by Paul Sweeney
My search for a used car that was 'dull, British and thoroughly normal' continued despite some bizarre encounters (see part 2). I found another car for sale that fit my criteria (a Ford Cortina 1.6L, naturally) and made an appointment with the seller to view the car.
To my dismay, the inner-city address that I found with the help of my trusty Birmingham A-Z book (satellite navigation devices were still the stuff of science fiction back in the 1980s) turned out to be one of the many high-rise tower blocks 'gracing' the Birmingham City skyline.
Well, I'd come quite a distance, so I wasnt going to turn around without at least viewing the car. I pressed the, "Call Lift" button and waited with low expectations for the lift to arrive. To my surprise it came after what seemed like mere days waiting in the heavily graffiti-ed entrance to the building.
I stepped into the lift and was at once almost overcome by the strong acrid smell of urine - dear God, didn't these people have toilets indoors? The address was on the 19th floor and eventually the lift doors opened with an ear-splitting grinding sound. The landing was large and cold with a bare concrete floor, but I saw the door I needed opposite and walked across quickly to ring the doorbell before I changed my mind and got the hell out of there.
I heard a faint voice call from inside, "Just a minute" so I waited. I waited quite a while. Eventually, the door opened a crack and I was confronted by a lad of about 15 who was naked from the waist down. His nose was streaming green snot as he said, "Sorry, I've got the shits real bad. Do you want to see the car?"
As I wondered how to respond and doing my best to play it cool and not look surprised by his appearance, I finally nodded and managed a feeble, "Yes please". He shuffled away (his trousers and underpants were still around his ankles), re-appearing a minute later with a car key in his grimy hand. I reluctantly took it and with no small amount of relief, retreated from the 19th floor horror show I had just witnessed to the lift doors. Luckily the other lift answered my call - the smell of urine wasn't quite so strong in this one.
I followed the boy's directions and soon found the car parked outside the building. To my surprise, it looked quite presentable. I checked around it, then opened the driver's door expecting to encounter something ghastly inside - but no, it looked and smelled remarkably clean. Perhaps this was the one after all!
I started the engine and drove away from the flats into the busy Birmingham traffic - this was going quite well! I drove for 5 minutes or so - around 3 miles - when the engine began spluttering and finally stopped completely, allowing me just enough time to pull over to a lay-by. Some advanced technical investigation by yours truly (I checked the fuel gauge) revealed lack of the liquid gold to be the cause.
So, I imagine you think I then called someone for help, right? Wrong .. no mobile phones in 1982 - or at least, those you could buy required a small mortgage and weighed more than your average house brick. So, I walked ... I walked every one of the 3 miles back to the High Rise Horror Show, having first carefully locked the car and taken note of the road where it had stopped.
When the boy answered the door, I was relieved to see that this time he had his trousers on and had made at least a cursory attempt to clear his face of snot. "What is it?" he asked as if he'd never seen me before. "Your car has no petrol, so here's the key and the address where its parked" (I'd cunningly written it down by this time).
"Oh, I'll get you a petrol can so you can buy some more and bring the car back here" said the boy, thus managing his longest and clearest utterance since we first met. "No" I told him, "it's not my problem - just tell your Mum or whoever where it is. I'm leaving now".
He looked surprised but I left before he had a chance to reply; thankfully the lift was already on my floor and I was able to leave that ghastly place quite quickly. I felt an urgent need for a thorough shower; clearly I had thus far led a sheltered and relatively privileged life. On the way home I made a mental note to thank my parents for providing a clean, warm and decent home for my siblings and me to grow up in.
All of the above led me to a new conclusion: I had been wrong. Used car dealers probably were the best place to look for my next set of wheels after all!
Next time - I finally manage to purchase a car that is dull, British and thoroughly normal - so that would be a Ford Cortina, obviously.
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