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?
1. It is less crowded, only 10-15% the number walking annually.
2. There is less competition for sleeping places each night despite there being fewer accommodation possibilities
3. It is prettier especially through the Aubrac plateau and overall the first section to Cahors
4. It is physically more challenging
5. The path leads through private vine yards and farms, it is often more intimate and personal
5. More of the little churches and chapels are open
6. Sorry Spain, the food generally is much nicer
7. Superior wine, especially in Gascony and not discounting the fine reds of Rioja (my apologies to them all)
8. Some days in summer you will not see a single other walker
9. Because of the smaller numbers, the whole 734 km feels less ‘commercial’
and less driven by the ‘Camino business’
10. Many of the villages are charming – again, apologies to the fascinating villages in the Montes de Leon
Both are great, my personal preference is the Via Podiensis and, of course, the crossing of the Pyrenees.
Remember Anika and Tom? You do? It has been only one month since I wrote here of their adventures, it seems longer than that as I have been busy on other tasks.
Both have been walking the Camino, they have met and (like in the Hollywood classics) have agreed to meet in a year. No contact during the year, no plans, they will find each other for true love always finds a way.
Back in Australia, Tom is gathering information on pilgrims dying on the Camino in Spain and on the Chemin de Saint Jacques in France; in fact, some 10 or so people are known to die each year walking or cycling to Santiago, there may be more that are not recorded, and there are plaques here and there to commemorate their lives and deaths. This has always been a reality on pilgrimages, more so in the past when illness was rife and banditry a constant danger.
Now Tom is returning to Europe to cross the Pyrenees on commission and then to walk from Le Puy en Velay to Saint Jean Pied de Port to gather more information re peregrino deaths and, of course, to meet Anika on 22 May.
He has decided to write a novel about love and death on the Camino as a cover for his research on the personal tragedies of the dead pilgrims. Yes, there is some old fashioned post-modern reflexivity at work as I write a novel about a guy writing a novel. Do not to be alarmed, there will be no linguistic tricks or theorising, it is simply a device for Tom possibly to earn some money (he has no source of income) and to put a little distance between him and the realities of pilgrims dying.
Back in Brunswick Tom researches the deaths of pilgrims walking or cycling the Camino in the last decade and discovers a spike in deaths in the last two years. Moreover, the deaths occur at certain times and in certain sections of the Camino or Chemin de Saint Jacques in Spain or in France.
Tom finds no obvious explanation for the spike in numbers and for the location and timing for the deaths, though he can sense a pattern.
Tom writes a poignant piece about the deaths, combining the scant facts, with a dash of poetic licence, for a major daily paper and, for the first time, receives an income! Maybe his fantasy of earning a living from writing could come true.
He then blogs about the deaths of pilgrims and allows himself some speculation on what is happening and why. The response to his blog is astonishing. He is inundated by conspiracy theorists with wild explanations and hints of dark secrets. There are references to the Knights Templar, always good for a conspiracy theory, and there are even wilder ideas about the church and religious curses and hidden treasures which to Tom’s mind, are nonsense. He has uncovered a world previously unknown to him and in his innocence and with his philosophy training he is tempted to answer and have a rational discussion. Wisdom prevails and he stays silent and eventually withdraws his blog entry.
Then there is an amazing development: Tom is commissioned by a magazine to walk and write on the Via Podiensis in France! More money!
Tom agrees and decides that while undertaking his journey he will see what more he can learn about pilgrims dying on their way to Santiago.
If only he knew where his investigations would lead him!
It is as if Lucy has stepped out and is expected home any moment, for Tom has changed nothing in the house since the day of her death. It is a shrine to her memory.
Her clothes hang in the wardrobe, her shoes remain lined up in their grey wooden rack and her perfume and cosmetic bottles hold guard in the bathroom. The book she was reading lies open on the bedside table on her side, the one closest to the window overlooking the rear courtyard, and her iPad lies, battery flat for many years, on the dressing table where oft she sat and did her makeup while he watched and they talked of the day.
