How much is that doggy in the car-boot?

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The Independent Online
"Modern writers don't deal with anything as mundane as car-boot sales," said a critic the other day. Rubbish! I have recently been working on an anthology of fiction devoted to that very subject. The book, which is called Car Boot Tales and is due to come out in the autumn, contains short stories from all over the country set in the strange underworld of the car-boot entrepreneur. Here, as a taster, is a story which the author calls "Take Me to Your Loss Leader".

You could tell at first sight that the tall man in the sheepskin jacket had a price for everything. I mean, even the sheepskin jacket had a price- tag on it! I heard a bloke once go up to him and say, "How much for the sheepskin jacket?" And the tall thin man looked at the price-tag and said, "Sorry - there's been some mistake - these are the dry-cleaning instructions!"

And they both laughed.

And then the tall man sold it to the bloke for 50 quid.

Anyway, it wasn't coats I was after, it was Staffordshire china. I thought I knew a bit about china, having inherited a couple of books about antiques from my auntie, and I fancied I could spot a bargain. And this thin tall man had a lot of Staffordshire china for sale, all of it priced quite reasonably - except for the pair of spaniels at pounds 6,000. Everything else was less than pounds 100 but the spaniels were pounds 6,000.

"Is this is a misprint?" I said, first time I saw them.

"The spaniels?" he said, without looking up. "No, that's the price. Six thousand nicker."

"It's a lot."

"That's 6,000 the pair, not each."

"They're not worth 6,000 quid either way," I said.

"Then don't buy them," he said.

And I didn't. I bought one or two other things from him, at good prices, but I didn't even think of buying the spaniels. At the same time, I couldn't stop thinking about them. I couldn't see why they were different from the other stuff. And he wouldn't tell me.

"Special, they are. Very special."

"What's special about them?"

"The price."

"What else?"

He didn't answer. I pored over my reference books, but I couldn't find anything about extremely rare or unusual Staffordshire spaniels. Every week I went to the car-boot sale, he was there and so were the spaniels.

"Is that price negotiable on the spaniels?" I asked him.

He thought for a moment.

"Give me a price," he said.

I looked at the spaniels.

"Fifty quid."

He said nothing.

"Each," I said.

He smiled then, and said: "Tell you what. I'll come down to pounds 5,500."

"pounds 120 and that's my last offer."

"pounds 5,300."

There didn't seem to be a deal on, so I left it there. But I was shaken by the whole encounter. First, I had never ever left off haggling with a gap of pounds 5,000 between my price and the other man's price. Second, the bloke had come down in price by pounds 700. pounds 700! That was more than I had ever paid for anything in my life. Blimey O'Riley. I bought a small china cottage off him for a very reasonable price and left the spaniels, and their mystery, behind.

Next time I went to the car-boot sale, he wasn't there. A bit after that, I stopped going to sales altogether, when I got engaged to be married and we started buying new furniture on Sunday instead. But I bumped into the tall thin bloke in a pub a year later and I recognised him straightaway. He remembered me, too.

"I've still got those spaniels," he said.

"Not surprised, at that price," I said. "Tell me, how much are they really worth?"

"Between you and me - about 50 quid."

"Then why ...?"

"Price them at pounds 6,000? Because it makes everything else on the stall seem so reasonable, of course. When I marked those spaniels up from pounds 50 to pounds 6,000 I knew I'd never sell them. But my volume of sales on everything else doubled. Psychology, mate."

He paused.

"I remember," he said, "you offered me pounds 120 for them. I was tempted. Gawd, I was tempted. But then I thought - no, I don't want to diddle this bloke, because they're not worth even that. So I didn't."

He took a draught from his pint.

"Anyway," he said, "I'd have felt a bit stupid coming down from five and a half grand to a hundred quid. Know what I mean?" I started going to car-boot sales again the next year. Saw the man again. Bought the spaniels off him for pounds 80. But I didn't make an offer for his china shepherd, priced at pounds 7,000.