The Clothes They Stood Up In
by Alan Bennett

 

“This way chaps and chapesses. Over here.”

Mr. and Mrs. Ransome stumbled across the last of the grass onto the concrete where silhouetted against the open door stood a young man.

Dazed, they followed him into the hangar and in the light they made a sorry-looking pair. Mrs. Ransome was limping because one of her heels had broken and she had laddered both her stockings. Mr. Ransome had torn the knee of his trousers; there was shit on his shoes, and across his forehead where he had pressed his face into the window was a long black smudge.

The young man smiled and put out his hand. “Maurice. Rosemary. Hi! I’m Martin.”

It was a pleasant open face and though he did have one of those little beards Mrs. Ransome thought made them all look like poisoners, for a warehouseman one way and another he looked quite classy. True he was wearing the kind of cap that had once been the distinctive headgear of American golfers but now seemed of general application, and a little squirt of hair with a rubber band around it was coming out of the back, and, again like them all nowadays, his shirttail was out; still, what gave him a certain air in Mrs. Ransome’s eyes was his smart maroon cardigan. It was not unlike one she had picked out for Mr. Ransome at a Simpson’s sale the year before. Loosely knotted around his neck was a yellow silk scarf with horses’ heads on it. Mrs. Ransome had bought Mr. Ransome one of those too, though he had worn it only once as he decided it made him look like a cad. This boy didn’t look like a cad; he looked dashing and she thought that if they ever got their belongings back she’d root the scarf out from the wardrobe and make her husband give it another try.

“Follow moi,” said the young man and led them down a cold uncarpeted corridor.

“It’s so nice to meet you at long last,” he said over his shoulder, “though in the circumstances I feel I know you already.”

“What circumstances?” said Mr. Ransome.

“Bear with me one moment,” said Martin.

Mr. and Mrs. Ransome were left in the dark while the young man fiddled with a lock.

“I’ll just illuminate matters a fraction,” he said, and a light came on in the room beyond.

“Come in,” said Martin, and he laughed.

Tired and dirty and blinking in the light, Mr. and Mrs. Ransome stumbled through the door and into their own flat.

It was just as they had left it the evening they had gone to the opera. Here was their carpet, their sofa, their high-backed chairs, the reproduction walnut-veneered coffee table with the scalloped edges and cabriole legs and on it the latest number of the Gramophone. Here was Mrs. Ransome’s embroidery, lying on the end of the sofa where she had put it down before going to change at a quarter to six on that never-to-be-forgotten evening. There on the nest of tables was the glass from which Mr. Ransome had had a little drop of something to see him through the first act of Così, still (Mrs. Ransome touched the rim of the glass with her finger) slightly sticky.

On the mantelpiece the carriage clock, presented to Mr. Ransome to mark his twenty-five years with the firm of Selvey, Ransome, Steele and Co., struck six, though Mrs. Ransome was not sure if it was six then or six now. The lights were on, just as they had left them.

“A waste of electricity, I know,” Mr. Ransome was wont to say, “but at least it deters the casual thief,” and on the hall table was the evening paper left there by Mr. Ransome for Mrs. Ransome, who generally read it with her morning coffee the following day.

Other than a cardboard plate with some cold half-eaten curry which Martin neatly heeled under the sofa, mouthing “Sorry,” everything, every little thing, was exactly as it should be; they might have been at home in their flat in Naseby Mansions, St. John’s Wood, and not in a hangar on an industrial estate on the outskirts of nowhere.

Gone was the feeling of foreboding with which Mrs. Ransome had set out that afternoon; now there was only joy as she wandered round the room, occasionally picking up some cherished object with a smile and an “Oh!” of reacquaintance, sometimes holding it up for her husband to see. For his part Mr. Ransome was almost moved, particularly when he spotted his old CD player, his trusty old CD player as he was inclined to think of it now, not quite up to the mark, it’s true, the venerable old thing, but still honest and old-fashioned; yes, it was good to see it again and he gave Mrs. Ransome a brief blast of Così.

