‘Look at them, they’re all fat,’ he said. I’d slowed the car to allow four children to cross the zebra crossing. One of them secretly signalled thanks on behalf of them all as they trooped across. Polite. But they were all indeed a little on the plump side. ‘Even in France they’re getting fat now,’ he lamented, leaving unsaid the conclusion that if the French were getting fat, then that’s that, game over. ‘Of course it’s the working classes who get fat first,’ he explained. ‘Eating all that sugar and salt.’ I thought I detected blame and took exception. ‘Well, if anyone is to blame,’ I said, ‘it’s you.’
In the early Sixties some of the most highly educated minds of that rising British generation went into advertising and made an absolute packet. He was one of them. He and his Cambridge mates were handed exorbitant amounts of money to produce lavish and seductive television adverts that would brainwash us all into wanting things we didn’t need or were bad for our health. Remember that Silvikrin advert? The one with the model shaking her glossy blonde barnet in slow motion? Viewed from behind? That was one of his. ‘We must have shifted thousands of gallons of the shit,’ he once said of that particular success.
I watched television all through the Sixties and even today my mental furniture is comprised almost entirely of advertising jingles from that period. ‘P-P-Pick up a Penguin’. Remember that one? That’s another of his. ‘You formed our minds,’ I said. ‘We were like putty in your hands. It’s you and your mates who got us all hooked on industrially manufactured, highly addictive sugar and salt products and made us fat. And then you all retired to your own soft-focus dream images of Tuscany and Provence. You bastards.’ He has recently been struck by a jab, hook and uppercut combination of three chronic illnesses and was sitting immobile on my leather passenger seat and looking straight ahead. He took the abuse complacently. I knocked the tiptronic gearshift down a couple of notches as we approached a roundabout then filtered smoothly into the left lane for a left-hand turn. ‘Well, after a while we did start to feel very uncomfortable about what we were doing, I must admit,’ he said.
Our destination was the big local supermarket, one of France’s three big chains. We could see it from a mile and a half away. He said that he was at a dinner party once and sat next to the woman who owned the chain. ‘She was a wealthy woman. Absolutely minted to smithereens.’ This woman took an instant fancy to him and announced to the rest of the party that she was wrapping him up and taking him home. Later on his reluctance to be taken home hardened into a refusal. The woman was put out. But not as much as the host, who was outraged that he should refuse to do the honours for such an esteemed and loaded fellow guest. ‘Money,’ he concluded, staring mournfully at the windscreen. ‘It’s all that counts with some people. Something I found out a long time ago. Mind-boggling — isn’t it?’ I said that I was warned about the love of money very early on, in the Bible, at Sunday school. I saw no reason to disbelieve it then, I said, and still don’t. ‘Good for you, old chap,’ he said with enormous admiration. ‘Good for you.’
I parked the car as close as possible to the trolley station. Angrily refusing my offer of physical assistance, he pushed open the long door and grabbed one of his legs and put it outside. Then he did the same with the other. It took several goes for him to heave the rest of himself out of the car and steady himself on his feet. Meanwhile I nipped out and shoved a euro in the slot, extricated a trolley from the stack, and positioned it in front of him. Once he had distributed some of his upper-body weight on to the handle he was good to go. We agreed to meet on the café terrace next to the trolley station in an hour. He said he hadn’t slept the previous night so excited was he at the prospect of an outing to the supermarket. He wasn’t joking either, he said. I stood and watched him disappear behind the sliding doors. As I turned to go, I nearly bumped into a man who was waiting to have a word with me. He wanted me to give him money. The French words issued between rows of blackened teeth. He was fat and looked ill and simple-minded. ‘What for?’ I said. Off pat, and in perfect English, he said: ‘For heat.’ When I got back into the car I looked at the outside temperature gauge. It was 30 degrees. I gave him five euros and a cuddle.