CHAPTER – INTRODUCTION, LOURDES, and SCOTLAND
W H E E L S A B R O A D
(AND OCCASIONALLY AT HOME)
I imagine that I first travelled with Eddie in 1951, the year I was born, but our proper travels (ignoring all the 1950s and 1960s family holidays) really began in 1992. In order, and taking one or two trips a year (with a few gaps), we went to Lourdes, the West of Scotland, Paris, Paris again (we liked the place), Amsterdam, Geneva, Barcelona, Pisa, North Wales and Dublin, Madrid, and Scarborough. We never set our sights beyond Europe – not from any lack of a sense of adventure but from fairly practical considerations (mainly time and cost). During those years there were also many trips together but these tended to be to family weddings or funerals or shared journeys between Essex (where I lived with my family) and Birkenhead in the North (where he lived in sheltered accommodation, moving there in 1987 from Essex). While we may have had (some) fun on those shared journeys, there’s little mileage in motorway reminiscences or service station souvenirs. There were also a large number of trips by Eddie – to Ireland a few times, to Rome, Lourdes again, and elsewhere – made with the help of family and his friends but not me. The scent of Catholicism wafts, as you may have guessed, through his life (but only gently).
My father, known to all as Eddie, was born in 1915 and widowed in 1981. He had started to have some difficulty in walking in the 1970s, often tripped over, and was finally diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. For some reason – probably unknown to medical science despite many, many tests – he had a relatively mild form of that usually devastating and rapidly terminal illness. His muscles wasted but not rapidly and the main visible effects were in his loss of control over legs and arms. His speech became a little slurred and his fondness for exorbitant and regular amounts of whisky (a foible of old age) exacerbated the problem. He went from an occasional use of a walking stick to complete reliance over a few years. To all intents and purposes he looked and sounded like a pleasant but heavy tippler and, before he started to use a wheelchair, had been refused service in a number of bars (with some resentment on his part but never a grudge). Not all those who walk and sound like a drunk are necessarily drunk though I believe the great majority are.
As a bald summary, by the early 1990’s his mobility was pretty limited and steadily (not quite the right word, his lack of muscle robbed him of almost all control of balance) worsened from being able to walk a few steps unaided to being totally reliant on a wheelchair except when physically supported. Simply, he needed help in the outside world to get around and also to make himself readily understood. In his flat, he could still manage to perambulate but the trip from bedroom to bathroom took a very long time indeed and any movement around his living room needed a selection of chair backs and tables within reach in the form of a benign obstacle course. He always travelled with his stick, especially when in a wheelchair, and (in moments of high passion) would wave it around rather like a sabre. Had he been a gangster he surely would have been known as Eddie the Stick.
As an even balder summary, three overarching characteristics are relevant to what follows and while these are, I hope, drawn out in later chapters a snapshot may assist at this point. He had an immense passion for art and the works of mankind; all entirely self-taught (his formal education finished at the age of 14 years and there was, apparently, little of that anyway). Secondly, he had a vehement and purposeful hatred of being recognised as someone in a wheelchair before being first recognised as a person but this was mollified by the fear of causing a fuss or a scene. He tended to mutter under his breath or in whispers rather than make outright challenges. And, thirdly, he was determined to enjoy himself beyond the limits of his incapacity as often and wherever as possible: a delight in activity around him and the noisy ambience of human intercourse. When you don’t get out much, going anywhere has a certain charm, which is magnified when you go somewhere a little different. A fourth characteristic, but hardly overarching, is our family resemblance – we are both as bald as coots and facially appear as father and son. It would be hard to mistake us for anything else and this has sometimes been a great help in the company of strangers.
There have been, alas, no more trips since 2004. What at first appeared to be a slight accident involving his ankle early in that year turned out to be somewhat more serious; old bones and new bruises do not make happy partners and we were only ‘allowed’ to go to Scarborough if we promised the nurse that we’d call into a medical centre to get some attention to his problem. The problem persisted and travel involving more than an overnight stop was effectively ruled out (leaving Rome or Florence, our next planned destinations, still pencilled in). Shortly after his 90th birthday in 2005 – a big family and friends reunion, lots of laughs and memories – he was admitted to hospital and died within a few days. His diaries – and he had rather a lot of them – have helped tremendously in getting dates and places right (coupled with all the leaflets, bills and receipts, and guidebooks that we amassed between us). I know he completed them within days, at most, of the date asking me, perhaps the following day, “Where did we go yesterday?”. Occasionally, he may say in the evening, “I know we went somewhere interesting this morning but for the life of me, I can't remember.” It was usually possible to see when he had completed any entry promptly - by matching the approximate number of whiskies that day and his handwriting. I also hadn't realised, until I read them, that he recorded every game of Scrabble we ever had – a number of entries read “ET 5 Paul 3” or “Me 7 Paul 8” - but failed to record some of his more exotic attempts at winning, such as his adding a Y to the end of KITCHEN as in “something like a kitchen”.
