Part 1: Inspiration.

A friend once told me, “when you’re bored of London, you’re bored of life”. I’m not sure this was strictly true for me, but at the end of 2010, I missed my family and friends and yearned for the sun-filled Australian summers of my childhood. So after seven years of cheap beers at Wetherspoons (and even cheaper flights through Ryanair), I decided to return to Melbourne.

I made a list of all the things I’d do upon my return: watch the Pies play at the G; move into an apartment close to the beach; finish my novel. The Devil’s in the Detail was a satirical commentary about good versus evil, played out through a London cabbie’s trial in the Court of Saint Peter. For five years, I’d worked on it, tapping away whenever inspiration arrived. But the long hours in the office at Canary Wharf had taken their toll, causing inspiration to come far less frequently. My story had a beginning and an end but a novel-shaped hole in its middle.

Walking has always been my chosen method to overcome writer’s block – it still is. I’d heard about a hike across Spain called the Camino de Santiago (“the Way of Saint James”), an 800-kilometre trek across Spain. Thinking it might offer the creative tonic I needed and a fitting bookend to my time in Europe, I packed a backpack and bought one final cheap Ryanair to the European continent.

There are several different Caminos – one which snakes along Spain’s northern coast, and another which emerges from the country’s south. I walked the Camino Frances, which begins at the picturesque village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees. Like the other Caminos, mine would also eventually arrive at the city of Santiago de Compostela – the final resting place of Saint James. And while the Camino is traditionally a Catholic pilgrimage, thousands of non-religious people like me walk it every year. Some for reflection, others for exercise, many embark upon it to simply marvel at the country’s breathtaking scenery.

The path itself is straightforward. No maps or guidebooks were required, just a series of yellow arrows or clamshells marked the way. For 30 straight days, I woke at first light, ate a small breakfast and drank a bitter café con leche (coffee) before setting off. On average, I walked 30 kilometres a day. On the hottest days, I walked less, while my longest stretch was a gruelling 43 kilometres from Burgos to Castrojerez. Each night I’d sleep in a different albergue (hostel), where I’d have my credencial (pilgrim’s passport) stamped as proof of my eventual journey.

To some, this could easily sound like a month of hell, but for me, it was bliss. Sure, there were trials along the way – golf-ball-sized blisters and sleepless nights in hostels filled with orchestras of snorers, rustlers and farters. But it was also a month devoid of any form of decision-making or planning. When I was hungry, I ate; when I was tired, I found an albergue for the night.

Temporarily unburdened by the usual responsibilities of real life, I found my thoughts beginning to slow and my other senses reawakening. With no pre-determined schedule to keep, I took the time to read the plaques below the statues and paintings in the villages I passed through. Each town seemed to have its own story, and I slowly pieced together more of the fascinating history of the country I was traversing. Walking alone also allowed me to meet people from across the world and listen to how their own paths had temporarily entwined with mine. I made new friends. Sometimes we walked together for weeks, while other times it was just a few hours. I practised my Spanish, eventually talking about topics other than food and the weather. But mostly, I had time to daydream and think. So when I finally reached Santiago four weeks after beginning my journey, I arrived with the remaining plot and characters I needed to finish my novel. And an ill-advised beard which was more ginger than I’d hoped.

A few days later, as I sat at the airport and waited for my flight back to Melbourne, I sipped on my last café con leche and took out my notebook. I began jotting down some thoughts about the novel. I wrote down a few plot points and a handful of scenes I’d dreamt up along my hike. But what I’d written down wasn’t my existing novel; it was a collection of ideas that might one day make a new story. There was an ill-fated marriage proposal, a journey across Spain in search of answers, and a story that could somehow tell slices of the colourful Spanish history I’d learned on my journey.

There wasn’t enough for a new novel – not yet – but it had a name. At the top of the page, I wrote down “Once Upon a Camino”.

Once Upon a Camino is Matthew S. Wilson’s second novel, and will be available in 2022.

The Last Laugh.

I lift my head from the barn’s straw-covered floor. A muddy pair of boots step around my goats, and the suit of bells rattles down upon the ground.

‘The king wants his jester.’

I don’t say a word; they took my tongue many years ago. I simply undress and pull on my second skin. The faded velvet feels ever snug against my expired body. The guardsman leads me through the city and past the East Gate – open for the first time since the infant princess’ sudden death. The streets glint with the polished armour of knights in the morning sun; the ears of noblewomen droop beneath peach-sized pearls. A delegation from the South is heralded by the trumpeting of an enormous elephant, its body wrapped in copper-coloured armour. A procession of dignitaries stride behind it, shaded beneath umbrellas made from peacock feathers.

