My scourge began when I was seventeen, on the day my mother stood on our sitting-room hearth rug and started undoing the buttons on her blouse.
—I’m going to become a naturist, she said. I want to feel the breeze against my skin and go skinny-dipping like I did as a kid.
—Skinny-dipping? When Dad’s only been dead two months?
She stuck out her chin. They’d never been happy, she told me. He’d always been so uptight – so keen on church – and all that DIY!
My elbows started to itch. My mother unhooked her bra. I tried not to scratch. She pulled off her skirt and knickers. I averted my eyes as she wobbled into the kitchen, an oversized cushion in search of a slice of toast.
That Friday she left for a weekend in a naturist resort. Scabs surged into my armpits and round my neck. On Sunday afternoon she swanned up the garden path, followed by an elderly man in a minuscule pair of shorts. He dumped his rucksack in the doorway and stared at the sores now scorching across my face.
—This is my new friend, Jon, my mother said.
—If he moves in, I shall run away to a convent.
My mother raised the eyebrows she’d taken to leaving unplucked. —Isn’t that rather an out-of-date career?
Jon’s liver-spotted hands fiddled with his belt. Surely he wasn’t stripping off right away?
—You’d feel a lot better, my mother told me, if only you’d find a boyfriend.
I tore upstairs and slammed my bedroom door. What boy would look at a girl covered in scabs? Screams shot up from the garden. Out of my window I saw my mother, marshmallow pink, spraying the equally naked Jon with water from the hose. Averting my eyes from her flab and his leathery giblets, I switched on my laptop and googled religious orders.
Making my choice was easy: a convent no one had heard of, that had fallen behind the times, with a habit so voluminous it would hide my skin till it healed. I wrote to the Mother Superior, went for a trial weekend, then joined the order less than two months later. Away from my mother and Jon, I’d grow as pure as holy water, as simple and unblemished as a blade of grass.
But the psoriasis thrived inside the clench of my wimple. Blisters burst out on my scalp and my hair fell out in clumps. Scabs raged beneath my long-sleeved vest and the elastic of my knickers, swarmed down my thighs and nestled behind my knees. More alive than ever to my scaly, itching body, I felt like a snake unable to shed its skin.
My novice-mistress told me to read The Lives of the Saints. I learnt about Teresa’s goat’s hair shirt and the bracelets of nettles she tied round her wrists and ankles; how Saint Faustina lashed herself with a whip and Benedict drove out unclean thoughts by throwing himself on a thorn bush. I struggled to see my disease as my personal hair shirt, pinned on me by God as a singular call to contrition. But why should I feel contrite about a fornicating mother? It was to her, not me, that He should have sent a hair shirt.
The fungus erupted in places I’d rarely thought of: under my toenails and deep in the crack of my bottom. Places that as a nun I was hardly meant to know about, never mind finger or try to tear apart. Places I couldn’t scratch without fumbling inside my knickers. Places I could never, ever scratch at prayer.
After a year, I was sent on a pilgrimage: not to be cured, my novice-mistress told me, but to beg for the gifts of tolerance and humility. I caught a plane from Gatwick to Lourdes airport, and then a coach which dropped me near the Grotto. A statue of Our Lady stood in a niche above the river: barefoot beneath her dress, with pink, unblemished skin, simpering down at the invalids on stretchers. A smug and flawless woman, enjoying the pilgrims’ attention. Not a woman to favour a sweating, itching nun.
A daughter announced her intention over the microphone: that her mother might be cured of rheumatoid arthritis. I dumped my case and sat on a bench beside a soldier with crutches. The knobs of my spine burning against the wood, I prayed that my mother would regain her self-respect and act like a widow of forty-two years old; and yes, that a miracle would heal my fiery skin.
Old and young were queuing in front of the baths beside the shrine, healthy and sick, monks and nuns, all singing Ave Maria. I’d like to have let the spring water probe my blazing scales, but a friend at school had told me you went in naked and the water struck so cold she’d peed in shock. Then she saw an Elastoplast floating on the surface. I’d rather make do with drinking from one of the taps in the rock.
