imageEight o’clock Mass

A short story

 

“Well, it looks as though you’re completely clear”

 

A simple enough statement but, to me, they were the most wonderful words I’d ever heard. The consultant unclipped the X-ray films and sat on the edge of his desk. “Most cases of bowel cancer can be completely cured if we catch them early enough,” he said casually.” Obviously, in your case, we did and I think I can say with some certainty that you are free from cancer. Come and see me in six months but I don’t expect any change. You’re a lucky man, so why not celebrate with a holiday? You probably need one by now.”

 

I shook his hand warmly. My words of thanks seemed utterly inadequate for a man who had given me back my life. Six months ago, the word “cancer” had seemed like a death warrant for me but now my whole world had changed. I didn’t notice the early autumn rain as I walked out of the hospital. To tell the truth I felt like dancing out, even though at my best I danced like a three legged duck. I was quite happy in the finish to settle for lunch with Meg at the Old Mill. As we finished our coffee and nibbled our after dinner mints, I mentioned Mr Connelly’s idea of a holiday.

 

“Why not?” said Meg. “You’re not expected back at work until the end of October. We could both do with a break. We’ll go somewhere else instead of the hospital”

 

Thomas Cook had the usual range of off-season specials, so five days later, in the last autumn of the millennium, I found myself on a plane for Tarbes in the Pyrenees. Meg couldn’t get any more time off work just then so I was going out on my own for ten days and then she would come and join me. I was staying at the Hotel Foch in the Val d’Aron. We’d chosen the place mostly because we’d never heard of it before. I needed peace and quiet and we thought I’d find it here rather than in Benidorm. According to Michelin, the chief town of the district was Aron-les-bains, a rather decayed spa town. Its peak of popularity had ended with the First World War and it was now struggling to maintain its image as a holiday resort. It sounded like a second rate Vichy, if such a place were possible.

 

Actually, Aron-les-bains was smaller than I expected, more a large village than a small town, a long straggling street with an over-large mediaeval church in the Grande Place about halfway along. The Hotel Foch was exactly what I’d expected, a bulky, flat-fronted building, originally christened the Hotel Balzac and designed for the health-seeking pursuits of the bourgeoisie. Renamed in a burst of patriotic fervour in 1920, it had now sunk eighty years later to taking in the package holiday trade. I knew the type as soon as I saw it; a small terrace outside, large heavy furniture inside and wallpaper of unbelievably bad design.

 

The owner, Madame Leclerc, was a busy, bustling woman. I believe she was a widow. If there was a Monsieur Leclerc, I never saw him. She had the usual perceptiveness of a country hotel keeper. She certainly had me weighed up by the time she opened the door of my room.

 

“Monsieur has perhaps been unwell?”

“Indeed yes, Madame”

“You have come to the right place. The mountain air will do you good”

“I’m sure it will”

“If you will take a word of advice, monsieur, I would suggest you try the baths”

“I thought they would be closed by now, Madame. Very few people still take the waters”

“In England, perhaps not, but here we still believe in their powers. But, Monsieur, do not drink the waters. The taste is disgusting. Even the Germans won’t drink them. But you can swim or visit the sauna. It really is quite pleasant.”

 

 

 

 

 

So, next morning, I made my way up through the town, across the square on into the baths. The Grand Salon was actually quite small but it suited me perfectly. Everything was slightly old-fashioned and somewhat faded. There was an air of gentle melancholy which fitted my mood like a glove. Madame Leclerc’s advice was as good as her cooking. This was exactly what I needed. I did not taste the water. The revolting smell was enough to turn my stomach. I wasn’t much of a swimmer at the best of times and I was very shy of displaying the scars of my operation. But the sun lounge and the terrace were comfortable and welcoming. I read the newspapers and the local guidebooks and, after a splendid little lunch, I set off in the afternoon to return to the Hotel Foch.

