Life Essays

Locked in the Loo at Paddington Station, or How I Beat the British Bathroom Bureaucrats, c. Summer 2011, AD

Last Tuesday we took the train from Oxford to Paddington Station in London in order to spend the day at the Royal Observatory. We arrived at Paddington Station, blissfully unaware that I would spend most of the ensuing hour trapped in a cubicle in the nearby loo.  As Adrian Monk would say, “Here’s what happened”:

I go to the loo, which is underground, and has 8 or 10 cubicles in it. I shut the door to the cubicle, sliding the metal bar through the hardware on the frame next to the door. When I subsequently try to open it, it won’t budge, because the bar has lost its moorings and has jammed, unable to center itself enough to be pulled out.  I try adjusting it, attempting to keep it centered with a fingernail file, but– no go. Then I decide I will have to crawl underLocked in Loo the door, and I look down, but there is a clearance of only about 4-5 inches between the door and the floor. I’ve recently lost some weight—but not that much! Then I think of crawling over the wall to the next cubicle, but the walls are so very tall that this would be a challenge—though perhaps not an impossibility, if there were no other alternative: Maybe I could somehow rig my backpack up on the door as a way to pull myself up, using the slanted toilet paper holder as a foothold?

Before trying this, though, I call out and ask the (very nice but completely flummoxed) Pakistani attendant to help me.  I tell her that I need a screwdriver, because I can see that I could take the simple latch off in a jiffy, if I had one. She does not feel that she has the authority to do this–or perhaps she does not know the word screwdriver in English—I’m not sure. . .  so she calls a (male) supervisor in. He comes, but has no screwdriver with him. Apparently he does not know what to do, although by this time I am calling out frantically and repeatedly, “Just get me a screwdriver!” The Pakistani attendant tells me they are, but by now, 15 minutes have gone by, and I’m beginning to worry. I try calling John but the phone won’t connect, as the loo is underground. So, I breathe a prayer and text him…this works. I tell him my situation, and he texts back how funny it is that we have the technology to text each other but they can’t get me a screwdriver. Yeah, hilarious–a real belly laugh.

I keep banging on the door, demanding a screwdriver, exaggerating my upset emotional state. The woman in the stall next to me says, “Calm down!” I say, “Don’t tell me to calm down!” YOU calm down!” I feel that the time for reasoned, measured discussion is over. Next, the attendant and the supervisor call ANOTHER (male) supervisor. I continue to aggressively pound on the door, while sticking my foot on the bottom, rattling it in an annoying manner, so people will notice me, and calling out, “I JUST need a screwdriver and I can be out of here in less than a minute!”  A second supervisor comes, but I don’t know this—the attendant continues to tell me that they are getting a screwdriver, which is not actually the case. Unbeknownst to me, they are simply standing there, gawking at the broken cubicle, doing nothing. John texts me again, “Do you need me to do something?” I text back that I may, but I will wait a couple of more minutes, since I am foolishly believing the attendant’s false promises. My annoying pounding and yelling continues for a total of a half an hour, perhaps longer. Finally, just as I am ready to tell John to come on down (and he would have), the hand of a fellow traveler appears under the door and offers me a Swiss LolcatbathattnArmy knife with the screwdriver attachment open. I grab it and in 30 seconds or less have taken off the offending latch. The kindly Pakistani attendant is standing on the other side of the door, saying,  “Something will have to be done on this side, also, for you to get out,” but I open the door, and simply and shakily step to freedom. I hand the Swiss Army knife back to the clever and helpful woman who loaned it to me, thanking her, and assuring the apologetic attendant that it’s ok. As I look up towards the door, I see two males in uniforms standing there, staring at me—the supervisors, who clearly are NOT Pakistani and do speak English. I glare at them and pointedly declare, in a stentorian tone, “Don’t you know what a screwdriver is?” two times, and stomp up the stairs, relieved to be surrounded by the blessed cacophony of Paddington Station.

The first thing I’m doing when we return home is buying a Swiss Army knife, which will permanently reside in my purse. I’m still deciding what color I want; (John’s is red, so I’ll KNIFEchoose something different) and what features to include, but the screwdriver attachment is NOT optional. I can’t imagine how I’ve survived without it all these years.

Sharman’s Legacy 

Sharman grew into womanhood with the grace so characteristic
of her; it was a given that book-coffee-nature would beautify those startling cheeks and bestow regal assurance upon her tall, intelligent personage. I recall the first time I ever met her: poised eagerly over a first edition of Bleak House, china teacup in hand, she expounded upon the glories of British literature, pausing periodically to brush a curtain of light brown hair away from her face or to replenish her chronically empty cup. A hold-over from the romantic sixties, she was–the 1860s, that is. Having just returned to college from a six week tour of Europe, she was full of Dickens, Stratford-upon-Avon, the Tower of London–anything English. Yes, Italy and France were there–in Italy the men pinched, in France the waiters were rude–but England, ah, England LIVED! Her adoration was infectious, and my own latent anglophilia stirred and expanded, giving me a love for literature–and life–that I had never before known.

Her energy came in spurts and died as quickly as it began. She never seemed to notice how unusual her impulsive behavior was; one minute we might be engrossed in the Victorian essayists, the next we were driving miles to find the perfect hill from which to observe a winter sunset. Once home she would find herself exhausted and spent, and invariably would excuse herself to go and rest. She existed in a rich, overflowing, yet separate sphere, and when she withdrew, it was as if she closed the pages of the book and said, “No more for now.” I always let the cover fall without interference so that she would open the book again.

We often took walks in the hills to relieve the strain of studying, and Sharman walked with her entire being. She hungrily absorbed the world around her, taking the birds, flowers and sky unto herself in the manner of a beggar at a feast. Her capacity for appreciation was infinite. Yet, her mood swings were dramatic. I never knew how I would find her–on one occasion, with no apparent provocation, she began contemplating the harshness of life Sharman-Woolf-bagand the injustices of the world, then just as quickly fell into an ecstasy over a recording of Bach fugues we overheard while leaving our rooms.

The entire time I knew her, Sharman never once wore a pair of pants. At first she wore the long “Victorian” dresses popular at the time; she would often place a fresh flower in her long, wavy hair. As time went on, she replaced these items with soft silky blouses and elegant skirts and dresses, and one momentous day the flowing hair vanished; a stylish above-the-shoulders cut had taken its place. From that day on, her perceptive grey eyes became even more intriguing and her confident, knowledgeable lips became alluring and sophisticated.

Sharman often made weekend trips of unknown purpose: to me she would explain that she had decided to fly home at the last minute; curiously, towards others she was more silent. There was something mysterious about her flurried journeys, and she was even more a focus of interest in our little dormitory when she was gone than when she was present. But I defended, excused and protected her extravagant absences; I guarded her privacy as fiercely as she did and although I too wondered where she went (and why), I set that aside in favor of the greater wonder of knowing her friendship.

My final vision of Sharman remains intact: in front of the small, white wooden chapel she stands, clasping her treasured bookbag–the one displaying Virginia Woolf’s stark, lonely face. Her expressive body leans against the wisteria covered picket fence and that radiant   smile emanates, so knowing and self-confident. None of us knew then that CHAPELshe was dying–but she did, of course. That her life was so brief is still unfathomable and that she died on the day she was to have been married was characteristic. She left her vivid legacy with those of us who were graced by her evanescent and memorable life. She is with me yet, her soul touching mine, and when I open a book I feel her presence and see her–teacup in hand, eyes alight–reaching for her own copy, which is most                                                                               assuredly a first edition.

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