Pilgrims were filling crates of Badoit bottles or plastic Virgins stoppered with blue crowns. I gulped down a polystyrene cupful and dribbled the rest on my hands, but my palms continued to bleed as I lugged my suitcase towards my hotel. A tight blue lid had closed above the town surrounded by heavy mountains parched with the need for rain. Inside the shops, water rustled over rocks gleaming in front of rows of identical plastic shrines. My heels itched as I climbed the Rue de la Grotte. Eyes modestly fixed on the pavement, I passed a café. Glasses clinked. I tried not to look but my gaze was up and away, slithering past the outside tables slightly unbalanced by the steepness, beyond the signs for Choky and Loto and Pippermint Get, and diving towards the doctors and nurses leaning against the zinc. The Pensionnat du Fort stood across the street and its owner, Miss Blaylock, called to me from the doorway. A flustered-looking woman wrapped in a polka dot pinny, she told me she used to run a boarding house in Blackpool.
—By the way, she added, showing me up to my room, I have a lay guest just this once, an Englishman called Robert, not a bit of bother, a lovely, holy man. He’s wheelchair-bound with badly ulcerated legs and he’s travelled with his sister all the way from Penzance.
At dinner I sat with eleven other nuns, all over sixty to judge from their liver spots and badly fitting teeth. Their skimpy, modern veils nested on greasy partings and their habits flopped round calves in sixty denier tights. Canny, professional stares flew up and down the table. Who had what disease? Who was praying to be cured? Whose soul was in the grip of a malaise? We started to talk. The Carmelite had spent her life in callipers. The Ursuline suffered from cancer of the spleen. The Benedictine thought she was bi-polar. Nobody questioned me and nor did I need to explain. Eleven pairs of eyes had already lit on the scales round my nostrils, scabby hands and loosening fingernails. I was lucky they agreed to eat at the same table. Only a hundred years ago they’d have treated me as a leper.
Robert’s sister wheeled him to a corner table. His large and ugly head wobbled over his food, and soon he dispatched her to fetch him second helpings. Tucking in again, he caught my eye and smiled. I ignored him. In the bathroom I also ignored his bandages on the rack. But I couldn’t ignore the reek of pus from the pedal bin. It lodged itself in my nostrils and distracted me from my prayers. At least, I thought, psoriasis doesn’t smell.
The temperature soared. The reek grew worse and so did my affliction, for all my gallons of holy water, torchlight processions and rosaries at the Grotto. On my last day the thermometer read 33° – too hot for me to struggle down the hill and pray amid the clattering wheelchairs. I sat in my bedroom and read about Rose of Lima building herself a mosquito-infested hut. My head itched. I rubbed it through my veil. Voices rose from the cafe across the street. Pressing my itchy belly against the window sill, I watched a couple at the table under the awning. The woman looked old, in her forties, and the man looked older still, bald, with a scanty moustache. He raised his glass of wine, winked and ogled her cleavage. Serve my mother right that I’d refused to kiss her goodbye.
The waiter was fetching the couple a bowl of salad when I noticed Robert’s sister pushing him up the hill, his hair slicked and wet, probably from the baths, and his rosary dangling against the wheel of his chair. He spoke to her over his shoulder. The wheelchair stopped. He gave a moo like a cow aching to be milked. How embarrassing. He needed to empty his bladder.
The couple sipped their wine and pretended not to notice while Robert levered himself to his feet and gazed wildly left and right. The shudder began in his thighs and jumped into his torso. Arms stretched like a balancing pole, he walked stiff-legged towards the hotel. I watched him till he vanished beneath my window. The doorbell pealed. A kerfuffle rose from the hall. Robert must have collapsed and wet himself.
His table was empty at dinner, and no clattering came from behind the service hatch. The Carmelite was asking if our mealtimes had changed when Miss Blaylock hurried in with a tray.
—There’ll be no hot food tonight, just tinned ham and tongue and the leftover lunchtime salad.
