On the umpteenth exchange of emails, I finally lost my temper and sent the one intemperate sentence, all shouty capitals, which may prove to be my undoing here at Salvation Bank: “THE TOILETS STINK OF PI$$”. And so ended what had begun as a fairly innocuous, generic round robin from the facilities department to which I should never have replied in the first place and under normal circumstances would not have.
Everyone had been canvassed as to their opinions on how well we had bedded into our new premises after the first three months and whether there were any suggested improvements. Not thinking myself long-dated for this firm, for this industry, for this life, I would not normally have bothered but that morning, the ammoniac pong emanating from the gents would have downed an airliner at thirty-five thousand feet let alone a stockbroker already on the ropes, reeling from the blows of a nasal assault.
Couched in the most diplomatic and euphemistic of terms, I hinted that since the first day we arrived, the air quality of the lavatorial arrangements on the fourth floor was sub-optimal and could perhaps be improved. Almost instantly, my remonstrance was ricocheting around the firm like the Higgs Boson particle in the Hadron Collider and proving more volatile.
Inside the totalitarian system operated by HR departments in the politically correct corporates of modern Britain, every complaint is incendiary and the desperation of every constituency to take offence renders a polite observation an affront to public morality.
In a time of deceit, telling the truth about the loos is a revolutionary act.
The initial response was typically bureaucratic: first denial, then a grudging acceptance of verifiable reality, followed by a witch-hunt for someone who could be held responsible and finally an outrage that something like this could happen at Salvation Bank.
A hapless cleaner was despatched but a long-standing stench like this required divine intervention from Cloacina, the Roman goddess of sewers, not a little lady earthling with a mop and detergent. The next initiative was to give the offending area a huge blast of air-freshener, as if somehow combining the acrid and the sickeningly sweet would make for an aroma of wild flowers, but mercifully we depleted all reserves of air-freshener during our recent conference and there were no further supplies.
In HR parlance, the reek had become an ‘issue’ and suddenly there were dozens of people involved, we were on a journey together, learning lessons from the experience, feeling each other’s pain and pulling together as a team to overcome our shared ordeal as the email chain lengthened. One thing that was not happening, though, was somebody actually doing something about it, and so my patience snapped when the building supervisor asked me for the precise location of the offending odour.
It’s not as though I have the olfactory sophistication of a perfumier from Provence or the sniffer dog in a bomb disposal unit. I mean you walk through the door, the fetor rocks your head back like a heavyweight’s uppercut and unless you develop the freediver’s lung capacity or dig your great-grandfather’s gasmask out of the attic, there is no way of avoiding this and I couldn’t have been the first to point it out.
Accept all of this by way of long-winded explanation as to what prompted my eventual outburst. It did have the immediately beneficial effect of closing down all subsequent discussion with a jolt. The thread ended. I think my so-called career ended too.
Since then, the subject has not been broached but I assume this means that silently, behind the scenes, HR are just meticulously putting together a copper-bottomed case with deadly intent for me.
I can see the indictment being typed up now… “counter-revolutionary element… neo-Trotskyite cabal… leader of enemy cell of saboteurs” so I sit here waiting, as I have waited in the past, for the tap on the shoulder, the janiform expression on the assassin’s face and the fatal euphemism, “Do you have a moment?” The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. If this ended up in an industrial tribunal, would I be accredited the status of whistle-blower? I can see the headlines: “They couldn’t handle the truth about the gents”? I’d do anything for a payout. Eh bien, on s’engage et puis on voit.
Meanwhile, the acrid whiff lingers undiminished in the toilets like a 1970s underpass. Resignation sits on my shoulders like a shabby cloak.
Relief all round
A similar problem seems to have afflicted the downstairs section of my lunchtime refuge. It is a bookshop on Cheapside, where often I sit, reading like an unwelcome tramp in the library on a rainy day. There are just a couple of chairs and if you manoeuvre one into a secluded alcove housing one of the more arcane categories the impression of a private library is created. During the hour of ‘popping out’ I could learn a language down there.
A few weeks back, there was clearly a flood of sorts and something not altogether ambrosial seeped through the flooring and soaked into the carpet. The rotten stench was off-putting but when the weather is inclement and a sales-trader down on his luck simply must have a sanctuary of sorts, there was nothing for it but a katabasis into the basement and to wait for the nostrils to gradually adjust.
I find peace there among the poetry, fiction and travel sections and even if it transpires that some poison has leached into the groundwater of my cultural redoubt, it’s better than the alternatives: the desk; the trading floor; the cafeteria; reality.
After several days, either the matting dried or I became accustomed to it. Like stockbroking, it stinks but it’s the stink I know. People talk about the sweet smell of success but failure has a recognisable bouquet too. Breathe it deeply like her unique and unforgettable fragrance.
Many years back in my bachelor days, I was involved in a dispute with a neighbour living in the flat directly subjacent to me who complained of water ingress from the apartment I had just bought into hers. She sued me, unfairly but successfully, for criminal negligence, cost me a small fortune and catalysed an acrimonious, multi-faceted and mostly one-sided dispute which continued for many months during which she demonstrated a vindictive malevolence entirely disproportionate to her misperceived injustice. Nasty piece of work.
She was the mistress of a well-known North London businessman and bankrupt from the fashion industry who put her up in the property, showered her with gifts and encouraged her persecution of the desperate and now impoverished singleton on the top floor.
One Valentine’s Day, he left a beautiful bouquet of flowers outside her door. I came home drunk. I sank to my knees. I relieved myself powerfully among them. In my life there have been very few payback times. That was one of them.
Every time I’m obliged to spend a penny here at Salvation Bank and I meet with that overpowering malodour, I think of her, sweeping up those blooms in her arms and inhaling deeply. It’s not quite Proust and his madeleine but it served her right.