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July 5, 2012 / catherinebwrites




“Come to Lourdes with me,” said my mother.

For crying out loud!   Lourdes!  

“I’ll pay your fare.” she added, before I had time to recover….

Are there no depths she won’t sink to?

“It’s in France,” she cajoled – in case I didn’t know! “think of all that gorgeous food.”

No, no depths…. she’d try anything that might inveigle me into a church, give her the illusion that I still go to Mass.

“And besides, the oul legs aren’t great.”

Now it’s the moral blackmail.   She doesn’t do it consciously but somewhere deep inside she knows.    She knows how to hoist me on my hand-made petard.    My spirited defence of young girls collecting their “Unmarried Mothers”, and the time the I shook the Minister’s hand  outside Hanratty’s Supermarket.

“When are you going to do something for the Travellers,” I’ demanded, “it’s a disgrace, they’re living on the side of a ditch.”

Mother was mortified, especially as the Minister was a local man and the son of her father’s best friend.  I could just hear her,  

“You’ll look after any stray dog or divil but when it comes to your own poor mother…..”    

And she’d have a point.

“Okay,” I said.   I’ll come to Lourdes with you.”  

My head flirted with the crunch of baguettes, vine-dappled gables and the smell of wild thyme….   I just hoped there’d be a chance between Rosaries, Stations, Candlelight Processions and the nipple-numbing plunge in miraculous water.

The “Immaculate Conception” Hotel was cheap,  spartan and geared for the devout flocks of Irish country parishes.   Men un-practised in suit-wearing.   Women in white cardigans, clutching plastic bags bulging with Jacob’s biscuits, Barry’s tea and thermos flasks.    People with varicose veins or a touch of sciatica.   The kind that like spuds in their jackets and believe that you can’t beat a good apple tart with plenty of custard.   There  was  a French woman working in the kitchen, Josette, can you imagine what she made of it?   Anyway, that’s where we stayed.   It’s more a hostel really, run by Irish nuns.

The Immaculate Conception Hotel I thought as I came down for breakfast that first morning.    I’d be wary of any stray pigeons round here.   Look what happened the last time!  I squirreled this humorous notion in the back of my brain to share later on with my friends.  Josette had clearly drawn the line at the Full Irish Breakfast and decided on the Continental revenge.     Two buns of air-bread, some whey-coloured grease and a thick bowl of milky white coffee.  Tepid.                                  

The parish stalwarts poured hot water from jugs over their tea bags and reminded one another that you need to heat the teapot and use fast-boiling water if you want  a proper cup of tea. Mother was hoop-de-la at the thought of the spiritual exercise to come but she knew better than to suggest that I tag along to the triple basilicas and blessings of sick but she had high hopes, on aesthetic grounds, for the Candlelight procession.   I wondered idly about the scent of wild thyme.    We agreed to meet at the end of the day in a nearby bar which looked less penitential than the lounge of our hotel  with its orange plastic sofa.  

I put the wild thyme on hold and had a great day mooching round shops.    I passed on pearlized rosaries, Our-Lady-shaped bottles and fake-gold miraculous medals, I was looking for something really bizarre to bring home.  I toyed with a Virgin Mary blue photo album which played “The bells of the Angelus” and bought several pairs of earrings which dangled scenes from the Grotto.   Then I found my best buy.   It was a 3-d postcard of the agonized head of the crucified Saviour.  The head was hanging down but, when you moved the card, the head rose, the jaw dropped and it was the spit of my friend Jake, stoned out of his brains.  When I finally flopped into the bar to meet mother, my feet were killing me.

Whatever about her religious views, mother enjoys a drop of sherry of a Sunday and a small medicinal brandy when she gets the sniffles.   Being in France, she decided that local cultural mores dictated that she should indulge herself in a few glasses of red wine.   In no time at all she was pink round the gills and, as she moved up the scale from chatty to loquacious, the door of the bar was flung open.

            This bizarre-looking guy, grotesquely tall, sleeveless black t-shirt,  puppet-thin arms and rainbow striped, tea-cosy cap stood with his hand on the door in the flung open doorway.   He cocked his head, like a bird looking for worms, hot black eyes darting.   Whatever he saw clearly satisfied him and he hauled a wheeled stretcher into the bar.    The stretcher looked about eight feet long and it was bare except that sitting, if that’s the correct expression, in the middle, was a head on a cushion.   A live head.  

There’s times when you know you shouldn’t stare, when you know it is, to say the least, not politically correct but you can’t help it.   Your eyes keep swivelling back again and again.   It was like that.

“Bier, s’il vous plait.” said the head to the barman.  

Well the crowd in the bar were pole-axed into silence.

Eventually, the chatter re-started, an octave higher and splattered with squeaks.     Mother’s jaw had dropped.   She grabbed her glass,  downed the rest of her wine and ordered another.

“Sure the creathurs!” she exclaimed full of vinous good will, “I suppose they’re here for the cure.”

