Student Life

Ready Meal: A Short Story

By @hannahdunlop

Most evenings, Sam Jones passed through a supermarket on the way back to his flat after work.

Despite begin raised by two food-loving parents, Sam was not known for any cooking ability. In fact, he was know for the opposite; once setting fire to his curtains at ten o’clock in the evening when he had tried to cook sausages.

As a child, he had arrived home every evening to a dinner table, conversation and a roaring air con with a menu rotating between noodles, soups, salads, pastas and curries.

Yet, as an adult, these things were now a memory. Just that. After passing through a bright lit supermarket, adult Sam would trundle back to his empty flat, alone.

A sad plastic bag and a freshly-purchased ready meal swinging in the breeze.

Ready meals were his staple. Sterile, single serves of curry and rice, pasta and sauce or some kind of pie -all smothered in plastic. He would joke to himself that the plastic was a sign of quality; the better sealed the better the meal.

Once back in his third floor flat, Sam would pop his nightly choice in the microwave and pace back and forth in he silence until he heard a familiar ping.

Burning his hands, he’d race to the couch and plonk it on the coffee table while he contemplated what to watch, with the debate raging between soccer and rugby.

He wondered how many people out there were like him. Single people eating single meals, alone in their flats after a nine hour day.

Twice a week, he’d splurge on a delivery but until then, it was a choice between the express supermarket on the corner, the posh flashy one up the road or the one opposite the office. He liked to change between these. After all, his mother did say that variety was indeed the spice of life.

It was seven in the evening and tonight, he had picked the express supermarket after a rather long day at the office. He had yelled at a few people, took a few conference calls and hid in the office while a co-worker’s birthday celebration took place.

Being at parties gave Sam a pang of loneliness and always resulted in an existential question circling in his mind for days after. Despite a few brief breaks, he felt as though he had been at his desk all day, watching the world go past.

Really though, he was watching his co-workers. They chatted and laughed and brought each other coffee, while Sam sat in front of his computer, his fingers hitting the keyboards with small clicks. It was rather exhausting stuff.

So after braving the bright emptiness of the store, and the rows and rows of ready meal choices, he headed back out into the darkness. As he padded along, his plastic bag containing a biriyani swung from one hand, as he expertly cracked open a diet soft-drink in the other. His lips flickered as he did that.

He doubted anyone else had that skill.

Opposite the supermarket was a large park, with bustling roads on all four sides.

He normally caught the bus back to his apartment, which was on the far side of the park ,but tonight he fancied a walk. Didn’t he deserve it? In Sam’s mind, he had be toiling away all day. People were scuttling around and cars trundled by, carrying their passengers home. Pools of yellow light spread along the footpath a different angles; some from the lampposts, others from the shops nearby. Sam pressed the walk button on the traffic light, and tapped his foot impatiently.

Tap, tap, tap. At this rate, he would miss the kickoff of the match he’d waited all week to see.

Tap, tap, tap.

He checked his rolex; seven forty-five. He pursed his lips at a group of young adults walking passed that were laughing and joking to each other. The were rugged up in beanies and thick winter boots, and all held the same glass bottle of beer.

In a second he’d have joined them if they had asked him too, but of course, they didn’t. One of the group let go of an empty bottle and it smashed into the ground, with little green and blue pieces exploding everywhere. They twinkled against the grey pavement. Idiots, he thought as he took a sip of his soft-drink. His eyes returned to the road, and with luck, the cars began to slow.

A walk sign and a few horn-honks later, Sam entered the park. He finished his drink and threw it at a nearby bin. The bin was overflowing with rubbish, and had clearly not been changed in days. But that was not Sam’s fault. So when the can bounced off and rolled into the nearby shrubbery, he continued on his way.

Nothing he could do.

The park was filled with trees, shrubs and large lawn areas where kids would play soccer with friends on weekends. But at night, the lush green tree leaves melted into dark shadows on the footpath.

A man no older than he was, with his hands rammed deeply into the pockets of a bright blue pullover, was racing through the park – clearly unbothered by the darkness. His head was down, his feet were flying. Sam rolled his eyes – a fitness fanatic. Tsk, tsk. As the man passed by him, he felt unnerved and didn’t know why. Was it the dark? After all, there was nothing really that scary about the dark. Every morning the sun rose and every evening it set. No, it wasn’t the dark that unnerved him. It was what was in the dark.

