Margaret Helen Parkinson ©
"I wish you wouldn't do that," I said pulling up my short, eight year old body as tall as it would go. "It stinks and it makes me sick!"
"Margaret is right!" my mother said to my eldest brother, Murray. She came to my support quickly with a smile and an air of satisfaction! I wondered if she had wanted to make the same complaint herself and was glad I had brought the subject up. "Margaret is quite right, she said. Smoking cigarettes in the lavvy is a dirty habit and it does smell!"
Our lavatory was a tiny, single-purpose room. Most of the houses I had seen in Rotorua, our town, had such rooms. Certainly all the state built houses like ours had one. A lavatory was no more than six feet long by three feet wide with a toilet installed at the back. Ours had nothing in it other than a roll of toilet paper on a holder attached to one of the side walls and a short stack of cut up newspaper pieces, each about six inches square, placed on top of the toilet cistern. The lavvy door seemed sturdier than it needed to be. The upper half was made of a bubbly glass that no-one could see through. There was another opaque window installed high above the toilet on the back outside wall. The lower half was sealed shut while the upper half, about eighteen inches wide and ten inches deep, was hinged along the top. This upper part of the window swung open toward the outside by about forty-five degrees and was held secure by a curved hasp and a wing nut. The hasp and wing-nut was high up and nobody could reach it easily, so no-body did. It had not been adjusted in years and rust had left the window permanently open by a couple of inches. This window wasnt meant for anything other than the distillation of muted light and ventilation. I had no idea what the window in the door was for.
I liked this little room, the lavvy. It was quiet and private a place to think and imagine. I went in there whenever I wanted to be alone. Nothing bothered me in the lavvy. Nothing except for the occasional thump on the door and a hurry up shout when someone else wanted 'to go'. The 'littlest room in the house' some people called such places when they were embarrassed to use a more vulgar term. I called it the lavvy'.
Lavvy was a useful term. Everyone had to go there several times in a day and usually no questions were asked. People stepped aside when I screamed "I have to go to the lavvy!" as I ran through the kitchen, into the living room, on into the front hallway and round the corner to the lavvy door. Such antics were so commanding that they got me out of almost anything anything except the washing up! My mother was a loving person most of the time, but she never believed anything I said if it meant I may not be available to help with the dishes.
"No you don't have to go to the lavvy," she said. "You can go when you have finished drying the dishes."
"But Mummy!" I whined, bending over double in a dramatic display of pain. "I have a tummy ache!"
"No you don't!" she said and that was that.
I don't remember waiting to go to the lavatory until after the dishes were done ever becoming a problem. I don't even remember actually going to the lavatory after finishing the dishes. The tummy ache was always forgotten, I had finished my chores and I was on to the next thing.
Perhaps it was because the room was so small that I liked it so much. I often sat on the toilet seat and looked at the window in the door before me. It was a strange place for a window not facing on to the outside or anything. On the other side of the window was a small passageway leading to the bathroom at one end and the front hallway at the other. Why would you want a window on to that? You couldnt see through it anyway so what was the point? It didnt even let in much light. It was a big window too. It couldnt be opened, not because it was stuck like the little window above the toilet but because it was built directly into the door without any hinges or latches. Why would they make such a window?
I liked the window though. I liked the bubbles in the glass and I liked the little spots of paint in one corner, left there by some unknown painter long ago. It was a screen to the imagination. I saw pictures in those bubbles and spots. I imagined stories stories of heroines and heroes, of animals and people, of great adventures.
Sitting in the lavvy I thought my deep eight year old thoughts. Why were we Parkinsons and other people were not? Why did some people like me and other people didn't? When would I ever learn how to catch a ball? And where did babies come from anyway?
Despite its privacy and introspection this 'littlest room in the house' became the scene for one of my most widely acclaimed childhood achievements. I refer to a crisis that has probably happens in every family at least once a generation. However, at the time, it seemed completely unique to us!
It all happened because the lavvy door had a lock and a key.
"Never lock the lavvy door," my mother often said. "You might not be able to unlock it and we would never get you out!"
The prospect of being locked in the lavvy and never getting out had quite a punch to it. Not enough punch, however, to stop me turning the key just a little once in a while, just to test. I was a risk taker. Someone tell me not to do something I wanted to give it a try but only a half-hearted try. I was never brave enough to turn the key all the way so that the lock actually clicked into place. As long as I didn't hear the click I believed I could safely reverse the process. Graham was not so careful, however!
June lived with us for the first few years of Grahams life. Murray was a sailor and his ship was out at sea when his son was born. Graham was my first nephew and I was only a child myself.