I couldn’t help staring.   Tiny arms had appeared out of the side of the cushion with tiny hands, holding the glass of beer like a child, the head chuffing it down at the rate of knots.   Then it dawned on me that it was not a cushion but a body of sorts.    He, I say he, because of the black beard, meticulously trimmed, he, the head, caught me staring and winked,  a dirty, big, lecherous wink.   I looked away as fast as possible wondering if I had only imagined it.   Mother meanwhile, having downed the best part of another glass of red wine, had shifted from loquacious to indiscriminate hospitality mode.

“How’s she cuttin’?” she said to the gangly man.  

He didn’t reply but that didn’t deter her.  

“Why don’t you join us?”

She shifted her chair a centimetre or two but it’s tricky to get a wheeled stretcher to a little bar table.

“You must excuse my friend,” said the head, “He is deaf.  He’s from Rumania and never got a chance to learn to talk, but he can sign.   I help him out.”

“Aren’t you terrible good.” exclaimed my mother.

“Well it is mutual,” said the head.

“Isn’t that  what it’s all about.” said my mother and, to my acute embarrassment, she burst into song.

 “If you can help somebody as you pass along….”

“Perhaps you would care to join us.” said the head.

Mother had her chair over in a flash.   She rested not only her drink but her elbows on the stretcher, and settled her bottom comfortably for a good chinwag.   I followed more circumspectly, half-embarrassed that she had been so forthcoming and half-proud that she hadn’t been freaked.      

“My name is Marco” said the head, “and this is Vlad.”

“How do you do,” simpered mother taking the head’s hand between thumb and forefinger and wiggling her fingers to the tall mute.

“I’m Mrs. Finnegan, and this is my daughter Marie.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Marco the head, and, as I held out my hand, he made a movement which somehow gave the impression of gallantry, hand-kissing, clicking of heels.

“Where are you from?” asked mother.

“From Spain.” replied Marco.

“But you’re English.   It’s perfect.”

“When I was born, my family were horrified but, they were wealthy.    They sent me to Sweden for the very best schooling.   That’s where I have earned my English.”  

Mother warbled on, not a bother on her, while Marco’s head listened politely.   The eyes of tall, thin, deaf Vlad darted constantly.   Occasionally he would hold his big hands in front of Marco and jabber in signs and Marco’s little hands would flicker in response.   Mother continued as though she were in Castle Street, leaning over the counter in Mc Stay’s High Class Drapery and Haberdashery.

Just as well she was on a roll, for, all I could think of was, is there a body inside that cushion?    What is it like?    Can he go to the loo?   Has he got all his bits?    I reminded myself that he was just another human being but my eyes betrayed me, they were out on sticks.  Like the time I kept lisping at a woman with a very bad lisp.   I couldn’t help it.   She was embarrassed, I nearly died but I couldn’t stop myself.    This was worse.   I dragged my eyes to my mother, to the bar, to the other drinkers, anywhere else but they kept flicking back, like they were on springs, to the head on the cushion body, to the tendril-like fingers curled round the glass.

Mother rose, a mite unsteadily I thought.

“I have to go and powder my nose,”

“Are you okay?”  I asked, more willing than usual to help.

“I’m perfectly fine.” she replied, “you stay here Marie and talk with this nice young man.”

She wafted away.

I know that tone of voice.   She thinks I’m too choosey.   It’s what she said when I refused to go out with the new doctor.  Lovely man, she says, very handsome.   True, but  he’s an alcoholic.   And Bart Brady, thick as a ditch and a fascist, oh but there’s plenty of money there Marie, he’ll come in for a fortune!   Or Oliver Finn and his friend George, the two vets, the most eligible bachelors in Ballinacrann.    I love them, they’re gorgeous but they’re gay.   Now she wants me to chat up Marco!

As soon as my mother had gone Marco cocked his head at me.

 “Why don’t you ask?” he challenged.

“Ask what?”

“All those questions you’re been thinking.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Yes you do.”

I started to protest but he interrupted.

“Yes, I do have all my parts, just like any other man.   Lungs and heart obviously or I wouldn’t be here.   Proper digestive system, full means of waste disposal.   Vlad looks after me, holds me over the toilet, he’s my best friend.”

“Oh right.”

 I was trying to sound suave and unflustered.

“And yes, I do have a penis,” he grinned, “and it’s in good working order.”

Well I didn’t know where to look.   Marco’s hot brown eyes caught mine and held them with suggestions of danger and pleasure.

“Anytime,” he said, “if you’d like to explore….”

Oh my god, I thought, I’m being propositioned!   By a head on a cushion!   I got up awkwardly, knocking over my bag and scattering make-up and tissues and the Lourdes souvenirs all over his stretcher. 

“What have we got here!”

He picked up the postcard of the stoned-looking Saviour and flickered it at me.  

“Must be on speed.” he said.

Well I laughed, I laughed till I cried.  I laughed with relief and I laughed at the joke and I laughed at the notion of being chatted up by such an unlikely person.   Marco laughed too and Vlad laughed with a sort of gulping wheeze that alarmed nearby drinkers.    And that made us laugh all the more.

Mother arrived back  from the loo unbeknownst to us and signalled the barman.   More drinks arrived.  

“I am glad to see you’re getting on so well.”

