Now for some history. During the recent Beggars Wars our Gallery had been much abused so it was being patched up, dry-cleaned and extended. The nation’s collection had grown. Fine. And likewise for me – one of my wars was over too. Yet I was ever reminded of the ordeal by the tattoo noise that the W.C.’s extracted from the hide of the nation’s pride. Whistles, agonised yawps, bumps, bangs enlivened these early days and for many moons a pneumatic drill laboured in our innards.

These nightmare Sistines had incompetent Mike Angelos up in the scaffolding. And the labyrinth below the main floors was fit for ants. Moving about confused me; passages, alcoves, doors, windows, stacked frames and anonymous globes of light – no landmark save a disused toilet here or an operational one there. Dependant on my mates for the exit, each day found me wanting for the route permutated to match the whim of my chance guides. I tried on my own. I sniffed the air, advanced behind a wetted finger only to come to a loo. Mac made marks on the floor for me to follow, but the bucket and mop brigade ended that. Then it was new plasticised floor surfaces – more confusion – and the foulest stench! I don’t want to strain the after effects but…

My privacy was still intacto and I only conversed when forced to – like rejecting the offer of overtime for floor polishing, for instance. I’d seen the floor-commando assemble – and disassemble! They were visible betimes as we shepherded the art lovers to the exit; pans, pails and brushes a-clatter, dressed as zombies, they toiled amid the gold and crimson damask. Sweet odour of sanctity! Invisible night soil from celestial regions in the glazing of the remote roof – is it for this they clean? From a pail, one of the sordid hosts casts the Dustmo right and left; left and right the sawdust seed he throws… This sower reaps no crop. The Angelus of Millet? Yes, but no prayer brings them rest. I know.

On the other hand, we home-lovers shoo the stragglers to the exit (where Farley waits). We greet pals exiled in the remotest rooms; ‘Hurry alonga pleasa, Si’l vous plais, Monsier,’ this from Ned – I’ll introduce you later. Another wag toots on his whistle and indicates the twelve yard spot – the door. ‘Night night, Heil Farley’, we crow and stomp into reverse to change our gear below.

What a lighting up of fag-ends – ebullient abandon – soon dispersed. The magic minute flown and we are stripped to the under-skin of another reality, treading unmeasured miles on that longest walk.

Now for these faint mutterings. Remember Mac’s warning? Farley squared up to me, on one of his daily perambulations and syruped as follows: “Barney’s ill, you’re in charge of the Privy Seal next week – piss house to you. OK Solly?” I flushed all over. So that was it! Oh unmentionable drudgery! Farley dribbled away – all girth and baldy pate. And who’s Barney? Barney’s the toilet man. Teeny weeney proportions under a toe-length turd coloured work smock. Using his domain was ‘in flagrante delicto’ and in my garden! While he peered from behind the lace of a front, back, side upstairs or downstairs window.

When a ‘Vacant’ sign invited trespassers how he flutters fearing that the guests might overdo it and bed down. ‘Occupied’ was anathema to him as it smelled of final loss methinks. Behind his curtains I pictured a cat on a cushion, brazed brass with a pot of tea… HOME SWEET HOME above a pipe rack. Yes, I was aggrieved – compare a common privy! But since I hadn’t detailed my tastes, protest seemed untimely. After all reason prompted (that’s reason for you), what’s the odds between caring for masterpieces and – let’s be frank – shithouses? Indeed the latter were in peril for the picture lover’s were dry constipates, as opposed to the loo-lovelorn, a gangrenous crew, skilled at scribbling. So I said to myself ‘Up you Farley’ and that was how (sparing a few details) I belled my first cat.

Skip the next few red-necked days (my mates ribbed me no end) and here I am at ten a.m. entering the tiny Kingdom that became the lynch-pin in a great drama. Lawks! I found myself in a box that measured a full fathom always and head down – to avoid the unlikely ceiling (chicken wire stretched across the airshaft) – took stock of my HOME SWEET HELL. Table and chair? – oh yes – and a tin brim-fulminating of sterile buts and in one corner a pile of old news-sheets while overhead, the unlikely ceiling, airshafts and chicken wire… I sat in the up turned rabbit hutch until like Alice I grew bigger – or the opposite – are you with me. Cosy? Nostrils quivering I gazed upon my little world of WCs, empty of interest this early and decided “Sit in one of the cubicles, anything, stand on the seat. There’s always the craphouse poets.”

