Even a good woman can be pushed too far…From bestselling author Tricia Stringer, this beautifully realised multi-generational family story looks at what happens when real-life betrayals and struggling relationships clash with outdated ideas of what a woman should be.
Natalie King’s life is full. Some might say too full. With her teaching job, a farm to run, three grown daughters who have not quite got a handle on things, a reserved husband and a demanding mother-in-law, most days she is too busy to think about whether she is happy. But her life has meaning, doesn’t it? After all, she is the one person everyone depends upon.
But when an odd gift from her mother-in-law – an old book in the form of stern and outdated advice for young wives – surfaces again, it brings with it memories she thought she had buried deep. Has this insidious little book exerted some kind of hold over her? Could it be that in her attempts to be a loving wife and mother, she no longer knows who she is?
On a day when it seems everyone is taking her for granted, and as the ghost of a past betrayal rises, it becomes clear that even this good mother and model wife can be pushed too far …
Natalie King put her shoulder against the wooden door and shoved it open, then cringed at the shuddering bang it made against the solid wall. Another dent in the hundred-year-old plaster. Milt kept promising he’d install a new stopper, just like he’d promised to replace the window runners in the bedrooms and the warped kitchen door.
The warmer air inside was a relief from the chilly wind gusting across the dry paddocks. It was already late May but so far there’d been no rain of any significance. She kicked the door shut behind her and made her way along the scuffed wooden floor of the passage to the kitchen. In one hand she clutched a basket filled with exercise books and in the other a bag of shopping and her handbag. Both loads threatened to pull her arms from their sockets.
In the kitchen the old black-and-white cat rose from its position in front of the vestiges of a fire in the slow-combustion stove.
“What are you doing still inside, Bubbles?”
The cat stretched and blinked sleepy eyes at her.
Natalie’s mobile began to ring. She dumped her basket and the bag of groceries on the big wooden table, clear except for a small vase of gerberas in the centre with a scrap of paper beside it, and dug in her bag for the phone.
“Mum, are you free to talk?”
Natalie held her breath. She knew the waver in her youngest daughter’s voice well. “What’s up, Laura?” She kept her own voice light.
“Nothing.” The response was a little too happy; the pause too brief. “I just wanted to know if you were home over the weekend. I thought I’d come up.”
“Of course. Your dad and I will be. I’m not sure what Bree’s plans are. It’d be lovely to see you.” Natalie allowed herself to relax. Perhaps no crisis after all. “Bringing anyone with you?” Laura’s visits usually involved one, often two girlfriends; girls from the city who played at being farm girls as they fed animals and rode motorbikes.
“No, just me.”
Natalie picked up the scrap of paper lying beside the flowers and realised it was a piece of an old envelope and on it was a scribbled list. Landmark was written in Milt’s bold hand at the top. No doubt another job to add to her string of after-school duties tomorrow.
“Shall I cook lasagne?” she asked.
“Only if you want. I’ll see you Thursday. Bye, Mum.”
“Bye, darling.” Natalie stared at the screen a moment. Laura’s phone calls were usually half an hour long at least, full of the minutest details of her day. Perhaps she was tired. That might explain the off-note in her voice and her indifference to the offer of her favourite meal. Although now that she thought about it, Laura’s phone calls had been fewer and shorter for a while and…Natalie tapped her finger against her lips trying to remember the last time her youngest had been home to the farm for a visit…her granny’s birthday. That had been nearly two months ago.
Natalie flicked on the kettle and rolled up the blind. The late-afternoon sunlight streamed in from the side verandah, highlighting the golden honey glow of the solid pine cupboards as well as the crumbs and smudges on the worn laminex bench, left by whatever Milt and Bree had eaten for lunch. She turned away from the mess and back to the window, and looked out over her patch of brightly coloured gerberas and the hedge of rosemary, beyond the rusting wire fence and the barren outer yard towards the sheds. There’d been no dogs to greet her and Milt’s ute wasn’t anywhere to be seen as she’d driven in. He and Bree must still be off in a paddock somewhere.
