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.
we need to talk
I’ve met someone else
I’m going back to my boyfriend, I still love him
we’re letting you go
I regret that your application has been unsuccessful
your manuscript does not fit our schedule at this point in time
the tumour is unusually aggressive, sorry
mummy and daddy are getting a divorce
missing in action, presumed dead
I’ve been expelled/suspended
your final appeal has not been successful
sorry, no vacancies
there seems to be a problem with your credit card
we are not hiring at this time
there is nobody here of that name
I love you
Mother and baby are fine
There is no sign of the tumour, we don’t need to see you for six months
I’m coming home
We’ve found your daughter safe and well
The war is over
We loved your manuscript and will send a contract to you shortly
Unicorns and dragons are real
We find you not guilty
Parole is granted
Sold to the man in the third row
I changed flights, I was not on that one
I can feel a pulse, she’s alive
And they all lived happily ever after
Having used the Austen device to tear my lovers apart, it is time to use that old standard in mysteries, namely, the RED HERRING. Heaps of them!
By the way, from whence comes the term ‘red herring’? Someone out there will tell me.
So, for those who have been paying attention (thank you, thank you!) who are the obvious red herrings upon which suspicion may fall for the deaths of the pilgrims?
Now that we see a possible religious theme and the playing out of a macabre ritual through the placement of corpses on various church steps and patios, who is our most likely red herring candidate?
Given the usual twists and turns of mystery stories, will one of the aforesaid herrings actually be the killer?
Will it be like ‘real life’ where there is rarely one truth? Don’t be alarmed, I am not going post-modern on you (in any event, so passe), but it may be that there are competing truths….
Oh and to make it clear, I am going to be a complete rat and not give any answers. I do want you to read the book when it does appear – no holding of breath though 😉
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?
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.
Eventually the pieces fall into place. Mel recalls some story of Ralph leaving Iraq in hush hush circumstances and DI Kate and her team track down the truth. Jean in a previous life was a Sobranie Black Russian smoking temptress working undercover for MI and she has more to add to the story. Jeri and Jean are cleared. Bruce is eliminated as a suspect and now only a few of us are left as ‘persons of interest’. Investigations continue around the clock ( as all good police enquiries should do). Will is cleared, to Kate’s immense relief ( for there is love in the air).
Finally the breakthrough! There is a connection of names, dates and places between Ralph and one of the group and after hours of intense interrogation David cracks and confesses. Yes, David killed Ralph!
It is me! For it is Ralph who was responsible for my young brother’s death years ago in Iraq, the victim of a covert US operation gone dreadfully wrong. I could not believe my luck when I heard his name on that first day in Saint Bees; to have him before me and I simply had to wait my chance to perform the deed. I never wanted to kill sweet Maggie and smart and funny Matilda, but I had no choice. They got in the way. Collateral damage, as they said of my brother.
Ah, cruel twist for all such stories have a twist at the end. I have killed the wrong man! It was Ralph’s crazy twin brother who was responsible, not the poor innocent man I murdered! Ralph had not even seen his brother for years as he is a survivalist hiding out in the remotest part of Montana.
There is one final twist, for such stories always have one twist just when you think you have seen the last one. Bruce and Denise worked out long before DI Kate that I was the mad murderer and, under the pretence of offering me kindly morning cups of tea, have been systematically poisoning me with foxglove. Oh unhappy me!
I finish my tale and as the pen falls from my hand and the coldness enfolds me, I have a vision of the group completing their walk in Robin Hoods Bay and returning home without a backward glance to my lifeless body and of Kate and Will in the year ahead, raising a family of little adventurers in the wilds of the Antartic.
Thanks to a wonderful group for being such good sports and fine walking companions who allowed me to pen and disseminate this bit of fun. Thanks guys!