I first noticed Albert sitting on a park bench outside my office building. I took him to be in his late forties. There are a few reasons he stuck out for me. His dark navy suit had seen better days and the shirt might have been white a long time ago. His dark hair was greasy, flat. I couldn’t make out the colour of his eyes. He wore no shoes. It was mid-April, and warm. His feet were filthy with dried blood. I was struck most by the glow around him as if he had been polished by the sun.
The day was overcast, waiting for rain. I decided to take him a coffee and a sandwich. I wanted to know his story. At first, I sat without speaking, placing the coffee and sandwich in the space between us. I could almost feel the glow coming from him. He turned his face towards me and asked me for the time and the day. I told him, pushing the coffee nearer to him.
‘Please,’ I said, ‘these are for you.’
He thanked me, and I was taken aback by the sound of his voice. It was soft and gentle with a sense of innocence as if he had never seen or heard anything bad. The only thing I managed to find out that day was his name and that he was on his way to Canterbury Cathedral.
‘A penance…’ he said.
We are in the middle of Kent and miles from Canterbury. I looked at his feet, wondering if he would make it. He said no more and I went back to my office. I couldn’t work. I sat watching this man, a stranger that somehow stuck to me like a second skin.
That night at home, I told my very new wife about Albert. All night I couldn’t shake Albert from my mind. The next morning, over breakfast, I told my wife I needed to take a few days off, as I wanted to walk with Albert.
I should have mentioned earlier that my office and my job is publishing, looking for the next best seller. Albert has a story to tell, I wanted to be the one to tell it.
Alice, my wife agreed that it sounded too good not to try. I packed a rucksack with spare socks and underwear, a few tops, and a pair of soft jeans. Spare trainers, well-worn like the ones on my feet. Hoping to catch up with Albert. How hard could it be?
I knew where he was going.
I set off, hoping he hadn’t taken the long way to Canterbury. I popped into the office, letting them know what I was up to and leaving instructions for the time I would be gone. I had leave owing and took it, no argument.
Making my way to where I last saw Albert, I knew he wouldn’t be sitting there waiting for me. I asked around if anyone had seen a man with bare feet. Charlie on the paperstand said he had taken off towards Woolage Green. From Shepherdswell he couldn’t have gone far.
I found Albert sitting by a tree in Woolage Green. I don’t know what he was made off, but my legs were done in already. The light was leaving, and I asked if I could walk with him. He said he couldn’t stop me from walking in the same direction as the road was free to everyone.
I asked if he would be resting for a while, as I wanted to get some food from the shops nearby. I knew he must be hungry, thirsty at the very least. Looking over my shoulder, I must have taken twenty minutes before getting back to Albert where two young ladies had beaten me to it, giving him a sandwich and a bottle of water.
Sitting beside him, I did my best to get him talking. My first question was why he was punishing himself by walking with no shoes. His answer was simple.
‘So I can feel the ground.’
‘Can I ask, why Canterbury?’
‘It is the best place to make my confession.’
He didn’t seem to mind talking to me, but somehow I didn’t feel like pushing my luck. We slept beneath the tree. The ground was hard, my thoughts tearing around my head like a speeding bullet. Which made me wonder, had Albert killed someone?
Somehow, I didn’t think so. The night felt longer than any night I had tried to sleep through. Albert seemed quite comfortable propped up against the tree. When the sun came up, I couldn’t move. My back felt as though I had lain on rocks. Not smooth boulders either, jagged rocks. Albert was nowhere in sight. Again, I wasn’t worried. There was a Poppins in town and I decided on breakfast. Thinking about how fast Albert walked, I could cheat and jump on a bus to the next town, which was Barham.
A stranger told me he had been seen heading for the North Downs. I finally caught up with him at Aylesham, where again he had been fed. As if he were a monk with an invisible begging bowl. He seemed to be walking in whatever direction took his fancy. Asking how he felt, led me to my next question.
‘What are you punishing yourself for?’
He looked at me for a while and I wondered if I had gone too far. It was personal after all.
‘I will tell you my story, maybe then we can travel in peace. I am a simple man, an accountant. I live alone. I visit my parents to see they are all right. On one of those visits, my mother had left out an old photo album, which I flicked through. A letter slipped out, which I read. The words told me that I was one-half of a twin. Unfortunately, I had absorbed the other being while I was waiting to be born. At first, it didn’t bother me too much. A shock, yes. A year or so later, I found I couldn’t stop thinking about the life I had taken. My life fell apart, so here I am…’
Words failed me. This man was torturing himself for something he had no control over. I tried to explain this, but it did no good.
He said, ‘I took a life…’
The nearer we came to Canterbury, I watched the glow around Albert fading. A shadow now hung over him. I figured one more day and we would hit Canterbury high street. It was years since I had been there.
That last night, we slept under the shadow of the Cathedral. My bag stuffed with dirty clothes became my pillow. I wondered if a priest would be available to take Albert’s confession at such short notice. Undeterred, Albert walked through the open doors. Visitors stopped to watch as he passed. I didn’t know where the confessional boxes were located. By now, I looked every bit as dishevelled as Albert. I noticed a young priest walking towards us, he had kind blue eyes and asked if he could help.
Albert spoke, in that beautiful voice, which I swear, hypnotised the young priest. ‘I need to make confession and my companion, who has walked with me, could do with a blessing.’
The priest, who by now had said his name was Father Thomas, escorted us to a small room, where he asked Albert to sit down. ‘I am sure Father Michael will take your confession after I have seen to your feet.’
Albert made no objection. His feet were placed in a warm bowl of water. A hot cup of tea was placed on both of our hands. By now, I noticed the shadow beside Albert had grown, almost as though someone stood beside him.
Albert refused the soft shoes offered to him.
‘I will take you to Father Michael now,’ the young priest said, telling me to wait there for Albert. I said I would rather wait outside with the rest of the visitors.
An hour passed before I saw Albert again with Father Thomas. The shadow no longer walked beside him, the glow had returned.
Father Thomas told me that Albert would be staying with them for a while.
‘You may talk in the small room, for Albert has something to tell you.’
No thought of what that might be crossed my mind. The door shut behind us and the room felt smaller than before. I looked at Alberts’ feet, clean for the first time since I met him.
‘I want to thank you for walking with me. You can tell my story as your own, about a man you met along the way.’
Albert left me alone in the room. I sat awhile before managing to move.
I wrote the story for Albert and the many people who might feel guilt that doesn’t truly belong to them. The title was simple, Albert. My dedication inside read, Thank you for the Journey…