The Clothes They Stood Up In

Alan Bennett

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 personalised via his headphones and a stack of complex and finely-balanced stereo equipment 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 colour of ox-blood not far from Regent’s Park. It was handy for the City, though Mrs Ransome would have preferred something further out, seeing herself with a trug in a garden, vaguely. But she was not gifted in that direction. An African violet which 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 neighbours to speak of, or seldom to. Occasionally they would run into people in the lift and both parties smiled cautiously. Once they had asked some newcomers on their floor round 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 timeshare 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 moved into Naseby Mansions the flats had boasted a commissionaire in a plum-coloured uniform that matched the colour 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 foregone it in order to let it take him to hospital. None of his successors had shown the same zeal in office or pride in their uniform and eventually the function of commissionaire had merged with that of 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 theatre. On the look-out 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 round 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 organisation’), 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 realised 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 soapdish. 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 realising 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 programme from Così and passing it round 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 Barclay’s Bank plc) was uncomfortable to use and unsinkable afterwards, and three flushes notwithstanding, the fierce eye of Sir George Solti still came squinting resentfully round 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.’

‘A settee, easy chairs, a clock,’ said Mrs Ransome. ‘We had everything.’

‘Television?’ said the constable, timidly.

‘Yes,’ said Mrs Ransome.

‘Only we didn’t watch it much,’ said Mr Ransome.

‘Video recorder?’

‘No,’ said Mr Ransome. ‘Life’s complicated enough.’

CD player?’

‘Yes,’ said Mrs Ransome and Mr Ransome together.

‘And my wife had a fur coat,’ said Mr Ransome. ‘My insurance have a list of the valuables.’

‘In that case,’ said the sergeant, ‘you are laughing. I’ll just have a little wander round if you don’t mind, while Constable Partridge takes down the details. People opposite see the intruder?’

‘Away in Portugal,’ said Mr Ransome.


‘Probably in Portugal too,’ said Mr Ransome, ‘for all we see of him.’

‘Is it Ransom as in king’s?’ said the constable. ‘Or Ransome as in Arthur?’

‘Partridge is one of our graduate entrants,’ said the sergeant, examining the front door.

‘Lock not forced, I see. He’s just climbing the ladder. There wouldn’t be such a thing as a cup of tea, would there?’

‘No,’ said Mr Ransome shortly, ‘because there wouldn’t be such a thing as a teapot. Not to mention a teabag to put in it.’

‘I take it you’ll want counselling,’ said the constable.


‘Someone comes along and holds your hand,’ said the sergeant, looking at the window. ‘Partridge thinks it’s important.’

‘We’re all human,’ said the constable.

‘I’m a solicitor,’ said Mr Ransome.

‘Well,’ said the sergeant, ‘Perhaps your missus could give it a try. We like to keep Partridge happy.’

Mrs Ransome smiled helpfully.

‘I’ll put yes,’ said the constable.

‘They didn’t leave anything behind, did they?’ asked the sergeant, sniffing and reaching up to run his hand along the picture-rail.

‘No,’ said Mr Ransome testily. ‘Not a thing. As you can see.’

‘I didn’t mean something of yours,’ said the sergeant, ‘I meant something of theirs.’ He sniffed again, inquiringly. ‘A calling card.’

‘A calling card?’ said Mrs Ransome.

‘Excrement,’ said the sergeant. ‘Burglary is a nervous business. They often feel the need to open their bowels when doing a job.’

‘Which is another way of saying it, sergeant,’ said the constable.

‘Another way of saying what, Partridge?’

‘Doing a job is another way of saying opening the bowels. In France,’ said the constable, ‘it’s known as posting a sentry.’

‘Oh, teach you that at Leatherhead, did they?’ said the sergeant. ‘Partridge is a graduate of the police college.’

‘It’s like a university,’ explained the constable, ‘only they don’t have scarves.’

‘Anyway,’ said the sergeant, ‘have a scout round. For the excrement, I mean. They can be very creative about it. Burglary in Pangbourne I attended once where they done it halfway up the wall in an 18th-century light fitting. Any other sphere and they’d have got the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.’

‘You’ve perhaps not noticed,’ Mr Ransome said grimly, ‘but we don’t have any light fittings.’

‘Another one in Guildford did it in a bowl of this pot-pourri.’

‘That would be irony,’ said the constable.

‘Oh would it?’ said the sergeant. ‘And there was me thinking it was just some foul-arsed, light-fingered little smackhead afflicted with incontinence. Still, while we’re talking about bodily functions, before we take our leave I’ll just pay a visit myself.’

Too late Mr Ransome realised he should have warned him and took refuge in the kitchen.

The sergeant came out shaking his head.

‘Well at least our friends had the decency to use the toilet but they’ve left it in a disgusting state. I never thought I’d have to do a Jimmy Riddle over Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Her recording of West Side Story is one of the gems of my record collection.’

‘To be fair,’ said Mrs Ransome, ‘that was my husband.’

‘Dear me,’ said the sergeant.

‘What was?’ said Mr Ransome, coming back into the room.

‘Nothing,’ said his wife.

