One For Sorrow

26 January 2017 | 6 mins

The late morning sun was shining high in the sky, scattering warmth across the old man’s back as he walked towards the foot of the mountain. This single-track road through the Scottish Highlands is beautifully picturesque, he thought, but far too quiet for hitchhiking.

Taking the road less traveled this time around was not the best decision he’d ever made, but he felt relatively confident about finding somewhere to quench his thirst fairly soon and get himself back on track. The bag on his back was not yet growing heavy; he knew he had plenty of time and energy to keep walking on.

Rising up a crest in the road, the old man saw smoke faintly in the distance, right at the base of the mountain. Great, he thought, a farmhouse. Surely someone there will be able to give me some water. And directions. He turned his gaze back to the road, and as he did he saw a bird feeder off behind the hedgerow, a flock of magpies darting around it. The man paused and counted. Six magpies. He tried to remember the old nursery rhyme his mother taught him as a child:

“One for sorrow, two for joy. Three for a girl, four for a boy. Five for silver, six for gold. Seven for a secret, never to be told.”

Six for gold, thought the old man. Heaven knows that would come in handy. He smiled to himself, shook his head and continued along the road towards the farmhouse. As he got closer, he noticed a silver car outside that looked quite conspicuous surrounded by mountains and farmland. Curiousity piqued, he steadily increased his pace.

Within the final quarter of a mile, he noticed that the building he had taken to be a farmhouse wasn’t a farmhouse at all; it was a pub. A small one-storey building with big windows and a hand-carved name on a wooden plaque above the door: The Lone Magpie. A smile broke out on the old man’s face. Finally, something goes my way. He walked across the small patch of gravel, towards the door beneath the plaque. Must be a one-room sort of place, he mused, as he pushed the door open and walked into the bar, immediately surprised at how dim the place was given the large windows.

The barman was the only other soul in the building, stood behind the bar facing away from the old man, polishing a glass with an old rag. He moved his head a quarter turn as the door opened, but didn’t make eye contact with his new customer. The old man looked around the bar, which seemed at first glance to be dusty and unkempt, but everywhere the man looked directly appeared freshly cleaned; only his peripheral vision made it seem dirty. Must be the lack of light, thought the old man, and walked over to the bar.

As he approached the bar, the barman finally turned around to face him. He smiled, a cold wintry smile, but it seemed genuine enough to the old man. He’s dressed quite formally for a bartender, thought the old man. Nobody needs to wear a waistcoat out here, and definitely not in a place like this. A glint of light on the barman’s chest caught the old man’s eye; a silver lapel pin adorned with six distinct magpies was affixed to the barman’s waistcoat. No sooner had the old man caught sight of the pin than the barman spoke, his voice loud and sharp in the silence, startling the old man slightly. He hadn’t heard another human voice for over twenty-four hours.

‘What can I get you?’

The old man paused. He had been so interested in the bartender’s attire, he hadn’t even checked to see what the bar had to offer. He quickly turned his head and picked the first tap he saw.

‘Pint of Duke please mate.’

The barman turned away to pour the pint.

‘What brings you out here then?’ he asked.

The old man paused again. Something in the tone caught him off guard. He shook the feeling away.

‘Heading up towards the islands.’ he replied ‘Got a couple of old friends up there I want to see before one of us pops our clogs.’

He smiled weakly, but the bartender’s expression did not change.

‘You’re a fair ways off course then. You should have headed more north than west from here. Do they know you’re coming?’

‘Nah, I thought I’d surprise them. Not much else to do in my old age, eh?’

‘You don’t seem that old to me. Anyway, it’s getting late, you needing a bed for the night?’

The old man yawned involuntarily, an overwhelming feeling of tiredness washing over him. Odd request, he thought, given that it’s barely noon. He turned his head automatically to look out the window. Darkness. How long had he been in here? He looked back at the bartender, who was staring at him expectantly.

‘Er, yeah, I guess.’ the old man replied, trying to hide his confusion. ‘Do you have a room here?’

Surely there can’t be space in this small pub, thought the old man. But he felt so tired that he hoped there was.

‘Sure, we have two rooms for travellers just like you.’ the bartender smiled, ‘Come on, I’ll show you.’

The old man got up to follow, faintly aware that he hadn’t had his drink yet, but the tired feeling was almost overpowering him. The barman led him around the back of the bar and up a short flight of stairs. The old man walked in, almost on autopilot, and dropped his bag at the foot of the bed. He looked out the window at the moonlight shining through. Wait, he thought, I don’t know how much the room costs. He turned back to the bartender to ask him, but only a blank wall faced him. He spun a slow circle, dread building in his chest with every turn. There was no door. He moved to the bed and lay down, unable to fight the tiredness any longer, and let the sleep overcome him.

The sun glinted off the silver paint as the bartender slid into the driver’s seat of the car. He sped away along the road the old man had walked down, straight past the bird feeder. He looked down at his lapel, and the seven magpies stared straight back at him blankly. He smiled, and kept driving.

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