Last week...almost the week before now, I met the writer Alan Bennett. Well, I stood next to him in a cafe, both of us queuing for coffee...
Alan Bennett! Of all the writers to meet, to have him, the writer who wrote The Lady in the Van. Has anyone read that? It's a book about a lady who lived in her van in Alan Bennett's driveway before she died! One day, (as you do at the beginning in a kind of surreal dream I Googled myself - 'Wanderingscribe' — and in amongst the surreal 'woman living in her car' articles, and references to Wanderingscribe, and all the dross from disgusting trolls, I came across the book by Alan Bennett.
I bought it the very next day. It is a slim volume, and of course I read it in one sitting, transfixed... She wasn't like me at all; the Lady he writes about was a real bag lady, who had lived like that for years - though who knows that I might not have turned out like that under other circumstances. Anyway, I went on to read lots of Alan Bennett in the end, this way or that way. His name seemed to generally cross my path — as it does when you come across something new: I'd go into a bookshop and there it'd be, a book by Alan Bennett on the table or the counter, or a picture of him on the book jacket or some publicity flyer. He writes plays too, he wrote the 'History Boys', which was turned into the film. You can't help knowing what he looks like, his image is almost as famous as his words. And I remember going to the Southbank one evening for a reading of 'Nocturnes' by Kazio Ishiguru. And in one of the other theatres must have been something on by Bennett because there in the corner was a lifesize cardboard cut out of him. The long coat, the green scarf, the shirt and tie under a high v-neck, the black specs, the newly cut hair, that boyish grin. It could have been him standing there in the corner, life-size, watching the comings and goings in the foyer. Anyway, it's an image everyone is probably familiar with, iconic almost.
A few months after that, I went out for the day to London, a place where there is a large park and, nearby, lots of smart cafes. As I was choosing between cafes, walking towards me, looking very pleased with himself, grinning that grin, was Alan Bennett. Larger than life, pushing a bike, with a bunch of yellow flowers tucked in the crook of one arm, and a couple of A4 writing pads under the other. Can you imagine that - of all the things he could be carrying, he actually was carrying writing paper! Just walking towards me as if he had walked straight out of one of his own book jackets, Writing Home or that cardboard cut-out I saw at the Southbank. Except he was surprisingly taller than you'd imagine from the photos.
I haven't been to that place since. Until the week before last. Again I was out for the day, and schlepped from the train along to one of those cafes. This time I had some writing in my bag, and so hurried there, determined to make inroads on the novel I have long wanted to write (nothing to do with my own story, that's done I never want to write any part of my own story again! But that doesn't mean I don't want to write, ever since I wound a piece of white paper into my first Petite typewriter as a child - turquoise in its plastic turquoise case- I have wanted to write. A motivation which may well have come from my own story - difficult childhoods or periods in childhood have probably formed countless writers - but I never thought I'd write my own story - and if it wasn't for the situation I was in I never would have. I chose my cafe, staked a claim at an outside table, ordered a coffee and then wandered down to the bookshop further along to get a book.
The bookshop owner commented that he personally knew the author whose book I ended up buying. It wasn't Alan Bennett, but was apparently one of their neighbours. 'His children go to school with our children. He often pops in...' he said. It felt a good omen to have the author I had bought as a local. And as he said it, it reminded me of the writer I had seen the last time I was there. I had it in mind to tell him my Alan Bennett story: that the very last time I was here, all those months ago, I saw him, walking down the street towards me, pushing his bike with those yellow flowers in the crook of one arm, the writing pads under the other. I didn't tell him though. But as I walked out into drizzle and down to drink the coffee already waiting on the table, I had that image firmly in my head. It was as clear as if he was there again, slowly walking towards me along that same stretch of pavement, in that long coat and scarf, those yellow flowers, and then past me, walking on wheeling his bike, as if walking through a Hovis advert, that expression on his face as if he was laughing at a continuous inner stream of jokes as he went along.
I forgot about the image. I drank my coffee. I lost myself in the writing. The words came so well in the end that I didn't dare break the spell and decided to stay and have a second coffee. I went inside to order at the counter at the far end of the deep cafe, and as the waiter wiped cappuccino pipes and frothed milk in a metal jug, I turned around and who was walking down the long aisle towards the counter...but Alan Bennett!
I did a double take, cleared my vision by staring blankly at the waiter, and then glanced around again and there he was, still there. No yellow flowers under either arm.... I gave a cautious, probably very stunned, half-smile of aknowledgement, which he returned with that boyish grin. He then almost dropped himself into a chair at the small table by the counter, and waited to order. Seeing him sitting there, Alan Bennett dressed as Alan Bennett, was like looking at the cover of a book and again it made me smile. It was table service, so sitting at that small table by the counter, he could only have been there for takeaway. I tried not to say hello. I tried hard...but in the end I couldn't help myself. I said in one breath, 'I know I shouldn't speak to you...' at which he waved a hand and said 'no, that's fine' which I spoke over anyway saying '...but it's almost like I just summoned you up, because I was literally just thinking of you as I walked along from the bookshop.... ' He threw his head back and laughed heartily when I said that, and I told him about nearly telling the man in the bookshop about seeing him last time I was in the area too, and how instead, just twenty minutes or so ago, I'd carried his image in my head all the way back down the street to my waiting coffee. I didn't tell him that I was there to write that day, that I'd taken my book bag with me and was writing for the first time in I don't know how long...and then I think of him coming from the bookshop and turn at the counter and there he is walking up and queuing beside me for a coffee! Amazing! On the day I blow the dust off my notepad as well...Hopefully a good omen.
I wished I'd said more...I wish I'd been able to say more: 'Can I walk with you, Mr Bennett, talk to you about writing?' The things he could have told me...the tips, the advice. I think mostly I wanted to tell him that I lived in my car too, like the woman he wrote about, and that I wrote about it too. That maybe I wrote for her, Mrs Shepherd. He wrote about her living in her van from his perspective, imagined what she felt, why she was there, maybe I wrote her side of things, or a not too dissimilar version of it maybe...? Maybe I'm how it starts, the Mrs Shepherd thing. Maybe she was how it could have ended. There but for the grace of God...
But of course I couldn't have told him any of that...He did chat for a few minutes though as we waited for coffee. He was relaxed and approachable, with this great avuncular charm about him. He told me he used to live in Gloucester Place, and in the 60's lived in a flat around the corner from where we were, which he loved so much he wished he had back. When my coffee was ready, I could either hang around like some groupie or go back to my table outside. I wanted to hang around talk to him, about anything, just be in such a nice aura for a bit. But of course I said how nice it was to meet him and went back to my table outside. Minutes later I saw him walk away in the other direction with his takeaway coffee, the long coat swinging as he walked off home. In a way I'm still kicking myself for not talking to him, for there not being a way to do that. I wonder what he would have made of a chance meeting in a cafe as they stood waiting for coffee between (what I became known as at the time as) 'the woman who lived in her car' and the man who wrote The Lady Who Lived in a Van.
Sometimes I can't help thinking that paths cross for a reason....