The Clothes They Stood Up In
by Alan Bennett

 

Such were Mr. Ransome’s thoughts as he sat across from his wife, who was having another stab at Barbara Pym. She knew he wasn’t listening to Mozart though there were few obvious signs and nothing so vulgar as a bulge in his trousers. No, there was just a look of strain on Mr. Ransome’s face, which was the very opposite of the look he had when he was listening to his favorite composer; an intensity of attention and a sense that, were he to listen hard enough, he might hear something on the tape he had previously missed.

Mrs. Ransome would listen to the tape herself from time to time but lacking the convenient camouflage of Mozart she confined her listening experiences to the afternoons. Getting out her folding household steps she would pull down Salmon on Torts then reach in behind it for the tape (the photographs seemed as silly and laughable to her as they had to Martin and Cleo). Then, having poured herself a small sherry, she would settle down to listen to them making love, marveling still after at least a dozen hearings at the length and persistence of the process and its violent and indecorous outcome. Afterwards she would go and lie on the bed, reflecting that this was the same bed on which it had all happened and think again about it happening.

These discreet (and discrete) epiphanies apart, life after they had recovered their possessions went on much the same as it had before they lost them. Sometimes, though, lying there on the bed or waiting to get up in the morning, Mrs. Ransome would get depressed, feeling she had missed the bus; though what bus it was or where it was headed she would have found it hard to say. Prior to the visit to Aylesbury and the return of their things, she had, she thought, persuaded herself that the burglary had been an opportunity, with each day bringing its crop of small adventures—a visit from Dusty, a walk down to Mr. Anwar’s, a trip up the Edgware Road. Now, re-ensconced among her possessions, Mrs. Ransome feared that her diversions were at an end; life had returned to normal but it was a normal she no longer relished or was contented with.

The afternoons particularly were dull and full of regret. It’s true she continued to watch the television, no longer so surprised at what people got up to as she once had been but even (as with Martin and Cleo) mildly envious. She grew so accustomed to the forms of television discourse that she occasionally let slip a telltale phrase herself, remarking once, for instance, that there had been a bit of hassle on the 74 bus.

“Hassle?” said Mr. Ransome. “Where did you pick up that expression?”

“Why?” said Mrs. Ransome innocently. “Isn’t it a proper word?”

“Not in my vocabulary.”

It occurred to Mrs. Ransome that this was the time for counseling; previously an option it had now become a necessity so she tried to reach Dusty via her Helpline.

“I’m sorry but Ms. Briscoe is not available to take your call,” said a recorded voice, which was immediately interrupted by a real presence.

“Hello. Mandy speaking. How may I help you?”

Mrs. Ransome explained that she needed to talk to somebody about the sudden return of all the stolen property. “I have complicated feelings about it,” said Mrs. Ransome and tried to explain.

Mandy was doubtful. “It might come under post-traumatic stress syndrome,” she said, “only I wouldn’t bank on it. They’re clamping down on that now we’re coming to the end of this year’s financial year, and anyway it’s meant for rape and murder and whatnot, whereas we’ve had people ringing up who’ve just had a bad time at the dentist’s. You don’t feel the furniture’s dirty, do you?”

“No,” said Mrs. Ransome. “We’ve had everything cleaned anyway.”

“Well, if you’ve kept the receipts I could ring Bickerton Road and get them to give you something back.”

“Never mind,” said Mrs. Ransome. “I expect I shall cope.”

“Well, it’s what we all have to do in the end, isn’t it?” said Mandy.

“What’s that?” said Mrs. Ransome.

“Cope, dear. After all, that’s the name of the game. And the way you’ve described it,” Mandy said, “it seems a very caring burglary.”

Mandy was right, though it was the caringness that was the problem. Had this been a burglary in the ordinary way it would have been easier to get over. Even the comprehensive removal of everything they had in the world was something Mrs. Ransome could have adjusted to, been “positive” about, even enjoyed. But it was the wholesale disappearance coupled with the meticulous reconstruction and return that rankled. Who would want to rob them to that degree and having robbed them would choose to make such immaculate reparations? It seemed to Mrs. Ransome that she had been robbed twice over, by the loss, first, of her possessions, then of the chance to transcend that loss. It was not fair, nor did it make sense; she thought perhaps this was what they meant when they talked about “losing the plot.”

