âI don't recall asking for an MOT.'
A cool frosty voice from outside had me scrambling in disarray out of the car, still clutching the bits of paper. Cool frosty eyes met mine as she held out her hand for them. I meekly handed them over, feeling like a naughty schoolboy as I tried to regain as much sangfroid as I could. This wasn't a lot, faced by the original model for Ice Queen. Moreover, she looked vaguely familiar, though I could have sworn we had never met. I'd have remembered.
In her forties, slim, well-dressed in jacket, sweater and trousers, stylish haircut, boots, just what
would recommend for a rural weekend. Her face didn't look as if she was enjoying it much, however, although given encouragement I could see those frosty eyes dancing with the joys of life â and I bet I knew what one of those was.
I apologized and grinned sheepishly, hoping that the eyes would relent, but there was no response. She simply unravelled the bits of paper, stared at them and scrunched them up. I had a feeling her mind was on something else. So was mine. Money.
âJack Colby,' I continued desperately, seeing my hope of a warm discussion over the sale of an unwanted Lagonda disappearing fast. âI live at Frogs Hill Farm near the Piper's Green to Egerton Road. I'm a classic car enthusiast, soâ'
âHardly a reason for vandalizing mine, Mr Colby.' The voice was even frostier than the eyes.
âI wasn't.' It came out as a yelp. âI run â' almost true â âFrogs Hill Classic Car Restorations from the farm,' I continued, getting my sangfroid together again and foreseeing Len's delight if I brought this beauty home to roost (the Lagonda, of course, not the lady, though that wouldn't be a bad idea either). âWe specialize in classics, of course. Stupid of me to jump the gun, but I wanted to be sure of what I was seeing, before I approached you with an offer to see if you'd be interested in letting me restore and sell it for you. On consignment, of course.' That meant she'd get the cash only when I'd sold it.
âIt's not for sale.' The anger was vanishing from her voice, but there was no doubt she meant what she said. The odd thing was that she still seemed abstracted, concentrating now on the car rather than on what I was saying. She looked pale and not at all happy, I thought. Naturally, I supposed.
âI could come backâ'
It's not for sale
.' She wasn't distracted now, and her attention was fully on me. Anger flashed from her eyes, and there was a red flush on the pale cheeks. She even seemed to be trembling. She surely couldn't be that furious? âDo you understand, Mr Colby? Not for sale.'
I was so taken aback that I didn't see her tame Rottweiler approach â this being in the form of Guy Williams, whom I knew by sight from a local pub. He was a fruit farmer, and I was probably on his land.
âTrouble, Pol?' he growled, his eyes narrowed, as in all the best thrillers. That might be stereotyping, but Guy Williams seemed to step right on to page one of the Heavies for Rent Directory. He wasn't much taller than his wife â I presumed he had that honour â perhaps five eight, but his solid figure and square-jawed face made it seem as if he was dominating her. In corduroys and check lumber shirt, he looked what he was: a farmer doing his work and highly annoyed at strangers intruding on his patch.
âYes. Get rid of him, Guy.'
I wasn't too happy about this, not knowing whether âget rid of' meant permanently or merely off her turf. âSorry.' I tried to look penitent again. âI inherited this passion for classics from my father, Tony Colby. Did you know him?'
I'd caught him off guard for he looked somewhat less aggressive. âYes. Car collector over Egerton way.'
This was like calling the Tower of London an old prison, or St Paul's a parish church. The Glory Boot, as the farmhouse extension holding Dad's collection is called, has every sort of classic car book, sales brochures, technical manuals, badges, and even a copy of one of the Peking to Paris rally route maps of 1907. And it was the contents of the Glory Boot that the great Harry Prince particularly wanted to prise from my possession â as well the entire farm and business, which would mean rubbing my nose in the dirt even harder.
âHe was,' I replied to Guy, âand unfortunately he passed the passion on to me. Hence my intrusion. Sorry again.'
