Seen from Youssef’s ninth floor apartment, the flea market at the Place du Jeu de Balle was a picture of order. Five mornings a week, blankets would cover the cobblestones like a giant patchwork quilt, each square piled with unloved objects. The market traders, who were mostly grim-faced, chain-smoking old white men, clustered together according to the goods they sold. So heaps of brass hooks and candlesticks were closest to Youssef’s apartment, rusted tools and grimy watercolours further away, and battered wooden furniture at the opposite end. Running along one side were dog-eared books and magazines, and on the other a handful of young men from Dakar and Kinshasa sold counterfeit handbags and pirated DVDs.
As a little boy Youssef would spend hours leaning over his balcony, peering at the tourist crowds, until his mum grabbed his shoulder and yanked him down from the ledge. “For heaven’s sake Youssef,” she’d say. “You’ll be the death of me.” But as soon as she turned away, Youssef crept back to his post. There wasn’t much space in their apartment – and the rooms quickly filled with the voices of Youssef’s big sisters, rabbiting away on their phones.
At street level, though, the market was chaos. Tourists drifted through it like cattle, knocking into seven-year-old Youssef with their backpacks and cases. His mother would scoff at the crowds blocking their path to the supermarket. “Imagine paying 30 Euros for a bit of old junk,” she would say, loudly, before gesturing at the sellers watching over their goods. “And these men – just stood there with their arms folded. So lazy. At home, Youssef…”
Youssef wondered what she meant. Weren’t they at home now?
“…At home, a trader always has a line to make you stop. A bit of patter. That’s how this world works. You can’t wait for opportunities to come to you. You need to go out and make things happen. Are you listening, Youssef?”
Youssef was rarely listening. He was normally lagging a few metres behind his mother, trailing his fingers over glass ornaments and cutlery and faded postcards with neat, old-fashioned handwriting. Sometimes he picked them up to read the messages they contained, prompting the nearest trader to uncross his arms and shoo the boy away. So what if this was all junk, Youssef thought. Even junk can carry the weight of something – like the pebbles he’d brought back from their day trip to the beach at Ostend the summer before, the first time he’d seen the sea. To anyone else the pebbles were just boring, brown stones. But when Youssef touched them, memories and sensations popped in his mind like Independence Day fireworks. The sway of the train on the way to the coast, his mother’s shrieks as a wave caught her feet, and most of all the smell of the water. Not the smell he had expected – a smell that filled your throat as well as your nose and changed every few seconds. A living smell.
Youssef’s mother’s words stayed with him, though. They stayed as the years rolled by, as his limbs thickened and stretched out like elastic bands. They were still there when his voice began to wobble, and the simplest conversations with girls in his class left his ears burning.
A few weeks after turning 14, Youssef dashed from school and squeezed onto the slow commuter train that travelled through the city’s posh suburbs and sleepy outer fringes to the towns and villages beyond. That spring and summer he would make a similar trip a few times a week, at first with a knot in his stomach, not unlike the one he felt talking to Lucie in the short break between maths and science.
On these trips, Youssef always took great care to look presentable. No tracksuit tops or baggy hoodies, hair neither too short nor too long, a stick of chewing gum to hide any trace of cigarette smoke. And, most importantly, however nervous he felt, a bright and welcoming smile for anyone who answered his knock at the door. “Hello, Madam, I don’t suppose you have any junk I could take off your hands for a few Euros? Any old knick-knacks? To sell up at the flea market in the city. The tourists, they like a memento, an authentic piece of Belgium. You’d be amazed at what they buy, really.”
His first trip was funded by a Saturday job unloading frozen burgers and chicken pieces at the kebab shop opposite his home. Without one of the coveted market spots, he had no way of selling directly to the tourists, and had to deal with the established traders – who would re-sell what he gave them with a hefty mark-up. The first time he returned from the flea market he had covered his train fare, but only just. “Let’s see,” his sisters squealed mockingly, grabbing at his wallet as soon as he walked through the front door. “Will you buy me a helicopter with all your money, Youssef? Or will it be a sports car?” His mother waved them away, though she couldn’t hide her own disappointment.
But on the next trip he spotted a set of beautiful glass vases, light tumbling off their curves as it did off the waves at Ostend. The vases were sitting behind a broken toaster, in the attic of a retired piano teacher. “I’m no fool,” she announced, jaw set, when he made his first offer. Youssef’s stomach knot returned. But when a price was agreed she smiled and helped him wrap the vases in newspaper, her slender fingers working twice as quick as his. In her neighbour’s greenhouse Youssef spotted a ceramic plate wedged beneath a tomato plant, its warm orange glow hidden by smears of black soil. “Five Euros? For that old thing?” The owner shrugged. “If you’re sure.”
Of course, most people answered the door with a polite no, particularly those under 50. But if Youssef could keep someone talking for more than a minute, then he knew he would soon be poking around in their shed or spare room. Some even pressed cups of coffee on him. And there was always something gathering dust – brass ornaments, old picture frames, a dead relative’s walking stick. Youssef had wandered the market enough to know what shifted and what didn’t, and what he must pay now if he wanted to sell on to the traders and make a decent profit. But he still checked a potential purchase by running his hand over it, seeing if it triggered the sense of wonder he had felt as a little boy lagging behind his mother years earlier.
His trips stopped when winter fell, but next spring brought new villages and even more success. At first he had risked no more than 20 Euros on any one item – don’t get ahead of yourself, his mother had warned – but now he bought a few things for a little more. Paintings, mainly, but also silver and glassware. As summer drifted on, the traders who had once shooed Youssef away sought him out with requests, asking him to keep his eye out for this or that, and to make sure he came to them first if he had any luck. They would make it worth his while, they said.
At the end of the summer Youssef reached beneath his bed and pulled out the shoebox where he kept his earnings, notes stacked neatly and weighed down by his lucky brown pebbles. He counted hundreds of Euros, more money than he had ever seen in one place. He thought about how much it would cost to get his own spot at the market one day. Or even buy a car, so he could reach towns and villages far away from the train line. In the meantime, there was more than enough here for two cinema tickets. Comedy or horror – which would Lucie prefer? And then, someday, maybe, two train tickets to Ostend. He grinned and slid the box back underneath the bed. So much for not getting ahead of himself.
Over winter Youssef’s shoulders broadened, he grew even taller, and stubble raced across his chin and up his cheeks. At first he was delighted – Lucie had noticed, he was sure of it – but when spring arrived, Youssef’s luck turned. You’ve had bad weeks before, he told himself. Things will pick up. But as the months went by and trip after trip came to nothing, he began to decode the message lurking behind pained smiles and unanswered doors. “A boy might be OK,” they said, “but to let a man in here to poke through my things… an urban man, if you know what I mean. I’m sure he’s one of the good ones. But you can never be too careful.”
That summer yet more tourists descended on the Place du Jeu de Balle, to shuffle past brass hooks and dog-eared books and battered wooden furniture. Had they stopped to look up, to the ninth floor of the apartment block at the square’s far corner, they might have seen a smudged shape on one of the balconies. And had they shaded their eyes and squinted through the hot August air, they might have recognised that shape as a broad-shouldered young man, watching the crowds and rolling a couple of brown pebbles over and over in his hand. Youssef was too big to be called back in, but his mother tried anyway.