Of course, it’s unusual to think about love when you’re getting ready for a car boot sale.
But in houses a mile or so apart, two people are spending a drizzly pre-dawn doing just that.
Gemma needs space. And money. She’s clearing out clothes and ornaments and with them, memories. She wonders how much anyone would pay for this empty picture frame, for that unlit candle.
David’s dad was a hoarder; he’s the opposite. He gets rid of things regularly on the basis it will be less for others to clear out when he’s dead. He has no idea who it might be doing the clearing out.
Gemma has done the work of clearing a house, sifting through the detritus of a life. She’s amassed these trinkets as a result, trying to keep pieces of the people who have gone, a parent and then a partner, shadows of them made out of porcelain and glass. A grief counsellor told her, when she got overwhelmed by all the stuff, to think about what she’d really like to keep rather than what she should throw away. So this is what’s guiding her as she makes her two piles: sell, and keep. White elephants, and treasured mementoes.
David categorises his disappointments. He has a spreadsheet to help him do this accurately. There are weightings for different elements.
He’s had five break-ups, well not break-ups exactly, more like let-downs. He gets close to people and they always leave him for the bad boys, the ones who knock them about or just play games, then they come and complain to him about it.
He takes out a black T-shirt from a drawer full of black T-shirts. Black jeans. Black lace-up boots. Life is just easier when everything matches.
David thinks if he does ever go on a date again, he probably shouldn’t mention the spreadsheet.
Gemma is thinking about mistakes, and exes, too. After Andy died, in time, she tried to ‘put herself out there’, she really did. But she got mad that you can have what you think is a connection with someone, bond over music, talk about Joy Division and Editors until dawn, but he’ll go all the way with the one who has tight abs, the outdoorsy type who plays hockey and always looks sun-kissed.
The boxes are ready now so she turns to herself. She hates herself for putting on mascara at 6am just to go to the car boot. Why is physical attraction so important anyway? It exists in a weird curve: it grows the more you fall for someone – she distinctly remembers waking up next to Andy, the first time, and ranking him a 7 out of 10; six months later he was 9.5 and pretty much her physical ideal, the blueprint by which all future men would be measured – then over time, it plateaus as you get used to each other and with familiarity their face fails to hold the same fascination. If she could have his face in front of her again, just for a second, she wouldn’t take it for granted.
They both pile their boxes, David’s tightly ordered, Gemma’s chaotic, into their boots and drive off, half-watching the sun come up over the farmer’s fields on David’s left, Gemma’s right.
Gemma has been warned what the car boot sale is like – a friend described it as brutal – but she’s unprepared for people swooping like buzzards and fingering her stuff before she’s even got it out of the boxes.
Someone actually tries to buy her flask, even though the cup is right next to it full of what is quite clearly hot coffee. She’s come prepared, because she’s used to all the things you have to do when you’re alone. Like you can’t just wander off and buy a drink, or your belongings will be stolen.
Later, she’ll reflect that she probably should have just taken the money for the flask.
David first notices her because she gives a loud ‘Hey!’, which is followed by a yelp from the old man whose hand she has just slapped. ‘You have iPad? iPhone?’ someone is jabbering in David’s ear, and he shakes his head distractedly, as the old man walks by muttering and rubbing the back of his hand. David watches the girl struggle with her folding table.
He could bloody well help me, she thinks, instead of just staring. She’s sweating. She isn’t cut out for this kind of crap. She never even usually wears trainers. She likes pretty dresses and proper shoes. She likes 1950s style and she’d hoped her little sale would be a classy affair with a vintage tea-party feel, but she can see as she lays it all out on the camping table with the wonky leg, hurriedly covered with an Emma Bridgewater tablecloth, that it is a pretty sad collection.
The boy – not a boy, she chides herself, stop thinking of them as boys, he’s a man for goodness’ sake – he’s far cooler, she thinks. He’s not looking at her any more. His stuff is neatly labeled in boxes: BOOKS. CDs. DVDs. GAMES. Everything is square or rectangular, the kind of things that are easy to wrap at Christmas. No soft edges or frills.
