‘I’m going to wee myself.’ Fiona’s strangulated voice reached a new level of pleading and she clutched at her sides and danced, a familiar childhood, Sunday school picnic- step, in front of Mary.
‘Will you stop whining about needing the toilet. You’re making me need as well.’ She leaned forward, onto the balls of her feet, preparing for flight, the brow on her forehead growing deeper, as if that would take her closer to the clicking destination and arrival boards, thirty feet above her, and used her index finger to point at one board, and then another, as if that helped her calculations.
‘Pleasssse,’ Fiona drew the word out, her dance of desperation reaching a frenzied pitch.
Mary tore her eyes away from the boards and shook her head wearily, her thin lips and face set into the rictus of the prim and proper I told you so expression. ‘There’s a toilet over there.’ She nodded through the crowded concourse, echoing with the tinny clatter of megaphoned arrivals and departures, different armies sweeping into and past each other and jostling for better positions, the decision to see or be seen, to leave or stay, or to be swept clear by the pulse of movements.
‘How do you know that?’ Fiona’s mouth dropped open as she searched Mary’s face for the answer.
‘I can smell them.’ Mary wrinkled her nose, but she laughed as she picked up the tartan suitcase and began cutting a path through the crowd.
Fiona pulled her shoulder bag firmly around her and trotted along beside Mary like a little collie dog. Mary stopped suddenly in front of the ticket office and looked around her, to get her bearings. She hesitated, was just about to lean across and tap a young woman, wearing the kind of Afghan coat that was to die for, on the back, and ask where the toilets where, when her hair shifted and Mary could see it was a guy and not a girl. At the same time, she looked across the concourse, at the steps and she remembered that they led down to British Rail’s damp dark secret, the subterranean toilet block. She tugged at Fiona’s arm, pulling her firmly in that direction.
Mary put down the tartan suitcase at the top of the staircase. Fiona stood beside her. The smell of damp and drip-drip of water seemed to reach up and wrap around both of them and block their ears so that everything behind them sounded as if it was wrapped in cheesecloth and everything in front of them felt slippery and oozing with the fetid breath of blocked drains.
‘Go on then,’ said Mary, her voice a dare.
‘Oh, I can’t,’ said Fiona, hovering on the step below Mary, clutching her stomach, her feet beating out an impotent beat. ‘Can’t you come with me?’
‘No.’ Mary shook her head slowly from side to side as if such an idea was unthinkable. ‘I’ll watch the bags.’
‘But you said you needed the toilet.’ Fiona gazed deep down into the toilet vault and back again, gauging the distance between the darkness and the light of Mary’s face, trying to work out if she could make it there and back, holding her breath without really looking or touching anything.
‘No I said I might need the toilet. Later.’ Mary emphasised the last word and spoke as if she was dictating her thoughts to a grumpy child.
‘But you said…’Fiona broke off. ‘I can’t go down there.’ She scurried up and past Mary, looking desperately right and left, as if another toilet might rush past hidden among the human traffic. ‘C’mon,’ she said, rushing into the late afternoon throng of tired looking commuters.
Mary lumped the tartan suitcase up the stairs, swinging it from side to side, huffing and puffing like a Pamplona bull, as a warning to other passengers caught in her glare, to make a path. Fiona was perched, bouncing up and down on her bird like legs, on the edge of the pavement outside Glasgow Central station, looking one way and another when Mary finally caught up with her and squinting at a building across the road.
‘I can’t see,’ she said, ‘is that a hotel?’
‘Yes. It’s The George. It doesn’t look very…’ Mary didn’t get a chance to finish, Fiona clenched her hand and stepped into the road. A bus tooted its horn at them going one way and a taxi’s brakes squealed, as they tottered in the middle of the road like Friday night drunks, going in the other direction.
‘Do you think it’ll have a toilet?’ Fiona didn’t wait for her friend to answer; the two of them scooted across the road and onto the safety of the pavement.
Up close Fiona could see what her friend meant. Up and down the street there were pubs and clubs and even a Boots The Chemist, which stood out white and prim like a laboratory coat. The George was a Victorian stately home, which had taken the wrong turn, battered and grey faced, and the swinging door opened and shut like a prison toothed smile. A man wearing a long Cromby coat staggered out.