At the palace gates, a minister measures the loyalty of the King’s subjects by the weight of their purses. I abandon my escort and make the familiar climb to the Great Hall – my aged knees throb with each laboured step. Inside, the hall is thick with courtesans and ambition. I remove my rice-filled balloons from my pocket and juggle them high into the air. My performance begins.

Our King arrives at the middle hour. His sunken cheeks confirm the rumours of untouched platters being returned from his chambers.

The crowd hushes.

‘Five full moons have passed since my Elmeria was poisoned.’ The King of Axes’ voice has withered to weeds. ‘A father ought never know the anguish of burying his own child.’ He turns to the bronzed doors behind him. ‘But today, we shall restore justice.’

The trial is swift. Each of the nameless cooks confesses, undoubtedly desperate to spare their families the horrors of the dungeons. The sentence is clear and immediate. Dinah the Executioner swings her scythe truly, and the palace floor is painted red with vengeance. When the headless corpses are removed, joyous music bursts from the band, wafting up to the hall’s vaulted ceiling. My King’s dark eyes glitter toward me.

‘Cattelus – my trusted performer – would you dance for your King?’

I hobble into the room’s centre and begin my jig. The musician’s quickened pace betrays me, and my brittle bones creak as I rock ever faster. The audience’s complicit grins gurgle into laughter. My King beams from his throne. He has long forgotten the man imprisoned within this suit of bells: the youngest brother of a conquered rival. A man whose own wife and children were slain to avoid imagined future uprisings. My King is right – no father should ever know the horror of burying his children.

The music hastens; the wails of laughter lash my sweat-drenched back. They see Cattelus, the dancing hound – not the childless father who plots his revenge while delivering milk to feed their children.

Or princesses.

I dance faster for my King – breathless and revelling in his sweet laughter.

© Matthew S. Wilson, October 2021

This piece was originally written for October’s Furious Fiction writing challenge, ran by the Australian Writers Centre.


I’d never imagined living in an attic.

Frank was the only one to come up here – twice a year to fetch and return the Christmas lights. Like everything else, he stopped doing that the year I died. Frank simply sunk deeper into his couch, unable to hear or see me, irrespective of how many chairs I upended or windows I rattled. He’d filtered my voice out long ago – why on earth had I expected him to hear me when I was dead? I spent the following months watching him and my houseplants gradually die. My Monstera outlasted him by a month. When the paramedics wheeled his body away, I was trapped alone in the house.

A young family eventually bought it. They seemed nice enough, but every time I attempted to befriend them, the house shook with their children’s screams. Their fear, mixed with my sadness of seeing my home erased beneath the wife’s ghoulish wallpaper, forced me into the only place I didn’t feel haunted. So for decades, I’ve dwelled here in the attic, where my only friends have been the spiders, whose knitted webs have slowly filled with blundering moths.

And then, one day, the house fell quiet.

Initially, I assumed it was just another of their family holidays. But when the weeks seeped into months, I ventured downstairs. A woman stood over a stove in the kitchen. A young girl next to her passed ingredients to her. I watched the two strangers sit at the table; they ate their dinner with chopsticks. Afterwards, the girl stood on two stacked telephone books and washed the dishes in the sink. Her mother reappeared from the hallway, now dressed in a waitress’ uniform.

‘In bed by 8 o’clock.’

The front door closed behind her. I followed the little girl, no older than ten, around my disfigured home. She brushed her teeth and lay in bed, reading a book about dinosaurs. Her eyelids had begun growing heavy when I clumsily knocked a snow-globe from her bedside table onto the floorboards. The girl sat up rigid; her dark eyes pierced me. I retreated to the hallway, noticing the name on her bedroom door.


I lingered in the attic for several days, pondering the new tenants. When I crept downstairs again, the girl was alone in the kitchen. She climbed down her telephone books from a sizzling pan of vegetables on the stove over to the pantry’s spice rack. I watched her little fingers wind their way past jars of herbs. The stove growled. I turned toward a plume of flame leaping from the pan into the air. The little girl panicked and snatched a nearby jug of water.

‘Ruth, no.’

I slammed the nearby glass lid down onto the pan – the fire hissed as it died – and turned to ensure the girl was safe. The jug trembled in her hand.

‘It’s you again,’ she said.

© Matthew S. Wilson, September 2021

This piece was originally written for October’s Furious Fiction writing challenge, ran by the Australian Writers Centre.