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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Travelling alone and at a crossroads in her life, Harriet meets the enigmatic Naia in a Spanish hostel.

Submitted: June 08, 2016

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Submitted: June 08, 2016



The hostel's garden stretched towards the green hills that bordered Santiago de Compostela and when I first arrived the sunset was bleeding pink and orange over the horizon. I had been walking for a month, battered by rain and scorched by the sun, yet I still craved fresh air with an inexplicable thirst. The walls and gloom of the interior were stifling. As soon as I entered the dormitory, I heaved off my backpack, kicked the boots from my blistered feet and headed outside.


It was a quiet evening in April. As I passed through the kitchen door to the back garden, I saw only one other guest. She was reclining in an off-white plastic deck chair with a cigarette flopping lazily between two slim fingers, the straps of her bra pulled down beneath her arms to tan her shoulders and her flame-coloured hair scraped into a high bun. She wore denim shorts and a rolled-up vest, revealing freckled,  bronzed skin. Her mascaraed eyes were shut but they flew open as I approached, revealing warm hazel irises.


I smiled at her and greeted her in Spanish. She responded in kind but closed her eyes again as if to signal that she didn't want to be disturbed. I settled in a chair at the scarred wooden table and gazed at the sunset. I had become accustomed to solitude but now that my journey was over I could already feel the old desire for companionship encroaching. After a month of battling the elements and pushing my body to extremes, I wanted to share my achievement with someone.


I got my chance later that night when the other guests returned from their excursions of the day and set out on the hostel's nightly bar crawl. Other travellers and pilgrims congratulated me and together we drank Galician beer and discussed the highs and lows of our journeys. The third bar was in a candlelit basement with low wooden beams, where a troupe of aging men played Celtic music and both locals and tourists congregated to dance and do shots. Men surrounded me, brushing their fingers against my waist and calling me “beautiful chica inglesa” and when I spotted the girl from the garden I darted over to her as a means of escape.


Hola!” I exclaimed. She looked different in the night time, her red hair straight and trailing down her back and a black crop top and jeans clinging to her body. Her lips had been reddened by wine and her intoxicated eyes glittered.


Hola,” she said, squeezing my hand. “I hear you're British?” Her accent told me she was American.


“Yeah, from near London,” I informed her. “Where are you from?”


“Nowhere special,” she replied before taking a gulp from her glass. “I saw you earlier. You're a pilgrim?”


I nodded. “I just finished today. Are you?”


“No, no, I live here,” she laughed. “I work at the hostel. I get the fun job of cleaning the bathrooms in exchange for a bed.”


“Oh, so how long have you been here?” I asked.


“Way too long.” She winked at me. “You'll just be here a few days, right? Pilgrims never stick around.”


“I'm not sure yet.” In truth, I was clueless as to where I'd be even a week from then. It didn't matter to me so long as I avoided going back to my parents’ house where their disappointment in me reeked through the rooms.


“Well, it's a gorgeous place. You should stay a while.” She drained the last of her wine while looking at me and then grabbed my hands and said, “Come on, dance with me.”


She led me to the centre of the room, slipped her fingers around the back of my neck and moved her hips against mine. I was dimly aware of the men leering at the two of us with glee, the thud of music and the beer flowing in my veins. But mostly I was aware of the speck of blue in her eyes and the mole above her navel, the sloped tip of her nose and softness of her skin. She looked into my eyes in such a way that I was sure she could see straight into my soul.


A while later I left her to go the toilet, feeling like I was treading on a cloud. In the mirror I saw my face was flushed and that sweat had run my eyeliner into rings but I knew I looked good, healthy and strong after the trail and with my blonde hair that was so uncommon here. I rifled through my bag until my hand fell upon my lipstick. Make-up to me was like warrior paint. With my lips painted red, I felt like I could achieve anything.


When I returned to the spot where we had danced, the American girl had disappeared. Although I searched around the bar and ventured into the smoking area outside, I didn't see her again that night.


We met again over breakfast. It was late, close to eleven, and the other guests had already set off sightseeing or checked out for their next adventure. She entered the kitchen as I stood at the counter making coffee. I offered her a cup and she accepted.


“How are you?” she asked brightly.


“Good, thanks. A little hungover. But I want to go to the cathedral and do some exploring.” I buttered a slice of bread and sat down at a table in the corner and she placed herself in the seat opposite. “How are you?”


“Good. It's my day off. Hence the lie-in.” She slowly sipped her coffee and looked at me in the same strange way as the previous night.


“What are you going to do?” I asked.


Her eyes left mine and she leaned back in her chair. “I don't really have a plan. I might go to the park; the weather's so good today.”


