In the Moment
There are those climactic moments that one remembers for the rest of one’s life, and buying one’s first car is such a time in the life of any man. Taking ownership of the keys and driving away is like making love for the first time with an experienced woman. One has trouble getting the clutch and the gear stick to work in harmony; there are frantic movements when one tries to keep up the pantomime that one knows what one is doing, with the resulting sporadic jerks, until one hits reverse by mistake, stalls the engine, at the very moment that the radiator overheats, leaving one exhausted and embarrassed.
However, blissfully unaware of future pitfalls, Peter Shuttlemouse, recent acquirer of a driving license was passing the paint-chipped door of the Pig and Whistle Pub, when he saw the car of his dreams. It was an Austin E Type Tourer, a black, heavy open car that was much loved by the paratroopers of the Second World War and had the solidity of a tank. It stood forlornly in the empty street, like an abandoned hulk at low tide. But to Peter it was perfect, and so different. He had read all about it: its two doors opened from the front, unlike any car he had ever seen; it had no door handles, and to open it you slid your hand through a leather flap to pull on a release cord, but best of all there was no car key. To start the engine one turned a switch hidden under the dashboard, and pulled on the start button. He gazed at it in adoration.
At that moment he was startled by a loud belch, and turned to see a large, red-faced man framed in the doorway of the Public Bar. The man was clutching the door handle like an old friend as he squinted at the bright sky. He slowly and methodically began to scratch his distended belly while he focused on Peter, standing three steps below him. After a resonating fart, a disdainful sniff and a cacophonous clearing of his throat, he staggered down the three steps, lost his balance and fell against the car.
“Nice day,” he said, gratefully patting the black steel wing. He was struggling to overcome the effects of five pints of Guiness. “Good car, this,” he confided, meaning it had not bent under his assault. He rubbed his hand down the warm metal.
Peter mistook his action, and gave him a gleaming smile. “Are you the owner?”
The man closed one eye, to avoid seeing two Peters. “I might be,” he said suspiciously. “Why?”
“You wouldn’t want to sell it would you?”
The man’s face went through a variety of expressions, from umbrage to realization and then a crafty look flashed across his unguarded face ending in a wide, bad-toothed smile. “I might,” he sniffed. “How much d’ye want to pay?”
This was Peter’s first venture into the crocodile waters of the second hand car culture, and he struggled to appear knowledgeable. “It’s going to need some work done to it,” he said, noticing the bald tyres. “How much are you asking?”
The man began to rub his unshaved chin with a hand that looked as though it had been used as a dirt shovel. “I wouldn’t accept less than,” he paused and looked behind him, and up and down the empty street. He let out a long, alcoholic breath. “No less than thirty pounds cash.” He placed his hand protectively on the car.
“I’ve only got 25,” Peter said breathlessly.
The man looked outraged. He burped and once again looked up at the pub. “Alright. Show me ye cash.” He held out his other hand that was equally filthy.
Peter pulled out his wallet as though it was gun. He could not believe his good luck. “It’s all I’ve got,” he said brightly. Holding up the notes. He stuck out his right hand, regretting his enthusiasm as the man’s big hand gripped it in a sweaty embrace.
Peter handed over the money, and the man quickly put it in his pocket.
“I don’t have the registration papers with me at the moment,” the man said placing a comradely hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “I’ll see you tomorrow in this pub, and I’ll have it with me.” He gave another of his ‘your dentist warned you smiles’, and added: “I’ll buy you a drink to celebrate your good fortune.”
“Can I just drive it away now?” Peter said. It seemed too easy.
“Yea,” the man cowled out one of his ears, with a yellow finger nail, “it don’t need no car key, and it don’t lock neither. It’s what I call a trustworthy car.” He laughed, sounding like a hyena in rut. “I’ll be seeing you tomorrow then.” He turned and made his way unsteadily up the street.
“Oh boy! Peter said, he opened the bonnet and stared wonderingly at the engine. A quick glance showed everything to be in order. It was a bit oily and dusty, but with some elbow grease, a new fan belt and a change of spark plugs he was confident it would be fine.
He walked slowly around the car, the pride of ownership almost made him giddy. He slipped his hand through the leather door flap, opened the door, and slipped into the worn leather seat. It occurred to him that he should have insisted on a check drive to test the breaks and the clutch, but for 25 pounds, he had not wanted to push his luck. He reached under the dashboard and eventually found the switch, he turned it on, and the dials came to life, flickering like warning fingers. He checked the hand break, and with a spasm of delight pulled on the starter button. The engine turned over but would not start. He tried again, and it was then he noticed the petrol gauge was on empty, and did not even flicker.
“Damnation!” Peter roared. It was one of the strongest words he used. He realized he should have checked before parting with the money. He sat still, trying to decide where the nearest petrol station was and how he was going to pay, when a shadow passed over the car. He looked up to see a burly policeman bending over him.
“Is this your car, sir?” London police are always so polite.
“Yes,” Peter said. “I’ve just bought it.”
“ Just bought it, have you, sir?” The policeman smiled indulgently. “Well I think you’ll have to come with me, Sir. This car was stolen last night.