 

As I crossed the square, I called into the parish church. Considering the size of the town, it was very large and spacious. The design was clean, early Gothic, hardly altered over the centuries and the effect was very striking. I managed to find the little guidebook and learned that Aron had apparently been one of the stopping places on the camino, the pilgrim route to the shrine of St James at Compostella. The church was dedicated to St John, the brother of St James, and the donations of the pilgrims had paid for a splendid building. Everywhere in the decoration was the cockle shell, the sign of St James. I was a cradle Catholic but had fallen away from practice and almost from belief. My recent brush with death had, however, radically altered my perspectives and priorities and now once again I counted myself a practising Catholic. I was sure that faith and prayer had helped me in the battle against the malignant little cells that sought my life. I made sure of the times of Sunday Mass.

 

I mentioned the church to Madame Leclerc.

“Ah, yes, monsieur,” she replied. “But you should also be sure to visit the Chapelle Saint-Jacques. It is far older than St-Jean-le-Grand and far more beautiful. You would like it.”

“I’m sure I would, Madame but where is it?”

“Just outside the town, monsieur. Come with me and I will show you”

 

She led me out onto the terrace and pointed down the street. The town petered after a hundred metres or so and beyond the last house, I could see a path leading slowly up a low hill. Madame Leclerc pointed to the top of the rise and I saw a small, stone chapel with a tiny belfry.

 

“There you are, monsieur, the Chapelle Saint-Jacques. It’s supposed to be very old. Long ago, the priest used to say Mass for the souls of the pilgrims who died on the road to Compostella.”

“Thank you very much, Madame Leclerc. I’ll go to see it before I leave.”

 

I woke early next morning. Sleep had become a stranger during my illness and now I rarely slept beyond five. I decided to take an early morning walk to the Chapelle Saint-Jacques. I crept out of the silent, sleeping hotel and headed out of town. But I’d misjudged my strength. The steep path was too much for me and I had to turn back well before halfway. This made me all the more determined to visit this mysterious little chapel. I strolled slowly back for breakfast and settled on a plan. Every day, I would get up before breakfast and head for the lonely chapel. Every day, I would aim to get a little further until I finally reached the top. The rest of the morning I would spend at the baths and then head back to the hotel for a nap and dinner. My target was to reach the chapel by the eleventh day when Meg was due to arrive. I wanted to impress her with my recovery rate.

 

The plan worked to perfection. The fresh air, the good food, the settled and comfortable routine, all came together to produce the ideal convalescence. I could almost feel myself putting on weight and gaining in strength. On the fifth day, I felt confident enough to take a short swim and next day, I treated myself to new shoes, the first new anything I’d bought in over six months. Aron-les-bains was proving to be an inspired choice. No wonder it had become a health resort. And every morning, before, breakfast, I climbed a little further up the hill to the Chapelle Saint-Jacques.

 

 

 

 

On the tenth morning, I almost made it. I reached the foot of a steep flight of stone steps that led to the summit. The steps were too steep and worn for me, so later that day I went into one of the souvenir shops on the Grande Place and bought a walking stick, the true mountain type with a notch at the top for the thumb. I was on the road at first light next morning, the steel-shod point of my new stick tapping briskly on the cobbles. The hill tired me out and I could hardly face the final flight of steps. I leaned hard on the stick and half-walked, half-crawled to the top and at last stood facing the chapel. It was bigger than I expected; the view was superb and, at first, I was exhilarated. I’d reached the top after all and I could see for miles on the clearest of autumn mornings. Then a thought struck me. The chapel would be locked. There was no reason for it to be open. I’d spent all this time struggling to reach a building I couldn’t enter. My early morning walks suddenly seemed like a fool’s errand.

 

I went up to the building and looked in the window. I could hardly see a thing. Just for the sake of it, I tried the door. To my astonishment, the handle turned and the door opened. I stepped inside, hardly believing my luck.

 

Most French country churches are rather dusty and untidy but this little chapel was well-swept and obviously well cared-for. Did some local guild keep it clean? Did Madame Leclerc do it? I was strangely moved to see that someone cared about this lonely little place. The architecture was pure Norman, all round arches and chevrons cut deep in the stone. Madame was right. It was older than the parish church. There was nothing here the original pilgrims would not have recognised. Well, hardly anything. There was a flamboyant statue of the Sacred Heart on one side of the altar and on the other, the almost obligatory Our Lady of Lourdes with a slightly insipid Bernadette in clogs and shawl gazing up at her.

