The smoke-signals of machismo

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The Independent Culture
'Fag?'

'Cheers.'

'You?'

The girl, who must be 19 or 20, looks up at the two rumpled, trashy men, then at the pack of Rothmans with the flip-top hanging open, and she shrugs; the smaller man puts his finger and thumb inside the pack and slides two of the cigarettes an inch further out.

'But we're in a . . .'

'Ah, fuck it.'

She bends her head forward to accept the first light; he touches the flame to his own cigarette and throws the clear plastic lighter into his friend's lap. They smoke, the men cupping their cigarettes inside their hands; the girl shifts her position minutely, so she's facing the little guy, a tiny gesture of trust. That's why he took the pack out in the first place, probably - to make contact with this girl. The train lurches on through the night.

'Can't you see the sign?' It's a woman from across the aisle, almost shouting; she turns quickly away, shocked at her own aggression. The two men and the girl respond by saying nothing, but they shuffle a bit; the girl crosses her legs quickly and sucks harder on her cigarette, a compromise; she wants to put it out, but it would be disloyal to put it out too quickly. The woman turns again, and says: 'Can't you see the sign? There's no smoking in here.'

The girl places the cigarette in the centre of her mouth and draws on it, making her cheeks hollow, and then taps the cigarette with her finger and drops it on the floor. The men, who look to be in their mid-thirties, smoke for a few more minutes, right down to the filters of their cigarettes, even when the woman from across the aisle says 'Hmmph]' and turns her head away.

The guard, a big man with several tattoos on each forearm, enters the carriage a moment after the cigarettes have been put out, but before the cloud of smoke has dispersed; he hasn't quite caught these people smoking. He says: 'You've been smoking]'

One of the men shrugs. The guard says: 'I can have you thrown off]'

The larger man, wearing an anorak, says: 'No, you can't'

'I can stop the train and have you thrown off any time I want.'

'No you fucking can't'

'Right. You're out. You're swearing. Right. You're getting off at East Croydon. I'm throwing you both off]'

'What for? For swearing? You can't throw us off for fucking swearing.'

'Right, that's it] There's a by-law against swearing]'

'What by-law, then?'

'You're off. You're lucky I'm throwing you off at East Croydon. I could stop the train at any station] Right?' He walks out of the carriage, closes the door gently; not once has he looked at, or acknowledged, the girl. This is male aggression, male stupidity. Five minutes later, the train pulls into East Croydon.

The guard opens the door. He's pumped himself up. He says: 'Right. Get out, both of you.' The girl sits there, staring ahead.

The small man says: 'I'm not getting off.'

'I've warned you] If you don't get off, I'll have you thrown off]'

'Throw us off, then.'

The guard turns and jogs into the gloom of the station. He comes back three or four minutes later with two other guards. He shouts into the train: 'Get out]'

'No]'

'I said . . . get out]'

'No]'

The three guards huddle together. One of them shrugs, shakes his head, takes a pace back. He shrugs again. The tattooed guard closes the door. The train moves off.

Two minutes later, he's back in the carriage, holding a pen and a book. He says: 'I'm going to take your names and addresses]'

The larger man says: 'What for? For swearing? No you're fucking well not.'

'I'll get the police.'

'Oh yeah? What's your name and address, then? I'm going to take your name and address.'

The two seedy men laugh loud, fake laughs; they've got the edge, and they know it.

'You're drunk. I could throw you off for being drunk]' The guard is really losing it now; he's reached the edge of his social aptitude.

'I suppose there's a by-law against being drunk on a train, then.'

'Yes, there is, actually.' He's fallen right in, and his brain takes a couple of seconds to catch up. He snaps: 'You just . . . watch it,' and stalks out again.

At the next station, he opens the door from the platform side, greeted by a gale of laughter. He says: 'This is your last chance. If you don't get off now, I'll get the police. It's your choice.' The man in the anorak, who has taken over as spokesman, says: 'OK. We'll get off if you get the police. You go and get the police, and if they tell us to get off, we'll . . . get off.'

'I will, you know.'

'Go on, then.'

Again, the guard jogs away from the train. He must know, now, that this is his last chance. The man in the anorak says: 'Let's get out now, OK.' The two of them step off the train and dart across the platform.

The guard arrives with three policemen and a policewoman. A policeman steps on to the train and says: 'Where are they, then?'

The girl says: 'They shot off.'

The guard shouts: 'They've got away - search the toilets]' But the police slink away from the train slowly, without enthusiasm. The guard gets back on the train. The tannoy crackles, and he says: 'This is the conductor speaking. I really do apologise for the delay. This was due to two drunks who would have been ejected if they hadn't run away.'

The girl kicks at the three cigarette butts at her feet, the long one and the two short ones, and laughs as the train moves off.-

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