Click here for a PREVIEW
Read Chapter 1
For a moment Beth thinks she is back in the hospital, the bed is hard and there is that constant undercurrent of people murmuring and the noise of doors opening and slamming shut. She opens her eyes, and blinks, trying to take in the surroundings. No, not the hospital, now it comes back to her. She is in Spain and she is on her own; for the first time in her life she is travelling alone. There is no Joe to accompany her, to laugh and joke and make the journey easier. Where is he today, she wonders. What is he doing? A wave of bitterness hits her and she can feel the bile churn in her stomach. He is probably busy with the bloody Test Match, as usual. She sits up and looks around her. The room is spartan, clean and freshly painted; the floor is tiled in black and white squares. She is on the bottom bunk of one of two sets of bunk-beds that are cordoned off from the rest of the accommodation by a couple of partitions, one on each side. The man in the bed next to her is already up and dressed; he is lacing his boots, carefully winding the cord around his ankle and tying it in a double knot.
‘Hi, hope I didn’t disturb you,’ he says with a lazy smile. ‘I want to get off early, before the hordes.’ He has an American drawl.
She realises it is barely dawn, yet, just out of sight, people are already moving, stretching, coughing and making those early morning sounds that are so universal.
‘Not really. It sounds as though everyone is already awake so I might as well get up as well,’ she replies.
‘You’ll see, it’s better to get on the road at first light; it’s cooler for a start.’
‘I’m not tempted to lie in, anyway,’ she tells him. ‘This bed is as hard as a board.’
‘Not exactly the Ritz, is it,’ he says.
She watches him stuff his sheet and pillowcase into his rucksack, roll up his sleeping bag and strap it on top, then hitch the whole pack onto his back. ‘Buen camino,’ he says and is gone.
‘Buen camino, have a good walk,’ she hopes that will be true. Right now she has doubts about the wisdom of her actions. It had all seemed so straightforward when she was planning it at home. She and Joe were experienced walkers; besides walking the length and breadth of England over the years, they had spent hiking holidays in the Pyrenees, gone hill climbing in Wales and, before she became sick, had been considering walking in Nepal. So the Camino de Santiago had seemed just another trip, no more difficult than any other. The only difference is that now she is doing it on her own. She has been meticulous in her preparation, building up the strength in her legs by walking ten kilometres a day and occasionally fitting in a longer walk of thirty kilometres. Sometimes she drove over to Exmoor and walked across the moor; on other days she walked along the coastal path or took the country lanes into Barnstaple. She feels ready for whatever this trip could throw at her. But there was one aspect to which she has not given much consideration: the fact that she might wake up in a room full of complete strangers.
It was not until she was on the bus, reading through the guide book about the pilgrims’ albergue where she was planning to spend her first night, that she realised that this converted medieval hospital offered travellers one hundred and twenty beds to choose from, all of them in a single, enormous dormitory. The thought of sleeping alongside more than a hundred other pilgrims filled her with an irrational anxiety. She is a light sleeper and so fastidious at times that Joe called her ‘the princess’ and not always in an affectionate way, either. She knows she often irritated him with her pernickety ways, like insisting that he and Luke drank their beer from glasses rather than cans and that he set the table with matching cutlery and not whatever came to hand. How on earth was she going to manage with the nightly grunts and snores of so many people around her, not to mention the smell of all those bodies in such close proximity? She had felt nauseous thinking about it and, if it had been possible, would have turned back then and there. But the bus to Pamplona only ran once a day so she had no choice but to check in along with all the other pilgrims.
They were all so young and enthusiastic; it had exhausted her just to look at them, with their gaudy, new rucksacks and clean hiking boots. As they strode along, their bright, eager chatter interspersed with the clicking of their poles on the asphalt road. There seemed to be so many of them, coming from all directions, as though all the youth in Europe were converging on the Camino de Santiago that autumn evening. No wonder the young man in the next bed wants to get off early, she thinks.
In fact, as she now realises, her fears about the hostel, or albergue as it is universally known on the Camino, were unfounded. She had barely noticed the young man last night, nor the occupants of the other two beds and, although it was not a perfect night, it certainly had not been bad enough to deter her from making the journey she has planned.
