Stranger rests in a strange land

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The young woman sat on the front bench nearest the door. An outsider would have guessed her to be in her late teens - and might have judged from her neat blue-green trouser suit and recently polished shoes, that she was probably a sixth former from a provincial comprehensive, come to town for her interview at a London college.

Clearly, the experience had not been too bad - only moderately traumatic - and finding herself with a few hours to kill before the early evening train, she had decided to do a little sightseeing.

She had done the Abbey, goggling at the names from EngLit A level now memorialised in Poet's Corner; marvelled at the stillness of the mounted Horse Guards in Whitehall; mingled with the Japanese tourists in St James' Park.

Tired, and in need of a sit-down before making her way back to Euston station, she looked around for a restroom, and discovered - strategically placed by some benign part of the English Tourist Board - a large chamber in which other exhausted visitors already reclined on slightly uncomfortable green leather benches.

Unfortunately she had finished Jude the Obscure on the journey down, and now had nothing to divert her. So she sat - her pale youthful face framed by bangs of red hair - gazing at the activity around her, her small blue eyes occasionally blinking beneath her large spectacles.

This woman to her right (with an improbable flying buttress of blonde hair on the top of her head) was addressed by everyone as the "Leader of the House".

The Leader obviously had a high boredom threshold, for - one after the other - most of the men from the benches opposite would get up and ask exactly the same question. This one endlessly repeated query concerned something called "Prime Minister's Questions", which had apparently been changed without these men being consulted. As far as she could could tell, they had no particular objection to the change itself (in fact they had nothing to say on the subject whatsoever), but they were unhappy that no-one had asked them for their views - if indeed they had any.

On her side a man called Robin Corbett - dressed like her Uncle Roger (a sixties nostalgist, who had a funny idea of what "young people" wore and listened to) in a truly naff salmon shirt, light cream suit and violent orange and gold tie - gently heckled the boring men with humorous taunts about how few of them there were and how lonely they must be. She felt that this was a bit rude, but that they deserved it.

This went on for ages. She yawned, smiled at a middle aged man who had given her a sympathetic frown, and amused herself by trying to imagine the occupations of some of the folk around her. What, for instance, could possibly be the job of the strange man with the ill-fitting yellow wig, strangely orange skin and childlike expression, who seemed perpetually agitated? Who would employ someone like that? A charity, perhaps? And what could account for the peculiar language used in this room - why was this chap an "honourable gentleman", while that one was "my honourable and learned friend"?

A slightly washed-out man was now speaking in a dry monotone, employing phrases that were wearyingly familiar from recent news broadcasts. It was as though, she thought, he was stuck in the recent past, doomed to repeat these words for ever and ever. And why did everybody call him "Lily"? This place was a puzzle, and no mistake. She looked at her watch. It was time to go home.