Short Story – Girl Pilgrim

Girl Pilgrim

June 1990

That was the day my life took a different path. Well, it was probably two days really because one ran into the other and to separate them would be impossible. We got the bus to Santiago de Compostela. We were hungry and a bit hung over so the first thing we did was look for a tapas bar. I had begun to realise that in Galicia the only thing that really matters is the food. At home, the grottier looking the cafe, the grottier the food tends to be. Not in Spain. The tapas bars and cafes are very basic, many of them advertising the food with sun-faded photos in the window, but the food is top-notch. We stopped at a cafe and plonked ourselves outside on two plastic chairs in the sunshine and Bea ordered.  Pulpo, calamares, jamon serrano with tortilla and some Padrón peppers. I was used to Bea telling me that the Galicians had the best fish in the world. She was probably right. I stopped short of suggesting that it was very likely that half the fish came from the sea around Ireland. Since I arrived in Vigo I’d been living on a diet of fish and Manchego cheese.  Before we got on the bus we even visited the old lady at the port to eat some oysters. For the ‘resaca’; the hangover cure, according to Bea and rightly so, the oysters seemed to do the job.  I could handle the oysters but for some reason, when the food arrived, the jelly-like part of the octopus was a step too far.

When we finished lunch, we weaved our way through the crowds on the narrow streets lined with bars, stalls and souvenir shops and made our way to the main square. The square was vast and busy with tourists, many of them with backpacks making their way to the Cathedral. There was a Galician folk group performing beside the old Parador. The costumes reminded me of old gypsy costumes but the music they played sounded like a group of Celtic musicians from the west of Ireland. They were even playing bagpipes for God’s sake. I hated the sound of bagpipes.

“Come on and we’ll pretend we’re pilgrims.” Bea said and we crossed the square making our way to the Cathedral.  We were very giddy, as Bea insisted that we put on an act of the exhausted pilgrim when we climbed the steps, so as not to look like the imposters that we were. When we entered through the large doors everyone was lining up to place their hand on a pillar with a carving of St James in the middle of a vast portico dripping with Medieval carvings. We joined the queue, and both took turns to place our hand on the spot. Even in our giddiness the moment was not lost on us. The pillar was worn from the countless pilgrims that had stood there over the centuries and you could feel the grooves of the hands that touched it before. We paid a quick visit to the interior of the Cathedral to look at the gold altar with its famous statue of St James and when we got back out into the scorching sunshine, leaving the cool interior behind, we were back laughing hysterically and decided after all that effort we deserved a beer. 

One beer led to another and after an afternoon enjoying the sights and smells and especially the bars of Santiago, we got a late bus back to Vigo. We were on a roll, so we decided to continue.  First there was the Salsa club and the taxi afterwards and the bars on the port and the other taxi and the night club. Bea met up with her friends and by the time we hit the night club there were about ten of us. And that’s when it all gets confusing, and my memories begin to blur.  I have flashbacks of faces. Of dancing and loud music. Of dancing with him. Of looking for Bea and not finding her. Of finding her. Of going back to his friend’s place with Bea afterwards. Of me being out of it and letting him undress me.  Of me freezing and thinking this couldn’t be happening but knowing it was happening.  Of me getting up from the bed and fumbling for my clothes. Of me sitting on the steps outside waiting for Bea.  Of me witnessing a spectacular sunrise but feeling completely detached from the beauty all around me.

June 2003

On the day of her graduation from junior school I was looking at all of the little faces on the stage feeling a roller coaster of emotions. They were all so young and innocent and had so much life ahead of them. The graduation ceremony was full of joy.  Songs full of hope and dancing and the speeches about going out into the big world. I knew that the next few years wouldn’t be easy for Anna going into the new school, teenage years and all the rest. I thought about the day she was born, looking into her eyes and laughing because she was looking right back at me.  I knew that if she could have spoken, she would have said “What?” Like, “Just get on with it.”  So, I did. And now looking at my twelve year old, I was proud of how I had just got on with it. How we both had.

