Friday, 24 January 2014

Farmers' Market

This morning was the weekly Farmers' Market in the local small town. I had been writing and felt like a change, so walked the mile or so along the side of the field to the town, and found the market in the old Town Hall.

In London, Farmers' Markets are as full as art galleries, cinemas and restaurants. They are places to be seen. You go to them to display your localist credentials. We go to them so that we don't need to sit down at a table to eat goodies. "Look, darling, that's what a real turnip looks like! Don't worry, we're not going to buy one, Mummy doesn't like them either. Now, where are the sausages in buns?"

I was the only customer at the Farmers' Market in Suffolk. There were four trestle tables lined up in the hall, its raised stage at the far end fringed with tired brown curtains. Every word I uttered boomed around the place as if I were Queen Mary come to launch a ship. I felt compelled to buy something from every stall. At one point I heard myself say, "How's trade?"

Scuttling out, I looked for a place to sit and write a card to my daughter, and found a sunny bench. Cars passed slowly, their occupants staring at me as I wrote in the sun.

Two days before, on my previous excursion, the local Barclays had been shut, notices taped to its cash machine and door, talking of 'circumstances beyond their control'. It had been a grey and chilly day, all the other shops had also seemed shut, hunkering down for warmth, and I all but saw tumbleweed blow past.

Today there were people out, as well as the sun. I popped into the other bank, the one next door. "Stupid question," I said, "but can you bank a cheque here if your usual bank isn't around?" "Next door is a Barclays," said the cashier, helpfully. "Oh, it's shut down — I saw yesterday," said I, gaily. The woman looked astonished. "Shut down? I didn't know that!" she said. I popped brightly out to have another look. The Barclays was open for business and full of one happy customer. I popped back into the bank next door. "Silly me! It's open again, just shut for a day, you see? Really was a stupid question, wasn't it?" I laughed blithely at my own silliness. The cashier looked down at some papers she was working on.

Next I saw a sign for a mobile bakery, and sped off to buy pastries. Across the courtyard was a mobile fish van. 'Darren Smith Fishmongers,' read the blue and read sign in swirling script.

When I was growing up in Norwich in the latter years of the 1980s, a young man started to drive a van round, delivering fresh fish. He was a year or so younger than I was, a tall, good-looking man, just setting up in life. Mum bought hot smoked salmon, and sometimes Cromer crab, off the back of the van, packed with ice. The fish lay on the ice as though on diamond-encrusted cushions. Skate, scallops, cod, salmon, trout. Whenever I came back to see Mum over the ensuing years, I nearly always coincided with the Fish Man. Every time I made the same joke to her, "The Fish Man cometh". I used to pad out, hobbling barefoot on the gravel in the drive, on my weekend's break. I fetched the washing up bowl, with the money in it under a stone, that Mum would have left in the garage for him, if she was going to be out. He and I used to make small talk, exchange snippets of our lives. His children, my children. He followed my mother when she finally moved house, after my father had started his slow decline into dementia.

This year, my mother moved to Cardiff, to be closer to my brother, and to be in a town within walking distance of shops. She can walk to a supermarket to buy fish now.

The woman running the stall in the little town in Suffolk was the Fish Man's wife.

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