Ray Doyle watched the water droplets slide down an undersized glass of lager without really seeing them.
“We should do this. It’s about time we got off our lazy arses and actually did something for once!”
Resigned that his peaceful hour of catching up on not-so-current affairs was over, Bodie folded his week old copy of The Telegraph and tried to display some interest in his partners latest madcap plan.
“It’s not as though we couldn’t get fit enough, Bodie. For God’s sake, we should be looking for things to make us fitter!”
For the umpteenth time, Bodie regretted his scantily made itinerary that had landed their short overseas break in Saint Jean Pied de Port, a common starting point for the ‘Camino de Santiago’. Ever since Raymond had picked up his first leaflet on the subject, he’d been like a man possessed.
“Ray, it’s a "pilgrimage" for heavens sake and a religious one at that. I thought you were done with all that kind of thing? Why this sudden obsession with walking five hundred odd miles just to get to look at some church?”
“In the ninth century it might have been a religious pilgrimage, but nowadays people do it for all sorts of reasons. Walking the Camino changes you, Bodie.”
“Learned all that from your pamphlets, did you? I wasn’t aware we wanted to be changed, I thought we were happy as we were?”
“I mean life changing, Bodie, something to aim for, something to be proud of.”
“Aren’t you proud of what you’ve already got?”
“Yeah, course, but I’m thinking of an achievement, something we’ve really worked towards.”
“You could run the London Marathon and get that …”
“Been there done that and I did the Great North Run five years ago. Running’s all right for keeping you physically fit, but this could be the making of us mentally, Bodie.”
Knowing that little short of an atom bomb applied to the temples would ever sort out his beloved partner mentally, Bodie decided it was late enough in the day to switch from beer to wine and ordered the first of several bottles.
I never imagined that twenty-one years after Ray's first suggestion of the idea, I’d be attempting to walk the Camino de Santiago alone.
Years of nagging had finally persuaded me that should we still be up to it, we would attempt to walk at least part of the Camino route to celebrate Ray’s retirement. Of course, the man was five years cold in the ground by the time he would have reached his sixty-fifth year. My concerned family were adamant that should I start the walk on Ray’s birthdate of January the twenty-first, they would disown me and with a sensible head, I was inclined to agree with them. The walk was going to be challenge enough for my aging bones without factoring in the ravages of winter. I finally placated my sister by plumping for a date in early summer instead, the time that I myself, was ejected onto an unsuspecting world.
I spent the night of Ray’s sixty-fifth with a Tesco’s sponge cake and a can of lager. I now had to watch the pennies and my waistline. In less than four months, I had to plan, buy for and train towards the biggest challenge of my life.
My partner's dream was now my reality. On May the twenty-seventh, my own Camino adventure would begin.
Well, come on and let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
There were so many times I nearly talked myself out of the whole stupid idea. Ray and I had shared a wonderful life together in our home in Dorset and apart from a Raymond shaped hole, I still largely enjoyed that life. I still kept a few animals, though my days of haymaking and tree felling were well over. I also, still turned a hand at the local pub, helping out behind the bar when they were short, but our ‘retirement’ was largely symbolic. In truth, we hadn’t worked for a proper wage for years. Drawing a state pension meant being able to heat the house with finest British Gas rather than burn logs in the Aga, to use our bus passes when we really couldn’t be bothered to defrost the car. We’d had all we needed to keep us comfortable, Ray and I. Perhaps this is why he needed his dream. The dream that told him the best years were still ahead, not long past.
Walking the Camino had never been my dream. The thought of walking to the local shop gave me shivers, but I had failed Ray in life so I certainly wasn’t going to fail him in death. However ridiculous the idea was of me attempting to walk the Camino De Santiago, the least I could do was try even if it killed me. I’m ashamed to admit that I’d half wished it would.
Shopping had always struck me as a particularly pointless exercise. I’d spent half my life living off the land and acquiring my essential home comforts from those who were too lax to watch over their own. I had a host of camping supplies that would keep me protected for years but none that would be fun to carry for nearly eight hundred kilometres.
The Internet was an invention that Ray and I had enjoyed with a boyish, tongue-in-cheek charm. We’d both laughed whilst setting up our Myspace pages (though both consisted of explicit lies) and it was still one of my proudest memories to have won a Ford Transit manifold on eBay.
I now realised that I had to embrace this new electronic age. I could no longer rely on a CI5 issue RT and there certainly wouldn’t be a phone box every five minutes along the Camino route. We’d bought a satellite dish in order to watch old episodes of Bonanza and Callan. When, for a couple of quid more, we could finally free up our telephone line by getting broadband, the few people that ever called us were ecstatic.
Ray and I still hadn’t used it much, the World Wide Web. My niece was obsessed with Skyping but I would rather have spent the time driving down to see her than fathoming out how it worked. When it came to planning the trip of a lifetime however, our decrepit computer suddenly began to see a lot of use. Google became my new God when I realised how little of my old life I could depend on if I was to have a decent crack at the Camino. Weight was everything. I scoured the net agonizing over the different types of camping gear available, but however much I tried to juggle with a pair of bathroom scales, I just couldn’t imagine how it would feel to carry all my necessities.
There was nothing for it but to see the latest equipment for myself. On a rain-soaked January afternoon, I took myself off to Outdoor World, "The One Stop Shop for the Adventuring Enthusiast". It would seem that a wintery weekday wasn’t the most popular time for the British public to be buying camping equipment and I virtually had the huge emporium all to myself. I spent rather too long pondering the cosmetic virtues of huge tents that resembled beautiful canvas palaces and after a brief game of hide and seek, the bored proprietor sniffed me out, the cash-carrying customer, like a heat-seeking missile.
“Hi, welcome to Outdoor World! I’m Steve and I’m here to help, so please don’t hesitate to ask if you need any assistance, don’t forget, advice is always free!”
“Er, thanks, Steve. I was just browsing really but I guess I need some sort of tent. Nothing like this, however, I’m after something small. And light, it’ll need to be very light, something that’ll be easy to carry over long distances.”
“What sort of weather conditions do you think you’ll be facing?”
“Um, well I’m starting out at the end of May so there might be the odd rain shower but I’m hoping that temperatures will be up a bit by then.”
“Yeah the temps should be up but it’ll be a while before you can depend on it staying dry.”
“Really? I read on the internet that things should be more settled by then and that the snow should be minimal?”
“Sorry, whereabouts is it you’re going to be camping?”
“Oh, yeah, sorry, it won’t be here of course, I’ll be starting out in Southern France and making my way through Spain.”
“Ah, I see. Touring holiday is it?”
“Not exactly. I’ll be walking. It’s a kind of walk … thing.”
“My God, it’s not the Camino by any chance, is it? You’re not walking The Camino de Santiago, are you?”
“Er, yeah. I am actually. I’m walking the Camino, or at least attempting to.”
It still felt a little weird saying the words out loud.
“Wow, oh my God you’re gonna have a ball, have you done it before?”
“No have you?”
“Yep, twice as it happens, well that’s not quite true in my opinion, the first time I did the North route which is only just over half the distance of the French Way. It was great to do but I knew I wanted more and I did the longer walk two years later. I’d love to do the Silver Way one of these days, you know from Seville to Santiago? It’s close on a thousand kilometres though and I just haven’t got enough spare time to get it completed at the moment.”
Suddenly, the over-enthusiastic Steve went up in my estimation tenfold. He had a headful of information I needed to extract and seemed only too happy to share. Seeming resigned to the idea that I would probably be his only customer for the rest of the day, Steve offered me tea which he efficiently brewed in a tiny kettle atop an equally petite camping stove.
“So, just how often are you planning on camping out throughout your trip, Mister, er …”
“Bodie, just Bodie, no ‘Mister’. Well to be honest, Steve, I’m not planning on camping at all if I can help it, the tent’s just in case I get caught out without any digs.”
“And it’s the main route you’re taking, is it? The Camino Frances?”
“S’what I was planning on, yeah.”
“In that case, although it’s my job to sell tents, I’d be irresponsible in recommending that you take one. Sure, it’s a great thing to have ‘just in case you get caught out’ but you’d be far better off thinking smart and not pushing yourself too much when you have the choice. In May the season will be well underway so they’ll be plenty of spaces to stay in as long as you’ve got the funds. Just remember, having that tent and bedroll ‘just in case’ means that you’ll have to carry it every single day for every single mile, every single step. A much better provision to carry is a decent guidebook and a knowledge of your own limitations.”
I could see Steve’s point. In my prime, I’d thought little of carrying a hundred pounds around on my back, but even the SAS hadn’t demanded I walk eight hundred kilometres whilst carrying it. With slight feelings of trepidation, I struck the words ‘tent’ and ‘bedroll’ from my list.
Steve however, had plenty of other goodies on offer to help part me from my pound. Perhaps the most important of my planned purchases was a decent backpack. Before I’d really thought things through, I’d assumed I’d simply use an old army issue rucksack that was languishing in the attic. I’d brought the thing down amid a shower of dust and took one sniff at it before unceremoniously throwing it out. Steve showed me three different bags the first of which I instantly recognised from my long hours of trawling the net. The backpack was an instant hit and I could see why it was such a popular choice. Both comfortable and secure it moulded to my back like a second skin feeling quite weightless once in place. Warming to his theme, Steve enquired about my clothing requirements.
“If you’re wise, Bodie, you won’t take any more than three days’ worth of clothes with you. If you really don’t mind doing laundry then take no more than two. The pilgrim’s hostels are called refuges or albergues and most of them should have facilities for washing your stuff, though you might need to queue. Obviously if you can afford to go a bit more upmarket, that might not be so much of a problem. In either case, you’ll need gear that will dry quickly as you might well be wearing it the next day.”
Steve eagerly lead me through to a further showroom I hadn’t even known the existence of, which displayed more items of clothing and footwear than a small shopping mall. Buoyed up by the backpack find, I got rather into the spirit of the thing, deciding that for once, overloading the Barclaycard wouldn’t hurt too much. I bought a fascinating pair of walking trousers which when required to, zipped down to become shorts. They were extremely light and Steve assured me they could be dripped dry within an hour. I added three pairs of hiking socks, three of supportive underwear, three short-sleeved Airtex shirts, a long-sleeved thermal T-shirt, a feather-light over-jacket, a rain poncho, a Thinsulate ski hat with matching gloves and spare pair of shorts for in and around shower areas.
It would seem that the small horde was all I required to dress myself for thirty-odd days on the road. All I needed to complete the ensemble was a decent pair of shoes and I made straight for the array of hiking boots.
“If I might be so bold, Bodie, you want to avoid heavy boots for walking the Camino. Trekking trainers will be far more forgiving on your feet. You also might like to consider some lightweight footwear for when your trainers are drying or for taking into the shower. You soon get used to communal facilities, but verruca’s are certainly no fun.”
I bought a superior pair of trekking shoes together with a pair of neoprene walking sandals that would happily take me into showers, streams and restaurants alike.
I topped off my purchases with some reinforced Ziplock bags, a waterproof cover for my backpack, a pair of Nordic walking poles and a tiny headlamp that could light up the entire Cheddar Caves. As Steve rang up my purchases, he placed each item into the backpack and I was pleased to see that there still seemed plentiful room to spare. There probably wasn’t much room to spare in my wallet however when the till rang at nearly three hundred pounds and I winced.
“That’s not the hardest bit, Bodie, that’s yet to come,” said Steve with a mysterious wink.
Wondering what the hell was suddenly going on, I could only follow the man as he swiped my expensive purchases from before my eyes. As I turned a corner in the shop, I realised Steve’s intentions when I saw him hoist my backpack onto a large set of weighing scales.
“BINGO! Four-point five kilos, Bodie, just as I hoped it would be!”
The sound of the numbers nearly froze my blood. I still had no idea how much weight I’d be carrying, however.
“What’s that in English money, Steve?”
“Imperial, you mean? It's just on ten pounds and that’s including the shoes and those will be on your feet. Sorry, I thought you dealt in metric. You do know about metric, don’t you, Bodie? I mean you do know that the route that you’re planning to take is nearly five hundred miles?”
It did indeed, sound a very long way.
I swapped email addresses with firstname.lastname@example.org, promising to keep him appraised of my efforts. His message, should I survive to send it, was well deserved. Though I had spent the equivalent of keeping my house going for a month, he had given me advice and suggestions that would help keep me alive and comfortable throughout my quest.
I wasn’t in the army anymore; I was nigh on a pensioner. It wasn’t a war; it was a challenge. It didn’t have to be torture; it might just be fun. Whatever it was, it was a penance I’d pay and go on paying till long after my bones were just dust in the wind.
I will search the world, I will face its harms
I don't care how far, I can go the distance
It was all very well saying to myself that I was going to walk the Camino, but now I really had to get my shit together if the words were going to hold any truth. So far, all I had done was pick a start date and buy myself a rather overpriced new wardrobe. There were umpteen things needing to be organized for the house and animals before I could even think of leaving them for a month, but somewhat bolstered by my purchases, I knew that if I started to look for problems, they would soon turn into reasons which prevented my leaving at all.
I decided that at least if my outward travel was arranged, it would be much harder for me or anyone else to talk me out of the whole thing and with a familiar feeling of trepidation, I looked towards the computer. I was still a little unsure about trusting my finances to a machine that sat in the corner of the room, but it was either that or spend ages on the phone talking to a salesman, so I decided to give the contraption the benefit of the doubt.
I was disappointed not to be able to secure a flight from Bournemouth or Southampton to Biarritz. A trip to London Heathrow would mean further time and money expenditure that I really didn’t need. It couldn’t have been more different to the casual planning of my last trip to France. Ray and I had caught a car ferry to Bilbao, then taken a leisurely drive home, stopping wherever and whenever the fancy took us. It was impulsive, relaxing and wildly romantic and probably the best holiday I’d ever had. It was also of course, the first time that Ray had heard of the Camino de Santiago and the reason I was now adding an exorbitant airline ticket to my virtual shopping basket. Some of the guide books I’d read on the subject explained how much the Camino could give to a person. I dearly hoped this was true as so far, the damn thing was costing me a fortune.
The confirmation of the flight purchase was an unexpected shock to my system as I suddenly realised that things were really happening. I now had phone calls to make and favours to call in, but they could all wait for another day. An hour with a credit card and a computer had turned into a momentous milestone that had all but exhausted me. How I could ever contemplate walking five hundred miles when a sedentary afternoon had completely depleted my reserves, was anyone’s guess. After feeding the dogs and a final look over the property, I pulled a beer from the fridge which I elected to drink in the kitchen garden as I watched the early sunset of a fading February day.
Ray decided to join me for a time and as ever, I tried to hide my delighted surprise. ‘Ghost Ray’ as I’d chosen to think of him, had appeared to me many times since his death and I’d given up trying to explain the phenomena to myself. I absolutely didn’t believe in ghosts and the afterlife, yet I didn’t consider myself far gone enough for the apparition to be purely a figment of my imagination. I certainly couldn’t summon him at will and never ever tried to touch him. The one time I had, he’d backed off like a scalded cat and I’d sensed I’d broken the golden rule in a game I didn’t understand. Ghost Ray also never uttered a word, though his eyes spoke volumes as they always had in life. I talked to him of course. Talked sometimes till my throat was hoarse. Though I could tell he listened, it was impossible to gauge his reaction and sometimes I found myself still talking long after he’d disappeared.
Our home was not really the lock up and leave type. At any time of year, we had some sort of small crop that needed either watering or protecting from frost. I didn’t really need the produce, it was actually much simpler to acquire from the supermarket, but I kept the tradition going in deference to Ray’s efforts. The animals were far more important. I still kept three dogs who though elderly, still needed care and companionship if not daily walking. Four or so cats roamed the place, demanding to be fed as only cats do and I still kept a modest flock of chickens. Ray’s latest horse had outlived him and he’d regularly ridden it until shortly before his death. The two horses were easily catered for as the local riding school owned the quiet hack that was turned out with Ray’s stallion. They would gladly care for and use both animals for as long as I wanted them to. There was no way however that I could leave my house uninhabited whilst I walked The Camino, and only one person I considered up to the task of caring for it.
My niece Michelle was a remarkable woman. Unlike Ray who still had a sprawling family in Derbyshire, the only clan I cared about were my sister and brother in law and their kids. Vicky and David were blissful in their retirement, my nephew Jamie was happily building a dot com business in the States and his sister was an extremely satisfied businesswoman. It was her I needed to get onside if my home was to get the care I felt it deserved. A simple call ensured her time.
Michelle had always adored the place that she was born to. By senior school she shown such a vast interest in the nature and geology of the Devon coastline, we were all convinced she would become some sort of revered scientist. We were most surprised when she decided that her dream job was to become a travel agent. By the age of twenty-five, she had a degree in International Travel and Tourism Management. By thirty, she was the major stakeholder of a successful touring company spending her days either sat in her smart bayside flat organising expeditions or travelling the world discovering new venues.
Michelle had happily house-sat for me and Ray several times. She assured me that working from my home rather than her own would cost me nothing less than a decent Sunday lunch. On the first of March, I greeted my nearest and dearest with a bottle of red and a gently roasting leg of lamb.
David and Vicky knew of my plans but apart from my leaving date, Shelly knew nothing. I knew the announcement would cause some consternation but not the blasting I got.
“You’re doing what? Oh, for God’s sake, Uncle Bodie why didn’t you come to me? I’ve got at least three companies on my books that offer Camino walking tours! It’s madness trying to organise a trip like that all by yourself and as for walking the whole lot, you must be off your rocker even thinking of it at your age!
“Shell, I’m not quite in my dotage yet you know—”
“You’re sheer bloody bonkers is what you are, have you even trained for such a thing?”
“Well I’m not totally unfit—”
“What has your doctor said about it, I bet you haven’t even asked him have you?”
“Er, well no...”
“My God, have you put any thought into this daft idea at all?”
I sometimes forgot that my family knew so little about my professional background, the training, the discipline and the sheer effort it took to survive whilst in active service. Michelle’s hair would curl if she knew of half the things I’d done in my life and though she meant well, there was no excuse for rudeness. Fortunately, the delicious smells coming from the kitchen put paid to any possible argument and for a happy hour, we ate like savages, the ladies taking full advantage of David’s designated driver status, clearing three bottles of claret between them. Though my cooking skills would never match Ray’s natural flair and ability, my culinary efforts had gotten me the desired results. Too full up and mellow for further uncle baiting, Shelly was finally ready to deal.
“You’ll have to update that phone of yours of course.”
“What’s wrong with my phone?”
“Oh, Uncle, you’re gonna need a smartphone for a trip like that, I can’t believe you haven’t got one already!”
“What earthly difference does it make what phone I’ve got?”
“Well you can’t email me off of that old thing of yours, can you?”
“Shelly, I don’t email you anyway...”
“And you’ll need a half-decent camera, if you get the latest iPhone it’ll save you having to take a separate one with you.”
“I wasn’t really planning on it being a photographic trip, it’s not so much of a holiday more of a—”
“Then there will be your playlist of course.”
“Your playlist. Your sounds.”
“I wasn’t planning on having any sounds.”
“Oh, Uncle Bodie, you were planning on walking all that way without any music? Oh my God, I’ve got it! I’m gonna make you a playlist! I’ve got a hard drive at home with nearly three thousand tracks on it, we’ll need to get you an MP3 player as well, I’d just love to put you a playlist together.”
“Well that’s all very nice but—”
“Oh, Bodie! Jeez I’ve just had the best idea! You could write a journal! You could illustrate it with all your photos and the new chapters could start with lines from your favourite songs! Once it’s cleaned up a bit, I could get it published in one of the more serious travel publications. Oh, good God, this could be great!”
I can’t really remember the first time my sister described her darling daughter as being precocious. Michelle was a born organiser even when people didn’t really want her to be. This was the reason my dear sibling and her beloved now resided in an exclusive mobile-home park rather than the family house they had brought up their kids in. Their home was very pleasant and they were near to their daughter, but whether they really wanted to be there was debatable. Three months after Ray had died, Michelle tentatively suggested that I myself, downsize. As a long-term plan, the idea held weight. Michelle who loved to compartmentalise all life around her into tidy little boxes had only meant well. I still hadn’t spoken to her for a month.
After the food and a quick tour of the place, the battle lines were drawn. Michelle would happily care for my house on the premise that I would buy myself a new mobile telephone and the following week I found myself traipsing after her in Phones4U wearing new trekking shoes that were killing me. After parting with more money than I could comprehend, I became the dubiously proud owner of an iPhone, a tiny MP3 player, (complete with earbuds), a travel adaptor and a contract I didn’t even wish to understand. Though I willingly took my niece home for tea, I really couldn’t wait to see the back of her as I suddenly felt the urge to get well and truly drunk. She was happy enough to leave, having some sort of ‘conference call’ to attend, but her last words gave me pause for thought.
“I’ll happily stay for the month, Uncle Bodie, but I’m going to a wedding in Greece on the first of July. The latest I can be here is probably the twenty-eighth, so just a heads up if you think you’ll be home any later than that.”
My dear niece without even realising it, had given me an end date. I had to reach my endpoint of the Camino (wherever that might be) on the twenty-seventh of June before catching a flight home.
I'm leavin' on a jet plane
Don't know when I'll be back again
Oh babe, I hate to go
The next few weeks were a hive of activity. I walked wherever and whenever I could, exhausting the poor dogs in the process. I walked up and down every hill I came across, along tarmacked roads and gravel tracks, up steps and down subways. Now that the days were getting longer, every other evening, I drove down to the coast and ran over both sand and stone to improve my general fitness and lower leg strength. I wore the backpack and trekking shoes constantly even in the house and garden, finding their weak spots and treating my resulting sore patches. With work, the gear finally became familiar and I soon felt naked without it. After every bath, I inspected my feet with scientific precision before drying them thoroughly and applying liberal amounts of surgical spirit.
I checked my passport, will and travel documents manically as if they might suddenly expire before my very eyes. I ordered every sort of animal food I could think of until I had enough supplies to last me through ‘til at least December. I read every word I could find about long-distance walking, acquired maps and apps and learned what I could about Spanish social and political history. If I was having a crisis of confidence, it was certainly not through a lack of research. In the middle of May, I had drinks with an old associate.
I’d first met Thomas O’Mara whilst I was a foot soldier in Northern Ireland. He’d unwittingly saved my life and I’d been grudgingly grateful to him ever since.
Throughout his rather miserable existence, O’Mara had been a Catholic priest, an active loyalist and at times, a CI5 informant. I’d given up trying to work out where Thomas’s true loyalties lay, with the highest bidder most probably, and though we didn’t particularly care for one another, we did at least grant each other a certain respect. Thomas was as wise as he could be vicious, and it was his wisdom I sought with the knowledge that he himself, had been on a pilgrimage.
The pub he chose had been carefully selected of course. A shadowy place of spit and sawdust and beer tasting of piss that was all meant to remind me that my time serving Queen and Country had been a slap in the face to those fighting The Cause. I swallowed the insult seeing as it was me that had instigated the meeting, knowing my way through O’Mara’s bluster of old. On sight, we looked at each other with dislike and the battle began.
“Well if it’s not old, retired CI5 agent, William Bodie!”
“And I heard you’re too old to get down on your knees in front of choirboys, now, Thomas.”
“You heard right there, I have to get them a kneelin’ nowadays!”
“I don’t doubt it, but I didn’t ask you out to talk over old times.”
“Got some info for me then have you, my child?”
“Don’t talk crap, Thomas, you’ve got no more interest in those twats in the Real IRA than I have, they’re just second-generation testosterone out to make a name for themselves.”
“They’ve been making a pretty good job of it.”
“They don't give a fuck about the cause as well you know. George Cowley must be turning in his grave just thinking about them.”
“Ah, now there was a man to be reckoned with! Old Georgie wouldn’t have stood for insolence any more than he would have put up with you turning all limp-wristed like you did.”
“A man like you wouldn’t hold something like that against me.”
“A man like me wouldn’t, but a Catholic priest?”
“When did you hear?”
“What that ex-Captain Bodie was fucking ex-Constable Doyle? Years ago, certainly well after Cowley was dead and buried and far too late to buy me any favours.”
“Did you hear that Ray had died?”
“I did and for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”
“I need to honour his death.”
“Throwing a tea party, are you?”
“Walking a pilgrimage trail.”
“Oh, be Jesus, where’s the sense in that?”
“It’s what he wanted to do.”
“Is it what you wanted to do?”
“No and that’s why I’m here.”
“What is it you’re walking?”
“The Camino de Santiago.”
“Tourist chicken feed.”
“I’m not asking your opinion of it, I’m asking if I should DO it?”
“What do you hope to get from it?”
“Answers, absolution, forgiveness maybe?”
“Ah, you felt you’d shit on that pretty wee boy a’ yours, did yers? Bodie, any man with eyes in his skull could see what you two were to each other. You don’t owe pretty boy anything.”
“He died alone.”
“We all do, Bodie.”
“You walked over India, why would a devout Catholic like yourself walk hundreds of miles to look around Hindu temples?”
“What can I say? I enjoy a decent curry, Bodie. I also did it because I could afford to and because the people that were looking for me didn’t have the faintest idea where I was.”
“Is that what you were doing, running away?”
“Is that what you’re doing?”
“I’ve no idea. I really have no idea what I’m doing.”
“Well my advice to you, Bodie, is to do the thing. You might well die doing it, but your mind must be made up otherwise I’d be the very last person you would have sought out.”
“What did you learn from your pilgrimage?”
“That I was rotten to the core, Bodie, but we all knew that anyway, didn’t we?”
When I clasped goodbyes with Thomas, I did it as an equal. We’d both fought for what we’d believed in and both lost in so many ways. There had obviously been more to his pilgrimage than he would let on to me, but they were his reasons and his alone and I had no right to question them.
Thomas had been wrong on one count however, I did owe Ray Doyle, I owed him dearly.
One day he'll slip away, cool water flowing all around
Leave a pocketful of stones and not believe in other lives
On the day before leaving for France, I walked to the graveyard that held Ray’s remains. We’d both long admired it as a final destination and a substantial donation to the church roof fund had ensured us each an agreeable spot. There’d been some consternation from the faraway family Doyle, but I’d held firm on the matter. The choice of resting place had been Ray’s alone and I’d been adamant that his wishes were met.
I tended the grave with cherishing care. It was probably a bit too ostentatious for the modest Doyle taste, but there was nothing I could give him in life anymore. At some times of year, cut roses were an astonishing price, but I’d kept up the supply of them month after month as if ceasing the practice might bring about bad luck. The marble chippings surrounding the glossy black stone would have Ray laughing his head off, but were such a match for his sea stormy eyes, I hadn’t resisted when the brochure had been carefully laid in front of me.
It was those flinty green shards that had brought me. Though I’d spent hours in the same spot spouting little but nonsense, Ghost Ray had never appeared to me there as if the whole idea was distasteful to him. I scooped a good handful of the glistening jewels and patted them deep into my walking shorts pocket.
“Don’t worry, Sunshine, I’m not stealing them from you. Hopefully you’ll come with me, along for the ride. These are just something to hold, something to touch and look at, a little bit of home going on a very long journey.”
For the next month, my pocketful of shiny stones became my own personal rosary.
In the early evening, my niece arrived armed with laptop, multiple books and files, at least two mobile phones, a huge case of clothes and a Filofax. She had more gear to last her for a month in a Dorset cottage than I had for all my time on the road, even though she was only forty-five minutes away from her own home.
Shelly though, was good and welcome company for the evening. The dogs and cats naturally gravitated to her as they’d always seemed to with Ray and I knew that my charges were safe in her hands. She’d enthusiastically offered to drive me to Heathrow, no doubt to show off the new Mazda MX5, of which she was justly proud. I’d booked an airport taxi however, my itinerary pounding through my head like a well-rehearsed Gregorian chant. Leaving at five in the morning probably wasn’t strictly necessary for a twelve o’clock flight, but I intended to sleep through the most interminable part of the journey and be on the Camino trail by early afternoon.
I’d travelled to several continents and many airports throughout my life, but rarely as a domestic passenger and I found the idea of the general public faintly revolting, though Heathrow was eerily quiet at seven am. I set an alarm on the iPhone for ten and sent a quick text message to Shelly before cutting the device's connection. I’d grown rather fond of the iPhone, but it demanded more power than the national grid and I constantly found myself looking for plug holes to charge it from.
My long-honed practice of sleeping on demand seemed sadly lacking as the shops and businesses started setting up for their day. Electric lighting and clattering chairs did little to aid restful repose and as the shouts and calls of a hundred different languages reached my ears, I turned on the MP3 player for a little light relief.
Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.
Finally, I started to doze at a little after nine before being wakened to alertness by the electronic scream of Floyd’s bells and whistles.
As planned, I was first at the Air France check-in desk, arriving considerably earlier than the rather severe-looking attendant and I was suddenly reminded why I so disliked international travel. Happy in the knowledge that I only possessed hand luggage, I endured the guilt-inducing passport check before having my pack briefly searched.
“Now place your hold luggage onto the conveyer belt if you please, Monsieur.”
“Madame, I don’t have any hold luggage, as I’m pretty sure my bag is permitted as a carry-on.”
“The bag is fine, but you must check in the sticks.”
Realisation hit me and my heart dropped like a stone. I knew the weight and dimensions of my backpack to the nearest ounce and had depended on clearing out of Biarritz in the fastest time possible. I couldn’t believe that as a supposedly somewhat intelligent person (whose niece was, after all, a travel agent), I’d overlooked the fact that my walking poles would not be permitted in the cabin. I briefly thought of surrendering them as waiting for their return could ruin my timeframe, but I brushed the idea aside. The poles had become an extension of my arms in recent weeks and I knew I’d feel naked without them. I sadly watched them trundle off down a dark tunnel to nowhere before resignedly turning to search for the dreaded departure gate.
I was surprised how many people were travelling to Biarritz on a normal Thursday morning and wondered if any, like me, would be walking their way to Spain. It didn’t seem likely. There were many families whose children’s screeches could break the sound barrier and the remainder of passengers looked readily dressed for the office. I wondered as always, how other's lives might compare to my own. I was pretty sure that most of them didn’t know how to milk a cow and doubly sure that none had ever brandished a handgun on a leafy London street.
We were finally called and I took a last look at England before stepping onto the airbridge. Looking back at me, arms crossed and with a furious look on his face was Ghost Ray. I faltered, nearly causing the businessman behind me to fall to his knees, but the crush of the people behind him kept the momentum pushing us forward. I was directed to my seat by the echo of a sweet French accent where I collapsed, sweating and shaking. Had I done the wrong thing? Would Ray have been angry at me for stealing his dream, for partaking in a journey he could no longer make? I had seconds to decide if I should get myself pulled off the plane. What was behind me, however? I had a family that cared for me and a home I adored, but neither could give me the absolution I craved. My idea to walk the Camino had been the only thing to rouse my spirits in the last five years. If I didn’t attempt it, I would have failed Ray twice. I closed my eyes against the threatening tears as I listened to the start of the safety drill.
After a brief, bumpy journey in a cramped, hot tube I entered the square, modern terminal of Biarritz. I reluctantly turned off the MP3 player to be greeted by the cacophonous noise of a busy airport.
The queue for passport control looked endless and the blank looking officers who manned the desks seemed intent on meticulously checking every document. Finally, officially finding myself on French soil, I searched for the correct baggage carousel which appeared ominously quiet. After a wait of fifteen minutes, the thing reluctantly chugged into life and two hundred passengers swooped upon it like crows onto roadkill.
After a while the passing cases became endlessly familiar and I wondered to myself why the first bag to appear always seemed the last to be claimed. Finally, there was just me and one distraught looking family staring morosely at the never-ending snake scales of the creaking conveyer. Just as I was about to give up and find out who to complain to, I heard some thumps and clicks and then a delighted child’s cry. Two smart looking Samsonite cases emerged, closely followed by an elephant-shaped backpack and at very long last, my walking poles came into view. They looked so insignificant juddering round on the giant snake and I cursed their very existence. Had it not been for them I could have been getting off a train by now, but two hours after landing in France, I was still frustratedly stuck in an airport terminal.
I studied my trusty old CI5 issued watch. I’d already lost an hour to France and with two hours delay it seemed unlikely I was to get far into the Pyrenees any time soon. Despondently, I found the bus bound for Gare de Bayonne and switched the MP3 player back on.
Bayonne was a pretty, watery little place, but had no place in my schedule and I boarded my train hot and frustrated. An hour later I reached Saint Jean Pied de Port feeling exhausted.
The village was bustling. Street sellers were everywhere and the first I spotted, brandished a fine selection of every walking stick and pole imaginable. I tried to cast a disinterested eye over the man’s wares but soon honed in on a pair of poles that perfectly matched my own. It would seem that Steve the Stud had shafted me royally. Not only had he cost me euros, he had possibly cost me the chance of my first day’s walk.
At last, I found a vendor whose goods I did wish to buy. For the price of a euro, I now had my own drilled scallop shell which I attached to my backpack. I could now be recognised by those who passed me as a ‘pèlerin’, a ‘peregrino’ if I ever reached Spain, a pilgrim, a walker of The Camino, all the way to Santiago.
When I looked up he was standing there
And I knew I shouldn't but I didn't care
I was lost in France, in love
I surveyed the area not recognising anything. Suddenly, it was all important that I found the area where Ray had first suggested this madcap venture. It was there I would find the Pilgrim’s Office, the official start to my adventure. I scanned the colourful horizon and from the corner of my eye saw a long-haired man hurrying away. He was wearing a plaid shirt and pale jeans, had broad shoulders and a slender build but gave me no indication apart from that that he might have been Ghost Ray. I had no map to indicate where I’d drunk wine with Ray in 1989, so I followed the man, hurriedly crossing a small bridge. On the other side, I finally got my bearings. The slim man had gone, but I knew exactly where I was. The whole place was alive with people but the pilgrim’s office was well marked and I joined the long queue to buy my ‘Credential’ the ‘Pilgrims Passport’, a document which would gain me discounted lodgings along my route and hopefully a certificate of completion when and if, I reached the end of my long walk. I stared at the first of my stamps with an odd sense of pride. I also bought a map and a guidebook and some postcards for home. A home at that moment, which felt light-years away.
The urge to enjoy a cold beer when I reached the tiny bar was overwhelming and once again, I checked my watch. Six in the evening was no time to start a walk. Even without the delays, the idea of traversing the first stretch had been crazy. The first real day of walking The Camino from France was reputed to be the worst. I wondered if I’d half hoped to die whilst trying it, but there seemed no point in tempting fate and when a waiter appeared, I ordered lager.
I turned towards the American sounding accent, the first non-official voice I’d heard since entering France.
“Hi! I’m Vincent from Vancouver. Is this your first Camino?”
“Hi, I’m Bodie, and does it really show that much?”
“This is my fifth walk so I do tend to notice new people.”
“Wow, you must have real dedication!”
“Uh, I’m a widowed guy with a great pension. I’ve got the money and I’ve got many empty hours to fill.”
“Oh, my word, I’m so sorry!”
“Don’t be, I’m not looking for pity, this is what I do. It’s seems to be what you do too now. We’ve all got a story, a reason for being here.”
“I’ve no idea what I’m doing here, Vincent.”
“Really? Well don’t worry too much about that, the Camino has a way of giving us the answers we seek.”
“I can’t believe there are so many people! I holidayed here some years ago and it was nothing whatsoever like this!”
“Ah but this year is a little different. Two thousand’ ten is a Holy Year. Religious pilgrims from all over the world will be swelling the numbers tenfold.”
My heart sank a little as I suddenly felt out of place. For all the reasons I might be walking, religion was the very least of them and I felt like some sort of interloper. Vincent however, seemed to read my thoughts.
“Hey it’s no big deal if religion isn’t your bag, it ain’t compulsory you know and it won’t always be as busy as this. You’ll still have long stretches where you won’t meet a soul if it’s solitude you’re looking for. I would however, make sure you’ve arranged a place to stay tonight as the hostels will be filling up pretty darn quick.”
Spurred by Vincent’s warning, I reluctantly left the comfort of the bar to hurriedly find myself a bed for the night.
Predictably, the nearest gites were already full, but the large municipal refuge still had spare beds and as it’s rules and regulations weren’t too formidable, I booked to stay. The princely sum of my habitation was five euros and an evening meal was available for the cost of a discretionary donation. It was the first of many such places I’d encounter that were run solely for pilgrims and designed to be as cost-efficient to the walker as possible. I’d frequently eat many a fine meal for little more than a voluntary donation.
The sleeping arrangements were basic and not for the faint-hearted. Camp-like beds mere inches apart were forced into the huge dorms and yet more rooms, packed with bunk beds and cots were around every corner. I got the impression that nobody was turned ever away, seeing blankets and sleeping bags littering the floors. After inspecting my bed and making note of toilets, exits and fire precautions, I wandered back onto the street.
It was too near to mealtime to go back to the little bar so I bought two bottles of country wine and guiltily stuffed them into my backpack. There was a definite party atmosphere in the small town and I thought it a shame that my time in it was so limited. Walking the Camino Frances was supposedly, entirely possible in thirty days but I had already lost one which gave me no time for rest days or recuperation from injury should I wish to reach the end. Knowing that I needed a full night’s sleep if I was to hasten my schedule, I returned to the refuge and my supper.
I needn’t have worried about my contraband. Even in the most orthodox establishments I came upon, wine was such an integral part of a meal it was often provided as freely as water. Finding another small party already in swing within the hostel, I handed my bottles to our hostess who nodded approvingly.
A vast kitchen, open to all, was available to those who wished to cater for themselves, but most plumped for the ‘pilgrim’s menu’, a hearty meal to set one up for the night and the following, harrowing, day. The basic pilgrim’s menu of this particular establishment was a three-course meal consisting of pasta salad, followed by chargrilled chicken with fruit for afters. Our hostess however, who appeared to speak no discernible English, seemed more than happy to cook whatever was thrown at her. Chops, cheeses, packets of bacon, instant noodles and sirloin steaks were all put to use and we ate like kings. Wanting to settle the account for my meal as I planned to rise early, I was assured that my donation of the wine had been more than acceptable.
After filling our faces, myself and the twenty-odd people surrounding our huge bench-like table began to tell our life stories. Food had satisfied our stomachs and wine was loosening our tongues.
Lars from Sweden intended to run his Camino and I thought him quite mad. Betsy and Belinda, twins from New Jersey, simply hoped to make it to Spain. Judging by the combined weight of them, I wished them well making it down the refuge stairs. Dieter from Berlin had a wager with his father that he would be in Santiago within twenty-five days and Michal from Poland was walking the Camino for ‘religious reasons’.
I had no real problem with others practicing religion. Ray himself had been brought up under the same God as me and could happily switch on his allegiance as any family gathering saw fit. My own dreadful parents had lapsed by all standards, but the Catholic Boys School had offered free meals and so there I’d been sent. What I saw there happening to other poor boys taught me to fight first and ask questions later. I lost all respect for those in control and to be honest, have seen ‘religion’ ruin countries ever since. I’ve often wondered if the abuse I secretly witnessed shaped my life or if I was always destined to be a social misfit. I certainly had no respect for Catholicism and it held little place in my Camino adventure.
Wishing I could keep awake to hear further stories, I bedded down early, the result of which saved me from the commonest issues of sleeping in a communal refuge. The next day I would attempt to walk The Pyrenees and I slept to dream.
I go to sleep, sleep.
And imagine that you're there with me
The following morning, my eyes opened at four, narrowly beating the iPhone’s alarm. Apart from the snuffling of forty pilgrims, the dorm was quiet and using the age-old skills I’d perfected in the military, I dressed and collected my pack without rousing sleepers.
In the kitchen, the stark overhead light displayed the packed lunches that our delightful hostess had no doubt been up half the night making. I collected mine along with my wits and turned to face my first day of walking. The feeling of melancholy I’d experienced the day before had been replaced by one of nervous excitement. My feet were itching to be off and silent and alone, I stepped out into the night.
It had rained in the town denying the hour it’s sunrise. The streets remained dark and slick. It was only the quality of my shoes that prevented me from slipping on the ancient cobbles as I walked downhill through the centre of Saint Jean.
As I made to the hills the daylight emerged, exposing whitewashed French farmhouses and glistening fields. As day broke, I favoured the sounds all around me to those of my player, cowbells echoing as livestock awoke.
Navigation was easy. The beautifully maintained scallop signs were everywhere, an efficient modernisation of an ancient route. There were other signs though, that I was on the right track. Piles of stones, names etched into the dirt, ribbons on trees, there were signals everywhere that I was on a path trodden by many. The vista was glorious and Ray would have loved it. Knowing I may never see the place again, I reached in my pocket for one of his stones. I touched the shiny jewel to my lips before leaving it atop a fence post. Its finder might never understand its significance, but then again, they just might.
As I continued to climb the French Pyrenees, the clouds rose to meet me. It was an ethereal sight, like walking through heaven. The mist ebbed and swirled, a watery quicksilver, changing the temperature with lightning speed. When the sunshine broke through, I could see for miles. The whole world was lush and green. Far-off farm buildings looked like tiny Swiss cottages. Eagles soared as might Chilean Condors and ferns brushed my legs as they well might in Dorset. I could be anywhere in the world, such was the view.
Further into the mountains, I came upon a small hut. I had no idea if it was three hundred years old or three thousand, but it would happily accommodate a desperate pilgrim should he find himself in dire straits on his climb through the hills. I chose to stop and enjoy a ham roll. The walking had been easy but I was mere hours in. The fact that I had to walk into another country had perhaps not quite registered.
Mountain descents, once again raised Steve The Stud to god-like status in my mind. The rain had turned tracks to mud and I couldn’t have fared without my walking poles. The shoes I’d so cursed whilst breaking in, proved to be both waterproof and sturdy on the treacherous downhills. Though my feet and legs were working well, I felt a slight pang as I reached Orrison, the endpoint for those who’d sensibly chosen to cross the Pyrenees over two days. I enjoyed a hot chocolate at the last possible place of accommodation before continuing my trek.
My entrance from France into Spain could not have been more different from my day-long trip from Heathrow. With no officials, no passport checks and no fuss whatsoever, I walked into Spain via a cattle grid.
The afternoon brought yet more sights and sounds. Wild ponies streamed around me, snails coursed my feet and sheep shied away. Needing to keep awake, I shunned nature's sounds for the MP3 player.
After ten hours and twenty-eight kilometres, I entered Roncesvalles, found the nearest albergue, showered, changed and then slept like the dead.
Golden slumbers, fill your eyes. Smiles await you when you rise.
Sleep pretty darling, do not cry, and I will sing a lullaby
My first day of walking the Camino would be one of many that I walked completely alone, but rising later meant walking in a crowd and though I attempted politeness, it felt far too early to be truly sociable. Eager to be away and on my own path, I packed quickly and made out of Roncesvalles flanked by a troop of fellow walkers. Our poles and sticks clattered over the smooth paving slabs shattering the peace of the cool country morning. Many stood and stared in amazement at the road sign proclaiming Santiago De Compostela to be a mere seven hundred and ninety kilometres off.
I dearly hoped to reach Larrasoaña. It was easily twenty-seven kilometres away and somewhat ambitious, but I was still conscious of making up time. Though I was slightly stiff from my first-day exertions, the walking was easy being mainly downhill. The views would never match the pure majesty of those seen from the peaks of the Pyrenees, but the area was still outstandingly beautiful.
After a time, pilgrims found their own pace and the walkers thinned out. I found relative peace in the shade of the woods, often only having wandering cows and rough-coated ponies for company. Once or twice I was certain I spotted a curly-haired man just up ahead, though just out of reach. I was in no doubt the wood nymph was Ghost Ray and I wondered why he was choosing to hide. Perhaps he knew that I had to find my own way through the Camino, though the sense of his presence kept my walking pace brisk.
The route was still impeccably marked, the importance of the trail often appearing beneath my feet. Intricate scallop tiles were frequently cemented into the pavement giving even the most down-faced pilgrim no excuse to get lost. I crossed various rivers and streams, the most precarious of which being a rushing waterway traversed by little more than a series of concrete pillars. As I hopped to each one, I was extraordinarily glad that Brian Macklin was not present to witness the event.
Godly reminders were everywhere. There were crosses of iron, stone and wood at each turn and still the walkers left their own symbols. Loathed to leave more stones (as I’d be wanting them later), I wondered how I might make my own mark. My initials were so pretentious they looked more like instructions than mementos and I had no wish to confuse fellow walkers. I had no spoken permission to use Ray’s name and couldn’t have people think I was him. Instead, using my stick in the dirt, I drew a ragged sun, its rays stretching far and wide. Throughout the next month, I’d scratch, carve and etch my sun rays hundreds of times.
Needing to eat, I stopped in the pretty village of Bizkarreta for breakfast and a passport stamp. My first tortilla in Spain made me a convert and I’ve still to perfect cooking an omelette that tastes just as good. With a fuller belly, I felt far more friendly to my common man and when three dusky beauties asked to share my space, I happily complied.
Monique from Marseille, Mariana from Seville and Caitlyn from Adelaide had all met at the start of their Camino. Unlike me, they were serious athletes. Saint Jean Pied de Port had been a mere stop off for them having started their walk at Le Puy-en-Velay. Their pilgrimage would be double the length of my own. They’d already nearly walked the entire distance I still had to go. I marvelled at their enthusiasm, their easy comradeship and the suggestive eyes that Mariana was making at me. Expressing my excuses, I returned to the trail and plugged in my earbuds.
I was happy to pass through Zubiri, a popular stopping place for many. It was well placed, offering everything the tired, modern Pilgrim might need. Though my feet were complaining, I pressed on and within a few miles, had picked up a companion.
“Buen Camino, pilgrim, I’m Keiran.”
“Hi, Keiran, the name’s Bodie, where have you walked from?”
“From Dublin, sir.”
“Really, when did you start?”
“January. It was pretty grim then, but Ireland often is. I must admit, I needed to make use of a boat on a few occasions. Word has it that only Jesus can walk on water and I’ve not qualified to that status quite yet.”
“You’re walking for religious reasons?”
“Kinda. It’s sort of all or nothing for me, before I started the Camino, I was in a seminary.”
“You want to become a priest?”
“I did, I still really hope that I do.”
“You’ve think you’ve changed your mind?”
“It’s not really as simple as that, Bodie. One doesn’t just decide they want to become a priest, it’s something they’re called to do. It’s something I thought I’d been called to do until God decided to test me. Now I’m not so sure.”
“Oh, something happened all right. I was weak and selfish and shamefully sinful but you don’t want to hear about that.”
Keiran seemed an unlikely sinner. The soft-spoken youth exuded a wholesomeness Thomas O’Mara could only imagine and pain and regret laced his every word. Sensing his need to confess, I opted for levity.
“I’m around for a few hundred miles if you fancy unburdening yourself, Keiran of Dublin.”
“It would embarrass you to hear of such things, Bodie and where are my manners, I’ve asked nothing of you. Where did you start your walk? Are you enjoying The Camino so far?”
“I’m William Bodie, I’m sixty-three years old and I started my walk at Saint Jean Pied de Port, but none of that knowledge will help you feel better. Talk if you want, though I’ve no wish to pry.”
“You’re sixty-three? Wow! You must have lived a pure life, William Bodie, you don’t look a day over forty, so you don’t! I’ve no idea why I confided in you. I’ve met hundreds of pilgrims since I started this thing, but told none my true reasons for doing it. You seemed, um, approachable I guess.”
“Most that have met me will testify I’m rarely approachable before ten in the morning and I’m pretty certain I’ve never been pure, but they say The Camino provides. I’ve broad shoulders and an even broader mind and they do say a problem shared is a problem halved.”
“Ah, you’re a good man, William Bodie and I doubt sharing my problems will halve them, but the truth of it is, I turned my back on God. I had a year of study left and I threw it all away.”
“Why, Keiran, what caused you to do that after all your hard work?”
“I’d fallen in love or thought that I had.”
“Love’s hardly a crime.”
“It is for a trainee priest. Imagine me, Keiran Nash, 1999 chorister of the year, caught in a compromising position with his childhood friend!”
“How old are you Keiran?”
“And had you ever experienced feelings of love whilst growing up?”
“Only for God, oh and my dear mother of course.”
“You’re still so young. Your feelings were only natural you know, it’s all part of being human and God knows there are many priests who are far from saintly! Trust me, you’ve very little to feel guilty about compared to some of them.”
“Oh, I’ve heard all the stories, Bodie, everyone has, but if I lived by those standards then where would I be? Other men’s crimes don’t lessen my own and I’ve more than my teacher’s wrath to feel guilty about. Poor David was sent away, I’ve no idea where, possibly another seminary, possibly out of the Church altogether. At least I was given a chance. Reflect and repent or succumb to the sins of the flesh and forget my calling forever. It was our elderly deacon who suggested walking the Camino to me. He’d walked the way before I was born and said it should be the making of me one way or the other.”
“‘David’ was the childhood friend I take it?”
“He was. I hope that doesn’t shock you too much,”
“Hardly and it’s really not something you need to be ashamed of, Keiran. Has walking the Camino helped you make any decisions?”
“If it’s any consolation, I once had a job where loving another man was unacceptable, but it never stopped me doing so."
“Really? My word, I would never have guessed that about you! What was it you did?”
“Oh, nothing as righteous as being a priest, in fact just the opposite at times, but it was all such a long time ago. I gave up the job but I never gave up the man and I never will.”
“He’s lucky to have you, Bodie. Is he not here walking with you?”
“Ah, sometimes he is, he’s up ahead somewhere, but we travel at vastly differing speeds.”
“Well I hope you catch up with him, Bodie.”
“Thanks, Keiran, so do I.”
“Are you stopping here in Larrasoaña?”
“My God are we here already?”
“We certainly are, my friend.”
“In that case, then no. Sorry, Keiran but I’ve still got a little gas left in the tank. If I can get to Akerreta, it’ll go a long way to repairing my schedule.”
“As you will, Bodie. I wish you well and wish you thanks. You’ve given me an awful lot to think about. I’m sorry I’ve little to give you in return but take this with my blessing.”
Keiran reached into his pocket and pulled out a well-used blue pot.
“Vapour rub? Should I be expecting some sort of head cold, Keiran?”
“No, you eejit, it’s not for your chest, it’s for your feet, for the blisters you know?”
“Well that’s kind of you Keiran, but so far I haven’t suffered, so I couldn’t take your blister remedy from you.”
“Well I hope that continues to be so, Bodie, but please, just take it in case. I suffered most of my blisters before I reached France and often, once you’ve beaten them, they stay beaten for good. As you said, The Camino provides, so please, take the salve. I hope we meet again, Bodie, I sometimes walk quicker so I might catch you up.”
“I’d like that, Keiran. I hope to reach Santiago by June twenty-seventh.”
“Well I don’t know if I can walk that much quicker, but I’ll keep an eye out for you, all the same.”
Using my stick, I drew another crude sun in the dry, sandy soil.
“You’ll know where to find me, just follow the rays.”
“I will, Bodie, buen Camino, now go and catch up with that man of yours.”
“Buen Camino, Keiran and good luck.”
As I strode away, I wondered why God would see fit to cause pain to one gentle as Keiran. Shaking my head at the thought, I made for Akerreta.
Ooh, baby, do you know what that's worth?
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth
Though walking a further eight kilometres had put a dent in delays, I was completely exhausted and wondered when I’d last consciously walked nonstop for near twenty miles.
The payoff, however, was to stay at the Hotel Akerreta, a place I would never have discovered had I paid too much attention to my mental itinerary. I marvelled at the time I’d made, grabbing the last available room at just after four. Sympathetically restored to perfection, the ancient Basque farmhouse boasted balconies and terraces festooned with flowers. Views of milky blue mountains were the backdrop to tree-covered ridges and apple green meadows.
After two nights in communal dorms, it would have been a pity to miss the heavenly delights of the Hotel Akerreta. After an invigorating shower, I’d rinsed out my walking wear, strung it to drip and made for the patio where twenty-odd others were eating a meal.
For the first time since 1989, I felt some holiday spirit. Wine freely flowed and cuisine hit the spot. Soon ensconced in the meaningful speech only strangers enjoy, I was relieved by no curfew, a room to myself and a chance to power my biological batteries.
Brought up short, I was amazed to see American obesities Betsy and Belinda, my male pride shattered that they had not only caught me but beaten me sorely. For the first time ever, I enjoyed the company of Chinese and Russian within the same conversation. Australian, Spanish and Germanic voices permeated the chatter but English was the predominant language making me humble. One particular voice drew me like a moth to a flame.
Mariana, the onyx eyed beauty, had forged ahead of her companions promising to meet again in Pamplona. It was a common occurrence, walkers getting an itch in their feet before tearing off. Mobile phone technology ensured that those who had meant it really would reunite.
I’d known in my bones that Mariana wanted me, though I hadn’t the faintest idea why. As the party split up, we went to my room. Kissing her was like landing in silk sheets, touching her skin like caressing fine pottery. Her hands made magic along my spine as mine began to play in her waterfall hair.
I should have been a man in paradise for she was everything I’d ever desired in a woman, smart, sophisticated and achingly beautiful. Supple from walking, she retained a slender fragility with fine, muscled limbs. She smelled of the sunshine and Chanel No. 5 and my brain tried to tell me I’d fallen in love. As soon as she breached the fly on my trousers, I knew it was never to be. Wondering how to extricate myself without total embarrassment, I must have faltered and she sensed my withdrawal immediately.
“If you’d rather have coffee, Bodie, it’s a wonderful night and there’s a great expresso machine in the common area.”
My heart sank at her words, perfectly spoken in tones of crème caramel.
“I’m so sorry, Mariana, I just guess I’m not ready.”
“Something tells me you never will be, mi amor.”
“You may well be right. I’m sorry if I lead you on.”
“No seas estúpido, I too was to blame.”
“A coffee sounds great if you really did want one?”
“But of course, any time of the day is a great time for coffee!”
At half-past eleven under star-studded skies, I fully relaxed with Mariana and mocha. Emboldened by her benign reaction to my foolishness, I once again attempted a stuttering apology.
“You really are the most beautiful woman …”
“But not as beautiful as the one that you love?”
“It’s not quite like that. I’ve never been married nor wanted a wife. I’ve loved women, yes, but there isn’t one waiting for me at home by the ‘phone.”
“A man then, you’re in love with a man?”
“Would that make you think less of me?”
“Of course not! Bodie it is two thousand-ten, not the Basque middle ages and I’m European, we know of such things! It does not explain, however, why this man does not walk El Camino with you. Is he not yours to love?”
“He was, but he died.”
“Ah, mi amor, entiendo - I understand. You lost your love, I send you all my understandings, as I too lost mine.”
“Your husband died?”
“No, I really did lose him. I think you say it ‘to a younger version’.
“Ah, ‘a younger model’.”
“Yes, that’s it, to a younger model.”
“How old are you, Mariana?”
“I am forty-five years. The younger model was twenty-five years.”
“And how old was your love?”
“He was fifty-five years.”
“And how old do you think I am?”
“I think that you are forty years. I have decided to become interested in much younger men.”
“Well I won’t disappoint you by telling my age, but I’m old enough to know that young men are stupid, old men are lonely and middle-aged men like your amor are desperate. They lose their looks and put on weight and then do stupid things like chasing young girls before pushing away the women that love them.”
“Yes! That is just what happened! I so loved Jose and tried to be good to him but he found it so hard, what with me and my job. I tried to be a wife to him when I wasn’t called out, but he hated that situation so I gave up my work.”
“What was your job?”
“I was a nuclear scientist.”
“You were a WHAT?”
“Um, a ‘nuclear scientist’? I know how to make energy from atoms.”
“Oh my god, you’re kidding me?”
“No, it can be done, from atomic nuclei, we can make electricity and medicines and …”
“No, I mean you’re a nuclear scientist?”
“Is that so hard for you to believe, Bodie? I should not be surprised as Jose didn’t like it either. He hated that I could earn more money than him, but I felt that I should pay him back as he had supported my schooling. If I had known that my job would mean losing my love, I never would have studied science, I would have become a washerwoman instead!”
“Mariana, I’m not shocked that you’re a nuclear scientist ‘cos you’re female, but because I’ve never been in the presence of one before! And you gave it all up because of a man?”
“Well here is the question! I left my job but still lost mi amor. This is why I walk El Camino. To answer my questions. Work or love?”
“If you go back to that wanker, you’re not as clever as I think you must be!”
“No entiendo. Sorry, I do not understand?”
“I can tell you your answer without you having to take another single step. The twenty-five-year-old will tire of him far quicker than he does her. If he returns begging forgiveness, kick him to the curb. Only ever date men that open doors for you, pay their own way, then worship you like a goddess.”
“You too, Bodie only ever date the most handsome of men!”
