Aside


I look back with renewed fondness at my interaction with the dog on a train. On Thursday, I experienced something far more distasteful – drunks on a train. And all of this in the so-called quiet coach.

Not everyone can find the Quiet Coach on my cross country train. It is tagged at the very back. Not everyone can see it. For some the train ends at coach D, but to those of us to whom it is revealed, an eerily Quiet Coach rides on behind. For some unknown reason, I have been given the ability to find it almost every time. The rest of the train may be packed; students sat in corridors, large people shoe-horned into adjacent seats too small for their bottoms, other types who would normally avoid each other in uncomfortably close proximity. And yet, the quiet coach at the rear of the train can remain almost empty. And those in it are usually decidedly quiet and immobile. One sometimes wonders whether they are actually still alive. Particularly the lady in the Victorian fancy-dress.

The rules are quite straightforward – no noise, no music and strictly no use of mobile phones. Normal conversation is permitted. The laptop rule seems to be variable. A friend of mine was recently told to switch off his laptop, not because he was about to inflict his favourite play-list on the rest of the passengers, but because he was going to type. Is typing more noisy than talking? Maybe not – but to be fair it can penetrate. I can come to bed after my wife is fast asleep, bang cupboards, stumble over chairs, walk into the bed, even watch the TV. Not a stir. But tap quietly on my laptop and she is mumbling, rolling over and complaining and asking me I think I am doing.

Unfortunately, some who are allowed into the twilight zone of the quiet coach simply didn’t get it. In fact one wonders whether they even realise their privilege. They have walked up the train looking for a seat. The quiet coach has made itself visible to them and allowed them to enter. But to them, in their ignorance, it is simply an extra coach at the back they hadn’t counted. Before you know it are talking loudly on their phones to their mothers, business partners, friends, estate agents or loss adjusters.

You can hear the silent disapproval of the other – knowing – passengers in the coach. The coach itself sighs, almost inaudibly. Then the self inflicted pressure – shall I do say something to register disapproval or simply keep quiet? Of course I must speak up; it would be cowardly not to, and someone has to make a stand. Hopefully if you hesitate long enough someone else steps in, just as you were about to. “Excuse me this is a quiet coach”, “Excuse me, I was just about to solve world peace and you disturbed my concentration” or “SHUT UP, CAN’T YOU READ?”

A better tactic would be to comment on the conversation. Not only do people talk unnecessarily loudly when they have a phone on their ear, they also reveal surprisingly intimate aspects of their personal lives and affairs. One young lady had a full-blown in-depth relationship discussion with he boyfriend on the phone. We were all on tenterhooks as to which way it would swing. If only we had voting buttons we would have pressed “ditch him” in unison as she put the phone down, with the additional free advice to scratch his sports car and cut up his favourite shirts. I have heard people close deals, buy houses, appease their mothers and redesign their kitchens, all seemingly oblivious to the fact that talking loudly means people in the real world can maybe hear them as well.

I have never said anything. I have risked a scowl, a look or a sigh. I’m not great with confrontation. I just fume quietly and try to mentally conjure up the guard. Happily you never see them again, the quiet coach has its own way in the end.

On the way down to Southampton on Tuesday, the quiet coach was particularly quiet. The service is operated by cross-country trains, which is apparently owned by German national railways. Therefore it is efficient, clean and understated without being unnecessarily comfortable. The trains run on time and arrive on time – unless the Great British infrastructure lets them down (points failure at Leamington Spa) or a Great British train is obstructing their progress (slow train on the line ahead at Birmingham).

Objective number one is to find a seat which is unreserved and next to a seat which is unused. An inordinate number of seats are reserved but never occupied.I am wondering whether “reserved” is a description of the personality of the seat, in as much it would rather travel alone without anyone sat on its lap.

I settle in, hang my jacket on the little hook, put my coffee on the tray table of the adjacent seat, place my laptop on my own tray table, plug it into the socket and fiddle with my blackberry to my heart’s content. I could wax lyrical about sockets on trains, suffice to say little else has improved my quality of life more in the last 2-3 years. Then in theory, 3.15 hours of peace and quiet, with the intention of arriving at work in a calm state of mind, having caught up with my interminable flow of emails, refused to answer any phone calls (sorry, I am in the QUIET coach) and taken advantage of the man who sells me a £1.80 cup of tea every 60 minutes from his trolley. Just milk, no sugar please.

