The following is an extract from Book of Days, a long poem recounting a journey along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. This extract describes the sixth day of the walk, from the city of Pamplona to Uterga.
The streets still grey with night. On my way out, past coffee bars and shuttered veg shops, I pass a man begging from pilgrims. In my pack is some leftover bread from the tapas night in a plastic bag. I trace the few steps back, and hand the packet over. The young guy behind sees me do this. Tienes grande corazón, he tells me. Simone. For a while we walk together, reaching for shared words: I don’t know Italian and his English is very poor; we try in easy Spanish. His bronze hair is scrawled up in a tail at the back; he has an ornate tattoo manacled round his shin and a lovely face; I’m embarrassed in my glasses and walking clothes. When we get to Cizur Menor he vectors away and I spot Matt across the road, in his helmet-shaped hat. He’s hurt his knee and limps a little, matching my slower pace, so we climb together out of city, into landscape suddenly cool and open. A mountain stands ahead, tall and dim, prickling with wind turbines. Matt’s not happy in his job. He’s been a work adviser, teacher, restaurant server. Now he’s thirty-three – like Jesus says our guidebook. Despite his knee he’s walking faster and after a while we separate our different ways along the stream, unable to make a commitment. I stop with the expanding hillside, curls of olive-brown soft-ploughed soil, or mottled blonde picked out in lemon green. What are the masses of stooped sunflower heads, gathered black and brown at their fizzing centres and bowed in waves across the slope? The crowds of heavy-necked souls, climbing Purgatory mountain? Or us, just as we are, describing the sunflowers to each other – yes the seeds are pressed for sunflower oil
Deb and Ron and Ciara ask me how I’m doing. Do I want to share some lunch? I sit happy with a piece of tortilla beside Bo, sketching the stones of the church from my plastic chair.
And all the way to the crest, where silhouettes of cattle and pilgrims prance in wind-clattering iron and through long grass, ankle-deep, with nothing to absorb the rush:
Princes Gigantica, Energia Hidroeléctrica de Navarra. Tread downhill and the rush of up disperses, hurrying into soil and roots.
At Uterga, Matt comes by: do you have a minute? I think we should maybe – exchange some information. You mean like a number? But I’m not using my phone. I’m sure we’ll meet again. He walks away. For the rest of the afternoon I sit in the sun with Jin-young, drinking peach juice.
Takla’s threading up her blisters. You know, I’m beginning to think it’s kind of like a river. I’m not in a rush, but the current kind of pushes you along. It’s like a tide. We’re in all these individual currents, at different speeds that separate, re-join again.
Upstairs, Maggie and Aileen pore over tomorrow’s route, complaining about gradients, hips; I tell them I admire their tenacity, at their age. We don’t feel it, Maggie snaps, bony as a stripped leaf. They do up their lips and eyes in blues and rouges; go down to eat.