Talking about Books

The Angel, said Amy, had continued to bless their relationship.

“That of Alfredo and the woman from the train?”

I had had, incidentally, to explain about the Angel to Amy, as I had not told her about either my first encounter or my subsequent investigations.

“I haven’t seen much of Alfredo recently,” I said. “I thought he might be avoiding me. What about the settled domestic commitment?”

“This is a woman,” Amy said. “She is head teacher. She is called Lesbia Firebrace.”

The name was faintly familiar. I thought for a moment.

“No, she isn’t. Lesbia Firebrace is fictitious. She is a head teacher in the novel Two Worlds and Their Ways by I Compton Burnett. Great name, but this obsession with English literature, Amy, is getting out of hand.

“Moreover,” I said, “Lesbia Firebrace is not a lesbian, although rather a number of the members of her teaching staff appear to be.

“Furthermore,” I said, “what is the woman from the train called?”

“Ah. Alfredo don’t know. He won’t ask. Too late to ask.”

“I suppose that it would be embarrassing to ask someone their name when they have granted you the freedom of their loins in a kiosk of the West Cornwall Pasty Company.”

“Waugh,” said Amy.


I thought that, as frequently, she had said ‘Ah’.

“Waugh. Freedom of loins. J. Flyte. Waugh. ”


Brideshead Revisited.”


I said it.

“J Flyte grant C Ryder freedom of loins. Of course,” Amy said, “absolute difference kiosk of West Cornwall Pasty Company and Wodehousesque ocean liner with state room, waiting staff, storm and orphans.”

“’Wodehousian’, conventionally,” I said. “Don’t know why. But enough, please, Amy, of these literary references. It’s overpowering. They are an inappropriate accompaniment to a pleasant and lazy Sunday afternoon’s chat, with green tea, at Great Secret Miss.”

She looked hurt – as well she might. Great Secret Miss is hers, not mine, to decide what should happen there.

“New to me,” she said, “Eng. Lit., as you say. I think you are my good friend. Help me please with Eng. Lit.”

“Of course,” I said, “but please stop showing off.”

“OK. ‘Freedom of loins.’ Bad taste, I think.”

“Yes I think it is a bit overwrought. Is that really what he wrote? Not as overwrought as Orphans of the Storm, though, which is how I recall that the chapter is titled. There is a distinct feeling that Waugh once had an adventure on a Wodehousian ocean liner, about which he continued to nurse excitable memories and that he put it in his book; as the years go by the fictional bits fall off leaving the rather rude autobiographical substructure showing through. Compare Anthony Powell, where the structure never intrudes on the lives of the characters, in spite of the efforts of the Real Powellites to treat the great work as if it were an acrostic and the characters mere ciphers for people Powell had met and whom we have to track down.”

“Like Peter Quennell!”

Amy shouted this. I held up an admonitory finger.

“Yes. No show off. But why always they talk about Peter Quennell? He model for this, he model for that. Peter Quennell, who he? What he do that is interesting? Let him forget!”

I have always thought the same thing, myself.

“But ‘freedom of loins’,” Amy said. “I don’t understand. What freedom? Freedom is choice, Mrs Thatcher say. What freedom? Chose back passage sometimes?”

She had the grace to blush.

I admonished her. “You forget, perhaps,” I said, “that you are referring to a member of the English aristocracy.”

“Ah yes, I remember. Of course. J Flyte. Honourable. Probably back passage compulsory, then. Do you give people freedom of your loins?”

I sidestepped this impertinent question.

“I think it means girls. That may seem discriminatory to a reader of the present day, but I think that Waugh would have been surprised to think that C Ryder had been said to make available to J Flyte the freedom of his loins.”

Amy reflected.

“I gave freedom of my loins to court of appeal judge once. Bad mistake. Took freedom away again pretty damn quick.”

A look came onto her eye. I recognised it.

“Don’t say it!”

But she did.

“’But that was in another county, and besides, the judge is dead.’

“Hampshire,” she explained.

“Shakespeare,” she added.

“Marlowe,” I said.

We lapsed into silence.

“Little room for freedom on the floor of the kiosk of the West Cornwall Pasty Company,” I would have thought,” I said, “granted or otherwise.”

“First time, no need freedom. All hammer and tongues. Later different when they know each other.”

