Monday, 13 April 2009

That Ordinary House 8 The Thunderbox

Ouch! Just the mention of toilets in that pre sewered era fills my nostrils with a pungent burning smell. No ordinary smell. A smell that didn’t invade the whole house but waited to catch you as you entered the bathroom. An acrid ambush which took your breath away.

There was a resident bucket in our bathroom every night for twelve or thirteen years until the city was sewered in 1962. I presumed every house had one but perhaps this was an old country solution to night relief which my father had brought from the farm. I never undertook a local survey.

Our’s was a fading yellow bucket with a white plastic handle and each morning it was my father’s task (later delegated to his sons) to empty the contents. A bucketful of urine. How it filled every night and by whom I’m not sure. My contribution was never a full quarter bucket.

In this modern era it’s unimaginable that you’d be greeted by such a sight and smell every morning. But there it was. The bladders of two adults and two children captured in a nine litre bucket.

Of course it had to go somewhere. Not in the storm-water drain and not down the sink. It made a journey through the kitchen down the 15 back steps and up the yard to join its cousins at the outdoor dunny. Not into the can sitting inside but behind the structure. It was poured, undiluted, onto the grass around the base of the structure, behind and out of sight. The scorched grass patch marked out the extent of the pour. It never occurred to us that this was anything other than routine. It never interrupted our games of cricket or caused us pause when taking cover behind the outhouse in games of tiggy or cowboys and Indians. It just sat there and fertilised the top of the yard and perhaps kept the termites at bay.

Of greater concern and interest was stepping inside this private space, the outdoor dunny. This was to enter a common but mysterious world. For a start it was dark no matter what time of day or night. There was no natural light entering this intimate space and it always took a moment to adjust and get one’s bearings. Of course, in a rush, it was amazing how automatic and complete was the blind knowledge of the mechanics of this place.

The large black, tar covered can sat concealed beneath the timber box designed to house it and designed into the box was a sturdy timber lid which flipped up to reveal the drop off point for number ones and number twos and flipped down to create a booming echo within that chamber of timber, tin and empty space. And thus its local name – the thunder box. On the left hand side another open box contained wood shavings which were used to cover the deposits after each visit, and attached to the wall was a thick wad of newspaper pieces – the Telegraph or Courier-Mail, torn into six inch squares and threaded onto a piece of wire which in turn was attached to the inside of the outside wall. Newsprint is not the most forgiving and pampering of materials to wipe one’s backside with but better than a handful of grass or the leaf from the closest tree – the staple of the bushwalker or bushman.

The worst moments were those which involved moonless nights or the dreaded maggots.

Night trips to the thunderbox were always challenging . On the nights when the sky was lit by the full moon there was a level of trepidation for a seven year old in crossing the 20 metres of no mans land. Once there, with the door held open by an outstretched foot, the dunny bathed in cool blue light and the night sky bisected by the foggy milky way, there was a sense of calm and of the world being a balanced and friendly place for a young tyke whose connection with nature was limited to annual camping trips to the beach.

On the other hand, on black black nights, the twenty metre dash to the safety of the cold wooden seat seemed like crossing through a world occupied by demons and creatures intent on the kidnapping and obliteration of young children. It was a fearful experience only undertaken when no other option was available. The twenty metres dash from the bottom of the back stairs was made only after a series of deep breaths and serious mental preparation to get the timing right for the race at full pelt towards the shadowed building at the top of the yard. Finally, when the inevitable could no longer be avoided it was on and with arms flailing to ward off the evil ones and with a prayer on my breath I ran the gauntlet. On arriving at the toilet, the door was bashed open and then violently flung shut to keep at bay the demons on my tail. Unfortunately this resulted in complete isolation in a pitch black hole with no escape. There was no time to be wasted and rather than my fear causing constipation, the opposite was achieved and if record books were kept I would be held in high esteem for my lighting fast process. The trousers were dropped before the door was shut; all muscle systems were released as my bum approached the seat and before I could tear a piece of the Telegraph from the wad at my side I was back on my feet and preparing for the return dash.

The only rival to this was the maggot infestation. This situation came randomly and always seemed to present itself on my more urgent visits to the dunny. Day was bad, night was unbearable. Always intent on play rather than purpose, I would be in a rush to beat the approaching bowel explosion. On pushing through the door, there, crawling over every inch of the place my feet needed to be, were hundreds of squirming, wriggling, rolling, fat, legless maggots. There was no option but to go on, so suspending my belief in gravity I would launch myself towards the seat seemingly taking flight. My one and only essential step would be taken, ballet fashion, with only the tip of my big toe making contact with the floor. Once on the throne my feet had to remain in mid air. From that vantage point I sat in panic watching this moving world below me. Every crevice seemed like a source of even more of the creatures. Moment by agonising moment more and more of them appeared from beneath the wooden box on which I sat, having made their escape from the can below me. I had the dread that any moment I would feel one on my backside, the intelligent one who had mastered the ability to cross the gap between can and seat or, the one who was not intent on escaping to daylight as were his brothers and sisters, but focused seriously on warm seats and human contact. Finally, and as quickly as possible, refusing to look back or down, gagging and in a panic, I would again launch myself into flight and regain the safety of terra firma.

At night, by torchlight, the experience was magnified ten times by the isolation and lack of visibility. There was no knowing how far this army of white wrigglers had spread.

I never shared my fears with my brother or my parents. This, I understood, was one of the fundamentals of human life and something which was meant to be confronted and survived. It was an essential step towards adulthood and the toughness necessary to triumph in the adult world.


Zen Quill said...

Oh my goodness...the bucket! I remember the bucket - staying with cousins in Newtown and the toilet being miles down the back. I can still hear the thunderous raw of urine pounding plastic during the night as some unseen face expelled nightly wastes! And to think that sewerage went in the same year I was born...hmm - I'm trying to feel better about that fact...The Taming of the Un-shrew poo, perhaps.

Lee said...

Your story on the thunderbox reminded me of my first days in primary school. At home we had the backyard "lavvy" (lavatory). At school the teachers announced its now time to got to the toilets. By the way the kids ran to the big building in the school grounds, I figured the "toy lits" must be a great place to play with toys, so I joined them in racing down there. Imagine my disappointment when I saw what the toy lits really were!

Queen of the Tea Cosies said...

Far out brussle sprout! My reading was a dash to the end of the page, afraid of the demons, driven by a great urge to know all.