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.

Train Stories: West of Paddington

I had a strange and unnerving experience on a train, I told Amy.

So did I, she said.

Would you like to hear mine?

Yes, please.

The other day I went out into the country, to a village that you would not expect to be served by an express train direct from London. It was on the old Great West Railway, west of Paddington, and the station was of the sort that you get in television adaptations of books by P G Wodehouse, except that in the television adaptation the sign board with the name of the place would be in the same satisfactorily carpentered style but with a fictional name on it.

Escaping on first train to London after disgraceful episode at dinner the night before?

Just so, I said. You have it exactly.

Is Hampshire west of Paddington?

Possibly south-west. But it is not served from Paddington, it is served from Waterloo. Wodehouse’s characters would come and go from Paddington and might travel to the Continent from Victoria but they would probably not use Waterloo: Waterloo’s rather middle class.

Ukridge might, Amy said, when prowling the Surrey suburbs in his morning suit, scouting for shop girls.

She had me there.

I speak of the Wodehouse of the classic years, I said.

My story is a Waterloo train. With Hampshire.

Good, I said. Mine isn’t. We may yet come to yours.

It was an unpleasant evening, I continued. It was raining steadily and cold, just above freezing. The people of the village had retired indoors, to their homes or pubs. A few lights could be seen through the drizzle in the distance but no one was around and it was very dark. I had consulted a time-table to find out when my train would arrive. The time it gave turned out to be entirely different from that on the electronic board and with some irritation I settled to a forty-minute wait. I paced the platform to keep my feet from freezing and was unable to find anything consoling to listen to on my iPod.

Then, some fifteen minutes early, an express train roared in.

Roared? said Amy, her eyes wide.

Figuratively. It was a great express train, on its way from some western metropolis, such as Hereford. Suddenly the dim country station was flooded with light.

Flooded? said Amy.

Again, I said, a metaphor. It was as if light poured down from the windows all along the platform, which was already shiny from the drizzle and reflected it back, like lovely electric triangles. Inside were laughing, happy people.

Like Orient Express.

Just like the Orient Express. You have it exactly, the sudden irruption of colour and sophistication into the dim village station.

Orient Express Poirot. Not P G Wodehouse. Agatha Christie.

I looked at Amy critically. Was she taking the piss? It appeared not but when it comes to inscrutability she has always had me.

You can take these things too far, I said. Anyway, I got on. As soon as I was seated there was an announcement:

Well (it said) we’ve got here early. Nearly fifteen minutes early. We’re not going anywhere for fifteen minutes. If you like smoking, why don’t you get off and have a cigarette? There’s plenty of time. Nearly fifteen minutes.

There was a pause, and then he said:

This is a non-smoking station, repeat, a non-smoking station. Smoking on the platform or elsewhere on the station premises is strictly prohibited. But there’s a gate right there into the car park, and the car park’s all right. And there’s plenty of time. Nearly fifteen minutes.

I would like to report that the passengers flocked out with laughter and enthusiasm, handing round their Passing Clouds, calling cheerily to each other, one of them perhaps with a guitar, another a picnic basket, yet another a hip flask. But no, they all sat there staring glassily over their crisp packets and lager to see who would be the first to break ranks, who would voluntarily jeopardise their seat in the pursuit of pleasure…

Who admit be smoker, said Amy.

That too.

Train man not send very clear message about health risk.

A lamentably unclear message, I said. But as it turned out no one took the opportunity to engage in the filthy habit, so no harm was done. We sat there for the fifteen minutes and then the train set off again into the darkness, a band of brilliant light threading through the silent countryside, leaving the little station in darkness once again.

How you know? You don’t see. You on train.

Imagination, I said. My strong point. But what about your story? What about Hampshire?

Very different story, Amy said.

Good, I said. Variety. Good.

And not for today.

She sought to soften the blow.

Green tea?