The Ursuline’s mouth drooped. —So you’re giving yourself a rest?
—A rest? No! Not I! I’ve been run off my feet. Oh! Haven’t you heard? I thought you’d have been told. Miss Blaylock dumped her tray and gave a triumphant smile. We’ve had a miracle. The first this season and a quite exceptional case – and it happened just yards away from where you’re
Two rows of veiled heads swung towards Miss Blaylock. The Benedictine gave an excited mew. —Who has Our Lady blessed?
—Robert, the Englishman. Miss Blaylock nodded in my direction, inviting me to share in our compatriot’s glory. His sister was pushing him up the hill when he said he was breaking up and could feel a hand chopping into his legs. Then before her very eyes he hauled himself out of his chair! And started to walk! The first time in seven years!
My skin burnt as if from a scourge of thistles. —I saw him from my window! I saw him cross the street!
The Carmelite gave me an interrogative stare, as if wondering why I hadn’t mentioned the miracle myself.
—You should ask for a look at his feet, Miss Blaylock said. All the pus has disappeared and they’re perfectly clean and healthy. How wonderful that Our Lady chose such a deserving case. He truly is a lovely, humble man. Miss Blaylock clasped her hands in front of her bib. And now, if you’ll excuse me, Monsignor is in the parlour with Robert and a man from the Medical Committee.
We helped ourselves to potato salad and slippery processed meat while our talk jumped here and there like a guttering candle.
—Poor Miss Blaylock, warbled the Benedictine. I seem to remember she wanted to be a nun.
Laughter burst out of the parlour across the hall. Glasses clinked. Tobacco smoke floated into the room. Nobody said it out loud, but all of us knew the truth: why else did we finish our meal rapidly and in silence, poor Sister Gemma, a martyr to her fibroids, Sister Augustine who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and Sister Thomas Aquinas with her bladder complaint? We’d played no part in the miracle that cured the holy man. Knew ourselves for spiritual duds. Twelve women whom even Our Lady couldn’t love.
My last night in Lourdes. Heat prickles the air. The din of the cafe TV ricochets round my room mixed with the grumble of thunder over the peaks. At dawn, I dream that my mother sits on my bed and unloosens the nettle girdle from my waist.
As I leave the hotel, clouds from the west float in with bulging sails. A steady rain sluices the cafe table and swills the dust from the street that leads to the station. It turns into a deluge, bouncing on to the platform and spilling in tears of relief down the dirty sides of the train. I find a corner seat and take a last look at the Grotto and the umbrellas bumping round the baths. The mountains tick past, secretive, tall and barren. No, not barren. Honeycombed by caves. I watch the water fizzing over their ledges, spraying the slopes and filling the stream that races beside the train.
We pull into a country station. Carriage doors swing back. I don’t want to be a nun. I want to feel a torrent on my skin. I want to relive the day my mother turned as white as a statue, the day I stood in her doorway with my suitcase in my hand.
—Don’t go, lovey, she said.
The pilgrims sit in the carriage reading their holy books. I haul my case down from the rack. Nobody raises their eyes. I jump on to the platform. Rain falls on my tongue like milk. I tug off my veil. Drops slither, cold and flexible fingers on my spine. I pull off my cape and wimple, my skirt and underskirt and stockings and lace-up shoes. In knickers and interlock vest I charge down the bank beside the track, no longer minding how much of me people see. The torrent froths and roars. I plunge in and yelp at the cold. Rock cold from the depths of a mountain with a heart of liquid ice.
Doors slam shut. A whistle blows. The current pinches my thighs. The train dives into the stunned black mouth of the tunnel and empty rails shine at the drumming rain. I flop on my back. The water probes my tender flaps of skin, detaches the aching scales and rushes them downstream. A cloud parts, unfurling an azure pennant. Soon I’ll climb the bank, dry myself on my habit and buy a T-shirt and pair of shorts. Then, after a pastis in the station café, I’ll use the last of my euros to telephone home.