In these uncertain times, no one is really sure how things are going to play out or how long quarantine/isolation will last. As a teacher, currently working from home, I’m spending a lot of my time writing lessons for when we return to normality and doing on-line professional development courses, so there seems to be little time to do what I want and just write. I am indebted to a writer friend who posted four prompts this week to encourage members of the writing group we’re in to practise mindfulness by sitting and taking the time to indulge in a little creative thinking. One of her prompts was a toilet roll, and that has inspired the following story. Enjoy.
The Last Loo Roll
Gavin gazed at the exhibit with a puzzled expression. “What is it?” he asked.
The guide pointed to the plaque that was screwed to the triple enforced, fully alarmed, glass case. “Toilet roll, circa 2021,” Gavin read carefully. He turned his eyes to the guard. “I still don’t get it – what was it for?”
Beside him, Jude shoved her elbow into his ribs. She hated it when her boyfriend displayed his ignorance about anything pre-2070. “It was for wiping yourself clean,” she hissed. “You know … when you’ve been.”
“Didn’t they know about the three seashells?” someone muttered in the background.
He was still looking clueless, so Jude elaborated. “Look, Gav, you know how these days, everyone’s used to toilets that do the job properly – once you’ve finished, you press a button and brushes and jets of water effectively scrub the posterior, ‘leaving it lemon-fresh and odour-free’,” she began.
“Well, yes, but …”
“In the Dark Ages,” Jude continued, getting into her stride – she had specialised in 21st Century History for her online Advanced Learner Certificate and loved having the chance to lecture people –“in the Dark Ages, toilets were just holes you sat on and they sucked the rubbish away at the end and that was it.”
Gavin stared at her in disbelief. “You mean they didn’t do anything else?” he whispered, trying to imagine such a backward world.
“It was Dyson who patented the first modern toilet,” chimed in the guide. He thrust a pamphlet under Gavin’s nose. Skimming the article, Gavin picked out the key phrases: ‘Blah … blah … 2022 … flushed with the success of his hand dryers …’ (No one seemed to see realise the irony of the metaphor, he thought idly.)
Meanwhile, Jude was engaged in animated discussion with the guide – if you could call a one-sided lecture a discussion, that was. Still, the guide didn’t seem to mind being talked at, and so far Jude hadn’t fried his circuits like she had with the droid in the art gallery. Perhaps this one was a more resilient model.
He drifted back into the conversation. Jude was expounding on the days of the Toilet Paper Wars. “When the first wave of Corona virus hit the world in 2020,” she droned earnestly, “a toilet paper pandemic ensued as people flooded the streets, ignoring isolation rules. So many shops were raided that the government was forced to place police patrols on the street and officers were given permission to arrest anyone with more than one roll. In the USA, it was even worse: cops there had the power to stop and shoot anyone even suspected of marketeering. Despite the order to ‘stay at home’, secret toilet roll bars were set up, reminiscent of the speak-easies almost a century earlier. When policing on both sides of the Atlantic was revealed to be ineffective, the armies were drafted in to quash the riots.”
His grandad had mentioned something about all of this, Gavin remembered. At the time, the call to self-isolate had been seen as Draconian – and needless; and thousands of people had disobeyed government directives only to die horribly a few weeks later. Scientists had even trialled a way of genetically coding the rolls so that each one could only be used by the person who had bought it as part of the monthly allocation of groceries, but that idea had been scrapped quickly once they realised some people has secret stashes of the stuff that had never been marked.
Grandad had also told him about the ‘cat cull’ of 2020 – the furry felines thought it was acceptable to shred the precious paper; and some families found their entire store wiped out in an afternoon. However, when Larry, the Downing Street cat, was discovered to have decimated a whole room full of aloe-vera infused quilted tissue, the Prime Minister’s fury had known no bounds and Larry and the rest of Britain’s eleven million cats had been swiftly rounded up and disposed of. Gavin often thought he’d like to have seen a cat, but they were as rare as dragons and dodos these days.
Jude was still going strong as he dragged his mind back to the present. “Post-Covid 19, those who had secretly hoarded loo roll were overnight millionaires,” she told the startled guide. “Houses in the north of England exchanged hands for ten rolls, but a bumper pack of 24 in London would only buy you a studio flat – and then scientists made the shock discovery that the toilet tissue had caused the virus in the first place. Suddenly, you couldn’t give the stuff away. Firms ceased manufacture; and when Covid-20 rolled round the following year, Dyson had already applied for a patent for his ‘All-in-One Personal Waste Disposal Unit’.”
“So what did they do with all of the toilet rolls, then?” Gavin asked.
“Burnt,” Jude said solemnly. “The government built huge camps and then incinerated the lot of them. We’re still breathing in bits of the smoke now, fifty years later.”
“But if they got rid of them because they were evil,” he was still trying to get his head round this one, “then why on earth is the last toilet roll in the world on display here? Aren’t we all putting ourselves at risk of Covid-69? I mean, I know it’s behind armour-plated glass and all that, but …”
“Oh, it’s not real, lad,” the guide reassured him. “It’s a digital copy – see?”
“Then why is it here?” Gavin almost screamed with frustration. “If it’s not real, and if the real thing caused the first outbreak of the Corona virus …”
He looked to Jude for an answer; but for once, she was strangely quiet.
A tiny tapping sound drew his attention. The guide’s pointer was indicating a single sentence at the bottom of the plaque: ‘Lest we forget.’
“Forget what?” Gavin asked petulantly. “Forget that we were once savages who had to scrub ourselves clean with bits of paper? Forget that we were once so selfish that we fought over a roll of tissue in the streets?”
The guide’s view-cam looked suddenly sad – almost, Gavin thought, as if it were capable of feeling …
“No, lad,” it said brokenly, “lest you forget that you’re all human.”