A young guy in sunglasses and a high-vis jacket is sitting opposite on the evening train. He is siphoning up the dregs of a slurpie through a straw. The sound is unnerving, guttural, like the last of the bathwater gurgling down a drain. I look at him and then up at the sign above his head. This is a quiet carriage, it reads.
As the slurping reaches a crescendo, a familiar tension settles on my shoulders. I rehearse a conversation in my head: Hey mate, would you mind? I turn it up a notch. This is my safe space, pal! But I'm not great at confrontation. Instead, I sit and stew, broadcasting bad vibes on my own private wavelength like a passive-aggressive Professor X.
Early mornings are better. Everybody knows the score. The hardcore commuters nurse coffees and hangovers, too tired to speak. Bleary-eyed, we nod at each other and take our seats. A monastic hush descends as we reach for laptops, smartphones and books. Some drift off, lulled by the aircon hum and the gentle rocking of the train.
Henry David Thoreau described silence as the "universal refuge", and for many of us the quiet carriage is a jealously guarded respite from the demands of work and family life. It is our Walden on wheels (if a pond could ever be described as being on wheels, that is).
Sadly, the quiet carriage is a bit like the Obama presidency. A sane idea, reasonable and overdue, and one constantly undermined by loudmouths and bozos. Slurpie Guy is the least of it. Consider the roving gangs of sniggering school children, the belligerent Friday evening drunks. Consider the backpackers: bright-eyed, fluent in several languages and totally oblivious to quiet carriage etiquette.
But evil takes strange forms, and the worst offenders are the aged. Witness, if you will, those groups of older ladies just back from a matinee at the casino, who clutch at glossy programs and eagerly critique David Campbell's take on Bobby Darin. Take it somewhere else, Grandma, I want to tell them, but don't.
What we need is some kind of official presence authorised to apply the shushing finger of the law. These marshals would glide about in comfy shoes, separating chatty couples, handing out Reader's Digests, keeping the peace. They would issue warnings in the form of aphorisms. "Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods," they would intone, invoking the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Repeat offenders would be escorted off the train.
Retired librarians would be a good fit, but anyone could apply. Unlimited free rail travel could be an incentive. Or just the satisfaction of seeing justice done.