She  sat back in her chair, crossed her legs and quaffed her red wine.

“So you lads are here for the cure.” she said blithely.

Marco smiled.

“Nor really.  We live here.”

“Aren’t you very lucky.   You can get to the holy baths any time you like.”

Marco smiled again.   Rather ruefully I thought.

“We run a kind of hotel.” he said.

“Is that so?”

“A specialized one, for the disabled.”

“That’s wonderful.” mother effused, “you know, that’s what I call a vocation.”

“We like to think so.”

Vlad stood up and signed vigorously.

“I’m afraid we have to leave you now mrs Finnegan.    Vlad tells me it’s time to go.” I hope you both have a wonderful time in Lourdes.”

Mother was into her bag like a dog digging for bones.

“Hold a tick” she said retrieving her wallet. “I want to give you something.”

She whipped out fifty Euro note and started digging in the money belt round her waist for more.

“No, no, Mrs Finnegan, please no….”

“Mam…” I warned, afraid that her wine-fuelled generosity might go beyond her means.

“It’s all right Marie.   I’d only spend it on rubbishy souvenirs.   I’d prefer to know it was going to a good cause.”

She ripped out another two fifties and handed them over.   Marco did that heel-clicking trick again and signed something to Vlad.   Vlad grinned and bowed to my mother and put the bank notes in his pocket.  Then they left.   I was  very suspicious.   It looked to me like a scam.   Hotel for disabled my eye!   Mother hailed a fellow parishioner seated at the bar.   I decided I’d follow the lads.

Bits of Lourdes look just like Moate, you know, country town, supermarket, local shops.   You’d never know there were thousands of pilgrims and a miraculous grotto.   That was where Marco and Vlad led me.   They turned into an anonymous street and opened an, anonymous  door and went in.    I followed them and rang the bell.  Vlad opened the door and looked at me.

“Marie,” Marco called from inside, “you are welcome, come in.”

“You lads are not here for the cure.”

I stepped into the hall.

“Well of course not, why should we?”

That threw me a bit.

“I just thought….”  

“Yes…. all you able-bodied people think the same,  that we want to be like you.”

“Well don’t you?”

“Why?   We are whole as we are.”

He gestured to Vlad who took hold of the stretcher and pushed him down the tiled hall.    A girl with no eyes came out of a door.   Like, nothing in the eye sockets, just caved in skin.   “Ola guapita!”  flirted Marco .

“Don Juanito!” she flirted back. “Qué tal?”

She tapped her way down the hall and went out.

 Vlad led us into an ordinary living room with a  sofa and chairs and a tele..  He lifted Marco off the stretcher and placed him in the centre of the sofa.

“Our apartment.” 

Marco gestured around with his little arms.

“About that money my mother gave you.”

“You heard me refuse….”

“Oh yeah, sure…. is that what you do?   Con little old ladies!”

“No.   I run this place.   We only take people who have been disabled from birth.”

“So what about people disabled through sickness or injury?”

He smiled and shrugged

“They always hope to get cured.”

“And what’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing.    But there’s no cure for us.”

“So that’s why you con old ladies?”

“We don’t con, we freak people out.   It’s our… vocation.”

“It’s your vocation, to freak people out!”

“You should have seen your face back there in the bar!” 

I remembered his proposition and blushed.   What kind of woman might take him up on it? 

“Some women are morbid but I never fuck with freaks.”

He laughed so much at this that he toppled over on the sofa.   Vlad set him right again.  I wished he’d stop reading my mind.

“You’re just trying to shock me.” 


“So what is it?   Some kind of revenge on the world?”

“Oh god, another psychologist!”

He signed to Vlad who doubled up laughing.

“So why do you do it?”

“To prove that we’re human.   To prove that we’re not little saints.   And once in a while, someone sees that, under this strange disguise we were born with, we’re just… normal people.”

“Oh.” I said limply.

“Drink?” he offered, “Gin, vodka, wine, beer?”

“But the money,” I persisted, “What’s with the money?”

“We have to live…. and it’s…” he hesitated a moment and grinned again, ” well it’s difficult for us to get jobs.”

“So you con pious old ladies instead?”

“We let people  stare at our oddities and sometimes it makes them feel guilty.   They hand over cash and feel saintly once more.”

“But that’s….”

“I know,” Marco grinned, “We’re like gigolos.   That’s what we call ourselves Gigolos for Jesus!” 

That made me laugh.

Next day mother was in dire need of a cure.   She was sick as a dog and certain she’d need a broncardier to get to the grotto.    A ferocious hangover, God love her, red wine, nothing worse!   Don’t I know it too well!   But at last she got herself up and out.    I sat at the breakfast table crumbling air-bread and wondering what to do with the day.   Josette scurried in and told me I was wanted at the door.                                       

Outside a red Toyota had pulled up  with  Marco in the back seat and Vlad at the wheel.   When I opened the door of the car Marco did that gallant, heel-clicking thing.

“Do you like the scent of wild thyme?” he asked.

“I do.”

“Hop into the car,” he smiled, “we’ll take you.”

                                                               THE END

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