“THERE IS IN THESE TALES A RECURRENT ‘FEELING OF QUEASY ANTICIPATION,’ AS ONE OF MCFARLANE’S CHARACTERS OBSERVES, ‘AS IF SOME TERRIBLE THING MIGHT HAPPEN AT ANY MOMENT.’ . . . IT’S A MOOD YOU ASSOCIATE WITH FLANNERY O’CONNOR, EVIDENTLY ONE OF MCFARLANE’S INFLUENCES, AS WELL AS PATRICIA HIGHSMITH.”THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW (EDITORS’ CHOICE)
2017 Dylan Thomas Prize Winner
Ranging from Australia to Greece, England to a Pacific island, the stories in Fiona McFarlane’s story collection The High Places journey across continents, eras, and genres, charting the pivotal moments of people’s lives. In “Mycenae,” a middle-aged couple embarks on a disastrous vacation in the company of old friends. In “Good News for Modern Man,” a scientist conducts research on a small, remote island, where he is haunted by a colossal squid and the ghost of Charles Darwin. And in the title story, an Australian farmer turns to Old Testament methods to relieve a fatal drought. All are confronted with events that make them see themselves and their lives from a fresh perspectiveand what they do as a result is as unpredictable as life itself.
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The High Places
By Fiona McFarlane
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2016 Fiona McFarlane
All rights reserved.
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.
'I know that. But what's wrong 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.
'He's not dead,' said Sarah, but couldn't have explained why she was so sure.
She knelt beside the car and held the man's wrist, and when she released it she wiped her fingers against her skirt. David leaned against the tree and passed his hand across his face. He felt the air press in around him and he wanted somehow to press it back. Sarah had found the man's wallet on the front passenger seat.
'His whole name is just three first names,' she said, inspecting his licence. 'Ralph Walter Ronald. He's eighty.'
Sarah looked carefully at this Mr Ronald, acknowledging his age and misfortune. She felt that his awkward name had lifted him out of a time in which she'd played no part and deposited him here, in his crushed car.
'We need to call someone,' she said.
'No phone,' said David.
'In my suit, probably.'
'You left yours too,' said David.
'Deliberately,' said Sarah.
'Which way to the nearest house?'
'I don't know.'
'Forward or back?'
'I don't know.'
'This is your drive to work. You drive this way almost every day.'
'It's dark. I haven't been paying attention.'
'All right, all right,' said David. He realised he was pulling at the roots of his hair. People really do that, then, he thought, in a crisis – pull their hair. 'I'll try the car. It seems like ages since we saw a house.'
'Nothing in England is ever far apart.'
It began to rain, very lightly. The rain seemed to rise out of the ground and lift up into their faces, a cheerful mist.
'All right, try the car,' said Sarah. 'I'll sit with him. His car won't blow up, will it? Or is that just in movies?'
'It would have blown up by now. Wouldn't it?'
They stood helpless in their combined ignorance, considering Mr Ronald's car and Mr Ronald trapped within it. The passenger seat was whole and healthy, although the accordion-fold of the front of the car left no leg room. Sarah brushed glass from the seat and slid in beside Mr Ronald, tucking her legs beneath her.
David crossed to their car with mid-city caution. It wouldn't start; it would never start when he was late for a seminar or a critical train, it required tender solicitations after particularly steep hills. Of course it wouldn't start now, when his need was desperate. Perhaps it was finally beyond repair – and then there would be the panic of finding money for a new car. David tried again. It wouldn't start and wouldn't start. He ran back to Sarah.
'No good,' he said. 'Fuck it. I'll run. I'm sure I'll find someone. Another car.'
'Go forward, not back,' said Sarah. 'I think there's a petrol station. God, I have no idea of distances on foot.'
'Sweetheart,' David said, leaning farther into Mr Ronald's car, 'it wasn't your fault.'
'I know,' she said. 'It was his fucking fault. But, darling, I'm a little drunk.'
She watched him comprehend this. He was drunker than she was. His eyes filled briefly. There was a scar above his right eye, half hidden in the eyebrow, left by childhood chickenpox. He often walked through their apartment on his toes, adding to his height, bending down over her as she lay on the couch. He would put his head on her stomach and look up at her face, and when he did this he reminded her of an ostrich.
'I'll be back soon,' he said. 'It's going to be all right, and I love you. Don't be scared.'
He bent down to kiss her, bent his long, beautiful bird neck, then began to run.
Sarah looked at Mr Ronald. He wore corduroy trousers and a neat shirt, a woollen vest, and bulky glasses over thick eyebrows. He lay with his head thrown back and to the side, facing Sarah, and his facial expression was bemused and acquiescing. She felt again at his wrist. His legs were caught up with the buckled car and it was impossible to tell what damage had been done. She sat on her side, looking into his face, and felt the faint breath that hung around his mouth. It smelled like a doctor's waiting room: just-extinguished cigarettes and something human rising up through disinfectant. She heard David try the car again, and she heard the car fail. Then his footsteps on the road. Then nothing. Sarah felt loneliness fall over her, and fear.
