The Columnist

As every child knows, space ships can go millions of miles in a few seconds by going into hyperspace; this is done by the captain clenching his knuckles till they are white and then shouting: ‘OK – we’re going into hyperspace!’ A few seconds later everyone is a long way on in the universe and they come out of hyperspace, looking shaken but relieved at the idea of having saved so much fuel.
Something roughly similar happens to trains between Paddington and Bristol. It’s on a smaller scale, of course, and rather slower, as the buffet attendant needs time to serve everyone, but nevertheless the general effect is much the same. After Chippenham, the train goes into hyperspace, and people stop looking out of the windows, those slightly smoked Inter-City windows like TVs with bad reception. Just before Old Oak Common after an hour, they come out of hyperspace and realize with a jolt, and a smell of asbestos brake linings, that they are nearer to Paddington than they thought. Occasionally, but not often, they feel grateful to British Rail.
Henry came out of hyperspace with a jolt and realized they were nearer to Paddington than he had realized. He had spent most of the journey poring over the details of the conference he was attending next day. The man next to him had spent the journey studying a document called ‘Draught Cider in Scotland: A Brand Development Market Break-down’. People do funny things in hyperspace. The cider man now jumped to his feet and started getting his coat on, and so did most of the businessmen who took this train, but Henry was too wise an old traveller to fall for that one. Just as the inexperienced air traveller will jump to his feet when the aeroplane comes to a halt and then spend the next ten minutes standing motionless, too proud to sit down again unlike the seasoned traveller who had never got up in the first place, so the novice Inter-City wayfarer will leap to his feet on coming out of hyperspace, unaware that the train always comes to an unexplained halt a mile from the main terminus, and then stays there for ten minutes.
The train had duly come to a stop and stayed there. Henry looked out of the window, through the smokey glass and the greeny-grey dusk. It was one of those odd scenes you sometimes get near the centre of cities, where a large empty space has remained large and empty, apparently unused. If it had been lighter, he could have seen the goal posts spattered across the expanse of Wormwood Scrubs, but now all he could see was the outline of the prison itself. Rather handsome, he thought. It must be nearly a mile away, across the playing fields. The playing fields of Wormwood Scrubs. Wonder what battles were won there?
‘I’d sit down, if I were you,’ he said to the cider man. ‘Could take ages.’
‘Yes,’ agreed the cider man. He stayed standing.
Henry yawned.
About twenty feet above him, Keith yawned as well.
Henry had no idea that Keith was there.
Keith was standing on a small road bridge crossing the railway, he’d been standing there for about quarter of an hour, waiting for a good train to throw stones at, break the driver’s window with any luck. At the age of fourteen, that sometimes seems like a good sort of thing to do, if you don’t get caught. Trouble is, all the good trains had been going the wrong way, appearing suddenly from under his feet. The only likely one coming towards him he’d thrown at and missed. It was getting a bit dark, too. And now there was this sodding train stuck still underneath him.
He dropped one stone on the roof of the train, half expecting six policemen to jump out. They didn’t. He dropped another. Then another. The next one he threw as hard as he could. Nobody appeared at all.
After the sixth one, Henry said to the cider man: ‘Can you hear something?’
The cider man sat down, relieved at the change of subject.
‘No,’ he said.
‘Sort of banging on the roof,’ said Henry. ‘Listen.’
Up above, Keith started sorting out the bigger stones.
‘No,’ said the cider man, and opened his report on Scottish draught cider again.
Henry counted eight more bangs, then started having visions of someone on the roof of the train, which was plainly ridiculous. A stowaway from Bristol? Ridiculous. Someone who had got on to the train from the bridge he could just see? Possible, but still ridiculous. Was there perhaps a tiny space between the ceiling and the roof, where a bird had got trapped, a sort of railway attic? Absolutely ridiculous.
‘I’m just going to have a look,’ said Henry to the cider man. He got up and walked to the nearest automatic door; when it opened, it made the only noise to be heard in the train. He opened the window and stuck his head out.
Keith, ducking down behind the parapet, felt pleased that he had created some effect at last. He went on lobbing stones from out of sight, deriving nearly as much satisfaction from having aroused one man’s curiosity as he might have done from derailing a whole express.
However far he stuck his head out, Henry could not even see the roof, let alone anything on it, though he could still hear the strange noise. If only he could stretch out a little further. … Well, he could. He carefully opened the door and, holding on to the open window quite tightly, gained another couple of feet to narrow the angle of vision. He stretched out in an athletic pose, like Robert Powell in The Thirty-Nine Steps or Douglas Fairbanks Jr in … 
Henry was not expecting the train to start again so suddenly, so when it did, it was hardly surprising that he lost his grip and fell. He braced himself to hit the platform, which was the only thing he had ever landed on from a train. There are no platforms on the Western Region opposite Wormwood Scrubs, so he fell another three or four feet and landed awkwardly on his ankle, then rolled over and lay there helplessly as the train began to accelerate away from him.
