The Low Road

A Highlands short story, bittersweet in taste.

Sweet Caroline is on the radio, which isn’t my favourite song but yeah, I can belt it and so I do, turning the corners of the blackening roads. I used to love seeing the look on colleagues’ faces when they dragged me up for karaoke at work dos, thinking it’s only the fit birds that can sing. Oban. I’ve done it for years.

The coast lifts its leg in the distance and I nosy out for a parking spot. I keep asking Owen to look at the gearbox as you really have to jam it in reverse, but he says I should pay someone to do that and not waste his time. You’ll have to let me have the money for it then, I’ll say, and he’ll say it’s your own fault if you can’t park your car, get better.

Get better, I’m mumbling as I lug my suitcase out of the boot and drag it behind me on the gravel like a dog worming. An inflatable Father Christmas shimmies above the rooms available sign and snow is starting to pill from the sky.

Have you got your cd, the receptionist says. I can see where she’s recently plucked her eyebrows, the skin across her forehead striped red from her temples up to her sockets and right across the bridge of her nose.

You can set up at six-thirty, she says. Dean will be there to help. Your room’s 22, swipe the card. We’ve put a sandwich in there for you.

I had a Big Mac and McFlurry on the way up. I’d driven past the Loch Fyne restaurant and thought about oysters and buttered bread and what caviar might taste like. The taste of the burger I took with me all the way to the coast, driving through towns with their peat-fired pubs and bakery windows piled up with rolls glowing like the Christmas lights strung over the cobbles. I’d had a can of Coke around Tarbet and a butty from a caravan too, but I’m still hungry.

My hotel room looks much the same as all the other rooms I’ve stayed in along the west coast. I’ve been singing at weddings, birthdays, funerals, hogmanays and retirement functions for nine years now, at first only on special occasions and now every holiday season. I stopped calling them gigs when Owen said, well where are the crowds and the cd contracts? You’re not famous to me.

The mattress gives with a little wheeze as I sit down. I unbutton my jeans. I have a velvet dress to wear that I always shake out for this time of year. It doesn’t matter that it will have been seen before; the same guests stay at the hotel each season. I would like to say there were faces I remember but really I only remember the tips. Don’t forget them, Owen said before I left that morning.

Owen’s niece is getting married and they’ve specified a posh hotel on the wedding website. Which is why you’ve got to get all the tips you can, Owen said, really milk them for it. And make sure you put them in the envelope, don’t do anything silly with them. Owen insisted that singing festive jazz standards over and over wasn’t as hard work as sitting at a desk all day, so I was the only one of us doing overtime. We wouldn’t even be spending Christmas together this year. Sing for your supper, they say, well they don’t say sing so you can show off to your arsehole extended family.

I’ve brought two dresses and two pairs of tights, which I tend to wear one inside the other now the weather’s bricking. Not that anyone would be looking at my baggy ankles, the audience being mostly women whose husbands have died of coronaries or cancer or else divorced them and gone south to warmer air and renewed sex lives. As I roll off my sports socks, I wonder if anyone’s ever looked at me like that during a set. Had a man glanced at my body and thought he’d like to weigh it down.

I’m hankering after an agent more than affair, though. He’d have a suit and a Range Rover or some other shine of a car that’s suitable for zooming up and down the Highlands in search of talent, and he would say, now that’s a fine voice you have on you. When I met Owen, he told me I had a fine pair of lungs and I only later learnt that he’d meant tits. He can’t tell me that I can’t sing well, though, it would be like telling me I couldn’t do the washing-up.

I eat the sandwich that’s been left out for me, one triangle at a time, then the crisps, and then dab at the crumbs with a damp finger. I could do with a glass of wine. I used to be strict about alcohol and singing, what with everything they say online about your vocal cords, but it’s the day before Christmas Eve and there’s a whole week of shows to get through.

I have to twist to get the dress’s zip done up. There. Lovely. I’ve always had good curves, seeing as I’ve not had children to ruin them. Chips, not kids, I can hear Owen’s voice saying, a regular chant of his from across the lounge or car park or wherever we happen to be arguing. We were only given an invite to his niece’s wedding on the proviso that we don’t argue in front of her fiancé’s family. I don’t argue for nothing, I said to Owen as we rowed in the dairy aisle in Morrisons last Tuesday. And I wouldn’t have to argue if you weren’t such a miserable sow, he said.

I run over a few lyrics, humming, padding about and picking things up. An ashtray, a branded biro. There are leaflets about things to do in the local area. Inveraray Jail is worth a visit. It’d be easy enough to drive to the port and take the ferry to Lismore, Port Askaig, Castlebay. Or drive round to Kennacraig and hop over to Jura, I could rent a cottage, nobody would know me. Never come back. Twenty-three minutes to go so I’ll have to give him a call.

How are you, love, I say.

Is it 30 or 40 quid you’re getting tonight, he says.

37 plus a free dinner, I say. I can hear the television on in the background. There’s a lot of clapping on whatever he’s watching, perhaps a quiz show or a cookery show with contestants. Not that Owen cooks.

You don’t need to tell me about the dinner, he says. You don’t need to tell me about your eating habits, I know how much you eat.

Everything alright at home?

Alright, he says. The cat’s off its food again.

Oh, I say. His voice is distant, as if he’s balanced the phone on something so he doesn’t have to bother holding it up to his ear.

Make sure you get all cash yeah, he says. And the tips too.

Will do, I say. Nearly Christmas eh. I thought I might do a few of the big hits.

Yeah. For fuck’s sake, he says.

What’s that?

Just the telly. Bye now, he says, and hangs up.

I hoof on my heels. I sing a few sliding scales in front of the mirror opposite the trouser press. I imagine I’m Billie Holiday having her ribs strapped up before going on stage, aiming to hold myself with grace while I sing the audience’s compression socks off.

