Lonesome Highway

O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road,
And I’ll be in Scotland a’fore ye,
But me and my true love will never meet again,
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond. (Traditional Scottish song, 1841)

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The coach stopped, at long, long last.

The driver climbed down from his seat, pulling with him a small set of three steps. He placed these at the door of the coach and knocked.

“Loch Lomond, lassie,” he said.

Lorna opened the door, gasping at the cold air that stung her face, then gasping at the cold air with which the gasp had filled her lungs. She tightened the string of her bonnet and inched gingerly down the steps. First one foot, then the other sank into the snow. A huge snowflake settled softly on one eyelash then melted, filling her eye with icy water. She blinked, waited until she could see again, then looked around.

They were at the top of a hill.

“Where’s the Loch?” asked Lorna.

The driver pointed down the hill. Far below Lorna could see the dull glint of water.

“How do I get down there?” she asked.

The driver pointed to a steep set of stone steps cut into the hillside, plunging downwards like a masonry waterfall.

“I can’t walk down there,” said Lorna.

“Aye, it’s no’ gonna be easy,” said the driver, climbing back back onto the coach. “You shouldae taken the low road.”

“No kidding,” muttered Lorna.

-oO0Oo-

It had been Kenneth’s idea. You take the high road, he’d said, and I’ll take the low road.

“But doesn’t that mean that you’ll be in Scotland before me?” Lorna had said.

Aye, Kenneth had replied. He was a man of few words.

Kenneth was a poet, a songwriter, a dreamer. This was why Lorna had fallen in love with him. He explained that he wanted to arrive at Loch Lomond first, so that he could spend a few days writing in the inn before Lorna arrived. She could then tell him of her journey through Scotland’s highlands, and he would turn her tales into beautiful words.

Lorna had thought it was the loveliest idea she had ever heard.

-oO0Oo-

This is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard, thought Lorna.

It was two hours since she had begun her descent, sideways step after sideways step like an Egyptian descending into a tomb. It was no longer snowing. Instead it was raining sullenly. This had turned the snow on the steps to slush, soaking the hem of her dress, which was now damp as far as her knees.

I’m drowning by osmosis, thought Lorna.

Still, she was almost at the bottom. She looked out at the lake ahead of her. The surface was dull grey, the wind lashing angry lines of water across it. A small flotilla of gulls rocked on the surface, heads hunched tight to their bodies. The inn was small and old, exposed on the lake shore, and even from two hundred yards away Lorna was sure she could hear the draughts whistling through the windows and under the doors.

She shuddered, then shook herself. Could be worse, she thought determinedly, stepping off the last stone step onto the road. And onto a patch of ice.

Both feet slipped from under her. Her bottom hit the ground with a force that made her brain hurt. Her overnight bag burst open, dumping her best nightdress into a puddle. Her sodden bonnet settled on her head like the cover on a farmers’ market jam.

Lorna burst into tears.

She wept for her aches, for her sodden state, for her life. She wept at how she had come to fall for Kenneth and his ridiculous ideas. She realised that it was always her who had the difficult role, while he just wrote about it. She remembered, with a shiver, that he was currently working on the first imaginings of a song that would involve having to walk five hundred miles, and then walk five hundred more.

I’m daft, thought Lorna.

“You’re daft,” said a voice, “lying there in the road like that.”

Lorna lifted the front of her bonnet and looked up. A young man was looking down at her, a concerned expression on his face. “Are you alright, miss?”

“Yes”, she said. “I’m sorry, I just -”

The man held out his hand, and she took it and stood. Together they started to gather the scattered former contents of her bag. The man reached to pick up her nightdress and, to Lorna’s inner delight, blushed as he handed it to her.

“Well, er,” he said. “Can I walk you to where you’re staying?”

“I’m just staying at that inn,” said Lorna, pointing. She noticed the man’s face change, ever so slightly.

“Er, that’s no’ a very suitable place for a lassie on her own,” said the man.

“Why do you think I’m on my own?” asked Lorna, feeling suddenly spinsterish.

“If you had a beau,” said the man, “he wouldnae let you travel alone.”

He’s right, thought Lorna angrily. How could Kenneth let me travel alone, just so he could get some stupid inspiration?

“Well,” she said, “where do you suggest?”

“Mrs Malone has a wee guesthouse just up the road,” he said. “Will I show you where it is?”

Lorna looked hesitantly at the inn. He won’t care if I don’t arrive, she realised. He’ll probably just write a song about it.

She turned to the man and smiled.

“Will ye go, lassie?” he asked.