Behind her the house phone rang. She strode across the kitchen to the desk in the corner and plucked the handset from the cradle.
“Hello, Natalie speaking.”
“Terry Porter here from Landmark Agricultural Services. Is Milt available?”
Natalie took a breath. She’d known Terry for ten years and what Landmark was at least twice as long but he was always so formal on the phone. “Hello, Terry. Milt’s not in yet. Can I help?”
“When will he be home?”
Natalie gritted her teeth and glanced at the clock. “Not for a few more hours, I expect.”
“I’ve left a message on his mobile.”
“He’ll get it when he’s back in range then. Do you want to leave a message with me?”
“Just get him to call me back. Thanks, Natalie.” The line went dead.
Natalie shook her head as she replaced the handset. Terry always insisted on speaking to Milt and the two of them would play phone chasey for days. If only he trusted the woman of the house with a simple message it would save a lot of trouble. She wrote a note on the whiteboard on the wall beside the desk and busied herself putting away the groceries, turning her thoughts to what she might cook. Laura hadn’t been home for such a long time. Natalie wanted to make some of her favourites.
Part way through wiping down the bench she paused. Laura had said see you Thursday. That was a day earlier than usual. She had a full-time job at a city hairdresser. Her long hours earned her the odd Friday afternoon and weekend off. The wavering note in Laura’s voice replayed in her head but she pushed it away. If there was something wrong Natalie would find out all about it on Thursday. She fed the cat and stacked the small pile of mail, all envelopes with windows, between the vase and Milt’s list. Then, with a cup of tea in hand, she settled at the kitchen table, her basket on the floor and the stack of exercise books in a pile beside her.
The table was a big one and yet they’d filled it. She glanced around, picturing her three girls sitting at the solid pine top doing their homework or playing cards, talking about their day, squabbling and laughing; Milt’s mum, Olive, presiding over them as if she was mistress of the manor, while Natalie cooked dinner for them all and her father-in-law, Clem, with his slow nod and twinkling smile sat at the head of the table taking it all in.
Dear Clem. Perhaps that was why she was feeling a little melancholy. She’d realised when she’d looked at the calendar this morning that a year had gone by since he’d died. They’d had a special bond, not father and daughter but very good friends. She wondered if Milt remembered the date. Neither of them had said anything.
A year ago today Milt had been the one to find his father sitting on the side verandah in his old wicker chair, just resting his eyes, as he liked to say when he dozed off. Only this time his eyes were permanently closed, never to rest his kindly gaze on any of them again. Milt had been a rock for his mother, for all of them, but when they were in bed after the long days of dealing with the sorrow and the quagmire of paperwork, Natalie would hold him close while his silent tears washed his cheeks. They didn’t talk about it, it wasn’t Milt’s way to talk openly about his feelings, but she knew he’d been hurting badly. She wondered if he still had the unexpected stabs of memory, the surge of loss that she did from time to time.
She pushed back from her chair, the exercise books unopened, and looked around her neat kitchen. She had a sudden urge to bake; even though her freezer was full of food ready for the extra mouths to be fed during lamb tailing she knew Laura would appreciate some fresh home-baked goodies.
Natalie went to the little desk in the corner of the kitchen and rummaged through her shelf of cookbooks. She had a mind to make a caramel shortbread slice. The recipe, a favourite of Laura’s, was in a church ladies guild compilation crammed with old favourites.
When it wasn’t among the cookbooks on the shelf above, she pulled open the drawer below. It came part way out then jammed. She tugged, to no avail, then reached in and felt something stuck at the back. Wiggling out one item at a time, she soon had a pile of well-thumbed school fundraisers and CWA cookbooks. At last the book at the back came free. Her heart skipped a beat as she stared at the little red book in her hand. How on earth had that got in this drawer?