She was laughing at something her friend said, and I was struck by how beautiful she looked with her red hair lit up by the sunshine streaming in the glass door.   She was taller than most of her year. A lot of the other children hadn’t had their growth spurts yet. She caught my eye and waved down at us. Peter squeezed my hand and said, “She’s a cracker isn’t she.”  Her grandparents were sitting beside us. Anna was their first grandchild. Grandad’s little buddy or his ‘doppelganger’ as he used to call her when she was little. Nana filled the gaps when I was working or studying for exams. Baking with her and listening to her incessant chat. I could never thank them enough for what they and my younger sisters did for me back then and how they accepted my silence. They had long ago reconciled to the idea that they would probably never know how Anna came into our world. They were just happy that she did.

“Hi Mum. Where are the boys ?” Anna was disappointed the little ones weren’t there. She loved showing them off to her friends because according to her and her friends, her twin brothers were “soooo cute!”. 

“They’re with Tina. We don’t want any distractions on your big day.”

“We’re going over the harbour for a celebratory lunch for the day that’s in it.” Peter ventured. He’d taken a half day. “Nana and Grandad are coming too.”

“Great. I’m having calamari.” Anna beamed, still high on the joy of the occasion and enjoying a big hug from Nana, who was telling her for the millionth time what a great girl she was and how proud she was of her.

June 2013

“Mum can we meet for coffee. I’ve some news for you”. I couldn’t work out if Anna sounded happy, or nervous or sad. She wouldn’t elaborate on the phone, so my mind was racing. I had blocked out two hours from work and got the Luas up from the Criminal Courts. I was waiting in Arnotts café. Anna was coming from work too. She was doing well on her graduate placement. She was working very long hours and I was glad she’d taken the year out after finishing college. She had inherited my talent for being late so it was anyone’s guess who would get there first. I had just sat down at a table and I watched her walking towards the coffee shop. She was wearing a long flowery dress with her Doc Martins and her hair was tied up in a ponytail. She looked so young and vibrant.  The teenage years had been rocky enough, but she had got on with it, got through school and college. She was finally working and earning a few quid.  She had also moved in with her boyfriend John, and they seemed to rock along nicely. She saw me, gave what I thought was an apprehensive smile and came and plonked herself down opposite me.

“Hi honey. What’s up?”  I was impatient.

“Hang on and I’ll get the coffees” and off she went. Arriving back with two mugs and a muffin, she settled into her seat and proceeded to divide the muffin in two.

“Well, you’re probably not going to like this, but I’ll get to the point. I found him.”

“Found who?” It was a stupid question and I knew it.

“You know who Mum. My father, the sperm donor or whatever you want to call him.”

The shock of what she had just said was slowly beginning to register. Not the language she used. That was normal for us. It was what she had told me. I felt a wave of panic at the thought that she had made contact with this man. Thinking about it brought back too many uncomfortable emotions that I had successfully buried a long time ago. As Anna had got older and began to ask questions, I found myself wondering if I was right to exclude Anna’s father. Whether I should have at least given him a choice to be involved. But I figured I’d left it too late. Anyway, I couldn’t give Anna the answers she needed. I wasn’t ready to go there.  In recent years she’d stopped asking questions which I found unnerving. Now I understood why. She had taken control of things herself. I shouldn’t have been surprised. That was Anna. I looked into her eyes, and she looked back at me defiantly.


What indeed I thought. So many questions. What? When? I didn’t need to ask ‘why’ of course.

“How? I mean, how do you know?”

“To cut a long story short Mum, I found your old friend Bea on Facebook. Tina told me about her, and I messaged her and eventually after emailing her loads of times, I got it out of her. She said you broke off contact with her.  She had no idea that you were pregnant.”

My mind flashed back to a Facebook message I saw from Bea about a year before. I hadn’t opened it. Bea and I had met when I was on an Erasmus in Madrid. It was easy to break the link in the early 1990s. There was no Facebook and of course no mobile phones. I had gone back to Dublin and continued with my life. Knowing I was pregnant made me work twice as hard and I had made a good life for myself and Anna, even before I met Peter. Meeting Peter and later having the boys had created a very nice little family for all of us. I had always tried to convince myself that having a great Dad in Peter was enough for Anna. And it was on many levels.  He couldn’t have been a better Dad to her. When she was difficult during her teenage years it was Peter who calmed her down and kept the peace between us. Deep down I had long accepted that there would always be a part of her she needed to reconcile

“How can you be sure Anna?”

