The Trip to Lourdes
Chantal Schaul, 2003
I went to Sherwood Borstal when I was sixteen, and it didn’t take long for my gentlemanly ways to secure me the position of head boy to the borstal freshers.
There were some strange and deranged chaps among them. One chap, called Robert, never spoke a word. We thought he was dumb. But we couldn’t explain why he was so intent on torturing himself at every possible opportunity.
Robert volunteered to break stones in the courtyard for whole afternoons, even though he had done nothing bad. He gladly donated his meals to the rough chaps who had been put on a restricted diet for being rebellious. He insisted on being caned alongside villainous lads. Sometimes Governor Caldwell had him birched for being so insistent on punishment.
Robert went through his beatings without a single moan.
One day he had a visitor, a delicate young lady, pale as a lily. Her appearance stood in sharp contrast to Robert’s darker colourings, his olive tinted skin and coal black hair. The lady’s ashen blond locks were neatly woven into a bun. She wore a pale blue dress that covered her ankles, and a light grey raincoat that only reached midway down her calves and gaped open at the chest. Both her hands firmly gripped a big coarse leather bag.
Visitors were rare in borstal. Most lads had been disowned by their families. Sometimes their relatives were in jail themselves. Friends rarely dropped by because they were too embarrassed to be brought in connection with us.
We had certainly never seen such a fetching young lady in our midst. Some of the chaps, otherwise wayward, stubborn and tough as borstal beef, blushed when she breezed by. One clasped his nether region and landed in solitary confinement for a month.
The girl was guided through the low grey corridors, to Robert’s cell. She didn’t stay long. When she came out, her eyes were flooded with tears. She walked straight through our rows, seemingly unaware of our presence, her hand tucked around the governor’s uniformed elbow.
That was the last we saw of her.
I was reminded of the event years later. It was three months before my release and James Caldwell had taken to me enormously.
What a man he was, Governor Caldwell. Not overly tall, but what a presence he exuded. He radiated pure pride. He stood upright, always, his strong swollen chest like an iron shield ahead of him. He strode with a firm step, and no one and nothing ever dared to get in his way. He was such a stallion of a man.
He had the noblest features I have ever beheld on a man’s face. His blond beard shone like gold and velvet at the same time. His jaw stood out strong, in defiance of any rebellious inmates. His nose was broad, with stout and unfaltering nostrils. His steel blue eyes never hesitated for a second.
But James Caldwell had a softer side to him as well.
.I have seen many proud and defiant boys reduced to sobs and whimpers on the vaulting horse, just like little babies. The birch is an evil tool, I tell you. The lads had to be tied fast to that horse so they wouldn’t fall off in their writhing and contorting agony.
James Caldwell saved me from all that. He saw I was an upright chap, mistreated by life. He treated me like a son. My outstanding conduct and my excelling gentleman-like manners earned me his favouritism. He made special allowances for me. Unlike the other chaps, I didn’t have to wear the humiliating standard short trousers and I was allowed to grow and groom my hair as I pleased.’
I was the only chap allowed to enter Caldwell’s quarters, and so he’d invited me round for afternoon tea on this particular occasion. Robert was dead by then. His behind had developed gangrene after too many birchings. Caldwell reassured me that the poor fellow had enjoyed every minute of his agonising death.
Over a cup of perfectly brewed Earl Grey and a slice of Victoria sponge, Caldwell told me that Robert’s lady, Marie by name, had poured out her heart to him all those years ago. And he proceeded to tell me the entire tale.
Marie and Robert met inside a morgue. She was arranging wreaths on a coffin when he stepped in.
Robert was the youngest of a well-to-do family. He was dapper and jaunty, a sauntering chap, a light-hearted flirt, indulging in all sorts of revels and frolics, but always respectful and decent.
When he saw Marie, all his carefree playfulness was swept aside in one blast. He worshipped her from the very first moment, when he had to swallow hard as she tenderly straightened the petal of a dahlia.
