Actually, they say a pilgrimage begins at home, so for me it started in Brighton, but I’m not counting the Easyjet flight to Biarritz, or the train to Bayonne and then on to St. Jean. That was just preparation for ‘The Camino de Santiago de Compostela‘ or ‘The Way of St. James Under The Stars’: a 500 mile trek from the South of France, up and over the Pyrenees and then all across Northern Spain. No planes, trains or automobiles between the first and last stamp on your pilgrims passport. Final destination for Catholics: Santiago Cathedral. Final destination pour moi: Finisterre – translation – ‘the end of the known world’. (Online pictures of clover-clad rocks, parting to reveal white sand flats against a topaz sea appeared worth an extra 54 miles of blistered heels and sunburn.)
A few weeks previously, I’d helped him shove his clothes into bin-liners and load the back of a mate’s car with vinyl. They’d come back when I wasn’t there for the big stuff: our fake Eames chairs, the retro sofa, his bicycle and the old bus roll-sign that used to cover a giant crack in the brickwork. Now here was my thirty-year-old self, standing in darkness at the Concorde, amongst six hundred students, the breasts of a stranger pressing against my back. Strobes, triggered by the kick-pedal, hammered my optic nerves as M83 sprung joyously into ‘Kim & Jesse’, and for a brief moment, I wished I was dead… or at least in another country.
Blonde fringe stuck to sweaty forehead, the girl directly in front of me turned to her bumfluff beard boyfriend, shrieking, “Oh my God! I never knew music could be this good!” before burying her face in his neck. I sniggered at them, acidly. Everyone was on pills, it seemed, everyone except me, and suddenly it became obvious that I was trapped in a room full of glowing children, chewing their cheeks and sucking each others fingers and dancing like the cherubs they were; as yet untainted by heartbreak. Electronic harmonies soared; coloured ribbons in all directions, their loops and bows failing to hold me. Instead, that feeling of being far, far away from my immediate surroundings.
I pushed desperately between the sweet young angels to the back of the venue, ran past the long empty bar and burst out through the double doors, into a clear November night. I kept running, up fifty-odd stone steps, as if chased by one of Graham Greene’s anti-heroes, until I collapsed onto the promenade. Here, under the glare of speeding car headlamps, I thought I was going to puke. But as my muscles cramped and my gut wrenched, all I could think was, ‘this is it! I don’t love him anymore!’ It was as clean and clear as Billy Bragg’s killer last line in Walk Away Rene: ‘And then one day it ‘appened, she cut ‘er ‘air an’ I stopped lovin’ ‘er’, except he hadn’t cut his hair, he’d moved straight in with somebody else.
In this moment, the final endurance of public humiliation, I knew all the pain and sickness was my own: my fault, my responsibility, my motivation to change my reality. He had just become irrelevant. And after a few dry-heaves, I began to laugh.
‘I’ve got nothing…I’ve got nothing…I’ve got nothing’: a mantra inside my head on the walk home: a beautiful, warm, honest mantra. It was true; I had no-thing and the realisation was ecstatic. The love of friends and family never deserts you, but honey, gold, jewels, money (do you remember Kula Shaker? No? Good. Don’t look them up), are just the meat on the albatross’ bones, trussed up around your neck, waiting to be cleaved away. None of those things were in my possession. I was weightless without him and his furniture and his pay packet and his prescribed lifestyle.
“For a minute there, I thought you were smiling”, Nick said, when eventually I reached the glass-fronted, converted stable: a rented money pit that had been supposed to make ‘us’ happy.
“I was.” I said, glancing to the corner where his Tom Waits shoes used to be; the pointy ones with the ornate silver buckles that I’d used to think were the coolest shoes in the world. “I think I’m over him.”
Nick had something to show me and he’d waited patiently at mine, drinking a thousand cups of ginger and hibiscus tea, whilst I’d forced myself to go to the gig; because at the time I bought the ticket, I still had the emotional capacity to enjoy music, and tonight I’d needed more than anything to see if it might have come back. (Nick understood things like that.)
“Aw really”, I whined, “Can’t we watch a Woody Allen or something? I’m not in the mood for some earnest film about hiking.”
“I’m not expecting you to appreciate the script or the cinematography,” Nick said, “I mean, Christ, it’s directed by Emilio Estevez. The point is, you need a new perspective, you need some time with nature and this movie is one long advert for the trip that has it all.”
With one eyebrow firmly raised, I conceded.
The Way (2010) is a simplistic, sentimental Hollywood drama about a bunch of likeable losers who meet whilst walking The Camino De Santiago to rid themselves of their crippling self-loathing. It is at once corny, emotionally stirring and underwhelming. Thoroughly recommended to get you out of conversation on an afternoon visiting your parents, it stars Martin Sheen and James Nesbitt as the two male archetypes: depressed, repressed dominant versus look-on-the-bright-side gobshite. Yawn. However, at that point in my life, The Way was like insulin to a fitting diabetic. As with all revelations, timing is everything. The message, however cryptic, will find you when you are ready to receive it.
In this case the message wasn’t wrapped up in the shoddy script. Yes, we must take time to truly listen to ourselves, to connect to the Earth and the land with our bodies, to extend our love and compassion to strangers… but mostly, I wanted an adventure and I wanted to punish myself for always taking the easy options in life. A 500 mile walk would take just long enough for me to have to quit my comfortable job, move out of my unaffordable flat, come up with a career plan, lose a few pounds, learn some Spanish, grow out my unflattering break-up haircut… and challenge my savage impatience and indifference towards beautiful scenery.
Then there was Rob. Going it alone would be okay, but often I felt more alone in a room full of people than lying in the middle of a cold bed at night. Starting the journey with a pal wouldn’t be cheating, it would just mean we had someone else to bounce off when the going got tough, or La Rioja started flowing. There would still be enough solitude to welcome a spiritual awakening, I hoped.
Rob came into my mind the second I knew I was going to do The Camino (about halfway through the movie); he’d run a marathon so the physicality wouldn’t be a problem – I couldn’t bear the thought of propping up anyone who might be prone to moaning about their achy legs or their heavy backpack – and though we didn’t know each other on a really deep level back then, I sensed he was still wrestling with a bruised heart and some internal bleeding of his own. It hadn’t been long since I’d been in the crowd at one of his locally legendary hardcore bands last gigs, watching him screaming out his lungs amidst the crowd whilst dressed as a cat, in tribute to his pet, Charlie, who had recently passed away. He showed no concern for his personal safety through the sea of fists and New Balance trainers flying at his face. Performing, he’d looked how I felt, too full of ‘come on world, what next?’ energy to be contained in Brighton for much longer. But most of all, Rob was the kind of guy who said yes to things, and actually meant it.
At 3am on the 6th August 2012, I stood staring at myself in the mirror. Hmmm, technical sportswear, never a good look.
“This time, you’re going to finish it.” I told myself. “You’re going to do something thoroughly fucking unpleasant and not give up, and then the universe will stop giving up on you. Obstacles are illusions.”
So that was that. I tucked the most precious gift I’ve ever been given – an unopened letter from a dear, dear friend marked ‘open when you feel like you can’t stand any more’ into my backpack, unlatched the front door carefully, so as not to disturb my sleeping housemates at the new place, and stepped out into the darkness…
By Rachel James