Fog came up and we left Ireland. Fog fell away to reveal Scotland. Drums and drumlins rose out of the North Channel. The ferry was loaded with slot machines and cafés. There were boys and girls. There was a mother and a baby daughter. They both had blue eyes and blonde hair. The little girl had fingers and toes of joy until she started crying.
I grabbed the bus to Buchanan Station. I walked to the Tartan Lodge. The window in bunk room six looked out onto a smokestack a hospital and the roadway. My bunkmate was a middle-aged guy who said he was in town for work. I met an Aussie named Nick. He had a smile that took up his whole face. There wasn’t a dent on him. A guy in the bunk across from me said that his wife took his kids, and his land, and twelve years away.
I should have been in a better spot, but I wasn’t. I only had 230 dollars American, and I actually had to borrow money from my mom on loan for a cheap plane ticket. I was worried that it was the type of loan that wouldn’t get paid back. The flight would be leaving from Glasgow airport two weeks from now.
I had a coffee, and passed down long streets. Bought a 99-cent journal to carry around with me. Bought a 99-cent sausage roll from the butcher shop by the train tracks. I walked by the college. Walked by the Tennent Brewery. The sidewalks were new, and the fronts of the buildings were new. The windows were old.
I walked to the graveyard on the hill. Gravestones less than sixty years old were broken in half covered in moss and shade. The firefighter’s memorial. A mausoleum. On a husband’s grave, dead in 1961, your voice will never speak again. I could see the countryside from the hill. I sat by the trees until I couldn’t understand the graveyard anymore.
I thought of home and alcoholic cider and stomachaches.
I thought about Nick, and then he walked in the front door of bunkroom six at the Tartan Lodge. I wondered if I had willed him here, because I was also thinking about how I wanted a girl to find me and take care of me. Nick told me about a party happening in Edinburgh. He said if I could make it over there by tomorrow night I should join. I wanted to follow Nick, because he was going somewhere.
At night, I could see people’s faces lit up by computer screens. They had internet eyes. I heard coughing in the alley. My bunkmate had vicious sounding dreams. He snorted and said, Fucking Slick, sleep talking, Fucking tough. You think you’re fucking tough? I imagined the business he was in town for was gangster business. I felt the hairs on my cheek. I thought of the raised and bumpy streets of Iowa City. I felt I couldn’t love or want anything enough to be like somebody that’s going somewhere. I thought, at least I don’t have to shave. I can just lie down and stink.
In the morning Nick was gone.
I went to the grocery store down the street to the left. I bought a loaf of bread and six eggs for 99 cents. I cooked three of the eggs. I stole ketchup and instant coffee from the kitchen. The TV reported that Brexit had passed. Two guys asked me if I knew the area. I told them about the grocery store down the street to the left.
I did push-ups and crunches in bunkroom six. I took a shower and blew off the day sitting at the cubby desk by the window, reading my beginner Tao Buddhism book and writing in my big journal.
I went to a blues bar and half-watched a band play. Guys and girls were all dressed up. They were covered in blue light beautiful and all sex. They had ten-pound drinks. I wanted to grab onto somebody. I left unable to get drunk. Cats were everywhere. This is a Lego city, I thought.
My bunkmate came in later than me. He ripped open a six-pack of beer. He pounded three, opened the window, and passed out. He snorted and said, Pick. You Prick!
Nick was out there somewhere at the party.
On Sunday morning, I rode the train out to Black-Ridge. I was the only one to get off at the station. The train whirred silently away. I took a right at the road and I started walking the forty miles to Edinburgh.
I didn’t have a map. The only direction was straight.
I was wearing my older brother’s boots. They didn’t fit right, so I stuffed them full of newspaper.
It was a bright hot day. Cars passed, and tractors passed pulling trailers. There were Grant Wood-looking hills with sheep on the side and windmills.
I walked into and out of a village where all the houses had brown rooves.
