The Road To Finisterre
'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 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…’
26th June 2016
William Bodie watched the antics of the young man attempting to do one-handed push-ups with wry amusement.
“He certainly thinks a lot of himself, doesn’t he!”
The unseen presence which flanked Bodie’s side seemed inclined to agree, though Bodie bore no ill will toward the Adonis cavorting about on his lawn. In fact, he cherished his nieces’ remarkable husband almost as much as he loved her and her tiny daughter. The time for frolicking was over however. Adults needed feeding, baby Gabriella needed her bed and last-minute details needed to be checked, for the following morning, Bodie and the Adonis were catching a plane.
“Come on, Cal, I’m sure we’re all convinced how fantastic you are, but there’s a Little Miss here who needs a nappy change.”
Flashing Bodie a Las Vegas grin, the young father complied, hurriedly following Bodie inside. The unseen presence, Bodie’s constant shadow, eagerly followed them both.
27th June 2016
The six years that had passed since I’d completed the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, had been the happiest I’d known since before Ray had died. My life had seen huge changes since and at seventy years old, I was most decidedly feeling my age. I still lived on in our quiet old home, though much of the time it was anything but quiet. I’d happily willed the place to my niece, her young husband Cal and their one-year-old daughter, who all seemed to love it as much as I did. If they chose to sell when I turned up my toes, then I wished them good luck, but somehow, I very much doubted they would.
My niece Michelle Rodrigues, was a very different woman to the young business tycoon who’d house sat for me the last time I’d hit the Camino trail. I would never have imagined she would have swapped her Filofax and flash suits for a life of domesticity, but then I never would have guessed that walking the Camino would have changed my life in so many ways as Ray had promised it would.
It had all started of course, with Ray’s letter. Freeing myself from the guilt I’d felt since he’d gone, allowed me to enjoy my retirement rather than endure it and he too, seemed far more comfortable with our arrangement, staying around as a permanent fixture. I’d long passed the stage of thinking ‘Ghost Ray’ as a sign of my ever-increasing madness. If indeed, I was mad as a hatter, seeing the long-dead Ray Doyle at my every turn was a sickness from which I never hoped to be cured. Though Ghost Ray never uttered a word and no one ever saw him but me, we existed together in a blissful bubble of unreality and I’d rarely felt more content.
The next miracle the Camino bestowed on me was a knock upon my door, some four years after I’d touched down at Gatwick the likes of which, I’ll never forget. The young man who presented himself was strangely familiar, though I had no idea at that time it was the same guy I’d been emailing for years.
The first time I’d met Calisto Rodrigues, he was dressed as a girl and called himself Celeste. I’d sent him off into the sunset with his hard earned euros and wished him well. I’d never really wanted to know how Calisto had turned his magic beans into his fortune, but the bloke who turned up at my door greeted me with perfectly spoken English and a British passport. Delighted to see him, I’d offered him lodgings which had worked out well until he’d laid his eyes on my niece. After that, I didn’t see him for dust. Their wedding was beautiful. I’d been the proudest best man and unseen to all but me, Ray had made a very fine usher.
Before I’d penned my Camino memoirs, I’d been desperate to get back to the place. I missed the far off blue mountains and the yellow sand paths. I missed the markers and maps and the free-flowing fonts. I missed talking to strangers as if it were normal and drinking in bars that nobody knew. What I didn’t miss were the feelings that chased me along my long walk. The guilt that had plagued me and spurned on my feet, had got up and left once I had Ray’s forgiveness, leaving behind it a pure sense of peace. My contentment, however, had made me complacent. I still walked, especially with those I was close to, but I had no spirit of competitiveness, nor any wish to wander further than the borders of Dorset if truth be told.
My dear nephew's transatlantic visit in 2014, saw me buying a laptop. I hadn’t much seen the need for the thing, though my ancient computer had finally died and I rather missed Microsoft Word for writing things down. Windows 7 and a fast processor had changed my whole world. I’d suddenly embraced the internet in a way I never had before. How I’d ever shopped for my previous trip without blowing the electrics was anyone’s guess, but I was a fine silver surfer when I reached sixty-five. Jamie had also helped me set up a newer, more efficient email account that had been sending me more and more concerning emails as I’d neared my seventieth year. Though I was overjoyed to be hearing from old friends, I was less enthralled at the idea of honouring old promises. Finally, the badgering enthusiasm of others and a reasonable report from my doctor left me with no feasible excuse as to why I shouldn’t walk at least part of The Camino, all over again.
Planning the thing had taken nearly a year. I was leaving under very different circumstances and had very different needs from those required in 2010. On that occasion, I only had myself to think of and had planned to lay my head in whatever spot my feet had landed me. This time around, there were a multitude of people to please. The added complications of pre-booked accommodation, disablement and striking French air traffic controllers only added to the melee. I’d looked to Ghost Ray for guidance on many an occasion, but as ever, he’d simply shrugged his willowy shoulders and left me to get on with it.
Finally, our plans had been completed. Though my old heart shuddered at the thought of walking a possible two hundred miles, I understood Calisto’s wish to revisit León completely. Besides, this wasn’t a challenge anymore, this was a simple meeting of old friends. If bookings, apathy or missing limbs delayed our schedule, we could happily jump in a cab with no feelings of guilt.
Though the excitement around me was palpable, I had mixed feelings saying goodbye to those I was leaving behind. Michelle had promised she’d walk the Camino with us as soon as Gabriela was old enough and I’d swallowed the lie as happily as Calisto had. I felt such a proud great-uncle saying my farewells to her little girl. I could hardly comprehend that the life I’d lived would have ever brought me to this point, that of an old man looking down on his surviving family, so young, so happy and so full of hope for the future. All too soon, the taxi arrived and before the tears threatened to fall, I wrenched myself away from our darling girls and with a last look over all I called my own, got into the car.
Our first port of call was a mere three miles away. The first time I’d met Stephen Fields, he’d sold me a shed load of gear at an extortionate price. Then, Steve had been the manager of Outdoor World, ‘The One Stop Shop for the Adventuring Enthusiast’. The store had gone into administration a year before Steve lost his leg skiing and it was now a carpet warehouse. Though the details of Steve’s accident were gruesome and grim, they hadn’t impressed his girl of the time who’d dropped him like a stone. With time on my hands, I’d happily replied to the sad messages I’d received from the lonely man and we’d soon become friends. The laughs and tears we’d shared testing prosthetics over every terrain and in all sorts of weather, had cemented our bond.
Steve wasn’t proud of the bedsit he’d found after giving up work. As I’d expected, he was ready and waiting with all of his luggage some distance away from the drab block he lived in and as usual, I felt a pang of compassionate sorrow. As ever, Steve and Calisto were strangely shy of each other on meeting. With a sly grin at Ghost Ray, I brought out my hip flask. After a few gulps of Armagnac’s finest, the ice was soon broken and the journey begun.
Sadly, though León had a perfectly usable airport, few flights from London ever went there. On this occasion, I’d left the travel plans to those who knew of such things. To fund the project, I’d drawn on an ancient endowment, Cal and Shelly had more money than sense and Steve was quid’s in, with thanks to insurance. None of us cared about the cost of the fare and all of us had plenty of time on our hands. Though we all preferred to spend our journey time on the far side of the channel, we still had a trip to London to get through, providing the hip flask with plenty of use. Thanks to the pleasures of Iberia airways, we touched down in Madrid, all slightly merry.
Spain blazed down on us as we left the air-conditioned terminal. Only Ghost Ray remained cool and aloof compared to us, his sweaty companions.
“Bloody hell, I don’t remember it being this hot before, even on the ships it wasn’t this hot!”
“I think it’s always the same when you step off a plane into a hot country. You should be okay though, you come from Brazil for heaven’s sake!”
“Ah, no, Bodie, Brazil is a different type of heat!”
“Well if you say so, I guess it must be. Isn’t that one of your fans over there looking as though she rather fancies a selfie with you?”
As Cal wandered off to do what had become natural to him, I helped the struggling Steve with his luggage. It would be his first foreign trip since his accident and neither of us knew how the temperature might affect his injuries. Noting my little kindness, Ghost Ray thrust his shoulder bag toward me with a wink. It was an imaginary thing, made of ectoplasm at most, but I accepted it with a sigh and it still further weighed me down.
Though Madrid played no part in our Camino journey, it felt good to be back under the azure canopy of a Spanish sky. A brief taxi ride took us to the outskirts of town and our stop for the night. With an excellent grasp of Portuñol, a strange blend of Spanish and Portuguese, Calisto conversed easily with the local drivers which rapidly heightened him to official tour guide status.
I wasn’t the greatest fan of hotels and had left most of the bookings to Shelly and Cal, but I had to admit, this one was a doozy. Situated on the grounds of a nineteenth-century church, it fused historical charm with sleek modernity. After checking in, there was nothing I fancied more than icy cold beer, but Steve’s demeanour was troubling and I couldn’t relax until I knew he was comfortable. I dumped my pack into my room before joining Steve in his.
“You okay there, Steve?”
“Oh Christ, Bodie, I don’t think I’ll be able to do this, I’m in agony already and we haven’t even walked anywhere yet! How am I gonna keep up with you guys for three weeks?”
“Why, what on earth’s the matter, you’ve been fine up to now.”
“Dunno, but it’s hurting like the devil, Bodie, and I’m almost too scared to look!”
“Well come on now, we won’t learn anything by not looking, so let’s get that thing off and see what we’re dealing with, shall we?”
As always, I was somewhat taken aback by the sight of the fleshy pink stump that was all that remained of Steve’s right leg. For all the injuries I’d witnessed during tours of duty, it seemed somehow more personal that this likable man had suffered such an ugly catastrophe doing something he'd loved. I’d always managed to swallow my immediate reaction to the sight, bearing in mind it must be far worse for poor Steve, but it was obvious there was something wrong and having become rather an expert on the subject, I knew just what it was.
“Oh shit, Steve, it looks like a folliculitis flare, have you got some razors with you?”
“You’re joking! I hardly ever get it so I haven’t had my leg waxed in months. Surely shaving it will make it ten times worse?”
“We’ve spent all day travelling and now we’re in Spain which is a damn sight hotter than England. Cal’s got an electric shaver with him which might be a bit easier on your skin and after a cool shower and with some salve, you might start to feel a bit better.”
Not knowing what it was to be used for, Calisto was happy to lend his Remington rotary and within the hour, Steve’s shorn stump was coated in anti-inflammatory gel and enclosed in cool chinos. Electing to use his folding crutches, Steve forwent the prosthetic and we both emerged from our chambers primped and primed. The first sip of Rioja was nectar to my lips. Under a darkening sky, we toasted each other, to our past, our present and our immediate future. A small voice inside my head begged that Steve be fit enough to complete the trip. An even smaller one begged that I might be too.
The following morning, my internal body clock woke me before my alarm. After taking a leisurely shower, I emerged from my room bumping into Calisto who was headed for the gym. We arranged to meet for breakfast and I checked in on Steve before searching out coffee. Two hours later, after a delicious feast of pastries, eggs and the sweetest of fruits, we left our luxurious surroundings bound for the historic Atocha station. Central Madrid was a bright and busy place with lots of pedestrians and plenty of traffic. The imposing station building was slightly let down by the rather ordinary sliding doors which permitted us entry, but beyond them lay another world. The place was simply huge, reminding me more of an airport than a railway station. The enormous arched roof made me think of London’s Paddington, though from memory I couldn’t recall Paddington ever housing a tropical jungle. The lush vegetation was surrounded by a pea-green moat which contained vibrant fish and sizeable terrapins. For once it was me that held up our small party, Ghost Ray being so taken with the gasping turtles that I had to forcibly drag him away.
After getting our bearings, we crossed a bridge to look down on the snake-like trains all expectantly waiting for the off. The pristinely polished platform reminded me I was indeed, a long way from London. We boarded the gleaming rocket with a minimum of fuss and I remember observing the familiar graffiti which decorates any station before the fast-talking announcements lulled me into a drowsy sleep. Three hours later, I was roused by my companions as we glided into León. The last time I’d visited the place, I’d felt rather lonely, albeit a bustling metropolis. Now, I had no time to worry about such things, seeing an urgent looking man racing towards us as we left the station.
“Bodie begorrah, you got here, my man!”
“Well, Conor Murphy, it’s good to see you! These are my mates Cal and Steve. You sure it’s alright for us all to descend on you like this?”
“Are you jokin’? Roshie’s been cleaning the house for a month and the wanes have been bouncin’ off the bloody walls, man!”
“Well if you’re sure you don’t mind…”
“Mind? We’re over the moon to have yers, now shut yer noise and follow me. Gentlemen, yer carriage awaits!”
Conor lead us to an illegally parked, sleek, white Mercedes and before too long, we were ensconced in air-conditioned luxury. As I stared from the windows during the ten-minute drive, I started to recognise the Spain I’d come to love. The Camino I remembered was all out there before me just itching to be walked. The Conor Murphy I’d once met was not all that changed. A year after birthing their son, my namesake Liam, the Murphy’s had won the Irish lottery. Having no idea what to do with their millions, they’d bought a villa a mile away from Liam’s birthplace.
My mouth gaped as the purring car gently swept into a grand driveway. Though Conor had emailed me pictures, they’d done little justice to the stunning estate he now called home. Even Calisto with all of his wealth was looking around him completely agog and Steve was dumbstruck.
“Bloody hell, Conor this is astounding!”
“Ah, Bodie, me fella, it’s just a place and you know us, we don’t stand on ceremony and never will. Treat it just as you would your own home, all of yers. I will warn you though, the kids can be full-on. Don’t let them give you any nonsense and we’ll try and get ‘em all in bed by eight o’clock!”
“How many of them are there now, Conor?”
“Well let me see. There’s Liam, who you’ve met, of course, Bodie. Ten months later we had Killian and the next year came along the girls Aoife and Aisling, you’ll have trouble tellin’ those twos apart—”
“Are they twins?”
“Ah, well let’s just say they were born on the same day, Steve. Then there’s another boy, Rian, he’s just turned three and the babby in arms is another girl, Ciara.”
“Good God, you two have certainly been busy since you got married!”
“Oh, our little family is small compared to Róisín’s lot and I fear she hasn’t finished yet, Bodie, but look lively, lads, here they all come!”
The relative peace of the beautiful car was suddenly shattered as the air was ripped by a myriad of voices all wanting a piece of us. Liam who I recognised from photographs, made an immediate beeline for me before clinging to my hip like a limpet and not letting go. The others all greeted Calisto like a reigning king except for little Rian who prodded at Steve’s trouser clad legs like an enquiring scientist.
