I’m doing a little trip, on my own. Archaeo-man’s off to Africa, archaeo-ing. Me – I’m making a pilgrimage.
It begins well.
A leisurely start – mug of tea, dipping a biscuit. Gazing out of the window at the birds and trees.
No emails, not today, I’m showing them who’s mistress. Taking a slow, gentle, saunter into reality.
I switch on the radio for the news, like I always do the morning after he flies. There hasn’t been a plane crash on his route – so I know he’s reached Africa safely.
Then the phone rings. The connecting flight left without him. Airlines are being difficult. The trip was booked by the university’s travel agents, only they can sort it out.
Catapulted into frenzy, my morning speeds by in a blur. Contact the university, sort out the flights. Rearrange the meeting with the Heritage Commission in Lusaka. Contact Pioneer Camp, change the airport pick-up.
But his ancient phone’s not set for international – I’m blocked. And stumped.
I decide to abandon my jaunt. I’m feeling too stressed, now, to undertake a pilgrimage. I ring the place I’m staying to cancel – but there’s no reply.
An hour later a text breaks through from South Africa, ‘On my way!’
And I change my mind. I won’t be in time to bathe in the healing waters today, but, hey.
The drive’s going well till I take a wrong turn, end up stuck in a small town, its centre blocked off by police. Stifling my curiosity – it’s later than I’d like – I ask for directions, finally reaching Holywell as the clock says half past four.
I head straight for the well, just to say hello. I’ll visit properly tomorrow.
The shrine looks grey, sad. A little dishevelled. The faces of the people in the shop are blank, like posters faded in the sun – still there but saying nothing.
This isn’t how it was meant to be.
I’ve interrupted their prayers.
It might still come right.
At 7 pm I sit down, alone, for dinner.
On my table is a single red rose. Each windowsill holds a Christmas cactus in a copper pot.
The sound of nuns giggling filters through a set of double doors. It seems they’re amused at a priest’s singing. I feel like a worldly, jaded soul.
It’s been a long time since I had oxtail soup. Pork chop, cabbage, roast potatoes next. Then a slice of yellow ice cream. The meal served and cooked by Sister Mary, from India.
Breakfast’s at 8.30, she says. I smile.
Mass is at 7.30, will I be attending? Of course, I nod.
I retire to the lounge with a slim book about the Bridgettine nuns and the sanctuary they gave to Jews in Rome during World War II. By nine o’clock it’s finished and I’m ready to sleep. But I can’t.
I switch off the alarm at four. Rise at six.
Showered, dressed, but not in the mood for holiness, I make my way to the chapel.
Peeking out of an upstairs window I see pastel-coloured knickers and little white bras hanging on a line and feel ashamed, an intruder in a private world.
The chapel is small and intimate, the paucity of nuns poignant. They all seem to be from far flung places – the young priest, too. There’s much singing, but the intonation of the Indian-accented voice leading us is so different, it makes the familiar strange.
At last it’s my time for the shrine.
The people in the shop – also of far Eastern origin – are smiling. Recovered from the 200 schoolchildren who wore them out.
My disappointment ebbs away.
The water in the bathing pool reminds me of the waste-water lagoon of a factory I once lived near. Quite a pretty shade of turquoise. But I doubt I would have bathed.
Two of the Byzantine-looking tents I admired last time have lost their coverings and stand forlorn.
I light a candle for a sick friend – and one for Atheist-man in Africa – and leave. Nothing resolved, but no longer disappointed.
I take the low road home. It feels desolate, poor, a lost world.
Then it happens.
A vast, steaming power station rises on my left and a pulse of sheer excitement ripples through me.
I want to laugh – feel I could shout for joy.
It’s strange and I really don’t understand it.
Later, turning on the radio, I find myself listening to three women academics – astrophysicists – discussing the sun.
Mutually respectful, they applaud each other’s views, air their own confidently but humbly. Like academic nuns.
They tell me the sun’s a mass of gas, dust and energy. That sound moves through it in waves. As if it’s breathing.
And I get that feeling again.
The sound of the sun.
I can’t fathom it.
Dust and gas and magnetism – yes – but where did it come from?
Where is it?
And – where are we?
It’s a mystery.
And so, yet again, I set my mental compass to questing. Science can take me so far, but then …