Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
I was traveling around Britain as a swan song to a summer in London. I’d had my room and board covered all summer by serving breakfast to guests at the school I’d gone to the year before, which converted to a hostel when the students left in May. Now it was time to spiff the place up for the new academic year, so the manager, a stern German woman named Annette, asked me to vacate.
I thought I’d use the remnants of my BritRail pass and go up to Scotland, see the Highlands and the Hebrides. Then maybe I’d ramble on down to the Lake District and into Wales.
Unfortunately, all the people I’d met through the hostel were transient and either on their way home or heading off to other places, so I had to travel alone. Lean and mean was all right with me, at least at the outset, but I’d have liked to have a companion along for the ride when things started to go wrong. Which they did as soon as I arrived in Edinburgh that first afternoon out of King’s Cross.
What I hadn’t known in advance was that it was time for the Edinburgh Festival, and every bed in town had been booked. It was a big deal, but what did I know?
A clerk at the tourist information office informed me that I’d be wise to move on, and so I did. Back on the train to Inverness, where I hoped the festival frenzy would be less intense. Found no room at the inns there either, though, and had to walk around town looking for private B&Bs as the sun started going down in that pewter sky. In the hills surrounding the city I found a hand-scribbled sign offering bed and breakfast and knocked on the door of the modest semi-detached.
There a slender lady named Jesse welcomed me, saying she had no beds available but if I was okay with a cot, she’d love to have me, along with her other two guests. I snagged the cot.
Her other guests were two college guys, and they were out all evening. Jesse and I sat in her lounge watching telly and drinking tea. She told me that she was only doing this, the B&B thing, to make a little extra money after her accident, you see, in which she was terribly injured and laid up so long she had to leave her job. I was feeling a tad uncomfortable, though I loved hearing her speak in her musical Scottish accent. She was a redhead too, and attractive. But there was a subtext, I detected, in her story that made me wonder if the tea were laced with something and I might find myself tied to a post in the garden when I woke up. The boys came back a little blitzed and immediately crashed, but Jesse still wanted to talk after they were settled. She came back to the lounge with a few biscuits and another pot of tea. We chatted till well past midnight, then she rose and went to get my cot, which she set up in the lounge. No privacy for me, but I was exhausted and I knew I’d be moving on early the next morning.
I still see her in her red sweater and white pants. Her cheekbones sharp as burls under thin skin. What ever her injury was, it wasn’t visible, though maybe I detected a limp? I heard a kind of urgent sales pitch in her voice, as if she was afraid the moment I arrived that I’d want to leave too soon.
Maybe she was wondering if our age difference was really all that stark. Less than twenty years. Stranger things …
I never thought about that till later, in a what-if sort of way, but I do wonder if I’d have had a better trip if I’d stayed in Inverness. Starting the next day, it rained, and it rained all day, and every day after that for a week. I dumped my plans and spent as much time as I could on trains. Scotland went by like magic lantern pictures.
The rest of my nights I spent in youth hostels, where they tossed you out in the morning to kill time in pubs and cafes or get wet, and the only other person I talked to for any length of time was a French Canadian guy who demanded that I correct his English whenever he said something the wrong way. He said things the wrong way so often that I couldn’t bring myself to do it, and he reprimanded me for breaking our contract. He cooked up some ratatouille one night at the hostel in Chester, so I owed him.
The rain let up as I hit Wales. I trudged through mud along the sylvan Wye. I asked myself Why. Everything was closed for a bank holiday and I had to eat crisps for dinner one night. My rail pass expired between Swansea and Cardiff.
All I could do was play my little tin whistle while hitching a ride from the motorway ramp. Tweet tweet. Tweet tweet tweet.
Strange, in light of everything that happened on that trip, but by the time I got back to London and found a cot saved for me at my own home base I couldn’t stop thinking about Jesse and how she was doing. And I’ve thought of her a lot over the years, wondering how she fared, whether she ever found a gentleman to help her through her life, or if she even really needed that.
Some people you meet and you understand, maybe under the surface, that they’re in the middle of a plight. I wonder, is it that, more than something on your side of it, that makes them stick with you?
[Title by William Wordsworth …]