Like fractured branches of some great dead vine, the crutches hung from the roof of Saint Bernadette's cave in gruesome proliferation. Unable to recognise them for the sign of hope they were intended to be, I saw them as awful stalactites or some form of grisly wind chime. They made manifest the shapes and forms of my nightmares.
I edged behind Joanna and shivered in my new trousers. Bought specially for the trip, they were too large and allowed draughts to chill my legs. They had been chosen with "room for growth". I was expected to start shooting up any day now. The haversack on my back felt as though it were full of oddly-shaped rocks.
We'd been in Lourdes for four days and I hated it. I had arrived excited, believing that we were going to see a very special place. Every girl in school had heard the story of Saint Bernadette, the young girl who saw a vision of Our Lady. We all wanted to be that young girl. We could choose our own saint's or biblical name for our Confirmation ceremony, and Bernadette was the number one favoured name.
Joanna had been mysterious when we were unpacking in the hotel room we were sharing. She had reverently placed a carefully wrapped white packet on the top shelf of the cupboard.
"What is it?" I had asked, noting her care.
"Something Mum got me to bring," Joanna said. "In case I started while I was away".
"Started what?" I asked, but Joanna just got embarrassed and refused to tell me any more.
It wasn't until several months later that she summoned up the courage to ask Mum to let me into the secret knowledge of puberty. I must have been the last one in my class to find out.
We were only here for a week, and we'd done our souvenir shopping early. It was the first time I'd had more than pocket money, so I enjoyed shopping. Joanna and I explored the streets, stopping at the multitudinous gift shops selling the same tasteless quasi-religious souvenirs. We loved them. We spent a lot of time carefully working out what presents to select for Mum and Dad back at home. For Mum, after visiting each and every shop at least three times, we chose a silver-plated bracelet with her name engraved upon it. We didn't notice until we got home that the Frenchman had misheard Joanna who with the advantage of two years of French lessons was in charge of communications and had engraved Christine instead of Christie. For our Dad we selected a wallet, again personalised. For years after that the smell of cheap leather always brought back the thrill of the first time we were free to spend money.
Joanna and I had each bought a plastic flask shaped like a Madonna, but there was no way now that we were going to fill it with holy water. We had watched the pilgrims at the taps - yes, taps, just like the one outside the back door at home, except that these had stone troughs beneath, studded with grey lichen. The precious water gushed from them, missing the ridiculous little holy water flasks that people held waveringly under them, splashing the ground all about. What was sacred about a rain of cold droplets and damp boggy earth?
We'd gone together to the Lourdes-water baths, but we had been split up, and I'd had to face it alone, shivering in the dripping shapeless white garment the attendants gave me. It had been wet and claggy from the previous supplicant's immersion when they handed it to me, but I didn't dare refuse. Standing there shivering, with nothing on, even a wet robe seemed an improvement, and I had put it on, struggling with the sodden material which clung everywhere. The water was cold, the attendants seemed to be sniggering at me. I had been all ready to offer up a prayer, but I just gritted my teeth and hoped only to get through it.
Now, standing in the crowd outside the dreadful cave, I just wanted, desperately, to be somewhere else, preferably at home. At eleven I was the youngest on the school trip and I had only been allowed to come because my older sister Joanna was here too. Sick and crippled people were everywhere. It didn't seem as if they had come in hope and faith from all corners of the globe. They were like goblins, with dreadfully warped limbs, lolling heads and maniacally rolling eyes. I'd never seen really sick people before. Was this what real suffering looked like?
An endless stream of French children, little girls of six or so in white lace dresses and floaty veils, little boys with scrubbed knees and red sashes, were passing before the priest at the front of the crowd, close to the grotto. It was a First Communion ceremony, I realised.
As I struggled to see through a mass of stout proud mothers and tall relatives, the crowd parted before me, and I could see everything. Soon I was right at the front, next to the tape which divided audience from participants. A kindly man gabbled something at me in a language I presumed was French, but I'd only had four lessons so far. I had no way to understand him. He jabbered at me and I moved forward, bemused, as he lifted the tape and pushed me forward. Suddenly, I don't know how, I was in front of the priest. He muttered more strange words. Latin? French? I couldn't tell. Then he bent down and placed a host in my startled mouth. An acolyte handed me a little packet, and I was guided on with the rest of the queue. Looking down at my hands I saw that I had been given a certificate, with the words "Communion Solennelle" in big gold lettering, a prayer book, and a string of rosary beads.
Suddenly I realised what had happened, and waves of utter humiliation rocked me with sickening force. I had been taken for a French First Communicant. Did I look that young? I was eleven! And I was certainly not dressed in a First Communion outfit, nor was I French. How could I have been mistaken for either? The intensity of shame was such that I felt light-headed. I was going to faint. I was sure of it. The ground would open and swallow me up and I would go straight to Hell. I had received Communion under false pretences. First Communion at that! Could I have done anything to prevent the situation? I didn't know what that man was saying. I should have said something, anything, he'd have known I wasn't French. Now I had committed a dreadful sin.
Joanna came up and took my arm, bending her head to mine, saying something soothing. A teacher from our own school hustled us away. The other girls were looking at me with a mixture of awe and incredulity at the awfulness of my crime. In bed that night, Joanna whispered that we had better not mention it again. She wouldn't say anything to our parents if I wouldn't. I lay awake in bed that night apologising to God.
And that night in Lourdes I vowed that I would never again allow an adult to push me into something without questioning. I would think twice from now on about whatever any adult told me to do. I was never going to be pushed into the wrong queue again.
On the way home in the train, Joanna and I had to sleep on the floor. The luckier girls slept on the seats, others in the luggage racks. It was hot and uncomfortable, and I never wanted to leave home again. But Joanna and I had filled our little Madonna flasks not with holy water but with drinking water from the jug on our breakfast table. We were the only two in the party in that steamy crowded carriage who had anything drinkable to cool ourselves with during the long hot night. Good Catholic girls all, not one of the others thought of using the holy water even to dab a fevered forehead.
Part of this work was submitted as the Dissertation for the MA in Writing
To continue, follow the theme
Last amended on 8th September 1998 / copyright H. M. Whitehead