The trolley woman was having none of it. “Can you keep your voice down please, and stop swearing.” The errant teenager was belligerent with her three defences. “It doesn’t say we can’t talk” was a reference to the Quiet Coach Rules, which forbid only loud music, the use of mobile phones (quaintly, as phones) and “unnecessary” noise.
Equal to her familiarity with the Cross Country Trains Charter was her intimate knowledge of the Magna Carta and the European Convention of Human Rights, succinctly summarised in her second defence; “It’s my human right to be able to talk. It’s called freedom of speech”. And as if these were not enough, a personal appeal. “My boyfriend is deaf, so I have to speak loud”. Less convincing this one – even allowing for the now popular ignorance of the adverb. I suspected said boyfriend might be selectively deaf or simply obtuse. In the way that people who live with an incessant talker have to be.
I was sat quietly in the middle of this confrontation. The trolley lady had been serving me a cup of tea when she had paused to deal with the miscreant. She had no need to respond to this three-line defence, preferring to exploit the more serious charge. “Well, there is no need to swear, there are children present”. In the days of gallantry and chivalry, it was men who would not utter profanities in the presence of women. Now it is women who expected to be restrained in the company of children. Next it will be children who will be expected to moderate their expletives in the presence of small furry animals.
I was across the aisle and slightly behind the teenager and her boyfriend. The perfect vantage point. I had been listening to them for some time. She had been giving him a very hard time. Apparently he was a liar, he lied and he was always lying. She berated him, constantly, endlessly and with some skill. But he was simply not to be provoked. He sat slumped by the window, staring into the middle distance.
Maybe he was deaf. Maybe he had his iPod secreted under his hat. Maybe he was just tuned out. He was like Ali, against the ropes, hands in front of his face, riding the punches without feeling very much. Silence is the ultimate weapon. He who resolutely does and says nothing in the face of provocation and pleading holds all of the cards.
Her language was articulate as well as colourful. It is a sad irony that those who talk the most are sometimes listened to the least. Her best strategy, I mused, would be to say less, and give him some silence to fill. Try giving him a taste of his own medicine. As it was, it was an impasse, and a noisy and colourful one at that.
The trolley woman – not much older than our rebellious teenager –continued up the aisle, politely offering a selection of hot and cold beverages and light refreshments to the remainder of the carriage. Our teenager did lower her voice, but made no effort to reduce the swear-word count as she continued her protesting.
The rest of the carriage remained silent. If we were the jury, we were keeping our verdicts to ourselves. I suspect the weight of empathy was with the trolley woman. It is hard to believe there would be much sympathy for the noisy, rude teenager. But I suspect the greater feeling was apathy – people just wanted to get on with whatever they were getting on with.
Most would be merely hoping that the conflict would not escalate further. If it did, my money would be on the teenager. Sure, the trolley woman could soften her up with a few well-targeted granola bars and cheesy snacks, and follow through with a barrage of low-calorie sandwiches and catering milk cartons. But the girl had a mean and determined streak. A sharp blow to her head with the chip-and-pin machine, and the trolley woman would be on a hospital trolley of her own.
The monologue veered away from the boyfriend’s pathological mendacity towards the girl’s need for a smoke. Here too, the boyfriend was inevitably at fault. He had given his cigarette lighter to his friend, rather than to her. As it transpired, she had her own lighter. But this was beside the point. He clearly didn’t care for her enough to lend her his instrument of death.
I tried to understand her. She was smart – in both senses of the word – and oozing with attitude. In a different world she could be a successful and happy young woman. Beneath this charade, she no doubt just needed to be listened to, hugged and reassured. Something one, or both of her parents had probably not done for her.
Her familiarity with the cross-country train regulations did not stop her from breaking the unambiguous no-smoking policy. Her boyfriend had returned from the toilet, accompanied by a distinct smell of adhesive. Most people take a book to the toilet. This guy clearly used the time to make some minor repairs to some plastic airplane with his polystyrene cement. Or maybe he just welcomed the peace and quiet, and needed a different type of fix before coming out for the next round of verbal assaults.
Once he returned, she went for her smoke. We enjoyed the moment of peace. And there are worse crimes than sneaking a quick ciggie in the toilets. She returned, revitalised and the talking recommenced like a river released from a temporary damn.
Now I was irritated. I had tried to understand her, but she was careless of her impact on others. I had chosen to sit in the Quiet Coach for a reason – the clue is in the title. She was oblivious to anyone else’s needs but her own, in the way that needy people are (by definition). I plugged my ears with my iPod – but the battery was dead. Thankfully, they got off at Birmingham. Lasting peace at last.
The trolley woman returned. I bought another cup of tea and thanked her for talking to the teenage. I pondered on my silence earlier – why had I not stuck up for the trolley woman at the time, supporting and defending her, letting the teenager know in no uncertain terms that she should quieten down and stop swearing? But then I have yet to reprimand anyone for making a noise on the quiet coach. Even today, two other women nearby had been using their phones. The woman behind me had two uncontrollable children, running up and down the aisle and playing hide and seek in the toilet (when it wasn’t in use for smoking or glue-sniffing). And I just sat there, tapping on my laptop, outwardly undisturbed, inwardly very disturbed.
Anything for a quiet life, I guess. But then, all it takes for socially unacceptable behaviour to flourish is for people like me to say nothing.
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