Watching this reunion with a smile almost of pride, Martin said, “Everything in order? I tried to keep it all just as it was.”

“Oh yes,” said Mrs. Ransome, “it’s perfect.”

“Astonishing,” said her husband.

Mrs. Ransome remembered something. “I’d put a casserole in the oven.”

“Yes,” said Martin, “I enjoyed that.”

“It wasn’t dry?” said Mrs. Ransome.

“Only a touch,” said Martin, following them into the bedroom. “It would perhaps have been better at Gas Mark 3.”

Mrs. Ransome nodded and noticed on the dressing table the piece of kitchen paper (she remembered how they had run out of Kleenex) with which she had blotted her lipstick three months before.

“Kitchen,” said Martin as if they might not know the way, though it was exactly where it should have been, and exactly how too, except that the casserole dish, now empty, stood washed and waiting on the draining board.

“I wasn’t sure where that went,” said Martin apologetically.

“That’s all right,” said Mrs. Ransome. “It lives in here.” She opened the cupboard by the sink and popped the dish away.

“That was my guess,” said Martin, “though I didn’t like to risk it.” He laughed and Mrs. Ransome laughed too.

Mr. Ransome scowled. The young man was civil enough, if overfamiliar, but it all seemed a bit too relaxed. A crime had been committed after all, and not a petty one either; this was stolen property; what was it doing here?

Mr. Ransome thought it was time to take charge of the situation.

“Tea?” said Martin.

“No thank you,” said Mr. Ransome.

“Yes please,” said his wife.

“Then,” said Martin, “we need to talk.”

Mrs. Ransome had never heard the phrase used in real life as it were and she looked at this young man with newfound recognition: she knew where he was coming from. So did Mr. Ransome.

“Yes, indeed,” said Mr. Ransome, decisively, sitting down at the kitchen table and meaning to kick off by asking this altogether-too-pleased-with-himself young man what this was all about.

“Perhaps,” said Martin, giving Mrs. Ransome her tea, “perhaps you would like to tell me what this is all about. I mean with all due respect, as they say.”

This was too much for Mr. Ransome.

“Perhaps,” he exploded, “and with all due respect, you’d like to tell me why it is you’re wearing my cardigan.”

“You never wore it much,” said Mrs. Ransome placidly. “Lovely tea.”

“That isn’t the point, Rosemary.” Mr. Ransome seldom used her Christian name except as a form of blunt instrument. “And that’s my silk scarf.”

“You never wore that at all. You said it made you look like a cad.”

“That’s why I like it,” said Martin, happily, “the cad factor. However all good things come to an end, as they say.” And unhurriedly (and quite unrepentantly, thought Mr. Ransome) he took off the cardigan, unknotted the scarf and laid them both on the table.

Pruned of these sheltering encumbrances, Martin’s T-shirt, the message of which had hitherto only been hinted at, now fearlessly proclaimed itself, “Got a stiffy? Wear a Jiffy!” and in brackets “drawing on back.” As Mr. Ransome eased forward in his chair in order to shield his wife from the offending illustration, Mrs. Ransome slightly eased back.

“Actually,” said Martin, “we’ve worn one or two of your things. I started off with your brown overcoat which I just tried on originally as a bit of a joke.”

“A joke?” said Mr. Ransome, the humorous qualities of that particular garment never having occurred to him.

“Yes. Only now I’ve grown quite fond of it. It’s great.”

“But it must be too big for you,” said Mrs. Ransome.

“I know. That’s why it’s so great. And you’ve got tons of scarves. Cleo thinks you’ve got really good taste.”

“Cleo?” said Mrs. Ransome.

“My partner.”

Then, catching sight of Mr. Ransome by now pop-eyed with fury, Martin shrugged. “After all, it was you who gave us the green light.” He went into the sitting room and came back with a folder, which he laid on the kitchen table.