1992 August Lourdes
1993 August Scotland
1997 August Paris
1998 May Paris
1999 April Amsterdam
2000 August Geneva
2001 April Hampton Court
2001 June Barcelona
2001 November Pisa
2003 July Wales and Ireland
2003 November Madrid
2004 July North Yorkshire
2005 September Birkenhead
Lourdes – two characters in search of an Author
Eddie raised the subject in a letter to me. Coyly, because he did not want to ask for help, he wondered whether or not I fancied a little trip abroad, all expenses on him, and could I spare the time? My refusal would in no way offend, as he was sure someone from his Church would leap at the chance but it was only right that I had the first option. The trip was from Birkenhead to Lourdes, by coach, and should last a little over a week with the bonus of overnight stops in Paris on the way there and back. He had never been to Lourdes (and neither had I, for that matter) and wasn’t planning on a miracle cure but it should be a jolly jaunt with a decent crowd. No pressure at all on me, he just needed to know before he committed. Should he book for two?
Although raised as a Catholic, I had no religious feelings whatsoever apart from a very real fear – which I maintain is rational - of nuns. School days, until the age of eleven, had been spent in the company of nuns and I had been humiliated and punished many times. Rather worrying as I had been one of the better children – polite, keen to learn, and obedient, as my school reports confirmed. But I had been stood in a corner of the classroom in front of the whole class, nose to the wall, and made to recite the Lord's Prayer about ten times (the crime is now forgotten); I had been named and shamed in front of the whole school because I had run to catch a bus (brushing past a nun on the way); beaten over the knuckles with a ruler – I think because, for some reason, I had been thought too boisterous. And what gives a nun the power to walk and glide so silently behind a pair of rudely gossiping schoolchildren that the first you both know of it is a simultaneous clip around your left ear and your partner's right one.
I knew a little of Lourdes from a few people who had been there and exaggerated what little I knew into a rather hysterical scene from a sort of Ken Russell film including wailing flagellants and scourging priests. There would no doubt be lots of nuns as well. I had visions (not literally, of course; they were claimed for Saint Bernadette) of a very sober outward and return journey through France on a coach surrounded by a party deep in prayer with the stay punctuated by frenzied acts of worship and submission amid a miasma of incense and incantation. “Far too fanciful,” I thought, “and while I have no money at the moment I do certainly have the time.” Any delay on my part might mean that Eddie would lose the chance if no Church member volunteered and here, after all, was an opportunity for a bit of bonding, a free holiday, and a test of my lack of faith. “I’d love to, Dad. I’ve got a few days holiday due – just give me the dates and the details”. I cleared the details with wife Diane – she would have to look after our two young children – and promised the dog that I would return.
The booking was made and I travelled to Birkenhead by train to stay overnight in the guest room of the sheltered flats where Eddie lived. We would be picked up by the coach outside the Central Hotel – a hundred yards away – in the morning and spent a pleasant enough evening in the hotel restaurant and bar. Only a few minor problems – access to the basement restaurant was by a lift that was designed by a thin engineer and his slim wife (or, of course, her skinny husband) rather than a pregnant woman with a pram or a fat man pushing a wheelchair. It seemed to be made for two upright adults who were prepared to share a very close encounter. We squeezed, after much jiggling, into the cage, and emerged, after much further manoeuvring, into the lobby. We moved, with sighs of relief, to the restaurant and sat at a table. Eddie chose to remain in his chair rather than be manhandled onto one of the restaurant's and refused all offers to be parted from his stick. And a waiter asked me “What would your friend like to eat?” rather than saying “Well, Sir, I see you’re taking your son out – will it be soup or prawns for starters?” But, what the heck, we were about to be away on our travels so fuss there was made but little. “Does he take sugar?” “Well, you should really address that question to the elderly but intelligent and sentient gentleman in the wheelchair but I’m not too interested in your appalling prejudice, not on the eve of our holiday (but I am a little miffed, nonetheless).” Ashamed, of course, that such ignorance was not directly challenged (how else do people get to be made to feel that they must change their attitudes?). We wouldn't have time for much of a breakfast in the morning so we had a full three courses that night instead. Eddie was prepared to tip, after the filling and flavoursome meal, quite generously but I selfishly discouraged him. I'd send a secret and misunderstood message to the waiter if no one else would.
