Low life

How a May Day car-boot sale gave me back my optimism

7 May 2022

9:00 AM

7 May 2022

9:00 AM

So that’s it. Is a third world war possible? It’s already begun, opined a retired US general in the newspaper. Oh good. I shouted down the stairs to Catriona: ‘World War Three’s started.’ Catriona said she’d better get the washing in, then go down to the village shop to get fresh coriander.

May Day in France is also Fête du Muguet – the festival of the lily of the valley. Lovers give each other bunches to signify love, affection and workers’ rights. She returned with coriander and a lily of the valley for me. The latter was wilting a bit. ‘It’ll probably only last two or three days,’ she said. I transferred the fragile plant from its plastic cube into a clay pot and misted the leaves and little white bells with the anxious concentration of a boxer’s second between rounds.

Then she suggested we went for a May Day drive. Did I fancy anywhere in particular? As in England, Sunday mornings when the weather is fine can be spent browsing car-boot sales, here called vide-greniers or attic clearances. This morning there was one advertised in an attractive, well-to-do village higher up in the foothills of the Alps. I suggested this, weather permitting. ‘What do you mean, “weather permitting”?’ she said. ‘Look at the sky!’ We looked. There was one solitary little puff of cloud. ‘Well, it’ll be colder up there,’ I maintained. ‘Too cold for shorts.’

Yesterday, at a neighbour’s for early drinks, when asked how I was, I said I was on my last legs. Catriona, a nurse for 20 years, expostulated that I was talking nonsense. Now my pessimism was getting wearisome and she parodied it. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘and no doubt there’ll be woolly mammoths roaming about up there and huge moving sheets of ice.’


We drove up into the hills. I courageously stayed in shorts, exhibiting lily-white spindle-shanks.

The high village’s May Day vide-grenier is a noted annual event. The overspill car park was a new-mown meadow. From here we walked up the hill and crossed over a bridge. On the bridge was a plaque commemorating the death of one Roger Maurice, ‘killed by a bullet fired by the Germans’.

Two elderly gents were gathered round this plaque and jointly translating. Having done that, they walked on, hands clasped behind their backs, quietly discussing in German what they’d read. Most of these hilltop villages have some sort of memorial commemorating a maquis fighter – usually hailing from down on the coast and communist – ‘killed’ or ‘murdered’ by les Allemands. When you go online to find out more, the results are few, contradictory and often surprising. One such written in English, emphasising the complexities and subsequent romanticising simplicities of these memorials, claims that Roger Maurice was shot by a ‘stray’ German soldier seven days after the end of the war. As the two Germans passed out of earshot, gravely contending, I translated their conversation for Catriona as: ‘Bullshit. Our man vas only trying to run away.’

Under the plane trees in the old village square, we did a slow browsing circuit of the bric-à-brac stalls, then thought about a beer. The café tables were crowded out, but the bald waiter nodded to a vacancy we hadn’t noticed. If you added the stall holders to the Sunday-morning browsers and those seated at the café tables, there must have been three or four hundred southern French milling about under the plane trees, all of them motivated by tenacity, avarice, logic, militancy and kindness, but pessimism never. The plane trees were dropping pollen and café customers were sneezing. Noting the new leaves as we sat down, Catriona said: ‘It won’t. Be long. Before I.’ And she sneezed four times: four dainty little sneezes.

On the table between us was the rusty, broken old colander that I’d bought for €1 as a handy small garden sieve and was very pleased with. Optimism was returning. On the next table was a cat scratching a post in the form of a grinning cartoon dog. Further afield was a pair of African tribal art bookends. Catriona suggested that after this we go and have lunch at the highest hilltop village of them all, ten kilometres farther on. ‘Good idea,’ I said. ‘But it really will be colder up there.’ While she called the restaurant, I went back among the stalls to buy the first men’s jumper I saw for €1. ‘Get skis if you see any,’ said Catriona.

I didn’t have far to go. There was an acrylic men’s jumper on a rail and I gave the day-dreaming old woman the €1. And on the way back to the café table I spotted a vintage guitar amplifier and swapped a €20 note for it, practically without stopping. Happiness! But poor Catriona. World War Three with Low Life on harmonica, amplified. Not good.

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