“He was a school friend of Bea’s. I am sure.  She spoke to him, and I messaged him on Facebook. Anyway, we’ve done the DNA and its confirmed.” She looked at me and continued to speak “I’m not angry. Well, I was a bit, but I’ve calmed down now. I know you had your reasons. But for fucks sake Mum.  He didn’t even know I existed.”

Anna had every right to be angry with me. As a teenager, when she started to ask questions about her father, I told her it was a ‘one night stand’. She knew that was all I was prepared to say about how she came into the world. At the time I knew it didn’t feel right, but I really didn’t think it was rape. We were both very drunk. Of course as I got older I grew to understand that it was a grey area and that I was no more capable of giving consent. But they were different times and we hadn’t a clue back then. It was long before the Me-Too movement, not to mention the Repeal movement. In truth,  I was not long on options at the time, but I never once regretted the choice I made. I could have got the boat if I really wanted to.

Most of all I was so glad for Anna’s sake that these days things were out in the open and more talked about. I was glad that the lines are less blurred. I’d had a chat with the boys about it too. About consent and respect. They looked at each other rolling their eyes up to heaven. “Yeah. Mum. We know all that.” Peter thought they were a bit young for that conversation, but I assured him that I’d heard too many horror stories and I wasn’t taking any chances. He knew not to push it any further.

“Ok love. So, what now?” I said resigned to the reality of the situation.

“I’m going to meet him. I’m going to Santiago in a week. He wants to meet me.”

“Do you want me to come?” I knew what her answer would be before she replied.


June 2015

Peter and I left the boys with their grandparents and we arrived in Santiago de Compostela three days ago. On Thursday we travelled to Vigo to see Bea. We are back in contact now and she has long forgiven me for cutting her out of my life. We stood and hugged for what seemed like an eternity, both of us crying and laughing at the same time. We were so happy to see each other again after so long. It was Bea who brought Anna to meet her father that first time she met him. I can’t thank her enough for her kindness and how she gently smoothed the way. I sat with Bea in the garden by the pool looking out at the sea and we talked about old times. Her husband Juan and the two children made me and Peter so welcome. We promised to meet up again soon. To make up for lost time.

On Friday Anna arrived with John.  They had taken two weeks holiday to walk the Portuguese section of the Camino. They were full of chat and enthusiasm telling us about the different characters they had met along the way.  They had hugged St James in the Cathedral when they got to Santiago, and I was teasing Anna because she always referred to religion as ‘mumbo jumbo’. She knew well that I shared that view. 

“It’s not religious Mum. It’s spiritual. You guys have to do the Camino. The boys would love it too.“

The four of us sat over dinner and chatted for hours hearing all of their stories. I was happy for her. She has embraced her Galician roots with pride and clearly a sense of need. As if she was making up for lost time.  Her Spanish is now far superior to my own. I loved listening to her chatting away to the waiter in fluent Spanish. She insisted on doing the orders. Calamari, octopus, salted cod. Anna was anxious to impress Peter and me with her knowledge of all things Galician.  “Did you know that you get the best fish in the world in Galicia?” I smiled.  “Think I might have heard that before.”

Yesterday I met her biological father. I met Rodrigo. Anna had shown me photos of him, so I already knew what he looked like. She had also shown me photos of his wife Laura with their daughter, Anna’s half-sister, Amaro. Amaro had the same colouring as Anna.  I also saw a photo of Anna with her grandmother, ‘abuela Maria’. Yet I still wasn’t really prepared for how I would feel about meeting Rodrigo. There were so many thoughts going around in my head and I was anxious. Peter offered to come, but I said that for this time I would prefer to be alone. Besides he was minutes away on the phone if I changed my mind. So, I crossed the square, which was full of the day’s stream of pilgrims and made my way to the coffee shop where Anna was waiting with Rodrigo. He had his back to me when I approached, and Anna was leaning forward in deep conversation. I noticed he reached out and patted her on the hand in reaction to something she said to him. I felt a tinge of emotion, maybe even jealousy. I wasn’t sure. She saw me and smiled.

“Hi Mum. I’d like to introduce you to Rodrigo.”

