Jeremy Clarke

Rough trade

A social leper tells you of his miserable existence

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My boy’s mother’s boyfriend is in his mid-fifties, works his arse off six days a week as a builder’s labourer and spends next to nothing on himself. He’s honest, decent and kind. His only vice is the ten cigarettes, machine-rolled from smuggled duty-free tobacco, that he smokes every day. But somehow he’s always broke, always in debt. And now he’s got the Inland Revenue on his back. Last week he gathered together the most pathetic collection of bric-a-brac I’d ever seen, and laid it out at the weekly car boot sale.

The car boot sale takes place in the leisure centre carpark. I sometimes have a quick scoot round before going in for my Sunday morning swim. Normally I don’t look the sellers in the face in case they start giving me a load of guff. So it wasn’t until a voice told me that the one-legged Barbie doll I was pruriently examining was only £60, and came with an extended warranty, that I knew he was there.

I expressed surprise at seeing him there. He explained about the Inland Revenue being after him. ‘But, Jim,’ I said. ‘Surely you can’t owe them a penny.’ ‘How’s that?’ said Jim. ‘Because you live at the seaside,’ I said. Jim pondered this for a while. ‘What’s that got to do with it?’ he said.

I hung around for a while to chat. There were plenty of punters walking around but no one was buying, said Jim. He’d been there since eight-thirty and had so far taken all of 50 pence. The organiser would be round later to collect his fiver rent, so in effect he was £4.50 down. The trouble was, said Jim, people going to car boot sales were no longer willing to pay more than 20 pence for anything. ‘Take paperbacks,’ he said, nodding at his dog-eared copy of Our Friend the Jack Russell Terrier, which comprised his whole personal library. ‘Last year you could get 50 pence for a secondhand paperback. Now you’re lucky to get 20.’

A car drew up beside us and two women got out and started setting out their stall. In times gone by everyone in the vicinity would have rushed in to have first pick. It would have been like the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. But today the women set out their racks of secondhand clothes and it was several minutes before they even had a browser, and it was only Nutty Linda. Linda was never quite there in the first place, but several years ago her only son died of cancer — he was just 16 — and she hasn’t stopped talking to strangers about it ever since.

She came and stood in front of Jim’s stall and glared tragically first into my eyes then into Jim’s. ‘Philip’s dead, you know,’ she said. ‘Cancer, it was. He was only 16.’ ‘Oh well,’ said Jim, examining the fingernails on his left hand. ‘Never mind.’ ‘No, never mind,’ said Linda, brightening perceptibly. She looked down, unseeingly, at the stuff on the table, then moved on. Presently we could hear her telling the stallholder next door about her son, and then him changing the subject by offering her a Titanic video for a pound. Then I went in for my swim.

When I came out again an hour later, I could see from 50 yards away that Jim was looking glum. (Jim’s head sinks between his shoulders when he’s fed up.) All he’d sold since I’d been gone, he told me, was his coat, which hadn’t been officially up for sale. It wasn’t new, but it was his best coat, and his only nearly waterproof one. He’d got three quid for it. And now, after a clear dry start to the day, the sky had clouded over, a cold wind was gusting through the carpark and it was starting to spit. Other stallholders started to pack up before it came on in earnest, and Jim followed suit. ‘I might just as well chuck it all in the nearest bin,’ he said.

But then a woman came along, looked, and seized on a rolled-up raffia place mat. It was just what she was looking for, she said. How much was it? ‘Twenty pence,’ said Jim. This seemed to knock the stuffing out of her. She asked Jim to unravel it and hold it out for her inspection, which he did. After a long hard look at it she said, ‘Will you take 10 pence?’ Poor Jim held out his hands in abject surrender and the woman gave him a 10-pence piece in the manner of somebody presenting a house and gardens to the National Trust.