“I wonder where they go now. Alfredo’s stopped coming to our flat, and I can’t believe that Ms Firebrace, or whatever she’s really called, is very keen on their using hers, given the settled domestic commitment.”

“No, not,” said Amy. “Alfredo says Ms Firebrace very good. ‘Accommodating,’ he says. He says she will grant freedom of her loins too, maybe.”

“To him? Together?”

“That for negotiation.”

“Italians!” I said.

I wondered how these negotiations would take place if the name of one of the women was unknown to Alfredo and the other a literary pseudonym. Again we lapsed into silence. Amy looked at her watch. She gestured to one of her girls, pointing at me.

“More green tea,” she said.

Then she turned to me.

“I am very much looking forward to a further conversation with you about books,” she said, and went off into the back.


Train Stories: That Old James Bond Trick: The Angel of Paddington Station: Part 4

“Why do trains make you horny?” said Amy.



“You tell me,” I said, referring to a past incident in her life.

“Ah, that,” she had the decency to say. “No, something Alfredo told me.”

“You can’t tell me what Alfredo told you. Secrets of the small back room, secrets of the confessional.”

“This is different.”

He was on a train, she said, the other day, a dim dirty commuter train into London. It was late at night, the rain was relentless outside and the carriage was almost empty. In the next section there was a little old lady of mild and benevolent demeanour. Opposite him sat a young woman of Caribbean origin. As he looked up from time to time from his dull book he glanced at her. Sometimes from the tail of his eye he saw that she was glancing approvingly at him. These things, he told Amy, often happen with him on trains – it’s probably his thick black curls – and nothing comes of them.

“Did he stand up and caper around, first on one leg and then the other, clasping his private parts and crying ‘Bellissima, bellissima!’?”

“He does that less now.”

“The kefir is working then.”

Kefir reliable make people less Italian. It is the science but nobody knows why.”

The tannoy, she said, announced that the ticket collector was about to pass among them. To Alfredo’s surprise, the young woman leapt up and crossed the carriage to him.

“Kiss me, kiss me, I have no ticket.”

“That old James Bond trick,” Alfredo had said, but nevertheless took her onto his lap and kissed her. She took firm hold of the thick black curls to ensure that he persisted. They were in that attitude when the apparatchik arrived.

“Tickets please, sir and madam,” he had said, but to no avail. Their mouths were on each other and their hands were encumbered with each other’s outer garments.

“Tickets please, madam and sir,” he said again. He knew the old James Bond trick too; they had screened it in Training.

At this point the little old lady intervened.

“Can’t you see they’re in love?” she said.

“Love it may be,” he said, “or filth in breach of the Bye-laws, but they need a ticket: each.”

The young woman of Caribbean origin sucked greedily on Alfredo’s tongue, Amy said.

The little old lady said, “Please don’t bother them. I’ll buy them tickets. We have all been in their position.”

“Speak for yourself, madam,” the apparatchik said, “and in your own case not I hope on a facility delivered by this service provider,” but he gave her two single tickets. Alfredo, who has a tidy mind when all is said and done, felt aggrieved, having provided himself with a ticket in advance, but was unable to speak, for the reason already reported.

The apparatchik went off satisfied to his lair. The little old lady said, “Don’t you mind me. You just carry on. I won’t look.”

And so, as Alfredo was to tell Amy later, it was necessary – good manners demanded – that he do so. He did not mind in the least, since his book had proved uninteresting, and it was increasingly clear that the young woman did not either. It was not however the case that the little old lady would not look. Indeed the reflective effect of all the windows is that everything can be seen on a suburban train at night, like it or not.

The young woman loosened her jeans, took Alfredo’s hand and put it in.

“Aah!” said the little old lady.

Soon afterwards they arrived at Charing Cross Station. It was deserted. Alfredo paid the little old lady back for the tickets. She went off towards the exit marked ‘Taxis’ and said, “I hope you have somewhere to go.”

Alfredo was turgid with lust, Amy said.


“New word for me. I need check it on iPhone dictionary.”

Their fingers tore at each other’s palms, Amy said. He proposed a hotel, but the young woman said that she had an established domestic commitment, which made that impossible. My flat, where Alfredo was staying, was too far away.

“Half an hour, tops,” she had said. “But where?”

