‘Shhh! You’ll wake her up!’
Stifled laughter, the tinkling of a tea bell and the pungent smell of burnt toast drift beneath the bedroom door. Our three children are whispering outside, impatient to sneak in and surprise me. My hand slides across the mattress, reaching for Andy’s, before the crushing realisation swamps me.
He’s not here. Again.
A cold, hard nub of loneliness lodges in my chest. Andy’s overseas trips are an unavoidable by-product of his smashing career success; New York this quarter, London next, Tokyo in the spring. I should be used to it by now, but the thought of spending Mother’s Day solo makes me want to curl up under the covers and refuse to come out. For the sake of the children, however, I can’t. It’s my job to create magic on Mother’s Day now.
I stare at the paint flaking off the ceiling above our bed. Recalling the early, easy years with Andy, before there were any Mothers’ Days at all. All that spare time spent sleeping and strolling and staring into each other’s eyes. Two languid years of mutual adoration, before my body endured three pregnancies, two breastfed babies and the singular exertions of gravity itself. Back when Andy and I still saw each other, somehow.
Something clatters to the floor beyond the door.
‘Hold the tray steady!’ Milla hisses at her younger siblings. ‘Careful of that teapot, Ruby!’
‘Shut up, Bossy Pants!’ Ruby objects, with the trademark confidence of a third child.
Jackson remains quiet, presumably observing his sisters wage battle, before pointing out in his quiet drawl, ‘She’s woken up for sure.’
I make an exaggerated yawning sound, a sort of sigh and groan combined, then lie perfectly still. The ruse works: the tea bell rings sharply, the door nudges open and Ruby’s stubby fingers curl around its edge.
I hear Jackson counting to three in Mandarin.
‘Yaaah!’ Ruby bursts forth in all her nine-year-old glory, zigzagging across the room in pink sequined pyjamas and purple fluffy slippers.
‘Happy Mother’s Day!’ She launches herself onto my lap and gazes at me with earnest blue eyes. ‘I think I’ve got nits. My head’s itchy.’
‘It’s probably just your eczema, Rubes,’ I say, smoothing down her frizzy mass of golden curls. ‘But I’ll check later, okay?’
It’s only been three weeks since a lice contagion swept through Grade Three. Surely it’s too soon for another?
Milla enters the room, bearing a wooden tray laden with Pamela’s heirloom tea set, a stack of singed pancakes, several bowls of condiments, and a single pink rose in a blue Wedgewood vase. Milla’s blonde mane is always plaited in two long, perfect braids, a carryover from her netball days, while I struggle to manage a blunt-cut bob.
‘Morning, Mum.’ She sets down the tray. ‘Ruby burnt the croissants, sorry.’
‘They’re just well done,’ objects Ruby, crawling off me to admire herself in the full-length mirror.
‘I hope pancakes are okay?’ Milla murmurs.
‘Of course they are.’ I reach out and squeeze her hand. ‘You’re doing a great job, Millsy.’
She smiles. ‘Thanks, Mum.’
I’m gratified to see this compliment still means something to Milla, given most fourteen-year-olds seem far more interested in peers than parents.
Jackson files into the room now, carrying a towering pile of presents, his gangly limbs sprouting from too-small pyjamas. Unlike Ruby and Milla, whose flaxen hair, blue eyes and freckled cheeks resemble my complexion, Jackson’s brown hair, buttery skin and startling green eyes reflect Andy’s genetics.
Jackson whistles through a prominent gap in his front teeth, his head nodding erratically to some internal tune. Setting down the gifts at the foot of the bed, he drops to the floor and rolls into a headstand.
‘Careful, yogi master,’ I warn, watching his neck wobble beneath the weight.
Although Jackson is capable of holding this position much longer than most other eleven-year-olds – until he starts seeing stars – I can’t help but feel concerned. The family therapist we’ve been seeing for almost two years, Dr Louisa Kelleher, points out that ‘children with a low instinct for self-preservation’ tend to cause greater anxiety in their mothers than their fathers. If Andy were here, he’d simply tell me to relax. ‘Mothers minimise hazards and fathers maximise fun,’ he’d remind me. ‘Just let Jackson do his thing, Jules.’
Milla moves to the bedside table and begins pouring out a cup of tea, assuring me that she’s ‘warmed the pot first’. Ruby arranges the stack of gifts from smallest to largest, while Jackson flops out of the headstand and smiles at me from beneath a zany fringe.
