Back then, I used to wash my hands until they bled, cleansing them of the last possible vestiges of dirt. It was the job, you see. I never felt clean and I’ve always been scrupulous over personal hygiene; excessively so for a bloke, some have said. Maybe, but the job pushed me to new limits: anything to get rid of the accumulating filth.
I should probably never have taken the job, but work was hard to come by and I had to eat. Too many times I’d been told I was over-qualified for a job I’d applied for, but this time the guy who interviewed me didn’t seem to care. I think he was just grateful someone was prepared to do it. The position was mine, along with a pair of overalls and a limitless supply of latex gloves. Little good they did, though, as far as I was concerned. After a day at work I always felt the need to wash – over and over and over again.
My job was based in the bowels of the last, fully functioning (well, almost), sub-street level lavatory in the city: a positive shrine to Edwardian plumbing and porcelain. Once upon a time the black ironwork would have proclaimed civic pride and wealthy ostentation and the floor to ceiling tiles would’ve gleamed with white, virgin snow cleanliness. Now the iron was a bugger to clean, with more rust than black, and the glaze on the tiles, let alone the tiles themselves, was shot and crazed. Hairline cracks gave the tiles a permanent dingy finish and must have harboured so many bacteria that I didn’t want to think for too long about it. I just washed them, over and over again, in the hope that some improvement would eventually be discernible. I also mopped the floors, cleaned up the cubicles, bleached the pans and the urinal trough and replenished the soap and hand-towels. Then there was the pipe work.
Those Edwardians may have splashed out on the decorative aspects of their public toilets, but they scrimped and economised on the plumbing. It was always getting blocked and there was one spot, the point at which the waste for the whole facility left its underground temple and headed for the sewers, where you could guarantee the first blockage would form. There was a trap just above it. At least once a day I’d open the trap and put my hand, enclosed in a double pair of latex gloves, into the warm, yielding mass coagulated below and unblock it.
And if that wasn’t enough to be getting on with, there were the customers. We men are disgusting, feral animals. At times it seemed as if the only person regularly using the soap and hand-towels was me. I made sure I used a lot of disinfectant as I went about my work.
I did my best to keep those toilets spotless. The cleanliness of the city’s underground WC was eventually noted in the Civic Guide, but I didn’t let it go to my head. I knew the filth that was really there, lurking in the pipes and in the cracked surfaces of the tiles. I just kept scrubbing and when I had finished my work for the day, I scrubbed myself clean all over—over and over and over again.
Each night when I got home, I showered in the hottest water I could afford to heat up, scrubbing every inch of my contaminated skin, every individual hair follicle. Once I felt manageably dirty, I’d run a bath and soak myself in the clean hot water, scrubbing at the nails on my hands and feet with a stiff, sterilised nail brush. Then I’d wash myself in strong coal tar soap and rinse off, before showering once more to make sure I was as clean and rinsed as I could possibly manage. I could barely afford my water and heating bills, but I had to get myself clean somehow.
This strictly maintained regime decontaminated my body, but I still needed to distract my thoughts from dwelling on the sticky horrors I was exposed to each working day: the bodily fluids and solids that caked my professional horizon.
Television was too random. I never knew what horrendous images might flash up unannounced just as I was purging myself of the day’s upsettingly moist visions. Reading was slightly better, but was not without risks. I’d be perusing some spiritually stimulating Victorian poetry only to find myself suddenly plunged into the juices of a “Goblin Market” poem and would be back in the world of bodily fluids before I knew it. Writing seemed the only really safe bet, at least I could control it, and so I wrote: sonnets, villanelles, uplifting lyric poetry to cleanse both the head and the heart. I painted beautiful images with beautiful words until I finally felt clean.
I tried to share the freshness of my poetry with others, but editors didn’t seem to understand the truly sublime nature of my muse. They said my pieces were too pastel, too insipid and sometimes just plain naff. Though I could have done with the money, I stopped submitting. I didn’t want my perfection sullied by their negativity. My words cleansed and calmed me. That was all that mattered.
Then came the day of the disaster.
Arriving at work in the pre-dawn, early hours of the morning, I found the toilets broken into. I pushed aside the twisted, wrought iron shutter and started cautiously down the stairs to inspect what was waiting for me below, but apparently it wasn’t cautious enough. Traces of what was lurking in the depths of the toilets were smeared on the steps. In the morning half-light I couldn’t see properly and my foot trod on some unspecified, semi-liquid substance. I slipped and fell, head first into what lay in wait at the foot of the stairs: raw untreated sewage, human excrement, waste and fluids and freezing cold water four feet deep. The vandals who’d broken into my lavatory had apparently partied like frenzied animals, smashed the porcelain, trashed the plumbing, blocked the remains of the toilets, exposed the access to the main sewer allowing all it contained to flood back in, turned on taps and then crapped, pissed, vomited and wanked into the dank, dark stew they had created and that had flooded the underground remains of what had once been the cleanest lavatories in the city.
