Inspecting the toilet on the ferry is part of Laura’s summer holiday ritual, so it’s no surprise when, crossing from Dover to Dunkerque, she asks to visit the Ladies.
I’m not unsympathetic to my daughter’s fascination with public toilets. I was just the same at her age. And like her, I was a well-travelled child. When I was 8, my parents gamely took me, my brother and sister on a trans-American road trip. We drove from Philadelphia to Los Angeles in a fortnight, on a scenic route that memorably took in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, Mount Rushmore, the Great Lakes, Yellowstone Park, the Black Hills of Dakota and Las Vegas. Whenever I see the famous giant letters spelling out HOLLYWOOD on those famous Californian hills, I still feel proprietorial.
It was on this trip that our family stayed in hotels for the first time. To me, the new Holiday Inn chain seemed the height of glamour. And the many diners and restaurants that we visited on route offered a multitude of lavatorial inspection opportunities. Best of all was the one that included a perfume machine. When you put a dime in the slot, 10 cents worth of Chanel Number 5 squirted onto your proffered wrist. To my eight year old mind, life couldn’t get more sophisticated than that.
Laura’s first ferry trip came when she was just three weeks old, travelling on a passport in which her photo included a giant hand (mine) holding her tiny head erect. Ever since that initiation eight years ago, she has been passionate about ferry travel, whether crossing the English Channel, island-hopping in Greece, or adding to her collection of Hebrides, Inner and Outer.
So, hand in hand, legs braced against the gentle summer swell of the ferry, we make our way towards the symbol for the ladies’ loo. The raised ledge of at the entrance to each cubicle is a reminder of rougher crossings in which water may be sweeping across the floor.
As we enter the cubicle, a big red sign catches our eye. Laura reads the text above a large downward arrow.
“No foreign bodies.”
“What does that mean?”
I hesitate. It’s a good question. What indeed does it mean? Perhaps there should be some translations. We don’t want continental travellers inferring that our chosen (Danish) carrier, DFDS, is xenophobic. Even armed with an English phrase book, our European neighbours could easily get the wrong end of the stick. In my mind, I anticipate possible mistranslations: “English evacuation only”, “Defense de pooer”etc.
Whatever its intention, the sign does not bother us. After all, we’re not foreign bodies. We’re British. And now, our visit over, there is a corner of the English Channel that will be forever England.
Bemused, we emerge to wash our hands. Above the sink, we find another sign entreating us to “Beware of sharp objects!”
We are startled by this: we hadn’t noticed any such dangers on our way in. I scan the room. There are categorically no sharp objects to be seen. The sink, the taps and the hand-drier all have beautifully rounded edges. So what’s this sign in aid of? Is it just a general warning for life? A philosophical point to be borne in mind for future reference? They might as well have posted up a notice beseeching us “Do not run with scissors”, “Never ride a carousel while eating a lollipop”, or, that old favourite, “Beware Greeks bearing gifts”.
For a moment I feel grateful to DFDS for caring so much about our well-being.
And though I don’t mention it to Laura, I wonder what notices they’ve put in the Gents.