“Just tell me,” said Mr. Ransome with terrible calmness, “why it is our things are here.”

So Martin explained. Except it wasn’t really an explanation and when he’d finished they weren’t much further on.

He had come in to work one morning about three months ago (“February 15,” Mrs. Ransome supplied helpfully) and unlocking the doors had found their flat set out just as it had been in Naseby Mansions and just as they saw it now—carpets down, lights on, warm, a smell of cooking from the kitchen.

“I mean,” said Martin happily, “home.”

“But surely,” Mr. Ransome said, “you must have realized that this was, to say the least, unusual?”

“Very unusual,” said Martin. Normally, he said, home contents were containered, crated and sealed, and the container parked in the back lot until required. “We store loads of furniture, but I might go for six months and never see an armchair.”

“But why were they all dumped here?” said Mrs. Ransome.

“Dumped?” said Martin. “You call this dumped? It’s beautiful, it’s a poem.”

“Why?” said Mr. Ransome.

“Well, when I came in that morning, there was an envelope on the hall table. . . .”

“That’s where I put the letters normally,” said Mrs. Ransome.

“. . . an envelope,” said Martin, “containing £3000 in cash to cover storage costs for two months, well clear of our normal charges I can tell you. And,” said Martin, taking a card out of the folder, “there was this.”

It was a sheet torn from the Delia Smith Cookery Calendar with a recipe for the hotpot that Mrs. Ransome had made that afternoon and which she had left in the oven. On the back of it was written: “Leave exactly as it is,” and then in brackets, “but feel free to use.” This was underlined.

“So, where your overcoat was concerned and the scarves et cetera, I felt,” said Martin, searching for the right word, “I felt that that was my imprimatur.” (He had been briefly at the University of Warwick.)

“But anybody could have written that,” Mr. Ransome said.

“And leave £3000 in cash with it?” said Martin. “No fear. Only I did check. Newport Pagnell knew nothing about it. Cardiff. Leeds. I had it run through the computer and they drew a complete blank. So I thought, Well, Martin, the stuff’s here. For the time being it’s paid for, so why not just make yourself at home? So I did. I could have done with the choice of CDs being a bit more eclectic, though. My guess is you’re a Mozart fan?”

“I still think,” said Mr. Ransome testily, “you might have made more inquiries before making so free with our belongings.”

“It’s not usual, I agree,” said Martin. “Only why should I? I’d no reason to . . . smell a rat?”

Mr. Ransome took in (and was irritated by) these occasional notes of inappropriate interrogation with which Martin (and the young generally) seemed often to end a sentence. He had heard it in the mouth of the office boy without realizing it had got as far as Aylesbury (“And where are you going now, Foster?” “For my lunch?”). It seemed insolent, though it was hard to say why and it invariably put Mr. Ransome in a bad temper (which was why Foster did it).

Martin on the other hand seemed unconscious of the irritation he was causing, his serenity so impervious Mr. Ransome put it down to drugs. Now he sat happily at the kitchen table, and while Mr. Ransome fussed around the flat on the lookout for evidence of damage or dilapidation or even undue wear and tear, Martin chatted comfortably to Rosemary, as he called her.

“He just needs to lighten up a bit,” said Martin as Mr. Ransome banged about in the cupboards.

Mrs. Ransome wasn’t sure if “lighten up” was the same as “brighten up” but catching his drift smiled and nodded.

“It’s been like playing houses,” said Martin. “Cleo and I live over a dry cleaners normally.”

Mrs. Ransome thought Cleo might be black but she didn’t like to ask.

“Actually,” said Martin, dropping his voice because Mr. Ransome was in the pantry cupboard counting the bottles of wine in the rack, “actually it’s perked things up between us two. Change of scene, you know what they say.”

Mrs. Ransome nodded knowledgeably; it was a topic frequently touched on in the afternoon programs.

