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Excerpt

Highway Blue

Ailsa McFarlane

May 19, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Ailsa McFarlane's debut novel, Highway Blue, about being lost and found—and of love, in all its forms. McFarlane was born in 1997 in Seattle, Washington, and grew up in Snowdonia in the United Kingdom. After leaving school, she studied veterinary science before dropping out to travel the United States and Europe by road.

Here is something about Cal.

He was born up north near Costa Maria and he had three brothers and from what he told me his family was a nice family, which is to say a normal family who never did anything overtly strange to him, and who lived in a small house on the edge of the city with a couple of dogs. The dogs were too big for the house.

Cal’s father worked in a factory which made car engines and that factory was a half hour’s metro ride from the family home.

His job in the engine factory was to put a piece of tape over the flaps of the cardboard boxes that were used to hold the engine parts, one piece of tape per box, so that he worked all day and never once saw the parts themselves.

He put on the tape and sent them off and then went home every evening and Cal’s mother made him dinner and sometimes he shouted at the boys and sometimes he just went to bed, and then the next day he went into work and did the same thing again.

Cal talked about his father the way I talked about my mother.

*

The year I first met Cal he had a place at the back of Tana Beach and he lived there with a man and a woman who were old friends, although I never found out how they came to know each other. The man’s name was Ruby and the woman’s name was Sam.

Ruby was a nickname. I have no idea what he was really called and neither did anybody else. He always seemed hazed out.

Sam was sometimes his girlfriend and sometimes not, and I think maybe at some point she and Cal had been something too. She had dryish yellow hair and a ring through her lip and brown eyes which were always drawn around with kohl and she wore old faded T-shirts and little tiny skirts and black tights full of holes. And she sat lolling about stoned in that place all day.

The first time I met her she walked up to me and took hold of both my hands and kissed me on the lips very hard and smiled and Cal laughed and said, “Sam is friendly,” and to me it seemed a little like an act and something done to shock but anyway I laughed too and then after that she liked me.

That place was two rooms and one of them was Ruby and Sam’s and the other was the main room which had a sort of cramped little kitchenette on one side and French windows and half a barrel with a cushion on top to sit on and in one corner a sofa bed which was Cal’s.

In the hot evenings we sat all together on the sofa bed and ate off bowls on our knees. The air was all slowcurling smoke and the curtains of the French windows lifted and hung in the small breeze off the ocean, and everything was held deep and warm in the red light from the lamp. Cal had his quick talking and humor and sudden shifts between warmth and harshness, and the flash of a sharp twisted smile. He called me beautiful and his skin tasted of the hot salt of his sweat. And I was caught, I was caught in all of it and floating in happy looseness, and for the first time in my life it didn’t feel like I was suffocating.

After about three weeks of knowing Cal I had already moved in with him.

I remember it now, indistinct and dark and swimming through smoke, a dream in red haze.

*

There were still a few people sitting on the waiting chairs outside the little metro station when we got there. Mosquitoes danced around the lights up on the roof and buffeted against the glass. Those mosquitoes were everywhere. La Maya had swampy land at its outskirts and they bred there out in the soupiness and then swarmed in toward the houses and the lights and the people. They needed ready supplies of blood to drink. I could feel them landing on me, the sharp moments of their bites.

An old man was slumped on the ground beside the ticket machine and he wore a patterned shawl around his shoulders and his head was tipped forward. Beside him a small white dog was sleeping. In front of him there was a little flat hat and in the hat there were three coins.

When we stood at the ticket machine he raised a hand vaguely in my direction.

He said, “Change—change.”

I said, “I haven’t got anything. Sorry.”

He sagged back against the wall into the heap of his shawl and his face tipped into shadow.

We bought two tickets from the machine in the direction of the suburbs.

There was barely anyone on the train when it came: a man with a little girl sitting down at the far end and a woman alone. The man and the little girl were reading a storybook. He read it out loud and every so often the child interrupted him in a small high voice.

The woman sat on her own on the other side of the carriage and watched them.

The light in the compartment was white and harsh and now and again one of the long lighting tubes would flicker for a moment. The floor was gray plastic and in the corners of the carriage the plastic was peeling back and there was metal underneath.

Cal and I sat in one corner beside the window.

I didn’t feel like talking. Once he put his hand beside mine on the seat and our hands touched together and I wasn’t sure whether it was an accident or deliberate but I moved my arm away.

Outside the window the city moved past: underbellies of viaducts with their great fat concrete legs in mud and sprawling weeds, pools of flat stagnant water with heavy rafts of green slime. Large areas of La Maya had to be held up out of the swampy ground. Walls were covered with graffiti: random obscenities; twisted faces; eyes, double rows of painted eyes, staring down.

