The bar I’m going to has no sign outside. Still, I find it. My friends arrive with kisses and hugs. We go inside. I acclimatise and nod yes, I’ve been here before. It is familiar with its cheesy fries served in tin mugs. That’s not the sort of thing you forget, a place that puts cheese on your food without asking first, in an Old Prospector mug.
The bar is full of the beautiful people who shop at John Lewis or Waitrose and the only second hand furniture they have at home is antique, passed down as a family heirloom. The men have designer beards ironed flat and trimmed or blow dried, one has a seaman’s woolly hat warming his skull. He works in computer coding.
Still, the bar is small and all goes well with our drinks and chats and catch ups. After a glass or two of wine and because I’d blanked out my first visit to this place I ask, “does anyone know where the toilet is?”
Fingers point to an oblong block of white in the corner. The toilets are through the doorway and down a Kafkaesque corridor of too much light, harsh and glaring like it hates me, the sort of blazing light that call centres turn up to eleven to keep the worker drones awake. Conditions you hear about in testimonies from people released from Guantanamo Bay, tales of sensory overload or deprivation, or both. I walk towards the light and follow the long straight corridor and am confronted by a pig trough. It is metal and deep, taps hanging over the side. I’ve had wine, so my mind rambles. They must turn the taps and swill spurts out runny and brown and nutritious for the pigs, splashing against the backwash and mirror. It’s wipe-clean. This is a progressive pig house, consideration given to the swine who want to look nice after they’ve eaten. How nice, and right-on for the pigs.
But I see no pigs. There is no pig swill. I realise, slowly, that this is not a pig trough. It is a washbasin, a long one with men and women’s toilets on either side. I am in fact in a unisex toilet.
In the 1990s men and women were for a brief and ugly time seen as the same. Someone decided young women were like lads, though what that made lads no one was quite sure. Zoe Ball and Cerys Matthews are and were tremendous women but never lads, no matter how much the ladette inventor (a man) wanted them to be. I’m linking the ladette thing and unisex toilets together because for the life of me I can’t think of any reason why either concept existed, and why at the same time. The ladette label has long jogged on but unisex toilets? No one wants them and yet they still exist, and new ones built.
I’m torn as to why they are still here, these years on. Are designers, bar owners or whoever comes up with these ideas believing unisex loos right-on, or are they eager to save space and make more money? I’m thinking it’s cash related, for the life of me I can’t think of another reason. Back in 1990s most realised the concept of unisex toilets as a grim one, men and women doing toilet things so close is very wrong. We are not the same. Men and women are equal but not the same. There is a tremendous difference between us and that’s okay. I’m grateful for the differences and feel like holding a bloody party to celebrate them if the differences mean that we get separate toilets.
We do our toilet business differently, but some right on-ers, they will not let it go. Stubborn digging in of heels is never good. The definition of madness is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. Madness barks and gallops in these bars and clubs, the ones with unisex toilets.
I go to the women’s cubicles, a row of white doors. I am in The Trial, unsure what I’ve done wrong but at least I know how to get out of the place at the end and that is a lifeline. The cubicles, they are as I imagine men’s conveniences, blocked toilets with crumpled wads of toilet roll sodden solid and grey like old chewing gum. Not Waitrose toilet roll, I note. Funny, that.
I soldier on because I must then go to wash my hands in the trough. It is not a sink, no matter how much my mind tries to convince me. The trough is functional dull steel, it will never earn a shine and wouldn’t look out of place in a 1950s sci-fi move.The Revenge of The Uni-Sex Toilets filmmakers, I fancy they imagined we’d be living on a pill a day by now and not have to work because robots do everything for us. Hollow laughter, I know you well.
I give washing my hands a try, the things hanging over the side of the trough shaped like a tap are ones where you put your hand or whatever else it is you might need to wash underneath and water comes out of its own accord. Only tonight it doesn’t and I’m standing there with damp hands under a shy dribble as a painfully young man as mortified as me washes his hands in his part of the trough. There is no man and woman part of the trough but I pretend there is, we both do. We finish the washing and drying at the same time and leave simultaneously.
‘You first,’ he says. He is a gentleman.
Somehow, this makes everything worse. We both stare at the ground, not wanting to look at each other because we both know we’ve been to the toilet and it’s just too awful to think about, the individual toilet business. I’m northern and working class and he has an imagination too. So I’m walking along this horrifically well-lit corridor with a twenty year old boy behind me to get away from the toilet as quickly as I can and thinking “why do people in bars hate their customers so much?” Because I think they do. They must, or why else would they carry on with the unisex toilets thing? No good can come of it, ever.