A figure materialised beside them, as if out of nowhere, the station having seemed deserted: a young woman, Alfredo had told Amy, also of Caribbean origin, with blond hair, boots and a ripped mini-skirt. His immediate thought was that she was about to announce that she did couples, professionally; but then he noticed the transcendental innocence of her gaze, and felt ashamed.

“Come,” said the woman, leading them across the platform. Alfredo told Amy that even fixated as he was on the woman from the train, whose name he had not yet secured, his attention was caught by red knickers, glimpsed through the rips in her mini-skirt.

She took them to a kiosk operated by the West Cornwall Pasty Company, or possibly one of its so-called rivals. It was shut for the night. There was a locked door, bearing the warning: NO CHIPS LEFT ON THESE PREMISES OVERNIGHT. She passed her hand over the lock, which fell away. She ushered them in.

“I turned round to thank her, but she seemed to float into the air: she disappeared,” Alfredo had told Amy.

“He too turgid,” she said to me. “He not think straight.”

“No,” I said. “I think that’s exactly what happened.”

It was totally dark inside. They undressed and laid their clothes on the floor. There was just enough room. She lit a match.

“Do you like me?” she said.

“You’re perfect,” he said. “But put that bloody thing out.”

“I don’t believe for a moment that he said that,” I said.

“Saki last words,” Amy said.

“That’s why I don’t believe for a moment that he said it.”

But such is the human desire to embellish our stories that I had my own vision of the young woman of Caribbean origin, like a line drawing by Eric Gill, sensual and pure in the dark and silence of the West Cornwall Pasty Company’s little tabernacle, with the Angel of Paddington Station – for it was surely she – hovering beneficently above.

“I do hope that he brings her for tea,” I said.

The Link-Boy’s Tale

I walked back to meet the procession, having inspected the shopping centre. Unfortunately, with Cardinal V-‘s pernicketiness about his dress, it was now late in the afternoon and people were leaving. Also the entrance was lower than I had remembered. Neither bothered me unduly.

The procession was a fine sight coming slowly along the road into central Stratford. It had increased in size. Local Catholics, energised by parish magazines or some more contemporary means of communication, were tagging along and there seemed to be far more nuns.

I took a closer look at these. The newcomers turned out not to be nuns, however, but modestly dressed Moslem women, also in black. I noticed one staring at me.

I’d recognise those eyes anywhere.

The Jibjab Woman!

Hello, Al.

Assalamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullah, I said.

Et cum spiritu tuo, said the Jibjab Woman.

Why are you here?

She narrowed her eyes.

The cause, she said.

I caught the almost inaudible sound of her grin against the cloth covering her mouth.

I am always pleased to see the Jibjab Woman and I feel safer when she is around. So, foolishly, I did not ask her whose cause.

By this time we had arrived at the entrance to the shopping centre. Cardinal V- was flinging blessings around as if they were free, but there was indecision. The cross could not go in upright; the doorway was simply too low. The bell-toller ceased tolling and awaited developments.

I assumed that they would pass the cross in with Our Lord on his back, but apparently that would be wrong. Many creatures in nature – notably sharks – lose consciousness when laid on their backs and it was felt that the same logic (if ‘logic’ is the right word) might apply to Him. The cross was lowered so that He was face down and manhandled through the doorway.

Halfway through this manoeuvre there was a nasty crack. Christ’s bottom half came adrift. He continued to hang by His hands, metal-alloy feet dragging noisily on the floor, but the nails in His wrists were now subject to greater stress than had ever been intended. Mongo, now rather hot and dishevelled, got the cross upright again.

At this point a further problem revealed itself. The ceiling would accommodate the cross held upright in some places but not others, where, because of ducting for example, it was much lower. Mongo indicated that it would be easier to compromise on a semi-upright position that he could maintain. He held the cross at about forty-five degrees. It must have been an immense strain on his shoulders and arms. From the top Our Lord hung forwards, at the same angle. The procession struggled back into life.

My mobile rang. I have, I should explain, a network of young people, crossing-sweepers, link-boys and the like, whom I pay small sums of money to keep their eyes and ears open for me. I had told them all of my urgent desire to see the Angel of Paddington Station again.

So my mobile rang. It was a text from one of them:

What price the Angel of Stratford International? Sighted! Come at once!

I had to make a quick decision. The procession with gorgeous robes seemed to be stable. It could manage without me. But I called a local member of my network and told him to keep an eye on things. He is my source for what happened then. I hurried off to Stratford International.