Here and there, furtive wet movements in the dark which were maybe alligators.

*

And a few lines of a song turning round and round in my head: a friend of the Devil is a friend of mine, if I get out before daylight . . .

And there was the reflection of my face in the windowpane and it was faint and marooned against the colder pale of the carriage behind me.

***

A little mess of streets made up the outskirts of La Maya. We arrived close to midnight at the train station and walked down bungalow rows looking for the house number. The air was loud with cicadas and fainter drifting sirens, and yellow streetlights made the small equal front lawns yellow, and the doors too, and the shining gold numbers on the doorposts were the only things that varied from house to house.

Cal’s friend lived in one of the bungalows at the end of a cul-de-sac. On the front lawn a plastic donkey was lying on its side amid grass tufts and an old car was parked up on blocks and overgrown with weeds.

The man who opened the door was small with short dark hair and a blunt squarish face and symmetrical features which were somehow pugnacious. His eyes were very dark.

His name was Maro.

He laughed and hugged Cal and said, “Come on in.”

He poured glasses of whiskey for us in the big kitchen which must have taken up most of the ground floor. It was separated from the living area by bland islands topped with brown granite surfaces, ugly and highly polished and built around a black and silver oven. The living area was a half square of leather sofas that looked like they were made of plastic.

The sofas faced a television screen. Some comedy was playing with the volume turned down low so that all you could hear was the occasional muffled fug of laughter and it sounded like interference.

Maro had a big dog with a weighty head. Its slabs of jowls had drool hanging from them and its fur was stippled brown and black. When we first came into the front room the dog ran out from a hairy dog bed in the corner baying loudly and was held back by Maro who said, “She’s fine, she’s sweet,” until eventually she subsided back into the corner and locked eyes with Cal. From there she let out the occasional quiet rippling growl. I could see him trying not to look at her.

Cal took Maro to one side in the kitchen and they spoke quietly.

I couldn’t hear what they were saying and I didn’t care. The sofa was deep and soft. My bones felt heavy and they dragged me down into it and there was a high buzzing whine in my ears. I felt a little punch-drunk, and there was something in the softness of the sofa that made me want to cry with relief and I didn’t want that to happen.

The whiskey was sweet and acrid and I didn’t like it. It sat hot in the back of my throat.

Maro said, “You all right there?” “Yeah. Good. Thanks.”

“Look about wiped out.” I fabricated a smile.

“You ever been down this way before?” “Never.”

“Oh? What do you think of it?”

I thought that he was trying to put me at my ease, and I disliked being talked to for the sake of talking. I wondered how much Cal had told him about why we were here. Probably he just thought I was some girl a long way from home and caught up in the charisma of Cal, a girl who Cal had made an effort to catch up because she was pretty, but who was tonight just tired and anxious and homesick. He must have seen a few girls like that because Cal must have had a few.

I shrugged and said, “It’s different.”

“I guess it would be.”

Cal said, “Where’s Kelsey?”

Maro swirled his drink. He said, “Kelsey took off.” “Sorry, man. When?”

“Four days ago. She’s with her sister right now. Crazy bitch.”

“Kelsey?”

“The sister. Crazy. Slagging me off all the time.” He shrugged, gave an attempt at a laugh. It sounded flat. “Anyway. I give her a few days. She’ll come around.”

“Sorry, man.”

“Yeah.”

Maro said, “I’ve got some friends coming over later. It was already arranged and I didn’t know you guys would be here. Hope you don’t mind.”

Cal said, “Of course not. Appreciate you having us.”

From its limp cushion across the room the dog stared at us, growling.

*

When the friends arrived there were three men and two women and I could see Cal looking at the women. One of them was very pretty. She had dark hair and I noticed that she also looked often at Cal and probably if I hadn’t been there they would have slept together or something like that.

They were all loud and Maro and Cal became loud to match them.

We sat out in the backyard on plastic chairs and everything was half-lit from the TV which was still on inside the room. Some of Maro’s friends knew Cal already, not through Maro, just by chance. They had met up north and Cal had actually worked with one of them for a while.

The girl with dark hair said, “Crazy how people come around. Small world.”

Cal made jokes and said clever things and they all laughed at his jokes.

He became very funny when he was drunk.

He moved rapidly between subjects, constantly talking but never becoming boring or flat or uninteresting. That was because he didn’t say things with the intention of filling silence or even to have anybody listen, although everybody did listen to him because he was sharp and magnetic and also sometimes odd which was appealing, and he was always rolling a joint between his fingers or doing something with his hands.

Cal liked to make people laugh and for them to think he was funny, he liked showing people he was clever.

With a captive audience he became more expansive and sometimes a little arrogant and this arrogance was innate in him and he reveled in it and didn’t try to hide it.

