The toilets were closed. The toilets at the offices I visited this week, that is. They'd always been open before, but this time there was a sign on the door saying 'closed'. Must have been maintenance, or blockages, or some operative inside replenishing the paper towels and mopping the floors. Whatever the reason, closed and inaccessible. And I really needed to go.
We can't let you use the toilets upstairs, they said, because of security. Your pass won't allow you up the stairs to use the gents on the next floor. So follow us please, there are some alternative facilities on the opposite side of the building. Along the passageway, across the atrium, down the side of the meeting rooms and through another door. There.
Except there were only disabled toilets out the back. A small cluster of them - no ladies, no gents - for the general availability of all staff. I didn't need the multitude of accessible features provided therein, but in I went.
And then pulled the chain.
A piercing alarm filled the air. I winced.
It took only a split second to deduce that the alarm must be my fault, and another split second to decide why. The cord I'd pulled was red, with plastic hooks, and toilet chains aren't usually red. I should have tugged the metal lever on the other side of the cistern, the one with the extra-large paddle. But I hadn't spotted that, I'd been transfixed by the long red cord.
I grew up in an era when toilets had chains, because elevated cisterns needed vertical flushing. We didn't all have low ceramic tanks with metal handles in those days. So I reached out without thinking, based on some hardwired historic reflex. My mind was elsewhere so I didn't notice the lever, I pulled the chain. And there was no way of unpulling it.
In my defence, the entire set-up was unlabelled. There were no instructions, no pictorial clues, no word "alarm" written anywhere in big bold letters. The designer had relied on an unspoken assumption that red meant SOS - a conclusion I'd missed. Anybody who uses disabled toilets on a regular basis would have realised what the red string was, but I don't, so I didn't.
Hands swiftly washed, I made my way back out into the vestibule. The noise was louder out here, a pulsing electronic scream announcing my error to the world. A flashing red light above the door compounded my shame, identifying which of the disabled toilets contained the occupant in distress. But nobody had rushed to offer assistance, so the racket continued.
I wandered back through the door, down the side of the meeting rooms, across the atrium and along the passageway, past a selection of staff wondering where the noise was coming from. On returning to the front desk I apologised profusely to the staff on duty. I was expecting them to dash off across the building or press a button or something, but instead they just smiled and sat there like some moron did this every day.
Off I went to my meeting room, explaining to the organisers my part in the unexpected audio disruption. Easy mistake to make, they said, with a sly grin which suggested they didn't believe this at all. I apologised, in probably too much detail, and the meeting commenced. To my shame the blaring siren in the background continued for at least ten minutes, before somebody somewhere finally got around to switching it off.
Thankfully the main toilets were open again by the time our first tea break began. I held off on the tea, just in case.