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.’
Danielle Wood is the author of a novel, a collection of short fiction and the life story of Tasmanian domestic goddess Marjorie Bligh. With Heather Rose, she is ‘Angelica Banks’, author of the Tuesday McGillycuddy adventures for children. Danielle’s forthcoming book is Mothers Grimm. Her stories have appeared in Griffith REVIEW editions 26, 30 and 39.