It had been a while since they’d caught up; in the interim they had grown from three to ten, including kids. Now that the picnic spot was in view, Carly had a prickle of apprehension in the pit of her stomach. She wasn’t sure she could be bothered with these reunions. Something would inevitably be expected of her, something she wasn’t able to give.
It was hot – the kind of heat that, if you were to stop and stand for a moment, you ran the risk of drying out completely. She could just see Pete a way off, picking up a kid from the dirt. He was leaner, all that baby fat finally fallen away – still blunt, but his corners sharpened a little. Carly vaguely recalled a photo of his Fiona, now pushing a stroller towards the picnic spot, a hand shielding her eyes. She needed to lose a good ten kilos since the kids – her cotton dress stretched and sagged – but she was all straw hair and friendly cheer. There was a bigger toddler asleep in the stroller, feet very nearly dragging along the dirt.
Tim had arrived first. He and Sarah-Jane had finished setting up camp right on time. These were not – none of them – late people. They had always been planners, RSVPers, organisers: the people you’d call to check the particulars. It must be Tim and Sarah-Jane’s pretty baby in the middle of the picnic rug, thought Carly, ready to greet people. They’d chosen a good spot in the shade.
Carly and Michael had the smallest car, embarrassing really, but they’d parked it near the two big Subarus anyway. She changed Ethan in the back seat and stuck his sunhat on his damp head. He’d be grumpy for her old friends – there’d be no showing off today.
Michael followed Carly and Ethan with a pram loaded up with food, the small esky and ice and baby things, his white T-shirt already wet under his armpits. She couldn’t quite believe that the three of them now constituted a family – there was something incomplete and untidy about them that no amount of cleaning and trimming could mend.
Tim came straight over and they hugged, Carly introducing Ethan, who frowned hard. She was glad to see that, behind Tim, his baby was crying, her bonnet f lung to the side. Tim did the introductions as Michael and the laden pram arrived.
Pete, Carly and Tim had once made up an indefatigable adolescent friendship trio, though Carly had been closer to Pete. His family were still gathering themselves together via the toilet block, not yet ready for introductions. Carly sat Ethan down and fidgeted with the food in the pram, bringing out the wedding Tupperware full of things she still didn’t really know how to make: fancy salads, already wilted, chickpea patties and runny hummus. It was the usual state of affairs; they’d forgotten to buy the Turkish bread. She heaved a bag of ice out and smashed it on the concrete near the barbecues. Ethan started a low whimpering to accompany the other baby’s cries, and Tim knelt down and kindly tried talking to them both.
‘Hey, look who it is. Hey buddy, hey Ethan. Ethan, what big eyes you’ve got. Hey Carly,’ he looked up, ‘your kid’s got big eyes. Where’d they come from?’ He was crouched low, one hand holding his baby girl and one hand on Ethan’s arm, stroking. ‘You’re going to be big, buddy. Big like your uncles, hey Carly?’
Carly opened two bottles of beer and poured four plastic cups to the brim. She drank one empty, without moving. She breathed out.
‘For you,’ she said, and set one down next to Tim. Ethan raised his arms towards her but she ignored him, and took the other two beers over to Sarah-Jane and Michael at the barbecue pit.
‘Thanks, honey.’ Michael’s arm was red from sticking it out the car window. ‘Sarah-Jane was saying this little one’s got two teeth already, can you believe it?’
‘I can hardly believe it, no,’ Carly said, unsure if her husband would hear her sarcasm, but confident Sarah-Jane wouldn’t.
‘She’s the first to do everything in our mothers’ group,’ said SarahJane, taking a tepid sip and putting the plastic cup back down. They’d met before, when Sarah-Jane was very thin. Carly couldn’t remember if she’d granted approval but Tim had married her anyway. ‘First to get teeth, first to roll, first to sit.’
Pete had finally arrived, trailed by his family. He headed over to them and gave Carly one of his big, tight hugs.
‘Long time, et cetera, et cetera,’ he looked over at Michael. ‘Hi, I’m Pete. This is Jack.’ A tow-headed crawler sat back on his haunches with two handfuls of dirt and stared up at them all.
Carly knelt down. ‘Hello there, Jack.’
‘Jack, this is Carly. We were talking about her on the way here, remember?’
The kid looked at his dad. ‘Plane,’ he said.
‘Yes, that’s right.’ Pete looked at Michael like he was an old friend.
‘We explained how Carly’s always in planes, always f lying, like we do when we visit Aunty Trish, right Jack?’
‘Plane,’ Jack said again.
Michael laughed. ‘Not so much any more, hey honey?’
Carly shook her head brief ly and stood up. ‘It feels like ages since I travelled’.
