The machine is a shining oblong, with a slant of window running along one side. Through this, a world of slow, painstaking preparation can be seen; a factory in miniature. They are nearly always the same size and shape and are nearly always the same shade of brown, with golden sides, risen to just the right level. They bubble slightly under the glow as the conveyor belt rolls them along.
The first morning that I come down to the hotel’s buffet breakfast, I think it’s one of the greatest things I have ever seen.
‘Oh my god but I love pancakes,’ I say to Adam as I eye up the sun loungers in the gardens. I wonder if I could eat them out there, alone, with a coffee and a newspaper.
By day two, I have fully recognised the reality of the situation. Mothers who have been here for a week already, watch through the flat gleam of their expensive sunglasses. See, they seem to be thinking. See what we have to put up with?
Our kids are obsessed with the pancake machine. All the children at the hotel are. They eat the pancakes in less than five seconds. Om, om, gone. They form a line, a wriggling tapeworm that stretches the length of the buffet table, blocking the other guests from being able to reach their little packets of butter or marmalade.
‘Sorry can I just-’
Everyone is very worried about accidentally touching the children.
Sticky with juice, they loll recklessly against the buffet table, tripping along in their flip flops until they come level with the small window of the machine where they can reach the button – PRESS OK FOR 2- and squidge their noses up to watch the journey inside. Slowly, slowly, indifferently almost, the two small pancakes fall onto the plate.
Then the next person presses the button and we all wait again.
My own children find it hard to hold out this long. They cling to each of my legs.
‘Can I have two pancakes?’
‘Yes, you can both have two.’
‘Can I have three pancakes?
‘No, you can both have two.’
‘Oh,’ they both say- giving their voices that sulky lilt which they have become so good at. I stroke their hair and remember that I love them.
Adam walks over and says he has got us a table. Yes, it’s the one at the window that I like. Yes, he is going to order coffee for us both- so it will be there when I’ve got the pancakes and taken the kids back to the table. Yes, he will get me some low- fat yoghurt, he knows I get hungry in the mornings.
‘While you’re up could you get them some milk and some fruit, so we know that they’re actually having something healthy today,’ I tell him.
He looks at me. That look which says- I am already doing this. You don’t need to say these things. I want you to stop talking and leave me alone for a minute. So, he goes away and gets the milk and the yoghurt and the fruit for the kids and I wait in line. For the pancakes.
It is annoying when the mum with the kids way up in front doesn’t know how to use the machine- the simplest of gadgets. It is more annoying still when they don’t read the laminated sign propped up next to it.
Guests are asked to limit their order to only two pancakes per person. Thank you! Smiley face.
But worst of all, is when mums and dads don’t accompany their child to the machine at all and sit on the other side the room with their backs turned, artificially oblivious to their child piling up a stack of ten while everyone else in the line shifts from foot to foot, muttering.
It is meant to be a nice thing, this breakfast. All of this is meant to be nice, I remind myself.
We had discussed coming here for a long time before we booked. Having this holiday means we can’t get the bathroom done and means I will probably have to re-think putting Chloe into childcare for that extra day. I promised myself I wouldn’t think about the bathroom (the cracked paint along the skirting board, the broken panel under the sink) while I was actually on holiday. But now, on only the second morning, stood in line for the pancake machine, I am thinking about it.
I think about how important it is not to think about the bathroom while I am meant to be enjoying myself. And I then I think about how important it is not to let the kid behind us wedge himself in front and take our place in the queue. This is what he is trying to do I realise, watching the clearly strategic placing of his foot next to mine. I flick a glance back at him. He is wearing a baseball cap with a cartoon crocodile announcing that he ‘rules the playground’ in graffiti-style capital letters. Under the cap, his eyes are narrowed and unblinking. I turn away.
This is not relaxing. I need to let this kind of thing go.
I decide that I will think about the gardens. The gardens are so beautiful, I reflect as croc-boy’s foot continues to nudge against mine. And the beach is right there, only a short wander away. And of course, I remind myself, there’s the kids’ club.
The kids’ club is the real reason we have not got a new bathroom. It is a club of dreams. A room in which qualified, police-checked adults stay with your children, so you can go and do ‘what you like’ for a few hours.
It is all taking a long time though, I think to myself. Every day it takes a long time to get to the bit where I do ‘what I like’ and then usually something happens to interrupt it or change it. Which I don’t like. Today for instance, I want, more than anything, to lie down in the sun and read. But Adam wants us to play crazy golf which thinking about it, I suppose I will agree to in order that I might have my own thing later. Then I will get him back. I will read for hours in the afternoon sun and he will have to pick up the kids when our hours are up and play with them or take them to the beach. Yes, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll save it up. This is the plan. Tit for Tat.
Tit for Tat is how we do everything. Not just me, all of us; all the women in sunglasses who sip their coffee and stare outwards across the bay. The men stare outwards too, and dream of detaching themselves in some painless and unfocused way. Slipping off. Complete physical absence is preferable but mental disengagement will do. This need we all have is why I am now in the queue. Because it means that, when I sit down with the triumphant, though small, pancakes that our children so desperately want, it will be his turn.
