Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, and I am enjoying it all immensely. But I thought it was high time that I started posting the occasional piece of short fiction, and that's what I'm here to do today.
'The Happy Meal' came about as a result of a casual remark I heard on the radio, which made me reflect on the huge potential for melancholy of the humble Happy Meal. This was one of those happy occasions when something just clicked, and I sat down and wrote the first draft of the piece almost on automatic pilot - a fabulous, if elusive, sensation which comes highly recommended!
The Happy Meal
As if a flabby hamburger and a plastic dinosaur could possibly nourish body or soul, he muses sadly as he watches his son across the table. The colourful cardboard box promises much, but delivers little. A bit like life, he thinks, before he has time to stop himself.
How can a ‘Happy Meal’ ever mend the damage that’s been done? I’m a useless father. She was right. He’ll never be able to forgive me. It’s me he’ll blame, not her. Probably for the rest of his life.
He stares, awe-struck, at his little boy, and marvels at his innocent perfection: the unblemished softness of his rosy cheeks, the neat back-to-school haircut, the fingers with their clipped nails, sinking into the burger bun. And the love that surges through him promises to break his heart, and he wonders if he hasn’t been punished enough already.
He picks up the plastic toy between finger and thumb, and prowls it across the table, trying to distract himself from the tears prickling at him. Deep breath. Triceratops. He remembers it from his own childhood, his fascination with these strange creatures, his need to learn the long names, to list, to categorise. Just like his son.
The boy watches as the dinosaur furtively approaches his bag of chips. The hint of a smile plays across his lips, moist with grease from the burger. He picks out a chip, twists it in his tub of ketchup, and holds it to the dinosaur’s open mouth, his beautiful fresh face level with the monster’s.
‘He’s a herbivore. So he likes chips. But not hamburgers.’
The man smiles. He makes the sort of low, satisfied growling noise he imagines a triceratops might make, in demolishing its favourite meal of French fries doused in ketchup.
The little boy fixes him with big blue eyes as clear as a sunny winter’s morning.
‘Dad, what’s the matter?’
‘… Oh look. He’s covered in ketchup now.’
But the boy just gazes at him.
‘How d’you mean? Nothing. Nothing’s the matter.’
He takes another deep breath, ragged this time, not quite within his control. He picks up a paper napkin and busies himself in wiping the sticky tomato sauce from the dinosaur’s vacant face.
‘You look sad.’
Oh, no. He’s noticed. No. Every other weekend. That’s all you have. You promised yourself you’d make the most of it. You promised. And you’ve screwed it up. Loser.
‘I’m a bit… tired, that’s all. I’m… I’m sorry.’
He tries a smile, but is unconvinced by it himself. Then he tries a yawn instead, grabbing at the opportunity to rub his eyes as well.
The little boy frowns and bites his lip.
‘… What is it, son?’
‘We will always do things together, won’t we? You will always want to?’
The sweet, sharp unexpectedness of the question catches at his breath.
He suddenly feels the need to blow his nose. He reaches into one jacket pocket, then another, but there’s no handkerchief there – he knows there isn’t, and the reason why: he hasn’t done his ironing. She told him he was hopeless, the day she left. Maybe she was right.
He is aware of his son watching him, concerned, his sweet head tilted slightly to one side. He dares to meet his eye. But he doesn’t find what he’s expecting there - no derision, no intolerance, no bitter, crushing disillusionment. Because he’s nothing like his mother. Those wise blue eyes are gleaming at him, understanding him better, more deeply, than they should ever have been allowed to do. Loving him.
The boy licks ketchup from his fingers and gently hands his father a fresh paper napkin. The man swallows hard, takes the napkin as calmly as he can and blows his nose into it.
‘I hope so. I’d like to. That’d be great, wouldn’t it?’
His son seems relieved, as if an unbearable weight has been lifted from his tiny shoulders, and he beams at him, a big, sunny life-raft of a smile.
‘Now. I think I could eat some ice-cream. How about you?’