Sitting on the edge of the bed, Duncan pulled one boot off carefully. ‘Ow, ow, ow, ow.’ He wriggled his toes and sat back on the bed, grimacing. A voice from the en-suite of the small twin room sounded agitated.
‘What’s wrong now? What on Earth can possibly be wrong now?’
Duncan stared at the en-suite door, which was slightly ajar, while he unlaced his other boot. ‘It’s my feet, they’re fucking sore, what do you think is wrong?’
‘My God, complaining again. Why did you come on this walk? Eh? Eh? Why? You’d done nothing but moan, moan, moan, moan. First it was your shoulders, the bag was too heavy, then your knees coming off that first hill, then the rain, then the cold, and then a million other things and now, with one day to go, your feet!’
Duncan imitated the voice, quietly, ‘then it was this, then it was that, then it was your nagging, then it was you being unbearably happy all the time’. He pulled off the other boot, ‘Ahhhh!’ he exclaimed rubbing his foot gently.
‘I CAN hear you, you know. You shouldn’t have come.’
Duncan sat quietly for a moment before shouting at the en-suite door. ‘Let’s do The Pilgrim’s Way, you said, one last long-distance path before we’re old and decrepit, you said, it’ll be good for our souls, you said. Well my soles are not fucking happy.’
‘It’s meant to be hard, that’s why the Pilgrims did it. It’s not a Pilgrimage otherwise. It’s not a jolly rambler’s outing along a forest path. In 560AD when the first Pilgrims did this route, they would have done it in bare feet. Some did it on their knees you know, as an act of penance to ask God for forgiveness for their sins. You should think of that instead of complaining about your top-of-the-range Gortex boots.’
‘You and your bloody religion’, Duncan spat, ‘I could be home curled up in front of the telly right now instead of nursing two raw, blistered and extremely painful things I used to call feet!’
‘Heathen! I’m going in to the shower now.’
At the sound of the shower, Duncan slowly balanced his weight onto his feet, and stood. ‘God that hurt, and yes, you annoying deity, it IS your fault’, he mumbled out loud. He hobbled over to the window which faced west over a small wooded valley. The sky was turning red. ‘Shepherd’s Delight’, he sighed, ‘Always fucking happy with a red sky’.
‘Toast with scrambled egg and smoked salmon’, Duncan beamed at the bemused waitress the following morning.
‘Is that all it takes to make you happy? Smoked salmon? You should have brought a couple of packs to nibble as Scooby Snacks along the way.’
‘Well’, Duncan laughed, forgetting his feet for a moment, I’m so sick of stodgy porridge and greasy fry-ups floating in pig fat that this will be the best breakfast since that kipper on Day 2. What a lovely surprise. Haven’t had toast with scrambled eggs and smoked salmon since the girls were small.’
‘Last day. Feeling more positive this morning?’
Duncan smiled softly across the breakfast table, ‘Very positive’, he replied. ‘With only about, what?’
’With only about ten miles to go, we might even be finished by lunchtime. Could be celebrating with a lunchtime pint.’ He laughed. ‘Stop frowning, I’m due a pint.’
Later, as Duncan’s hunger grew once more, what was left of the The Pilgrim’s Way diminished and that lunchtime pint began to look promising. Close to the very end of the route, before leaving the trees and heading into the village that marked the normal finishing end of the footpath, a life-size wooden statue of a monk stood in a small clearing, marking the spot where the particular saint that the pilgrimage had spawned had been martyred.
‘Don’t you feel it? The energy? The power of God in this wood?’
Duncan stared at the wooden effigy. ‘Why is it that religious people are ‘martyred’ and not just murdered like everybody else?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well’, Duncan continued, ‘he was laid upon by a gang of thugs who caved his head in with a big rock for no apparent reason. Why’s that ‘martyred’?’
‘It was assassins who killed him for his religious beliefs.’
‘Says the Church!’ Duncan was starting to get quite agitated. ‘To date there has been no proof that these ‘assassins’ were in the employ of anyone and no reason has ever been given for them being hired by anyone anyway, it says so right here on the plaque, so that simply means he was set upon and mugged, doesn’t it?’
‘Priests wouldn’t have been mugged in that way. It would have been God’s will to have him martyred.’
‘Oh come on now!’ Duncan was starting to shout. ‘You travel from Ireland, walk half way across the country to this Godforsaken place, preach for 20 years, 20 YEARS, and in repayment, your God, your fucking forgiving all-loving God sends a couple of random thugs after you to cave your head in with a rock to make some kind of fucking point? Some gratitude that is. So then, what happens then? The Church makes up some stupid miracles, attributes them to you, canonises you, and suddenly you’ve been ‘martyred’ and fuckwits like me follow some random route that he might have walked, feeding the commercial industry along the route and making this Saint Whatshisname famous, meanwhile trying to feel good about myself as though I were a fucking hero. What a complete waste of time.’
Duncan was now staring at the wooden statue square in the face. ‘Well that’s not how it works’, he shouted, while its blank, unmoving face stared back at him. ‘Other people are more saintly you know, more deserving and if there’s a God, if there’s a fucking God in there,’ he knocked heavily on the wooden skull of the statue which remained stubbornly stoic, ‘IF there’s a God, then what was the cancer all about eh? What was your point in that particular case eh? ‘Cos I’ll remind you of the miracles if you need me to? Bringing up those kids with next to no money. Making sure they were fed, educated, happy. Me! Looked after me though I didn’t deserve it because I’m a drunken waste of space. All those things even when you inflicted that horrible disease, that crippling torture that was endured with a fucking smile every sickening day saying she deserved it, it was your will. Well she didn’t deserve it and you don’t get to make a martyr out of her because you work in mysterious fucking ways’, which is a complete cop out by the way for covering up your lack of existence.’
Alone in the clearing, he sank to his knees in front of the statue which continued to stare blankly ahead, over the top of his woollen bobble hat into the empty distance.