Hassan is a link-boy, aged about twelve. I have no idea why link-boys have a dubious reputation, unless it is because of that salacious painting by Joshua Reynolds. Whatever may be the case with other link-boys Hassan is an entirely wholesome lad and if he attracts attention it is because of his natural and unaffected good looks. He joined the crowd soon after I left. Almost at once, he told me later, two things happened, followed by a third, and the third brought the proceedings to an abrupt close.

As Hassan scanned the procession his eye lit on Cardinal V-. The latter chose to take this as contact directed at him personally. He deserted his place at the head of the procession and pushed through the crowd (‘like rat up drainpipe’) towards Hassan. He was, Hassan told me, gabbling in an unknown tongue. Whether this was Latin, Italian or the simple incoherent vocalisations of lust we will never know.

As I say, the shopping day was drawing to a close and the shops were shutting. When that happens the area is given over to skate-boarding. The youth had already started to gather, waiting for shoppers, processors and all to depart so that they could describe their arabesques on the marble-effect floor in peace, subject only to the appraisal of their peers. As they waited they spun their boards in and out of their hands, using minimal gestures with their feet.

How Mongo managed to intercept one we shall, again, never know. He was very hot, exhausted and stupid, and he could not see his feet on account of his robing. There is no reason to suspect some malign intervention on the part of the Jibjab Woman. I will leave it at that.

Suddenly, Hassan was to tell me later, he hurtled forward on the skateboard, the cross now held straight in front of him like a lance.

‘That metal man, he was hanging, first two hands then one, feet making a terrible sound on the floor. Then a woman, she was big, big like the man holding the wooden thing, she was Caribbean I think, she seize the metal man and pull him off.

‘She shouts, “My Lord! My Lord!”

‘The man with the red hat, he’s just arrived where I’m standing and he’s put his arm on me. He hears this and turns round. He shouts, “No! My Lord!”

‘Then he turns back as he is more interested in me.

‘The wooden thing is going like clappers. I don’t know how that lady got the metal man out from under it. Anyway it sticks in a shop and can’t be got out.’

And what, I said, did Mongo say?

‘He said, “Aaargh!”’

And after the first two things came the third: the arrival of two policemen.

‘Unfortunately for the man with the red hat he has his hand on my trousers when the policemen feel his shoulder.

‘”We have warrant for your arrest,” they say. “Blah, blah, blah sexual offence…blah, blah, blah minors…blah, blah, blah thieving… blah, blah, blah European arrest warrant…”

I thought that European arrest warrants didn’t apply with the Vatican, I said.

Hassan beamed.

‘The man with the red hat say that too! Police say, “Let’s discuss that down at the Station, shall we, sonny?”’

And that was the end of the procession with gorgeous robes.

The Angel? What a waste of time. Some old whore with red knickers. Late middle-aged, I’d say. What is it about the red knickers that blinds people to everything else?

French too.

Train Stories: The Angel of Paddington Station: Part 3

Every time I pass through Paddington Station I look round for her. The other day I arrived there deliberately early. I spent half an hour wandering up and down chewing on a curiously unsatisfactory pasty but she was nowhere to be seen.

It was a ‘traditional’ pasty, by the way. My maternal grandmother’s family came from Cornwall and I have strong views on the subject. Pasties should be made from beef, onions and turnips (as they call swede in Cornwall) and should not be adulterated. Those found in the new range of pasty shops are quite good, particularly the ‘West Cornwall’ ones, though not a patch on those made by my maternal grandmother.

And the ‘a’ is pronounced long. The Cornish long ‘a’ is different from that in the south-east of England but it is still a long ‘a’ and not short as pronounced by George Osborne, who cannot be expected to know any better.

Anyway, I had timed it so that the announcement of my train coincided with the last tasty piece of crinkly crust, which I popped into my mouth and set off to the west.

Not only have I not seen her since that first time but I have been subjected to a tiresome attack for writing about her at all. You may have followed it in the Comments under the original post, although I eventually became very irritated and I may have succeeded in deleting them. People seized on the fact that I initially thought that she was a hooker and then discovered that she was generally regarded by those who make their living in the station as an angel. Inevitably I have been accused of ‘pandering to the old patriarchal Madonna/whore dichotomy’.

