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Paper and sand castles

Dolly and Mary were childhood friends. They had grown up mostly holding hands in their hometown, which was a small town to others but a medium town to them. Dolly had always been tall. She was born tall and had stretched out tall in her mother’s stoic womb. Dolly had hair that wouldn’t sit right no matter how her father cut it. She was lucky, many thought it, because she didn’t seem to care about this and was more interested in finding the best ways to have fun and get some laughter out of each day. Mary was what was generally referred to as short. She was short compared to everyone in the school; she was short compared to her younger brother; she was short in the morning and short when it was time to sit down for tea, her thick legs swinging. This bothered Mary greatly, though she did wonder later in life whether she would have been bothered greatly no matter what her height.

Mary and Dolly were a quaint sight as they walked around town, eating beef souvlakis or ice cream in cones, one girl so small and the other like a long green poplar swaying in the wind. They would be talking over the top of one another, you could be sure of that, but their arms would be linked and their eyes would be bright. They were almost like sisters, but you would never mistake them to be. Mary and Dolly seemed bound together, but their feelings for each other were as complex as the ornaments of the sky.


It wasn’t due to any specific thing Dolly had done that Mary didn’t really want to go to the swimming pool with her when they were both thirteen and the weather was hot and dreamy. Mary was changing. Perhaps she had already changed, she thought to herself as she tried on the new pair of bathers she had bought the evening before at the late night shopping centre. It was a one piece—so much more elegant than the sag-bottomed bikinis she and Dolly had worn since they first took swimming lessons together at age five and Dolly had pretended she could swim by putting her hands on the bottom of the pool and edging along. Dolly had always been like that. She tried to get away with things—and didn’t really mind if she got caught. Mary sometimes heard herself scoffing these days instead of snorting along with Dolly when she tried to trick people. She did feel bad about this though Dolly didn’t seem to notice, and still held onto Mary everywhere they went, though she wasn’t the affectionate type.  

When Mary told Dolly that she couldn’t go to the pool they were standing outside the milk bar and Dolly stopped licking her ice cream—bubblegum flavour that would stain her mouth and tongue blue for hours—long enough that a steady blue line ran down her arm and began plopping onto her foot.

‘But what are you doing instead?’ Dolly asked as sweat formed on her upper lip and blue drips painted a scene on her toes.

‘Nothing. I just don’t feel like it.’

After lying awake at night for a week, picking at her nails and wondering how she could tell Dolly she had changed, Mary found that Dolly beat her to it and began to disappear, from the front door and the school corridor and the bench behind Classroom 16, and Mary didn’t even get the chance to tell her how they were so different now and really always had been. After a few days Mary’s mum, an overweight librarian with riot dreams, asked her where Dolly was. Mary didn’t know how to say that Dolly had left just a little too soon, and to ask her mum to tell her this was for the best, and that Dolly and her were never going to be friends forever. Instead she said Dolly had chicken pox and had scratched until she had bled, leaving her scarred and prone to infection. It felt like only half of a lie and Mary was unsure her mum was even listening.


Dolly’s brother died three months after Mary bought her new bathers, black and red and white. She never wore them to the pool. Mary got back into bed the day her mum told her that little Davey had been hit by a ute, trying to jump the road on his bike. She cried loudly for some time, thinking of little Davey’s toast crumb grin, and her own loving, fragile heart. Then she burrowed down into the heavy languor such crying can bring.

At the funeral three days later, Mary’s heart beat quick as she looked for Dolly. She knew she didn’t know her anymore, and expected that she would always regret not going to the pool that day with Dolly and her bubblegum lips. Mary walked up the aisle and saw Dolly’s mum with her sultana eyes and downy cheeks. Dolly’s mum saw Mary and held out her arms. ‘Hello my darling, where have you been?’ she asked into Mary’s hair, her voice warbling with sadness like a water bird whistle. It all rose up again in Mary’s throat and then a smaller stickier hand took hers, and Mary peeked through the hug and saw Dolly there on the bench beside her mum. Dolly’s face was paper and sand castles. She had jam on her chin. It was rather comforting for Mary to see it there, and she thought for a moment that perhaps Dolly was still Dolly, sweat and ice cream and jam and all. The first hymn began to play and Mary started to hum. She knew this one.


Laura McPhee-Browne is a social worker and writer of short stories from Melbourne, and is currently living in Toronto.

You can find her @laurahelenmb.