“We’re here on this earth to be kind to others. What the others are here for I don’t know” (Auden)
Tuesday turns out much hotter than I’d thought: by midmorning I’m already out of water. The path has been one long riverbank meander, common sandpipers calling and flitting through the low branches, a lone grey heron loosing itself awkwardly from its perch as I passed, and a series of wooden steps with wire mesh tread, forever up and down, up and down over eroding dirt banks and muddy tributary creeks and cuts. Finally the path turns right. It climbs steeply uphill through tall grass and buzzing wildflowers that make me dizzy.
Sweating and out of breath, I follow the way-markings into the village of St. Boswell’s. At first I’m relieved. But no stores are open and the doors are shuttered against the day. There’s a Scottish flag on a pole in the middle of a field of overgrown weeds. My feet immediately dislike the sidewalk. They yearn for a return to the shade and the cushion of the forest floor, but I know this may be my one chance to replenish water. When I dig it out, the guidebook says to be sure to stop and look at the stained glass in the parish kirk. The church door resists a pull; like everything else in this town, it seems permanently locked. For a while I peer at what I think may be the glass through the dark windows, but I can’t tell if the colours I see are real or my imagination. This is my one chance to see the work of Liz Rowley, an artist I cared nothing for nor knew anything about until I’d opened my guide. Traveling is about glimpsing what we have just missed. For a while I sit on the low stone fence outside the church until a tall, slim man with a pack approaches. He must have been behind me on the country trail. He’s walking fast.
I say hello. He seems reluctant to break stride, but does. A walker. He introduces himself as Chris. We talk for a moment and for a few blocks I join him and try unsuccessfully to match the speed of his long legs. We come to a junction where the path turns left and back out of the village. There’s an historic municipal water pump here, with a Bible verse in stone: “Jesus said whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again, but whosoever drinketh of the water I give him shall never thirst.” “Alleluia,” I respond, reading it aloud. I give the handle a tentative pump, and when that doesn’t work, a firmer go. Nothing. The well is dry. I’m not quite sure what that does to the verse, but my mouth is parched and I’m disappointed in more than a spiritual way. And, although I don’t admit it to Chris, a little worried.
At that moment there’s a shout from across the street. A young woman, the first person we’ve seen in the village, is waving at us. “Are you thirsty?” she calls. We gratefully accept the two glasses of water she offers, and she takes my plastic backpack bladder into the house to replenish it. I notice that she closes the gate, leaving us on the outside, before going in. In a few seconds she’s back. Chris nods his thanks and bids farewell. Before he leaves he tells me that his wife meets him at points along the trail and perhaps we can all have tea together sometime and I can interview him then. I say sure, thinking it’s the last I will ever see him.
As I hand back the glass, the woman begins an incredibly long and convoluted story of angelic visitation and mystical paralysis in answer to what I thought was a quick question about whether she has ever helped other pilgrims. Eventually, despite her initial kindness, I become edgy. When she appears to be beginning to talk herself into joining me on a spiritual pilgrimage I repeat my thanks, say a hasty goodbye and turn my back to the town.
Hours pass. After the manner of distance walking, all thoughts of St Boswells, the woman, Chris, and the well – all thoughts of everything, in fact – elide into the rhythm of my steps and the vague pains – left big toe, right heel – where sensations, like blisters, are growing. I traverse golden forests of beech and oak, and rejoin the river, still there, waiting like an old friend who has decided after a lovely morning to take the afternoon off as well.
Eventually the path turns up a country lane-way. It runs along a stone fence bordered by purple strife and daisies. At the top of the gravel way I see two figures outlined against the sky, the first human beings since St Boswells. A woman is talking to a man, gesturing. He shakes his head and walks out of my sight to the right. I wonder if it’s a dispute of some sort. She remains standing at the head of the path, hands on her hips. What happens next is like something out of a dream.
She looks at me as I reach the top of the rise. “Are you Matthew?”
I’m startled to hear my own name. “Yes.” “Oh good,” the woman says. She introduces herself as Clare. “I have tea for you. Follow me.” On a patch of grass between roads are two blankets. There’s a thermos bottle and a padded lunch bag. Two cups are set out.
As I settle, not quite believing, she pours me tea and informs me that her husband told her to expect me, but that I’d taken longer than either of them had imagined. The tea is delicious, the sun is warm, there’s a light breeze. I sit on a blanket, in Scotland, with someone I have never met. After a while I realize that the grass looks cool and inviting. “Would you mind if I took my boots and socks off?” I ask.
“Not at all,” she answers, smiling. “Would you like a scone? I have some of those, too.”