Thursday, 28 May 2009

The benefit of the doubt

Paco was 53. He liked to think of himself as a “gentleman of the road”, footloose and fancy free. But mostly other people just called him a tramp. This evening as he sat down wearily on the bed he was overcome with memories. It hadn’t always been like that.

Only just a few years ago Paco held down a responsible job as the manager of a factory. He was married to a lovely woman Anna, mother to their two daughters. As that memory came into his mind tears filled his eyes. Those daughters. Beautiful. The loves of his life. Sometimes, especially when he was tired, he had vivid memories of reading them bedtime stories and he could almost smell the scent of soap and freshly laundered pyjamas when he kissed them goodnight. He and Anna had been together since their early teens. They were boy and girl next door in a small barrio outside of Madrid.

Paco had been the most eligible boy in the barrio. He came from a good, religious, respectable family. His father was the local butcher. Paco did well at school and college and was considered to “have prospects”. Every one said that Anna had done well in the match.

At work he’d been a popular boss. Over 200 people worked for him. He was said to be firm but fair. Everyone also said that he was as honest as the day was long.

When people had problems they turned to Paco.

Perhaps it was the stress of the job or the fact he was getting older or the trouble having two teenage girls could cause at home. Certainly he and Anna had more fights then ever before. Maybe it was all of the above. Paco started spending more time in the bar on the way home. He had called in for two small beers every evening for years after work. Now he seemed increasingly reluctant to leave. 2 became 4, 4 gradually became 6. He got later and the fights got worse. Sometimes he couldn’t remember getting home or the details of the fight which ensued.

Anna laid down the law. Clean up your act. So he tried different things. To go straight home and have a few beers watching the telly. To stop altogther. He even joined a gym.

But soon he was drinking more than ever. He changed bars and fell in with a hard drinking crowd. The crowd included what in Spain would be politely termed "unsuitable women". He had an affair. He made the woman promises he couldn’t or wouldn’t keep. She became bitter and told Anna.

Confronted he confessed to everything including the fact that he hadn’t paid the mortgage for several months. He’d been destroying the reminder letters. To a panic stricken Anna he promised to put everything right. He tried very hard but his old friend booze called him again and again and when it did it always brought friends. The debts mounted. The building society sent an eviction notice which he ignored. Then another.

His colleagues at work had been saving up to send one of their terminally ill children to Disney World. A final gift. The cash collected over months was in the safe in the factory.

Paco told himself he would borrow the money to pay a few months’ mortgage and replace it before it was needed.

To celebrate the solution he went for a drink. He awoke next morning in a bed in a seedy hostal. He had vague memories of the woman he had been with. The money was gone.

Public disgrace. The repossession of the family home was the final straw and his marriage disintegrated. Unemployed and charged with theft he could almost have coped with the derision. He couldn’t cope with the look in his daughters’ eyes.

Reviled and rejected he found that when you’ve reached the bottom of the barrel there’s sometimes further you can go down.

He took to the road. He hated himself and other people in equal measure.

Like all Spaniards, Paco knew about the Camino to Santiago and its free accommodation for pilgrims and over the years when times were tough he got a Credencial which admitted him to a pilgrim albergue. There he could wash and sleep and often the rucksacks of the pilgrims made rich pickings to fund another binge.

In truth Paco hated pilgrims. They were too good to be true. All fresh faced and full of the milk of human kindness, their enthusiastic camaraderie and public displays of tolerance were just too much.

He felt the same tonight when he sat down on his bed in the albergue. He could see them in the kitchen preparing a meal, smiling, being nice to each other. But when they sat down to eat and the older woman began to serve he was almost overwhelmed by the memory of Anna serving the family at table. Then he heard them talking together. It was like Babel, many different languages and yet somehow they were communicating. At the end of the meal they went upstairs. As Paco heard them begin to sing together he followed them up. The room was lit with candles and a fire burned in the hearth. Their faces glowed. He hung back in the shadows.

A long forgotten prayer came to his lips silently. Slowly at first, then in a rush the idea formed. He would do the pilgrimage himself. Start tomorrow. Atone for his sins. Make a fresh start. He wouldn’t steal in albergues and he’d stay sober. He would do it for Anna, for the children, for the dead boy whose money he stole. He would do it for himself. He would walk with these others. Talk to them even. Maybe their enthusiasm for life would rub off on him. He planned to clean his clothes and smarten himself up for the morning.

The official with the stamp turned up later than usual and he joined the queue to get the sello on his Credencial, with a new resolve. He was now a real pilgrim. He handed over his Credencial with confidence.

“This last stamp is for an albergue on another route two days ago.” Paco flushed with the guilty memory of hitching a lift. His claim of being a pilgrim now met a stony silence. Then. “Please leave.”


  1. Thank you for this blog about Santiago de Compostela and the walk. I've always wanted to do it. Perhaps one day when the children are older.