No problems getting onto the coach next morning (except that it was a 7am start) – in those days, Eddie could be easily moved and shifted out of his chair and up the few steps onto a normal seat with the aid of willing hands (and the chair folded and stowed away with the luggage). We were surrounded by good-hearted and well-meaning Catholics, including a man with film star looks and a dog collar. Father John was in his thirties with excellent teeth and luxuriant hair; he was also sharply dressed and so clearly stood out, and above, from his parishioners that any 'outsider' would have immediately recognised that he was in charge. We were a party of about thirty – split evenly between the sexes and ranging from teenagers to Eddie (as the oldest). The coach was absolutely fine and was equipped with a small sort of cinema screen – and we had the front row seats!
Memory starts to get a little hazy at this point. I know we started with a prayer for the success of our pilgrimage and either had the choice of “The Sound of Music” first and then “The Song of Bernadette” as entertainment but it might have been the other way round. Not many songs in the latter film (but a sterling performance by a young Vincent Price) and rather too many songs in the former, which – I shouldn’t have been surprised – everyone on the coach seemed to know. My wife has, no doubt, told me many lies during our courtship and marriage but one of the more convincing was, years ago, that “you’ll enjoy it, all the nuns get caught by the Nazis at the end…and shot”. I had previously passed on the opportunity of watching “The Sound of Music” – perhaps I had not fully believed her that last Christmas when she spun me the line about the 'happy ending' – but the lie had taken root and I watched with interest and, ultimately, disappointment. Nor were these the nuns I had grown to fear - they were smiling nuns, happy nuns, singing nuns. Where were all the nasty nuns, the ones who had shown me the world in black and white but with the emphasis on the former?
We fairly whizzed down the M6 and the M1 and made Dover with time to spare. The Channel crossing by ferry was rather pleasant except that it took so long to get Eddie up to the restaurant that we barely had time to eat our last English food for a week before making our sedate way (it's hard to hurry with a wheelchair) back to the coach. We had about 2 minutes to sit where we had a view of the sea and a glimpse of the less-than-exciting Calais docks. But, by now, I really started to look forward to France (where I had not travelled for a number of years) and the knowledge that Paris was now but a few hours away started to add to the growing sense of pleasurable anticipation.
We were due to arrive in the early evening. After the promise of a hearty and gastronomic meal (we were in France, for goodness sake) – we had only breakfasted near Birmingham, had a rushed lunch on the ferry, and snacked in Northern France – the evening was ours to enjoy. I think I saw the Eiffel Tower from a good few miles away as we motored round a suburb or two but I couldn’t be sure. I do know that the acres, even hectares, of concrete that we finally parked in were sufficiently far from Paris to make a journey into the city all but impossible that night (or, probably, on any day). It was rather like being promised a night in London and finding that your hotel is in a Travel Lodge on the M25. The food was plain but bad (a tasteless soup of a variety previously never encountered, a bland casserole with indeterminate grey meat, an inedible meringue for dessert) and while I was happy to share a room with Eddie I had not quite counted on it being a double bed. No mock Freudian problems for me at all – it’s just that there comes a certain time of life when sharing a bed with your father in a shabby motel after a twelve-hour coach journey does not quite fill one with enthusiasm. I eventually closed my eyes and thought of England. And he snored (as I probably did).
The sun was shining the following morning and breakfast was passable (though Eddie had to suffer or forego the sole choice of hard white baguettes when his diet really needs soft brown; not too much information but when one’s muscles deteriorate, constipation is not your friend). It took less time than I thought to get to Lourdes through some increasingly attractive countryside and then to arrive at the sort of hotel one might have aspired to as an impecunious student traveller (though not necessarily as any other kind of holidaymaker). But it was all that was needed and I had to keep reminding myself that I was being taken away and being paid for by my pensioner father. He was delighted to be away – from his flat, from Birkenhead – and I needed to share some of that genuine and spontaneous enthusiasm (as well as another double bed for the duration of our stay).
Eddie had been a sort of star attraction on the coach. A cynic might say that here we were, going to Lourdes where miracles of healing might occur – and we had someone who currently (if not permanently) needed a wheelchair. It really wasn’t like that at all – Eddie was a star because he laughed for ninety per cent of the way (how many jokes can anyone find in “The Song of Bernadette”?). He laughed from the sheer joy of travelling and being out and about among people. As the anecdotes and aphorisms rolled out from fellow passengers and the driver (a sort of 1960’s wide boy grown old, a bit of an outmoded Flash Harry), Eddie laughed. “We’ll do the ABC tour of Lourdes, shall we?”, said a passenger. A silence. “Another bloody church tour!” and Eddie roared with infectious laughter, the laughter from the heart rather than from the head. “Last time I was on a coach to France we had no priest with us, we were stopped at the customs on the way back. Father John will see us through all right this time!” And as Father John smiled at the compliment, and his teeth really were perfect, Eddie roared again.
