Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side …’ (Luke 16:19-23)
Scarcely a day passes now without some sort of incident involving the old lady. Yesterday evening around ten a s sports car swerves over to her side of the road so that the driver, rich, smart and in his twenties, can lean over and bang on the side of the van, presumably to flush out for his grinning girlfriend the old witch who lives there. I shout at him and he sounds his horn and roars off …
These attacks, I’m sure, disturbed my peace of mind more than they did hers. Living in the way she did, every day must have brought such cruelties. Some of the stallholders in the Inverness Street market used to persecute her with medieval relish – and children, too, who both inflict and suffer such casual cruelties themselves. One night two drunks systematically smashed all the windows of the van, the flying glass cutting her face. Furious over any small liberty, she was only mildly disturbed by this. ‘They may have had too much to drink by mistake,’ she said. ‘that does occur through not having eaten, possibly. I don’t want a case.’ She was far more interested in ‘a ginger feller I saw in Parkway in company with Mr Kruschchev. Has he disappeared recently?’
But to find such sadism and intolerance so close at hand began to actively depress me, and having to be on the alert for every senseless attack made it impossible to work. There came a day when, after a long succession of such incidents, I suggested that she spent at least the nights in a lean-to at the side of my house. Initially reluctant, as with any change, over the next two years she gradually abandoned the van for the hut.
In giving her sanctuary in my garden and landing myself with a tenancy that went on eventually for fifteen years I was never under any illusion that the impulse was purely charitable. And of course it made me furious that I had been driven to such a pass. But I wanted a quiet life as much as, and possibly more than, she did. In the garden she was at least out of harm’s way.
© Alan Bennett. The Lady in the Van. Profile Books, Faber & Faber, 2015. #40ways40days. Photo by Vasilios Muselimis on Unsplash.
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