I wasn't that sorry. I'd remembered where I'd seen Polly â where
had seen her. I'd only been back in Kent about three and a half years, but I'd heard about Mike and Polly Davis. They'd moved here twelve years ago, well after I had left on my travels in the oil business, and so I had never actually met them. Polly Davis was once better known as Polly Beaumont, a TV presenter and everyone's luvvy. I hadn't seen her on the screen since I came back to England, so she must have given it up when she and Mike moved here, or perhaps it gave her up because of advancing years. She looked all the better for them.
When I returned to Kent, Polly was a recent widow. Mike, who had run a chiefly Internet car business, had been found dead in his car in a station car park. He'd had a heart attack. I'd been sorry to hear that, as Dad had had a soft spot for Mike. He'd referred to him as âan old rascal', although Mike must have been about twenty years Dad's junior. I think I'd even met Mike once; he'd been the affable sort, who'd pinch your last penny but then make sure you didn't starve. Since Mike's death, Guy might well have moved his heavy boots under the table, and maybe even married her, although she didn't look that stupid. My guess was that she was still Mrs Davis.
They were both surveying me, from the top of my crew-cut brown hair to my less than posh jeans and trainers. It was a question of which of us emerged from our corner for the next round first. I made it me, with one last try at saving the situation.
âI've made a real pig's-dinner of this, and I don't wonder you're annoyed, but could I call on you properly, appointment and all, Mrs â er â Davis, isn't it?' I threw in a smile in case it helped. I'd like to add that women have been known to swoon at my smile, but it wouldn't be the truth. I have to work a lot harder than that, or so I'm told by those who should know. They must be right, because my smile at Polly seemed to have fallen short in the success stakes.
âThere would be no point. It's not for sale,' Polly replied, more patiently this time, which might be a good sign, although I could still see knuckles white with tension closed over those bits of paper.
I could also see my only hope of staving Harry Prince off receding rapidly, especially as good old Guy decided to up the stakes. âThe word's no, Colby, no matter who your dad was.' His fists were clenched, and I backed off. Lesson one in the oil trade: don't do fists until you have the advantage of surprise. All the same, the whites of Guy's eyes were getting unpleasantly close.
I tried reason. âIt's a rare car,' I said. âEspecially the drop-head version. If you don't want to sell it for your own sake, Mrs DavisÂ .Â .Â .' I looked from one to the other, but there was no sign that Guy was going to take ownership either of her or the car. âMy fault. I understand now; maybe it belonged to your late husband?'
I broke off as Guy marched even closer, but that wasn't the reason I stopped. It was Polly. She was no longer kneading scraps of paper, but was looking directly at the car with an expression not of anger but almost, I thought, near to tears. Fool that I was, I realized this must have been the car Mike died in.
When Guy reached me, he simply spun me round and pushed me headlong into the hedge.
âCrash back through your hole, mister,' he suggested, âand stay there.'
You get to know how to look after yourself in the oil trade, and I could have floored him so quickly that he wouldn't be able to enjoy his fruit trees â or Polly, if that was the relationship â for some time. But that wouldn't have achieved anything except momentary satisfaction. Instead, I said sincerely to Polly, âI'm sorry, Mrs Davis, if I brought back sad memories.'
I don't think she even heard me. She was still looking at the Lagonda, with a grief that humbled me. No one would ever look at me like that. A woman like thisÂ .Â .Â . I dragged my thoughts away from a vision of Polly in bed and concentrated on the lovely Lagonda. Polly had known the car was there, so why this intensity now? Why did she keep it at all, if it was so upsetting? There had to be some story attached to it. People keep old cars for all sorts of reasons. To be buried in them, for sentiment's sake, for lack of money to restore them, or just because it's too much trouble to get rid of them, or too expensive to run them.
Nothing about Polly Davis suggested any of these explanations worked, however. The very opposite. She looked the kind of woman who would relish being seen in a classic car â unlike dear old Guy. I was back to my first explanation: this was the car Mike had died in. And yet that didn't fully satisfy me either. There was something weird about this situation â and about the Lagonda itself. Everything I had seen suggested that apart from the headlights it was a beauty of a car, and yet something didn't quite add up. Two of my noses, for precious cars and for trouble, were pushing me forwards, towards my own, my very own, black hole.