‘Hungry, Mum?’ Ruby seizes a singed pancake and thrusts it under my nose.
‘Oh yes,’ I say, visualising a warm croissant. ‘With butter and jam, please.’
Ruby slathers the pancake, passes it to me, then starts on another.
‘Whoa, sweetie. I can’t eat more than one.’
‘But you ate heaps last year!’ Ruby looks crestfallen.
‘That was Dad,’ intones Jackson. ‘He had three pancakes, two fried eggs, a slice of bacon and an apricot pastry.’
‘Really?’ I can’t recall any such detail. ‘That sounds like an awful lot for one father to eat.’ Jackson is presumably exercising creative licence again.
‘You only had one croissant,’ says Jackson, lying down on the carpet. ‘Dad ate everything else.’
‘I miss Dad,’ says Ruby, sniffing. ‘Why does he have to go away for weeks?’ The bereft look on her face tells me exactly how much she wishes her father was here right now.
‘Oh, darling,’ I say, kissing the crown of her head. ‘We all miss Dad.’
‘I miss our old house,’ Milla says quietly. ‘I liked Erskineville more, Mum.’
The mere mention of Erskineville – our family’s home of fourteen years and maternal nest for our three precious babes – makes tears well up in my eyes.
It’s been five months since we swapped our spacious inner-city terrace for this tiny red-bricker in one of Sydney’s most sought-after suburbs. ‘Our coastal cottage,’ Andy likes to call it. His mother spotted it for sale first, encouraging us to move to Queenscliff for the ‘ready-made babysitting’ and the ‘healthy outdoor lifestyle’.
‘But this place has so much potential,’ I say, attempting to reassure myself as much as Milla. ‘And the renovation we’re planning will be…’
‘Colossal,’ says Milla. ‘That’s what Dad says.’
As will our debt levels, I reflect.
‘How about I open some of these Mother’s Day gifts?’ I ask, diverting the conversation.
‘Yesss!’ Ruby squeals with excitement. ‘Open this one, Mummy! Mine first!’
She pushes a small parcel in my direction.
I shake it theatrically. ‘What could it be?’
‘Look inside!’ Ruby claps her hands.
I peel open the wrapping paper to reveal a beaded necklace, decorated with faux gems. ‘Wow! Look at these amazing colours and patterns. Did you make this all yourself, darling?’
Ruby nods, her cheeks puffing up with pleasure. ‘In my accessories’ workshop.’
‘Fit for a Kardashian,’ says Milla, winking at me.
Ruby takes this as a compliment.
‘Thank you, Rubes,’ I say, looping the beads around my neck. ‘They’re really beautiful.’
It’s yet another crafty creation that will join the collection beneath our bed, in a storage box filled with hand-made gifts too voluminous to keep, yet too precious to throw away.
‘And you’re really beautiful, Mummy,’ Ruby says fervently. ‘Take a selfie and send it to Daddy in New York!’
I laugh and pass my phone to Milla, who slides in next to me and extends her arm. Ruby leans against my shoulder, tilts her head to one side and pouts.
‘Join the photo for Dad?’ I ask Jackson.
From his position on the floor, Jackson shakes his head. Fingering the edge of his nostril, his eyes glazed over with concentration or bliss or who-knows-what-exactly.
Over the years, I’ve come to accept that Jackson’s inner life is largely impenetrable to me. It’s a common reality, I’m told, for parents living with ‘neurodiversity’ – a catch-all term used to describe children who don’t conform to convenient diagnostic categories. In the absence of a definitive diagnosis, Dr Kelleher keeps urging us to focus on the one thing we can control: our responses to Jackson’s behaviours.
Milla takes a barrage of selfies at multiple angles.
Jackson stands up from the floor and pushes a huge flamingo-pink parcel in my direction.
‘That’s a whopper,’ I say. ‘How exciting.’
Tearing off the wrapping, I read aloud the words printed on the side of the box: ‘Combining the functions of twelve appliances in one compact unit.’
‘A Thermowhizz!’ I enthuse, praying my expression doesn’t betray me.
Jackson grins. ‘April Kennedy said every mum wants one. But it cost too much new, so Dad bought a second-hand one on eBay. It’s only been used three times, Mum.’