The hotel’s corridors are spongy underfoot. Tinsel has been draped across the dining room as if to remind the punters that it’s not just any peak-season holiday they’re enjoying.

At the bar, I order a Rioja and a tap water. I could lap a glass of wine away within minutes, with nobody else to talk to. I check my phone: one text from Owen saying remember get cash, followed by a second text with a smiley face in the guise of a colon and a single bracket.

When he’d confirmed the booking, the manager had asked me to do some old favourites along with some festive tunes. Ballads about summer winds and purple heather and lovers on the other side of the ocean, all the folk songs that the dazed ladies like to nod along to. I’ll do a bit of a breathy Marilyn routine towards the end as it’s always good for tips. Not that I do saucy, I’m a professional. Really, I just like the singing.

You’re Claudette? I’m Dean, says a young man in a polo shirt. He’s carrying a pint and a microphone, cord coiled around itself like a skipping rope.

Hiya Dean, I say, taking the mic off him. I’ve got my cd with me, all ready to go.

I watch him set up the mic, roll out the cord across the carpet tiles, plug in the amps. He gets me to do a few notes to get the levels right and adjust the lighting. It’s less spotlights, more turning off the other lights in the room, but my velveteen dress shudders with a jewelled sheen all the same.

Owen’s sister might still ask me to sing at the wedding, I think, as I gulp down the wine, but no such invite has been offered yet. They don’t want us to have a visible presence in front of their family and friends. Disgust is easy to feel and harder to disguise. Owen’s sister still hasn’t learnt to resist the instinct to brush away the cat hairs whenever they come to stay, not that they have done since Owen’s niece and nephew were infants.

I look about the dining room while Dean tapes the cord down to the carpet. Guests’ faces are wrinkling under the fairy lights. There’s a fire going at the back and a lapdog is heaving in front of the heat, a woman cradling it like a hot-water bottle. The dinner tables are filling up, bread baskets placed between the poinsettias.

You’re on, Dean says. Say when and I’ll push the button.

I smile at the audience and they smile back, sinking into their armchairs as roast chickens and lasagnes and chips are slid in front of them. The tartan curtains have been drawn and I wonder how heavy the snow is now, and I nod my head in Dean’s direction to begin.

You’ll take the high road and I’ll take the low road, I start. I think of Christmas Day without Owen, of Christmas Eve night tomorrow and the films on telly and the smell of gravy creeping around the hotel and the church bells at Mass. I need to drive on up the coast to the next hotel in the morning. I picture the fried breakfast, followed by a cappuccino dredged with cocoa powder, and launch into the next tune about freezing-cold weather and having to hurry home.

The clapping gets louder at the end of every song and someone brings me another wine. Some of the diners are dozing. There are two women in the corner, roughly my age, who can’t stop laughing at each other’s company. I can’t think when I last went out for a piss-up dinner like that. Owen won’t let me have mates round any more, says they’re too loud. Watching those women together as I churn through The Pretenders, I think I’d rather be sitting there with them than up here under the lights like a buffet-lunch table.

I finish the first half of the set. Dean brings me another glass of water and we chat about inter-island daytrips. He says the fish and chips on the ferries is among the best there is. I think about the crunch of batter as I start up the second half with an Ella Fitzgerald number.

Dean hands me the cash in a white windowpane envelope at the end.

That’s too much, I say, looking at the plump fold inside.

Nah, he says. Christmas tip for you. One of the customers asked us to put it in.

There is the 37 as agreed and an extra 60 quid too, in four tens and four fivers. I count it again to be sure. Owen won’t know what went inside. I’ll add to it anyway over the next few gigs, he’ll never be able to tell. I wonder who gave what. I like to think that the two women gave something because they saw someone they knew in me.

I sit down and reach for the menu. They are doing lasagne, hunter’s chicken, salmon with cauliflower and peas. Haggis. There is a fillet steak and a rib-eye. Fried tomato and mushrooms on the side, chips for 1.95 extra.

Excuse me, I say to the receptionist who’s now waitressing. I’d like something to eat.

She raises her stark eyebrows.

I want the rib-eye, rare, with chips and onion rings and bread and butter on the side. And I still want the tomatoes and the mushrooms on it.

You only get one tomato, she says without looking up from the notepad.

Then I’ll have extra, I say. And ketchup and mayonnaise please.

There’ll be a supplement for the steak too.

No bother.

I sit waiting for my dinner like I am waiting for a date. I am nervous, almost, but I remind myself that I still have the 37 quid in my purse for Owen, plus all of the future tips from the rest of the season.

The pursy fried tomato stutters out juice as I pierce the skin with my knife. I dip a chip in that first, then wipe an onion ring in the saucer of mayo, which has a peak like an ice cream. Maybe I’ll order ice cream for dessert. The onion ring is crispy, sweet. I can feel myself smiling through the chewing. I slice up the steak into slim pink strips, butter the bread and push it into the bloody juices pooled on the plate.

I haven’t had steak in how long and can’t stop cramming it in like someone is about to take it away from me. Owen did that sometimes, halfway through a meal, snatching the dish away, when he’d said I’d already eaten more than should be allowed. I think about leaving him, how that might feel. I might go to the wedding just to show the rest of the family how he’s not worthy of me. Give me time to save up a bit. Or I could just get on a ferry. I dab at the grease on my chin. I think happily how he will never know how I paid extra for this, how he will never quite understand the deliciousness of those salted scraps of chips at the bottom of the bowl. Or how satisfying it is to wipe my mouth and screw up the serviette with the print of lipstick on it, and place my knife and fork down, side by side, on my empty plate.

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