What nonsense! I incline to the view, as in Barbarella, that an angel has no sex. In Barbarella, of course, the angel was male, but I think that the principle holds. I also note from the reports that I have read, some of which I have shared with you, that she is generally the one in control. I really think that in some circles it is no more than a Pavlovian reflex. ‘Whore’, ‘angel’: must be a patriarchal dichotomy.

All of this of course I explained, as you may have seen, in my counter-Comments. Were they convinced? Of course not. A huge amount of huffing and puffing then ensued about the red knickers. All that I can say is that, as regards the red knickers as with everything else, I speak as I find. I am incorruptible like that. But you can see why, especially since I had failed to see her again, I became irritated.

The other evening however I was letting Google take me where it would and I found something that, if it has any relevance at all, only deepens the mystery. It takes us back to the latter half of the Nineteenth Century. This was the time of Frith’s The Railway Station, that painting, sensationally popular at the time, which depicted people of all classes of society teeming – in the way people did in the Victorian age, whether in the paintings of Frith, the novels of Dickens or the earnest sociological investigations of Booth – in Paddington Station itself, beneath the splendid roof girders and a healthy dollop of steam.

The piece that I found was from an account of a journey written by some Victorian novelist, Trollope or Thackeray, possibly one of the others, and posted recently onto one of those sites where you can find material that is out of copyright.

Trollope, Thackeray, whatever, arrived at Paddington Station (I read) an hour early for his train. Dismayed by all the teeming going on in the main concourse he decided on a bite to eat. He dismissed his manservant and went in search of a chop and a pint of port.

In the 1860s there would, curiously, have been stalls like those of the vendors of pasties that we might find today. What there would not have been was anything that we might recognise as a restaurant. Restaurants as we know them emerged rather later. TTW didn’t want to eat standing up at a stall. He wanted to rest his legs and he wanted something more reassuring than a pasty. Finally he found a room where meat and a drink might be bought. It was within the station boundaries but at first-floor level, up some steps – and this is important. There was no choice (like restaurants, menus had yet to be invented) but he was served with his chop, some dubious potatoes and, as I say, a pint of port.

The room was crowded. He describes it as ‘hugger mugger with commercial gentlemen’. Suddenly there is a commotion. TTW looks towards the door. ‘An unaccompanied female firmly desired entrance.’

This was sensational. An unaccompanied woman would have been regarded without question as engaged in commerce – and not in the same way as the ‘commercial gentlemen’. Even when restaurants emerged, it would be forty years before a respectable woman could eat in one by herself. The staff tried to eject her.

‘But I have money. And I am hungry.’

“‘No seats, no tables,’ said the head waiter,” as TTW reports. “’Madam,’ he added, satirically.”

TTW then did an uncharacteristic and generous thing.

“Taking pity on the poor creature (tho’ why I should call her ‘poor’, since she was dressed as a lady and not wanting in assurance, I cannot say) on an impulse I called to her, ‘Oh, you have arrived’ and to the waiter, ‘Fetch me a second chair and victuals for my companion.’

“With sour grace the man did as I bade, bringing her a further chop and more of the grey potatoes my portion of which I had already decided that I could safely commit towards the preparation of the following day’s soup. I had drunk my pint of port and so we shared another.

“Looking back I cannot recall our conversation. Maybe we had none. It was noisy enough to make it hard to do so. I remember no uncomfortable silence between us, however. Then, finishing her plate and her portion of the wine, my new friend wiped her lips on a cloth and stood up. She turned on me the most radiant of smiles but said nothing further. She walked with purpose to the window that gave onto the concourse. She turned for a moment, took in the room with her gaze and – stepped thru’ it.

“There was silence for a moment. Then we rushed as one to the window to see her body below. But there was no sign of it.

“Fanciful as it may be, it is my belief that she disappeared or she flew away.

“For my part I paid the bill and left. I found my man at a stall consuming a vile-looking pasty, we caught our train, and soon I was in Berks and had new adventures to divert me.”

