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My grandfather was an engineer. A very proud engineer. He took a dim view of others messing with things of which they had only limited knowledge. ‘Every man to his trade and the cows will be well kept,’ he used to say.
My grandfather lived in an era when you moved from apprentice to journeyman to master. All within the same trade. I don’t think he would have approved of my journey. I read English during my first year at university. Then I spent a year reading urban geography, and a further three years reading economics. And then, with my university days behind me, I set up a business buying, restoring, and on-selling classic motorcars. (I left looking after the cows to my cousin Tom.)
My friend Amelia (who is a bit of a greenie) worries about what will happen to me post fossil fuel, ‘when the latter-day Mr Toads can no longer terrorize the countryside with their poison-belching twelve-cylinder monsters’.
‘That day is still a long way off,’ I tell her. ‘It is now almost one hundred years since anyone built a coal-fired steam locomotive. And yet, in every corner of this fair land, there are still steam locomotives being lovingly rebuilt, maintained, and driven.’
It is in search of a relatively modest twelve-cylinder monster, a red Ferrari Testarossa, that I am towing my low loader down the M4 to Newport, Wales. In our email exchanges, the current owner has informed me that the car is ‘in excellent condition’. It turns out to be rather tired. But that’s OK. Providing we can reach a sensible understanding on the price, I can return it to rude good health and turn a profit.
I like to think that my years studying economics were not wasted. If nothing else, they taught me that favourable outcomes are often the result of timing. Precisely the same action, taken a little earlier or a little later, can often produce very different outcomes.
The Ferrari’s owner gives me his bottom line. ‘That’s it,’ he tells me. ‘That’s as low as I’m prepared to go.’
I nod. ‘The thing about Testarossas,’ I tell him, ‘is that they are popular. There were lots of them built. About ten thousand, I believe. And there are still lots of them around. So, someone wanting to buy a Testarossa has a fair bit of choice.’ I walk around the car. Slowly. I’m not in any hurry. I open the driver’s door and close it again, noting the slightly-out-of-alignment clunk.
‘If I pay too much,’ I tell him, ‘I can’t afford to spend what I probably should do on restoration. And so the car immediately becomes just another Testarossa. And there aren’t too many collectors out there looking for “just another Testarossa”.’
There are some kids playing just along the street. I put the car out of my mind and listen to the kids for a couple of minutes.
‘I suppose I could come down a little bit,’ the fellow says. ‘You know … just a little bit.’
‘Have you thought about getting it restored yourself?’ I ask. ‘Get it into tip top condition, and then put it on the market.’
‘I don’t really have the time,’ the chap says.
I nod again. ‘No. Even with everything lined up, it’s not a quick process. And if you’re trying to do it yourself … in your spare time …’
I walk around the car again. Slowly. When I reach the right rear wheel, I pause and check the tread depth on the 280/45 VR Michelin tyre. The owner waits for me to say something. But I don’t. I continue my circumnavigation.
‘Good name, Testarossa,’ I say. ‘The Americans go for butch names. Mustang. And Stingray. And Viper. But the Italians go for Testarossa. Redhead. Sex on wheels. Especially if you like redheads.’
‘OK, why don’t you make me an offer,’ the chap says.
I walk slowly around the car for a third time. ‘OK,’ I say. ‘Here’s what I can go to. But not a penny more.’ And I hit him with a number.
He doesn’t look happy. But he nods. ‘OK,’ he says.
We shake hands and I load the car onto my trailer.
Since Newport is only ten or so miles from Cardiff – and it is getting close to lunchtime – I phone my aunt, Bethan, to see if she feels like a visitor. Happily, she does. Fortunately she lives on the outskirts of Cardiff, so I am able to find a space to park my rig.
‘What brings you to Wales?’ she asks as I follow her into her kitchen.
She turns, half smiles and half frowns.
‘An Italian redhead,’ I say. ‘A Ferrari Testarossa. A chap in Newport decided to take the money and run.’
Aunt Bethan is my late mother’s younger sister. They were ‘the girls’ in a family with four brothers.
‘Did Gail phone you?’ Beth asks.
‘No. Was she going to?’ Gail is my cousin. My younger cousin. Quite a bit younger. I think I was probably about 15 by the time that Gail was born.
‘She has to go up to London for some course or other. She was going to phone you. See if you wanted to catch up for a drink or something.’
‘I’d love to. When is she coming?’
‘She’s getting the train this afternoon.’
‘She can come back with me. Does she have somewhere to stay.’
‘I think illegal bahis she’s planning to sleep on the couch at an old school friend’s place.’
‘No need for that,’ I say. ‘There’s spare bed at my place.’
