Emma runs the bug spray down her outstretched arm. A cloud catches on the breeze, and when the scent reaches Lori’s nose she’s almost knocked over by the force of the memory. She was five, standing on the overgrown patio outside the Orford Shack, and naked, her feet in a beige bucket as Nanna tips cool water over her head and soap suds drip over her brown body. On the other side of the courtyard, Pa is spraying his pale limbs with Aerogard. Holidays were sausages and the beach, mozzie bites, itchy ankles, and the smell of bug spray and sunblock. Part of Lori longs to be back there, in the peaceful bliss of that sepia-coloured childhood.
Now, though, Emma turns to her and holds out the blue can. Lori shakes her head. ‘Feed time,’ she says and hoists Olly up from where she’s crawling, her little hands and feet sinking into the lush green grass. Lori has barely worn shoes since she’s been here, and she loves how cool it is beneath her own feet, so different to the rough, dry weeds of the lawn out the back of her unit.
She smooths Olly’s thin black hair from her face and kisses the baby-soft cheek, relishing the perfect feel of her daughter’s skin beneath her lips. Lori thinks, for at least the twentieth time that day, She is perfect.
At home, she uses a muslin when she feeds. Not because she’s worried about people seeing her boobs, or fears the awful comments she’s heard breastfeeding mums sometimes get, but because she likes the intimacy of it. Feed time is just for the two of them. So much of their lives is about just the two of them.
But here she leaves herself uncovered and feels something special about being free with her body. They are three hours from the city, having a summer holiday at Emma and Rob’s new house at Hawley Beach. It is all plush furnishings, bright light and reflections dancing off the pool. The house is too big for just the two of them and so, all January long, they’ve been filling their home with friends and family.
At first, Lori was embarrassed by the invitation. She had made a choice with Olly to drop down to part-time at the primary school library to save on child care days, but that meant cutting back on everything. No treats, no extras; no holidays. If Emma hadn’t asked, Lori and Olly would have happily spent all of their summer catching Metro buses to see the monkeys at City Park or swimming at the Basin. She didn’t want people to know just how tight the line between coping and struggling was because she didn’t want people to question her decision to do it on her own.
Sensing her worries, Emma had said, more than once, ‘This isn’t charity, Lolly. I want to get to know your daughter. And spend more time with you.’ There was a longing in her voice that told Lori the invitation was about Olly and the way a woman who wants a baby feels when they see or touch or hold someone else’s child. Lori had felt it too before the fertility clinic. Before the donor list. But in the end it was her best friend, the allure of reading by the pool and showing Olly how to build sandcastles that won.
It’s hard, she thinks, to imagine what Nanna would have made of many of Lori’s choices. Especially the decision to make a baby with a vial of sperm from a man she knew only as donor #S4238. She had seen his baby picture on the online catalogue the sperm bank gave her and, even now, as she feeds her slightly underweight nine-month-old, she searches her face for traces of him. He was dark-skinned, from a mob not her own, though which one she didn’t know. She’d imagined that going through donor profiles would be like swiping through Tinder, but they were all just rudimentary: age, weight, ‘ethnic origin’, medical history, and that baby photo. Baby #S4238 smiled with his entire face, and Lori had imagined that even his ears had risen with the force of that grin. It was easier to imagine it now when Olly made much the same face; her little mouth curving upwards, ears moving too.
Rob comes out of the house while they’re sitting there, and Lori has a sudden urge to cover up, but she fights it. He glances at them and smiles, not creepy, but in an ‘I can’t wait until that’s Emma’ kind of way. He starts the BBQ and pours them drinks: wine for Emma, creaming soda for Lori. She’s embarrassed by her choice of soft drink, as though a grown woman who chooses pink fizzy cordial isn’t mature enough to raise a baby. But the bubbles are good and the sugar is a boost to her system, which has been heavy with holiday and newish-mum lethargy since they arrived.
‘We’re so glad you could come,’ Rob says. ‘Hopefully by next summer we’ll have one of our own.’
‘It’s nice to have somewhere to go,’ Lori says. ‘We’re so grateful.’
‘What about the place your grandmother used to have?’ Rob asks, and she feels weirdly stripped back, as though he can see what she’s thinking.
‘Orford? It’s just a tiny beach shack.’ She thinks about the bucket baths and the outdoor shower, and smiles. ‘Dad still owns it.’
‘I fucking loved that place,’ Emma says, swigging from her wine. ‘I loved it when Nanna said I could come on holidays with you.’
Lori had loved it, too. There were only two beds inside the tiny shack and the girls had slept top and tail in the single that was separated from her grandparents’ double bed by only a flimsy curtain. The girls would tickle each other’s toes, irritating the mozzie bites that peppered their ankles. They’d giggle and whisper secrets all night long. When they were older, Nanna had let them take a tent and they’d moved outside. Their secrets changed to more serious things like dissecting their first kisses in embarrassing detail.
When Olly’s done feeding, Lori takes her inside. A change, a cuddle and slipping her inside a sleeping bag in the port-a-cot. She pats Olly’s back gently until her eyes close and she drops away into sleep. Nanna would have loved her, she thinks, no matter how she was made.
When she emerges, the table is piled high with food. It has been like this for days, them feeding and feeding her, as though they think she’s been going without. The discomfort about her penny-pinching returns, but she has also been eating with gusto. Breastfeeding is sucking the life from her.
