Wednesday, 28 May 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 4 The Faith Healer (2)

The Kulas lived in a tiny first-floor flat in a seedy part of central Liège. On his way home from the nearest tram-stop with George and me in tow, M. Kula suddenly crossed the road as we were approaching a church. (The one in the background a post or two ago.) Facing the church from the other side of the road, he pointed to it and hissed fiercely Wurst! Wurst!, aspirating the S slightly so that it came out as 'voorsht'. Once past, we followed him back across the road, apparently now safe from ecclesiastical contagion.

As far I knew wurst meant 'sausage' in German. Presumably it wasn't a compliment. I was at a loss. From M. Kula's refusal to walk on the same side of the street, together with the venom in his Wurst!, it appeared that for some reason he'd got it in for this church. The size and prominence of it led me to assume it was Roman Catholic, but expressions of fierce antipathy like M. Kula's were new to me, having spent the past five years, from 13 to 18, cushioned - with no great enthusiasm - in the easy and unchallenged bosom of the Church of England as represented by Rochester Cathedral. What can have happened to M. Kula in Catholic Poland to cause this apostasy?

Mme Kula received us with a resigned smile. Clearly she was used to her husband picking up outcasts and unfortunates and bringing them home. She spoke French, which made communication easier, even though it largely consisted of her interpreting her husband's ordering our lives for the next 24 hours: we were to have a meal, we were to shake down for the night in their tiny living room, we were to accompany him to his church the next morning, after which he would send us on our way.

George was glad of the opportunity to rest his sorely-tried ankle, and I wasn't sorry to have a roof over my head rather than kip down in a rhododendron thicket with its attendant early morning urinary risks, as had happened in Brussels. Was it only that morning? It seemed so much longer ago, it seemed that we'd become disproportionately quickly hardened to life on the road, it seemed that I might have ask George to remind me who Adèle was.

Mme Kula served us flour dumplings in a chicken broth, followed by a shrivelled apple. I was ashamed not to have produced the Kentish apples, red-streaked Cox's Orange Pippins, which we had in our rucksacks. We settled down early, but we were woken from first sleep by M. Kula shouting and his wife shushing him in the next room.

In the morning I asked if it was possible to shave. Mme Kula produced an enamel bowl of warm water and set it on a chest of drawers in their minute lobby, apologising for the kitchen sink being full of potatoes. M. Kula watched me for a moment, and then took over, explaining in snatches of German and sign language you should always shave against the grain, against the natural lie of the beard. It was linguistically impossible to tell him that I did so already, but that my beard grew in all directions, so I contented myself just with thanking him. George had decided, before leaving England, to let his beard grow.

We walked to church a pace or two behind M. Kula. George's ankle was undoubtedly better and M. Kula walked correspondingly tall. We wondered what kind of church it was that held morning services on a Friday.

There was a complete absence of ritual. A sort of chairman kept things going, with prayers and readings and addresses. Some were in French, some in Flemish. There was no music, although there was a piano at the front, beside a podium on which speakers stood, M. Kula included, who clearly considered himself a person of consequence in that church. I'm afraid I switched off and followed the trail of my own thoughts, until I was rudely snatched out of them by a sudden monstrous eruption of caterwauling, shrieks and cries, weepings and groanings, stamping of feet, rolling on the floor and agonised clutchings at one another from, it seemed, the entire congregation. This was confession, apparently. It was very unsettling, alarming, even. George and I felt an embarrassment from which laughter was the only release. We contained ourselves, however, kept a demure silence and looked at our feet.

Presently the chairman rang a little bell and the bedlam subsided to a murmur. People began to stand to give witness, to testify to events that had marked their lives, deliverances, healings and visions, since the Friday before. It didn't seem much. Someone's neighbour had had a summer cold, but was now better, thanks to prayer. Someone else's cat, supposed lost, had come back, thanks to divine intervention. Another person's little boy had been stung by a bee, but had now recovered. In due course, I suppose leaving the best to the last, M. Kula took the podium. He asked George and me to stand up. Through the chairman he told the congregation what had happened the previous afternoon, how he had been divinely guided to the spot where George had injured his ankle, how he had invoked divine powers of healing, how he had felt the holy power coursing through his arms, how at a word the pain had vanished, how George rose, whole, his heart aflame with that joy and peace that only closeness to one of God's chosen can bring. There was a lot more like this, but I've forgotten it now.

