We play Spot the Bus Stop between Crianlarich and Tyndrum. At least the kids do. I know where the bus stop is, and I’m hoping for five miles of peace and quiet, before the next round of I saw it first.
Spot the Sheep, Jade’s suggestion, had been loud and repetitive. To be fair, it was funny for about a minute, but there’s only so many times you can take ‘THERE’S A SHEEP’ before you lose the will to live.
Oliver’s Spot the Campervan was slightly less chaotic, until we turned the bend at Inverardran and came face to face with a convoy of the blooming things. ‘Pack it in or we’re going home,’ wasn’t an option so I bribed them with half a tube of Pringles and pretty much regretted it straight away.
Some people are hyper-sensitive to noise. It was on the radio. It’s a syndrome. Noisy Eater Syndrome or something. I’m not a terrible mother; I’ve just got a Syndrome. One minor consolation is that they dropped crumbs all over the back seat. Cameron hates mess in the car.
I turn the volume up to drown out their crunching and I sing along with Dolly Parton. She’s been stuck in the CD slot for months. Just one of the many jobs that Cameron never quite got round to. At least now, I know what was keeping him so busy.
Dolly’s begging Jolene, Jolene not to take her man. Maybe I should have begged Arlene from The Losset not to take mine instead of throwing red wine over her. And him. I should be ashamed of myself, but I’m not. I don’t care. She’s welcome to my man. I’m sorely tempted to let her have my kids too.
‘Stop hitting Jade with that tube,’ I say.
‘She started it.’
‘No I never.’
‘She did so, Mum,’ says Oliver.
‘I don’t care who started it,’ I say. ‘Pack it in. Or else.’
‘Or else, what?’ Oliver’s glaring at me in the rear-view mirror. He’s got his dad’s eyes. I don’t have any ‘or else’s’ left up my sleeve. We’re not going home, we’re not going to wait till Daddy gets home, and we’re not going to not stop for something to eat when we get to Tyndrum because I’m starving and I need a break.
‘Just be nice for five minutes,’ I say, and I turn my attention back to the road ahead.
We pass a sign for a caravan park that I don’t remember being there before. I wonder what else has changed. The bus stop had better be there or there’s going to be a riot in the back seat.
Jade’s singing along with Dolly’s version of I will always love you. Bless her. She’s not got a musical bone in her body, but what she lacks in intonation she makes up for in volume. Oliver rolls his eyes in my wing mirror. I stick my tongue out at him and he sticks his fingers in his ears. At least they’ve stopped hitting each other.
In the end, I see it before either of them. It’s had a fresh coat of paint by the looks of things, but apart from that it’s the same bus stop where I kissed Rob Greenaway that time, on our way back from the pub. He said I was too good for him. I agreed, but I didn’t tell him that. ‘Just different,’ I said, and carried on kissing him. We went out a few times, stayed in a few times. At the end of the summer I left my job at the hotel, went back to Glasgow, back to Uni and back to the rest of my life. I suppose Rob went back to whatever it was he did. I heard he’d married a local girl, had some kids, and got divorced. Maybe we weren’t that different after all.
‘There’s the bus stop,’ shouts Jade, mid-warble. Oliver’s barely a breath behind her. I tell them it’s a draw, and turn into the Green Welly carpark before they’ve had the chance to start another fight. There’s a coach-load of tourists just leaving, which is a hell of a lot better than a coach-load of tourists just arriving.
We sit in a booth by the window. Nothing’s changed, except that there’s snow draped over the hill behind the hotel. It reminds me of the doylies my gran used to have on her side tables. I wonder what she’d make of this mess. She was never that keen on Cameron anyway. Would she tell me I’d made my bed and I’d have to lie in it? Maybe she’d tell me there were plenty of non-cheating-bastard-fish in a sea somewhere else.
Jade wants to know if we’re having lunch or dinner. What she really wants to know is if there’s going to be pudding when she finishes her fish fingers and she’s trying to be subtle. I check my watch. At half past three, it’s neither one thing nor the other really. I tell her it’s High Tea. Her wee brow furrows as she tries to work out what that means, then she goes back to spearing peas with a fork that’s too big for her.
I point out the hill to Oliver and tell him that they found gold there a few years ago, but he’s not interested. He’s sulking. He wanted macaroni cheese and they didn’t have any left, so he’s pushing bits of lasagne around his plate as if it’s poisoned, even though lasagne is his second favourite dinner of all time. There’s no pleasing him. Or his dad for that matter. At least I can still bribe my way back into Oliver’s good books.
I put some money on the table and tell him to take Jade up to the counter to choose something nice for afters.
‘For me too?’ he says, tucking a bit of stray lasagne under the lettuce on the side of his plate.
‘For both of you,’ I say. I tell them I’m just nipping to the loo. I’ll be back in a minute.
I go via the kiosk, and ask for a packet of Marlboro and a chuck-away lighter. It’s years since I smoked. I light up the minute I’m round the corner and I half expect to choke on the first drag, but it’s like I never stopped. Like it’s that first cigarette the morning after a big night out. My eyes are watering and my head’s dizzy. It’s bliss.
I prop myself against the wall on one leg, drawing deep and blowing smoke rings like a pro. I miss the chain-smoking party girl that I used to be. I never planned on stopping smoking. I never planned on getting pregnant. I don’t even know if I ever wanted kids. It just kind of happened. Like getting on a train and then realising it’s the wrong train, and not being able to get back off again because it has started to move. And you’re sitting there not wanting to make a fuss but you’re dreading the ticket collector coming along and making a show of you for not having the right ticket.