The introductions, then, were awkward. Fiona was not what Carly had expected. Pete was not destined to marry his mother, after all – Fiona was less earthy, less thoughtful, much easier. She was the kind of person who’d be able to make fun of tuckshop mums but still do her lunchtime duty. A bring-a-plate person. Today she unwrapped a pile of homemade lamingtons. Not fussy ones, but not crumbly and broken, either.
Fiona poured soda water into cups and passed them around. She emptied a bag of corn chips into a plastic bowl and placed them on the picnic rug out of the babies’ reach. The adults stood around as shepherds and guards, unable to concentrate on anything but the heat, the f lies, the kids, getting lunch, drinks. Nothing would come of today.
‘Your line of work sounds interesting, Carly.’ Fiona sat down with the babies, pulling her youngest off the dirt and onto the mat with them.
‘I’m lucky enough to be doing what I love, I guess.’ Carly didn’t want to commit to the conversation and get stuck, so she didn’t sit down. Instead she pulled Ethan’s fingers out of the bowl of chips and picked him up. His face was blurry with tears and a tantrum. She poured cold water onto his hat and put it back on his head.
‘I was telling Fiona,’ Pete said as he offered around corn chips,
‘how the rest of us had to do our fast-food jobs but you always had important work.’
She had forgotten what it was like when anyone was still impressed by her job. ‘Its importance never grew, Pete. Not like yours.’ Pete was the principal of one of those tough schools now.
Sienna, the bigger toddler, screamed from the pushchair, shrieking as she batted away the towel hanging in front of her. Pete went to her, his voice soothing.
Michael took Ethan from Carly to give him a drink. ‘What is it you do, Tim?’
Carly laughed. ‘Yes, I wasn’t entirely sure, Tim – sorry.’
‘I’m used to that. Okay, so, I reorganise companies’ information systems to make sure they work to their best advantage.’
‘You could have just said he’s in IT, honey,’ Michael said, and they all laughed.
They went through each of their family members one by one, stopping for longer at the older siblings, glossing over the disappointing, unmarried younger ones. Many of their siblings had known each other in that way of the suburbs – not as desperately friendly as country kids but more interested than city kids, out of necessity. Pete’s family, especially, had been open all hours, always with extra plates set at their dinner table, and an opening prayer that didn’t go on so long you’d get embarrassed. Pete’s oldest sister was sending her kids to the most expensive school in Melbourne, even though their father, a state school principal for fifty years, had always been a loud and vocal state school advocate. Everyone laughed at this, smug, themselves the products of Catholic education.
Carly began, somewhat half-heartedly, to get people eating. It was something she knew women did, though she had become wary of food since hospital – the beds all groaning with over-sized frames – and she now ate sparingly, chewing each mouthful the way they’d taught her in Grooming and Etiquette classes.
Pete’s children were a cheerful pair, toenails thick with dirt. They helped themselves to the food and ate it as much as they played with it. Pete had found his place, then. He’d brought deckchairs with built-in drink holders; they were a family used to the outdoors.
Carly and Michael ate off their own crockery. Carly hadn’t mentioned that she’d turned lacto-vegetarian so she was kept busy attempting to siphon off hunks of steak to Michael, who was as surreptitious as a dog.
One of the kids kept a ball game rolling between her bare feet while Tim explained about his brother, who’d made a pile of cash in investment banking and had headed overseas to squander it.
‘We worked out that, after our mortgage, we’re living off the equivalent to a pension,’ Tim laughed.
‘Not including the money you put into savings every month.’ Sarah-Jane tried giving their baby a piece of corn chip but she swatted it away.
‘That keeps being transferred back anyway – it’s just the bills account now.’
‘What are you saving for?’ Michael asked.
Tim smiled. ‘Good question. Anyway, we’re not any more.’
‘My parents used to say: put away ten per cent of everything you earn and you’ll always be okay.’ Fiona laughed as she spoke.
‘Did you?’ Michael prised a chip out of Ethan’s hand.
‘Different era.’ Pete shook his head. ‘We’d be rich, Fiona. Should have listened to your folks – I’d have married into riches.’
Fiona smiled. ‘Instead you got another impoverished teacher.’
‘I did always used to save,’ Tim said. ‘That’s how I bought my first car, after all. That’s how we went on our honeymoon.’
‘Saving for something, yes.’ Carly said. ‘I think I first got a job to save for uni – I was convinced I’d have to pay fees by the time I got there. All because of my history teacher – she was a total communist, positive we were headed into this conservative era and we’d have no more free education. I believed every word.’ She stretched out her legs along the picnic blanket in front of her.
‘Well, your teacher was right – it’s not far off,’ Pete said.