Sam knew many people who had been mugged, or worse, late at night – in the dark. His ears perked up, and he began to intently listen to the noise around him. Sirens, probably an ambulance. The wind had picked up crushed autumn leaves and they were swirly around in circled. His plastic bag crinkled as it swung back and forth alongside him.

He heard hissing in the trees; was that squirrels? He was now deeply regretting the walking idea.

What had he been thinking?

Footsteps, just behind him, were getting closer.

Sam paused and looked over his shoulder. Nobody was there, other than the row of faceless, white trees; their arms outstretched as though they were learning over the footpath. He looked ahead. He was halfway, so no turning back now.

How he’d love a bit of light, more people. Heck, he’d even settle for that silly bunch of young people now. More people, more safety. He sighed, and began walking again – this time with a much faster pace. Yet, with every step he took, Sam couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched.

What were those steps; the ones getting louder and louder?

Every time he turned around, there was no-one. The trees. The shrubs. The insects or squirrels. But no people.

The jogger had long since vanished.

All he could hear now was his breath, rising and falling quickly as he hyperventilated. How silly, he was being. But when Sam was almost at the far side of the park, near his building, this thought evaporated. A man had moved slowly out of the shadows in front of him, blocking his path. Panicking, Sam slowed his pace.

“Excuse me,” he said meakly. Although darkness hid the man’s face, the voice was distinctly familiar.

“You’re not excused.”

Sam stopped. He was not more irritated than panicked.

“I beg your pardon!”

The man moved closed, so close in fact that Sam could see him breath create puffs of mist in the cool evening air.

“When are you going to care, Sam?” the man asked, “About yourself, about the world around you, about the people around you? When?” Sam’s stomach dropped, “I don’t know you. I don’t know who this Sam is.” The man chuckled. “Do you not? Really?” They were now face to face.

The man’s appearance was clear now; it was Sam – or someone distinctly like him. Looking at the man made him feel as though he were looking in a mirror and although they were dressed differently, it was very unnerving.

“Am I having a breakdown?” asked Sam, waving his plastic bag around in case the other Sam began to copy his moves. It was a sad attempt at testing this theory.

“Well, yeah,” said other Sam. “but don’t expect me to copy you, breakdown’s don’t work like that.” Sam stopped. “Sorry,” he said, pausing to collecting his thoughts. “Why are you here? What’s the point?” The Other Sam leaned forward an patted him on the shoulder. Weirdly enough, Sam felt something.

“You need to hear this. Sam, you’ve got to do something about your life. Make a change.” Sam looked down at his shoulder for a brief moment, before turning his eyes back to Other Sam.

Other Sam smiled and disappeared in a puff of smoke, swirling away with the autumn breeze.

Sam didn’t know if he wanted to cry or call the hospital. Was he hallucinating? Had there been something in his soft drink? Unnerved and feeling queasy, Sam slowly finished the walk to the end of the path. He crossed the road, and paid no attention to the traffic. His heart was beating in his chest.

He unlocked the front door to his complex, and plodded up the stairs. He felt horrible. Horrible. He shouldn’t have judged that jogger, chucked that can away like that, judged his co-workers, yelled at his secretary. He could have done better, been better. As Sam entered his apartment, he knew exactly what he had to do.

He chucked his plastic bag onto the countertop and left it there. He didn’t feel like eating that right now.

He doubt anybody had even really made it. Sure, there were factory workers – but they just pressed buttons. It was easy to tap the on button, the churn button and to program a machine to add just enough Tumeric or oil. But there probably hadn’t been anyone there who made it out of passion. Who had toasted the spices by hand or who had picked the coriander from the garden?

Not a single person had been physically involved in the process of making that meal. Yet, here it was. On his kitchen counter. It was a clinical, isolating meal. Sure, it was cheap and easy as anything to prepare. But it was a lonely meal for a lonely person.

He took his phone out of his pocket and swiped up. He found the name he was looking for in his address book, and with a twinging moment of hesitation, he pressed call. It rang for a few moments, before a warm voice spoke.

“Sammy,” it said, “Oh, how I’ve missed you my darling.” He sat down, and looked out the window. It was cold and dark outside, but there was something so warming about hearing her voice that it cut through that feeling.

“Mum,” Sam said, “I’ve missed you too. Can I come home for dinner sometime?”

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