Ushpizin*

The last time I took a photo in a public toilet it was to record the visit of unexpected guests. The occasion was a visit to the Men’s Banios at the Alhambra, in Granada in 2010.

Twenty years ago when I made a maiden visit to the toilet in my cabin in Broome, the gleaming green frog sitting contentedly in the white bowl caused me such aesthetic delight that it overthrew, for the time, the excretory impulse. I never took the beautiful creature’s photograph. Instead, like D H Lawrence chucking a stone at the snake drinking at his well in Sicily, I flushed away my serene guest. I never forgave myself; it was, as in Lawrence’s ‘Snake’, ‘something to expiate/a pettiness.’

These reminiscences surfaced a few moments ago when I visited the Men’s at my work. The cubicles, until now separated and enclosed by timber miniskirts, were guarded by maxis. I sat and mused. It felt how I imagined solitary confinement in the Kremlin, a dark, quiet, a place where man is alienated from his fellows. I missed the collegial sight of a pair of shoes arriving in the next cubicle. I missed the moment when the orientation of the newcomer’s shoes declares his intention and his need. Gone were the sounds, wordless but declarative of the action. I was alone.
I took some photos. Such a spiritually potent change in decor called for some record.
My workmates informed me the changes were made following the arrest by the police of a gentleman seated in a cubicle in the Ladies. It appears that the gent was an habitue of our female Conveniences, spending whole mornings in aesthetic delight, enjoying the reflected details of his lady neighbours on either side.

The opposite occurred to me in October 2010 when Nature summoned me to the Banios. There was one door for ingress and another at the far end for egress. On my right a number of cubicles with opal grey doors concealed their tenants; on my left a series of white porcelain appliances gleamed their welcome. I stood facing one of these, enjoying the slow movement that is the lot of a man in his sixties. I had reached that stage when the greater part of the volume has been discharged but the bulk of the time is still ahead. In other words I was still committed when the unmistakable tinkling sound of laughter announced the arrival of three teenage girls. The young ladies entered. They sighted us men and advanced. As they neared us it was every man for himself, one breaking off and hurrying away, the rest of us burrowing closer to the porcelain in some anxiety. The girls formed a line behind us and stood still. No-one spoke. Was this a quaint local custom? A welcome, perhaps? My Spanish was not good enough for me to essay an enquiry.
Eventually my hands were free, my clothing decently enclosing all, and I turned around. I found the new arrivals standing with backs resolutely towards us, facing the cubicles, waiting until one should be free. The arrivals behaved as if their presence were unremarkable. I turned to leave, looking back from the exit to gaze on the scene. I remembered I carried a camera. I took a shot of the males and the females standing back to back in that narrow rectangle and departed.

Five minutes later a ringing voice challenged me at the kiosk where they sell gelati. A girl’s voice, it shrilled its plaint in Spanish, then in English, with excited hand movements for emphasis: Why you take picture? You delete!
I didn’t reply. I didn’t delete. I lacked the skill to do either. But I’ve never opened the photo, never shown anyone. The ethics of lavatory photography come to one, like wisdom, slowly.
*Honoured Guests. Google if curious.

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5 thoughts on “Ushpizin*

  1. Oh! Dear Doc Howard! The hazards of travel! I’m so pleased I had no reason to visit the toilets whilst we were at the Alhambra. ( driving into the Alhambra when closed to all traffic that day 1977 is a story of its own!) Ah! Espana. xxx

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  2. A great story. Although most of my travels have been confined to Europe I have seen an enormous variety of conveniences. As a family we camped a great deal and my father had strict rules about etiquette, paper rations and, when in the wild, proper tidying up. Our favourite book of cartoons was ‘Continental Cans’, but I have not seen a copy in decades.

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  3. Yes, probably a POW hangover, but done with humour (two to wipe, one to dry), you were allowed to argue a greater need. He didn’t like to leave mess if we were in the countryside or camping and he abhorred waste and greed. He made camping and canoeing fun.

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