from Towards Compostella

On the Bus
In the bathroom the Irish girl with green hair, who has been sitting down the back with earplugs, asks me where I come from, and suggests we have breakfast together. We queue for coffee and croissants, and are joined by the woman in the purple sweatshirt I’d seen talking to the mullet-headed boy at the Victoria Coach Station.

‘You don’t mind?’ she says. She sits down heavily and tears at her croissant with large muscular hands. She is a few years older than me, perhaps, dark, thick, beak-nosed. ‘Not bad for a bus stop breakfast,’ she says spreading strawberry jam thickly on her croissant. ‘I’m sure I’m the only passenger going to Zaragoza.’

She says Zaragoza the Spanish way. Tharagotha. Tharagotha. Tharagotha.

We tell her our names. The Irish woman is Niamh.

‘Spelt N-I-A-M-H, but you say Neev.’ She laughs. ‘It’s the Gaelic.’

‘That’s very interesting,’ says the Spanish woman. ‘There is a river not far from here which sounds like your name but you spell it N-I-V-E and you say Nive. My name is Pilar, like the pillar.’

‘What pillar?’ I ask.

‘You may ask,’ she says spreading strawberry jam thickly on her croissant.

‘You know Maria, the mother of Jesus? They say she came to Spain, once. To Zaragoza, actually, where I am going now with these crazy drivers. And they say she brought with her the pillar Jesus was tied to when those Roman soldiers whipped him. I ask you… These stories… You know Santiago – the saint of Spain? They say his bones are there in Compostela… The mentality.’

‘I’m going to Compostela.’

‘Ah, a peregrina?’ She narrows her eyes and looks at me over the rim of her coffee cup. ‘Do you believe these things?’

‘I don’t know… I like walking… I like stories… Tell me about the pillar.’

‘I don’t know. Santiago was fighting, probably he was fighting – he is called Matamoros, the slayer of the Moors, so he was probably fighting. But perhaps he was praying, because you know he was hopeless in the beginning that Santiago. Nobody would listen to him when he came to Spain. These stories are ridiculous, I tell you, but they say Santiago was in Zaragoza at the same time Maria the virgin was there too, and she gave him this pillar and told him to build a church. And I am named after the pillar. And my mother and her mother. We are very traditional in Spain.’

She sucks jam off her finger and wipes the knife on the edge of her plate. ‘But I break the tradition. I come to England. I have two sons. No more Pilars.’

‘Why am I going to Zaragoza?’ she continues although neither Niamh nor I have asked her. ‘I tell you, the mentality. My nephew is getting married. He rings me and says, “Auntie you must come to my wedding” – at the cathedral where the pilar is – and I say to him, “Why are you getting married, why do you put your father in debt for five years with this ridiculous wedding? Live together,” I tell him – that’s what my kids do in London; it’s cheaper. “But auntie,” he says, “I want you to come to my wedding, how you can say that?” So here I am, I will be the only passenger left on the bus with these drivers – driving to Zaragoza – to kiss all the old women in the village I left twenty years ago. They have no teeth and their breath is bad. And they will make me kiss the pilar… It is made of jasper you know. Very nice.’

She turns to Niamh. ‘Where are you going?’ The Irish woman is visiting her parents in Bergerac, and I tell her I’m getting off at Bayonne because I want to catch a train to St Jean-Pied-de-Port and walk over the Pyrenees.

‘That’s very interesting,’ says Pilar. ‘I like to walk myself. I walk every day and make a longer one on Saturdays. I’m older than you. I had breast cancer and now I walk. I used to work in a gym, checking the machines. I hated it. The mentality. I did it every day for fifteen years, and one day I go to the doctor and he tells to me, “You have this cancer, you must not work so hard.” I go back to the gym and they say, “True. You work part-time.” “Part-time,” I say? The mentality. “I’m not working for you any longer,” I tell to them, and now you know, I walk. On Saturdays I walk as far as the Tate Gallery, you know along by the river – it takes me half an hour from my house, and then I come home to make a lunch for my boys – they don’t live with me any more – and they bring their girlfriends and their washing…’

‘I sometimes go to the Tate myself when I’m in London,’ says Niamh.

‘I just walk as far as there,’ says the Spanish woman. ‘Are you an artist? I was wondering, you know, with your green hair.’

But Niamh is studying homeopathy in Belfast. ‘That’s very interesting,’ says the Spanish woman. ‘I saw a programme about that once.’


Listen to Catharina van Bohemen read from Towards Compostella


Catharina van Bohemen walked the Camino de Santiago in 1998 and wrote about it in 2008 while completing the MA in Creative Writing at the IIML. In between she has taught English, reviewed fiction for the Dominion Post and New Zealand Books, and contributed to Booknotes.