A man in black is walking towards me. He looks slightly familiar, and very strange. A wooden staff in one hand, a hooded robe of some sort, tangled greying hair, and a young man with a video camera following his every move.
“Oh, no!” are my first words. I consider bolting back inside, but I need to get home. I do not want to be filmed. Why didn’t I have a shower this morning?
“Hello. . . I am trying to live according to the principles of St Benedict, travelling without money, relying on the charity of strangers.”
It is worse than I feared. I wait for him to ask me for something. Why can’t I live according to the principles of St Mum? Keep quiet, travel home safely, and rely on strangers not to delay me.
“Do you have a soft drink?”
I say it too quickly, forgetting I am being filmed. Then I walk towards my car wondering what to do next. Could I, should I, unpack some groceries and suggest I whip up a quick pasta meal? Instead, I opt for, “I could give you some water.” Such a feeble offer, and all of it being recorded.
“I’ve got water.”
I walk back inside to get another bag. When I come out he is leaning against the front wall.
“I really don’t have a soft drink. . . If I did I would give it to you!” I sound churlish. It’s all going wrong. The camera’s still running.
“I know,” he says, but he doesn’t sound convinced.
“I’ve got wine,” I’m suddenly inspired and point to the bottles in the boot. I’d happily hand them over to get rid of him. “You can have some — though it probably won’t do you much good if you’re walking along the coast path.”
“I must be the only Church of England vicar who doesn’t drink wine.”
Just my luck. I walk back for a bag of dirty washing. He sits down on the road in front of “my” house.
“I could offer you a cup of tea?” It sounds half-hearted, but I’d like him to accept. He seems to have given up, and doesn’t respond.
I have failed. I have shown that the comfort of strangers is really very uncomfort-able. It leaves you miles from anywhere, tired, soft-drinkless, and hungry.
But I may have given him a bit of usable footage. The cameraman tells me they’re from the BBC and asks my permission to broadcast it. It will make me look bad, but I can’t say “No.” I used to work for the BBC. I spent my profes-sional life persuading people to appear on television; so I have to say “Yes.”
THEN a large camper van drives up — so large that, when it parks in the square, a real resident comes out and tells the driver to move it. Another cameraman appears, an older man with a bigger camera to film stylish shots of the dejected vicar.
While I am inside, I imagine him talking to camera about the lack of charity (and soft drinks) in this cold-hearted, holiday-home-dominated village.
When I next go out he is eating lunch from a substantial Tupperware box. He may even have a soft drink in there for all I know. Further up the road the van has parked, and a third cameraman is sitting in the driving seat, also eating. Groups of holidaymakers pass the vicar on their way down to the beach. He asks them for nothing.
I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. I should know TV is a stunt. Of course he isn’t really living off the kindness of strangers. That’s far too risky with people like me about. No wonder he wasn’t interested in my half-hearted offer of tea: he could brew up for the 5000 in that camper van.
When my car is packed, my son has been strapped in, and I am about to begin the long journey home, we make eye contact, and give each other a sad wave. Much later I Google “BBC” and “vicar” and discover that he’s Peter Owen-Jones, whose series Around the World in 80 Faiths I enjoyed.
I am sorry about that soft drink. I am even sorrier to be caught on camera not offering it. My lack of generosity and his mobile home bothered me — until I hit a horrible bottleneck on the A303. Then, as my rushing is stilled by modern life, I wonder what St Benedict would make of it all.