Train Stories: The Angel of Paddington Station: Part 2

Extracts from “‘The Angel’ of Paddington Stn: Misc. Interviews”

Interview conducted by X- B- on – 201-.
Subject: Ms D- O-.
Copied by ALB onto iPhone on – May 2013.
Personal identifying information redacted per Data Protection Act

I was travelling to London from Swindon. I had mislaid my ticket. I thought that there was no exit machines at Paddington. On arrival and attempt get through machines I was apprehended. [Note. This was by K- Y-]. I explained to the officer I mislaid my ticket. He ask where is return ticket. I explain I mislaid my return ticket too. The officer says he will have to give me ticket. He will have to give me penalty ticket for £20 plus cost of ticket. He takes out his pad and a pen. I explained to the officer I mislaid my ticket. As he is writing on his pad a beautiful young girl comes up. She had golden curls and a miniskirt. She is tapping the officer on the shoulder. He says, one at a time Madam I am dealing with this lady who has travelled without prior purchase a ticket. I explained to the officer I mislaid my ticket. The beautiful young girl doesn’t stop tapping the officer on the shoulder. Finally he turns round to her. Good God he says and stop writing on his pad. The beautiful young girl smiles at the officer. He says bugger it and tears out the page he has been writing on. He says to me don’t do it again and lets me through. He turns to the beautiful young girl. She looks at me in the eye. She waits till I am properly through the barrier. She grins at me. Then she vanishes.

Interview conducted by X- B- on – 201-.
Subject: Mr T- P-.
Interview conducted at St Mary’s Hospital
Copied by ALB onto iPhone on – May 2013.
Personal identifying information redacted per Data Protection Act.
Smoking references redacted due to health and safety issues.

I am currently in hospital consequent on my heart attack. I understand that I was brought here from Paddington Station on – 201- consequent on my heart attack. I do not remember that. All I remember is when I was at Paddington Station on – 201- prior to my heart attack. I am a heavy smoker. At least – cigarettes a day. Actually I am not allowed to smoke in the hospital but I was a heavy smoker prior to my heart attack. I was late for my train and I was running across the station concourse. Platform -. I live outside of Reading and was travelling home after work. Actually after a pasty and a couple of pints with friends after work. I remember that the station was empty, no one near me, although I may be remembering badly due to my heart attack. Suddenly I have great pain in my chest. I fall down. Next thing I know, my chest no longer hurts but there is white light everywhere. Bugger me I thought, this is it. Then a lovely girl is bending over me, with golden curls. Bugger me, an angel, I thought, this is really it. She crouches beside me. Even in my terminal condition I cannot help notice with approval her red knickers. Red knickers and honey-coloured skin, she was gorgeous. She holds out her hand and touches my chest. Immediately I know that after all I will be OK. I look at her to thank her even though I am pretty sure I cannot speak. She grins at me. Then she vanishes.

Interview conducted by T-O- on – 201-.
Subject: Mr S- R-R.
Copied by ALB onto iPhone on – May 2013.
Personal identifying information redacted per Data Protection Act.
Mild smoking references approved by appropriate authority Mr U-W-.

I am a homeless person. I often come to Paddington Station. Sometimes there is food to spare from the concessions. Sometimes you can beg at the Station, though if the officers sees you at it they throw you out. Sometimes it is that little bit warmer in than outside which is a benefit if it is cold out. Sometimes things go all right but sometimes it is very bad, no money no food and the officers taking liberties. On – 201- when it all happened it was very bad. I had not eaten for some days. Usually cigarettes take the edge off the hunger but cigarettes are harder to come by these days due to public health concerns. It was late in the evening. I was making myself scarce so as I could avoid the officers and stay at the station all night if possible. I find a corner and try to look like I am not there at all, just some old rags. I am not proud. I am trying so hard to be invisible that I fall asleep. I am very tired with the malnourishment remember. When I come to the station is deserted and I am on the floor. I tried to get up but I was too exhausted due to hunger to. Then I saw this lovely girl. She is walking across the concourse to me swinging her hips. She has golden curls which shone as they suddenly got in some beam of light, maybe from a night train. She is like an angel. In her hands there is a pasty from the West Cornwall Pasty Company. I saw at once it was their top of the range Large Traditional Pasty. She puts it into my hands and she grips me by the shoulder and with a voice of infinite compassion she says, ‘Will you have chunky potato wedges with that?’ After that things got better all round, I found resources so as I don’t have to beg. She saved my life I believe. Who is she? I don’t know, I never saw her again. I reckon she’s an angel. At the time I was busy with the pasty I know but when I looked round to thank her she vanishes.

Train Stories: the Angel of Paddington Station: Part 1

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.