Blessay 27: An Afternoon at Lourdes

Today I was talking to an angry man, on a train to Brighton, who was telling me about a friend who’d just died from prostate cancer. ‘Martin couldn’t get out of bed, and his wife booked a flight for him to travel to Lourdes. She’s a bloody old-fashioned Catholic…insisted he try a miracle cure…hah!’

Skeptic though I am, I didn’t echo his dismissive ‘hah!’

I was reminded of my only, completely unplanned, visit to Lourdes in August 1988. I’d a girlfriend named Suzanne and was staying with her, and her parents, in a beautiful old country house, near the town of Pau in the Pyrenees. My week with Suzanne had been pretty fraught. She was inclined to suddenly halt a conversation, look cautiously round to check no one was in sight, and then angrily whisper obscenities about her father (a carpet salesman) into my ear. I listened and made no judgement. Country walks together and breaks, on my own, became a necessity.

Such a ‘break’ came in the form of a bus trip to Lourdes, only 41 kms from Pau. Morbid curiosity made me buy a return ticket. It was a sweltering hot day and the bus was crowded. On arrival in Lourdes miracle expectation, exuding from pilgrims and tourists, now crowding the streets, had pushed up the ambient temperature by a few degrees. I walked behind a small t-shirted group clutching tiny wooden crucifixes, rosary beads and pocket bibles.

The Virgin Mary grotto at Lourdes stands on hill. Dropping my group I went on alone up the hill. But not for long. I had to make way for a processional line of wheelchairs pushed by nurses. The headgear and uniform of the young nurses looked oddly archaic, almost First World War in style. Their patients were men and women of all ages – a ‘suffering humanity’ wearing sunglasses and dressed in white pyjamas.  The nurses were very cheerful. Some singing, in Italian, Jesu-Mary ditties. It was like the satirical spa scene in Fellini’s 8 1/2. All it needed was Rossini’s Thieving Magpie overture from the film’s soundtrack.

At the grotto people were drinking water from installed taps. Some merely sipped, others gulped down paper-cups of water and a few choked from drinking too much, too fast. As they were watered candle after cancel was lit to the accompaniment of a piped choir. When the nurses weren’t filling the cups, pilgrims were allowed to reach out and touch the rocks underneath the statue of Mary. One young man had a pen-knife and was trying to hack of a bit of rock. After a short struggle, with a big nurse, the knife was confiscated.

The pilgrim patients were now wide-eyed and hopeful. They tried to rise from their chairs, or shake as much of their infirmed bodies as possible. The nurses couldn’t agree on whether to pin them down or help them up. Then a tall matron, standing next to a row of empty stretches, lying on the grass, barked through a megaphone. ‘The mayor is expecting our group for tea at five. Avanti! Avanti!’

The waters have been officially tested and found to have no curative properties. In perfect health I drank a little Lourdes water. It tasted like flat white lemonade (Whereas the best non-curative water I’ve ever tasted was from a stream on the island of Lewes. Hebridean champagne that soothed my headache.)

There’s also the Lourdes water that people bathe in. In the 1895 a lot did. Much to the disgust of Emile Zola.

‘The Fathers of the Grotto only allowed the water of the baths to be changed twice a day. And nearly a hundred patients being dipped in the same water, it can be imagined what a terrible soup the latter at last became.’

On my August day out many came to be dipped. I hoped health and safety laws were being properly observed. That the dirty soup wasn’t allowed to thicken.

Walking back through town I endured shop window, after shop window, full of Virgin Mary merchandise. Art gallery rooms, of too many Renaissance pictures of Mary, with the infant Jesus, can strain your aesthetic self. But Mary alone, as a cheap fetish, is quite a horror. Amidst all the mugs, pictures, t-shirts, bags and jewellery stood Mary, immaculately conceived as soap. ‘Glowing 3-D silicone soap’ according to the label.

I caught the 5.30 bus. On arriving in Pau Suzanne was waiting for me in her favourite cafe.’So how did you get one with the sick?’ She asked, smoking a cigarette. Suzanne looked too bright-eyed from her substances. It was her little pill to ward of the blues and confusion. Others had fresh water, soupy prospects and infinite belief. Exhausted, I couldn’t answer her, yet.

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