I light up a second fag and wonder what would happen if I just got back in the car and drove away. I wonder how long it would take the kids to miss me. Or if they’d even notice. Maybe they’d just go and buy more cake. I feel a bit sick. I stub out the cigarette and head back inside.
‘You smell funny,’ says Jade, as I plant a kiss on the top of her head.
‘You’ve got chocolate on your nose,’ I say.
She laughs, and she sticks her tongue out further than you’d think possible, curls it upwards, and wiggles it towards the end of her nose.
Oliver says nothing, but he’s laughing. We’re all laughing. For a few short moments we’re the perfect family again.
We go to the toilet — whether we need to or not — pile into the car, and we’re on the road again. The tractor in front takes the left fork towards Oban. I go right. Oliver’s got his PS-game-box thing. Head down, trigger-fingers primed; he’ll be engrossed till the battery runs out. Jade’s got her Barbies and they’re whispering secrets and swapping clothes.
I try listening to the radio, but reception is intermittent and the crackling between songs makes my ears bleed. I flick back to Dolly on the CD. She’s harping on about this multi-coloured coat that her mother made for her out of old rags. Poor kid. She makes out like it was the best coat in the whole world because it was stitched with love, but she must have been mortified wearing that thing to school.
I used to dread the hum of my mother’s sewing machine, for fear she was making something for me. But it was never that bad. What I do remember is getting dressed up for school parties and my mum saying, ‘there’ll be nobody else with a dress like yours,’ when all I wanted was a dress from Top Shop like everybody else.
Jade needs to pee. We’ve only been back in the car for half an hour and she needs to pee. ‘I thought you went before we left,’ I say.
‘I did,’ she says. ‘There’s just a wee bit left over.’
My dad used to wax on and on about the majestic splendour of Glencoe. It was where he grew up. And it is majestic. It is splendid. But it’s more than that. You could lose yourself in the vastness of it all. It’s big and it’s barren and it goes on and on for miles. And there’s not a toilet in sight.
‘Can you hang on for a bit?’ I say.
She reckons she can hang on for seven minutes; one for every year she’s been alive, so we play Spot the Lay-by for five minutes, then pull off the road with two minutes to spare.
‘Daddy always holds my legs up,’ she says.
Of course he does. Daddy does everything. Did everything. It was Daddy who took them to school. Daddy who took them to swimming lessons and ballet lessons and birthday parties. Daddy who was always there because Mummy went to work after Oliver was born so that Daddy could finish his degree. Mummy who went back to work after Jade was born so that Daddy could do his Masters. Mummy who took on extra hours so that Daddy could shag Arlene when he was meant to be writing his bloody thesis for his bloody PhD. Mummy who’s been nothing more than a fucking doormat for the past ten years, whose thick skin has worn so thin that she can barely hold herself together any more.
Oliver decides that he might as well, seeing as how we’ve stopped anyway, and he strolls off behind a nearby boulder to relieve himself. I tell Jade she’ll have to manage on her own. She’s a big girl now.
‘I wish I was a boy,’ she says and she sets off in the opposite direction from Oliver.
I switch off the car and start to get out. I shiver, though it isn’t cold. It’s this place with its bloody history; its echoes of murders and bitter resentments, its sparseness. It’s like God ran out of earth when he made the glen. Like he had to roll out what was left, but there wasn’t quite enough to cover the ancient rocks that lay just below the surface. If Cameron was here he’d be telling me to stop talking daft. There would be some geological explanation about soil erosion and igneous rock formations or something. For the first time since it happened, I’m glad. I can think what I like and I don’t need to justify myself to anybody.
I zip up my fleece and wander over to the opposite side of the lay-by where I pick up a phone signal. Six missed calls from Cameron, a couple of texts from him and my mum, and a message confirming the directions to Ballachullish. In the distance, some kind of hawk hovers overhead. It looks like it’s suspended. It’s just there, not moving so much as one tiny feather.
‘That’s a Peregrine Falcon,’ says Oliver. He tucks his hand into the crook of my arm. His fingers feel cold and I pull him in close to my side. ‘They can fly up to 200 miles an hour and they are one of the most adaptable birds of prey in Scotland.’
‘Really?’ I know nothing about birds.
‘I watched this programme,’ he says. ‘And they’re in my wildlife book. They’re amazing. They’ll eat anything.’
We watch as the bird swoops, rises, and swoops again. It hovers for a while, then it’s off, diving into the undergrowth at what might very well be 200 miles an hour. When it emerges we can’t see if it has caught its prey or not, but I’m sure it won’t go hungry.
‘Wow,’ says Jade, running towards us, the hem of her skirt caught in her knickers. ‘Did you see that owl?’
‘It’s a Peregrine Falcon,’ says Oliver and I fear another fight is about to break out, but she just hooks into my other arm and we watch the bird for a few more minutes before we head back to the car.
I straighten Jade’s skirt on the way.
Fiona is a wife, mother, dog owner, and short story writer, currently living in Inverclyde. She decided to ‘give it a go’ when she came across an Open University Creative Writing course in 2011, then went on to complete a BA honours degree in Humanities with Creative Writing. Fiona likes to find the interesting in the ordinary, and the hope in the hopeless. She writes contemporary fiction with a strong sense of place and character, and has recently completed an MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow.