She tried so hard to be a mum to her husband’s children.
It didn’t help that their own son Michael Junior was a handful; younger than his half-siblings and testament to his father’s wandering eye. The boy wore a jumper with ‘Rebel’ written on it for good reason.
She found her stepson Lennie easy to deal with; the poor little soul had physical disabilities and was very small for his age. He was compliant and sat at the table without any complaint – but then he had little choice.
His older sister Miranda was a tough nut to crack. A blonde, beautiful seven-year old; maternal towards her own brother but openly hostile to the small, loud intruder who claimed her Daddy’s attention so efficiently and bore his name as well. She largely ignored her new stepmother, another intruder who was younger, prettier and happier than the Mummy they had left at home for the weekend, and who would inevitably be crying because she missed them both – and her ex-husband.
Michael Senior returned to the table empty-handed. His wife and children looked hungry and crestfallen.
“No rice crispies but they have got cocoa pops. Are they allowed to have cocoa pops? Lennie, do you want toast? I’m having the full English. Can they have fruit juice?”
She sighed. Eighteen months ago Michael Senior had been living in the same house as his two eldest children. She was aware from her own experience that he was not what you would call a ‘hands-on’ Daddy but surely he knew what his children liked to eat?
“Miranda can have cocoa pops…..”
“I want muesli. I don’t like cocoa pops. Mummy never buys cocoa pops. Mummy says they make your teeth go rotten and then Daddy will have to pay out for us to have new teeth. Mummy says.”
Miranda’s face was set. Michael Senior recognised that expression. It was the one that drove into the arms of his sweet young receptionist and led to the birth of Michael Junior, a divorce settlement that he could ill-afford and the low-key shotgun wedding that mollified his new wife’s irate and somewhat shady brothers – but only just.
“I’ll get you some muesli darling, and some toast for Lennie and Michael Junior. Shall I bring it back before I get my breakfast?”
“Yes please Michael, and can you bring some cutlery too? Michael Junior! Sit down!”
“Daddy! I want Daddy!”
“Daddy will be back in just a moment with some nice toast.” How she prayed that Michael Senior would have the forethought to put the toast on plates and bring butter and Marmite too.
Miranda got her muesli.
The toast was piled up on one plate; no butter or spreads, nothing to spread them with anyway and two glasses of fruit juice that Miranda appropriated for herself and Lennie, leaving Michael Junior to set up another banshee wail.
“Juiiiiiiiice! I want juiiiiiice!”
Michael Senior had already left the table at speed after spotting that a fresh tray of bacon, sausages and scrambled eggs had just been put out.
“Miranda? Could you please keep an eye on your brothers while I get a knife and some spreads please? Don’t let Mikey get down off his seat?”
Miranda scowled. Mikey was Daddy’s name when Mummy was being nice about him and remembering the happy times. She did not and would not recognise that screaming baby as her brother.
Michael Junior got down off the chair seconds after his mother had walked the few yards to the service counter and ran towards his father.
A lady and man were sitting at the next table. The lady caught Miranda’s eye and said “Your little brother has got down from the table. He’s gone that way.” She smiled but Miranda didn’t. Her face was inscrutable as her stepmother returned dragging a screaming Michael Junior by the hand.
Toast was buttered and anointed with Marmite, cut lovingly into soldiers for Michael Junior and Lennie. Miranda listlessly chased her muesli round the bowl, her face coming to life when her Daddy reappeared with a loaded plate of food, a serviette and a single mug of coffee.
“There’s no room at this table; I’ll sit over here.”
Michael Senior seemed oblivious to the fact that his desertion had reduced his youngest son to tears and caused quiet disappointment to the other two.
His new wife, hungry and now unable to leave the children until Michael Senior had finished his breakfast and was free to mind them, took a deep breath and forced herself to stay silent.
The couple at the next table got to their feet; the lady waved at Miranda and smiled. Surprisingly Miranda smiled back. So did Lennie, and Michael Junior waved his soldier with a Marmite grin. His mother blushed.
“I’m sorry about all the noise. I hope it didn’t spoil your breakfast.”
The lady smiled again. “It didn’t. Our children are nineteen and nearly twenty-one. They used to wander off and kick up a hell of a racket. It will get better, I promise you. You have lovely children. Have a good day but don’t forget to get some food for yourself.”
The words were the first drop of praise she had heard all weekend. Praise from a stranger.
Michael Senior was on his feet.
“Is everything alright? Were the children making too much noise? Do I need to go after them and apologise?”
“No, the lady just said how lovely they all were. Can you move back to this table please Michae,l whilst I get some breakfast too?” She got to her feet .
“Of course. Silly me. How could I forget about you my darling?” he said as he moved his breakfast back to the children’s table.
“You won’t again.” she said to herself as she walked slowly across the hotel dining room and picked up a coffee cup.
The lady stopped by the door and turned around just before leaving the room. Their eyes met. With a nod and a barely perceptible wink, the strength of ages was passed over from one mother to another.
She drank hot coffee for the first time in months whilst she waited for her toast and watched Michael Senior struggle to control his children. Perhaps it was going to be a holiday after all.