"Are you sure you are an Aunty?" the kids at school asked in disbelief. "Really?" they repeated, as if it was the strangest thing they had ever heard and they believed I could be making it up.
I am I said. June had her baby yesterday at the hospital.
"I heard of someone who was the Uncle of someone older than him!" someone said.
"No!" exclaimed all the kids. "That's funny!"
"Are you going to make him call you 'Aunty'" they asked, turning their attention back to me since I was present and the hypothetical uncle was not.
"Well, he will have to won't he? I said. I am the Aunty afterall."
I was never quite sure whether becoming an aunty while still a child was such a great thing. It was never really clear whether it was an achievement my peers admired, envied, or despised. Probably it was a little of all three, but that is a subtlety someone so young does not appreciate. At age eight I understood things to be either good or bad. The arrival of Graham presented me with an ambiguity I sometimes had difficulty dealing with.
Over the next couple of years I watched the production of child rearing unfold and frankly, I was not that impressed with it. It seemed loud, quite dirty and certainly very exhausting. Issues were dealt with by both mother and grandmother with a seriousness that seemed definite but I noticed that a month or two or maybe three changed everything and I wondered why did they worry?"
In some way the arrival of Graham let me off the hook. All the rules that had so recently been recited to me were now repeated to Graham.
"Eat up your vegetables and then you can have your pudding."
"Eat your crusts. They make your hair curly."
"Hold my hand when we cross the road."
"Don't throw your ball inside.
Dont click your knife and fork on the plate.
And "never lock the lavvy door!"
I didn't think of it then, but I wonder now if Graham felt the same way I did about the lavvy. Maybe, like me, he liked going in there to get away from the adults and maybe he enjoyed the delicious fear generated by turning the lavvy key just a smidgen, each time pushing his luck a little more, testing how far he could go without hearing that fateful click that meant being locked in the lavvy for ever. I don't know. What I do know however is that he did it! At aged two and a half Graham turned the key and locked himself into the lavvy, and when they found out about it all hell let loose!
Mum and June did not notice Graham was missing for a while neither did I. Once or twice I heard them ask, 'Where's Graham?' but, I did not take any notice of that. They were always fussing about him in one way or another. The tone of their voices began to catch my attention after a while however, as they repeated the question more and more urgently.
"Where is Graham? Margaret, have you seen Graham?"
Then we heard a loud scream followed by the alarming wails that only a two and a half year old in a frightening situation can produce.
"Where is he?" they gasped rushing toward the sounds of the crying.
They ran to the lavvy, and grabbed the door handle. It would not budge! Graham was locked inside
"Graham! Graham!" they shouted. "Turn the key! Stop crying! Listen to me! Turn the key!"
The more they shouted, the louder Graham cried. The more Graham cried, the louder they shouted!
They had my complete attention now.
I watched in silence, remembering my mother's words, "Never lock the lavvy door. You might not be able to unlock it and we would never get you out!"
Now it was real. Graham was locked inside! Did that really mean he would never get out? How would he eat? Would we have to squeeze food and drink through the tiny crack between the door and the floor? Perhaps we would push a long straw under the door and he would suck liquids through it. What would he do? Could he live in there until he was grown up? His clothes would become too small! His hair would never be cut. What about his fingernails! What about us? What about me! Would I never be able to go into the lavvy again?
After awhile they calmed down.
"If we are calm, he will be calm." my mother said in her wise voice. She could sound oh so wise and authoritative. People always listened. Graham listened. He stopped crying. He stopped talking. He was completely silent. My mother spoke very quietly.
"Graham. Listen to me. Turn the key. Turn the key dear. The key. Do you see the key?"
"He doesn't know the word 'turn'," June said.
"Pull the key out. Graham, pull the key out." Mum said. "If we can get him to pull the key out then we can get him to push it under the door."
He doesnt know what a key is, June said.
Graham said nothing. He did nothing.
"Let's get some wire," they said.
"I will," I said, recovering from my reverie and running outside to the shed.
I loved the shed. I loved the shed for different reasons than I loved the lavvy. The shed was a treasure house of wonderful things. Little bottles and tins full of screws and nails. Paint brushes and paint cans that could be pried open with a little bit of effort. Spanners and hammers; screws and bolts; pumps and soldering irons all with a purpose and all so ... well, so adult! My favorite was a wood plane that I often lifted up and examined. After having seen Dad use it I tried pushing it along the edge of the wooden bench to peel off marvelous little curls of wood.
However, on this particular day there was a crisis going on and there was no time for any of these things. I went straight to a place behind the paint cans where I knew there was a piece of fairly stiff wire about two feet long. I grabbed it and ran back into the house.
