Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 17 August 2017

My grandson makes friends everywhere he goes

Low life | 17 August 2017
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On Sunday morning we went, Oscar and I, to a vide grenier in the ancient, picturesque Provençal village. Vide grenier means ‘open attic sale’ — which is the French equivalent of our car boot sale. Oscar had €20 with which to buy homecoming gifts for his Mum and her partner, and his three half-siblings. The stalls were set out under the shade trees of the village boulodrome. Ex-dustman Grandad loves browsing in skips and charity shops and at car boot sales and he was in seventh heaven.

At the first stall, I was very drawn to an old hand-tinted framed print of two peasants standing in a furrowed field. The sun was setting, their shadows were long. The man had his hat in his hand and was thanking God for their harvest, a pathetic basket of potatoes. His wife’s head was also humbly bowed in prayer. My first instinct was to laugh, my second was to mourn, my third was to ask how much. If he had one, Oscar kept his opinion of the picture to himself. The stallholder, a ruddy-faced 16-year-old lad, was entirely indifferent to it and said that yes he could easily change a twenty.

Further on, Oscar was attracted by a row of miscellaneous animal teeth on a table. He thought one of these might make a suitable gift for his Mum’s partner. He hesitated between a boar’s tusk and a huge tooth whose origin we could only guess at. The stallholder was squatting on a wooden crate and shaking the dregs of a bottle of rosé into his glass. An elderly woman behind him was standing and buttering a lump of bread. The loudness and cheeriness of the man’s greeting suggested that we had had the good fortune to catch him at that moment of alcoholic lift-off when the day looks altogether brighter and more absurd. As well as animal teeth, his stall specialised in fossils, second world war army bayonets, tiny wooden birdcages and video cassettes. We were tempted by the boar’s tusk, we told him, but which animal did this other tooth come from?

Normally an expression of interest like this brings the stallholder over like a shot to tell you how rare, old or exquisite your chosen item is. This chap remained fixed on his stool and shouted that it was a wild boar’s tooth. He described the dentition of sus scrofa, and the position of the other, mystery tooth in the boar’s jaw. After some consideration, we decided that Dan would prefer the offensive tusk to the utilitarian tooth, and asked the stallholder how much. It was the same price as the starving peasants — five euros. The boar tusk came with the customer service of a huge, reusable supermarket carrier bag.

Further on, a woman was selling vintage costume jewellery and handbags. Her coiffed hair was an unnatural burnt umber and her navy spectacle frames and deep, forthright voice made her appear somewhat formidable. Oscar’s eye lighted on an elaborate retro statement necklace which I guessed was from the 1950s and ought to cost a fair bit. ‘For Beth?’ suggested Oscar. The jewellery stall was attracting a lot of serious interest and it took a while to get the scary woman’s attention. At last she regally turned and inspected the small boy’s outstretched palm trailing one of her necklaces. I was our spokesman again. ‘Good day. How much?’ I said. ‘Who is it for?’ she demanded. ‘It’s a present for his sister,’ I said. ‘Well, tell him he can have it on condition that he buys an ice cream with the money that he was thinking of spending on it.’ Then she smiled so lovingly and kindly at Oscar that she looked suddenly totally different. I translated her words into English for Oscar, ordered him to express his gratitude in French, and we obediently headed for the ice-cream van.

The ice-cream man had a hump on his back and the arrestingly mobile face of a veteran music-hall comedian. He might have been an ice-cream man in an Ealing comedy. As well as ice creams he was selling red wine by the half litre. He was a popular individual; passers-by registered their delight at seeing him by stopping to clasp his hand or reach up with their mouths to kiss his aged cheeks. He received my order for two pineapple sorbets and turned aside with what looked like comic deference, but was in fact merely a lack of physical agility owing to his deformity, and perhaps the restrictions of the narrow space within which he was working.

We then paraded with our ices past the jewellery stall. Our formidable benefactrice with the orange hair looked up and we lifted our ices and saluted her with them. And now she surprised us yet again by bowing reverently to Oscar, as though she recognised something eternal and sacred in the existence of little boys.