The Royal Mile

The streets looked different than last year—of course, last year she was drunk. Bourbon drunk. The kind of drunk that makes you sway like a cowboy; self-confident and resourceful, you feel certain that you could wrangle a cow despite having never been within 500 feet of one.

She met Tom at the bar down the street that year. Glass was shattered on the floor near the exit and bartenders scurried over with brooms and dustpans to clean it up. They pushed aside the inebriated crowd and passed a moldy towel to Tom’ friend Liam, who grabbed it from them and held it against his bleeding head. A scuffle had broken out that ended with Liam going headfirst through the large glass window by the door.

She had seen it all—sitting there, sipping her bourbon—and now surveyed the aftermath. People buzzed with the kind of quiet excitement after something bad has happened. Loud murmurs, slow head shakes, billowy laughter (because you’re glad it wasn’t you) and an extra shot of tequila to wash it all down.

Tom grabbed Liam’s free arm by the elbow and steered him towards the empty seat beside her. Blood trailed down his forehead and followed the path of his wrinkles by his eyes all the way down to his lips, the way cross-country skis follow deep tracks laid out before them. It looked like he was crying red.

“This fucking hurts!” Liam yelled, falling into the seat next to her.

His voice had all the Scottish nuances she had come to love. Rolling R’s, deep vowels, and a melodic tone. She took another sip and looked Tom’s way.

“Sorry about my friend, he tends to forget his manners when he knocks his head through the window like a bloody idiot. Isn’t that right Liam?” Tom gives him a sharp jab in the arm and laughs.

“Fuck off,” Liam retorts.

“I’m Tom,” he reaches his hand across the table.

“Rose,” she replies. They shake. He smiles.

She was reaching the bottom of her glass now and could feel her body warming from the inside-out. Her arms felt like tentacles, slippery and long, anxious to get stuck on something.

“Will you ever forgive us?” Tom asks and leans closer to Rose. She can smell sweat on his neck and tobacco on his fingers. That was something else she’d come to love, how Scottish people rolled cigarettes like it was no big deal. She marvelled at how they always had a tiny bag of tobacco stored somewhere in their jeans or jacket pockets and could always pinch just the right amount to fill a cigarette. They smoothed the coarse brown plant into rolling paper with ease and with a flick of their fingers it was rolled, red embers already forming at its tip. She had picked up smoking simply because she liked it so much. Lung cancer, be damned.

“I’ll consider it,” she replied, her eyebrow raised slightly. She was flirting and slurring her words and she didn’t care anymore.

Tom smiled back. He noticed her accent for the first time then and realized she wasn’t from here. Her cheeks were flushed from the bourbon, despite the cold Edinburgh air coming in through the broken window, so she looked sunburnt in September.

Rose signaled to the waiter for another drink and Tom moved closer. Liam bled beside them.

****

Rose rounded the corner and began walking up the Royal Mile. She had forgotten how much she hated it at this time of year. Tourists threw money into open hats at the feet of bagpipe players in kitchy kilts and bumped into each other while they rushed to The Castle.

Rose wasn’t one of these people, she had lived here, she had been to the castle three times, she didn’t wear a fanny-pack or a money belt, she was above it all and hurried her pace to meet Tom.

****

“I know how to make sure you do,” Tom said.

Rose crinkled her eyebrows, “Make sure what?” she asked.

“Make sure you forgive us,” he elaborated. His voice growing louder over the noise of the bar. The glass was still being cleared and makeshift caution tape made out of scotch tape (Rose recognized the irony here) was being wrapped in the now empty window frame. There was a tension still in the air, the guys who started the scuffle were yelling at the bouncers outside, Liam was whining into his beer, the bride of a hen party had blood on her tiara.

“Oh yeah? How’s that?” Rose asked. Tom pushed his chair back from the table and walked towards a small stage in the back of the bar. An old karaoke sign hung above that said, ‘Sing in the Shower? Might as well Sing Here!’ in bright neon green letters.

Liam ordered another pitcher and poured Rose a glass. She watched the beer slosh into her her empty pint, the froth almost overflowing like seafoam, porous and full of possibility. She took a swig and felt the beer mixing with the rum, hugging each other like old friends.

