The Low Road
The letter arrived two weeks after his fiancée, Joanne Ross, was released from hospital. McAllister read it and put it aside. Mother doesn’t know that Jimmy McPhee is more than capable of looking after himself, was his reasoning.
Then two weeks later, at the offices of the Highland Gazette where he was editor, a note, in a plain brown envelope, was delivered by hand. It read, Meet me at seven tomorrow in the snug bar. The writing was rounded school-pupil-in-fourth-form script. He had no doubt whom it was from, even if he hadn’t caught a glimpse of a redheaded young man loping off down the Wynd to the High Street like a lurcher ambling behind a Traveler’s caravan.
It was an appointment he knew he had to keep. There was too much history between himself and the matriarch of the McPhee family.
“McAllister.” Jenny McPhee acknowledged his presence, and with a left jerk of her head, indicated he should sit. A glass of whisky was brought in by a middle-aged barman with no memorable features whatsoever, and a white linen tea towel over his shoulder with what looked like someone’s brain matter encrusted on one end.
McAllister forced himself not to shudder, as the man wiped the none too clean glass with it.
Though he was thinking Jenny’s buying, what does she want? he knew better than to ask. He waited. After the second round, and
after the Highland ritual of asking after family health and happiness was observed, he watched Jenny stare into the light-peat-colored liquid, swirling it around the glass, releasing the scent of heather and peat and high summer on the moorland.
He was fascinated by this woman. Seeing her examine the whisky, another image came to him, the image of an old Gypsy woman near Seville, looking deep into a crystal ball, shuddering at what she saw, before throwing her shawl, a bright yellow embroidered shawl, over the offending image. And not long after, Madrid fell to General Franco’s forces.
They were of the same age, the Gypsy woman and Jenny, but Jenny McPhee was a Highland Traveler, not Romany, and although their ways were similar, their antecedents were completely different. For McAllister, however, a powerful woman was always beguiling, no matter her age or tribe.
The name shook McAllister from his dwam. He hadn’t seen Jimmy McPhee, her second son and right-hand man, for some time, but the recollection of the letter from his mother made him listen carefully. And look more closely at the woman sitting opposite.
She’s not herself, he thought. Her hair was mostly white in that bleached-out, slightly yellow way of former redheads. Her skin, always dark from years traveling in a horse-drawn caravan, was now not just the color of a walnut, but the texture also. And her coal-black buttons of eyes had equally dark rings underneath.
He felt that somehow the fierceness of Jenny McPhee had been tamed, much as the ponies and horses, beloved by the Traveling people, were tamed and trained by her son Jimmy.
Having made her decision, she sighed and her mouth tightened; asking an outsider for help was not something she did lightly, but this outsider was from the city, it was in his bones. Plus she thought he would still have contacts from his former
job in the city newspaper. “Jimmy,” she started, “he’s gone missing. Glasgow was the last place he was seen—about four weeks since. Not that I’d normally worry, but he’s due back here weeks ago—has to get the horses ready for the Black Isle Show. It takes months to get them in condition—an’ he’s never missed a show since he was a bairn—since he was in the womb even.”
He felt she knew more than she was telling. Then so was he. She had her shawl clutched around her as though she was feeling the chill of one of those long summer nights where the light evaporated for a few hours yet was never completely dark. But it was mild. Balmy even. Except Jenny McPhee seemed cold, and McAllister knew that feeling too well.
“I phoned Barlinnie Prison after I got your message,” he said. “He did thirty days for breach of the peace but was released two weeks ago.” From the look on her face he immediately knew he should have told her. And paid heed to his mother’s warning.
“And how did you know he was there?” Jenny was not perturbed that her son had been in prison, but she was not pleased McAllister knew and hadn’t told her.
“My mother wrote to me. An old friend of our family mentioned something of Jimmy’s whereabouts.”
“You should have told me!” But her anger died as swiftly as it arrived. “Sorry. You’ve had your fair share o’ troubles yerself.”
She knew what had happened to Joanne Ross his fiancée; she had visited the hospital once, and visited at McAllister’s house twice. And Jenny McPhee was well aware how long it could take to recover from a blow to the head, days in a coma, locked up in a cellar by a volatile madwoman. It’s a wonder she survived, Joanne’s mother-in-law had told her, even as she fussed over a tinker woman’s visiting the house and McAllister’s allowing the visitor into the sitting room.
Jenny had heard the rumors of perhaps permanent brain
damage to Joanne. Even now, six weeks after the rescue, there was no firm verdict as to whether she would recover completely. But she had always thought Joanne Ross was a woman of strength—a strength Joanne herself did not recognize.