“It’s not about handsome and it’s not about clever, it’s about those who value you. If your chosen one doesn’t value you above themselves, then choose again. I wasn’t good enough for the one who chose me and I have to live forever with that. My Camino is about saying sorry. If ever I tread enough steps to do that, my trek will be worth it.”
“You’re a good man, Bodie. The fat twins, by the way, catch a bus when they’re tired. Goodnight and God bless.”
I slept alone in relative luxury, thinking of Mariana then dreaming of Ray.
I'd smile and say you were a friend of mine
And the sadness would be lifted from my eyes
Oh when I'm old and wise
The Alan Parsons Project
The following morning, I rose early, made use of the coffee machine and left for the trail alone.
The weather at six was cool and clear promising a fine day’s walking ahead. At home, the fields were green enough, certainly a far cry from the drab, grey backgrounds of my CI5 days, but now I knew I’d simply never tire of the Spanish countryside under its vast, endless skies.
Ancient fields, framed by modern wind turbines, brought past and future together. I wondered what the ninth century pilgrims would have made of the alien towers, though I couldn’t help myself but marvel at their hypnotic beauty.
Walking was easy when surrounded by butterflies sucking their fill from sun-facing dog roses. Hovering bees were my constant companions, landing on petals too frail for their weight, like miniature jump jets who were challenging physics. Miles of farmland made me wonder who tended such faraway places, was just one man alone or a whole company responsible for the rows and rows of golden ears I brushed my hands through? Google would surely know the answer, reminding me I really should check my emails and send word to my niece.
The one sight that saddened me, were the many memorials scattered on route. More often than not, being for those much younger than me, who’d attempted the walk but died in the process. It reminded me that Ray’s life had been taken too soon and mine, not quite soon enough.
Having made such good progress the previous day, I knew I wouldn’t be overnighting in my intended spot of Pamplona and when I reached the place, I was glad of the fact. After walking for days through wide-open country, the shock of a town was rather unwelcome.
Pamplona was a pilgrim’s paradise. Even with the sheer mass of people, there were ample albergues with places to spare, but there seemed to be little community spirit. Most of the city dwellers rushed on by seeming to have little idea their home was a major place on the Camino route.
I found a café to stamp my credencial and after refuelling with a tortilla and coffee, looked about the place. In a months’ time, it would be teeming with people, all gathered to witness the world-famous ‘Running of The Bulls’. I looked at the pen that would hold the creatures, walked the street along which they would tear, and nodded to the church by which they would pass. I shook my head not really knowing how people could travel to see such a spectacle without wishing to experience the whole Camino route for themselves. Sometimes I had no idea why I was walking the Camino and at others, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
Though the fortified city had much to admire, tired of its bustle, I made tracks to leave. An obstinate shoe-lace had again come undone. As I sat down to tie it, a voice floated my way.
“Buen, Camino, Peregrino!”
I turned to a face that looked as old as the hills.
“Why thank you, Señor, a fine day it is to be walking it too!”
“There’s rarely a bad day walking the trail. There will be hardships and sufferings, challenges, certainly, but it’s our job to meet them and become stronger for it.”
“You speak fine English, Señor.”
“Ah, and Russian and French and a little Chinese. I’ve picked up many languages during my copious years on the Earth.”
“Wise as well as old, then, Señor?”
“I should be with a name like mine! In Española my name is pronounced, ‘Haysoos’, but you may call me ‘Jesus’ if it pleases you. I hasten to add, I’m not the messiah though I’m probably almost as old!”
“Have you walked the trail yourself?”
“Oh, more times than I care to remember. Living by it helps.”
I grinned at the man before hoisting my backpack.
“El Camino will answer your questions, Bodie, but only when you start to ask the right questions.”
I sat down abruptly.
“What do you mean, ask the right questions?”
“It’s forgiveness you seek, is it not? Ask yourself what forgiveness you owe, then ask the bigger question, what forgiveness you’re owed. Please don’t walk the Camino for all the wrong reasons.”
“I’m walking to say sorry, it’s what I need to do, to say sorry.”
“Enjoy your Camino, Bodie. Open your mind to The Way and you will get your answers, sooner or later, whoever it is that says sorry.”
I looked up at the old man who was flanked by a pensive-looking Ghost Ray. For once, I couldn’t stand to see the apparition and almost stumbled as I rose again to take my leave.
With brimming tears threatening to become a raging flood, I left the old-timer hardly hearing his cry of ‘Buen Camino’. Old he may have been and undoubtedly wise, but I was completely certain that at no time had I told him my name.
I left Pamplona glad to see the back of the place. I walked within a large group of pilgrims, though their exuberant chatter, re-energised from rest, couldn’t keep Jesus’s words from plaguing my head.
Could it be I was blameless? It hardly seemed likely. All I had asked for in the last thirty years, was Ray’s continuing health. As my prayers were not granted, I could only assume I was wicked at heart, that my penance would never be paid. Ray Doyle could never have been described as being easy to live with, but I’d been used to his ways and accepted them gladly. Losing an argument in favour of peace had become second nature for so many years, I’d lost the habit of forming opinions. ‘Til those last fateful weeks, I’d let Ray have his head, smiling sweetly at every scowl, cajoling and cossetting like a highly trained dog. The things I said at that terrible time, what I’d accused him of, the words that had taken the light from his eyes, were the words I could never take back. Those words were the reason I walked.
Gradually, the group thinned out. Many of the walkers had started their day in Pamplona and fresher than me, had a mountain to climb. Carried along in the big throng of people whilst lost in my thoughts, I’d completely ignored my improving surroundings. Once again, I was out in wide-open country.
Elsewhere, in England and France, both young and old were preparing to commemorate D Day. The people alongside me had suddenly stopped. As I rose my head to enquire at the halt, I faced a meadow of poppies. Their blood-red heads bobbing over shimmering wheat, the fragile flowers reminded me I wasn’t the first to have loved and lost and certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Jesus had been right about one thing. I wasn’t enjoying my Camino, just enduring it. Though I was making up time, I had no idea if reaching the end was either a blessing or curse. I’d walked seventeen kays from Akerreta to Pamplona and had little idea where my day was to end. Humbled by the poignant red flowers, I took new interest in those around me. They were alive and as mobile as I. We had much to be grateful for to be walking this route, to be walking anywhere.
Josette from Paris, was walking in remembrance of her late husband Gilbert, who’d been both the local Mayor and a school football coach. Kevin from Luton, had been clear of cocaine since entering France. Rosanna and Isla from Montreal, did their Camino in stages, returning each year to get another part walked. Les from Australia, walked from habit he said. Apparently, The Outback was conducive to walking but tired of the Antipodes, he’d landed in Europe. It was good to hear stories as I could share few of my own. How many would have been interested in my dubious tales of seventies crime fights may well be debatable, but I still felt harnessed by my secret-bound tongue.
We wandered for hours, lost in chatter until the walk forced us uphill. Zariquiegui was the last small town before the climb started in earnest and was a natural rest stop for the whole of the group. My stomach informed me it needed refilling and my ankles were starting to hurt. As the other walkers refilled their bottles and flopped under trees, I searched about until I found a small albergue. The hospitalera showed me one of several small dorms each packed with six bunks. The place looked clean and well kept, had hot showers and a washing machine, but greatest of all sported a bar.
I paid ten euros for a bunk and a meal, threw my pack in a locker and went to see off my fellow souls with a lager in hand. Les’ eyes widened on seeing my beer and he also decided to stay. I spent a nice evening in a relaxed albergue, getting slightly more mellow with every drink. I outlived Les who collapsed in a chair, his legendary drinking skills sadly deserting him. Draught San Miguel gave me a second wind I hadn’t been wanting and just after midnight, I toasted those who had given all to their country wherever that may have been.
The next day, I rose slightly late. It was a rare occurrence for others to wake me, but the rustlings and whispers of those ready to go brought me out of my dreams and into awareness. With my brain slightly muggy, I told myself off. The day before me was one to remember and wouldn’t be helped by a hungover head. Military training forced me to my feet and I left for the hills with a small group of people. Of Les, there was no sign at all.
Nobody seemed in a talkative mood. The hillside was dark and the temperature low, but the lack of heat improved walking no end. My headache forgotten, I watched every step. Climbing was challenging, but on unstable ground, hazardous too. The path was littered with pebbles and shale and I used my poles tenfold to balance my weight. Finally, as we reached the summit the sun warmed us through. I’d climbed higher mountains on my very first day, but this one was tough and our relief was complete.
The rain rusted statues at Alto del Perdón, gave much pause for thought. The previous day I had honoured the war dead. Now I saw hardship from earlier times. Centuries before, to walk the Camino had been bestowed as punishment. The rich of the day had paid others to walk the thing for them. It seemed odd to me now that we walked it through choice.
As ever, ancient met modern and the delights of a pop-up café brought sustenance to all. A huge kitchen van pulled by a Land Rover Defender, gave a stamp for my passport and a much-needed meal.
Alto del Perdón was a magical place. Though the statues themselves were reasonably new, the souls they depicted were older than time. I read the inscription, ‘Donde se cruza el camino del viento con el de las estrellas’. ‘Where the path of the wind crosses that of the stars’ and I felt very small as I scratched a small sunshine into the earth.
All to soon it seemed, it was time to descend, which proved just as tricky as the difficult climb. I remembered landing in Biarritz and cursing my walking poles. Now they proved more precious than rubies. The ever-moving, gravelly track was an accident waiting to happen for the unwary and I had to force myself to concentrate hard on where I placed my feet.
As the path levelled off, I thought of Alto del Perdón, The Hill of Forgiveness. The whole place had brought meaning to me, putting some of my problems back in perspective. I had my health and I had a home. I had a small, though overprotective family who thought they knew best about how I should live and I had a pesky ghost who would force me to pay for the rest of my days. Compared to what the ninth century pilgrims had faced, my issues were small. Not welcoming company, I pressed in my earbuds.
Feeling parched, it was a joy to find a young girl selling lemonade on the outskirts of Obanos. Like so many vendors on the Spanish side of the Camino, she simply asked a donación, that I gave what I could and I happily parted with a few euros for her trouble. In return, she gave me a cup of God’s nectar and a stamp for my passport.
As I entered Puente la Reina, a random track on the player made me stop deadly still. I stood there and thought about Ray and his mother. Ray had known parents I could only imagine. He’d a family so large, the Christmas list crippled, but they’d believed in their boy from beginning to end. I shed a tear for the elderly lady who’d outlived her first son, knowing there was no way I could shun this man, that he’d be in my heart forever.
She loved that man For all his life
But now we meet to take him flowers
And only god knows why
Puente la Reina was an ancient place. Its narrow streets mirroring its wide ‘Queens Bridge’, the point at which two other Camino routes met up. The lanes were littered with cafes, with both pilgrims and locals sharing their tables.
As I looked up above me, tumbling flowers from twee balconettes, twined with ripening peppers strung out to catch the best of the sun.
With a sense of wonder, I found the oldest recorded Roman roadway in Spain. The Calzada Romana proved to be very straight and very long. As ever, there were familiar stone piles built up by pilgrims and as luck would have it, I acquired a companion.
The man who called himself ‘Lucien from Liverpool’ was as mad as a hatter. Something about him seemed vaguely familiar but his words were as alien to me as those from the bible. I tried to engage him but soon lost the battle.
“Gotta keep walking, they’ll catch you if you don’t!”
“Who, Lucien, who will catch you?”
“The inspectors! The keepers of the pot!”
The government, man! The police and the council, they’ll catch you out soon. Run from them, pilgrim they’re after your house!”
“Where do you actually live, Lucien?”
“Oh, me? I live here on The Way. No social workers chase me out here, they can’t be arsed, the lazy fuckers!”
“And what will you do when you get to the end?”
“Walk back of course. Then I’ll set fire to the houses of Parliament!”
I had too far to go to encourage Lucien’s delusions and rapidly left him far behind. I walked through a world full of vineyards. Everywhere I looked were pendulous grapes and I ate my fill till I felt faintly sick. I walked through small villages that though simply beautiful, were devoid of all life. I somehow knew it was not just siestas that made these towns sleep. The young folk had left them and caused them to perish. Stunning villas that would command fortunes in England, stood empty and stale. I idly wondered why Lucien didn’t acquire one and live off of grapes.
The heat was relentless and for the very first time, I became bored of the walking, tired of the views and thoroughly, miserably sick of my lot. Had I been a religious man, it might have seemed as though heaven was testing me, but my own frazzled patience was testing enough. If I could just reach Estella, I would have made up my time. The schedule I’d planned and poured over for months, could be within reach if only I could get to Estella. With the sun beating down and sweat stinging my neck, Estella seemed as remote and far off as the face of the moon.
Tired, depressed and conscious of time, my body informed me I needed to stop. I chose a sparkling stretch under a viaduct that soared over the Rio Salado. My guidebook informed me that the river was salty. So salty in fact that to drink from its waters would bring certain death. What the book failed to mention was the saline laced currents were blissful for feet.
For thirty long minutes, I soaked grateful toes in spa-bath like glory, the idea of water foremost in my mind. On a cold and damp January day, it was hard to imagine thirst being an issue and I’d rejected Stud Steve’s sales pitch for carrying liquid. Along the route, I’d simply filled bottles from the free-flowing fuentes. Increasingly, however, I was finding the fountains were just ornamentation, warnings alerting that the untreated water was not to be drunk. I was starting to envy those with their water camels, sensible walkers who sucked from a pipe from a bag in their pack. Carrying two litres of water around would add two kilos of weight but to die of dehydration would be undoubtedly bleaker. A town like Estella might sell such a thing. With a renewed sense of purpose, I started to walk.
There were more uphill climbs on the way to Estella, though most of them proved to be smoothly paved streets. Though it was pleasant to leave the crunching of stones, the pavements were hot and my poor feet informed me they hated my guts. I entered the town, flanked by a stunning twelfth Century Basilica church. I spent the briefest of moments admiring the Romans, whose intricate details had weathered all time. All that I wanted was to lay my head down. I knew I had pushed it, my body was wrecked. I had done it, however, finally my days of walking extortionate lengths might well now be over and I could get back on track.
I noted a camp shop, noted a bar and booked the first albergue my feet came upon. I’d walked for nearly ten hours and felt I could die. If this was my payment to one Raymond Doyle, I hoped he was grateful, wherever he was. Not caring one way or the other, I put my head down and slept like the dead.
The following morning, the albergue was quiet meaning I had probably overslept once again. Surely enough, the Pilgrim’s breakfast had been well cleared away by the time I arose and I had to beg the hospitalera to let me shower before she prepared her dorms for the next wave of pilgrims.
I was reasonably unconcerned about my tardiness knowing that at long last I had made up the time lost to me on my first day. I would still have some long treks ahead but was confident that I could reach Santiago by the twenty-seventh of June. It was rather nice not to have to queue for the shower stall or endure cold water and I spent a good twenty minutes luxuriantly pampering myself. My jour de vivre was not to last.
As I scrubbed my right foot, pain shot through me as if I’d been stabbed. My left foot gave a similar reaction so I quickly rinsed off and inspected my feet. The skin was in ribbons and flowing with fresh blood. My right sole appeared to be one huge, pale blister and I realised with horror, my feet were all but destroyed. Too many late finishes had meant I’d paid the scantest attention to my physical needs. The last time I’d applied any surgical spirit had been whilst at home and now my feet, my most valuable tools, had sadly paid the ultimate price.
I was almost in tears when my kind hostess found me. Having seen the same scenario so many times, she knew what to do and within twenty minutes had my feet dressed and wrapped up like mummified fish. She gave me directions to the farmacia with implicit instructions on what I should buy.
Don't let yourself go
'Cause everybody cries
And everybody hurts sometimes
I limped into town feeling sorry for myself. My first point of call was the farmacia. There was no point in spending my limited funds on a water carrier that might only see the inside of a plane. The chemist however, proved very well stocked. I bought enough dressings to plaster a wall and plentiful bandages, spirit and salve.
Next on my list was the Caminar shop and a reasonable price bought a hydration bladder designed for my pack. The kindly tendero filled it with water and with no more excuses, I readied to go.
I walked slow from Estella but with childlike joy, as my feet were complying with relative ease. Before too long, I was back in the open. The fields, as wide and vast as ever, were becoming progressively browner. It seemed that the sun was sucking the life from the earth. I’m sure that had I the time to sit still, cracks in the soil would open before me.
From my varying chats with neighbouring pilgrims, I learned that my shopping had not been in vain. I’d a hill to traverse on my way to Los Arcos and though hills weren’t a worry when you’d climbed over mountains, for the last seven miles there were no water stops.
The arid walk was far from my mind at the Bodegas Irache. An infamous point on the Camino route, the monastery’s feunte provided not only fresh water for the thirst-driven traveller. The other, equally shiny tap spouted fresh, young red wine. I filled a small bottle with burgundy liquid, a treat to encourage me, onto the end.
The Camino stretched on before me like a white river snaking itself through the hills. I didn’t appreciate the much shorter distance when the blisters woke back up to ruin my day. As I entered Los Arcos, I was almost decided. I’d been shot at by guns and poked at by knives but nothing compared to blistering feet. As I was wondering what the nearest airport might be to Los Arcos, I saw Ghost Ray ahead. For once, he looked sorrowed, concern on his face. I ached just to hold him, to have him hold me. He didn’t approach me, but beckoned me on. I followed him gladly, whilst burning with pain. At the site of a hostel, my fantasy fled and I gratefully, finally fell through the doors.
My albergue was another donativo meaning I only had to pay what I could afford and what I thought the place warranted. It proved to be popular and although I still couldn’t put many names to faces, I was now starting to vaguely recognise people I’d met on the trail. I’d arrived later than most and found the shower stalls quiet. My priority was to get a good look at my feet to see if any further damage had been done on the walk from Estella. I gingerly removed the bandages and was pleased to see that although the blisters didn’t look much better, they at least didn’t seem any worse. I showered and dried myself and elected to wear my sandals to allow some air to get to my tender skin.
Although blisters aren’t contagious, they seemed to be the main topic of conversation when I hobbled into the common area, so it seemed I wasn’t suffering alone. Many like me had chosen to air their feet and I was surprised to see far worse cases than mine. Luka from Holland had sores so infected he’d spent most of his day in a hospital queue. There was, however, a feel-good atmosphere amongst the small crowd and revitalised after a good wash, I decided a few hours enjoying the company of others would be very welcome. My plastic bottle of hot vin rouge had all but turned to vinegar. Adjoining the albergue was a conveniently placed bottle shop and I purchased some wine to add to supplies. It was almost standing room only when I returned and I wedged myself between Katarina and Ross two students from Maine. Everyone was more than happy to budge-up as few of us wanted to stand.
Just as I was bemoaning my general aches and pains with Ross, a European voice commented,
I’m no German speaker but knew an insult when one was thrown at me and enquired as to the young woman’s reason behind it.
“I’m sorry, Miss, but have I offended you in some way?”
“You are stupid, I watch you walking and you walk too fast and too long, it is no wonder you complain about having the blisters!”
I was flabbergasted and more than a little spooked that someone had been watching me walk. The Fräulein took advantage of my momentary speechlessness and slipped away before I could retaliate. I looked at Ross and Katarina in bewilderment and Ross kindly tried to explain.
“Don’t worry too much about Hilde, buddy, she’s kinda got this attitude thing goin’ on and she really ain’t your biggest fan.”
“Eh? What the hell did I do? I’ve never even met the woman!”
“Ahh, but you’re her greatest competition at the moment, for three days she’s tried to catch you but you beat her every time, I don’t think it’s doin’ her ego much good.”
“Nobody told me it was a race, what the hell’s her problem?”
“Ross is right, don’t let her upset you too much, Bodie. We kinda picked her up just outside Saint Jean, she was walking with two other German girls and they were fabulous, but at Pamplona one of them got sick and had to pull out and Hilde’s been trying to find some decent competition ever since. I think the three girls were actually quite serious athletes, they certainly had all the best gear. Sabrina was distraught having to pull out but you can’t argue with a ruptured appendix!”
“But why would this woman see me as competition, there must be faster walkers than me and she must be at least half my age?”
Luka suddenly joined in the conversation,
“Ah, Hilde, yes? She’s got some problems that girl, she laughed this morning as she passed me on my way to the hospital!”
The mention of Hilde The Terrible’s name drew comments from more and more people until she emerged from the showers and we all went shamefacedly quiet. I’d be needing to have a word with the strange young girl sooner or later. In the meantime, I enjoyed an unexpectedly good night's company with my fellow pilgrims.
At midnight, I was the last one standing and to clear some wine from my head I took black coffee outside to drink under the stars.
It no longer mattered that Hilde had been watching me, it seemed I was only one of many who that had happened to. What broke my heart however, was the lack of warning from Ghost Ray. Nobody I’d ever worked with had picked up tails more successfully than Ray Doyle, the man had almost been able to smell people following him.
Ghost Ray had shown no indication that he’d seen Hilde either as a threat or otherwise and it made me question the validity of the apparition. I’d never questioned Ghost Rays presence, simply accepted it as I accepted the rising of the sun. The realisation that he might simply be a figment of my needy imagination, that I was losing my mind a bit more with each step I took, was a sudden shock. As I laid down to sleep, tears clouded my eyes.
In the morning, I walked with Katarina and Ross. They were good and wholesome, homegrown young kids and represented everything I both loved and hated about America.
It was wine festival season in Los Arcos. Dusty flags were strung between streets and later in the day the town would welcome far more than us mere pilgrims. Out in the fields, we felt much more at home. Leaving early had put us in good stead for beating the heat and we trudged on passed goat herds, grapevines and gorse.
The town of Viana was where we departed. An exquisite display of architectural beauty was a fine place for breakfast and one to revere. For all three of us, it marked the hundred-mile point from our start at Saint Jean. A celebratory tortilla hardly seemed fitting for such a crucial occasion, but our bellies were wanting and needed their fill.
The two young students wanted to stay, the buildings and artistry catching their eye. I had a schedule to keep and left them in the pretty town fawning over ancient etchings. I returned to the sharp-smelling gorse lined trail, bound for Logroño.
After my late night in Los Arcos, I bedded down early when I got to Logroño. Due to my diligence the blisters were receding, but the next stage of my journey was thirty-one kays. I now needed extra time in the mornings just to treat and wrap up my feet. The addition of a micro towel was a Godsend. I’d seen others use them and finally bought one for just a few euros. The thing weighed mere ounces and folded to nothing and ensured that should I go paddling again, my feet would be thoroughly dry before donning my socks.
The long walk to Nájera was decidedly dull. The weather for once, was cloudily cool, threatening rain that never quite fell. Much of the route was flanked by the highway and the towns that I came upon were surrounded by industry. Ugly factories, gravel pits and retail parks seemed a world away from the Camino I’d started to know. When I finally returned to the wilds of wine country, the rain fell in earnest, turning Rioja’s red soil into rivers of blood.
As far as the eye could see, the vines formed a patchwork of differing strains but fed up with grapes, I made a quick meal by filching some figs that grew wild by the road. Lost in both thought and the sounds of my player, I nearly jumped skywards when tapped on the back.
“Well, howdy, there, Pilgrim!”
I was astounded to see the retiree from Vancouver I’d met in Saint Jean on my very first day.
“Vincent! My God, it’s a small world, fancy meeting you out here in the middle of nowhere! You’re making good time, my friend.”
“Ah, as I told you back then, I’ve been here before. If there’s a bit I don’t fancy or the going gets tough, I just hop on a train!”
“You don’t mind walking in the rain, then?”
“Even the initiated get caught out sometimes, Bodie, believe you me, if there was a bus halt out here, I’d be getting on one right now! So has the Camino given you any answers yet?”
“Only that it was right to come out here as I’ve truly fallen for the place. I’ve seen the most beautiful sights and already met a few people I’ll never forget. Have you found any answers, Vincent or aren’t you seeking any? Sorry, I was too new and green to have thought to ask the first time we met.”
“The Camino gets you like that. There’s no other place quite like it. It will change you, Bodie, though it may take you a good time to realise that it has. I’ll pass you my number for the times afterward when the Camino Blues drive ya’ crazy. To answer your question, however, no I haven’t found my own answers quite yet.”
“What is it you need to know if that’s not too personal a question?”
“Well to answer that, I’ll give you a scenario. I got two daughters. One daughter works as many hours as she can get in a Stop’n’Shop to support her and her eight-year-old boy. She lives in a crummy apartment with a crappy internet connection, but she just loves to see the pictures I send her of my days on The Camino and whenever she can afford to, she brings herself and the boy to come visit me. She won’t accept a cent of my help to see her way through, she never complains and she always has a smile on her face. My other daughter is an anaesthetist in a hospital. Unlike her sister, she didn’t get knocked up during her college years and now earns more money than her mother and I could only have dreamed of.”
“Sounds like they’re both girls to be proud of, Vincent.”
“Oh, sure, and I love them equally, (though they’re estranged from each other). The wealthy one, however, the one that supposedly ‘made good’ can’t bear me doing this and we row every time I come on a trip. She wants me to move nearer to her, says I could get a fancy condo, just a spit away from her place.”
“Which is not part of your plan?”
“Not at the current time, though I appreciate that as I get older it might well be a Godsend having someone willing to care for me. Walking The Camino however, is my last strive at independence, to show that I just don’t need that care yet!”
“I’ve got a niece that would get on very well with your anaesthetist daughter, Vincent.”
“What, one that wants to plan the rest of your life for you, Bodie?”
“Ah, I guess it’s the kids right to be precocious just as it’s ours to be old farts. You’ll find your answers, Bodie, as long as you’re not in any due hurry.”
Vincent walked on as I entered Nájera. Though weary, I wasn’t yet ready to sleep and chose to stop at an internet café before I found myself an albergue. It seemed like an age since I’d gotten in touch and following some religiously written instructions, I managed to access my email account. There were a surprising amount of messages jostling for attention in my in-box, including best wishes from Steve the Stud and more grudging words of encouragement from Thomas O’Mara. The rest all seemed to consist of advertising material and I was rather offended at how much Viagra some of these people seemed to assume I needed. The email I really needed to concentrate on, was the one from Shelly.
Michelle Robinson <email@example.com> 1 June 2010 at 17:41
Hi, Uncle Bodie!
How’s your madcap venture going?
I hope you’re taking loads of pictures for me, I’ve told lots of people what you’re up to and at least two publications could be interested in picking up your story and doing an article. One of them IS Saga (sorry! 😊) but it might be a good thing to read what doing the Camino’s like from a pensioner’s perspective.
Have you been through a place called Pamplona yet? Apparently, it’s where Ernest Hemmingway wrote a book called ‘The Sun Also Rises’. As a late b’day pressie, I ordered you a copy from Amazon which I sent to your iPhone. All you need to do is open the Kindle app I installed for you and you should see it there. (Hope your eyes are up to reading the small text – make sure you read it offline else it will murder your battery!)
Now, the BIG news is that Jamie and myself are buying into a new travel company. It’s currently being set up in The Netherlands and I recon in the next 5 or 6 years with my company's experience and Jamie’s knowledge of technical sales, it could be THE major player in the holiday market. You heard it here first, so watch this space. It’s called ‘Trivago’.
All is fine here by the way, Mum and Dad say Hi and all the critters are still alive you’ll be glad to hear. Hope you’re still on track, please don’t forget I’m off to a wedding on the 1st of July.
Have fun and TRY not to get into any trouble!
Gotta go now, calls to make, people to impress, you know how it is,
Love you, love Shelly x
After a day of walking, it would likely have been more sensible to drink tea or coffee rather than San Miguel and the quick rush of alcohol made Shelly’s email seem all the more annoying. I wrote a rapid, snippy reply, highlighting the fact that cocky young nieces should be seen and never heard. I diligently checked my spelling before sending, hating the thought that my advancing years could be blamed for poor grammar. Triumphantly scanning the nasty little message, I was poised to hit the enter button as a furious looking Ghost Ray sat down opposite me. He looked very pissed off, even for him, but I was overjoyed. Even if Ghost Ray was a deviant figment of my imagination, he still had enough sway over me to stop me doing the most stupid of things. I re-read Shelly’s email and tried to find some good things to say about it.
William Bodie <firstname.lastname@example.org> 8 June 2010 at 13:01
Thanks for the email. So sorry, I haven’t been taking that many pictures (well not ones good enough to use in a magazine anyway). I’ll probably have a few anecdotes after this trip, but I’ve never really written much before so I’ve no idea if I’d be good enough to write my experiences down in the sort of style that someone might want to read. Anyhow, that might be a project for me to think about over the winter, though please don’t get your hopes up!
