When he thinks of her, she is a bogan Botticelli. Twenty-one, a halo of golden hair, towelling dressing gown wrapped around her long limbs, her talismans placed around her on the kitchen table just so – a lit cigarette, an instant coffee – their smoky fingers reaching to caress her ascetic face.

That’s just how he’d find her most mornings when he was small, everything yellow and new, but he never really thought about that moment in the morning before he entered her day, when she was alone, private as an egg, just as he’d never really thought of her life before he was born. He and his brother would come tumbling, sweet sour expressions and doughy legs. into the kitchenette. Little limbs in flannel pyjamas, little hands clutching for everything, turning on the TV to watch cartoons before school. She’d make breakfast; it didn’t vary – a bowl of Weetbix or toast with Vegemite or sticky jam. The toaster, a plastic hand-me-down, would burn the toast regardless of the setting. She sometimes remembered to press the cancel button before it did, sometimes not. Bloody toaster, she’d say as she scraped Vegemite across each hard square, indistinguishable from the bread underneath. It’s good for you, she’d say. Chewy. Develops the jaw.

For a long time he hadn’t known that they were poor, living on a single-mother’s allowance. With the rocks to turn over in the garden, the wriggling creatures underneath, the world of gutter puddles and gumboots, the music of home, the adventure of being alive, childhood had felt as opulent as a fairytale. But sometimes now, years later, he’d think about her at that moment before they emerged into the day, and wonder what she thought of.

He thought about her life before he was born, too – there wasn’t much of it – would she choose the same thing again? Did she regret the fair youth who fucked off as soon as she found out she was pregnant with him? Or the darker one, who fucked off not long after his brother was born?

She’d always worn a monk’s expression. He’d only seen her cry once, after she’d read a Henry Lawson story about a mother staying up all night to defend her children against a brown snake that had crawled under the house. The tears had scared him more than the snake.

By the time she was fifty-one, her curves were sinking, her velvety peace sharpening into harder edges, colour fading, before they even knew she was sick. Then they knew she was sick, and to name a thing is to give it power. It coiled like serpents in her — there was nothing, not all the love or money or medicine in the world, that could make it stop.

He’d light a cigarette he didn’t smoke, make an instant coffee, and in the private world of morning before the kids got up, he’d think of her: a bogan Botticelli.

Read the other winners from the 2019 Swinburne Microfiction Challenge here.