McAllister acknowledged the older woman’s ire. Leaving a message in this public house, which she was rumored to own, would have taken him no effort. “I apologize, I didn’t want to embarrass you.”
She waved a hand as though cooling porridge. “One o’ ma sons in the gaol for a few days . . .” The slight shrug of her shoulders and gesture said it all. “Oor Jimmy no’ coming home to see to the horses, that’s different.”
Jenny McPhee knew in her bones, mostly in her solar plexus, when danger threatened. A life on the road, the treatment of Traveling peoples through the centuries, and the weather made Scottish tinkers a wary, superstitious lot. And suspicion of outsiders, who could never know their ways, or their language, had kept them alive, if not healthy. Jenny and Jimmy McPhee’s relationship with McAllister might seem a friendship to outsiders, but both sides were aware it was far more, and far less. There was respect. And the acknowledgment that they could never be close. On McAllister’s part, he was never sure what drew him to Jimmy McPhee. Perhaps I’m just a romantic, he thought.
Jenny knew better; she recognized a fascination with violence in McAllister, knew it came from the streets he grew up in. And in an unformed way, she knew men like McAllister, forever chaffing at the conformity of his chosen life, romanticized the Traveling peoples, not seeing that their life too was confined, by weather, the law, antagonistic townsfolk. And now, in the twilight of the old ways—settled life in houses, cottages, and council schemes—their millennia-old way of life was ending.
McAllister apologized again. “I’m sorry, I should have been in
touch before now. Tomorrow I’ll make a few phone calls, see if I can find out more.” He was trying not to check the time, but he knew he should be back home. Joanne was not up to making the cocoa, reading the story to Jean, her younger daughter, and putting the girls to bed.
“It might be best if you go to Glasgow.” It was a challenge. She was looking into his eyes, daring him to refuse.
Yes, he thought as he returned her stare, she does know what she’s asking of me, so it must be serious. “Let’s wait and see. But I’ll ask around, contact old colleagues, try to track Jimmy down.”
“Aye, you do that.” She was still staring into his face as she said it. He looked away first. There was a loud shout from the bar next door, the banging of a door, then sudden quiet, before the usual barroom murmur recommenced.
“Give Joanne my regards,” Jenny said, releasing him.
• • •
Driving home across the river, the late sun hovering in the west made the water glint like whisky in a glass held up for the traditional toast, Slaínte.
He had acquired an affection for the town, and its inhabitants, and chastised himself for not being more appreciative. It was undeniably attractive: the castle looming high above the river, the handsome Town House, the mixed eighteenth- and nineteenth-century architecture with some buildings dating back to the seventeenth century and earlier still intact. As he drove past and admired, he thought, Yes, this is a bonnie place—but for a well-traveled and well-educated man like himself it could be boring, parochial even, a county, a country, with one foot still firmly in the prewar era.
The meeting with Jenny McPhee had also revived what he had been trying to quash—the overwhelming sense of helplessness he felt when confronted with Joanne’s condition. He had
never known fear as paralyzing as the fear of losing her. He had never known rage as powerful as the rage he felt on discovering it was one of their own, the former Gazette advertising manager, who had been responsible for Joanne’s imprisonment. And now he was ashamed of his need for normality, his need to escape the troupe of doctors and nurses and police and friends and parents-in-law who visited his home, stayed for tea, chatted, smiled, forcing a cheer that fooled no one, disturbing the peace and the quiet and the anonymity that he so cherished.
But Joanne was alive. They were about to be married. He would no longer be pitied as a middle-aged bachelor, at the mercy of every war widow in town. One of his mother’s favorite sayings popped into his head: Count your blessings, she’d tell him. But he had been too young and too arrogant in his affected persona of escaped-from-the-slums-now-star-journalist to hear the wisdom in the platitude. Or was it a hymn? A Sunday-school song, perhaps? Having lost religion, he wasn’t sure.
He changed gears down to second to drive the last steep slope to the district where he had lived since arriving from the city to revamp an ailing local newspaper. The absence of life on the tree-lined streets depressed him. Not like Glasgow, he thought. On a summer’s night like this, the women will be sitting on doorsteps, on walls, out the back green, chatting, laughing, yelling at the bairns running wild, playing cowboys and Indians. Or skipping with a length of clothesline. The chip shop will be busy. And the men will be down the pub.
He knew Joanne could never understand his fascination for the dirty, decrepit city, long past its glory days of the Victorian Merchant City era. Though still magnificent, it was the people, his clan, his tribe, that he loved the most. He smiled when she described the thick air, dirty with traffic fumes. He knew she hated the constant noise and shouts and fights. He once asked her if she had had firsthand experience of the city violence and had laughed
when she’d said, No, but I’ve read about it. From Edinburgh folk, most likely, he’d replied before telling her of the journalists’ axiom: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
When he came home, he found Annie, almost twelve, the daughter of his fiancée, in the sitting room. She said, “Mum’s asleep,” and told him her wee sister, Jean, two and a half years younger, was also asleep.
