‘How could you possibly have such a purity in a clay creature? A clay creature is always a mixture of light and darkness.’ John O’Donohue
In the beginning, in St Jean, France, a sign swinging in the morning breeze above L’auberge du pèlerin depicts a pilgrim in ochre. He has a jaunty look, a stick with a knapsack slung over his shoulder and big, bare feet, more hobbit than man. He seemed insignificant at the time.
He is Everyman, the Fool in the tarot, wide-eyed – less acquainted with innocence than naivety – and willing to step off the precipice, perhaps with some damn fool notion of discovering new life. I knew how he felt. At 51, I didn’t really know what was to come either and, fortunately, I didn’t really care.
But looking back, something about those feet was giving me a warning….
On the plane from Stansted, I squeezed into a middle seat, and began talking to the passenger on my left. His name was Rafael and – the first of many synchronicities – he was living in the town in which I had spent 27 years.
This particular auberge was his idea. He had walked part of El Camino de Santiago before and was back, this time to attempt the full 500 miles. I wondered, for the briefest of moments, if he was mad and quickly realised if he was then so was I.
The difference was I was desperately unfit, overweight and accompanied to my right by Meg, my 20-year-old daughter, who soon told me she would rather check out a number of hostels than stay in one some guy she had never met had put forward. I felt the blood rising in my throat.
Whereas I had spent years practising the often painful art of surrender and interpreted my synchronous connection with Rafael as a sign, she was firmly rooted in a personality intent on making its own decisions. It would be the first of several singular moments of conflict that would, at times, see us shouting at each other like a couple of fishwives.
Youthful forthrightness came as a dubious addition to her easier charms. In the airport, she had made her position clear: “You are the most unreliable person I know,” she told me without a moment’s hesitation. “You are not a source of stability in my life.”
I had not known what to say and she had looked at me with an alarming measure of disgust and returned to her book on another ‘free radical’, Summerhill School.
Already reeling from a row with my son the day before we left, who was doing a remarkable impression of a 15-year-old boozer, I felt the life force that was already attenuating rapidly, slipping further out of reach, just at the time when I needed it most.
I had mountains to climb, damn it, and miles and miles to go.
In Biarritz, despite Meg’s protestations, we hooked up with a Dutchman and Didier, the taxi driver, who lied about the price of rail fares and wooed us into his cab.
“The first thing I am going to do is buy a knife,” said the Dutchman. “Have you heard about the hybrid wolf-dogs in the mountains?” I had not, but I had reread Shirley MacLaine’s book, The Camino, and was already sufficiently wound up about the dogs of Foncebadon, who prowled in packs savaging pilgrims.
Didier dropped us in what passed for a square, and we ditched the rather dull Dutchman, and made our way up La Rue de la Citadelle to the pilgrim office and queued for the requisite paraphernalia delivered, perplexingly, by a smiling elderly woman with not a word of English.
John Brierley’s guidebook, A Pilgrim’s Guide To The Camino de Santiago, had recommended weeks of Spanish language training, but I came equipped with only the distant memory of schoolboy French, a beautiful daughter brimming with strong opinion, and a rucksack with two pairs of everything.
I hadn’t intended to take Meg to Spain. It was my journey. But when she told me she had dropped out of university and was at a loose end, I said come, casually, and with consequences.
What lay behind us was history, separation, and the pain of love’s longing; in front the deconstructing of story, myth and misunderstanding, and miles and miles of track, footpath and road.
And so we followed Charlemagne and Napoleon over the high pass into Spain, my feet already raw and bleeding, my blisters sewn up with iodine thread at night by kindly strangers.
In a hotel room in Pamplona – a treat bought for me by a couple grateful that I had helped their daughter up the mountain on day one – Meg, exhausted and hurting, shouted at me for depriving her of the road’s austerities.
I had left when Meg was two and Jess was six, was battling my heart and my karma and, like many fathers, fighting a system designed to defeat.
I was wounded by the scalpel of experience and a benighted ancestry and, after losing joint custody of my girls, cooled in the shadows, waiting patiently for better days. Suddenly, more than a decade on, here we were, the years tumbling down toward this moment.
In Pamplona, I felt ill-equipped and overwhelmed by Meg’s resentment yet observed with pride the delight she brought to everyone she met. I watched her with a full heart the whole trip.
Then, a few days later I met Ute. We had bumped, fatefully, into one another at Najera, in a municipal albergue loaded with ninety bunkbeds.
Their heated, sweaty occupation had made me sick so I took a rest day and caught the bus to Santo Domingo de Calzada where, to my surprise, Meg arrived with Ute.
In Belorado, the next day, sitting in the stalls in the bathroom, whistling happily, I hear a woman’s voice. ‘She must be in the wrong bathroom’.
And with that thought I enter car crash slow motion, as I realise that perhaps, just perhaps, it is me.
Outside the window, the bunting – made up of all the national flags of Camino walkers – catches my eye, its presence in the breeze shifting my consciousness, gently, soon forcibly. The sound of the cicadas slows me further and my mind meanders a mystic river of possibility.