Thanks for the Kindle book, I DID see a statue of Hemmingway in a café in Pamplona which I passed through a few days ago. (I did get a photo of it but I don’t know how well it came out).
Marvellous news about the new travel firm! I can imagine you and your brother working together would be a force to be reckoned with!
Glad all is well at your end, give your mum and dad a kiss from me and don’t worry about the wedding, you’ll get there no matter what.
Thanks for all you’re doing,
I found an average-looking albergue and booked in. Fortunately, it wasn’t the strictest place I’d stayed at and turned a completely blind eye to the sack full of San Miguel cans I’d bought in a mini-mart. My new fellow pilgrims were thrilled with my purchase and I was more than willing to share as long as I achieved my purpose of getting quickly and thoroughly drunk, which I did with aplomb.
I rose early the following day. Though muggy headed, the minute sounds of other early risers trying to be quiet, filtered through my brain like a fanfare and despite all the beer, I knew I hadn’t slept well. I rose on autopilot, collected my belongings and was on the road before daybreak. It was a reasonable walk to Santa Domingo de la Calzada and one that would have been easy without a hangover.
As light hit the skies, rocky outcrops loomed as black silhouettes. The fields gradually changed from vineyards to wheat fields, displaying endlessly swaying acres of crops. The repetitive vistas gave much room to think. I longed for the escape of the MP3 player but my ears were too tender for music and I didn’t deserve a respite from my thoughts.
Michelle had meant well. Michelle always did. It was my own selfish pride that made me constantly compare our lives. She was entirely right that I was aging, it was a composite fact. She was also correct being proud of her achievements. I thanked Ghost Ray for his quick intervention. If not for my niece, I might not be here living the trip of a lifetime that poor Ray Doyle had been sadly denied. A thing I was sure of, however, was that I had at least one answer for Vincent. I was certain that wherever I lived it would be through my own choice and nobody else’s. I hadn’t decided if that place would be Dorset, as the Spanish Camino was casting its spell.
A little way out of a place called Azofra, I observed a ‘picota’. The slender stone column looked like an antiquated hat stand and my guide book informed me that centuries before, the heads of the damned had hung from its hooks. It was a sobering sight that reminded me that I lived in a free world, my troubles mere trifles.
Towering sunflowers greeted my entry to Santa Domingo. Both my head and feet appreciated the shorter walk and the remains of Keiran’s vapour rub were putting paid to further blisters. It was a pleasant-looking town and I finally felt sober enough to have a look round.
The wide Plaza de Espana had hosted bullfights in times gone by. A smaller plaza housed the ‘Camino Market’. Every fruit, fish and fancy was available to purchase, but it was a small sports stall that caught my eye. The changing moods of The Camino had played havoc on my face. Searing winds, scorching sun and chilling rain had wrecked my skin. For a few Euros, I bought a ‘buff’. Half scarf and half snood, it covered my face with elastic ease. I looked like a convict, but would be better protected from the elements thus forth.
According to my guide, the Santa Domingo municipal albergue was one of the finest to be found on the Camino. Whilst allowed to look about the hostel, I was unable to book a space until four in the afternoon. For a place that sported over two hundred beds, it was indeed surprisingly good with well-kept bunks in very small dorms.
I had two hours to kill before the hour struck four, and found myself wandering out of the town. I spent time watching storks that were nesting on rooftops and by feeding the squirrels that danced round my feet. It wasn’t long before I came upon Grañón. The last town in the province of Rioja, it was no more than a hamlet whose population boasted two hundred and fifty. An ancient monastery housed Grañón’s albergue and I took myself in for a nosey around. A time-worn stone staircase spiralled me upwards until I reached a veranda where boots of all sizes aired out in the sun. There was only one dorm that was housed in the bell tower. The bedding was basic, offering little more comfort than a mat on the floor. The quaintness, however, of the twelfth-century building pulled at the heartstrings and the clean, modern hostel just couldn’t compare. Though my back might not thank me, I elected to stay in a place that had sheltered the pilgrim for hundreds of years.
Within a sense of community, a meal was produced. Though Grañón was tiny, it seemed there was nothing that couldn’t be bought, begged or borrowed and with alongside twenty-odd others I ate like a king. After we’d eaten, Dom from New Zealand picked up his guitar and gently started to play ‘Ultreya’, the unofficial song of the Camino. It was acquired listening at first, but after hearing it a few hundred times, became as much a part of the trip as grapevines and gravel. If nothing else, the Camino was certainly teaching me to be more sociable. In days long past, sleeping in dormitories and sharing with others had been the chagrin I’d suffered as a workaday soldier. Now it was something I was living through choice.
In the morning, I was as stiff as expected after a night on the floor, but my head was clear and my feet and legs ready. I took to the road and once again, walked through time-weary villages, many of which made Grañón look huge. It was a world away from my very first day when hundreds of pilgrims converged on Saint Jean. I wondered what lay behind firmly closed shutters. Did people reside there or just spiders and flies?
Part of the route took me directly alongside the N120. The rush of the traffic was an assault to the ears, though a strongly built barrier ensured I was safe. As I gratefully left the roar of the traffic, an interesting sign captured my eye. I roughly translated subida al Castillo as ‘climb to the castle’. I’d done precious little conscious sight-seeing and thought the walk might provide an opportunity to take some interesting pictures for my niece.
The castle itself was simply a ruin, though no signs of warning prevented my entry. All that was left looked more like a cave and I wondered how many pilgrims had made it their haven. The prize for my climb was a view to remember. Now I looked down on the storks in their nests and as I cast my eyes forward saw the far-off Rioja. Patchwork squares of green and yellow made the vista look small, as had the teasing kilometre signs on the highway I’d flanked.
I knew, however, the distance was great. No guide book or map could convey such a thing. As I entered Belorado, I could have done more, but my guide book suggested a local albergue and on quick reflection, I opted to stay. Like chalk to Grañón’s cheese, this place boasted not only modern surroundings and gourmet cooked food, a swimming pool tempted those who couldn’t decide.
I had no idea at that time that my hottest days on the Camino were a long way off. Every step I took seemed to make me feel warm and clammy and I dived into the freezing pool nearly stopping my heart. After a while, I started to warm up and basked in the sunshine, relaxing my back. I outlasted others who’d braved the cold water and was finally left with a scantily clad Ghost Ray who gave me the eye.
It had rarely bothered me that my Ghost Ray never seemed older than thirty-one years. We’d both aged with grace and with fortunate genes but my memories of him took me back to the past. We’d met in our twenties and loved in our thirties. We’d parted by sixty, but only in form. I lunged out to Ghost Ray but once he went under, I knew without asking he wouldn’t resurface. Feeling the cold, I rose from the pool.
I ate and I drank and considered my lot. My feet had now healed and I felt quite fantastic. I’d lost lots of fat which had turned into muscle and my disorganised head, was thinking good thoughts.
Images of broken light,
Which dance before me like a million eyes
They call me on and on across the universe
I hit the trail early, knowing the day ahead included a climb. Once again, I passed through minuscule places and though the N120 joined me once more, it was only for the shortest of times. Most of the walking was through wide open farmland and over cute wooden bridges.
I stopped for some coffee before my ascent and then strove on forwards towards an ancient oak forest. I felt at home in the woods, though the snakes in the clearings, I tried to avoid. I knew most of the snakes on the African plains but nothing of their European cousins. Watching my tread, I let the sleek, shiny creatures slide safely away.
As I started to climb, I marvelled at my new-found fitness. In ten days, I’d increased my stamina more than I had in months of training back home. Feeling pleased with myself, I was taken aback by an eerie pine wood, just short of the summit. Rows of ghostly white trees stared back at me in silent reflection. On reaching the peak, I should have been joyous. My legs had performed with relative ease. This was no place to revel, however. The mount at Le Pedraja hosted the shallow grave of some three hundred souls. Political prisoners shot for their views in the hell that was the Spanish Civil War. There were many such places littered through Spain. Thousands had perished in the late nineteen-thirties, many whose bodies would never be found.
I walked back downhill, shrouded in thought. Deep in my heart, I knew war wouldn’t end. As long as man lived he’d find something to fight for. Ray had convinced me though so many times, the sheer pointlessness of the thing. Animals killed to find their next meal. A snake would raid birds nests as spiders snared flies. Man however, waged war on his others for kudos and wealth. Our so-called intelligence, frequently brought us nothing but death.
Further along, my mood was uplifted as I came to a rest stop which outshone all others. ‘Oasis del Camino’ was part roadside café, part hippy retreat. I stopped for refreshment and a stamp for my book before leaving the colourful, laughter-filled place.
I finally arrived at my albergue in Agés having walked for nearly twenty-eight kays. It seemed amazing to me that to walk nearly seventeen miles on a daily basis was not only possible, but becoming the norm. I washed out my clothes, took a hot shower and spent a peaceful evening with other pilgrims that had seemingly arrived out of nowhere.
The following day, I chose to walk within a large group. It seemed like I’d been walking alone forever, which was fine all the time that the vistas were good, but the walk into Burgos was endlessly dull. Though the days walk was shorter, the traffic and noise of an industrial landscape did nothing to lift the spirits any more than did rock hard pavements which went on forever. There was nowhere here to scratch suns in the dirt.
Most of my comrades were younger than me, several of them recently having left school. ‘The Gap Year’ it seemed, was as trendy as ever. I didn’t envy the youngsters as such, after all, they would face hardships I couldn’t imagine. As usual, though, I wondered if I would change my life if I could have my time over. A memory of Ray put paid to such thoughts.
Everyone suffered on the long road to Burgos. Blisters erupted, injuries worsened and energies flagged. Though I came off unscathed, I was little real help as my mood was as low as everyone else’s. We finally reached the centre of town with a sigh of relief. After booking our beds, we all washed and scrubbed the whole day away. For once, I decided to forgo the pilgrims meal and spend a few more Euros at a pizzeria in the company of my new friends. The main topic of conversation soon turned to the mysterious ‘meseta’. It seemed that some weren’t keen to walk the next stretch and I was soon questioned by Alain from Orléans about my own intentions.
“So, Bodie, are you walking the meseta?”
“Um, I certainly intend to, I was quite looking forward to it in fact!”
Anna and Charley from somewhere down under seemed awed by my statement.
“You’re a brave guy, Bodie. We wouldn’t touch it for quids! It’s the bus for us tomorrow, all the way to León, my friend!”
A few others muttered quiet agreement which left me bemused. According to my research, ‘meseta’ translated to plateau in English, a long, flat stretch which might bring some relief. These kids seemed to think it was something to fear.
“So just what’s the problem? I’m assuming you’ve all walked the mountains? Surely a bit of flat ground will be welcome, especially if it’s not on roads and pavements like we all faced today?”
I was answered by Cory, a mature geology student who was walking and studying the Camino for the third time.
“Bodie, you’ll hear differing stories about the meseta. Sure, it’s flat and the walking is easy but the going is tough, probably tougher than you’ve faced so far.”
“What on earth is so wrong with the place? It just looks like another spot on the map to me!”
“And indeed it is. Usually, if you traverse it in June it will still be quite green. This year however, is already dry and farmers are cutting crops early. The meseta can turn from a tide of new growth to a desert of stubble in the space of a month.”
“Well I don’t see how I could be scared off by the state of the local farming!”
“You miss my point, Bodie. It’s getting hot. Though the main concern is not the heat as you might think, but the lack of shade and rest stops along the path and the distance between facilities. If you can cope with the physical difficulties, then you have to face the mental challenges.”
I could hardly face asking about those but of course, I had to.
“It’s the repetition, Bodie. The view is quite pleasing, but it goes on for miles. Miles upon miles. You can walk all day long just to see the same view. If heat is involved and you’re low on your water, your mind may convince you it’s time to give up.”
At last, I was seeing a fact that the guidebooks ignored. I faced fifty hours walking with nothing to do but horde water and think and I suddenly realised the source of the terror. Whilst hiking up mountains caused physical pain, it gave my old brain something useful to do. With easy loping through a countryside as repetitive as a computer made fractal, I might well turn mad.
My mental state had never been great. Since Ray’s death, I’d only considered myself to be going slowly madder, but now I faced a test of the fact. If fate left me crazy, it would happen on the meseta. Perhaps I’d drunk a bit too much wine, but as I laid down to sleep, my dreams were all filled with vultures and skulls. It never occurred to me to stop the trip then. If my story should end on the creepy meseta, at least I could say that I’d lived a full life.
I rose at six, feeling rough as a dog. I couldn’t face others and needed to start this new section alone. In the last twelve hours, my latest days walk had turned into an entirely new challenge. Would I walk the Camino or die in the process? With a wry sense of doom, I faced the meseta.
I’m standing by a river but the water doesn’t flow
It boils with every poison you can think of
This ain’t no technological breakdown
Oh no this is the road to Hell
I don’t know if an excess of wine had simply spooked my overactive imagination, but my first mornings walking on the dreaded meseta seemed relatively normal. The walk out of Burgos was far nicer than the trying walk in and I was soon surrounded by shivering wheatgrass as daylight broke through.
I was treated to a Turneresque sunrise which lit up the land turning the wheatgrass teal green. The walk was so simple that when my poor head caught up with my feet, I laughed out loud. Nothing was chafing, my breathing was even and my legs were just loving the easy terrain.
The first ten kilometres zipped by, landing me in a capable enough place called Tardajos. I stopped for some breakfast which greatly recovered my equilibrium and left me wondering what all the fuss of the meseta had been about.
Further walking took me through the hamlet of Rabé de las Calzadas, the last place of habitation for the next eight kays. Being British, I naturally pictured distance in miles, but was well aware of how far eight kilometres would seem with dwindling water supplies. My search for a source of drinkable water was in vain however, the fountains all displaying ‘no potable’ warnings.
It was a tough lesson. I’d spent the morning congratulating myself on how easy things were, whilst my precious camel bag was gradually emptying. It was still half full, but the heat was increasing. I needed to have some harsh words with myself. From now on, I not only had to lessen my pace, but lessen my boozing at night. Though my surroundings were green enough, dehydration could still prove a killer in this treacherous place.
It was a relief to reach Hornillos del Camino a few hours later where I forced myself to stop and rest. I’d walked twenty kilometres in under four hours, an impossible task on subsequent days, but I’d already learned that complacency was ill-placed on the meseta. I forwent my coffee in favour of tea and though not really hungry, made quick work of some tapas served by a young man who looked just like Ray. After my meal, I sat in some shade making myself stay there a full sixty minutes. Only with a full water bag, did I ready to go.
The road was much hotter upon my return. Snakes had given way to small lizards which happily basked until your feet landed near them, causing them to skitter off with astonishing speed. Though the land was still flat, the walking was tougher. There was just one albergue on the way to Hontanas, a tiny affair with only twelve beds. The converted monastery in San Bol was full for the night, but were kind enough to give me more water and a stamp for my book.
I finally made it to Hontanas, the place I would stay. I washed out my clothes, ate a bland Pilgrim meal and largely ignoring my neighbours, put myself to bed.
The following morning I woke up clear-headed. Using my headlamp, I left the albergue intending to walk through the cool of the dark. Spotting the scallops that marked my direction was rarely easy when light was reduced, but the meseta made it simple enough. There were just two ways to consider, where you were going and where you had been.
As the sun rose, it turned the wheatgrass to golden spun glass. Mist clung to the ground as cloud covers the Earth when viewed from a plane. The birds had yet to awaken and all I could hear was the whisper of wind.
For a place with supposedly little to see, my eyes spotted nuggets of history fine enough to satisfy the most cynical walker. I first passed through the impressive ruins of the San Anton monastery. According to my guidebook, it boasted a tiny albergue, one without power or hot running water. I shivered at the thought, feeling rather pleased that I wouldn’t be staying there. Though perfectly used to spartan surroundings, even I had my limits.
I was slightly in awe as I viewed the remains of the huge Roman fort overlooking Castrojeriz. My trusty book informed me it had been commissioned by Caesar himself. I breakfasted well when I got into town then I rested again. Though just a few hours in, I faced one of the rare climbs the meseta presented. More importantly, there were no water stops for over six miles.
At face value, The Alto de Mostelares looked a plain enough climb. Sloping gently ahead, it hardly looked like a mountain at all. About to surge forward, I suddenly got the shock of my life. Ghost Ray charged at me, his feet sending dust and shale off in every direction. Powerless to move, I let the apparition pass through me and then it was gone. I’d got the message however and studied the hillside with much closer care. There was no vegetation attached to the mountain and it’s surface was rough and unsafe. It rose through the wheatgrass like an ugly red pimple on porcelain skin.
I took time on the climb and was greeted by a small pop-up café right up on the peak. For a donation, they could provide me with a sugary drink and a stamp for the book but only had water in half-litre bottles. As I made my descent, I considered the wheatgrass. It must be a hardy crop to keep its emerald colour, in a place where water was so highly prized.
Once back on flat ground, the walk became boring. I enjoyed the sounds from my player until the battery ran out. Another lesson I was finding crucial to learn was that charging devices should be done at every opportunity. I’d been so unaffected by the new technology which might well save my life if I’d learned one thing on the Camino, it was to keep things charged up.
On the way to my nights stop in Boadilla del Camino, I crossed the longest bridge to be found on the trip. Walking over the eleven great arches was a journey in itself, but landed me nearer to my place of sleep. Some unexpected trees gave me welcome shade as I approached my albergue. I couldn’t really miss the place. Armloads of laundry strung between branches, marked it out like ceremonial flags. I paid for my bed, washed out my clothes and dutifully plugged my phone in to charge.
It was a complete mystery as to how I could walk the whole day and not see a soul, yet the albergues were constantly found to be full. It was odd to spot faces from earlier days. The last time I’d seen Lucien from Liverpool he’d been heading in the other direction. I learned from the others who were trying to avoid him, that he never really went anywhere much. He walked and he ran and he sometimes caught busses, but where he was headed for, nobody knew. The hospitalero told me that Lucien had been wandering about for all the time he’d run the albergue which was nearly five years.
Another person I’d met once before, was Dieter from Berlin. If I remembered rightly, he’d a bet with his father to complete the Camino in record time. By my reckoning, judging the date, he stood to lose out on his bet. After the hubbub of mealtime was over, Dieter sat down to join me. His previous bravado was nowhere in sight. In fact, he turned out to be the most gentle young man. In the hours before bedtime, he became my manservant, not once letting me get up to fend for myself. My vow of sobriety was soon long forgotten as Dieter brought me glass after glass of the communal wine. Sensing his need to unburden himself, I carefully probed him with innocent questions.
“How old are you, Dieter?”
“I have just turned sixteen.”
“Bloody hell, I would never have guessed! Are your parents happy for you to be out here alone?”
“Well I have no mother. I’ve had no mother for as long as I know. I have two older brothers and mein Vater of course.”
“What does your father do?”
“Oh, he has finished his work now, but he was a school coach. He taught athletics. Both of my brothers run races for Germany.”
“Ah, is that where you got your love of long-distance walking?”
“Oh no, I have no love for walking.”
“What on earth are you doing here then out on the Camino?”
“It was my boyfriends’ idea to come on the trip. My father never liked my boyfriend. He insisted that Lucas was only my friend but Lucas was really my love. My father did not like us to spend time together. Lucas suggested this thing called the Camino. It would take us four weeks and we could do it together. We would be alone for a month and away from my father.”
“And your father was happy for you to go?”
“Oh yes, he was so happy! I’d never liked sports much unlike my brothers and my father was pleased that I showed such an interest!”
“So where is Lucas? How come you’re out here all alone?”
“Lucas was killed. He was hit by a car. There is an investigation still, but all that I know is a car like my father's ran him down before driving away. It’s not much to go on, a black BMW. There are thousands of them driving about in Berlin.”
I cried inside at the reality Dieter couldn’t bear to face, though I’d no real evidence that his father was guilty of murder. It was in the boy’s eyes though, that the idea was real and my heart broke in two.
“Why did you come on the Camino walk if Lucas had died?”
“I’d promised my father. It took weeks to convince him while Lucas still lived, that I could endure it and I would survive. He saw no reason that when Lucas died I should alter my plans. This is when he set me a wager to finish the walk in twenty-five days.”
“What will you win if you collect on your bet?”
“The school of my choice. I qualified for an art college which favours the Bauhaus technique. My father doesn’t wish me to go there. If I fail in my challenge, I will stay in my home and study sports science.”
“Would you be happy, to do such a thing?”
“It doesn’t matter now that Lucas is dead. I walk on and on and I try to forget, but my boyfriend died, Bodie, he died.”
I fell apart at the young boy's words and my own tears started to well.
“My boyfriend died too, Dieter. Unlike Lucas, he lived a very full life, but I miss him more every single minute of every single day.”
Dieter looked at me in a drunken haze of amazement and I admonished myself for forgetting how wine would affect one so young. Ignoring any previously planned sleeping arrangements, I pulled the boy into a double bunk and cuddled him firmly. How much love he’d known in his life was anyone’s guess as he surely deserved it. I was far too old to provide what he needed but smothered him in comfort, whilst I still could. When I rose the next morning, Dieter was gone.
I’d already broken my non-drinking rule and my head was sorely paying the price. I needed plenty of coffee before I took off and thoughtfully sipped it as daylight broke through. I was suddenly brought out of my faraway reverie by Nick and Lucinda, a couple from London.
“Hey man, we hope you don’t mind, but we just collected our bags and stuff.”
“Sorry, I’m not really with you?”
“We had some stuff stashed under the bed you slept in last night. Just didn’t want you to think we were pilfering or anything.”
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry, we took your bed!”
“Oh, hey man it’s fine, we were partying till two and you looked pretty cosy. We just crashed out on some different bunks. I’m afraid though your young man has already left.”
I was mortified.
“Oh please, you misunderstand, he’s not my young man! Oh dear God in heaven, is that what people must think?”
“Hey it’s none of our business, and I’m pretty certain no one else saw you but us. Besides what happens on the Camino stays on the Camino, right?”
“You don’t understand, that boy is in mourning. He got pretty drunk and I just tried to comfort him. Please don’t think it was anything else. Oh God, what if he thought it was something else?”
“Hey what does it matter if nothing went on?”
“He’s only sixteen is what matters and I’m old enough to be his grandfather! Believe you me he’s had precious little reason to trust adults so far in his life.”
“Wow, that is young to be out here alone. He seemed fine though, Lucinda spoke to him.”
“Really, Lucinda? Please, what did he say?”
“Oh, um, well I got up to pee at just after five and he was on his way out. I commented on how early he was and he said something about having a very tight schedule. He wished Buen Camino and then he was gone.”
“God, I do hope he’s okay. I’ve heard some sad stories since starting this trip, but that lads got the weight of the world on his shoulders. And once again, I’m so sorry for nicking your bed!”
I morosely collected my own gear together hoping against hope that Dieter didn’t hate me. As I straightened the bed out, I found a slip of a note. Short but sweet, it warmed my heart.
‘Danke, Bodie x’
was all that it said.
I walked most of the morning with Nick and Lucinda. They were easy to talk to and fun to be with. Both in their thirties, they’d made lots of money from doing up houses.
“I worked in a council housing department and Nick was a builder. We met playing tennis at our local lawn club, got engaged and then married and looked for a house. I had a bedsit I needed to sell and after toshing it up, we were stunned at the profit it made.”
“Before too long, Lou and I had a business. It was tricky at first when chasing the money, but now we’re both freed up to do things like this!”
“Sounds great! I once lived in London, but I’m sure I couldn’t afford to these days!”
“I know what you mean, Bodie. Some of the council flats I used to dish out now sell for fortunes.”
“Do you sell all your places or tenant them out?”
“About half and half really. In the beginning, we had to sell them to build up some cash, but the rental lark’s booming and some places will rent out in seconds of Lou putting them on.”
“So what do you do then, in your day to day lives?”
“Sit in auction houses, mainly. That’s often the hard bit as the Indians have the game all sewn up. They’ll smell a bargain all the way from Bombay, but there’s plenty for all if you’re willing to wait. We’ll secure a place, then Nick will go in with a handful of builders, I do the paperwork, then Bob is your uncle! We aim to turn a squat to a seller in under four weeks.”
“Wow, your own house must be great what with your wealth of knowledge?”
“A bone of contention I’m afraid, Bodie. I’m not quite so sure Lou’s forgiven me yet!”
“What Nick’s trying to say, is we spent three years doing up our own home. We were about to move in when Nick got an offer he couldn’t refuse.”
“I constantly tell her there’s one more round the corner and who knows, when we retire we might well leave London!”
“And if you ever fancy London again, Bodie, please, take one of our cards. We cater for all budgets, you know!”
“Thanks, Lucinda, though I doubt that will happen. I’ll take your card though and email you later to find out if you finished the Camino.”
“Oh, I’m quite sure we will. It’s Asia next year if the bodies are willing and India hopefully in two thousand twelve.”
I liked Nick and Lucinda. They’d worked hard for their money and deserved admiration. They walked the Camino for no other reason than it was there to be walked. Unlike poor Dieter who walked for his future, in a stupid bet which might ruin his life. Unlike me who sought forgiveness which I didn’t deserve.
Walking with others made the morning go quickly. There were more towns to pass through and canal banks to walk on, which put the meseta to the back of my mind.
I left my companions at Población de Campos where the Camino offered us differing routes. I chose to take the shorter direction which went near a highway, rather than the newly built path which offered some peace. Normally, I hated to walk along roadways but there was a special place that I wanted to see. The albergue at Villarmentero de Campos would have been a great place to stay. It’s ‘rooms’ consisted of pigsties and tents and it’s animal family took centre stage. Tame farmyard creatures were reminders of home and I stroked dogs, petted donkeys and argued with geese whilst enjoying a beer.
Carrión de los Condes was a rather large town compared to the tiny villages I’d seen through the day and its communal albergue was much like all others. I washed out my clothes, showered, ate and then looked for my bed. This place, however, would not let me sleep early. Its claim to fame were three singing nuns who wailed their way through hymns of forgiveness, fellowship and faith.
Though not quite my thing, I heard the nuns out then sat in the courtyard attached to their church. I was becoming depressed and was feeling it happen. I ached to see Ghost Ray or hear word from home. Strangers around me were having the time of their lives, but I just felt empty, lost and alone. I was in touching distance of the halfway point and still had no more idea what I was doing here than I’d had on the day I’d set out.
The following morning I rose early after a fitful night. I still couldn’t seem to shake my strange, dark mood which gave me little confidence for the days walk ahead. I wasn’t the only one awake and for once, there was almost a scrabble to get out of the door. The group quickly thinned out and I think the scowl on my face deterred anyone from attempting to walk with me.
I couldn’t understand my sudden depression and mourned my previous gratified mood. It had always been Ray that suffered attacks of ‘the moodies’ and I’d always been there, his faithful wingman to coax him back into the light. Now there was no Ray to coax back and certainly no saviour wingman for me.
I faced the white path as it stretched out before me. It was so long and so straight, it’s end was far beyond my reach of sight. Unlike Ray, I didn’t always try to see the good in things. Hate was not an unknown emotion to me and at that moment, I hated the Camino with all of my being. What the hell was I doing? What was I trying to prove and to whom? Saying sorry to Ray was all well and good, but the Ray I had known was now rotting away in a graveyard in Dorset, largely forgotten by most of the world.
As my poisoned thoughts chased me, my feet plodded on. They seemed like strangers to me, doing their thing without intervention. All of a sudden, I hated my feet. I hated their apparent willingness to keep up this farce. I hated the pain and the grief that they caused me, the care they demanded, the costly shoes that they wore. I hated the legs propelling me forward. Once upon a time, my legs had chased villains who’d threatened my partner. What did they now? Walk a sad empty path on a long road to nowhere. Where was I going to anyhow? What lay at the end of this trail but some musty old church whose ethos I hated?
I’d looked right and left but the view rather scared me, so I kept my eyes forward. The fields either side of the long white path were just like the picture on our old home computer when we’d left it a while. I suddenly hated that old home computer. It had helped me get here to the middle of nowhere. As far as my eyes could see, there were green rolling fields repeating themselves time after time.
We gotta get out of this place
If it's the last thing we ever do
We gotta get out of this place
The path went on. The identical fields either side of me went on and my traitorous feet, went on. I knew that if I simply sat down, I could put an end to the nonsense. That someone would find me and p’raps phone for help, or maybe they wouldn’t and I’d die where I sat. Either way, I couldn’t have cared less. My feet it seemed, had more sense than my head. It was dull and hot and a menacing wind tore right through me. In the middling distance, the sky had turned black. I was walking straight into the eye of a storm. My feet sped up of their own volition, apparently keen to keep themselves dry.