‘I said that she should phone you,’ Beth says. ‘But she said she didn’t want to be a bother.’
‘No bother,’ I tell Beth.
And then Gail arrives. ‘Oh, hello,’ she says. ‘I was going to phone you.’
‘Yes. Beth just said. She says that you need to come up to London. I’m going back this afternoon. You can come with me if you like. I also have a spare bed.’
‘Oh … well … I …’
‘More comfortable that dossing down on someone’s couch,’ I say.
Gail has always been a bit of a looker. And she seems to be getting better as she gets older.
‘Well … umm … if you’re sure,’ she says.
In the time that it has taken me to drive from Newport to Cardiff, and find a parking space, Beth has whipped up a batch of cheese scones. They are delicious. Doughy yet light. Tangy. Cheesy. With just a hint of cayenne. Yes, delicious.
With the right car, the journey from Cardiff to London is probably just a smidgen over two hours. But, towing the low loader with the Ferrari on board, it will probably take us two and a half hours. Maybe a little more.
‘So … tell me about the course,’ I say to Gail. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see that she is frowning slightly.
‘It’s, umm, basically about how to sell property,’ she says.
‘Property? You mean houses? I thought that was what you already did.’
She nods. ‘Yes. I do. But this is not just ordinary houses. Not your everyday terrace houses. Not neo-Georgian new builds. This is big houses. Smart houses. You know … twelve bedrooms and stabling for half a dozen horses.’
‘Ah. A-lister houses. Football stars. Captains of industry.’
‘I guess so,’ she says. ‘According to Bryn, that’s where the money is.’
‘For some reason, I thought that people handling those sort of sales would tend to be older,’ I say.
‘They mainly are. But Bryn – my boss – thinks that some of the older buyers and sellers might go for a younger agent. I’m not sure why he thinks that.’
‘Make them feel that they are in charge?’ I suggest. I can also see that Bryn might be looking at Gail as ground bait. A good-looking young woman. Legs that go all the way up to the top floor. Just a thought.
‘Are you enjoying being an estate agent?’ I ask. ‘Because you studied law, didn’t you?’
‘I did. But I found it was too stressful.’
‘And being an estate agent isn’t stressful?’ I say. ‘You surprise me.’
Gail thinks for a moment or two, and then she say: ‘Well … it is. It can be. But in a different kind of way. The buyers are usually quite nice. The sellers can be a bit difficult. From time to time. But the real bitches are the other agents.’
Yes. I had known one or two. The ones I had known certainly weren’t the type to take prisoners.
The traffic heading into London on the M4 is surprisingly light and, despite my earlier concerns, we are pulling up outside the workshop even before the boys and girls have had a chance to sneak off for the afternoon.
‘What we got?’ Franco asks. Franco is my chief technician. He has a soft spot for Ferraris. In his younger days, he worked at Maranello.
‘I think it’s OK,’ I tell him. ‘Tired. But OK. I shall be interested to hear what you think. Oh … and this is Gail. Gail is my cousin.’
Franco smiles at Gail and nods. ‘I give it the …’ And he mimes drawing a circle and then making a three-column list: What we must do; what we should do; what we could do.
‘You’re the expert, Franco,’ I tell him. ‘I leave it in your capable hands. But now, unless there is anything urgent, I should take my cousin home and let her get organised.’
Franco smiles again. I can almost hear his brain saying: ‘Cousin? Yeah, yeah. Pull the other one.’
I think about taking the little X1/9 we have just finished restoring. But then I remember that I have an E-type in the garage and I don’t really want to leave the X1/9 on the street overnight. ‘We’ll take the Tube,’ I tell Gail. ‘It’s only three stops.’ I take her bag, and we head off to the White City Tube station.
When we get to my place, I show Gail to the spare room and tell her to make herself at home. ‘I shall return,’ I tell her. And I head off in search of something simple for supper. What do I feel like? What does Gail eat? I should have asked.
I take a risk with a thick slice of bone-in ribeye steak. I also buy some green beans and some fresh thyme and rosemary. I know that I have polenta in the pantry and parmesan in the fridge. I will make my take on Bistecca alla Fiorentina with polenta sticks and Tuscan-style green beans.
‘I hope that you’re not a vegetarian,’ I say when I get home again.
Gail smiles and shakes her head.
I pour us each a glass of Italian red and then Gail watches as I make my polenta and parmesan ‘porridge’ and then spread illegal bahis siteleri it on a tray to cool. ‘Is that it?’ she asks.
‘Pretty much,’ I tell her. ‘When it’s cool, we cut it into sticks and then lightly fry them.’
