Sunday 15 June 2008

After a day’s slaving at the particle accelerator, we’d scripted up the experiment to take care of itself overnight, and got a taxi and a train home. I’d made it all the way to my front door, jubilant at my successful escape when I realised. Bollocks. In a piece of highly topical irony, I’d left a document on the train. Thankfully for the government department I work for, Music: a mathematical offering isn’t choc-full of juicy al-Qaeda goss. If anything, most people would probably find it slightly dull.

I only live a minute’s sprint from the station, but my slow realisation had probably been the death of me. I sprinted back to the station in the hope that the train might still be sitting at the platform. I was there and I was sweaty, but the train wasn’t either of those things.

I walked up to the guy manning the gate for people who are either too laden with luggage or too fat to use the normal automatic ticket barrier things. ‘I left my book on the train that just arrived from Paddington,’ I explained, panting.

The man looked a bit confused, and used a combination of broken English and repeating broken English to tell me to go and ask what to do at the information desk. I assume it is quite unusual for people to leave things on trains and staff cannot be expected to know every little bit of protocol, so I diligently took my eccentric query to the information desk. It’s only a couple of metres from the ticket barriers, so I didn’t think it worth kicking up a fuss.

The jovial chap behind the ticket desk, a tanned yokel sporting a white goatee, directed me across the tracks to platform two: ‘…Just over the footbridge, first door on the right,’ he drawled in a rural accent, ‘They’ll know if the train is being cleaned in the siding, and the cleaners might have found it.’

I told the guardian of the fat-gate that I wanted to go onto the platform to lost property. Having only thirty seconds before asked him what to do if you’d left something on a train, I think it was inordinately stubborn of him to ask me for my ticket. It took a second explanation to get me into the promised, ordinarily-ticketed land.

The supposedly-obvious door on platform two was a little difficult to find, but find it I eventually did. Three sets of three good hard raps on it over the space of about a minute didn’t seem to yield any response, so I decided to head back to the station.

I went back to the information desk to ask what to do given that there didn’t seem to be anybody in lost property. The jovial yokel was chatting with a customer taking her four year-old granddaughter on a trip. He laughed at his own joke (well, Gilbert and Sullivan’s joke, really) that had her granddaughter been born on February 29th she might get free rail travel for four times as long as usual. Given that she wouldn’t be able to drive for another 64 years, this was probably scant consolation. Throw in no sex for 60 years and no drinking for 68, and suddenly the poor girl’s life is transformed into a celibate, teetotal train-travel nightmare. I don’t think he’d thought Gilbert and Sullivan’s idea through. He also hadn’t thought through what to do if someone had lost some property, but there was no-one in lost property. So he sent me to find the manager.

When I found him, I could see immediately why this guy was the manager. He was tall and slim; in speech, he was efficient and economical without being terse or impolite; his medium-length, slightly thinning grey hair gave him an air of authority. His hi-vi jacket seemed slightly less garish than the others, perhaps through the wear of many years’ toil necessary to acquire the reins of power; or perhaps this man’s superlative executive skill at not getting run over by trains meant that he didn’t need to be quite so fluorescent; perhaps his aura of managerial authority out-shone the jacket. Or maybe they just found that judgmental customers thought he was a cut above because his jacket wasn’t so bright. Whichever it was, it worked.

He walked me briskly to the ticket barrier. The crowds parted to let us through. I wasn’t really listening to the details of what he was saying: this was a man in control, a man with the key to every train in the station: a man who would get my book back. When we got to the barrier, I was expecting the manager to have a wizard-like card which would magic us through. He walked past the barriers: evidently he didn’t. Instead, the gate kid (again) pulled the gate to expectantly. Perhaps this was the more debonair way to behave: why rely on elaborate electronics or wizardry when you can simply be attended to by obedient underlings?

‘…Just over the footbridge, first door on the right,’ the manager finished explaining, pointing helpfully down the platform to the footbridge. I looked back blankly. I expect he could hear the creaking in the metaphorical slot machine of my brain as the penny of disappointment and dashed hopes dropped. The manager, with whose authority I was infatuated, had just directed me back to the same lost property office I’d returned from moments before.

‘They’ll know if the train is being cleaned in the siding,’ he told me, ‘and the cleaners might have found it.’

Cursing under my breath, I set off once more for the lost property dead end.

On the third set of three raps this time, a man rather like Torgo, the creepy limping doorman from ‘worst film ever made’ contender Manos: the hands of fate limped creepily to the door. I explained my predicament. ‘Oooh,’ he explained. Apparently, there aren’t cleaners on trains on Sunday, so both the information desk yokel and the manager had been wrong (the balding, greying, debonair idiot), and my best bet was to grab one of the despatch boys and find out when that train, which had terminated in Oxford, would be setting off back to Paddington as an express service. His explanation involved a lot more noises, shifting weight from foot to foot, and chin-rubbing than the abbreviated version reproduced here for brevity.

A man with a hard nut hairdo and a pair of solid plastic tennis racquets told me that the next express left at 17:50. Living a mere minute’s sprint from the station, I thought it would be worth going home, but I made a point of explaining my imminent return to the fat-gate guardian on my way out because I thought that might help.

I was wrong, of course, because the penultimate part of this saga was explaining for the fourth time to gatey-boy that I had come back to get a book off the next express to Paddington, and wasn’t just trying to blag a free train journey.

I found Music: a mathematical offering helpfully stowed in the overhead luggage compartment above the seat where I’d left it. A man who I assume was the guard told me that he had helpfully moved it. He wasn’t helpful enough to hand it in to lost property, the BBC or the police, but he had managed to helpfully conceal it from view.

I waved Music… at gate man as I left. He was so overwhelmed with a tide of ticketless passengers actually trying to blag their way onto the train that I think my enormous blue tome looked enough like a super-saver advance business value apex leisure standard single return to Music that he finally let me through without argument.


  1. A touching committment to paper reading. The website you sent has a .pdf file on it.

    Anyway, you probably should have asked Torgo about the mathematical properties of music while you had chance – he may have turned out to be some kind of incredible hermit savant. Perhaps he couldn’t hear you tapping on the door because he was hosting an ENIAC-powered Prog Trance rave in his unvisited cave.

  2. In standard irritating fashion, I only got round to reading the foreword which told me there was an electronic copy available for free once I’d lost the receipt from Blackwell’s…

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