It’s just another evening of horrors.
My older boys, Ryan and Alfie, are fighting over a plastic Ninja Turtle sword, screaming at the top of their lungs. I have burned our dinner, having been distracted by the ‘you need to do your homework’ argument. As I am extracting the black lasagne from the oven, my three-year-old, Charlie, pulls the flour I have been using for the béchamel sauce onto the floor. The paper packet explodes with a bang. A puff of white mist fills the room. As I swat the air, inhaling a lungful of flour, Alfie, who has been running in socked feet away from Ryan, slips in the white powder. I’ve always been secretly proud of my five-year-old’s feline reflexes and quick thinking. This time, however, I am less than impressed when he grabs the kitchen blinds to break his fall. They certainly slow him down as they tear straight off the railing.
In the aftermath of this unspeakable disaster, there is a small, two-second silence, in which none of us can do anything but gape. Then Ryan, my eldest, aged seven, tentatively raises his chin.
‘Are we in trouble?’
Now, I don’t know what a good mother would do at this point but I can tell you what I did.
It was kind of the last straw in a very, very shit day.
Hands slightly shaking, I take off my oven mitts, walk out of the kitchen, go straight to my bedroom and shut the door. It’s actually quite satisfying, slamming the door on your kids like that. I mean, they do it to me all the time. Why shouldn’t I get a turn every now and then?
The shock of my abandonment doesn’t take long to wear off.
‘Mum!’ yells Ryan. ‘Since Alfie’s pulled the blinds down, can I have the sword now?’
And then Alfie’s protest. ‘Noooo!!! You can’t!’
I lean back against the door and shut my eyes, willing myself to just disappear. Where are those ruby slippers when you need them? Or even the Starship Enterprise. Beam me up, Scotty!
Ryan starts rattling the knob. ‘MUUUMMMM! Can you hear me? What’s the matter with you?’ I slide to the floor. He tries to push the door open and I push back.
I don’t know why I’m doing it. It’s completely irrational. But this is the best I can do right now. The usual unanswerable questions go round and round in my head like a song on repeat.
Why are my children so naughty?
Do other mothers have days like this?
I think about those other mothers. I often see them conversing in the car park before school, their children already in the classroom while I beg Alfie to get out of the car.
What’s their secret?
Seriously, somebody tell me the bloody secret. I can handle it. I have a university degree in Commerce. Every day, other adults trust me to handle their finances.
So what am I missing?
Apart from my bastard of an ex-husband.
Why do I feel like I’m falling through life, one bump at a time?
‘Mum,’ Ryan bangs his fist on the door again, spring-boarding me back to reality. ‘Are you okay? Let me in.’
Charlie must be copying them because I can hear him giggling and thumping on my bedroom door as well. His older brothers are like gods to him. ‘Mummy!’ he is yelling, his tiny fist making a more muffled knock than theirs. Just picturing the delight on his little face elevates my mood a notch.
That’s the thing about kids. They’ve got this built-in fail-safe mechanism to protect them from outright abandonment. I call it ‘killer gorgeousness’. Succulent cheeks. Wide, trusting eyes. Skin as creamy and sweet as freshly whipped icing. Sometimes I look at Charlie and just want to devour him, with his curly mop of blond hair, cuddly little body and a smile that could liquefy rock. Shame about the naughty streak.
I put my forehead on my knees and wait. Maybe if I just sit here without responding they’ll eventually get sick of thumping and walk away. Just as this rather stupid plan is solidifying in my brain, my good friend ‘luck’ gives me another dud surprise. A fourth voice.
‘Grace! Grace! Are you there?’
My head flips up. The voice is muffled but clearly female. Someone is at our front door. Shit.
It’s probably my neighbour, Mavis. Wouldn’t be the first time she’s popped round to check what the commotion is. Last time, I made a solemn promise to keep the noise down.
Embarrassment, hot as lava, rolls through me.
Scrambling to my feet, I yank the bedroom door open and stride out, almost knocking Ryan and Alfie over in the process.
‘Stop yelling,’ I hiss as I whip past them. ‘You’ll get us all into trouble.’ Thankfully, they shut their mouths and follow hot on my heels to the foyer, with Charlie eagerly bringing up the rear.
I plaster on the most unperturbed expression I can muster and open the front door. It isn’t Mavis.
It’s worse. It’s my sister.
‘Aunty Rachel!’ Alfie and Ryan both squeal in delight.
Rachel is looking very stern. ‘Grace, what’s going on? I’ve been knocking for ages and all I can hear is the kids calling out for you and asking if you’re okay. Are you?’
‘Of course,’ I say evenly. ‘I’m fine. Couldn’t be better.’
‘She was just hiding,’ adds Ryan offhandedly. ‘She does that sometimes.’
‘I do not.’ My gaze swings to Rachel. ‘I wasn’t hiding.’ I draw Ryan firmly into my side, hoping he’ll interpret the tight squeeze I’m giving him as a signal to shut the fuck up.
He doesn’t. ‘Yes you were.’
Rachel is folding her arms, her left eyebrow is raised and she’s tapping her right foot.
‘Okay, you got me.’ My mouth twists. ‘I was teaching Charlie how to play hide and seek.’
‘But Charlie was with us.’ Ryan frowns. ‘And he already knows how to play hide and seek.’
This kid just won’t cut me a break.
‘Ryan.’ I turn his shoulders so he’s facing me. ‘Sweet, responsible Ryan. Why don’t you take your brothers to the games room? Aunty Rachel and I need to chat.’
‘About what?’ he enquires.
Silently, I rack my brain for something he will not want to talk about. ‘The two times table.’
Ryan blanches. ‘I’m outta here!’
