Jeremy Clarke

Car spotting

A social leper tells you of his miserable existence

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Me and the boy are regulars at the weekly car auction near us. We never bid for anything. We just like to go and sit and watch the cars coming and going and seeing what they fetch. We don’t even comment on an excessively high or low price. We talk only about the soup. We always sit in the same two seats at the back of the steep little indoor grandstand, and we always buy a cup of soup each from the mobile caterer in the carpark beforehand. We’ve tried all the soups on sale, but I’ve now settled on the chicken and vegetable, and my boy generally has the minestrone with croutons. In addition to our interest in the prices fetched by the cars, and the soup, I also like to observe the second-hand car dealers’ faces animated by greed.

Last week we were in our usual seats, sipping our soups, and watching the succession of Vectras, Puntos, Mondeos and Méganes passing from left to right just below us. It was uncomfortably cold as usual in the steel and concrete shed, and as usual I’d burned my tongue on the soup. But for me and my boy last week’s car auction was an entirely different experience because for once we had cash on us — £150 to be exact. If we saw something we liked, we were going to make a determined bid for it. We were players, at last, in something higher than the soup stakes.

Because we’d been to the car auction so many times before, we were familiar with the situation and remained calm. Having stake money made us no more talkative than having no stake money. We sat and watched and sipped our soup. Many of those at the car auction, even the regular car dealers, find it difficult to suppress the excitement they feel when downwind of a bargain. They pace up and down drawing furiously on their cigarettes and bidding like demented Nazis. It is rare at that particular auction to see someone calmly bidding from a seat. The people stuck in their seats are invariably people like us who go to the car auction to be entertained. Players stand up or pace up and down.

Well, me and the boy knew we couldn’t afford to get carried away with the excitement. We had to weigh up every car that came in before us as dispassionately as we had when we had no intention of bidding. My boy is taciturn, anyway, these days, having reached that peculiar stage of male adolescence when physical growth is phenomenal and the mind is a blank. And drunk or sober I have nothing much to say, anyway. So we were cool. We sat and watched and waited for the moment, if it came, to start bidding.

We were giving the bidding our full attention when a man wearing a postman’s winter jacket came and sat next to me. Now and then he made a comment about the car under the hammer. As well as being very friendly, he seemed knowledgable, too. At one point he said, ‘See that Punto? It’s been clocked.’ ‘How do you know?’ I said. ‘How can you possibly tell from here?’ ‘I clocked it myself, with a drill,’ he said. ‘It’s my car.’ When the bidding reached £500, he became scornful. ‘More money than sense, some people,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t touch a Punto with a bargepole, anyway. Clocked or not.’

We watched the eventual buyer, a shuffling man of about 80, humbly present himself at the auctioneer’s desk to arrange payment. The gavel had fallen at £650. It was the most overpriced car of the night so far. ‘Mug,’ said the postman. Then he stood up and sauntered away.

I refocused my attention on the matter in hand. The bidding for the next car, an M reg. Renault Mégane, started at £100. This was not out of our price range. I nudged my boy and tried to pass quietly what I thought was intestinal wind.

I hadn’t exchanged a word with my boy for the last dozen or so cars. Now I turned to him and broke some distressing news. His attention stayed on the Mégane. He took a meditative sip of his minestrone with croutons. ‘Whatever you say about the Mégane,’ he said, ‘they’re a lovely shape.’

I limped down through the punters crowding around the Mégane and into the lavatory. The auctioneer’s frenetic nasal voice was coming out of a loudspeaker attached to the wall. I went into a cubicle to assess the damage. It was more extensive than I feared. My Calvin Kleins had to be abandoned. When I regained my seat, my boy crossly informed me that the Mégane had fetched £140 and we’d missed what he reckoned was easily the bargain of the month.