“Kids, for Jaysus sake leave those poor fellas alone, they haven’t even got outta the car yet and you’s are already making little eejits of yerselves!”
The piercing sound of Róisín’s command brought some sort of order, though Liam still clung to me like a drowning man to a life raft.
“Bodie, yer fine fella! And these must be yer friends! I hope Conor wasn’t late pickin’ yer’s up, I told him he shoulda left earlier but he wouldn’t have it. I know you of course, ‘Calman’ and you must be the fella that has the wooden leg? Don’t let the wanes bother you about that, Killian’s been going on for weeks about you letting him have a go on it, but don’t mind them, they don’t mean any harm. Now you’ll all’s be wanting the coldest beer I can find I presume?”
It was hard to find time to draw breath during Róisín’s rushed introductions, but eventually bemused and bewitched, we were lead into her fabulous residence. The coolness of the marble-clad interior belied the outdoor heat and the effervescent excitement of the children. It was clear the inside of the villa was Róisín’s domain and the kids rapidly changed from slavering savages to willing little helpers. I was somewhat humbled to be served an ice-cold San Miguel by a six-year-old.
“Now there’s only one rule in my house that guests should adhere to, you lot, and that’s if you want something, you get off yer arses and fetch it, you don’t need to ask. The fridge is full of beer, the cellar full of wine and I don’t like seein’ people go hungry, so this lot’s got to be eaten and Conor’s got the barby on the go outside. Treat the place like yer own and don’t let the babbies keep on at yers.”
Róisín’s vast spread of tapas was enough to feed an army. Outside in the pretty courtyard, Conor’s barbeque was a huge brick-built affair that would have swallowed my Aga back home. Replete with all the food and drink we could wish for, we soon felt very much at home and Steve and Calisto who had never met the family, looked relaxed and content.
After refreshment, whilst Calisto was busily scrolling through videos with his small group of fans and Steve equally engaged in showing off his stump to an enthralled audience, Conor offered me a more detailed tour of the property. The spacious garden and pool area were surrounded by a twenty-acre plot of farmland on which Conor was experimenting with crops of peppers, tomatoes and pumpkins. The borders were defined by gnarled looking fig trees and far beyond them, purple-headed mountains framed the view.
“So, are you settling here now, Conor, have you waved goodbye to Ireland for good?”
“Ah, more or less, Bodie. It was only meant to be a holiday home at first, just a bolt hole to get away from Ro’s muther from time to time, but well, her oul dear got even worse after we got the money. Don’t get me wrong, Bodie, she told everyone she could think of about our win and before we knew it we were payin’ off family debts left right and centre. I’m sure some of the folks who came at us with their beggin’ bowls weren’t even family, but we still paid.”
“And that still wasn’t good enough for her?”
“No, nothin’ ever is, Bodie though she did alright out of it. She made a holy show when she heard we were buyin’ this place, said it was the biggest waste of money she’d ever heard of and she clouted Liam the first time he ever spoke to her in Spanish.”
“Christ, she really is a harridan, isn’t she?”
“Ah, Clodagh Quinn’s always been a bitter woman, Bodie. My parents were killed in a car crash when I was twelve and I went into state care. That made me a bastard in her eyes, so she was never gonna condone our marriage. Me and Ro were only really messin’ with each other you know? Just a bit of fun, enjoying the craic. When we found out Ro was in the family way, we panicked like mad and caught the first ferry out of Ireland. Roshie had heard about this thing called The Camino and how people solved all their problems by walking their way to visit Saint James. We thought if we went home married, with a beautiful babby who’d been touched by a saint, Clodagh would approve, but she never really did.”
“So she’s missing out on seeing her grandkids growing up?”
“Jaysus, Bodie she hasn’t even seen the new babby yet and possibly never will. We’ve invited her over umpteen times to visit but she doesn’t approve of planes and it’s getting harder and harder for us to get our lot over to Ireland. As the wanes started to grow it was plain to see they’re thrivin’ here and with Liam and Killian already started in schools, the idea of going home seemed less of an option.”
“They’re brilliant kids, a credit to you both.”
“Well thanks there, Bodie. All apart from the babby are completely bilingual, they can all swim like fishes and they never get a sniffle between ‘em. They’d never get this sort of life back in Ireland. I’m sorry for Roshie of course that she’s left all her family behind, but it’s something she sure never complains about.”
As a fiery sun melted over the far horizon, we toasted each other over the embers of a glowing fire. I’d never imagined back in 2010, that walking the Camino would open my world to such a diverse group of people, people that not only welcomed me into their lives but seemed happy to do so. When the day finally caught up with me, I made my excuses and closely followed by Ghost Ray, made off to bed. As I drifted off in the sumptuous bedroom, I counted my blessings. I was back in Spain and surrounded by friends. With my shadow beside me, I slipped into my slumbers.
The following morning, my bladder forced me into wakefulness and unable to find further sleep, I went in search of coffee. It seemed I was the first one up and about. Unwilling to do battle with the chromed goliath that was the Murphy’s espresso machine, I found instant granules and took my brew into the courtyard. The promise of the sparkling hot sun lay just beyond its walls and I enjoyed the coolness whilst I could.
As always, I felt Ghost Ray’s presence before I saw him. As we were quite unable to touch, it was a strange feeling, more a sense of suddenly being accompanied after being alone. I turned to him with a smile, but the greeting died on my lips as I saw the look of pure horror painted over his face. I looked toward where he was staring, at the pretty little fountain and with a breaking heart, I witnessed what was causing him such distress.
Laid upon the stone wall which surrounded the fishpond, was a tiny baby. It looked very well cared for, tightly wrapped in exquisitely delicate ivory swaddling. My head urged me to rush forward and grasp the child, bundle it up and take it inside before it caught cold, though I knew without question the infant was dead. Its perfect skin was the colour of ashes and its tiny body as still as the night.
Though my feet were unable to take a step, I couldn’t tear my eyes from the horrible sight and when a voice piped up, my heart nearly stopped.
“You’re not scared, are you? It’s only Aiden. You’re a grown-up and it’s silly for grown-ups to be scared! I’m only little and I’m not scared.”
“Oh my God, Aisling, you startled me! Who … who is Aiden?”
“Well, he’s our brother of course! Mammy wants to know when The Calman is coming back and will you all be wanting cooked breakfast or cold?”
The quiet of the courtyard was suddenly disturbed as Calisto came thumping in, panting and sweating having possibly run to France and back. Obviously, I’d not been the first to rise after all.
“Morning, Bodie! Just off for a quick shower before the muscles get stiff and I’ll be with you!”
“Ah, Bodie, Cal, good! Will yers be wanting sausages ‘cos I wanna know how many to get out of the freezer? Bodie for Jaysus sake, is that instant coffee that yer drinkin’ there? Let me make yer some proper stuff, the machines on, what sort do yer like? Oh, for God's sake, Killian will yer stop clinging on to me like a scolded puppy and go and get yer sisters sorted out?”
The sudden rush of voices brought me back to reality. Calisto brushed passed me in search of his shower, Killian rushed off in pursuit of his siblings and Róisín turned back to her stove. When I glanced back to the fountain, the silent baby had gone.
“Here’s yer coffee, Bodie. You look like a cappuccino man so that’s what I made yers, but throw it away if you’d like something else. So anyway, you never told me how come you got yerself hooked up with a big YouTube star!”
“Oh God, Rosh, Cal wasn’t a YouTube anything when I met him, he was just another foreigner walking the Camino the same as we all were. He was out here with a dodgy passport and the barest grasp of English.”
“Well you can’t leave the story there, Bodie, how did he come to be all that my kids have talked about for weeks?”
“Well, it’s a true rags to riches story, really. As a kid in Brazil, he taught himself to dance and performed in clubs and bars for pin money. He came over here to pursue a relationship which … um, didn’t quite work out and finding himself on the Camino trail he just started walking. When he got to Santiago he didn’t know what to do next so he walked some more and eventually reached Santander.”
“Wow, he must’ a really liked walkin’!”
“Well, it certainly made him fit. Somehow, he managed to blag himself onto a cruise ship and within a week he’d got a place in the dance troupe. Sometime later, one of the fitness coaches was taken off board after catching bird flu and Cal was offered a year’s contract putting pensioners through their paces. The whole entertainment team were always taking pictures and making promotional videos and it wasn’t long before Cal was posting his own routines onto the internet. He might only be a street kid from Brazil, but he’s got a mind like a steel trap and is shrewd as they come. When the advertisers started chasing him, he bent over backward for them and the money soon started pouring in. By the time he tracked me down in Dorset, he was fluent in three languages, had passed the test to gain citizenship and finally had a legally obtained UK passport. All in all, he was a pretty good prospect for my niece and now they have more money than they know what to do with.”
“Wow, good for him! It’s great to hear someone getting’ somewhere through hard work. Also, his face doesn’t let him down any, does it?”
“Oh, please don’t tell him that, he’s big-headed enough already, but yeah, he is a good looking bastard.”
“And what about you, Bodie? Are you’s alright? You looked like yer were fit to pass out when I saw yer just now, yer not sickening for something are yers?”
I sank into a chair feeling the blood drain from my face.
“Oh, begorrah, Bodie what on earth’s the matter with yer, man? Do yer need the doctor, now?”
“Oh, Christ no, Ro at least I don’t think so, I might need a shrink perhaps…”
“Oh, Bodie yer really are worrin’ me now, what can I do, shall I get yer a brandy do yer think?”
“No, but you could answer a question.”
“What question is that? Sure, Bodie, I’ll answer any question you could ask.”
“Oh, Róisín, I hardly know how to ask you!”
“Listen here, Master William Bodie, you’ve seen all me lady parts pushin’ out a babby in all their glory! We haven’t got any secrets left after that, have we?”
“Okay, Roshie, tell me now please if you would, who’s Aiden?”
Róisín’s face turned to ice.
“Who told you about Aiden?”
“Aisling told me his name, but I saw him, Ro. He was just laid out there by the pond, all wrapped up. I saw him!”
“Yeah, that would be right. That’s where his Da’ placed him before the undertakers came.”
My heart threatening to break out of my chest, I let the lady compose herself until she was able to continue.
“Everyone thinks that Aoife and Aisling are twins but that’s not true, Bodie, as I was carryin’ triplets. A month before they were due, the girls put on a growth spurt and they ate all Aiden’s food up. Him dyin’ put me into labour and I birthed them here. They were all perfect, Aiden included, nobody would have known they were premmies. We had to phone up the ambulance for the girls and the funeral home at the same time for him. We didn’t even know the number for that, we had to look at The Google to get it.”
“Oh, my Lord, how dreadful for you!”
“Oh, that was just the start of it, Bodie. My oul dear said it was our fault the babby had died. Said if we didn’t live in the arse end of Spain, Aiden would be scratchin’ about in the dirt now with all the other kids. She showed no interest that the maternity clinics in León are light years ahead of those in Donegal, she just felt happy to have something else to chide us for. I haven’t spoken to her all that much since then. Anyway, so it seems, you’re a seer the same as Aisling!”
“Oh, don’t be so ridiculous, Róisín, I’m nothing of the sort!”
“What’s so ridiculous about being able to see lost souls?”
“Because that’s just not me! I don’t want to be that person that can call up corpses like some kind of ghoul!”
“Begorrah, William Bodie, I’ll wash yer fekkin’ mouth out with a bar of carbolic if I hear you slatin’ such a gift again in my house! What I wouldn’t give to lay eyes on my poor dear boy again and there’s you talking about seein’ him like it’s some sort of curse!”
“Oh strewth, Roshy, I’m so sorry! I never meant to upset you, it’s the shock that’s all. I’ve just never really believed in all that stuff!”
“Why, Mister Bodie, when you see Mister Ray all the time? Mammy, Daddy says he wants sausages.”
I hadn’t heard Aisling come back in, but it wasn’t her sudden appearance making my heart thump. To my knowledge, nobody but me had ever seen Ghost Ray and I’d told very few people about his existence in my life.
Breakfast once again proved Róisín didn’t believe in meagre portions. Filled to the gunnels with Irish fare, I doubted our abilities to stand up, never lone walk seven miles. By the time the three of us had collected our gear and the longwinded farewells began, my feet were at last feeling the familiar itch, the need to be moving.
I doubted I’d ever meet the Murphy’s again. Though my heart ached at the thought, I silently thanked the Camino for bringing us together, me and this delightful family who had now welcomed two strangers as if they were family too. As I hugged my goodbyes, I quelled my tears until looking at Aisling who was no doubt waving off Ghost Ray along with the rest of us.
It was late June and we were in Northern Spain. To be fair, we’d known it would be hot. London had been a cloudy, nineteen degrees when we’d left it and walking out into a Spanish midday high of twenty-eight was akin to entering an oven. Even slouching around an air-conditioned villa had convinced Steve that shorts were the way to go and he strode out showing off his sports prosthetic with no feelings of embarrassment.
Though Conor would have happily driven us to Finisterre if we’d asked him, we’d declined his kind offer of a lift into town, all of us eager to be walking at last. Unlike my last trip when dependant on reaching albergues before beds were filled, more disposable income meant we could take our pick of hotels. So far, through Shelly’s knowledge and the Murphy’s hospitality, we’d lived like kings, but I was rather excited to be finding new lodgings based purely on luck.
On the edge of the city, a sight tugged at my heart. The open-topped freezer offered lollies and drinks, chilled from the heat by large shards of ice. Chained to a table was a donación box and a stamp for the credencial I no longer carried. I was in the same wonderful country and this time, with friends who I trusted and loved, but it wasn’t the same. I had no pressing schedule and no need to gather stamps whenever I could. The only stage of the Camino I wholly intended walking was the very last one, Santiago De Compostela to Finisterre, the End of the World.
It wasn’t long before the outskirts of León got busier, our surroundings more urban and the temperature higher. After an hour’s walking, we landed in the city centre hot and tired. I remembered well, my previous dislike of a place that had seemed to invade my privacy after the quiet comfort of the countryside. We refreshed ourselves with coolly pressed juice and spent a leisurely hour just watching the world. The crowds were as noisy and excitable as I remembered, but I had to admit I felt far less lonely in León with my faithful companions by my side.