To sum up my situation as I stalked back to Pluckley where I'd left my car: it was the Lagonda or Harry Prince. I preferred to pursue the former, since the latter brought to the fore the nose I lacked, the one for storing money.
âAny time, Jack, any time.' Last time I had seen Harry, he had chuckled in joyful anticipation of getting his hands on Dad's collection of automobilia, with or without Classic Car Restorations and Frogs Hill Farm itself. It had been the first time he had made an offer to me without getting dirt straight back in his personal fuel line. He's a car dealer, is Prince, and sees himself as King and Emperor of the car trade in this part of Kent. So far I'd refused his deal every time. I don't like the way he does things, I don't like the way he treats people, and I don't like Harry. I do like his wife, but that's not much help.
My major problem was money. Not an unusual one, I grant you, but crucial to me at that moment. When Dad died, just after I'd returned to Kent, he was greatly mourned by all who loved him and classic cars. Especially his family. Having returned to Kent merely to sort things out, somehow I never left again. A man can only take the oil trade for so long.
There was no question of selling Frogs Hill Farm, even if I was forced to because of the debts Dad had left. The moving costs would outweigh the sale profits. The Greeks believed that we all have fatal flaws that lead to our ruin, but I had searched in vain for Dad's when he was alive. After his death, however, it had emerged that his world famous Glory Boot had got that way because he'd never let cost stand in the way of a new acquisition. Result: first class collection of automobilia â but mortgages galore on Frogs Hill Farm which Croesus would have had a job paying off, let alone me. So I had settled down with Classic Car Restorations, blithely hoping that I could make it pay. It was a struggle, and now it had reached crunch point.
I'd set out along the bridle path this sunny day just to talk over prices with Harry, and we would both know this meant it was getting serious. Fortunately, he didn't know I was coming, as I'd wanted the advantage of surprise. The happy surprise had been mine â the Lagonda. It might give me a lifeline to pay my debts for a couple of months â even if Polly and Mr Rottweiler were standing in the way. I didn't yet know quite how I was going to get hold of that elegant lady â and perhaps even Polly into the bargain, which was an increasingly nice thought. Something, I told myself, would turn up.
With this optimistic outlook, I decided Harry Prince could wait until I had exhausted every other avenue. I'd head straight back to Frogs Hill Farm to begin my Lagonda campaign.
Frogs Hill Farm is so tucked away that it's surprising any customers find their way there. They generally arrive at the large modern barn that houses the restoration business with a great air of triumph, as if they've just solved the enigma of perpetual motion. Len likes it this way. We are high up on the Lower Greensand stratum with fine views of the Kentish Weald beneath us in the distance, and if one squints between the trees in roughly the opposite direction we also have brief glimpses of the chalk North Downs.
What road are we on, customers naturally ask. Road? The way to Frogs Hill Farm is along a mere track, though a lane leads grudgingly off from Piper's Green village on the Pluckley to Egerton road and runs somewhere near the farm. After that, it's a slog up our long drive â or pleasant motoring, according to how many potholes need to be filled in. Len Vickers, who is in charge of restorations with Zoe Grant's help, believes in making customers work to find us, whereas I take a duller view. I prefer not to be sued for damage to classic and fragile beauties.
By the time I reached the farm again that morning, I was full of renewed hope and vigour. Guy Williams' aggression had receded in my mind and so had my gut feeling of something nasty in the woodshed. All I could think of was that beautiful Lagonda, which had my name written on it as surely as my passport. And if by any happy chance its owner was part of the deal, Shangri-La appeared to be just over my horizon.
I went straight to the petrolhead zone of operations, where Len and Zoe were working on a 1934 Riley 12/4 Kestrel saloon. This little gem needed some serious suspension, braking and electrical work if it was ever to see another MOT certificate, so I was up against stiff competition if I expected eager interest in my concerns.
âLagonda, V12,' I announced for openers as I marched into the Pits, as we call the barn workshop.