A chain reaction in the ladies' lavatory

She had problems with her waterworks: she could only go if she heard running water
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The Independent Culture
ON WEDNESDAY I went to a conference in Cheshire and sat next to a man who makes toothpaste for dogs. There was only one flavour at the moment, marrowbone, but he said they were testing new varieties. "What about postman's leg," I said. "Or cat?" He pursed his lips and said thoughtfully: "Mmm, well we're open to all suggestions."

That's the way with conferences. They generate gravitas even when you're off duty eating deep-fried breaded Camembert with a light raspberry and balsamic vinegar dressing, in a room which a month ago was a student canteen. That's the other thing about conferences these days. The catering has become incredibly fancy. I missed lunch, but at least five delegates told me about the starter over pre-dinner drinks. "It was unusual, certainly, but most refreshing," said a woman in pink with beads, from the Isle of Wight. "Light summer fruits, well strawberries really, with cucumber and mint. It was delicious." It was bloody awful," said a big man in shirtsleeves, from Newcastle. "Whoever heard of strawberries with cucumber? It's not natural. As for the mint, it tasted like toothpaste." Which is where we came in.

The other thing everyone talked about was the plumbing. Last year the delegates complained because they didn't have their own bathrooms. "People expect to be en suite these days," said the conference organiser. "This year they put us in the refurbished room, all en suite, and everyone's pleased." Yes and no. It was nice to have the en-suite facilities but the noise was dreadful. "That's what happens when you go en suite as an afterthought," said a man with rimless glasses, who clearly knew about such things. "Tell me about it," said a women delegate. "I was woken up at three this morning by the man next door going for - well, you know. Of course, it was a man. Women don't make that racket; they sit down, for a start. And then when he pulled the - well, you know, it was jut like Niagara Falls."

People are curiously sensitive about natural functions. No one mentioned anything as rude as a lavatory chain or even a tap. As for men making more noise than women when they pee, sorry, how crude of me, when they, you know - a friend told me that a notice in the bathroom of the Singapore hotel he stayed in recently said: "After 10pm gentlemen are requested to sit down when using the toilet in order not to disturb fellow hotel guests." A Japanese friend told me that just as we teach children road manners and road sense, in Japan girls are advised to turn the taps of the washbasin on before they, you know, so that any indelicate sound can be masked.

That reminds me of my ex-step-grandmother-in-law (work that one out) who in her declining years had problems with what she called her waterworks. She could only go if she could hear running water. That was fine at home, but I once took her to the theatre, and escorting her to the lavatory in the interval was a nightmare that I continue to relive to this day.

You know how it works in theatres - two tiny loos and 100 frantic women queuing for them. We were roughly half-way along the line and my ex-step- grandmother-in-law said ominously that she did not know if she could hold out but at least, I thought, we'd be spared the running water scenario. Not a bit of it. "It's no good, I can't go. You'll have to turn on the taps Susan," she called from the cubicle. Apologising miserably to the waiting women, I turned on the cold tap. "Susan, are you there? I can't hear a thing; put both taps on full," commanded the voice from the cubicle. The twin jets spluttered, hit the enamel like pressurised fire hoses and sprayed the entire room. The women at the front sprang back to avoid being soaked.

"For God's sake, what's happening?" came the frightened, muffled voices of the unfortunates at the back who were being pressed against the walls and were in danger of suffocation. "Are you there Susan? I can't hear the taps. Have you turned them on? There's so much noise going on, you'll just have to open the door or I'll be here all night."

I hesitated, but the matter was out of my hands. "Open the door, for God's sake. Open the door or we'll all be here all night," yelled 40 frantic, wet, cowering women in the powder room of the Haymarket theatre. At a stroke my ex-step-grandmother-in-law, voluminous denture, pink winceyette knickers round her ankles, was revealed. "That's better; now we're in business." she said. I tell you the spontaneous applause that broke out when she finally stood up and pulled the chain would have gratified Dame Edith herself. And if the woman delegate next to Niagara Falls had been there, I bet she'd have joined in too.