Wednesday, 1 April 2009

An Alarming Experience

I’m not normally the clumsy, make-a-fool of myself type, and certainly not at work, but then when rushing to a meeting the other day, I certainly messed up with a bang. Or rather not a bang but a shrill alarm sound.

I had about a half hour between meetings but about 40 minutes worth of urgent work to do between them, and also had to go out foraging for a salad to scoff, whilst dealing with the myriad interruptions that always come when you have no time. Consequently, I left myself less than five minutes to get to a crucial meeting where I should have arrived 10 minutes early and was over two minutes away—but first needed to brush my teeth (go on, laugh, but I can’t concentrate without a fresh mouth) and, uh, powder my nose in the sense that doesn’t involve powder of any sort, be it from Maybelline or Columbia.

So it was with a sense of near panic that I ran to the ladies’ room (I prefer women’s room, as an American woman who grew up in the 70s) toting my toothbrush and toothpaste and plans to ensure I didn’t address a crowded meeting with carrots and beetroot strips dangling from my teeth.

I was thus hugely disheartened to find walking into the ladies’ with me the man who restocks the paper towels and toilet tissue. A bit shyly but a lot desperate, I began to brush my teeth in front of him at a nearly dangerous speed as I had no alternative. I figured that he would leave by the time I finished so I could get on with the more private business in a non-Ally McBeal co-ed loo fashion then rush to my meeting.

Unfortunately, the man took his time and seemed intent on moving in, and I could not wait. I remembered there is a separate disabled toilet in the ‘toilet suite’ beside the men’s room, which I would normally never use. But I rushed in there for the first time, not really stopping to take stock when the light came on automatically as I fumbled with the door lock to ensure Replenishing Man wouldn’t burst in. Eyeing the unusual lock with little confidence, I rather backed into the toilet, which was very disgusting as some staff use that loo when they, uh, need privacy and more time than the other loos allow (eg not “number ones”).

I was running out of time, so quickly did the necessary, reached up to pull the cord dangling beside me to flush the toilet, began to sort out clothes etc when—I froze. Just as I was thinking, wait a minute, why did I assume the flush was controlled by a string, and don’t they sometimes have alarm cords in places like this in case someone has fallen and needs assistance, like in sheltered accommodation? ….a distant but loud alarm began ringing shrilly. My heart stopped.

I turned to look at the toilet for the first time and, yes, of course, there was a normal flush handle on it, so there was no need for a pull-cord. My mind turned to a hilarious episode of The IT Crowd, where one of the characters has to use the disabled loo in a theatre but did exactly this, pulling the alarm cord by accident, and then to avoid getting in trouble for using the disabled loo, faked having been mugged and robbed of his wheelchair whilst in the toilet, lying on the ground as though helplessly when the theatre staff rushed in to rescue him.

I would never do such a thing but didn’t have time to come up with any caper in any case. I absolutely had run out of time so could only carry on dressing and washing my hands so I could literally run to my meeting. How awkward though; not only to have someone arrive to assist unnecessarily, and I prayed it wouldn’t be someone who had been alerted to come from a long way away from maybe Social Services, Health and Safety, or the disabled access office, but also, I must admit, to have someone think it had been me who made the loo so gross and smelly (I do apologise, but that entered my mind on the list of worries at the time).

As I carried on rushing to reach a suitable state for departure, I heard the dreaded but hesitant voice outside the door: “Hello?” Worse, there came a second voice: “Are you okay in there? Do you need help?”

I called out in that I was fine and was very sorry and would be out in a minute. I wondered whether, as suggested on The IT Crowd, I would be criticised for the crime of using the disabled loo, when normally I’m so dully law-abiding.

When I was able to pull open the door, I saw two colleagues from my floor, so at least they had not been called from some emergency centre or specialist office. I spat out my story at a hundred miles an hour, they listened, then walked over to the cord and yanked it again, and the alarm stopped. Ugh! So simple. I’m afraid an ‘off’ option had never occurred to me.

I then had to run past them out into the small corridor of the ‘bathroom suite’ before opening the door that led out into the general office. As I opened that door, happy to put the incident behind me and planning to scrape together some dignity as I sprinted to the meeting room, I found about 15 people from around the office, as well as some visiting strangers, all gathered, standing still facing the door I came through, silently awaiting some explanation for the horrid alarm that had been piercing their ears for the past few minutes.

Oh dear. It turns out the alarm sounds loudly throughout the office, and a previously unseen light fixture over the door into the toilet suite begins to flash brightly orange when the cord is pulled. I did not know this because no one has ever ever ever set off the alarm before. How embarrassing. I smiled and rushed out an explanation to the crowd (why?) and fled, and no one at my meeting had any idea what I had been up to, they just thought I looked flustered. I like to think that when I returned to my office hours later, everyone had forgotten, but somehow the myriad wry smiles and snickers, even from people who had been out at lunch at the time, led me to think otherwise. Sigh. Live and learn.

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