Tom didn’t need to take a shit, but at a quarter past ten he decided he would have a sit in the cubicle for a little while anyway. He’d actioned all his Monday emails; he’d organised the day’s meetings; he’d successfully established the aura of a busy, busy man who wasn’t to be bothered. Nobody would care if he disappeared into the men’s bathroom for fifteen minutes or so. Hell, nobody would even notice.
Over the past few months, as his interest in the job continued its long decline, this had become something of a ritual for Tom. Not daily, but certainly every other day. He wanted a zone where he could just sit for a while and not think about anything in particular, least of all work. Sometimes he would actually take a dump, depending on how many coffees he’d drank. Mostly he’d sit on the toilet, pants up, and fuck around on his phone. Play some games, read the news, tap aimlessly on Facebook. He could probably do that at his desk without incident if he so wished, but the toilet cubicle was private. Probably one of the few truly private spaces left on the planet.
Standing from his desk and turning his computer screen off, spreadsheets vanishing, Tom wandered down the narrow aisle formed by the neat rows of desks. The office was quiet this morning, and people clicked away on their keyboards without talking, eyes trained on their screens. As he passed, a few of them gave him some cursory nods and hellos, asking him how his weekend went. Janet from sales seemed on the verge of initiating a stop and chat, but Tom preempted it, weaving around her desk with the deftness of an Olympic speed skater. She got a cheery “Morning!” for her effort.
The men’s bathroom was around the corner near the printer, down a narrow hallway. It was in the clear view of a small but significant portion of the office, and Tom often wondered if they were keeping a mental clock of the comings and goings through the black door. Surely they would, he thought to himself. He certainly would, though he wouldn’t do anything with that information. If someone took twenty minutes, thirty minutes, an hour in the shitter… well, who was he to judge? Passing that intel onto management put you in the same moral class as a mafia snitch. It was a betrayal of the principles which kept civilisation together. Tom hoped the cadre of coworkers who sat eternal guard outside the bathroom door maintained a similar commitment to discretion. Still, he found himself looking over his shoulder to see if any of them were looking. Priyanka, one of the project managers, was looking in his general direction, but she had the kind of glassy post-weekend stare which suggested her brain wasn’t processing the data her eyes were providing. Good.
Tom pushed through the door into the silence of the bathroom, which was absolute save for the slight hum of the aircon. The small, roughly rectangular room was empty, and all the stall doors were open. That was excellent news. The bathrooms on this floor were small, which mandated a certain degree of circumspection in how you planned your work shits. There were three pale green cubicles and then two exposed porcelain urinals. Opposite that: two discrete sink and mirror setups. A total of twenty six men worked on this floor. The logistics of this arrangement were unfavourable, requiring tactical brilliance to successfully overcome. Arriving in the bathroom when no stalls were occupied was rare; the equivalent of securing the upper ground in a military engagement. Tom disappeared into the stall closest to the door, moving quickly so as to maintain his strategic advantage.
He sat down, pants up. This was a perfectly executed manoeuvre. The stall he had chosen was perfect, and minimised the chance of avoiding identification. Out of the three available toilet cubicles, his was the only one which was occluded from the view of the bathroom mirrors. If Tom had chosen one of the other two, he ran the risk of someone glancing into the mirror and identifying him by his brown leather shoes. “There’s Tom, taking a dump,” they would think. Mortifying. He sketched out an implausible scenario in his mind: someone, in the throes of a Monday morning hangover, making multiple visits to the bathroom over a short period of time. This hypothetical coworker seeing Tom’s shoes in the same cubicle not once but twice. What kind of man would they assume him to be? Either a constipated one or a lazy one – and neither was a complete picture. He contained multitudes which could not be captured by such lazy categorisation. No, Tom had chosen the right cubicle.
His self-congratulations were soon interrupted by the sound of the bathroom door swinging open, followed by footsteps. He found himself holding his breath as the stranger entered the room. In his numerous expeditions to the office bathroom, Tom had tried to establish a functional taxonomy of his male colleague’s footwear. Some wore sneakers which squeaked; some wore leather shoes which clacked; some wore fancy boots which clicked like women’s heels on the tiles. He hadn’t made the leap to actually connecting these shoes to their owners – such an effort would violate the implied privacy agreement he hoped the other denizens of this floor were also respecting. But the sounds gave him a sense of who he was dealing with, and allowed him to segment them into rough personality profiles. This bathroom entrant wore sneakers.
