complete mortification

Of human Bondage

Originally published some time in 2007.

Oscar, The Evil Sulphura and I have gone to see the new Bond film, Casino Royale. The first ten minutes takes place in a men's bathroom, in which a fight involving broken urinals and wildly spraying plumbing leads neatly into Bond's iconic flip-around-and-shoot-the-cameraman move.

It is exciting and violent and it awakens an urge deep in my bladder.

I squint at my ticket in the darkness. ‘8.30 — 11.15’, it says. It is barely quarter to nine. I decide to rush out and back as quickly as possible, but by the time I build up the nerve to slink across my row the first thrilling action sequence starts and I'm locked anxiously into my seat.

The following 150 minutes pass in alternating stripes of exhilaration and lower abdominal distress. The film seems to pass in a deliberately provocative sequence of scenes in which people are variously emerging from, plummeting into, pouring, drinking and occasionally spurting from multiple bullet holes with, watery fluids.

‘Stop squirming,’ hisses Sulph.

‘I have to pee,’ I whisper.

‘Just go then!’ she says.

‘I can’t! I’ll miss an important bit of plot!’

Sulph glares at me. ‘It’s a Bond film. Bond good, bad guy evil, woman evil stroke sexy. You’re just making an excuse because you’re scared of public toilets.’

‘I am not scared of public toilets!’ I exclaim.

Oscar leans over. ‘Is there a situation?’ he asks.

‘He needs to pee, but he’s afraid to go,’ says Sulphura.

Oscar observes me. ‘You can’t go,’ he says. ‘You’ll miss an important bit of plot.’

I make an expression which weaves triumph into excruciating pain. Sulph presses her eyeballs with her fingers. We sit back to watch the film, which had just reached a scene in which Bond undergoes horrific genital torture. Mentally switching chairs with him brings only temporary relief.

The credits roll, and because of a very specific kind of bloody-mindedness I sit through the entire credits, including the model makers and the drivers of the catering vans. When I see the words JAMES BOND WILL RETURN, however, I'm off like a hare.

The cinema toilets are large and white and remarkably reminiscent of the bathroom from the Bond film. The last of the other filmgoers is leaving as I arrive, so I have my choice of urinals. As the dam bursts, I think as I always do of my favourite word for this process: micturate

Then it’s over, and I'm standing alone at the urinal in the Bond-bathroom, and behind me are the mirrors for the basins. It’s silent. I can’t hear anyone coming. I may not get another chance to do this. Should I? What if someone opens the door just as I'm doing it? I’d hear someone coming. Wouldn't I?

I zip up. Listen. Silent. I’ll never get the chance again. Do it.

The soundtrack begins in my head: twangy guitar first, then the towering brass. I spin around, fingers cocked like a .38 Special, and shoot the mirror.

‘Bang!’ I yell joyously at the top of my voice. For a microsecond, I am as happy as it is possible for a freshly-relieved man who has just seen a Bond film to be.

Then I notice that one of the cubicles is not vacant. Under the door, a pair of shoes is keeping perfectly still.

‘Oh, um, sorry,’ I say, ‘I—’

Then every urinal in the room simultaneously begins its automatic flush cycle and the secret agent in the mirror leaps in three directions at once and yelps a G above high C.

Oscar walks in. He looks at me. I am standing in the middle of the public toilet, shaking, my fingers cocked like a gun.

‘ I'm not doing anything,’ I say reflexively.

There is a short silence.

‘It’s alright,’ says Oscar mildly. ‘Public toilets can be scary.’

When we get home, I admit to Oscar that I've never read anything by Ian Fleming. He sighs, reaches into his bookcase and hands me a slim volume.

A hundred pages in at two the next morning I begin to get frustrated at how long it’s taking for Bond to make his first appearance. Frowning at the cover, I try to remember who played Bond in the movie of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I decide it must have been George Lazenby.

Thinking about you

In the bathroom at work, I encounter a colleague who is hand-washing after exiting the toilet. ‘Hey!’ he says. ‘I was just thinking about you a second ago!’

There is a short silence.

‘I mean,’ he says, ‘like 20 minutes ago. Not …’ He glances at the loo door. There is a longer silence. We are trapped by his embarrassment.

‘I’m just going to get a cup of tea,’ I say, as gently as I can. I’m not, but only I can free us from this. I walk away. He is still washing his hands.

The other Georgia

There is a man looking in my study window from the back yard. I suddenly can’t remember where I keep the cricket bat. He’s burly, and he’s tapping on the glass and saying something which I can’t hear because I’m listening to some traditional Georgian choral music on my headphones and I’ve just turned up the volume as high as I can stand to get the full majestic effect.

He’s five feet away, banging on my window and I’m staring back at him, as lifeless as one of those ducks hanging in restaurant windows in Chinatown. The Georgians are giving it handful in my ears. Prickles are running through my blood. He’s yelling now, the man, and I want to run.

He’s pointing to his ears, and at me. He’s lifting something up for me to see. It’s the nozzle of a large vacuum cleaner.

I yank the headphones from my ears with a hand like a boxing glove, and the Georgian wail drops away to silence. At least, it should drop away to silence. Instead I find that outside the headphones the huge, mountainous harmonies are booming around the walls and, critically, out the windows. The headphones are still plugged in.