I reached Calzadilla de la Cueza as the heavens opened. Sweating and shaking, I threw myself into the first café there and was welcomed by a huge cheer from those already inside. It was a tiny place, packed to the rafters and the party atmosphere was palpable. It seemed odd to see champagne on tables at ten in the morning and the sheer noise of the crowd was a shock to my ears.
My sense of politeness forced me to smile and I graciously accepted a free glass of bubbles. I sat with the others looking out at the lightning. The thunder around us was so very loud, I don’t think they noticed I’d nothing to say.
In my horrid four hours of desolate walking, I’d reached a milestone. Calzadilla was the ‘unofficial’ half-way point of The Camino Frances. The small café seemed determined to cash in on the fact and I wondered what it was like to hold champagne receptions every day.
I sat for an hour as the deluge raged on. As people around me were sharing their stories, I was trying to work out what a taxi would cost. I should really have eaten, but the thought turned my stomach. My self-preservation was fast disappearing, leaving behind it, a husk of a man.
I hardly noticed the rain stop, but suddenly, there was a rush for the door. I had no intention of moving ‘til I saw a curly-haired man caught up in the throng. I didn’t know if it was Ghost Ray or not but knew for certain it was the man I’d seen crossing a bridge in Saint Jean Pied de Port.
I left with the others under a blazing hot sun. Again, the crowd thinned out as friends all regrouped. I wasn’t invited to join anyone, though as I walked on, felt a presence behind me. I cast my head over my shoulder which was the only invitation the girl seemed to need.
“Hey, I’m Nicole, how are you?”
“Hi, Nicole, I’m Bodie and I’m not very happy.”
“Oh, but why, you are on the Camino, do you not find it beautiful?”
“Not anymore. I think it’s time that I stopped.”
“Where did you walk from?”
“I started out in Saint Jean in France.”
“Oh, but you’ve walked so far!”
“Too far, now I think.”
“Do you not want to meet Saint James in Santiago?”
“Not really, do you?”
“Oh yes, it was my dream from a child to walk this path.”
“You speak good enough English, where are you from?”
“I am Swiss, Bodie, I come from Lucerne. You are from England of course.”
“Is it really so obvious?”
“Oh, Bodie only the English comment on how others pronounce their language!”
“Yeah, I guess that is true. So why is this walk so important to you?”
“I’m a theology student. Walking to Saint James is like chasing an idol. Others my age chase pop groups and actors. I chase the apostles.”
“So what will you do when you finish your schooling?”
“I don’t yet know as God hasn’t told me. It’s just like the Camino. It’s not the destination that matters, but the journey to get there.”
“And you really believe that James the Greater was an Evangelist in Iberia?”
“Ah, I see you’ve done some homework, Bodie!”
“Well, I looked a few things up on the internet if that’s what you mean.”
“It is my belief, that the remains of Saint James are at the end of this walk.”
“Well, good for you.”
“But not so good for you, Bodie. Have you lost what you are looking for, is that what makes you so angry?”
“I didn’t realise I was angry, to be honest with you. I just thought I was sad.”
“Oh, I can see you are angry, anyone could! It’s the meseta that’s testing you, God’s little trap on this paradise trail.”
“It’s worked, as I’m feeling like shit!”
“I can tell you have little room in your heart for the words of religion, but worry not, Bodie as God will walk with you. There is a famous saying, ‘This Too Shall Pass’. Make your way through to León then see how you feel. The answers you seek are just footsteps away. Your hopes haven’t left you, they’re just lost in the mist.”
As I once more looked forward, a thick fog had indeed descended all over the landscape. It dampened my clothing, but cooled the land down. Though it didn’t quite hide the white path before me, behind me, the girl was nowhere to be seen.
As I neared Ledigos, the strange fog cleared once more revealing the searing hot sun. Lost in a daze, it was a few moments before I heard the insistent voice calling and for a moment, I thought Nicole had caught up. This voice was harsher however and not complimentary.
“Hey, du Blödmann!”
As if the day couldn’t get any worse, it would seem the delightful Hilde had found me again.
“Hey wait up! You’re not so pleased with yourself, now are you? I was watching you in the café.”
A few days before, the thought of being malevolently observed, would have filled me with horror, but now I just took it as par for the course.
“I wouldn’t have thought I was ‘pleased with myself’ before, but now I guess I’m as happy as you seem to be.”
“Oh, I’m happy enough, aren’t you enjoying the walking now? Does this meseta prove too much for you?”
“I think the whole thing’s become too much, I’m considering going home.”
“Hah, so you’re giving up! I knew that you would!”
“Well, I’m glad that seems to give you so much satisfaction, Hilde.”
“It gives me no satisfaction to beat someone who is weak!”
“Tell me, just why are you so competitive? All those people in the café were so pleased to reach their halfway point, why can’t you just enjoy the thing like they are doing?”
“Huh, that wasn’t the halfway point, well not unless they started walking in Roncesvalles it wasn’t, the actual halfway point is still twenty-two kays away in Sahagún. It is there you can get your halfway certificate”
Hilde was right of course. Calzadilla de la Cueza was only three hundred and sixty-odd kays from Saint Jean which left a good four hundred-odd more to go. Though I knew that there were people that started their walk in Roncesvalles in order to avoid the French Pyrenees, I’d yet to meet any.
“So why did the café owner hold such a celebration?”
“A simple tourist trap! Look at how many people were there in what was not even a good café. I know this as I had the breakfast. Also, someone told me it was not real champagne, but some cheap stuff the guy gets from his brother in law.”
So now I had an even bigger stick to beat myself with. It looked like I was giving in and I hadn’t even made it halfway. My feet plodded on, but my ears pricked up when Hilde informed me she was staying in Ledigos. Though consumed by apathy, I sorely considered breaking into a run to be rid of the woman.
In an attempt to be the bigger person, I cordially wished her, ‘Buen Camino’ and she left me with some words to consider.
“I doubt I’ll see you again, du Blödmann as you are such a loser. Watch out for the water, some pilgrims got sick from a fountain they used.”
I was so relieved to be freed from Hilde’s bad vibes, I carried on walking, my head not thinking of anything much. I walked on, ignoring the tedious landscape until I reached the modern albergue in Terradillos de Templarios.
Though my stomach was empty, I couldn’t face food. I felt faintly sick, my body depleted. I brewed up some tea, then headed for bed. At two in the morning, my senses alerted, waking me up to a hideous sound. People were urgently moving about, the toilets were flushing as fast as they filled and many around me were moaning in pain.
I’d lived through this horror a lifetime before. A communal barrack was no place for sickness, but at least now I’d the freedom to leave. The bug was inside me, but horrid reminders of a bleak Asian jail forced me to move. I gathered my things and made for the door. Outside, more people were losing their lunch. I’d no lunch to lose, but my stomach was heaving. I stole through the dark, to throw up alone. It was a risk that I took, leaving the place, but I’d rather face death than the chills of my past.
I hadn’t drunk much of the germ tainted water but knew without question my health was at risk. A fever was on me which I tried to sweat out. My feet ever ready, ploughed on to go. My fingers managed to twiddle my lamp and I plunged through the darkness, unnerved and alone. I’ve no idea how I got through the night. Once again, my feet took charge, putting the sickly albergue a long way behind me. The meseta as ever was long, straight and flat. For once, this seemed my saving grace. As long as I continued to put one foot in front of the other, I couldn’t really get lost.
The pitch darkness didn’t mean I had nothing to see. Consumed by the fever, a rainbow of colours danced in my eyes. Pictures from boyhood played in my head, whispered memories both evil and sweet, haunted my ears. Every mile or so I stopped to be sick, which were the only times I neared coherence before once again, succumbing to dreams. Ray plagued my thoughts like a faded-out photograph. I’d felt his dislike on the first day we’d met. I’d felt his hatred on the last.
As the night became day, the dreaded meseta revealed itself, though this meseta was markedly different. Gone were the wheatgrass and vast plains of green. Left in their wake were stubbly fields in a sepia world. It can’t have been much more than seven degrees, but I sweated profusely, my whole body shaking. I’d plenty of water from a verified source but each time I drank some, my stomach recoiled.
I’d no real idea of how far I’d walked. I was hardly aware of walking at all and as the morning got hotter, I started to fall. As the sun beat down, I searched for some shade. Up ahead, appeared a pair of stone statues. I had no idea if they were a figment of my imagination, but I sat down against one anyhow. I needed to sleep. If I could only just sleep, then I might carry on. It might have been minutes, it might have been hours before somebody found me, but when I awoke, my fever had broken.
Two pilgrims from France helped me to stand and I stared in amazement at my makeshift bed-space. The statue I’d slept on was part of a gate. Though my Spanish was poor, I roughly translated the inscription ‘Sahagún Centro Geográfico del Camino’ to mean I really had reached halfway. For the first time in hours, I was desperate for food. I’d thrown up so much I was bringing up bile and now my poor body cried out for some fuel. The French people took me to the nearest albergue. I never once learned their names, these people who may well have saved me from death. They left me with a smile, a wave and a pack of electrolytes.
The albergue at Sahagún was fully booked up but were happy to let me rest for a while. They cooked me some eggs which I ate like a savage, then allowed me to sleep in their communal dorm. They roused me at two, to ready their room, but offered me coffee and the use of their garden for as long as I liked.
The extra sleep had done me the power of good. My mind had stopped tripping and my stomach was calm. I could hardly believe how far I had walked under the cover of darkness, totally missing two towns altogether. As I sipped at my powdered electrolyte drink, I carefully studied my paperwork. My well-fingered map informed me I’d walked thirteen kays since two in the morning. In another four, I would reach an albergue, which my hostess had warned me was doubtlessly full.
I had one of two choices. I could book up a taxi and get on a plane, or try to walk on and get to Bercianos. I opened up my dusty credencial. The long, fan-shaped document had started its life fresh and unblemished as a créanciale in France. Now it looked like a filthy dishrag, though the stamps within it were bright and clean. I considered the stamps and the people who’d made them. From the smallest fruit sellers to the biggest albergues, every stamp in my book had cost me a step. It was still, however, an enormous decision. Though feeling much better, I still couldn’t risk sleeping outside overnight. Bercianos del Real Camino was thirteen kilometres off and all of it walked through the worst of the sun. Either way, I couldn’t just sit there, outstaying my welcome.
I hugged my hostess and left a healthy donación before making my way to the Iglesia de la Peregrina. Within the imposing church building, I received my ‘carta peregrina’, a beautiful document that honoured my steps. I had made it halfway with a letter to prove it. As I stepped into the sunshine, I smiled to myself. As I looked up, still quite undecided, Ghost Ray was there, smiling quietly back. It felt like I hadn’t seen him in weeks and my heart nearly burst with the pleasure I felt. For once, my dear Ghost Ray didn’t torment or smirk but walked simply beside me.
I considered the Sahagún church and the presence of God. I could never have said I believed in such things, but not knowing I’d asked, I’d been sent a clear message. Ray had appeared, to show me the way. My Camino angel had helped make my decision. I looked to the path and took my first step.
As I faced the meseta, I made a rash pledge. I would finish the Camino no matter what. It might turn me loopy as Lucian, but if I didn’t try now, I never would know. On the outskirts of town was a small farmacia. I called in for salt powders and more salve for my feet. As I’d found in many small chemists I’d found throughout Europe, any product made of petroleum jelly, largely raised eyebrows and sold ‘under the counter’. I laughed with the chemist before hitting the road. Much as expected, Ghost Ray had gone, but to my delight, so had my dark mood. I was tired and weak and still rather hungry, but my head was screwed on and thinking good thoughts.
The walking was brutal and the meseta still perished and brown. I could see why some compared it to the desert, but canals, the N120 and the odd wishing tree reminded me it was not the Sahara. I was simply walking through farmland in Spain, nothing a Special Forces agent (though now long retired), couldn’t cope with. I swallowed some spit and bravely walked on.
I got into town at just after six. The albergue I’d reached had plenty of space and personal hygiene was high in my mind. For once, my politeness was far from my head as I rushed for the shower. I let the hot water sluice away the traces of my vomit and pain. I washed out my clothes and strung them to dry, ate a full pilgrim’s meal and then put me to bed.
Seems like I should be getting somewhere
Somehow I'm neither here nor there
The following morning, I rose at five, determined that the meseta would no longer get the better of me. I recognised that my basic mistake had been a dire lack of planning; something I was maniacal about normally. Every evening I heard other pilgrims planning their distances and gathering food, but I’d carried on just as I’d been doing, a lapse that had nearly cost me my life. The meseta was not somewhere that you could just stop off whenever you fancied, there simply weren’t enough places to do that. Therefore, I’d decided to walk as far as was practical and only walk further if it was safe to go on.
Reliegos, was a reachable distance of twenty-one kays. I’d get there by late morning, even taking my time. My map book informed me I was two days ahead. It also imparted there was only one stop between me and my goal. I would take breakfast there, in El Burgo Ranero and carry on walking at a sensible pace.
I left the albergue to face a simmering dawn. As I walked the white track, a pink sky emerged. Faraway hills framed the horizon in splotches of blue. The walking was easy as was all the meseta, but every so often, I’d burst into tears. God only knows what my crying was for as in my humble opinion, my mindset was good. The slightest small thing though would start me again. A bee buzzing past, a breeze through the grassland, a skylarks infinite, sorrowful song ...
I switched on my player, steadfastly refusing the meseta’s attempts to defeat me.
Don't stop thinking about tomorrow
Don't stop, it'll soon be here
The view remained as tiresome as ever. I rarely saw wheatgrass but saw its remains and newly turned fields that were readied for more. Many times, I’d considered the idea to move out here and live on the trail, but I couldn’t imagine the life of the farmers that tended these lands. Did they know something different, see anything else? Were they born here to only view stubbly fields? I had few things in life that I really was proud of, but at least I could say I’d had much more than this.
At just after ten, I entered Reliegos. I’d walked thirteen miles in the space of a morning, something I couldn’t imagine at home. I breakfasted well, lining my stomach. I’d lost enough weight to become a concern and needed to boost up my calorie intake. I sat still for nearly an hour, but my feet had the itch and I readied to go.
The sun was merciless. Walking in the afternoon was completely different from that in the morning and I felt like I was being slowly roasted alive. The buff covering my face was essential, though hideously stank like the devil himself. A salty river of sweat ran down the crack of my bottom making each footfall feel itchy and sore. I’d done it again and gone one step too far. The albergues at Mansilla and Villamoros were hopelessly full so I made for Villarente and the hope of a bed.
I got the last space in a pleasant albergue, took a cool shower then studied my map. It was time that I heeded my own sound advice. The next day I’d reach León and there I would stay. It was only a mere fifteen kilometres off, a short stroll compared to Camino standards, but beds in the hostels were getting harder to find. For all of its size as a capital city, León didn’t have many albergues, so I’d book a bed early, check out the town and then catch up on some rest.
Born free, as free as the wind blows
As free as the grass grows
I don’t think I’ll forget that Sunday for as long as I live. It started out simply enough, if a little late for me. I didn’t have far to go and estimated I’d be in León by twelve at the latest. I took leisurely coffee, some cheese and some bread and slowly pushed off at just after nine. Most other pilgrims were going further than me and for once I was one of the stragglers. By the time I started walking in earnest, I had the trail all to myself.
Even this close to a city, I still seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, though thoughtful small comforts assisted my path. Vending machines in increasing numbers seemed to appear as if out of nowhere. I wondered who owned them and filled them with wares. On a more basic level, unmanned snack stations littered the way. Open chest freezers full of canned drinks and fruit were kept cool not by electric, but huge slabs of ice that must have been put there early on in the day. As was so common out on the Camino, all that was asked for, was a simple donation.
I passed through Valdelafuente a small and rather soulless place, before facing a climb. It wasn’t a terribly big climb, but from the top of the hill, I could see the city of León some six kays away. I ambled on blithely, taking my time, perfectly happy to be out on my own.
As I walked down the hill lost in my thoughts, sudden sounds shocked me and brought me to life. A shout and a curse and the scream of a girl, ripped through the air, destroying the quiet. My startled heart thudding, I started to run, fearing a woman was being attacked. Sure enough, as they came into view, I saw a man looming over a lady whilst shouting his lungs out and clutching his head.
Incensed, I thundered towards them and flung him aside.
“What the fuck are you doing you dirty bastard, get off her now and leave her alone!”
“Oh dear God, Mister! You have to help us!”
“What, help you assault a woman? The only thing I’ll be helpin’ you with, Sunshine is a quick ride to jail!”
“Assault … oh for feks sake, man, I’m not tryin’ to assault her, I’m trying to help her. Look at her, man!”
For the first time, I looked down at the woman and realised my first impression had been drastically wrong.
“Please, Mister, she said there was no chance, not right out here! I tried to tell her we maybe should stop, but nobody tells Róisín Murphy what it is she should do!”
Indeed, it appeared, that the woman Róisín, was in the last stage of labour.
“Oh, my good God, have you phoned for the medics?”
“No, Mister, can you call them for us? I can’t get a signal on this thing of mine and Róisín won’t have one. She says they’re a symbol of a Capitalist regime.”
I looked at the man’s Nokia 3310 before Róisín piped up.
“They fekkin’ are, Conor, I keep tellin’ yer to throw that thing away. We don’t need the likes of their shite and it’s too late for medics by the way, this babby is comin’ like it or not!”
I’d known a couple of births on the African plains, but the women out there seemed to have it sewn up. With no time for doctors or menfolk at all, they got the job done without any fuss. I knew much of the theory from all of my courses but had never been put in this position before.
I called up the number stored safely in my phone. With effortless ease, I got through to a switchboard who logged our position and duly sent help. Once the call had been made, Conor calmed down and I started to learn what had brought them both here.
“We started out more than a year ago. We walked from Donegal and carried on walking. We guess Róisín fell pregnant sometime before Christmas but had no real idea when the baby was due.”
“Oh my God, please tell me she’s had all her check-ups and stuff?”
“That’s not Róisín’s way. She’s from a family of twelve. They take care of themselves and they do very well. Pushing a babe out is nothing to them.”
“Have you two even got travel insurance? God knows how much an ambulance will cost!”
“Róisín doesn’t believe in insurance. She says it’s an unnecessary expense of a corporate bubble unneeded by many, but pedalled to most.”
“Yes, Róisín probably would, wouldn’t she? In the meantime, your girlfriend’s about to give birth!”
“Oh, Mister, Rosh isn’t my girlfriend, we were married in France! Oh, it was such a lovely ceremony! Three hours in total, a full Catholic mass, you really should have been there, it was a joy to behold!”
I would have given up then if Róisín had not screamed. There was no way that junior was waiting for help. Conor ran off clutching his head, and Róisín screeched louder, demanding my time. Ray had been great at this sort of thing. He’d loved first aid courses, soaking up every last word. I wished him from nowhere to help us all out. I clutched Róisín’s hand and looked to the heavens in need of advice. With no sign of fanfare, my Ghost Ray appeared. He held out his hand and nodded to me.
Emboldened to know that I wasn’t alone, I inspected Róisín in a most personal way. I’d seen many girls parts throughout my long life, but none that were giving birth at the time. The head seemed enormous but determined to come. Watery fluid, blood-streaked and brown, streamed all around her as she started to heave. I knelt down before her as if awaiting a catch. As the baby slipped from her, I fell dearly in love, not with the baby who’d be cherished forever, but with Conor and Róisín who’d made this new life.
Róisín seemed to take to motherhood immediately, quickly and efficiently swaddling the infant in a micro towel. Conor seemed a little more unnerved by the event having lost a lot of his colour and a little of his lunch. By now the small family had attracted a crowd. News had spread so quickly on the Camino grapevine, that some pilgrims had actually turned back and retraced their steps in order to see the new arrival for themselves.
The ambulance came amid celebrations. One of the drivers spoke consummate English and I soon learned that Róisín and son were going nowhere without proof of adequate funds. Though the pair both looked fine, I wanted them checked for my own piece of mind. I pulled the medic aside to have a quiet word.
“Look, they’ve got no insurance and if you send them a bill, I doubt you’ll be paid. If you had a card number, could you make sure they’re seen?”
The man’s eyes lit up as I showed him my card. He dutifully studied the Barclaycard details before writing them down in some sort of book.
“They are your good friends, Señor?”
“Oh God no, I’ve never even met them before!”
“You pilgrims, you are all so crazy! You are also good and kind people. I give you my word they’ll get no more treatment than they actually need so hopefully your wallet won’t suffer too much!”
There were so many people milling about I suddenly felt like a spare part and noting the time, I made tracks to leave. Róisín seemed in her element with the sudden attention, but Conor grabbed me as I started to go.
“Oh, Mister we owe you, thanks so for your help!”
“I only called for an ambulance, Conor, your wife did the hard bit.”
“No, you were here when we needed you, tell me, what is your name?”
“People know me as Bodie.”
“That’s a second name, yes and a fine one it is, but what is your first?”
“William Andrew and Philip.”
A sudden squawk came from the throng.
“Fekking hell, Conor, we can’t call him any ‘a those, my muther’s gonna kill us as it is without givin’ the babby some damned English name!”
Conor looked to me as if for guidance.
“Erm, I’m not an expert on Irish names I’m afraid, but I did have a good mate once called Murphy, is that any good?”
Róisíns tongue seemed to be as sharp as her hearing.
“For God’s sake, Bodie you eegit, whoever called their child ‘Murphy Murphy’? What did you say your first name was? Just the first one, not all the other silly bits!”
“Um, it’s William. Just William.”
“That’s Liam in Irish, let me see how that works. ‘Tis true I’ve a brother Liam who ran off with an Asian some eight years ago. I’ve four ‘Liam’ cousins who we don’t see too much, I guess it could work if I sweet-talked my mother …”
I turned back to Conor, abruptly concerned.
“Is her mother that fearsome, will you all be quite safe when you all return home?”
“Ahh, Bodie. I knew what I was marryin’ into when I took up with the Quinn’s! Sure, we’ll get some flack getting married an’ all but I’m pretty sure young baby Liam will bring Ro’s mother around.”
“What will you do now, go back to Ireland?”
“Ahh, possibly, if the wane’s not well. If he gets a clean bill of health then I guess we’ll be needing some kind of papoose!”
I chuckled to myself. For all those that planned to the very last detail, there would always be those like Conor and Rosh who went with the flow, making it up as they went along. I very much doubted the baby was sickly if the sound from his lungs was much to go by. He’d a piercing scream to rival his mothers and looked altogether the picture of health.
As the ambulance drivers readied to go, I made my goodbyes then turned to the road, scratched a sun in the dirt and then started to walk. For a while, I stayed with the crowd, having somehow gained a hero’s status. It was a title I didn’t deserve. The real hero for me was a shadowy presence no others could see.
I got into León at just after three, it’s scruffy outskirts not impressing me much. My most urgent task was to find an albergue and I hoped my delay hadn’t cost me a bed. The first place I came upon with places to spare, was soulless and bland but fully equipped. I washed all my dirty, sweat sodden clothing and hung it to dry under the hot Spanish sun. After a vigorous shower, I took myself out for a look round the city.
After the quiet of the countryside, the centre of León was a shock to the system. Glamourous and glitzy, lurid and loud, it reminded me of my last time in London, not a trip I much cared to remember. Without my backpack and buff I blended in well with the rest of the crowd, but I felt quite apart from those out seeking pleasure. There were plenty of pilgrims, the old and the new. I spotted the old hands, dust strewn and drained and among them the newbies, all shiny and keen. León was a popular starting point for Frances walkers and I smiled to myself at their enthusiasm, wondering if my own face had shown such excitement when I had set out.
I ordered some tapas that passed as my tea, then made the way back to my bed for the night. León might be impressive, but was no place for me. When I got back to my digs, the place was still buzzing, with stories of blisters and babies and birth. I kept my head down as I brought in my laundry, not yet quite sure what I made of the day.
Some pilgrims it seemed, were more concerned with the walk itself than the birth of a baby. As I sipped at my wine, I followed their chatter. The next day would offer a fork in the road. I’d hoped to make it to San Martin at least, but this would mean flanking the highway all day. I decided to take the next day as it came when someone recognised me as the impromptu midwife. Making excuses not entirely feigned, I pleaded exhaustion and put me to bed.
Having slept like the dead, I woke up refreshed. My gear was all packed apart from my earplugs and after making some coffee, I made for the road. León was less flashy at this time of day. At six in the morning, I shared silent streets with the army of cleaners washing away the time that had passed.
As I walked through the suburbs in the gathering light, I looked at the wine vaults built into the hills. They reminded me of times that I’d sailed into Portsmouth, the Southsea ‘Hot Walls’ awaiting my arrival. The cave like structures were largely now dry but still stood firmly as holiday homes.
I walked on further to pass more and more villages. It was far too early to stop and eat but it was a different world to that of the meseta. At Virgen del Camino, I faced my choice. Follow my guide book and keep to my plan or take the unknown, more picturesque route. My ears were still ringing with the sounds of the city and I had no wish to share my day with the highway. I took the left fork and left León behind.
Though technically the meseta went on all the way to Astorga, the landscape had changed. Gone was the ghostly white trail. The path now before me was a dull sandy brown. The farmland of the meseta was now the tundra of the paramo, a stark barren land of spindly shrubs. What trees I came across, shed a cotton like fluff which lined the ground like layers of snow. Though the walking was simple, the underfoot markers were easy to miss. Once again, I was a lone man supposedly on the road to nowhere. Slightly bored, I switched on my player.
Well we know where we're going
But we don't know where we've been
And we know what we're knowing
But we can't say what we've seen
Lost in the music, I nearly jumped skywards when a pickup truck drew up beside me.
“Buen Camino, Peregrino, is everything okay with you?”
I pulled out my earbuds and looked in astonishment at the young man with the home counties accent.
“Hi, I’m Aaron, do you speak any English?”
“Sure! The name’s Bodie. Can I help you at all? I’m sorry, I wasn’t doing anything wrong was I?”
“No of course not, I was just making sure you were okay. I’m out here as a volunteer. This year, I’m checking markers, they’re not so obvious on this stretch and to be honest we could do with a few more of them.”
For the first time, I saw the yellow scallop sticker on the door of the man’s dark blue Toyota.
“Wow, that sounds like a good project, how did you get into that?”
“Oh, well, I first walked the Camino Frances on my gap year after university and I’ve been coming back to volunteer during my holidays for as many times as my girlfriend will let me get away with!”
“That sounds brilliant, is it hard to get into?”
“No, not really, you just have to be able to donate the time. It’s often first come first served when it comes to work allocation and I must admit, I didn’t enjoy working in the Pilgrims Office quite so much, I get enough of office life back home in Reading, but you are allowed to state a preference.”
“And your girlfriend doesn’t fancy doing it with you?”
“I think you’d have to meet her, really, Bodie, Penny’s far more intrepid than me! We walked the Frances together but she’s now hoping to walk the Trans-Canada Trail which could take her two or three years!”
“Bloody hell! Will you be happy for her to be away for so long?”
“Oh, sure! We’ve been together since our school days and distance doesn’t make much difference to us. We’ve both got good jobs, well she runs her own business, to be honest and there’s email and Skype and when she does go to Canada, I can go out and join her at various stages. Travel with us is a passion we crave. If we do it together, then all well and good, but when we do it apart it still works as well. It’s that elusive adventure we seek, Bodie, the thrill of the chase, the rush of excitement, the pump of the blood.”
“Do you get your blood pumping by cleaning up signs?”
“Oh no, this is just respite, a break from the office, a good change of scene and most of all, free. When I’m after a thrill, I’ll jump out of planes, go pistol shooting or take some very fast cars round some very fast tracks. Anyway, enough about me, what do you do, Bodie?”
“Me? I’m retired, I’m afraid. A retired civil servant is all that I am.”
“And now you are freed up to walk The Camino! Tell me, where are you headed?”
“I’d hoped to reach San Martin until I changed route.”
“In that case, I suggest that you stop at Mazarife. It’s heaven for pilgrim’s and will leave you a good walk to Astorga the following day.”
I shook hands with Aaron and accepted the card with his email address. As I left him, I briefly thought over my life. This young man was no doubt paying top dollar, to live the job I’d been well-paid to do. It was funny how life panned out.
