On holiday the other week, the cottage we stayed in had an eco-friendly toilet installed. Eco-friendly, maybe, but not so very human friendly. Cinderella, it was called. Someone’s idea of a joke. The toilet bowl was constructed over a furnace that was intended to fire up and burn one’s leavings to ash and cinders.
Setting the scene
It was a very little cottage with two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen. The toilet room had been added to the back of one of the bedrooms and there was a door into it from that bedroom and another door into it from the outside at the back. If you were using the toilet, for privacy you had to lock both the inner door and the outer door. And of course you had to remember to unlock both doors when you were done.
Mrs SC and I shared the bedroom that did not abut on the toilet; our friends, Anna and Staffan, had the toilet-adjacent room. During the daytime it was possible to use the toilet by going through A and S’s bedroom. At night one had to leave the cottage through the kitchen door, go round the building and enter the toilet from outside. This was no great hardship. The Nordic summer night never gets properly dark.
In the toilet there was also a hand basin and running water, so we all used it as the place to brush our teeth.
Cinderella: who’s been sitting on my seat?
Cinderella’s toilet bowl was raised up by the furnace unit underneath so it was, I thought, quite awkward to sit on. Maybe I have very short legs. I was on my tiptoes when I sat down. It seems I was the only one in our party with this issue, so I didn’t make a big thing of it. I pissed in the woods and when I had to use the toilet I stood two spare, unstarted toilet rolls on edge to either side and put a foot on each one.
The furnace under the toilet bowl seemed to be burning most of the time. The little toilet room was always stiflingly hot. It might have been almost pleasant to use in a cold winter, but in the middle of summer, in the middle of a heatwave, it was a bit of an ordeal. The toilet seat itself was so hot you didn’t want to sit on it for very long.
To use Cinderella, you first locked both doors then opened the lid and put in a triangular filter paper. It looked like a giant-sized coffee filter and we we quickly got to a new euphemism for visiting the toilet: “using the Melita”. Then you put the lid down, sat and did your business, closed the lid and pressed what I am going to call, for the sake of clarity, the flush button. This opened the trap allowing your deposit to fall through into the furnace. You’d hear a little noise as the trap opened and then a second as it shut. If you raised the lid to check, you’d see that the toilet bowl was empty.
Fire in the bowl
One night, the second night I think, I was not sleeping well. It may have been sunstroke, it may have been an overindulgence in alcohol, it may have been insect bites. It was probably a combination of all three. I was up several times in the night and took myself outside to visit the forest and water the trees.
After one of these expeditions, in the dead of night – about 3 o’clock in the morning – I decided I needed to do something more than pass water. So I crept into the toilet room through the outside door. I carefully locked the inner door and softly opened the toilet lid to put in the filter paper. It looked like the previous user’s filter paper hadn’t quite fallen all the way through the trap. But no matter. I sat down and did my business.
When I closed the lid and pressed the flush button, the double sound I listened for – the trap opening and then closing – didn’t sound quite right. I opened the toilet lid and, indeed, my deposit remained above the trap. I closed the lid, pressed the flush button again and listened closely. I definitely heard the trap open, but did it shut? I lifted the lid to look.
I slammed the lid shut, cringed because of the noise I was making, and pressed the flush button a couple of times. Then I opened to look. More flames, now accompanied by a cloud of acrid smoke. This was not going well.
Burning down the house
I dropped the lid again and pressed the flush button some more, all the time wondering if I was about to bring our holiday to a disastrous end. We were on an island, where was the nearest fire station?
In the toilet I looked wildly around, peering through the smoke for a fire extinguisher. There was none. The only thing my eye lit on was Anna’s small tooth mug. It didn’t look like it could hold more than a mouthful of water. Besides the water pressure in the tap was quite low. I considered the logistics of filling the hand basin with water and scooping it repeatedly in the tooth mug to fling it into the flaming bowl. Even that didn’t seem like it would be nearly enough to put out the fire.
At this point the toilet room was full of smoke and my eyes were watering. I was waiting for the flames in the toilet bowl to start to melt the hardened plastic of the toilet lid. I opened the door to the back garden and hoped the smoke would go out that way instead of into Anna and Staffan’s bedroom. After all, I didn’t want to be responsible for suffocating them as well as burning them to death in their beds. (I was beyond logic at this point.)
A cup of tea
I pressed the flush button some more and at last risked opening the toilet lid again. Now my deposit had fallen through the trap and the flames were out. I stepped out into the light northern night and breathed fresh air with relief.
Back in the toilet, I unlocked the inner door, then I crept around the side of the house and into the kitchen.
Sleep was far beyond me. The solution? A cup of tea. It was the kettle boiling that finally woke someone. Anna had been oblivious to the drama in the toilet next door, but me making myself tea was too much for her. I looked up to see her at the open bedroom door, half asleep and scowling at me. Then she shut the door demonstratively and went back to bed.
The following morning when I told my dramatic story, no one seemed much impressed. I found myself regretting I’d not had the presence of mind to take my camera with me for photo evidence. The only sign of my difficulties were stunned smoke smudges on the inside of the toilet lid. They came off quite easily with a damp cloth.
The absence of a fire extinguisher was the item that caught everyone else’s attention. The committee resolved to talk to the landlord and get him to give us one. (It was promised, but never arrived.)
I learned that, because I’d not added urine to my deposit, I ought to have weighted it down with some water to make sure it would fall through the trap. I bore that in mind, henceforth, and there were no more flames. It was almost a pity.