I emerge from the stalls like a reluctant, last-minute Grand National entry and there, brushing her teeth, is Ute.
She is naked from the waist down and frothing at the mouth.
‘All right?’ I say, sliding past her as she continues brushing. Matey is the only tone that feels near the mark, but still wildly off.
Although I had not expected to see her bottom quite so soon, the inevitability of our liaison was clear from day one. We were soon ‘bunking’ our way across Spain, quietly, noisily, in dorms, hostels, hotel rooms.
Navigating the road to Santiago de Compostela was one thing. Negotiating the dread weave between road romance and filial duty and propriety was another.
Ute, however, was refreshingly continental and had me choking on my Englishness on more than one occasion. We collided at the right time. She had breezed out of a dead marriage in Germany and into the over-heated hostel. She was 42, a masseuse and singer of light opera.
While I was mourning a hopeless love affair and fighting a depression which had tipped me into action, she was throwing off the bonds of marriage and monogamy. She and Meg became firm friends.
Free love was here and although I appreciated her hand in my daughter’s blossoming, the thought of me stumbling across them both frolicking naked together by a stream to take in the sun (they either did it or were going to do it) was perplexing. I imagined being matey again, but my synapses were hurting.
Meanwhile, the road passed through us with its cast of characters from around the globe. High on the meseta, tales passed from ear to ear on the wind.
Had I heard about the doctor carrying his wife? No, I hadn’t. Next, he was towing her, then making amends. The story grew longer than Pinocchio’s nose.
Astonishingly, it was true. I saw the picture: a whale of a woman, perhaps 20 stone, pulled by a wiry pensioner in braces in a red and white striped cart. It looked like she had eaten all the ice-cream and bankrupted the pair of them.
He had pulled her from Germany, ten kilometres for every other women he had slept with. The Camino’s not long enough ran the gag.
In Leon, in another hotel room, Meg produced her phone and together we lay down, listened to the Disney songs she cherished from a life long ago, held one another, talked and wept. My failings, my flaws took shape within my humanness.
What I came to understand was that her judgment and criticism of me, which has been almost constant, came from her love for me, and that all these years, she had felt my pain and separation from family: my first family as a young boy, the family ruled by my stepfather and then the family I made with her mother.
We both felt it deeply and recalled the good times before things went badly wrong. The next day, we separated, our differing time schedules slowly moving us apart, meeting intermittently.
We walked on with more peace, our work done for the moment, crossing paths occasionally, her moving ahead for an early flight for a holiday in Barcelona.
I lost sight of Ute too until Foncebadon, near the highest point on the trail. Tender, loving, detached and inevitably finite, we shared an ease and freedom.
The night before, a young Korean woman gave me her low bunk and we shared a dinner with a wild American cyclist, a cowboy on two wheels.
I was curious about the Koreans and amused myself with memories of newspaper headlines of them eating dogs. Up the mountain, lying in wait perhaps, were a whole pack of dogs. Dogs Eat Korean seemed plausibly circular.
Walking alone through the mist, it seemed clear the town was abandoned. Were the dogs still there and, if so, had they taken over? And where were the other Koreans?
Even a café was closed which was implausible, perhaps unheard of, mid-morning. I was quiet, not wanting to draw attention to myself. There was no-one in sight, neither a voice nor a bark.
I approached the door of another café-bar, opened it to discover, miraculously, a bustling oasis, ate oranges and milky porridge and drank coffee by the fire.
If I hadn’t sat longer than intended, I may never have seen her again. But the door flew open and in walked Ute. We trekked to Cruz de Ferro, the highest point on The Camino, and left prayers and offerings with thousands of others.
After three days, as was our way, we parted once more.
´´You are like the sun and an invitation, ¨ she said to me rather flatteringly. ¨I can lean on you. You are the first person for a long time I can do that with.¨
It had been one of the great privileges of the trip to meet a woman who exudes love, who feels life fully, is honest and brave and follows the truth in her body not the voices in her head.
¨I will spend the day walking and crying, ¨ she told me. But I knew they were not pain-filled tears but gratitude for a real meeting.
The last week I walked alone, the magnitude of my journey present. I was overwhelmed with tears as I reached the old city of Santiago, nearly six weeks after I left France.
As I queued for my Compostela amid a throng of pilgrims, I recognised a familiar face. Meg was already in Barcelona, but Ute was here and had acquired a flat by the cathedral……
The next day we sat in one of the many cafes in this unique city. I had been hurled back into life, one so different to that which I had been living.
I watched the world rush by – charity workers veiled in yellow vests and youthful charm, men with muzzled dogs, beggars, women in T-shirts that read, bizarrely, ‘Camino Bunny’, waiters delivering croquettes and coffee.
Each person marching, strolling, walking, a jungle of humanity of which I was a part and I knew I was infinitely loved.
I felt once again an incredible love for life and an inseparable sadness that this would all end, and I knew that as it says on a memorial for the victims of the twin towers in New York:
‘Grief is the price we pay for love’.