In 1858, a young girl (she was 14 years old) named Bernadette Soubirous claimed that she saw eighteen apparitions of the Virgin Mary over a period of some 5 months at the Grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes. Many of the meetings were silent; in some the Virgin spoke (to Bernadette alone, despite the presence of others). Bernadette was the daughter of a miller who had fallen into poverty; he had to move his family into what seems to have been fairly dire accommodation. Bernadette was never a healthy child, suffering from asthma and tuberculosis, though whether or not his had any relevance to the later visions is unclear. The focal point of modern Lourdes is the Domain – the area surrounding the original Grotto (which is now topped by the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception). There are many other churches and chapels, many nuns and priests, and very many visitors and pilgrims – I never saw the place less than almost full. There are also opportunities in (and near to) Lourdes to visit a number of sites associated with Bernadette including her birthplace and the house where she lived during the apparitions (which we wheeled past but didn’t go in). We also refused the short trip to Bartrès where one could see the sheepfold that belonged to her nurse (among other things); there is only so much excitement that one can sensibly pack into a day and a sheepfold is fairly low on that list.
A Commission of Enquiry was set up by the Bishop of Tarbes (not far from Lourdes), which sat from 1858 to 1862, and declared that, yes, the apparitions really did occur. Bernadette took the habit in 1866 as Sister Marie-Bernarde and died, after a long illness, in 1879 (and her shrine in Nevers – quite a way from Lourdes – sort of completes the pilgrimage but we never got that far). No one could accuse the Catholic Church of hurrying the process by which she became known as Saint Bernadette – the process started in 1907 but it took until 1925 before Beatification was declared (so she was Blessed rather than a Saint) and another 8 years until Canonisation and full Sainthood. Part of the process was the investigation of claims that miracles had occurred – cures of various ailments by the water of the Grotto – leading to much of the magnetism of Lourdes today.
I am sure that Eddie found his faith renewed and reinvigorated through our frequent trips to the Domain and I found some extra faith in humanity – wheelchairs do not have to queue anywhere (rather, bizarrely, like Disneyworld in Florida), and every fit and able person was desperately keen to help everyone who was not as fit or able as they were. It was, though, a fairly depressing scene (or, depending on your belief, a scene of total affirmation and hope). The concentration of pain, disease, and disfigurement in such a small area was unnerving enough (and Eddie looked in fine fettle compared with so many others; perhaps this was some sort of comfort to him). Also, I could not help being further unnerved by the thought that all of this belief in the possibility of a miracle could, perhaps, be so sadly misplaced. Then again, although my theology is a little shaky, it could just be that it’s the faith that a miracle might happen that is somehow more important than the actuality of a cure. Then and then again – Eddie's disease was relatively benign. Would it have become that much the worse and that much the quicker without our brief visit to Lourdes? In my confused state of mind, I had no way of knowing for certain.
Eddie was badly shaken by the whole experience of Lourdes but only because of the enormous number of cobbled streets, high kerbs, ruts, and cracks that permeate the town. I hope things have changed and improved since we visited but I somehow doubt it. Lourdes is not an easy place for the wheelchair user (it’s fairly hilly, for a start) and, of course, it has a unique draw for those with mobility problems. One morning we took a lift from our coach to the top of one of the hills so that we could enjoy the panorama. The weather was fine and a few of us decided to make our own way back to the hotel rather than taking the coach back. Eddie was blissfully unaware but I almost lost it when coming back down – sweaty palms are not too good when restraining the impulse of a wheelchair to hurtle down a 20 or so degree incline. Prompt help from a fellow traveller and the adoption of a zigzag route (“Just so you can appreciate all the different views, Dad”, I sort of screamed through clenched teeth and panic) saw us safely back.
Is the location of Lourdes and its pitted streets some sort of a celestial joke coupled with the incompetence of a small local authority? Mind you, surely a competent local council wouldn’t allow the sale of quite so much dross (unless, perhaps, there was some money in it for them). There is possibly no greater demonstration of lack of taste along the Boulevard de la Grotte than anywhere else in the world. Plastic dominates, gaudy colours flourish, and every Virgin seems to have been made in Hong Kong or Taiwan. The crucified Christ whose eyes open when the sculpture is tilted could give both believers and atheists nightmares for years. If they could have made the devotional candles of plastic, I’m sure they would have done so; perhaps they’ve mastered the technology by now. If either Eddie or I were looking for the Author of the Universe in Lourdes we’d have to look well beyond the tackiness. Which we did – and found, in a way, at the actual Grotto on all our visits. Here, there was a definite sense of calm and respect; here there was an atmosphere of sanctity and otherworldliness (but without any deep-seated faith myself, it was hard to see why). The contrast between the silent and simple Grotto and the brash and noisy Boulevard was simply immense.
