October 2013 archive

A short history of toilets

When I was four and living in Greensborough my family’s
toilet looked like an upright coffin in the back yard.  It had a hinged flap on the lower back
wall of wooden palings which the dunny-man lifted weekly to drag out the pan.
   
I looked up through the flap one day and watched the stuff
come out of my little sister’s bottom. 
And she watched mine in turn.
In our next house in Camberwell our toilet was stuck
outside at the back of the woodshed, alongside the briquettes shoot.  I collected discarded cigarette butts
from my father’s ash tray and stole a pack of matches from the kitchen mantel
near the stove.  I learned to light
the scrap of cigarette left above the butt and used the lit stump as a soldering
iron.  I pressed it lightly onto
the toilet paper to form the letters of my initials.  The edge of my ES had a tiny frilled border in copper brown.
In our next house in Cheltenham, an AV Jennings special on
the Farm Road estate, we had two toilets, one inside and one out.  My mother brought outdated Readers
Digests
from the old people’s home where
she worked along with the cast offs from dead people, things she thought might
one day prove useful.  Old
spectacles or empty spectacle cases, faded pink nightgowns, matinee jackets,
and hair rollers that had lost their pins. 
My mother brought home leather belts for my brothers and
father and sometimes the combs and hairbrushes that had moved through and
across old peoples’ heads of hair in a way that made me cringe.  My mother had no self respect when it
came to freebies.
 
I refused to touch anything but the Digests.  I took
them outside with me into the toilet above the back veranda and read about life
in America.  I looked always for
the salacious, which I usually found in the movie star section.  To this end I also collected my father’s discarded Truth
newspapers for the thrill of naked bodies.
When I was in primary school, a Catholic school policed by
nuns, I took it into my mind that the nuns never needed to go to the toilets,
nor did they eat.  Under their
habits their bodies were like those of my dolls, rigid and unyielding with no
holes for peeing or pooing and no digestive system at all.
 
The memory of potties – those enlarged cup like containers
which we kept under our beds to spare us the need for travel outside in the
middle of the night – stays with me, not so much for their beauty, as for the
stench they left in the bedroom when we woke and the dangers of spillage en
route to the outside toilet where we emptied them each morning.
 
It was hard to flush unwanted things away then.  They tended to hang around longer.  

Who gets the bracelet?

I visited my mother last night as I do most weekend nights
to a terrible stink.  She had used
the toilet after dinner and something must have got inside her and died, for the
smell in the room was acrid.
 
I held my breath to speak for the first fifteen minutes and
then the smell faded and we were able to chat free of the stench.
 
My brother had been by a few days earlier and left photos of
his new granddaughter with my mother. 
They were large photos, which I had needed to ferret out from underneath
a pile of books.
 
My mother had remembered when I asked her about the new baby but she
could not find the photos without my help.  I thought I might help further by spreading the photos
around her room in front of her on the pot plant stand so
that she might be able to admire them.
 
But it seems she has lost interest in the births of grand children or
should I say great grandchildren except as a number and a sign of her vast
progeny and even then she cannot remember the numbers.
‘I don’t like the photos there,’ she said.  ‘Put them away.’ 
My mother took off her cardigan and unbuttoned the brooch
that held the top button fast. ‘Who gave that to you?’  I asked.
‘Your brother and his wife, your brother the one whose
daughter just had a baby.’  My
mother thought this was so but she could not be sure. 
The brooch reminded me then of my mother’s bracelet, the
one I have long coveted and I drew courage when I dared to ask her if I might
have that bracelet, ‘when you are gone’.
My mother looked puzzled.  She too loves this bracelet.  It was a gift to her after her mother had died.  It once belonged to a great aunt.  A gold bracelet with a golden guilder attached
and dated 1912, with the image of Queen Beatrix, the then Dutch queen on one
side.
 
‘Perhaps I can give it to you before I die,’ my mother
said.
Yes, I wanted to say.  Why not now? 
But my mother hesitated and something in her hesitation left me saying,
‘Perhaps it would cause trouble with the others.’
Then I saw in my mother’s eyes some
irritation.
‘My stomach is not feeling right,’ she said.  ‘Just a bit uncomfortable.’ 
She needed to revisit the toilet.
We speculated later whether my mother might have the
beginnings of gastro and if so I needed to tell the staff as a precaution.  My mother might need to be
quarantined.  
She’d like that I
thought.  No need to make the trip
to the dining room which she resists these days.
Walking tires her out.  She prefers to stay in her room on her own reading her
beloved books, watching TV or day dreaming. 
My mother grew sleepy and I left her to her thoughts. As I closed the door I heard her switch on her television.  Perhaps my mother resented me for reminding her of her
death, of the idea that she soon might not be here.
And I resented her, too.  Even after I had asked her directly, she could not bear to give in to me.  Perhaps she had another in mind.  

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