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Authors: Fiona McFarlane

The High Places

BOOK: The High Places
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Table of Contents

A Note About the Author

Copyright Page


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For Emma


Exotic Animal Medicine

The wife was driving on the night they hit Mr Ronald.

‘My first drive since getting married,' she said.

‘First this, first that,' said her husband. He looked at her, sitting high in the seat: her hair looked flimsy and blond. It was ten o'clock and only just dark. These were the days for marrying – the long days, and the summer. It hadn't rained.

‘You've got to be thankful for the weather,' the registrar had said to the husband. The husband was thankful for the weather and for everything else. He carried his shoulders inside a narrow suit and his wife wore a blue dress. They came out of the registry office into the pale summer and St Mary's rang the hour.

‘Listen!' said the wife. ‘Just like we've been married in a church.'

It was midday, and because they were in Cambridge the college bells also rang.

‘Like we've been married in every church,' said the husband.

Their witnesses – two friends – took photographs. The four of them went to a pub on the river to celebrate among the tourists and the students who'd just finished exams. The tourists pressed around them, clumsy at the bar; the students slipped through and were served first. The bride and groom were rocked from side to side in the crush. They co-operated with the crowd and liquid spilled over their glasses.

They began to drink.

Their friend Robbie swayed above their table. He motioned over their heads with his benevolent arms.

‘I suppose I'm best man,' he said. ‘By default. So, a toast: to David and Sarah. To Sarah and David. I'll make a statement about love. I'll say a few words.'

‘You've already said more than enough,' said the other witness, Clare.

‘Not nearly enough,' said Robbie, and sat down.

By now it was four in the afternoon and the June town was keeping quiet. The lawns maintained their perfect green. The river lay straight like a track for trains. David and Sarah and Clare and Robbie walked along it to find another pub, and beside them swans idled on the brown water, ducks chased punts for food, geese slid against the wet banks. Tinfoil barbecues were lit on Jesus Green, one by one, and the smoke hung in morose columns above each group, never thick enough to form a cloud. The husband and wife and their friends picked their way among the barbecues. They encountered dogs, friendly and wayward.

‘Stay well today, canines,' said David. ‘Stay happy and healthy.'

Sarah was on call that night.

‘I'm not worried about them,' said Sarah. ‘It's the Queen of Sheba I'm worried about. But he'll be good.'

(At the surgery, the Queen of Sheba lifted his haunches and lowered his head to stretch his grey back. He walked figure eights in his cage, the way a tiger would.)

‘He'd better be good,' said David.

‘That bloody cat,' said Sarah happily.

(The Queen of Sheba sat in his cage at the surgery and looked out at the ferrets and iguanas. He looked out at the tanks of scorpions and turtles. He settled, sphinx-like, and crossed his paws. The nurse poked her fingers through the grille as she passed Sheba's cage and Sheba, yawning, ignored them.)

The crowd at the pub seemed to part before the bridal party and they found an outdoor table, newly abandoned. Their happiness brought good luck. Sarah said, ‘I should stop drinking. I might have to work.'

‘You might,' said Robbie, ‘and you might not.'

‘This is your wedding reception,' said Clare, and she placed her arm around Sarah, coaxing.

‘You need a gin and tonic,' said Robbie.

‘My first gin as a married woman,' said Sarah. She sat beside David and felt the day carry them toward each other. The hours passed at the pub and they didn't go home, although this was what they looked forward to: the privacy of their bed below smudged windows, its view of small gardens, and the beat of trapped bees against glass that shook as the buses moved by. Their bed was a long way from the colleges and the river but the bells would still come over the roads and houses, and they would be alone, and married. The day moved them toward the moment in which they would face each other in their bed and see that despite their marriage there was no change, and that this was just what they wanted.

Sarah's phone rang at nine o'clock. She knew it would be work, and so did David. He creased his face at her, disbelieving, but found he wasn't disappointed. This way he would have her to himself. They would drive in the car and she would tell him her impressions of the day. He would imitate the mannerism he'd disliked in the registrar: a tendency to blink too often and too hard. He would rest his hand on her warm leg and watch the way her driving forced her to keep her usually animated hands still. This animation would pass instead into her face, where her eyebrows would knit and rise across her forehead. She would lean a long way forward to look left and right at intersections, as if she needed to see vast distances. Sarah drove as if she were landing an enormous plane full of porcelain children on a mountaintop.

‘What a surprise,' said Sarah. She placed her phone on the table. ‘The Queen of Sheba needs a catheter.'

