Everything had gone wrong for him lately, said Mr Beaumont. He was going blind. His prostate trouble had worsened. His dear wife of 60 years had passed away just a fortnight before, following a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease. And the day before she’d died, she’d fallen on him, breaking his leg.
We were standing in the tidy living room of his bungalow. He was leaning heavily on his stick with both hands and telling me all this because I was about to have a look at his car, with a view to buying it. His point, presumably, being that it was this succession of disasters, rather than any fault of the car, which had decided him to part with it.
‘You’ll love him. He’s an absolute poppet,’ said the private-care company supervisor when she told me about her elderly client with a dust-covered car in the garage for sale at a giveaway price. She knew about the car because she’d helped nurse the wife towards the end and one gets to know these things. She also knew that, under the coating of dust, the car was immaculate, with only 24,000 miles on the clock and a full service history. She’d have had it herself, she said, but she was too attached to her own at the moment.
But it was admiration rather than affection I felt for Mr Beaumont when I met him. I looked at him and wondered how he managed to get out of bed in the morning now that his life was effectively over. Yet here he was, just after nine, up, washed, shaved and wearing a suit and tie with a pale-blue V-necked pullover under the jacket. Reinforcing the impression of decency and doggedness was his north-country accent — though at the mention of his departed wife, the clean-shaven chin wobbled and the pale-blue eyes liquefied with grief.
I asked him about the car’s service history. He went over to the table. He had the documentation ready, present and correct. He also drew my attention to a letter beside it. It was the bill for his wife’s funeral expenses. He didn’t know how he was going to pay it, he said, and the chin started wobbling again. He was rather hoping that I was going to meet his price, and then he might be able to pay off at least a part of it.
In spite of the heavy rain, he insisted on coming out to the garage and unlocking the flimsy up-and-over door for me. The garage was ridiculously small and there was no light. The dust lay so thick I couldn’t tell what colour the car was. It wasn’t a BMW saloon, either, as the care-company supervisor had claimed. It was a BMW Compact: the poor man’s BMW. These days we poor men can afford a big old third-hand BMW saloon if we want one. And this was the feeble 1.6-litre model, too. Why should I swap my beloved bombproof 20-year-old 2.5-litre Mercedes diesel engine for a 15-year-old 1.6 petrol?
I squeezed in through the passenger door and turned the key in the ignition. Nothing. I didn’t like the interior design of the car, either. It was boxy and cheap. Buy this? I thought. I’d rather strangle myself. I got the bonnet open and took out the battery. I’d take it home and charge it up, I told Mr Beaumont, who was still leaning on his stick in the rain.
He presented such a picture of loneliness and defeat that in a mad moment of pity I told him I’d have the car, even though in truth I neither wanted it nor could easily afford it. But lately my selfishness has run out of control. An expiatory deed like this now and again, I told myself, might do me some good. I could always sell it on or shove it in the car auction. Standing there on his slippery drive in the rain, Mr Beaumont seemed for a moment to be trying not to burst into tears.
‘Can’t pay for the funeral!’ exclaimed the care-company supervisor when I reported to her his anxieties about the funeral bill and my noble impulse to buy. ‘Welling up with tears! He’s loaded! The devious old bugger! You wait till I see him!’
I was there before her. I returned to the bungalow early next morning, reinstalled the recharged battery, and told Mr Beaumont I’d changed my mind. We were facing each other in his living room. He let me finish my speech, paused, and staggered forwards, as if the shock had made his knees buckle. I couldn’t say for certain, but the care-company supervisor’s cynicism might not have been misplaced. It was the dramatic pause. It really did seem like acting, and of the very worst kind. I didn’t feel nearly as bad after that.