A short story from the Camino

One of our contributors, Mike Bowler has written a short story from the Camino about love, loss and joy whilst walking from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela. The story is called ‘Gift of Days’.

Gift of Days by Mike Bowler

Liam still called Ireland home even after decades of exile. For the first time since he emigrated he booked a one way ticket. A final flight on a Ryanair cheap and cheerful.

He only had two goodbyes to make, Petra and Mark. The White Horse for a farewell drink with Mark first. The local where the middle distance squad repaired to following the long run on Sundays. They had run hundred of miles together in all weathers. Racing all over Essex and lining up together for the first London marathon.

‘Living on past glories’, Mark raised his glass. He had taken up long distance walking sine he hung up his spikes. Before they parted with a hand shake and  half hug Mark mentioned doing the Camino.

Liam didn’t give it much thought. He had enough on his plate. Broken. Still mourning for Conor. Compounded by the grief from Israel. His Sarah, lying cold in the clay of the Holy Land. He had kept the letter from his daughter,Inbar. Reading the stark words over and over. His eyes drowning in a vale of tears.

His final visit was to Petra in her new flat that she had bought after the settlement. On the way to the Esplande he thought it would his last chance to divulge his secret. Imagine a surprise daughter in Jerusalem. Would she ever believe it ? After Conor she always wanted a girl. But…

When Petra went to the kitchen for a bottle of Chablis he noticed the photo on the mantlepiece. Conor, in his football strip with the wild hair flung from his forehead. On the brink of adult life at sixteen. And now… like Sarah, cold in the earth of Ireland, the other holy land. Irony of ironies Liam thought given all the clerical scandals.

Liam stayed an hour and not once was Conor mentioned. They were keeping their silences. Enough words had been spent. At the door Petra put her hands on his shoulders, like she used to. . Before… After the briefest of embraces their lifetime together was over.

The finality of failure. As husband and wife but above all as parents. Her last words were searing and softening.  ‘We did our best’.

He felt she meant not for themselves but for Conor. He had scored more than goals in the end.

When Liam landed in Cork he couldn’t face staying in Ardagh House. It was here they had booked after bringing Conor home. He opted for Isaacs instead. Isaacs, a biblical reminder of Israel ? After dinner he was drawn to Summerhill. Sarah had lived there with the Star of David shining on the name on the front door. Mizpah.

Meeting by chance in the Shambles. She had been to the synagogue in South Terace for Hannukah. Liam had returned from a soccer match in Flower Lodge. Both with friends who were going on to a students dance in the Arcadia.

How the sombre night unfolded. Alone to convey her back to Summerhill. It was there she explained the meaning of her house name. Mizpah : her Watchtower.

‘May the Lord watch between me and thee when apart from one another.’

‘Very apt, like us meeting and parting on a single night’. He repeated the quotation in his mind.

‘Well, shall we say shalom now that you know’, she said softly.

He remembered saying ‘ the penny’s dropped’.

‘Don’t you mean the shekel’, with her impish smile.

He felt his stomach churn, his mouth drained dry.

‘Can we postpone goodbye for a while, talk’, he asked.

‘Fine, it’s a lovely night for a stroll, to the Glen’ ?

They talked of Ireland, of Israel. Loneliness led them past St. Lukes Cross.

He remembered the softness of her voice in Summerhill. The vapid waves of water in the Glen. The stillness of the stars above the city. The smell of burnt brown grass. The turning and twinning of two worlds. Liquid light fingering the earth, covering their breathless bodies. Clinging like children in the dark they arose as one. The field fell under a dark cloud as they walked away.

Outside the silver railings of St. Luke’s she had waved goodbye.

‘Shalom, Liam.

‘So long, Sarah.

It took weeks before Liam settled in the little bungalow. Strange to be back on his own again ; learning to cook like a bachelor. The emptiness of the house when he came back at night. In a familiar town with strange people. He would walk the length of Main street without knowing a soul.

He visited an old training pal he used to run with when they came home each summer. They would drive to the Silver strand  every Sunday for the long run. Back and forth by the frothing foam.

His pal, Jacko, bred Jack Russels and one Sunday Liam went to see the latest litter. When one chubby pup came up to Liam it was as if he was chosen. In the end Liam gave in and became the subject of  Rex, the king. When Jacko dropped the little fellow round the first thing he did was to widdle on the welcome mat. Liam once overheard a woman in Essex saying that having a puppy was akin to having a baby.

