by Sherry Morris
I BOOK US A cottage near a stream, in a remote part of the Highlands, for a long weekend away. Conference finished, onward travel discreetly arranged, we’re unlikely to bump into anyone we know. It’s just us—mostly.
We arrive late, but this time of year light lingers until nearly midnight. Your eyes are bright. Your smile wide. I’m tempted to take a photo. You’re happy, but you don’t say so. What you say is that this place has more character than the London rooms we use—that you’ve always wanted to see Scotland. That maybe, with this view, you’ll write a decent poem once you finish typing up the minutes.
I say I want to stretch my legs and find the footpath for tomorrow’s hike. Give you time to unpack, cook, write. On my stroll I find thistle, standing tall, in full bloom. Admire the purple barbed beauty of Scotland’s famous weed. How its clover crown sits atop a perfect sphere of spikes. Study the serrated prickle-haired leaves that zig-zag down its sturdy stalk. I want to pick one for you. Spot a smooth space on its thorny stem and reach. Wince when micro needles sting my hand. Decide a photo will do. Then I make a call.
We spend each day hiking rusty Munros, the evenings in front of a fire that’s more atmosphere than warmth. Our bodies create the red-hot heat and I wonder aloud if one day we’ll combust. You laugh and laugh. Say you’ll put that in a poem about bad boys getting burned.
I talk about work, films, politics. You file your nails and scroll social media, knowing you can’t post. You understand the situation. The risks to me, the benefits to you. The need to compartmentalise our lives. You don’t complain. Never nag. But sometimes, when lines blur, you sting.
At a certain time in the evening, I offer you a drink.
‘How romantical,’ you say.
You love your made-up word. Believe it perfectly captures our pretend world. I want to show you that you’re wrong. Put on my suave laugh, stroke your cheek.
‘Our romance is real,’ I say
You scoff. There’s glint in your eye as you lean in and say, ‘Tell that to your wife.’
I finish making your drink. Add an extra splash of vodka. Ensure the cottage door is closed tight behind me. I never ring from the room.
‘It’s the principle,’ I say as you roll your eyes.
Back in London, a solid-silver brooch in a second-hand stall catches my eye. It reminds me of you: prickly, wild, beautiful, a tad tarnished. Two thistles touch at one point like a never-ending kiss.
I buy it while the wife browses in a distant aisle. I’m an upstanding husband, a caring father, a respected professional in my field—until I’m alone with you. Then I’m Romeo. A bad boy. Your muse.
We meet. Combust. Later, I hand you the brooch. Your eyes narrow. You say I shouldn’t do this, give presents like we matter.
‘Of course we matter,’ I say.
‘Not enough for real life,’ you say.
‘This is as real as it gets,’ I say, smiling and throwing open my hands. ‘For a romantical guy.’
But you don’t laugh when I make your joke.
‘It costs too much,’ you say.
I’m caught off-guard by the catch in your voice. Are you going to cry? I don’t recognise this soft side.
‘No one has to get hurt,’ I say.
‘But someone always does,’ you say.
I shrug. You sigh.
‘All I write is bloated tripe.’
‘I like your little poems.’ Give you a cheeky nudge. ‘You write about me.’
‘Exactly.’ Your voice is flat. Something splinters in your eyes.
You thrust the brooch into my hand. Press deep. Its pin pricks my palm. You mutter under your breath words like learn this time or should resign, then walk away.
I shake off your bad-tempered burr. You bristle now, but you’ll be back. You like your life—the overnight hotel stays, dinners out and occasional trips away. The edgy excitement of illicit games balances the beige.
You surprise me by taking a two-week holiday. On your return you don’t answer my calls, don’t respond to my texts. You’re no longer available to delight. You’ve met someone new you say. Have begun to believe in real love, too.
I wish you well. Watch you walk away. Feel a pang that doesn’t fade. Even when I find someone new. It’s good. She’s great. But she’s not you.
Sometimes, accidentally, late at night, I wonder if we could have survived real life. Wince as the pang grows to spiked pain. Drinking dulls it back to bearable ache.
I can wait.
One day you’ll ring to lament how romantic bliss has faded to domestic strife. I’ll smile. Suggest we meet. This time when I offer the brooch you’ll smile. Say you’ve missed me. Kiss me. Let me pin it to your coat. We’ll walk arm-in-arm into the sunset. Painless. Carefree—almost. For another long weekend away.
Originally from Missouri, Sherry Morris (@Uksherka) writes prize-winning fiction from a farm in the Scottish Highlands where she pets cows and watches clouds. She participated in the 2020 BBC Scottish Voices writer programme and is supposed to be finishing her script. Her first published story was about her Peace Corps experience in Ukraine. She is a Northwords Now board member and reads for the wonderfully wacky Taco Bell Quarterly.
Her published work is at www.uksherka.com.