17 March 2018

A Chamber of Horrors

Peter Mayle, A Year in Provence (London: Pan Books, 1989):
A couple with their small son were having coffee, and the boy indicated his need to go to the lavatory. The father looked up from his two-day-old copy of the Daily Telegraph.

“You’d better make sure it’s all right,” he said to the boy’s mother. “Remember what happened in Calais?”

The mother sighed, and made her way dutifully into the gloom at the rear of the café. When she reappeared it was at high speed, and she looked as if she had just eaten a lemon.

“It’s disgusting. Roger is not to go in there.”

Roger became immediately interested in exploring a forbidden lavatory.

“I’ve got to go,” he said, and played his trump card. “It’s number two. I’ve got to go.”

“There isn’t even a seat. It’s just a hole.”

“I don’t care. I’ve got to go.”

“You’ll have to take him,” said the mother. “I’m not going in there again.”

The father folded his newspaper and stood up, with young Roger tugging at his hand.

“You’d better take the newspaper,” said the mother.

“I’ll finish it when I get back.”

“There’s no paper,” she hissed.

“Ah. Well, I’ll try to save the crossword.”

The minutes passed, and I was wondering if I could ask the mother exactly what had happened in Calais, when there was a loud exclamation from the back of the café.

“Poo!”

It was the emerging Roger, followed by his ashen-faced father holding the remnants of his newspaper. Conversation in the café stopped as Roger gave an account of the expedition at the top of his voice. The patron looked at his wife and shrugged. Trust the English to make a spectacle out of a simple visit to the wa-wa.

The equipment that had caused such consternation to Roger and his parents was a toilette à la Turque, which is a shallow porcelain tray with a hole in the middle and footrests at each side. It was designed, presumably by a Turkish sanitary engineer, for maximum inconvenience, but the French had added a refinement of their own—a high-pressure flushing device of such velocity that unwary users can find themselves soaked from the shins down. There are two ways of avoiding sodden feet: the first is to operate the flushing lever from the safety of dry land in the doorway, but since this requires long arms and the balance of an acrobat, the second option—not to flush at all—is unfortunately much more prevalent. To add to the problem, some establishments install an energy-saving device which is peculiar to the French. The light switch, always located on the outside of the lavatory door, is fitted with an automatic timer that plunges the occupant into darkness after thirty-eight seconds, thus saving precious electricity and discouraging loiterers.

Amazingly enough, à la Turque lavatories are still being manufactured, and the most modern café is quite likely to have a chamber of horrors in the back.

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