The curtain had just come down on Act One at the Chichester Festival Theatre. We had all streamed out and were waiting our turn in the ladies’ room, when I heard one elderly lady complain to another: ‘Of course, designers don’t want instructions spoiling their… erm… designs, but I’m just thinking: where’s the handle?’
I remember the loo. It was dependable. It sat there, four-square in its hard porcelain whiteness that was freezing on the bum in winter and, above it on the wall, a large greyish box from which a chain depended. You pulled on the chain and a cascade of water disappeared those things you wished would disappear. Sometimes. And if someone had been in there before you, you had to wait an age before the water would fill up again.
Of course, we didn’t call it ‘the loo’ back then. This was long before the chattering classes took their holidays in Provence, and a coy cry of gardi-loo had yet to be heard. We ‘spent a penny’, we ‘paid a visit’ and the bold ones announced that we were ‘going to the lavatory’. That was Mother’s preference: the lavatory. She disdained ‘toilet’ and winced at ‘lavvy’. I was careful not to let my more bohemian friends refer to it in her presence.
But whatever you called it, it was there, unchanging and, as I said, dependable.
Today we have low-level suites and high-rise conveniences for the disabled. We have Turkish holes in motorway service stations – not easy for the fashionista in her gold velour onesie. The chain evolved into a lever and, just as we got used to that, it too headed down the road to extinction. There might be a chrome knob squatting on the streamlined cistern. Lift or press? Whichever you choose is the wrong solution. Even more daunting is the pair of recessed buttons, forcing the quandary: does this deserve a big or a little flush?
Sometimes the very act of rising from the throne will trigger the flush, sometimes a mad flapping of the hand towards some concealed electronic eye will do the trick. And the Turkish hole , even the superior kind, will ambush you with an automatic, roaring gush that, try as you may, always swamps your footwear. Well might that elderly lady bemoan the demise of the handle.
It’s a perfectly splendid loo: clean, warm, smelling inoffensively of pine. It wins prizes, I kid you not.
And don’t get me started on washbasins You push the tap, you turn the tap, you pull the tap, you wiggle your fingers under the tap. Sometimes none of these will avail, and it sits smiling smugly as you search desperately for the answer while the soap congeals on your fingers. Ah yes, of course: there’s a foot pedal.
We have a public loo in Churchill Square in Rustington, where I live. It’s a perfectly splendid loo: clean, warm, smelling inoffensively of pine. It wins prizes, I kid you not. It’s the loo that has everything. Apart from wash basins. Emerge from your cubicle and you will be confronted with two small recesses in the wall. Each has a mirror above, and below that a shiny chrome plaque with little drawings on it depicting, left to right: bubbles, a shower, a blow-dryer. Perfectly intuitive you might think, but no.
Place your hand below the bubbles, and… nothing. Place your hand below the shower and you get soap. Place your hand below the blow-dryer and you get water. And, just as you give up in despair and turn away, shaking the drops from your hands, the blower starts up.
It’s all very confusing. Ah, me. Where are the loos of yesteryear?
Patricia Feinberg Stoner is an award-winning British writer, a former journalist and publicist. She spent ten years as international press officer for Granada Television before setting up her own PR company. For four years she and her husband lived in the Languedoc, in the south of France, where her books At Home in the Pays d’Oc, Tales from the Pays D’Oc and Murder in the Pays d’Oc are set. Patricia has also published three books of comic verse: Paw Prints in the Butter, The Little Book of Rude Limericks and Pelicans Can’t Read. She and her husband also offer copy and creative editing services through their business Perdisma Edits.
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