For the whole of the 1980s I lived in Ladbroke Grove, just up by Harrow Road and close to the Grand Union Canal. Saturdays I would do my grocery shopping in the market at Portobello Road and ferret through the stalls looking for CDs or second-hand books, anything that took my fancy. It was there I bought two priceless CDs featuring Joe Arroyo, possibly Colombia’s greatest salsero, bought them for a couple of quid each, and back in the days of vinyl, four of John Lennon’s solo albums also for a couple of quid each. There was a family butcher’s in the Golborne Road where the meat and the service were always excellent. I loved the colour and the buzz on the streets and loved being part of that community. There were the Rastas smoking ganja on the corners, and the Spanish and the Morrocans and the Portuguese, and so many other nationalities, and everywhere heaved to the sound of Bob Marley. Get up stand up, stand up for your rights!
Among the many characters in the area, and believe me there were many, there was a black man who used to carry a white cross. I would see him frequently in different parts of the borough but mostly in Ladbroke Grove, and on one occasion I even met him in the big supermarket up by the canal. He had put his cross down just behind one of the check-outs and was paying for his goods.
So the story below is actually a true story and it was published in my translation some years later in Managua, in the Saturday supplement of El Nuevo Diario along with the picture of a cross sculpted by the poet, Ernesto Cardenal. There are two parts to this story, the second of which was written some considerable time after the first, so I will post that part at a later date.
Laminated white wood. An oak cross with white panels. The size of a man. A tall man, almost six foot six. A man with broad shoulders and a long neck. A man with short black hair. A black man, carrying a white cross. He says nothing as he walks along the street. Says nothing to anyone, but talks constantly to himself. Maybe he’s praying. Maybe not. He wears black trousers, worn at the knees. His trousers are tucked inside Wellington boots. His jacket is not black, but dark blue, the cuffs frayed. Under the jacket he wears a polo neck sweater, thin black wool. He goes up the street muttering under his breath and people gape at him as he goes. No one laughs in his face, but behind his back, people roll their eyes and a smile appears on their lips. An eccentric, carrying a huge white cross. Was a time in Virginia, a man could be crucified for less. The Klan would would have told him what to do with that cross, that’s for sure!
What do you think people think as he walks along with the huge cross on his shoulder? Does anyone offer to help him as he makes his way, offer to share the burden? Do they wonder where he comes from, or where he is heading? Do they even care?
Everyone knows what a cross is, its purpose. For all who see it, it recalls a story that they more or less know, and in which some of them more or less believe. A man died on a cross. Many men died on crosses. Only one is remembered for that.
Do the believers among the crowd look more kindly on him as he passes among them, or do they raise their eyes and smile, aghast at such exhibitionism?
He lives under the flyover, but away from the alcoholics and homeless beggars who hover around the underground station at night, who gather there in search of friendship, to share a bottle, a cigarette, a little bit of their despair. No one knows exactly where he makes his bed, but they are sure that it is at some point down by the crossroad. Nobody has ever seen him lying on newspapers next to the cross, but they imagine that that’s what he does. His life is a way of life, they think, those who see him on a regular basis. We all have a way of life, but few of us carry a cross daily, up and down the borough, perhaps even beyond. Maybe one or two curious souls wonder where his working day ends.
At some point does he halt? To eat or to rest his shoulders? Does he have friends along the way who offer him a warm drink, a bite to eat, a little respite to relieve his distress?
He looks to be about forty years and, despite the state of his clothes, in good health. You’d need to be healthy, especially to carry a weight such as the weight of such a cross.
A woman, in her early twenties, waits for a bus. Beside her, another woman, a little older, waits also. A thin drizzle is falling. The air is fresh and the two women are shivering as they talk. Their bus is late and they will be late. Late for work, late for life. One of the women takes a cigarette from a packet and lights it as she listens to her friend. Neither of them enjoys the work they do. A job’s a job, they think, something you do because you need to. It’s not a career, and certainly, not a vocation. One turns to the other who’s smoking and points out the man with the white cross. They smile, one to the other. A cross, of course, is not a job. Maybe he’s a carpenter, the smoker says to her friend, maybe he just made the cross, it’s been commissioned and he made it, and now he’s carrying it to the church.
Have you ever seen such a big white cross, the other woman asks the smoker, that size? Well, no, she says and shakes her head. The man has now passed them, is already far far away, little more than a dot in their line of vision. No, I never have, she says. No never have, my friend. A white cross is quite a sight. I don’t think a church would want a white cross that size, do you? The smoker nods. You’re probably right.
Would you sleep with a man who carried a white cross? Would you sleep with a man who carried a cross, full stop? It’s a question the smoker has never considered but all the same she entertains it just for a moment. No, she says, I don’t think so. No.
His eyes. When you look into his eyes, what do you see? Do you see a tormented soul, a soul brought to the brink of insanity? Or do you glimpse a little bit of kindness, a man who is all alone? Someone at peace with himself and his beliefs?
Imagine if a car were to run him over as he crosses the road. How would the driver feel? Guilty, of course, says the non-smoker. Guilty as hell.
In his eyes, which are hazel, there’s a sadness. The sadness of love. Did you know that love can make you sad? It certainly can. There’s always heartache at the heart of love, true love.
There’s a canal about 800 yards beyond where the women wait for their bus. Ducks and geese, and sometimes swans swim back and forth on the canal. Back and forth they swim, under the bridges. A thin layer of oil floats on the surface of the water, and at a certain angle and in a certain light, a rainbow effect is created. A white swan suddenly turns iridescent, just for a moment, when the reflected light falls on the background of its feathers. Maybe that’s their cross, to swim back and forth, under bridges. It’s no life! Not at all. Decorative nature, nothing more, nothing less.
Times were a black man would be killed for such a stunt in Virginia. Desecrating the cross, they’d say. Shot to death or strung from a walnut tree. Those days, hardly worth the trouble being born black.
You never saw a cross that size, that colour before?
These days, nobody would give it a second glance, and you can do whatever you want. Wear whatever you like, go wherever you want, carry a huge white cross. How times have changed!