While I’m thrilled that my son has a new school friend called April Kennedy whom he’s consulting about Mother’s Day gifts, I’m wondering why my husband could think of no better way of saying ‘thank you for being a wonderful mother’ than a machine that weighs, cooks, chops, emulsifies, whips and steams.
‘Cool!’ Milla enthuses. ‘Maria’s mum’s got a Thermowhizz. They use it to make gelato and sourdough and puddings and…’
I’ve heard it all before, on the soccer sidelines of a Saturday morning. Perfect for Bolognese sauce, melt-in-your-mouth soufflés, hummus dip to die for. Wonderful in so many ways, but not my ideal Mother’s Day gift – and a petulant part of me thinks that Andy should have known that, after fifteen years of marriage.
‘Where will we put it, Mum?’ Ruby asks.
‘I’m not sure,’ I say. ‘The kitchen’s a bit squeezy at the moment. Maybe after the renovation…’
‘You don’t like it,’ Jackson announces. ‘Do you?’
‘Not true,’ I say, attempting to salvage the situation. ‘I’m sure I’ll love it once I use it.’
Jackson looks unconvinced.
‘There’s one more thing.’ Milla passes me a pink envelope. ‘It’s not much, sorry.’
Inside is a crisp square of white cardboard, with a haiku poem penned in Milla’s neat hand:
Her arms always there
Smiling warm, strong and mighty
Keeps giving her love
‘Oh, Milla.’ I pull her into a hug, blinking back tears. ‘That’s… your best yet.’
Poetry-writing has become one of Milla’s primary pastimes since moving to Queenscliff.
Ruby looks concerned. ‘Are you sad, Mummy?’
‘Glad-sad,’ I say. ‘Sometimes I’m so happy I cry a bit. Is that the poem you’re entering into the competition, Millsy?’
Milla shakes her head. ‘I’m working on a different one for that.’
‘More pancakes, Mummy?’ Ruby motions at the remaining pile.
‘I’m too full,’ I reply, patting my stomach. ‘I can’t, darling, sorry.’
‘But I can,’ says Jackson suddenly, seizing a doughy round from the tray and biting into it with gusto. ‘Yumbo!’ he declares, washing it down with a sip of lukewarm tea from my cup, before starting on another.
I giggle, watching Jackson persist through every rubbery mouthful – swallow and sip, swallow and sip – until three pancakes have been wholly consumed and Ruby hurrahs with delight.
‘What do you want to do today, Mum?’ Milla stretches out her long limbs across the bed. She’s growing womanlier by the week, and I’ve seen men starting to notice her. ‘Something special for Mother’s Day?’
‘I have to go into work,’ I remind her. ‘I’m singing in the Mother’s Day Concert at Care Cottage. And you girls have your gymnastics gala this afternoon, remember?’
‘We know,’ says Ruby, in a bored tone. ‘But can’t we do something special just for this morning?’
A few uninterrupted hours on the couch with a novel I’ve been aiming to read for about three years would be special enough.
‘What about going for coffee?’ asks Milla. ‘We could walk down to Queenies or Beanster.’
‘Perfect,’ I say.
‘Can we ask Nanna Pam, too?’ Ruby asks. ‘For Mother’s Day?’
‘That’s a lovely idea,’ I say. ‘Shall we send her a message?’
I’d have suggested it myself, had Andy been here. But without him, I doubt that Pamela would actively choose to spend much time with me. Despite being married to her son, I’ve always felt thoroughly inferior in Pamela’s presence. She’s clever, multi-lingual and so well put together, while most days I’m a dishevelled wreck.
‘I’ll message her,’ says Milla, reaching for my phone.
Watching Milla compose the message, I marvel at her double-thumbed agility. ‘Make sure you remind Nanna Pam that Dad is overseas, okay?’
Milla nods. I hear the swishing sound of a sent message.
‘Let’s get ready,’ I say. ‘It might take Nanna a while to get back to us.’
Milla and Ruby climb off the bed, while Jackson wanders over to the window.
‘Can we build our street library later today, Mum?’ asks Milla. ‘We’ve been postponing it forever.’
‘Better to wait until Dad’s back,’ I say. ‘I’m a singer, not a builder.’
Milla looks crestfallen.
Back in January, Andy agreed to build a street library – a small wooden box designed for neighbourhood book-swapping – in the front yard of our home. But the hardware has been sitting untouched in the shed for months now, awaiting that unlikely moment when Andy isn’t jetlagged or deadline-driven or both.
