It's one of the well-known facts of the Millard household that if Father goes to buy a new car, we can all guess correctly what colour it will be.
This would be less surprising if he ever actually bought a genuinely new one with all the options of specifying preferences, but none of the family - me included - has ever thought it a good deal to lose several thousand pounds simply by driving a completely new car out of a show room. The newest car our household has ever claimed was six years old, and three years later I am still driving it.
Looking back over the years (and there are more of those than I care to count) we have had an assortment of high mileage, low cost cars. They included the two and a quarter ton caravanette in which we took our summer and weekend breaks (and did the shopping), until it quietly succumbed to old age sometime round its 27th birthday. It then spent another six years as a children's play house. We had a Triumph Dolomite (or its nearest neighbour whose model name I can't now recall; a 1300 perhaps?), and a long, long series of Vauxhall Cavaliers, Belmonts and Astras. Finally, too, I have to admit to my husband's MG Metros, all dubbed "Pogo Sticks" by me (I hated them) and by my daughter (who learnt to drive in the first one). He referred to them as "Rust Buckets" but nevertheless bought three in succession until, with MG and Rover having both gone out of business, the second-hand supply finally ran dry.
Out of thirty years' worth of vehicles, I can only think of four we owned that weren't the same colour; we had one blue, one red and one silver Metro, and one blue Cavalier. Ah, and also the retired, up-on-ramps Lotus Elite that hasn't turned a wheel in five years and is, somewhere under the dust and swallow droppings, fibreglass red. But as that doesn't go anywhere it doesn't count. And neither does the Rover 400 that I borrowed for six weeks till I bought my present car. It was a shade of green probably described by Rover as "British Racing", but it became known as the Tarnhelm because when you were in it you were, apparently, invisible.
You are working out from this what colour I'm talking about, aren't you?
The last of the Metros (the silver one) failed its Ministry of Transport road-worthiness test last week, so the hunt was on for a replacement to get my husband to work. There being no Metros still knocking around, the field was wide open; would it be another trusty Vauxhall? A Ford? Or even something foreign? He spent hours poring over Auto Trader, finding suitably aged and priced beasties that were within a reasonable distance of us. As we are not in Manchester or Liverpool, this last requirement narrowed the field considerably. Then he'd sit there trying to relocate the adverts because he hadn't marked them or turned over the page corners or even written down the page numbers.
By last weekend he still hadn't phoned anyone about any of these cars and the next Auto Trader was now out. We were back to the local newspaper.
Saturday morning: would I cash a cheque for him with the greengrocer? I duly did so, noting the sum was conservative.
Sunday morning: he announced that we (I loved the "we") were going to go and look at an 11-year-old Peugeot, 13 miles away. In our terms this is nearly on the doorstep, our nearest neighbour being a quarter mile away and on the other side of the river. I brought out the Astra and we set off. My husband doesn't talk much when driving or being driven. I used to think this was due to a) concentration on the job in hand or b) terror at being driven by me, but now I know he's just ticking off the farms we pass and tallying the things he remembers from when he used to deliver fertilisers, feeds, hay or straw to them, or collect their annual wool clip. It makes for absentmindedness about such mundanities as where we are actually going; besides, there is a sort of belief in spousal telepathy that assumes if he has thought about something, I automatically know what that thing is and should not need spoken instruction.
Luckily I did know where we were going, having ascertained this beforehand, and I got us there quietly and safely. The last time I'd been to this village, it had been with my daughter, and we had brought home in triumph a very pretty lightweight carriage for our Fell pony; a vehicle of the one horse power kind which I'd known about for years and coveted from the moment I saw it. When the original owner had asked if I knew anyone who might like to buy it, there was only one possible answer. It has the very strange characteristic of being attractive even to people who know nothing about carriage driving; they walk up to it on a show field, when it's just sitting there waiting to be put to the pony, and they stroke it, which is quite bizarre to watch. It doesn't get used much, but I still adore it. Anyhow, that's how I knew where I was going: carriage driving.
"Where do we want to be, exactly?" I asked as we entered the village.
"We're looking for an elderly Peugeot parked on the roadside. And I would say," he added, "that that's it there."
So I pulled into a small parking space just opposite, and he got out to start poking round the potential purchase.
I didn't need to ask its price tag; I knew how big the cheque was that I'd cashed. I didn't need to follow Graham round the car and peer at the adequate levels of tyre tread, or under the bonnet at the clean engine, full radiator, and correct level of oil; but I did, and amused myself by lifting off the charming mouse nest from on top of the air filter. (We had been warned that the car hadn't been used in the last few months.) We didn't disturb the contents of the car itself, though, which included a large golf umbrella, a portable television, two folding walking sticks and enough scrap paper to build a small house.
My husband went along to knock on the door of the converted barn where the owner lived; he eventually appeared in shorts and sandals, his thin legs and bare feet apparently impervious to the biting wind. The crate of empty brown beer bottles by the back doorstep perhaps accounted for his inner glow. Producing the keys, he started up the beastie and offered to let my husband take it for a spin round the block. I made small talk with the owner while Graham disappeared down the road and when, in a few minutes, he came back, we moved indoors to discuss price.
It was a foregone conclusion that he'd buy it. The owner made one proposal, Graham offered the amount of cash we had brought, and the deal was done. I sat through the ensuing search for the registration document, and his daughter's emptying of the car, and did my bit by trying to entertain two of the three small grandchildren. However, as the boys were very young, and dummy users to boot, I think the sheepdog actually had more to tell me.
How did I know my husband would buy the car? Well, quite apart from having the initials of the carriage driving club as its number plate (I shall buy it from him when he eventually scraps the car), the Peugeot was, you guessed it, white.