We took advantage of a cashpoint machine, all filling our wallets, Steve visited a pharmacy buying Neosporin and wax strips and we all topped our water bags from a clear flowing fountain. A marker informed us that Santiago was a mere three hundred kays away. We all knew the city centre held little further fascination and with a look of pained determination, Calisto lead us away.
The house when we reached it, was unremarkable, but certainly no dump. Set in what I assumed was a well-to-do street, the three-story building looked much the same as all of its neighbours. The top floor sported Juliet balconies topped off with brightly flowering troughs. The middle floor blinds were set at half mast to keep in the cool and the windows shone brightly as if freshly washed. Down at ground level, there were no parcels or police tape or clusters of flies. In fact, nothing of the house suggested it contained a corpse lain quite undiscovered for over six years. Calisto however, looked as though he was seeing a ghost. With my new found abilities, I knew just how he felt. Steve only knew that the house had been owned by Calisto’s dead friend. After learning that, he’d asked no more questions, so it was up to me to console my young friend.
“The place looks fine, Cal, it’s obviously lived in, just look at the flowers!”
“The house is painted again.”
“How do you mean?”
“Before, this house is pink like shells. Now house is yellow like sand. Someone paints this house.”
I was slightly concerned that Calisto had reverted to the broken version of a language he’d eloquently mastered. For all his personal and professional success, he looked as scared and vulnerable as I’d ever known him to be. He was suddenly shocked into action when the balcony window of the adjacent property opened and an elderly man started to pull peppers from a fine looking string.
“Cal, what on earth are you running from, there’s no way that man could know you!”
I caught up with Calisto who was stood panting and sweating beneath the shade of a lime tree.
“No one here knows of me as I never go outside then, but I cannot look at that man. See how old and fat he is! That is what my owner would be like if he does not die. That is what people who live here look like. Rich men who have enough money to pay for whatever they want to have!”
“Well you’re a rich man now and you don’t treat people badly do you?”
“No! I can never do what the fat man does and pay money to own a person, this is wrong!”
In all the time I’d known Calisto, he’d never expressed outright hostility toward the man who’d paid him to become a live-in companion. For several years after the man’s death, the small amounts to Cal’s mother had continued to be paid and it took the expensive work of a solicitor for Calisto to cancel the transaction. Through his own efforts, Cal’s Brazilian family now safely resided in far better quarters and always would, a fact which made me even more proud of him. I ached at the thought of his pain. Had it not been for the man who’d brought him to Spain, Cal would still be a bum on the streets of Brazil, but I guessed only a victim knew how life felt as a modern-day slave.
“Have you seen enough, is it time to go, do you think?”
“Yes, Bodie, it is time we must go. Thankyou, Bodie, thankyou, Steve for us coming here, now Calisto is better. Rest in peace Mister Fat Man. Rest in peace, Celeste.”
Once again, the discreet Stephen Fields brokered no questions and as one, we turned for Valverde de la Virgen.
We left the outskirts of the city via a railway bridge which towered over a mismatch of clicking electric cables that powered trains bound for God knows where. I once again longed for the peace of the countryside and was heartened to see a familiar sight. One of the photographs I’d taken of the old hillside wine cellars had featured in a magazine article my niece had commissioned. As soon as we passed them, the path became quieter, though the walking was tough. I was all too aware I was still in meseta territory, the devilish place that had nearly stolen my mind some years before.
We trudged on through Trobajo intent on getting some mileage behind us and finally stopped for a breather. Even Calisto looked tired, which bearing in mind he’d been running at dawn, was hardly surprising. Though afternoon tea was a welcome respite, Steve still looked crestfallen.
“I’m holding you up aren’t I?”
“Not so that I’ve noticed, mate, I certainly couldn’t have walked any faster and I’ll be more than happy when we finally get there. How about you, Cal are you finding the pace too slow?”
“Not at all, Bodie and fitness is The Calman’s business! This was never going to be our best day of walking. We all ate a lot of food and nobody should start to walk in the middle of the day. I too, will be pleased when we stop.”
“Thanks for that, guys. I had no idea when we started all this if I’d be good enough and I still don’t, so I really don’t want to spoil the experience for you.”
“Stephen, you and Bodie have walked this whole thing before. I have walked only half of it so you are both already far better than me. Yesterday, you were happy to visit with Bodie’s friends who you had never met before. Today you were happy to travel to the house I used to live in just so I could look at it. Tomorrow and for all the tomorrows, I am happy to walk with you. Yes, I am fitter because that is my livelihood, but I too, could break my leg tomorrow and be slower than both of you. We are equals in this, that is what we agreed before we started and that is how it should stay.”
Calisto wasn’t one for long speeches, so I was thrilled that he’d not only regained his mastership of English, but chosen some very poignant words of it to say. Steve looked just about ready to cry, so taking the initiative, I dropped some notes on the table and strode from the little café, intent on hitting the road.
The heat hit us like a laser beam when we got outside. It was only two and a half miles to Valverde de la Virgen, a distance which would have seemed like mere footsteps the last time I’d been in Spain, but now resembled a marathon. I tried to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other, whilst ignoring the building pain in my ankles and the dull throbbing in my head. It certainly wasn’t the most pleasant walking. Though out in the open country, we were accompanied by the loud and dirty N120, an old adversary I’d previously tried to avoid. My mood was low, but the one thing I was grateful for was the lack of spooks. Ghost Ray walked beside me as faithfully and welcomed as he always did, but I thanked God that I hadn’t started to see dead bodies all over the place as I’d been fearing all day.
Our hot trek finally rewarded me with a sight that lifted my spirits as a spindly legged stork swooped down over our heads. It was a fine welcome to Valverde de la Virgen and I sighed with relief that we were finally near a beer and bed.
Regardless of our combined wealth, we were more than happy to collapse in the first place we came upon, a simple albergue that had bunks to spare. As soon as I stepped through the doors, I was transported back to the Camino I remembered. People of all ages were singing songs and telling jokes. In a tiny place sporting thirty two beds, I suddenly heard more languages than I had done in years. After gulping a glass of San Miguel, I rapidly showered and returned to the party. It was all the same. The excited chatter, the flashing of phones, people singing Ultreya and the constant bringing and breaking of food.
I don’t think I’d ever realised it in life, why The Camino had come to mean so much to me. As a mercenary, it had been every man for himself. The only reason any of us were out there was to amass as much money as possible in a very short space of time. This made monsters out of all of us and is a shame I’ve tried ever since to forget. The army made a man of me, but made enemies of those I cared about. We were discouraged from making friends or forming close relationships. By the time I was drafted to CI5, I didn’t worry about anyone except myself and my commanding officer. I was a clockwork soldier ticking away my years until of course, Ray Doyle entered my life and changed it forever. I’d never expected to survive CI5. To all intents, I’d never expected to survive at all, but somehow, Ray and I had come through the other side of our service and formed a life together that we’d cherished. In my youth, had anyone suggested I’d spend my twilight years adoring another man, I might well have punched them, but I suppose, with age, comes wisdom.
The following morning, rising at daybreak felt far more familiar and us room-mates were eager to get up and go. Outside, we were greeted by a blue-purple dawn and quickly spurred on by the chill of the morning, soon built up a reasonable speed. Our constant companion, the N120, was thankfully quiet so early in the day, giving us the peace needed to appreciate the thrill of being abroad. Two hours and six miles in, the temperature rose as did our hunger. A twenty-four-hour, roadside kiosk, offered a serviceable breakfast of bread, cheese and coffee which spurned us onto the rest of our journey. The plain food revived rather than making us sluggish and we were soon walking so well, it was time to put my new poles to use. Six years earlier, the sticks Steve had sold me had caused untold misery whilst going through airports. A heads up from Cal and a quick bit of surfing had bought shiny new poles, which folded right down and sat snug in my pack. They were nothing, however, compared to Steve’s gear. After his accident, Steve was helped out by the fine NHS, but the prosthetics he now used for sporting adventures were completely self-funded, no mean feat for a man who no longer had an income to speak of.
After a few hours walking and a struggle with cobbles, we landed in Hospital de Órbigo. There was a slight disagreement over where we should stay. The accommodation seemed to consist of basic albergues or city slick pads. Finally, we found a guest house that seemed to offer a blend of them both. Though we could have slept in a communal dorm for minimal cost, the casa also sported private twin rooms and we quickly booked two. The place was exquisite and spotlessly clean. Though clearly remodelled not too long ago, the job had been done with romantics in mind. The exposed beams and brickwork made me gladly remember, so many old places I’d once loved in Spain.
The only small downfall with our stop for the night was the lack of a kitchen or at least one that was prepared to cook us a meal. Calisto was worried we might not get fed and I wondered how he’d coped on his own Camino journey. Leaving my friends to shower and change, I slipped into town, ready to shop. It was a strange feeling, being on my own at last in a place where I’d once spent so much time alone. I cherished the presence of Stephen and Cal. Were it not for them, I had no doubt at all that I wouldn’t be here. For all their remarks on my continued good health, I knew my own limitations. Six years before, I’d challenged myself to walk five hundred miles. Now I was grateful I’d just managed twelve. I bought supplies quickly, eager to clean myself up and returned to the casa and the sight of a beer. Calisto and Stephen were stunned at my wares, never before, having cooked in a group.
“Steve, you did the entire Camino Frances, what on earth did you live on?”
“I camped the whole lot, Bodie. I did have a small gas stove so I sometimes cooked eggs, but I mostly had protein meals, prepacked things like the astronauts eat.”
“How the hell did you carry a months’ worth of those?”
“I didn’t. I ordered them online and picked them up when I came upon the camping shops I’d sent them all to.”
“And were they tasty?”
“No, they were awful.”
“What about you, Cal, what did you live on when you walked from León?”
“Bodie, you do not wish to hear of the things I ate when I first left León. I hope that I will never again have to kill and consume the things that I did. But I suddenly realised that I had all my money! I had never been used to having such money and I ate like a king on many occasions, pizzas, sausage and my favourite, el pulpo. Most of the time though, I didn’t eat much, most of my meals came from vending machines.”
“So neither of you have cooked in a commune? Bloody hell, you’ve got a treat in store! The Camino route is a beautiful thing, but it’s the people that really bring it alive. If you enjoyed last night’s hostel, you’re sure to love this!”
At four o’clock when I’d finally showered and was slightly buzzed on cold San Miguel, I decided it was time to cook before getting too comfy. Cal and Steve were stunned at the Galician steaks I’d managed to source and I set them to work chopping onions and chives. A few other diners were working beside us and it wasn’t long before we were all trading goods for things we’d forgotten or simply preferred. My friends quickly got in the swing of the thing, soon singing and chopping for all they were worth. I found it quite sad this was the first time they’d seen this side of the Camino. When I’d first started out on my long walk before, I supposed I’d been just like they were now. It was certainly an evening to remember. We stuffed ourselves on far more food than I remembered buying, before starting on wine. Cal and Steve claimed to be small drinkers until they both proved to be anything but and the last thing I remember, was Steve getting legless in more ways than one.
When dawn broke it was up to me to upend my co-walkers out of their beds and neither of them seemed particularly keen. With a lot of huffing and puffing, we finally left the delightful casa to hit the sandy brown trail to Astorga.
“Bodie, you’re a torturer, nobody should be walking at this time of the morning!”
“Stephen is correct! We should still be in our beds!”
“Oh, for God’s sake, hark at Mister Action Man and the Greek God of YouTube! Your combined ages don’t make you as old as I am! You’d better learn to handle your hangovers quicker than this, boys, as I haven’t got time for passengers!”
My tongue-in-cheek comments roused the maleness in my listless friends and before too long, we’d picked up the pace with the minimum of grumbles. Once upon a time, the Camino had ended in Astorga, those in the know believing that the mountains that followed it were too much of a challenge for the poor, beleaguered walker. I too, had no intention of us pushing ourselves beyond our limits. I had an appointment to keep in Palas de Rei and I would make that meeting if it took bus, train or aeroplane to get me there. We spent the night in a pleasant hotel which to my friend’s relief, catered for all. We ate, relaxed and slept very well as the next day, we faced the mountains.
Though I was enjoying my time thus far in Spain, I was all too aware things weren’t all okay. My legs were performing with relative ease and my feet hardly noticed the treads that they took. My heart though, complained in a way that concerned me. Through training and practise, I’d long ago learned how to lower my pulse, a trick that now seemed reluctant to work. The occasional headaches I could put down to wine, but they were rarely seen-off by pain killing pills. I sensed something might not be right in my fading old body. A few glances at an all-knowing Ghost Ray assured me though concern was okay, worry was not.
The next day we rose early, intent on beating the heat and leaving the ancient streets of Astorga before the firey sun rose. As we trudged on under the scudding clouds of lightening skies, the surroundings became distinctly more rural. Habitations consisted of widely spaced farmsteads and faraway hamlets. My heart swelled with love for the place, as familiar sights evoked long ago memories.
Calisto shot everything he saw with his phone. No doubt his footage would be the latest big hit. Steve simply concentrated on keeping his rhythm, his earlier fears about making the grade, now seeming forgotten. I just soaked up the scenery, recognising the painted blue doors as we entered Santa Catalina. We managed to get all the way to El Ganso before declaring our hunger. With amusement, I found us a fine place to eat, relieved ‘Cowboy Meson’ was still open for business. We breakfasted on Bocodilla tortillas; long sandwiches filled with potato omelette.
We walked on through ever expanding countryside, observing the sparsely built huts with their crazy paved walls. We travelled through plantation forests of fir tree and plane, passed the creepy old fence made of old wooden crosses and finally after feeling the incline of the land, we walked into our stop for the night, Rabanal del Camino. It still felt like cheating, ending a walk halfway through the day, but it was wonderful to be able to relax and enjoy all a nice hotel had to offer and beat the worst of the punishing sun.
The following morning brought one more early start. Though we had few illusions about walking any great distance, this would be the biggest climb we would face and we needed our wits about us as well as our muscles. I’d had reservations about Steve walking this section, but not wishing to emasculate him, kept my concerns to myself. We walked way out into the barren countryside, the only suggestion of mankind around us being the humming powerlines and the ever-turning wind turbines. As we heaved our way upwards towards Foncebadón, Steve was walking as well as any of us and I suddenly realised, it wasn’t the requisite number of limbs that made a man, but the practice, determination and grit he was willing to employ.
We stopped to dine in the ruined village within one of the new establishments that had evolved to serve the modern-day pilgrim. It was sustenance well needed as our next port of call would tug at the heartstrings as well as the thighs. We climbed ever higher through pine and through gorse and though the day was overcast, the view suddenly presented itself, like a glimmering mirage. The old iron cross, the Cruz de Ferro, still stood there as it had done for hundreds of years. Like my companions, I was in no hurry to go racing up it, but happy just to sit and stare.