'The Queen of Sheba,' she said.
(Sheba paused in his tiger-walk, his head lifted toward the surgery door, waiting. No one came through the door, and he dropped his head again, letting out a low small sound that startled the macaws opposite into frantic cries.)
Sarah was married and no one knew but herself and David, Robbie and Clare. Her mother didn't know. She wondered now about the secrecy – how childish it seemed. They only wanted privacy. They wanted a new visa for Sarah, and they didn't want to bother about the fuss that went with weddings. The last of the gin wound itself up against the side of Sarah's head that tilted against the seat; it hung there in a vapour, then seemed to drain away. Mr Ronald's burnt breath came in little gusts against her face. Was he breathing more, or less? Sarah pulled the door behind her as far as it would go in order to feel safe, and to guard against the slight chill in the wind. This is summer, she thought. You wait for it all year, shoulders pushed up against the cold and the dark, and this is your gift: the sun and the bells, the smoke over Jesus Green, geese on the river. A midday wedding. A cat's catheter and Mr Ronald by the side of the road.
Mr Ronald's eyes opened and Sarah drew back from his face. They studied each other. His eyes were yellow at the edges. They were clever and lucid. They looked at Sarah with calm acceptance; they looked at the windscreen, shattered but half in place, and at the close proximity of the tree.
'I've had an accident,' he said.
'Yes, you have. How do you feel? Stay still,' said Sarah. She felt composed. Everything she did felt smooth and immediate.
'I'm all here,' said Mr Ronald. 'Everything's attached, at least.' He gave a small laugh. 'It happened so fast, as they say. I see I've hit the tree.' He said 'the tree' as if there were only one tree in the whole country; as if he had always known he would hit it.
'Good of you to stop,' he said.
'Of course!' cried Sarah.
'Plenty wouldn't. Decent of you. I don't suppose he even thought for a minute about stopping.'
'Who?' asked Sarah. She looked into the back of the car in panic, as if there might be someone else crushed inside.
'The lout who swiped me.'
Sarah remained quiet. Then she said, 'My husband's gone to find help.'
She had been waiting to use this phrase: 'my husband'. Her first time.
'Ah,' said Mr Ronald. 'I don't suppose you happen to be a doctor. That would be convenient.'
'Not a human doctor,' said Sarah. 'An animal doctor, though.'
'My leg, you see,' he said. 'I think it should hurt, but at this moment it doesn't.'
'You're probably in shock.'
'You're not British, are you. Antipodean.'
'I thought so, but didn't venture it. From the first few sentences you might just as well be a New Zealander.'
He pronounced it 'New Zellander'.
'No, no!' Sarah protested. 'We sound completely different.' She demonstrated the difference: 'Fish and chips,' she said. 'That's us. This is a Kiwi: fush and chups.'
'Nonsense,' said Mr Ronald. 'No one speaks that way at all.'
Sarah felt chastised. She didn't resent it – there was something pleasantly authoritarian about Mr Ronald, who made her think of a school principal driving home from church, or the father of a boyfriend, to whom she must be polite at all costs.
'A veterinarian,' said Mr Ronald. 'Dogs and cats.'
'Actually I specialise,' said Sarah. 'Exotic animal medicine. But dogs and cats too, sometimes. Mostly for friends.'
'What counts as exotic these days?' asked Mr Ronald. His right hand moved slowly over his chest and toward his legs, testing for pain and damage.
'Chinchillas,' said Sarah. 'Ferrets. Hermit crabs. Monkeys.'
'Monkeys?' said Mr Ronald. 'Good god. Does anyone in England actually own a monkey?'
'You'd be surprised.'
'And is it legal?'
'I'm afraid it is.'
'And people will spend hundreds of pounds to cure a hermit crab?'
'People become very attached to their pets,' said Sarah. She had defended her clients on this subject before, at parties and college dinners, and whenever she did she saw them all in the surgery waiting room, bundled against cold and worry, holding cages and carriers and shoeboxes with holes punched in them.
Excerpted from The High Places by Fiona McFarlane. Copyright © 2016 Fiona McFarlane. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Exotic Animal Medicine 3
2. Art Appreciation 25
3. Mycenae 55
4. Man and Bird 81
5. Unnecessary Gifts 87
6. Those Americans Falling from the Sky 107
7. Rose Bay 133
8. Violet, Violet 155
9. The Movie People 177
10. Cara Mia 187
11. Buttony 217
12. Good News for Modern Man 227
13. The High Places 257