I like the way that the London railway terminuses are grouped round us like close fielders. In our part of London they are so numerous as to be almost intimidating: King’s Cross with its wonderful frontage visible again at last and its new atrium clinging to the side of its neck like a lovely shiny carbuncle, ruined plastic Euston and fabulous St Pancras.
(It is ‘terminuses’ isn’t it? I think that even pedants don’t say ‘termini’.)
I was brought up to be a Waterloo man, London’s gateway to Surbiton and the Surrey hills. For many years I never went through the station without seeing someone I knew, emerging from their platform dressed to the nines and smiling confidently in anticipation of their assault on the City or as it might be the shops, the theatres and the Chinese restaurants – or else rushing to escape.
Other more speculative attacks on London, involving foreigners and the ports that serve the Continent, are made through Victoria or Liverpool Street.
I also like the more borderline terminuses. Marylebone I have visited. There are no trains there. It has no function except as a counter in Monopoly. The same could be said of Fenchurch Street. Has anyone ever disembarked at Fenchurch Street? Does it still exist?
My story however relates to Paddington, originally the terminus for the Great West Railway and the most prestigious terminus of all. Paddington, if it were a Western European country, would go straight to the final of the Eurovision Song Contest notwithstanding a run of nul points that would have shamed an emerging nation. I was standing by the departure board because my train was delayed. ‘Due to operational difficulties,’ it said, ‘the train will arrive at the time of departure’. I had one eye on the board and the other on a sandwich bar; I was considering whether the delay was sufficient to justify a second breakfast.
As I watched, a young woman sashayed up to the sandwich bar. She had dark honey-coloured skin, improbable blonde hair, cowboy boots and a ripped denim mini-skirt through which flashes of scarlet knickers could be seen when she walked. At first glance I assumed that she was a hooker, improbable though that might be early on a bleak weekday morning, but two things convinced me otherwise. The first was that unlike most prostitutes of the Paddington area she was glowing with health. The second was the benign smiles with which all the shopkeepers in the concourse regarded her.
She bought a soft drink and set off away towards Platform 1, or at least towards that end of the station. I decided that a second breakfast was called for and I went to the sandwich bar, selected and bought an enhanced flapjack. A woman’s scent lingered faintly at the counter.
Who was that? I said.
The girl? They call her The Angel.
Why’s that then?
He looked embarrassed.
Don’t know, he said. They say she goes around doing good.
I would have enquired further, but at that point the departures board indicated that my train had indeed arrived at the time of departure and was about to depart: to do so moreover from the very far corner of the station, Platform 14 in fact. The train might have arrived at the time of departure but the schedule was not to be trifled with.
I took my enhanced flapjack and ran. There was a mêlée where the arriving passengers met those like me who wanted to get onto the train, the latter spurred on by the sounds of keen Network Rail personnel blowing whistles and slamming doors. I put my head down and charged. Suddenly to my astonishment I saw the woman coming straight at me. We came face to face.
I thought you were going to Platform 1, I said.
It was not a remark of which I am proud, but I was flustered.
She looked me in the eye, grinned broadly, and vanished.
Or so it seemed. One minute she was there and the next there was no trace except the faintest scent of perfume. Anyway, there was no opportunity to investigate the matter. Deftly tripping up a railway employee who was intent on slamming the last door I threw myself in and a second later we were Berkshire-bound.
Paddington serves some of the most delightful country in all England (as well of course as Wales). I was not to get that far however. I spent the day at a business meeting with liars in a tired hotel in the Thames valley, and when it was time to return it was raining hard. On an impulse I took the long way round to the entrance to the Tube, so as to go past the sandwich bar.
What do you mean, doing good? I said.
Oh, that’s just what they say. She’s a feature.
And he would tell me no more. All I got from him was the location of the station manager’s office.
I will not bore you with the details of my protracted dealings with the station manager’s office. They were helpful and professional but it was an enquiry that they were not trained to deal with, and although they were acquainted with the Angel (as they too called her) they did not really think that she was any of my business. As with any other business there are insiders and there are customers and what a customer is entitled to know is curtailed by reference to the service provided. Had I wanted to talk about the fact that my train had arrived and departed without leaving time to catch it, had I had some query about the eponymous Bear, they would have been in (as they would probably have put it) their comfort zone. This however was different.
Did she really disappear? I said.
We can’t really say.
Has she disappeared for other people?
They didn’t answer.
I noticed a file lying on the desk across from me. I read its title upside down. “‘The Angel’ of Paddington Stn: Misc. Interviews”, it said.
I tell you what, I said. Opposite Platform -, there is a sandwich bar. They do excellent enhanced flapjacks and a fine, strong cup of tea. I’ll treat us both, I said. Only problem: a spot of trouble with the knee. Could you possibly?
I passed across a £20 note and then another.
When they returned I had what I needed.