The hotel was a little step up from that ‘near’ Paris – a few complaints from fellow pilgrims about damp sheets and ‘what exactly are these lumpy bits in the soup?’ – but it had a rather pleasant little bar with a comfortable room attached. Eddie and Father John had struck up some sort of rapport – and while the other coach party members made sure there was always room for the priest to sit next to their group at meals, it was with Eddie, and therefore me, that Father John ate at every meal. And we had many lively conversations - Eddie talking about Liverpool before the Second World War and the level of poverty, John about his vocation, and myself about my theological concerns or football. We bought bottles of wine in turn but Eddie always insisted on paying for the after-dinner liqueurs or shorts. To his credit, John was far more interested in what Eddie had to say than in any of my witterings about Papal infallibility, the Catholic attitude to contraception, or interpretations of the offside rule. He also paid no attention to Eddie's disability beyond that that was required in terms of leaving the table or saying, “Sorry, Eddie – I didn't catch that, can you say it again.” He had such a normal and natural way of relating to Eddie that it was, I hoped and it seemed, an inspiration to other guests. His attitude certainly kept Eddie happy and his dry sense of humour kept him laughing as well.
After one evening meal, we all retired to the bar (come to think of it, we all always retired to the bar, after any meal except breakfast). Eddie maintained his intake of whisky but school French foolishly trapped me. I was drinking lager in half litre glasses (what almost passes for a pint abroad) and Eddie was on his usual large whisky with a dash of water. When the barman, an Identikit Hercule Poirot, went to refill Eddie’s glass he asked, “Bebe?” which I took to mean a ‘small one’ so I obviously answered “Non, grand bebe” and drew my hands apart to indicate that while the French may be happy with a snifter, English Eddie wanted a snorter. The water was added before I saw the measure and I just assumed, from the quantity of liquid in the glass, that Hercule had put in rather more than a splash. Eddie has a fairly good approach and a reasonable tolerance to his drink: never before midday (unless on holiday), rarely before the evening, little but often after that (or lots but seldom). He used to drink a moderate amount of beer in his healthier days but switched to whisky to cut down on the number of visits that a full bladder necessitated. Disabled facilities in pub toilets were not, I guess, always up to much then though there has thankfully been some improvement in recent years. His usual 3 or 4 (sometimes 5 or 6) large whiskies over an evening left him a little merry and genuinely helped him to get quickly into a deep and untroubled sleep. Tonight, his consumption was inadvertently doubled, trebled, or quadrupled. When your muscles are not too good anyway, a severe dose of relaxing alcohol can turn them to jelly and larks what fun we had getting to bed that night. Eddie spent a very long time in the bathroom, groaning and moaning to such an extent that I seriously thought about getting some sort of medical assistance. If I couldn't even order a proper drink in French, I dreaded to think how I would cope with any kind of symptom description over a telephone. But the groans abated, Eddie reappeared, and fell (literally) into bed. A few groans while asleep but he was as fresh as a daisy the following morning with no obvious signs of ill effects. In fact, he was up, shaved and dressed and looking out of the window as I blearily made my own awakening. “Morning, Paul. Wasn't it a good night last night?”
By and large we were a jolly crew. We enjoyed coach trips en masse to distant churches where holy relics were brought out – and the priest, to his credit, recognised and accepted my reluctance and refusal to kiss the dismembered but somehow preserved toe of a saint – and to Gavarnie in the Pyrenees for some literally breathtaking views (at several thousand metres above sea level) with real glaciers, waterfalls, and the clearest sky I had ever seen. Not sure to this day how our driver took the coach around some of the bends but he did (with only mild swearing; we had a priest on board, of course). Beyond these excursions, we settled into a steady routine of breakfast, a push around the town, lunch at the hotel, a push around town with a trip to the Domain, dinner at the hotel and a final gentle push back down to the Domain where Mass was celebrated and candles lit. Back, gently uphill, to the hotel bar, discovering new cracks and holes on the way. On one evening, we had a singsong and I’m sure that none of us guessed the tune that Eddie sang or even the words. Querying glances passed between the other pilgrims as the monotone dirge progressed, Eddie waving his stick in time to a non-existent tune. Slowly, the word ‘lamplight’ was recognised and, with a bit of help, the tune eventually nudged into ‘Lili Marlene’. I recall that my turn was an old Everton Football Club song – starting with 'We hate Bill Shankly...' (Eddie had been born in the district of Everton in Merseyside and I had been given little choice of which team to support when growing up). It was not as successful as 'Lili Marlene'.
