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Did I dream this? That I was locked in a public bathroom and I just happened to have a multitool on me because, at the time, I was working as a cycle instructor for Sustrans and basic bike maintenance was necessary for the role. Thus I was able to release myself from the bathroom by completely unscrewing the handle from the inside of the door. Or did that happen to someone else? Did I steal the memory in the same way I started wearing that t-shirt left at my house by my husband’s sister, and I wore it so much that I forgot it was ever not mine?
Did I dream the other time, on the train, in one of those intergalactic toilets? Where the door slides around a curved edge and a big green button glares at you until you press it, which is supposed to instigate release. Did I really jab at it as angrily as I remember, as the door failed to open and the green light glowed smugly back at me? I remember thinking (I think I remember) that I could not scream from inside of that toilet because I still had at least three hours left with these people in this carriage. My husband in those days did not take kindly to me making an exhibition of myself. I had to save face. What idiotic former iteration of myself would rather shrivel up and die inside a train toilet than make a fool of herself?
Around where we live everyone is talking about grey water these days. This drought we are inside of also gets inside of us. It permeates the skin. It hasn’t rained in 16 months and it has been almost as long as that since I last had sex. My neighbor stands in a bucket inside the shower so that she can use the grey water to water her plants or to refill the cistern. My neighbor calls herself an activist and, whenever I speak to her, I always end up feeling that I am not doing enough about all the fucked up things that there are to protest about in this world. It’s odd when a person can make you feel as though you should spend more time gluing yourself to things, and she has this special gift. I am sure this says more about me than it does about her. My neighbor has no doubt about what she should and shouldn’t be gluing herself to. I am the indecisive one.
I did think that her bucket initiative was the kind of thing that I could get behind, though. I know it’s not exactly chaining yourself to a demolition site, but all activists have to start somewhere. The problem was that I didn’t have the right bucket for it. My only bucket is cracked from being left out in the sun and rain too long, so it doesn’t hold water very well. It is also caked with dry mortar from the day I tried to bond with my best friend’s husband by making a mosaic out of all the broken tiles we had salvaged from the garden when we moved in. It turns out that making a mosaic is a really good way to bond with someone who does not speak great English. In the early stages of bonding, the most important thing is a couple of jokes or experiences that you can share and retell just to get you going, a sort of run-up to the real relationship. So we made up a little story about how we were a two-person outfit called Misfit Mosaics that would travel the world hand-crafting mosaics for people using the broken tiles that they already had lying around their houses. The tendonitis we both developed that day from the vigorous mixing of mortar was another opportunity for bonding. While we were fitting the pieces of the mosaic together, he said to me I always feel out of place.
Me too, I said, which wasn’t exactly a lie. I desperately wanted to connect with him. Then I said: I was pregnant once and didn’t tell a soul. I lost it before it was really a baby but it was still really sad. The Korean husband said: me too. I suspected he just thought that was what you said after someone shared something vulnerable. Either that, or there was a lot more to his story than I had been told. Or maybe he just did not have the right grammar for this kind of conversation yet.
The next time I used my bucket, I mixed some water and disinfectant in it so that I could clean the chicken’s comb. The red crest was cracked and bleeding and the other chickens had pecked at it after they got the taste of blood. Chickens are really brutal like that. I would often extract from the behavior of chickens some universal truth which would later be distilled and shared in my Middle School counseling sessions. Chickens are bullies and they weed out the weak, in much the same way that 12-year-olds do and, for a while, I seemed to be constantly tending either to a bleeding chicken or a bleeding 12-year-old. As I washed the comb, the water in the bucket turned pink with the blood and the livid liquid leaked out of it, through the bit where it was cracked.
But my bucket has most often been used to throw over a rodent that has infiltrated the chicken coop. You throw the bucket over the rat or the mouse and it’s like magic, because when you lift the bucket up again, the rodent is no longer there, not under the bucket and not in the coop either. Mice and rats have very clever ways of getting out of tricky places. They collapse their spines and wriggle through tiny gaps, posting themselves like little furry messengers between worlds. And that’s what I had to do not very long ago. And this was definitely not a dream.
I was lying on the bathroom floor in the heat of August, my hot cheek against the cold textured tile. Though all of the bathroom tiles are blue, there are at least three different patterns, which makes the whole bathroom experience feel like being immersed in a 360 optical illusion. My neighbor – the one who showers in a bucket – once said to me we should get fucked up in your bathroom one day. She had just shaved her head and had it dyed in zebra stripes. I completely misunderstood what she meant by we should get fucked up in your bathroom. Or maybe it was the one day that threw me off. Anyway, I completely missed the point which was, obviously, that I just needed a new bucket, so I could get on with being an activist.
Instead, my cheek was flat against the floor and my body had melted like wax and then reset in a really inconvenient position, half inside the bath-tub and half underneath the medicine cabinet. If you can’t picture how my body could be in those two places at the same time you need to work on your imagination, or you need to get fucked up more often.
My tongue had just fallen out of my mouth. Not like how a dog’s tongue might loll out of a drooling jowl while smooshed against a tile floor. It wasn’t like that. My tongue had actually become dislodged and fallen right out of my mouth. And it had rolled across the floor, covering itself in animal fur and dust bunnies. And that was why I couldn’t cry out for help. My mouth was full of spit and I had nothing to scoop it up with, but honestly that was only one of the reasons why I really needed help. I have never been very good at asking for help, especially when volume was required.
