Walking with Jesus (The Times, March 2005)
Theo Hobson cross-questions a West London character
I was driving up Ladbroke Grove, having just dropped the kids off, when I saw him. I must have seen him hundreds of times before, and he had always interested me, made me think. Recently I had often felt that I’d like to meet him, to find out more about him. Maybe I should try to interview him - or maybe I should just shake him by the hand, tell him to keep up the good work. But would he talk to me? Would we be capable of any sort of meaningful intercourse? Perhaps he is, to put it euphemistically, confused, and my advances would anger or frighten him.
If I become more geographically particular, some of you will know what I am talking about. He was walking from the Ladbroke Grove Sainsbury’s - he was carrying a bag of shopping - down to the junction with Barlby Road. Yes, I am talking about the old black man who quietly carries a large white cross around this small stretch of West London. It is about as tall as him I would guess, and he is old enough to find it seriously burdensome. It is made of painted white wood, and you can tell from a distance that it is foldable. I don’t know when he folds it - I once saw him in Sainsbury’s and it was still up. He carries it over his shoulder as he walks, or shuffles, around. Today he seemed more shuffly than ever: the shopping bag was evidently slowing him. His walk was a slow rhythmic rocking shuffle.
As I drove past I remembered my resolution to meet him. Should I stop the car and introduce myself? I could offer to carry his shopping bag as a pretext for saying hello. I spotted a place to park - should I? Well, wouldn’t it be a bit forward, a bit intrusive? What would I say? But how else would I get to meet him? I could hardly email him. I drove on: I’d do it another day - I’d hang out round Sainsbury’s with my note-pad and hope to run into him. No I wouldn’t. In reality, it was one of those vague intentions that I’d never get round to. Sod it let’s do it, I thought, and U-turned at the roundabout, feeling that little kick of self-surprise.
So I turned into Barlby Road and parked, and sure enough he came round the corner, slowly, slowly. I crossed the road and waved and smiled, as if we were old friends. He looked at me warily. What would happen? Maybe he would shout obscenities at me or whack me with the folding cross.
‘Hello’, I said. ‘Can I help with your bag?’
‘I’ve always wanted to meet you. I admire your work.’
He nodded blankly.
‘I’m Theo. What’s your name?’
His teeth were among the worst I have ever seen, hardly still attached to the gums.
‘How long have you been living round here?’ I asked, for some reason.
‘About two years.’ This was surprising - I’d seen him for many more years than that, but I let it pass. Maybe he uses ‘two years’ as a sort of biblical shorthand for ‘quite a while’. Or as a less biblical shorthand for ‘mind your own business.’
‘And how long have you been carrying the cross?’
‘About two years.’
‘And why do you do it?’
‘Because I believe in Jesus.’
‘So do I,’ I said, lamely. Would I dare to do such a thing, to show it? I wouldn’t even wear a cross round my neck, in case people took me for the wrong sort of Christian.
‘And Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me”, and so that’s what I did.’
‘Are you a preacher, a minister?’
‘No, I am an ordinary man just like you.’ He smiled, as if our lay status was a fine gift we had in common.
‘So what gave you the idea of carrying the cross?’
‘The words of Jesus, “Take up your cross and follow me.” It’s in the Gospel of Matthew.’
‘I mean, did you get the idea from seeing someone else doing it, and copy them?’
I didn’t know how else to inquire into the unusual decision, into the theological, cultural and psychological factors that led him to hear a verse from Matthew as the cue to turn his life into a sort of Christian performance art, a singular procession, a little lay liturgy amid the anxious ordinary streetscape of W10. It seemed obvious to him that his textual answer was the end of the matter. Jesus said so. I could see the cross itself more closely. There was a crude bit of stick holding the two parts straight, stopping the hinge from folding.
I had no further questions, and he sensed this, with some relief perhaps. I think I vaguely said it would be good to talk again at more length, and that it had been nice meeting him at last.
‘Any-way,’ he said, in a drawn out, West Indian way, and nodded goodbye. Instead of shaking his hand (full of cross or shopping bag) I patted his bony shoulder, to signify approval. If he thought this gesture horribly patronising he did not let on.
He staggered off. A mum pushing a pushchair passed him and smiled at the familiar presence. I wonder whether she smiles at any of the local vicars so nicely.