November dawned with a hint of sulphur in the air, the remnants of spent fireworks. The trees bare, their skeletal branches are crowded with sentinel hoards of roosting Rooks and Jackdaws filling the early twilight with their harsh cries.
Halloween is a time synonymous with Harvest, bundles of wheat, toffee apples, fireworks, and as the years pass, a burgeoning and curiously grim parade of ghoulish plastic tat. No sooner than the last scorched rocket paper flutters back to earth than the Bride of Frankenstein costumes are hurriedly stuffed into bin liners for another year (mourned by no-one). By first light the following morning every shop window is filled with swirling polystyrene snow complete with glittering LED-studded Santa sleigh pulled by penguins with woolly scarves on, each clutching a metre-long bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk.
It can be a demanding time of year. The short days tell our biological clocks that it is time to hunker down for the winter but the shops, desperate to make the entirety of their profits for the year in one 6-week period, work hard to rouse us from our torpor and keep our wallet arm fully operational. Added to this is the exhaustive round of jolliness and compulsory socialising which could wipe the grin off a Mr Man. “This is Little Miss Sunshine. She usually feels quite upbeat but the lack of Vitamin D due to daylight saving, combined with too much time spent with her passive aggressive Great Aunt Jemima and the interest charges on her arranged overdraft has caused her to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. She has gone on a juice cleanse and spends a lot of time sitting in front of her light therapy lamp surfing the internet for cheap flights to Spain and longing for Spring.”
One December a couple of years ago (ironically not the one in which we ended up moving house ten days before Christmas… the one before that) I was feeling mounting levels of stress and agitation and decided a trip to my local National Trust property was in order. Its beautiful grounds, peaceful lake and, it almost goes without saying, ubiquitous coffee shop, always seem to provide balm to a troubled soul. I duly tramped through the trees for an hour or two and ate a sausage roll in the aforementioned cafe and did indeed feel much calmer.
As I got into the car I realised a trip to a trip to the necessarium was required, so leaving my bag, my coat, and the Christmas pressies that I had bought in the car, I circled back to the toilet block. I had to pause to allow a group of school children and their teacher file into the loos before me. I did not discern any particular significance in this fact because I do not posses the ability to predict the future.
After completing my toilette I emerged from the ladies into the central vestibule and pulled the handle of the heavy outer door leading back into the carpark. Nothing happened. I pulled harder. Then I pushed. Then I tried the handle at every further angle I could think of. I swung on it. I butted into the door as hard as I could with my shoulder. Nothing. It did not move one inch. It was resolutely and irrefutably locked. I couldn’t believe it. I feel could feel the panic rising and swiftly quashing all the calming work of my earlier walk in the woods.
It would have been a really good time to post a selfie on social media with a sad pouty face in front of the locked door with a cute tagline like #sendhelp. But I couldn’t do so because my phone was lying on the passenger seat of the car. Which was parked some distance away in the carpark. In order to circumvent a full-scale panic attack and to counter the cold dread which I could feel creeping up the back of my neck I searched the building for escape routes. It did not take long to establish that there were none.
Back into the vestibule I staggered. I checked the time. It was getting alarmingly close to school pick-up time and I couldn’t even contact the school to tell them I was going to be late. I tried not to imagine being stuck in the toilet block as it got dark. Perhaps the loos would remain closed until spring. Perhaps some bright March morning they would unlock the door and find my coatless frozen shell beside where I had marked the passing of time by scratching marks into the peeling paintwork with the edge of a broken toilet roll holder.
There was nothing else for it but shout for help through the key hole. It was quite large and if I pressed my eye up against it I could see the legs and lower torsos of people walking past… hardly anyone was, however, as it was a cold Tuesday morning in December. Finally, I could hear someone coming. I shouted as loudly as I could. The elderly couple who walked past seemed very alarmed by the disembodied echoing voice entreating them for their help. But, quickening their pace, they simply walked on.
This set the pattern for the next 40 minutes which were perhaps the longest of my life. I shouted until I was hoarse but still no-one came. I paused to rest and, while I was considering the pros and cons of writing my last will and testament on the floor tiles in liquid soap, I heard footsteps on the gravel path outside.