He dashes off down the hall, but Alfie and Charlie remain annoyingly focused on Rachel. ‘I wanna see you test Aunty Rachel,’ Alfie says gleefully. ‘Ryan always gets ’em wrong. Are you good at your times tables, Aunty Rachel?’
‘Not really,’ Rachel admits.
‘Did you want to go home and practise first?’ I ask with polite innocence.
Rachel, however, is having none of it. ‘You,’ she jabs a finger at me, ‘are going to let me in. And I am going to stay as long as I want.’
Rachel is my younger sister but could easily have been the older one – the way she bosses me about, tells me what to do, implores me to get my life back on track, as if that’s such an easy thing to do. Don’t get me wrong, I love my sister despite her in- your- face tough love and her annoyingly perfect life. You know the stats. Great career, devoted husband, well-behaved children, size ten. I honestly can’t work out why other women don’t hate her. Maybe it’s because she’s a psychologist. She gets people. Honestly, it’s uncanny. The one thing you can rely on with Rachel is that she’ll always show up when you need her the most. Which is more often than I would like these days. I’m probably her top patient right now. Thank goodness she offers me her services for free. If I had to pay her I couldn’t afford to eat.
I can tell she’s thinking the same thing as she steps over the threshold into my very basic- looking foyer. I like to call my decor style ‘minimalistic’ with a touch of ‘hard times’. It’s really quite fashionable in this part of town.
Though I will admit, most people at least have a painting or a hall table in their foyer. My ex-husband has two hall tables in his foyer, which, by the way, is twice the size of mine. One of them has a gilded mirror hanging above it.
Why? you might ask.
I believe it’s there to show me how bedraggled I look every time I drop the kids off, hair a mess, bags under my eyes, clothes worn and tired because I haven’t been shopping since . . . well, forever.
But of course, I could be wrong.
The point is, I don’t have a hall table in my foyer, or anything, really, unless you count the shoes and schoolbags tossed we-don’t-give-a-shit style in one corner. This is why I tend to discourage visitors. I get judged enough in the school car park. I can’t be absolutely certain what the other mums are saying, but I’m pretty sure it’s something along the lines of:
‘Why doesn’t she ever volunteer in the school canteen?’
‘Her kids are always late to school.’
‘She never bakes!’
To be fair, I didn’t bake before I had kids, either. Only back then it was socially acceptable and nobody noticed. Now people look at the store- bought cupcakes on my disposable plastic plate with such pity, I wonder why there aren’t warning labels on the packaging: May damage reputation and prompt concern from friends.
Speaking of concern, my sister steps into the kitchen and her mouth drops open in shock. I have to admit, it’s a bit of a slap in the face for me too.
‘What happened in here?’ Rachel demands.
‘Er . . . Ninja Turtle war. I was just about to start cleaning it up when you arrived.’
‘Do you want some help, Mum?’ Alfie asks brightly. His big blue eyes sparkle as he scans the kitchen. All my boys’ blue eyes glitter when they smile, but Alfie’s the only one with a dimple, and it flashes gleefully as he studies the flour-covered floor, his toes literally curling in his socks. I know exactly what he’s thinking. If I’d had a better day, I might have grinned. Cheeky devil. Instead, I hold out my hand.
‘Take off those socks and give them to me right now. You are not helping.’
‘Aw!’ he groans, but complies.
‘I’ll just put a movie on for them,’ I tell Rachel as she steps gingerly over the exploded packet of flour towards the broom cupboard. Her nose wrinkles. ‘What is that smell?’
‘Lasagne. I’m trying for a crispier finish,’ I joke.
She spies the burned tray next to the sink then glances back at me. ‘Pretty bloody crispy.’
I grin. ‘You don’t think it works? I was just about to offer you a piece to take home.’
‘Don’t you dare! Right after you put on that movie we’ll order some pizza. My treat.’
‘Pizza!!!’ Alfie and Charlie cry in unison, drawing Ryan back into the room to see if the rumour is true.
‘You don’t need to do that,’ I protest half-heartedly, already feeling both insanely grateful and completely inadequate.
She shudders. ‘Yes I do.’
As she begins to sweep, I march the boys into the family room, which doesn’t look much better than the kitchen. There are toys all over the floor. Games with small pieces are a nightmare. I’d really love to know how other mothers stop their kids mixing up all the bits. Our toy box (when it’s full) is just a stir-fry of disjointed parts. The couch, a rather decrepit-looking blue thing, is covered in a blanket – a vain attempt to keep it clean. Alfie bounds into the room, launching himself from the coffee table onto the couch, throwing his legs up so he lands in the seated position.
‘I want Ninja Turtles.’ He does a karate chop to emphasise his point.
‘Transformers!’ Ryan counters.
‘Thomas. Choo choo!’ says Charlie.
I was hoping to skip the fight over the television but it doesn’t look like I’m getting any free passes this evening. Five minutes later, I put on Ninja Turtles, having promised that Transformers will go on after dinner. Luckily, Charlie has lost interest in the argument and is busy playing with a wooden Thomas he found on the floor among the debris. Suddenly, the house is quiet.
I have reached the eye of the cyclone. It’s a beautiful moment.
Relief fizzles off my skin as I softly pad out of the room. When I rejoin my sister she has almost finished sweeping up the flour. The room is starting to look less like a bomb site and more like our kitchen.
The vinyl floors are faded. The kitchen counter laminate is chipped in more places than not, and there’s a lot less space than any mother of three boys would hope for, and yet it’s my favourite room in the house. This is where I get all my morning hugs, all the after-school news, and where everyone’s achievements, big or small, hang on our fridge for all to see. This is the room where we are a family. And that’s all I want for my kids.
Love and security.