Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

03 January 2014

A Close Run Thing.

George Troup's enchanting Dunedin Railway Station was built in 1906 (which happens to be the year in which both my mother and father were born. The station has lasted longer than mum and dad).

'Enchanting' because it is pure gingerbread, a Flemish renaissance affair of turrets, gorgeous gables, soaring entrances and a tower that challenges that which houses Big Ben. It's a lasagne of dark basalt from the Strath-Taieri layered with Oamaru limestone - dark chocolate with white chocolate as if paying homage to the old factory of Cadbury's that stands opposite - so close, in fact, that E.E. Barringer, erstwhile Managing Director of the confectionery company, used to use the station's clock, which he could see from his office window, for timekeeping rather than his wristwatch.

Above the viridian copper cupola of the tower New Zealand's starry ensign flutters daily casting its flickering shadow upon the magnificent terra-cotta Marseilles shingles that comprise its roof.

Inside, art recklessly compounds itself in a booking hall whose floor is made up of something like three-quarters of a million mosaic Minton tiles. Looking down from a balcony which is itself decorated with a Royal Doulton porcelain frieze one can pick out delightful mosaic tableaux of locomotives, carriages and other Thomas-The-Tank-Engine symbols. 'NZR' is ubiquitous; everywhere one looks New Zealand Railways' initials proudly proclaim George Troup's sycophantic architectural homage.

Detail extends to the structures that lie along five hundred metres of its platform including the gentlemen's lavatory with its serious chest high pissoires and boxy water closets along the opposite wall, dignified, correct and white-tiled hygienic. So noble are they that a waxworks identity parade of kings could inhabit these cubicles, kings installed in stalls at stool like bishops adorning niches in ancient European cathedrals.

It was to this lavatory that I made my urgent way one early morning while passing through Dunedin on a fact-finding tour for one of my books. It must have been something I ate, a wayward oyster perhaps, at that pretentious restaurant last evening before a restless night in the motel. A sudden colicky pain, incipient panic, I couldn't return to the motel; where might I go? I spotted George's rambling monument beyond a glory of tulips and, fortunately, found a car park outside the main door of the station which, at this time of morning on a weekend, was apparently deserted.

The lavatory was empty. No kings installed, I chose the one in the middle, dropped my slacks, and burst forth in blessed relief. Oh the relief!

I doubt if there's ever been a mass observation survey of people's lavatory paper usage habits while in the privacy of the privy but I'm happy to let on that I don't tear paper off its holder, I hold the roll in my left hand, extract a couple of sheets folded at the perforation and apply to the derrière as appropriate. On this memorable morning, though, I had no sooner started than the toilet roll leapt from my hand, fell to the mosaic floor, bounced once and rolled out of the stall, under the fifteen centimetre gap below the heavy mahogany door.

I can only describe the feeling that flooded over me after the initial realization as - appalled. The paper roll had gone completely. Had it left a tail I could have retrieved sheets bit by bit until business was concluded. But there it was, gone, and no substitute in sight.

Well, I couldn't just sit there. I reached down and gathering my scants and pants in one hand, frog-hopped to the door which, thanks to Troup's spatial generosity, was not easily to hand. Balanced ridiculously, I slid aside the brass bolt and then, squeaking the door partially open, surveyed the scene. There, as far away as it could possibly be, was the toilet roll, nestling under the polished pipes of a wash hand basin. I listened carefully. No sound from outside. I opened the door further and crouch-hopped, my hand still grasping my clothing, until I reached the toilet roll, then turning in a series of Russian Cossack steps, bounced back to the cubicle where, safe, I finished the ordeal. More relief.

At length, having flushed and feeling flushed, I washed my hands at that very basin whereupon, with a cheery whistle and a clanking of galvanized steel a man in a rubber apron appeared brandishing a scrubbing brush and with a chamois leather wrapped over one shoulder.

' 'Morning mate!' he said, 'Nice day for it.'

If only he knew.


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By Don Donovan