My ticket for survival? The Lothian buses all-day pass. Unlimited hours touring Scotland’s elegant capital for less than a fiver.

The following piece was awarded Third Prize in the OU Students Association Wellbeing Writing Competition for Freshers Fortnight 2021. The author, Gill, is from Castle Douglas in South West Scotland and is studying English Literature.

We were all fighting hard to hold it together during the lockdowns of the 2020s. “What’s in your wellbeing tool-kit?” was today’s lifestyle headline. My ticket for survival? The Lothian buses all-day pass. Unlimited hours touring Scotland’s elegant capital for less than a fiver. Once a week was all I could afford. No furlough payments for a brand new trainee chef. I could blowtorch a brûlée and keep the heid on a breakfast shift. Useless talents these days. “Sorry Andy mate, give us a shout when it’s all over and I’ll see what we can do,” said the head chef, as I packed up my Sabatiers.

The buses were dead quiet. I always got my seat of choice on the top deck above the driver. I’d even started taking a flask. I’d sip away at my coffee as we left the tower blocks behind, wound past walled gardens, closed theatres, the castle watching over the lot of us. The number 27 was hurtling down the Mound now. In 10 minutes we’d be in Stockbridge and I’d get off for a wander. The charity shops with their through the roof prices would be closed, but if Gregg’s hadn’t given up the ghost I could stretch to a sausage roll.

I was in luck. Gregg’s were selling their treasured pastries from a table at the door. I splashed out on a two for one deal and headed down the path to the Water of Leith. Not many folk braving the killer east wind: only one dog walker, a couple approaching entwined in early days loved-upness. I was just a few feet away when I realised it was Amy. Oh my god. Management trainee goddess Amy; my date for six weeks and three days before she dumped me for Ben, creepiest concierge known to man. I slunk to the side of the path, risking the slippery slope to the water, but they wouldn’t have noticed if a streaker had charged past. If only I’d worked my way up to being a chef, captured her heart with a lobster souffle.

“Oh, get over yourself!”

For one hellish moment, I thought it was Amy’s voice. But she and Benzo were almost out of sight now. The path was deserted. Smashing. No Job, no girlfriend and now my mind was heading down the pan.

“I’m over here Andrew, come and chat.”

It seemed to be coming from a pagoda on the edge of the path. I vaguely remembered seeing a statue inside.

“Yes, over here, I’ve been waiting for you to drop by.”

I stepped closer. The statue was wearing a floaty robe, goblet in one hand, a snake draped over her shoulder. I prepared some choice verbals and went round the back, expecting to see one of my mates. It pissed me right off the way they slagged my bus trips. Nobody. A pile of empty Bucky bottles and two pigeons.

When I went back round, the statue was sitting on the stone plinth. Now I knew it was time to make a run for it, but my feet were glued to the ground, even with the snake slithering towards me.

“I’m Hygeia, goddess of health.”

“What? Where have you come from?”

“Greece, of course, perhaps you’ve heard of my sister, Panacea.”

“Aye, we could do with her these days.” I heard myself saying to an actual statue.

“I can grant you one wish Andrew. I can’t give you money, but I can make you rich in other ways. And don’t ask me to get Amy back. Leave her with Ben. They deserve each other.”

It must have been the mention of Amy. “I could handle a new girlfriend,” I said.

“Wise decision, young man, it won’t be long before you meet.”

“Cheers, Hannah, we’ll see how it pans out.”

“It’s Hygeia. Come back and see me, bring your girl.”

Just as I was beginning to relax, my new pal and her serpent reverted to their silent pose. I didn’t even have the jitters. All those warnings about Covid’s curse on our mental health, and here I was wolfing down my steak bake after a conversation with a Greek goddess.

The number 22 rattled into Wester Hailes and let me off at the community centre. There was a bloke in a suit standing at the door beside the food bank sign. He was talking to a pale girl about my age in an oversized parka.

“We don’t really want any more tins of beans or pasta,” she was saying in an accent you could listen to all day. “I mean we’re all really grateful, but we’re going to try something more interesting. Any chance of some fresh beetroot?”

I knew this was it. I swaggered over with a sudden million-dollar feeling that came from who knows where. Probably Greece.

“I can make you beetroot soup,” I said.

They looked at each other, then back at me.

“Borsht. Or French onion, even Cullen skink, much cheaper to make than folk think,” I said.

She laughed. In a good way. I was on a roll.

“How about croutons?” I asked.

Now she pushed a strand of auburn hair behind her ear and smiled. “See you tomorrow then chef, 8 am sharp.”

I bombed up to the fourteenth floor, hauled my crumpled whites from the back of the wardrobe and grabbed three quid from the leccy tin. Back outside, squares of light, fizzy yellow and burnt orange, were appearing up and down the high rises. A few stars were pushing through the city’s dense night sky. I picked up pace and headed for the launderette. Things were looking up.

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