There is a kind of dress, of which women probably know the name, which is like a double-breasted coat. It opens at the front with buttons, not at the back with a zip, and I’ve always found them fascinating.
Is that something that goes through a woman’s mind when she buys one like that? Perhaps not, in most cases, but then men and women are notorious for not really understanding what makes the other tick.
It is, or should be, irrelevant in the context of this story, and yet it is the foundation too.
We’re in a car salesroom in Tobago, my wife and I, aiming to buy a used vehicle in good condition at a good price: the holy grail of used car purchasers. We have a budget and we’re going to stick to it – we’ve determined that in advance. No slick, pushy salesman with a fancy watch glinting on his leathery wrist and an implausibly smooth, slim-fit, ironed shirt is going to sell us up, as they say.
We have a budget of this amount and he can have it if he comes up with the goods. Otherwise we will go elsewhere.
You can get paranoid in these places, particularly if you don’t have as much money as you would like. They put subtle pressure on you. Nobody likes to admit they can’t afford what somebody else can; it brands you as some kind of failure.
As for me, in the Caribbean I look rich. If I had as much money as people assume I have, I’d be a happier man, or at least a more carefree one. It is generally assumed that whatever value sellers put on an item, be it a Toyota or an avocado, I could pay it if I wanted to, and if I don’t pay it I’m just tight.
Hey ho, I suppose it’s better than being considered a bum, turned away from any decent establishment because I’ll just stuff all the canapés into my pockets, have a free glass of wine and then climb out of the toilet window.
So here I am in a spacious, airy building, with cars all around tarted up like hookers at a luxury boat show, and the ones I’m interested in are not in here, because they’d let the side down. They’re outside. The ugly sisters kept around the back for fear of bringing down the tone of the place.
Car salesmen want you to think that everybody else buys these seductive, pristine models, and asking to see something a few years old is like telling one of the hookers you’d like to meet her grandma.
However, as I said, you can get paranoid, and that is to be avoided, so let’s check the current facts. The glinting timepiece that adorns the ebony wrist is small and pretty, and that’s because it belongs to a young woman. A young woman wearing a brick-coloured dress of that front-opening help-yourself style. She’s as well-conditioned as the new cars: good looking, tastefully dressed and made up, elegant and with that full-lipped, sleepy-eyed dignity that many Caribbean women don’t realise they possess.
She is not looking at me; she is addressing my wife: she’s of the modern generation that assumes equality between the sexes, which is fine by me.
But she’s laying it on a bit thick for my liking. She’s leading us down the path of the glittering new model and although we have outlined our budget, the saleswoman isn’t listening. She’s moved on to the subject of credit. Hire purchase, down payments, easy instalments, periods of years.
“Yes, we’re intending to pay cash,” I interject, but my interjection is taken as an interruption. The saleswoman half-looks at me, but only half, because she is dealing with someone else and I am rude to butt in and therefore should be ignored, whoever I might think I am.
“I’m trying to help,” she snaps. I wonder if this is a tactic that sales trainers teach them: divide and conquer. If it is, it’s a brave one because it pits her five minutes of acquaintance against a couple’s however-many years of partnership.
She’s good, I’ll give her that. She has created in herself an attractive package, this intelligent, apparently successful, highly respectable and universally desirable woman in the prime of her life.
And she expects one of us to drop everything and run away with her to a better place where new is the only age for a car. In this case she has decided against the traditional scenario of a woman flirting with a man and opted for the less-discussable tactic of targeting the woman.
“We’ll think about it and get back to you,” my wife concludes. She’s a better negotiator than I am, so maybe she knew what she was doing all along and was playing a game of her own.
The sense of relief as we leave the building is at odds with the mission we’re on. We’re only buying a machine with four wheels, that’s all.