Marie found him equally captivating and let her eyes wander over the clean handkerchief that protruded from his front pocket, the impeccably groomed hair, the smooth and youthful face. She noticed how the lower rim of his eyes naturally curved upwards in the middle, as if he was constantly laughing or squinting.
‘I will be out in a minute, sir.’
He gestured wildly. ‘No, my dear, no. Please feel free to tidy those blossoms as long as you like.’
‘You must be a relative,’ she whispered and sadly looked down at the coffin.
‘Yes, yes, it is my dear Grandmama in there. But I never knew her. She lived in Timbuktu for the past thirty years.’
Robert was extremely well spoken and made Marie aware of her lesser station in life. She was the only daughter of two extremely pious parents, Mr and Mrs Carpenter. They read the Bible every morning, went to church, prayed, and, after a frugal lunch, performed a number of good deeds, went to church again and finished the day by reading the Bible.
Marie’s parents volunteered to clean churches, polish coffins, and distribute ‘Love Jesus’ flyers in the streets. They sold crucifixes for charity and wrote pamphlets against prostitutes, abortionists, alcoholics, sports car drivers, pregnant teenagers, illicit children, terrorists, pin-up girls, young delinquents, tax accountants, womanisers, divorcees and stockbrokers.
Marie volunteered to arrange wreaths on coffins.
Mr and Mrs Carpenter were overly protective of their only child. Their goal in life was to shelter her from all evil and corruption. Had they seen how she shared the same space and breathed the same air as young Robert, they would have thrown a linen sheet over her head to shield her from the frolicking fellow. But they were otherwise engaged, diligently weeding and pruning the reverend’s lily beds.
Unimpeded by parental obstacles, destiny was free to take its course. Marie, charmed and moved by Robert’s floundering gestures, opened the portals of her heart to him.
‘I’m sorry about your grandmother,’ Marie chanted with the most angelic voice she could conjure up.
Robert seemed mesmerised. He approached a few steps.
By the time the Carpenters had finished pruning, it was too late. Marie and Robert had lost themselves. The scandalised parents found the two youths gazing at each other across the coffin, so absorbed that they didn’t even notice the stern couple standing in judgement.
Mr Carpenter was horrified by the young man’s debauched ways and rudely swung him around by the shoulders. Mrs Carpenter covered her daughter’s eyes with her hand.
‘Sir, would you leave my daughter alone?’ Mr Carpenter barked.
‘Golly,’ Robert replied, ‘I was doing no harm to your divine daughter. On the contrary–’
‘You were staring at her indecently,’ Mr Carpenter interrupted.
‘But father, he did nothing wrong,’ Marie pleaded.
‘If eyeing up my daughter is doing nothing wrong, I shall be cursed by the devil himself, and pierced by his red hot poker a million times,’ Mr Carpenter exclaimed. ‘I know your sort!’ His eyes flared at Robert. ‘Sauntering through life and de-flowering young girls, that’s what you do! Despicable!’
Robert cleared his throat. ‘Would you mind taking this tiff away from my late Grandmama’s coffin?’
Mr Carpenter’s face dropped as if he had been caught in a bathtub with three naked nuns.
‘Oh Lord, forgive me for I have sinned. I was so absorbed saving my daughter’s maidenhood that I completely forgot my respect for the deceased. The instant I get home I shall erect a chapel in the back garden as an act of repentance.’
Followed by his wife and daughter, Mr Carpenter retreated to the outside, past the graveyard and on to the pavement where Robert’s family was congregating for the funeral service. Without a word, the embarrassed and shameful Carpenters tottered off.
Three days later Robert knocked on their door. Thankfully Marie was home alone. Her parents were out, nursing sick Easter lambs at a nearby Puritan farm. They had locked their daughter into the house to keep evil at bay. All conversations with Robert had to be conducted through the letter slot.
Marie melted away as he showered her with endless gallantries. Delicately, she explained to him how her father could not abide men, least of all rich middle-class chaps who had never seen a day’s work in their lives or a speck of dust on their immaculate hands. Mr Carpenter wanted her to become a nun.