“Calisto, you’ve seen Ray’s grave, do you recall the green stones that surround it? Somewhere under that pile of rocks is a handful of them.”
“Bodie, do you remember the fake ruby earrings a girl called Celeste wore? They too are there somewhere.”
“What about you, Steve, did you leave something from home here?”
“Oh, yeah! Somewhere in that big pile is the engagement ring my fiancé threw back at me. Don’t get me wrong, it was only a cheap thing from Argos, but I promised I’d get a better one for her when I got the money. I never did get the money and now I’m rather glad I didn’t.”
“What number fiancée was this, Steve?”
“Oh, this one was fiancé number two. She ditched me when I refused to buy her new hair straighteners. She burned the old ones out using them on her friend’s labradoodle.”
“Christ, Steve, you have absolutely zero luck with women, mate!”
“I didn’t do. That’s back in the day when I was chasing girls who were as shallow as I was. Nowadays, I’m single and proud of it, my courting days being well and truly over!”
There seemed to be nothing to say after that so after a last bow to the hallowed place, we carried along on the welcomed, flattish land before making our joyous decent. We stopped for refreshment at an albergue in Acebo. After discovering it boasted a pool, we booked in to stay and splashed away the afternoon in light-hearted fun. Over wine that evening, we considered our plans. Cal had killed off his ghosts in León. I’d been most grateful to see the old cross again and Steve was just happy to have remained upright. We’d lived out some dreams and banished some demons. If the remainder of our trip to Palas de Rei was motorised, we certainly wouldn’t feel any guilt.
The next morning dawned so clear, we were all eager to walk and as the route was downhill all the way into Molinaseca, it would have been a crime not to. It was not easy going however. Once the smooth, tarmacked roads ended, the steep tracks largely consisted of slippery rock and loose scree. We all nearly came a cropper more than once and Steve’s ankle would have been badly sprained were it not made of wires and metal. We were in no real hurry. It was greener here and being at such altitude, cooler too. The others were interested in poking around the ruins of towns such as Riego de Ambros, arguing over how much the many se vende properties might cost.
We crossed the pretty cobbled bridge into Molinaseca a little before lunch time. On my previous trip, I’d denied myself a stay in this beautiful place and with my friends’ agreement, quickly booked three rooms in a delightful hotel in the centre of town. Our time was then free to admire the shining brook, the handsome church and finally the quaint narrow lanes of the municipality which sat within a natural bowl of mountains and trees.
Though the streets weren’t overly busy, the eateries were full. Peckish, we managed to grab an outside table as its occupants were leaving. A waiter brought a menu and we ordered tapas platters and beer for three. We enjoyed a pleasant few moments people-watching as we waited for food.
“Hi there, pilgrims, do you speak English at all?”
I turned to see a pretty looking woman who was heavily weighed down by a huge backpack.
“Sure! Are you looking for a place to sit?”
“Oh, dear God, yes, please! The bag is a bit big for getting in and out of small cafes and I’m gagging for a beer!”
“Well, please, this chair is free, help yourself! I’m Bodie and this is Cal and Steve.”
“Pleased to meet you all, I’m Laura Keene.”
“And are you walking the whole route, Laura? You sure look like you’ve got all the gear!”
“Hopefully, Bodie. I started out in Le Puy-en-Velay at the end of April, how about you guys?”
“Wow, that is a long walk! Bodie and Cal met up on the Frances five years ago and I walked the route myself a few years before that.”
“None of us walked all the way from Le Puy-en-Velay though, Steve, that’s nearly double the distance from Saint Jean Pied de Port!”
“And I didn’t even start there! I first met Bodie just after I’d made out from León.”
“I don’t think the distance you walk really matters as long as you get something out of it, Cal. Are you all walking the whole lot this time around?”
“Oh, God no! This is more of a holiday with a bit of walking thrown in than a pilgrimage. We all wanted to see the place again and meet up with a few old friends along the way, but none of us intended walking too far. It’s the stretch between Santiago and Finisterre I’d really like to complete, I missed out last time having run out of time.”
“How long are you guys out here for, Bodie?”
“Well, we’ve been here for a week already and hope to get home within the next two as Cal’s got a wife and young daughter to get back to.”
“Wow, aren’t they missing you being out here for all that time, Cal?”
“Oh yeah, of course, we miss each other, but my wife is currently in the US visiting her brother and my little Gabriella is with her grandparents who like to spoil her rotten, so we are all having happy holidays! All the time we call and Skype, but both me and my wife often go abroad for work, so it’s something we’re used to.”
“Have you walked the whole thing alone, Laura?”
“Most of it, Steve. I couldn’t find anyone else either daft enough to do it with me or who could get enough time away from their jobs. I’m quite lucky in a way. My husband died three years ago and after his life insurance paid out, I didn’t really have to work again, though I’d like to at some point. We’d always intended doing something like this together and when I eventually came to terms with losing him, I realised I finally had the time and finances to actually do it.”
“Oh, heck, Laura, I’m so sorry for your loss! What did you do when you were working?”
“That’s okay, Bodie. It’s been a hard three years, but this walk has become a real comfort to me. I’m a physiotherapist, it’s how I met my husband. He came to the clinic with a nagging injury he’d acquired skiing and six months intensive therapy eventually became ten years of marriage.”
A plate of food was placed in front of a dumbstruck Steve as red faced, he looked down at his prosthetic.
“I too, acquired a nagging injury, skiing.”
“Oh! Oh, so you did! Wow! I’m so sorry! Is this your first big venture since er, that happened or are you a regular Paralympian?”
“This is my first big challenge though to be honest, most of the battles I’m fighting are in my head rather than my legs.”
From that moment, Steve and Laura were lost to us, enmeshed in deep conversation about medical matters I couldn’t hope to comprehend. The time flashed past and before we knew it, the waiters were hovering around, wanting to dress their tables for dinner.
“Laura, I sure hope you weren’t intent on walking much further today, you do realise it’s nearly five o’clock?”
“No, it’s fine, Bodie. I walked in from Manjarin this morning intending to make this a rest day. I booked into the albergue earlier on, so my time’s my own until tomorrow morning.”
It was very pleasant having some female company, though if Laura’s early morning walk of fourteen kays was what she considered ‘a rest day’, then heaven help the rest of us. We couldn’t however, spend the rest of the evening cluttering up the little café, so arranging to meet her for dinner, we alighted to our respective abodes to shower and change. Steve was pensive as we made our way back.
“Guys, do you think I’d be punching above my weight if I asked a woman like her out?”
I nearly choked on my chewing gum as Laura was as far from Steve’s normal type as the sun is from the moon. A frown from Ghost Ray kept my reply vaguely polite.
“Well I can’t see a girl like her ever agreeing to getting her tits pumped full of silicon and I doubt she’s ever read a copy of ‘Loaded’ cover to cover, but whatever floats your boat, I guess?”
Steve looked downhearted at my comment and a fiercer look from my better half made me realise that my poor friend had actually been deadly serious.
“Look, mate, she’s a classy lady that one, but I doubt she came out here looking for a holiday romance. Maybe ask for her number or something, but don’t get your heart broke over some bird who’s out here honouring her dead husband’s memory.”
“Oh, I got her number alright and I’ve joined her on Facebook and Instagram!”
One could only admire Steve’s finesse.
“In that case, mate, it looks like you might have an in! Just watch yourself alright, don’t be too quick to jump back in the saddle!”
It was a wonderful evening, a superb pizzeria serving pasta and wine providing our fare. As we reached the hotel, it was obvious Laura had no intentions of returning to her albergue. As she climbed the stairs hand in hand with Steve, Calisto and I looked on, open mouthed.
“So, tell me, Bodie,” Cal said at last,
“Just what is so wrong with silicon tits?”
Laura walked with us as far as our stop in Camponaraya. Her intended destination was Villafranca del Bierzo. It was a hell of a walk and one I’d completed with ease some years before. It was quite beyond my imagination to walk that far now. I knew in his heart, Steve would have loved to accompany Laura but when I questioned him about it, he was philosophical.
“We trained to walk, Bodie, she trained as an athlete. It would be unfair of me to hold her up now. She’s got my number so what will be will be. Besides, we started this thing together, we finish it together, just like Calisto said.”
I was rather surprised at Steve’s easy acceptance of the situation. Perhaps getting his stump over, had done the man the power of good.
Just outside the forgettable town of Ponferrada, I lurched to a halt. My companions stared at me as if I were mad, though Ghost Ray looked knowingly on.
“Why are we stopping, Bodie, do you not feel well?”
“Don’t you remember this spot, Cal, from two thousand and ten?”
I watched as realisation gradually dawned.
“Oh, my goodness! Oh, my friends! It is here that I first met our friend Bodie, the man that forever changed my life!”
I was most touched by the young man’s outburst of sentiment.
“Oh, I just helped along the way, Cal, you were always destined to have a wonderful life, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
“My family is our family, always, Bodie.”
“Always,” I quietly replied.
As we made our way across the flatter, though hotter land, vineyards started to spring up around us, bringing me happy memories of La Rioja. Camponaraya was not nearly as pretty, but the albergue we’d booked into, sported large clean beds, an indoor pool and a rather fine restaurant. Calisto and I diplomatically left Steve and Laura to their tearful goodbyes and made for the showers. At dinner that evening, as a start to proceedings, I ordered a bottle of Rioja red.
The next morning, we all felt rather deflated. Steve missed Laura, Calisto missed his family and I missed my youth. We listlessly hung around the coffee machine until I made a decision. Within fifteen minutes, we were ready to go in a half-decent cab bound for Vega de Valcarce. A twenty minute drive saved us six hours of walking though it felt rather strange to be sat in a car. I had little comprehension of the rushed conversation between Cal and our driver, but when we got out, my nephew-in-law, was flushed with excitement. It seemed that one of the finer places to stay had just become free when the people who’d booked it had failed to turn up. The two-bedroomed house was ours at cost price should we choose to accept, which we rapidly did. After making a call, the cabbie urged us back into his car and within minutes, we were sat outside the key holder’s house. As he seemed to know what he was doing, we let Cal do the business with his gold card and before we knew it, were off again, speeding towards our beds for the night. Our driver pointed out where we could buy provisions or dine out should we prefer, before finally stopping at our fine looking house. He made off so fast after waiving his fair, it did cross my mind that we might have been scammed, but a few minutes inspection assured us we’d struck solid gold. It was a fabulous place, built of timber and rock. The antiquity ended there, as we had all the mod cons we could possibly need. The kitchen was perfect for cooking a meal and the laundry provided a washer and dryer. The softly aired bedrooms were perfectly clean and the rustic old lounge was cosy and quiet. Paydirt however, was the balcony which ran the full length of the back of the house. From its lofty heights, we had spectacular views of the whole of the valley and the colourful houses which nestled within it.
It was just half past ten, so making the most of the wonderful weather, we filled up the washer with walk weary clothes before making our way back down to the village. My priority was buying something for supper and we soon found a merchant who met all our needs. I bought three mammoth steaks, potatoes and bread and Steve filled his backpack with bottles of wine. With the shopping completed, we found a small café and treated ourselves to a tortilla breakfast, all of us feeling the holiday mood.
“I’ve dreamt a few times about moving out here and surely if you lived in a place like our casa, you’d be hard pressed to leave!”
“I think everyone feels like that somewhere on the Camino, Bodie, though I don’t really remember this place much, do you?”
“No, Steve, to be honest, by that stage I think I was just too busy putting one foot in front of the other. I was walking much further distances of course and so intent on keeping my schedule that I’m sure a lot of lovely places just passed me by. It would rarely occur to me to take a day off of walking just because I’d found a great place to stay.”
“Would you really come out here, though, Bodie? Move away from your beautiful home?”
“Oh no, Cal, it was only ever a dream. I had too much to leave and I’ve even more now. That’s why this trip’s so important to me. A last reminder of the places and people that I store in my heart. Call it a last hurrah if you like, before I stop walking forever.”
“Well that’s cheery, I must say! I thought I was meant to be the manic depressive amongst us! Look there’s nothing to stop us doing this every year if we want!”
“A nice thought, Steve and one I hope you and Calisto might consider in future. This is it for me though, this will be my last Camino and I’m not sad about that, I’m just grateful to be here. Now you’d better drink up if we’re off climbing castles!”
As we left the small café, Ghost Ray gave me such a heart-breaking look, I was afraid I might cry. As always, I wished he could tell me just what he was thinking, what it was that he knew and I still had to learn.
We returned to the house, stored all our foodstuffs and strung out the laundry. After resting enough to let breakfast go down, we ventured down into the view from our bedrooms, wandering round at a leisurely pace. We took in the Valcarce River which ran through the village and relaxed and contented, poked at the ruins of the Castillo de Sarracín. It always humbled me seeing such places. Throughout my life, it was other men who’d provided my castle. The hearts and souls and quick, brave minds of those mere mortals had been the bricks which had built me my fortress. Foot soldiers, officers and beloved partners, I owed my long life to them one and all.
We spent an agreeable evening, stuffing our faces and toasting each other under the stars before indulging ourselves in a blissful night’s sleep.
Though the climb we now faced wasn’t the highest, it was by far the most sheer, rising seven hundred meters over only twelve kays. A return to the rustic, aqueous hamlets, welcomed our entry into Galicia. Though high season, there were relatively few people apart from the farmers driving their bell-bedecked cattle and I was grateful for the quiet support of my companions.
We were business-like in our walking, not talking too much, determined to reach O Cebreiro with its choice of hotels and their promise of hot water. It was a punishing climb, which tested our limits, but I was impressed that Steve kept up so well. We finally hit our destination in the early afternoon and booked into a basic, though pretty place where we washed, changed and lounged before supper. I felt slightly depressed throughout the evening. The last time I’d stayed in O Cebreiro, I’d walked twice the distance to reach it, a feat I could only dream about now. Though physically tired, I’d escaped being injured, though my lower left leg was feeling the strain. Exploration revealed it to be slightly puffed up and a little bit hot, but nothing God willing, that might stop me walking.
After a thorough night’s sleep and a passable breakfast, we all hit the trail, rather delighted to be going downhill. The shade of woodland trails and crosswinds over the open mountains saved us from the worst of the heat and though the descents were steep, they were not treacherous. It was amazing how much time we made compared to the previous day and within five hours, we were sat in the grounds of a rather grand, squarely built hotel in Triacastela.