Supper works out pretty well. And I’m pleased to catch up with cousin Gail. In fact, I’m even more pleased to catch up with Gail than I was to get my hands on the Testarossa. Although I am just a little surprised that such a bright (and attractive) girl has chosen selling houses for a career. But then who am I to question such things? I trained to be an economist and now I’m a sort of car dealer.
Gail’s course is being held at Lancaster Gate so, in the morning, I suggest that she gets a cab. ‘Once you get your bearings,’ I say, ‘it’s probably just as easy to take the Tube. But for today … Don’t want to be late.’
By mid-morning, Franco and I have agreed on a plan for the Testarossa. The mechanicals are all sound. The driver’s door needs a bit of adjustment. The bodywork needs a couple of cosmetic touches. And we decide to get the seats reupholstered. After that, and a full tune, it should be ready to go to a new home.
I leave Franco and his team to get on with their work, and I go and get the keys to a 1961 Jaguar XK150 Drophead Coupé that I think we may have sold to a collector in Chalfont St Giles. As I head north, I can’t help but reflect on the fact that the day is precisely the kind of day for which the ragtop was designed. Yes, it would be nice if the roads weren’t quite so clogged with lorries and the like, but it is still a very pleasant drive.
Gilbert, the collector, came to see the XK150 when we were still in the process of restoring it, and he is delighted with the finished product. ‘Yes,’ he tells me (not for the first time), ‘I’ve been looking for one of these for a few years now.’ He already owns a 1972 E-type Series 3 roadster and a 1981 XJ-S H E. ‘I don’t suppose you’d consider a ’74 911 – in need of some TLC – in part exchange,’ he says.
‘I might do,’ I tell him. ‘Does it come with all four wheels?’
He laughs. ‘And a couple to spare,’ he says. ‘I think I’m going to go all British. If I clear some space in the garage, perhaps I can get myself a McLaren next.’
When I get back to the flat that evening, Gail is already there. ‘Ah. How was it?’ I ask. ‘How was the course?’
Gail frowns slightly. ‘Umm … I’m not sure,’ she says. ‘Not sure.’
‘Oh? Perhaps a glass of wine might help you to decide,’ I say. ‘Red or white?’
But even that seems to be a difficult decision, so I grab a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from the fridge and pour a glass for each of us. ‘Here’s to wealthy car collectors,’ I say.
‘Oh? Have you sold that Ferrari already?’
‘No, no. But I sold a fully-restored Jaguar. An XK150. And I acquired a ’74 Porsche at a knockdown price. Well … it was in part exchange for the Jag. But it will turn a good profit. There always seems to be a market for pre-loved Porsches.’
Gail nodded. But she still seemed to be worried about something.
As we neared the lower reaches of our wine glasses, I suggested that we might stroll along to Chutney Charlie’s. ‘Street food,’ I tell Gail. ‘South Asian. A bit of this and a bit or that. Tasty. What do you think?’
‘Sounds good,’ she says.
It’s still relatively early and we have no trouble in getting a table. We order some food, and I suggest that we switch to one of Chutney Charlie’s Asian-inspired craft beers. ‘A chilled white wine is OK,’ I tell Gail. ‘A Viognier. Dry Riesling. But a light beer just seems to work better.’
‘OK,’ she says.
I can’t remember how we get back to the subject of cars. But, as we nibble and sip, I find myself trying to explain to Gail the differences between the various Porsche 911s (which Gail thinks all look the same) from their introduction in the mid-60s, through to the switch from air-cooled to water-cooled in 1999, and on to the present day 911s, designated the 992 series.
‘They’re not nice,’ Gail suddenly blurts out.
‘Oh? You don’t like Porches?’
‘The people on the course,’ she says. ‘They’re horrible. They’re all bullies.’
I wait for her to say something else. But she doesn’t. ‘Horrible to you?’ I ask.
‘Horrible to me. Horrible to each other. Just horrible. And Justin, the guy who’s running the course, just keeps winding them up. Getting them to be even more aggressive. Even meaner. “Screw the buyers, screw the sellers,” he says. “Nice guys come last. Smile if you must, but keep your eyes on the prize. Focus on the commission.”‘
‘Sounds a real charmer,’ I say.
‘And then he asked me why I think Bryn has spent money sending me on the course. I told him that perhaps Bryn thinks that I have potential. He says: “No. Silly girl. It’s because you are sex on a stick. You’re ground bait. Just remember that.”‘
I try not to laugh. It was one of the thoughts that briefly crossed my mind as we were driving up from Cardiff. ‘So … what’s your plan?’ I ask.
‘I canlı bahis siteleri don’t know.’
And it seems that Gail really doesn’t know. And, having got it out onto the table, she doesn’t even seem to want to talk about it.
