I recently saw The Lady in the Van – starring the incomparable Dame Maggie Smith. The film is a 2015 British comedy-drama film directed by Nicholas Hytner, written by Alan Bennett, with Alex Jennings giving a terrific performance as Bennett. Wikipedia says :
The Lady in the Van tells the true story of Alan Bennett‘s strained friendship with Miss Mary Shepherd, an eccentric homeless woman whom Bennett befriended in the 1970s before allowing her temporarily to park her Bedford van in the driveway of his Camden home. She stayed there for 15 years. As the story develops Bennett learns that Miss Shepherd is really Margaret Fairchild, a former gifted pupil of the pianist Alfred Cortot. She had played Chopin in a promenade concert, tried to become a nun, was committed to an institution by her brother, escaped, had an accident when her van was hit by a motorcyclist for which she believed herself to blame, and thereafter lived in fear of arrest.
What a story. Imagine living in a van! I certainly could not. Could you? A camper-van holiday is one thing, even a three month long exploration of the USA in one of those massive American RVs is an option, but living in a vehicle for the foreseeable future? I think not.
We have our own Lady living in a Vehicle, at my local shopping Centre. Not a van, but a white sedan, with a Gauteng number plate. It’s home to Sannie who spends her days wandering through the Centre, occasionally to be seen in the Wimpy, or the Coffee shop, exiting the supermarket clutching a small paper bag which obviously contains a meat-pie.
My first encounter with Sannie was early one morning . She was ranting and raving to thin air in the empty supermarket parking lot. People started to gather aroundto see what the commotion was about . After a while the cops roared up, and attempted to reason with the agitated woman. At which point I had to leave, being en route to an appointment.
Some weeks after this episode, I plucked up courage and approached her one day, having first checked that she seemed in a calm frame of mind. Due to my poor grasp of Afrikaans I didn’t quite understand her story, which was involved and garbled, and I couldn’t really understand the gist of it. I told her I was worried for her safety, but she assured me she was fine, and slept “somewhere else”. I didn’t pursue the matter further. In South Africa, a woman sleeping in a car, alone, in a supermarket parking lot, is a very bad idea. Our national rape statistics are beyond dreadful.
I see her most days when I go to the shops, always neatly dressed in her blue denims, with her blonde hair done up in a plait and worn around her head, like a Tyrolean milkmaid. Quite often she’s applied make-up, but her face is so weather-beaten from the fierce African sun that it’s not entirely successful. But she tries. She’s clean and decent. She’s neatly dressed. Somewhat deranged, sure. But she tries.
Shoppers sometimes stand her to a cup of coffee, or a meal. One couple told me she was a schizophrenic, which may well be true. Sannie told me “she was waiting for her kids”. That’s sad. I wonder if her kids know the life their mother leads? Perhaps its been a long rocky road to this point in their family life, and they are exhausted beyond caring. Who knows? Our overloaded public health and social systems stagger along, they do their best, but there’s always cracks through which many people fall, and continue on downwards.
I’m counting my blessings.
Here’s a long distance pic of Sannie and her car. I felt it wouldn’t be right to sneak a close up of her, but if you stretch your eyes you can see the top of her head by the driver’s door. Her car is the white sedan directly under the tree in the foreground, with the pole behind it. BTW: I have changed her name to protect her identity.