Ailsa McFarlane, Highway Blue (an excerpt)

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.

From the book HIGHWAY BLUE by Ailsa McFarlane. Copyright © 2021 Ailsa McFarlane. Published in May 2021 by Hogarth, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.


Ailsa 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. Highway Blue is her first novel.