Niamh had promised to come home at the beginning of November. It was when her half-term piss-up disguised itself as her Reading Week. A lonely pocket of freedom that August had been her last interaction with the home-girls, which meant that, with a second sandwiching lockdown looming, Edinburgh was finally calling—though, it wouldn’t be for long.
As soon as the calendar on the ticket website had unlocked a list of dates, and her laptop screen no longer matched the colour of the bland, unloved walls inside her dreary university accommodation, she booked the first midlands train out of London. The HIGHLANDER EXPRESS came for Niamh on a cold Saturday evening, and left Euston Station mere days before the First Minister shuttered the southern border harder than Churchill had proselytized the iron curtain.
‘Christmas,’ her mother repeated the word like a Tourette over the phone. ‘Christmas is on the cards.’
‘Aye, mah, I knooow it is,’ Niamh answered, as she waddled her colossal suitcase, backpack, and duffle bag through the carriage aisle. ‘Always is! Same season, every year. Doesn’t change a wee bit.’
As she tore past the obnoxious glances from the passengers in Premium Class, she distracted herself by talking loudly with her mobile pinched between her upper arm and cheek. There had been a kafuffle with the conductor on the platform about luggage allowance. Niamh overslept long enough to miss an opportunity to hop on a carpool with her campus dealer, “Hash-man Sam”, which meant she had to carry it all on her own. Sneaking an extra bag on-board had not faired too well. And, because of her lumbering antics, exposed on the empty platform at 5AM for all to see, the train was delayed by another fifteen minutes.
‘It changes this year, sweetie,’ her mother preached. Niamh pretended to listen during her quest to find her cabin, skirting the heads of a few Business passengers. ‘This year’s different, because you’re coming home early and aren’t going anywhere until the holiday is over.’
‘How high you wanna bet?’ Niamh challenged.
‘What was that, my dear?’ her mother misheard her monotonous grumble.
‘My lecturers had other plans,’ she spared herself another lecture.
‘The fact of the matter is: once you’re back in Edinburgh, I won’t let you shoot out of the stalls as soon as the semester resumes. Legally, I’m not obligated to. I have Sturgeon’s interpreter for reference; you’re familiar with those, aye? References—you know those wee blighters you couldn’t pass your assignments without. Yer staying put, sweetheart. Under lock and key—where I can see you. You are on the train, right?’