“You’re doing what?” yelled Jack.
Tom moved the phone further away from his ear. “Walking the Camino. You know, the pilgrimage to Santiago. In Spain,” he repeated.
“You? You’re not a pilgrim… Tourist, yes. Pilgrim, no. Huh. So that’s what you’re going to waste your redundancy money on. You lucky beggar.”
“Anyway, I just wanted to know if you could look after Princess while I’m away.”
There was a long silence. Tom could almost hear Jack grinding his teeth.
“I don’t believe it,” Jack said eventually. “Look after that pampered moggy for two months? What about Ollie’s asthma? And Ben’s allergic to cats, or had you forgotten that as well as their birthdays?”
Silence. He’d hung up. Tom frowned at the phone. That was a nuisance. Now he’d have to grit his teeth and pay kennel rates.
Two months later, standing in the sunny glare of Hondarribia Karrika street in Irun, the memory of that phone call still rankled. Jack had been completely unreasonable. Tom had only forgotten his nephews’ birthdays a couple of times, or maybe three. And he couldn’t be expected to remember all their health problems, could he? He pushed it from his mind, looked around for a pavement café. After his croissant and café con leche he took out a few coins for a tip, hesitated, put them back in his pocket, muttered “blooming tourist traps!” and strode out of the cafe and onto his first mile of the Camino Norte.
Santillana was full of prettiness, cobbled streets, touristy shops and crowds. Tom treated himself to a private room in a Pension, with a balcony overlooking a field with quiet grey donkeys. He felt he deserved it, after fifteen nights enduring creaking bunk-beds in dormitories filled with chattering or snoring people, scattered possessions and damp t-shirts draped over beds, and too many experiences of trying to dry himself with an inadequate travel towel after a lukewarm shower.
After exploring the Collegiate Church he wandered the streets and dodged the tour guides. On impulse, he went into the tempting coolness of a shop selling huge local cheeses and over-priced chocolate, and trinkets with pictures of the town stuck to them. At the back was an intriguing collection of hand-carved old wooden furniture, and among the fret-worked stools and dusty chests the varnished oak of a staff glistened. It had a cockle shell attached by a faded red cord. Tom flipped over the price tag. Twenty euros, 19th Century it said. He could do with a walking stick, he realised, so he tightened his lips and haggled. Eventually he agreed to twelve euros when the seller told him that it had belonged to a monk, Father Grigori.
“A true saint, he was, he walked the Camino every year for forty-seven years, with that very staff,” she gushed in heavily accented English.
Outside the shop, Tom bounced the staff on the street. Its ferrule rang satisfactorily on the cobbles. The staff was warm in his hands and exactly the right height. His thumb rubbed a smooth spot on top where the monk’s own thumb must have rested. It was a good staff, he felt. Sometimes, over the next few days, as he followed other pilgrims along winding roads through green valleys, and climbed narrow paths by the sea and along the edges of rugged cliffs, with blue waves gently breaking on golden sands below, that the staff was leading him. As he wedged the ferrule into the tumbled stones of the path ahead he could almost believe that it knew the way to go.
He started nodding to other pilgrims as they passed him, saying ‘Buen camino’, and when he overtook others, always with a pale cockle shell attached to their rucksack, and frequently with damp socks pinned to straps and swaying in the air in time with their steps, Tom would say ‘Buen camino’ and feel slightly encouraged when they replied with a smile. He met up with a cheerful and garrulous Irish man on his fifth camino and, as the afternoon heat grew, they stopped in a bar for a beer. Tom hauled some money from his pocket but the Irish man put his hand on his arm. “Never you mind that,” he said. “I’ll pay. Tis been good talking to you.” Tom remembered leaving only three euros at the Donativo Albergue the night before, because it had lumpy mattresses, and regret filled him.
At the bottom of a deep, green valley, he peered through wrought iron gates, set in high walls, at the red corrugated roof tiles, the pale stone and the high bell-towers of an ancient oratory set in the grounds of a Cistercian monastery. He wondered about Father Grigori, and what ‘being a saint’ meant. He imagined a wizened man; poor, tonsured, peaceful; touching his shoulder, saying, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.”
