by Betsy Macneal
It is mid-afternoon and they have been driving for nearly six hours. At first they talked and laughed, nervously and excitedly, and he leaned over to kiss her clumsily when they stopped at the traffic lights. Now she is asleep, her head back and her mouth open. Her hair is as smooth as butter and there is the black imprint of her eyelashes on her cheekbone from where her mascara has smudged. He wants to wake her up, to show her the mountains which are steep and almost bulbous at the top, but he worries that she will be cross. Instead he pulls the visor down and tries again to get radio reception, but there is only a crackling that sounds like a crumpled sweet wrapper.
‘We’re here, darling,’ he says, and nudges her. She stretches and looks confused for a moment.
‘Sorry,’ she says, running her hand through her hair. ‘I didn’t mean to fall asleep. I must have been tired. I barely slept last night. Luke…’ She trails off and he pretends he didn’t hear her, opening the boot and taking out their soft overnight bags.
‘I think this must be the place. It looks alright, doesn’t it?’
‘Bit rundown,’ she says doubtfully, eyeing the peeling paintwork. It is a pebbledash hotel, painted white with a flaking sign that reads ‘The Higland Retreat’. There is a faded grey shape where the second ‘H’ used to be.
‘It might be nice inside. If not, we can always camp.’ She isn’t sure if he is joking and so smiles awkwardly, slipping her arm into his.
Inside, there is a pock-marked red carpet, and walls covered with dusty bookshelves displaying sheep skulls and antlers that are yet to be mounted. The reception is empty, white plastic desk and a heap of tattered guidebooks. He rings the bell and they wait until an old woman with yellowing teeth and paint-spattered jeans appears.
‘Can I help you?’ she asks, sitting down. ‘Please, take a seat.’ He sits awkwardly on the edge of the chair which creaks and moves when he puts his weight on it. She waves her hand.
‘I’ll be alright,’ she says.
‘Have you made a reservation?’
‘Yes, under McLean.’ The woman drags her finger down the column of names in the book.
‘Perfect. I’ll show you to your room. It’s a nice one at the back, with a great view over the loch.’ The old woman walks ahead, up the staircase with the portrait of a man in a kilt in a blackened frame. Probably plastic, the younger woman thinks. He is ahead with the receptionist, and she listens to their small-talk with disdain. She remembers when they used to disdain things together, when they hated their cosy lives and when he took her hands in his and whispered into the whorl of her ear that they would never be like that, that they would always have interesting things to say.
‘After you, Mrs McLean,’ the woman says after opening the door.
‘Oh no, he’s not…’ She breaks off and blushes. The woman recoils slightly, pretends she hasn’t heard and picks up a glossy tartan leaflet. ‘I mean, thank you.’
They close the door after the woman has gone, and he opens his mouth as if about to criticise her, but closes it again. She’s spoiled their game and they both know it.
‘I’m just going for a breath of fresh air,’ he says eventually, and she knows that he is calling his wife and it’s his way of punishing her. She knows it’s his way of saying that he isn’t going to tell her like he promised he would, and she asks him this in a calm but quiet voice when he gets back.
‘Don’t be silly. Of course I will. I just need time,’ he says, stroking her hair. ‘I’ll tell her soon.’
‘That’s what you always say.’ He sighs and her voice takes on a new urgency. ‘How long am I supposed to keep waiting?’
He puts his hands in front of his face and doesn’t say anything for a while. ‘We’ve been through this enough times,’ he says, through his fingers. ‘And I’m here with you now, aren’t I? Isn’t that enough?’
She doesn’t answer but swings her feet against the edge of the bed, her hair dropping in front of her eyes.
He apologises and then kisses her passionately, pulling at her hair and clothes, and they make love. After he has finished, she puts her underwear back on and sits looking out of the window, at the sky which is now overcast and moves over the horizon like a sheet of metal unrolling. She can see a man sitting at the edge of the loch reeling in a fish, slowly and carefully as it flaps and twists.
Betsy Macneal is a student at Oxford University. She has had several stories published in the past year.