‘Sorry mate!’ The voice was gravely and worn with age, but a surprisingly young pair of bright eyes looked out at them from beneath an old working man’s cap. ‘Hen…Sorry Hen,’ he said adjusting his body to look again, just to make sure, before bumping past them.
There was a moment of silence where even the sound of traffic seemed to have stopped, but Fiona was through the doors before Mary could say anything.
There was a desk of sort in the hallway, more plywood than seasoned hotel oak. The concierge looked from one to the other of them, his face a look of resentment and surprise, held together with a knowing leer. He pushed the glossy magazine he had been reading under the counter and an orphan of a distempered dog, divorced by the canine species, pitter- pattered out and growled at them for him.
‘Shut up Bowser,’ the concierge said, with a foreign Falkirk twang, hitting it continuously on the head until its growls subsided and stopped and it scurried back under the desk, the silence standing between them.
‘Have you got a toilet?’ Fiona pushed forward her hips almost pushing over the carefully constructed desk.
The concierge leaned back in his chair, slowly chewing on his gum like a professional, then picking at his nose like that was his day job, before looking them up and down again and sniffing.
Mary’s hand came up and past Fiona and pulled her back the way so that she almost stumbled. She leaned down and put her face up close, within spitting distance of the concierge. ‘Are you some kind of half-wit?’ she asked. ‘Where are your toilets?’
‘Upstairs,’ the concierge sniffed, his massive bulk sending ripple effects through his body and making the chair squeak with a fart sound. His dog came out from beneath the desk, looked up and then crawled back under again.
‘Ten -Bob,’ he said, gaining courage when Mary took a step back, his sausage fingers stroking at he underside of his unshaved chin. ‘Do you want a single of a double?’
‘We just want to use the toilet.’ Mary leaned in again and for such a big man he seemed to shrink.
‘Just pay him,’ cried Fiona.
‘Two single room then please.’ Mary’s voice was icy calm.
‘No. I’m not staying here in a room myself,’ said Fiona, ‘just please, please, hurry up.’
‘A double-room then please,’ said Mary.
The concierge looked up at the key rack and sniffed, stroked his chin and sniffed, his eyes moving from one set to another, as if he was playing championship darts and had to pick the right finish. Finally, his hand went up and out. He sniffed as he dropped the keys on the desk and then put his hands over the top of them and leaned forward. ‘That’s a pound.’ He looked from one to the other.
Fiona pulled out her purse and banged a pound note on the desk. The dog gave out a little yelp. She grabbed desperately at the keys. ‘Where is it? Where is it?’
The concierge’s mouth fell open, as if they were speaking a different language. ‘The third floor,’ he finally said.
Fiona strained to get away. ‘Where’s the lift?’
‘It doesn’t work,’ his Falkirk seemed to scramble what he was saying so that there was a twanging gap between what he said and what they heard. She was already half way across the hallway. ‘Wait,’ he said, straining to get out of his chair. But it was too late she was already on the first landing by the time he managed to contort his body and gain enough leverage. His massive neck turreted and he looked at Mary, standing in the same place, with her suitcase, her face set to Sphinx, and he rubbed his nose and looked away again. He spoke out of the side of his mouth, as if he was addressing no one in particular. ‘She’ll need the key for the toilet on the third landing.’ He rummaged through the drawer and pulled out an old brass key, putting it down carefully on the desk.
Mary picked it up as if it was infected. ‘Jesus,’ she said, ‘whatever next?’
‘I need that back down here when you’re finished with it,’ sniffed the concierge. ‘You can’t be too careful, you know, with thefts and that.’
Mary shook her head and clutched her bag a little tighter to her as she walked up the stair.
The concierge had come out from behind his desk, his dress trousers crumbled and stained, his eyes following her up the stairs. ‘You’ll remember about the key, won’t you?’ Mary didn’t look back. ‘And no punters in your room,’ the concierge punched out his words with one last sniff, before turning and waddling back to his post at the door.