 

“Good morning, monsieur”

 

I span round when I heard a voice behind me. An old priest in a faded cassock stood on the altar steps. I hadn’t heard or seen anyone when I came in. Presumably, he’d been in the sacristy, praying or reading his office. I must have disturbed him with my pottering about. He stood there, looking steadily but gently at me.

 

“Good morning, Father. I hope I’m not in your way”

“Ah, you are English, monsieur.”

“Yes, Father.”

“Welcome to Val d’Aron”. You are on holiday?”

“Yes indeed, Father.”

“I am very glad to see you, monsieur. You are perhaps a Catholic”

“As it happens, Father, I am”

“Excellent. I am about to say eight o’clock Mass and I don’t think I can manage alone. Can you by any chance serve Mass?”

“I could once, Father, long ago but I’d be happy to do anything I can to help.”

“Thank you, monsieur. Thank you very much. I am in your debt. I should tell you that I will say Mass in the old way, in Latin.”

 

It was then that I noticed the altar for the first time. It was in the old place by the wall, not free-standing, as in most churches nowadays. It seemed odd this old man should be saying Mass in Latin alone but I presumed it was some local feast day or anniversary. In any case, this unlooked-for turn of events made my days of hill-climbing seem worthwhile.

 

I followed the priest into the sacristy. I sorted out the missal and altar vestments. I found some dregs of wine and a host in the back of a cupboard. The old priest vested slowly and calmly, occasionally offering me a few words of guidance. When everything was ready, we went onto the altar and started Mass at eight o’clock precisely.

 

I managed to stumble through the half-remembered Latin words with the help of a battered book I’d found in the sacristy. I was clumsy and hesitant at first but the old priest was patience itself. Gradually, it all came back to me and I slipped into the once familiar routine. Thirty years fell away and I felt like a little lad once more, serving Mass for Fr Kelly at St Patrick’s. The old man moved steadily through the ancient ritual. Whenever he turned to face me, he smiled gently and, at Communion, he gave me a piece of the host with a grave dignity which impressed me deeply. At the final blessing, he put his hand on my head and said;

“Thank you, my son. I couldn’t have done this without you.”

 

After Mass, I offered to clear things up and accompany the old man back to town but he politely declined my offer.

“Thank you but no. I will stay here a while and pray. I have a very important meeting today and I need to get ready.”

We shook hands. I collected my stick and left.

 

When I got back to the Hotel Foch it was almost nine o’clock and breakfast was just about finished. However Madame Leclerc was determined to feed me up and so bread, coffee and croissants appeared as if by magic. They smelt, looked and tasted wonderful. Madame had even remembered to book a taxi to take me to the airport to meet Meg but she was not her usual cheerful self.

 

“You look upset, Madame”, I enquired.

“Yes, monsieur. The news today has made me very sad.”

“News, madame? What news?”

“Ah, monsieur, the Cardinal is dead”

“Who do you mean? Which Cardinal?”

“Our own Cardinal, monsieur, Cardinal Bouniol. You must have heard of him”

 

I certainly had. Thirty years ago, in the 1960s, Jean Philippe Bouniol, was the most famous or rather notorious Catholic priest in existence. He was an arch-conservative and had voted implacably against each and every change or innovation at the Second Vatican Council. In St Peter’s itself, in the presence of the Pope, he had sworn publicly never to say one word of the Mass in any language but the Latin he loved. To be honest, I thought he’d died years ago.

“Did you know him, Madame?”

“Certainly, monsieur. He was born here on this very street. He always came here for his holidays until he grew too old. He was very good to my mother when she was dying”

“I thought he was a very stern man”

“He was very firm in his opinions but, in himself, he was the gentlest of men. I knew him well when I was younger. I think he was something of a saint.”

 

The phone rang and she turned away to answer it. I picked up the newspaper and read the front page. It was the local daily and the main headline announced to death of Cardinal Bouniol. He had died yesterday in complete retirement at the age of ninety far from his birthplace at a monastery near Rouen. Underneath the headline was a photograph. I saw a dignified, smiling face, the face of the priest for whom I had just served eight o’clock Mass.

