Harold Fry retired recently having worked as a sales rep for the brewery for forty-five years. He was an unassuming man, keeping to himself, working modestly and efficiently, without seeking either promotion or attention.
Harold met Maureen at a dance. They later ‘tied the knot.’ Their marriage faltered when their only son David took his life twenty years ago. There were sorrow and disbelief, anger and frustration, blame and guilt. Heated words and accusations were exchanged until they ran out of words.
David’s death plunged them into separate darkness. They retreated, finding consolation in their own thoughts. Their communication was minimal, lacking affection and understanding. They were grieving and it was complicated.
One morning in April a mysterious letter arrived for Harold. It was from a former work colleague, a woman who had worked in the finances department. The letter was a thank you and a goodbye. She was dying of cancer.
Harold was shocked by the letter and all the memories it rekindled. He tried to think of an appropriate response but what do you say to a dying woman with cancer. His reply was short, expressing his sorrow.
He left the house and made his way to the nearest post box. He stood there with the letter in his hand. Shamed by the inadequacy of what he had written, he couldn’t let the letter go. He walked on.
So began The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce’s debut novel.
Harold contacted the hospice where his friend was staying. He left a message:
“Tell her I’m on my way. All she has to do is wait. I will keep walking and she must keep living.”
But it was a long way from Kingsbridge to Berwick-upon-Tweed, in fact, the length of the country. He had his waterproof jacket and his yachting shoes and ‘faith,’ although he wasn’t sure what it meant. He believed he could achieve the impossible. He believed he could walk the 627 miles and fulfil his promise.
This wasn’t a vacation, a time to relax and indulge. Harold had accepted a life-giving challenge that would stretch him physically, energise him intellectually, and break him emotionally.
Harold became a pilgrim, a seeker, a helper, an observer. He reflected on the past and mourned his losses. He relived his failures and errors of judgment, weeping uncontrollably. He experienced acts of kindness and generosity from ‘strangers.’ His commitment and determination inspired hope and courage in other strugglers.
Walking gave him time to think. He felt a sense of freedom, a release from the pressures and distractions of life. He wasn’t afraid. He understood his vulnerability. He was exposed and there was nowhere to hide.
“In walking, he unleashed the past that he had spent twenty years seeking to avoid, and now it clattered and played through his head with a wild energy that was its own. He no longer saw distance as miles. He measured it with his remembering.”
Walking gave him opportunities to connect with people. Sometimes it was out of necessity. He hadn’t made the necessary preparations. He was ill-equipped for the journey. He was the first to admit there were elements of his plan that were not finely tuned.
“Harold understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passer-by, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went.”
Harold encountered a boisterous group of cyclists in the dining room of a farmhouse. The ringleader, a dark-skinned woman with a skeletal face, confronted him. She talked quickly, boasting of her freedom. As she was leaving she embraced Harold. He saw that her inner arm was lacerated with two deep scars that scissored the flesh between her wrist an elbow. In places, one still wore the beads of a scab.
The image lodged in Harold’s consciousness. It disturbed him.
“As he walked on, all he could think of was the cycling mother. He wondered when it was she had felt so desolate she had cut her arm, and left it to bleed. He wondered who had found her, and what they had done. Had she wanted to be saved? Or had they dragged her back to life just as she believed she was free of it? He wished he could have said something; something to make her never do it again. If he had comforted her, he could have let her go.”
I was employed as a Disability Employment Consultant for five years. One of my clients was a young woman who self-harmed. She had many scars on both her arms. She told me she had a set routine when she cut herself. She even had a favourite chair. She wore clothing to hide her scars when she was out in public.
Self-harm is an unhealthy way to cope with intense pain, distress or unbearable negative feelings, thoughts and memories. While self-harm may bring a momentary sense of calm and a release of tension, it’s usually followed by guilt and shame and the return of painful emotions.
Although self-harm is not a suicide attempt, it can increase the risk of suicide because of the emotional problems that trigger self-injury.
Harold’s son David self-harmed. He used drugs and alcohol. He was an intelligent young man, far too knowledgeable for his father. They weren’t able to connect and Harold didn’t know how to bridge the gap. His parents hadn’t provided him with the skills and insight. His father had been an alcoholic and his mother walked out on him.
By reaching out to the bruised and the messed up Harold found he was able to empathise. He cared about the people he met. He cared about Maureen whom he had left behind. He cared about his dying friend in the hospice. Somehow the caring allowed Harold to look within and care about his own emotional scars.
Walking became restorative. It allowed him to confront his brokenness, ‘to pull-up his sleeves and show the scars.’ He was able to acknowledge that he needed someone to believe in him, someone who understood his past, and someone who would love him unconditionally.
Harold accomplished what he had set to do. He talked with his friend who had hung on, awaiting his arrival. She was aware of his presence but couldn’t talk. The cancer had ravaged her body. Her tongue had been removed. She died peacefully not long after his visit.
Maureen found him alone, sitting on a bench, looking out towards the water’s edge. He looked beaten, hunched against the wind. She sat by him, reached out, and touched his hand. There was hope Harold Fry might live again.