He was a tall man, in the autumn of his seventies, with a jowly face and mountain shoulders.
His attire was crisp and freshly ironed; purest white cotton underneath, half-covered by an embroidered layer, depicting two spikes of wheat on a background of green. The threads caught the light through the stained window, and glistened.
I watched him for some moments, and then took my place, twelve rows away.
He was whispering, hands apart.
In time he looked, over his reading glasses, and saw that I was there. The whispering continued.
Outside, a festival tent was under assembly, complete with pumping music to energise the roustabouts. The bass beat penetrated the space which he and I now shared. It was some French summer-song, a l’américaine.
My first thought was simple. This is a priest saying his daily mass, in accordance with canon law. But then I began disputing my own assumption. Why is he at the altar; and why in full regalia.
It was 9.10am. The realisation came.
The old man was celebrating a scheduled 9am mass, in his busy little parish town in Lozère, but nobody came. Nobody.
And yet, still, he said Mass.
I was intending to have a quick look at the church’s interior. Kaïsha was tied to a post outside. We had a big day ahead, ascending Mount Lozère, the highest summit of the walk, in the least populated Département of France.
But now, through an indiscernible, unclear mental process, it seemed that I had decided not to leave.
The mass continued, and his glances too; as if confused that I was still there.
Gradually, his whisper became louder. It was now a gentle half-voice, amplified by the boom of old stone walls.
I could not make out his words, but I could discern the architecture which sits above the Liturgy; its internal beat, that once you have you don’t forget.
We were approaching the Offertory. His voice become stronger.
I resolved to stand up for the Our Father, to assert that I was now the congregation, not some tourist bystander.
But I missed the cue; he was giving this day our daily bread before I knew it had started.
The moment passed.
I sat still, and let his prayers wash over me. Lord, I am not worthy to receive you. Only say the word and I shall be healed.
I had chatted with Flora yesterday, during a break, in the forest. She was so lovely, and commented that I’m doing the Stevenson walk “as one should”: with a donkey, and on my own. I joked that I even had an accent.
We sat together for many minutes, each happy in the silence. Flora was tall, beautiful, perhaps 25 years old. She too was walking alone, sitting with me. And I was walking alone, walking with Kaïsha.
We came to communion, and he ate bread and drank wine. He no longer cast his eyes towards me.
Once the liturgy ended, he closed his prayer book with two hands, walked to one side of the altar and blew out the candle. He then walked to the other, did the same, and left.