Hours passed that way, my body melting into the grout between the bathroom tiles, my tongue rolling around under the sink, thirstily probing for drips and leaks. The voices of the bathroom eventually died down, the gurgling of the cistern, the spitting plughole, the breathy husky radio voice of the half empty shampoo bottle. It would have been finally quiet enough for me to hear my own voice, had I not lost my tongue, had my tongue not muffled itself in dog hair.
My house was full of people, people we had invited over for a party that seemed to have been going on for as long as I could remember, a party in which people had been dancing and singing and using the corridor as a simulation of the birth canal, in order to relive the whole birthing experience, each one emerging from it to a pained, ecstatic applause. People who had eaten all of the humous, drank all of the beer and had used my dress-up box to make all of the dogs look glamorous. People who had been talking and talking so loudly that they had not realised they had been talking for decades and had not heard a single thing that anyone else had said. People who had never even asked themselves: Do I like it here? Do I feel any kind of affinity at all with these people? Is this actually fun? Do I love this woman I am married to? Who is this person, really, the one who is currently exploding out of the hallway orifice into an eruption of squeals and cheering? That dog in the bow-tie, what does it actually represent for the person who loves it best? Also, people who had not noticed that I had been gone for hours, weeks, months, possibly even years. People who presumably also had not needed to pee in a very long time, because our house only has one bathroom and I would have noticed if someone had come in to pee.
Outside the bathroom window, sheets of hot grey clouds gathered. A screeching sound that could be human, but was more probably a fox mating or a cat on heat made the floor rattle underneath me. A thin slice of moon was pinned to the night sky and I imagined the dogs in their wigs and feather boas racing through the open front door to go and investigate, to protect their place; I heard their skidding paws against the tiles, the shrill foreplay of barking, imagined the oversized bow-ties flopping from side to side. Even the dogs had not noticed I had gone.
And that’s when I saw it. First it was just a gleaming of gold at just this angle, underneath the medicine cabinet, where half of my body had poured itself into the shape of a soap dish. But the gold was attached to something moving ever so slightly. I blinked, eyelashes fluttering against the blue bubbled ceramic and saw a spattering of wiry whiskers, a little pointy nose, a tiny pair of black eyes staring at me. And around its neck was something that looked like a collar or a necklace made of precious metal. The light from the moon reverberated off it and made it shine. This creature may have been living in my bathroom for a long time, I thought to myself. This creature once meant life or death to someone else. This creature had needed to save itself from something, and it had found that the underbelly of a medicine cabinet to be an excellent place to never be disturbed.
The band around its neck, I now could see quite clearly, was a wedding ring. The creature now took off at such speed that I could have easily convinced myself it was a feather or just a dust bunny, that what I had seen was not real, not possible. But I heard the tiny rattle as the gold ring brushed past the bottom edge of the door and I saw its thin rubbery tail slip after it as though skidding on ice, leaving no evidence that it had ever been here. No droppings, no footprints.
So, I closed my eyes, knotted myself back together, and slid under the door behind it, through the tiny crack between the wooden lip and the tile, scurrying towards the front door. I would come back for my tongue another time. I found myself to be very small and very swift as I dodged the many pairs of feet between the bathroom door and the entrance to the house, but just as I was reaching the yawning opening of the front door, a huge shadow caught me in its gaze, closed in on me until I was ensnared in a glowing red helmet. Panicked, I followed the curved edges with my eyes, searching for the green flashing button, trying to find my bearings in this space-ship-like thing. It did not take me very many laps of the thing to realize that I was trapped inside my own bucket. I darted from side to side looking for the familiar crack, the scratch of dried mortar rough against my tiny pink paws. The light leaked in, the bucket felt warm, which had to do with the color I suppose, but also perhaps the slow baked idea that somebody had thrown it over me, and that might be someone who wanted to keep me, hold onto me. Someone for whom perhaps I was a very precious thing. It might, however, be someone who wanted to make me magically disappear. I suddenly felt that I could quite comfortably curl up inside that bucket and have a rest, after the long agitated night in the bathroom. I felt sure that after a sleep, perhaps a little mattress of straw, some peanuts, everything would feel better and I would know what to do. So I closed my tiny brown eyes for a moment, probed the side of the bucket with my whiskers in the dark, until I located the crack that I knew so well – the crack that lets the water in, and lets it out too.
Harriet Sandilands is writer and art therapist living in the “magic mountain” Montserrat in Spain. She writes poetry and prose and has been published in various small presses, including Country Music, Libro Rojo, epoema, Barcelona Ink, HAU, Talking About Strawberries and Porridge. Harriet has long been active in the Barcelona poetry world, participating in the original Poetry Brothel as Lola Page, writing in The Poetry Dispensary and co-inventing the world’s first Poetry Machine: an interactive and transformative poetry experience which has appeared at art and literature festivals around Europe. In 2023, she was featured as headline act during International Poetry Day in her hometown Manresa, reading a series of "postcard poems" from the pandemic and beyond. Harriet co-edits the annual Barcelona literary journal Parentheses and is currently editing a book of poetic prose pieces exploring the encounters she had with an elderly Catalan lady called Pepita. Her short poetry collection Amiss is soon to be published by Palabrosa. She delights in experimenting with magical realism in short story format.