People seldom wrote to the Ransomes. They had the occasional card from Canada where Mr. Ransome had some relatives of his mother who dutifully kept up the connection; Mrs. Ransome would write back, her card as flavorless as theirs, the message from Canada little more than “Hello. We are still here,” and her reply, “Yes, and so are we.” Generally, though, the post consisted of bills and business communications, and picking them up from the box downstairs in the lobby Mrs. Ransome scarcely bothered to look them through, putting them unsifted on the hall table where Mr. Ransome would deal with them before he had his supper. On this particular morning she’d just completed this ritual when she noticed that the letter on top was from South America, and that it was not addressed to Mr. M. Ransome but to a Mr. M. Hanson. This had happened once before, Mr. Ransome putting the misdirected letter in the caretaker’s box with a note asking him or the postman to be more careful in future.

Less tolerant of her husband’s fussing than she once had been, Mrs. Ransome didn’t want this performance again so she put the letter on one side so that after her lunch she could go up to the eighth floor, find Mr. Hanson’s door and slip it underneath. At least it would be an outing.

It was several years since she had been up to the top of the Mansions. There had been some alterations, she knew, as Mr. Ransome had had to write a letter of complaint to the landlords about the noise of the workmen and the dirt in the lift; but, as tenants came and went, someone was always having something done somewhere and Mrs. Ransome came to take renovation as a fact of life. Still, venturing out of the lift she was surprised how airy it all was now; it might have been a modern building, so light and unshadowed and spacious was the landing. Unlike their dark and battered mahogany, this wood-work had been stripped and bleached, and whereas their hallway was covered in stained and pockmarked orange floor covering, this had a thick smoky-blue fitted carpet that lapped the walls and muffled every sound. Above was a high octagonal skylight and beneath it an octagonal sofa to match. It looked less like the hallway of a block of mansion flats than a hotel or one of the new hospitals. Nor was it simply the decoration that had changed. Mrs. Ransome remembered there being several flats but now there seemed to be only one, no trace of the other doors remaining. She looked for a name on this one door just to be sure but there was no name and no letter box. She bent down intending to slip the letter from South America underneath but the carpet was so thick that this was difficult and it wouldn’t go. Above Mrs. Ransome’s head and unseen by her, a security camera, which she had taken for a light fitting, moved around like some clumsy reptile in a series of silent jerks until it had her in frame. She was trying to press the pile of the carpet down when there was a faint buzz and the door swung silently open.

“Come in,” said a disembodied voice and holding up the letter as if it were an invitation Mrs. Ransome went in.

There was no one in the hall and she waited uncertainly, smiling helpfully in case someone was watching. The hall was identical in shape to theirs but twice the size and done up like the lobby in the same blond wood and faintly stippled walls. They must have knocked through, she thought, taken in the flat next door, taken in all the flats probably, the whole of the top floor one flat.

“I brought a letter,” she said, more loudly than if there had been someone there. “It came by mistake.”

There was no sound.

“I think it’s from South America. Peru. That is if the name’s Hanson. Anyway,” she said desperately, “I’ll just put it down then go.”

She was about to put the letter down on a cube of transparent Perspex which she took to be a table when she heard behind her an exhausted sigh and turned to find that the door had closed. But as the door behind her closed so, with a mild intake of breath, the door in front of her opened, and through it she saw another doorway, this one with a bar across the top, and suspended from the bar a young man.

He was pulling himself up to the bar seemingly without much effort, and saying his score out loud. He was wearing gray track suit bottoms and earphones and that was all. He had reached eleven. Mrs. Ransome waited, still holding up the letter and not quite sure where to look. It was a long time since she had been so close to someone so young and so naked, the trousers slipping down low over his hips so that she could see the thin line of blond hair climbing the flat belly to his navel. He was tiring now and the last two pull-ups, nineteen and twenty, cost him great effort and after he had almost shouted “Twenty” he stood there panting, one hand still grasping the bar, the earphones low round his neck. There was a faint graze of hair under his arms and some just beginning on his chest and like Martin he had the same squirt of hair at the back though his was longer and twisted into a knot.