The cider man must have seen me, was his first thought. He’ll pull the communication cord. Or at least throw a lifebelt.
The cider man did not see me, was his second thought, as the train gathered speed and shrank simultaneously.
My conference notes and clothes are on that blasted train, was his third thought.
His fourth thought, as he got to his feet, was more blasphemous than the previous three. Jesus Christ, my ankle hurts!
He found by experiment that he had not broken it, or even sprained it very badly, just twisted it enough to make sure that he could only put weight on it very fleetingly. He sat down again, to reconsider his position. He was on his way to a conference in London, via Paddington. He had, through no fault of his own, failed to arrive at Paddington by a margin of about a mile. The sensible thing to do, therefore, was to walk on down the tracks to Paddington and run the risk of arriving without a ticket. On the other hand, he reflected with the first smile of the evening, you only need a ticket if you arrive by train. So … 
A moment later he had sat down again, convinced that it was not after all sensible to walk to Paddington. For one thing, his ankle would not last that far. For another, a train coming out of Paddington had just passed him at such speed and so close, a yellow rattling blur, that he realized walking down the tracks to Paddington was about the most dangerous thing he could do. He had actually been hit by a stone as the train passed, no doubt kicked up by the wheels.
If Henry had thought about it, he would have realized that train wheels do not kick up stones, as they come into contact only with the rails. The stone had in fact been flung by Keith at the driver’s cab. He had missed again, and managed only to hit this bloke who for some weird reason had got out of the train. He thought he’d wait for a while and see what the bloke did.
Henry thought he’d sit for a while and think what Robert Powell would do. He could make his way to the edge of the tracks and go across the Scrubs – no, no point, because he’d never walk all that way. So he’d go the other way. He turned round and for the first time studied what lay away from the Scrubs. A wall, as far as he could make out, with trees beyond. That looked all right. Once over the wall, he was bound to be back in civilization. He could cope with things there. Here, he was useless.
For some odd reason, Roy Plomley’s voice popped into his mind. What was it he asked his castaways at the end of Desert Island Discs? If you were stranded in the middle of the main line into Paddington, would you try to escape or would you be happy to stay where you were? Well, Roy, I’d definitely try to escape. I’d walk very carefully over the lines, in case any of them were electrified, and I’d climb the wall over there… 
The lines weren’t too hard, despite the local four-coach train that came past when he wasn’t ready for it. But the wall was a real bugger. Just too high for him to grab the top of, even if he jumped, which he couldn’t do with his ankle. And you’re allowed one luxury. What would that be? Well, Roy, I think I’d take a pair of step-ladders. Yes, I think we’ll permit that.
Not having a step-ladder, Henry had eventually to make do with a stunted elder bush which British Rail in their wisdom had omitted to root up. Painfully but effectively, Henry clambered up its small branches, and just managed to get his hands on top of the wall. Taking about two minutes to do what Robert Powell would have taken three seconds to do (but I’m doing my own stuntwork, he thought), he hauled himself over and found himself standing on a path which followed the other side of the wall. Between him and the trees lay nothing but a long black road. Sighing with relief, Henry looked both ways – nothing coming – and strode on to the road.
It occurred to him too late that you would never find an unlit road in the middle of London, stretching so straight in either direction. A moment later he was up to his neck in six feet of cold water.
The Grand Union Canal having been in the same position for over a hundred years, you would hardly believe, would you, that there were still some people who were unaware of its existence. Henry was one of those. Having striven so hard to link London to Birmingham with a network of inland waterways, the original engineers would have turned in their grave to realize that their work was still ignored by the public. But Henry’s expertise ran chiefly to the effect of refrigeration on dairy products – the subject of next day’s debate, as it happened – and canals played little part in the marketing of ice cream.
None of these thoughts ran through Henry’s brain as he struck out wildly in the water. He could swim all right, swim quite well in fact, but he had never gone for a bathe in a pin-stripe suit before, and the difference between swimming fully clothed and swimming almost naked is quite appreciable. It now being quite dark, he had thrashed about for a little while before he saw that any progress he was making was along the canal (he recognized the thing he was in for a canal) and, wincing with the pain in his ankle, he changed course for the bank.
