Fiction

The good mother

NOW THAT YOU think about it, you realise you've known her your whole life. On the magazine pages and billboards of your childhood, she was fair as Rapunzel with a trim shoulder-length haircut. You were indifferent to her, back then, barely registered her presence. Or so you think until you realise you can remember precisely the way her hands looked – their fingernails short and practical though still perfectly tipped with white crescent moons – as she drew V-shapes in menthol rub onto the chests of her ailing children.

She wasn't always the Vicks Mum, of course. Kneeling by the bath, she would soap her toddler's blond mop into a quiff of white foam and promise you No More Tears. To soothe the unsettled infant, she could provide her favoured brand of paracetamol as well as the comfort of her trim, moulded bosom inside a candy coloured shirt. With a plump, two-toothed cherub on her hip, she would de-holster a spray pack and vanquish the invisible nasties on the bright white porcelain of her toilets and sinks. For she was the Good Mother, as safe and mild and effective as every unguent she ever squeezed from a pinkly labelled tube.

The Good Mother had the powders to return muddied soccer shirts to brightness and the potions to ward off sore throats and flu, but you realise now that her true power lay in those hands with their frenchly polished nails. Remember how she placed them coolly on fevered brows, cupped them around mugs of chocolately-yet-nutritious fluids, splayed them protectively over the shoulder blades of her sleeping babes? Yes, you remember, though it occurs to you only now how implausible it actually was that the peachy boys and girls they found to match her could have been born from her trim blue-jean hips. Come to think of it, where did those children come from? Did Dad ever come in from the breadwinning long enough for her to rest a hand on the honest chambray of his shirtfront? If he did, you cannot remember it.

This is how it is for the Good Mother. She pricks her finger when she's embroidering. The bauble of blood teetering on her fingertip sets her to thinking and soon she is noticing the deepness of the red and the way it shines against the snowy ground beyond her window. Add the ravenswing black of the windowframe, and voila! She's knocked up and chosen her child's colour scheme to boot.

This is how it is for you. Deep in denial, you hardly even tell yourself when you stop taking the Pill and start taking folate. Your partner would probably be quite interested if you were to let him know how much better is an unprotected ovulatory orgasm than a regular Pill-protected one, but this knowledge feels for some reason like a secret, so you keep it to yourself. Although you become obsessive about taking your temperature and despite your new habit of cooling your post-coital heels high on the bedhead, there's nothing doing. You get your many test kits from pharmacies in different suburbs so that the sales assistants don't start getting to know you, but no matter how many mornings you lock yourself in the bathroom with a bladder full of potent overnight piss, there's only ever one little line in the window of the white stick.

It's been three years since the rash of weddings in your life, and now it's thirtieth birthday parties. And there she is. Over there by the cheese plate, scooping a strand of fair hair behind one ear and staring down the camembert as if she knows its sole purpose in life is to kill her unborn child. You haven't thought of her for years, if ever you have thought of her consciously at all, which is why you don't recognise her. You say hello and she clinks her water glass against your thrice-emptied champagne flute. Wearing something white, and tight, she sinks into a chair and sighs and it's only now that she stretches her hand a full octave across her belly that you notice her fingernails. They're exquisitely oval and pink as confectionery, each one smoothly iced with white. She gestures at the empty chair beside her and then somehow you are sitting in it.

At all those weddings, people would ask so,what do you do? Not anymore.

'Do you have children?' she asks, stroking herself as if she is her own pet.

'No,' you say.

'Not yet,' she soothes.

Fuck off, you wish.

'Your first?' you ask, tilting your champagne towards her belly.

'Oh, God no! This is my third.' She laughs and her free hand flies up into the air. When it lands again, it is on your knee. She looks right into your face now and smiles.

'I'm so fertile, my husband only has to look at me and I'm up the duff.'

You make deals with God. You make deals with the Devil. You're not fussy. But as a wise man once said: 'it's the saying you don't care what you get what gets you jiggered'. So you say it, and you're jiggered, but what you give birth to is a hedgehog. It's prickly and its cry is a noise so terrible that you wish that someone would scrape fingernails on a blackboard to give you some relief.

