Monday, 29 June 2009

Customer Not Present

It's Friday morning and I'm collecting a vehicle from a private address on a council estate in Bromsgrove. The vehicle in question is a Ford Focus belonging to Motability, which means that the person who has been leasing it is in some way disabled.

These jobs are quite rare and I always approach them with some trepidation as we are never given any details about why the vehicle is being collected, and are forbidden to phone the customer beforehand. It may be that the driver has passed away or become too ill to use the vehicle, but equally it may have been decided that they no longer qualify for the Motability allowance for some reason, which they may not be particularly happy about.

I have heard of platers being met by angry customers, or their relatives. I've also heard of platers arriving at a collection address to find a hearse parked outside.

I knock on the door and a few seconds later it is answered by a middle aged woman, who at first glance does not appear to be either grieving or spoiling for a fight. I explain who I am and she takes me through the house to the back of the property, where the car is parked up. The house looks clean and cosy, although she apologises for the mess, on the grounds that there are some piles of washing here and there.

She gives me the keys and then offers to make me a drink.

'No thanks, I've had one just recently,' I tell her, although the truth is that I want to be on my way as soon as the inspection is done. If the situation becomes awkward for any reason I don't want to be hanging around blowing on a cup of scalding coffee and trying to think of something to say.

'We weren’t really sure what to do with it,' she says, 'It’s not my car it’s my son's, but he’s in prison.'

She sounds neither defensive about this nor traumatized by it, and I wonder if it is not the first time her son has found himself 'inside'. She tells me about the difficulties she has had in trying to find out what to do with the vehicle – 'because of where he is we can't just phone him up and ask him anything about it.'

She has found Motability hard to deal with and had even tried to take the car back to the local dealership where it had originally come from, but they had refused to have it or even allow it to be stored there - 'I feel like I’m just banging my head against a brick wall.'

I tell her some of my own experiences of Motability's labyrinthine and demoralizing customer services, and soon find myself nattering away to her in a way that is quite rare for me. I can’t imagine her being judgemental or taking anything I say the wrong way.

I eventually venture to ask –

‘How does he get on being disabled in prison? Does he have to stay in a special… ward.’

I know that 'ward' is the wrong word, but I can’t think of the right one.

‘No, they’ve got all of the facilities there. He’s not that disabled that he can’t get about.’

I was hoping she might go on to tell me what he did and how long he got, but she doesn’t.

I soon finish the inspection, print out a receipt for her, and then say goodbye before setting off on the short drive to Castle Bromwich auctions.

There seemed to be something deeply likeable about her which makes me hope she was justified in her quiet but obvious support for her son, and that whatever he did there is no victim somewhere who might be entitled to think otherwise.

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