 

 

 

Bernard Fyles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eight o’clock Mass
A short story

“Well, it looks as though you’re completely clear”

A simple enough statement but, to me, they were the most wonderful words I’d ever heard. The consultant unclipped the X-ray films and sat on the edge of his desk. “Most cases of bowel cancer can be completely cured if we catch them early enough,” he said casually.” Obviously, in your case, we did and I think I can say with some certainty that you are free from cancer. Come and see me in six months but I don’t expect any change. You’re a lucky man, so why not celebrate with a holiday? You probably need one by now.”

I shook his hand warmly. My words of thanks seemed utterly inadequate for a man who had given me back my life. Six months ago, the word “cancer” had seemed like a death warrant for me but now my whole world had changed. I didn’t notice the early autumn rain as I walked out of the hospital. To tell the truth I felt like dancing out, even though at my best I danced like a three legged duck. I was quite happy in the finish to settle for lunch with Meg at the Old Mill. As we finished our coffee and nibbled our after dinner mints, I mentioned Mr Connelly’s idea of a holiday.

“Why not?” said Meg. “You’re not expected back at work until the end of October. We could both do with a break. We’ll go somewhere else instead of the hospital”

Thomas Cook had the usual range of off-season specials, so five days later, in the last autumn of the millennium, I found myself on a plane for Tarbes in the Pyrenees. Meg couldn’t get any more time off work just then so I was going out on my own for ten days and then she would come and join me. I was staying at the Hotel Foch in the Val d’Aron. We’d chosen the place mostly because we’d never heard of it before. I needed peace and quiet and we thought I’d find it here rather than in Benidorm. According to Michelin, the chief town of the district was Aron-les-bains, a rather decayed spa town. Its peak of popularity had ended with the First World War and it was now struggling to maintain its image as a holiday resort. It sounded like a second rate Vichy, if such a place were possible.

Actually, Aron-les-bains was smaller than I expected, more a large village than a small town, a long straggling street with an over-large mediaeval church in the Grande Place about halfway along. The Hotel Foch was exactly what I’d expected, a bulky, flat-fronted building, originally christened the Hotel Balzac and designed for the health-seeking pursuits of the bourgeoisie. Renamed in a burst of patriotic fervour in 1920, it had now sunk eighty years later to taking in the package holiday trade. I knew the type as soon as I saw it; a small terrace outside, large heavy furniture inside and wallpaper of unbelievably bad design.

The owner, Madame Leclerc, was a busy, bustling woman. I believe she was a widow. If there was a Monsieur Leclerc, I never saw him. She had the usual perceptiveness of a country hotel keeper. She certainly had me weighed up by the time she opened the door of my room.

“Monsieur has perhaps been unwell?”
“Indeed yes, Madame”
“You have come to the right place. The mountain air will do you good”
“I’m sure it will”
“If you will take a word of advice, monsieur, I would suggest you try the baths”
“I thought they would be closed by now, Madame. Very few people still take the waters”
“In England, perhaps not, but here we still believe in their powers. But, Monsieur, do not drink the waters. The taste is disgusting. Even the Germans won’t drink them. But you can swim or visit the sauna. It really is quite pleasant.”

So, next morning, I made my way up through the town, across the square on into the baths. The Grand Salon was actually quite small but it suited me perfectly. Everything was slightly old-fashioned and somewhat faded. There was an air of gentle melancholy which fitted my mood like a glove. Madame Leclerc’s advice was as good as her cooking. This was exactly what I needed. I did not taste the water. The revolting smell was enough to turn my stomach. I wasn’t much of a swimmer at the best of times and I was very shy of displaying the scars of my operation. But the sun lounge and the terrace were comfortable and welcoming. I read the newspapers and the local guidebooks and, after a splendid little lunch, I set off in the afternoon to return to the Hotel Foch.