She pulls on her shorts, finds some clean socks in her bag and then puts on the traveller’s most important item, the boots. The boots are old and scuffed, but they are comfortable. She is a seasoned walker she tells herself; she has walked many miles in these boots, not hard walks, but she has put in the distance. Walking helps her to relax; it has a way of stopping her thoughts racing and her imagination tormenting her with bleak images of the future.
She steps out into the pale morning light; there is a slight mist that hangs damply in the air, causing her to shiver. She slips the waterproof poncho over her head and sets off, following the arrows that guide her on her way. They are numerous but seem almost superfluous, what with so many pilgrims all moving in the same direction. She joins the straggly procession of bright clothes, fluorescent jackets and shiny poles that, if seen from above, must create the impression of a long, multi-coloured snake, winding its way down the hillside. The pilgrims’ boots make a muted rumble along the cobbled streets like the growl of some mystical animal. Is this what she wants, she asks herself, to be just one more pilgrim in an anonymous crowd? Maybe it is. Maybe she can lose herself here amongst all these strangers.
She follows them to the edge of the town where some of the pilgrims have stopped to have their photos taken by a road sign that proclaims, almost with an inanimate glee, ‘Santiago de Compostela 790 km’. ‘Look how far it is, almost eight hundred kilometres. Will you make it?’ the sign challenges her. ‘Are you up to this challenge?’ She feels defeated before she starts and once again considers the possibility of aborting the walk.
‘Want me to take your photo?’ a young girl asks.
‘No thanks, I don’t have a camera,’ she tells her.
‘Well on your mobile phone then.’
‘No mobile either, sorry.’
‘No mobile.’ The girl could not be more astonished. ‘But what if something happens? What if someone wants to get in touch with you?’
She shrugs. She had heard the same argument from Joe.
The pilgrims are spacing themselves out now; the snake is breaking up into segments. Some walk in small groups, chatting, others in pairs and some, like herself, walk alone. All the advice she has read tells her how important it is to walk at her own speed; she knows if she tries to keep up with some of these youngsters she will soon be exhausted. She wants to pace herself; there is a long way to go: seven hundred and ninety kilometres, she reminds herself.
Soon she finds herself walking on a dirt road through damp woodlands where dark ferns cover the ground and squirrels dart from tree to tree and there, in the middle of the path, shaded by oak and elm trees, is an ancient stone cross, covered in lichen. This is the Pilgrims’ Cross, built to guide and protect the pilgrims and to purify the forest from evil. She is in the Sorginaritzaga Forest, the Oak Grove of Witches. Ahead of her, deeper in the forest, is the site of a witches’ coven. This is where, in the sixteenth century, the Catholic church ordered nine people to be burnt at the stake for witchcraft. She shivers at the thought and walks a little faster. This is the Atlantic Pyrenees, a softer, rolling landscape than its eastern counterparts. At first the walk is not hard, the path slopes downhill but according to her guide book, now that she has left Roncevalles the path will start its steady climb uphill until it reaches Alto de Mezquiriz, the highest point on this stage of the Camino. From there on, it will be downhill again, all the way to Larrasoaña.
Today is her birthday. She has not told anybody. There is nobody here to tell. She is fifty. Fifty years and what has she done with her life? My God, what has happened to all those youthful plans and ideas that she had? She had trained as a journalist and planned to be a foreign correspondent; that was her aim. That was what they talked about when she was at university. That was all she ever wanted to be. Most of her friends were in the English faculty but only a handful of them wanted to be journalists; the rest used their English degrees as passports to jobs in teaching, at the BBC or, in one guy’s case, with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She wonders what has become of them now? Have they made a success of their lives or are they, like her, bemoaning the fact they have reached their half-century without really achieving anything? And what of her? Instead of becoming the anchor-woman on Channel 4 News, she became pregnant and married Joe.
She is tired already and decides to rest. Thinking about her birthday has made her feel sorry for herself, something she tries to avoid. She knows there is no point in dragging over the past but it is hard not to.