“Good bed,” whispered Martin. “The mattress give you lots of—what’s the word?—purchase.” Martin gave a little thrust with his hips. “Know what I mean, Rosemary?” He winked.

“It’s orthopedic,” Mrs. Ransome said hastily. “Mr. Ransome has a bad back.”

“I’d probably have one too if I’d lived here much longer.” Martin patted her hand. “Only joking.”

“What I don’t understand,” said Mr. Ransome, coming into the kitchen while Martin still had his hand over his wife’s (Mr. Ransome didn’t understand that either), “what I don’t understand is how whoever it was that transported our things here could remember so exactly where everything went.”

“Trouble ye no more,” said Martin, and he went out into the hall and brought back a photograph album. It was a present Mr. Ransome had bought Mrs. Ransome when he was urging her to find a hobby. He had also bought her a camera which she had never managed to fathom so that the camera never got used, nor did the album. Except that now it was full of photographs.

“The Polaroid camera,” Martin said, “the blessings thereof.”

There were a dozen or so photographs for every room in the flat on the night in question; general views of the room, corners of the room, a close-up of the mantelpiece, another of the desktop, every room and every surface recorded in conscientious detail, much as if, had the flat been the setting for a film, the continuity assistant would have recorded them.

“And our name and address?” Mr. Ransome said.

“Simple,” said Martin. “Open . . .”

“Any drawer,” said he and Mrs. Ransome together.

“All these photographs,” Mrs. Ransome said. “Whoever they are, they must have no end of money. Don’t they make it look nice.”

“It is nice,” said Martin. “We’re going to miss it.”

“It’s not only that all our things are in the right place,” Mr. Ransome said. “The rooms are in the right place too.”

“Screens,” said Martin. “They must have brought screens with them.”

“There’s no ceiling,” said Mr. Ransome triumphantly. “They didn’t manage that.”

“They managed the chandelier,” said his wife. And so they had, suspending it from a handy beam.

“Well, I don’t think we need to prolong this stage of the proceedings any longer than we have to,” said Mr. Ransome. “I’ll contact my insurance company and tell them our belongings have been found. They will then doubtless contact you over their collection and return. There doesn’t seem to be anything missing but at this stage one can’t be sure.”

“Oh, there’s nothing missing,” said Martin. “One or two After Eights perhaps, but I can easily replenish those.”

“No, no,” said Mrs. Ransome, “that won’t be necessary. They’re”—and she smiled—“they’re on the house.”

Mr. Ransome frowned and when Martin went off to find the various pro-formas he whispered to Mrs. Ransome that they would have to have everything cleaned.

“I don’t like to think what’s been going on. There was a bit of kitchen paper on your dressing table with what was almost certainly blood. And I’ve a feeling they may have been sleeping in our bed.”

“We’ll exchange flimsies,” said Martin. “One flimsy for you. One flimsy for me. Your effects. Do you say ‘effects’ when a person’s still around? Or is it just when they’re dead?”

“Dead,” said Mr. Ransome authoritatively. “In this case it’s property.”

“Effects,” said Martin. “Good word.”

Standing on the forecourt as they were going Martin kissed Mrs. Ransome on both cheeks. He was about the age their son would have been, Mrs. Ransome thought, had they had a son.

“I feel like I’m one of the family,” he said.

Yes, thought Mr. Ransome; if they’d had a son this is what it would have been like. Irritating, perplexing. Feeling got at. They wouldn’t have been able to call their lives their own.

Mr. Ransome managed to shake hands.

“All’s well that ends well,” said Martin, and patted his shoulder. “Take care.”

“How do we know he wasn’t in on it?” said Mr. Ransome in the car.

“He doesn’t look the type,” said Mrs. Ransome.

“Oh? What type is that? Have you ever come across a case like this before? Have you ever heard of it? What type does it take, that’s what I’d like to know.”

“We’re going a little fast,” said Mrs. Ransome.

“I shall have to inform the police, of course,” Mr. Ransome said.

