The silver Astra turned into the car park at the motorway services. Its sole occupant, thirty-seven-year-old Conrad, parked as far away from the building as was possible. He had been driving for two hours, and he needed to stretch his legs. The reason for his drive had been a trip to London to celebrate his sister’s fortieth birthday party.
As Conrad walked towards a pair of automatic doors, a breeze pressed his white shirt onto his back, and a patch of sweat felt cool against his skin. The sun was shining now, but he had driven through torrential rain just after setting off.
For it was mid-June, that time of year when the frequent downpours that occur are loved by crops in the fields, but not so much by those who suffer a soaking at fetes, funfairs and Wimbledon tennis matches, not to mention the occasional Glastonbury mud bath.
Conrad took his order, a burger with fries, a slice of carrot cake, and a large Americano coffee, at a table by a window. He devoured the food quickly, not having eaten that day, but he lingered over the coffee. His plan was for a thirty-minute break from driving, so he sipped, and observed the comings and goings of people outside.
Just as Conrad finished his coffee, there came exclamations of surprise from diners, as a power cut struck. Lights went out, speakers that had been piping muzak fell silent, and a pinball machine died in mid game. A counter assistant said that the outage was probably caused by the stormy weather.
Back outside, Conrad smoked a cigarette, there being a self-imposed ban in force on smoking in the car. Crushing the cigarette end in a metal ashtray, he felt an urgent need for the toilet, as the recently digested food had moved things along somewhat. There was still a long drive ahead, so Conrad needed to ensure his comfort.
As he sat in a cubicle, with his trousers around his ankles, Conrad faced a familiar social anxiety that had plagued him all his adult life; he simply couldn’t bear to have people hear him go about his business in a public toilet.
What usually came to his aid on such occasions, the covering fire, as he remembered Viz Comic had once succinctly put it, was the roar of an automatic hand dryer, the louder, the better. But, of course, no such cavalry would come to Conrad’s rescue on this occasion: there was no electricity.
Bloody power cut.
Conrad listened. Just as he thought the block was empty, someone marched in whistling Flower of Scotland.
As he waited for the micturating Scot to finish off and leave, Conrad reflected on the absurdness of his condition. He had wanted to tell the doctor about it, in the hope that perhaps hypnosis or some other form of therapy might cure him, but he was always too embarrassed to bring the matter up.
A tap ran, and the national anthem resumed, but then stopped abruptly. Conrad guessed that the whistler had discovered that the hand dryers weren’t working. The whistling restarted, and then faded as the man left the block.
Now! This is the moment.
But no. There were footsteps, as a new person entered the block. Conrad listened in dismay to a metallic clank, followed by a scraping sound, as made by a zinc bucket being pushed along a tiled floor.
Oh, no! Not the cleaner.
The head of a mop slapped onto the tiled floor as though specifically to confirm Conrad’s fear.
Please, don’t take too long.
What made the situation worse was that the more Conrad held back, the more forceful, and thus louder, would be the evacuation when it came.
Through a six inch gap at the bottom of the door, Conrad saw a brown brogue, and the head of a mop as it flashed past.
Hurry up, damn you.
The audible pattern continued; scrape and slap, scrape and slap, and Conrad became increasingly agitated.
I can’t hold it much longer.
The minutes passed, and the attendant still mopped. Perspiration formed on Conrad’s forehead, and the pressure in his bowels had turned to pain. His agitation had become such that he could stand it no more.
To hell with it!
Conrad relaxed, and unburdened himself. As though in a perfectly-timed act of divine intervention, a loud and sustained rumble of thunder came, which completely drowned out the dreadful noise of Conrad’s bowel evacuation. It was all over and, thanks to a huge slice of good fortune, a most satisfactory conclusion had been reached.
With his humour greatly improved, Conrad flushed the toilet and left the cubicle. He came face to face with his nemesis, the attendant, who was still mopping the floor. After washing his hands, and shaking as much water from his fingers as he could, Conrad made a comment in regard to the heavy rain that was falling.
“That’s quite a downpour. I think I’ll wait in here till it passes, if that’s all right,” he said. There came no reply, so Conrad repeated the statement. The attendant ceased mopping and looked at Conrad and he smiled. He pointed to his left ear and shook his head.
He was deaf.