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?

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