By now if you read this regularly, you should know my feelings on street harassment. One of the reasons I feel as strongly as I do about what does and does not constitute harassment is because when you are harassed, really harassed there is no debate or confusion about it.
Last night I boarded the 5:40 Virgin Trains service from Glasgow heading back to London. I settled into my seat, opened my book and prepared for 4.5 hours of boredom peppered with claustrophobia. I was strangely looking forward to it. About 2 hours into my journey, my cocoon of boredom was shattered and replaced with something entirely unexpected on a leisurely train ride home, rage.
Four men, about 55 years in age stumbled aboard the train and noisily ousted some younger, quieter chaps from their seats. "These are reserved" they slurred as they propped each other up in the aisle. "I am so fucked" one of them declared proudly, as if her were 16 and at his first kegger. The boys in the seats scurried off and the old men fell into their places. I was sat directly behind them and the smell coming off of them made me have to cover my face with my scarf until I adjusted.
In no time at all they had turned their attention to a lone woman in the seat across the aisle from them. "What's your name?" One if them asked, the woman continued to read her magazine. This is a tactic I have used often, pretend you don't know they are talking to you and keep doing what you're doing. "Oi! I'm talking to you, we just saw you in the bar didn't we?" I stopped listening for a bit at that point, because I thought maybe I'd got the wrong end of the stick and she knew these cretins. It became apparent later that she most certainly did not, and like me she was just a woman traveling alone and all to often this is treated as a fucking invitation for unwelcome advances and harassment. Real, scary, inescapable harassment.
The woman, whose name she finally surrendered was Louise, engaged in reluctant conversation with one of the men. I've also had to do that before. If they won't let up, you have no choice if the carriage is packed. When it comes to train harassment, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. Get up and move and they could follow you. Start talking and you open yourself up for all kinds of unsavory conversation from the harassers and the victim blame of the other passengers, "she should have moved" "she shouldn't have laughed" "she should have ignored them." Right, so it's her fucking fault for having the brass vagina to travel alone and stay in the fucking seat that she purchased? It's not the fault of the animals who won't leave her alone? Right.
At one stage I had to get up to use the toilet, but even I was intimidated. And the thing that makes me so angry is that I fucking checked myself. Before I stood up, I put my hair up to look less attractive and made sure my clothes were loose, as if that was going to help. The second I stood up the men began whistling at me, and then one shouted "Woah! She was sat there the whole time!" I'd been spotted. Fuck.
After I used the disgusting toilet, which people were smoking in just before I entered and was covered in piss, with no toilet paper with which to wipe it up, or to wipe my offending genitals with I headed back to my seat. At this stage I might add that Virgin Train tickets cost an absolute fortune, so what are we actually paying for? It was anarchy on that train last night and not once did a member of staff walk through the carriage.
When I reported this behavior to Virgin their response was that I "should have got a member of staff." Who exactly? And what would this person have done? The ticket inspector, who I saw once the whole journey was an elderly man himself. I had zero confidence that he could have stopped those assholes in my carriage and I certainly wasn't going to risk making it worse. How about you shouldn't be letting people that horrendously drunk on your trains? Those men would never have been able to board a Virgin plane. What's the difference between a 4.5 hour flight and a 4.5 hour train journey?
Once back in my seat I noticed that one of them had really started going for it with poor Louise. "You'd get it." "She'd fucking get it" his thumb jutted through the gap between the seats in front of me. "You've got lovely breasts" he said to Louise, all of his friends roared with laughter. Louise shrunk. Noticing her body language they all began to ask each other "is that rude?" "Was that too rude?" All the while cackling away like a coven of demented witches. I'd had enough "that's fucking rude" I piped up from behind them, my voice smaller that I would have liked.
"Is that rude?" They all asked each other mockingly.
"Yes, it bloody is!" My voice was back.
The drunkest of them turned around and fixed his bloodshot eyes on me. "Turn around, grandpa" I shouted and his friends responded with a chorus of laughter and "oooohhhhhs" like they were children.
"That one's a beautiful fucking cunt. She'll clip you 'round the ear if you're not careful, stick to Louise." Poor Louise, I felt at times like I was leaving her adrift on a violent tide of misogyny, but I knew I couldn't control it. She remained in her dinghy, but I stayed beside her in my sturdier vessel determined not to let her capsize.
It never let up. For 2.5 hours is was "where do you live?" "Do you eat pussy?" "Do you like cock?" "I'm gonna give you a lift home and fuck you." Louise responded as little as she dared and every few minutes I'd pipe up and they'd act like petulant kids being told off again. I finally snapped and stood up after clocking their wedding rings.
"Oi! You're all married? How the fuck would you like it if your wife was trying to travel home and four belligerent asshats were treating her like this? Would you think it was so funny then?" One of them held four fingers up at me and stuck his bottom lip out in mock pout.
"What does that mean?" I asked him.
"You said four,"he said to me, his voice just above a whisper. I shivered.
"What?" I exploded. "You think that because you haven't said much that you're not responsible for how Louise is feeling right now? For how I'm feeling? You sure do think it's hilarious when they say shit and I haven't heard you telling them to shut up. Your complacency is just as bad. Shame on you all."
I'll also point out that at no time did anyone else try and intervene. People were listening, but no one else tried to help. Between loud choruses of the Hokey Cokey, these men continued their disgusting comments and on two occasions one of them turned around in his seat and tried to touch me.
Once it was time for them to deboard Louise put on her hat "You look ugly with that hat on" and stood up "I didn't know how fat you were. Nice face, though." The men shuffled past me to the exit behind me and I stood up in the aisle to block the space between them and Louise as I directed her to the opposite exit. Her face crumpled as she looked at me and said "thank you." All I could say was "I'm so sorry, get home safe."
"Oy! Louise, you're coming with us!"
"No. She isn't. Goodnight."I gave the men an exaggerated wave and watched as they disappeared into the night, probably to go home and beat their wives.
I slumped back in my seat and got out my phone charger. My phone was dead and those bastards had the outlet on their table. I perched on one of the beer-soaked seats as the passenger who was sat directly across from me came over.
"Hi, I'm going to plug in too. I had my headphones on for most of that, but she really should have moved."
I cold feel my pulse in my ears, "she paid for that seat, why should she have moved?"
"She was asking for it by interacting with them, but good for you for saying something" He smiled at me, "where's your accent from?"
"There were four of them and one of her. Sometimes you don't have a choice. You heard them when she was ignoring them..." I checked my phone to occupy my hands so I didn't hit him.
"Yeah but, I mean she could have moved. I'm a salesman so I move all over actually. What do you do?"
I jumped back in my original seat and put my fist in my mouth. Is this real life?
I would gladly pay an extra fee to have security on evening trains. Or even to have people at the turnstiles to check passengers aren't too drunk to board. I am disappointed with Virgin's response and think that they need to do more to help in these kinds of situations. It's Virgin's responsibility take suitable precautions on their service to ensure incidents like this don't happen, to be vigilant and provide safe transportation. I hold two Virgin credit cards, am a frequent flyer and a frequent passenger on their trains. At least I was all of those things until last night.
I can't help but feel let down, not just by Virgin, but by everyone else on that fucking train.