A few months later a local farmer had collie pups for sale. When the farmer put the black and white bundle of fur in his arms she licked his nose. Sheba, came to visit like the original queen to King Solomon. Liam now had his family as he came to see it. The healing power of dogs. The house never felt empty again.

Liam got an email from Mark just before Easter. Would he walk the French Way with him in October. Liam knew that Mark would train for it as if he was running a marathon. So committed he began the long walks in April.

Bluebells carpeted Liberator Park at the edge of town. Snowdrops draped across ditches. The ephemeral white of bog cotton coloured the slough. Furze bushes blazed on Primrose Hill.

Sheba would scuttle ahead until a whistle brought her to heel. He only took Rex on the short walks to begin with. In a month they were deep into the countryside for the two hour treks. Only the odd farmer scything a hay field would greet them. The lambs were skittish and Liam had to assure the farmers that Sheba wouldn’t worry them. He joked that the sheep would be herding her.

Liam bought a pair of Colombia walking shoes to break in before the trek. A backpack followed along with trousers with cut-off shorts. Followed by tee-shirts and a fleece and rain jacket. Before long Autumn was imminent and he felt fit enough for the 100 km they intended to walk.

He arranged for the dogs to be boarded at a local kennel. Travelling by train to Dublin he caught the Aer Lingus flight to Santiago. He had arranged with Mark to meet in Sarria which would give them the distance for the completion certificate.

When Liam had packed his gear he tied a photo of Sarah to his backpack.  Taken with his old fashioned Instamatic when the sun was sinking into the Sea of Galilee. Her blonde hair burnished by  the waning light on the holy lake. She had that brightness about her. Now in the shadow of grief he was looking for light.

‘So long Sarah’, his last words to her.

So long before they would meet again by chance, by fate ? Liam had paced Mark in the Sea of g Galilee marathon. The race had finished in kibbutz Ginosar and she appeared like an apparition during the presentation. She had made alia from Cork to Galilee and was working in a nearby kibbutz, Mishmar Ha Sharon.

After their initial shock she volunteered to take him back to Galilee to cycle round the lake to Capernaum, the city of Jesus. When they returned the bikes in Tiberius she drove to Ein Gev where the marathon had started. There, her friend, Yanina had arranged for cofee and showers. Liam walked down to the edge of the lake while she was freshening up. He imagined Jesus walking along that same shore. He was, almost, returning to his boyhood when he could believe. He was pitched out of his reverie when Sarah put a hand on his shoulder.

‘A shekel for your thoughts’, she smiled.

‘Hardly worth a copper’, he covered her hand.

He wondered if she remembered him saying something similar all those years ago ?

‘Shall we take a stroll along the sand before you shower’, she took her hand away.  ‘Yes, lets’, he touched her arm.

The sun like a golden ball on the far side of the lake. The breeze was stilled on the water as if it was in repose. He wanted to hold her hand as they walked to the border of the kibbutz. Her hand was swinging as she strode out and he caught it. She smiled and gave a little squeeze. Her shoulder brushed against his. As they turned at the far end of the lake they came together. Her lips gleamed as he reached down. She came into his arms and they held each other as they would never let go. Alone on the shore of the holy lake they were together again. 

By the time they walked back dusk was only delayed by a ribbon of red around the lake. The sinking sun was spreading embers along the gentle water. When Liam emerged he had changed into his athletic gear, his club colours, black and red. Sarah had changed into a blue and white dress, the Star of David unfurled across the bodice.

They found a quaint restaurant  called Little Tiberius. Seated she raised a glass of Golan Heights Emerald Riesling.

‘Shabat Shalom’, her oval face was animated.

‘Slainte’, he he clinked her glass.

‘I still can’t believe we would meet again after all these years, she held out her hand.

‘Yes, isn’t life strange’, he eased her hand back after a moment.

‘I never imagined that you would have a daughter’ ?

‘Inbar, my one and only in Israel.’

‘What does her name mean in Hebrew ‘, he wanted to know more.

‘Well, I used to think it meant jewel but it actually means amber’, she pulled a face.

Liam took a sip and said she’s a jewel to you anyway ‘.

‘You know she looks just like you when we met in Cork, he continued.

‘So people tell me ‘, she poured another glass.

Their fingers touched as she held his glass to pour. She took a breath almost like a sigh. Her lips parted before a hesitant whisper escaped. .

‘But she has your eyes’, her lashes came down like a curtain.

Liam sat back, his glass half raised before putting it down with a bang. Was he hearing things ? Mistook the whispered words ? His heart shunted in his chest.

‘My daughter, Inbar ‘?

‘Yes’, the small word confirmed.

