Driving towards Bordeaux with sun flickering through allées of trees along the road, we were due to meet Steve, a dealer I knew from England. Steve was never short of a tale to tell, and was now single handedly refurbishing a large barn surrounded by apricot trees.
We followed him up the dark, rickety wooden stairs to see the impressive progress he was making before all climbing into his van and setting off for lunch at the local Routiers restaurant. Lorry drivers, Les Routiers, know that good, straight forward food is assured in these restaurants. The no-nonsense waitress found us a place in the crowded room. Wine in bottles with no labels was set on the table as we squeezed into our seats. We were sent to get our hors d’oeuvres from an old supermarket chiller unit.
The rest of the blistering afternoon was spent driving through picturesque villages and vineyards to various brocante shops and junk yards heaving with piles of rusting metal. Random finds accumulated in the back of Steve’s van – white Creil et Montereau coffee cups, next to 18th century candlesticks, wedged against a framed print of the Madonna, a bundle of faded correspondence, a metal grill for standing over hot coals, tiny tricoleurs and other items of domestic history. We got hot, grubby, laughed and drank ginger beer.
Graham and I left the Dordogne next day in pouring rain. I ducked into an antiques warehouse that stood on a roundabout. Graham pulled the van up as close to the door as he could and helped me load in a large mirror that had caught my eye.
Heading towards the Mediterranean, to Narbonne and then along the coast towards Beziers, we stopped en route so I could rifle through a two storey warehouse. In well organised rows one could easily locate chestnut roasters, champagne buckets, chopping boards, suitcases, bird cages, roof racks, adding machines, wooden yokes, baskets, bread bins, earthernware pots, electrical goods and so on. But prices, I discovered, were ridiculous and I left empty handed.
Rolling along a minor road beside the Canal du Midi, clouds gathered and the light went green before thunder came. Grey tombs stood in a hillside cemetery with darkened, heavy headed sunflowers in fields around and black mountains silhouetted. Storms continued on and off for two days. We were in a small hotel on the beach with wind rattling down the ventilation shafts and howling at the doors. Terraces were deserted.
But the regular weekend flea market at Marseillan took place nevertheless. Amongst the puddles and the stalls of fishing tackle and baby clothes, I found a small cabriole legged chestnut table of considerable age, an embroidered picture in a heavy gold frame and a robust alarm clock with huge ringer on the top. I stood pinned to the spot as a man leaned over his guitar, one foot on the cill of his van, playing utterly haunting flamenco music.
A print of Les Arenes at Arles in the middle ages would also find its way home with me, a souvenir of the year I had spent there when I was twenty. What things might I have found in Provence back then, I sometimes wonder. My heart squeezes with a pang for what never was.