Aaron had been right in that Mazarife had been a good place for a pilgrim to stay. Once again, I rose with the lark, soon finding myself on a single-track road with a line down the middle. Maybe because of the hour, few cars passed by me but the tarmac was still a shock to my feet. I breakfasted in a place called Villavante, according to my guidebook, the centre of an annual national bell ringing contest. I wasn’t quite sure whether or not to be pleased that I’d missed the event.
I finally reached Hospital de Órbigo, the charming town I would have come across should I not gone off-course. Once again, I was faced with a fork in the road. This time, however, to stay in the country would cost precious time, but I hadn’t come out here to stare after cars. I made my decision and walked to the right.
Throughout my walk to Astorga, I saw temptingly close glimpses of mountains. My fight with the meseta was just about over. I walked through villages, hamlets and workaday farmyards, extraordinarily pleased there was something to see. A kilometre out of a place called Santibáñez de Valdeiglesias, was a most strange memorial. The cross and the stones were a commonplace sight. The faded shop dummy decked out in a shell suit, was altogether, a rarer affair.
A pleasant cool stroll through a fragrant pine forest reminded me there was life beyond the meseta and my feet, God willing, could carry me there. I crossed an ugly, industrial railroad bridge to enter Astorga, whose sheer beauty could not have been sweeter. A huge Roman wall surrounded the city containing fairy-tale buildings of Disney proportions. I promised myself that once showered and changed, I’d study the gothic beauty of this magical place.
I spent a wonderful night rejoicing the end of the meseta. Astorga itself seemed like some sort of place that only graced dreams and an air of excitement laced the albergue. I ate and I drank and I toasted with pilgrims, the wine all the sweeter for reaching this stage. I slept like a baby and woke up refreshed. My long hot days of looking at nothing had come to an end.
I woke before dawn to face the happiest day I would have on the trip. Though the walking was warm, the harsh, searing sun was batted by clouds which kept the worst of the hotness at bay. As I walked through old villages that seemed frozen in time, my body informed me I was starting to climb. The buildings and landscape grew ever more rustic and it was hard to imagine that I’d walked on the streets of a modern metropolis just a few days before.
In a place called El Ganso, I stopped to snack in Bar-Cowboy-Meson, a popular spot that was mildly better at making coffee than it was at housekeeping and with a fuller belly and a stamp for my book, I returned to the trail. I passed more and more, ancient places. The blue-painted doors of barns and dwellings, which apparently formed some sort of insect repellent, were commonplace on any buildings that still had a roof.
As I continued to climb, the vistas got better. I walked through a world of spicy pine woodland and waded my way through spruce scented brush. At every clearing, I stared out for miles. The view was decidedly foreign. The land was far too pale to be England and the sky far too blue. For some reason, my heart soared on this stretch of the Camino, its sheer beauty stealing the breath from my lungs.
My stop for the night was Foncebadón, of which my guidebook had plenty to say. In the nineteen nineties, the place was home to just two, a mother and son. Recent interest in The Camino pilgrimage had caused people to renovate buildings to create new albergues and finding room in one wasn’t hard. Most of the village was no more than a ruin and the hostel itself had only a meagre tin roof. It was however, a fascinating place which captured my interest far more than the bright lights of León had done. My guide also warned me that dogs may be rabid, though all those I came upon were friendly and well. I bedded down early having kept a clear head. The next day was one that I’d dreamt of for months.
The following morning I didn’t rise early. I needed some daylight for the two kays ahead. I breakfasted well with my fellow acquaintances and we all left together. The mood was one of nervous displacement and nobody spoke. For once, a whole group of walkers kept their eyes looking forward, nobody seeing the sights all around.
It came into view with a stab to the heart. A five-meter pole with an old cross on top, it was not much to look at but it meant the whole world.
‘Cruz de Ferro’, The Iron Cross, had been hallowed by thousands over the years and now I was there to hallow myself. We were very respectful of each other’s reasons, each of us waiting to take their own turn. The huge pile of stones surrounding the cross, had been brought by so many from their own place of home. Many brought stones to honour their dead. Others brought stones to shed all their sins. I carried stones to recognise both.
It was rather unnerving awaiting my turn, like fearing a test in a dusty old schoolroom. Finally, the young girl before me descended the stones. She strode on strongly, as people respectfully clapped. I approached the pile like a lamb to the slaughter for I surely didn’t deserve to be in this place. As I climbed, the stones slipped and I fumbled my footing and I almost decided to return to the base. The calls from the pilgrims encouraged my climb and I finally got purchase on the slippery ground. As I looked at the cross, so humble and meek, I thought of my life. I’d never meant to raise hell, never once meant to kill. I’d never meant to cheat or lie or betray what I’d cared for. Above all, I’d never meant to deny the one that I’d loved. I’d give my entire life for just one more minute of Ray Doyle’s time, but that wasn’t to be.
I reached in my pocket for the sparkling green crystals that had bothered my thigh for weeks. As they fell through my fingers, those twinkling gems, I looked to the heavens and honoured my dead. They were just granite chips from a graveyard in Dorset, but I still saw them glowing amongst a thousand year’s worth of rocks. I almost collapsed on the downhill, but thanks to the pilgrims who helped on my way, I got down to the bottom amid a gentle cheer.
After descending the pile of stones, most people decided to go their own way. We’d been united on the way to the cross, but the thoughts it evoked demanded some sort of peace and by unspoken agreement the group soon broke up.
Do You Know
Where you're going to
Do you like the things
That life is showing you
The ground gently dipped on the path into Manjarin. The ruined village didn’t have much to offer except one of those signs that points to places all over the world. I learned I was five thousand kilometres from Jerusalem and two hundred and twenty from my finishing point.
Another slight climb brought me to the highest point of the Camino. At just over fifteen hundred metres above the sea, I was nearly a hundred metres further up than I’d been in the French Pyrenees and once again, I walked through the clouds. Apart from the buildings so typically Spanish, the heathered mountains could be anywhere high up in Scotland or Wales.
Once again, I was walking through ghost towns, though the ruination of these hamlets was far more apparent than those west of Rioja. The only places that seemingly thrived, were those made for us pilgrims, the albergues and stores. Houses and churches and farmyards and schools were no more than matchwood just waiting to rot. As I walked out of a place called Riego de Ambros, the path became muddy, constantly watered from the runoff above. In just fifteen kays, I’d drop nine hundred metres and once again, the walk became risky.
I finally landed in Molinaseca and instantly fell completely in love. Molinaseca was a beautiful place of divinely sweet quaintness and would have made a fine place to stay. I elected to dine there and ate like a pig for nominal cost. Sadly, my feet soon informed me they had more to give and I left Molinaseca with pangs of regret. I walked onto Ponferrada, my stop for the night.
Ponferrada was a huge let down after the prettiness of Molinaseca. The albergue was a donativo that didn’t serve food, (not a huge problem as I was still stuffed from lunch), but the view from the window was tower-block drab.
With time to kill before I finally slept, I cleaned myself up and made into town. Ponferrada was pretty big on the Knight’s Templar thing. For just a few euros, I could waste a while wandering around Castillo de los Templarios, a twelfth-century castle with its own exhibition. After being a boy soldier for a couple of hours, I bedded down bored, hungry and cold, wishing I’d stayed in the lovely Molinaseca.
I don't believe you, you're not the truth
No one could look as good as you
The following day it never stopped raining and my poncho came out for the very first time. As I trudged on regardless, not really thinking of anything much, I gained a companion. Celeste from Brazil spoke very rough English, but everything of her seemed polished and poised. Made up to perfection, she could star on the cover of Vanity Fair. I was somehow aware that this person was special. She might just be the most beautiful girl in the world. Only a prominent Adam's apple gave things away.
“Do you have another name when you don’t play ‘Celeste’?”
“Wow, you see that so quickly! But Celeste is the name that I have to keep, I now have no choosing.”
“How come? Are you having a sex change?”
“Are you police?”
“Oh! I’m so sorry, my God, that must have sounded so rude! Please forgive me, it’s your business not mine.”
“So you are not police?”
“No of course not, why, are you being chased by them?”
“I am scared of that I might be.”
“Did you do something wrong?”
Celeste all of a sudden fell down to her haunches and I sensed any fight in her had got up and gone.
“I robbed lot of euros and my passport is fake!”
I sadly looked at the ravishing beauty, whose mascara was rapidly letting her down.
“Look, you don’t have to tell me, but you seem very upset. If you want me to listen, then listen I will. If you try to rob me, then you’ll live to regret it, but whatever the case, I won’t call the police.”
“I am so sorry! I did not mean to take all of euros but I didn’t know what it is I can do!”
“Shall we both sit down and you can tell me about it?”
“This I like, if you not mind. I really don’t know what is I can do!”
Something about Celeste told me I could trust her. If she’d had any thoughts about slitting my throat, it certainly wouldn’t cause me any lost sleep.
“Okay, well then start from the beginning and then we’ll get to where you are now.”
Precise and practised, she started to speak.
“My birth name is Calisto.”
“Who do you prefer being, the woman or man?”
“The man of course, but the man gets not so much money!”
“So you do this for cash?”
“My family have nothing. We beg for our food. When I get to twelve years, I have work in a café. I hear all the voices and practise on them. I soon get my English and can talk to the men.”
“Wow, you learned a new language all by yourself?”
“Yes, I do this.”
“Then you did very well.”
I was aware that few Brazilians ever learned English, so I knew Calisto had brains along with his looks, though I had a sinking feeling about how he made money.
“So, you spoke to these men …”
“Well, I soon learn to tell them how much it will cost.”
“You were selling your body?”
“I was selling my soul.”
“I’m so very sorry. Though none of that tells me how you ended up here.”
“Well men always give the money to lay with young boys, but give more money for the boys who are girls. I get work as dancer in one of the clubs, wearing a dress and painting my face. The tips I am getting, pay all of rent. Soon I just get hired when I am being Celeste. I buy all hormones that are cheap in Brazil. They grow the tits on me, you know? One day a man wants to hire me. He is rich guy, he goes all the time to Brazil and Bangkok. He likes me and is good to me and he makes me a deal.”
“I’m not liking the sound of this, but go on, tell me more.”
“Well the man, is his dream, the ladyboy thing. He said if I go his home, he send my family money. He makes me passport and takes me to Spain in place called León. Here I lay with him and I clean up his house.”
“So you became his slave?”
“Oh, no! He was paying all money! He lets me call and speak with my mother when I am here a month and a guy on a scooter gives her a hundred reais in a big bag!”
Amazingly, a rare signal allowed my iPhone to make the financial conversion.
“So this man gives your mother twenty-odd euros?”
“Yes and that will always be same. The man show me it on his computer.”
“So what, he’d bought you, set up a direct debit to your family and then you ran out on him?”
“I did do this yes, but I have not got choice.”
“Why, was he cruel to you?”
“He was a bit bad, but this I don’t care. First he is nice and then he is bad, he hit me a bit when I do thing wrong, so I do thing not so wrong. It is no problem getting beatings when you are from Brazil.”
“But you still ran out on him!”
“Only because he is dead!”
“Oh my God, what do you mean he is dead?”
“The man is big fat man, yes? One day he is fucking me, fucking and fucking after having cocaine. I have the bad pain from him fucking me but this is why he gives money. He’s fucking me bad but then he stops fucking. I ask him why he stop fucking but he not speak more, he not even come. I looks and I think he is dead. I think he has bad heart.”
“Oh Christ, he had a heart attack whilst shagging you, what the hell did you do?”
“I stay still for two days. The man is same. At end of two days, the man smell bad. He look not the same and I know he is dead. I really don’t know what is I must do. I look at house and I find all his euros. I take all of euros, nearly two thousand and I get the passport that fat man makes me.”
“Jesus Christ, I can’t believe he just died on you!”
“And I rob all his money. The police may not find me inside his house. They will say that I kill him and this I don’t do.”
“So what will you do?”
“Yes, what I do? I see the people with the bags. They walk The Camino, the road to Saint James. I know the Saint James, he may tell me what it is to do.”
“What would you like to do?”
“I like to join school. I like to be just like rich fat man, but by myself, you know? Then I like to have girlfriend. One day I maybe have kids of myself?”
“Well why don’t you then?”
“I have only passport with name of Celeste.”
“And nearly two thousand euros.”
“Two thousand euros that come from a dead man!”
“Who else knows that but you and me? I guess the dead man also had a rucksack?”
“Yes, I rob that too!”
“And what is it filled with?”
“My making up supplies and two thousand euros!”
“Look, you might not understand these words until you finish your schooling, but you’re intelligent, resourceful and resilient. You have two thousand euros which is much more than I have. Become ‘Celeste’ when you get on a plane, as her passport easily got you to Spain. As you walk to Saint James, try being Calisto. Nobody ever will look at you twice.”
“But I do crime!”
“No, son, an overweight cokehead, forged you a passport and ripped you from your home. Do you think that he was a good person to know? He did the crime. Look after the euros for they are now yours. He had a bad heart, that’s all they will know. Anyone that cares to look for him that is.”
“You are kind man. What is name of you?”
“My name is Bodie and I’m pleased to meet you, Calisto.”
“Hello, Mister Bodie, do you want to fuck me?”
“You could tempt a nun, but I have to refrain, which means no, Calisto. You have your euros and you have your future. You don’t have to go begging to all of these men. Take the walk to Saint James and find out your answers. You’re clever enough to find your own way.”
I had no doubt that Calisto would find his own way, whatever he decided to call himself or however he chose to dress. Though he could easily beat me in the style stakes, I definitely had the edge on him when it came to walking and I had a schedule to keep. We exchanged details and I reluctantly left him behind to walk at his own pace.
The rain was intermittent as I walked through non-descript towns and through vast swathes of open country. The re-emergence of vineyards proved a familiar sight when compared to the open fields full of enormous pumpkins which looked like huge hailstones that had landed on the surface of a distant moon.
I finally ended up in my resting place of Villafranca del Bierzo. It had been a while since I’d seen Ghost Ray and even longer since I’d sent any word home. I marvelled at how used I’d become to hearing the most extraordinary stories of how other people lived their lives and how small my own worries seemed in comparison. Determined not to shut myself off too much from the world, I spent the evening emailing my niece.
I left early next day surrounded by views of tumultuous mountains. If I survived the walk ahead, I could wave goodbye to the last of the big climbs of The Camino.
I faced another fork in the road and for once, elected to walk alongside a highway in order to keep on flatter ground for as long as was possible. The road seemed far quieter and less frenetic way up in the highlands. The hamlets I passed through were soggy and green. Everywhere, the sounds of streams, fuentes and occasional rain made the places watery oases of trickling life. It was as far from the scorching meseta as I could possibly imagine.
At Las Herrerias, the climb started in earnest. It was steep and sudden and devilishly tough. The views however, were payoff enough. I had pangs for home as I looked over valleys which looked just like England. I climbed and I climbed as my legs screamed in protest, but I finally entered the region of Galicia, an autonomous community and historic nationality unto itself.
My stop for the night was O Cebreiro, a flinty, hilltop town which boasted the oldest church on the whole of my walk. I was not the greatest fan of churches, but in deference to the ninth century building, took a quick look around its rather plain, understated interior.
The following day consisted of a gradual, gravelly descent from the heights. Apart from the whistling winds on the Alto’s de San Roque and Do Poio, the only sounds to be heard were those of muted birdsong and trickling water. I spent much of the morning walking through woodland glades, whose gentle light threw off the heat of a glorious Spanish day. I admired the ancient chestnut trees which lined my path, one of which, even had its own sign, proclaiming it to be eight hundred years old. I compared its huge, gnarled trunk to the new wrinkles on my own complexion after weeks of facing the meseta.
I was back in cattle country. The Rubia Gallega were a sturdy, attractive breed particular to the region and bred for their meat. I stroked the blonde nose of one on my way to Triacastela, where I happily dined on one of his cousins. The three castles which had given Triacastela its name, were no longer standing. Due to effortless walking, I myself was and decided to press on from my intended stop and see where my feet took me. I passed endless flint buildings and tumbledown huts and finally saw my first ‘hórreo’. Hórreos were purpose-built granary stores. Raised up on stilts, they were nice looking things. A group of them might make a fine albergue or holiday park.
I finally dropped into the village of Samos. Samos boasted the oldest Benedictine monastery in Western Europe. I walked around the imposing place before I found an albergue. I washed up and ate, pleased with my surroundings. The albergue was quaintly beautiful, full of wooden and flintstone old-fashioned charm. The place itself, didn’t have its own bar, but happily sold cans of cold San Miguel. I sat in the garden on that lovely evening, sipping my beer, content with my lot.
I was suddenly, nearly, shocked out of my chair when I heard my name called.
“Mister Bodie, Mister Bodie!”
I looked in confusion at the young guy who’d called me, certain I’d never once met him before.
“Mister Bodie, it is me, I am him, Calisto!”
I stared in amazement at a gorgeous young man. He called himself Calisto and he carried the same bag as a girl called Celeste.
“Calisto is that really you?”
“Yes! I do as you tell. I am Calisto ‘till I get out of Spain.”
“How the hell did you get here? I left you behind a long time ago!”
“I spend fat-man’s euros and I get in cab. I look for you since Triacastela. I see you in Renche and then you go again. I follow here to Samos.”
“Well it’s lovely to see you, and God knows, you look great! You have to understand though, I can’t walk with you or take any cabs. Nor will I sleep with you. Though you look so fantastic, I don’t pay for sex.”
“Oh no, Mister Bodie that is not my think! I want you to see Calisto. No one else wants to see Calisto but you!”
That night, I broke my resolution and lay by Calisto's side. It was as innocent and uneventful as my night with Dieter and till this day, Calisto Rodrigues, remains one of my greatest friends.
The following morning, I rose very early, feeling undoubtedly fitter than I had done in years. My feet resembled hard strips of leather, my thighs were like muscle bound tree trunks and my stomach was flatter than it had been in my forties. My energy levels were soaring and though I only had a thirteen-mile stretch to get to Sarria, I was raring to be off. Undercover of darkness, I left the albergue and my slumbering buddy Calisto, behind.
A beautiful sunrise soon banished the night and I knew with a pang, that my time of witnessing these incredible sights was nearing an end. The walking was laughably easy and the Galician countryside remained as pretty as ever. Everywhere, I felt a Celtic influence and as ever along my walk, I saw the tall stone pillars topped off with crosses. Centuries before, these were the markers that pilgrims had followed, the ancient version of our yellow shell signs.
I wandered through farmland, admiring sheep and petting their sheepdogs. A pottering pig got a little too friendly, scaring me slightly because of his size. When I finally realised he was scenting an apple way down in my backpack, we happily traded. He got the apple and I stayed alive.
The land was still markedly fertile and green. I passed bubbling waterfalls, mosses and ferns and fast-moving waterways. I thanked the God of such things, that my advancing age didn’t worry my bladder. All too soon, I landed in Sarria. Denied of my apple, I was suddenly famished. The iPhone informed me it was just after ten. Intending on breakfast, I found myself ploughing through a full pilgrim’s meal. Cursing my greed, I sat bloated and sluggish, though the traditional food had tasted divine.
I rested an hour before seeing the city, the largest in Galicia bar Santiago itself. As the calories went to where they were needed, my body informed me it was time to get up. Sarria was far preferable to some of the other large places I’d seen, having a gothic loveliness all of its own. I wasted an hour scaling a fort. It gave nice enough views, but didn’t extinguish the itch in my feet. From here on in, I had no proper plan. I’d reached Sarria and it was still only two. It’s hard to explain, the compulsion to walk, but I knew that I couldn’t stay there for the night. It was a terrible risk leaving a place that had ample albergues. As I neared Santiago, more and more people were joining the trail. The shortest distance required to earn a Compostela ticket was a hundred kilometres, a mere sixty-two miles. I faced once again, crowded albergues with no beds to spare. Against better judgement, I started to walk.
Because the night belongs to lovers
Because the night belongs to us
I travelled three or four hours not caring at all, lost in my music and noticing little. I passed through six villages, possibly seven, all of them offering beds for the night. Finally, I noticed the dwindling light. The night was upon me in the middle of nowhere and I started to panic having no place to stay.
I wandered about, nearly losing my footing and cursing my stupid, impetuous head. For nearly a month I’d walked this long trail, but I’d gained no more sense than before I’d set out. Only a fool walks with no planned destination, but I’d simply walked on without much thought at all.
The last village I’d walked through was called As Rozas. I turned on the headlamp to look at my map. The next place, Vilachá, was not far away, but my legs were exhausted and the daylight had gone. This was not the meseta, the soil beneath me was stony and wet. The pathway before me was not straight and white, but twisty and black. To carry on walking was a perilous risk and not an option I was willing to take. In this damp, shaded part of the journey, the nights were still cold and I was too old to risk getting a chill. The realisation that I’d lost the chance of a bed and a shower was a bit hard to swallow as a lifetime of training began to kick in.
I looked about the encompassing darkness, hoping to find a spark of incentive. I hadn’t seen many fireflies in Spain, but when one started glowing, I took it to be the signal I sought. As I looked about for the dazzling insect, I wondered if my eyes had maybe played tricks. Was it a beetle I’d seen or the bright flash of curls? I crossed my arms and looked wryly ahead. Surely Ghost Ray wouldn’t be so cocky as to take on my role? He’d been the dogged detective; it was me who knew how to survive in the wild.
I smiled as I reached the deserted hórreo. If this was Rays doing, I certainly wasn’t going to argue the point. I looked all around me but no one was near. I climbed the stone steps aware of my footing, wondering how hard it would be to get in. The door of the thing was held loosely in place by a rusty nail shoved into a hasp. I scrambled inside, threw off my backpack and hastily looked around my room for the night. A piece of discarded baling twine, when tied to the hasp and attached to a beam, drew the door closed and shut out the night. I was surprisingly comfortable tucked up in the hay. I’d stayed in worse places and this one was free.
I slept like a babe in the rickety building, waking up stiffly at just after six. I cursed my urgent desire to pee and emerged from the building, frazzled and stale. Day was just breaking through a thick layer of fog, the coolness of which, was a shock to the system. What I would give for a coffee and croissant didn’t bear further thinking, but those wonderful things would just have to wait.
I left the old building just as I’d found it and travelled on westwards through shimmering mist. The cold water droplets turned grasslands to diamonds as the warming sun rose. I soon reached Vilachá, too early for breakfast, so I ambled on through as the town slumbered on. A steep decline brought me down to the Fichier Bridge, a towering Roman affair that lead straight into Portomarin. Spanning the Rio Miño, the bridge was certainly sturdy enough and the rails alongside it came up to my waist, but I was still rather glad I’d not crossed it at night.
Portomarin was already busy with tourists and the café’s were open to welcome their trade. Many of these tourists were dressed up like pilgrims but were a world away from the walkers I knew. Fresh off the busses that landed in Sarria, they even smelt different, too fragrant and clean. They were all too loud and far too excitable, so self-absorbed in their modern-day lives. The old town of Portomarin had been flooded when the Belesear Reservoir was built in the sixties. To conserve the historical buildings, each structure was taken down and incredibly, moved stone by stone. The entire town was remade with a numbering system that resembled a giant puzzle. Some of the buildings still sported their numbers. The new walkers didn’t appear to care for such facts. They all seemed too busy taking their photos, some of each other, but more of themselves. Few chose to look at the temple fort church with its enormous rose window, though the touristy gift shops were excessively full.
I looked for a café, intent on my breakfast. Galicia seemed to buck trends that sickened my stomach. Pig’s ears were a thing that I fed to my dogs, processing veal didn’t sit right with me and there was simply no way I was trying ‘El pulpo’. The thought of eating such an incredible creature as an octopus was off-putting enough, but they hardly looked different when served on a plate. I sated my hunger with pastries and eggs. I soon found my legs and made out of town. I felt rather sorry for the folk of Portomarin. All they must see would be shiny new walkers just off a coach, not world-weary pilgrims with tales to tell. I hoped that the trade that they managed to do, made up for the shallow new people they strived hard to serve.
All day it seemed, I fought for my place on the trail. I was either following chattering school groups or being chased by the aged. I finally realised just how big Camino tours might be to my niece. As I wandered along at an average speed, I suddenly realised how lucky I was. I’d planned and I’d paid for this excursion myself. I didn’t need guides nor the use of an agent, but who was I to deny others that might? I’d become incredibly selfish, treating the walk like I owned it myself. How did I appear to the gracious man Vincent way back in Saint Jean on my very first day? He’d walked the Camino four times before, but still treated me as a most welcome equal. A month before, I’d been the shiny new walker, so full of keenness when buying my shell. I’d been the newcomer looked down on by others, but banished by none.
I would have rather walked further than Palas de Rei, maybe finding a rest stop way out in the wilds. Experience told me this was now a pipe dream. All the albergues were bound to be full and if I didn’t take up the bed that was offered, I’d soon find myself back out in the cold. I booked myself into a busy albergue and took a long shower. The nearer I got to Santiago, the more commercialised the pilgrimage seemed to become. My new albergue sported a fine restaurant bar and had full laundry facilities. I happily showed a new walker how splitting washing and drying loads could halve the cost of cleaning his clothes.
I knew my feet had more to give, but ahead of my schedule and clean and well fed, I chose to relax. My attitude changed when meeting the ‘newbies’. With a few beers inside me, I was happy to talk. To my greatest surprise, they were happy to listen, all of them loving my Camino tales. Both young and old hung onto my words as if I was Godlike and I cursed my previous bad views of them. All too soon, I tired of the chatter. I’d done this journey to look for answers and showing off like a peacock wouldn’t help me to find them. Making excuses, I headed for bed, wishing new walkers all of the best. As I made for the stairs, I heard my name called.
“Bodie! William Bodie!”
It astonished me that more people seemed to say my name in rural Spain than anyone ever did in my home in Dorset and I turned around in stunned amazement.
“Bodie? Oh my God, Bodie it IS you! It’s me, Keiran from Dublin, do you remember me at all?”
My eyes filled with tears at the sight of dear Keiran who wasn’t quite finished.
“And look, here’s your friend Dieter, he’s here with me too!”
Before I could talk, I sped to the bar to buy bottles of wine, trying to hide my wet, streaming eyes. I found us a table away from the crowd, my head full of questions and my heart full of love.
“Keiran how the hell did you find me?”
“I looked, my dear Bodie and followed the rays just as you said!”
“You got quicker at walking then? Dieter doesn’t surprise me as he walks like the wind, but you didn’t have such a tight schedule in mind.”
“No, I didn’t get quicker, I just fucked up my ankle! I stopped walking in León, sick of the thing. I’d got my answers ‘cos of things that you’d said. I didn’t need to walk anymore and when the medics released me, I could have gone home.”
“Why didn’t you then?”
“Because I wanted to see you, to thank you and all.”
“Keiran, you’ve no need to thank me, please don’t make me responsible for all your decisions!”
“No it’s not like that, Bodie, you just showed me the way. You condoned the thoughts I’d been having for years. You set me free, Bodie and I had to try and thank you for that! I knew nothing about you except the day you hoped to reach Santiago. I hopped on busses which took me to Sarria. It was there I met Dieter. It was Dieter who told me about your friend, your friend in the woods and then I realised how stupid I’d been.”
“Wha … what do you mean?”
“I am sorry, Herr Bodie. I tell Keiran of your friend who is dead like my friend Lucas is dead.”
“I’m so sorry, Bodie, I was just so amazed to meet someone who knew of you too. Me and Dieter, we talked on for hours and I told him of the man that you walked with. He told me that the man you loved died. I’m so sorry, I haven’t got this all wrong have I, have we?”
“No, you’ve got nothing wrong. I lead you astray. There’s no man that walks with me, least not one alive. I walk this trail to earn the forgiveness of one indeed dead. Sometimes I see him, but just in my mind.”
“Oh my Lord, Bodie, I’m so very sorry, we really never meant to intrude! How could someone as kind hearted as you though, need to say sorry?”
I’d nearly swallowed a bottle of wine. There were few people who were interested in the whole story so I wasn’t that used to relating it, though suddenly, I felt ready.
“I’d tell you if you wouldn’t think less of me. If you wouldn’t hate me more than I hate myself.”
“Oh, Bodie, neither of us could ever hate you. If it helps your heart, then please tell your story as our hearts were helped by us telling you ...”
This is the end Beautiful friend. This is the end
I'll never look into your eyes again
Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain
The room narrowed to a pinpoint in my vision as I remembered the scenes. These two very young men didn’t deserve to hear what I was about to tell them, but I needed to speak. It was all still such a burning cauldron inside me that if I didn’t break silence soon, I’d burn myself up and the tale would be ashes. Ray deserved to have the whole thing finally told. I swallowed some wine, closed my eyes and started to speak.