Dogs and phone-abusers notwithstanding, this is a comfortable, relaxing journey. Better still, to find a seat at a proper table, with zero or maybe single occupancy. As there are only two tables in the mystical quiet coach, this is a challenge. But on Tuesday, as we left Birmingham, both tables became free, so I upped and moved – coffee, laptop, cases, jacket – and settled back to do some undisturbed writing.

Until two blokes got on at Coventry. The quiet coach revealed itself to them and the door opened. 90% of the seats were empty; as was the table across the aisle from me. for some inexplicable reason they decided to sit opposite me. No noise rules were actually broken, but they proceeded to have a loud and at times impassioned discussion about their business. One was the boss. He was full of himself to overflowing, waxing lyrical on organisational culture, process re-engineering, marketing options and you name it. The other guy was quieter but clearly trying to impress to his boss that he also had something to offer, if only he would pause long enough to actually listen. Both were totally oblivious to me, and I wondered whether I had been swallowed up into the ghostly train and had become invisible. Destined to ride the 9.56 to Southampton Airport Parkway forever, like the lady in the Victorian fancy dress.

I could see and feel my own hands, but the tapping of my keyboard seemed strangely inaudible to them. The trolley came by – I asked for a tea to verify my visibility. He seemed to look straight through me. “Milk and sugar, sir?” “Erm, just milk, no sugar, thanks you “. My existence was re-asserted.

My irritation and annoyance grew as they rattled on. Why had they sat there? Why did they have to talk so loudly? And why were their little carrier bags of half-eaten, smelly take-away bacon rolls 2.5 inches across what I accurately estimated to be the middle of my table. Such space encroachment was unforgivable.

So – again, what to say. “Shush please I am trying to concentrate?” “Why don’t you try that empty table opposite”, “If I were you I’d resign now, mate” (to subordinate man) or “SHUT UP, CAN’T YOU BE QUIET?”. I could have moved myself to table opposite – which would have been very pointed and I would have to co-exist with them across the aisle. So I sighed and I frowned and I very obviously put my iPod ear plugs in. They didn’t even seem to notice. How rude.

And so, finally, in Ronnie Corbett style, to the subject of my story – the drunks. This time I was on my way home and the quiet coach was unusually packed. Again I was sat at a table – aisle side as ever, so as to dissuade occupancy of the empty seat next to me. Two more loud, obnoxious men – who were clearly inebriated, and intent on squeezing on the table. I stood up to allow one to sit next to me, as did the man opposite. My fellow-passenger was the two was the larger of the two and larger than the seat. As happened when worse for drink – he was oblivious to the personal space or sensitivities of others. I shifted left to avoid contact, narrowing myself down to the smallest possible width.

They talked across the table as loudly as men on phones. Their language was what is euphemistically called “colourful” language. It was also boastful, sexual and aggressive. This was a prime example of alcohol stripping men of any vestiges of humanity, self-respect, respect for others, courtesy or manners. Once again I didn’t say anything or look at them.

The guy opposite by the window had to get up to go to the toilet, which he announced with an unnecessary description of what would happen if he didn’t. He literally fell down the aisle. The guy next to him who had stood up to let him out never returned. I sat tight, fiddling with my blackberry. I was relieved I was there, and not trapped inside them, and also heroically glad that it was me and not a woman or more sensitive person who was tolerating them at such close proximity. For some reason these drunken unpleasant misogynist men thought that any young women would find them irresistibility attractive.

I got off before them, and left them to their cans and crudity. They would not have been allowed on a plane, but the train is a more accommodating transport – even the quiet coach. All life is here – business men mixed in with families, old and young, quiet and loud, happy and grumpy. I cant think of any other environment where such a diverse cross-section of society sit together and have to co-exist and tolerate each other.

Where else can some can be so persistently insensitive and discourteous to the needs of others – like sitting on MY table and disturbing me ? And where else can others – shy of confrontation – be so reluctant to do anything about it?

  6 comments for “Drunks on Trains

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