As I crossed the square, I called into the parish church. Considering the size of the town, it was very large and spacious. The design was clean, early Gothic, hardly altered over the centuries and the effect was very striking. I managed to find the little guidebook and learned that Aron had apparently been one of the stopping places on the camino, the pilgrim route to the shrine of St James at Compostella. The church was dedicated to St John, the brother of St James, and the donations of the pilgrims had paid for a splendid building. Everywhere in the decoration was the cockle shell, the sign of St James. I was a cradle Catholic but had fallen away from practice and almost from belief. My recent brush with death had, however, radically altered my perspectives and priorities and now once again I counted myself a practising Catholic. I was sure that faith and prayer had helped me in the battle against the malignant little cells that sought my life. I made sure of the times of Sunday Mass.

I mentioned the church to Madame Leclerc.
“Ah, yes, monsieur,” she replied. “But you should also be sure to visit the Chapelle Saint-Jacques. It is far older than St-Jean-le-Grand and far more beautiful. You would like it.”
“I’m sure I would, Madame but where is it?”
“Just outside the town, monsieur. Come with me and I will show you”

She led me out onto the terrace and pointed down the street. The town petered after a hundred metres or so and beyond the last house, I could see a path leading slowly up a low hill. Madame Leclerc pointed to the top of the rise and I saw a small, stone chapel with a tiny belfry.

“There you are, monsieur, the Chapelle Saint-Jacques. It’s supposed to be very old. Long ago, the priest used to say Mass for the souls of the pilgrims who died on the road to Compostella.”
“Thank you very much, Madame Leclerc. I’ll go to see it before I leave.”

I woke early next morning. Sleep had become a stranger during my illness and now I rarely slept beyond five. I decided to take an early morning walk to the Chapelle Saint-Jacques. I crept out of the silent, sleeping hotel and headed out of town. But I’d misjudged my strength. The steep path was too much for me and I had to turn back well before halfway. This made me all the more determined to visit this mysterious little chapel. I strolled slowly back for breakfast and settled on a plan. Every day, I would get up before breakfast and head for the lonely chapel. Every day, I would aim to get a little further until I finally reached the top. The rest of the morning I would spend at the baths and then head back to the hotel for a nap and dinner. My target was to reach the chapel by the eleventh day when Meg was due to arrive. I wanted to impress her with my recovery rate.

The plan worked to perfection. The fresh air, the good food, the settled and comfortable routine, all came together to produce the ideal convalescence. I could almost feel myself putting on weight and gaining in strength. On the fifth day, I felt confident enough to take a short swim and next day, I treated myself to new shoes, the first new anything I’d bought in over six months. Aron-les-bains was proving to be an inspired choice. No wonder it had become a health resort. And every morning, before, breakfast, I climbed a little further up the hill to the Chapelle Saint-Jacques.
On the tenth morning, I almost made it. I reached the foot of a steep flight of stone steps that led to the summit. The steps were too steep and worn for me, so later that day I went into one of the souvenir shops on the Grande Place and bought a walking stick, the true mountain type with a notch at the top for the thumb. I was on the road at first light next morning, the steel-shod point of my new stick tapping briskly on the cobbles. The hill tired me out and I could hardly face the final flight of steps. I leaned hard on the stick and half-walked, half-crawled to the top and at last stood facing the chapel. It was bigger than I expected; the view was superb and, at first, I was exhilarated. I’d reached the top after all and I could see for miles on the clearest of autumn mornings. Then a thought struck me. The chapel would be locked. There was no reason for it to be open. I’d spent all this time struggling to reach a building I couldn’t enter. My early morning walks suddenly seemed like a fool’s errand.

I went up to the building and looked in the window. I could hardly see a thing. Just for the sake of it, I tried the door. To my astonishment, the handle turned and the door opened. I stepped inside, hardly believing my luck.

Most French country churches are rather dusty and untidy but this little chapel was well-swept and obviously well cared-for. Did some local guild keep it clean? Did Madame Leclerc do it? I was strangely moved to see that someone cared about this lonely little place. The architecture was pure Norman, all round arches and chevrons cut deep in the stone. Madame was right. It was older than the parish church. There was nothing here the original pilgrims would not have recognised. Well, hardly anything. There was a flamboyant statue of the Sacred Heart on one side of the altar and on the other, the almost obligatory Our Lady of Lourdes with a slightly insipid Bernadette in clogs and shawl gazing up at her.

