Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone / They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can't go on. LEONARD COHEN The Sisters Of Mercy
|Janosch and Árpád.|
Opposite the Église Saint-Roch in the village of Saint-Roch, a few sweaty uphill kilometres beyond Decazeville, you will find a pretty little gîte called Sentinelle. The Chemin de Saint-Jacques brought me here late in the afternoon of Tuesday 15 May. Two Hungarian pilgrims, Janosch and Árpád, had already stashed their backpacks behind the door. We chatted and joked and swapped stories, and I decided to spend the night there rather than carry on to Livinhac as I'd originally planned. Brigitte, the feisty hospitalière, one-time nurse and fervent Catholic, breezed in. She bid us take off our boots. She showed us the shower, the toilet, the small bedroom crammed with mattresses. She said she would cook a meal for us later, but first there was church.
Other pilgrims arrive, and the dynamic Brigitte busies herself massaging sore limbs and cutting up cauliflower and trying to remember our names. Then a ragged bunch of us cross the road to have our créanciales stamped and to celebrate Mass. The priest is old and shaky and apparently the survivor of two recent heart attacks. Brigitte helps him find his glasses and the right place in the Order of Service. She is his aid and supporter. The choir sings the Kyrie, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei. The choir — well, I mean the choir of Brigitte: she's on her own, toute seule, with her sweet, quavering, descant voice, battling the sins of the world like a female Saint George, her eyes piercing yet other-worldly. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy... We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth... Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: grant us peace... She believes; she has no doubts. Slim and petite, she is strong and invincible with faith. She is the backbone of the gîte, the church, of the tiny settlement of Saint-Roch.
And she is kind. And attentive. And interested in all these crazy pilgrims with their crazy stories about China and India and South America. And she serves delicious food tasting of her own garden: vegetable soup, and quiche, and carrots, and cauliflower, and potatoes — all subtly flavoured and spiced — and chocolate tart. And wine, though not a lot. And when other pilgrims roll in, tired and hungry, they are fed and watered; and somehow she produces another mattress from out of nowhere, or finds a sofa for them, or a comfortable corner of the floor.
And when we leave the next morning, after coffee and bread and home-made jam, she wishes us Bonne Route and kisses us and waves till we are out of sight, and the priest waves too from the window of his house by the church, though I'm not sure he can see us very well, as Brigitte is not there to find his spectacles.
I doubt if any of us will ever forget Brigitte...
(You can read more about Brigitte here.)