At noon I sat down on a hill in front of a factory. Across from the factory was a long field. A big group of cows looked at me. I ate cereal and apples. I walked down the road and I sang because nobody was around except for the cows and some sea birds.
A yellow field started to buzz and then a huge wall of black bugs rose in front of me and I ran away. Around four o’clock I walked under a big brick archway. A sign said I was entering the county of Edinburgh, but I was still far away. It started to rain.
A city arrives even before it arrives. Before I saw a building I could feel it. Fields turned from grass into gravel. The road got busy. Airplanes pulled down from the clouds to land far ahead. I walked by a music festival as it got flooded out. A big field of cars looked stuck in the mud. The rain got heavy, so I stopped under a bridge. I sat on a pile of dry rocks full of spider webs. I watched a commuter train stop. A boy boarded, and made eye contact with me. Then the train moved on. I was glad that I wasn’t on it, and I was miserably sad that I wasn’t on it. My legs wobbled. I got moving so that I wouldn’t freeze. I passed McDonald's, guardrails, rotaries. Traffic. Car crash. I was soaking up water and tripping on curbs. I found a six-pack of San Miguel under a bus stop bench, and I took it, because I thought it was for me. I found the hostel at the bottom of Castle Rock, the old castle above me. It was dark now, but the hostel was warm. I took a shower and looked at myself in the mirror. Everything is always changing in front of the mirror. I looked skinny. I felt heavy. I cracked the San Miguel. I slept.
The next morning, my feet were ripped open. I couldn’t put my boots on. I walked around barefoot in the street, around the old castle. I sat in the market on the ground in the sun. It was warm and clear. A woman bought me a pair of socks and she took me to a bar. She bought me a drink and she introduced me to her granddaughter. She gave me a business card and told me to let her know when I got to where I was going. I added it to my card deck at the bottom with the jokers.
I sat in the graveyard. I was dizzy. My head was light. From the bench I could see power lines and the train yard. The trees and bushes were falling over the brick fence. Bugs, dandelions, broken needles, and bottle caps crushed into the mud. Nobody was around. I could feel my feet getting lighter. The clouds slowed down, and the sound stopped, and I could feel that I had started crying.
I hung out with two boys who were panting over two girls. We went to a bar called the Bee-Hive. Then we went to a bar called Sneaky Pete’s. Then the girls ran away from the boys. A stranger named Ivan said, I had my pick! I had a chance with one of them, but then the Aussie boys scared them off. I had a beer with another stranger named Ben. He told me that he was going to work for a law firm eighty hours a week for the next ten years. After that, he said, he would hardly work at all and he’d be rich. That was the plan.
In the morning I met an American named Brittany. She said, I know—Brittany. I hate it. I hate my name because everyone named Brittany is stupid, but it’s my name. We got breakfast and then we walked to the museum. We looked at Monet’s haystacks. There was a modern architecture exhibit outside with a dozen tiny model homes. There was a tiny home with holes in the roof so that it rained lightly on the floor. There was a home lined with plants, and a home made entirely out of bamboo and glass. These were homes that nobody could really live in.
We went to a pub called Tricky Dick's. I didn’t have the money, but I spent it anyway. We bought burgers with haggis. She was moving to Prague. She was going to work for one of the hostels over there. I told her when I get back to the States I’m taking my van and moving to Lowell to go back to school, because I hadn’t gone at the right time when everyone else did. On the corner of two streets she said, nobody misses anything. It’s just like, there are parts of life that stack on top of each other differently.
We bought a seven-dollar cigar and walked to a graveyard. She touched the tops of the graves. I thought it was bad luck, but she did it and she was fine. I touched a skull-and-crossbones and I was fine. I got the feeling that the dead care a lot less about our respect and a lot more about our lives. We smoked the cigar on a long set of steps after it got dark. The castle was lit up. There was a moment where I could have kissed her but I didn’t. She asked me why and I told her I didn’t want to ruin it all.
