Picture the scene: I was chatting to an artist inside her workshop; the walls were covered in watercolour paintings of the Norman countryside, while stacks of prints and unique painted bookmarks bordered the room. There were paintings of cows, drawings of foliage and caricatures of ‘typical Norman people’, some of whom I thought I recognised from the high street. It was clear for all to see that this place deserved the monopoly in this small town when it came to art.
But business was slowing. Ever since the council restructured the roads so that it would be easier for drivers to pass through the town, that’s exactly what they did. With no through traffic coming through the high street and no curious tourists stopping in on a whim, it is no wonder that many of the once bustling shops are now boarded up and empty.
So when we spotted an unknown man, hopping from door to door, weighed down by a huge portfolio, the conversation stopped. We stared out of the huge shop windows at him, we watched him enter the butcher’s across the street.
‘If Caroline buys one of his shoddy prints, I’ll never buy another sausage from her,’ said the artist. She made it out to be humorous – she knew her friend would never buy from another artist – but there was no mistaking the serious undertone.
We stood and stared at the butcher and the door to door seller for what seemed like hours. I kept reassuring the artist that her friend was probably just being polite and that she would not buy anything, but I couldn’t be sure.
After a while, both the butcher and the door to door seller looked us in the eyes. They had caught us staring at them and were staring back. The butcher smiled and waved.
The door to door seller left the butcher’s. She hadn’t bought anything, so he moved on to his next potential conquest. We watched as he was thrown out of the café as soon as he walked in. Then he moved on towards the opticians, but our line of vision was obscured by a parked van.
‘I wonder if he’ll come here,’ the artist said.
‘What would you say to him, if he did?’ I asked, interested. I knew this artist to be a feisty woman. I knew that she would not take kindly to someone so brazenly trying to undermine her business.
‘I’d tell him to eff off,’ she said, seriously, ‘you get to use that word an awful lot more when you get to my age.’
When the door to door seller eventually did appear, I knew I was in for a scene.
‘Bonjour Mesdames,’ he said, upon entering the workshop.
‘Have you got a license number?’ the artist shot at him, straight away. Apparently he did and he had had one for twenty years, but he was unwilling to show it or his business card to us.
‘It’s so pretty!’ he beamed, overenthusiastically, upon approaching almost every painting in the workshop. He practically skipped around the place. Meanwhile, the artist and I stood planted to the spot, watching him still. It is now easy for me to see why my reception in this town was not a warm one; it appears they don’t take too kindly to strangers. I couldn’t believe that I was now part of that act.
I stood like the artist’s henchman as she questioned the door to door seller and eventually showed him the door, just throwing an obligatory ‘Bonne journée’ out behind him.
I wondered where he would go next. In which small town would he next try to sell his pastel drawings of African sunsets? Was he even aware of the massive impact a sale would make, not only to the local businesses, but to the friendships of the people who owned them?
I don’t know.
But I don’t think he will be trying his luck in this small town again.