This slim volume containing two short stories was my second volume by Alan Bennett. The first story was fictional, the second nonfictional. Bennett disavows any common theme between the two stories, but there is something here about possessions and identity, either the identity we create for ourselves or the identity others place upon us.
In “The Clothes They Stood Up In” Mr. and Mrs. Ransome lead a cardboard life, hers more so than his. He enjoys Mozart and it’s while they’re out hearing Mozart that they are burgled. Mr. Ransome is a stickler for language and Bennett has fun riffing about the misuse of language in the modern world in the voice of Mr. Ransome. Everything is taken, right down to the telephones and toilet paper rolls. Although they are shaken at first by the loss of their possessions, both begin to see advantages to their losses. Mr. Ransome sees a chance to update his stero equipment. Mrs. Ransome sees a chance to rid herself of the stuffy possessions that characterize her middle-class life and start over. She ventures into the Asian grocer’s and a furniture store she would not have patronized previous to the burglary. She finds a rocking chair that, while cheap, is comfortable for her back. She hides her forays into this other world from Mr. Ransome. When their home is found re-assembled in a storage unit, they are both a bit deflated until they realize that a young couple have been using their home, including their mattress. Then both are swept away with the joys of imagination, fueled further by their discovery of a cassette tape with the sounds of their young couple enjoying the porn Mr. Ransome had hidden.
The claustrophobia of a middle-aged middle-class life makes reading this story a bit claustrophobic. When a victim’s counselor comes to talk with Mrs. Ransome, she comments that “lots of people could give up things….what they couldn’t do without was shopping for them.” Mr. Ransome hides from Mrs. Ransome the fact that he dies his moustache as well as his stash of porn. Mrs. Ransome hides the origins of the sweet potatoes and curry she now serves as well as the new rug and rocking chair. Both Ransomes miss the paths through their things, their daily rituals, more than their things. When Mr. Ransome suffers a stroke while viewing his porn stash and listening to the illicit cassette tape, Mrs. Ransome takes care to cover him and place a pillow under his head before calling an ambulance. As he lies unresponsive in intensive care, Mrs. Ransome tells him they are going to make a change and suggests ways to improve their sex life. Mr. Ransome dies shortly after this speech, seemingly unable to comprehend the changes that have taken place in his wife and mortified at the truths she has discovered about him. It’s only when Mr. Ransome is dead that Mrs. Ransome can truly start over.
Ms. Shepherd enters Bennett’s life in the late 1960s when her van/domicile was parked outside his home. Ms. Shepherd was eccentric in the extreme and ended up living in her van in Bennett’s car park and a lean-to in his garden. He did her shopping for her, tolerated her smell, and found himself annoyed by her obstinence and many quirks. When she dies, Bennett discovers her real name, her family, and some of her story. What he does not find is why she chose to live her life in what most people would define as squalor. What he realizes, however, is that she did not see herself as living in squalor. For her, her identity did not come from her things. Those around her created an identity for her based on her things. The stench surrounding Ms. Shepherd comes as much from the hypocrisy of her neighbors as the used incontinence pads littering her van.
Once again, Bennett’s eye is sharp. His look at middle-class life is like hearing a painful truth from your best friend.