There was a smell of fresh chlorophyll where tyres had crushed the grass and it mingled with the scent of the underlying clay. The car boot sale was spread across the field as though a crop of tables and vans has ripened overnight.
A stall caught my eye and I rummaged through the cardboard boxes that lay on the ground in front of it. One box contained small shiny objects that glistened as I touched them. I lifted one up to the light and examined it.
"It's a proton", said the stall owner putting down a mug of tea. "A sort of baryon. That's one of your most popular elementary particles."
I shook it. It rattled.
"It's a bit dented", I said.
"Just a scratch. Nothing a quantum mechanic couldn't fix in an hour or so".
"I don't know. It looks like it's been in a collision of some kind. There's a hole in it too."
"OK I'll admit it's not pristine - that's why my prices are so good, but it's Swiss made so it's worth doing up. I get them by the box-load from a little place in France near the Swiss border."
"Has it always been a proton? You've not just swapped a quark on a neutron."
The stallholder shook his head. "No it's the genuine article. I don't deal in reworked particles. I can't stand the smell of decay for one thing and then there are the Trading Standards people to worry about. Anyway proper bound neutrons are getting too expensive these days, and the free ones fall to bits in about fifteen minutes."
I nodded but the man was just getting into his stride.
"It's like antiparticles. I won't touch them either. I've had my fingers burned a couple of times. I mean I know people ask me for them, but as I always say 'how are you going to wrap them?' I mean life's complicated enough as it is and that last batch of magnetic bottles is still stuck to the roof of my lockup. No that's a proper proton that is. You won't find a better one here today."
I remained unconvinced and looked into the hole. "It looks like there's some bits missing and it's gone a funny colour - a sort of anti-green."
"Probably just a quark dropped out. They're not hard to shove back and if you stick some gluons in the hole then the interactions will hold it in place. I've got boxes of them in the van. What colour do you want?"
"Well it looks like it wants a green one but I can't see a Higgs boson in there either."
The stall owner took off his cap, scratched his bald patch and took a sharp intake of breath. "Well that's a bit trickier. I mean they're difficult to track down they are. I don't see them very often and they go as soon as I get them. I might have an odd one in the van. Hang on a sec. Now where's that lad gone?"
He called across to a youth who was trying to balance a pile of fundamental forces.
"Oi Heisenberg! Have we got any Higgs left?"
"I'm not certain. I know we've got Ws and Zs. I'll have a look. Hang on."
The stallholder sighed." I don't know why I put up with him, half the time I don't know where he is and when I know where he is I can't work out what he's doing."
Climbing into the back of the van the lad rummaged through a pile of boxes. There was a flash and a clatter as a cat shot out through the open tailgate.
"Well I've located one, but I can't tell what state it's in. That flaming cat's back again by the way. It was hiding in one of the boxes. The poor thing looks half dead if you ask me. It's made me drop a whole box of photons. They'll take ages to collect again. Here's your Higgs."
The man took it, wrapped it in a sheet of tissue paper and put it on the counter. "Well that's your boson sorted we're just hunting the quark now. Pass me over the spare particles lad."
"Quarks?" said the lad.
"You sound like a posh duck with a lisp" said the stallholder grinning in a way that suggested it was a favourite joke.
"What colour?" said the lad ignoring him.
The lad handed over a battered cardboard box with "quarks (green, assorted)" written on it with a broad marker. The stallholder poured the contents on to an old, rusty tin tray and spread them out a bit. He held up one of the quarks and shook it.
"Strange" he said.
"Did you want a strange?"
"No a down."
"Right" said the man throwing the quark back in the tray. He rattled the contents around with his forefinger a bit before picking up another particle.
"Hello", he said. "That's got in the wrong box. It's an electron. You can spot leptons straight away as they're not as colourful as quarks."
He dropped it into an old ashtray
"Ah now this one's a beauty", he said lifting it and out polishing it on a scrap of rag. He held it up to the light. "You don't see a lot of those these days. It's the same as a bottom but a little bit older. Should still work well though as these things last for ages. It's no good to you mind. Now that's a down."
He placed the particle on the table next to the photon. Reaching under the counter he produced a plastic tub. He shook eight small objects into a scale pan and then poured them into a paper bag, which he sealed with a twist.
"And that's your gluons. I'll give you them. Anything else I can get you?"
I looked at the proton and its spare parts.
"No that's all", I said, "What's the charge?"
"+1 e", he said.The author and owner of this work is E.D. Wivens. See http://www.katzphur.co.uk/ for more details.