She stared down at its faded cover, more maroon now than its former vibrant red. The title had been embossed into the leather and was almost rubbed off but Natalie knew what it said. The Model Wife. The book had originally belonged to Milt’s grandmother who had passed it on to Olive as a young bride. Natalie remembered the first time she’d seen it. Olive had given it to her when she was pregnant with Kate. Natalie was still at the feeling nauseous stage and not full of the joy of expectant motherhood she’d observed in her friends. She had laughed when Olive had handed the book to her, thinking it was a joke to cheer her up – until she’d seen the serious look on her mother-in-law’s face.
Now she sunk to the chair. One hand clutched the book and the other hovered over the cover. She felt the gnaw of anxiety in the pit of her stomach. Finding the book again was a bad omen, surely, if she believed in those things. She drew a breath, whipped it open and immediately she was back to the night she’d shown it to Milt.
They’d just hopped into bed. She’d hidden the book under the sheet and swept it out to show Milt as if she was letting a genie out of a bottle. Little did she know she was letting something out, but it wasn’t a kind genie. She could still hear the laughter that had been in her voice.
“Look what your mother gave me today.”
“An old book.” Milt’s tone was sceptical.
“It was your grandmother’s.”
He took it from her. “The Model Wife.” Then he looked at her with that rakish gleam in his eye that turned her insides to mush. “I’ve got one of those already.”
“Look inside,” she urged then rested her chin on his shoulder and cuddled against his naked back as they both read the writing on the flyleaf.
The top inscription was in fading brown ink. For my daughter Charlotte on the occasion of her marriage to Thomas King with all my love Mother. October 1935. Olive had told her Charlotte was Olive’s mother-in-law who had come from England to marry Thomas King, a man she hardly knew. Underneath was another neatly written message, in blue ink this time. To Olive my new daughter-in-law with best wishes for a happy marriage from Charlotte. April 1957. And then in black biro written in Olive’s tidy cursive: To Natalie, welcome to the family from Olive. July 1985.
“I didn’t know Mum had this.” Milt traced his finger gently down the page. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it.”
“It’s meant for the women in the family.”
“Why didn’t she give it to Connie then?”
“She said it should go to the eldest and if the eldest was a boy then to his wife.” Olive had explained that when Natalie had asked the same question. Natalie thought it was more about Olive thinking Connie already had all the makings of a model wife, qualities Natalie apparently lacked.
Milt turned to the contents page, glanced down then turned to the first chapter and roared with laughter.
“A Husband is Master.”
“Yes, my lord,” she said in a subservient voice and laughed too. She snuggled closer, enjoying the intimacy they only had alone at night. The quarters where they slept had originally been fully separate, but years earlier when the house roof had been replaced it had been extended to include the old quarters, which now connected via a door to the main passage. Even though it was basic Natalie had thought of it as her haven.
Milt and his father worked long hours on their property and she’d found it hard to get used to. Teaching filled her week but she was often home before Milt, even with the hour drive from town. When she got home she did her prep for the next day and then helped Olive prepare the evening meal. Not that she had to do much. It was usually meat and three veg followed by some kind of dessert, often fruit and ice cream.
“The model wife loves her husband truly,” Milt read on, “and does not highlight his faults. She accepts her husband’s demands and never criticises, argues or speaks disparagingly. The master of the house has the right to expect good health, good habits, and a sound knowledge of housekeeping in all of its phases from his wife who must provide for his every desire.” He wriggled his eyebrows up and down then went on again. “She shows affection, but never in public and is always attentive. If she is frigid she should not be in a hurry to inform her husband. To him it makes no difference in the pleasurableness of the act. Heed this advice. It has saved many women from trouble.” He frowned at her. “Is this for real?”
“I guess it was in your grandmother’s day.”
“I think I’ll like this book if chapter one is anything to go by.” Milt’s voice was low, his words rumbling through her thin nightie and to her skin.