“How are we doing for time, Bodie, are we still on schedule?”
“Not bad, Cal, the others are planning on being in Palas de Rei on the twelfth which is four days from now. In days gone past, I could have walked most of it, but that’s not gonna happen. I guess it depends on what we prefer, flatlands or hills.”
“Well I would very much like to see again the albergue in Samos.”
It took me a moment to see what he meant.
“Ah of course, it was there I first met a man called ‘Calisto’!”
“I see you remember, Bodie.”
“Well then of course we should see it! How’s this for a plan then, we rise early, walk to your albergue in Samos, have coffee and breakfast then jump in a taxi and see where it takes us?”
Steve returned from taking his shower and soon agreed that my plan was a good one. I was once again buoyant. We’d walked our furthest distance with reasonable ease and the next day faced a relative rest. My sore leg was better and pain free at last, just a slight hint of redness belying its state.
Our morning walk took us through ghostly villages, wooded paths and slow moving streams. We made good time and within a few hours looked over the ridge to see the huge monastery for which Samos was famous. We made our way down through the hamlet to the pretty albergue. The kind hospitalera was delighted to provide coffee and eggs for a meagre donation and we happily relaxed, our walking done for that day at least.
“So, Cal, you met Bodie here? I thought you’d both first met in León?”
“I was quite a different person when I met our friend Bodie in León, Stephen.”
“How do you mean?”
“Uh … just that I wasn’t quite the guy you see before you now.”
“Well that doesn’t tell me anything!”
“Do I know I can trust you? Can you promise you won’t sell my story and end my career?”
“Bloody hell, I’ve done things for money, but talking to the press isn’t one of them and besides, I thought we were friends?”
“Cal, I’ll personally vouch for Steve, he’s one of the most honourable people I know.”
“In that case, Bodie, Steve should know of the girl called Celeste.”
“Yes, I think that he should.”
“Stephen … Steve, when I first met Bodie, I … I was dressed as a girl. I was pumped full of hormones and covered in make-up. I’d been brought here to Spain by a rich guy who wanted a ladyboy as a live-in companion. That’s what I was, Steve, a ladyboy. The Calman as you know him, once lived as a girl!”
Watching Steve’s reaction was extraordinary. He puffed out his cheeks, broke into a sweat and his face turned a deep shade of red. I was starting to think that we’d made a mistake…
“That … that’s nothing! I was raped every week from twelve to fifteen!”
The exclamation seemed to both shatter the man and relieve him at the same time. The mood had suddenly changed from a pleasant tea party to a macabre confessional.
“Fucking hell! Oh my God, Steve, I’m so sorry!”
“Don’t be, Bodie, it was all my own fault!”
“How can you say that, Steve, no one deserves that, not ever!”
“Oh, I did, alright! When I was eleven, my uncle saw me kissing a boy. I don’t think he was really my uncle to be honest, just someone my dad knew. He was always at our house after that and my parents adored him. He babysat each Friday for me and my sister.”
“Good God, this is dreadful! He forced himself on you for kissing a boy?”
“That was his excuse, Bodie. When he did it, he said he was beating the badness out of me. When he did it to my sister, he told her he was ‘making her into a woman’.”
“Jesus, fucking Christ, Stephen that man was a paedophile!”
“Oh, I know that now, Cal. I didn’t back then though, all that I knew was I’d let him into our lives…”
“ ‘Cos you’d kissed a boy?”
“Yes. Don’t get me wrong, Bodie, I’m not against gays. I was eleven years old and unsure of myself. I sometimes wonder what life I might lead had my uncle not seen me. So, you see, Cal’s little story is sure safe with me!”
I heartily wished it was six o’clock and we had beer before us or something much stronger. It was however, the hour that Steve and Calisto cemented their friendship forever.
“Look guys, I … I’ve no idea why I told you all that, I’ve ruined things now, haven’t I? We were having a great time and I’ve gone and spoiled it all! If you wanna end all this now, I can just get a cab to an airport somewhere, I’ll get out of your hair and you can carry on walking—”
“Steve what are you talking about? Of course we don’t want to end things now! Look have you ever talked about this to anyone else?”
“No, why would I want to?”
“Because it sounds like you probably need to if I'm honest, but hey, that’s your own choice. Either way, Cal and I don’t think any less of you for heaven’s sake!”
“Aw, Jesus, thanks, Bodie. I’m so sorry, I didn’t have the right to bring down the mood like this, I mean I haven’t thought about those Friday nights in years…”
“Bodie is right, Steve, we all have our secrets and we should be free to talk about them or keep them private as we wish. We are all friends here, good friends, all here to listen to each other and help when we can. You have had much bad luck in your life and for that, I am truly sorry.”
“Thanks, guys, I’m humbled, really I am. I guess I would like to talk some more if you’re sure you don’t mind, but by Christ, I’d rather do it with a beer in front of me!”
“Here here! Let’s look at the map and decide where to head for next, shall we?”
“Oh yes please, Bodie, it was nice to see this albergue again but I think we could all do with getting out of here now, where should we book the cab to?”
“Um … well we don’t want to get to Palas de Rei too early and end up sick of the place, so I suppose we could go to Sarria or maybe Portomarin? I must admit though, I don’t really remember either of them with great fondness.”
“I was camping so I walked straight through both of them before, Bodie, what didn’t you like about them?”
“Well Sarria’s the last place pilgrims can start walking in order to qualify for their Compostela certificates, so people are literally arriving by the busload, Steve. Portomarin was pleasant enough but highly commercialised. I just remember both places being very busy and accommodation hard to come by.”
“God, I could do without that, to tell the truth. I’d much rather have a quiet one with just you guys.”
“Yeah, I guess we all feel a bit like that now, Steve. Cal, have you got a good mobile connection?”
“Not the best phone coverage, but I’m connected to the albergue wi-fi, Bodie and that signal’s lookin’ good.”
“Great! Let’s have a scout about see if there are any places between here and Palas de Rei that might be nice to stop at.”
“Can I just ask guys, no communal albergues tonight if that’s alright, I don’t wish to be a party pooper but I don’t think I could stand singing nuns and endless rounds of Ultreya if it’s all the same to you.”
“Somehow, I know exactly what you mean, Steve!”
We spent a good twenty minutes scrolling on our phones without much success until Calisto found something of interest.
“Look, guys, I doubt this place will have spare beds but I’m just off to make a quick call to find out, so take a look while I’m gone!”
Steve and I grabbed Cal's iPhone as he went to call the venue from the albergues foyer. The small farmhouse complex at Ventas de Narón did indeed, look perfect and when Cal yelled that they had both a twin and a single room available, we urged him to reserve them on the spot. Calisto returned looking most pleased with himself.
“My niece will make a travel agent out of you yet, young man, so where does that leave us? Okay, we taxi to Ventas de Narón which leaves us about twelve kays away from Palas de Rei which we should be able to walk easily enough tomorrow. We can find somewhere to stay and then meet up with my friends when they arrive the next day. Please don’t look so pained, Steve, they won’t bite you, I promise!”
“Sorry, Bodie, I’m being selfish, I’m just feeling a bit antisocial at the moment.”
“Perfectly understandable and anyway, that’s all a couple of days away yet, let’s get that cab booked, shall we?”
Our timing was impeccable as an overcast morning turned into a summer downpour five minutes after we’d climbed into the taxi. We were quiet during the hours’ drive, all lost in our thoughts. After travelling through the outskirts of Sarria, I barely recognised any place names at all. It was hardly surprising as the last time I’d been there, I’d been stumbling around in the dark having overestimated my own abilities. I wondered at those abilities now. My leg was starting to ache again as was my head and all in all, we’d only completed a very short walk. It crossed my mind that when I returned to England it might not be a bad idea to have another chat with my doctor…
Ventas de Narón proved to be a charming little place, as far removed from Portomarin as the earth is to the moon. The casa complex was a renovated farm with the main building housing seven suites, a barn conversion containing the twin room and an outhouse hosting the single. I could just about picture the place as it might have looked in ancient times, sheltering livestock and storing crops and the modernised version was all the more stunning for that vision. The dining room was a quaint, stone-built affair and the only place in which the rather fragile Steve might have to face any strangers. The rooms, though still retaining their stony charm, were exquisitely equipped, promising a blissful night’s sleep. The main attraction, however, was the eager bar who promised to provide as much wine as we could consume long after the barkeep had gone off to bed. We stored our gear and took reviving showers before regrouping in the garden. We enjoyed a leisurely lunch before I partook in my main objective, getting Steve well and truly, thoroughly pissed, for if anyone deserved it, it was him.
“Steve, please tell me if you want me to shut up, but what happened to your sister?”
“How do you mean, Bodie?”
“Well, she went through the same thing that you did. How did she cope with it?”
“I’ve no idea, she hasn’t spoken to me since I was fifteen years old.”
“Eh? What do you mean?”
“Well, it was her that stopped it all, to be honest, the Saturday that she went crazy…”
“He always came on a Friday. Friday was the night the British Legion club held their happy hour. My mum and dad loved the Legion’s happy hour and so did all their friends. On Saturdays, we’d all sit down and watch the Generation Game, have bread and jam and time together as a family. I remember though, the one time our uncle turned up on a Saturday. My sister couldn’t handle it, she wasn’t prepared for it you see? She’d kinda wiped the Friday from her mind and now here he was on the very next day!”
“Oh my God, Steve, what happened?”
“Well, he knocked at the door, came into our living room and was just his normal, cocky self with my parents. They were thrilled to see him of course, but I was terrified. Not as terrified as my sister though. She just stood up, pointed at him and started wailing. By God, I’d never heard a sound like it coming from another person, she sounded just like a wounded animal! Her cries got louder and louder, I’ll never forget it as long as I live, Cal. My parents said it might be better if our uncle left and he ran out of that place like he was on fire. I never saw him after that, to my knowledge, none of us did. My sister also never talked to me from that day onward. I’ve no idea where she is now.”
“Jesus fucking wept! Are you saying the dirty bastard got away with it?”
“I was fifteen, Bodie. I was just happy enough that he’d gone away. I knew my sister blamed me for not protecting her. I kinda gave up on stuff after that. I failed at school, left home and started up in retail. You didn’t need O levels in those days to get shop work and I got good at it, knowing full well how to please people.”
We outlasted the other guests who were out enjoying drinks in the evening sunshine, still talking long after they’d left. I would have loved to stay in the endearing outhouse snuggled next to Ghost Ray, but was reluctant to leave Steve alone, so elected to share the twin.
Before we attempted sleep, I finally mentioned what was on my mind.
“Did you never want to bring the guy to justice, Steve, you could still bring a complaint, even now.”
“I’ve no idea if he’s even still alive, Bodie.”
“But what if he was? What if he’s still out there doing it to someone else?”
“Oh, Bodie, if you knew how many times I’d wished I’d done more! There’s nothing I’d like better than to see that piece of trash locked up, but I was just too young and too bloody scared at the time.”
“So … say he was alive, would you be prepared to try and nail him if I put you in touch with someone who might be able to help?”
“Well I’d have nothing much to lose, really, would I?”
“Well I’m not suggesting it would be as easy as all that, but maybe sleep on it, I’ll certainly help if I can and if you’re sure you’d want me to?”
“Please, Bodie, I really … really would like that, I think.”
“Leave it with me and please, try and get yourself some sleep, it’s been a tough day.”
For all the drink we’d put away, we rose surprisingly early which was fortunate. The previous rains had washed the land clean and the promise of a scorching hot day lay ahead. I left Calisto limbering up and Steve munching on the first delivery of the freshest white bread and took myself off to the communal computer. There, I penned a quick email, stunned as ever at how technically savvy I’d become.
Through silent agreement, none of us spoke of the previous day’s trials, each of us simply enjoying a walk in the country. It amazed me sometimes, to remember that Steve had only one leg, that I walked with a ghost and Calisto had millions of watchers online. Out there in those simple farmlands, we were just three normal blokes, taking a walk. We didn’t hurry, for once enjoying the heat. There were no more great climbs to face on the Camino and as soon as we reached our destination, we had a full rest day to enjoy. At most, we had seven days left in this wonderful place and I for one, was determined to make the most of them. We gradually made our way through tiny hamlets, finally entering the sleepy town of Palas de Rei. We didn’t scrimp on accommodation as it was to be our last day of walking as a trio, selecting a fine hotel with rustic charm and an outdoor pool. As Steve and Cal changed into their trunks, I checked my messages to find I had a new email;
‘If and when he wants it, give him my number, Bodie’, was all that it said.
I’d rarely taken rest breaks the first time I’d walked the Camino de Santiago. Now I found it pure pleasure to be able to hang up my boots for the day and enjoy the pleasure of good food, good rooms and good company. I had a slightly fluttery feeling thinking of the next day, much like the one I’d felt when Calisto had turned up on my doorstep. How would my friends see me now? Would I appear as a wizened old man, the way I saw myself when I looked in a mirror? Would they remember the laughs that we’d had, the stories we’d told and the secrets we’d shared? Would I envy them now their young lives and their futures, something of which I could never be part? We splashed about in the salt water pool ‘till just after five. Once showered and changed, Calisto went off to Skype and I grabbed Steve for a very quick word.
“Steve, we don’t ever have to talk about this again if you don’t want to, but if you ever do decide to report the bloke that assaulted you, I’ve got a contact for you.”
“Go on, Bodie…”
“His name’s Christopher Keel. He worked for the same outfit that I used to until it disbanded and then he joined the British police. He worked vice for some years before founding the team that developed what's now the Met’s child protection team. It makes no difference to him if you call him or not and his caseload’s enormous, but he’ll find your man for you if the bastard’s still alive. He’ll also help you with what to do next should you wish to proceed. He’s a good guy, Steve, he’s been through family shit you and I could only imagine. Not the same as you admittedly, but pretty bad all the same. He could also maybe, find your sister, if you think she’d like to be found.”
I’ve no idea if Steve made his case or ever found his sister, but I do know that Chris Keel would have done all in his power to help if asked.
We spent another evening toasting ourselves. Had it not been for this ancient trail on which I’d once walked, I’d know neither of these fine men. I wouldn’t have a great niece called Gabriela, I wouldn’t have a working knowledge of lower leg prosthetics and I certainly wouldn’t have any walking poles. With that thought in mind, I ordered the wine.