It seemed however hard I tried to block that fateful afternoon from my mind, I could still recall it word for word like the lines of a play which should never have made it onto the stage. Thoughtlessly flung, nasty little words which I could recall with far more detail in the aftermath than I’d ever given consideration to at the time of their delivery. Words said with the pure intention of causing more pain and misery than was already being suffered by two sad, desperate people. It had all started out innocently enough…
“Fancy a pint in a bit?”
“Nah, prefer to stay in, to be honest.”
“You tired again, Ray?”
“I’m tired of you asking me if I’m tired.”
“Oh, pardon me for taking such an interest!”
“Well you just don’t give up, do you, Bodie!”
“Not when you’re treating me like something you scraped off the sole of your shoe, no I bloody well don’t!”
“Oh, here we go again, ‘poor old Bodie, he’s so fucking hard done by...’”
“Just what is your problem, you nasty little shit, I can’t ever seem to do right for doing wrong nowadays!”
“Well p’raps you ought to take a little listen to yourself sometimes then!”
“What, when I’m asking you if you’re okay and if anything’s wrong just before you shoot me down with your flamethrower of a tongue?”
“P’raps try thinking about when you’re begging me for sex when you know I’m not in the mood and then you keep wheedling and moaning and pissing me off. That’s your real problem, isn’t it, Bodie, the fact you think you’re not getting enough!”
“Not getting enough? I’m not getting fucking any! Every time I even suggest it you cut me down!”
“Oh, don’t be so damned overdramatic!”
“‘Overdramatic?’ I ask you a few times if you want to make love with me and you turn on me like it’s the worst idea in the world!”
“Well, that’s just nonsense, that is!”
“No, it’s not, Ray, I’m not imagining this!”
“Course you are, you’re trying to make something out of nothing as per usual!”
“Okay then, if that’s the case then come to bed with me right now, show me I’m wrong and let us shag it out of our systems.”
“Oh, don’t be so ridiculous, Bodie!”
“Because I’ve got a sodding headache is why not!”
“Oh and here it is again! The housewife’s favourite, poor little Ray’s got yet another headache!”
“Well very sympathetic you sound!”
“Ray, either take an aspirin and stop making excuses or tell me the bloody truth for once!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Ray Doyle, you’re the most highly-sexed person I’ve ever met. If I’m not doing it for you then someone else must be!”
“Oh, so I’m cheatin’ now then am I? That’s what you’re worrying your little head over?”
“Are you denying it?”
“I’m denying nothing, you fucking bastard, I shouldn’t bloody well have to!”
“Well that tells me all I need to know then really, doesn’t it?”
“You’re being a dick.”
“No. You’re being an evasive little shit who won’t even deny he’s got someone else on the go. I thought I deserved more than that, Ray, really I did, but then I was always a sucker for you, wasn’t I?”
“You always tried to over-protect me, I know that much.”
“Well, I’m so sorry if I loved you too much. Don’t you worry, that can end right here and now, I’m not staying around where I’m not wanted!”
“Eh, what the heck are you doing now...”
“I’m doing what you so obviously want, Ray and fucking right off out of your hair. If you haven’t even got enough respect for me to tell me the truth then there’s no point me being here.”
“Wait, Bodie, I wouldn’t ever cheat on you …”
“Doyle, you’d chat up a pillar box if you thought you could fuck it just before the postman came by. You always did like to tout your arse to all and sundry, you fucking little tart! Well, I get it, I’m not good enough for you. If it makes you feel better, I never really ever thought that I was, but I was daft and I believed in a silly dream.”
“Bodie, don’t be stupid …”
“Nah, I’m done with being stupid, you live the life you want, I’m too old for this bullshit and I’m off. I’ll be in contact about the house as I’ll ‘spect you’ll want my signature sooner or later, you can have the lot, I don’t bloody well want it …”
“Bodie don’t go for Christ’s sake, we need to talk about this …”
“Bollocks, we’ve had the chance to talk for weeks. You declined.”
“Only because I didn’t want to hurt you, Bodie, because I didn’t know how to tell you!”
“Doesn’t really matter, now does it? You just stay in your little house with your new squeeze and see how they like putting up with you. I’ll not stand in your way, I really can’t be bothered, Ray. You don’t need me, that’s all I needed to know, so I’m going.”
Driving away from Ray had been like abandoning a lost limb but it was easier than confronting the fact that he simply didn’t love me anymore. I fled to a local hotel hoping for a while he might look for me there, but of course, he didn’t. When I finally realised I was alone in my misery, I proceeded to drain the minibar dry. The following day I woke up feeling like a guilty teenager with the hangover from hell and a headful of hateful memories. It was at least check out-time before I felt able to drive and I guzzled black coffee before hitting the road.
The truth was, I didn’t want to go home. I’d given Ray my blessing in a roundabout way, ‘take your lover, my darling for I am beneath you. Love and be loved as I didn’t know how.’ I, however, had nowhere to go except back to the captive I had to set free. I also wanted my passport and a fresh change of clothes.
My anger had vanished leaving behind it a deep, vicious pain. As I drove to the cottage my sense of loss deepened. All I had worked for was there in that house. A life that I’d cherished was slipping away and the lover I worshipped was doing the same. As I rounded the corner I had no idea that my desperation was nothing compared to the pain that would come.
As I walked from the car, I suddenly felt such a sense of foreboding, it brought me up short. The place was too quiet. No dog raced to greet me, no strains of the wireless sang through the air, the birds were all silent, still locked in their coop. As I entered the courtyard, the cacophony started. The sight of a human, brought screams from ponies and chickens all demanding their freedom and food. I hoped against hope that Ray was still sleeping, snoring his way through a hungover head, but it hardly seemed likely with the back door wide open. I’d known Ray so drunk he could hardly stand up, but he’d still lock the house up no matter what. He’d learned long ago what complacency caused.
I entered the kitchen, my frightened heart thudding, to look in the eyes of our tiny dog, Twig. She thumped her tail by way of a greeting, but refused to leave the feet of her master. Her twin brother Ferris, sat up by Ray’s head. It was only as both dogs started to wail, that I reached for the handset and called the police.
In the midst of the chaos, I phoned my friend Murphy. No one had said I was under arrest and nobody stopped me from making the call, but I knew how the police worked and knew it of old.
I watched all the action with casual interest, as if I was viewing the scenes of a film. The SOCO technicians soon learned to ignore me, my flight risk established, unlikely to none.
Murph had driven like the devil incarnate and arrived at the cottage at just after eight. Somehow, I’d managed to throw enough food out to shut up the creatures and when Murphy turned up, I collapsed in his arms.
“What happened here, Bodie?”
“We argued last night, a proper humdinger! I made out and left and then bedded elsewhere. They’ll be CCTV to show just where I was.”
“So, you came back and found …”
“Ray dead in the kitchen. All of his head was a puddle of blood. Blood from his nose, his ears, even his eyes.”
“Were you in any doubt he was dead?”
“There was no doubting, Murphy.”
“So you didn’t touch him at all, attempt first aid or the like?”
“No, I didn’t touch him, I know how things work. This wasn’t a crime. All about him was normal. There were no marks on him, only the blood.”
“They’ll interview you and do a post mortem. They’ll find out what killed him and that will be that. You’ll be in for a few nasty hours, which you’ll come through easy enough, but how can I help you right now?”
“It’s too soon to inform the family, not until we all know what’s what.”
“The police can take care of that, you don’t need to do it all yourself, Bodie.”
“I’ll be out of action around here for a couple of days, I guess? Someone will have to take care of the animals … I’ve got numbers and stuff you can call …”
“Consider it done, but what about you, Bodie?”
“What about me? What am I now if Ray Doyle is dead?”
“I don’t know how to answer that one, Bodie. I don’t know of anyone who really could …”
I never dreamed that I'd meet somebody like you
And I never dreamed that I'd lose somebody like you
"Oh my God, Bodie, that’s just terrible, terrible! Did you find out what caused Ray’s death?”
“Brain tumour, Keiran. Inoperable apparently. Non-cancerous, but it had got so big that it would have killed him sooner or later.”
“Good Lord, do you think he knew about it?”
“Well I have my suspicions, as they seemed to want to look through some sort of medical notes, but they wouldn’t tell me, patient confidentiality and that sort of thing …”
“But he was dead, does patient confidentiality still count when someone’s dead?”
“To be fair, I could have found out if I’d really wanted to. I was his next of kin after all and I knew the guy that did the autopsy.”
“Would this be from your time working on a job that wasn’t exactly on the side of the angels?”
“Yeah that would be it. I wasn’t in the right head space however, to know the truth. It didn’t matter you see whether Ray knew or not, I didn’t know, that was the important thing. I didn’t know because I didn’t ask.”
“You did ask though Bodie, surely you asked!”
“I didn’t ask hard enough because I didn’t want to hear the answers. When Ray told me to fuck off, I happily complied, content in my ignorance.”
“Oh, you poor, poor man.”
“Oh, don’t pity me, please! I got comeuppance for my complacency by seeing my lover's head exploded all over my kitchen. That still wasn’t enough payment for what I owe him.”
“Verdammt! You asked what is wrong and he doesn’t tell you!”
“You really had to understand our relationship, Dieter. We knew everything there was to know about each other until I chose not to know. My lover was dying and I didn’t care!”
“Oh but, Bodie of course you cared! It was tragic that the last words between you and yer man were angry ones, but if you’d known how ill he was would you have said the things you did? Dieter’s right, Bodie, think about it! Ray has to shoulder at least half the blame for keeping you in the dark like he did.”
“It shouldn’t have been like that though, Keiran, I should have been taking care of him, taking him to his hospital appointments, making sure he was comfortable and that he wasn’t in any pain, not bothering him all the time like some pestering kid!”
“Be Jesus, Bodie if he was that sick, all the care in the world wouldn’t have prolonged his life by the sounds of it and I think I now know you well enough to consider that you’d still be beating yourself up once he’d died, even if you’d treated him like Florence Nightingale. You couldn’t help him if you didn’t know.”
“I do know of the feelings that Bodie has, my last words to my friend Lucas were not happy words.”
“Oh, Christ, Dieter, I’m so very sorry, here am I going on and on when you’ve only just lost your dear love. At least Ray had a life which is more than poor Lucas really did.”
“No, it is fine. Lucas argues with me on the last day we see each other because he is happy about the place that I get in the art college, but I am not happy because my father does not wish me to go to it. My father says to me that people do not admire men who draw and paint, but that men who do sports are heroes and champions. Lucas says that my father is wrong and then Lucas dies.”
“Oh Dieter, your father was so, so wrong!”
“Yes, I now know this, Bodie. I come to walk The Camino to get away from Berlin. All this time I am thinking that people will not like me because I want to draw and paint, but then people do like me. When I don’t speak so much about how quickly I finish the Camino, people like me more. Then I meet Wilhelm Bodie. He likes me so much he takes care of me and makes me think what I like is important.”
“Dieter, what you care about is important!”
“And you, Wilhelm Bodie, what you care about is important too!”
“Here here! Tell me, Bodie, do you think walking the Camino has helped you at all?”
“Well, it’s certainly been a great experience. I’ve met some amazing people not least Dieter and yourself, and to be honest, meeting people hasn’t always been the easiest thing for me to do. I’ve seen some beautiful places, oh, and I saw a baby being born …”
“Oh my God, I’d almost forgotten to ask! Was it you that was the impromptu midwife to baby Liam?”
“Oh, you heard about that then, did you?”
“Good grief, Bodie I think everyone currently on the Camino trail knows about Roshy, Conor and their own guardian angel! When I heard that they’d called the boy ‘Liam’ and heard the description of the mystery man, I wondered if it was you.”
“I was hardly an angel, Keiran, all I really did was call an ambulance …”
“Bodie, you’re a bloody hero, man, the story’s already become part of Camino legend!”
“Well that’s nice and all but …”
“But nothing! This calls for another bottle! You realise you’ve been touched by the Irish now, Bodie, you’ll be treated as a prince if you ever go there!”
“I’ve actually got a fair bit of Irish heritage, but the only time I went there was forty-odd years ago on a rather unpleasant visit to the North. I wasn’t really planning on going back …”
“P’raps it’s best you don’t then, at least certainly not to Donegal. One sniff of what you did here and they’d never let you leave!”
Dieter was obviously having a little trouble following the conversation so Kieran did his best to rapidly explain.
“There was a time in my country’s troubled history, Dieter, that The British were very unwelcome in Ireland. I’m guessing that Bodie is referring to that terrible time and it’s something I’m very grateful not to have had to live through myself.”
“Wilhelm Bodie was a soldier?”
“Yes, Dieter, I was, once upon a time. It was all so many years ago and not a time I much care to remember, but very well done on knowing your world history.”
“There are many countries that have their conflicts and their times of shame. We learn about them in school so that we know that Germany is not the only one that has a past which is black.”
“Oh, Dieter, there are stacks of places that have a dark history and look what an amazing place Germany is today. There is always hope my friend.”
“And there is always hope for Wilhelm Bodie. He does not answer the question though, that Keiran Nash asks him, which is does walking the Camino help him.”
“Yeah, I guess you got me there! To be honest, I don’t really know what I expected to get from walking this thing. I only did it because Ray wanted to and I don’t believe all that rubbish about the Camino giving you all the answers.”
“Well I found mine right enough!”
“Really, Keiran? Tell me, what answers did you find?”
“I’ve decided to leave The Church! Well perhaps not quite as literally as all that, but I no longer plan to study as a priest. I might take up a post as a warder or maybe even a curate, but much as I still love God, I now know I’m not the right person to dedicate myself to him forsaking all others. I have to lead the life that God meant for me.”
“Herr Bodie, I too found my answers by walking on the Camino!”
“Oh! Oh my goodness, you two, you’re not, er, your not together now are you?”
“Oh, good God no! I really hope to find my friend David and if it is God’s will than it shall be so. Dieter has come to his own decisions.”
“Yes. I meet a girl while I walk the Camino. She is not my love or anything, but she lives near the college where I have been given a place. She tells me that we can get an apartment to rent and that I can leave my father and not have to study sports sciences. The girl likes sports sciences but that was not always the thing for her. She says we can get some work and money for education and we can pay the rent and that I can then do what I want.”
“Well, I’m flabbergasted! Well done to the both of you! I’m so glad that this Camino thing works out for at least some people. Are you both going to walk to the end? If so, I think we should now all walk together. You are both my good friends. I hoped to get to Santiago by June the twenty-seventh, but if that doesn’t happen then at least I will have still made my very good friends.”
“Oh, I’m raring to go now, Bodie, I did two hundred-odd kays of my Camino in a bus, so I’m as fit as a flea!”
“I too, hope to finish the walk, Herr Bodie. I may not win the wager I have with mein vater, but I will know that I finish the walk.”
“That’s settled then, we’ll all walk to Santiago together!”
“Bravo, Herr Bodie! We all walk together! Oh and we also walk with my friend the girl, of course. She had to sleep early as she had the pain in the stomach, but you will meet her tomorrow. Her name is Hilde.”
That night, despite the copious amount of wine I’d drunk, I slept very poorly. It had been a joy to meet up with my friends, but I’d told them far more than I’d ever told before of Ray's death, an irretrievable fact which left me uneasy. On top of that, my wine slackened tongue had now committed me to walk with others for the rest of the trip. Though I now found company far more welcome than I’d ever thought possible and both Keiran and Dieter were precious to me, up until now my time had been solely my own. My schedule had been all important, the driving force that had encouraged me right from the start to eventually reach Santiago with time left to spare. The last thing I wanted was to resent the young men for holding me up and the thought of walking with the only Hilde that I knew of, filled me with horror. Above all, was the very real fear that on seeing I had plentiful company, Ghost Ray might leave me alone.
When I crawled out of bed just after dawn, walking was the very last thing I wanted to do. Fortunately, I was not the only one. Keiran the failed priest and Dieter the sixteen-year-old looked considerably worse than me, so hungover in fact that were it not for a rather unladylike screech of condemnation, they would have forgotten about poor Hilde entirely. Naturally, it was, of course, the same Hilde I knew and despised, though to her credit, she didn’t let on that we were old adversaries. Instead, after a good sleep and with a clear head, she remained quietly pleased with herself.
As I’d noticed on previous occasions, walking was enough to shake off the worst of my headache. Sadly, the same could not be said for my male companions who were obviously less versed in dealing with the after effects of the demon drink. I found myself walking alongside Hilde The Terrible whilst the others struggled to follow. She remained quiet until she saw me admiring the far-off mists arising through distant hills.
“It is very beautiful, yes?”
“Oh indeed, Hilde, it’s a wonderful sight and one that I’ll miss when all this is over.”
“You decided to carry on walking the Camino. For this I am both surprised and admiring of you, blödmann.”
“Look, I’m sorry that you don’t like me and even more sorry that we seem to have ended up together, but I really don’t want my last few days on this walk to be miserable, so if you don’t wish to talk to me than that suits me fine.”
“I never said that I did not like you!”
“Well, you’ve sure acted like it at times!”
“I don’t hate you, Herr Bodie, I envy you.”
“Oh, you do know my name then?”
“I knew of your name back in Estella.”
“Well the "Herr" is quite unnecessary, people simply know me as Bodie. It’s not much of a name, but it’s sure better than blödmann!”
“Okay from now on, I will know you as Bodie”
I wasn’t about to ignore the olive branch and quickly let the matter lie. The scenery was much the same as it had been for the past week. We walked through forests and long avenues of beautiful trees, chestnut, oak and silver birch, many deeply clothed in ivy and Russian vine. We crossed precarious bridges spanning small rivers that sorely tested the wits of the boys. The continuing vista of fog laden hills accompanied the walk until the sun became hot. We passed by the familiar buildings I’d become used to in Galicia and Hilde seemed to take a particular interest.
“It is a mystery yes, how they came to make them?”
I studied the structures with a more focused eye and to my surprise, found Hilde was right. The sheds and houses contained no real mortar, each one constructed of misshapen stones. I’d seen dry stone walling on many a trek, but these ancient places stood as if by magic and I was quietly impressed Hilde had seen such a thing.
We stopped in Melide to order some food. The boys needed encouragement to eat and both looked much better after coffee and eggs. Melide was a point that met another Camino route, The Camino Primitivo. It was soon bursting with pilgrims. We rested a while to let breakfast go down, but all four of us were soon tired of the bustle and eager to be off back into the wilds. Before too long, we came to another of the now familiar forks along the Camino trail. For some reason, the others naturally seemed to defer to me as to what direction we needed to take. According to the information sign, there didn’t seem to be many vast differences between the original and the new route either in distance or surroundings. For the sheer hell of it, I chose the ‘new’. This proved to be a good move as we seemed to be the only group who'd decided to do so and had the trail much to ourselves.
Any fears I’d had about forgoing my solitude were soon forgotten. We all seemed respectful of each other’s space and nobody was offended if someone wanted to turn on their music or be by themselves. The walking was easy but though we were warm, the weather had dulled down to ominous clouds. As we reached Ribadiso da Baixo, the heavens opened and we dived into a cattle shelter and out of the rain. It was cosy in the shed, just shooting the breeze and waiting for the downpour to stop.
“Hey, Bodie, I know what was said last night but we were all pretty drunk. Dieter and I have been talking and er, well if we’ve muscled in on your walk and you’d rather carry on alone, you wouldn’t be afraid to say, would you? I know you had a schedule to keep and all.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me there, young Keiran?”
“Oh by God no, we just didn’t want you to be stuck with us!”
“Well we’re only talking about a day or two and I think today’s gone rather well don’t you? The nearer we get to Santiago the busier it’s gonna get. We might as well endure all the hordes together.”
“Oh that’s a relief, Bodie, as long as you don’t feel obliged to stay with us and we’re not holding you up any?”
“Actually, I’m ahead of schedule. The twenty-seventh was the latest day I could possibly be in Spain. Assuming we stay in Arzúa tonight and make it to O Pedrouzo tomorrow, it means I’ll reach Santiago on the twenty-fifth.”
“You were never tempted then, to walk on to Finisterre?”
“Not really, I just didn’t factor it into my time.”
“I would like to see Finisterre, but I have no wish to walk all the way there to see it.”
“Really, Hilde? It’s not like you to admit defeat!”
“Oh shut up, blödmann, I think I have walked enough!”
“Yeah, I guess we all have. What about you, Dieter have you any intentions of walking to the coast?”
“I finish walking when Hilde does then we both return to Germany and she speaks with my father.”
“Oh, I’d just love to be there to see that one! Anyway, how near did you come to winning your wager?”
“I hopefully walk The Camino in the same time as you, Bodie, which will be thirty days.”
“Well that’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Sadly on the meseta, I get the albergue fever two times. The first time an ambulance is called and four pilgrims are taken into the hospital. In the hospital, I stay for three days until I know that I have to leave. The bill is being charged to the credit card of my father and I know he will go crazy about this. I leave and then I walk and I walk to make up the time, but then I get sick again. This time I know I must not go to the hospital as it will make my father more crazy, but still I cannot walk for two days.”
“My God, where was this, Dieter?”
“It was in a place called Terradillos de Templarios.”
“Bloody hell, that’s just where I got sick! I heard there was a bad fuente that people had been using but I think that whole area was ripe for sickness. Many people were at a low ebb after being on the meseta too long. You do realise that if you hadn’t got sick you would have probably made good on your bet?”
“Herr Bodie, for many days, I thought of nothing else.”
“It was a stupid bet anyway, I tell Dieter this many times!”
“Yes, Hilde, it was a stupid bet. God willing though, one that Dieter will have won in all honesty.”
“I feel a bit of a fraud amongst you lot, having taken a bus for much of the way.”
“Does it really matter though, Keiran? You got the answers you were looking for and with the double stamps you’ve been getting over the last hundred kays, you’ll still get your Compostela certificate.”
“No, Bodie, it doesn’t matter. Even the certificate doesn’t really matter. I’m still looking forward to meeting Saint James, but to thank him rather than beg him for guidance. His pilgrimage and the wonderful people I met on it, showed me the way and I couldn’t be more grateful. Has anyone else noticed the sun has come out?”
We left the dark shed to walk onto Arzúa. Naturally somehow, we split into pairs.
“So, Hilde, you’ll be living with Dieter?”
“It is an agreement that works very well. Dieter needs to be away from his father.”
“I agree. Did he tell you what happened?”
“After a long time, he tells me it all. His father’s a bad man, we call them a bully.”
“We call them the same and I fear you are right. So, what will you get out of living with Dieter?”
“I live a few blocks from Dieter’s new college. It is not a cheap place to live. If he can get work it will help with the rent. Many times I think of getting a lodger, but I do not know how to get one that I like. Dieter’s okay, he will be company for me as we get on quite well. I like to live with a boy who is gay. I won’t live with girls, but many boys, they just get the wrong idea you know? I don’t think Dieter will get the wrong idea.”
“Why don’t you want to live with girls?”
“Girls are bullies.”
“Have you been bullied by girls, Hilde?”
“I cannot tell you about this.”
“Because you will laugh at me.”
“Why, is it something funny then?”
“No, it is not funny at all!”
“Then why would I laugh at you?”
“Because you are blödmann!”
“No, I am Bodie, remember? If you don’t want to tell me about it then that’s up to you, but don’t presume to know what I’m thinking or what I will say, I’m far too old to play silly games, Hilde.”
“You are right, I am sorry, Herr Bodie. If you promise that you will not laugh, I guess I can tell you.”
“You have my word as an Englishman.”
“Very well. When I was eight years old, my father left my mother. She was very sad about this and for a long time it was as if she did not love me anymore. She did not spend much time with me like she had before, she did not play with me or help with my school work. Instead, she went out at night and sometimes she would not come back until the next day. She left food out for me and I would eat it all because there was nothing else to do. My mother would see I had eaten all the food so she would buy more and more and I would eat more and more. Soon I was putting on lots of weight and getting fatter and fatter and the girls in my school started to say terrible things about me. The more terrible things that they said, the more and more I wanted to eat. When the food that my mother bought for me wasn’t enough, I bought even more on my way into school. Soon, I was so heavy I couldn’t do sports. My lungs would be tight and my breathing would stop. When the other girls saw me all red on the face, they laughed even more. They started to hurt me. Just a little at first, pinching my arms or poking my chest.”
“The nasty little bitches, what did you do?”
“I do nothing to stop them, Bodie. When they see it upsets me, they get even worse, they start to follow me home from the school. One day in the winter, they wait for me. It is dark and I do not see them. They jump out at me and knock me down. They laugh at top of their voices until they see there is blood, then they all run away …”
It was a shock to see Hilde cry and I wondered if she too, had carried her sad secret around untold for years.
“What had happened, Hilde, why was there blood?”
“I had broken my arm. The bone had come right out through the skin. The blood was running out from my coat. I was very scared, but I had to walk home. It was nearly a mile and I was too fat so it took a long time. As usual, my mother was not at my home so I had to ask for help from the lady who lived next door to us. I did not know her very well and was worried that she would be very shocked at how fat I was, but she was very kind to me and took me to the hospital.”
“Oh, good grief, you poor girl!”
“No, it was okay after this time. I do not know what they said at the school, but the girls did not bully me again. They did not talk to me, but they did not bully me either. I was referred to a lady who does the physiotherapy. The lady was great and she did not seem to mind I was so fat. The lady also knows about sports and when we do the physiotherapy, she teaches me about the things that she knows. I do the exercises to make my arm better. She teaches me more exercises, ones for my legs and gives me lists of food for my mother to buy. In one year, I lose lots of weight.”
“So what happened, you got the fitness bug?”
“Er, I do not understand this?”
“Oh, sorry, I mean you liked to do exercise more and more?”
“Oh yes, when I got to sixteen, I was an athlete. Still girls did not like me and tried to be mean. They called me komisch and freak because of my training, but I did not care. At least they were not mean because I was fat.”
“You’ve done very well.”
“I think so. I left my home as soon as I could. I carried on learning to become a persönlicher trainer, you know of this?”
“A personal trainer? Yes, we have those.”
“I join many clubs and we walk and we run. Last year some girls from my club say they wish to walk The Camino. They have gone back now, to Germany. When I go back, I will go with Dieter and a book full of stamps.”
“You’re an inspiration, Hilde, you should be proud of yourself. I’m certainly proud of you.”
“Dankeschön, du Blödmann,” she said with a wink.
In an albergue in Arzúa, we ate very well and tried to drink less. We’d two more days of walking and nobody much-fancied doing them pissed, though little could quash our jubilant mood. We’d only twenty-three miles before Santiago and already my heartstrings were starting to pull.
“I dunno about you lot, but I’ve got an idea.”
“Oh my dear feller, Bodie, pray what is your fine idea, share with us do!”
“If you’re gonna take the mick, Mick, I might just have to keep my clever idea all to myself!”
“I do not understand, why does Bodie now call Keiran, ‘Mick’?”
“Oh, don’t you worry yerself, Dieter, I’ve been trying to understand the English for years, trust me, it’s really not worth it!”
“Keiran, I do believe I much preferred you when you’d taken a vow of sobriety.”
“Wash your mouth out, Bodie, I never vowed any such thing! Since when did you know of a non- drinking priest?”
“True, I concede. So, do you all want to hear my idea or not?”
The affirmative shouts assured me they did.
“Well, I’m ahead of schedule. Dieter hasn’t got a schedule anymore because he’s going home with Hilde in tow who’s gonna give his dad what for before he moves out and Christ only knows what Keiran will do. Now. I haven’t got time to walk to the coast, BUT I’ve got plenty of time to walk to Monte do Gozo. What say we walk there and stop for the night and the next day, we walk on to Santiago. It’s only five or so kays and we can have a poke about in the darned churchy type thing. Then, we can all hop on a bus and take a trip to the sea! What do you all think to that?”
The idea was equally loved by all, but who’d remember it the following morning, was anyone’s guess. Who ordered the last bottle, nobody knew.
We left the albergue sometime the next morning as soon as our hungover heads would allow. It gave an odd sense of pride that as an old codger, I could lead these poor youngsters so wildly astray. Once again, the trail was heaving, a fact we could no longer try to ignore. We’d walk en masse and suffer it gladly, for there really was no other choice to be had. In a few short days, I’d be back in my cottage. Would I embrace the solace of silence, or would I be missing the noise of a crowd?
