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…
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.
Tom is on the Camino, walking and talking with his beloved Lucy and, spoiler alert, we soon learn that she died five years ago and that Tom, immersed still in his well of grief and longing, keeps her alive as his spiritual companion.
Tom is not crazy. He knows that Lucy is dead. He has chosen to manage his grief by keeping the memory of Lucy alive in his own way. She is his companion.
Anika, whom Tom has not yet met, has chosen to deal with a similar situation by grieving for a time and then burying it unresolved. Naturally such intense emotion will burst out in extraordinary ways and so it does with Anika. But that is far In the future.
We all live with memories of joy and sorrow, of regret and remorse. Some of us may turn these into ghosts, knowing that they are projections of us.
And yet may they have a life independent of us?
And this takes place on the Camino: what better place for such powerful forces to play out, a place steeped in memories and hopes and experiences of redemption, of miracles and of simple second chances.
Or pure good luck, which can happen anywhere.
A few days ago I ambled down to the village square and saw some people whom I had met earlier on the Camino and they invited me to join them for a drink.
The following conversation too place; I am the respondent.
Which route did you take today?
What do you mean?
The high or the low?
Well, what did you see?
It was remarkable, I saw no other pilgrims all day! Where were they all?
Was it steep?
Yes! It was lovely and so isolated.
Okay, so you took the high route which is much more difficult and we went the low way.
Oh! Well, it was beautiful.
Didn’t you see the directions at the turn?
At the roundabout?
Long story cut short, I had missed the decision point and taken the perfect alternative and had a wonderful day. I would love to say this happened because I was lost in contemplation of the meaning of life or a deep literary problem, but it is untrue.
I feel sure this must be some metaphor for life.
Or pure serendipity, bless it.
I know I should be a better person. I am not.
These things should not touch me. They do.
First, mountain bikers and cyclists who speed down narrow paths with no warning until they shout “buen Camino” in your ear as they dash pass. How about ringing your bell or calling out first? Yes, this occurs all over the world wherever cyclists and walkers share the path and no doubt we annoy you too as we wander like a herd of cows. But …
Second, Walkers who, when they are fatigued, let their walking poles drag clattering on the ground making a peace-breaking racket through village or country. Pick them, Carry them, use them properly.
Third, Walkers carrying poles who decide to fossick in their bag or take off their jacket or look at their guide book and wave the poles backwards or forwards at 180 degree angles, imperilling anyone near them whilst they do it.
End of vent. Balance is restored. Just a bit of etiquette is all.
If this is all I can grumble about after 1200 km, well it isn’t much.
Let it go, I hear myself say.
I shall do better tomorrow.
I am not a religious person and have little patience with “the church” as an institution. My pilgrimage walks of the last three years have been born of spiritual and literary yearnings, not from any religious motives as they would be commonly recognised.
And yet I have found churches grand or small, famous or obscure, fine places of sanctuary from thunderstorms, rain, heat and as perfect for moments of reflection on what. I was doing wandering alone for 1,000 kilometres in foreign lands. Nothing new in this, but it reinforced for me the historical role of churches as places of sanctuary for all.
One day, struggling in heat and extreme humidity with no soul seen all day and no hint of shade and a blister forming, I dreamed (I cannot say prayed) for a place to sit out of the sun and protect my foot before real trouble set in. I came across a tiny chapel seemingly disused and amazingly (I cannot say miraculously) open and I sat and repaired my foot and pondered on what I was doing and why and after 30 minutes I was ready to plough on for the remaining 20 kilometres.
A small incident and a profound one for me which opened my mind and now I seek out these little places and reflect on those who have sat there before me.