Wednesday, 1 February 2012

If I Smell of Wee, Mr Paxman, I Can Assure You It Isn't My Wee

Not long ago, an embarrassing incident led me to be in a position where I was shaking hands with the great Jeremy Paxman—or rather, he simply sweetly touched my hand in an apologetic gesture as we were speaking—and I worried that I might smell of wee, albeit not of my own wee, and that that might be foremost in his mind. It’s not a position I ever expected to be in.

Happily, Mr Paxman made no mention of any stench, which I took to be a good sign, nor did he crinkle up his nose then cover his face with a handkerchief, coughing and wretching, so I don’t think he was just manning up and struggling through to be polite (yes, I think Paxo can be polite. He was quite lovely actually).

Now, I’m very aware that one does not normally discuss such matters, ie how one might come to be smelling of wee, whether it’s your own or someone else’s. And anyone who knows me would be shocked to hear that I even knew the word "wee" as I apparently give the impression of living in a Disney world devoid of such unpleasantness. But I’ve decided to talk about that evening. Perhaps it will achieve closure for me; perhaps as a cautionary tale, it will help warn you of a danger or assist someone who one day finds him or herself in a similar situation. Perhaps it will make The Loathesome Evil Tube Woman feel guilty if she comes across this, though I doubt she will. Probably no one will read this, so I’ll vent away….

One evening, I travelled into London with a copy of Jeremy Paxman’s new book Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British, as he was giving a talk on the subject at the Royal Geographical Society, followed no doubt by a book signing. I arrived at Cannon Street rail station and went down to the District line platform to head to South Kensington, and a train arrived immediately as usual (I am blessed with some magnetic pull with Tube trains; they come when I reach the platform, my one lucky trait). I stood by the door to let the passengers off the train first, which naturally wouldn’t have occurred to me without an announcement to that effect, and I watched as a girl in her late 20s stood up from a single seat on its own nearly opposite the door, the lone priority seat that should be vacated for elderly and disabled people. She got off the train, and I took her seat as there were no elderly or disabled people vying for it.

Now, I have a strange affliction whereby I frequently sit on a bus or train seat and believe that it feels wet. I’ve spent many a time leaping up, putting my hand on the seat, realising that it’s not damp at all, and sheepishly sitting down again, feeling rather puzzled and no doubt looking very odd to my fellow passengers. So I have finally come to accept that this is some sort of crossed sensor-wiring in my system, and have just recently started to ignore that sensation, the way a dog learns that that other dog in the mirror isn’t really there. The seat really never is wet. It never is.

So when I took this seat and was surprised by how warm it felt, I fought and proudly overcame my usual thoughts about a damp sensation and put the warmth down to the cosiness of this single seat set-up, the fact that it had just been vacated by a warm human being, and the comparative cold outside, particularly as I had been carrying rather than wearing my coat since it was a short walk from the rail station to the Underground. That sensation was always my imagination, so I got on with reading for the 20-minute journey.

At South Kensington, I stood up to disembark and, much to my utter horror, felt inarguably that my skirt was wet. Not an imagined wet, but absolutely soaked through, as were my tights underneath and, from what I could tell, the layer beneath that. Ugh!!! This time, when I belatedly put my hand down on the seat, I did not find the seat to be dry. It was indeed a warm, wet seat. As was my own. Disgusting.

I immediately felt an unbearable humiliation. I clearly looked as though I had wet myself, and I was about to walk through a crowded station up a crowded road to join a crowd at an event, with people walking behind me who could see my giant wet stain on my skirt, and then I’d have to, in a sense, soil the previously pristine seat at the RGS when I sat my vile urine-soaked self down on it for an hour or more.

Even worse, I was a bit frightened. My thoughts turned from Michael Landon’s film The Loneliest [bedwetting] Runner to a distressing scene from the film Hilary and Jackie. I mean the scene where Emily Watson as Jacqueline du Pré is seated on stage behind the curtain about to begin playing a concert when she hears a trickle of water, moves the skirt of her dress aside, and realises with shock that she has just wet herself and the floor, but she hadn't felt it as that was an early sign of multiple sclerosis and her losing control of her nervous system. A rather subdued terror crept over me. What if I had actually wet myself on the tube journey without feeling it because I was getting multiple sclerosis? I mean, I’d seen a girl sitting in that seat before I took it, so it was apparently fine then. That disturbing thought turned to a sick feeling that descended upon me like a black cloak, the way you might feel if you found a suspect lump in your testicles or chesticles before you got it checked. But I hoped it was just a matter of sitting in something left by someone, although it seemed unlikely to be a spilled drink as the seat had been on its own, not where someone might have left a bottle beside them, and if it spilled on them, little would have reached the seat itself. And that girl had just been sitting there.