‘I don’t know what I ended up actually spending it on.’ Carly shook her head. ‘But I definitely spent it. Now, Ethan will have to become a tradie.’
‘They make all the money, anyway! ’ Fiona laughed.
As she laughed, Carly regretted her joke. She didn’t need any more reminders of just how appallingly middle-class she was.
She lay back and shut her eyes, the hand that stroked Ethan not acknowledging his increased fidgeting. Fiona was talking about the struggle to juggle the kids and the house and the needs of their big families.
‘Just do what we’re doing,’ Michael said. ‘Farm them out a few days a week. Ethan loves day care, loves all those other kids – we reckon his socialisation skills are improving, don’t we, honey?’
Carly pushed Ethan’s scratching fingers away from her eyes.
‘Seems to be. Who can tell?’
Sarah-Jane smirked. ‘Fiona’s not a fan of child care.’
‘It’s not that I’m not a fan,’ said Fiona. ‘I just don’t think we have a good one near us, and I think the kids are better off with people they know while they’re little. Each to their own, though,’ she shrugged.
‘Pete thinks I just don’t want to go back to work, isn’t that right, my darling husband?’
Carly spoke lazily. ‘It’s a necessity for me. I couldn’t do the baby care twenty-four hours a day, it’d drive me nuts.’
Ethan started crying again, and the other baby gradually followed suit. No longer able to ignore it, Carly stood up and put Ethan as far over her shoulder as she still could, and patted him gently.
Pete was playing a game of seated cricket with his kids, and the ball suddenly exploded the corn chips. The girl erupted with laughter.
‘How bizarre,’ Tim was looking towards the car park. ‘I was just about to say how her laugh is just like her aunty Trish’s, and look: there’s Trish in the car park right now! ’ Tim stood up, shielding his face from the sun, and pointed.
‘Ah yes, I forgot to mention,’ Fiona said. ‘We told Trish we’d be here. She’s down for a few days and she said she might stop by. She’s pregnant again.’ Fiona looked pointedly at Carly.
‘Right, okay.’ Carly shrugged.
Trish, Pete’s sister, was younger than them all but her seriousness always made her seem older. She should, Carly had always thought, learn to lighten up.
They watched her approach. She still looked like the tall, sickly girl she’d been, but her billowy clothes suited her more than the school uniform had. She waved absently towards the party. Her gait wasn’t yet that of a pregnant woman, but her walk was as slow as ever. Carly found herself wishing she’d just hurry up and get here; they had an evening to move into.
Typically, Trish arrived without words. Tim – her former boyfriend, way back before they needed to acknowledge – was the first to greet her, which he did somewhat awkwardly, with an arm around her shoulder that didn’t amount to much of a hug.
‘Long time no see.’ Trish eyed Carly. ‘Who’s this little one?’
‘A very grumpy Ethan. Say hello, Ethan. How are you doing, Trish?’
Later, Michael commented that he hadn’t known they’d been such good friends. But, then, Trish was one of those people who looked into your eyes and felt like she knew you. She pronounced truths about people: ‘You never felt quite at home at that school, did you?’ she had once said to Carly, which – while correct – wasn’t really something she could have worked out, so it must have been a guess.
Trish accepted a glass of soda water and sat on the ground. She reached over to her niece and stroked her face, and the girl giggled and looked over at her mother. ‘Don’t know what I’m having yet.’ Trish nodded towards Ethan. ‘I think a boy because I feel so unwell, but it’s just a feeling.’
‘Carly thought she was having a girl.’ Michael took Ethan and held a cup of water to the baby’s lips. Ethan mustered some enthusiasm towards it.
‘It’s so good that you allow your kids to get mucky like that,’ Trish said, nodding to Fiona. ‘It’s one of the things I like about living in the country, and when I think of my kid growing up, with all of that clean kind of dirt – so different to city dirt – I feel better.’
Carly lay down on the picnic rug and shut her eyes. Ethan’s damp sunhat was under her head – she removed it and placed it over her face. It held the vaguely sweet aroma of baby spew with undercurrents of Johnson & Johnson’s No More Tears and nuclear-strength sunscreen, and the combination was surprisingly pleasant. When she opened her eyes, Michael was looking down at her, Ethan fast asleep on his chest. No one else was around.
‘Did I nod off?’
‘You must have been tired,’ Michael said gently. ‘They’ve gone to look at the waterfall.’
Picking up speed, Carly collected Ethan’s bits from the rug as if she was on automatic, threw them into the Esky, and jammed it onto the pram. She quietly pointed to the car, and Michael, his sonar finely tuned, started walking. She pushed the pram quickly after him, steadying the Esky with one hand as she went. As the car stole away, Carly witnessed six blocks of custard-coloured Tupperware stoically accept their new life.