Taking note of the bizarre fact that people seemed very suspicious of being asked for help I instead adopted a brisk and business-like tone: “Excuse me? If you had a minute I would really appreciate it. I’m stuck in the toilet block.” The footsteps came closer and now I could see the waistband of a women’s jeans. “Hello? Is there someone in there?” she said. “Yes, I have been here for ages. I’ve been accidentally locked in. Would you maybe be able to get someone to unlock the door?” “Oh” she said very much taken aback. “Yes, yes, of course, I’ll run to reception right now. You stay right there.” Obviously this was a command that I couldn’t have contravened even if I had wanted to. But at this point I was so sick with relief that I simply said “Thank you” and sank back onto the floor. I could hear her jogging away up the path. At last someone had grasped the gravity of the situation.
Ten long minutes passed before footsteps returned. I noted with delight through the keyhole that this person was wearing a National Trust uniform. Surely freedom was only moments away?
In the interests of protecting the identity of said person, let’s call her the Elf With the Walkie Talkie.
Elf With The Walkie Talkie: “Hello? Is there someone in there?”
Me: (voice quavering with emotion) “Yes. I was locked in earlier. I’ve been here for nearly an h..”
EWTWT: (interrupting) “You know you’re not allowed in the carpark toilets in the winter? How did you get in there?”
Me: (apologising without really knowing why) “Sorry. I walked in earlier. The door was open. I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed in.”
EWTWT: “Well I’m fairly sure most people know that you’re not. There are signs up and everything.”
Me: “I didn’t see any signs?”
EWTWT: “That’s because we haven't put them up this year as yet.”
Me: “The school children used the toilets too? I just followed them?”
EWTWT: (with audible relief in her voice at having solved one of the great mysteries of modern times) “Ah…so THAT’S how you got in. We only open the toilets for school children. Were you with the school party?”
EWTWT: “Well you’re only allowed to use the toilets if you are accompanying a school party.”
Me: “Now we’ve cleared that up, do you think could you unlock the door please? I’ve been in here a really long time. I almost can’t feel my bott…”
EWTWT: (interrupting) “I don’t actually have the keys. I was just coming to see what the problem was. (Loud sigh) I suppose I could call for them now.”
EWTWT: (speaking into TWT) “Hi, could you send someone down with the keys to the toilet block in the carpark? A woman has been locked in. Over.”
Person at other end of TWT: “Keruuughhhhh phhhhhfffffff floooougghhhhhhh sssshhhhhuuuu.”
EWTWT: “No, that’s what I told her. No-one is allowed in those toilets. She wasn’t with the school party. They are all accounted for. I counted them myself. Over.”
PATOEOTWT: “Vsssssshhhh cceeeerrrrrrrugh fflllloooooffff.”
EWTWT: “That’s fine. I’ll wait here until the keys arrive then. Over.”
Many many minutes pass before a second set of footsteps trudges down the path. Let’s call her Elf With the Keys.
Elf With the Keys: “Hello? Is there someone in there?”
Me: “Yes. I am. As I explained to your colleague, I got accidentally locked in quite a long time ago and I’m very very col…”
EWTK: (interrupting) “Did you not know that no-one apart from school children are allowed to use the carpark toilets in the winter?”
Me: (slightly tetchy now) “Yes. Believe me that fact is now indelibly etched on my brain. In the meantime would you mind terribly unlocking the door?”
EWTK: “Yes, yes I suppose so.” (Loud sigh. Sounds of unlocking).
I totter, squinting, out into daylight and fresh air once again, feeling overwhelmed with benign thoughts and gratitude.
Me: “Thank you so much. I really thought I was going to have to spend the winter in there! Ha ha!”
EWTK: “Well you’ll remember the next time. The carpark toilets are really only for the use of school children during the winter months.”
EWTWT: “School children.”
Me: “Right. Sorry. Roger that. Sorry. Thanks again. Apologies for any inconvenience. I’ll just head off to pick my daughter up from school now. Sorry, running a bit late now actually, so I’ll have to rush.”
As I walk away, I consider sadly that it looks highly unlikely that I am to be furnished with a voucher for the coffee shop for a free cup of tea for my inconvenience. For the two unapologetic elves, seemingly unmoved by sympathy or basic human feeling of any kind, immediately began to trudge back up the path to reception.
EWTWT: “Locked in the toilets! Whatever next?” (chuckles).
EWTK: “Whatever next indeed!” (also chuckling).
This entire episode, whilst being both extremely memorable, and a source of great merriment for my family and friends, did nothing to neutralise the festive panic. I tried to learn valuable life lessons from the incident but could think of only one…
Don’t use the toilets in the carpark in the winter.
They’re only for school children.
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