It's been years since I went to a rural auction. I'd forgotten how exciting it is to bid on any silly little item, to feel your heart race as your hand seems to bid (unbidden!) against your adversary, driving the price up to the ridiculous. But one person's junk is another person's treasure, and although I didn't come home with the item I most desired, I didn't leave empty handed.
The ad for the auction listed a spinning wheel, so how could I say no? My friend Maureen and I arrived and signed in at the auction "office" (a trailer), receiving our numbers that would allow us to bid. We wandered the farmyard, perusing the many items laid across tables. It's best to play these things cool, because chances are if you were attracted to a particular item, others were too.
We were amazed at the stuff people were buying: an old can of Ajax, rusted jackknives, a dual-cassette tape player, and a box of horrible Christmas decorations. I finally made my way over to where the object of my desire sat.
I'd had the foresight to bring some Corriedale roving with me to test out the wheel. I hated the idea of it being bought by someone who wanted to set it in a corner of their living room as a decorative item. A spinning wheel or musical instrument is a work of art, beautiful to the eye. But they are also tools, created to serve a purpose. If this wheel could spin, I was going to do my best to bring it home with me.
As soon as I sat down and started fiddling with it, this old fellow approached me and asked me if it worked. I drew a little crowd as I worked to pull the fibre through the orifice (using my earring as a hook!). The bobbin wasn't spinning freely so I took "the mother" off and investigated. There was a lot of built up grease (lanolin?) inside the bobbin, and it was stuck fast.
I knew with some work, it could be a decent spinning wheel. I have a beautiful wheel at home so I didn't really need another, but like my husband with his musical instruments, I like to gather spinning materials around me like children.
This elderly gentleman kept a close eye on me, then told me he was going to buy it. I wouldn't bid against him, would I? Now, some people would be gullible enough to fall for those twinkly blue eyes and the puppy dog look in them when he expressed his desire for this wheel. I wasn't buying it. I waved him away with a smile, and thus began a day-long interaction with a wonderful, funny, and smart man. I found out through an acquaintance that his name was Henry.
All through the day our paths crossed, till we were bumping shoulders, nudging each other, and teasing about who would get that wheel. He joined me on a bench and asked about our sheep and our children. It turns out he also has a son and three daughters. We talked about the hard work involved in raising children, and the passage of time. He's been married for 57 years and although his wife is now sick and dependent on him, he declared that she was a good wife, a hard worker.
The conversation always returned to the reason we'd both come to this auction: the spinning wheel. His refrain was, "You're not going to bid against me, are you?" I told him I knew what he was up to, that I wasn't born yesterday, and that I wasn't going to budge.
Then the Mennonites arrived.
As one, our heads swiveled towards this quaint family as they inspected the wheel. It seemed to belong to them, both reminiscent of the simple style of the late 1800s. He looked at me as I looked at him, and we wordlessly agreed: we'd have to form an alliance to beat the Mennonites. We quickly agreed that if he got it, he'd will it to me, and if I got it, I'd teach him to spin on it. We'd have joint custody, and Maureen agreed to be the wheel manager. Henry couldn't have been more delighted by this turn of events if he was a five year old in a candy store.
I had a limit in my mind of how much I'd be willing to spend, but there was clearly a lot of interest in the wheel. As the auctioneer got closer to it, the crown got larger. Henry and I wandered over to where I'd put my bag so that I could show him the roving I'd brought. A woman in a purple shirt who was standing nearby said, "Oh, you're here about the wheel? So are we. We're going to go up to at least $500."
Henry gave me a look that said, "She's bluffing". Still, I knew I'd be out of the running early in the game. Henry looked at her shrewdly, but kept mum and I wondered what he was thinking.
When the bidding began, the Mennonites didn't bite. I wondered if they had noticed something I hadn't. I put up my card every few bids, and as the price rose, Henry stood with his head lowered and his arms firmly crossed across his chest. It was between another woman (not the one in the purple shirt) and me. As the price rose past $100, I shook my head to indicate to the auctioneer that I was out.
Suddenly, Henry raised his card.
A bit of a collective gasp went up. He continued to stand in his casual posture, head bowed and arms crossed, and as the price rose and the auctioneer would be about to say, "SOLD!", his hand would rise up almost imperceptibly.
When I finally registered what he was up to, the price was up past $400! I realised then that I was in the presence of a master.
At $450 the tension in the crowd was an almost physical presence; suspense and adrenaline hung like fog in the air. Finally, the wheel went to the woman in the orange shirt for $460.
Henry turned to me with a smile and a wink and I was left to wonder if he ever wanted the wheel at all, or if it was just a game he played to drive the price up. We both threw our heads back and laughed at the joy of attending an auction on a Saturday afternoon, and of meeting a kindred spirit.