Only on one occasion did I manage to lunch alone – I bought a copy of a local newspaper and found a small café and sat, pretending to be French, while watching the world go slowly by. I was, perhaps, an existentialist philosopher taking a break from the Left Bank and the Sorbonne, trying to add some intelligence to the relationship between religion, history, and patterns of belief. The fact that I held the paper the right way up may have convinced some; my refusal to say anything other than “merci” after pointing at the menu may have given the game away.
I had, by now, warmed to the hotel and was somewhat amazed one morning when my shrugs and finger pointing to a flat tyre on the wheelchair produced, after the Manager telephoned and within a quarter of an hour or so, an artisan with a new tyre and the tools to fit it. And despite waving a wad of notes, all offers to pay were politely and demonstratively refused. Such little but welcome acts of kindness are rare enough to be properly treasured. I made what I took to be a reasonable donation to a charity box later (and there are lots of opportunities for charity-giving in Lourdes).
Eddie bought several bottles of Holy Water from the Domain as presents for relatives and friends back on Merseyside; I bought several bottles of wine for family and friends back in Essex from a local shop. There is a spring at the base of the Grotto (apparently discovered by Bernadette on the instructions of the Virgin) and this produces up to 70,000 or so litres per day; the output is stored in a reservoir (which feeds lots of little taps) and also provides enough for the 16 baths provided for those who wish to immerse themselves. The Church is, however, quite explicit – the water should not have any special healing qualities. Rather, it is indicative of the need for spiritual renewal of one's baptismal promises. Try telling that to the various relatives and friends that Eddie gave his supply to.
There are a great number of claims for miracles at Lourdes and the process is fairly rigorous. Any claim for a cure is first assessed by the Lourdes Medical Bureau (composed of a number of 'on the spot' doctors). If the cure is felt to be 'medically inexplicable' it is called a 'major cure' and subsequently referred to the 'International Medical Committee'; an expert in the particular malady examines the evidence and, if satisfied presents his or her findings to a plenary of the Committee. The plenary uses a number of criteria including that the cure must be sudden, unforeseen, total, and permanent (requiring about 4 or 5 years to prove). Further, the sickness must have been one involving danger of death and be organic rather than functional (Eddie would have qualified on both counts). The final stage is to send the complete file to the Bishop of the diocese from where the cured person came – and he may, or may not, declare the cure to be 'miraculous'. Either only a miserly 64 cures had been declared miracles in the 130 or so years before our visit – or, an amazing and breathtaking 64 had been so declared. I tried to keep as open a mind as possible but just ended up with a slight sense of envying those who just believed without any attempt at rationalisation. No reports of any miracle cures in our party but – and it’s one of the joys of religion – there was always the chance that a 'preventative' drink had given somebody the renewed faith to fight a serious illness.
We stayed at the same hotel ‘near’ Paris on the return leg with the same poor food (the menu may well have been identical to that from the first visit – it was certainly unmemorable) and the same shared bed. After another pleasant (but still rushed in terms of eating a decent and relaxed meal) Channel crossing, I arranged to be dropped off in Essex, leaving Eddie in capable hands for the journey back to Birkenhead. I rang Diane from a garage and then stood by the appropriate roundabout, suitcase in hand. We had been away for some eight days and I had about 15 minutes to work out all the loving things I could say to her. Sometimes 15 minutes is not quite enough time.
“How was it?” asked my wife when she picked me up, “like the curate’s egg?” Oh no, I replied – enjoying the pedantry – it was good in parts because the whole point of the curate’s egg joke is that an egg is either off or not and can’t really be good in parts (which is what the nervous young curate states). I then went into a short explanation of the general misuse of the phrase ‘the lion’s share’ when used to mean the biggest part (when, of course, the Aesop story is that when the lion, a fox, and a donkey go hunting, the lion divides the kill into three and takes the first part as he is king, the second part as he is the equal of his hunting partners, and the third and final part because he wants it). “The lion’s share means, therefore, all of anything…” “Oh, good”, Diane replied. “I really don’t know quite how I managed with you being away so long.”
The Road to the Isles
My father had long had a hankering to take the West Highland railway line in Scotland. I had never heard of this particular journey before but a very little research showed that you could go either (or both) of two ways – from Glasgow to the Kyle of Lochalsh via Inverness or from Glasgow to Mallaig through equally dramatic countryside and Fort William. After a brief chat and a mental toss of a coin, we decided on the latter. As long as we were going, it didn't really matter which route we took, it was the getting away that mattered. Eddie would pay for my rail fares, the hotels, and any incidentals – all he needed was some company and someone to push him when necessary (which was, by now, almost all of the time). I think he almost said that I would be the ideal choice for his companion; it may have been that I was being given first or second refusal.
