Saturday, 10 March 2018

A story - The benefit of the doubt

The benefit of the doubt

As the pilgrims filed into the albergue they were too busy finding their place for the night to notice the scruffy man sitting on one of the beds. His head was down, seemingly minding his own business.
This was Paco. 53 years of age. Originally from Valencia, he had fallen on hard times and like all Spaniards, he knew about the Camino to Santiago and the “free” accommodation for pilgrims. Over the years when times were tough he got a credencial and took to the Way. He knew he could wash and sleep and often the rucksacks of the pilgrims made rich pickings.
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 friendship were just too much.
He felt the same tonight as he sat on his bed. He could see them in the kitchen preparing a meal, smiling, being nice to each other. He watched them sit down to eat with his resentment kindling. A pilgrim asked them to hold hands and say grace together and Paco’s bitterness rose like bile.
However when one of the women began to serve the food an image of another woman, his wife Anna, serving the family at table, flashed through his mind.
Then Paco 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 he was drawn to the sound. The room was lit with candles and a fire burned in the hearth. Their faces glowed. He hung back in the shadows.
Memories flooded Paco’s mind. Anna, the most beautiful girl in the neighborhood marrying Paco the most eligible boy. The boy with prospects. Setting up home, being promoted to manager of the factory. His two daughters. The loves of his life. The bittersweet memory of reading them bedtime stories. Tear pricked his eyes as he could almost smell the scent of soap and freshly laundered pyjamas when he kissed them goodnight.
As the pilgrims sang their songs scenes from Paco’s life appeared before his eyes like a fast moving film. Work pressures, money worries, his sick mother. Having a few beers after work which soon became many. Fights with Anna then spending more time in the bar than at home. Anna’s ultimatum – clean up your act. He tried so hard. To go straight home. To stop drinking altogether. He even joined a gym.
But soon he was drinking more than ever. Everything got worse. Paco shuddered as he remembered the lost nights, the infidelities, the borrowed money. The debts mounted. The bank 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 hostel. He had only vague memories of who he had been with. The money was gone.
Public disgrace. House repossessed, his wife filed for a divorce, 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 Paco took to the road. He hated himself and other people in equal measure.
He was brought from these thoughts when the pilgrims started to sing again. He knew enough to make out some of the words, “Amazing Grace, saved a wretch like me, lost and found, blind but now I see.” Then as the pilgrims held hands and began to say together, “Our Father, who art in heaven,” the long forgotten prayer came to Paco’s lips. He mouthed the words to himself.
There in the candlelight an idea slowly emerged in his mind…then it came with a rush. 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 pilgrims. 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.” The official then proceeded to examine every previous stamp muttering the different dates in disapproval. "This albergue is only for real pilgrims," he said.
Paco was aware of the restless queue of tired pilgrims behind him. He tried to explain, " I wasn't a real pilgrim before but I want to be one now," he blurted. With a weary look the man handed him back his credencial and looking past him said "next please, this man is just leaving."

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