My favourite: "The man who set up office in the Ladies"

The Maeve Binchy article selected by Róisín Ingle, editor of ‘Maeve’s Times’, as her favourite

Maeve Binchy: “His colour was very bad and I wished, as I always wish, that I had left well alone, and let him sit there all week if necessary rather than bringing on this distress.” Photograph: Eric Luke

Maeve Binchy: “His colour was very bad and I wished, as I always wish, that I had left well alone, and let him sit there all week if necessary rather than bringing on this distress.” Photograph: Eric Luke

Thu, Jun 19, 2014, 09:56

13th December, 1986

I went into the ladies’ cloakroom of a hotel and a man sat peaceably at a sort of dressing table. The place where you are meant to be a woman and sit combing your hair and adjusting your make-up. The man had his briefcase beside him and he was fairly absorbed in some kind of paperwork.

He certainly wasn’t doing anyone any harm, and I often think that the distinction is fairly arbitrary anyway in cloakrooms. After all, single-sex facilities are available on the Continent and I’ve never been in a private house where they made a distinction, except in one place in Australia where they had ‘Blokes’ and ‘Sheilas’ written on the doors.

It was a perfectly comfortable place to sit: chair, desk and even a mirror to examine himself in if he had any doubts about self-image. He wasn’t taking up too much space, it was easy to sit beside him and adjust your make-up. It was just a small bit unsettling to know what exactly he was doing there.

This was an Irish provincial town, the man must surely have known the ladies who were coming in and out to what was after all their designated area. He had the air of a man who had been there some time. His ashtray had several butts in it. He was a man who had settled in.

There was a box of tissues on the table which he called on occasionally for a nose blow. He seemed quite oblivious of the lavatory flushing and hand washing going on a few yards away from him, admittedly round a corner. This part of the cloakroom was in sort of an alcove. I knew it would be on my mind forever if I didn’t find out. He would join the other unsolved mysteries, like the man who wore a hair roller with an otherwise conservative city gent image; like the Christmas card I get every year signed SLUG; like the man who used to come in to The Irish Times every day to buy yesterday’s paper but not today’s. He said it was because he didn’t actually take it, he wasn’t an Irish Times reader but people were always mentioning something in it that he wanted to follow up, which was why he bought the previous day’s.

My head is too full of these confusing things. ‘Damp old day out,’ I said to him.

‘Is it?’ he looked up politely. ‘It was all right when I came in, but of course it’s very changeable this time of year.’

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