We arrived in Salceda and stopped for some breakfast, where the boys introduced me to the delights of empanadas. I never quite worked out if a Spanish empanada more resembled a pizza or pie, but stuffed to the brim with Galician beef, it hit the right spots and I’d rarely had better. We left the small café almost too full to move and grumbling fiercely, we re-joined the trail.
I’d seen many fine trees throughout my long walk, but the next ones we came upon were quite a surprise. An immense planted forest of huge eucalyptus, invited us in. Earlier mists had dispersed in the forest, dampening the leaves that lay on the ground. As we crunched through the woodland, the heavenly smells of fresh gum tree oil delighted our noses and I admired how the Camino enchanted all senses.
Tucked in our albergue at just after six, all of us knew that the end was in sight. Others around us were living it up, laughing at photos and messaging friends. There was an excitement around us that would last to the finish, though none of us four felt like partying much.
“What are your plans, Bodie, have you got a flight back?”
“Not booked, no. I’ll just turn up at the airport and get the first flight to London that I can afford.”
“What airport will that be?”
“Doesn’t really matter. If I can walk across Spain, I can cope with the London underground.”
“Will nobody be there then, to welcome you back?”
“Well I’ll message my niece to say that I’m coming, but I really don’t want her to drive all that way. What about you, when are you leaving?”
“Who knows? There’s really no hurry and there’s always a ferry to take me back home.”
It was easy to forget that though Keiran was a slower walker than me, he’d still walked most of the way to this point from Dublin.
“And you guys? Have you got return tickets?”
“No, Herr Bodie, but we come by the train. Europe is easy when travelled by train!”
“Oh, of course, I forgot you don’t have a channel to cross! When will you leave?”
“We will see Santiago and then Finisterre, then we go back with you on the way to your plane. Then we will look at the time of the busses, get to a station and travel back home. There is no point in staying, the walk will be over. It will be a day that I never wanted to come.”
Dieter echoed all our thoughts with his sentiment. Nobody wanted the walk to be over. All of us sat in a place called O Pedrouzo, where we could almost be whoever we liked. Out on the Camino, we were sheltered from the pain of our everyday lives, away from the stresses of bullies and bills, murderous fathers and arrogant priests. I had much to be thankful for if the truth were told. I had a home to return to which was paid for and mine. I had people that loved me and those I called friends. I had methods and means to enjoy my retirement which was more than many poor people might have. I knew, however, the cause of my sadness. A desperate sadness that was eating me whole.
I’d never feared loneliness throughout my long life. Loneliness was a very poor trait in a soldier and I’d always found solitude easy to take. Now in an albergue, with a huge group of people, I might just have been sat in a room on my own. It seemed like a lifetime since last I’d seen Ghost Ray and his absence made a wilderness out of my heart. Ashamed that my problems were of my own making, I made my excuses and put me to bed. I woke up the next morning with a headful of dreams. I’d been chasing a man on a bridge in Saint Jean. I didn’t know who the man was, but I knew that I loved him. I knew without asking, he loved me right back.
Shaking my body awake, it was an oddity to find myself sober. The iPhone informed me it was just after four. Reality informed me it was the last long day of walking, that my trip of a lifetime was nearing an end. Further sleep was not going to come. The albergue sported a coffee machine that I’d quite like in my kitchen and donning some trousers, I made my way down the stairs.
I was not the first one awake. Three others sat morosely around a small table. The female of their number handed me coffee without looking up. If anyone had suggested to me back in May that my family now included two Germans and a would-be priest, I might well have laughed. Nobody laughed now, fearing the end.
There was nothing really keeping us in the albergue, though to walk to Monte do Gozo would only take us a few short hours. We were so used to walking however, after our infusions of caffeine we couldn’t sit still and by mutual agreement we hit the trail before daybreak. Our mood was subdued as we left the albergue, Keiran being especially quiet. I walked alongside him, a little concerned.
“Something on your mind there, mate or are you just sad about the end being in sight?”
“Well actually, Bodie, I was hoping I might ask a wee favour of you if I might?”
“Sure, what is it?”
“Well of course I understand if you say no, and you’ve every right to …”
“Keiran, just come out and say it for heaven’s sake!”
“Oh, yes, absolutely, well the thing is … um, the thing is …”
“Okay, okay, what time are we planning to get on the bus to visit Finisterre?”
“Um, I don’t know, when we’re all ready I guess, why did you have something else you wanted to do?”
“Well, the thing is, the bus to the sea takes about two hours.”
“Yeah, well that’s okay isn’t it? I mean it won’t be quite the same as walking, but I guess we’ll still be able to look out of the windows and stuff?”
“Well two hours there means two hours back and I know that you’ve got a plane that needs catching.”
“Oh it’ll be fine, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of time, but this still doesn’t tell me what this favour is your after.”
“Well er, would you still have plenty of time if we didn’t leave Santiago until one o’clock?”
“I don’t see why not, the busses run from the harbour up until seven at night. It looks like that trip’s a much slower journey, but I’d still get to the airport by ten. Even if I don’t get a flight out until Sunday, I’ll still be just about on schedule.”
“Really, Bodie, you really wouldn’t mind not leaving Santiago until one o’clock?”
“Well though I’d quite like to know why, no I don’t mind at all.”
“Oh, Bodie, you are great, so you are and you might not even be interested of course, but last night someone told me that at twelve there’s going to be an extra Botafumerio ceremony. The ceremony usually only takes place in the evenings but because this is Holy Year and there are so many pilgrims, they’re putting on extra weekend displays. I can of course, see the evening display by myself, but it’s something I’d just love to see with my friends around me!”
“Keiran, will you just stop being so darn humble and go back to being cheeky again, please? I’m not the leader of this expedition, this is your pilgrimage too so you don’t need to ask my permission to do things! If you want to see the ceremony, then of course we shall, now tell me all about it if you would.”
Fit to burst, Keiran looked as though I’d just made him pope and Dieter and Hilde were also pricking up their ears, eager to hear more.
“Well the Botafumeiro is a huge censer, a big lantern which expels smoke over the heads of the congregation. They might use the artichoke or the cabbage of course …”
“Hang on, the what?”
“Oh, sorry, ‘La Alcachofa’ which translates to artichoke and ‘La Repollo’ (cabbage) are smaller versions of the Botafumeiro which is one of the largest sensers in the world. I’ve seen video films of the ceremony and I think I can guarantee it will be like nothing you’ve ever quite seen before!”
Despite myself, I was fascinated.
“What’s the significance of the ceremony, Keiran, does it actually mean anything?”
“Oh yes! In fact, you may well have seen it yourself on a smaller scale if you’ve ever been to a service in a Catholic church. During the procession, a priest will lead, shaking his senser in front of him. The sensers contain incense made out of flowers. They perfume the church to cover up the smell of the pilgrims! In Santiago, there are a lot of pilgrims which means a big stink, hence the huge sensers.”
The explanation was as bizarre as it was amusing and it wasn’t long before the rest of us were as obsessed by the idea of the ceremony as Keiran.
We tried not to hurry, wanting to extend the day as far as possible, but we ate the miles up quickly. The woods we passed through were dark and mysterious, shrouded in layers of early morning mist. They were preferable however, to the open spaces where more and more tacky gift stalls aimed at Camino tourists were popping up all around us.
Despite our lingering, we arrived in Monte do Gozo at just before nine. After a month of desperately trying to catch up on lost time, I now found myself drastically ahead. We admired the modern looking statue erected in 1993 to commemorate Pope Jean Pauls visit in ’92. In my opinion, it was a rather ugly construction and I showed far more interest in the hundreds of old trainers and hiking boots that lay at its base. We then had coffee before finding the albergue. It was a vast place which to my mind, resembled a prison wing. Though I’m sure Monte do Gozo was a nice enough place, I could see the others constantly looking over towards Santiago in the not so far distance. My feet felt decidedly cheated out of a long walk and the rest of me held in a nervous excitement I was struggling to contain. It was time to make an executive decision.
“Fuck this, I know what I said the other night, but who fancies walking to Santiago right now, as in this very minute?”
The others looked at me in astonishment.
“Herr Bodie you know it will be very busy in Santiago when we arrive, you do not mind all these other people?”
“Ah sod it, Dieter, it’s their walk too and it’s a Holy Year, it’s gonna be busy whatever time of day we get there!”
“Bodie I think you are finally getting more chilled out as I know you do not like the crowds.”
“Let’s say it takes one to know one, Hilde!”
“And what about Finisterre? We all wanted to see Finisterre!”
“Look, Keiran, will your cabbage swinging thingy be on tonight?”
“Oh yes, of course, it will be, at about seven-thirty.”
“Good! So, we walk to Santiago now, explore the Cathedral and book some beds, get our certificates, watch the ceremony, get some sleep and then hop on a bus tomorrow morning. We can spend as little or as long as we like in Finisterre, get a bus back and then get to the airport which means I might be lucky enough to get a flight back tomorrow. Let’s face it, if we stay here in the arse end of nowhere, we’ll all be pissed by six and will have wasted the whole day.”
Everyone seemed thrilled with the idea and the excitement among us was palpable as we reached for our backpacks. In true Hilde style, she had to go and ruin things with just a few words.
“You do realise that this will be our last day of walking all together? That tomorrow we will be saying goodbye?”
With a lump in my throat, I turned for the road.
We stood there, on the Mount of Joy, underneath the huge statues of Jacobean pilgrims pointing directly at the cathedral spires. It all seemed so temptingly close. The descent into Santiago took an hour though it seemed to take minutes and soon we were walking its grandiose streets. Throughout the Camino, I’d disliked the cities, but this place was different. There were still the everyday people who lived here, taking their lunch breaks away from the office. There were stalls and performers and those selling drugs. There were artists and beggars and horses and dogs. There were shoppers and coppers and buskers and lovers and ancient old women carrying sacks, but above all, there were hundreds and hundreds of tired looking pilgrims all of them fully deserving their place.
We walked past the museums and government buildings the convents and colleges, palaces and parks. The architecture was no less than stunning, adding to the thrill of us reaching our goal.
As we made to the plaza which housed the cathedral, my mind was in turmoil, emotions welling I’d not known I possessed. In a few short steps, it lay there before us in all of its glory, this heart stopping building, we’d walked so far to see.
None of us could speak and none could stop the tears from falling, for we’d done it. We’d walked five hundred miles all the way across Spain. As we stood there admiring, we were flanked by two figures. I knew without looking that one was my Ghost Ray and a shadowy Lucas stood by Dieters side.
We are the champions, my friends,
And we'll keep on fighting 'til the end.
Almost as if he was frightened to break the spell, Keiran spoke softly.
“Bodie, would you like to go in?”
“I guess it would be churlish not to, Keiran.”
As we entered the building, our eyes adjusting to the dim light within, Keiran dropped to his knees in front of the image of Saint James.
“Tradition dictates it, my dear Bodie, that I express my gratitude.”
We each placed our fingers in the holes worn into the marble by the hands of thousands of pilgrims over hundreds of years. There was peace in the Cathedral as we walked through its coolness and a majesty I couldn’t help but admire. The three of us left Keiran quietly praying as we looked all around us, touched by the beauty and looked down on by God. We emerged once again, into the light, all slightly shell-shocked by what we had seen. Keiran was the first one to speak.
“Thank you, my friends, I can’t explain to you how I feel now. Tell me, does anyone fancy a beer?”
I sat there in the plaza, watching water droplets slide down an undersized glass of lager without really seeing them.
“Look, you know I love you guys right? Now please don’t be offended, but would you mind terribly if I spent a little time on my own?”
I hoped my plan would be worth the brief looks of pain that flashed over their faces, but of course my friends were nothing but gracious.
“Oh, Bodie of course, why didn’t you say, are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m quite alright, Keiran, don’t worry yourself, just give me an hour to be by myself.”
“Oh, Herr, Bodie you must be alone, we all can find things to do in the city, please take your time, are you sure you will want to meet with us again?”
“Oh, I’m absolutely sure. Now if it makes you feel better, go do something useful. Have a look for the Pilgrims Office and see if you can get the times for the busses. In the meantime, I’ll find the albergue and book us some beds. I’ll see you on the cathedral steps an hour from now and hopefully, then, I’ll be feeling much better.”
As they all walked away trying not to look like scolded puppies, I hoped I would be forgiven my ruse. A few steps from the cathedral, reputed to be the oldest hotel in the world, stood the five-star Parador de Santiago. What few people knew, was that away from the gaze of the general public, stood a perfectly opulent room set aside for the walk weary pilgrim to savour his meal. It wouldn’t be the cheapest food we’d enjoyed, but it would certainly be the grandest and I made reservations for four. Next, I thanked the God of Barclaycard credit and made the biggest transaction I’d made in some years.
An hour later, I met up with my friends and we made our way to the pilgrim’s office to collect our Compostela certificates. It was all a rather serious and sombre affair, which involved lots of waiting, but I finally got to the front of the queue. The kindly official looked through my books of stamps before asking some questions.
“Did you enjoy walking the Camino de Santiago, Señor Bodie?”
“Oh yes, how could I not?”
“Did it bring you what you were looking for?”
“It brought me my friends.”
He seemed happy enough with my answers before issuing me with my beautiful certificate. By the time we had all collected our Compostelas, it was time for our dinner.
My companion’s faces were a picture as I lead them to the hotel.
“Bodie, we can’t eat here, don’t you know that this is the Parador?”
“We can and we will, they serve The Pilgrims Menu the same as everywhere else, though us smelly pilgrims have to eat in a room at the back.”
I smiled to myself when the others saw the elegant dining room and smiled, even more, when Hilde spoke up.
“Oh Bodie, this is fantastic but how much is it costing us?”
“It’s costing you nothing as I’ve already paid. It’s not quite a donativo at fifteen euros a head, but I thought it might be a little better than that horrid albergue back in Monte do Gozo.”
“Oh, hold on, Bodie, I’ll get you some euros …”
“Shut up, Keiran and put your money away.”
“Really? Oh, Bodie, you are a true gentleman, thank you! Talking of albergues, did you find the one here?”
“Yes, you’re sitting in it.”
“Eh? What do you mean?”
“The Parador Hostal Dos Reis Catolicos, Santiago de Compostela. It’s where we’re all staying tonight. I thought we all deserved a little bit of luxury for once.”
The faces that looked back at me were well and truly gobsmacked.
“Well you didn’t think I’d just banish you all for an hour without good reason, did you? I had to make sure they had the rooms available as I would have hated to disappoint you, that’s why I didn’t say anything before.”
“Herr Bodie, I’m sorry I can never repay you for all of this!”
“Apart from your continued friendship, which is all I could ask of you, none of you owe me a thing. Now eat up your chicken before it gets cold.”
“But Bodie, to stay here must have cost you a fortune! You must be the Blödmann after all!”
“Hilde, I’m not a great fan of hotels. When planning this trip I almost bought a tent, but this is the oldest hotel in the world and we may never get another chance to stay in it, so just for one night, let us all live like kings!”
It was a delightful meal, though not discernibly different from many we’d had. The joy and the gratitude of my dear friends, however, made my four hundred quid seem rather well spent. After a sumptuous soak in the luxurious bath, I readied myself for the cathedral service. My friends looked quite different all scrubbed up and clean and we all stepped out as if off to the opera.
The cathedral was much busier than it had been in the day time but we got very good pews alongside the Botafumerio itself. It was an enormous thing and I watched fascinated as the curates shovelled in their concoctions of petals and oils. At the end of the readings, a lone choir boy started to sing and hoisted by ropes, the censer started to rise. A man gave it a shove and it started to swing before shooting itself up towards the roof like a rocket. No fewer than eight men, all bedecked in red robes, heaved down on the pully with all their might and the censer began to gain its momentum. Soon, it was soaring over our heads like a missile, smoke pouring behind it like the tail of a comet. It was a truly mesmerising sight which quickened the blood. Keiran had been right, for I’d never seen anything like it that I could remember and probably wouldn’t, ever again.
We fell from the cathedral alight with excitement, hardly believing what we had just seen. Bearing in mind the Paramor’s prices, we crossed the plaza to a small, modest wine bar where we drank a few bottles to honour Saint James. After a lavish sleep in a four-poster bed, I woke to the morning that I had been dreading. I took an indulgent shower, took receipt of my beautifully laundered clothing and then texted my niece.
Will be getting to the airport sometime this afternoon, so hopefully should get a flight this evening, but deffo tomorrow at the latest.
C U soon, luv Bodie xxx
She replied almost instantly.
Hi Uncle B!
Text me the flight no. when you know it and I’ll pick you up, NO arguments!
Luv u2 xxx
I don’t even know what airport I’ll be flying to yet, so you really don’t have to!
Don’t be daft, I don’t mind at all, just text me that number and I’ll do the rest. have a safe journey
It was done then. I’d confirmed I was going home. I went down to the lobby to search out coffee and company. Sure enough, my friends were all waiting there for me.
“Oh Bodie, I don’t think I sleep as well in my own bed, thank you so much for all this!”
“Your most welcome, Hilde, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Now did anyone pick up the times for the Finisterre bus?”
The walk to the bus stop was hardly taxing after we’d walked for five hundred miles. The morning was rainy and cool causing the coach windows to fog so we didn’t see much. After a while, I didn’t try looking. If it weren’t for my schedule, we could be walking out there. I shut off my thoughts and tried not to be sad.
It was a short walk down to the beach from the bus stop. It seemed strange to look at an ocean again, though Dieter and Hilde from their landlocked country showed far more interest than Keiran and I. It was a nice enough place, ‘the end of the world’ and as we looked over the coastline the sun came out.
After coffee in a bright, jazzy bar, we hiked to the lighthouse and looked out over the sea. It was a smashing place really, but I noticed a loss. Someone had once told me, ‘it’s not the getting there, but the journey itself’ and now I finally knew what they meant. Finisterre was the end of the line, as far as we could possibly go, but we’d none of us walked there, we’d travelled by bus. The magic had ended when we’d all stopped walking. With a heart full of sorrow, I started to speak.
“Look, I’m not one for making pacts and none of us knows what we’ll be doing next week, never lone next year. But we should do this. Meet up sometime in Santiago and walk all the way here to the end of the world. It wouldn’t take long, maybe make a long weekend of it? But we should do it, we should all meet again and all walk together … It doesn’t matter when. It could be years from now, but we should do it, walk once again …”
My friends all understood. It was so hard to let go of The Camino but we all knew that the day had come and we had to. With heavy hearts, we made for the bus. My friends understood my sadness and I adored them for their silent, stalwart support.
Don't give up you still have us
Don't give up we don't need much of anything
Don't give up
'Cause somewhere there's a place where we belong
Santiago airport was a building site. Glossy posters everywhere promised that in a years’ time, the yellowing sixties hovel that we were stood in, would be no more.
At the information desk, I asked to be directed towards the quickest and cheapest flight back to London. At the Iberian Airlines desk, I paid ninety pounds for a trip to Gatwick before texting my niece. The time was upon me, I had to go home.
“Look, I’m not one for goodbyes, so go on, bugger off all of you! Go find a bar and a bottle of wine and drink to our health, knowing I’ll love you all so much, forever.”
We made short work of the hugs and the tears before I turned away quickly, without looking back.
The weeks after my return got harder and harder. It was lovely of course, to get back to my home, to see all my pets and to go to the pub, to visit my sister and message my niece, but I couldn’t feel lower if I lay down on the ground. It was dragging me back, that desolate feeling, the knowledge I’d tried but so drastically failed. Other people got answers from walking their Camino. All I had from mine was a credit card bill which included a five-star hotel stay and an ambulance ride. Ray would have been laughing his socks off. I wasn’t laughing as the walls closed in …
Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Simon and Garfunkel
Depressed beyond measure, I reached for the duty free wine I’d bought for O’Mara. It was a last minute purchase and not even Spanish.
I was further than ever from finding my answers and sat on the sofa feeling lonely and old. I also felt guilty for walking the Camino. I’d stolen Ray’s dream and then made it my own. I’d made some good friends who’d no doubt forget me, friends that poor Ray hadn’t had chance to meet.
I looked down at the dogs. I still knew of people who’d help in a crisis. People who’d care for the creatures we’d loved. It wouldn’t take much, just a few well-placed phone calls could sort it all out.
It wasn’t unselfish, the easy way out. Though I hated religion, I’d known from a boy that you didn’t play God. If I took my own life, I’d never see Heaven and therefore never see Ray Doyle, ever again.
I sat there on that sofa thinking of ways. How could I do it to save other's pain? I could happily rip out my heart with my hands, but my wonderful family didn’t need that, so I just sat there thinking, lonely and lost.
Cusak wasn’t a young dog and just like his namesake, not blessed with much sense. When his hackles rose and he woke all the others, I came to awareness and looked all around. Ghost Ray sat by me, calm as you like. My heart leapt in my chest and I nearly passed out. Before I could do so, Ghost Ray stood up. I watched in amazement as he pointed his arm. I looked on bewildered, not getting his meaning, but he still fixedly pointed to the end of the room. There was nothing much there except Ray's writing bureau and his aged tin soldiers stood gathering dust. I hadn’t seen the desk opened in years. We’d cleared it all out when we bought the computer so I knew there was little of interest in there.
I looked at Ray pleadingly, but still, he looked on. As infuriating as he’d been in life, he stood doggedly still, just pointing his arm.
With no other idea of what I should do, I went to the bureau and opened it up. It was indeed empty of all but one thing, a sheet of paper on which my name had been scrawled.
My mouth went dry and my heart rate doubled. I gasped for breath and my whole body shook for I knew what this was. Nobody else had writing like Ray’s. This was a message from beyond the grave.
I picked up the paper as if it would bite me, almost too frightened to open it up. If I read the words that lie therein, would I ever see my dear Ghost Ray again? Was this one sheet of paper the reason he’d stayed? I shakily looked at my dear apparition. He gave me a nearly imperceptible nod.
I fell to the sofa, my eyes misting over. I unfolded the paper and started to read.
July 7th 2005
My dear Bodie,
I somehow hope that you’ll never have to read this letter, it’s certainly the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write.
It’s 1.30 in the morning and I’m sat here alone five hours after you walked out. For the rest of my life I’ll never blame you for doing that, it’s something you should have done years ago bearing in mind the way I’ve talked to and treated you SO many times.
The one thing I can promise is that if you come back to me, (which I know is the very last thing I deserve) we WILL talk and I’ll try to explain what’s been bothering me and why I’ve been even worse to live with than usual.
If you choose to stay away, then I hope with all my heart that someday you’ll get to read this and that even if you can’t forgive me, you might at least try to understand.
Six weeks ago, I had a scan in hospital after having bad headaches for months. At the time, I didn’t tell you in case there wasn’t anything to worry about. Afterward, I didn’t tell you because there was.
The doctors told me that though they’d happily treat me, the fact was, the tumour in my head had grown too much and been found too late. They gave me a possible 6-12 months but warned a bleed could happen at any time which might well kill me. I was told not to drive, to get my affairs in order and to try to enjoy any time I had left.
The first two were easy enough as we rarely go anywhere and our affairs have all been in place for years. The last was a complete impossibility. I had NO idea how to tell you what was going on. Don’t get me wrong, Bodie I’m not scared of death, how can I be when I’ve courted it so many times? What I AM scared of, is telling you knowing that I’ll then see the pain in your eyes.
Saving me is all you’ve ever tried to do from the moment we met and you’ve succeeded in that mission so many times, Bodie. This time you can’t save me, no man can. I knew how much that knowledge would hurt you and that’s the reason I couldn’t bring myself to speak. Instead, I decided to act like a jerk, talking to you like you were a piece of shit, making you think I didn’t care about you anymore and that everything in MY life was fine, though inside my heart was breaking.
We’ve been through so much together over the years. I can’t complain about my illness as on so many occasions we should have died, yet we got away with it time and time again. These last years have been the happiest I could have ever wished for.
EVERYTHING in my life Bodie is good because of you. I truly, truly never meant to hurt you like I have and I’m so very sorry that I did.
I know when you asked if there was somebody else, I never gave you an answer. To be honest it hadn’t occurred to me you might think that, but I’ve only myself to blame that you did. Instead of putting your poor mind at rest, I let your question fuel my anger, giving me more excuses to lash out. It was a terrible way to behave and I’m truly ashamed of myself. For the record, OF COURSE there was nobody else. From the moment I met you, there was NEVER really anyone else for me.
I dearly hope I will see you tomorrow. Then we can talk and I can say sorry. You my dear Bodie, have nothing at all to reproach yourself for.
Stay safe my love, I miss you so much,
Take care my love, he said
Don't think that God is dead
Take care my love, he said
You have been loved
Hardly believing what my stunned eyes were seeing, I read through the letter again and again. Beautiful words that were written with passion, words that my heart had been needing to hear.
I could have cursed Ghost Ray for making me wait, for all of those bleak years of torturous pain. Yet I quite understood without explanation, the reasons he’d waited. I’d needed to suffer and needed to hurt. I’d needed to sink like a pale winter moon. It was the only real way that the sunrise could come.
Above all else, I’d needed to walk the Camino. I’d needed the people whose stories were grim, but went on regardless, all the way to the end. I’d needed the sunshine, the wind and the wine. The dreaded meseta which rarely forgave me was just one more step to forgiving myself. The beauty of nature, the kindness of strangers, the simple pleasures of primitive food. The Camino had shown me it all and taught me so much. Ray had been right way back in the eighties, the walk was something we’d needed to do.
Through tear swollen eyes, I looked up from my letter. Sat on the sofa, like the king of the castle, was my spellbinding Ghost Ray and I knew that I’d never feel lonely again.
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind
I smiled at the irony. I’d walked for nearly a month, week after week, day after day, step after step, when in reality, all I’d needed to do to find my answers, was stroll across my own living room.
What a journey it had been, however. What a wonderful, colourful, bittersweet journey it had been. I might have found answers and absolution at last, but I knew that walking The Camino had been a gift whose relevance I’d not even realised. So many stories, places, people and pictures which would soon just be memories, crumbling to dust.
I was pleased to be home and thrilled with Ray’s letter, but I missed rural Spain with a wholehearted ache. I’d been given the chance to tell the tale of a lifetime as my dear niece had so often begged me to do, but rather than keep notes and journals as others had done, I’d always decided to walk a little bit further, catch a little more sleep or drink a little more wine.
To my surprise, I’d taken near two hundred shots on the iPhone and some were quite good. Though I recognised faces and the pictures had dates, I knew it might not be long before my power of recall would lose the names of the faraway places forever to me. Soon the sky-scraping mountains, the rivers and streams, the whitewashed farmhouses, the skylarks and storks, the meadows of sunflowers, poppies and grapes, the sights and the smells and the flavours of food, would all fuse together as one long-ago ramble. Sad though it was, I would no doubt forget, the time I had gone on a very long walk.
I now truly appreciated the Camino blues. Though I wasn’t a young man, I could do it again. I could take a nice camera, some jotters and pens. I could even move out there, live out on the trail, open a bar serving wine every day. I knew in my heart I’d do none of these things. The grave of my loved one was just down the road. I could no more desert it than fly to the moon.
As I flicked through my pictures, I cursed once again. Though my Camino memoirs might not be well-read, how great they would be just to keep for myself. All that I’d needed was a list of place names. A record of villages, cafes and gites. Why hadn’t I bothered to write these things down? Why hadn’t I noticed the glory before me, Ray Doyle’s old dream, that I’d brought to life?
Resigned to a winter of TV repeats, I slumped on the sofa and stared at the wall. My aging dog Marge, jumped up by my side. As an elderly lady, Marge had no time for order and papers and cushions were flung far and wide. As I started to tidy whilst petting her ears, I suddenly saw them, the words to my story …
‘All that I’d needed was a list of place names’ …
My scruffy credential, forgotten so soon, was indeed all that I needed to remember those places. Though the cover was dirty, tattered and torn, the stamps there within, were vibrant and clear. I had a complete inventory of the places I’d been and the people I’d met. If I needed reminders of my mood at the time, an MP3 player held all my thoughts. Beautiful songs that had helped me get through, were a mere click away. Technology was sometimes, a wonderful thing.
Thrilled that the winter now held so much promise, I looked from the wall to a smiley Ghost Ray. Knowing now he would always be with me in some shape or form, I punched the air gladly. The world needed to hear of the time that me and my angel had walked across Spain.
I grinned to myself, unbearably smug. We could do this damn thing as easy as pie!
“Come on then, Raymond, come on then Marge, let us sit down together and live it again!”
With an itch in my fingers and joy in my heart, I snatched up a notebook and started to write...
The End/La Fin/El Fin