In the shock of my headlong plunge down the steps and into the cold, brown waters lapping below, I screamed, opening my mouth wide and into that tender, unsuspecting orifice the viscous brown fluids flowed. I choked, swallowed, inhaled, but eventually I righted myself and came up for air. Coughing and reaching, I spat the cloying, treacle-thick, concoction from my mouth and wiped the filth and muck from my eyes. The growing light of dawn showed me the full horror of my immersion and of what still clung to the stained tiles where the waters hadn’t yet reached: brown, greasily glistening faeces; a used condom, hanging limp, its white contents bulging, over the stump of a broken pipe; dried vomit, still showing traces of the food matter it had once been; a blood-stained tampon, bobbing coquettishly up and down on the thick waters. I added my own weak stomach bile to the lake of horrors before I splashed and crawled my way out of the cess-pit that had been my place of employment.
I called my employers. I called the police. I did all that was needful, but the whole time, all I could think of were the hours and hours I would need to spend scrubbing myself if I was ever to feel remotely clean again.
It turned out, however, that scrubbing didn’t work. Maybe my skin and hair eventually became clean, but I knew that foul smelling soup of wastes had penetrated my ears, eyes and nose, had poured into my mouth, slid down my throat and had found its way into my vulnerable, secret places: stomach, bowels and vital organs. How was I supposed to clean that away? And with that thought, the filthy, ripe essence of what I had unwillingly ingested completed its corruption of me and stained my brain with its thick, rich chocolate.
I tried purging myself. I binged on emetics and laxatives, emptying myself of every trace of the fetid fluids that had invaded me, but it was no good. My body fountained forth warm jets of brown and yellow liquid, the cloacal equivalents of strong coffee and mature chardonnay, but my brain and its thoughts remained soiled with sticky, sickly memories.
I tried to spew out the corruptions wetly sticking to my synapses, plastering them across previously pure reams of white paper: trails of greasy, shiny, slippy words, smearing their stains behind them. I was still unclean. Still infected.
I sent these mental bum-wipes away from me, out into the world, using email and the postal service like the sewerage system that had once taken effluent away from my clean and scrubbed toilets. My corrupted imagination poured its curdled, steaming contents onto the desks of editors who had previously despised my work. And they liked it. Lapped it up, this filth, this crud, this stale dried cum from the fetid climaxes of my brain.
I was wooed, published, praised and paid. The praise went to my head and served to refresh the putrefaction nestling there: turning dry, flaking scabs into fresh, syrupy, inspiration. I had to keep writing in order to continue purging the accumulating filth, but it meant I was wooed, published, praised and rewarded all the more.
Economically speaking, it was my saving. Even if I’d wanted to go back to work, I had no job to go back to. The toilets had been trashed beyond redemption or repair. No other sanitary facilities in the city required the level of attention my Edwardian beauty had demanded. Within a week of the disaster, I had been laid off with one retrospective week’s pay. It was the rank stories and poems I was now selling that kept my head above the waters of destitution. I carried on writing. I had no choice. My finances improved further. The stains spread their contagion onwards within my once white-bone skull.
The more I wrote, the less effective the stories and poems became at purging me of my disease. The cess-pool in my head was in constant danger of over-flowing, so I poured more of the toxically sweet bowel-syrup into my words and started to write a novella, which became a novel, which was published and won a high profile prize and still my head wasn’t clear of its spunk-laced poisons.
More novels followed, flushing down more money and more filth. Over and over and over again.
Now look at me. I write in a pristine, white study in the penthouse suite of the city’s best hotel. I bathe and shower in piping hot, crystal clear water as often as I want. My nails are scrubbed and moisturised at least six times a day by my own personal manicurist. My clothes are washed and laundered to germ free perfection and my bum crack smells of lilies. I live in a physical state of grace, but, in my head, cankerous thoughts remain soaked in the shit stained oozings of my imagination. Oozings that seep and leak across the page, penetrating with an insidious wetness and slowly infecting everything they come into contact with, including your own innermost thoughts, dear reader.
The soap’s over there. It won’t work, you know.
J.S. Watts was born in London and now lives and writes in East Anglia. Her debut poetry collection, “Cats and Other Myths” and a subsequent poetry pamphlet, “Songs of Steelyard Sue” are published by Lapwing Publications. Her novel, “A Darker Moon” is published by Vagabondage Press.
Her complete profile, along with news and updates regarding her work are available at the author’s official website: www.jswatts.co.uk