1-5-3-stall Motorway

I HAD to go to the toilet in a motorway service station. I cannot say I enjoyed the experience.

Probably this is intentional. These places are designed to process a lot of people. The proprietors don’t want chaps hanging around thinking, “Well, I have conducted the necessary business, but this urinal is exquisitely designed, with curlicues and fleur-de-lys and whatnot. Perhaps I will tarry awhile and just, y’know, really take it in,” because there would be a queue.

No, basic facilities are the order of the day in motorway service station lavatories, with, perhaps the odd vending machine which one only finds in motorway service station lavatories. I refer, of course, to the chewable toothbrush.

Who uses the chewable toothbrush? We live on a tiny island. We can drive from our north coast to the south in 12 hours. And, even so, if you don’t have the nous to take a toothbrush and paste with you on a journey so long that you need to brush your teeth you don’t deserve teeth, or a car. Or a head.

Anyway, this particular service station had wholeheartedly committed itself to the basic lavatorial aesthetic. It was an austere bog for austere times, for, while there were several urinals, there was only one sink.

This sounds worse than it is, but only marginally. Instead of a conventional sink, it was a large circular stainless steel sink with a central cylinder attached to which were plunger taps and soap dispensers. If anybody were to make a juvenile parody of Doctor Who called, for example, Doctor Loo, it would make an ideal TARDIS console.

The idea is that several gentlemen can use the Omnisink at once, increasing lavatorial turnover, while reducing the sink footprint, as the innovation was no doubt sold in a meeting somewhere.

What it does not take into account is that gentlemen generally go to great pains not to have any sort of eye contact with other gentlemen in gentlemen’s lavatories. It is a point of etiquette as iron-clad as the 1-5-3-stall urinal rule.

For those unfamiliar with the 1-5-3-stall urinal rule – women, basically – imagine a row of five urinals, or, indeed an Omniurinal the width of five men, elbows slightly akimbo. The first man to enter the lavatory takes up position 1, generally the spot furthest from the door. The second man takes up position 5, at the other end of the row or Omniurinal.

The third man to enter stands at position 3, absolutely equidistant from positions 1 and 5.

Now, where does the fourth man stand – at position 2 or position 4?

This is a trick question, of course. The answer is neither. Positions 2 and 4 are never used, as this would imply an preference for the man at position 1 or the man at position 5. Instead, the fourth man uses one of the stalls.

If a fifth man enters, and all stalls are occupied, he waits until one of the first four men is finished, then takes his place. These are the rules.

I stood at the Omnisink, along with three other men. I depressed the water plunger. Water came out for as long as I pressed it and no longer. I was able to wet one hand at a time. Washing my hands to the standard specified by the NHS was going to be nigh on impossible.

I pressed the soap dispenser. Nothing came out. No matter, I thought, I will use the dispenser of the man next to me.

However, he was in a similar predicament. And reached a similar conclusion. My right hand and his left dashed out at the same time and we touched each other’s hand.

Now, let me say immediately that I was entirely comfortable with this. I hug my male friends  – awkwardly and only if called upon so to do, admittedly, but that is because I shun human contact of all kinds.

The point is I am not a homophobe. What I am is a punchinthemouthphobe. Some might call it cowardice, but they would be offensively wrong. It is a medical condition. As it happens, I would love to get a punch in the mouth, but unfortunately I am allergic to them.

We pulled apart as if shocked by a cattle prod. Wildly I looked around, determined not to catch his eye. On the wall to my right were two temporary soap dispensers.

I went for the one on the right, knowing that he would go for the one on the left, nearest to him.

What I did not realise was that the soap dispenser on the left was actually a toilet seat cleanser dispenser. And so my hand arrived at the single soap dispenser fractionally before his.

Essentially I squirted liquid soap into the hand of a man I had never met before, a gesture so unexpectedly intimate the man actually said, “Garp.”

“Ah, this one works,” I said, unnecessarily. Wordlessly, he went back to his Omnisink station. I went back to a different one, slightly further away.

The whole experience left a sour taste. Perhaps I should have bought one of those chewable toothbrushes.