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Authors: Alan Bennett

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The Clothes They Stood Up In

BOOK: The Clothes They Stood Up In
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T
HE
C
LOTHES
T
HEY
S
TOOD
U
P
I
N

T
he 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.

The Ransomes lived in an Edwardian block of flats the color of ox blood not far from Regent's Park. It was handy for the City, though Mrs. Ransome would have preferred something farther out, seeing herself with a trug in a garden, vaguely. But she was not gifted in that direction. An African violet that her cleaning lady had given her at Christmas had finally given up the ghost that very morning and she had been forced to hide it in the wardrobe out of Mrs. Clegg's way. More wasted effort. The wardrobe had gone too.

They had no neighbors to speak of, or seldom to. Occasionally they ran into people in the lift and both parties would smile cautiously. Once they had asked some newcomers on their floor around to sherry, but he had turned out to be what he called “a big band freak” and she had been a dental receptionist with a time-share in Portugal, so one way and another it had been an awkward evening and they had never repeated the experience. These days the turnover of tenants seemed increasingly rapid and the lift more and more wayward. People were always moving in and out again, some of them Arabs.

“I mean,” said Mrs. Ransome, “it's getting like a hotel.”

“I wish you wouldn't keep saying ‘I mean,' ” said Mr. Ransome. “It adds nothing to the sense.”

He got enough of what he called “this sloppy way of talking” at work; the least he could ask for at home, he felt, was correct English. So Mrs. Ransome, who normally had very little to say, now tended to say even less.

When the Ransomes had moved into Naseby Mansions the flats boasted a commissionaire in a plum-colored uniform that matched the color of the building. He had died one afternoon in 1982 as he was hailing a taxi for Mrs. Brabourne on the second floor, who had forgone it in order to let it take him to hospital. None of his successors had shown the same zeal in office or pride in the uniform and eventually the function of commissionaire had merged with that of the caretaker, who was never to be found on the door and seldom to be found anywhere, his lair a hot scullery behind the boiler room where he slept much of the day in an armchair that had been thrown out by one of the tenants.

On the night in question the caretaker was asleep, though unusually for him not in the armchair but at the theater. On the lookout for a classier type of girl he had decided to attend an adult education course where he had opted to study English; given the opportunity, he had told the lecturer, he would like to become a voracious reader. The lecturer had some exciting though not very well formulated ideas about art and the workplace, and learning he was a caretaker had got him tickets for the play of the same name, thinking the resultant insights would be a stimulant to group interaction. It was an evening the caretaker found no more satisfying than the Ransomes did
Così
and the insights he gleaned limited: “So far as your actual caretaking was concerned,” he reported to the class, “it was bollocks.” The lecturer consoled himself with the hope that, unknown to the caretaker, the evening might have opened doors. In this he was right: the doors in question belonged to the Ransomes' flat.

The police came around eventually, though there was more to it than picking up the phone. The thieves had done that anyway, all three phones in fact, neatly snipping off the wire flush with the skirting board so that, with no answer from the flat opposite (“Sharing time in Portugal, probably,” Mr. Ransome said, “or at a big band concert”), he was forced to sally forth in search of a phone box. “No joke,” as he said to Mrs. Ransome now that phone boxes doubled as public conveniences. The first two Mr. Ransome tried didn't even do that, urinals solely, the phone long since ripped out. A mobile would have been the answer, of course, but Mr. Ransome had resisted this innovation (“Betrays a lack of organization”), as he resisted most innovations except those in the sphere of stereophonic reproduction.

He wandered on through deserted streets, wondering how people managed. The pubs had closed, the only place open a launderette with, in the window, a pay phone. This struck Mr. Ransome as a stroke of luck; never having had cause to use such an establishment he had not realized that washing clothes ran to such a facility; but being new to launderettes meant also that he was not certain if someone who was not actually washing clothes was permitted to take advantage of it. However, the phone was currently being used by the sole occupant of the place, an old lady in two overcoats who had plainly not laundered her clothes in some time, so Mr. Ransome took courage.

She was standing with the phone pressed to her dirty ear, not talking, but not really listening either.

“Could you hurry, please,” Mr. Ransome said. “This is an emergency.”

“So is this, dear,” said the woman. “I'm calling Padstow, only they're not answering.”

“I want to call the police,” said Mr. Ransome.

“Been attacked, have you?” said the woman. “I was attacked last week. It's par for the course these days. He was only a toddler. It's ringing but there's a long corridor. They tend to have a hot drink about this time. They're nuns,” she said explanatorily.

“Nuns?” said Mr. Ransome. “Are you sure they won't have gone to bed?”

“No. They're up and down all night having the services. There's always somebody about.”

She went on listening to the phone ringing in Cornwall.

“Can't it wait?” asked Mr. Ransome, seeing his effects halfway up the M1. “Speed is of the essence.”

“I know,” said the old lady, “whereas nuns have got all the time in the world. That's the beauty of it except when it comes to answering the phone. I aim to go on retreat there in May.”

“But it's only February,” Mr. Ransome said. “I . . .”