She snuggled closer. “I thought you would.” She truly did love Milt, truly, truly, more now than when they’d married three years earlier, and she thought she was doing a good job of providing for his every desire – up to a point. “I’m the model wife already,” she chirped.
“I know.” He kissed her cheek.
“But I’m not sure about every desire,” she said, noting the sparkle in his eye had turned roguish again.
He reached for a pen from the bedside table.
“What are you doing?” Natalie hissed as he underlined the heading. She glanced around, expecting Olive to appear through the door and reprimand them. “It’s a family heirloom,” she gasped as he wrote YES with lots of exclamation marks next to the heading for Chapter One.
“I’m giving it my endorsement.” He laughed again then gently pulled her round in front of him, resting his hand on her belly. “You weren’t honestly planning on passing this on to our children, I hope.”
“No, but…well, it’s an antique.”
“One that stops with us,” he said and started to nibble at her neck.
She responded and they were soon fully entangled in each other’s arms, his lips leaving a sensuous trail down her neck. Natalie only gave a vague thought to Olive’s reason for giving the book to her as it slid from the bed and hit the floor with a thud.
The next morning when she was making the bed she kicked it with her foot then, with a pang of remorse, she picked it up and opened it to the first chapter. Milt’s pen was still on the bedside table. She took it and glanced towards the door, once again expecting to be sprung by Olive, then drew a funny face with goggle eyes and a tongue poking out beside his YES.
A lump of wood shifted in the pot belly with a thud, bringing her back to the present. She glanced down at the book in her hands. So much had happened since those heady days of early marriage. Some wonderful, some not so, but they’d made a decent life together in spite of the hiccups. She flicked through the chapters with their demanding headings written for women of a past era, and caught glimpses of her own writing scribbled around the edges and on the blank pages between chapters. On some pages she’d stuck photos, family snaps from special celebrations, and others had clippings, a favourite cheesecake recipe, Clem’s death notice which included their personal words of love for him. If Olive knew Natalie had turned the precious book into a crazy form of scrapbook she’d be horrified even now.
The pages flopped open at the last chapter, ‘Family before all else’. Immediately she thought of the dark days after Bree was born when she’d believed she’d failed as a mother and a wife. Snatches of words from the page jumped out at her, children are a blessing – she’d even underlined it – keep poorly feelings to herself, not bother her husband with too much baby talk. It had been such a low time in her life. There was a name for it now, post-natal depression, but back then she had simply thought she was going mad and the insidious words had mocked her. That’s why she’d underlined children are a blessing. It had been the first time she’d written in the book since the night she’d shown it to Milt and it had felt good.
Several pieces of notepaper and magazine clippings poked from the pages. She flicked to the page on family, opened out a piece of notepaper that had been stuck there and smiled. Written in Laura’s primary school hand was the title ‘Giraffe Soup’, then a list of ingredients and the method. As a little girl Laura would never eat pumpkin. It was the only vegetable grown on the property and they had it in abundance. Natalie had cooked up a big pot of it one day and added other vegetables. Laura had been about four and had eyed the bowl of soup, speckled with the green of zucchini and the brighter orange of carrot, with suspicion. Olive had appeared in the kitchen behind her granddaughter and had announced it was giraffe. Laura had eaten the lot and asked for more. Natalie had been grateful for Olive’s intervention and from then on pumpkin and vegetable soup was giraffe soup in the King household.
Natalie could have thrown the recipe out, she knew it by heart, but she’d written Olive’s name in brackets after the title. That was a reminder of how helpful her mother-in-law could be and a counter for the other times when Natalie got so frustrated by Olive’s interference.
And that was one of the reasons why she didn’t simply toss the old book away. Between its moralising pages were the mementos, mostly happy, of a different life to the one the book prescribed. Natalie’s life. Her family’s own real life. If anyone else saw Olive’s name next to the soup title they wouldn’t realise the significance but Natalie did, just like she knew the family photo she’d glued inside the front cover held special memories.