The following morning, my phone lit up like a Christmas tree. It seemed I had so many missed calls and messages as I groaned myself awake, I almost felt popular.
“Stand by your beds, guys, the Germans have entered the country, closely followed by two bog-trotting Irish.”
This seemed old news to Steve and Calisto who washed and dressed, seemed ready to go. Resigned to leaving the comfort of slumber and reaching out for some headache relief, I endeavoured to face the new day. It was a day I’d looked forward to for many a year though my aches and pains were bringing me down. With stalwart effort, I dragged myself into the shower, shaved, dressed and then made a call.
“Bodie, my man! You got your arse outta bed at last then?”
“Good morning, Keiran. I’ll have you know it is only nine o’clock and some of us need our beauty sleep. Whereabouts are you?”
“We all met at Santiago airport yesterday and got the first bus to Palas de Rei this morning. We’re currently enjoying coffee here in the town, so get yourselves down here!”
Keiran gave me the location of a local café and within the hour we were back on the road in pursuit of my friends.
“How many people are we actually meeting, Bodie?”
“Four as far as I know, Steve. There’s Keiran and his husband David. I’ve only met David the once and Keiran seems to like him well enough, they’re the bog trotters and the Krauts are Dieter and Hilde. Dieter is as sweet as they come and Hilde calls me ‘stupid’ a lot.”
“Oh, she’s probably right, don’t take too much notice of her, I think in a previous life she might have trained in the Hilter Youth.”
“You’re not endearing her to me, Bodie!”
“Oh, Hilde’s okay, you just need to know how to handle her.”
“And have you? Handled her I mean?”
The idea was so bizarre I almost burst into laughter.
“No, mate, I can honestly say our relationship was purely platonic, anyway, judge for yourself, here they are, look!”
It gave me a pang to see how well all my friends looked and how thrilled they seemed to be meeting with me. The Germans were in awe of Calisto, both having watched him on YouTube. Keiran and David looked blissfully happy and everyone marvelled at Steve’s metal leg. Forgoing more coffee, we elected to walk and soon so many conversations were going on, it was hard to keep up. Somewhat unnerved by the energy around me, I caught up with Hilde.
“So how are you, blödmann?”
“Older and lazier, Hilde. I have to warn you, we haven’t been walking too far, my days of doing twenty-plus kays are well in the past.”
“You have one more week, yes, that you can be here?”
“Yeah, at the most really.”
“And your friend with the prothese, does he hold you up?”
“Oh god no, he’s fitter than me! He had a touch of folliculitis when we first got here, but he’s been going like a trojan ever since.”
“Follikulitis, this is a problem with the skin, yes?”
“Yeah, he sweated under the prosthetic sheath so when he took it off it tugged all his leg hairs out.”
“But he is now recovered and walking well? It is you, blödmann who is the slow one?”
“Afraid so, Hilde, I’m just too old for this game now I think.”
“Ahh! You always did give up too early! However, we still have plenty of time to reach Finisterre. We walk and we walk until you are tired, but then you must say. Do not expect us to know of your mind. Today, we can easily walk to Milde. If you are tired there, then there we will stay.”
We walked into Milde with relative ease. The most beautiful, quince coloured fields and plane tree lined avenues helped us along, but I was relieved when we stopped. Suddenly, a social dilemma popped into my mind.
“Hey, guys, what are your budgets? We’ve stayed in some quite nice hotels, are you set on albergues?”
No one it seemed, was happy to slum it, my young friends having done well for themselves. We booked into a pretty hotel and everyone actively sought out the bar. The others seemed happy enough getting to know each other and desperate for a few quiet moments with my old friend, I offered Keiran a hand stowing his bags. When we got to his room, I’d only managed to pour a glass of Rioja before he enveloped me in a bone crushing hug.
“Ah, Bodie, sure it’s good to see you, so it is! Did I say that already?”
“Yeah, once or twice, Keiran.”
“Ah well, it deserves to be repeated, so it does, I just can’t believe that we’re all back together again here in Spain, isn’t it just great?”
“Sure is, my friend and it’s even better now David’s here with you.”
“Ah yeah, he’s a fine fella.”
“Worth all that waiting and searching then?”
“Oh yes, and you’ll know that I’ll always thank yourself for making me wait and search, Bodie!”
“Oh, poppycock! You’re a sensible enough bloke, well for an Irishman at least, you’d have found your own way sooner or later. All I did was voice an opinion.”
“Well, you’ll still never have to buy a beer for yourself all the time you’re in my company, Bodie. And what about you, did you ever get any more of your Camino memoirs published?”
“Nah. My niece got all the pertinent bits and the best of the photos, the rest I just wrote for myself really, so I wouldn’t forget.”
“You do know how much it meant to me reading the full version don’t you?”
“There’s only a handful of people I’d let do that, Keiran and to be honest, you’re the only one of them that showed any interest in doing so.”
“Well I was more than interested, Bodie, it was your writing that gave me the inspiration to start The Wandering Warden and now I’ve got all these followers that I never would have heard of if it wasn’t for you. I looked up your old agency by the way, on The Google. Even nowadays, there aren’t many results to be found on there about it.”
“There might be in another ten years when they next declassify a bunch of files, but to be honest, it’ll all sound so mundane by then that I doubt anyone would bother to look up my old mob at all.”
“Oh, I will, Bodie, I’m thrilled to know a former CI5 agent! That’s not the reason I was so touched to be allowed to read your manuscript, however. How is Ghost Ray?”
“Oh! Well, he’s just fine, mate, thanks for asking!”
“Is he here now?”
“Um … yeah, he’s just behind you as it happens, sticking his big nose into our conversation!”
“Can he see me?”
“Oh yeah, he doesn’t miss much does my Ray!”
“Can he … can you … can you get him to do something, so that I know he’s here, so I can say ‘hello’ perhaps?”
“Oh Keiran, if you could only see the look on his face! I think he’s telling us he isn’t a performing seal and has no wish to be treated like one.”
“Oh! Oh my God, Bodie, I’m sorry, I certainly didn’t mean to offend him!”
“Oh, don’t worry yourself, Keiran, he can be an ill-mannered ghost at the best of times, take no notice. Raymond my sweet, should it please you to alert my good friend Keiran of your presence, then let it be so!”
For a brief moment, nothing happened, but suddenly, the glass I’d filled threw itself onto the floor like a suicidal lemming.
“Oh you annoying little sod, why didn’t you knock over the empty one?” I disclaimed in mock annoyance.
Keiran was spellbound, however.
“My God! That glass … we were nowhere near it! There’s not even a breeze, it just upped and dropped itself onto the floor, Bodie!”
“Well, you did ask! Ray might be bad tempered, but he rarely backs down from a challenge, even now!”
“Do you often ask him to do things like that? I mean, can he? Are you allowed to ask even?”
“No, I don’t tend to. He saved my arse a few times when I first walked the Camino and he helped me find the letter he wrote, but generally, I think it takes all his energy just being around. I don’t ask anything from him except staying and I don’t really know if I’ve got the right to ask for that.”
“My God, I didn’t really know if I believed, or was just humouring you, or just wanted to believe, but, oh bloody hell, Bodie, he really is here isn’t he? God, I wish I could see him like you can!”
“So do I, Keiran. I know he must like you, he doesn’t smash things for just anyone you know!”
Keiran went to the bathroom in search of a toothmug to replace the shattered wineglass. Ghost Ray gave me the merest hint of a wink before puffing out his chest like a watchful stallion. Smiling, I leant back on the bed and waited for the show.
“Bodie I don’t know if your fine wine is gonna taste as good out of this thing, but…”
Keiran suddenly dropped the toothmug, which thankfully, bounced.
“Oh, sweet Jesus, Mary, Joseph and all the saints in heaven it’s you! My God, Ghost Ray, I can see you!”
Keiran rushed forward to embrace my better half but of course, met only cool, fresh air.
“Bodie, this isn’t a ghost you’ve got yourself here, this is an angel! Your Ray is an angel and he’s been kind enough to show himself to me!”
“Steady on, Keiran. Ray Doyle’s rarely been likened to an angel before and it’s a bit late to be doing so now. I think it’s more to do with you than him that you can see. It’s all about believing as far as I know. I’ve met one other seer so far on this trip and to be honest, it scared me to death at the time, but I’m gradually getting used to the idea. Don’t ask me the rules though as I haven’t a clue!”
Keiran wouldn’t have been interested in rules if I’d been holding him at gunpoint and I remembered with pleasure the first time I’d been granted the miracle of seeing Ghost Ray myself. Mindful of my dear friends’ astonishment, I reached for his wayward toothmug and filled it for him, to the very brim. When Keiran was finally calm enough, we re-joined the others in the garden. I was fascinated to hear their news, quite assured they’d be bored to death by my own.
“So, David, from religion to retail, how did that come about?”
“Ah, Bodie with a little bit of luck and a whole lot of elbow grease! When the seminary decided I wasn’t quite what they wanted, I suddenly had to rethink my career. There were a few teachers in the family and my mother suggested it might be something I’d like, so I enrolled at Saint Patricks in Dublin which was miles away from where we lived. Anyways, to top up my funds, I replied to an ad for a shop assistant. The old guy that ran the place couldn’t pay much, to be fair, he never sold much, but he had a spare room that was mine for the taking. It was only a bus ride away from the college and every hour I wasn’t at school, I worked in the shop. Old Mister O’Kelly had all but given up to be honest, his heart had gone out of the business with the death of his wife, but he knew no other life so he kept plodding on. When your man Keiran here found me on the Facebook, he said to me, ‘David you’re happier here at work in the shop than you are pushing pencils in college’ and he was right. I loved the shop and I didn’t love college, so I asked O’Kelly if he’d sell me his shop.”
“Wow, you bought your own shop?”
“To be honest, Steve, the sum I offered was almost an insult, but O’Kelly had no dependants nor owed any vast sums of money, all that he wanted was a place to retire, so he lived alongside us ‘til the day that he died. Keiran and I were together by then and determined to stay so. When his dear mother passed, Keiran sold up her cottage which gave him some cash which was all that he needed to make his proposals.”
“And what are these proposals of Keiran Nash,” asked Dieter, riveted.
“That he make me his husband and his business partner, which he did in short order. I don’t think your man Bodie there had had a night out ‘till he’d been to a gay wedding in Dublin!”
“Oh, don’t remind me, I still wince at that hangover now!”
“Oh, it was a grand night though wasn’t it, Bodie? Anyways, with Keiran’s provision, the shop turned around and became the goldmine I knew it could be.”
“What do you sell?”
“Well, Steve, the inside sells all that a good grocer should, anything from papers to poteen, but it’s the outside that brings in the hoards. We fixed up the barn which had leaked like a sieve and filled it all up with animal feeds. The horsey set will come from miles away to buy gear for their ponies and we didn’t stop there. We supply everything from chicken meal to collars for dogs.”
“It’s great to hear of someone succeeding in retail, the internet has shut up so many shops as I know only too well.”
“Ah, Steve, we’re that lucky with our supply and demand. The internet’s all very well, but not much help for the guy who wants two bales of hay or one dozen eggs.”
“Plus, by doing our business with those who are local, we can keep prices low and keep produce fresh. Your Tescos and your Lidls might sell cheap eggs but our eggs are laid on the same day they’re sold. Quality and convenience go a long way in a place such as ours, so as David says, we are very lucky. If you ever find yourselves in the area, please make Wicklow Country Stores part of your visit!”
“And talking of dog collars, it would seem that you’ve made peace with that God of yours, Keiran.”
“To be honest, I never really fell out with Him, Bodie, just the agents who’d have me do his bidding. ‘Tis true once I quit the seminary, I didn’t set foot in a church for a number of years, but one day, just after we’d married, I found myself wandering into an Anglican chapel. It was far removed from the church that I knew, but there was familiarity there, the smell of the place, the feel of the books, it beckoned me in like a home I had lost. I started attending some services with David’s blessing and soon was involved in its day to day business. I guessed God couldn’t think me that much of a bad guy if he’d found me a husband and a good living.”
“So they gave you a job?”
“They voted me in as a warden, Bodie. I don’t get paid and must be re-elected each year, but so far, they seem happy enough to keep me. Most important is they show no interest in who shares my bed. It’s just my own little way, of thanking the God who bestowed upon me the riches I cherish.”
“Plus the chapel gets lots of internet airtime when Keiran posts his ‘Wandering’ blogs.”
“Oh yes! The Camino gave me a real thirst for walking! We have plenty of staff who can manage the shop and try to get away at least twice a year to walk around somewhere. Some of the places we came upon were so very beautiful, it was a shame to not share them and somehow, with a little jiggery-pokery, ‘The Wandering Warden’ webpage was born!”
“It was sad you were judged for who you had loved, I too know of this pain.”
“It was a fact of life for many years, Dieter. Things are getting a little better now, I think.”
“What about you, Dieter? Is some special young man now sharing your life?”
“Oh no, Bodie, I live with my girlfriend! She would be here with us but is taking exams. She is the same as me, an architect!”
“Bloody hell, when did all this happen? You can’t be an architect surely, you’re far too young!”
“This is the truth, Bodie so I tell you what happens. I live with Hilde for one year and then Hilde gets the job with the ice hockey team. She does not want to have the apartment anymore so I want a new mitbewohner.”
“Oh sorry, Calisto, how do I say this, um … a boarder?”
“Yes! This is it, Bodie, I need a new flatmate! The girl that replies to my sign is from Sweden. Her name is Ines and she studies architecture. When I see her work, her beautiful drawings, I know that it is what I want too, so I change my class. I am very lucky though as after three years, I get in the job. I still have another two years of study, to get all the qualifikationen, but I learn with the job. Suddenly, I have lots of money and Ines and I can rent our own haus.”
“All that and you had to learn Swedish?”
“Ah, Schwedisch is a terrible language, Bodie, so we speak in English until I can do it.”
“Do you see anything of your father, now?”
“No, but I do see my brother. He was the pride of my father, but then he got sick. He got, how do you say it, the canker ?”
“Yes, he got the cancer in the bones. He cannot run after this and my father does not love him anymore.”
“Bloody hell, Dieter, your father sure is a piece of work!”
“This does not matter. I have no longer my father, but I have my brother and I help him with his medizen bills. I have my beautiful Ines and we have our nice haus. I earn lots of money and one day we will be married.”
“And what’s this I hear of an ice hockey team?”
“I take it you’re talking of me, Herr Bodie?”
“Well If I might, Fräulein Hilde?”
