Updated: Oct 10
The Caledonian Sleeper rocked gently and the lights of London started to zip by in a blur.
Although her eyes were gritty with tiredness, Ali was determined not to waste her second night overseas fast asleep. Her first night had been bad enough. She’d booked a hostel right in the centre of London, excited to be in the centre of the action, and swiftly regretted that when she arrived at the cavernous hellscape that was Piccadilly Circus station.
It was all just so huge and busy. Everywhere she looked, people streamed from every direction. Construction workers, business people, fashionistas wove their way expertly through the crowds, balancing coffees and phones. One guy carried a gigantic bouquet of flowers, another a small stepladder and a third strolled by with a black-and-white kitten perched precariously on his shoulder. Ali gawped as she spotted a woman dressed like a 1940s Forces Sweetheart, in a starched tea dress, bold red lip and elaborate up do, sashaying onto the escalator engrossed in her phone. Everyone looked fierce; everyone looked like they knew where they were going and what they were doing.
And then there was Ali. Feeling distinctly pedestrian in her regular old yoga pants and sweater, who could barely find her way out of the damned tube station. It seemed that Piccadilly Circus was a junction, with several grand-looking boulevards converged. Gleaming black taxis and red double-decker busses inched by, with commuters and cyclists and rickshaws threading nimbly through the heaving traffic. One street corner was covered in neon signs, kind of like Times Square, yet right opposite was a grand, ornate fountain. Ali stood by the tube entrance for several moments, looking around in awe.
Moments later, she climbed onto the top bunk in a small hostel room and sat cross legged, her back against the wall. She closed her eyes. Muffled music and thuds and shouts sounded from all around, and a siren blared from somewhere in the distance. She was here. This was real. She was in London. It was time to start exploring and living her dream. She would just close her eyes for a second first.
Ten hours later, she was woken by an urgent banging on the door and discovered she had slept right through breakfast and checkout time. The afternoon was spent wandering dazedly around Soho, overwhelmed and groggy and extremely grateful for the Italian expresso bars on every block.
And now, at 11pm UK time, on a train speeding to Scotland, she finally felt almost awake and human. She’d decided to start her trip with a walking tour of something called the West Highland way. Her lifelong devotion to romance books about Scottish warriors may or may not have had something to do with this decision. As the train started to pick up speed, Ali dumped her backpack in the tiniest sleeping compartment imaginable and headed directly for the dining carriage, which was cosy and brightly lit.
She had just paid for her beer and was considering chickening out and drinking it in her room with her phone for company, when a gangly guy with long blond hair in a messy ponytail waved her over to a crowded booth.
‘You look like you are on your own,’ he announced in an accent that sounded a little like Arnold Schwarzenegger. ‘So are we, also. Well, I am with my brother Johannes —‘ A surly blond guy who looked like a younger version of his brother scowled. ‘But I don’t like him, so I want to meet new people. I am Hans.’
‘I’m Ali,’ Ali grinned. This was exactly the kind of thing she had dreamed about. ‘I’m from the US.’
‘Yes, I thought so.’
Also at the table was a middle-aged Italian couple who introduced themselves as Carolina and Giuseppe, and a petite blonde called Megan. Ali would have figured her for American had it not been for the Canadian flag on her backpack, her sweater, and tattooed on her wrist. Ali sat at the edge of the booth, sipped her beer and accepted a handful of chips from Carolina.
‘You have been travelling for how long?’ Hans asked.
‘Uhh, twenty-four hours, give or take,’ Ali said with a rueful smile. ‘It’s my first time out the country.’
‘Oh baby, a virgin,’ Megan grinned. ‘Are you terrified of everything and desperately want to go home right now?’
‘Are you telling me that’s normal?’
They all chuckled and Ali felt a knot of tension loosen. She was sitting on a train trundling through the sleeping English countryside, talking with a group of actual Europeans. And Meghan, but still.
‘Oh yes,’ he laughed. ‘Your first few weeks is like riding a runaway horse. It is exciting but you are clutching onto the mane and holding on for dear life. If you do nothing but hold on you are doing very well.’
‘That is very poetic, Hans,’ Meghan said.
She moved a little closer to him, an unmistakable sparkle in her eye.
Deciding her presence was very much superfluous to Meghan’s plans, Ali turned to Giuseppe and asked how long he had been in the UK. He gave her a cheery grin and shrugged.
‘He does not speak English.’ Carolina rolled her eyes. She was curvy, deeply tanned with a wild mop of salt-and-pepper curls. ‘I tell him all the time, how you get on in this world if you don’t speak English? But he say I speak for both of us, anyway, and he don’t care to be bothered to learn.’ Carolina made an affectionately furious face at Giuseppe and Giuseppe grinned happily.
‘I don’t speak any other language, so I’m not in a position to judge,’ Ali smiled. ‘I took a little Spanish in high school but I don’t remember any of it.’
‘It doesn’t matter if you speak English. Language is only to be understood,’ Carolina shrugged. ‘Who speaks Italian?’
Hans got up to go to the bar, and Meghan sighed in frustration. Carolina shook her head.
‘You don’t ever get a man chasing him like that,’ Carolina admonished Meghan at the top of her voice. ‘How he supposed to love you when he know he got you?’
Meghan laughed, seemingly not at all bothered that Hans was barely two yards away and could hear the entire conversation. ‘I don’t want him to love me. I only have a week left to get Germany.’
‘Get Germany?’ Ali asked. ‘What does that mean?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘My friends and I are playing Europe bingo. I got France and the Netherlands last month, so technically I’m ahead, but Kristin and Holly are actually in Germany right now. I am screwed if I can’t bag Hans tonight. I am extremely competitive.’
‘You could bag me,’ Johannes piped up from the corner. ‘I am just as German as my brother.’
‘You don’t even talk, my dude.’
‘Does not mean I can’t fuck.’
Ali was slightly taken aback by his bluntness, but nobody else reacted. The curse word sounded so classy in his accent. She wasn't in Seattle anymore, Toto.
‘The quiet ones are good,’ Carolina said encouragingly, seemingly having gotten up to speed with the game. She looked Johannes up and down appraisingly. ‘He look like he got intensity.’
Meghan considered. ‘Let me think about it.’
Johannes shrugged. ‘Okay.’
‘Then maybe you fall in love,’ Carolina added with a happy flourish.
Meghan chuckled. ‘I don’t think so.’ She turned to Ali. ‘ If you bag Scotland, say, by this weekend, then you can join.’
‘I — I don’t —‘ Ali could feel herself blushing.
She wasn’t a bag Scotland kind of gal. She was a fall hopelessly in love and never actually speak to the guy, thus breaking her own heart without even his actual involvement, kind of gal. She was a, at least a vibrator can't ghost you, kind of gal.
‘I definitely recommend getting naked before you hit the Highlands,’ Meghan continued thoughtfully. ‘The mosquitoes up there are on a whole other level.’
‘They are called midges,’ Hans corrected. ‘And yes, the Highland subspecies of midge is famously vicious. But you could have sex in Glasgow before you leave,’ he added thoughtfully.
‘I’m not going to have sex with a Scottish guy,’ Ali blurted.
‘Thanks very much,’ growled a voice.
Ali’s heart fell into her toes and she wondered vaguely whether flinging herself from a speeding train was really such a bad idea. The new arrival was tall, with thick, strawberry blond hair that curled around his collar, and deep blue eyes the colour of the sea on a stormy day.
‘Sit down, Gus.’ Meghan pointed to the seat opposite Ali.
‘Not if naebody’s gonnae have sex with me,’ he replied in a mock injured tone.
‘I will,’ said Johannes.