“You can come with me, if you want?” I suggested.


She shrugged and smiled. “Yeah, sure. I can show you the good places. What's your name, anyway?”


“Oh, of course. I always forget to ask,” I told her, embarrassed. “I'm Harriet.”


“I'm Naia,” she said.


Naia and I spent that day strolling in the labyrinth of the old town, which was overflowing with cobbled alleyways and stone fountains. At almost every corner stood a musician playing Spanish guitar and singing a lament of lost love. There were many pilgrims, limping still with their walking sticks and sun hats, as well as old women walking their dogs, groups of schoolchildren with matching backpacks and young couples strolling hand in hand. The sun warmed my skin and I felt nourished by the city’s life and vibrancy. As we walked, I found out little by little about Naia’s life. She had no siblings, had studied Fine Art in San Francisco and had lived in Europe for three years. Her favourite book was The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, she spoke Spanish and Catalan and she loved hip hop and jazz. She always forgot to take photographs and regretted it later and she dreamed of living in an artists’ colony by the ocean.


“I feel awkward in churches,” Naia announced as we approached the entrance of the cathedral. “I used to be religious, you know, when I was a kid. I went to a Catholic school with a uniform and everything. I don’t believe any more but I still feel like I’m being judged or something, when I go to a holy place.”


“I’m  not religious either,” I told her.


“Why did you do the pilgrimage?” she asked, with an inquisitive smile.


“I needed a break from reality,” I answered.


“Mmm, I know that feeling.” Naia smirked. “I guess walking across an entire country is as good a break as any.” A sudden breeze caught her hair and blew it across her face. She pushed it back and said, “I’ll wait for you out here.”


I nodded. “Okay.” Naia sat down on a stone wall and I walked into the cathedral.


A service was taking place when I entered. The cathedral was full of worshippers listening to a robed boy in his early teens singing a hymn. I felt their eyes on me as I tiptoed past the rows and I understood what Naia meant about feeling awkward. The interior was magnificent but I spent only a couple of minutes walking around before leaving. The cathedral was the official destination of the pilgrimage, yet I hadn’t walked with the intention of becoming closer to God, only with the intention of getting further from myself.


Outside, Naia had her eyes closed and face turned upwards towards the sun. A cigarette was lit between her fingers. She seemed to instinctively know that I was coming because before I said anything she opened her eyes and looked right at me.


“Are you hungry?” She stood up. “I’m starving.”


“Yeah, kind of hungry,” I replied.


“I know a place that does amazing bocadillos,” she said. “We can eat them in the park.”


Later, with our picnic in tow, we found a spot in the park beside a palm tree and sat down beside each other in the long grass. The air smelt of pine and was filled with birdsong.


“I’d like to see your paintings,” I told Naia as we ate.


“I don’t have many here in Santiago. I gave most of them away before I left Barcelona.”


“What were you doing in Barcelona?” I asked.


Naia’s eyes fell upon the hills in the distance and I knew she was seeing something else. “My mum is from Catalonia but she’s lived in the US since she met my dad. I went to visit my Spanish grandparents for the first time after I graduated. They live in this little village near Barcelona and after a couple of months, I got bored and moved into the city.”


“Did you work there?”


She laughed. “Not at all. I met a guy. And I just spent all my time with him and then we moved to Santiago together. He was from here.”


“Did you break up?”


Naia took a bite of her bocadillo and didn’t respond until she had swallowed. “He went back to his ex-girlfriend and his baby.” She spoke in a toneless, blunt manner but when she caught my sympathetic look, she exclaimed with a laugh, “Don’t look so sorry for me! I’m fine now. It was a while ago. And I know it sounds arrogant but I can get any man I want.”


I laughed, though I didn’t feel like laughing.


“You saw last night the way men are here. They’re desperate for it. Pretty girls like us, we can take our pick.” She grinned at me. “How about you, Harriet? Do you have someone in England?”


I shook my head. “No. To be honest, I don’t have much going on in England. I just dropped out of uni and moved back in with my parents.”


Naia pulled a face. “Poor you. I can’t imagine having to live with my parents again. Why did you drop out?”


“It just wasn’t for me,” I replied. “I felt like I was wasting my time, being stuck at a desk all day.”


She nodded. “Yeah, I get that. I mean, I chose Fine Art because I couldn’t bear the idea of writing any more essays after high school.” She smiled and I smiled back.


When we had finished eating, we lay down in the grass to soak up the sun. I stole glances at Naia’s bare brown shoulders while she absentmindedly stroked a severed daisy head against her freckled arm. A young man a few metres away was playing an instrument that resembled a ukulele while singing to a group of his friends. I closed my eyes and let his loud, heartfelt voice wash over me, so full of meaning though I didn’t understand the language.


