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)
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.
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.
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.