She came to my house last night, uninvited, unwanted, unseen. Fifteen years gone. The moment I opened the front door, I sensed her presence as the faintest trace of perfume of a long ago lover. Graveyard chilled yet unable to turn away, I entered and followed her trail up the stairs, the marks a phosphorescent glow in the dark where she had stopped and run her hand along the bannister, touched her photos on the landing and hesitated by the painting. Our painting, that day at the beach.
The air tingled, vibrating like a high voltage power line as I followed her scent into my study, the buzzing deafening where she had opened my latest book and dropped it at mention of Anna, fleeing from my new life. The trail vanished at my bedroom door, as though she had not dared to enter what was no longer hers.
An unquiet soul on unfinished business.
I walked back downstairs, scared, cold, hair bristling and at the same time, entranced as I had been for so long by her. In another place, in another life. I turned on the lamp from the old house, lit the oil burner with her favourite, sat and waited. Listened to our music.
She had loved me, hated me, loved me, died.
The journey to forgiveness is long and hard.
The journey to self-forgiveness is without end.
He was so cold and alone and her gaze so fixed and he could bear it no longer.
He reached out to her and took her hand and she gave that slow half smile he remembered and embraced him and once more they walked hand in hand as they had done in another life as the dawn light grew stronger.
There had never been a choice since the day he first saw her in her navy blue silk dress and she laughed and said ‘I always fall for the wrong men’ and his world tipped over and was never righted until this moment.
He woke and saw her standing by the bed, staring down at him. What did she want from him? She had been dead ten years and still she came and watched and waited.
Her gaze was steady; he yearned to reach out and take her hand, yet knew instinctively that to do so would be his own death. Nor did he dare to close his eyes.
Why did she visit him every night? What was she seeking from him or trying to tell him? He had done his best. Nobody blamed him, not to his face at least. What else could he have done? The alternative had been unthinkable and what would it have changed?
Would she have lived if things had been different between them that day?
She gazed at him, unwavering, expressionless, the dark eyes he could never forget. The room grew cold. he wanted to reach out and hold her, it was ten years too late.
She faded away, to reappear the next night and every night until finally, in the pre-dawn light, he did what he had long known was the only way out.
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 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?
In May/June I plan to walk the Camino section between Pamplona and Leon, thereby completing my journey from Le Puy en Velay to Santiago over the last two years. Echoing in my mind is the editor’s question of what motivates people to undertake these long solitary walks along the old pilgrimage trails, especially when I told her that my [probably crazy] next idea is to walk from Canterbury to Rome, the old Via Francigena. I could only reply that my motives mirror those of my hero in my novel-in-progress: redemption, forgiveness, reflection alone in silence and, of course, writing and the sheer challenge of putting one foot after the other for days and weeks on end. Plus meeting intriguing characters who come and go and who all have their own stories which we writers plunder for future use. It is difficult to put into words, but perhaps a key motive is that it forces me to see and to experience everything at a slower pace. Nothing happens fast and my senses operate in ways they never do in city daily life.