We’d been excommunicated from the eBay auction site for over a year. Non-payment of fees. They said I owed £4.17; I maintained that I’d paid it. And because it’s easier to get in touch with God than it is with the eBay administration, that’s how things stood until a fortnight ago when I caved in to pressure from my boy and sent another cheque.
At the weekend my boy comes to stay, as usual, and he’s logged on to eBay before he’s even taken his coat off. After lunch on Saturday I’m in the kitchen washing up. He comes in and advises me that he’s bid £500 for a car on my behalf and we are currently the highest bidder with 20 minutes to go. I dry my soapy hands and go and have a look at the computer screen.
The car is an old BMW 5 series. ‘Good condition. Smooth runner,’ it says. Other than that there is ominously little information. Large, almost professional-quality photographs, however, show the car parked in a muddy lane after a downpour. The miraculous clarity of the light shows up every tensioned water droplet on the polished metallic surface of the car. A mirror image of the car is artistically reflected in a puddle in the foreground. The colour of the car, dove-grey, exactly and rather wonderfully matches the colour of the sky. On the horizon, oblique rays of sunshine illuminate a distant row of council houses.
Not only has my boy been mugged by a pretty picture, his knowledge of the geography of Britain is appalling. We live in south Devon. The last time he bid for a car and won it, I had to go all the way to Newcastle to pick it up. The BMW is even further away. It’s in Lanarkshire. I go ballistic. Weren’t there any BMWs in the Outer Hebrides? He didn’t know Lanarkshire was in Scotland, he says.
There are no other bidders. We win the car. We have to collect the car within three days, which means going up by train on Sunday. Due to engineering works the journey involves three trains and three special buses. Our combined train fare adds 30 per cent to the price of the car. Normally, my attitude to my boy is, I’m told, characterised by a nauseating sycophancy. But the worm has turned. Too angry to read, I’m ranting at him, a man with a grievance, all the way up there.
We arrive at the address. It’s on a housing estate purposely designed to annihilate the human spirit. It’s so hideous I make a mental note of it so that if I should find myself one day in a position of supreme power I can have the architect arrested and publicly stoned to death. Any bargains to be had round here won’t be on eBay, I tell my boy. The awfulness of the environment renders my boy, who himself lives on an unprepossessing council estate, temporarily speechless. A woman comes to the door. She doesn’t know about any car. Best if we speak to her husband. Her husband is eating his tea off a tray in front of the TV in just a pair of underpants.
The other day I came across a fascinating theory concerning the evolution of the human psyche. It went like this. Before the unlikely genetic mutation that produced our surge in brainpower, the higher primates were no more intelligent than rodents. And ever since that extraordinary mental endowment, our new mind, developed by learning and experience, has been in conflict with the residue of that old, rat-like, instinctual mind. It is this enduring gravitational pull exerted by the old mind on the new that condemns human beings and higher primates to a state of permanent existential bewilderment.
To see this chap sitting there eating his tea is to see this psychic dilemma of hominid and baboon theory utterly vindicated. Who he is; where he is; who we are: it’s all a profound mystery.
‘We’ve come to collect the car,’ I say. Calmly masticating, he studies me and then my boy. ‘BMW?’ I add.
He prongs another forkful of chips into his mouth and shouts words I don’t understand at the TV. The woman who answered the door reappears, helpful woman, to translate. Her husband doesn’t own a car, never has owned a car and probably never will. Perhaps we should check whether we have the right address?
It’s a good suggestion of hers. I check my notebook. It’s the wrong house. She leads us back to the front door. I turn to offer a brotherly salute to the bemused hominid. But he’s chewing meditatively, his eyes fixed on the TV screen.