyes, in her son's eyes, in my own. I look closely and I look for a long time but see none. Today at least, in this frozen moment, all eyes are clear.