Hailey sat in bed and stared at the badge, trying to keep the panic from her expression and maintain the air of excitement she held for the Reject Shop soap and the paper basket her children had made her. I took her cuppa from a suddenly shaking hand and looked over her shoulder to see what it said. I winced.
“Hey kids, how about you go and get your mother another round of toast?” I told them and they clambered off the foot of the bed and raced to the kitchen to fight over who was going to put on too much butter. Hailey stared at me and I shrugged.
“They meant well,” I said. “You can’t not wear it.”
We looked at the badge. It was pink. It had frills. In the centre of the bright plastic were the words:
WORLD’S BEST MOTHER!
“Dammit,” she said, running her hands through her sleep-mussed fiery red hair.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s only for today. You’ve trained for this.” The boys came thundering up the stairs, making more sound than two four-year-olds should be able to, carrying a plate with two slices of burnt toast, thick with butter and sticky with jam. That is to say, the toast AND the boys were sticky with jam, which they proceeded to transfer onto their mother. I abandoned her with glee, happy in the knowledge that it wasn’t Father’s Day for months and went for a shower.
An hour later, we were ready to go. We were headed for Kryal Castle, because that’s where the boys wanted to take their mother for Mother’s Day and the day really isn’t about the mother as much as the adoration of the mother by the children. Hailey had “forgotten” her badge, but Karl and Jason made her go back and get it.
We sang car songs (I’ve trained them to like Dr Worm more than B.I.N.G.O.) and played I Spy on the trip from Melbourne to Ballarat. It was fun. Hailey relaxed. It was going to be ok.
The trouble started when I had to stop for petrol. I nodded to the family in the car next to us as I filled the tank. Hailey was cleaning the windows when the mother of three very lively children stepped out of the car with a sudden blast of screaming toddler. The two women caught each other’s eyes. The other mother’s badge was a vivid lime green, but the words were the same:
WORLD’S BEST MOTHER.
Hailey gave a resigned shrug and dropped into a fighting stance. The other mother growled and without any warning charged my wife, arms outstretched. It was a stupid move. This woman obviously didn’t deserve her badge. Hailey jabbed out with the squeegee and caught the charging woman in the throat with the blade. She ducked out of the way of her attacker, pivoting and bringing the wooden handle of the thing down on the back of the woman’s knees. The charging woman crumpled and Hailey dashed in, pressing the squeegee blade down on her neck as she rolled over.
“Don’t move,” Hailey warned, and reached down to rip the lime green badge from her opponent’s blouse. The woman gave her a grudging nod and Hailey released her, holding out a hand to pull her up.
“Next year,” the woman croaked, rolling to her feet and heading off into the petrol station rubbing her neck.
“God I hope not,” Hailey said, turning to me. She opened the passenger door of the car and tossed the green badge into the back seat, where the boys proceeded to gleefully rip it to shreds. “You can pay.”
Kryal Castle was packed, even on a chilly May morning. It was Sunday. It was Mother’s Day. Kids want to take their mother somewhere special. And they really don’t get that Kryal Castle is not that place. Harried parents and eager children stood in line, waiting for the park to open.
The boys stood close to Hailey, hugging her in the cold. This was a good thing. She would need to know how much they loved her to get through today. I caught her eye and smiled at her over their heads. Her returning smile was more of a grimace. I winked at her. One day a year.
There was a jostling further back in line. I looked back to see a tiny Asian woman flipping an opponent twice her size over her shoulder. Her badge was crimson and tiny bright LEDs blinked out her challenge. The crowd cheered. The fallen mother (light blue badge, smaller than regulation) kicked out at the legs of her attacker, who lithely hopped over the arc of the attack and darted in with two quick stomach punches, nabbing the winded woman’s badge on her way back up. She held the badge aloft and scanned the queue with a challenging glare. Hailey knelt to get something from her backpack. Jason nudged her, but she pretended not to notice. The Asian woman presented the badge to her children with a small bow and the line moved forward again.
“Watch that one,” I said in a low voice. Hailey nodded grimly.