Mrs. Ransome thought she had never seen anyone so beautiful in all her life.

“I brought a letter,” she began again. “It came by mistake.”

She held it out to him but he made no move to take it, so she looked around for somewhere to put it down.

There was a long refectory table down the middle of the room and by the wall a sofa that was nearly as long, but these were the only objects in the room that Mrs. Ransome would have called proper furniture. There were some brightly colored plastic cubes scattered about which she supposed might serve as occasional tables, or possibly stools. There was a tall steel pyramid with vents that seemed to be a standard lamp. There was an old-fashioned pram with white-walled tires and huge curved springs. On one wall was a dray horse collar and on another a cavalier’s hat and next to it a huge blown-up photograph of Lana Turner.

“She was a film star,” the young man said. “It’s an original.”

“Yes, I remember,” Mrs. Ransome said.

“Why, did you know her?”

“Oh no,” Mrs. Ransome said. “Anyway, she was American.”

The floor was covered in a thick white carpet which she imagined would show every mark though there were no marks that she could see. Still, it didn’t seem to Mrs. Ransome to add up, this room, and with one of the walls glass, giving out onto a terrace, it felt less like a room than an unfinished window display in a department store, a bolt of tweed flung casually across the table what it needed somehow to make sense.

He saw her looking.

“It’s been in magazines,” he said. “Sit down,” and he took the letter from her.

He sat at one end of the sofa and she sat at the other. He put his feet up and if she had put her feet up too there would still have been plenty of room between them. He looked at the letter, turning it over once or twice without opening it.

“It’s from Peru,” Mrs. Ransome said.

“Yes,” he said, “thanks,” and tore it in two.

“It might be important,” said Mrs. Ransome.

“It’s always important,” said the young man, and dropped the pieces on the carpet.

Mrs. Ransome looked at his feet. Like every bit of him that she could see they were perfect, the toes not bent up and useless like her own, or Mr. Ransome’s. These were long, square-cut and even expressive; they looked as if at a pinch they could deputize forthe hands and even play a musical instrument.

“I’ve never seen you in the lift,” she said.

“I have a key. Then it doesn’t have to stop at the other floors.” He smiled. “It’s handy.”

“Not for us,” said Mrs. Ransome.

“That’s true,” and he laughed, unoffended. “Anyway, I pay extra.”

“I didn’t know you could do that,” said Mrs. Ransome.

“You can’t,” he said.

Mrs. Ransome had an idea he was a singer, but felt that if she asked he might cease to treat her as an equal. She also wondered if he was on drugs. Silence certainly didn’t seem to bother him and he lay back at his end of the sofa, smiling and completely at ease.

“I should go,” said Mrs. Ransome.

“Why?”

He felt in his armpit then waved an arm at the room.

“This is all her.”

“Who?”

He indicated the torn-up letter. “She did the place up. She’s an interior decorator. Or was. She now ranches in Peru.”

“Cattle?” said Mrs. Ransome.

“Horses.”

“Oh,” said Mrs. Ransome. “That’s nice. There can’t be too many people who’ve done that.”

“Done what?”

“Been an interior decorator then . . . then . . . looked after horses.”

He considered this. “No. Though she was like that. You know, sporadic.” He surveyed the room. “Do you like it?”

“Well,” said Mrs. Ransome, “it’s a little strange. But I like the space.”

“Yes, it’s a great space. A brilliant space.”

Mrs. Ransome hadn’t quite meant that but she was not unfamiliar with the concept of space as they talked about space a lot in the afternoons, how people needed it, how they had to be given it and how it had not to be trespassed on.

“She did the place up,” he said, “then of course she moved in.”

“So you felt,” said Mrs. Ransome (and the phrase might have been her first faltering steps in Urdu it seemed so strange on her lips), “you felt that she had invaded your space.”

He pointed one beautiful foot at her in affirmation.

“She did. She did. I mean take that fucking pram . . .”

“I remember those,” said Mrs. Ransome.

“Yes, well, sure, only apparently,” he said, “though it wasn’t apparent to me, that is not there as a pram. It is there as an object. And it had to be just on that fucking spot. And because I, like, happened to move it, like half an inch, madam went ballistic. Threatened to take everything away. Leave the place bare. As if I cared. Anyway, she’s history.”