When she bites into her sausage, Lori is again taken back to summer holidays in Orford. Those memories are open now, bubbling away at the corners of her mind and needing very little to transport her. Getting lost in her past has been happening more and more since Olly arrived, and she supposes it’s hormones and sentimentality that’s done it. The worrying, too, she thinks, has been forcing her to nostalgia, and she can feel other memories—the not-so-good ones—prickling there under the surface.
‘So, you took Olly to meet your dad last week? How did that go?’ Emma asks.
Lori chews, and she thinks as she swallows that the sausage has a faint taste of Aerogard.
‘Not great. He wouldn’t hold her, kept asking me who the father really was, as though he thought I’d lie about the sperm bank.’
‘It makes me wish your nanna was here,’ Emma says. ‘She’d have understood.’
Lori knows that Emma’s memories of Nanna are just the good ones; she, too, remembers the shack and the beach, the bulging bags of mixed lollies after school. She remembers the way Nanna never said no to a sleepover. She thinks she knew Nanna as well as Lori did, but, really, she knows nothing.
Emma and Lori take Olly to the beach. Olly crawls over mounds of sand that Lori piles up with her hands. She grins and coos and giggles in that way that makes it impossible for Lori to feel jealous of Emma and her expensive swimsuit and huge house.
Growing up, the two of them were opposite in more ways than just skin colour. Emma’s family seemed whole and normal while Lori’s was ragged, like a broken plate that had been glued back together. But even lives that looked perfect on the outside were complicated and messy. Emma always preferred Lori’s nanna to her own parents and chose summer holidays at the shack over trips to Sydney and Melbourne. Even now, married and happy with Rob and working a job she loved, Lori knew Emma would give it all up to have a baby.
‘Rob has this friend—Nathan,’ says Emma, looking over from her magazine. ‘He’s so nice. Divorced, two kids, but they’re older. One’s at uni in Melbourne, the other’s at Launceston College. I was thinking, we should ask him round for dinner tonight?’
Lori’s insides clench. This is the reaction, always. Support, so much love and support. So many offers of help, hand-me-down clothes, new clothes, treats and babysitting. Her friends and workmates are kind, but their kindness doesn’t mean they understand. How could someone choose to be alone? She sees that question in their eyes.
Most people wouldn’t be surprised, she knows, if she had come out at some point. It would be easier to understand her choices if they could boil it down to Lori being like her mother. It would be less of a surprise for them than what was real: the fact that she couldn’t face the idea of dating. She liked her independence, even if it was flimsy and built on Centrelink payments, part-time work and frugality. Just being Lolly and Olly was exactly how she wanted to live her life.
She wonders what Emma would say if she told her that the only way sex didn’t make her skin crawl was if she did it when she was drunk or high—or both. Emma probably had no idea how much of an impact that one night had had on her life, and would have expected she’d be over it by now because even she didn’t know the full story. But the memory of Jimmy Patterson, the heartthrob of the bloody school, in her bed at her dad’s house is always there. Everyone was angry with her because of the party: Nanna because she’d lied and said her dad was home; Dad because they’d trashed his already trashed house, drunk his booze and kids had fucked in his bed. No one but Emma had known that Lori, too, had been fucked that night. The only difference was she hadn’t wanted to do it.
She lets Emma invite Nathan around and smiles while he coos at Olly and bounces her on his knee. She pretends to be interested in his oldest son’s music degree, his youngest’s struggle to fit in at Launceston College. He’s handsome—a grown-up version of the blond-haired, blue-eyed private school white boys she used to like when she was younger. But unlike the St Pat’s boys she went round with, he’s smart and kind. He brushes his hand across her arm while they’re talking, fingers warm, smiling in a way that shows his interest, but Lori is indifferent. It doesn’t matter how nice they are, she’s never interested.
Later, after the dinner has been cleared, Nathan has left, Olly is sleeping and Lori has pumped enough for the baby’s night-time feeds, they sit on the back deck, looking over at the pool. The bug spray comes out again and Lori swaps her creaming soda for wine. She drinks it too quickly, loving the way her limbs feel warm and heavy and happy.
‘Did I ever tell you about the time I decided I hated Nanna?’ Lori says, and Emma sits up, looking surprised. Rob seems to sense that something is coming, something not for him, and he quietly tops up their glasses and goes inside.
‘Yeah, well, one day,’ Lori continues, ‘I came home from school and Nanna didn’t hear me. She was on the phone and I went straight to the kitchen. I was pouring juice and I can remember realising that she was talking about me. She said: “She’s just like her mother in so many ways, and I don’t just mean her skin colour. I’m surprised she’s stayed in school so long, she’s got no aptitude for anything, not like her friend Emma. It’s only a matter of time until she runs off, finds herself a girlfriend and a hippie lesbian commune like Cecily did…”’
‘Not a word of a lie,’ Lori says. ‘I have a notebook at home, I took it out and wrote it all down. It’s in our shorthand—you know, that code thing we made up to pass letters—so I know I got it all.’
‘I would never have expected that from Nanna. Not that racist shit, she was… Well, she was your nanna. You guys were… She adored you.’
‘Did you say something to her?’
‘No,’ Lori answers. ‘But I threw a party at Dad’s house that same night. I invited Jimmy Patterson. Remember?’
It is easier, Lori thinks, watching Emma sit up a bit straighter, the pieces falling into place while she stares, to be alone with Olly and ignore their wonky family tree.
But she will ask her dad for the keys to the shack so she can take Olly on summer holidays to Orford. Her daughter’s memories will be like Lori’s: sepia-toned and happy with the smell of sausages and sunblock and bug spray, just without the emptiness in the middle.