Content warning: this post contains references to sexual assault.
An inner wine glass pocket in the jacket of a suit is an innovation that future me would have found aspirational, but 19-year-old me was shocked it was something a grown man would employ, especially at 7pm on a weekday. The man sitting next to me was undeniably drunk, words slurred and uncensored. Every commuter on the train was a boring prick, he loudly declared, opening his jacket to reveal a plastic glass: the prized chalice into which he now emptied the remains of a bottle of red wine. He offered the glass to me, gesturing at the cardboard box of unopened bottles on his lap as an indicator that he had plenty to go around. I politely declined his offer for I sat firmly within the mass of silent bodies in the surrounding carriage, at one with the people he had just denounced.
As a teenager I’d never been a fan of rowdy behaviour in public places, partly because it made me uneasy but mostly because I was taught from a young age that to be loud in public was to be a nuisance. Miss Harris, my primary school teacher when I was three, would often scold me for being too loud, a chastisement repeated throughout my school years as my voice commonly found itself rising to be the loudest in the room. Running about in a blue dress and blonde wig during break time would cause a loud disturbance, resulting in revoked dress-up privileges and lunch hours spent indoors. Unconsciously, I was trying to fit in with my lighter-haired classmates, all of whom were white and none of whom had their dad’s male and Asian name as their middle name, unlike me. Miss Harris would pretend she, too, had her father’s first name as her middle, and I loved her for being on my side in a field of Daisies and Roses.
On one particular occasion she instructed me to go to the bathroom to wash my mouth out with soap and water, when I said something too brash for the classroom. I’d never heard the expression before but despite her stern demeanour I admired her as a teacher, so, obligingly, I left the room, poured some hand soap and water into my tiny palm and tipped the mixture into my mouth. It tasted terrible. I had no idea why anybody would find the experience an enjoyable one and I returned to the room, look of distaste evident on my face. I learned that being too loud had its consequences. As a child, it was rude to be a nuisance in the classroom and in adulthood, it was rude to be a nuisance in the public space of the busy trains that ran to and from the city. In an environment where it was an unspoken rule to remain as quiet as possible, the man sitting next to me had disturbed the peace, and it was unsettling.
He was a drinks merchant and had attended a wine convention near Waterloo East, the station where he boarded the train. He hated politicians and knew my father, who he thought ran the off license around the corner from his home in a town near Tunbridge Wells. My lack of interest in his storytelling either did not deter him or he simply did not notice, lost in the daze of his day drinking. He chatted to me animatedly about his plan to run for local election while I continued to look out of the window towards the summer sun, now low in the sky. In a few weeks’ time I would be moving to London for uni, and I’d no longer have to ride the trains back and forth to Kent.
As the train moved further into the outskirts of the city, it emptied. As each person rose to make their departure, he outed them as a bore in a loud, conspiratorial whisper in my direction. A friendship between a 19-year-old and a 54-year-old seemed highly unlikely, and I wondered why the other passengers did not stop to intervene his public disorder. I couldn’t help but smile uneasily at his outspoken commentary; the glint in his eye was that of a mischievous child, but for this child there was no soap and water concoction, only the warm alcohol that he was downing steadily by the glass.
The train pulled into the station before mine and suddenly it was his turn to stand, waking a drunken colleague who was passed out a few aisles away. As the doors opened, he briefly set down the box of vin ordinaire. I glanced up at him as he stood in hesitation, undecided of his next move. I’m not sure if the look we shared confirmed in his mind that I wanted it, whether my civil replies to his conversation he confused with genuine interest, nervous laughter mistaken for flirtation, but I was 19 and he was 54.
The 30 seconds it took for the doors to close felt as long as the 30-odd year age gap that stood between us. He leaned over me, stale breath hot in my face. The glass in his hand fell to the ground and red wine spilled over the floor of the carriage, a bloodied oasis that soured the scent of the August air with a bitter tang. I pulled my knees close to my chest and sunk into the seat, as though I could make myself as small as I was when I was three, when I had the protection of a blue dress and the confidence of a loud voice, now silent in fear. Hands gripped my face as I extended both my own and attempted to push his bristly jaw away. He clamped his wet lips over mine, tongue poking out as though he was reaching for the last of the wine in the bottom of the glass, the wine all over the floor of the train.
His signature stained the lino, a rude and sticky nuisance. It stared up at me, the only evidence that the last 30 seconds had been real. I have long since forgotten his name, his face. I remember only the greying hair, pale hands and the blur of his suit as he moved to trap me between his body and the window. For a while I convinced myself that I was making a fuss over nothing, that this man who had stolen my ‘first’ kiss hadn’t caused any real harm, that he’d been drunk and rude but I would be the nuisance for complaining about it. Time moved on and as it did, so did I.
One night the following year, I stumbled onto the Northern Line and promptly threw up in the aisle between the seats, the contents of my stomach lining the floor like the wine of the man who assaulted me all those months ago. I can barely remember it happening, I see only a snapshot of a head slumped between legs, unable to control my body in its inebriation. I don’t drink red wine because I don’t like the taste and because the smell still reminds me of his breath, his desire, his mouth taking possession of me when I wasn’t his to take.
Alcohol became an escape from the memories which disturbed me, turning my thoughts into running water that I couldn’t hold onto for long enough to overthink. It brought a gratifying moment of relaxation; I was able to lose control of my mind, but it came at the cost of becoming the very public nuisance I was taught my whole life to avoid being. I woke up the next day with gaps in my memory, confusion filling the empty spaces in my head. I wonder if the man on the train woke up the morning after our journey and remembered what he had done, or whether the cardboard box of wine and his train ticket served as the only evidence that it had ever occurred.
Time passes and each journey made brings a greater understanding that in the real world there is not an allocated group of people whose job it is to hand out soap and water cups to those who bark profanities down their phones on silent train carriages, or invade personal space with unwanted sexual advances. I observe that we consign ourselves to a public space routine, making ourselves smaller to accommodate stretched legs and slack elbows.
The man on the train held no remorse in casting me as the involuntary damsel of his drunken day-dream. As I sit with my legs together and my eyes down, I wonder why open legs translate as an unspoken signal that I want men to invade my space with their own, when my legs, on that day crossed like swords, did nothing to shield me from his grasp.
From a young age, I was taught that being too loud had its consequences; that being too loud was to be nuisance and it was rude to be a nuisance. If the rules of society teach us that the last role a woman should strive to be is that of the nuisance, the nag, the bossy, the outspoken, the bitch, then I want to be all of the above, because these rules are what enabled a 54-year-old to kiss a 19-year-old on his commute, when she didn’t shout or cause a scene because it would be rude to.