As the numbers on the signs got smaller, the group increased its pace. It was inevitable that Anne and Leon were left behind. The wheelchair that had amazed them in the small town outside Bristol, was now falling to pieces. Earlier in the day, Leon had slid himself down the embankment on the edge of the thick road to pluck some of the fat pieces of long, dark green grass to stuff into the flattened tyres, but now they were falling apart and leaving a narrow trail of crushed grass and perishing rubber on the grey road surface. By the time night fell, they couldn’t even see the fire of the group ahead.
“You alright pushin?” she asked. Sometimes she’d do half hour with her arms but the rotting grass wheels made it painfully slow.
“Aye. Just. Need rest soon though.”
Anne listened to his ragged breathing for a little while in the darkness.
“Can I ask you summin?” He asked.
“Course,” she said.
Leon stopped pushing, came round in from of the chair pulling his baccy from his pocket, and sat heavily on the road, using his bag to lean on. “Stop for a smoke s’well, I think.”
Slowly, with great care, he rolled his cigarette. “We’ve not seen anyone coming or going on this road, except for Alan’s lot up ahead, yeah?”
“But loads of people take the pilgrimage. So are we going the wrong way?”
She watched him strike a match on the road and light his pathetically thin rollup. Finally, she said: “We’re going the long way. ’S’no way we’d outrun the bastards in Dover and Folkstown… Well, you might. I ain’t got a chance.”
“My mum told me Folkstown wasn’t real,” he said. “But my dad said there was a hole there that meant pilgrims didn’t need to cross the water.”
“Your mum tell you the bastards made up the hole story to make people go that way?”
“No. She just said it wasn’t real.”
“I dunno love… but we’re well on our way now.”
Leon shrugged the large bag from his back, and began pulling out the popup tent they had used for night shelter since Birmingham and some unlabelled cans.
“We staying here then?”
“Looks like it. Good as anywhere else.” His knife was a dirty red, but the blade he used to open up the dented can was oiled and sharp. As it cut into the tin - his rollup dangling casually from his dry lips - the noise set Anne’s teeth on edge, but she felt her mouth begin to water as she smelled sweetcorn. He was a good boy.
“Do you reckon we ought to get off the road?”
Leon puffed a long stream of smoke into the dark. “Nah,” he said. “Like you said. We ain’t seen nobody going back or forth. It’s good.”
The fake leg was as useful as her real one, but symmetry was important to her and so she went to the trouble of attaching it each morning, and removing it only after sundown. Leon didn’t really understand but felt too uncomfortable asking questions. He watched her unstrap it and heave it over her shoulder to hang on the handle. The top of her body, as she carried herself out of the chair, moved with grace, but her remaining leg was an obstacle. She had talked, briefly, about working out a way to take it off and make everything easier, but the thought of it left Leon - and surely it would be him who was called on to wield the axe or saw - with a deep, unpleasant tingle in his stomach and groin.
Some nights, Anne would listen to the boy beside her and wonder how she had been so lucky to find him. While the others had ignored her or made it obvious she was holding them back, he had stayed, helped and even cuddled her occasionally. One night he had kissed her gently on the neck and said: “Thanks for looking after me.” She lay awake then, baffled.
Slowly they made their way to the smell of the ocean. The others had waited. They said they knew crossing the water would be impossible for “the slackers” on their own, so they had rested in a tall building with smashed windows and a facade whose old gray paint resisted the warm colour of the spring sun. A white flag had been hung on the colonnade as a signal for Anne and Leon.
Of course, Leon was the one they really needed; not even someone with Alan’s supreme confidence would wonder the roads of France and Spain without a map.
In the four days they had been waiting, the group had found a boat and made sure it was seaworthy. Someone had painted COMPOSTELA on the bow in exuberant tar letters.
After two days at sea, the last of the food had been eaten and there was still no sign of anything on the horizon. Alan said they had some hard decisions to make. They argued most of the night as though Anne wasn’t sat crying just a few feet from them, cold and unprotected. They took the difficult decision, and as a bruise yellow sun broke the horizon on the third day, three people struggled to lift her over the side. The wheelchair - lighter, more compliant - followed.
The thick woollen coat that kept her warm on cold nights dragged at Anne’s body. She knew she would sink as quickly as her carriage. Her arms were growing tired and even crying took too much effort. But still she fought, not seeing the confused and appalled face of Leon watching from the stern of the boat. Right until she could no longer stay above the water; until her disloyal body insisted on trying to breath in the salty water; until her arms became as heavy and useless as her leg, she fought.