Tom grabbed the microphone from a stand propped in the corner and tapped it twice. A loud screech followed by a thump, thump filled the room.

Liam rolled his eyes, “Not this again,” he mumbled.

“Not what ag–,” Rose began to ask before she was interrupted by the opening bars of New York, New York playing from the speakers. She looked up at the stage and Tom held the mic in his hand, the room hushed and he tilted his head to the side.

“I’m Tom, and this is Frank.”

And then he began to sing.

****

Rose was almost at the top of the hill now. She could see the back of Tom’s head in the distance. He had an uncontrollable cowlick that whipped the back of his brown hair into a spiral like a snail’s shell. She wanted to rub her face into it. She quickened her pace and held back the urge of yelling out to him, she was so close.

****

Rose slammed down her glass and applauded loudly until Tom reached his seat.

“You’re forgiven,” she whispered in his ear and took his hand. An hour later she led him out of the bar and that night, as they stumbled back to her place (a small dorm room that her university’s exchange program paid for), she leaned into Tom so their hips bumped into each other and decided that she wanted him more than anything else.

The rest of the Fall continued like this. Rose would go to classes, Tom would work in his father’s butcher shop and they would meet up after for drinks—her smelling like chalk and worn-out erasers and him smelling like linked sausage. The year passed with unconflicted passion. It was simple, it was love.

A year later her degree was finished and she had to fly home. Back to old friends and an old job. Back to messy relationships and a town known for it’s World’s Famous Double-Decker Sandwich!

Five months had passed since she had seen Tom but now she was back, and only metres away. She smoothed her hair and fixed her sweater. God, her heart was beating fast. Did it always beat this fast? It felt like a hummingbird was stuck in her sternum, surely this can’t be normal. She swallowed hard to push it down.

She was within arm’s reach of his shoulder now—a shoulder she hadn’t seen in months, a shoulder she used to bite under the covers or playfully at dinner. She wanted so badly to—

“Rose!” Tom yelled and picked her up, his arms wrapped around her and his shoulder gently knocked her on the chin.

This didn’t feel right.

She didn’t fit. It had only been five months and she didn’t fit anymore. It came quickly and all at once; a rushing feeling like she didn’t belong, like she had walked into the wrong classroom and suddenly realized she wasn’t supposed to be there. But how? She knew the street names and the bus numbers. She could navigate to the University better than any local and she remembered every shortcut to High Street. She had hailed a taxi just over there, and lost her scarf down that alley. She knew Tom had three moles on his calf that reminded her of Mickey Mouse and that he got five stitches in primary school from a boy named William who punched him in the chin after Tom told him the Celtics sucked. She knew all these things, but they didn’t know her.

She was an imposter, a novelty, just some girl who had spent a year abroad and fallen in love. Nothing but a cliche.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Tom said and kissed her, long and deep. His beard scratched her chin and she pulled away.

“When did you get a beard?” she asked.

“Oh, this has been a few months’ work. Do you like it?” he replied.

She didn’t, but nodded anyway. A long piece of her hair was stuck to it, hanging off his jawline like a thin kite string struggling to escape from a tree branch. She watched it flutter on his face and her hate for the beard grew deeper. It changed his face and hid his scar, it wasn’t the way she remembered him.

“Great, well I thought we could go to The Bramble and then I have a whole night planned,” Tom relayed eagerly, “what do you think?”

The hair bounced with every word he said, Rose stared at it.

“Sure, sounds good,” she replied.

Tom grabbed her hand and gave her a wink. They took off down the way she came, weaving in and out of the crowds, Tom smiled back at Rose every few feet like a puppy and Rose returned the gesture like a treat. Her head hurt, her feet hurt, everything was dizzy. This wasn’t how she remembered things. What did she think was going to happen if she came back here? That everything would be the way it was?

“Tom, wait,” Rose stopped walking. Tom turned to face her.

She looked up at his stupid beard and his cowlick and his tobacco stained fingers. She knew everything, and she hated it.

“What?” Tom asked.

She reached up and pulled the stray hair off his face.

“Nothing,” she replied.

Tom took her hand again and they walked on. He hummed Frank Sinatra and she followed behind, the Royal Mile disappearing behind her.

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