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To pee, or not to pee

Several years ago I undertook what was probably the strangest writing task that has ever been offered to me. The Dutch sanitaryware manufacturer Royal Sphinx Gustavsberg had produced a women’s urinal, the Lady P, and was about to launch it in the UK. It was the brainchild of industrial design graduate Marian Loth, and Loth’s aim had been to speed up the queues in ladies’ lavatories and at the same time to improve hygiene – apparently the user was meant to “hover” rather than sit. Loth is quoted as saying that “The Lady P principal is piss and go”. My job was to write a lifestyle piece for a weekly magazine to raise awareness of the issues and the product – and to write it from the point of view of a woman. Here is that piece.

To pee, or not to pee:
That, my dear Ophelia, is the question

It was the Wednesday after Christmas. You know, those dog days between Christmas and New Year. No-one’s about. Apart from Oxford Street and Bond Street, the pavements are almost empty, even here in London. Most people are away from work over the holiday, bloated by a surfeit of good cheer. The only people with the energy to venture forth are the shoppers clutching gift vouchers in their hands and heading for the Sales, or carrying crumpled carrier-bags of unsuitable underwear and unwearable woollens, Christmas gifts bound for the Returns counter.

No-one’s about, that is, except me. And my friend Ophelia. Both of us are freelance writers, and both of us actually enjoy this time when the journey to work takes only half as long and the phone forgets how to ring. For us, it’s productive time.

Four o’clock. “Did you have lunch?” Phee’s email asks. “I didn’t. Because if you’re hungry enough I fancy a bowl of pasta and a bottle of frascati after work. What do you think?” I email back “Yes. Where?”

The phone rings, for the first time this afternoon. It’s Phee, of course, and we decide on one of those chrome and black-leather bars in Soho’s Old Compton Street, five minutes from the office and ten minutes away from my flat. The place has just been refitted and I’ve not been there since the refit. But I’ve heard all about it. There’s a little cordoned-off enclave of tables where, early in the evening, they serve fresh pasta with simple sauces. Usually a place like this will be heaving by 6.30. But when we arrive it’s not even busy. Like I said, there’s no-one about.

Phee orders ravioli, stuffed with spinach and ricotta. I go for plain spaghetti tossed in butter with a sprinkle of black pepper. Phee asks for mineral water and I ask for tap; London’s drinking water isn’t as bad as people make it out to be, considering how many pairs of kidneys it’s been through. And yes – an icy bottle of frascati to share.

We push our empty bowls away and carry the remains of our wine over to the bar, perch on high stools, and steal covert glances at the Italian barista. He notices, of course; and ignores, of course. Instead his chest puffs out, his head goes up, and we see him clench his bum in his tight black pants. Phee and I catch each other’s eye and begin to giggle. One bottle of wine between us and we’re schoolgirls again. Time for another bottle, we say. But first, we need to powder our noses.

Before the refit, at least one of the cubicles in the ladies’ room would usually be out of order, and more often than not there’d be a queue for those in use, sometimes stretching out into the corridor. For once, though, the room is empty.

The Lady P

But something else is different, too. There are three fewer cubicles than there were before, and instead, nestling between deep frosted glass partitions, is a row of gleaming white porcelain urinals.

We stop in our tracks. Phee clutches my arm as a flash of apprehension widens her eyes, and we double back out into the corridor, convinced that we’d walked into the wrong room. But no, there’s a little lolly-stick icon of a woman on the door, unmistakably female in her triangular skirt. We dither, not sure what to do. By this time, though, the wine has turned into water, and is clamouring for release in no uncertain terms; if an accident is to be avoided there really is no alternative. I take a deep breath and march back in.

* * *

Urinals for women aren’t a new thing. My mother tells of using them in the fifties, and describes them as being a bit like a narrow bidet that you straddled. That’s ok when you wear a skirt and stockings, maybe, but not so easy in trousers or tights. No wonder they weren’t popular.
Nevertheless there is a definite need for some way to reduce the time it takes for women to use the loo. I was at the opera one night last summer, and joined the inevitable queue for the powder room in the interval. The girl a yard or two in front of me was visibly uncomfortable, shifting from foot to foot and biting her lip. Then the three-minute bell rang and she turned, said “I’m so sorry”, pulled down her trousers and squatted over a drain in the tiled floor. I wish I had her chutzpah!

* * *

They’re quite stylish, these new urinals. They’re broader, and stand out further from the wall, than the men’s one which I sometimes use in my office building’s single-user unisex loo. (No, I don’t mind standing to do it, as long as no-one’s watching.) Side-by-side privacy is assured by the glass partitions, but they’re open to the front. I suppose this is to encourage the user to be as quick as possible. There’s a hook to hang your bag on and a handrail to steady yourself while you strike the pose – a variation on the hover technique. And there’s even an array of tiny graphics to make sure you know which way to face. Smart. But will I use one? Hence my opening question.

The answer is: Ophelia did, I didn’t. I wish I had her chutzpah!

The Lady P was introduced in the UK in 2001, but sales were poor, and Royal Sphinx withdrew the model in 2005.

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