I jab at my laptop until it stops.

‘Sorry,’ the man is saying. ‘Only I’m steam cleaning the carpets of the place next door and I couldn’t tell if my machine was on or not.’

‘Sorry,’ I say numbly.

He goes to leave, then stops. ‘What is it, anyway? Muslim music or something?’

‘It’s Georgian,’ I say.

‘Oh,’ he says. ‘I thought that was all fiddles and banjos and Lucinda Williams.’

‘There’s another Georgia,’ I say. ‘It’s near Russia.’

‘Oh.’ He doesn’t sound convinced. ‘Good luck with it then.’ He leaves, presumably to call the Terror Hotline.

I investigate the headphones lead. I had plugged it into the microphone jack instead of the headphones jack, which apparently makes the music play at the requested volume through my headphones and deafeningly through the speakers. I plug it into the correct hole, close and lock the window, draw the blinds and make myself a settling cup of tea.

How lucky, I think as the kettle waits for me to look away, that this happened at home. I sometimes have to take the train during the day, and I’m always being told I should take my laptop to get some useful work done in transit. I never, ever do this, because I fear that one of the generation Naomi Robson refers to as Our Young People will take it off me and hurt me and run away.

Now it becomes clear what infinitely greater humiliations could have befallen me. I congratulate myself on my instinctive trust of fear as an evolutionary adaptation.

Back in the study I return to my laptop, put my headphones in, click Play and my eardrums touch in the middle.

The funniest thing I'll ever say

The cast

M — an unrequited novelist

A — a companion of M

B — a witness

C — another witness

Act 1, Scene 1

[An airport waiting lounge, shortly before the boarding of a trans-Pacific flight. M, B and C are sitting on couches around a low coffee table. A returns from a short walk with a paper bag in hand. She sits and produces from the bag a small pastry.]

C: Breakfast?

A: Yep.

B: Looks good. It’s unusual — a kind of diamond shape with a big slice of peach in the middle.

A: [biting a semi-circle out of one point of the diamond] Mmm.

M: Now it looks like the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars.

C & B: [inspecting the pastry] You’re right, it does.

M: [feeling something special coming] Be careful, then …

A: Why?

M: … it could be a bit Chewy.

[expansive hilarity ensues, fading after several minutes to a long, contemplative silence lead by M]

M: That was the funniest thing I’ll ever say, wasn’t it?

A: Probably, yes.

C: I can’t see you topping it.

B: You’ll never be that funny ever again. It’s all downhill from here.

[pause]

M: It’s funny, isn’t it, how major highlights in one’s life arrive so unexpectedly and almost immediately transmute into something bittersweet and nostalgic. It’s almost as if there’s a meaning behind it, a lesson about loss and experience so elegant as to suggest the subtly educative influence of a higher force. Don’t you think?

C: Sorry, I thought they were announcing our flight. What were you saying?

M: Er … Chewy. Pretty good, then?

B: Well, quite good.

A: It sort of loses it in repetition, actually.

C: That was our flight. I can see it boarding.

[end]

I believe I can fly

The car in front of me has a bumper sticker which looks approximately like this:

to which my immediate, almost reflexive response is:

Once I recover my breath, dab at the moist corners of my eyes with a hanky and cry ‘Mercy!’ a few times, I realise that the lights are green. We roll forward a few metres and they change again.

‘Parachuting,’ I mutter admiringly, and allow myself a brief visit to a far-off stage, where a supermodel is presenting me with the award for Put-Down of the Century.

‘Certainly, it’s a bit early,’ she is saying, ‘but with ninety-five years to go we just couldn’t imagine anyone topping this.’ With a demur little get-out-of-here wave, I step forward.

‘Never,’ continues the supermodel, waving the little statuette expansively just beyond my reach, ‘has such pithy cruelty been achieved so quickly from such a position of safety,’ she raves. I pause. The audience is beginning to look edgy. I reach for the statue, thinking to retrieve the situation with a short, magnanimous speech on the subject of the responsible use of wit.

The supermodel, however, can’t be stopped. ‘I mean, think about it,’ she enthuses, to a now silent room. ‘Someone out there has toiled to make that bumper sticker, choosing the exact words that inspired this driver to make it his small message of hope to the world, and then pow! Pulverised in a second by the acid Larkin wit.’

People are leaving now. ‘Listen,’ I try to say, ‘can I just …’

But the band begin to play me off, a big blaring brass section made up entirely of car horns.

The light is green again. I quickly change lanes, so at the next red light the sticker car and I are side by side. I roll down my window.

‘Nice sticker,’ I call out. The young man in sunglasses turns his head very slightly towards me, his face blank. ‘Your bumper sticker,’ I say weakly, suddenly wishing I hadn’t done this. ‘It’s really nice. Really.’ I point to his rear bumper as an aid to comprehension. He looks over his shoulder, then back at me. The lights go green. He pulls away. I force out a jolly two-thumbs up, then drive on in a cold sweat. I may be humiliated, I think, but my conscience is clear.

I pass him again a few streets later. He gives me the finger.