Since she was in Peru Mrs. Ransome felt that she was geography too, a bit, but she didn’t say so. Instead she nodded and said, “Men have different needs.”

“You’re right.”

“Are you hurting?” Mrs. Ransome said.

“I was hurting,” the young man said, “only now I’m stepping back from it. I think you have to.”

Mrs. Ransome nodded sagely.

“Was she upset?” she asked, and she longed to take hold of his foot.

“Listen,” he said, “this woman was always upset.” He stared out of the window.

“When did she leave you?”

“I don’t know. I lose track of time. Three months, four months ago.”

“Like February?” said Mrs. Ransome. And it wasn’t a question.

“Right.”

“Hanson, Ransome,” she said. “They’re not really alike but I suppose if you’re from Peru . . .”

He didn’t understand, as why should he, so she told him, told him the whole story, beginning with them coming back from the opera, and the police and the trek out to Aylesbury, the whole tale.

When she’d finished, he said, “Yeah, that sounds like Paloma. It’s the kind of thing she would do. She had a funny sense of humor. That’s South America for you.”

Mrs. Ransome nodded, as if any gaps in this account of events could be put down to the region and the well-known volatility of its inhabitants; the spell of the pampas, the length of the Amazon, llamas, piranha fish—compared with phenomena like these what was a mere burglary in North London? Still, one question nagged.

“Who’d she have got to do it with such care?” Mrs. Ransome asked.

“Oh, that’s easy. Roadies.”

“Roadies?” said Mrs. Ransome. “Do you mean navvies?”

“A stage crew. Guys who do setups. Picked the lock. Took the photographs. Dismantled your setup, put it up again in Aylesbury. Designer job probably. They’re doing it all the time one way or another. No problem, nothing too much trouble . . . provided you pay extra.” He winked. “Anyway,” he said, looking around the sparsely furnished room, “it wouldn’t be such a big job. Is your place like this?”

“Not exactly,” Mrs. Ransome said. “Ours is . . . well . . . more complicated.”

He shrugged. “She could pay. She was rich. Anyway,” he said, getting up from the sofa and taking her hand, “I’m sorry you’ve been inconvenienced on my account.”

“No,” said Mrs. Ransome. “It was well, you know, kind of weird to begin with but I’ve tried to be positive about it. And I think I’ve grown, you know.”

They were standing by the pram.

“We had one of these once,” Mrs. Ransome said. “Briefly.” It was something she had not spoken of for thirty years.

“A baby?”

“He was going to be called Donald,” Mrs. Ransome said, “but he never got that far.”

Unaware that a revelation had been made the young man stroked his nipple reflectively as he walked her out into the hall.

“Thank you for clearing up the mystery,” she said and (the boldest thing she had ever done in her life) touched him lightly on his bare hip. She was prepared for him to flinch but he didn’t, nor was there any change in his demeanor, which was still smiling and relaxed. Except that he also must have thought something out of the ordinary was called for because, taking her hand, he raised it to his lips and kissed it.

One afternoon a few weeks later Mrs. Ransome was coming into Naseby Mansions with her shopping when she saw a van outside and crossing the downstairs lobby she met a young man with a cavalier’s hat on and wearing a horse collar round his neck. He was pushing a pram.

“Is he going?” she asked the young man.

“Yeah.” He leaned on the pram. “Again.”

“Does he move often?”

“Look, lady. This guy moves house the way other people move their bowels. All this”—and he indicated the pram, the horse collar and the cavalier’s hat—“is getting the elbow. We’re going Chinese now, apparently.”

“Let me help you with that,” Mrs. Ransome said, taking the pram as he struggled to get it through the door. She wheeled it down the ramp, rocking it slightly as she waited while he disposed the other items inside the van.

“A bit since you pushed one of those,” he said as he took it off her. She perched with her shopping on the wall by the entrance, watching as he packed blankets round the furniture, wondering if he was one of the roadies who had moved them. She had not told Mr. Ransome how the burglary had come to pass. It was partly because he would have made a fuss, would have insisted on going up to the top floor to have a word with the young man personally. (“Probably in on it too,” he would have said.) It was a meeting Mrs. Ransome had not been able to contemplate without embarrassment. As the van drove off she waved, then went upstairs.