“I see an advertisement in a magazine. It is for the therapist of the national men’s team of Germany. I apply for the job and they like me, they want Hilde and Hilde wants them. It is a lot of travel and the work is tough, but it is the job of my life.”
“So you’re happy?”
“Oh yes, I am happy. It is sad to leave Dieter but he is content in college and we talk on WhatsApp each week.”
“Wow, all my young Camino buddies all grown up and made lives for themselves! I’m so proud of you all, much more than you know!”
“But what about you, Bodie? You helped all of us when we once walked together. Are you happy?”
“Um … yeah I guess I am, Dieter. I wanted this chance to see all you guys, to walk the last stretch to the end of the world. That and the future health of my loved ones is all that an old man could possibly want.”
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste…
I hadn’t thought about those old words in years but they drifted through my mind as I woke from an uncomfortable rest. Simple sentiments made on a photocopier and put into a Woolworth's frame before eventually being bought from a junk shop by Ray Doyle for fifty pee. He’d never spoken about its significance, but the picture frame had survived all of his moves until it landed itself upon my bedroom wall. I’d always disliked the poem for the images its discovery had evoked, but I’d learned the words by heart over the years, even if my increasing age was gradually squeezing them from my memory.
I’d slept badly, waking up with a headache. Seeing Steve looking pensive was hardly a cure. I washed and dressed, wishing for once, I could push other’s problems aside. It seemed everyone was waiting for me and when Hilde aimed a sour look in my direction, I quickly readied myself for the off. It was a pretty walk. We passed plenty of hórreos, some far more ornate than the one I’d once slept in, crossed over bridges, some little more than a series of stones and looked over fields, some that surely went on forever. Places of habitation were few and far between so the rare roadside snack bars were very much welcomed.
After a rest stop, Hilde walked alongside me. Though I would have preferred to keep my own company, I felt too polite to say so, listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story, echoing through my mind.
“So, Bodie, do you give up so quickly today, or do you wish to get some good ground covered, for this walking is so easy!”
“I thought yesterday you said we have plenty of time to get to Finisterre?”
“And we do, but where is the challenge in quitting so early?”
“I didn’t arrange this trip as a challenge, Hilde, I just wanted one last chance to meet up with my friends before death!”
“Now you talk like a blödmann again! Do you know what I say to the senior players on the team? We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing!”
“That sounds very much like George Bernard Shaw to me.”
“Oh, really? What team did he play for?”
I gently shook my head and dropped back, reminding myself avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit.
Hilde was right about one thing however, the walking was easy. Within such a large group of people, I hardly noticed passing Arzúa, the place I’d thought that we’d stop. It was a busy, rather soulless town and I was quite glad not to be staying there. My carelessness however, was later to prove a hard lesson learned.
The difference between town and country was remarkable. Though there was an increased number of pilgrims on the trail, they didn’t equal the huge amount of walkers I’d come across during the holy year of 2010 and the rural paths brought a sense of tranquillity. Signs on the road proclaiming Santiago to be less than fifty kays off kept our spirits high and no one seemed to notice the distance we’d covered. We walked through paddocks and glades, through dark, twisty forests, over slick tarmacked highways and still, we walked. We saw the occasional house and the occasional shack but saw no discernible places to stay. As we passed through A Rúa, I knew I was done, though everyone else appeared to be fine.
“Hilde, I’m sorry, but I have to stop soon, bloody hell, we’ve been out here for hours!”
“Ah, you are moaning again, Bodie! Soon we reach O Pedrouzo and there we stop. Calman has already booked the hotel and there you can rest and moan all the night!”
I was astounded we’d travelled so far. We’d trudged for nearly eight hours, the furthest I’d walked in nearly six years. In typical Calisto style, the hotel was exquisite. It didn’t come cheap, but I couldn’t care less, feeling so damned exhausted, I felt I could die. A hot shower, hearty meal and copious wine went some way to restoring my equilibrium. Fearing the worst, I sat next to Steve.
“How’ya feeling, mate?”
“Oh brilliant, Bodie! God, that was a walk, we’ve sure earned our beds!”
“Oh! Oh well, that’s … great! It’s just you didn’t look too chipper this morning, I was worried about you.”
“Yeah I was a bit down.”
“The old worries?”
“Oh nothing to do with all that, it was just seeing your friends.”
“Why, don’t you like them, did you prefer it when it was just us three?”
“No they’re great, they just make me feel so bloody inadequate!”
“How can you say that when you’ve just walked for eight hours?”
“They’ve just all got such wonderful lives! They’ve no money worries, not a one of ‘em and they all seem to enjoy life so much!”
“Oh, Christ is this place a bit too pricey, Steve, you shoulda said, do you need a sub?”
“No and thanks, but that’s kind of the point, Bodie. When I got my payout, most of it went on dealing with bills and then funding prosthetics. This trip is using the last of that money. If I have any left, I won’t get my benefits. It’s a sorry thing that all that I strive for is getting my benefits!”
“So why don’t you work then? These kids might seem to have it all now, but God knows, none of them have had it easy!”
“I guess I just wondered who on earth would want to employ a one-legged guy on the wrong side of forty.”
“Let me tell you, my friend, if you can walk todays distance, it’s not your leg holding you back but your head. What would you like to do?”
“Well, I did have a thought, though please say if it’s daft…”
“Well, some of my money was spent on a car. It’s not a hot-rod or anything, but it’s adapted for me and would be ideal to teach other people to drive in. I could get qualified to train as a disabled driving instructor for less than five hundred quid, maybe work for a firm and if I liked it, set up a business? I mean able-bodied men are more than capable of doing the job, but I wondered if I might be some sort of inspiration to people wanting to learn. So what do ya think?”
I was astonished at Steve’s suggestion, ashamed at myself for writing him off.
“I think it’s a fucking fantastic idea, Steve!”
“I first researched it a year or so ago, but a woman like Laura, well she’s not gonna want some deadbeat drawing the dole is she? She texted me today. She’s still in Santiago, hoping we might catch up. She’s gotta leave by the next day as her house sitter’s visa runs out.”
“Are you saying you want us to get to Santiago by tomorrow, Steve?”
“Would it be a problem, I mean today’s walk was amazing!”
“Oh, yeah, it was amazing all right! Okay, we’ll get you to Laura as long as you promise me that you’re serious about getting your shit together!”
Steve happily bounced off on his expensive leg and I was the last one left gazing over the darkening waters of the turquoise pool. My calf was near killing me. My head ached and my feet throbbed but it was my leg that was causing concern. As I bedded down in my beautiful room, Ghost Ray looked on with concern. I somehow knew that for once, there was nothing he could do for me. He’d watched my back for years but in our current states, we both had to bow to the inevitable. I imagined taking his hand and somehow fell into a troubled sleep.
Always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself…
I woke to the sinking knowledge that I’d promised Steve we’d reach Santiago before the end of the day. It wasn’t a terribly long walk, four hours or so at most, but I couldn’t quite imagine getting out of bed if I was honest with myself. Finally the lure of strong, hot coffee dragged me up and I washed and dressed determined to get any physical activity over with as soon as humanly possible. The rest of the group shared an excited anticipation I just didn’t feel. For me, this trip had always been about completing the last part, the journey to the end of the world and I wondered with dawning dismay if I’d even manage that.
I set out, knowing that places to stop were behind us and for the briefest of moments, envied my friends. Steve with only one leg, now walked like a champion. Keiran and David who only went hiking a few times a year, treated the thing like a stroll in the park. Cal, Hilde and Dieter, with their youth and their beauty, could never imagine the pain of old age. Were it not for my Ghost Ray, stuck fast by my side, I may well have sat down and started to cry. Trying to take on my own sage advice, I decided to get my shit together and ignoring the pain in my leg, put my best foot forward.
Though the walking was pleasant, the trail was busy. Our days of solitude and peace were long gone, excitable pilgrims shattering the quiet with their catcalls and whistles. I couldn’t blame them. I’d once known the thrill of entering Santiago de Compostela for the first time myself. As we trudged into town, all I now felt was a sense of relief. The hotel we booked into was far removed from The Parador, but was clean, efficient and possessed my dearest desire, the most fabulous beds. I didn’t envy my pals as they went off to watch the Botafumerio ceremony. Tired beyond measure, I gazed into the eyes of the one that I loved. God, Saint James and all of the prophets, could never mean more to me than Ray Doyle did right at that moment.
The following morning, Calisto roughly shook me awake.
It was devilishly hot even at that early hour, the humidity hinting that the rest of the day promised far more discomfort than my sweat laden sleep had brought. I imagined a cool, cleansing shower and some rich, hot coffee, but there was no time to waste, we had a schedule to keep and Calisto was pissed enough already. I’d already pushed his patience too far and there was no point crossing him before I had to. He was no more than a jungle rat and there was no reasoning with him when he felt he had a point to prove. I looked out over the shimmering dawn. There was no sign of Ghost Ray and I felt a moment of panic at his disappearance. Franky and Tub looked on with nonchalant interest.
“Lost something, Bodie?” Tub sneered, “Oh, I think he’s missing his little bum boy, Franky!”
“Oui. I too would miss such a fine spécimen, but sadly for Bodie, Doyle’s gone far far away, somewhere where Bodie can’t even touch him never mind fuck him!”
I ignored the pathetic fools, rapidly splashing my face with warmed, fetid water and throwing the last of the stewed tea down my throat before the shout from our C.O ended my ablutions.
“You men! We leave now!”
Hilde was not known for her patience and hoisting my backpack, I readied to go.
We made out on the trail to walk over tundra. The wind was so strong, it cut like a scythe. Wondering if the circulation to my feet would ever be restored, I was distracted by Major Nairn.
“Spunky girl that Kraut! You could do worse you know, Captain, she’s got more about her than that lanky streak of piss you normally hang about with, but each to their own I suppose!”
The sudden snowstorm so typical of the highlands in midwinter, softly masked the sound of the blast. I trudged on taking little interest in my surroundings, a bleak carpark containing blackened vehicles all long past their usefulness. I stopped for a breather, barely registering the man who prayed over his dead. The corpse possessed only one leg, its bloodied stump some distance away from the tangled wreck of metal that was all that remained of its blown away limb.
“I loved him you know! I loved David more than I loved God! Was I wrong? Is this my penance for leaving the Church? Did I cause Bloody Sunday? Was it all my fault? Well was it, Bodie?”
I turned away not caring. I only had a few days to reach Finisterre, the end of the world and had no time for distractions. George Cowley joined me as I marched along the grey London street.
“No one messes on our doorstep, Bodie. You’re a team like footballers are a team, first one there kicks the ball. The world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is. Where do you think I got this leg? Spain that’s where and that’s where you need to be. Now laddie, you’ve a boat to catch…”
As I wandered through the stench of the salted mackerel and diesel fumes that laced the Liverpool docks, a small child caught my eye. She was hardly old enough to walk never lone run, but her lacey white dress drew my eyes like a snowflake on the breeze. A woman suddenly clasped her tiny hand before addressing me.
“Don’t you think you’re a little old for this sort of thing? I’m clearly going to be the voice of descent, but in my opinion, three seven, you should be removed.”
The beautiful child suddenly spoke up in a surprisingly loud voice.
“Rubbish! It’s always us isn’t it? You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here!”
Her face would break many hearts in the years to come, with eyes the colour of sapphires and skin like warmed terracotta and I was utterly transfixed.
“My daddy will wake you up now and bring you back to where you need to be, uncle Bodie.”
I rose from the dream as Calisto gently shook me awake, accepting the espresso he offered me gratefully.
“Good morning, Bodie, it is early yet, amigo, there is no hurry, but today we start our walk to Finisterre!”
“Yeah, we sure do, did Steve find Laura okay?”
“Oh yes, they are downstairs now saying their goodbyes. My guess is it that if he walks with a limp today, we should perhaps look the other way! And how are you, amigo? I was worried when you missed dinner. Are you feeling better after your long sleep?”
“Yeah, I am. I’m fine in fact!”
And I was fine. Satisfied, Calisto went off to book rooms for the rest of our trip and I sipped my rich coffee gazing out at the morning. From my upper floor window, I looked out over the rooftops, seeing the cathedral spires standing proud in the distance. It was indeed, an incredible day and for once, I was itching to walk. Beside me, a serene looking Ghost Ray seemed to echo my thoughts.
I enjoyed a good breakfast before we checked out and after a last bow to the cathedral, we were back on the trail. Though his business was fitness, I wondered if Cal too, had disliked the recent long walks, noting the first hotel he had booked. We were bound for Negreira, just a few hours away. Of the seven of us, only Calisto and Kieran had trod where we now walked. Pleased with ourselves, a joyous atmosphere surrounded us, even the lovelorn Steve putting on a most happy face.
Once we were going in the right direction, the sounds of the city rapidly changed to the call of the country as we walked over gorse covered heathland. It was pretty countryside. We’d seen it of course, from the bowels of a bus which couldn’t convey the change we now saw. After leaving the busy metropolis, the end of many a trek, now we saw hardly a soul. We walked with ease, along chalky white paths, through woodlands and pastures, but met no other beings bar livestock and pets.
I was most surprised when we reached the hotel. The reduction in walkers also saw a drop off in rest stops and I’d yet to see a clear water font. Four hours had flashed by me and it was a thrill how a clear head and eager feet were a boost to the spirit. The place was maybe not the best that we’d stayed in, but boasted a hot tub that managed us all. As we relished the bubbles, my bath mate Keiran said a rather strange thing.
“Though it’s hopefully a far way off, do you expect happiness on the other side, Bodie?”
“I hope for it, long for it, friend. Whether I get it is anyone’s guess. After the life I’ve lived, I could be going up or down. As long as Ray’s with me I don’t really mind much which.”
“You’re joking aren’t you? You’ve your own guardian angel but don’t know where it is you’re going?”
“Keiran, me and God haven’t always had the best relationship. There were times I’ve asked everything of Him, yet I’ve given little in return.
“You believe though, don’t you?”
“I’ve really no idea, Keiran. I mean I prayed like crazy the time Ray got shot, but what saved him, my prayers or his surgeons?”
“Do you believe that we’ve all got a time and a place to die, no matter what?”
“Oh, absolutely. I think that’s why I must have lived this long, however much I want to be done with it all.”
“You want to die?”
“I want to be with Ray, be it upwards or downwards.”
“I think as one even partly qualified, I can safely say you’re on the upward spiral, Bodie, you underestimate the good that you’ve done!”
