In the Place du Jeu de Balle/Vossenplain, the flea market is being packed up. Small china ornaments, wood carvings, worn-in leather jackets, incomplete sets of cut-crystal glasses and frayed canvasses with oil paintings of forest clearings are wrapped in creased newspaper, crammed into crates and loaded into car boots and transit vans. The sky above the plain, red-brick gable of the church of Notre-Dame Immaculée is drifting into a tired grey after the effort of glowing with blazing sunshine all morning.
On the cobbles outside La Brocante, on the corner of the Rue des Renards/Vossenstraat, a cluster of square wooden tables is arranged beneath a large tree, crowded with people drinking beer and smoking. A jazz trio – drums, saxophone and electric guitar – are competing at who will produce the loudest, most alive sound. The drummer’s pleasure beams through his face. He beats out crashing rhythms which spark off a dialogue with the electric guitarist. The latter plucks the strings and makes them vibrate in a tone of measured irony.
Standing between them, the saxophone player blasts a cascade of notes like fragments of coloured glass. Then he lowers the sax and draws closer to the mic. A gravelly voice, a staccato tone reminiscent of Jimmy Durante and a rasping Gallic ‘r’ come out in a warm rendition of On the Sunny Side of the Street.
Suddenly, a brassy, nasal beeping sound starts to beat time in unison with the drums. A young woman at the wheel of a van stuck in traffic on the corner of the Rue Blaes/Blaesstraat is tapping rhythmically on her klaxon. The musicians grin and launch their instruments into a playful match with the van horn. The young woman throws her head back and giggles, her brown fringe flopping to the side. Encouraged by a burst of laughter and applause from the audience, she sets out to tap out her own rhythm pattern on the klaxon. The road ahead of her is clear. She waves and drives off.
The sax player resumes On the Sunny Side of the Street. H and I have been standing till now, so when I see a table become vacant, I suggest we take it. It is next to an iron fountain shaped like a wide bowl, with a pillar rising from the centre and four spouts dripping water halfway up. My attention is immediately attracted by the three figures at the top of the pillar. Three women in long dresses, aprons, lace-up corsets, loose sleeves and long, rectangular headkerchieves tied under their chins. They are carrying pitchers of water. Porteuses d’eau. The tallest of the three is holding her pitcher on her shoulder, leaning her head against it. They are standing in a conspiratorial huddle, perhaps gossiping. One of them is partly turning away from her companions, as though commenting with arch disapproval on someone across the street. The tall woman with the pitcher on her shoulder is smirking knowingly. The shortest – and perhaps youngest – of the three is cocking her head, eager to hear more.
I tell H they look Flemish. “Why not Walloon?” he asks.
I say it’s something about their features. The round cheekbones, the retroussé noses and the arched eyebrows. Like faces from a painting by Van Eyck.
A boy comes to clear our table. Shouting over the music, I ask for a lait russe. He says he doesn’t take the orders but that his colleague will be along shortly. We ask the next young man with a short apron who walks past but he says we need to order from another waiter, and that he’ll send him over. Soon afterwards, the man with the correct job description comes up to our table and, a few minutes later, my lait russe – complete with ginger biscuit – and H’s Hoegaarden are on the table.
The jazz trio ends the set with It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing. They tell the audience they play here every fortnight.
We stay to finish our drinks. When we ask for the bill, the young man clearing our table says he does not handle money. It seems we need to ask “John”.
“OK. What does ‘John’ look like?” I ask and listen to a physical description.
Opposite me, beneath the rustling leaves of the large tree, the three Flemish women carrying water start gossiping again.