‘Do you think you’ll catch them?’ said Mr Ransome as he stood at the door with the two policemen.

The sergeant laughed.

‘Well, miracles do happen, even in the world of law enforcement. Nobody got a grudge against you, have they?’

‘I’m solicitor,’ said Mr Ransome. ‘It’s possible.’

‘And it’s not somebody’s idea of a joke?’

‘A joke?’ said Mr Ransome.

‘Just a thought,’ said the sergeant. ‘But if it’s your genuine burglar, I’ll say this: he always comes back.’

The constable nodded in sage confirmation; even Leatherhead was agreed on this. ‘Come back?’ said Mr Ransome bitterly, looking at the empty flat.

Come back? What the fuck for?’

Mr Ransome seldom swore and Mrs Ransome who had stayed in the other room, pretended she hadn’t heard. The door closed.

‘Useless,’ said Mr Ransome, coming back.

‘Utterly useless. It makes you want to swear.’

‘Well,’ said Mrs Ransome a few hours later, ‘we shall just have to camp out. After all,’ she said not unhappily, ‘it could be fun.’

‘Fun?’ said Mr Ransome. ‘Fun?’

He was unshaven, unwashed, his bottom was sore and his breakfast had been a drink of water from the tap. Still, no amount of pleading on Mrs Ransome’s part could stop him going heroically off to work, with his wife instinctively knowing even in these unprecedented circumstances that her role was to make much of his selfless dedication.

Even so, when he’d gone and with the flat so empty, Mrs Ransome missed him a little, wandering from room to echoing room not sure where she should start. Deciding to make a list she forgot for the moment she had nothing to make a list with and nothing to make a list on. This meant a visit to the newsagents for pad and pencil where, though she’d never noticed it before, she found there was a café next door. It seemed to be doing hot breakfasts, and, though in her opera clothes she felt a bit out of place among the taxi-drivers and bicycle couriers who comprised most of the clientèle, nobody took much notice of her, the waitress even calling her ‘duck’ and offering her a copy of the Mirror to read while she waited for her bacon, egg, baked beans and fried bread. It wasn’t a paper she would normally read, but bacon, egg, baked beans and fried bread wasn’t a breakfast she would normally eat either, and she got so interested in the paper’s tales of royalty and its misdemeanours that she propped it up against the sauce bottle so that she could read and eat, completely forgetting that one of the reasons she had come into the café was to make herself a list.

Wanting a list, her shopping was pretty haphazard. She went off to Boots first and bought some toilet rolls and some paper plates and cups, but she forgot soap. And when she remembered soap and went back for it, she forgot teabags, and when she remembered teabags, she forgot paper towels, until what with trailing halfway to the flats then having to go back again, she began to feel worn out.

It was on the third of these increasingly flustered trips (now having forgotten plastic cutlery) that Mrs Ransome ventured into Mr Anwar’s. She had passed the shop many times as it was midway between the flats and St John’s Wood High Street; indeed she remembered it opening and the little draper’s and babies’ knitwear shop which it had replaced and where she had been a loyal customer. That had been kept by a Miss Dorsey, from whom over the years she had bought the occasional tray cloth or hank of Sylko but, on a much more regular basis, plain brown paper packets of what in those days were called ‘towels’. The closing-down of the shop in the late Sixties had left Mrs Ransome anxious and unprotected and it came as a genuine surprise on venturing into Timothy White’s to find that technology in this intimate department had lately made great strides which were unreflected in Miss Dorsey’s ancient stock, of which Mrs Ransome, as the last of a dwindling clientèle, had been almost the sole consumer. She was old-fashioned, she knew that, but snobbery had come into it too, Mrs Ransome feeling it vaguely classier to have her requirements passed wordlessly across the counter with Miss Dorsey’s patient, suffering smile (‘Our cross,’ it said) rather than taken from some promiscuous shelf in Timothy White’s. Though it was not long before Timothy White’s went the same way as Miss Dorsey, swallowed whole by Boots. Though Boots too, she felt, was a cut above the nearest chemist, Superdrug, which didn’t look classy at all.

The closing-down of Miss Dorsey’s (she was found laid across the counter one afternoon having had a stroke) left the premises briefly empty until, passing one morning on the way to the High Street, Mrs Ransome saw that the shop had been taken over by an Asian grocer and that the pavement in front of the window where nothing had previously stood except the occasional customer’s pram was now occupied by boxes of unfamiliar vegetables ... yams, pawpaws, mangoes and the like, together with many sacks, sacks, Mrs Ransome felt, that dogs could all too easily cock their leg against.

So it was partly out of loyalty to Mrs Dorsey and partly because it wasn’t really her kind of thing that Mrs Ransome had not ventured into the shop until this morning when, to save her trailing back for the umpteenth time to the High Street, she thought she might go in and ask if they had such a thing as boot polish (there were more pressing requirements, as she would have been the first to admit, only Mr Ransome was very particular about his shoes). Though over twenty years had passed, the shop was still recognisably what it had been in Miss Dorsey’s day because, other than having introduced a freezer and cold cupboards, Mr Anwar had simply adapted the existing fixtures to his changed requirements. Drawers that had previously been devoted to the genteel accoutrements of a leisured life – knitting patterns, crochet hooks, rufflette – now housed nans and pitta bread; spices replaced bonnets and bootees and the shelves and deep drawers that once were home to hosiery and foundation garments were now filled with rice and chickpeas.

