Alex Burns

Happy Meal

Alex Burns

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It’s only five o’clock in the evening, but it’s dark already. Rain lashes down horizontally. It is the kind of day in the city that turns people into cows, herding together under bus stops, shop entrances, anywhere that might offer respite. It gives you a sense of superiority to march past their blurry figures, as they cower from the rain, with your eyes wet and squinting. 

You have been walking for a while. You cannot remember the last time you stopped. Not just today, but for a long time. If you stop, you’re afraid you will see things too clearly. That everyone will see you too clearly. That’s why you’ve stopped answering Mum’s calls. In two months, the missed calls have piled up in your phone, one on top of the other, emblazoned in red. Every so often you send her a text–

sorry!! super busy w uni work!! Will call u as soon as am free xx 

If you hear her voice, you will crack. You won’t be able to pretend you’re okay. She replies - 

Ah good girl :) don’t work too much! Love you lots xx 

That’s enough to stave off any suspicion for a few days. She thinks you are too busy being a student - drinking, shagging, sleeping, eating, studying and stressing, all a little too much or not enough. She doesn’t know that you are too busy doing the latter two - studying and stressing, to have time for anything else. On top of the missed calls, the deadlines and assignments have piled up in your brain, one on top of the other, emblazoned in red. 

Ashamed as you are to tell her you’re struggling with studying, there is no way you could tell her about what you’re really struggling with. The reason you’re ploughing on through the rain, even though five buses that would take you to your front door have passed. The reason you’ve missed all the drinking - too many calories, the shagging - can’t show anyone, let alone someone you fancy, your bony body, the sleeping - you’re too hungry to sleep, the eating - 

No, you can’t tell her about that, because to admit it would mean to stop. You’re not there yet. You need to keep moving. Twenty more minutes of walking. A few more kilograms to lose. Then you’ll have done enough. Then you’ll be good enough. 

That’s what you tell yourself. But the milestones in your head keep changing. Like the first one you set - to fit back into the jeans you wore in your first year of uni. Then you would feel good enough again - like that brief moment when the lights of the city made everything fresh and new. Their beams illuminated you, filled you with an ebullience. Before their glare turned harsh, exposed the ugly bits of you and cast shadows across the parts of yourself you once liked. 

You cut out fats and carbs and upped your steps. You avoided your friends, became reclusive, so you could stick to your new rules. Soon the jeans gaped around your waist. 

But it didn’t fix the niggling feeling in your brain. It showed you what was possible when you tightened your control a little. You set another goal, and walked more, walked harder. Struck your feet against the pavement with such violence that your cheeks shuddered with every stride, chipped away at yourself step by step until the absence of flesh hung where your thighs used to rub. Every time you reach some arbitrary goal, you become hungrier and hungrier for the next, to continue this ascetic pursuit with an even more puritanical determination. Because you can’t stop now. What life have you left to return to? 

You set yourself physical milestones on your journey home, to make some things in your life tangibly achievable. Like the McDonald’s up ahead, at the top of the road. Once you reach there, you know you only have to walk for fifteen more minutes before you get to your flat. 

The golden arches remind you of a time when you had to be bribed to ‘go for a walk’, with the incentive of a Happy Meal afterwards. You miss going for a walk. Not necessarily the walk itself - Dad drove you, Mum and your sisters, out to the beach in the dead of winter. He liked to walk when it was empty. As if he required a break from the busyness of our village, the non-existent deluge of people he was inundated with every day. After one length of the beach, you were sure you wouldn’t make it back to the car, cold and raw and starving from the wind and the salt and the sand. You dragged yourself back, head down, pushing against the wind pulling you to the sea. No, you don’t miss the walk itself. You miss the stillness in between. Going for a walk is only necessary when you aren’t constantly moving. 

You miss the drive back. Letting someone else take the reins. Wiggling your toes so you could feel the sand in your shoes, each grain grating the soles of your feet. Your sisters forced you to sit in the middle because you were the littlest. Their bodies compressed your sides so you couldn’t move. No wonder everything fell apart, without them holding you up. And of course, you miss the treat at the end of it all. Dad returned to the car with grease-sodden paper bags, their smell permeating the inside of the car. Three red boxes passed to the back seat. Dad had to make sure you each got the same toy, so there was no fighting. 

You ate the chips first; they were best when extra hot and extra salty from the sea on your lips. Washed down with a Fruit Shoot that tasted, not of fruit, but of purple. Sweet and nauseating. You would put the tip of the bottle on your tongue and let it get stuck, then pull it off to make a satisfying sucking noise. Mum always told you off for doing that. You moved to the chicken nuggets. There was something about the taste you could never define, a spice or seasoning you didn’t get in Dad’s bland and disgusting Shepherd’s pie, or Mum’s bland and delicious leek and bacon pasta.

You reach the doors of the McDonald’s, snapping you out of your reverie. You wish you could define that taste now, without eating it. Eating is never enough, and yet too much. Food enters your body on a stream of hot guilt like lava, that spreads through you. It has melted away your flesh, left you a bony and lifeless thing. You vaguely recognise the person looking back at you in the reflection of the sliding doors. You decathected from yourself long ago. You look like a ghost, your pale face and pellucid eyes peeking out from your hood. Unlike a ghost, you have been searching for a soul to fill your empty body. 

The doors slide open at your presence, a reminder that you do live in the world, despite the phantom existence you have been leading. You take one long inhale, letting the familiar smell of hot oil fill your nose, until you are a child again.

Take another breath in. Inhale a cold, salty wind, from deep within you. Put your head down, let yourself be pushed through the doors. Go to a self-checkout and order a Happy Meal of chicken nuggets and fries. Skip the free toy. 

Sit on a bench at the window, facing out to the street. You choose the smallest French fry, hands shaking, and nibble it slowly. The taste has not changed, but you think they could use extra salt. You can have one bite of a nugget, and then you must put the whole bag in the bin. It would be no extra harm. But after one bite, you realise the undistinguishable, exotic taste you could not define as a child, is just black pepper. You laugh. It is the first time you have laughed, actually laughed – not just making the noise and waiting for the feeling of laughter, of joy, to fill the vacant noise – in a long time. Keep laughing until you cry. You want to eat more. So eat more. Wait for the inner instruction to stop. 

But you don’t hear it. Hear the sea. Finish your meal. Hands coated in salt. You are full. It is a feeling you have grown uncomfortable with. You like to be a little empty. Guilt rises up your throat, you have overdone it. Turn that panic into a wave, let it crash and wash over you. Don’t let it take you under. Picture the little girl in the car, full and happy on her way home.

Wipe your hands on your trackies, add a coating of salt atop the coating of sand. On the drive home, pretend to be asleep. Keep your eyelids shut, making sure not to squeeze, but lay them flat and relaxed. Slow your breathing, make audible exhales, keep your mouth open. Hear the car indicate left into the estate. Dad always speeds up around corners, throwing you into one sister. Don’t resist, let your body go. The next turn chucks your weight to the other sister. The final turn puts you back in the middle. Seatbelts click and doors open, you stay still. Dad lifts you, carries you through the garden, up the stairs. Let your limbs hang limply from his arms. 

He lays you down on your bed, takes off your coat and trackies. You hear Mum’s footsteps enter the room, feel her lips on your forehead. The door closes, shutting the light out in increments, like a ticking clock. Sleep wraps its arms around you, and you furl into a ball, safe and sound in the dark. 


Alex Burns


I'm 23 years old and currently living in London, though originally from Castledawson (Seamus Heaney's territory). I have never been published, but I am in the process of creating a series of short stories that deal with coming-of-age and the female experience.