Clare said, ‘There must be someone else?'

‘No one else,' said Sarah, standing now, slightly unsteady on her feet, but graceful. ‘Sheba's all mine. He's a friend's cat.'

‘And does this friend know you got married today?' asked Clare.

Sarah laughed. No one knew they'd been married today.

‘Your wedding night and you have to go stick something up a cat's dick,' said Robbie.

(Sheba rolled in his cage. The pain felt familiar to him, but newly terrible, a hot pressure. He flicked his paws to shake it off. He couldn't.)

Sarah led David from the pub. He leaned against her the way he did when he was on the way to being very drunk. In fact, he was just perfectly, amiably, generously drunk, inclined to pause in order to kiss his new wife. He felt grateful when he looked at her. He felt an expansion in his brain that he enjoyed – a feeling that finally he had found his life, or was finding it, was on the verge of finding it, although he was still a graduate student and suspected he always would be. He said to himself, This is my youth, at this moment, right now, and because he was drunk, he also said it to Sarah.

The walk home wasn't far; still, they took their time doing it. Sarah felt a sense of urgency about Sheba but couldn't translate that urgency into hurry. She felt the way she did in those anxious dreams when she was due somewhere important and was unable to find the items she needed to bring with her. The light was lowering now. They spent whole minutes standing on the side of the road in order to watch a woman move around her lit basement kitchen, ironing. As they approached their flat, David said, ‘You know I'm coming with you,' and she didn't argue. They changed their clothes and it felt to Sarah, briefly, as if it had been David's suit and her dress that had married each other earlier in the day. David followed her to the car. Before sitting in the driver's seat she shook her head from side to side as if she might clear it. She didn't feel drunk.

It was an old car, friendly but unreliable, that flew with dog hair when the windows were down. It required patience, particularly in the winter; even now, in June, it demonstrated a good-natured reluctance to start. Sarah turned the key; the engine kicked in and then out. David played with the radio to find a good song, and when there were no good songs, he turned it low. As if encouraged by this decrescendo, the car co-operated.Cambridge was lit with orange lights. They passed through the city with exaggerated care and were in the country very suddenly, with dark fields pressing round them and airplanes far overhead. England became a long dark road, then, with bright windows visible across fields, and trees against the sky.

‘What's wrong with this cat?' said David.

‘Urinary tract.'

‘I know that. But what's
with it?'

Sarah grew defensive on behalf of Sheba.

‘He can't help it.'

‘Why call a tomcat Sheba?'

‘They let their kid name it,' said Sarah. ‘It's the name of a brand of cat food. It uses real cuts of meat rather than by-products.'


‘Don't,' said Sarah.

‘It's crazy. It's like your mum naming your brother Leslie and your dad doing nothing to stop it.'

‘It's a family name. It's a boy's name! And I don't want to think about my mother. Right now I'm pretending she doesn't exist. I left my phone at home,' said Sarah. ‘If she calls, I don't want to tell her we're married, and I don't want not to have told her.'

‘So just don't answer.'

‘I'd have to answer. I couldn't not answer. And then – you know.' She spread her hands in order to indicate her predicament and returned them to the steering wheel.

‘Then – disaster.'

She hit at him with her left hand.

‘Watch the road!' he said, laughing. She watched the road.

‘My first drive since getting married,' she said.

‘First this, first that,' he said.

A car pulled out of a dark side road and turned directly in front of them. Sarah veered to the left but still met the back corner of this car; trees moved in front of the windscreen, tyres made a long noise against the road, Sarah and David jolted over the grass and stones of the verge, they hit a low wooden fence and felt the engine splutter and stall. And as this took place they were aware of something more urgent occurring behind them: the spin of the other car, its dive into a roadside tree. Sarah and David remained still for a moment, preparing for an impact that didn't come.

‘Fuck,' said Sarah, looking back down the dim road. The muted lights of tiny Cambridge hung orange at the bottom of the sky behind them. The car radio continued to play.

‘You're all right?' asked David, but that was obvious. He opened his door and stepped out. The other car reminded him of a cartoon dog, excessively punched, whose nose has folded into its face for a brief and hilarious moment before relaxing out again, essentially unhurt. He watched Sarah run toward the car and ran after her. The driver's door had opened in the crash and the driver sat, his legs pinioned, his right arm hanging, and his head turned away as if he were embarrassed to have been found in this position. He wasn't moving.

BOOK: The High Places
12.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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