“Good morning, monsieur”

I span round when I heard a voice behind me. An old priest in a faded cassock stood on the altar steps. I hadn’t heard or seen anyone when I came in. Presumably, he’d been in the sacristy, praying or reading his office. I must have disturbed him with my pottering about. He stood there, looking steadily but gently at me.

“Good morning, Father. I hope I’m not in your way”
“Ah, you are English, monsieur.”
“Yes, Father.”
“Welcome to Val d’Aron”. You are on holiday?”
“Yes indeed, Father.”
“I am very glad to see you, monsieur. You are perhaps a Catholic”
“As it happens, Father, I am”
“Excellent. I am about to say eight o’clock Mass and I don’t think I can manage alone. Can you by any chance serve Mass?”
“I could once, Father, long ago but I’d be happy to do anything I can to help.”
“Thank you, monsieur. Thank you very much. I am in your debt. I should tell you that I will say Mass in the old way, in Latin.”

It was then that I noticed the altar for the first time. It was in the old place by the wall, not free-standing, as in most churches nowadays. It seemed odd this old man should be saying Mass in Latin alone but I presumed it was some local feast day or anniversary. In any case, this unlooked-for turn of events made my days of hill-climbing seem worthwhile.

I followed the priest into the sacristy. I sorted out the missal and altar vestments. I found some dregs of wine and a host in the back of a cupboard. The old priest vested slowly and calmly, occasionally offering me a few words of guidance. When everything was ready, we went onto the altar and started Mass at eight o’clock precisely.

I managed to stumble through the half-remembered Latin words with the help of a battered book I’d found in the sacristy. I was clumsy and hesitant at first but the old priest was patience itself. Gradually, it all came back to me and I slipped into the once familiar routine. Thirty years fell away and I felt like a little lad once more, serving Mass for Fr Kelly at St Patrick’s. The old man moved steadily through the ancient ritual. Whenever he turned to face me, he smiled gently and, at Communion, he gave me a piece of the host with a grave dignity which impressed me deeply. At the final blessing, he put his hand on my head and said;
“Thank you, my son. I couldn’t have done this without you.”

After Mass, I offered to clear things up and accompany the old man back to town but he politely declined my offer.
“Thank you but no. I will stay here a while and pray. I have a very important meeting today and I need to get ready.”
We shook hands. I collected my stick and left.

When I got back to the Hotel Foch it was almost nine o’clock and breakfast was just about finished. However Madame Leclerc was determined to feed me up and so bread, coffee and croissants appeared as if by magic. They smelt, looked and tasted wonderful. Madame had even remembered to book a taxi to take me to the airport to meet Meg but she was not her usual cheerful self.

“You look upset, Madame”, I enquired.
“Yes, monsieur. The news today has made me very sad.”
“News, madame? What news?”
“Ah, monsieur, the Cardinal is dead”
“Who do you mean? Which Cardinal?”
“Our own Cardinal, monsieur, Cardinal Bouniol. You must have heard of him”

I certainly had. Thirty years ago, in the 1960s, Jean Philippe Bouniol, was the most famous or rather notorious Catholic priest in existence. He was an arch-conservative and had voted implacably against each and every change or innovation at the Second Vatican Council. In St Peter’s itself, in the presence of the Pope, he had sworn publicly never to say one word of the Mass in any language but the Latin he loved. To be honest, I thought he’d died years ago.

“Did you know him, Madame?”
“Certainly, monsieur. He was born here on this very street. He always came here for his holidays until he grew too old. He was very good to my mother when she was dying”
“I thought he was a very stern man”
“He was very firm in his opinions but, in himself, he was the gentlest of men. I knew him well when I was younger. I think he was something of a saint.”

The phone rang and she turned away to answer it. I picked up the newspaper and read the front page. It was the local daily and the main headline announced to death of Cardinal Bouniol. He had died yesterday in complete retirement at the age of ninety far from his birthplace at a monastery near Rouen. Underneath the headline was a photograph. I saw a dignified, smiling face, the face of the priest for whom I had just served eight o’clock Mass.

Bernard Fyles


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