I left early the next day. I took a bus to the edge of town and I hitched to Newcastle. I got most of the way by catching a ride with a guy who lost his job as an engineer. He was headed to Newcastle to try and get into the police academy. He dropped me off in the heart of downtown and I walked a long way to get to the hostel. It was a hostel with no locks on the doors. My bunkmates were in town for the week, every week, for a construction gig. They shared their beer with me and we watched a football game. They were Spanish and their English wasn’t good, but they were able to ask, why the hell did you come to Newcastle if you didn’t need to?
I left early the next day. I took a bus to the edge of town. I got picked up by a drunk driver and his girlfriend. He said, we can help you part of the way. He stopped once to take a leak on the side of the road. The woman gave me a grimace smile. She was either scared of me or him. They dropped me off on a rotary outside Carlisle. It started to rain.
I walked down a dirt road until an old farmer picked me up. He drove me past the country bar and past a statue. We crossed the bridge onto the marsh road. The fog was too thick for me to see that the marsh looked out over the land, and over the water and over to distant cities. Cows were all over the place, and they looked up at the pickup truck. The ride was only a few miles but it felt long. Time stretches out in new places. I could see the cottage. It was alone. That’s the one you want, he said, that’s Hillside Farm.
I walked up to the cottage and a young black dog ran up and jumped all over me. Get off him, Sandra said, Get off him. Go on. Get off him, you dumb mutt!
Sandra was a farmer and she ran the bed and breakfast. She told me it was a good spot because the old Roman wall, that right there, ran along her property. People would walk the wall and stop here at night. She told me the Romans tried to colonize and civilize all of this place, but the barbarians fought and pushed them back and eventually the Romans gave up, but the wall over there survived. She showed me the bunkhouse and the living room. It was simple. It was built generations ago. She showed me the shower, and she told me what time breakfast was served, if I wanted it. The eggs and ham and everything was from the farm here. She said, the eggs are never refrigerated because there’s something unnatural about that. She showed me the map of the world and then the map of the area. I hadn’t realized that I was in England. She gave me a little book that was full of places like hers around the UK. She said, Hillside Farm is in there if you wanted to look for it.
I had reserved a bed here online, but I screwed something up and come a day early. It’s fine though, she said, you’re the only person in the cottage at the moment, and what are you going to be getting up to around here? The dog ran into the living room and threw his body against me and Sandra said, Get out. Go on! Get out! Go on!
Then, I was alone. The walls were made of stone. They were so thick I couldn’t hear the wind. The name of Sandra’s great-grandfather was carved in stone in the archway. I was chilled but the heater was coin operated. I took a long shower. I ate apples and cereal.
As it was starting to get dark, a group of Germans popped up out of the grass along the wall with full rain gear on. They walked up and checked in. They ordered a rack of beer, and Sandra had one of her relatives go into town and pick it up. They didn’t seem to do much English but I didn’t want to talk either. I wrapped myself up in a blanket and I sat in the corner. Outside, the cows were standing around. The fog cleared. Blankets and Sandra and the mutt. The farm. The hill. The old wall, it wouldn’t quit.
I was thinking about home again because I was tired. I was thinking about the morning and coffee.
I felt like I did back when I crossed the border of British Columbia two years before. I was driving back from Alaska with Evan, and his car, Ruby. It was a bendy road, and we buzzed through it as fast as we could because Evan wanted to get back to his girl Kia in San Francisco, about 40 MPH. We listened to Rumors by Fleetwood Mac, and we listened to Houses of the Holy by Led Zeppelin. We spent the night sleeping on the side of the highway under the moon. Then we drove for 24 hours without seeing anything human but roadside gas pumps. There was no other side to the mountains. They all fell into each other. We had been up in Alaska where it was gray. Driving straight down we saw fall happen backwards. After three days, at midnight, we crossed the border into the United States. The town we entered was in a shit fog, and we parked Ruby in a mega store parking lot. We took a walk around and drank a beer before we went to sleep. In the morning the windows were all dirtied up, and I couldn’t see as far as the McDonalds across the street. I just knew it was cold out there, and I wanted to stay in the dark for a while longer. The place, America. It’s so easy to want to leave until you actually do get away. Laid up in the old bunk. Chilled. It was impossible not to miss something. I felt like I still belonged to Iowa.