Mrs Ransome thought it unlikely they had polish in stock (did they wear normal shoes?), but she was weary enough to give it a try though, since ox-blood was what she wanted (or Mr Ransome required), she thought vaguely it might be a shade to which they had religious objections. But plump and cheerful Mr Anwar brought out several tins for her kind consideration and while she was paying she spotted a nailbrush they would be needing; then the tomatoes looked nice and there was a lemon, and while she was at it the shop seemed to sell hardware so she invested in a colander. As she wandered round the shop the normally tongue-tied Mrs Ransome found herself explaining to this plump and amiable grocer the circumstances which had led her to the purchase of such an odd assortment of things. And he smiled and shook his head in sympathy while at the same time suggesting other items she would doubtless be needing to replace and which he would happily supply. ‘They cleaned you out of house and home, the scallywags. You will not know whether you are coming or going. You will need washing-up liquid and one of these blocks to make the toilet a more savoury place.’

So she ended up buying a dozen or so items, too many for her to carry, but this didn’t matter either as Mr Anwar fetched his little boy from the flat upstairs (‘I hope I’m not dragging him away from the Koran,’ she thought) and he followed Mrs Ransome home in his little white cap, carrying her shopping in a cardboard box.

‘Seconds probably,’ said Mr Ransome later. ‘That’s how they make a profit.’

Mrs Ransome didn’t quite see how there could be seconds in shoe polish but didn’t say so.

‘Hopefully,’ she said ‘they’ll deliver.’

‘You mean,’ said Mr Ransome (and it was old ground), ‘you hope they’ll deliver. “Hopefully they’ll deliver” means that deliveries are touch and go’ (though that was probably true too).

‘Anyway,’ said Mrs Ransome defiantly, ‘he stays open till ten at night.’

‘He can afford to,’ said Mr Ransome. ‘He probably pays no wages. I’d stick to Marks and Spencer.’

Which she did, generally speaking. Though once she popped in and bought a mango for her lunch and another time a pawpaw; small adventures, it’s true, but departures nevertheless, timorous voyages of discovery which she knew her husband well enough to keep to herself.

The Ransomes had few friends; they seldom entertained, Mr Ransome saying that he saw quite enough of people at work. On the rare occasions when Mrs Ransome ran into someone she knew and ventured to recount their dreadful experience she was surprised to find that everyone, it seemed, had their own burglar story. None, she felt, were so stark or so shocking as to measure up to theirs, which ought in fairness to have trumped outright these other less flamboyant break-ins, but comparison scarcely seemed to enter into it: the friends only endured her story as an unavoidable prelude to telling her their own. She asked Mr Ransome if he had noticed this.

‘Yes,’ he said shortly. ‘Anybody would think it happened every day.’

Which, of course, it did but not, he was certain, as definitively, as out and outedly, as altogether epically as this.

‘Everything,’ Mr Ransome told Gail, his longtime secretary, ‘every single thing.’

Gail was a tall, doleful-looking woman, which normally suited Mr Ransome very well as he could not abide much of what he called ‘silliness’ – i.e. femininity. Had Gail been a bit sillier, though, she might have been more sympathetic, but like everyone else she weighed in with a burglar story of her own, saying she was surprised it hadn’t happened before as most people she knew had been burgled at least once and her brother-in-law, who was a chiropodist in Ilford, twice, one of which had been a ram-raid while they were watching television.

‘What you have to watch out for is the trauma; it takes people in different ways. Hair loss is often a consequence of burglary apparently and my sister came out in terrible eczema. Mind you,’ Gail went on, ‘it’s always men.’

‘Always men what?’ said Mr Ransome.

‘Who burgle.’

‘Well, women shoplift,’ said Mr Ransome defensively.

‘Not to that extent,’ said Gail. ‘They don’t clean out the store,’

Not sure how he had ended up on the wrong side of the argument, Mr Ransome felt both irritated and dissatisfied, so he tried Mr Pardoe from the firm next door but with no more success. ‘Cleaned you out completely? Well, be grateful you weren’t in. My dentist and his wife were tied up for seven hours and counted themselves lucky not to be raped. Balaclavas, walkie-talkies. It’s an industry nowadays. I’d castrate them.’

That night Mr Ransome took out a dictionary from his briefcase, both dictionary and briefcase newly acquired. The dictionary was Mr Ransome’s favourite book.

‘What are you doing?’ asked Mrs Ransome.

‘Looking up “lock, stock and barrel”. I suppose it means the same as “the whole shoot”.’ Over the next week or so Mrs Ransome assembled the rudiments – two camp beds plus bedding and towels, a card table and two folding chairs. She bought a couple of what she called bean-bags, though the shop called them something else; they were quite popular apparently, even among people who had not been burgled who used them to sit on the floor by choice. There was even (this was Mr Ransome’s contribution) a portable CD player and a recording of The Magic Flute.

The full text of this fiction is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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