“They weren’t interested before so they’ll be even less interested now.”

“Who are you?”

“Beg pardon?”

“I’m the solicitor. Who are you? Are you the expert?”

They drove in silence for a while.

“Of course, I shall want some compensation. The distress. The agony of mind. The inconvenience. They’re all quantifiable, and must be taken into account in the final settlement.”

He was already writing the letter in his head.

In due course, the contents of the flat came back to Naseby Mansions, a card pinned to one of the crates saying, “Feel Free to Use. Martin.” And, in brackets, “Joke.” Mr. Ransome insisted that everything must be put back just as it had been before, which might have proved difficult had it not been for the aide-mémoire in the form of Mrs. Ransome’s photograph album. Even so the gang who returned the furniture were less meticulous than the burglars who had removed it, besides being much slower. Still, the flat having been decorated throughout and the covers washed, hoovered or dry-cleaned, the place gradually came to look much as it had done before and life returned to what Mrs. Ransome used to think of as normal but didn’t now, quite.

Quite early on in the proceedings, and while Mr. Ransome was at the office, Mrs. Ransome tried out her cane rocking chair and rug in the now much less spartan conditions of the lounge, but though the chair was as comfortable as ever the ensemble didn’t look right and made her feel she was sitting in a department store. So she relegated the chair to the spare room where from time to time she visited it and sat reviewing her life. But no, it was not the same and eventually she put the chair out for the caretaker who incorporated it into his scheme of things in the room behind the boiler, where he was now trying to discover the books of Jane Austen.

Mr. Ransome fared better than his wife, for although he had had to reimburse the insurance company over their original check he was able to claim that having already ordered some new speakers (he hadn’t) this should be taken into account and allowance made, which it duly was, thus enabling him to invest in some genuinely state-of-the-art equipment.

From time to time over the next few months traces of Martin and Cleo’s brief occupation would surface—a contraceptive packet (empty) that had been thrust under the mattress, a handkerchief down the side of the settee and, in one of the mantel-piece ornaments, a lump of hard brown material wrapped in silver paper. Tentatively Mrs. Ransome sniffed it, then donned her Marigold gloves and put it down the lavatory, assuming that was where it belonged, though it was only after several goes that it was reluctantly flushed, Mrs. Ransome sitting meanwhile on the side of the bath, waiting for the cistern to refill, and wondering how it came to be on the mantelpiece in the first place. A joke possibly, though not one she shared with Mr. Ransome.

Strange hairs were another item that put in regular appearances, long fair ones which were obviously Martin’s, darker crinklier ones she supposed must be Cleo’s. The incidence of these hairs wasn’t split evenly between Mr. and Mrs. Ransome’s respective wardrobes; indeed, since Mr. Ransome didn’t complain about them, she presumed he never found any, as he would certainly have let her know if he had.

She, on the other hand, found them everywhere—among her dresses, her coats, her underwear, his hairs as well as hers, and little ones as well as long ones, so that she was left puzzling over what it was they could have been up to that wasn’t constrained by the normal boundaries of gender and propriety. Had Martin worn her knickers on his head, she wondered (in one pair there were three hairs); had the elastic on her brassiere always been as loose as it was now (two hairs there, one fair, one dark)?

Still, sitting opposite Mr. Ransome in his earphones of an evening, she could contemplate with equanimity, and even a small thrill, that she had shared her underclothes with a third party. Or two third parties possibly. “You don’t mean a third party,” Mr. Ransome would have said, but this was another argument for keeping quiet.

There was one reminder of the recent past, though, that they were forced to share, if only by accident. They had had their supper one Saturday evening after which Mr. Ransome was planning to record a live broadcast of Il Seraglio on Radio 3. Mrs. Ransome, reflecting that there was never anything on TV worth watching on a Saturday night, had settled down to read a novel about some lackluster infidelities in a Cotswold setting while Mr. Ransome prepared to record. He had put in a tape that he thought was blank but checking it on the machine was startled to find that it began with a peal of helpless laughter. Mrs. Ransome looked up. Mr. Ransome listened long enough to detect that there were two people laughing, a man and a woman, and since they showed no sign of stopping was about to switch it off when Mrs. Ransome said, “No, Maurice. Leave it. This might be a clue.”