You learn that hedgehogs are both nocturnal and crepuscular, but yours doesn't sleep in daylight either. In search of support and camaraderie you join a mother's group. You turn up at the clinic covered in prickle-marks and with your squirming hedgehog in your arms. The other women are there already, sitting in a circle nursing their soft, boneless young. The only seat left is beside the Good Mother.

She's wearing pale pink and making smooth circles on her baby's back with her hand-model hands. Things are different since you last met, and you're prepared to forgive her for last time if only she'll tell you how it is that her eyes are so bright and her skin so clear. You're desperate to know how it is that her shiny golden hair is brushed. Clearly her child sleeps, but what is her secret?

'You know what they say,' she says, with a contented smile. 'Calm mother, calm child.'

 

ONE DAY, YOU fall into a deep, deep sleep. Valiantly the prince fights his way through forests of fully-laden clothes horses, past towers of empty nappy boxes, to reach you where you lie with your rapidly greying hair straggling around your face. He puckers up. His lips brush yours.

'You stupid fucking prick,' you yell at him. 'What the hell do you think you're doing? I only just got to sleep!'

This happens more than once.

Your hedgehog gradually morphs into a child, a boy whose sunny countenance is sufficiently beautiful to make you forget the spines and the sleeplessness. When you conceive again, you are pregnant with the vision of a placid, smooth-skinned human girl child, but what you give birth to – though female – is just another hedgehog.

When Hedgehog II is a year old, your partner announces he is leaving you.

'I think you have a personality disorder,' he says.

'Of course I have a personality disorder,' you say. 'I haven't slept for three years.'

So your partner moves out, just as your maternity leave expires. Your plan had been to go back to work part-time, but now that you're a single mother you have to work full-time to afford the childcare. The economics of this confuse you, but you're too busy thinking about how you're going to manage to worry about that as well. When you go into the childcare centre to make inquiries, the hedgehog clings to you and makes its sanity-withering cry. The carers hold closer the human children they have in their arms and offer you a three-day trial to settle in your hedgehog before you have to leave her there for real.

On the first day you leave her, she screams until she vomits, so you take her back home. On the second day you leave her, she screams until she vomits, so you take her back home. In a fairy tale, things are always different on the third go. But this is life and on the third day you leave her, she screams until she vomits, so you take her back home.

Then comes the day that you are to go back to work. Is that Rumpelstiltskin giggling in your mindscape as you hand over both your second-born and the bale of hay-spun gold? The carer takes a tentative hold of your hedgehog. You smile and coo. You turn your back and walk out the door and as you do, you hear your hedgehog screaming. The effect is like having your uterus torn out through your ear holes. You are sure you can smell vomit. You only just make it out the kiddy-proof gate before you begin to weep. The weeping makes you red and puffy in the face and now you are hardly presentable for work. In order to pull yourself together, you call in to a café. You open the door and look inside but every table is taken. There's one bar stool but you think perhaps it's the Good Mother sitting on the neighbouring seat nursing a peppermint tea. You're not certain, but there's something in the blond foils that makes you wonder and you're in no mood for her today. And besides, by now you're too experienced to fall for her ol' empty seat routine.

Outside there are no free tables either, but two women who are taking up only half of a large table gesture for you to join them, so you do.

'Thank you,' you say, and they nod in unison.

You take out your fold-out mirror and try to hide the blotches on your face with powder. Then you notice how peachy is the skin of the raven-haired woman sitting on the same side of the table as you. And the skin of the redhead sitting across from her. Each of them has a slim-line pram in a bright, interesting colour. They push their prams to and fro with gloved hands. The gloves are reasonable, aren't they? It's winter. It's cold. You're telling yourself all of this even though you already know.

No, no!

It's her. Both of them.

And although she's talking to herself across the table, she's really talking to you.

'How old?' one of her asks.