She sits on a boulder by the side of the path and looks about her. Ahead she can see the gleam of the river Erro, as it snakes its way through the valley towards the sea. The path twists and turns down the mountainside but, apart from a splash of red in the distance, probably the last of the pilgrims disappearing from sight, there is no-one about. Despite the sun, which by now is climbing steadily higher, she feels herself shiver. Even on the moors she has never felt as isolated as this. She gets up. If she follows the path, it will take her to the river’s edge where she can fill her water bottle. Gingerly she makes her way down the scree-covered slopes until she reaches the bank. The river is fast-flowing and the water tumbles over the rocks, creating mini-waterfalls that sparkle in the sunshine; she crosses it carefully, hopping from one stepping-stone to another until she reaches the far side. The grassy river bank is dry and spotted with wild flowers. She sits down again, letting her rucksack slip from her shoulders onto the ground beside her. There is no-one about. A silence hangs in the air like a spell waiting to be broken. Without moving, she watches the fish, swimming back and forth among the shallows. A flash of iridescent blue catches her eye, telling her that her presence has disturbed a kingfisher. She waits and sure enough he returns; the prospect of a meal is too tempting for him and, almost before she is aware, he has caught himself a fish and flown away. The sight of this lovely bird cheers her and for no reason she finds herself smiling. It would be nice to stay a while longer and watch the sun continue its climb across the sky, pushing the early mist out before it, but she needs to get on. And besides which she is hungry. She has not eaten since the cheese roll she had on the bus, the previous night. She leans forward, dipping her hand in the river. The water is crystal clear and as cold as ice; it has come straight down from the mountains. Beth unscrews her water bottle and fills it. Then she splashes a little on her face and gets up.
The path carries on through leafy woodlands until it crosses a main road. Ahead of her she sees a church spire; she has arrived at the tiny hamlet of Gerendiain. Time to stop and have breakfast. There are some pilgrims ahead of her; possibly they have already made a stop and are now on their way again because they do not hesitate but stride purposefully through the cluster of houses. She wanders into what she assumes is the main square, a tiny area bordered by stone houses and finds a café. An elderly couple are sitting at one of the tables, their rucksacks and pilgrim staves at their feet.
‘Hello there,’ the man says. He looks like a retired schoolteacher, with his carefully combed white hair and round spectacles.
The woman looks at her and smiles. ‘You looked whacked,’ she says. She is eating a large toasted sandwich. The smell of the cheese is mouth-watering.
‘I suppose I am,’ Beth replies. She sits at the table next to them.
‘My name’s Jill,’ the woman tells her. ‘And this is my husband, Dennis.’
‘Hi, I’m Beth.’
‘Your first time on the Camino?’ Dennis asks.
She nods. She wants to attract the attention of the waiter, who is chatting to a group of pilgrims on the far table. At last she succeeds in catching his eye and he comes across. ‘One of those,’ she says, pointing to the woman’s half-eaten sandwich. ‘And a large black coffee.’ The waiter says something in Spanish, or it may be Basque, whatever it is, she does not understand. It does not seem to matter because he goes away and soon returns bringing her the sandwich and coffee.
‘This is our third time,’ Dennis tells her, proudly. ‘The first time we only did the last hundred kilometres but it was enough to get our certificates.’
‘We were still working, then,’ Jill adds. ‘We could only get a couple of weeks off.’
‘Now we’re retired we’re doing the whole thing.’
They are a pleasant couple but Beth does not really want to chat. She is hungry and tired. It is surprising how much the walk has taken out of her. She takes out her tablets and pops one in her mouth. Jill is watching her but does not comment.
‘The second time we did the Camino del Norte,’ Dennis continues. ‘We got the boat to Santander and walked down from there.’
‘Yes, but this time we wanted to do it properly,’ Jill goes on. ‘We’ve allowed ourselves two months, so we can do all the detours and everything.’
‘Going to go on to Finisterre afterwards too.’
‘Sounds good,’ Beth says. She is enjoying the sandwich and the coffee is hot and strong, just as she likes it. She feels her energy returning. ‘You feeling better now, dear?’ Jill asks.
‘Yes, I’m fine. I probably let my sugar level get too low. Maybe I should have had breakfast before I set off this morning.’
