Life

Nuala McCann: Why I've twinned my toilet for charity

Kadar Shaikh is an Indian businessman who got Covid-19. He spent 20 days in a private clinic and was horrified by the bill. He was even more horrified at the thought of all the people who could never afford it. So he converted his offices into an 85 bed facility to provide free treatment for the poor.

Kadar Shaikh has converted his offices into a coronavirus ward for the poor

THE framed photograph arrived the other day. I propped it up in the window of our downstairs toilet. It's a bit of a glory hole. There's a magnolia suite that shrieks 1970s – it has been there since we moved in 24 years ago. We never got around to changing it. Every so often we evict the spider who lives under the sink... but, like a homing pigeon, she always finds her way back.

We injected a Mediterranean feel to the loo one hot summer. We were fresh home from a week on the pebbled beaches of Nice where we wondered at roller skaters gliding effortlessly along the Promenade Anglais and gorged on cactus-flavoured ice cream. So we painted our toilet walls parrot green, sunshine yellow and turquoise blue – it lifted our spirits as the skies turned grey.

On a hook is a beautiful wind chime topped by a red tin heart and fringed with tinkly bells – the kind goats wear in Alpine meadows. It was gifted by a friend for our garden. But, when you live with someone who can hear the man five doors up brushing his teeth at night, then wind chimes tinkling in the 4am Belfast breeze are the stuff of insomniac nightmares. So we hung the chimes in the loo.

There is a postcard on the wall – a Japanese woman at her morning toilette, fixing her long ebony hair with a pearl comb. It's a love letter from long ago. I like to smile at it of a morning.

Beneath the magnolia sink, lurks the flotsam and jetsam of our lives: the bottle of Dettol, the Marigolds for Mondays, the blasted hand sanitiser, the wipes and the Mr Muscle for curing the sink in times of blockage.

But this new framed picture lifts our glory hole to a whole new level.

I'd promised for years to get one – words are cheap. So the other week, I spoke sternly to myself, went online and twinned our toilet. We got linked up with one in Cote d'Ivoire. We have the photograph and the exact geological location of said loo. May I never get to visit it.

It's an old shack of a falling-down place with two broken wooden doors hanging off their hinges. It's the kind of place you'd rather wet yourself than use. It's the kind of toilet you might find in a shanty town if you were very unlucky. It's a hell hole of a toilet – dirty, dilapidated.

There's not a chance of a single, never mind a double button flush and you'd be lucky if you found the local newspaper cut up into squares and dangling off a string inside waiting for a quick read and a wipe.

Now when I enter our magnolia glory hole, I glance at the picture and I hang my head a little.

Maybe that's what the charity wants you to do – it works. It reminds me of a documentary I once saw about India's poor – all doe-eyed children, ripe rubbish heaps and no toilets or running water.

In the time of Covid, the lack of basic hygiene means the disease can take a fierce grip. Still, in the middle of all that, you read continually about great and small acts of kindness to people in distress.

Pandemics seem to bring out the best and the worst in people.

I was never a big fan of Cristiano Ronaldo. I thought if he was chocolate, he'd eat himself, and that sculpture that looked nothing like him was a laugh. But he has a big heart and he has given big time to help the people of Portugal in crisis.

He's not alone. Kadar Shaikh is an Indian businessman who got Covid-19. As public hospitals struggled to cope, he spent 20 days in a private clinic and was horrified by the bill. He was even more horrified at the thought of all the people who could never afford it. So he converted his offices into an 85 bed facility to provide free treatment for the poor. Anyone can be admitted, he said, regardless of "caste, creed or religion".

Stories like that lift your heart. I remember all the years that we bought a family of faraway strangers a bee hive, a goat or a cow in Africa for Christmas. It felt practical. It felt good.

My twinned toilet in Cote d'Ivoire just makes me feel lucky every time I flush.

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