When we leave the restaurant, I suggest that we stroll home ‘the long way’. When I have things on my mind, I find a walk can sometimes be very helpful. Perhaps a walk will work for Gail too.
The following morning, Gail still seems worried.
‘How did we sleep?’ I ask.
‘Not well. I think they may find me a bit crotchety today.’ And she finally forces a smile. ‘They may find me as mean towards them as they are towards me.’
That’s when I, too, smile. ‘I look forward to hearing all about it this evening,’ I say.
I spend the first part of my morning searching various websites for new stock – or at least for new old stock. We’ve been selling quite a few cars lately. We need to fill a few gaps in the inventory.
I know from experience that few people ever post their lowest price. But I’m still surprised by what some people are asking. Among the new listings, I spot a BMW 635CSi. The ‘sharknose’ 635 is a nice car. But unless it has been well cared for, it can be expensive to restore. I fire off an email and, half an hour later, I get a reply. It turns out that the car is only just down in Wimbledon. The owner offers to bring it up for me to look at. ‘Sometime around mid-afternoon?’ he suggests.
I fire back a reply: ‘Look forward to it.’
Aside from the BMW, I see that there is a 1960 MGA 1600 Mark II being offered for far too much money. I bookmark the site. If it’s still there in another week or so – and I suspect that it will be – I might open negotiations.
Lawrence, the chap with the BMW 635, turns up just before three. We have a bit of a chat, and then I get him to drive the car into the workshop where I put it up on the hoist and take a look at the underside with an inspection lamp. ‘These are nice cars, but they’re a bit famous for their rust,’ I say.
Lawrence smiles. Somewhat sheepishly. I get the impression that I’m not telling him anything that he doesn’t already know.
‘Repaired, it will be better than new,’ I tell him. ‘But there’s a fair bit of cost before we get to that stage.’
Franco studies the logbook and then gives the motor the once over. ‘It’s going to need a partial rebuild,’ Franco says. ‘Nothing too major. But a lot of small things. Quite a few parts are coming to the end of their life.’
Lawrence nods. Once again, I get the feeling that Franco is not telling him anything he doesn’t already know.
‘It will need a complete respray,’ I say. ‘The driver’s seat needs reupholstering. And it’ll need new rubber all round. But it can definitely be rescued.’ I offer him a little over half what he has it advertised for and watch as his face slumps.
‘You couldn’t do a little more?’ he says.
‘They’re not cheap cars to restore,’ I tell him. ‘It is an elegant car. And, restored, it will be a joy to drive. I can go another seven-fifty,’ I say. ‘But that’s the absolute tops.’
I shake my head. ‘Seven-fifty.’
‘OK,’ he says, eventually. ‘I’ve probably had my money’s worth out of it.’ And we shake hands.
Satisfied with my afternoon’s work, I head home early. Gail is already there. And she has a half-empty wine glass in front of her.
‘I stopped off at the off licence,’ she says.
‘Oh? Are we celebrating? And, if so, what are we celebrating?’
‘The first day of the rest of my life,’ she says. ‘I walked out.’
‘Oh? And how did that go down?’ I ask.
‘Not well,’ Gail says. ‘Bullies don’t like it when you tell them that they’re bullies.’ And she almost smiles.
I nod. She does have a point.
‘Actually, I think this wine is off,’ she says.
I pick up her glass and hold it to my nose. Gail is not wrong. An unpleasant waft of musty wet wool assaults my nostrils. ‘I think this bottle may have been sitting in the sun somewhere,’ I say. ‘Why don’t we wander down to the pub? It sounds like you have had enough disappointment for one day.’
The Feathers has been recently ‘rediscovered’. Which is both good and bad. It is good that, for the time being at least, it is now safe from joining the growing list of former pubs. But it is not so good (from my point of view) that, on a Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, it tends to be packed to gunwales. We find ourselves an empty square metre of floorspace and, leaving Gail to ‘guard our territory’, I push my way up to the bar to get some drinks.
‘So,’ I say, when I return, ‘what pushed you over the edge?’
Gail frowns. ‘I think it was just more of the same,’ she says eventually. ‘More bullying. More nastiness. More me, me, me – and fuck you.’
‘Not exactly your style,’ I say.
‘I hope not.’ And then she says: ‘I think I need to find something else to do. I don’t think I’m cut out for selling houses. Certainly not to the rich and famous. I’m not sure that I’m cut out for selling anything.’
‘You’re not tempted to have another shot at the law?’ I say.
Gail shakes her head. ‘All the interesting stuff happens in the big firms, and they’re also full of bullies. How did you end up with your job?’ she asks.
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