‘We always do. Good breakfast at six and then on our way,’ Dennis tells her. ‘Then a stop for coffee when we feel like a break.’
‘We like to take our time,’ Jill confesses. ‘After all, now we’re retired we’ve got time to stop and smell the flowers.’ She giggles. She must have been quite a pretty woman when she was younger, Beth thinks, looking at her upturned nose and almond eyes; now her skin falls in soft folds and fine lines criss-cross her neck. She is wearing a wide hat made from a bright yellow cotton; it casts a golden glow on her face.
‘Where are you heading for?’ Dennis asks.
‘That’s about another fifteen kilometres,’ he tells her. ‘You should get there in time for lunch.’ The waiter comes over and gives him the bill. ‘Well we’re off. See you in Larrasoaña, maybe.’
‘Yes.’ ‘Buen camino,’ Jill says, tugging her hat securely onto her head. ‘I’m sure we’ll bump into you again. You’d be surprised how often you meet up with the same people.’
‘Buen camino,’ she replies. She finishes her breakfast and pays the waiter.
‘You are inglesa?’ he asks her as he counts out her change.
‘Lots of inglesas walk the Camino,’ he says. ‘Now the weather is good. No rain.’
‘And not too hot,’ she adds, picking up her rucksack.
‘Good luck. Buen camino,’ he says.
‘Thank you.’ She sets off down the path after Jill and Dennis, but there is no sign of them now. She walks steadily for the next two hours, stopping only occasionally to refill her water bottle from one of the many fountains on the way or just to sit and listen to the skylarks for a moment or two. She thinks of what Jill said about having time to stop and smell the flowers; if this trip is to make any difference to her life she has to learn to do just that.
As she approaches Larrasoaña the countryside becomes more cultivated and she is walking through pastureland, dotted with herds of grazing beef cattle. A pair of buzzards circle high above her, disappearing and reappearing as they fly up above the clouds. They remind her of home. For a second or two her eyes fill with tears as she thinks back to the days when she and Joe would walk on the moors, listening to the mewing call of the buzzards circling above them. How she had loved him then.
She and Joe had met when she was working for the Bideford Gazette, her first job, straight out of university and starry-eyed. Joe, older than her and incredibly handsome, was already an established journalist, writing the sports column for the Gazette and freelancing for a range of other papers. She fell for him straight away. It was hard not to. He was tall and broad-shouldered, a very macho man with a natural designer stubble, no matter how often he shaved. It was not only George Michael that could make her heart flip in those days, Joe had sex appeal and more. But it wasn’t just that she loved him, she admired him too; he had it all: if not fame, then respect and recognition from his peers. He had what she wanted, a successful career in journalism. They lived together for a while, in a tiny fisherman’s cottage by the harbour. She remembers that cottage with affection because, despite the damp walls, the draughty windows and general lack of space, they were very happy there. She continued to write her column on local events. Every summer she attended garden fetes, writing up the winners of the lightest sponge cake, the best plum jam, the biggest marrow, the ripest tomatoes. Beth, together with the pimply youth the Gazette employed as a photographer, attended the local schools’ sports’ days, recording the winners of the egg-and-spoon race, the high jump, the long jump, and whatever other jumping competitions they did, went to gymkhanas, swimming galas and, in the winter, Christmas concerts. It was not what she had set her sights on but she had Joe and that was what mattered; she was happy.
She wipes her eyes with the end of the scarf that she has twisted around her neck and tries to smile. At least she doesn’t have to attend any more of those awful carol concerts. She gave up her job at the Bideford Gazette five years ago, when she first became ill and has not written a single word since then.
