Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Article excerpt

I didn't fancy the hotel breakfast, so I wandered into Arles old town looking for a café. The weather and the season had changed overnight. The day before had been hot, golden and still. This morning an icy wind was yanking the last of the dying leaves from the plane trees and my thin canvas jacket was no defence against it. Choosing a café at random on the Place du Forum, I pushed through the glass door and took a seat in the warmth of the café's conservatory. Three other customers were inside, lingering over their coffee. I chose a bench seat, from where I could look south across the square. A big, blowsy, all-action waitress cantered up. I asked her for a cup of coffee, a croissant and a glass of orange juice. She rematerialised almost immediately with these items and slid them on to the table with a friendly absence of ceremony. Then she disappeared out the back, from where I could hear her stridently arguing the toss about something with a submissive male who conceded each successive point of her careful argument. The croissant felt heavy in the mouth, almost meaty. The coffee and the iced, freshly squeezed orange juice had roughly the same dramatic effect on my constitution as Jesus had on Lazarus'. Revived and restored, I leaned back and took in my surroundings, noticing two things in particular.

One was how very tranquil we three customers were when the waitress was out of the room. An old man with his back to me was sitting motionless over his coffee cup as though meditating. On the other side of the room a woman was hypnotised by something on her phone. Outside, the mad, icy wind whipped up the fallen twigs and leaves: inside was warmth, electric light and a peace that passeth all understanding. What is more, we could have sat all day, I felt, without buying anything more than a cup of coffee or two and nobody would have minded. I speculated that this new cold signalled the end of the tourist season and now everyone could relax. As you were, as it were. The other thing I noticed was that I was sitting in more or less the exact spot that Vincent van Gogh had set his easel when painting the café next door, a painting that became known as 'Café Terrace at Night', whose distinctive hallucinogenic stars in the sky above have made it a firm favourite with the punters. …

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