And I will then eat my own pancakes in peace.
Adam has got some cereal. He has got it for himself, I notice. I see him walking back across the room with a bowl and a yoghurt pot for me. He also picks up two tiny glasses of milk and an armful of fruit. He’s alright- he can manage it. Our kids see him and run over; he looks as though he might trip for a second but somehow holds on to it all. They scurry by his legs like animated rodents from a Disney film, twittering and chattering in their pastel colours, their faces earnest and lisping. Exhausting. I watch his broad shoulders and slightly bowed head retreat.
Are the kids going to stay with him? Yes, they are. I am nearly there.
Croc-boy sees his chance now that my part of the queue has thinned out and squirms his way round me. He is about eight, old enough to know better- there is no way that my children will ever behave like this when they are eight. His mouth is open, insolent or adenoidal or both. I know that if I don’t stop him, he will pip me to the post at the -PRESS OK FOR 2- button and hold it down and stand there with a face of gaping blankness whilst the minutes of my holiday die.
He probably thinks I won’t say anything because I’m a grown up.
‘I think you need to get back in the line behind me,’ I tell him. We can both smell the pancakes as we look at each other. I sense the presence of other parents, mums probably, but cannot tell if I am to be supported or judged. ‘Get back into line,’ I say again, in a tone that is bordering on inappropriate. He gets back into line.
Adam is sat with the girls at the table that I like. The one I suggested. I watch the back of his head as he peels a banana for Chloe and slices grapes in half for Jane. They look up at him. Their hands, wet with fruit, reach up and touch his face for no reason. They love him. But I cannot see his face as I am in the queue for the pancake machine.
I decide to look at him as I have nothing better to do. I look at him from behind as croc-boy bounces his weight against the buffet table to make it squeak. I decide not to acknowledge this. Instead, I will think about how much I love my husband as this is the kind of thought that holidays are meant to inspire. And in so doing, I will feel as if I am getting my money’s worth.
I will start by thinking about his head. It is a fairly large head. And he still has almost all his hair I reflect, with a little more enthusiasm.
I have known his head for so long. And this knowing will go on. My hands will know the texture of his hair, the shape of his head for the rest of my life. He is so ingrained that I suppose I will know him and be able to summon those details even if he goes away. Like if he dies. Or if we get divorced. He would be under my skin all the same. He is like a song that I don’t need to play anymore because I have internalised it and can hear the whole thing whenever I want in my head.
Behind me, croc-boy is humming something. On the other side of the breakfast bar, Adam wipes a small face and continues to eat his cereal.
The space in front clears. I am at the front of the queue. I exhale with loud and exaggerated glee. Everyone is behind me and I am where everybody else wants to be. Happily, I PRESS OK FOR 2. Chloe and Jane are back around my legs as if they have been able to sniff out what they are entitled to- even from a distance.
‘Are those ones for me, are they for me?’
‘Yes, those ones are for you.’
I PRESS OK again. Croc-boy plants his feet firmly in front of the machine so that he is level with the button and we are forced to move a little closer to the plates at the end. My turn next, he says without saying it. We watch the white roller at the end of the conveyor belt. It turns until they slide out. One. Two.
‘Are those ones mine, mummy?
‘Yes, those ones are yours.’ I say.
I look at croc-boy. Then I reach over, past his freckled arm, his finger already poised to push. And I beat him to it. I PRESS OK FOR 2 again.
‘You can’t do that.’ His voice is high pitched and pissy. The words are out of his mouth before the machine has even registered my instruction. He looks at me like he hates me. Like I am the worst grown-up he has ever seen. ‘You can’t do that.’ He points to the sign with the smiley face. ‘Look, it says only two pancakes per person. That’s what the sign says.’
‘I know,’ I reply with managed composure. ‘My daughters have each had two pancakes and now I am getting another two.’
His mouth gapes, his flip flops smack against the floor in frustration. He had been so sure that it was his turn. And now he will have to wait. For another agonising few minutes. He wrestles to find his argument.
‘But- but. It says two pancakes per person,’ he says again.
‘I know,’ I say quietly ‘and I’m a person. I’m a fucking person. So just stand back and wait your fucking turn.’
A man who has been reaching across the queue of children for a small packet of Nutella looks at me. Then looks away quickly. A woman holding a baby against her hip suddenly needs to check her phone. No one is on croc-boy’s side. He needs to learn. He needs to grow up. I rule this playground.
When my last pair of pancakes roll out onto the plate, they look perfect.
I smile back at him and walk across the buffet to the table I like, which Adam has been holding on to. The sun is shining across the bay. The girls move up to make room for me and I can feel the warmth on the chair from where they have been sitting. I put the plate of pancakes down on the table. I put them in front of Adam.
‘Are these for me?’ he asks.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘These are for you.’
Louise Finnigan is a writer, teacher and mother who lives in Manchester and occasionally escapes to other places. She is editing her first novel and working closely with other Mancunian writers to make it shine. She currently has a story longlisted in the Cambridge Short Story awards. She loves live music, being outside and making up stories with her children.
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