From Alan Bennett, the author of The Madness of King George, come two stories about the strange nature of possessions... or the lack of them. In “The Clothes They Stood Up In,” the staid Ransomes return from the opera to find their Regent’s Park flat stripped bare — right down to the toilet-paper roll. In “The Lady in the Van,” a London eccentric parks her van — overstuffed with decades’ worth of old clothes, oozing batteries, and kitchen utensils still in their original packaging — in the author’s driveway for more than fifteen years. Here's an excerpt of each of the latest “Today Book Club” selections:
THE LADY IN THE VAN
MISS S.’S DAILY emergence from the van was highly dramatic. Suddenly and without warning the rear door would be flung open to reveal the tattered draperies that masked the terrible interior. There was a pause, then through the veils would be hurled several bulging plastic sacks. Another pause, before slowly and with great caution one sturdy slippered leg came feeling for the floor before the other followed and one had the first sight of the day’s wardrobe. Hats were always a feature: a black railwayman’s hat with a long neb worn slightly on the skew so that she looked like a drunken signalman or a French guardsman of the 1880s; there was her Charlie Brown pitcher’s hat; and in June 1977 an octagonal straw table-mat, tied on with a chiffon scarf and a bit of cardboard for the peak. She also went in for green eyeshades. Her skirts had a telescopic appearance, as they had often been lengthened many times over by the simple expedient of sewing a strip of extra cloth around the hem, though with no attempt at matching. One skirt was made by sewing several orange dusters together.
Miss S. seldom wore stockings, and alternated between black pumps and brown carpet slippers. Her hands and feet were large, and she was what my grandmother would have called “a big-boned woman.” She was middle-class and spoke in a middle-class way, though her querulous and often resentful demeanor tended to obscure this; it wasn’t a gentle or a genteel voice. Running through her vocabulary was a streak of schoolgirl slang. She wouldn’t say she was tired, she was “all done up”; petrol was “juice”; and if she wasn’t keen on doing something she’d say “I’m darned if I will.” All her conversation was impregnated with the vocabulary of her peculiar brand of Catholic fanaticism (“the dire importance of justice deeds”). It was the language of the leaflets she wrote, the “possibly” with which she ended so many of her sentences an echo of the “Subject to the Roman Catholic Church in her rights etc.” with which she headed every leaflet.
May 1976. I have had some manure delivered for the garden and, since the manure heap is not far from the van, Miss S. is concerned that people passing might think the smell is coming from there. She wants me to put a notice on the gate to the effect that the smell is the manure, not her. I say no, without adding, as I could, that the manure actually smells much nicer.
THE CLOTHES THEY STOOD UP IN
The Ransomes had been burgled. “Robbed,” Mrs. Ransome said. “Burgled,” Mr. Ransome corrected. Premises were burgled; persons were robbed. Mr. Ransome was a solicitor by profession and thought words mattered. Though “burgled” was the wrong word too. Burglars select; they pick; they remove one item and ignore others. There is a limit to what burglars can take: they seldom take easy chairs, for example, and even more seldom settees. These burglars did. They took everything.
The Ransomes had been to the opera, to Così fan tutte (or Così as Mrs. Ransome had learned to call it). Mozart played an important part in their marriage. They had no children and but for Mozart would probably have split up years ago. Mr. Ransome always took a bath when he came home from work and then he had his supper. After supper he took another bath, this time in Mozart. He wallowed in Mozart; he luxuriated in him; he let the little Viennese soak away all the dirt and disgustingness he had had to sit through in his office all day. On this particular evening he had been to the public baths, Covent Garden, where their seats were immediately behind the Home Secretary. He too was taking a bath and washing away the cares of his day, cares, if only in the form of a statistic, that were about to include the Ransomes.
On a normal evening, though, Mr. Ransome shared his bath with no one, Mozart coming personalized via his headphones and a stack of complex and finely balanced stereo equipment that Mrs. Ransome was never allowed to touch. She blamed the stereo for the burglary as that was what the robbers were probably after in the first place. The theft of stereos is common; the theft of fitted carpets is not.
“Perhaps they wrapped the stereo in the carpet,” said Mrs. Ransome.
Mr. Ransome shuddered and said her fur coat was more likely, whereupon Mrs. Ransome started crying again.
It had not been much of a Così. Mrs. Ransome could not follow the plot and Mr. Ransome, who never tried, found the performance did not compare with the four recordings he possessed of the work. The acting he invariably found distracting. “None of them knows what to do with their arms,” he said to his wife in the interval. Mrs. Ransome thought it probably went further than their arms but did not say so. She was wondering if the casserole she had left in the oven would get too dry at Gas Mark 4. Perhaps 3 would have been better. Dry it may well have been but there was no need to have worried. The thieves took the oven and the casserole with it.
Excerpted from “The Clothes They Stood Up In and The Lady in the Van” by Alan Bennett. Copyright © 2002 by Alan Bennett. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.