Normally, if something like this happened to you, you would just go home. But I’d just travelled an hour and a half to attend this event that I had been looking forward to, and I’d already bought the ticket and his hardback book, both of which I could ill afford in my newly jobless state. I wanted to hear the talk and get my book signed, perhaps having a brief word with the fascinating Jeremy Paxman. Plus, I wasn’t wholly convinced about the MS theory (worried, but not wholly convinced), and I hoped I’d otherwise know if I had had an accident on the Tube. If this was just a matter of my skirt being wet (well, soaked through) through no fault of my own, surely I could overcome it somehow. A happy coincidence was that I had got the start time of the event wrong, and as Southeastern unusually hadn’t cancelled my train, I had arrived in Kensington almost 40 minutes early, so I had a window in which to try to dry out.

But how does one dry out one’s skirt in public on busy Exhibition Road? Particularly a lined skirt, which meant I couldn’t even do something semi-mad like remove it and just wear my slip with my coat on. I had no slip. Just a wet skirt and wet tights, and of course wet knickers. Possibly wet with someone else’s urine. That made me gag.

It's amazing how this terrible guilt kicks in, as though you must at all costs hide your indignity, when my only terrible error was to sit down on the Tube. But I moved slowly and glazed with shame, doing my best to hide my lower half. Happily, it was winter so I had a long coat, which I put on to hide the evidence as best I could, but then worried that the coat might also become tainted and might hinder any drying action as a waterproof layer between the skirt and air. Plus I couldn’t wear it through the whole talk, and I felt absolutely revolting. But I was grateful to have some cover, and initially grateful that I’d managed to arrive early so I had a chance to tackle the issue, until I realised that if I’d arrived later, I wouldn’t have been on the train with the offending seat.

My mind kept going back to the innocent looking woman who had vacated that seat at Cannon Street. How could she do this to me? What sort of sicko was she? Why couldn't she say, "Careful of that seat; I found it's wet"? Because she wanted to distance herself from it quickly. She must be guilty. I hate her. She'd have my sympathy for having an accident but why not warn me, and just blame someone else, as any normal person would do?

That’s what I did. Not blame someone else, but when I stood up in what was now a crowded train at South Kensington and felt the horrible truth, I warned the woman standing by me who was eyeing my place to be careful as the seat was wet. Was that so hard? It served the purpose of acting humanely and also potentially clearing any guilt that might be attached to me, so the next victim isn't sitting there trying to hide her newly acquired shameful wet patch whilst spitting venom at the thought of me, assuming I was the filthy cause.

You may now put forward the possibility that the woman who silently disembarked at Cannon Street was just another victim before me. But you're wrong. She's evil and I hate her. She's all I can blame and she could have warned me. Plus, when she rose sharply as the train pulled into the station and marched off, there was no pause or look of alarm or reaching down to feel her skirt or the seat. And the seat was grossly warm.

So what did I do? Well, it was a cool night so I hoped a breeze might blow against my skirt and dry it. I stood just outside the entrance to the arcade leading to the tube station, which was fine because I looked as though I was waiting for someone, along with several other people waiting to meet up with friends. Or maybe they had all wet themselves and were standing there to dry out. But a total lack of wind was hardly the Dyson hand drier, and trying to flap the back of my coat subtly to fan my skirt with hand-made wind only served to make others probably assume that I had created wind of a different type, over and over again. Clearly, I’d have to stand there overnight before my skirt would dry out, so I had to think of something else.

I did try walking around rapidly as though I were on a mission to get somewhere quickly, but apart from looking odd (actually a frequent look for me in terms of speed-walking), I accomplished nothing. The skirt was still drenched, I still felt vile, and I still had a slight niggling concern that I might be seriously ill if I could actually wet myself without feeling it.

My Starbucks radar detected one nearby, and I knew most Starbucks have a single loo, where you go in and lock the door and have the hand drier and sink to yourself, which could be a Godsend tonight. I stood across the street to plan the logistics. I could not just go into a Starbucks and use the loo without ordering, but on my own, I couldn’t get a drink and just leave it on a table while I went to the loo, nor could I bear the thought of sipping my drink whilst sitting on my repulsive wet clothing before I could go sort it out.

