It's school holidays at the moment, but I am working through them, as I have no leave left. If I was easily distracted I would now start talking about Nick Drake's lovely album Five Leaves Left, but I have an iron-willed determination to stick to the subject which is: unisex toilets.
As I have mentioned often, I work in a rambling complex of old stone warehouses joined together with ramps, metal stairs and mysterious fire doors. We have been there nearly a year now. Last week a sliding fire door opened behind me in the wall - a door that has been closed all that time, and we treat as if it was a bit of wall. A man no-one had seen before (looked a bit like John Hodgman) said "Hell-o!" and strolled into our office to check the fire extinguishers.
But – the toilets. There are two, and in a sane workplace there would be one for boys and one for girls. Instead they are both unisex. The nearest one also has the baby change table. There is a chair as well as the change table in the disabled cubicle, and that can only be for feeding, I guess. On occasions I have made the long trudge down from our office to the nearest toilet, turned the corner, and realised someone is on their way in for a nappy change and maybe a spot of breastfeeding. So I have backtracked and gone upstairs so we can both have some privacy.
On Tuesdays every week, a group of lovely older ladies convenes in the Arts Centre meeting room, all day. I'm not sure what they are there for, but of course they are another obstacle to quiet enjoyment of uncomplicated ablutions. Regularly on Tuesdays a workmate will come back into the office with that look of shame and anger on his face that says "I just unavoidably disgusted an old lady".
At least the Tuesday Ladies know what they are dealing with. As the centre is open to the public, arguably half the people using the toilets are visitors. Based on observations, I would say that of those, 90% have done a lot of tentative searching for some kind of "mens" or "womens" indicators, and then have seen someone coming out, and either thought "ah - unisex" or just "ah - there is a person of my gender - I am going in there no questions asked before I burst".
In some hair-raising cases, ladies have only been acquainted with the unisex aspect when they have opened the outer sliding door suddenly, just as I have been about to open it from the other side. Or they are applying some lippy in the mirror when I flush and step out behind them. (I want to stress that I have been just as surprised as they.) No-one has screamed, yet.
The acme of awkward situations crops up in the school holidays. The Faerie Shop Pty Ltd runs Faerie School for little girls, aged about 5 - 8, in the same meeting room. They are all gussied up with lacy dresses in pink, mauve and purple, and wings of course. They do Faerie Crafts and watch Faerie Films and god knows what else all day, guided by adult Faeries with bigger wings.
Sometimes the adult Faeries take groups of girls to the toilet. Do they mention in advance that, through no fault of his own, they might meet a large unshaven man in there? It seems not. Do they suggest that if this happens to not stare at him in horror, as though he is a repugnant troll? It seems not.
Do they mention the possibility that the large man might say "hello girls!" to them brightly, in an attempt to defuse the situation? And that maybe the best thing would be for everyone to just act normal and say "hello" back, including the grown-up Faerie?
It seems not.