It’s David’s first time at one of these things and he has decided quickly that it will be his last. Obviously he hasn’t come to buy anything. So why exactly does he find himself standing at this girl’s stall, flicking through her books and CDs? (Phil Collins? Ugh. On the other hand, she’s getting rid of it, so…)
He jumps when she appears from behind her car and says ‘Hi!’ He drops No Jacket Required like he was looking at a dirty magazine and his mum just walked in. Not that that ever happened.
‘Er…hi,’ he says. Er…hi? goes his inner voice. Real smooth. She’s got really pretty eyes.
‘Having a good day?’ she nods towards his neat little pile of soon to be ex-belongings, marginally depleted. He shrugs, feels that bored expression take over his face that always makes him hate himself a little bit.
‘It’s alright,’ he mutters, ‘Not my favourite way to spend a Sunday morning.’
‘Did you want to buy any of these?’ she motions to the CDs, which a hand-written poster announces are ‘Only £1 each!’, in flowery letters. Her voice is still bright but he can tell she’s thinking he’s an asshole.
‘God, no,’ he says, and her face falls. ‘I mean. No offence, but…they’re just not my style.’
‘Well, they’re not mine. I mean, they don’t belong to me, not exactly.’
‘How come you’re selling them, then?’ The words are out before he can stop them. Now I’m a rude, nosey asshole, he thinks. ‘Sorry.’
‘No, that’s alright.’ She sighs and picks up her flask. ‘Fancy a coffee?’
David. His name is David. That’s about all Gemma has managed to find out about him, but that’s probably because she’s been rabbiting on about herself. She always does that when she’s nervous. He doesn’t really look at her. Is he shy, or just rude? And can she be bothered to work it out, she wonders. Then again, he did come over to her first, and he did go and buy her a coffee when the flask ran dry, asking her to watch his stuff, though he didn’t seem overly concerned about whether it sold, or got stolen, or disappeared into thin air.
She likes him. She hates how she starts liking guys straight away, starts envisaging far-fetched scenes involving long country walks, city breaks, a proposal, a wedding…but usually does nothing to make those things happen.
The initial flow of people has died down and Gemma wonders if there will be another surge or if it’s time to pack up. She looks sadly at her little collection of bric-a-brac. She doesn’t like the idea of taking it back to the house.
‘I think I’m done,’ David says, to somewhere just over the top of her head. ‘I’ll probably just take the rest of it to Oxfam.’
‘Right. Good idea.’ She turns away and tips her remaining items into the largest box, hearing something clatter and smash as it falls in.
It’s been a long time since David asked anyone out. On, like, a date. But he likes this girl. Woman, he corrects himself, she’s a woman, come on idiot. Gemma. She talks a lot but she’s honest and sweet and kind of funny. And she really does have nice eyes. And a great smile.
His remaining CDs are all messed up. He doesn’t bother to sort them; he’s suddenly self-conscious and needs to get away. He places them carefully in the box alongside the books he didn’t manage to sell: a guide to the flags of the world, and some cod philosophy book an ex-girlfriend bought him, called ‘Happiness’ (the book, not the girlfriend). He sighs, catches sight of his reflection in the car window. Ageing, balding Goth, he supposes is how you’d describe his look. What would someone like Gemma see in him, anyway?
They both sit in their cars. There’s a queue to get out of the field. Gemma glances in her rearview mirror, catches David’s eye, and the first time, he smiles. The second time, he looks away. Neither of them really knows why he does this, what it means.
When he gets home, David will start to reorganize his CDs into alphabetical order and find one that doesn’t belong there. Phil Collins – No Jacket Required. When he picks it up, a piece of paper will flutter out: a phone number.
When Gemma gets home, she will just wait.
*First published on writers-online.co.uk