"We must be calm," my mother was saying again. "We must be calm and then he will be calm. He is very frightened. I always say never to lock the lavvy door."
"Well, why do we leave the key in the door then?" June asked in a tone of voice as close to irritation as June ever got.
"Oh, good girl, Margaret," my mother said and took the piece of wire from me. My mother was pleased, and I was pleased that she was pleased. I started to feel just a little bit heroic like the people I imagined in the lavvy door glass.
My mother poked the wire into the key hole. Nothing happened. She started breathing noisily. Other mothers might have said a bad word but she didnt. She kept working the wire in and out of the key hole. Finally the wire went all the way through and the key fell noisily onto the linoleum floor inside the lavvy.
Immediately Graham began to scream again. This time louder and in more despair than before. Catching his fear my mother and June began to panic. One of them shouted,
"We will have to break this window!"
OH NO! NOT BREAK THE WINDOW! It was my turn to panic. "Not break the window with the little spots of paint in the corner? Not break the window with the bubbles and imaginary pictures! Then it occurred to me Was that why they put a window in that door? Was it so you could break in and get people who were locked inside out?" Even if that was its practical purpose I did not want that window broken. I had to do something before these two women smashed the stimulus for my ever vivid imagination.
"What about the outside window?" I shouted over all the commotion. They stopped and looked at me, both quiet for a few seconds.
"It is too small!" said my mother.
"I am small." I said.
My mother looked at me for what felt like for ever and looking at me seriously she said, "Do you think you could do it?" I was part of the adult world for the first time in my life.
"Yes." I replied in an equally serious tone of voice.
"There is a long drop from that little window to the floor?" she said. "You will have to stand on the window sill and then step carefully onto the top of the cistern. You will have to be very careful."
"I can do it," I said, my chest swelling at the thought of the danger and the responsibility.
It might work, said my Mother.
We all went outside and looked at the window. The window had not been examined as carefully for years. Mum and June and I all realized at the same moment that as small as I was I was not small enough to get through the two inch space. The problem was beyond us.
"We will have to get Dad to come home from work and pry the window open," Mum said.
Dad was summoned and Dad came home. With his mysterious stillness and quiet, Dad calmed everyone down. His very presence made everything manageable. Graham stopped crying. My Mother and June stopped panicking. I felt even more important.
Neighbors began to gather. A situation filled with acute anxiety just a few minutes before was now took on the air of a Sunday School picnic. And I was the center of attention!
"Margaret will climb through the window and let Graham out," my mother told everybody. "She will be very careful."
Without a word, except for an occasional 'blast' as his spanner slipped, my father loosened the ancient wing nut that had not been moved since another little boy, belonging to a previous family, had locked himself inside the lavvy. With the wing nut loosened and the hatch disconnected the window swung free. Now it could be held open to ninety degrees. With a little bit of luck I could get through that big a space. Dad came down the ladder. He reached the ground. He turned and looked at me. My turn now.
I climbed the ladder. Everyone was watching me. I liked that. No-one spoke. I paused for a dramatic moment at the top rung of the ladder. I turned to the side, lifted up the swinging window and put one short leg through the window placing my foot on the narrow window sill below.
Hold on tight dear, my Mother said.
As I squeezed my bottom through the tiny space I turned slowly bringing my other leg followed by my torso and head inside the lavvy. Carefully I stepped onto the top of the cistern and then onto the toilet seat. Feeling safe I took a moment standing on the toilet seat and noticed a layer of dust in a place no one had ever seen before. I smiled to think that Mum had not looked at that place and did not know it was covered in dust. Continuing with the job at hand, I stepped down onto the floor. Graham stared at me with big brown eyes filled with amazement at my arrival and relief to be no longer alone. I picked up the key from the floor and, somewhat reluctantly, unlocked the door.
The spell was broken! June rushed inside and grabbed Graham who started crying again. My Mother turned to the neighbors telling them everything that had happened including how she always said, "Never lock the lavvy door!" The neighbors started telling each other about the times when Kenny, Owen, Kathy or Patricia got locked in somewhere and how they got them out. Everyone was talking at once. I rushed outside to join the celebration. I rushed from person to person, relishing the attention.
My father climbed slowly back up the ladder and secured the window, adding a little oil to the moving parts. He climbed down again, picked up the ladder and walked toward the shed. Having lost the attention of Mum and the neighbors, I walked beside him holding on to the ladder a little, reluctant to let go of my 'helping' role.
"You were great!" he said.
© Margaret Helen Parkinson 11/03