Elizabeth Wright
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Gone To The Auction

I’m looking for a cheap set of wheels. My old and much treasured car is still getting me from A to B but bits keep falling off it, so there’s a rapidly diminishing amount of vehicle returning from B to A. It’s fast becoming a moving heap of rust held together by paintwork.

Temperamental too. One hint of a frosty morning and it refuses to start. Whilst my daughter is leaping around yelling “Mum, I’m going to be late for school”, I’m on my knees in the kitchen rummaging around in the ‘let’s bung it in here when we don’t know what to do with it’ cupboard, looking for the Dampstart. It’s always right at the back, hiding under assorted tins of paint, a bag of clothes we never got round to giving to a needy charity and a pair of Wellington boots with a strange odour.

So here I am at the local car auction. A total novice and a female to boot. I haven’t a clue where to start so I wander around the dozens of parked cars that are waiting to be sold. I try to appear nonchalant as I peer at dashboards smothered with levers, knobs, gadgets and widgets that would make the pilot of a jumbo jet green with envy. I poke under bonnets, pretending I know all about the pitfalls of buying second-hand cars. In reality my knowledge is confined to slurping in a bit of petrol, oil or water when the dials on the dashboard look desperate.

Looking around this large building, through a haze of exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke, I suddenly realise I’m invading male territory. There are about 300 men here and I can only see 6 women. Nice ratio that. The men are dressed in cloned clothing of grubby check shirts and oil stained jeans with the odd Arfur Daley sheepskin thrown in. They clutch and consult their “Glasses Guides” on second hand car prices and ponder.

From his dais the auctioneer points out the first vehicle and his mouth goes into overdrive. I am gobsmacked, believing that such jabberings only happen at Australian sheep auctions. Trying to keep up with his high - speed verbals, I only manage to comprehend ‘lot five in your catalogue’ as the bidding takes off and catch up later after he’s hit the brakes at ‘one thousand pounds’. A brief pause as that car is driven out, and, when it is replaced by another, he’s off again. With more than 60 vehicles to get through in two hours he doesn’t waste time.

With a noise like an army tank a small rust brown car stops in front of us. A box on wheels obviously put together by students of metalwork with a malicious sense of humour. Undaunted, off goes Charlie, the auctioneer. Hooray, at last I’m beginning to keep pace with his verbal velocity.

“What am I bid?” he asks.

No one is in a rush to buy this sample of Polish technology.

“Come on,” he urges, “Only 3,000 miles on the clock, MOT for a year, taxed, what more do you want?”

“Fifty quid”, yells a voice from the front, “To take it away for you.”

Concurring chuckles ripple around the room. Somebody daringly offers £100 and we’re away. It is soon up to £110. One of the showroom’s team of drivers is keeping the noisy engine running, he probably doesn’t dare turn it off. The surrounding levels of lead and carbon monoxide have shot up by 90%. At £170 it all stops. The new owner creeps forward, trying hard to ignore the friendly heckling and Charlie’s quip of “Well, there you are sir, you’ve just saved yourself a couple of bus fares home.”

One of my knowledgeable friends, anxious to help me, had said, “Take a magnet. If the car has been damaged and repaired with body filler, the magnet won’t stick. Run it over the wheel arches and along the sills where rusty patches might have been filled in.”

I don’t possess a magnet so I’ve pinched the goldfish’s algae cleaning one and wave it around the rear bumper of an estate I like the colour of. A powerful attraction immediately develops and with a thunderous clunk my magnet lunges at the metalwork. Heads turn at the sound. I’m intently studying a mark on the ceiling.

As bidding progresses I furtively struggle to retrieve my magnet, but it has gained a limpet-like hold onto the paintwork and refuses to budge.

Charlie is still merrily banging his gavel and working his way through the Astras, Escorts, Mondeos and Volvos. I’d love one of those but they are all out of my price range. Finally, ‘my’ estate is next. From the declining rows of cars a harassed driver is struggling to get it started. Definitely not a good sign. I’m becoming a little wary. The death throes of a dying battery produce just enough power to get it going, and it chugs up to the dais, my magnet still firmly attached to the wheel arch.

“Drives well,” enthuses Charlie, “Got an MOT until October. Only one careful owner.”

“And three terrible ones”, mutters a voice behind me.

After an opening offer of £300 I’m tempted to bid, but black smoke, thick enough to stop shipping in the English Channel, is belching out the back, encouraging me to keep my hands in my pockets, as does nearly everyone else. The gavel bangs down at £400 and my chances are gone along with my algae magnet. Never mind, I’ll be back next week and with a proper magnet.

A chapter from my e-book “From Fancy Pants to Getting There". October 2011.

© Elizabeth Wright