The other day I told the story of how my mother narrowly avoided death by swallowing disinfectant in order to eradicate an ingested fly.
Some of you, dear readers, mentioned your admiration for mum and her methods of overcoming childhood terrors.
One such was the toilet at my gran’s.
My gran lived in a tall terraced house on the seafront at Herne Bay in Kent. We holidayed there every year of my childhood from before I was aware to about 14.
The house, built in the 1820s or thereabouts had two terrifying installations for my 6 year old self. One was a gas water heater that exploded in a controlled way every time it was lit. Naturally this was done by an adult, but the boom and smell of singed hair from whoever had been delegated to light it will be a childhood memory for the ages. My brother and I could stand in the door and watch in awe as the chosen victim, often my dad because he smoked a pipe and always had a box of matched about his person, tried to defeat the devil within. He failed and, looking back, did well not to share some rich Anglo Saxon expressions with we children.
However the toilet on the first floor was a different kettle or terror. For starters there was no adult who would lead the charge. You were expected to flush away your own offerings. However this piece of mid century technology had been deigned for use by a family of trolls. That was the only explanation why the cistern was affixed to the enormously vertiginously high ceiling. This created a dual paradox. The water had a long way to fall to reach the pan and the chain that had to be pulled to release the torrent was well outside the reach of a four foot nothing squirt. Namely me.
To overcome the lack of inches a box was placed next to the toilet so I could stand on the same and pull. Yet the pull required involved something equating to the kilonewton tuggage of seventeen carthorses. I had to use my whole weight, effectively swinging on the chain until the ballcock rose with the speed and grace of a Dowager offered the wrong sort of Madeira.
I descended but I had insufficient time to reach the ground before North Kent’s answer to Niagara was released. That sound, a combination of the finale to the 1812 and Mrs Pritchard’s stentorian admonishment not to run across the playground gave me a severe case of pre-pubsescent conniptions.
I avoided the flush, but that was soon decried by the other inhabitants and I was told, in no uncertain terms by my flambéed father to ‘man up’. After all, wasn’t he regularly submitting to exfoliation by fire? How bad could this terror inducing flush be?
Step forward SuperBarbs, my mum. I couldn’t avoid the need to flush. That escape route had been closed by my unsympathetic pater familias. Nil desperandum, Geoffrey (only she could get away with calling me that). There was always a work around in my mother lexicon.
It took her a while but she attached a length of string to the handle and threaded it through the second hinge on the door where it hung. This did not prevent the door being shut but it acted as a sort of runner. I could now stand in the hall, grab the loop and lean back with all my weight. Gradually the ballcock would ascend and from the other side of the wall that terrific flow would eradicate anything in its path.
I did wonder whether my less than sympathetic brother would sabotage the mechanism, but he left well alone. And indeed, had I understood the concepts of hubris and schadenfreude, I might have made more of catching my father using the mechanism on a later occasion.
I’ve often wondered when I grew out of that Heath Robinson contraption. Maybe I didn’t. Maybe the toilet was replaced. But I haven’t forgotten my mother’s indominable determination to find solutions to problems that allowed for no loss of face.