Once inside, having navigated the magical labyrinth that transported us back to medieval times, I realised just how naff Kryal Castle was. I remember being delighted by everything as a child, especially the torture chamber. Now I just rolled my eyes and scowled at the lack of crowd control. Everything was crowded. They really needed to hire someone to redesign the attractions to get crowds in and out.
But the crowds! The eateries were impossible to navigate. The kids couldn’t get close enough to the round table to see the actors and the puppet show was a jumble of too-quiet performers and too-loud audience members, rudely wandering in and out, unhindered by the staff.
And of course, crowds on Mother’s Day meant WORLD’S BEST MOTHER badges.
In the first two hours, Hailey put down three more pretenders to the title, without suffering so much as a bruised cheekbone. From the moment we decided to have kids, she had been training in three different martial arts disciplines and now taught classes to teenagers (and some aspiring mothers). I kept an eye out for the fierce Asian lady and, after the boys had struggled through some of the more crowded attractions, we convinced them to explore some of the outlying areas, away from the concentrated throng.
Our meanderings brought us in sight of the lists, where a crowd was growing in anticipation of the jousting tournament. Now this I could get on board with. We’d already seen the archers shooting at men and women holding shields. We’d missed the public whipping while we were in the dismal puppet show. So despite Hailey’s reluctance to re-join a public convergence, I was eager to see the mounted battle.
“It’s educational,” I said.
“It’ll be a farce,” Hailey said.
“Even more reason.”
The boys were on my side and, with each of them dragging her by the hand, Hailey was persuaded to return to the chaotic stream of children, fathers and mothers jostling their way towards the tiered seating around the jousting arena. We found a spot close to the front and sat on the cement steps. I handed out sandwiches and the boys squabbled over who got to eat the peanut butter. Hailey used the wisdom of Solomon and tore each sandwich in half. She looked around warily, but there was no sight of garish badges. Some of the tension left her shoulders and she reached out for a sandwich…
The attack came from behind. There was a shrill scream of challenge and Hailey had only partially turned when the Asian lady from the queue barrelled into her. The pair tumbled down the last two rows of cement seats, landing heavily in the churned dirt of the lists. I checked on Jason and Karl, making sure they hadn’t been struck in the attack, but they were fine and brushed away my hands as I checked them for bruises, their eyes gleaming as their mother rolled to her feet to face her opponent. I saw it then: they had given her that badge because they were absolutely sure that it was true.
I looked over at my wife. She stood in a crouch, wary but confident. Her red hair was tied back and she was wearing clothes that allowed her to move under her jacket. She’d discarded the jacket but was still proudly displaying the pink frilly badge.
Her opponent also stood, a fierce grin on her face. She was perhaps five years older than my wife, but no less a threat because of it. The LEDs on her crimson badge still blinked out the message that she was the WORLD’S BEST MOTHER. She nodded at Hailey. My wife inclined her head in return.
The crowd was ecstatic. They had come for a fake joust and had found themselves witness to a proper Mother’s Day challenge. Between the two women, all of the other challengers had been vanquished. I hadn’t noticed, but we had obviously been watched throughout the day and a good number of the crowd seemed to have anticipated this matchup. Small cheers of “RED BADGE!” or “COME ON YOU PINK!” burst from the crowd. A small group of actors were huddled together with the jousting organiser away from the women, scratching their heads and pointing in that direction. The organiser shrugged and gestured at the women. The fight was obviously more interesting than anything they could come up with.
Hailey dashed forward, entering combat with a half-dozen well-timed blows. Each one was expertly parried by Red Badge, who spun past my wife and struck her in the back with an elbow. Hailey staggered but turned it into a roll, narrowly missing the follow-up strikes. Back on her feet, she ducked back in with a calculated whirlwind of blows and kicks. For a few seconds the movement was more dance than fight, as both women tested the defences of the other, changing strategies in a heartbeat and pivoting through a series of blows that would take down anyone with less skill. Hailey deflected a devastating kick from Red Badge and yanked her off balance, dropping the older woman to the ground. The Asian woman fell back against the jousting equipment and came up with a wooden practise sword.