But I haven't forgotten the loud and lengthy applause that followed. When it died down the chairman asked George if he would like to say a few words. George shook his head. The chairman turned to me. I said in halting O level French that I would like to say thank you for George, and that we had nothing to offer the congregation except music, and would it be acceptable if I contributed a sacred song by Beethoven to the ongoings?

The chairman agreed, warily, and I went to the piano. I sang Beethoven's Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur, Nature's praise of God, to my own accompaniment. It was a two-verse durchkomponiert (i.e. with different music for each verse) piece we sang occasionally as a hymn at school, to my huge gratification.

Shortly afterwards the proceedings came to an end, and a very surprising thing happened. There must have been about 70 people present. Every one of them pressed a coin or a note into our hands, either coming up to us as the church was emptying or as we made our way out. Some were waiting for us outside, fists closed over a few Belgian francs. Our pockets became heavy with cash in a way they rarely have been since, and still the money kept coming. What we couldn't carry ourselves M. Kula put in his briefcase. Such extraordinary generosity: if we had approached the whole set-up with a sense of cynicism or even gentle mockery, we retracted fast. And humbly.

We returned briefly to the Kula's flat to count it all. Mme Kula, who had been ironing clothes that clearly weren't hers or her husband's, cleared a space for us to spread it all out. It amounted to about 2000 Belgian francs, some £12 at the values of the time, enough and more to see us to Vienna by train if we wanted. The Kulas kindly changed it into notes before we left, having exchanged addresses, promised to keep in touch and overflowed with prolonged thanks.

But as for George's ankle, which was now virtually pain-free: did M. Kula really have anything to do with it?

Thursday, 1 May 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 4 The Faith Healer (1)

George! What the hell? Are you OK? Have you hurt yourself? Shall I give you a hand? Is it too painful to move?

George had suddenly collapsed in a heap in the gutter as we trudged in single file down the hill towards central Liège. He'd missed his footing on a deformed kerbstone and had turned his ankle over. It was excruciating. I helped him off with his rucksack. He wouldn't allow me to touch his ankle, or do anything except utter words of comfort, uncertain assurances that everything would be all right. He could foresee nothing but spending the rest of his life, which he estimated as some seventy years, sitting awkwardly in great discomfort in a gutter in a grey Belgian town where everything seemed dirty, tired and careworn. I urged him to try to move his ankle, to waggle his foot a little, but he just gasped with the pain and gave up.

There followed a period in which neither of us said anything but turned over in our minds the possible consequences of what, for all we knew, was a broken ankle. Ambulance. Hospital, with nurses wearing headgear that looked like yachts in full sail. I'd seen them in Carol Reed's film, The Third Man, incidentally a defining vision of a Vienna I might now never get to see. Plaster of Paris, and no friends to sign their names and write rude or jocular remarks on it. Traction, return home, a huge bill to present, so diffidently, to parents. Neither of us had been in the least provident. We had a rudimentary first aid pack, a few plasters, a crêpe bandage, some vaseline and a little iodine, a popular disinfectant at the time, a bottle of aspirins, some tufts of cotton wool. Nothing for broken ankles. We were in trouble.

These auto-counsels of despair were interrupted by an elderly man in a suit and a Homburg hat the other side of the street shouting. At us, apparently. He crossed the road and came up to us. He spoke in broken German, saying he'd seen it all happen and that George wasn't to worry. He opened his briefcase and took out one of several bibles, which he held up as though he was going to swear to the whole truth in court. He said he would heal George's leg, but George must believe as he himself believed. Glaube. Trost. Wie ich. He put his briefcase down, put his hands on George's head and said a few words in language neither of us understood. (It turned out to be Polish.) He then asked George if his leg was better.

This put George in a terrible dilemma. Maybe one of his own making: other, less noble souls would have said straight out no, it hasn't made the slightest difference, why don't you leb off and leave me to my misery. But George reasoned that Homburg Hat Man was as sincere as anyone can be who doesn't pass by on the other side, and that it would give him untold delight, it would present him with a mighty triumph to colour the rest of his life, maybe to achieve real healings, if he claimed his ankle was better. So he did one of the bravest things I've ever witnessed at first hand: he stood up. I can't guess what it cost him in agony.

Homburg Hat Man - we learnt later that his name was Josef Kula; he sent us the photograph above of himself and his wife and his least favourite Liège church some months after all this - told us to follow him, George limped after and I brought up the rear with the rucksacks until we came to a tram stop. Once on the tram he told us he was taking us to his home to meet his wife, who would make us a good meal. And maybe we would like to meet his friends.

We hadn't foreseen that George was going to be exhibited as a trophy.