Tales of the Toilet

When we bought our house in France back in 1992—two rooms and a shed, laid out in a line—there was no toilet at all. There was, however, running water and a thunderbox in the shed that stood next to the stone exterior of the house on the site of what had once been another room, but was now a ruin. The house was originally a Normandy longère, a long house, but it wasn’t long any more. Only one wall of the ruin was left standing, precariously upright, a triangle of stone pointing to the sky. In the shed, illuminated by daylight coming through the wooden slats, was a tall hollow wooden box with a bottom-shaped hole cut in the top on which you sat. It was a high box, difficult for the children to clamber up on satisfactorily. This wasn’t much of a problem, as our daughter (aged two) was using a potty and our son (aged four) welcomed the chance to become feral and busied himself in the long grass.

The thunderbox had to be emptied periodically into a hole that had to be dug and to be big enough to accommodate not just us, but also visiting family. Like Luke and Sarah, we got to know a lot of the local cafés.

To keep things smelling sweet(ish), we sloshed a lot of pink disinfectant into the box. It was generally stored next to the toilet. There was the occasional mix-up in the system and other things might be stored there too, if you were in a hurry. Barbecue lighter fluid, for example.

In those days, a lot of people smoked, including my mother and my husband, H. Where better to have a quiet cigarette and a moment of contemplation than in the shed? You could leave the door open and gaze out at the cows in the field that belonged to the farm next door, thinking pastoral thoughts. And then you could dispose of your fag in the obvious place. On one occasion, H decided it was his turn to disinfect and duly poured thick shiny pink liquid into the box. It was only as he was turning to chuck the remains of his cigarette into the pit he became aware of the strong scent of lighter fuel. He still had hold of the glowing cigarette end. He hopped quickly off the box, scrambled out of the shed and threw the butt into the cow field before breaking out into a seriously cold sweat.

(From Chapter 3 bis of The Hazelnut Grove)

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