So I waited for the place to get busy with a queue at the counter so I could slip past to the loo undetected. Unusually, that never happened, so I gave up and went in and ordered a drink. I then had to tell the chap making it that I’d return for my drink after going to the toilet (the sort of private information I would normally avoid sharing with a barista), and I tried to zip into the loo, but there was a queue. Horribly, this meant that by the time it was my turn, there were several people waiting behind me, no doubt impatiently counting the seconds I was in there, so I felt enormous pressure and realised I couldn’t possibly stay in there until I managed to get my garments dry. Those heartless weak-bladdered bastards ruined my best-laid plan.

I got to work quickly to do what I could, removing my skirt in record time as soon as I locked the door, and resisting the strong temptation to rinse it first as I couldn’t afford to make it wetter. I held it under the weak old hand drier, the sort that is less powerful than blowing your hands dry, which makes people give up and dry their hands with toilet paper instead, and the embroidered linen blend skirt with rayon lining simply wasn’t drying much at all. I was conscious that there were people right outside the door, possibly finding it strange that they could hear me constantly using the hand drier as soon as I went in, and perhaps desperate to relieve themselves while I held them up. I shouldn’t have let it bother me, but I got to the point where I had to give up and exit, which meant I also had to forfeit the chance to remove any undergarments to stick them under the drier, though that would have been a bold move for me (Is there definitely no CCTV?). I at least gained valuable reassuring knowledge--and this is probably too much information—but considering the likely directional flow and what precisely was wet and what wasn’t and where, I could confirm that this wasn’t the work of my own bladder. Phew. No MS then. I could entirely blame that girl on the tube. Witch.

Sadly having to abandon my mission for the time being, I replaced my skirt and stepped out to a queue of angry looking faces even though I’d kept an eye on my watch to ensure I didn’t lose track of time and remain in there for ages. I grabbed my waiting tea from the counter and searched for a radiator that I could lean against. The heat could, of course, feasibly force an unpleasant odour to drift up and permeate the room. But that was a secondary concern at this stage, and maybe people would blame some faulty Starbucks plant operation (I’m not suggesting that a cappuccino machine gone wrong would stink of urine; I’m thinking more of a faulty pipe in the wall).

Alas, I could find no radiator with empty space beside it. Oddly, the front door was propped open despite the chill, and happily my subtle evil staring technique resulted in the person at the table nearest the door leaving, even though he must have wondered why I didn’t just take one of the free seats. The table was high with tall stools, but I couldn’t sit on the stool or everything would just get damper, when airing was my mission, so I did a sort of athletic but awkward curved lean against the stool, so that the back of my skirt was not on it but was exposed to the open door. Of course, that meant that anyone looking or coming in could see that I seemed to have wet myself, but they’d probably be sufficiently distracted by the way I greeted their entrance by practically mooning them in a literally twisted way.

After much thought and virgin Dutch courage in the form of a Chai Tea Latte, I decided to brave the loo again. It was tricky because it was almost time now for the Paxman event to start (remember that?) and that was at the opposite end of the long Exhibition Road. But I was desperate to get drier and knew the RGS toilet had the hand driers in a communal area where women queued for the loos, so Starbucks was my only hope.

The Starbucks chap gave me a weird look as I headed past him to the loo for the second time in 15 minutes, as I imagined the people seated beside the loo who’d had me standing by them before also did as I waited again in a queue, cursing these thoughtless people in my way. Apparently I felt it preferable for them all to think I had some raging bowel disorder that caused me to spend half my time in the loo on two separate trips than to let them find out I had a nasty wet skirt. Silly perhaps, because I once saw a couple of women in the loo of a fine restaurant standing around the hand drier repeatedly shaking socks in front of it in a rather panicky way, and I really thought little of it. They were drying their socks, that’s all, albeit in an oddly suspicious way. But it comes back to the supposed stigma of having possibly wet myself, assuming no one would believe another explanation, and I somehow still felt a misguided sense of guilt and compulsion to hide my predicament. (Note to yourselves: if you ever truly wet yourself in public, tell people that you sat on a wet Tube seat. Let me know what happens.)

So having had an extremely rapid second go at (barely) drying the skirt, which again I had to remove first as the hand drier was so high (almost as though they placed it there without considering that people might depend on it to dry their rear ends!), I raced up Exhibition Road, no doubt creating a breeze that might come in useful, but arrived at the RGS late, and Paxo was already talking on stage. At least they still let me in, though they shuffled me to an upstairs part of the auditorium that I never knew existed. But on this occasion, I was happy to be a bit out of the way, and thrilled that the audience was in darkness. I still had people all around me, but I grabbed the empty aisle seat in the front row upstairs and draped my coat over me like a duvet so the rows of folks behind me might not notice that I was seated in an odd reclining position with my waist touching the edge of the seat, and my legs stretched across the aisle, as though I were on a sun lounger rather than an RGS theatre-style seat. The skirt was still wet and I just couldn’t bear to sit on it, and I’d count this as more valuable drying time. I tried to concentrate on the talk and prayed that I didn’t reek of urine. I have a poor sense of smell and by now, I would be used to it anyway.