Seeing the girl now comfortably nestled on the sofa with a book, an empty cocoa mug on the floor beside her, McAllister did not think to tell her to go to bed. He too found the long white nights unsettling: a time out of time; not light, not dark, the midnight dim seemed like the light of a half-remembered dream, all color washed out, the outlines of mountain, river, loch, and sea blurred, yet distinct—and time felt suspended.
McAllister started to talk. Quietly, he began telling her of his day at the Gazette.
She told him she’d like to work in a newspaper. “Or be a writer,” she added.
He believed her. He told her to do one or the other, telling her journalism can ruin an aspiring writer. They discussed the house—Joanne wanted to move to somewhere new, or back to her own wee prefab, changing her mind daily. Annie said she wanted to stay in this house. She liked the attic, where she could hide out and read without her sister or grandmother interrupting. She liked the old wood-burning kitchen stove, and it was a short walk to the academy, where she was certain to win a place when the eleven-plus exams results were announced.
“I might have to go to Glasgow for a few days,” he told her. “I’ve a few things to sort out.”
“You’re not going to leave us, McAllister?” Annie asked.
He heard her anxiety and he hated her father for what he had done to his family. No matter how many in society accepted it as
the norm, for McAllister domestic violence was never, ever, no matter the circumstances, acceptable. “My mother wrote to me. I need to see her. I’m also on a mission to try to persuade Mother to come here to visit. To meet you all.” He was disappointed in himself for telling a half-truth, something he’d sworn he’d never do. But, he thought, the story belongs to Jenny McPhee.
“Good enough,” Annie said in imitation of her grandmother. “Go over a weekend. Granny Ross can be here with Mum, and Granddad will take me and Jean out to the pictures.”
He knew the timing was wrong. And leaving felt cowardly. But from the moment the thought had formed, he knew he needed to breathe the air of Glasgow. He needed to be where no one knew him or his situation. He needed respite.
“Good enough,” he said back at her.
Annie smiled, then, putting the marker in her book, she stood. “Night-night, McAllister. And don’t feel bad about leaving us for a few days, we’ll be fine.”
He tried to settle back into the novel he’d been reading on and off for a week but unable to concentrate on. The benediction from a child had made him feel guilty. And the phrase would not go away, She’s not herself, running around his brain, a thought chasing a thought turning to dread: What if she’s never herself again? What if Joanne is never again the woman I love, the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with? There was only one place those fears would dissolve—the bottom of a whisky glass. So, tonight, as on so many nights recently, he reached for the decanter.
Thelonious Monk was at the piano, the book was by Kingsley Amis, the whisky from Aberlour. He’d been sitting sipping, reading, dreaming for almost two hours when he became aware of a shadow flitting through into the room.
“McAllister.” Annie’s voice was a whisper, and in a flannelette nightgown, the color washed out to an indeterminate shade
of porridge, she seemed more phantom than child. Her hair, very short and looking as though she had taken the scissors to it herself—which she had—emphasized her blue-green eyes, giving her a resemblance to an Edwardian illustrator’s idea of a pixie or elf. Her long, lanky body spoiled the image, the resemblance being more that of an adolescent giraffe.
“I can’t sleep,” Annie said, not looking at him, running her hand over her hair, massaging her skull, or her brain, a habit he found endearing. “It’s Mum.” She paused, searching for the words, but nothing in her vocabulary could express what she felt. “She’s not herself.”
He was shaken to hear the phrase repeated back to him; he was certain he had never said it aloud. In the pause while he composed an answer to the girl, the clock struck eleven. Eleven in the evening in this town was “ungodly.”
“Your mum has had a terrible experience. It takes time to get over something like that.” He immediately regretted the clichés. Annie deserved better.
She was quiet for a moment and as he watched her absorb the information, he caught a glimpse of the girl’s intelligence, and resilience, and suspected this would always save her.
“I know it was terrible,” she repeated, “but Mum is not getting better.” She knew adults were not perfect—she’d learned that early from her father. But she expected more from McAllister. He should have noticed.
And he was not himself either. But unable to recognize why. All he knew was that he had never known loneliness until he had fallen in love with Joanne Ross.
In his need for solitude, if even for a few hours, he’d taken to staying up late into the night. After years on the evening desk of a national newspaper, his body rhythms were set for the early hours
of the morning with the music playing quietly, the fire banked up even though it was midsummer, his book, the decanter of whisky, and a pack of Passing Clouds cigarettes at hand, this quiet was a now rare delight.
