I was sent down to London on the strict understanding I did not spend any money. The house still is not finished and we have not paid our last set of bills to the builders. It is a very middle-class sort of broke - big house no money sort of thing. Despite that, after my Northumberland mate disappears into the London sunlight, I contemplate checking into a good hotel in the centre of town. I only have a handbag with me. This is because I travel light when I do not have the children. The handbag has everything I need in it - purse, toothbrush, change of underwear, change of dress, lipstick, powder, mascara, novel, newspaper, notebook, pen, tube map and mobile phone (which works.) I wonder whether hotel staff would think I was a prostitute if I check in for the night with only a handbag. Would they ask themselves where my luggage was? Would they presume the handbag also contained baby oil and handcuffs? I decide I am prepared to be considered a prostitute for the sake of knowing where I will sleep that night. I use the mobile phone to ring a good hotel. The receptionist tells me it will cost £250 to stay the night. £250? I would have to take up prostitution to be able to afford £250 for a night in a hotel. Prostitution seems like too much trouble. I ring the London Diva. I say: "Hi, it's me. I'm homeless." She listens to my story of scruples and inhibition. She laughs. She says: "That's fine. Come stay with the 'B' team."
I spend the night with them and then go to my business meeting over breakfast. The woman I am breakfasting with wants bacon and mushrooms. She is not allowed bacon and mushrooms. She is forced to order "The Traditional Breakfast" for £10.95 and say "No eggs and no sausage." Oh and she wants toast and not a bagel. As the waiter moves away, she leans back in her chair to ask for bacon that is "crispy". I order scrambled eggs and smoked salmon which I do not eat because it tastes like plastic and when my tea comes I send it back after I taste salt from the breakfaster who used the cup before me. We spend three hours over the meeting and by the end of it, the white-aproned waiter hates both of us equally.
On the train back North, still hungry, I decide it is OK to have lunch in the restaurant car. It is a nice lunch. I have a table. I do some work. I drink some wine. I sit there till Durham then move back to my original seat in the buffet car. When I get back, I find a man sitting there who looks vaguely bemused as I ransack his coat and go through his newspapers searching for the Waterstone’s bag I left behind to mark my place. The bag has vanished. I search the floor and the overhead compartment and the luggage storage behind the seat but it has disappeared. It has my favorite brown hat in it which I bought in Germany a year ago and nine new notebooks. I curse. I had been searching for exactly these notebooks for three months and was wildly excited when I found them in the Piccadilly bookstore earlier that morning. Despite my husband's strictures about money, I had bought them.
I go back down the carriage to look for the guard. The guard is not there. I tell the steward who is leaning against the bar chatting to his colleague that my bag has disappeared and he asks me when I checked on it last. I tell him about three hours ago. He is not impressed with such a cavalier approach to my belongings. He says: “Things get stolen every day on the train.” I say: “Right.” He says: “There are 400 people on a train. Would you trust these 400 people with your stuff?” He asks me whether I still want to talk to the guard. I say: “No. Not if that’s GNER’s reaction to something getting stolen – there’s not a lot of point is there?” His buffet car colleague tucked behind the bar is silent throughout this exchange. The steward says: “Well, if you tell me what I can do about it, I’ll do it.” My opinion of him by this point is not a lot higher than my opinion of whoever took the bag. I start walking up and down the train trying to spot it. I even check the toilets. I see a Waterstone’s bag on an overhead shelf of a luggage compartment and immediately rifle it. A mildly irate middle-aged man tells me: “That’s not yours.” He obviously thinks I am trying to steal it. I tell him my bag has gone missing but I am not convinced he believes me. I do indeed look as if I am reconnoitering things to steal as I walk slowly past everybody’s tables, my eye snagging on their mobile phones and shiny laptops. I am thinking: “Why would anyone want my notebooks and hat when they could have your stuff?” The unsympathetic steward pushes his tea trolley past me and as he sees what I am doing he says he will keep a look out for me. I think: “It's a shame you didn’t volunteer to do that in the first place.”
I decide to risk the guard’s scorn and report the bag missing. The guard is called Terry and does not pour scorn on me. He says things do get stolen but not every day. He is genuinely concerned. He is sorry that my bag has been swiped. He tells me Darlington to Durham and the Durham to Newcastle stretches of the journey are particular hotspots because they are such short journeys. He says a thief can come on, steal something and be off again with his swag within minutes. Sometimes they stand on the platform, duck in, take the nearest item and are off again without even the price of a ticket. I say pathetically: “I know you can’t do anything.” He says: “I’ll have a good look for you” and he takes my number and says whatever happens he will call when the train gets to Edinburgh. When his first call comes in later that night, he has found nothing. About an hour later, he finds the bag as the train starts its journey down the line again. I do not know who is more pleased him or me. He tells me the bag was near the kitchen. We wonder if someone has picked it mistakenly thinking it was theirs though this seems unlikely. Or whether a thief had hoped for a bag of expensive hardback autobiographies for Xmas and got a bagful of blank notebooks and a funny hat and dumped them. Terry asks me which station I want the bag left at. We decide Berwick and he even rings me a third time to say he handed the bag over to station staff and they will keep it for me. I decide my adventures in London have a happy ending: I do not slide into prostitution, I get my bag back; the thief, as yet, has to buy his Xmas presents and Terry ratchetted back down the line knowing he made a difference.