Look, the behaviour I exhibit in this story is going to seem very odd, and quite possibly very entitled, unless I approach it from a very specific angle. Apologies in advance, and here we go.
Imagine you were trying to cut down on your car use for reasons of climate change (if you’ve got a car, then I’m sure you’ll already be doing this, because you’re no fool.) You’re limited by the craven, car-worshipping policies of your local council(s), but you’re trying. Then imagine that you’ve just sorted out insurance for you and your spouse, which was problematic in itself, as she’s a learner driver with a career description not on the brokers 1950s-compiled list of approved job titles and the previous broker was a recalcitrant idiot.
Now, imagine that someone says they’re going to increase your temptation to use your car more than the local Tory council forces you to do; they’re also going to maybe quintuple the insurance you’ve just sorted out, overnight, and force you to have to go through the process of renegotiating it. Meanwhile, they’re going to take enough money to buy you a fleet of beautiful, top-of-the-range folding bicycles with trailers, and simply set the bank notes on fire. Oh, and you have to act like the whole experience is a welcome present.
You’d be a bit cheesed off at the whole witless waste, I’m sure; and so this is the best way I can think of, to give others some perspective on what otherwise would come across as a rich man’s burden of a problem: you see, my parents wanted to buy me a secondhand car for my birthday.
If I don’t spell it out the way I have done, then you’ll wonder at how churlish it would seem to turn them down. And indeed, as we’ve had our fair share of problems with Hrududu recently, I had resolved to accept with as much good grace as possible their offer, and go out with them to a car showroom to buy a car.
From the outset, the showroom was a pretty grim place: tucked away in a part of Kidlington that’s already hostile to human beings that aren’t in cars, it had a cramped, confusing area of tarmac for customers to park up in, and uncommunicative, taciturn staff that spent the entire time either hiding inside the showroom building, or bombing around in white vans, parking in disabled bays and generally making the whole shopping experience a misery of possible wheeled death.
But what finally put the tin lid on the outing was looking at the prices. As I don’t like or want cars, I had put a notional mental price on a replacement car of around two thousand pounds: that, I felt, was enough to pay for a stupid, boring thing I didn’t want. But looking at the labels on one tedious metal shell after another, I rapidly realised that the cost was going to be at least three or four times as expensive.
Intellectually of course I had grasped that it wasn’t my money to spend, but my instinct rose up against everything around me. How could I possibly spend an hour or two test-driving these silly things, and pretending I cared slightly more about one silly thing I couldn’t care less about, compared to another thing I couldn’t care less about? With the best grace and cheeriest heart I could summon, and suppressing what felt like physical revulsion, I had to tell my parents that I wanted to decline their offer.
Madness, I kept thinking. To turn down a car costing several grand! But what do I care about the cost, when it’s of so little value? When will the cost of that car ever amortize for us? when it’s – recall my introduction – even of something approaching negative value! And what if our current car does cost us hundreds of pounds a year to fix up, when ten years of those repairs – less the insurance premium differential – wouldn’t pay for a single one of those stupid, childish, nearly-new silver-painted boxes?
My parents, I think, still didn’t really understand. They had been unfazed by the prices themselves, after all, and saw the car as a tidy resolution of the problem they always have, that of buying their son a suitable present, a gift that they know they won’t get wrong themselves and that feels demonstrative enough of their frequently confounded affections.
But they took it reasonably well, once I had explained that it wasn’t ungratefulness at all; and the time we would’ve spent pretending that, ooh, the steering is so much nicer in this one, kill me now, don’t you think? – we spent instead in the Oxfordshire museum’s walled garden, listening to birdsong and drinking tea.
If I could only have such an afternoon with them every couple of weeks, relaxing among flowers and wildlife with a cup that cheers and a slice of something, instead of always Skyping to their apartment Spain plus reading an occasional email, then I’d pay thousands of pounds for that. And while I accept that I have failed to come into possession of a new car, I’d like to think I’m still in possession of my priorities.