I heard the call for breakfast, and I heard the Germans leave. I stayed in bed until noon.
Sandra made me a brick-ban. It had coconut and raisins. It’s like a scone. She wondered what I would do today. She offered to drive me into town but I went for a walk. The cows looked at me and they made me nervous. I wanted to walk into the woods at the end of the road, and maybe to the bar, but the water came up and blocked the bridge out of the marsh. A car could hardly drive through that water, and I thought that if I got sucked up nobody would ever find me.
I walked back to the cottage. The big mutt jumped all over me. A group of cows followed me all the way to the fence. I spent the day wrapped up in blankets, pacing around the living room. I drank tea. I listened to Neil Young’s Harvest. I wrote in my big journal.
I slept in the front of the bunk hall next to the window. I looked out over the marsh and I could see the lights of Annan and the lights of Gretna on the other side. Blue hung in the sky until three in the morning. The lights looked like pointing fingers. I felt that Earth and the Milky Way would be on God’s hip if we were anywhere.
I tried meditating. I thought about each of my breaths. Then I thought about the van, Blanco. When I got back to the States I planned on building a bed in the back, and a stove, and a desk. I wanted to live in it, because I never wanted to pay rent again. I wanted to go east. I wanted to meet my older brother’s girlfriend. They were living together in Philadelphia. I wanted to go to school in Lowell, kind of.
In the morning I heard Sandra, Get! Get! Get out of this house. Go on! At 8:55 she cooked me breakfast. It was eggs, beans, black sausage, white sausage, bacon, greens, grits, tomato, and coffee. She introduced me to her mother, who lived next door. They wondered what I would get up to. I told them I would probably walk to town, but Sandra told me that farmers would be coming over for the annual meeting. She said I could sit in on the meeting if I wanted.
She gave me a noontime beer. There was a big bunch of old farmers, and we all listened to a PowerPoint by a young farmer. He showed us the land that he had, and how the property value had grown in the last few years. He showed us pictures of his daughters and his horses. Afterwards they had a third of July feast.
One more day at the Hillside Farm turned into one more quiet night at the Hillside Farm. Two guys checked in late and they went to their beds in the bunk hall. I got in bed and I tried to meditate, but then I stopped. When I looked into the darkness I could see shadows. I closed my eyes, and I bundled up in the itchy blanket. I burrowed into my pillow. I could hear the plastic clock ticking downstairs. I remembered the guy that had picked me up and brought me over to Newcastle, he had told me:
“It stops one day and it gets different. One day you’re no longer young and you have a wife and kids. And one day you lose your job of sixteen years and it’s time to become a cop. It all gets different. I can’t move around the world now. I can’t move my kids to Thailand. They would get bullied, you know? I think they would get beat up over there.”
He had pointed out windmills. He had engineered something about them. I can’t remember what.
In the morning, I was wrapped up drinking coffee. I was sitting with the mutt on the front steps. The sky was gray. I got the feeling of the marsh rising. I saw the postwoman delivering the mail. She said, never trust an animal. She asked me where I was headed after this. I told her. She said, watch yourself in Dumfries. They’re all drunks over there. She wanted to know if I had a job waiting for me back in the states. I said I did, and she said, A job is a job is a job is a job. Then the postwoman walked the long way back down to the marsh road and she hopped in her mail truck and disappeared in yellow-gray fog. The dog rolled into me and left big black hair all over me. The nameless mutt. It slobbered, and it didn’t bark; it laughed.