She’d insisted on having the portrait taken before her eldest, Kate, had left home for uni. It was an informal photo. Milt was seated in the middle, Natalie leaning into him, his arm around her waist and their three daughters cuddled in behind and to his other side. The girls had hated the photo when it had arrived from the photographer. Laura had braces back then, Bree had very short hair and said her ears looked too big for her head, and Kate always said she had a silly look on her face. But to Natalie it was a precious moment in time and even though the large framed copy was banished to a hall cupboard, she’d kept this small copy for herself.
She folded the recipe carefully back inside the pages. It was a silly book, full of rational and irrational messages and she knew her family would think her crazy for keeping it. She’d found Laura with it once, just before she left home to start her hairdresser training. Laura hadn’t got any further than groaning over the hated photo before Natalie had snatched it away. Not able to destroy the book she’d banished it to the back of her underwear drawer. She must have put it in the desk drawer after she’d stuck in Clem’s death notice.
She dropped it back to the desk now and turned her thoughts to food. Perhaps Laura would enjoy some soup as well as lasagne. Natalie went to the fridge, dug out some pumpkin and zucchini and lost herself in the comfort of chopping and slicing.
The soup was simmering gently by the time she glanced at the clock. Time to get some marking done before she had to start the real dinner. Soup alone wouldn’t be enough for Milt. She’d bought Atlantic salmon at the supermarket and it wouldn’t take long to cook it and throw together a salad. She got out her stickers and her favourite purple marking pen and opened the first book.
By the time she heard a vehicle and dogs barking she’d become absorbed in the creative writing produced by her year three class and was laughing out loud at Matty’s comedic storyline. Trust him to come up with a talking tractor that saved a singing horse from a flood. She packed up the books at the sound of boots thumping on the verandah. The familiar shuddering bang of the door echoed along the passage.
“Go easy!” Milt sounded tetchy.
“Weren’t you supposed to fix that?” Bree’s voice was equally strained.
“I was going to do it yesterday but I didn’t have a replacement stopper in the shed. I’ve put it on the list for your mum…” Milt stepped through the kitchen door as Natalie stood up. He was a tall man but his shoulders slumped at the sight of her and he had the grace to look sheepish. He knew she hated his lists of jobs for her to do but as he so often said, no point in them both driving into town and wasting good fuel when she went in three days a week for school. “Hello, love. Good day?” he said.
“More what I’d call challenging. Young Leo Tanner fell and broke his arm. Thank goodness Tom was on duty and realised there was something major wrong straight away.” Natalie counted off her fingertips as she spoke. “Clancy’s mum took the corner too close and clipped the end of the school bus and Billy from my class threw up in the doorway just as we came back in from lunch.” She wrinkled her nose. At least the vomit was the only extra thing she’d had to deal with personally. It really had been a strange day. She chuckled as she recalled the new young principal, hopping from foot to foot. “Poor Paul nearly had a fit when he saw the damage to the bus.”
“Nothing out of the ordinary then.” Milt gave her a weary smile. She wrapped him in a quick hug. Over his shoulder Bree’s smile didn’t reach her eyes. Irritation smouldered there, as it often seemed to these days.
“What about you two?” Natalie glanced from one to the other.
“We only had a blocked water pipe,” Bree said. “Took a bit to fix it though.”
On closer inspection, Natalie could see the splatters of mud on their clothes.
“It needn’t have,” Milt muttered as he poured himself a long glass of water.
“I’m going to have a shower.” Bree ducked away. Clumps of mud splattered her thick brown ponytail.
“I’ll have dinner ready soon,” Natalie called after her.
Bree tipped her head back through the door. “Thanks, Mum, but I’ve got a basketball meeting in town. I’ll have dinner at the pub.” She disappeared back into the passage.
“Say hello to Owen.”
There was no response. Either her daughter hadn’t heard her or she was being ignored. Owen had only recently been brought out to meet them. They’d had dinner and both Natalie and Milt had been impressed with the good-looking young man with the larrikinish sense of humour who Bree was obviously smitten with.