Robert swore he would prove himself worthy of Marie and rescue her from the clutches of this despotic father. He crushed himself against the door to be as close to her as he could and sent his soul through the letter slot. Marie felt the warm breath on her cheek. She exhaled a gasp in response.
No other than a delivery boy disrupted their moment. He brought an inflatable confession box for home practice and an austerity dinner set. Robert left, but swore to plead for Marie’s hand that very evening.
He returned in his starkest suit, unadorned and without pocket-handkerchief. The material was of the most sombre black. His hair was side-brushed with merciless accuracy and he had pitilessly denied himself his usual fragrance.
Thankfully Mr Carpenter was in a rather compassionate disposition from handling lambs all day.
‘Yes?’ he merely said.
Robert had prepared his words well.
‘Sir, I would like to express my most humble wishes to propose to your daughter Marie.’
Mr Carpenter’s face caved in.
‘What? Marie is not on offer. At all!’ He snapped.
He was about to slam the door in Robert’s face when the young man’s kneecaps intervened and prevented it from closing. He had slipped to the floor into a kneeling position, hands folded in prayer.
‘I vow that I shall comply with all your wishes. I shall convert to religion. I shall be as devout and God-fearing as is humanly possible.’
Mr Carpenter, though stern to the core, saw the youth’s efforts and valued his endeavours to wed his daughter. Mrs Carpenter was moved to tears. She put a pleading hand on her husband’s shoulder.
‘I will give it some thought. Now leave.’ Mr Carpenter soberly said to Robert.
Robert leapt up from the floor, beamed a million thank yous at the austere man, capered up the street and danced out of view.
Mr Carpenter locked himself into his unfurnished study and pondered over the matter for three days. When he re-emerged he solemnly announced to his daughter:
‘I will grant him a short trial period, after which I will decide if he is worthy of your companionship or not.’ He paused dramatically. ‘The young man may accompany us on out impending pilgrimage to Lourdes.’
Marie fainted with gratitude.
The Carpenters’ pilgrimage had been planned for months. It was to be their first trip to France. Mr Carpenter had taught himself and his family sufficient French to worship the Virgin. In true pilgrimage style, the trip was to be performed solely on foot and by ferry.
When Robert was imparted the good news on the following morning, he jumped up from his kneeling position by the front door in order to embrace the generous father. But Mr Carpenter damped the chap’s quivering heart.
‘Bear in mind that there will be no physical contact between you and my daughter. You will spend your nights in a separate hostel.’
‘But I would never–’ Robert protested, outraged.
‘That’s what they all say.’
‘But I swear to God–’
Mr Carpenter shut his eyes with impatience and firmly closed his jaws.
‘Forgive me, of course, of course, I will comply with all your wishes.’ Robert bowed his head until his nape cracked.
Marie overheard the conversation from her bedroom window. Tears of joy streamed down her cheeks. She caught a glimpse of her beloved as he walked up the road and yearned for him with such vehemence that her soul scuffled to leave her body and sail after his.
The day of departure saw the Carpenters in long black robes. All three of them carried a tin box with stale bread and a battered flask with tap water. There were to be no indulgences or extravagances during the trip. Robert appeared in a spartan second hand suit. He carried a tuck-box but discretely threw it into a bush when he glimpsed the Carpenters’ modest provisions.
Every night, Mr Carpenter checked his family into the cheapest and nastiest hostel he could find. He asked for the beds to be removed from the room and the heating to be turned off. He dismissed Robert to find his own squalid accommodation, but always checked up on its degree of unpleasantness in the morning.
During the day, Mr Carpenter supervised the constant recital of prayers and religious hymns. Like-minded pilgrims joined the little group on the continent, and tuned in with their prayers.
Two Belgian monks were the first to team up with the Carpenters. They carried rattling bells and marched to Lourdes in commemoration of medieval plague victims.
