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.

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