Tom and Anika meet again in Conques in France exactly one year after they parted and exactly as they had promised. Their love has withstood its first test and it would be easy now to write a story where they stay together and live happily ever after; how boring would that be? As Tolstoy famously wrote [I paraphrase here] – all happy families are the same, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own distinct way.
The genre demands that our two lovers must suffer for their love as we do in the so called real world. They must be separated before they can consummate [delightfully old fashioned word, no?] their love and in Jane Austen’s world they must be kept apart until the very end through circumstance or that favourite device, ‘the misunderstanding’. Think Persuasion in particular where red blooded readers will be shouting ‘come on guys, get it together!’ but the resolution is deferred repeatedly.
So it comes to pass that Tom and Anika must be plucked apart; as luck would have it, Anika receive news that her father in England has had a heart attack and she must leave Conques and fly to England that very day.
Mere hours after being reunited, Anika is in a taxi to Rodez airport and Tom is left bereft in the village.
Will they never be together?
And how is their romance linked with the mystery of the pilgrim deaths?
Tom learns bizarre details of two pilgrim deaths on the Chemin near where he is currently walking. The deaths had been almost an intellectual puzzle to solve, now they take on a grisly reality.
The bodies of two elderly female pilgrims have been found in nearby villages, meticulously posed on the steps of little village churches in positions of prayer. It is as though they have fallen asleep and been taken by the angel of mercy whilst in the act of prayer; calm, meditative expressions on their faces and no sign of struggle or harm. No sign of violence and one could be simply the death of an old pilgrim struggling to reach the church for succour and shelter; two deaths the same is stretching coincidence too far.
Nobody except Tom seems to know or to care.
What is he to do?
Readers and friends have asked me to ‘explain’ Lucy and that is to try to explain the unexplainable.
They ask ‘is she a ghost?’
If so, does she have an existence and autonomy of her own?
How does she come into being?
Has she power over the living?
You will recall that Lucy is Tom’s dead wife whom he has brought back into existence ( I did not use the word ‘life’ ) from the extremes of his love and his grief. My personal belief and experience is that such appearances in bodily form, call them spirits or ghosts or whatever, are entirely of our own making and have no independent existence. They cannot be seen or heard by others and can ‘influence’ the living only through dialogue.
Lucy is a projection of Tom’s emotional state; if you like, she is his alter ego with whom he converses and who guides him. He trusts her and relies upon her as he did when she was alive and in my novel she guides him out of his grief and towards the light and the future.
Tom knows what he needs to do, but needs to hear it from her as part of his journey out of sorrow and guilt towards happiness and self-forgiveness.
What greater love could there be?
Tom begins his commissioned walk from Le Puy en Velay to Saint Jean Pied de Port, the 734 km journey which I undertook in 2013 as preparation for this novel.
In 12 days time it will be one year since Anika and Tom parted and agreed to meet again in a year.
The two have had zero contact in the last year.
Much will happen to our hero in the 12 days until the two lovers are supposed to be re-united.
The weather is bad on the Aubrac plateau; snow and sleet and wind churning the path to mud and ice and few are walking in such wild weather.
Tom travels through the forests near Domaine du Sauvage and learns of the deaths of two pilgrims in the woods. A few days later he hears of the death of a third pilgrim and what was abstract when read on a computer screen becomes real as he walks the same paths upon which they walked and died and hears their stories from the locals.
The reality of the deaths is heightened by the drama of the wild weather and the handful of scared pilgrims huddle together as news of the dead pilgrims spreads along the Chemin.
In the midst of the fear and of the rumours, Tom is astonished to meet Charo, whom he had met previously when crossing the Pyrenees on another day of wild weather and who had told him a bizarre story of an elderly pilgrim ‘vanishing’ near the ancient monastery refuge of Roncesvalles: intriguingly, there was talk of Anika accompanying the woman before she died.
What is Charo, a most unlikely pilgrim, doing walking the Chemin alone?
Is it a coincidence that she has met Tom again?
Will Tom lose faith that he and Anika will meet on their anniversary (how? where?) and instead be tempted by the attractive and flirtatious Charo?
How and why are the pilgrims dying?
How can Tom combine solving the mystery of their deaths with writing his novel about their deaths?