Sandra said, it’s going to rain a lot today and a lot tomorrow. Yellow-beaked birds were peeping. I wondered if I would be able to leave at all—of course I would.
Sandra cooked me another big fat breakfast and she said, you don’t have to pay me anything. Just take the money you were gonna give me, and buy a bus ticket to the next place you’re going. I caught a ride into town with the plaster workers who had come in late and stayed the night at Hillside, Jimmy Lorrell and Bert.
They were going to work on all the dilapidated houses in Carlisle. It was a job that never really finished, they said. They spent week after week coming down from Scotland to stay at Hillside Farm.
They said, You left your job, and you get to go back to it? That’s a good job. That’s a good way. Around here you don’t leave a job, because it won’t stick around like that.
They dropped me off in the center of town. I walked two hours in the wrong direction, towards Workington. I sat in the dirt for a while. I said fuck. I whistled at a calf and it ran back to its momma. Then I walked three hours in the right direction and I hitched a ride over to Annan, and I was able to walk from Annan over to Dumfries. It was a college town, but I didn’t want to stick around long enough to grab a drink, or meet anybody. I bought an ice cream and I walked on a small country road. I had my thumb up, but I didn’t get a ride. Everyone was headed somewhere.
I walked up a gravel hill, past tall old trees. A Subaru stopped next to me. Inside was an old hippie. He said, you’re almost there, man. I walked into Marthrown of Mabie, a little fort. The bunkhouses were all empty, and some people were building a tent for a wedding that would be taking place over the weekend. Smoke mixed in the gray air. There was a tent that had been built in the Iron Age. The trees were some kind of pine. The dogs barked normally here.
I was received by Pam, who took me to my bunk room. I felt all mixed up. I had been sweating all the way up the hill and now I was shivering. The fires were lit in the kitchen, and in my bunkroom, and in the hot tub. I fell asleep before it was dark and I had fever dreams. In the dreams I couldn’t understand anybody. I woke up in the dark empty room. Hot and cold. I stoked the fireplace. I tried not to choke it out. I replaced the black ash window. A moth was whacking against the skylight way above my head. To fall back asleep, I read a Martin Beck mystery novel about a Scandinavian girl who is killed while traveling abroad.
I slept for 15 hours. It felt like 15 years. I got in the wood burning hot tub and I washed off that week long chill that had been stuck in my bones. Then I sat under the wedding tent. It was full of white chairs, boxes of silverware, sleeves of napkins, and long plastic tables. It was full of slow bugs. It rained in bursts.
A mile down the hill was an old hotel with a bar inside. I thought about a drink. I walked down by the hotel. I saw some kids running around screaming and their mom yelled, Stop! But, they didn’t stop. I walked back.
I went into the kitchen and took a scoop of honey.
I wanted to stick around for the wedding. I wanted to be invited.
The aged hippie man had been mowing the grass all day, but he took a short break and asked me what my plan was. I told him that I needed to come back here sometime, because I didn’t get to see it all.
He said, “Well, that’s the way it always is.” What he meant was, no way are you ever gonna make it back here.
Daytime sun showers. Burlap floors. Bugs in hair. I did stick my thumb out, and I did it. My lungs were thick and my stomach was empty. I wasn’t at home, and it was easy to want to apologize to everyone. I felt like I wasn’t supposed to want anything, but I wanted love back. I had to be in Glasgow in four days for the flight. I knew that four days could still build a mountain in my heart.
Sandra was back tending the cows about now. That Aussie, Nick, was out on his journey. He had looked like the kind of guy who would never be lonely.
No, I wouldn’t be going to the wedding. I would be getting a ride out of here in the morning. The cats in the barn were mewing. Then they stopped, and it stopped raining, and for a little while all I could hear was the mower.
William Lowell Blair was born and raised in Iowa. His work has also appeared in The Nashville Review, The Spectacle, and Little Village Iowa City.