Ian McMillan: “If you try and flush it, it goes off like a bomb...”

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We’d just walked into the hallway of the little B&B somewhere on the Yorkshire Coast; it was the 1960s so the house seemed to fill with the smell of old breakfasts, cold air, big pink bars of soap and something you’d have to call Optimistic Despair. In other words, it’s raining now, but it might brighten up later.

As we booked in, the landlady, a formidable woman in a baroque floral pinny, told us, as part of her welcoming speech, about the toilet on the first floor. ‘It doesn’t flush’ she said, ‘so don’t use it.’ We nodded. ‘If you try and flush it, it goes off like a bomb and it wakes everybody up.’ We nodded again. ‘Even them next door?’ I said, innocently trying to add a bit of levity to a tense situation. She didn’t get it. Maybe irony wasn’t her strong point. ‘No, they won’t hear it next door, it’s mainly in this house’ she said, her voice cutting through the air like a bread-knife. ‘So if you need to go there’s one on the ground floor, two floors below your room.’ She pointed to the carpet. Then pointed again, to make sure we knew it was two floors.

We trooped to our room, unpacked, and then went out for a stroll by the sea, our faces gargoyle-like as we walked into the wind and rain. On our stroll we made a mistake, or rather we stored up a mistake, which was going into a café; oh, the café was nice, and the tea was hot and the pop sparkled. There was just quite a lot of it.

Back in the room we made our second mistake; we made use of the tea and coffee making facilities (very new and sophisticated in those days) and had another cup of tea. My mam told me off for clinking my cup on the saucer and slurping too loudly in case I woke up the people in the rooms next to us, and then we all went to bed.

And then, of course, in the middle of the night, biology happened, particularly with my dad. The aftermath of tea. Now, as a middle-aged man, I know how he feels; then, it was simultaneously hilarious and terrifying to watch him stumbling half asleep as he tried to find the door. My mother hissed, in the darkness, ‘Downstairs! Go downstairs! Two floors!’

My dad, of course, was too befuddled, too somnambulous, to hear. He went out of the room like a polar explorer leaving a comfortable tent. We heard him pad down the corridor. We heard the door of the toilet opening, closing, locking. We heard the sound of relief. Then, to our horror, we heard the sound of him pulling the ancient chain that flushed the equally ancient toilet. Time, as they say, seemed to stand still – still as a classful of infants who’ve just been told off by a strict teacher.

And the toilet flush did indeed go off like a bomb, although to my ears the noise also included groaning, moaning, something sounding like a first saxophone lesson and a noise that could well have been somebody dragging a heavy object down a broken escalator in a wooden box. The next noise was my dad returning to the room, and a hissed telling off from my mother.

We decided to go out for our breakfast the next morning. And have small cups of tea.