She nodded. “Go,” she said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Especially For You

I wrote this two weeks ago, and upon opening my blog this morning I discovered that I’d forgotten to hit publish….

Our Inkslingers writing group has re-started its Saturday sessions after the Christmas break. We had to write to the picture prompt (again taken from Simon’s Happy But Scrappy series,a collection of artwork and writing by users and residents of the Dublin Simon Community) , or to the sentence. Or both…

After a lifetime of trying various get-rich schemes, Peter McKenna had stumbled upon the simplicity of winning fifteen million euro on the Lottery. His joy at this was tempered by nagging annoyance at how much of his life had been wasted working, since Peter was the type to find negativity in all situations, the kind who sees sunshine merely as an absence of clouds filled with possible silver linings.

He quickly recovered, though, and decided that all of the village would see the trappings of his wealth. The grandest house, the newest car, the greatest folly. Local tradesmen were summoned to assist.

It was Joe the stonemason who stood before him now, his blueprint flappingly unfurled across a garden table, fighting him like a playful baby during a nappy change. “I designed it with you in mind,” he told a doubtful Peter.

“How so?” asked Peter, who was aware of his unpopularity in the village, so had an image of a stairway up to a gallows poking at the back of his mind.

“It’s what you do if you’re a rich man,” said Joe. “It’s a staircase leading nowhere just for show.”

“That’s a great idea,” said Peter. “How much will it cost?”

Joe planned to build it from discarded gravestones, ones where he had made an error in the deceased’s name or date of demise, even the one where he had carved “Sleeping with the Angles”. The consequent zero material cost and a few hours labour on a Saturday meant that he would make a decent profit by charging five hundred euro. He knew Peter, though.

“Four thousand euro,” he said. He watched Peter’s chest fill with pride.

“Done,” said Peter.

“Indeed,” said Joe.

 

Keeping The Flame

Torii shrine by peaksignal

The final Fire&Ice challenge, week 19 – write 200 words or less based on the above prompt, including a mythological creature or a non-Earth world (oh, and Sarah, I borrowed one line from you)…

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We humans were overjoyed by the gift of fire, since it offered light, warmth and an alternative to raw mammoth. We learned, though, that it could be angry, and we quickly grew tired of being chased from our home by our own heating.

We turned to Andiron, goddess of fireplaces. She made fire our friend, tempered its temper, made it something to curl in front of rather than cower away from.

We built grateful shrines to Her Grateness, their legs daubed in ceremonial soot.

Then we found Thermostat, god of central heating. Weak and fickle, we turned our hearts from our hearths, paying homage to our new god by banging loudly upon gurgling pipes.

Smoke no longer rose to heaven. The shrines sank into the mud. We bricked up our fireplaces.

But Andiron has fire in her belly. She visited a sleeping human in a shower of sparks, not for salacity but simply to whisper the word “barbecue”.

We now have new shrines to her, small outdoor fireplaces where we gather to offer burnt sacrifice.

Over The Top

F

Joy. Pompidou Centre, Paris. CC3.0 photo by Rupert Menneer

Fire&Ice week 18 – the photo above, 81 words exactly and include a chef or an interstellar voyager…

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He had not expected the sheer joy of hair.

Smooth of skin and featureless of feature, his like have no body part that they can grow, trim, or colour purely on a whim, no body part that shouts so vividly about the spirit within.

So he has been blond, brunette and burgundy. He has been bald, bearded and bobbed. He spent one day with a purple comb-over and a handlebar moustache.

He is far from home. He feels he’s worth it.

Water Sport

Summer Joy, Black Sea: Odessa, Ukraine. CC2.0 photo by Dmitry Kichenko

Fire&Ice contest week 17 – the photo above, 140-150 words and include a stolen or a mistaken identity…

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He loves the warmth of the sun on his skin. He loves the sparkle of water droplets, tiny diamonds of liquid joy, as he swings his arms into cold blue sky.

He loves seeing how long he can hold his breath overwater.

Ythyl Merman lives in the baltic depths of the Baltic Sea. He hides from humanity, since a species that clubs seals and thinks it can slow a whale with a pointy stick is one best avoided.

He enjoys his guilty pleasure – skinny-dripping, he calls it – only where he knows he will be alone.

Well, apart from the day he mistakenly burst gloriously through the surface right into the midst of the Danish Synchronised Swimming team.

He was gone in an instant, and in a back-flip that left a long arc of water, like a ponytail.

Which is why the statue is of a girl.

 

Silent Partners

Kids Sharing Love. photo by Aamir Mohd Khan

Fire&Ice week 16 – this photo, less than 200 words, and include a gamer or a parent….

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Children do not have the words.