A few days later, four Luxembourgish villagers, three bachelors and one housewife, appended themselves. They were on a mission to collect money for a new local church organ. They insisted, however, on good quality food and accommodation and split from the group after evening prayers to retire to a three star hotel.
The last pilgrims to join were two old German ex-hunters. They were repenting for their cruelty towards animals. Rough and wild, they did not object to sleeping on whichever floors lay in their path.
As the flock was growing, Robert and Marie increased the amount of stolen looks they slipped each other. Mr Carpenter, immersed in religious talk with his co-pilgrims, did not notice. The lovers became increasingly foolhardy and whispered cherishing words whenever the Belgian monks’ bells resounded.
‘My angel poppet,’ Robert would mutter.
‘My hero martyr,’ she would sigh.
As they approached Lourdes, the moments of daredevilry escalated. They brushed their little fingers against each other. They wrote love letters and secretly passed them on behind Mr Carpenter’s back.
My darling dove,
In just shy of three weeks we shall arrive in Lourdes. It will be pie to find a spot where I can hold you in my arms and shower you with kisses. I have held myself in check so far, but if your father will not relent soon, I am bally well going to burst.
There is nothing I would like more than dandy myself up for you and wear my finest suit and shirt for your eyes to feast upon. I want you to see the dapper chap I really am, not the frugal lad your papa has reduced me to. I am yearning to cover you in the million pink rose petals you so deserve, rather than you having to wear this dire grey attire that confines your loveliness at present.
My miraculous angel, I am pining for you, I would cut off my right hand for you, I would go to hell for you, and a million other things.
Your very own Robert xxx
Marie blushed when she read his impassioned words. She wanted to hold him in her arms, too, but his boldness alarmed her. Would he do what her father had warned her against, but had never clearly spelt out? Regardless of her fears, she consented to Robert’s heedless plans. Something was bound to happen in Lourdes.
The flock finally arrived at their destination with blistered feet and hollowed cheeks. The diet of stale bread had taken its toll. Only the Luxembourgers had held on to their rounded faces. They swooped on the market stalls that sold Lourdes pebbles – earthen hued candy replicas of grotto stones – and gobbled them down in handfuls. The bell rattle of the Belgian monks was drowned in their voracious crunching.
Other market stalls sold Lourdes water bottles, which displayed an image of Bernadette kneeling in front of the Virgin, and leather bags and wallets, showing the same picture. There were rosaries, holy water dishes, fans, statuettes, silk scarves, tablecloths, pencil cases. The German ex-hunters inspected the stalls for the sharpest knives, sheathed in Virgin and Bernadette carved leather.
The Carpenter couple were miffed by their fellow pilgrim’s capitalistic attitude and left them behind. They discovered the direst roof in town and rested their weary feet for a little while, before they bridged the final gap to the holy Grotto of Massabieille and the underground Basilica of Saint Pius X.
Inside the bustling grotto, Robert placed a kiss upon Marie’s trembling lips. While tasting the untouched fruit of her mouth, he slipped her a letter. It detailed a secret rendezvous in the basilica scheduled for the coming night. Luckily, the Carpenter couple were so absorbed by the holy atmosphere inside the sanctuary, that they never even suspected his blasphemous stunt.
The immoral meeting was set to take place in a confession booth. Marie slipped out of the hostel room unnoticed, her parents having fallen into a coma-like sleep after the exertions of the journey. She found Robert inside the designated box and was sucked into his arms as if a vacuum had enclosed on them. They could barely breathe.
After a night-long embrace, Marie returned to the hostel and sank down on the cold floor next to her mother. She could still feel Robert’s imprint on her skin. Her heart thumped, her soul tingled, her skin was on fire. To her surprise, her parents suspected nothing.
From then on the lovers met every night. Each encounter was rasher and more venturesome. They felt their way in the dark until the frontiers of the unknown receded into nothingness.
On their final night in Lourdes, a noise terminated the lovers’ temporary dementia.