So they listened in silence as the laughter went on, almost uninterrupted, until after three or four minutes it began to slacken and break up and whoever it was who was still laughing was left panting and breathless, this breathlessness gradually modulating into another sound, the second subject as it were, a groan and then a cry leading to a rhythmic pumping as stern and as purposeful as the other had been silly and lighthearted. At one point the microphone was moved closer to catch a sound that was so moist and wet it hardly seemed human.

“It sounds,” said Mrs. Ransome, “like custard boiling,” though she knew that it wasn’t. Making custard must seldom be so effortful as this seemed to be, nor is the custard urged on with affirmative yells, nor do the cooks cry out when, in due course, the custard starts to boil over.

“I don’t think we want to listen to this, do we?” Mr. Ransome said and switched over to Radio 3, where they came in on the reverent hush that preceded the arrival of Claudio Abbado.

Later when they were in bed Mrs. Ransome said, “I suppose we’d better return that tape?”

“What for?” said Mr. Ransome. “The tape is mine. In any case, we can’t. It’s wiped. I recorded over it.”

This was a lie. Mr. Ransome had wanted to record over it, it’s true, but felt that whenever he listened to the music he would remember what lay underneath and this would put paid to any possible sublimity. So he had put the tape in the kitchen bin. Then, thinking about it as Mrs. Ransome was in the bathroom brushing her teeth, he went and delved among the potato peelings and old tea bags, and, picking off a tomato skin that had stuck to it, he hid the cassette in the bookcase behind a copy of Salmon on Torts, a hidey-hole where he also kept a cache of photographs of some suburban sexual acts, the legacy of a messy divorce case in Epsom that he had conducted a few years before. The bookcase had, of course, gone to Aylesbury along with everything else but had been returned intact, the hiding place seemingly undetected by Martin.

Actually it had not been undetected at all: the photographs had been what he and Cleo had been laughing about on the tape in the first place.

Not a secret from Martin, nor were the snaps a secret from Mrs. Ransome who, idly looking at the bookcase one afternoon and wondering what to cook for supper, had seen the title Salmon on Torts and thought it had a vaguely culinary sound to it. She had put the photographs back undisturbed but every few months or so would check to see that they were still there. When they were she felt somehow reassured.

So sometimes now when Mr. Ransome sat in his chair with his earphones on listening to The Magic Flute it was not The Magic Flute he was listening to at all. Gazing abstractedly at his reading wife his ears were full of Martin and Cleo moaning and crying and taking it out on one another again and again and again. No matter how often he listened to the tape Mr. Ransome never ceased to be amazed by it; that two human beings could give themselves up so utterly and unreservedly to one another and to the moment was beyond his comprehension; it seemed to him miraculous.

Listening to the tape so often he became every bit as familiar with it as with something by Mozart. He came to recognize Martin’s long intake of breath as marking the end of a mysterious bridging passage (Cleo was actually on hands and knees, Martin behind her) when the languorous andante (little mewings from the girl) accelerated into the percussive allegro assai (hoarse cries from them both) which in its turn gave way to an even more frantic coda, a sudden rallentando (“No, no, not yet,” she was crying, then “Yes, yes, yes”) followed by panting, sighing, silence and finally sleep. Not an imaginative man, Mr. Ransome nevertheless found himself thinking that if one built up a library of such tapes it would be possible to bestow on them the sexual equivalent of Köchel numbers, even trace the development of some sort of style in sexual intercourse, with early, middle and late periods, the whole apparatus of Mozartean musicology adapted to these new and thwacking rhythms.


 

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