‘Okay, Millsy,’ I relent. ‘It’s been way too long in the planning. Maybe not today, but definitely this week. We’ll build it before Dad comes home from New York. Let’s give him a surprise.’
Milla grins. ‘Thanks, Mum.’
‘Go get ready, kids.’
As the girls bolt away, Jackson stands transfixed at the window.
‘Want to get ready too, hon?’
Jackson doesn’t budge.
He wants to say something, I can see, but it’s not coming out. The expression is one I’ve come to recognise since his toddler years.
‘Are you missing Dad?’ I move to his side.
Jackson says nothing.
‘Thanks for eating Ruby’s pancakes.’ I put an arm around his shoulders. ‘That was kind of you. I couldn’t have eaten them all on my own. Not with them so “well done”, anyway.’
Jackson doesn’t smile at the joke.
‘How about we FaceTime Dad a little later? I can message him right now to see if he’s still up?’
Jackson beams, and my heart sinks. So he is missing his father, on the opposite side of the world. It’s a feeling not easily remedied by videocalls and Andy may have turned in for the night already.
I pick up my phone.
‘Look!’ Jubilantly, I wave the message at Jackson. ‘Nanna Pam says she can meet us at Beanster at nine o’clock, so you’d better get dressed. We’ll call Dad as we walk.’
Jackson races out of the room.
I tap out a message to Andy.
You still up? Jackson would love to talk xx
Changing out of my pyjamas, I opt for my usual weekend garb of faded jeans, a plain white t-shirt and a comfortable navy hoodie. Along the hall, I hear drawers sliding, doors slamming and Ruby and Milla singing to the music of some precocious teen popster they both idolise.
‘Ready, Mummy!’ Ruby hollers from the hallway.
Standing in front of the mirror, I ignore the fact that my jeans are snugger than they used to be. But as I lean in to inspect my face, I can’t help but sigh; that expensive age-defying serum isn’t exactly delivering on its promises. I brush my hair, now a much darker blonde than it used to be, before tying it back into a no-nonsense ponytail. I pop a breath mint, slap deodorant under my arms, and dab some tinted moisturiser onto my face. Once upon a time there was proper makeup, in my cabaret days.
‘Muuummmy!’ Ruby yells impatiently. ‘Reaaady!’
I hurry out of the bedroom to find the children already waiting for me at the front door.
‘No lipstick, Mum?’ asks Ruby. She pulls a tube of pink gloss from the pocket of her yellow polka-dotted dress. ‘This could make you look a bit more…?’
Critiqued by the family fashionista, yet again.
‘Thanks, Rubes.’ I take the tube and smear it across my lips. The look of disdain on Ruby’s face suggests an imperfect application on my part.
We close the front door behind us, navigate the missing timber planks in the veranda, then walk down the three rickety steps leading into the front yard.
Beyond the carport, Ruby turns and inspects the length of the driveway.
‘Now that’s what I call a cricket driveway,’ she says, parroting her father. ‘Want to practise bowling later, Jackson?’
Jackson shrugs, nonplussed. Despite Andy’s best efforts to encourage him to play cricket, Jackson’s never been passionate about the sport.
Milla scoops up a stray tennis ball on the lawn and tosses it in Ruby’s direction. ‘Since when have you been so into cricket, Rubes?’
‘Since Dad taught me how to bat and bowl,’ Ruby replies with a smile. ‘Can I join a girls’ cricket team next summer, Mum?’
‘Absolutely, Rubes,’ I say. ‘Girls can do anything.’
‘You’ll hate the cricket uniforms,’ warns Milla. ‘No sequins or feathers. Not glam enough for you, girlfriend.’
‘Shuddup.’ Ruby waves her hands overhead, gesturing for the ball. ‘Let’s play!’
Milla pegs it at her, hard and fast. Ruby stretches out a hand and dives, catching it low to the ground.
‘Nice one,’ I call.
Ruby executes a triumphant little pirouette, then bows.
‘Race you to Beanster!’ she yells at Milla.
The girls bolt ahead in the direction of the café, but Jackson dawdles at my side.
‘Girls can do anything,’ he mutters.
I glance at him, then reach for his hand.
‘Boys can too, Jackson,’ I say, squeezing his palm. ‘Boys, too.’
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