Natalie looked from the empty doorway to her husband. “Everything all right?”
Milt was sitting at the table opening the first of the envelopes.
“Hmm?” He glanced up. “Yes, it’s fine.” He grimaced. “We might have had a few terse words.”
Natalie swallowed her sigh. Milt had trouble remembering he was his daughter’s employer out in the paddocks, not her father. Unlike her older and younger sisters, Bree had been born with the farming genes. Her return to the family property several years earlier, after university and a stint on a farm in the south-east, had coincided with Clem slowing down and their need for an extra worker. Bree had shadowed her grandfather then, and she’d embraced it. Clem was easier on her than he’d been on his son, enjoying being a mentor.
“You know what Bree’s like,” Milt grumbled. “She won’t listen. Thinks she knows how to do it quicker, better.”
Natalie buried her head in the fridge. She did know. Trouble was, often Bree’s ideas were good ones and it was Milt who wasn’t prepared to listen. There was regular tension between father and daughter when it came to work, like there had been between Milt and his father. She tried to keep out of it, but lately she’d noticed a restlessness in Bree.
“Have you seen this bill?” Milt said.
She turned to look at the paper he was waving at her. It was apparent none of the envelopes had been opened before he got to them. “No.”
“Fuel’s gone up.”
“Put it in the tray. I’ll catch up with the paperwork over the weekend.”
“Isn’t Bree meant to be doing that now?”
“She is…will be. There’s a lot to get your head around.”
“Did you pay the bill for the sheep?”
Natalie turned to the calendar. “No. Has it been a week already?”
“Yes.” Milt’s brow creased. “You’re usually on top of all that.”
“I’ll do it after dinner.”
He nodded and looked down again at the papers in front of him.
Natalie set out the vegetables beside the chopping board and picked up the knife. The damned account-keeping got more and more complicated every year. Once upon a time all bills came due at the end of the month, but these days it was any time; the fuel bill one day, phone bill another and for sheep, accounts were due within seven days from purchase. She thought about the early night she’d planned. That wouldn’t be happening. Farm paperwork was one of the jobs that had been handballed to Natalie once it became computerised. Olive had been happy to hand it over and Natalie had tackled it alone for years. Milt pretended to know little about computers and Bree wasn’t showing a lot of interest. Not that Natalie blamed her. She had enough to do without paperwork as well.
“What’s that message on the whiteboard?” Milt asked.
“Terry from Landmark rang.”
“What did he want?”
“He wouldn’t say.”
Natalie looked around as Milt took out his mobile. The Model Wife lay on the desk beside the open drawer. She strode over, slid the book into the drawer and pushed it shut a little too forcefully. Milt glanced up, a puzzled expression on his face, which changed to a frown. He jabbed at his phone. “It’s gone straight to voicemail. Surely he could tell you what he wanted.”
“No.” Natalie shook her head. They’d had this conversation a dozen times before.
“I’m off,” Bree called from the passage and the back door shut.
Natalie went back to the vegetables.
“Bree’s been on about restoring the tennis court again.” Milt’s statement sounded more like a question.
Natalie turned and his steady gaze met hers. Bree had been on about redoing the overgrown tennis court ever since she’d met Owen and had taken up tennis. Natalie felt a chill at the thought of it. “It’d be a waste of time and money now.” The tennis court had been left unloved since the two older girls were babies and that’s how it would stay. That decision had been made before Laura had been born.
“I said I’d think about it.”
She took a deep breath. “But you won’t.” There weren’t many things Natalie stood her ground over but this was one of them.
Milt’s brow was furrowed, his look determined as he watched her. “I said I’d think about it,” he repeated.
Natalie pursed her lips, turned back to the vegetables and began to chop. Tennis had nearly ruined her life once; she wasn’t about to let that happen again.
Posted on September 4, 2019 by harlequinaustralia