'One,' the other says, with a can-you-believe-itmanoeuvre of the eyebrow.

'Incredible,' she says. 'I mean, is there anybody who thinks it's a good idea to a leave a one-year-old in childcare?'

You take a vow of silence. You will not speak to her. You will not look at her. You will not accept seats at her café table. Out of the corner of your eye you glimpse her, auburn-haired, in a Dettol advertisement, and wonder when you're going to clue up to the fact that these days her hair can be any colour at all?

You tell yourself that the consequence of breaking your vow is that your twelve brothers will turn into ravens, or something. In order to hold to your promise you make sudden reversals in supermarket aisles, hide from her in clothing store change rooms, buy bigger sunglasses for their greater protective surface area, teach yourself sign language out of a library book so that if she speaks to you, you can easily pretend to be deaf. You are doing well. Until your eldest child starts school.

You know which is the Good Mother's Volvo. It's the one with the My Family stickers on the back window; she's the one with the handbag and the mobile phone. At first, you think this knowledge will help you to avoid her. You can just make double the number of Green Bottles when you start singing as you lap the school in your Hyundai, but soon you realise the Volvo is parked multiple times around the perimeter, no matter how early or late you arrive. This is her territory. Here, she is omnipresent.

It's almost Mother's Day and the kids in your son's kindergarten class are given a photocopied page to fill in. Mostly, the page is taken up with a blank square in which each child is to draw a picture, but above the box there's a line of text that is followed by what you will come to recognise as the ellipsis of doom.

I really appreciate it when my mummy…

A week later you see the completed tributes where they're pinned up on the wall just inside the classroom. All the figures in the pictures wear bright colours and most have hands pronged with twelve or more fingers. Little Laura reports she really appreciates it when her mummy tucks her into bed at night. For Oliver, it's his mummy's cupcakes. Tara appreciates it when her mummy takes her to the library.

Already you are predisposed to like Clytemnestra, who is a tiny little skun rabbit of a thing to be lugging around the name-equivalent of four suitcases and hatbox. You see that Clytemnestra's had a go herself at changing 'mummy' to 'mummies'. Her picture is a constellation of mint green spots: she appreciates when her mummies don't cook peas.

You are still smiling at Clytemnestra's peas when the Good Mother materialises beside you in her black puffer jacket. She patrols the pin-up board with her eyes.

'Ummmm-aaahhh,' she says, happily shocked. 'Look what David's done.'

You haven't yet found your own son's handiwork. And now, even though the Good Mother's manicured index finger is pointing right at it, somehow your eyes are still missing the mark. They are slipping over all the generously endowed hands and circle-striped bellies. You don't want to know. You would like to dematerialise.

The Good Mother realises she's going to have to read it out for you.

'I…really…appreciate it…when…my mummy…'

She snickers, snickers, before she continues: '…buys takeaway.'

Under the sentence, written blackly at your son's instruction by one of the teacher's aides, there is a disturbingly accurate reproduction of the golden arches. You want to protest that you never take him there yourself. It's your ex who does it. And the birthday parties! It's not as if you can say no to these things. Well, not unless you're…

The Good Mother interrupts your thoughts with a hand on your upper arm.

'Oh, honey,' she says. 'You must be so embarrassed.'

 

LITERARY SCHOLARS TREAT it as a mystery to be solved by careful textual analysis. Psycholanalysts propose theories that involve words like splitting and internalisation.

But you could give them a much simpler explanation.

Yes, you could tell them, couldn't you?

There is no mystery for you.

You could tell them exactly why it is, in fairy tales, that the Good Mother is always dead.

Author note: Like most people, I did love fairy tales when I was a child. But I also loved them in my late teens, at which time I had an addiction to Jim Henson's The Storyteller. I am indebted to this funny, exquisite series (featuring John Hurt, a prosthetic nose and an indignant dog) for introducing me to tales including 'Hans My Hedgehog' and 'The Twelve Ravens' (which Henson scaled down to three). Those who know the series will recognise the nods and winks in 'The Good Mother'.

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