Climbing out of the valley along a road steep and winding enough to test the toughest four-wheel-drive jeep, he had to stop to catch his breath. The rucksack felt heavier than ever. Tom had thought that after so many days of walking it would get easier, but the hills were getting higher and the distances longer. He unhitched the rucksack, gulped lukewarm water from his plastic bottle, leant on the staff and gazed at the wide view of forested hills and tiny hamlets. A old Spanish woman, with wellington boots and a faded apron, came out of the door of a nearby farmhouse, nodded at him and said ‘Buen camino’ before carrying a pail towards a dozen scrawny chickens scratching at the yellowing grass of a field. ‘Buen camino’ – good walking. Was it a good walk? What would make it a good walk? Tom was no longer sure that just scenery and paellas made a good walk. He heaved the rucksack back on his shoulders and trudged on. At the next hostels he started to talk more to the other guests, and asked them why they were doing the camino, and what did they think made a ‘good camino’.
On the high stretches of the Camino Primitivo, he had to admit that scenery did help make a good walk. He stopped, again and again, just to stand and look. As other pilgrims passed him, they would stand or nod, in mutual agreement. Tom could barely believe how lucky he was, with the weather, the opportunity, the magnificence. Jack would give his right arm to see this, he thought.
After two days in Lugo, walking the Roman walls and exploring the museums and shopped, he walked on. In the afternoon he came to a wayside chapel where some kind local had left packets of biscuits and flasks of coffee in the porch. Tom poured himself a cup, dropped some euros into the donation box, found the ‘sello’ and stamped his pilgrim passport. Then he dropped his rucksack onto a pew and sat by it, one hand holding the familiar grain of the staff, and gazed at the altar, the coloured and ornate figure of a saint, and at the blue-robed Mary, crowned with stars and staring upwards. He remembered Jack’s bitter words from the phone call, so many months ago, and his grip tightened on the staff. Other words came into his mind: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive others.” As he came out of the cool, candle-wax scented dimness the heat and light was like a slap on his chastened face.
In the shade of the tall, blue-green leaves of a eucalyptus forest, Tom suddenly remembered playing at sword-fighting with his brother, when they were ten or eleven. At the memory, he swung the staff around his head and twirled round. “Have at you, you villain!” he yelled and thrust the staff forward, then paused at the astonished look on the face of another pilgrim coming round a corner behind him. Reaching Melide a few hours later, he bought a postcard showing the walls of Lugo then searched out a post office and managed to buy stamps for the UK, despite his atrocious Spanish. In a café, he wrote ‘I’m sorry, Tom’ on the back of the card, used his phone to order toy swords and shields for his nephews, finished his café con leche and the lemon-flavoured ‘bizcocho’, and left two euros for a tip on the table. He spotted a yellow ‘Correos’ post box, put the postcard in it, and hoped that Father Grigori would have approved.
On the thirty-seventh day, coming down the hill into Ribadiso, he paused and bounced the staff a few times triumphantly on the tarmac. “Nearly there, only two days to go. Looks like we’re going to make it!” he said and flicked the cockle shell dangling from the red cord. “Your forty-eighth time, mate, I know, but my first.” At the medieval bridge he looked at the cool water running over tiny stones and patches of verdant weeds undulating in the ripples, and watched the groups of young pilgrims paddling and chatting. Tom walked down to the waterside. His feet were hot, tired and pummelled. Sitting on a stone, he took off his rucksack, socks and boots, and, holding the staff for balance, waded into the cold water. It stung his feet with its chill. His toes and ankles glistened pale and white on the dark brown pebbles. He turned, slipped on a slime-covered rock, lent heavily on the staff, over-balanced, put his hands out and just saved himself a drenching.
“You all right, mate?” someone called. He nodded, stumbled back to the grass, and then stared at the staff. It had bent and splintered. He touched the sticky sap oozing from the un-seasoned fibrous wood. It was a fake. For a few minutes he stood, holding the fragments. Then he dried his feet, and put his socks, boots and rucksack back on. Gently he laid the pieces of the staff by the alder bushes along the riverside, smiled ruefully, and went to find a bed for the night.