The visitors appear each day at three o’clock.
They arrive a muddle of raincoats and carrier bags and walking sticks, and tumble past the nurses’ station like leaves. They colour in an NHS grey, sketching the air with stories of a life once lived, and leaving a trail of sweet wrappers and paperbacks and fresh pyjamas wherever they walk.
When a bell is rung, they scrape plastic chairs on plastic lino, and disappear back to an ordinary world, fattened with self-sacrifice and thick with relief at a life resumed.
But there are others. In side rooms all around the hospital, families pleat around besides, saying untidy goodbyes to those who drift between this world and the next. They try to pour a lifetime of unspoken words into the last few hours of life, emptying themselves of guilt and silence and regret. They whisper into ears that cannot hear, and hold hands that cannot feel. They make a journey for someone who doesn’t even know they are there, because it’s the whispering that counts, not the listening. The holding, not the feeling.
It’s the pilgrimage that matters.
‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ is the debut novel from Rachel Joyce. It tells the tale of a man who sets out to post a letter to a dying friend, and who has no idea that he is about to walk from one end of the country to the other. Harold believes that as long as he keeps walking, his friend will live. It’s a beautifully written story of faith and regret and discovery, and I came to love Harold so much, I was willing him on with every step of his canvas shoes.
I see a little of Harold in those who gather around the dying. I see the pilgrimage they make each day and I hear the rush of last-minute words, the forfeit for a life half-spoken. I see hope so brittle, it breaks before my very eyes, and I see regret so deep and so heartfelt, it sits by the bed like a silent visitor.
I see a little of Harold in all of us. I see the certainty that no matter how mindful we are and how wisely we choose our words, we will one day find ourselves waiting by a bedside with a lifetime of thoughts in our mouth, holding a hand that can no longer feel.
And we will make an unlikely pilgrimage of our own.
‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’, by Rachel Joyce, is published by Doubleday on March 15th.
You can order it from Amazon UK here
Or from Waterstones here.
But please don’t forget your local, independent bookshop.
Your life will be a better place for knowing Harold Fry …