He has moved her bike from the entrance hall, but only to bring it upstairs to his study so that he can gaze upon it as he writes.
Tom knows it is all a bit “Miss Haversham”, but has rejected the pleas of his friends to change. He has no heart for it.
Tom is not mad. He knows the boundaries. He has not clothed her dressmakers dummy and danced with it at night, nor does he set out meals for her each day.
If, however, he can bring her back to life through the strength of his love, what might making a shrine achieve?
Now, after meeting Anika and returning home to Brusnwick, Lucy persuades him that it is time to change. Baby steps maybe, but steps all the same. The photos on the stairs walls they will not touch. The photos on the bedside tables they will not touch, nor her perfumes or the half empty bottle of her shampoo in the shower.
He does agree to donate some of her clothes to charity and to give away her shoes and collection of her trademark cloaks to a vintage shop run by Clarissa. He keeps her dresses with special memories and the crimson shoes she wore the day they wed, reluctantly agreeing to move them to the spare room.
He feels empty afterwards and barely listens when Lucy whispers that next he must rearrange the furniture and throw out the old fashion magazines still cluttering her work table, scissors and tape where she left them that last morning of her dashing out with a kiss and a wave and a slam of the rusty gate.
One step at a time.
1. Not every walker is a pilgrim.
2. Not every pilgrim is a saint.
3. The one pebble on the path will always find the tender part of your sole.
4. The other side of the path always looks smoother for walking.
5. Not every albergue is a heart of camaraderie and communal food and wine.
6. Not very hospitalero is a welcoming and generous host.
7. Not every local inhabitant is enamoured of peregrinos.
8. No path is ever truly flat or straight, regardless of what the books or maps may say.
9. Not everything that happens on the Camino has meaning, let alone is a sign or a miracle.
10. Anything can be interpreted as a sign or a miracle if this is what you desire to see.
You take yourself with you when you journey and it is the journey and not the destination which is important. Unutterably banal, true nonetheless.
Anika is walking in long summer twilight, pacing out to the old ruined church and back through the village to the cluster of houses high in the fields and farms to the east of Ovraby. She sends startled hares running and catches a glimpse of a deer and her young.
She ponders possibilities, future scenarios of this woman from a foreign land living in this small community: never quite belonging because she is a foreigner and yet almost accepted since she married a Swede and speaks Swedish fluently. She is inside and outside, belonging and not belonging and feeling this is a metaphor for her life.
Will she become the local eccentric living alone, not perhaps with a cat, but still a figure of curiosity and sorrow?
Will she stay the tragic figure who lost her husband and chose never to love again? Who chose to remain childless and alone?
Will she stay on the track which presently runs her life and be the successful career woman travelling to and fro, retaining her house in Ovraby though rarely seen and become a figure of envy and respect amongst the village folk?
Doe she have the courage to roll the dice with Tom, that lost soul from the other side of the world who still speaks with the spirit of his dead wife, for Heaven’s sake?
Tom completes his pilgrimage in Santiago and attends the traditional and, for many, emotionally compelling pilgrim mass in the cathedral.
Personally I was unmoved by the experience, albeit I was interested in the rituals and the profound effect on members of the congregation.
Now I admit that I am teasing because I do not wish to give the plot away too much and want you to read the entire novel in a one night sitting, unable to tear yourself away even for a moment, when it appears.
Suffice it to say here that Tom has met the man whom he holds responsible for the tragedy of his life and who is waiting for Tom in the cathedral and seeking absolution.
What is the personal responsibility for an unconscious action, a moment of carelessness which changes lives forever?
How do we forgive someone who has changed our life irrevocably?
How do we learn to forgive ourselves?
Why do we blame ourselves for matters when the rational part of our brain knows that we are innocent of any culpability?
Is it not fascinating how we constantly rewrite and reframe our pasts until we have a narrative which suits us and fits the person we have become: perhaps more accurately, the person we would have liked to become?
How will Tom respond to this plea for help?
What does Lucy think of Tom’s response to this figure from his past?
What has Tom learned from his pilgrimage walk?