Annie looked at him again. For a fraction of a second he felt himself being appraised. And again he felt he was failing her, and her mother. He had not seen, or chosen not to see, that the Joanne he loved, whose face and voice and laughter he carried in his head, was not the compliant, puzzled woman he had watched that morning in the garden. He saw her on a stripy deck chair in the sunshine, looking around with a nervous twist to the head, and commenting—to no one in particular—how the flock of cotton-wool clouds were forming and re-forming in an attempt at blocking out the sun, and failing. “Look,” she was saying, shielding her eyes with one hand, “look at the clouds. They’re like sheep. And those wispy ones, they’re like thistledown.”
Annie looked at him, waiting for more. Then she understood that he was as afraid as she was that her mother might never be her old self again, that was something he, too, was terrified of. “?’Night,” she muttered, and went back up to bed.
He listened but didn’t hear the girl creep up the stairs. When he heard her door close, he shut his eyes. How to explain to a child the evil that had almost killed her mother, how to diminish the horror of the three days Joanne had been locked up in the dark with a head wound or tell her that, when rescued, she’d been given little chance of survival without serious brain damage by the surgeon and doctors—that was McAllister’s quandary.
His head felt heavy, his shoulders tight, and running around his brain, like the repeat refrain from the backing singers of a particularly annoying song of the doo-wop variety on the radio, the phrase kept repeating, She’s not herself, She’s not herself.
• • •
Next morning, McAllister walked to the Highland Gazette office. When he climbed the spiral stone staircase to the reporters’ room, he found the others already there, seated around the long narrow table that almost filled the room. The far end of the table was territory the deputy editor Don McLeod had not visited in at least forty years; squeezing past colleagues and chairs and overlarge typewriters was beyond a round person like himself, so he reigned at the head of the table. Wreathed in cigarette smoke, his stomach spilling beyond the circumference of his high wooden chair, and with his wee red editing pencil tucked behind his ear, he resembled a potentate from Tales of the Arabian Nights.
He looked up at the tyrant, as he called it, the wall clock, ruler of the newsroom. It was ten minutes to nine in the morning, early for journalists, and even though today was deadline day, and unusually early for McAllister, Don said nothing, because nothing was normal these days.
“What’s happening?” McAllister asked, glancing at the layout spread over the table.
“Not much,” Don answered.
“Thank goodness,” Rob McLean said. With Joanne Ross sick, he was their one and only reporter. “Sheepdog trials is enough excitement for me right now.” Quiet felt good; school prize-giving ceremonies, ferry cancellations, and Loch Ness Monster sightings were all the excitement he wanted.
This was not what an editor of a newspaper wanted to hear, but they had had enough of front-page headlines featuring death and damnation. Rob most of all.
“Advertising is steady,” Frankie Urquhart, the newly appointed advertising salesman and Rob’s best friend, said. “No surprises there.” Everyone felt relieved at that except Frankie. He wanted a full-page ad from somewhere, anywhere, to prove that at twenty-four, he was old enough to be promoted to the position of advertising manager.
“I’m thinking I’ll go to Glasgow on Thursday. Back Sunday night,” McAllister told them.
“Oh, aye?” Don McLeod looked up at him.
Perhaps he meant nothing by his question, but McAllister felt the need to justify himself. “Aye, my mother has written to me. I should go see her. It’s been too long . . .”
He knew he was overstating his case. Knew his mother was not bothered if he visited or not—as long as he wrote regularly, she was content to live in solitude with only the noises of neighbors in the communal close for company. Why he did not mention Jenny and Jimmy McPhee, and their troubles, to a man he trusted, a man who knew more than he about the McPhees and the inhabitants of the town and county and Highlands and Islands, he did not know.
“I’ll call in and see Joanne when you’re away,” was all his deputy said before turning to the layout for the next day’s edition. “Now where the hell is thon eejit of a photographer? I need the photos of the academy’s sports meeting.”
And so the day went on. And so another deadline on the Highland Gazette was met. And on Thursday morning, after a cooked breakfast with Joanne and the girls, McAllister went in to the office, reviewed the edition, saw to some paperwork, signed off on the accounts, then walked to the train station.
As he took his seat in the first-class compartment, hoping for solitude or at least a minimum of conversation, and as the train began the long slow climb over the pass of Drumochter, he admitted his need of a break from work, from the Highland town he had come to, to bring the Gazette from the nineteenth century to 1958. That he could also be running away from the woman he was about to marry, the woman who was not herself, he buried deep down in a dark place, hoping his conscience could not reach that far.