I spent an agreeable time in every one of these six toilets, studying the communications. ‘I am the Chef d’affaires of the chaise d’affaires’ I myself wrote one day. But attendants were worse off in the past, risking cholera, typhoid, enteric fever and sewer gas plus rats. Smoking in the bogs meant something else then, each puff could be your last. I printed ‘SUB ROSA IN SORDOR’ over the entrance. Can you blame me? I swabbed the tiles with watery disinfectant and with the damp floor as alibi doffed my turd-coat and took the air, rubbing shoulders with tourists, city-men and the squares workshy.

On my last day it rained and I was confined to the end cubicle on the left. That moment when my lax eye dwelt upon the copperplate writing on the door! I deciphered the following poem (difficult for another hand had scrawled an epithet from ‘Great’ to ‘rest’, ‘King’ had been deleted and ‘Prince’ added, while persons unknown had made the ‘D’ in ‘devoid’ into ‘P’ and so forth. Here it is…

Great men come here to think

Others to whoop it up!

You are the serious one

Artless you sit and sigh

So be it!’

Devoid of Princely raiment

Urgent affaires to hand, you rest

King upon your throne

Everymans knowledge to test.

A conundrum of a crude kind? The caps were three times the size of the small case and read downwards (depending on your bent); GOY AS DUPE, GOYAS DUKE, GOYAS PUKE or even GOYAS DUKE, the later being the original. Had one of the staff written it for kicks? The elegant script outshone the other obscenities.

It was Saturday; the end of my stinky stint and the rich weekend fodder drove me out in ignominy, despite my deodorants. Re these dispellens – Barney complained that I’d ‘squandered’ a month’s supply in one week. That’s rubbing it in! Anyway, I noted the poem and like Orpheus, returned to non-sulphurous regions, the Rotunda (its high Cupola a placenta for inspiration, still born under mean roofs). Ah, the Rotunda! That part of the Gallery housing Alter-pieces and Predellas, Virgins, Saints and Martyrs with averted gaze, interspersed with a pagan scene despite Savonarola.

Nobody’s perfect. One day an old lady gave me an apple. I paced a pattern on the marble paving on the white squares avoiding the blacks, browns and yellows while the core grew tacky in my palm. My vision drifted up to a ledge atop the columns and foliates in gold and blue. Do sighs go around the walls? In the still morning my arm casts the core onto the brim of the architrave – one end out. Lost among the eggs and darts, to me it loomed pumpkin large. The devout prayed, the cupola rose in algebraic indifference, my relief arrived and I hurried to the restaurant shit scared lest my folly brought expulsion: banishment looms large in my Edens.

In a trice I was sipping coffee, strangely bucked. We humans! I studied the gallery’s top brass in the far corner and sketched on some toilet paper from the little ‘death-house’. ‘Which of the eggheads wrote the poem Solly?’ I asked myself. Back in the Rotunda I saw the core would pass unnoticed (it decayed to a brown spludge). Luckily it didn’t seed, its green innocence a botanical betrayal.

Now for Ned – a compendium of my companions? A hector. A seedy don. He slung random remarks at me when we looked after adjoining rooms. One thumb hooked in his weskit, serio-comic, he hints in a stage whisper – ‘we have come down in the world, haven’t we? Can’t a laddie like you find fame and fortune in the regions of commerce ready to hand – by God’s Grace?’ (But for his ancient bones the morrow would find him out voicing the best, broken wind or no). Was I not a pain to my parents, my fine clay crumbling in this sorry quarry?

Banter’s no crime and there was something in what he said. I’d’ve been glad to call him a pal in Hell. He was a swine here and stirred it up. ‘Say something’, he smirks – I remember my vow of silence – his mitt cupping his ear. He had big bad feet. Later, I realised that this niggling stemmed from the claustrophobic jitters some attendants had, as opposed to those stoic unmoved by confinement and mayhem.

—  END OF SAMPLE FROM THE TOILET OF VENUS  —