There was no sarcasm in her voice, and I realised how relieved I was that she called him by his first name.  She had always called Peter ‘Dad’.

Rodrigo stood up and shook my hand. I could tell he was apprehensive.

“Louise, very nice to meet you.”

Rodrigo’s red hair had long since faded to grey and his beard was neatly trimmed. The years had been kind to him. Looking into his eyes my memory of the tall Galician boy, that I had danced Salsa with, came back to me as if that memory had never gone away.

And that was it. I sat down and joined them at the table and over the next hour we made polite talk about our lives. Both of us had gone into Law and we mentioned that, but I did not dwell on the area of law I specialised in. We talked about our other children. But mostly we talked about Anna. He thanked me for bringing up such a wonderful girl. He told me how blessed he felt that she had come into his life. There were no recriminations. No questions asked by either of us. We both knew there was no point in looking backwards and without saying anything we accepted things the way they were. I thanked him for the kindness he and his wife had shown Anna. When we got up to leave, he hugged Anna and promised he would see her very soon. We shook hands and as he held my gaze, his eyes welled up with tears. I squeezed his hand and then we hugged each other. It was a long, firm hug full of emotion. Whatever had to be forgiven was forgiven. It was clear that we both had a strong bond in Anna. That was what mattered now. After a moment Anna took me gently by the hand, and we walked away quietly. Neither of us speaking. Although I did not turn around, I knew Rodrigo was standing watching us until we turned the corner. 

Today I got up early and left the others having breakfast in the Parador. I wanted to say goodbye to the Cathedral before we go home. I wanted to say goodbye to Santiago de Compostela, until the next time, when I plan to arrive as a genuine pilgrim. The Pórtico da Glória was closed off for conservation so I couldn’t place my hand in the worn handprint. I was disappointed to hear from the guide that it will no longer be possible.    

There was organ music playing inside the cathedral and the whole interior was infused with a strong smell of incense. Mass had just ended and some people were filing out whilst a quiet stream of pilgrims continued to arrive. I sat down towards the back of the Cathedral. Looking up at the vast Romanesque vaulted ceiling and the gold carved altar with the Statue of St James in the centre, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by everything that had happened over the last few days. I thought back to the last time I was in the Cathedral with Bea, twenty-five years ago. I was thinking about how young we both were and how our time together was full of laughter. We had no idea how our lives would change that day. And then I began to sob uncontrollably. I don’t know how long I was crying for but when the tears finally stopped flowing, I felt calm.  Calmer than I had in a long, long time.

There was one more thing I needed to do before I left the Cathedral. I quietly moved along the row of seats and out into the aisle. An American pilgrim, who had been watching me, moved aside to let me into the queue and I nodded in appreciation. They were queuing up to hug the gold statue of St James. Today I didn’t feel like a fake pilgrim.  I didn’t feel the need to pretend. I reckoned St James would know full well that I’d travelled a long road to get here.

I climbed the narrow stairs behind the altar and waited my turn. When it came, I put my arms around the golden statue of St James and found myself getting giddy again at the thoughts of me doing such a thing. For a non-practicing Catholic I surprised myself sometimes. However, in that moment I felt overcome with a sense of peace and happiness.  Like my fellow pilgrims I had reached the end of a very long journey. I thanked St James for everything that had happened in my life and for the people I had around me. I knew in my heart that from today life would be different. Different in a good way.

Cathedral in Santiago de Compestella

7 thoughts on “Short Story – Girl Pilgrim

  1. Hi Alison

    I loved your story.

    I had the great pleasure of reading it as I flew over Newfoundland on My way back from the big apple. My first time operating to the USA In a year. I was really moved by it and welled up A wee bit as the reacquainting occurred. You have a lovely touch … you seem to be able To roll through events with a nice flow.. A babbling brook comes to mind {in a good way!}

    Keep trucking .. the pressure is on now for me to Get myself into gear again … nothing like peer pressure..

    Stay well Kev

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Short Story – Girl Pilgrim — The Field | THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON...

  3. Hi Alison!
    I love this story.
    Delicate and touching. I enjoyed it a lot.

    Bea from Spain

    P.S. Proud that you used my name for one of the characters 😉


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