Where was I in 1987?

Alan Bennett

London, 2 January 1987. Reg, who kept the junk stall in the market, has died and today is his funeral. Where his stall stood outside The Good Mixer there is a trestle-table covered with a blue sheet, and a notice on a wreath of chrysanthemums announces that Reg Stone passed peacefully away on Boxing Day and that his cortège will be passing through the market at three o’clock. Until I read the card I’d never known his last name.

Reg’s stall was a feature of the market long before I moved here in 1961. Then he had two prices, sixpence and a shilling. In time this went up to a shilling and five shillings, and latterly it had reached 50p and £1. To some extent he shaped his price to the customer, though not in a Robin Hood sort of way, the poorer customers often getting charged more, and any attempt to bargain having the same effect. I have two American clocks, both in working order, that were five shillings apiece and an early Mason’s Ironstone soup dish that cost sixpence and hangs on the wall of the kitchen. Local houses used to be full of treasures from Reg: model steam engines, maple mirrors, Asian Pheasant plates, rummers, all picked up for a song. Once I saw a can of film (empty) with ‘Moholy-Nagy’ round the rim, and only this last year Harriet G. got some Ravilious plates for 50p. Money didn’t seem to interest Reg. Scarcely glancing at what one had found, he’d take the fag out of his mouth, say ‘A pound,’ then take a sip from his glass of mild on the pub window-sill and turn away, not bothered if one bought it or not.

I go down at three. The table is now piled high with flowers, mostly the dog-eared variety on offer at the cheap stall in the market, petals already scattering on the wind. One or two of the long-established residents stand about, old NW1 very much in evidence. Thinking the cortège will arrive from the Catholic church, we are looking along Arlington Road when it comes stealing through the market itself. It is led by a priest in a cape and an undertaker bearing a heavy rolled umbrella that he holds in front of him like a staff of office or a ceremonial cross. The procession is so silent and unexpected that it scarcely disturbs people doing their normal shopping, the queue at Terry Mercer’s fruit stall gently nudged aside by the creeping limousines. The priest stops at the top of the street, turns and stands looking down the market as if the street were a nave and this was his altar. The flowers are now distributed among the various cars, more petals falling. In one of the limousines a glamorous blonde is weeping and in other cars there are children. Just as I never thought of Reg as having a name, so a family (and a family as respectable as this) comes as a surprise. And for a man I never saw smile or scowl, laugh or lose his temper, grief, too, seems out of place.

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