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?
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!
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?
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.