Through a crack in the curtain they glimpsed a man of God approach the confession box. He was an oversized dark and bushy man, broad and bulky, proud and haughty. His big beefy fingers were covered in a mass of black undulating bristle. A similar mesh of rumpled curls oozed from his white collar and his face looked dirty because of the wiry stubble that sprouted from his jaw and cheeks.
There was no time to lose. The clergyman’s heavy steps resonated through the church, making his cheeks sag with each impact. Robert and Marie tiptoed out of the confession booth and crawled behind a pillar, just in time before the churchman brushed the stodgy velvet curtain aside with a fat hand and crashed down on the bench inside.
They heard his heavy breathing and hastened to the altar, then backstage into the vestry, and right into an open wardrobe. It was vast and big-bellied, full of chasubles and other vestments. They staggered through layers of stuffy cloth, folds of linen robes, and pleats of velvet vestments. The tangle of sleeves and stoles seemed endless. Teetering on, the lovers were suddenly gulped up by a monstrous black gown, wide and all-encompassing, so manifold that it swallowed them whole.
Befuddled and entangled within the confines of the heavy robe, they did not noticed the clergyman’s heavy breath graze the garments in the wardrobe, as he fumbled for the black cloak that held them in its clutches. Two bristly hands heaved the hefty mantle out and swung it over a pair of broad shoulders, with Robert and Marie still clinging to its folds. They could hardly breathe.
What occurred within the next few hours made their toes curl and their blood congeal. The burly cleric stomped into the dark of the night and headed for the poor quarters on the outskirts of town. He barged into the most ramshackle of lodgings, scoured the beds for women of all ages and shapes and rudely raped them all.
Robert and Marie had no choice but to witness the macabre acts, one after the other. They wanted to intervene, but even with both their forces united they would have stood no chance of overpowering the depraved demon.
That night, Marie’s religion suffocated within the smothering folds of the swaying cloth. As she let go of her dreams and ideals, she also lost her grip on the oscillating mantle.
Like an innocent lamb that is pulled under the wheels of a tractor and caught up in its mechanism, Marie was dragged between the cogs of the cleric’s evil doing. Although surprised to see a fair maiden like Marie tumble from the heavens and unfurl in such a convenient way right in front of him, the cleric, far from questioning his luck, continued to plough. Before Robert realised that the gem of his life had been sucked in and hauled under the pounding hammer of sin, Marie had lost her virginity in the vilest of ways.
Robert unclasped his hands and fell to the floor, just as the clerical rat scuffled off, and found himself lying next to his celestial Marie, pale, unconscious, deflowered. Like a broken butterfly, he scooped her up in his arms and carried her away from the atrocious spot, sobbing with such rage and despair that he could hardly breathe.
He softly deposited the ravished child between her sleeping parents and left a note.
I am unworthy of your daughter. I shall embrace life-long suffering to cleanse myself of my unforgivable negligence and inaction. May I rot in hell.
He headed straight for the basilica and smashed all the statues, trampled on prayer books, flowers and chalices, trashed wooden panels and broke windows. He was about to tear down the altar when he was arrested for crimes against God.
The Carpenters were convinced that Robert had violated their daughter. Marie’s father was devastated that she could never be a nun now. Mrs Carpenter died of grief a week after the demonic event.
Marie never saw Robert again. She read about his excommunication and incarceration in Sherwood Borstal. She heard that his family offered to pay the release fine, but Robert refused to be saved.
After her mother’s death, Marie left her vexed father behind and took on a job in a scullery. She gave birth to a hirsute baby boy who bit off both her nipples when she was nursing him. He was so vicious and hurt so many old ladies with his teeth and fingernails that Marie had no other option but to lock him up. One evening she found him dead. Like a lab rat, he had gnawed his stomach open and bled to death.
The purpose of Marie’s borstal visit, she had told Governor Caldwell, was to find peace and reconciliation with Robert. But he had barely looked at her, and not spoken a word.
I asked dear old Caldwell if he had ever heard from Marie again. He sipped some Earl Grey and shook his head.
‘No, Bertie. She drifted into total obscurity.’