17 MARCH 2007, Page 78

What a laugh

Jeremy Clarke

We didn’t get to Sheffield till after dark. But when the Renault Mégane drew up as we waited beside the station taxi rank, the boredom and discomfort of the interminable train journey was instantly forgotten. Our dog-eared second-hand car-price guide stated that a 1998 Renault Mégane 1.6 Sport was worth anything between £800 and £1,500. My boy had won this one on the eBay internet auction site for just £500. All being well, he’d got himself a bargain. We took the car in greedily with our eyes, scanning it for such obvious defects as might be visible under the tangerine street lighting. It seemed to be all there. No obvious dents or scratches. We climbed in the back.

The seller had brought his girlfriend along. She did all the talking, while he drove the car very fast and very competently through the rush-hour traffic, laughing pleasantly at everything that was said. He had an easy, pleasant, lingering laugh and he laughed at the slightest thing. Their house wasn’t far, she said, ten minutes at the most, but difficult to get to unless you took a taxi, which was expensive. The seller, who had very small ears, laughed at this. He laughed when I thanked him and his girlfriend for taking the trouble to pick us up from the station. When I said we hoped the car was a good one because my boy had just passed his driving test and this was to be his first car, he found that funny, too. And when his girlfriend pointed out an enormous ware house-type store, and said they went there often, and had I heard of it, and I said I hadn’t, he found my ignorance quite hilarious. My boy was too busy listening carefully to the engine and the wheel bearings to take any interest in the general conversation or the light-hearted character of the seller. A streetlight flaring across his face briefly illuminated quiet adolescent certainty about his choice for a first car.

We arrived at their house, halfway along a red-brick terrace, a stone’s throw from the M6. It was too dark to look under the car, and we hadn’t brought a torch. And in any case, once you’ve won a car on an eBay auction, you are more or less committed, sustained by your belief that eBayers have a reputation for fairness and honesty to maintain. So I merely asked the seller, almost in passing, whether or not the car was sound. And he laughed his easy, pleasant laugh, which I took to be affirmative, and we all trooped inside to exchange cash for keys and complete the paperwork.

We went through the front door and we were in a small, square, stiflingly hot livingroom. A girl of about 14 and a baby were seated on a threadbare carpet. The girl was watching a pop video. The baby was engrossed in a picture book. The advent of tall white strangers interested it more than its picture book, but momentarily. With mesmerising gracefulness, the girl stood up, switched off the TV, and left the room. The seller’s girlfriend sat cross-legged on the floor and motioned me and my boy to settle on a long, low sofa. The seller perched with unconvincing nonchalance on the arm of a chair.

My boy counted off 500, reached across and handed it to him. The seller looked uncomprehendingly at it. Here it occurred to me that perhaps Aristotle’s claim that the brain has nothing to do with thought, but is merely an organ for cooling the blood, is in fact true for some people. ‘Logbook, Vraimond,’ said his girlfriend gently.

Vraimond left the room and came back 30 seconds later and handed my boy half a logbook. My boy asked for the missing half. The seller laughed. Then, like the worst actor in the village Christmas panto, he said, ‘Joy, did you see where I put the other half of the logbook?’ Joy shook her head gravely. He then went on a hunt that everyone in the room knew was going to be fruitless. He lifted up the cushion of the armchair. He asked me and my boy to stand up in case we were sitting on it. He put his hands on his hips, then — a very long shot, this — he disturbed the baby’s reading by picking up its picture book and leafing carefully through the thick cardboard pages.

We didn’t quibble. We took the half a logbook and drove the car home. Within the month my boy received a letter from the Vehicle Licensing Authority. The car was a repaired write-off. A local mechanic who looked over it said it was a deathtrap and that we were lucky to have survived the trip home.

We shouldn’t have touched the car with a bargepole but we were greedy and a long way from home. Vraimond, we now note, has discontinued his eBay membership.