She checks the guide book. Ahead of her is the river Arga; so she is just over three kilometres from her destination. Unlike the previous river, the Arga is too wide and too deep to cross on foot but there is a narrow bridge spanning it, which according to a painted sign on the bank, has been the crossing point for pilgrims since the fourteenth century. As she steps onto the bridge, she cannot escape the sensation that she is following in the steps of a long line of pilgrims, stretching back for centuries. All who crossed here would have had their problems, their hopes and dreams; many would have been hoping for a miracle; some would have been seeking forgiveness. For an instant she sees herself not as a lonely individual but as part of a long tradition of pilgrims who have passed here before her. She stops and looks up at the sun. She knows it must be almost midday but having no watch and no mobile she has to rely on the movement of the sun to give her some idea of the time. This is a new concept for her; she has always worn a watch and been tied to some timetable or other. Working with the newspaper there were deadlines to be met, appointments to be kept; everything, whether work or leisure, was noted in her diary and adhered to. The alarm clock woke her every morning and the clock in the lounge advised her when to go to bed. If the batteries ran down they were immediately replaced; she was never without some means of telling the time. Now all she has is the sun. She would never have believed how liberating it could feel to be free of time. It is as if, by leaving her watch behind, she has also left her troubles behind her too. Logic tells her that this is not the case, they are not gone, just suspended for the moment but that is enough to make her feel different. Already she can sense her cares slipping away; one by one she sheds them, like the skins of an onion.
It is well after noon by the time she arrives in Larrasoaña. The first albergue she stops at is full but the owner directs her to another at the far end of the town.
We’re always the first to get full,’ he tells her. ‘That’s why we put some extra mattresses in the barn. You’re welcome to one of them if you want.’
‘No, I think I’ll try the next place. La Posada you said?’
‘Yes, that’s right. You can’t miss it; it’s just past the main square.’
The walk through the town is pleasant: everything is clean and sparkling in the afternoon sun. The smell of baking bread floats out from a baker’s shop, reminding her that it will soon be lunchtime. From one of the numerous small cafés and bars there is the smell of something tasty cooking in garlic and herbs; Beth feels her stomach rumble at the thought of food. As soon as she has checked into the albergue she will come back here and eat. It seems that Larrasoaña, although small, has always been an important stopping place on the Camino; there are shops selling all the provisions that a hungry and footsore pilgrim might need and souvenirs for tourists who have wandered into its path. Beth notices the shape of a scallop shell carved on a pillar and stops to touch it. As she traces the grooves of the shell with her finger she understands why it has been adopted as the symbol of the Camino. The grooves, converging in a single point, are a clear metaphor for the many routes that lead to Santiago de Compostela and also, for that matter, to God. That is what they say. That is what the pilgrims believe. So they wear it as a badge. The Spanish even use the same word for pilgrim and scallop: peregrino.
As she walks on, looking for La Posada, she sees that the symbol is everywhere in this small town. The ubiquitous scallop shell is carved into the walls of buildings, alongside the armorial shields of long forgotten families; it is displayed in windows and painted on signs; it is carved on plaques that decorate the walls. She stops to look in a shop window; here there are posters of it and racks of postcards depicting the pilgrim’s staff and the scallop shell to send home to family and friends; there are facsimile scallop shells to tie onto your staff, stickers to attach to your rucksack and even tee-shirts emblazoned with the emblem. It does not seem to matter that the pilgrims are easily identifiable by their clothing, their wide hats and walking poles, they are expected to wear the badge of the Camino as well. Oh well, people have to make a living, she tells herself. It is not far to walk but by the time she arrives at La Posada, her back is aching from the weight of her rucksack and her calves hurt. It is time to rest; she has been walking since early morning.
‘Buenos días,’ she says to the concierge. She pulls out her phrase book and reads: ‘Me gustaría un habitación. Soy peregrino.’ She shows the woman the pilgrim’s passport that she got in Roncesvalles; without it she would not be allowed to stay in the hostels.
‘Muy bien,’ the woman replies, taking the small booklet and stamping it with a rubber stamp. ‘Follow me.’
The albergue is clean but the rooms are small and crowded; there are three sets of bunk beds in the room she is allocated. All the beds have been taken except one, the one by the door. She claims it for herself and sits down on it. All of a sudden she feels exhausted; she cannot face going out again into the town to eat. She has some bread that she bought in a previous village and two slices of cured ham; this will do her for lunch. She eats a little of the ham and then puts it away; she is too tired to eat any more. She unpacks her bedding and makes up her bed then she stretches out. Well, here she is, miles from home. The first stage of her journey has begun. Despite her exhaustion, she feels a sense of achievement at what she has accomplished today. And tomorrow? What will tomorrow bring? Before she knows it, she is asleep.