Lourdes had not been too bad. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more good memories I had. What is more, I had never been to Scotland (so near and yet so far to an Essex lad). “Cracking idea, Dad”, I said, “leave the planning to me. Just book the tickets for the dates I tell you, and bring your credit card for the hotels”. We both had the time but, as usual, only he had the money. I caught a train up to Birkenhead on the appointed day, stayed in a guest flat at his scheme, and we breakfasted on tea and toast before taking a taxi across to Lime Street rail station in Liverpool. We had some time to spare (I must have caught my obsession with always being early from Eddie) so we wheeled around the outside of St George's Hall twice and still had time to get a view of the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King (and we were both very impressed) before returning to board our train. Eddie obviously knew the area very well but couldn't quite recall what was there before the Cathedral was built. I ventured that it was probably slums and was rightly lectured by Eddie on the typical misconceptions that people, especially from the south, have about Liverpool. He finally added, “But now you come to mention it, I think it was just terraced back-to-backs...you'd call them slums, I suppose.”
Praise be to all the railway staff we encountered – we travelled from Liverpool, through Preston, to Glasgow with ramps placed at the exact point they should be and with lots of unobtrusive assistance. Every porter or other staff spoke directly to Eddie (“This way, Sir”, or “Just tuck your legs in a bit”) and I trotted on meekly behind with nothing to do except be grateful. I think we both had a glass of whisky as we crossed the border from England to Scotland but I'm not too sure where that border was; I am fairly positive, though, that we had a glass of whisky or two somewhere on the journey north and that we made a toast to the railways and all who worked there.
I had booked us into a fairly upmarket hotel (The Copthorne) in Glasgow’s George Square – between the Central railway station (where we arrived) and the Queen Street one (our departure point for Mallaig). Eddie and I had a few drinks, decided to eat in the hotel that night, and agreed to separate for a short while – him to have a doze in the room (twin beds for certain this time; I had made doubly sure when booking) and me to have an early evening reconnoitre. This was going to be Saturday night after all and my first time north of the border. I took Eddie to our room, got him settled, turned on the TV, and went out into the night. George Square was (and probably still is) an architectural delight and not at all what I had simplistically imagined Glasgow to be. No sign of a tenement block anywhere, no graffiti, and only one or two obvious drunks.
I wandered with a purpose – to check the location of Queen Street and to find St Andrew’s Cathedral (Roman Catholic, of course) in case Eddie wanted to go to Sunday Mass. I then wandered aimlessly (often more enjoyable than 'with a purpose'), found a small bar and was delighted to see it had a quiz machine. In those days I had been rather addicted to such machines – some native intelligence coupled with years of playing them (and learning answers to the often-repeated questions) meant I usually made a profit. Once, when about to start a holiday in Florida with parents-in-law and our children, I had gone out the day before in some a desperate attempt to boost our meagre funds. My wages would not be accessible until 3 days into the holiday and we did not even have enough to even buy everyone breakfast at the airport. I planned my campaign, took 'my' breakfast money and hit about 10 pubs over a long (and largely sober) lunchtime. Successful in all but two, I came home with about £80 (which would have bought several lunches and dinners as well in those days). I almost felt like a proper breadwinner.
The machine brand was an old favourite with a £20 jackpot and I knew from the number of correct answers needed to reach that prize that it was due to pay out in the near future. So I started to play in earnest. And nervously, as I soon realised that this was very much a locals’ bar and that I was not a local. I felt a number of eyes on me; they did not feel simply inquisitive or friendly but rather possessive and the concern they were expressing was not necessarily for my success. Two young men rose from their seats and stood behind me – and while outwardly helpful, their comments (“How did ye know that!” or “Yer a clever bastard!”) left me feeling a little uncertain. Didn’t all Scotsmen in Glasgow carry knives or razors and grudges against the English? Was £20 worth the – to me- very real risk of a premature end to the holiday? Humming (very, very quietly) “Hearts of Oak”, I persevered, hit the top prize, and pressed the collect button. What attention I had attracted before was magnified by the solid clunk of pound coins landing in the tray – it just seemed to go on forever. Thinking that just shoving them in my pocket and making a hasty departure might exacerbate the situation, I turned to one of the men and said, “Bit of luck, eh? Fancy a drink on me?” “Och, no”, he replied, “You’ve earned that. You have a good night on the profit.” And his colleague patted me gently on the shoulder with a “Good hit, my man, good hit!”
The evening meal at the hotel was a joy and we retired in good spirits. I told Eddie that we had the option of Mass in the morning (with plenty of time to catch our train) and he was keen and so we went, after a very full breakfast, and substantially bolstered the fairly meagre congregation. Such a very large church for so few people. St Andrew’s echoed to the Mass and I stood and knelt at the appropriate moments, simply by following the movements of the couple in front of me. Someone, whom I took to be a deacon, beckoned us to the front pew but I wisely resisted. I was far too rusty with the order of the Mass not to need prompts and Eddie was too slow to be a reliable guide (plus the fact that he sat in his chair throughout). There was little of interest for either of us in the actual building – a bit too much Victorian Gothic for both our likes – but it meant that Eddie had a good start to his Sunday.