In the beginning I had found it very captivating.

The smoke had made my brain slow down. I felt it slowing. My head and my voice were full of fug and the sounds of the people speaking were swimming to me from a little distance away through a thick darkness.

Later after everyone else had left, Cal and I sat close together on the lawn chairs, and there was the smell of him which was smoke and aftershave and masked sweat.

I tried not to notice it.

At times, after he was gone, I had thought in passing moments in some bar or train station that I had caught a whiff of his smell and it had been the thing that could still drag out my guts, long after I had become used to the idea of his leaving. I could see photos and old possessions and whatever and stay even and numb and blank, but then one half-certain catch of it and that pain would come back and it felt like people were walking with heavy shoes on those spread guts.

It was thick with memories and so I tried to ignore it.

The slow feeling was in my arms and my legs and my brain and there was the outline of his face very near to mine in the dark. His features were blurred and softened and more like the old ragged Cal I remembered, not this new Cal which was him but hidden, him but warped, muted and buried under constructs of something else.

I looked away.

He said, “Maro can help us get a car. He has his old one in the front and he’ll give it to us cheap.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Us?”

He shrugged. “I thought we should stay together for a little while. Until we know what we’re going to do.”

I paused. After a moment I said, “OK. That sounds OK.”

“Yeah?”

“How will we pay for it?”

He pulled at the cigarette and held in the smoke for a long moment and then exhaled. He said, “It’s on credit for now. Maro’s a good friend. He knows I’ll get his money to him as soon as I have something together.”

“Cal?”

“Anne Marie.”

“What were you doing? Up north.” “Repairing cars.”

“You weren’t just repairing cars. You owed.”

His face was in profile, sweep of bone with a cigarette at the end.

He said, “You won’t like it, it was nothing smart. I got into some trouble, and I borrowed money. Some friend of some guy who worked with me at the garage. I knew what it was but I didn’t have much of a choice at the time. I made a bad mess of things, Anne Marie.” He stared into the dark, and then after a moment shrugged brusquely and flicked ash off the cigarette and said, “Doesn’t matter much now. I suppose we should start thinking about where we need to go.”

“I suppose.”

“Where do you want to go?” “I don’t know.”

He shrugged. “Then we’ll figure it out. That’s one for tomorrow.”

There was silence. Then I said, “Cal.” “Yeah.”

“How are you so OK?”

He paused for a moment and then lit the new cigarette he had been rolling and blew a long stream of smoke. It hung in the light from the house windows.

After a moment he said, “I don’t know. I wasn’t at first.” Cicadas whirred off in the dark of the catalpa trees.

He said, “Are you doing all right? If you need—” “I don’t really want to talk about it. Not yet.”

He nodded and looked down at the ground and traced his foot along the lines of the paving stones.

I saw the movements out of the corner of my eye without fully looking at him.

He said, “I should have been there for you. These past few years.”

We were both silent for a moment.

Then I said, “I learned to be alone,” because there was no way to say what I really needed to say and I wondered if he could understand that.

He said, “I know.”

Then he said, “I’m sorry I left you, Anne Marie.”

I stared down at the ground and my eyes were suddenly stinging and to make them stop I began some banality and he held up a hand before I could and said, “No—you don’t need to get like that, because I’m not trying anything. This isn’t me trying anything. But I wanted to say I’m sorry. Really. That was wrong. I shouldn’t have done it.”

In the long late nights alone in the kitchen of my apartment or the long late nights alone in a dark bedroom beside some blank attractive body that I didn’t care about, I had gone over and over in my head what I needed to say to him, and I found that now that the chance was here to pull it out of myself and throw it ugly and heaving at his feet I had lost the capability to do it.

I said, “It was a long time ago.”

A moment passed and then I turned and looked at him and asked, “Did you ever love me? Honestly.”

“Honestly?” “Yeah.”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so. No.”

I nodded. “That’s what I thought. I wanted to be sure.” There had been something strained in his voice and it seemed that I saw all of him for a moment very clearly and I knew what was going to happen and felt blank and not at all the way I had thought I would feel and he kissed me and I kissed him back and there was the dry taste of cigarettes and the sour taste of alcohol.

He smelled warm.

I closed my eyes and felt sick at myself and didn’t care and there was a blind rushing in my head, and there was Cal and the touch of his hand in my hair and there was his smell of sweat and dust and cigarettes which were metal and earth, and it was something, at least, it was something, it was changed and it was not intimacy but it was closeness and for a while I was not alone.

It was something.

I let my mind swell up and fill me with a roar in my ears and my brain.

__________________________________

Excerpted from Highway Blue by Ailsa McFarlane, with the permission of Hogarth Press. Copyright © 2021 by Ailsa McFarlane.




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