Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Most Unpleasant Journey

Last Sunday evening, following a weekend in the North West of England, Helen and I were travelling by train from Manchester Piccadilly to Edinburgh. I had deliberately booked a direct service, and reserved us two facing window seats. I was looking forward to finishing Martin Amis' The Pregnant Widow and also Daniel Blythe's X Marks The Box, while Helen did some school work on her laptop. Our reserved seats were in coach A.
The platform was crowded when the train arrived, with three coaches labelled D, E and F. We boarded coach D, and I observed that the reservation cards in the seats were marked for coach A. I concluded that the the reservations were valid, but that the external labels were wrong, possibly due to replacement rolling stock. I left Helen to mind our bags while I went down to see if our reserved seats, 31 and 35 were there.
I found them, without reservation cards, and furthermore occupied. I phoned Helen to ask her to join me, and she made her way with the bags through the crowded carriage.
I explained to the men in our seats that they were reserved and asked if we could sit in them. The more senior of them responded that they were not reserved as there were no reservation cards. I countered that I had documentary proof and showed him our reservations. They got up with poor grace, angrily swearing in our faces and calling us troublemakers. One of them faced me squarely, and making sure not to raise my voice, or swear, I asked him not to talk to me in that way. After we sat down, he tried to continue talking to me, but I firmly told him to leave me alone and that I would not be talking to him.
Helen and I were now seated in our window seats, a four-seater table between us, and another table over the aisle. There appeared to be two men with Lancashire accents, who I think were the ones who had been in our seats, and a group of younger men with Scots accents, who were more vocal. All were drinking alcohol, and as well as occupying the the remaining six seats, one or more were standing in the aisle.
Apart from exchanging mute glances of reassurance with Helen, I kept my eyes buried in my book, not daring to further inflame any of the men. One of the Lancashire men was sitting next to Helen, and I did not know who was sitting next to me. My heart was racing and I was full of adrenaline. I couldn't actually read, of course.
All the men were loudly exchanging coarse banter, crowding round a top-shelf Sunday tabloid and making vulgar comments about the contents. On top of this, there was a steady stream of comments about myself. When the subject of fellatio was mentioned, it was suggested that I would oblige with any male passenger. My earlier words, both when asserting my position with the other passengers and speaking on the phone to Helen were repeated. I felt humiliated, emasculated, and above all scared. We were to be on this train for three hours, and the men were not going to get any less drunk.
Despite their deafening stream of obscenities, threatening manner, and the distorted playing of music from a portable device, they were not challenged. It seemed the other passengers were all as intimidated as we were. After about forty minutes the portable devices was augmented with a set of powered speakers, pointedly placed at the edge of the table over the aisle from us. At this point another passenger did stand up and advised that the volume was so loud she could not hear here own headphones over it, but the men ignored her.
At this point, Helen and I made eye contact, and leaned if for a quick conference - we would pick up our bags and leave. We did this, with only a mocking offer of assistance helping us on our way into the next carriage.
We advised the conductor that we had been bullied out of our seats and what the position was in coach D. She committed to intervene and find us seats in coach E. As she went of to do this, I found my hands were shaking and my chest still palpitating.
The conductor came back and explained that if we elected, she could radio ahead and have British Transport Police meet the offenders at Edinburgh, and that whatever happened, she would lodge a report. Over the remainder of the journey we wavered several times between pursuing this or moving on. By the time we had decided to pursue it, it was too late to summon the police. I felt afraid of having to identify the miscreants to the police, or worse, face then in court.
At the time, I felt violated, impotent, and above all, scared. I'm calmer now - this was, after all, not the actions of religious extremists, cynical thieves, or anyone pursuing a vendetta against us. It was simple idiocy. If you put more than one imbecile in the same place, their oafishness is multiplied. If you fill an otherwise dumb individual with alcohol, he still has nothing to say, but says it loudly to anyone who will or will not listen all the same. If you allow sporting fixtures to decant fired-up male-only groups of low intelligence males on to the public transport infrastructure simultaneously, you are letting the rest of your public down. If it had just been me, I could have just applied what I've absorbed from outcome-based cognitive therapy, and rationally concluded that the only lasting negative outcome is that I didn't get to read my books, and had a fragmented and haunted night's sleep afterwards.
But it wasn't just me. My wife was there. I promised Helen's grandfather on the day I married her that I would look after her. I'm not sure I did this to the best of my ability. I'm over this for me, but not for her. She assures me she doesn't think any less of me as a result of my action or inaction, but perhaps I do. In an effort to seek some closure for her, I have reported the incident to the police, and we will be giving statements later this week.
I feel upset having just written about this. But it's been thought-provoking. It shines a light on my own nature - I don't seek vengeance, or even justice, because I don't think there's really such a thing as justice, or even human rights, other than as an ideal. I'm merely disappointed that there are such utterly unimpressive groups of men in existence, even if only fleetingly. And the one thing that does make just a small part of me want to utterly wipe out these crude sub-artisan hooligans is my love for Helen. So that's probably all quite healthy.
I did feel about 20% more right-wing immediately afterwards, but this has subsided. So I no longer feel we should have a futile land war, to which these animals could be despatched to meet their fate at a latter-day Somme. Ask me again when I'm 50.