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A Bunch of Keys
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  Noel Coward






A Bunch of Keys

The other night I was in the underground Gents on Platform 1 at Paddington Station when I noticed a young man trying to get in who hadn’t got the requisite 20p piece. (Spending a penny? Don’t make me laugh.) So in a Samaritan spirit I sorted out the change in my pocket and found I had enough to change the 50p piece which was all he had, and let him in, to his blessed relief.

Ten minutes later, when my train was about to go, I found that my bunch of keys was missing. I ransacked all my pockets. Nothing. No sign of them. I must have taken the bunch of keys out when sorting my change for the youg man and left it in the Gents. So much for doing people good turns. I raced back to the Gents. Another 20p to get in. No sign of the keys. The attendant hadn’t the faintest idea what I was on about. Train going, so had to get on, minus keys ....

It had been years since I lost a wallet, or passport, or keys, or anything really vital, so I had forgotten that feeling of emptiness, that feeling of loss, deprivation, bereavement, call it what you will, that straightaway hits you when a vital part of your belongings goes missing. I am so used to the weight on my left thigh (I always keep my keys in my left hand trouser pocket, nowhere else) that without it I feel undressed, and rather odd. Well, I certainly felt oddly naked as I got on the 10.15pm home to Bath Spa, on June 1st 2006, as if I would never be able to get into any lock ever again, be barred from my own house, my own car, my bicycle, my shed, my . . . . .

Yes, what else was there? It suddenly occurred to me that I couldn’t remember what half the keys were for. My wife has always complained that I keep far too many keys on my key-ring and that it wears holes in the left hand trouser pocket of all my trousers eventually, and I know she is right, but it seems wrong to discard keys so I never do, and now I had discarded all of them at once.

I decided to make a list of all the ones I could remember, and not having any paper on me, I turned to the end cover of the book I was reading. (“The Free Fishers” by John Buchan. Good yarn. Bad story. No, good story, but bad characters. And why was Buchan so scared of women . . ?)

Key to the front door and back door. Car key. Two bike keys. Suitcase key, though I never use it. And . . . that’s it. That’s all I can remember. Yet there were about a dozen keys on the bunch. And there isn’t a single key that I can’t get copied and replaced. So why am I feeling so bereaved? It’s not as if I had lost my wallet. Credit cards are a nightmare, because they can be abused by naughty people, but if someone finds my keys in the Gents at Paddington, what use are they to them?

Oh, and the little tag given to me by a nun in Italy. I’d forgotten about that. . . . Thing is, some years ago I found myself presenting a Channel 4 programme about Catholic relics. The director was obsessed with the presence in a church of Italy of what they thought was Christ’s foreskin. As you all know, Jesus ascended whole and entire into Heaven, so anything bodily he left behind must have been something removed in his lifetime. Hair. Baby teeth. Fingernails. Beard. That sort of thing. And, him being a Jew and therefore circumcised, his foreskin. To cut a long story short, we never got to see his foreskin, but we did see some curious things (such as part of Thomas a Beckett, and the Virgin Mary’s own house at Loreto) and we visited Cascia to see the body of Saint Rita, patron saint of lost causes.

That was heartbreaking. Round her shrine were objects left by pilgrims seeking her help: photos of car crashes of which the victim was still in a coma, things belonging to people with incurable diseases, even pennants of football teams which hadn’t won in two years. I was looking on with a cynical but sympathetic eye when a nun pressed a present in my hand. It was a metal key-ring tag. It had a picture of Santa Rita on it, and the prayer “Santa Rita Proteggimi” – Saint Rita protect me. Superstitiously, I had worn it on my key ring ever since, and I think she has protected me all right. She just hasn’t done a very good job on my key ring, that’s all.

Well, it’s a week later now, and I have replaced almost all the keys, and my bunch of keys is down to modest proportions now, and my trouser pockets are breathing a sigh of relief, so all in all it was a blessing in disguise, as it forced me to get rid of a lot of rubbish and keep the essentials. And it may well be that in the future, if all our keys are replaced by electronic devices, something like this will not be able to happen again. Already many hotel keys are no longer heavy objects with small planks attached to stop you taking them away by accident but small plastic wafers which can discarded. (There used to be a bar in Jersey Airport which collected passengers’ accidentally retained hotel keys, which hung from the ceiling like Chinese wind chimes. All gone now...)

Indeed, perhaps I shouldn’t have written about this personal loss in public. Still, if my place is burgled in the near future, or my bike is nicked, I am already able to give the police an accurate description of the culprit. It’s a man. Who was in the Gents at Paddington on or shortly after June 1st. Who reads the Oldie. And who has in his possession a small souvenir of Santa Rita of Cascia. That should narrow it down.

The Oldie June 2006   

One Month Later

Last time round, in the Oldie, I told you how I had lost all my keys at Paddington Station and how, after a moment of trauma, had calmly and methodically replaced pretty well all of them.