Her eyes descended under her lashes for a moment. Blinking, she raised them again , the flecs like liquid gold.

‘Our daughter’, she said this time clearly.

After all these years in different times, in different worlds. A summer’s night in Mayfield. Scattered seed gathering fruit in Galilee. Inbar, harvested like ‘the lily of the valley and the rose of Sharon.

Lost in memory the plane was taxing in the airport while he was still in Galilee. It was early afternoon and he knew that Mark would be behind him from Stansted. He priced a taxi in his pidgin Spanish to get him to Sarria by seven. As they skirted the city he caught a fleeting glimpse of the Cathedral. Soon they were coasting in the fading green of Galicia, not unlike Kerry.

When he switched his phone on he got a ping from Mark. He was still on the train and would be arriving late. By the time they met up it was pitch black. Finding a cafe by the river Mark observed that they were already in to the Spanish way of life, dining at ten. Liam ordered a tortilla and salad while Mark bravely tackled the octopus. When it was served it looked as if it was still twitching.

In the morning they went to a sports shop on a corner to obtain their Camino passports. The first stamp from the hotel and the last one 100km later in Santiago.

The day was closeted by clouds as they hoisted their backpacks. In a matter of minutes they were off road on a dusty path over a little stone bridge. They heard the first of the many ‘Buen Camino’ as they picked up the pace. Meeting two Korean girls at a coffee break they were told that completing the Camino entitled the students to a credit towards their degrees.

‘Pity we hadn’t the same when we were running’,Liam remarked.

‘We’d be well qualified by now’, Mark smiled ruefully.

Halfway to Portomarin they stopped at a tiny village for lunch. Mark with his smattering of Spanish ordered cafe con leche and tortilla. They followed the yellow shell sign and yellow arrows and picked up a trail through a pine forest. The terrain undulated all the way to the edge of town. By early afternoon the entry became more congested with Perigrinos. A long line of backpackers wending their way into Portomarin. Mark had booked an Albergue with private rooms.

When Liam eased his backpack from his aching shoulders his heart skipped a beat and fell. There was no sign of Sarah’s photo and he sat on the bed covering his eyes. There would be no going back as the odds were against ever finding it. Mark told him later that he had last noticed it at the lunch break. She was gone.

After dinner and a couple of glasses of vino tinto they turned in. It was Mark who chose cafe Blanca for breakfast. A peregrino menu of cafe con leche and tostas for five euro. There was only a couple and an old man at the counter sipping a coffee liquor. When Mark went to pay the bill he nodded to the couple. Liam wondered had they exchanged a ‘Buen Camino’ with them yesterday. As the couple were leaving they made a detour towards Liam.

‘Did either of you guys lose a photograph of a young woman yesterday’. Liam just nodded and the man continued when Mark returned.

‘We found it near the Peregrino cafe after lunch’.

‘If you hold on we’ll get it from our Albergue’.

Liam was overcome and Mark put a hand on his shoulder. What were the odds that they would all be in the same cafe? When the couple returned and handed Liam the photo he could only whisper his thanks. Kissing the image of her oval animation he felt a tug on his eyelids.

‘She’s come back to me’, he uttered softly to himself.

‘Your wife’, the woman asked.

‘No, but i wish… he broke off.

When Mark asked they said that they came from Indiana. Walking the Camino in memory of their only daughter ; cancer like Sarah.

When they returned to the Albergue Liam placed the photo in a plastic wallet. She would be safe now for the final stage. They only had a short walk of three hours to Santiago.

The Way was nearly over. The last morning was crisp and they waited until the sun had burned the clouds from the sky. When they ascended the Mount of Joy they could see Santiago in the distance. The spires of the cathedral pointing to the heavens.

They checked in to San Martin Pinario, a former monastery with cell like rooms. A small queue formed outside the Pilgrims Office. When it was Liam’s turn he asked the clerk for a favour. The young man wrote in tiny handwriting at the bottom of the certificate.

IN MEMORY OF SARAH GOLDSTEIN

‘Ever has it been known that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation’

Liam slipped into the vastness of the Cathedral while Mark went exploring with his camera. As Hanukkah was imminent he bought eight candles to light for Sarah. He could imagine her impish smile telling him he was trying to convert her. Before he left he lit another candle for Conor, the light of his life.

Outside, he had a moment of fulfilment. He bid ‘Buen Camino to the journey. The Way.

Whatever gift of days he had left he would carry Sarah to the end. Then, if there was another dimension to their entwined existence, who knows? While he had memory she would live on and he would never lose her again.

Mike Bowler

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