End of story, or so Mrs. Ransome thought, except that one Sunday afternoon a couple of months later Mr. Ransome suffered a stroke. Mrs. Ransome was in the kitchen stacking the dishwasher and hearing a bump went in and found her husband lying on the floor in front of the bookcase, a cassette in one hand, a dirty photograph in the other, and Salmon on Torts open on the floor. Mr. Ransome was conscious but could neither speak nor move.

Mrs. Ransome did all the right things, placing a cushion under his head and a rug over his body before ringing the ambulance. She hoped that even in his stricken state her efficiency and self-possession would impress her prostrate husband, but looking down at him while she was waiting to be connected to the appropriate service, she saw in his eyes no sign of approval or gratitude, just a look of sheer terror.

Powerless to draw his wife’s attention to the cassette clutched in his hand, or even to relinquish it, her helpless husband watched as Mrs. Ransome briskly collected up the photographs, something at the very back of his mind registering how little interest or surprise was occasioned by this tired old smut. Lastly (the klaxon of the ambulance already audible as it raced by the park) she knelt beside him and prized the cassette free of his waxen fingers before popping it matter-of-factly into her apron pocket. She held his hand for a second (still bent to the shape of the offending cassette) and thought that perhaps the look in his eyes was now no longer terror but had turned to shame; so she smiled and squeezed his hand, saying, “It’s not important,” at which point the ambulance men rang the bell.

Mr. Ransome has not come well out of this narrative; seemingly impervious to events he has, unlike his wife, neither changed nor grown in stature. Owning a dog might have shown him in a better light, but handy though Naseby Mansions was for the park, to be cooped up in a flat is no life for a dog; a hobby would have helped, a hobby other than Mozart, that is, the quest for the perfect performance only serving to emphasize Mr. Ransome’s punctiliousness and general want of warmth. No, to learn to take things as they come he would have been better employed in the untidier arts, photography, say, or painting watercolors; a family would have been untidy too, and, though it seems it was only Mrs. Ransome who felt the loss of baby Donald (and though Mr. Ransome would have been no joke as a father) a son might have knocked the corners off him a little and made life messier—tidiness and order now all that mattered to him in middle age. When you come down to it, what he is being condemned for here is not having got out of his shell, and had there been a child there might have been no shell.

Now he lies dumb and unmoving in Intensive Care and “shell” seems to describe it pretty well. Somewhere he can hear his wife’s voice, near but at the same time distant and echoing a little as if his ear was a shell too and he a creature in it. The nurses have told Mrs. Ransome that he can certainly hear what she is saying, and thinking that he may not survive not so much the stroke as the shame and humiliation that attended it, Mrs. Ransome concentrates on clearing that up first. If we can get on a more sensible footing in the sex department, she thinks, we may end up regarding this stroke business as a blessing.

So, feeling a little foolish that the conversation must of necessity be wholly one-sided, Mrs. Ransome begins to talk to her inert husband, or rather, since there are other patients in the ward, murmur in his ear so that from the corner of his left eye Mr. Ransome’s view of her is just the slightly furry powdered slope of her well-meaning cheek.

She tells him how she has known about what she calls “his silliness” for years and that there is nothing to feel ashamed of, for it’s only sex after all. Inside his shell Mr. Ransome is trying to think what “ashamed” is, and even “feeling” he’s no longer quite sure about, let alone “sex”; words seem to have come unstuck from their meanings. Having been sensible about Mr. Ransome’s silliness just about brings Mrs. Ransome to the end of her emotional vocabulary; never having talked about this kind of thing much leaves her for a moment at a loss for words. Still, Mr. Ransome, though numb, is at the same time hurting and they plainly need to talk. So, holding his limp hand lightly in hers, Mrs. Ransome begins to whisper to him in that language which she can see now she was meant to acquire for just this sort of eventuality.