The crowd roared (and I drew a quick relieved breath) when Hailey dove under the first blow from the sword and came up with her own weapon. The battle intensified with the snick snick slak of wood on wood, whipping around faster than we could keep track of up on our seats. I wasn’t overly concerned; after all, Hailey had been training for this for almost ten years. Her moves drew heavily on the capoeira fighting style, a fluid rhythm that nonetheless could be reversed almost like magic by a skilled practitioner.
Red Badge took a blow from Hailey and stumbled. My wife went in for the kill, realising too late that it had been a feint, and the practise sword whanged across the side of her head, sending her spinning to the ground. She hit hard, dazed, rolling to stay out of the way of the other woman’s attack, but unable to mount a proper defence.
Red Badge abandoned her sword and laid into my wife with fists and feet. I was on my feet, yelling, but the boys pulled me back, not looking away from the fight.
“Don’t worry, Daddy,” Jason said, his expression fierce, “She’s the WORLD’S BEST MOTHER.”
“I’m pretty sure that badge used to mean that your Mum is good at tucking you in and making your favourite lunches,” I muttered, my brow furrowed with worry. Hailey was still trying to get to her feet, but now that she was down, Red Badge was determined to keep her there. Hailey took a solid blow to the ribs from the woman’s foot and wrapped around that leg, trying to get some respite from the onslaught. She reached up for the flashing red badge, but the Asian woman slapped her hand away and punched Hailey in the shoulder.
The snap silenced the audience for a beat, before the roar of noise doubled. Hailey gasped in pain as her arm dropped to her side, and the joint was definitely out of place. Red Badge ducked around her and dropped in close, wrapping her forearm around Hailey’s neck and holding her in a headlock. Hailey struggled, but couldn’t escape. She was losing her breath and I was ready to intervene again, but this time it was Mark who put a gentle hand on my chest.
“You can do it Mum!” he called.
Through the roar of the crowd, I had no idea whether Hailey heard him, but she suddenly looked up at us. She caught my eye and then her gaze locked on her two sons. The boys we promised we would look after. The boys to whom we would always be the WORLD’S BEST PARENTS.
Hailey’s good arm came loose from where she’d been trying to pry Red Badge’s arm from her neck. Her hand closed around the frilly pink badge, and I saw her fist squeeze it. Then she drew the fist back, badge enclosed, and slammed the pin of the badge straight into her captor’s forearm. The woman shrieked and leapt back. Hailey spun on her and she never looked as lovely as she did right then, fighting for the beliefs of her sons. She swung her fists with little finesse but with righteous fury and each time, she connected with Red Badge’s stunned expression. The little woman’s head rocked backwards with each blow and then Hailey leapt up, driving a knee kick into Red Badge’s solar plexus. She clubbed the woman on the back on the neck as she doubled over, driving her to the ground. Hailey watched the fallen woman as she tried to rise, but after a few moments, Red Badge just dropped to the ground. Hailey rolled her over with one foot. She reached down and clasped the red badge, staring straight into her opponent’s eyes as she ripped it from the front of her shirt. Her thumb found the off switch on the back of the badge and the flashing LEDs died.
There was a roar of approval from the crowd. The Kryal Castle jousting organiser jogged up and held Hailey’s good arm above her head. She pulled away quickly and headed back to us, where I met her with a kiss and checked her injured shoulder.
“Dislocated,” I said as she knelt before her boys and gingerly took hugs from them. She gave them the crimson badge and they shouted with glee, turning it on and off again over and over until the batteries gave out. Hailey looked at them with an expression of exasperated fondness.
We made our way off to the First Aid Centre, not really interested in the jousting any longer. The Kryal Castle owners gave Hailey a t-shirt that read “My Mum beat your Mum at Kryal Castle.” I’m pretty sure she has buried it at the bottom of the drawer next to “My Mum beat the Looney Tunes out of your Mum at Movie World”
As she changed for bed that night, she detached the badge and looked at it.
“Chuck it out?” I asked, holding out a hand. She looked at it a bit longer, and then shook her head.
“No, I think I earned this one,” she said, and placed it on the bed stand next to her copy of Harry Potter. We crawled into bed and I hugged her close as she turned out the light.
“You are absolutely the WORLD’S BEST MOTHER,” I whispered to her.
“Just wait until Father’s Day,” she warned me.