Their gestures say so much – the sudden hug, the linked arm, the turned shoulder that icily tells you that you are no longer in the gang.

They do not have the words for I’m sorry about your Mum.

So Samir had sat in silence on the bus on this first day back. Sunil, who shared the double seat with him, had spent a lot of time pretending to root in his schoolbag while trying to convey support through regular heavy sighs.

As he waited for class Samir sat alone in the yard, watching the chasing, and the football, and the world just going right on.

Now Neha and Renuka sat down beside him. Renuka took a banana from her bag and gave half to Neha, then both turned to offer some to Samir. They ate together, wordlessly.

Their gestures say so much.

Transfer Of Power

Dietmar Rabich/Wikimedia Commons/”Litchfield National Park (AU), Magnetic Termite Mounds – 2019-3728″/CC BY-SA 4.0

Fire&Ice week 15 – this photo, 180-190 words and include something or someone unseen or foreseen….

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It is one of the great mysteries.

Not the termite mound, which is simply proof of all species’ desire to have a bigger house than their neighbour.

No, the great mystery is why any scientist carrying out a radical experiment will always fail to check his work area for insects.

This tale followed the familiar tropes. The sentences followed the familiar order – ‘it’s working!’ gave way to ‘hang on, that shouldn’t be happening’, before the sad, inevitable ‘aaargh!’.

The white-hot flash, the bang, the smoking lab. They really should see that coming.

The dejected scientist moved into architecture, where he successfully exploits a new-found talent for skyscraper design.

The now magnetic termite moved into the outback.  He had little choice. It started with him having to fend off paperclips, thumbtacks and small change, but his power grew by the day until, in an incident that still gives him nightmares, he was hit in the face by a belly-button ring.

Far out in the wilderness he has built a hidden sanctuary for similarly afflicted creatures – radioactive spiders, fevered flies, unharmed but annoyed cockroaches.

He calls it Bug Off Humans.

Quick Time

“Sampling Pit.” Atacama Desert, Chile. Photo by NASA Ames

Fire&Ice challenge week 14 – this photo, 103 words exactly, and include a statistician or an optimist…

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We’ll open it on my fortieth, Rob had said.

The teenagers had laughed and buried the box, sailing it across time toward an unimaginably distant shore.

They now stood on that shore. Around them were whispers from the past – old CDs, teen magazines, a Windows 95 t-shirt.

And a photo of themselves – all smiles, hope and Rachel hair.

Oddly, they were all hairier now. Well, apart from Jill, because of the treatment.

“We’ll do it again,” said Jill suddenly. She placed her smartwatch into the empty box, then looked hard at the others. They nodded.

“We’ll open it on my sixtieth,” she said.

Taking Hope

“Hope.” Blue Whale. Natural History Museum, London. Photo by just-pics

Fire&Ice week 13 – this photo, 150-160 words and include a non-human character or a phrase in another language…

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Nobody wants to see fish-bones.

Not in food, and not in a museum. Pointing out that the blue whale is actually a mammal just invites the retort “whatever”.

What people do want to see is dinosaurs.

So the Natural History Museum needed a T-Rex and, since they had just one tibia and a lot of guesswork, bones were needed to put flesh upon the bones of their ambition.

They wrestled with their conscience. Their conscience lost.

So their T-Rex is ninety-eight per cent Hope, a snarling metaphor for paleontology itself. Hope, meanwhile, is literally something else.

She has the jawbone of an ass, though not at the front, obviously, since her mouth is huge. The rest of her is mostly bear, giraffe and prairie-dog. Her fin is made of Lego.

One bone is actually from a T-Rex. They had thought it was bison.

Hope is not really a blue whale. She’s a je ne sais quoi.

Home Time

Changing role patterns. Haarlem, The Netherlands. CC photo photo by the Nationaal Archief

Fire&Ice week 12 – use the photo above, less than 200 words, and include a dollmaker or a fugitive…

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It doesn’t matter which sex is the breadwinner when there is no bread to be won.

Anke stares glumly at the newspaper. There are no jobs, because of lockdown. She is wearing her dungarees anyway, so that she can leap into action should somebody suddenly need emergency wallpapering.

Johan is making dinner. The ingredients are a swede and a jar of mayonnaise. It will not be tasty.

Their bottle-opener dangles, a taunting reminder of a time when they could afford beer.

They have sold most of their furniture. They have sold all of their best shoes.

The apartment has no heat, and the mess in front of Lotte is what happens when you try to open a tin of Pringles while wearing mittens.

Lotte picks at the Pringles while playing with her doll. Johan made it for her, and she loves it more than any Barbie.

They will get through this. They have each other.