For the whole of the 1980s I lived in Ladbroke Grove, just up by Harrow Road and close to the Grand Union Canal. This was in the days before the catastrophe of gentrification. I was working at the time as a teacher in Holland Park School, and on Saturdays I would do my grocery shopping in the market at Portobello Road, often meeting pupils of mine who had Saturday jobs on the fruit and vegetable stalls. In the evenings or perhaps for a Saturday matinee, I might go to see a film at the Electric Cinema (pictured) which first opened in Portobello Road in 1910. Nowadays it’s a very smart place, but back then the seats were rickety and mice would be running between your feet as you sat and watched Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard in the crazy film, Reynaldo and Clara, which also featured Allen Ginsberg; or Elliot Gould playing Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye. But did I care?
I loved to ferret through the stalls looking for CDs or second-hand books, anything that took my fancy. It was there that I discovered two sensational CDs featuring Joe Arroyo, possibly Colombia’s greatest salsero, bought them for a couple of quid each. And before that, back in the days of vinyl, I bought four of John Lennon’s solo albums in a pop-up shop opposite Tesco, 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; and I would sometimes go into the Cañada Blanch Spanish School at the very top of Portobello for lunch in the canteen there, where two of my Spanish friends taught: calamares a la romana, delicious! Above all, 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.
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!
The years have passed. He’s lost weight. The black man carrying a white cross. His face is thinner, his hair is thinner, he seems more fragile, worn down. The oak cross with white panels, which he made himself, which every day he wakes up and carries the length and breadth of the borough, is getting no lighter
Who is he? A carpenter? A carpenter’s son? What does it take for him to do what he does? It takes faith. But. . . but what does he live on? With no visible means, like a sparrow or a lily in the field. A sign. Of what?
Occasionally he can be seen, standing outside the Iranian bank, on a busy street, beside his cross. A tall man, nearly six foot six. A tall cross, nearly six foot six. And attached to the cross, a large banner: six million pounds is all it will take to save the world. To save humanity. I’m going to borrow this on behalf of you all. Six million, not a penny more, to guide the Earth’s sinners like lambs into the kingdom of heaven.
That writing. A black scrawl on a huge white sheet tied to a large piece of cardboard. Kinship. Kingdom. The kingdom of heaven. A six followed by a frenzy of zeros. Noughts and crosses. A small price to pay.
Inside the bank, in his suit and tie, the manager smiles cynically in response to a customer who mentions the black man, the white cross, out there on the street. Yes, most days he’s there, yes, we just have to bear it. The manager is a Muslim. The customer, a Muslim. The two laugh. Palestine, Spain, Aigues-Mortes, the Crusades are far from their minds.
Harden not your hearts as they did in Notting Hill, in Shepherd’s Bush. Such a small price to pay for eternal rest. Was a time in Virginia he’d have been nailed to his goddam cross before being burned alive. Hellfire and damnation for being so damn cute. The Klan. Another kinship. Another kindom. Klu klu klu!
Head bowed. Shoulders slumped. His languid eyes drained of life. A cruel sun burns in the heavens. The air is full of pollution. The pollution of plenty. Fire and brimstone. The weeping and gnashing of teeth. Behold your daughters; see how they strut the streets, dressed as harlots, insolent whores, parading their breasts and baring their thighs, only too willing to lie down with the unbeliever. Head bowed, muttering silent words. Prayer? Despair? His word is silent. Sweat drips from his brow, into his eyes. I am the way and the truth. Six million, to ease the way. His eyes sting.
She’s not particularly young, nor particularly attractive, but she’s a good Samaritan. One day she approaches him. She had seen him walking in her neighbourhood streets. She was touched by the sight. A black man carrying a white cross, day after day, and indifferent to the disdain and indifference he so often met. She was touched, this Samaritan. And she was alone. She felt a vague longing for religion, for belief. For something to join. For somebody.
One day, she calls out to him as he passes in front of her door, carrying his cross. What a lonely life you have, she says. He stops to listen. Day in, day out, year in, year out, God, what a lonely life. He nods. At least she thinks he does.
Put down that cross for a moment, she says. Come into my house for a while, she says. Let me give you a cup of something, a glass of something, she says. Come in and kill your thirst. Take the weight of your. . . for a moment, she says. Come in.
His loneliness, she thinks. This side of paradise, a man is a man. She studies his broad shoulders, his long neck. This side of paradise.
He turns to look at her, deep into her eyes. He has gentle, dark brown eyes, and a deep sadness; and she sees at once that the sadness is a reflection of the deep sadness in her own eyes. She is full of hope. His sorrow gives her hope. Why should she not sleep with a man carrying a white cross? For God’s sake, why not? She would calm his distress, willingly, why not? It would be an honour.
Put down your cross, she says, gesturing with her hand. A long, slow, silent, half-desperate gesture.
Three ducks fly overhead. He raises his eyes and follows their path. She too raises her eyes. Both with their eyes raised to heaven. The ducks disappear from view. They both lower their gaze, they look at each other. In silence.
Heading north, the three ducks veer towards the canal, their webbed feet forward, skidding to a halt on the water’s gently rippled surface.
At the bus stop, about 800 yards from the canal, a woman in her early thirties lights another cigarette while waiting for another bus to take her to the new job, which she hates as much as the previous one. This time, the older woman, her friend, is not there. In fact, she’s alone. Hasn’t seen the older woman for ages. Her friend could be dead, for all she knows, or maybe she moved away. In reality, they were only bus stop friends. It was only there that they met, only then that they spoke. In reality.
What is reality?
Or maybe she’s widowed, or divorced. God, I’d give anything for a. . . . Right now!
Further up, on the canal, the ducks are preening their iridescent plumage. They scavenge for food. Here and there, a layer of oil stains the surface. In a certain light and at a certain angle, the water is filthy.
No, he will not lie down with her. He accepted a hot drink, but no, he will not rest on her bed. Perhaps a cross is all he can handle. She feels anger. The pain of his refusal when he puts the cross on his shoulders and moves on. A silent refusal. After all, her body hurts too, as though silently he had strapped her to his cross for her to die. Her loneliness, her cross.
The right shoulder of his jacket has been worn by the constant friction of the wood. I could have helped him, she thinks. I could have been of some service in some way. The bastard!
How dare he! A black man acting holier than thou. Whiter than white! Jesus Christ!
And love? What is love? The sadness of love. True love? Is there any another?
A heron sits on the edge of the canal, watching the ducks swim back and forth under the bridge. A heron half-hidden in the bushes, on the edge. Watching.
Was a time in Virginia a girl would never have stood for it, no sir, no siree. Cry rape to the crowd. Raise false accusations. Demand death by fire or have him strung from the neck; have him swing from the limbs of a walnut tree. A white girl, a black man carrying a white cross. Lord, how times have changed!