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.”