Fortunately, the talk was interesting and it’s always a pleasure to hear Jeremy Paxman unless you’re an evasive politician, so my skirt and undergarments weren’t my sole focus for the entire hour, but I hoped my back-breaking position was helping to air them out. I may detail Paxman’s rapid, intriguing history lesson later, but the Q&A session afterwards amused me. Usually at talks, the speaker encourages the questioners with comments like, “Well, that’s a good point” before calmly offering an answer and engaging with the audience. I should have known that Jeremy Paxman would handle things differently.

With each question, some of which were along the lines of “I note you didn’t cover this area in your book,” his voice became a shrill squeak, jokingly hostile as he slammed the questioners with comments of this ilk: "Well, what do you expect! I can’t cover everything that’s ever happened in a few hundred pages! I didn’t cover Watergate either! What do you want from me?!” Not those precise words, but that sentiment. He kiddingly seemed to shout down every single questioner as though each were an outrageous challenge to his brilliance.

Hence I felt obliged to comment on that when I spoke with him afterwards. A sensible person in my particular situation would have just fled to the station and begun my long, wet journey home. But I had already bought the book, and I only buy hardbacks for book-signings, as they’re too heavy to carry around for reading (sometimes I get the e-book as well for that purpose) and couldn’t afford to waste money in my lean times. Plus I really would have liked to have spoken to the man, whom I always admired as a journalist and was even rather moved by during his episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, which showed his human side (yes! He has one.)

To be safe, as I approached where he was now sitting on the stage, I put my coat on. As I somehow ended up being near the front of the queue (I didn't push any weak people out of my way to get there, honest; my lawyer told me not to do that anymore), I didn’t want the rest of the queue pointing with any “That woman’s wet herself, mummy!” exclamations (which would be doubly odd as I saw no kids there). Though maybe Paxo would find that flattering, that a woman would be so moved by his talk of empire that she lost all control. When you think about it, surely at least one of those screaming Beatles fans must have had a similar accident.

But I just covered myself, kept calm, and prayed that I didn’t stink of urine. So I dared to stand beside a delightfully kind Jeremy Paxman, albeit slightly at a distance just in case, and with a back-up plan if he looked as though he sensed a bad smell whereby I would crinkle my nose and stare accusingly at the person behind me, waving the air and perhaps adding a faux-shocked, “My God, man! What do you reek of!?” for effect. Also, as I asked Mr Paxman to inscribe my book, I did my best to wear an innocent expression that somehow conveyed a look of "It wasn't me, Guv". I think my whole plan worked rather well.

While he was writing in my book, I smiled and asked if he always treated audience members who dared to ask him a question as though they were irritating guests on Newsnight, pointing out his manner in playfully shouting them down and criticising each question rather than really answering it (in a Michael Howard sort of way, I thought of adding but didn’t). He surprised me by smiling sweetly and gently grasping the top of my hand, giving it a slight squeeze, and saying, “Oh, I’m sorry!” You might be reading that with an extremely sarcastic jokey tone in mind, along the lines of “I am soooooooo sorry!” given who the speaker was, but it was actually a delicately compassionate, kindly apologetic comment. I realised later that he may have assumed that I’d been one of the questioners he’d nearly abused and was thus apologising when I called him on it, in case I felt hurt, but in any case, he was a sweet pussycat that one doesn’t often see on the telly.

Sadly, he didn’t offer me a job out of the blue, bizarrely, so I clearly wasn’t giving off the right pheromones, but crucially, he didn’t say that I reeked of wee, for which I thank him. (Now, not then; I didn't tell him 'I thank you for not saying I stink of wee" as I walked off). Then I headed rapidly home for my ritual skirt-burning ceremony, via a Tube train and rail train full of seats previously occupied by civil people who managed a bit of control, and we all lived happily ever after.

So that was my South Ken wee adventure, a tale perhaps not as exciting as you were expecting. Maybe you had grand visions of some ASBO-badged youth rushing up to me and relieving himself all over me, as almost happened the time I had to wait for a night bus after a great concert and found that the iron railings I was leaning against in Trafalgar Square were apparently on the Official Drunk Person’s Map of Convenient Conveniences. Perhaps you wanted me to soil myself, maybe even whilst standing in front of the Knight of Newsnight, and are disappointed that I managed not to do that. Nay. But I won’t apologise. I tell it like it is. Just like Jeremy Paxman would.

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