Toilets I Have Known

Inge Umson

 Grandpa’s large workshop doubled as our toilet, a bench with a circular hole covered by a lid and with a bucket underneath. Our toilet paper was neatly ripped sheets of old newsprint speared on a hook. Grandpa emptied the full bucket into a pit, topped it with a bucket of lime and forked straw over it. Our rooster reigned supreme from the top of the heap – all part of the rural scene and nobody was worried by it. For emergencies at night there was a chamber pot under the bed.

 Visits to the city with its flushing toilets were a novelty for us. Aunt Grete in Warnemünde (Germany) shared a flush toilet with her neighbours on the same floor; the cistern high up on the wall with a chain dangling down and ending in a ring. My grandparents' friends in Güstrow had a beautiful toilet all to themselves. Train toilets were interesting too. As they flushed the bottom opened and the contents were dispersed on to the track. It was strictly forbidden to use these toilets while the train wasn’t moving, for obvious reasons.

 Our one-room village school in Rühn had a toilet sitting over a seemingly bottomless pit. When the bell rang we girls would storm out to cram into it and take turns sitting on the throne. I don’t know why we congregated there but the custom stopped when our teacher organised a ball for us to play with.

 In Güstrow we shared an apartment with three families. We had only one room but the apartment looked very classy and the bathroom was large, light and airy. However, the hand washbasin ran only cold water and there was no bathtub. Dad boiled a kettle for shaving. I had to wash in cold water, not pleasant in winter when it was close to freezing. We did have a flush toilet but we shared it with an old man living on the same floor. It was a bit grotty.

 In 1963 Henry and I emigrated to Australia. We were sent to Bonegilla (near Albury, NSW) – an ex-World War II army camp, where we lived for two-and-a-half years. The huts all looked identical from the outside but the four facing Lake Hume had a central corridor running the full length of the building. Toilets and showers were on the ground level with three steps leading up to the living areas. We were lucky to have the whole hut to ourselves, although we only used two rooms to begin with. The cleaner never bothered to come in as we kept the place tidy.

 The flushing toilets were an added bonus. A daddy-long-legs had set up its home in one of the cubicles. As I sat on the toilet I would roll a small piece of paper into a ball and throw it into his web, then watch to see how long it would take him to charge at it, cut it loose from the web and let it fall to the floor. His speed improved markedly over time but sadly one day the cleaner did come in. Poor daddy-long-legs! I missed his company.

 In 1964 Lavington was re-zoned as a suburb of Albury and the Council condemned many dwellings. We bought one of these for £500 and moved in the following year. Surprise, surprise, we were back to the good old days of the bucket toilet. Luckily we didn’t have anything to do with emptying it. That was handled by the “dunny-man”. Six years later the suburb was connected to the sewer and I swore never again to move into a place that didn’t have a real toilet!

 In 1981 we moved to Bulahdelah, NSW. The house had been newly sewered, the ground still showing where the pipes had been laid. Fine. Five years later we bought a house in Mount Hutton, a suburb in the City of Lake Macquarie. On the way back to Bulahdelah, after having viewed our new acquisition, both Henty and I pondered on the fact that neither of us had seen evidence of a toilet. What we didn’t know at that time was that the sewer had certainly been connected to the newly-developed estate nearby, but it had stopped just short of our new home. When we made our next visit we looked for and found our toilet – bucket and all, surrounded by several gum trees and hidden by shrubs. What an oversight! On visiting it at night, still half asleep, you would find yourself eyeball-to-eyeball with a possum sitting on an overhanging branch close to the door. It would be close enough to kiss you.

 Our neighbours had a septic tank but this wasn’t an option for us as we knew it was only a matter of time before the second stage of the housing development behind us would commence. So we waited and hoped that in the meantime the white ants wouldn’t devour our toilet. Once a week there would be the scraping sound of metal on concrete, a lid being clamped down and the running feet of the dunny-man, downhill this time, heavy load shouldered. I felt sorry for that man; I got winded picking up our mail from the letter-box.

 But progress won’t be halted. In 1988 the sewer arrived – a lifetime of two steps forward and one back and finally, reward! We now have three toilets between the two of us.