“They get booked up,” explained the old lady. “There's no talking and three meals a day so do you wonder? They use it as a holiday home for religious of both sexes.You wouldn't think nuns needed holidays. Prayer doesn't take it out of you. Not like bus conducting. Still ringing. They've maybe finished their hot drink and adjourned to the chapel. I suppose I could ring later, only . . .” She looked at the coins waiting in Mr. Ransome's hand. “I've put my money in now.”

Mr. Ransome gave her a pound and she took the other 50p besides, saying, “You don't need money for 999.”

She put the receiver down and her money came back of its own accord, but Mr. Ransome was so anxious to get on with his call he scarcely noticed. It was only later, sitting on the floor of what had been their bedroom, that he said out loud, “Do you remember Button A and Button B? They've gone, you know. I never noticed.”

“Everything's gone,” said Mrs. Ransome, not catching his drift, “the air freshener, the soap dish. They can't be human; I mean they've even taken the lavatory brush.”

“Fire, police, or ambulance?” said a woman's voice.

“Police,” said Mr. Ransome. There was a pause.

“I feel better for that banana,” said a man's voice. “Yes? Police.” Mr. Ransome began to explain but the man cut him short. “Anyone in danger?” He was chewing.

“No,” said Mr. Ransome, “but . . .”

“Any threat to the person?”

“No,” said Mr. Ransome, “only . . .”

“Slight bottleneck at the moment, chief,” said the voice. “Bear with me while I put you on hold.”

Mr. Ransome found himself listening to a Strauss waltz.

“They're probably having a hot drink,” said the old lady, who he could smell was still at his elbow.

“Sorry about that,” the voice said five minutes later. “We're on manual at the moment. The computer's got hiccups. How may I help you?”

Mr. Ransome explained there had been a burglary and gave the address.

“Are you on the phone?”

“Of course,” said Mr. Ransome, “only . . .”

“And the number is?”

“They've taken the phone,” said Mr. Ransome.

“Nothing new there,” said the voice. “Cordless job?”

“No,” said Mr. Ransome. “One was in the sitting room, one was by the bed. . . .”

“We don't want to get bogged down in detail,” said the voice. “Besides, the theft of a phone isn't the end of the world. What was the number again?”

It was after one o'clock when Mr. Ransome got back and Mrs. Ransome, already beginning to pick up the threads, was in what had been their bedroom, sitting with her back to the wall in the place where she would have been in bed had there been a bed to be in. She had done a lot of crying while Mr. Ransome was out but had now wiped her eyes, having decided she was going to make the best of things.

“I thought you might be dead,” she said.

“Why dead?”

“Well, it never rains but it pours.”

“I was in one of these launderettes if you want to know. It was terrible. What are you eating?”

“A cough sweet. I found it in my bag.” This was one of the sweets Mr. Ransome insisted she take with her whenever they went to the opera ever since she had had a snuffle all the way through
Fidelio.

“Is there another?”

“No,” said Mrs. Ransome, sucking. “This is the last.”

Mr. Ransome went to the lavatory, only realizing when it was too late that the burglary had been so comprehensive as to have taken in both the toilet roll and its holder.

“There's no paper,” called Mrs. Ransome.

The only paper in the flat was the program from
Così
and passing it around the door Mrs. Ransome saw, not without satisfaction, that Mr. Ransome was going to have to wipe his bottom on a picture of Mozart.

Both unwieldy and unyielding the glossy brochure (sponsored by Barclays Bank PLC) was uncomfortable to use and unsinkable afterwards, and three flushes notwithstanding, the fierce eye of Sir Georg Solti still came squinting resentfully around the bend of the pan.

“Better?” said Mrs. Ransome.

“No,” said her husband and settled down beside her against the wall. However, finding the skirting board dug into her back Mrs. Ransome changed her position to lie at right angles to her husband so that her head now rested on his thigh, a situation it had not been in for many a long year. While telling himself this was an emergency it was a conjunction Mr. Ransome found both uncomfortable and embarrassing, but which seemed to suit his wife as she straightaway went off to sleep, leaving Mr. Ransome staring glumly at the wall opposite and its now uncurtained window, from which, he noted wonderingly, the burglars had even stolen the curtain rings.

It was four o'clock before the police arrived, a big middle-aged man in a raincoat, who said he was a detective sergeant, and a sensitive-looking young constable in uniform, who didn't say anything at all.

“You've taken your time,” said Mr. Ransome.

“Yes,” said the sergeant. “We would have been earlier but there was a slight . . . ah, glitch as they say. Rang the wrong doorbell. The fault of mi-laddo here. Saw the name Hanson and . . .”

“No,” said Mr. Ransome. “Ransome.”

“Yes. We established that . . . eventually. Just moved in, have you?” said the sergeant, surveying the bare boards.

“No,” said Mr. Ransome. “We've been here for thirty years.”

“Fully furnished, was it?”

“Of course,” said Mr. Ransome. “It was a normal home.”

BOOK: The Clothes They Stood Up In
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