“I love this city,” I remarked. “There’s so much music and everyone’s happy. It’s so different to home.”


“Yeah, it’s definitely special,” Naia agreed. She was silent for a moment, then added, “I have to leave though.”


I opened my eyes and turned my face towards her. “How come?”


She sighed and met my gaze, her eyes a mix of blue and yellow in the bright light. “It’s complicated. I’ve made a lot of mistakes here with guys. A lot of people are pissed at me. I think it’s time to start again. Besides,” she pronounced, perking up, “there are a million places in this world just as beautiful as Santiago.”


“Where do you want to go?”


She smiled. “You see that guy singing? He’s playing a cavaquinho, from Portugal. I want to move to Porto.”


“And what are you waiting for?”


“I’m scared, I guess. It’s tough, always starting over somewhere new where you don’t know anyone. It gets lonely.”


“I’ll come with you,” I offered.


“You will?”


“I need a fresh start too.”


I knew it was imprudent to make such promises to someone I’d only just met and at the same time I didn’t care. I had no responsibilities, belonged nowhere, and Naia could be my new purpose. At twenty years old and at a crossroads in my life, running away to Portugal with a beautiful American girl sounded far more enticing than returning to my childhood home. Anyone who has travelled alone will understand the immediacy of moments and relationships on the road. This immediacy meant that later that evening, as Naia and I sat together in the hostel garden sharing a bottle of red wine, we agreed to leave for Porto the very next day.


I lay in my bunk that night with as much anticipation as a child on Christmas Eve. I didn’t know if I wanted Naia to be a sister, a best friend or a lover but I was certain that I would follow her anywhere. I was no longer an aimless wanderer, alone in the world. Portugal seemed to me a beacon at the end of a tunnel, shimmering like Heaven after an arduous life.


At seven in the morning I showered, brushed my teeth and packed the few possessions of mine that were lying around the dorm. I headed to the kitchen and ate toast and fruit at a table with two German pilgrims, a man and a woman in their forties. We chatted about spectacular views, sleeping in churches and communicating with locals through rusty Spanish and desperate hand gestures. All the time I watched the clock; Naia had agreed to meet me there at eight but by half eight she was still nowhere to be seen. I said goodbye to the Germans, headed to Naia’s room on the top floor and knocked on the door marked “Privado”.


There was no sound from inside. After one more try at knocking, I opened the door and found the small room empty, the single bed stripped and any belongings gone. A knot began to form in my stomach. I headed downstairs to the reception, gripping the banister.


“Excuse me, have you seen Naia?” I asked the receptionist, a petite Spanish woman with short dark hair and tortoise shell glasses. She scoffed as I said Naia’s name.


“Yes, I have seen her. She left an hour ago with her things and said she will not come back.”


I swallowed. “Did she say where she was going?”


The woman shook her head with a frown. “No. She didn’t say where or why. Now we have nobody to clean the hostel.”


I stood there for a moment, unsure of what to do next. My things were all packed. I didn’t have Naia’s number. I had just resolved that I should wait to see if she would come back when the receptionist asked me, “Are you Harriet?”


I nodded.


"She said to give you this.” She handed me a small square of lined paper that had been folded into four.


I took it, thanked her and went up to my room clutching the paper in my damp palm. I sank onto my mattress and slowly unfurled the note. I read the scrawled, black words with a heavy heart.




Please think kindly of me. I’ve travelled to the ends of the earth and it’s still not enough. No matter where I go, I can’t outrun myself. Each potential connection takes a sickening turn and I begin to sense that I’m caught in a trap. Too many hands have touched me, too many voices have told me I’m beautiful. I’m a deer carcass surrounded by wolves and I’m still frantically, pointlessly in love with someone I’ll never see again. It’s a mess and I feel more alone than ever. So I’m going back to nature. There is peace in this world, I’m sure of it, and it’s not hiding in the confines of a human heart.


I hope you find everything you’re searching for.


She had signed the note with a lipstick stain.


I didn’t hear news of Naia until I was back in England. She had decided to do a pilgrimage of her own, a three-day hike from Santiago to Finisterre, the end of the world. Somewhere between the tree-lined cliffs and glittering Atlantic ocean, she found her own end. Her backpack was discovered washed up on the beach and though search parties were sent out for her, the fate of the American girl who vanished in Spain remained an enigma.


I like to think that Naia is still out there in some corner of the globe, still searching for some semblance of happiness. Because although her belongings had been discarded in the sea like a second skin, nobody ever found her passport.


© Copyright 2018 Riley Clayman. All rights reserved.

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