Fully fortified in body and mind we were not at all fazed by the first minor setback – having gently strolled to Queen Street, found the man with the wheelchair ramp and boarded, the train on which we now sat simply refused to move. Various reasons were given for the delay (none of which I now recall but 'lack of staff'' rings a faint bell) – and I suppose they could all have been true, whatever they were. Any excuse will do in a pinch and no-one, least of all the passengers, is likely to be any the wiser. But we were offered (and accepted) a complimentary coffee and after about an hour’s careful examination of the station architecture, the adverts, our fellow travellers, and the seat patterns, we were off. And what a route the train takes…tremendous views of Loch Lomond, a climb onto Rannoch Moor, Spean Bridge, the 1000 foot Glenfinnan viaduct, views of islands (including Eigg and Muck), and the white sands of Morar. I had brought my binoculars and spent much time scanning the hillsides for golden eagles, rutting stags, rotting stags, and claymore-wielding clansmen (and I saw none, more's the pity). Regretfully no buffet car, but a very attentive steward with a trolley was on board and he soon realised that we might become regular customers. The journey took something over 5 hours (all in sunshine – this was August, after all) and with twenty pound coins clanking in my pocket I made the magnanimous gesture of paying for lunch and several rounds of drinks.
We had two nights booked in a small hotel in Mallaig – promising “full access for the disabled”. Our second setback was also fairly minor but really annoying nonetheless. Still not sure to this day how a flight of some dozen steps with a rope for a banister to the front door qualifies under the description of 'accessible' but Eddie (then) could just about manage a step at a time though it took about 10 minutes to get to the top. This meant that the idea of popping out later for a quick one was quickly ruled out. But many clouds have silver linings and, on discovering that the hotel bar ran the largest range of malts that I have ever seen, we decided to stay in for that and the next evening and kick off with a 10-year old Aberlour followed by a peaty Bowmore. The hotel certainly provided a superb full English (Scottish?) breakfast which obviated the need for lunch, bar a quick drink; we both had eggs, black pudding, and bacon but Eddie alone decided to add a couple of kippers. The day between the two bouts of whisky sampling was spent mooching around Mallaig, watching the Skye ferries load and unload, enjoying the scenery, and generally recovering from last night’s excesses and preparing for the evening session. We behaved exactly like tourists the whole world over do when at a harbour – we watched boats, birds, and the tides. We thus discovered that Scottish seagulls look and sound exactly like their English brothers and sisters (and that kilts are a relative rarity).
The same journey back to Glasgow – with the obvious benefit of the same scenery and grandeur but from a different perspective – but we had enough time to get back to Birkenhead without another overnight stop. Bizarrely, between Glasgow and Preston, we were interviewed for a Scottish TV station – proper cameras and microphones – about ‘had we enjoyed our visit to Scotland?’ and ‘what was the train service like?’ The interviewer was very keen and helpful with prompts but it was to little avail. It might have been reaching L or M in the alphabet of malts the night before (and there are a surprising number of G's), it might have been that we had liberally re-fortified ourselves over a long lunch, but I’m not sure if two giggling men ever made it onto the small screen. I stayed the night in Birkenhead and trained it back to Essex the following day. I'd like to say that I recalled much of our many conversations over the days but all I can bring to mind was that there was not one disagreement nor bad word; quite an odd thing to admit, perhaps, but we really seemed to enjoy one another's company. And the conversations never lulled – with changing scenery, different malts to sample, and news of the outside world (from papers and television) there was always something to talk and, usually, laugh about.
Diane was, of course, delighted that what little I could remember indicated that the trip had been a success. I think it was because I had been memorising train times for the last few days that I asked her, “Do you know the origin of the phrase if you want to know the time, ask a policeman”? “Go on, then.” “Well, it’s apparently Victorian and comes from the alleged practice of policeman being such thieves that they stole watches from drunks and such like. So, they would always have a watch or two on them.” She replied, rather rudely I thought, “Have you and Eddie still got your watches?”
A second trip in 1994 was planned. I still have the draft itinerary – Eddie was to travel to Euston, where we would meet and board the overnight sleeper to Inverness. Then to the Kyle of Lochalsh, a ferry to Skye (with an overnight stop), ferry to Mallaig and thence to Fort William (another hotel for 2 nights to allow for jaunts round the town), and then back to Merseyside or to London and Essex (where Eddie could stay for as long as he liked). It just never happened – and I honestly can't remember why (and Eddie's diary for that year gives no clues either). A great shame.