“I find it hard to verbalize with you, Maurice,” she begins. “We’ve always found it hard to verbalize with each other, you and me, but we are going to learn, I promise.” Pressing her lips up against his unflinching ear she sees in close-up the stiff little gray hairs he regularly crops with the curved scissors during his locked sessions in the bathroom. “The nurses tell me you will learn to talk again, Maurice, and I will learn along with you, we will learn to talk to one another together.” The words swirl around his ear, draining into it uncomprehended. Mrs. Ransome speaks slowly. It is like spooning pap into the mouth of a baby; as one wipes the mouth of the untaken food so Mrs. Ransome can almost wipe the ear clean of the curd of the unheeded words.

Still, and she deserves credit for this, she persists.

“I’m not going to be, you know, judgmental, Maurice, because I personally have nothing to be judgmental about.” And she tells him how she too has secretly listened to the cassette.

“But in future, Maurice, I suggest we listen to it together, make it a part of honing up on our marital skills . . . because at the end of the day, love, marriage is about choices and to get something out of it you have to put something in.”

Out it tumbles, the once tongue-tied Mrs. Ransome now possessed of a whole lexicon of caring and concern which she pours into her husband’s ear. She talks about perspectives and sex and how it can go on joyful and unrestrained until the very brink of the grave and she adumbrates a future of which this will be a part and how once he gets back on his feet they will set aside quality time which they will devote to touching one another.

“We have never hugged, Maurice. We must hug one another in the future.”

Festooned as he is with tubes and drains and monitors, hugging Mr. Ransome ill is no easier than hugging Mr. Ransome well, so Mrs. Ransome contents herself with kissing his hand. But having shared with him her vision of the future—tactile, communicative, convivial—she now thinks to top it off with some Così. It might just do the trick, she thinks.

So, careful not to dislodge any other of Mr. Ransome’s many wires, which are not channels of entertainment at all, Mrs. Ransome gently positions the earphones on his head. Before slipping the cassette into the player she holds it before his unblinking eyes.

“Così,” she articulates. And more loudly, “Mozart?”

She switches it on, scanning her husband’s unchanging face for any sign of response. There is none. She turns the volume up a little, but not loud, mezzo forte, say. Mr. Ransome, who has heard the word “Mozart” without knowing whether it is a person or a thing or even an articulated lorry, now cringes motionless before a barrage of sounds that are to him utterly meaningless and that have no more pattern or sense than the leaves on a tree, only the leaves on the tree seem to be the notes and there is someone in the tree (it is Dame Kiri) shrieking. It is baffling. It is terrible. It is loud.

Perhaps it is this last awful realization that Mozart does not make sense, or it is because Mrs. Ransome, finding there is still no response, decides to up the volume yet further, just as a last shot, that the sounds vibrate in Mr. Ransome’s ears and it is the vibration that does it; but at any rate something happens in his head, and the frail sac into which the blood has leaked now bursts, and Mr. Ransome hears, louder and more compelling than any music he has ever heard, a roaring in his ears; there is a sudden brief andante, he coughs quietly and dies.

Mrs. Ransome does not immediately notice that the numb hand of her husband is now not even that; and it would be hard to tell from looking at him, or from feeling him even, that anything has happened. The screen has altered but Mrs. Ransome does not know about screens. However since Mozart does not seem to be doing the trick she takes the earphones from her husband’s head and it’s only as she is disentangling the frivolous wires from the more serious ones that she sees something on the screen is indeed different and she calls the nurse.

Marriage, to Mrs. Ransome, had often seemed a kind of parenthesis and it’s fitting that what she says to the nurse (“I think he’s gone”) is here in parenthesis too, and that it is this last little parenthesis that brings the larger parenthesis to a close. The nurse checks the monitor, smiles sadly and puts a caring hand on Mrs. Ransome’s shoulder, then pulls the curtain around and leaves husband and wife alone together for the last time. And so, the brackets closed that opened thirty-two years before, Mrs. Ransome goes home a widow.

Then there is a fitting pause. And television having schooled her in the processes of bereavement and the techniques of grieving, Mrs. Ransome observes that pause; she gives herself ample time to mourn and to come to terms with her loss and generally speaking where widowhood is concerned she does not put a foot wrong.

It seems to her as she looks back that the burglary and everything that has happened since has been a kind of apprenticeship. Now, she thinks, I can start.


 

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