I did subsequently try to track them via Paddington Station Lost Property, but I had to do this over the phone, which was pretty unsatisfactory, as there was nobody to talk to. A recorded voice told me that if I left my phone number and a message describing the missing object, they would get back to me if they had anything corresponding. One bunch of keys looks much like another bunch of keys, but at least mine was different because it had on it a religious metal tag, dedicated to Saint Rita of Cascia, patron saint of lost causes. But no-one from Paddington rang me back, so I mentally said farewell to Santa Rita and my keys and got on with life.

Imagine my surprise when a month later I got an email from an Oldie reader, a Mr Fitzjohn, who wrote to me as follows:

“Struck by Miles Kington’s plight at the loss of his keys, I found myself pondering the mystery while killing a bit of time at Paddington late this evening. Applying deductive reasoning, I approached the attendant in the Gents and asked if he knew where any lost keys might be handed in. The police, perhaps? I suggested. ‘No, no,’ he insisted. ‘Lost property at Platform 12.’

“Now, I’ve been travelling in and out of the faded Brunellian glory of Paddington for several years, but couldn’t recall a Lost Property office there. Nevertheless I investigated and found, alongside the route to the Stygian gloom of Platform 13 and 14, the place where you can deposit bags. Almost hidden away was a small sign reading ‘Lost Property’...

“A short conversation with a pleasant young lady, possibly Iberian, ensued. Someone I knew (‘of’ I muttered, reckless as to both the lie and misplaced preposition) had lost his keys in the Gents’ lavatory on 1st June. ‘Could I describe them?’ Certainly. A dozen or so and, crucially, a token of St Rita on the ring. She deposited a sizeable collection of lost keys on the table and invited me to look through them. Feeling a bit like Jonathan Miller rooting through several hundreds of brand-new, bright blue corduroy trousers, I set to. To my delight I came across a bunch bearing just such a religious token . . . In return for a small payment, a sight of my driving licence and a signature , the young lady handed them over. . .”

Mr Fitzjohn said in his email that if I were to get in touch with him, he would send the keys back, and, assuming he is not a cunning burglar playing a very long game, I have sent him my address and effusive thanks. Several points strike me immediately.

1. I owe Saint Rita a public apology. Not only does she look after lost keys, she also helps to identify them pretty smartly.

2. I owe Mr Fitzjohn a double vote of thanks. Not only has he used his initiative to regain my keys for me, he has also written most of this article for me so far.

3. Mr Fitzjohn has done something most unusual in the annals of helpfulness. Many of us have handed in bits of lost property, or told people leaving cafes that they have just left their handbag under the table, or told people they have just dropped something, but this is the first time I have come across an instance of someone retrieving something for a total stranger based on the reading of an article in which he describes losing that object.

Having said that most of us are in the habit of doing these selfless acts, I have run my mind back through my life to count them up, and I have to say that the record is pretty skimpy. I remember once being on holiday in Rome with my wife, and while wandering along the Tiber we found a handbag and its contents scattered on the ground. It was pretty obvious why. One of the notorious moped thieves that swarm in Rome had grabbed it from the young German lady owner, taken the money and wallet and thrown the rest away. I knew it was a young German lady, because all her identity was still there – passport, student card etc – including a note of her hostel address in Rome. We went to the hostel, found her and returned her bag and all her stuff. She seemed very ungrateful. “She thinks we took the money,” my wife whispered to me, so we left before she called the police.

And that’s it. It’s not much selflessness for a long life.

No, hold on.

I can remember one other good deed in my life.

A few months before I went to university, I was working in New York for a while, and one Sunday treated myself to a lunch in an Italian restaurant near Central Park. It was a good lunch. So I was sorry when I reached in my pocket for my wallet and found I had left it behind in the YMCA where I was staying.

“I am very sorry,” I told the proprietor and explained the situation. I said I would go home and come back with the money. He did not look too pleased. I went home and got the money and came back.

“Here is the money,” I said.

To my surprise, he kissed me on both cheeks, then went behind the cash till and produced a stash of bills.

“You see these checks?” he said. “These belong to people who forgot to bring their wallets. They all said they would come back with the money. None of them did. You are the only one who ever came back. Hey, boys, I want you to meet an honest customer!”

And somewhat to my embarrassment I was made to shake hands with all the waiters in turn. I didn’t think I had done anything special. I was just doing what a well-brought up English boy would do (not that I thought of it like that).

Maybe Santa Rita remembered my good turn to the Italians all those years ago, and decided I deserved a good turn myself.

So that’s all cleared up then.

Except that I wonder how hard they looked for my easily identifiable keys at Paddington after my phone call.

And apart from Jonathan Miller’s blue trousers.

What’s all that about, then?

The Oldie July 2006