The final few passengers straggled aboard and a sulky, petulant-looking BA steward, his orange face creased with sleep, passed through economy slamming up the overhead lockers. Though trained to be cheerful, democratic and polite, tonight, at least, none of these crowd-pleasing attributes came naturally to him. The rictus grin said: Economy, I despise you all.
I had a row of seats to myself and fervently hoped this state of affairs would prevail. The last to board was a young couple burdened with hand luggage and a sleepy child each. Mum and the kids arranged themselves in the row in front of me, while Dad, a huge blond-haired man, squeezed himself into the end seat of my empty row, from where he leaned forward and continued to direct, encourage and make suggestions to his wife and kids. Damn and blast the man. I’d lost my bed for the night.
Then the dad leaned across as far as flesh and furniture would allow, and grinned and grasped my hand with a frankness that made me like him immediately. Some folk, when you sit down next to them, even in the ghastly propinquity of economy, pretend you aren’t there. Or you have to ask yourself whether that lip tremor was a smile of greeting or a touch of wind. But this man had no truck with such narcissistic niceties.
He asked me where had I been, who had I been there with, what did I do for a living, and, at those ridiculous prices, how many duty-free cigarettes was I attempting to smuggle back. Then he told me where he’d been, and how much a glass of the local lager had cost, and how much the rum and cokes, and how much he’d spent from start to finish, and that for his living he sold second-hand cars, sourcing them mainly from his local car auctions. Recognising a fellow used-car enthusiast and car-auction attender right away, he explained the business to me from his perspective as we prepared for take-off. It was an inspiring talk that raised my consciousness.
He ran an above-board operation, he said, dealing fairly and honestly with his customers. He said this as if this was highly unusual and therefore a potentially lucrative gap in the market. He kept a stock of about 20 motors on a roadside car lot. He chose his cars carefully, never bidding at auction for a ‘high miler’ (which he defined as a car with more than 70,000 miles on the clock) no matter how great the temptation. Cars start to go wrong as things start to need replacing after 70,000, he said.
People who go to car auctions fall into two categories, he said: car dealers and the ‘privates’ — in other words, ordinary member of the public hoping to get something for nothing. Car dealers know absolutely everything about what is passing in front of them, privates know next to nothing, and the latter’s greed makes them stupidly impulsive. Add to that all the jiggery-pokery going on, including wily auctioneers taking bids from brick walls to lift the prices, and the privates invariably get taken to the cleaners.
My boy and I go to auctions as privates, I said, and we sometimes end up with a disaster, such as a car with a blown head gasket. ‘Do you put them straight back in?’ he asked, keenly. A good question. In fact, the only question. It is a question that has caused more disagreement between me and my boy than anything else over the years. He has no compunction about reauctioning a car he knows is a dud. I say it’s immoral because a poor family looking for a bargain might buy it. He looks pitifully at me.
The car salesman said my boy’s attitude was the right one. People who want something for nothing all the time deserve everything they get, he said. What people don’t realise, he said, is how much knowledge is required of a second-hand car dealer in order for him even to survive. They should be respectful of, and willing to pay for, his expertise. Instead they despise him and try to rob him all the time. Why, only the other week he and one or two friends had to drive all the way to Leeds armed with baseball bats to retrieve a car obtained from his yard by a complicated scam involving a stolen credit card. Muslims are the worst, most ridiculous hagglers, he said. Then gypsies.
The steward appeared. Regarding the large second-hand car dealer with a smile of pure hatred, he said he was sorry to be a tiresome bore, but could he please ask, sir, that he be an angel and pop his seatbelt on for him. ‘Sorry, chief,’ he said, genuinely contrite.