This the name which both Tom in my novel and I in the world of walking and writing have given to a man whom I met on the Chemin de Saint Jacques in France last year and who I have fictionalised for the purposes of my novel.
Let me tell you first how I met him in July 2013…
I was walking in Southern France in July, hot and unrelentingly humid all month and no wonder that I saw almost no other walkers after Cahors.
I met him on a lonely track, dressed in what looked like monk’s clothing but which I suspect was simply an old cloak, with a stained and battered canvas bag slung painfully across his shoulders on a wooden stick. He wore old fashioned sandals and walked slowly and unsteadily, yet I saw him day after day until we lost contact.
He said nothing. He glared at me whilst I, in my normal way, nodded politely and said ‘buen Camino’, the traditional form of address.
He did me no harm and in times gone by perhaps he would have been seen as a prophet, a Biblical figure returning from the desert with truths and revelations.
Was he truly angry? Distressed? Lonely? Seeking or holding a truth? I know not, but I have taken this striking figure and embellished him for my story so that he can play a role as Tom strives to uncover the mystery of pilgrims dying on the Camino in circumstances increasingly curious and disturbing.
Now place yourself in the misty mountains past O Cebreiro, one of the highlights for me on my journey across France and Spain.
Anika is in Ovraby (or is she?) and Tom is continuing his pilgrimage to Santiago after they have parted in Astorga with a commitment to meet again in one year. Remember?
He arrives at the famed Cruz de Ferro high in the mountains of Leon with the fossil he has carried with him from Australia and which he will leave at the cross as tradition demands and as his heart desires. It is a moment long anticipated, albeit he has never been able to explain to Lucy, whose spirit walks by his side, what he expects from the action. He is disappointed with the banality of the site; the milling crowds, the noise and the incessant snapping of photos for Instagram or Facebook or whatever. He drops his fossil on the pile of stones and flees.
We do not gain self knowledge or become reconciled by following the crowd or performing rituals simply because others do and certainly we do not attain forgiveness, let alone self-forgiveness, through placing one stone on top of another.
Lucy knows this.
Tom will learn this.
Confession time: I performed the same ritual with the same result two years ago.
I am in Ovraby in Southern Sweden for mid summer in the very village where our heroine Anika lives in the dream house she built with her beloved Anders before tragedy struck.
That tragedy and the aftermath has driven her to the Camino where, you will recall, she has recently met Tom from Australia and where both are trying to come to terms with the past and to believe in a now and a future.
We are in a typical small village, maybe thirty houses with no shops or other services or facilities and where neatness and control and good appearance may hide many a secret. I am not staying in Anika’s house, but the one I have chosen for her is not so far away and fits perfectly with what I have in mind for her.
Mid summer is over, the usual mix of cloud, scudding rain and lovely sunshine plus the maypole at the old mill and the ebb and flow of friends and strangers coming together for a day and a night.
Tom has returned to Australia and they have agreed to meet again in one year.
Will it happen?
I did not meet the woman of mystery or if I did, I was not paying attention at the time. For three evenings the thunderstorms threatened, but did no more than that. Nor have I yet met a mad monk, though I did encounter a woman when I stopped under rare shade to rest, talking to herself and, unaware that I have a knowledge of French, muttering to herself in French as she looked sideways ‘What does he know? What does he want from me? Why is he here?’. I departed, anxious not to distress her further.
For a day I walked with a person and as is common on the Camino, we told a little of our stories and I divulged that I was writing a novel set on the Camino.
Lo and behold, for the next week I have been met with the comment ‘Oh you’re the guy writing a novel!’ followed by regaling me with humorous yarns of what had befallen them on the Camino and exhortations to include them and their anecdotes in my novel. My reply that I was writing of love and death, not of what happened at dinner last night, invariably was met with the reply ‘put it in anyway, people will love it.’
Sorry guys, your stories will not be appearing. You will have to write your own.
Oh and I am now in Mansilla de las Mulas and things are heating up between my hero and heroine as they begin to learn of each other’s tragic histories.
Keep watching this space!
The editor told me that my novel draft is Gothic in many of its elements, so I guess I should have foreseen this eerie development.
My hero Tom dreams in Burgos of the woman who will be his lover.
In Burgos I dreamt also; but it was of a faceless pilgrim monk standing by the side of my bed and it was one of those curious waking dreams.
Tom walks the Meseta two days later from Castrojeriz to Fromista pursued by the threat of thunderstorms which did not eventuate.
Today I walked the Meseta from Castrojeriz to Fromista under the threat of thunderstorms which did not eventuate.
Certainly. Yet in Gothic novels nothing is coincidental.
My question is: if life continues to follow art and one becomes the other, when do I meet my woman of mystery on the Camino?
Or must I meet instead the truly Gothic crazed pilgrim?
Let us see what tomorrow brings…
Nothing was said between them as they had their first encounter in a moment of high drama in the ancient Camino hamlet of Hontanas on the famous Meseta, where I passed by some hours ago.
The stage is set.
Where next will they meet?
Soon, very soon.
I never saw it, I never heard it.
Then the spots appeared and the swelling down my right side, including my foot, this being a problem when I am hiking 6 hours per day.
I limp off to the pharmacist who confirms that it is an allergic reaction to a mosquito bite and is so impressed she calls her colleagues and encourages me to take off my shirt so they can peer and all agree it is a mosquito.
I had suspected a food allergy or maybe the industrial waste looking soap I had used at the last albergue, so this is actually a relief diagnosis.
I am given medication with strict instructions to stay out of the sun and to avoid alcohol.
I am walking the Camino in early summer and have no chance of keeping out of the sun; Tuesday onwards is the meseta and forecast high twenties every day with no shade.
And no alcohol? I compromised and had only one glass for the next two days.
Anyway, I have made it to Burgos, have met lovely people and have only a first world mozzie bite to complain about.
Such is life.
I only wish I had a photo of the mozzie who did it, splattered on a wall.