“Maybe Keiran, maybe not. Where do you think everyone else might have gone?”
We stared about the deserted pool, almost insulted that the others had found our chatter so boring that they’d chosen to leave. Wrinkled and chilly, we grabbed up our towels and made off for dinner.
Most walkers would naturally press on to Olveira, a trip of more than six hours, but once again, Cal had been thoughtful. He’d found us a place in Mazaricos which shortened the walk, but meant leaving the normal Camino trail. In true Cal style, not only had he booked us our rooms but downloaded instructions on how we might find them. It was almost eerie. Since Sarria, folks had been walking to get in their miles. Once we’d left the sights and sounds of the city, we’d seen very few walkers and now as we came off the Camino route, saw no one at all. Our detailed directions were remarkably good. Using windmills as pointers, we found a new trail, this one displaying little green men. Though I missed the gold scallops, the road was well marked, much as a footpath might well be in England. In fact, the whole place was very like home, vistas resembling the highlands of Scotland or the lakes in the North.
The hotel was certainly pleasant enough. Its newly decked rooms, overdone for my taste, were still very clean and comfy to boot. With sumptuous food, it hit the right spots. Though there were other guests, we were the only ones walking and I hoped the Camino magic would not be lost having left Santiago. After dinner, Cal Skyped the girls and Dieter called Ines. Keiran and David went off to bed early and Hilde, still a little bit huffy to not be in charge, cried off for the evening with one of her headaches.
I’d always loved twilight and there by the pool with Ray at my side, I marvelled how few times we’d had such solace since starting the trip. It was a most lovely evening. I looked to the skies to see stars being born. For perhaps the first time in my life, I was in a place that I’d never been in before and knew with absolute certainty, never would be again. It gave the night a sense of adventure and made me realise that the Camino magic would never be over. If I'd died there and then, I couldn’t complain.
I must have been spared, for the next morning, Calisto awoke me to greet the new day and our walk on to Cee. At just over five hours, Cee was a doable trek that promised our very first view of the coast. The scenery we passed as we made our way through, was subtly fluid. One moment, I might have been back in the French Pyrenees, another, out on a golf course in Surrey. I must have felt well as the walk was no effort, the time flying by like a leaf on the wind. Finally, nature played tricks on our eyes as what seemed to be clouds, emerged as the ocean and I saw the sea for the first time in weeks.
The place Cal had found was simply delightful, but once we’d checked in, we rushed for the beach. I still found it hard to think of those with us denied of the thing. I found it harder to think that for much of my life, I’d never missed something I now took for granted, but there was something about oceans that made me feel whole. Ghost Ray was ecstatic, splashing about like a spirit demented and I saw how much he was missing his home. We all messed around, playing chase in the shallows, ‘til tired and hungry, we turned for our digs. As I bedded down, I let out a sigh. The following day would be my last one ever of walking through Spain, of that I was certain. Before us lay the End of the World, Finisterre in all its beauty. Lying next to my loved one, I let my eyes close.
Cee was a sprawling fishing town which took a while to walk through, though nobody minded. The final stretch to Finisterre would only take us a couple of hours and we were all conscious that the journey was ending. We left Cee’s outskirts to be plunged once more, into the windy wilds of the countryside. Again, the scenes changed from fern laden forests to wide open hill tops and the sea was never far off as we clung to the coastline. Finally, the signpost announcing our arrival loomed before us and from a high point, we got our first glimpse of the lighthouse.
“May I make a suggestion?” Cal suddenly asked.
“I think that you should, you have proved a very good tour guide,” Hilde graciously replied.
“Obrigado, senhorita! Well I think we should spend some time in the town. When you see where we’re going, you probably won’t want to walk back here again.”
“Why, Cal, where on earth have you booked us?”
“Ask me no questions and I tell you no lies, Bodie!”
So, we spent a few hours just wandering round, enjoying the sights and the sounds of the sea. It was all quite different from the last time we’d been there, brought in by bus on a cold, rainy morning. Now the sunlight bounced back off the shimmering water as we viewed the small boats which bobbed in the harbour. We enjoyed cold San Miguel in the heart of the town before Calisto revealed just where we were headed.
“Okay, meus amigos, there is no point getting too restful, we have one more, short walk and then we will be there!”
We rose as one to take our final steps to the end of the world. How Cal did it, I’ll never know, but somehow, he’d reserved the most southerly place Finisterre had to offer. It boasted only five rooms and he’d nabbed them all, perfectly happy to share one with Steve. Sat next to the lighthouse, it’s position was perfect and I couldn’t imagine a more fitting place. The hospitalera and her welcoming staff couldn’t be kinder, greeting us all with a glass of champagne. After dumping our backpacks and taking our showers, we met on the terrace and ordered our wine.
“So, everyone, have you all enjoyed this mini Camino?”
“Oh yes, Bodie, it’s been just grand to meet you guys again and a sheer honour to meet Calisto and Steve!”
“Thankyou, Keiran, it was also a pleasure for us to meet you and David. When will you go back?”
“Ah well, Cal, we thought about maybe walking back up the coast to take a nosey at Muxia, but we’ll see how our heads are. We might well just jump on the bus and go back with you’s. Somehow, it won’t be the same if we’re not all together…”
“And how about you guys?”
“Tomorrow, Calisto, me and Hilde come with you in the bus to Santiago, we get in a train to Atocha and then we part the ways to go back to our homes.”
“So what’s the first thing you’re all gonna do when you are back home?”
“Ah Bodie, knowing our luck, David and I will be ordering pig feed! I’ll also update my blog and look through all the wonderful photos you’ve sent me and put some in a scrapbook.”
“I will be checking on my team. They have had too long now without Hilde to take care of them them!”
“I will cook a good dinner for Ines. She will have had her exams and will need to be loved.”
“I’ll be phoning Laura to check on our date!”
“And I, dear Bodie, will kiss your niece and our beautiful daughter, as I dare say you will do too!”
I was so pleased for my friends and not for one moment, would have altered their plans if I’d had any choice.
After a sumptuous meal, we went to view the sunset from the lighthouse. The scallop marker pronouncing zero kays brought a pang to the heart, but it was too pretty an evening to be feeling sad. Below us, the wild goats and rabbits scrabbled around in the dimness and above us, the stars started to shine.
We’d done it, my friends and I. We might not have quite walked five hundred miles, but we’d walked to the End of the World which was all that now mattered. As a seventieth birthday celebration, all in all, it hadn’t been a bad party. I lay down to sleep, absently scratching my leg.
On the very last day, I woke at first light. I shifted in bed, seeming hindered by shackles. I looked down at myself, and to my surprise, appeared already dressed. The garments, however, were nothing I’d packed. The dark corduroy trousers stretched over my thighs, gave me the waist of a much younger man. My neckline was swathed in the oddest material, silky black stuff that tickled my chin. The finishing touch was a stiff leather jacket that creaked when I moved and resembled a shark. I struggled up in my cumbersome outfit, to search out my Ghost Ray and shake off the dream. Leant over the sink, I assumed he was shaving, but as he turned round, I noticed his beard.
“You woke up at last then?”
Something wasn’t quite right, but I didn’t know what. This Ghost Ray looked older. His hair was still long, though frizzled and grey. As thin as a rail, all his muscles were gone. Strong arms that had once punched me flat on my face, now hung like the twigs of a dying old tree. Skin once the hue of mature honeyed wine, was now the colour of glacial ice. It was the voice though, that foxed me. The accent was somehow still faintly apparent, but Ray now spoke with a resonant tone as if age had lengthened the cords in his throat. With a deep stab of panic, I suddenly knew what was so very wrong. Since the day that he died, Ray Doyle hadn’t spoken. He’d broadcast his feelings in hundreds of ways, but Ghost Ray had never once uttered a word.
I needed to seek out the rest of my friends. I didn’t care for this dream and I craved the normality others would bring. I looked at Ghost Ray as I raced from the room. He appeared to be aging in front of my eyes, but the more that he crumpled, the more I desired him. His depletion seemed only to add to my vigour and I hoped I could keep my erection unseen.
As I rushed down the hallway, I slid to a halt when I came to a mirror. I viewed my reflection, quite stunned at myself. I’d never much thought I was anything special, but with hair so black and a figure so straight, I had to admit, I was rather a looker! Thrilled with myself, I flipped up my collar, as proud as a peacock and as cool as James Bond. As I sauntered outside, I knew things weren’t right. The day was exquisite, with a blinding hot sun beating down on the terrace, but my eyes were confused by the colours they saw. Ray Doyle might well be the artist between us, but even I knew the grass shouldn’t be pink nor the sky above, black.
I ignored my concerns, eager to show off my natty new clothes, but to my dismay, my mates were so angry, they blanked me completely. So shocked was I to see discord amongst them, I forwent my preening and sat down to join in. It was all quite distressing to hear what they said.
“You should have known, how could you not know he was so ill, you are supposed to be his relation!”
“You’re supposed to be a medic and you didn’t know! And it was you that pushed us to walk those really long days!”
“In the defence of Hilde and Calisto, Bodie appears to be well for all of the walk. Perhaps he does not choose to say he is krank?”
“Dieter’s, right, guys. I’ve walked with Bodie for a couple of years now and all the time he was helping me get used to the false legs, he never once complained about his own discomfort.”
“He was well enough when we left England! My wife and I wanted to throw him a party, but all he wanted to do was walk to Finisterre with us all to celebrate his setenta years.”
“Look, guys, there’s no point arguing amongst ourselves over this! Bodie wanted to celebrate his seventieth by meeting us all and walking his way to the end of the world. He was certified fit by his doctor, but then he got on a plane. You heard what the hospital said, it was a blood clot and flying causes that kind of thing! All that I know is, he would have died happy.”
“How can you know this, Keiran of Dublin?”
“Because, my dear lady, he’d done what he’d wanted to do. He met with his friends and he walked and he laughed, he ate and he drank and he cared and he cried and he walked on some more to the end of the world. He brought us together, new friends and old. Now he can join with the one that he loves.”
“If you are saying that Bodie chooses death, Keiran, did he choose to leave my dear Gabriella?”
“Calisto, we can’t choose our time, but can choose to accept it. We all have each other now because of him.”
“Keiran’s right enough. I didn’t know Bodie as well as him and God knows, I’ve no love of the church, but might I say a just few words of remembrance for him?”
“Why not, feel free, David!”
“Thankyou, Steve. Bodie, be gentle with yourself. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune, but do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. The universe is unfolding as it should. Be at peace with God whatever you conceive Him to be and keep peace with your soul.”
My friends were all a bit quiet after that and all in all, I felt rather pissed off. I’d never actively craved attention for all that my various personas might have suggested, but to have people talk about me as if I was invisible was the very limit! I looked around wondering if there was anyone more deserving to talk to. The blood red sun was hurting my eyes so I got up and walked toward the snowy white ocean, just beyond the hotel.
The sight which awaited me, snatched at my breath. Ghost Ray was waiting. God only knows what he wore as it didn’t hide much and he seemed to have regained his beautiful youth. I briefly wondered if I’d once again age but couldn’t care less upon viewing his transport. It was years since I’d last seen a Ford Capri S. How I’d ever driven one safely was anyone’s guess and the Government’s purge on elderly vehicles had ensured that most had been crushed into dust. The sunlight belied the true colour of this one. It was somewhere between Strato Silver and Tibetan Gold and I just itched to sit in its low laying seats. I looked back at my friends. They were a mere breath away but the car was much closer and I looked to Ghost Ray as to what to do next. Once again, he was achingly clear.
“It’s time now, Bodie, you know it’s the time. They’re all young and their lives must go on. This is your time, you’ve known it for years. I know how scary it is after all we’ve been through, but it’s such a small step. All you must do is get into the car.”
I looked back to the terrace knowing Ghost Ray was right, though the truth of his words froze the blood in my veins. No grey leather jacket could comfort my friends, they had their futures and I now had mine. I suddenly knew that they were my past and my heart nearly burst, so great was the sorrow. I’d faced death so many times, with agent four-five closely watching my back. He was watching it now as always, he would.
“All you must do, Bodie, is get in the car. It won’t hurt, I promise. I know that it’s strange and I know that it’s hard but they can’t grieve until you are gone and we can’t pass over until it’s your will. All you must do, is get into the car.”
I knew Ray was right. I’d lived far longer than I’d had any right to and the only dream I’d ever wished true was being with him forever and ever. I couldn’t fight destiny and with Ray by my side, realised I didn’t really want to. With a last look at those that I’d cared for, and I’m sure the faintest ghost of a smile, I stepped into the car and drove into the light.
The Road to Finisterre – The Final day
As always, Dear Reader, thanks for your many kind comments on this mini-series. I will get down to uploading the rest of the pictures at some point, but I hope you’ll excuse me breaking with tradition and making this post a little self-indulgent, just this once.
We’d enjoyed a wonderful few days of walking and finally reached Finisterre, before tragedy struck when one of our number sadly passed away.
I first met ‘Bodie’ on my original Camino adventure way back in 2010. Like many others undertaking the pilgrimage, I was at a crossroads in my life at the time and hoped the long walk may help clear my head of the clouds that were gathering within it. Walking nearly a thousand kilometres gave me sore feet and not much else, but meeting William Bodie sorted out my head like no amount of walking ever could. A few wise words from him helped set me on a path that lead me into the life I live now, one of deep joy and fulfilment.
I didn’t even walk the entire Camino in the end. An injury picked up just before León forced me onto public transport all the way to Palas de Rei. It was there that I was finally able to catch up with my friend once more, (Bodie was a FAR quicker walker than me!) I’ll always consider that strained ankle a gift from God for the chance it gave me to meet up with Bodie again. I hope it explains to all of you who’ve asked, why we started our walk to The End of the World in such an obscure place.
W.A.P Bodie led a full and eventful life. He walked the Camino Frances well into his retirement and completed it in very quick time taking no rest days at all. A very frank journal of his days on The Way inspired me to start this blog. Although not as fast as once he was, Bodie undertook the walk to Finisterre at 70 years old. Though pronounced fit enough to undertake the challenge, (he started his stage in León), he suffered a catastrophic thrombosis in his sleep, a sleep from which he never woke. My thanks go to God that my dear friend didn’t suffer any pain. Bodie was repatriated to the UK to be laid to rest alongside his beloved partner of many years, his one true wish.
Thanks so much for reading, I hope to bring you happier news in my next post when we consider where to walk in September.
Buen Camino, Bodie
Keiran Nash – The Wandering Warden