The bank he arrived at was not the bank he had set out from. This suited him fine. The further he got from that damned railway, the better. Henry suffered from the peculiarly English habit of blaming British Rail for anything that goes wrong on a train journey, and the fact that British Rail specifically warn travellers not to open windows, let alone doors, on journeys was far from his mind. It even occurred to him fleetingly that he might have here the makings of a fine suit for damages against the said railway company. It would be better, of course, with a witness. He only wished there were a witness.
Keith, crouched motionless on a canal bridge forty feet away, wondered what this crazy bloke would do next.
Henry found that it would be no use walking along the bank he had landed on. In both directions there were huge obstructions of brambles. If he went back across the canal – but he had no intention of doing that. He was already freezing cold from the water. Do you think you would be capable of building some kind of boat or raft? Oh, ha bloody ha, Roy, I’ll just stand on my copies of Shakespeare and the Bible, and climb over the next wall.
If you have never explored this particular piece of west London, you will find it hard to believe that Henry could already have suffered these indignities scarcely fitting to the status of a fairly high-up executive in the frozen dairy product industry. And yet in the midst of life we are in death, or to put it another way, in the midst of a great city we sometimes meet areas which seem as deserted as Newbury Racecourse on a non-racing day, a phenomenon which Henry could have observed some ninety minutes earlier had he not been deep in statistics on ice cream movement.
But the greatest surprise was yet to come. On the far side of this wall, which Henry managed to negotiate with greater aplomb, perhaps because he was getting practice at his urban assault course, lay the final great obstacle between him and civilization. Kensal Green Cemetery. A vast acreage of tombs and trees, mausolea and mouldering avenues, laid out in the early nineteenth century at a time when a need was felt for a fashionable burial ground which would relieve pressure on London’s churchyards and which proved so successful that even one of Queen Victoria’s uncles was interred there. Whether the canal or cemetery came first is immaterial to this story (it was, in fact, the canal) but the waterway has always proved an effective southern barrier to this resting place; invasion on other sides has had to be resisted by high walls, higher than the one Henry had just crossed. They are designed on the whole to keep people out. In Henry’s case, they were equally effective at keeping him in.
None of this was known to Henry. He did not even know that he was in a cemetery. All he knew was that he seemed to be struggling across some vast orchard (the trees) at about 6.17 on a winter’s evening (his waterproof watch) with the distant hum of traffic ahead of him (the Harrow Road). He also knew that he was soaking, freezing, scared, wounded and extremely fed up. Occasionally he stumbled across low objects which he took to be boxes of some kind, but which you and I would call small graves.
What struck him most forcibly from time to time was the sheer helplessness of his position. Being disabled and disoriented is bad enough in the country. In the city it robs you of any sense of normality. It cannot happen and yet it has happened. Therefore you feel a kind of underlying panic. Henry felt this rising and told himself sharply that he ought to do something about it.
He realized that his immersion in the canal had put paid to any matches he might have in his pockets, but he suddenly realized that he also had (and for once he was glad he smoked) a lighter, which was unlikely to be affected by the wet. So when he saw a larger than usual shape loom out of the dark, he took out the lighter and lit it.
The mausoleum he had reached had an inscription carved on the side. By the wavering light of his French throwaway machine he made out a few words at a time. ‘An officer in the Indian army … very gallant … his life was tragically cut short … on leave in London … a wall fell on him in Paddington …’
Jesus, thought Henry. Jesus wept. Where am I? Jesus. Jesus wept. He struck the light again.
His life was tragically cut short. A wall. In Paddington. Fell on him.
Henry took a step and his ankle at last gave way. He fell over and lay, sobbing a little. Oh, Jesus. Surely this was all a bad dream? In a moment he would wake up. He’d wake up in his nice Inter-City coach, studying his conference notes. This wasn’t happening to him, was it? Come on, one big effort, and you’ll wake up from your dream. Come on!

He gradually became aware that there was a banging noise on the outside of the train. He must have dropped off. As he came back to consciousness, he heard the banging noise going on. He shook his head and tried to work out where he was.
There was a porter knocking at the window. He must be in the station. Yes, he recognized it. It was Paddington. He must have fallen asleep on the final run-in.
‘Come on, mate – we need this train!’ shouted the porter. ‘You arrived twenty minutes ago, and we’re shunting out now. Off with you!’
He stood up, still dizzy with sleep, and collected his conference brochure. ‘Draught Cider in Scotland: A Brand Development Market Breakdown.’ He looked puzzled at the other well-bound dossier still lying on the table. He turned it round towards him. It was called: ‘Long-Distance Dairy Products Movement: A Feasibility Study’. Not his. It must have belonged to that other bloke. Funny that he should have left it behind like that.

‘Hey, mister!’ said Keith. ‘Mister? Mister! Wake up, mister! Mister? Are you all right, mister? Oh, Jesus… ’

London Tales 1983

Best by Miles

London Tales


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