Liz, Tom, and their son, William, sat in the corner of the rail carriage. They had spent the morning at the out-of-town shopping centre enjoying the Christmas buzz.
The train pulled into the stadium station.
"Oh God! It’s a match day," said Tom.
A mass of home supporters in their orange and gold livery were waiting on the platform. They swarmed around the doors and around fifty men and a few women barged their way into the compartment. Most of them clustered around the doors, but a group of around ten men pushed their way along the aisle.
The home team had lost; the mood was edgy, loud and fuelled by the alcohol many were still drinking from cans. The new striker for their team had bungled a penalty kick and had lost them the match; they poured out racist bile toward him. A black woman in a nearby seat turned her head away and stared angrily out of the window.
Tom listened with growing embarrassment at the coarse language.
William had probably heard the words before at school, but that wasn’t the point. The foulness of the group grated on him. He had to say something.
"Hey lads! Keep the language down, there’s children here."
"Yeah, alright mate." The men looked at each other then began to eye Liz.
Tom heard one say in a loud whisper, "Nice tits. Get ‘em out, darling."
The men broke into raucous laughter.
Tom glanced at Liz. A flush of red was spreading across her neck. He wondered what to do. Should he single out the man who had insulted his wife, or address the whole group?
Another man began to make wanking motions with his hands, whilst looking down at Liz; the others looked on sniggering.
Tom rose from his seat, his fists clenched, but Liz pulled him back. "Don’t! Do you want your son to see you brawling in public?"
He fell back into the seat, his stomach churning - with what? Relief, anger, fear?
The train pulled into a station. The men had started a familiar football song, but changed the chorus line to an obscene slur against the striker.
Liz stood up. "Stop this filthy language. Can’t you see there are families here? What sort of men are you?"
The men stopped mid song and stared at her; their unity temporarily broken. "Piss off! Get off the bloody train if you don’t like it," one said. "Who d’ya think you are!"
They resumed their song, louder than before.
Liz, enraged, jumped up and pushed her way past them onto the platform. She summoned the guard to the door. "Where are the police? I thought they’re supposed to be on football trains."
"They were on the earlier trains, but this is the tail-end of the crowd. They can’t be everywhere."
"I want you to call the police now," Liz demanded.
The guard looked uncomfortable. "It’s best we just keep going. Most of them will get off at City station."
"But that’s another three stops away. I insist you call the police. We shouldn’t have to put up with this."
"I can’t delay the train. The best I can do is to ask the driver to phone to get the railway police to meet the train at City."
"No! They can’t get away with this."
"I haven’t got the authority to delay the train, lady. Now look, please, get back on, or get off!"
"No!" She pushed past him and went to the front of the train. The driver was leaning out of his cab.
"I want you to halt this train until the police arrive. I want these men off the train. Why should they be allowed to travel using filthy language in front of families?"
He gaped at her incredulously.
The guard arrived. "I’ve told her, Jim, we’ve got to keep going. We can’t delay the whole network."
She looked with scorn at both men, shook her head and ran to the front of the train.
She eased herself from the platform onto the track and stood in front of the engine. "I’m not moving until you call the police."
The guard shouted down at her. "Get off the track. Are you crazy, or what?"
"I’m not going anywhere until you call the police."
"We’ll have to call them, Jim." The driver made the call from his cab.
The delay had caused football supporters to spill in noisy groups from the train. They gathered round looking down at her.
"Get off the track you silly bitch." One threw an empty beer can at her.
William and Tom arrived at the front of the train and saw Liz.
Tom felt a mixture of emotions: shock at Liz’s actions; anger at the men - and at himself for not acting more decisively.
The crowd turned on him.
"Get your missus under control, you wimp."
"I’d give the cow a bloody good hiding…"
"I can see who wears the trousers in your house, mate."
Some of the crowd turned on the guard. "Get her off the track."
"I can’t touch her. I’ve called the police, let them deal with it."
At the mention of police, some supporters looked at each other and began to drift toward the station exit.
Two police cars and five officers arrived. Liz climbed back onto the platform.
The police stopped the supporters from rejoining the train and Liz pointed out some of the main offenders to them. The train resumed its journey.
Back home, with William in bed, Liz and Tom went about their own business in the house, each lost in a fog of emotions.
Tom clasped a can of beer. His wife had acted bravely - but leaving him to take the jeers of the crowd. Would he have done the same as her?
No. On his own, he would have closed his ears, gazed out of the window, down-played the noise and foul language as an inevitable part of modern life. However, with his wife and son present, he had felt under pressure to intervene. But she had acted, not him. Not him.
The newspapers contacted Liz. Why had she done it?
"They need to know they can’t just get away with it."
Would she do it again?
The journalists asked to speak to Tom. How did he feel about his wife’s actions?
"Like my wife said, their behaviour was completely unacceptable."
Did he not feel he needed to intervene, too?
"My wife beat me to it," he lied. "And I had my son to think about."
Was he proud of her they asked?
"She was very brave." And made me look a bloody fool in front of my son. "I’m proud of her."
Alone with his wife, his thoughts spilled over. "Why didn’t you discuss it with me first?"
"There wasn’t time to discuss it!"
He persisted. "It makes me look stupid. I should have been the one to have done it if anyone was going to."
"Why? And would you have done it?"
He didn’t answer - he knew he would not have done what she did. But should anyone have done it?
A photo appeared in the local newspaper of the three of them. ‘Train Heroine’ was the headline. William was ‘very proud’ of his ‘brave mum’. Tom was not quoted.
At work Tom’s colleagues were curious about the incident; asked him what he was doing when his wife was on the track. They made no comment when he said had he stayed on the train with his son until he realised what was happening.
William was quizzed by his friends at school.
"Your mum was well brave. What did your dad do?"
"He was with me in the train."
The children fell silent, thinking this over, not sure what to make of it.
The media kept up their interest; the story spread. Liz was interviewed on BBC Radio Four. The same questions: ‘Why…why…why?’ And always, ‘What was your husband doing?’
Her mind became battleground for inner voices:
I take the initiatives in other spheres of our life… why didn’t he do what I had to do in the end?
Because the crowd would have attacked him.
Well, we don’t know that; perhaps he was just scared?
And perhaps you should have just stayed in your seat.
Christmas came and went. The incident dominated their celebrations and hung over them like a malicious spirit.
Tom sunk into himself; went off on his own.
The first weekend in January he went into town, ostensibly to buy parts for his car.
The police phoned later that afternoon. Tom was in casualty; his jaw broken in two places, extensive bruising to his back and chest; cracked ribs.
Liz rushed to the hospital. A policeman was there talking to the doctor, making notes. Tom was in a side ward, his face bandaged.
"What happened?" she asked the policeman.
"From what I learned from witnesses, your husband was heard telling off a group of youths for dropping their pizza cartons on the ground. They took the hump and attacked him - about six of them. We’re checking CCTV to see if we can identify them."
He looked sympathetically over at Tom. "It’s not something we’d recommend these days, still…"
Liz went to Tom’s bed-side. She took his hand and felt a surge of feeling – what? Pity, anger, admiration? Whatever it was, a cloud had lifted from their lives - she felt it go.
"Why?" she asked.
He couldn’t speak and indicated a nearby writing pad.
Lifting himself in the bed with some difficulty, he wrote with a shaking hand:
"I had to."