Sneakers walked briskly past the trio of cubicles and headed for the urinals. Tom breathed an almost imperceptible sigh of relief. He heard a zipper descend, and then, a moment later, the roar of a Herculean stream of piss striking the porcelain. A grunt. Tom was no doctor, but it sounded like Sneakers had a prostate issue. That, or he had simply held a dangerously overfull bladder all morning for inscrutable reasons. This piss sounded like the storming of Normandy. Soon it resolved itself into a series of pattering drops, and the zipper went back up. No problems here, Tom thought to himself. This was a classic in-and-out job, solely for the purpose of urination. More footsteps, then the hiss of the tap. It stopped. The door opened, swung shut, and Sneakers was gone. Tom imagined a triumvirate of stony-faced diving judges holding up perfect tens. Sneakers was at the bleeding edge of bathroom trip efficiency.
No sooner had he slid his phone out of its pocket when he heard the door swing open again. The latest entrant was wearing boots. Much to Tom’s chagrin, Boots made his way into a cubicle and shut the door with a clatter. A belt loosened, a zipper went down, jeans descended with a rustle. Boots had – in accordance with the invisible set of laws which governed everything – chosen the third cubicle, leaving a vacant one between himself and Tom.
Tom appreciated that.
Despite the fact they would ideally never see or know one another, there was a code. You should always leave a gap if possible. Even babies in the womb knew that, the natural truth of it buried deep in the reflexive centre of their developing brains. Always a gap.
But the entrance of Boots added an unfortunate complication to Tom’s caper. When two men occupied the toilet stalls at the same time, a competition as natural as breathing and eating emerged. One of them would have to be the first to leave. Boots would have no idea how long Tom had been sitting there, and would instinctually expect he would leave first. This was despite the fact it was plausible the first arrival had been there for only a matter of seconds. In practice, this often led to standoffs between two men, each psychically willing the other to stand up, flush the toilet, and make a graceful exit. Tom wouldn’t let that happen. He had a plan, and he wasn’t going to have Boots ruin it. The absolute worst case scenario would be if Boots was also using the privacy of the cubicle to seek a moment of procrastinatory bliss. Thankfully, Tom had never found himself in that sort of situation, though he always feared it. Two men wasting time in adjacent toilet cubicles were liable to sit there until the sun was dead and their bones were dust.
Thankfully, Boots’ honourable intentions revealed themselves seconds later; with the plop of turds punching through the tensile surface of toilet water. Fantastic. This did not preclude the possibility that Boots was here with two objectives: to empty his bowels and to waste time. Tom had embarked on such a dual-focus mission several times over the previous months. But this new development minimised the chance of a lengthy battle between himself and Boots. Besides, Tom thought, his shortest sojourns to the bathroom came when he actually needed to go. Once you’d successfully taken a dump, it felt like a reasonable moment to make an exit. Without that motivating factor, there was no natural endpoint to the vacillation. In those free moments, Tom was the master of his own destiny.
Boots grunted and kept on shitting at an admirable pace. Some men were inclined to mask the sounds of their bowel evacuations, either by laying some toilet paper down in a kind of pathetic dam, or by reducing the velocity of their shits to an agonising pitter-patter. That latter strategy served only to prolong the agony and embarrass all present. Boots did not do either: he shit proudly, despite clearly knowing someone else was in the room. You could extrapolate a lot about a man by that kind of posturing. Outside of the confines of this room, Boots was probably teeming with confidence and machismo. Probably had a nice set of pearly white teeth on him. Again, respecting the anonymity guaranteed by the bathroom compact, Tom did not attempt to map that analysis to any of his existing colleagues.
With an efficiency that rivalled Sneakers, Boots was done. Tom heard the telltale rustle of toilet paper, and then the toilet flushed. The cubicle door squeaked open, and he heard the boots shuffle out. He didn’t stop to wash his hands, which mildly sickened Tom, and made him reconsider the steadfast commitment to not identifying anyone. Surely, someone with such disrespect for basic hygiene did not deserve the veil of diplomacy offered by the bathroom’s implied contract. He resisted that impulse. Tom did not want the axe-blade of justice turned on him if he too made some minor stumble in etiquette.
The five minutes after the bathroom door announced the exit of Boots were pure bliss. Nobody entered the room, and Tom was able to scroll listlessly through his feeds without interruption. He briefly considered the fact that by abandoning the stress of his work to sit and stare at the stress of social media, he was admitting that his life was just a vortex of useless stress all the way down. Probably until he died. Oh well.
This extended period of zen was interrupted when the door swung open again. He perked his ears up for the sound of the new arrival’s shoes, as he had for the last two entrants. It came quickly: a rasping creep across those pale green tiles. Tom’s eyes narrowed. Thongs? In the office? Absurd, and not in line with the company’s dress policy by even the most creative interpretation. But no – they didn’t sound quite like thongs. He couldn’t hear the familiar sound of the cheap rubber slapping on the firm flesh of the heel with each step. It was just that slow, whispering slide along the floor, like someone was pushing a heavy cardboard box on the tiles. He christened the intruder Thongs anyway, in the absence of a more precise name.
For a moment it seemed like Thongs was following the path chartered by Sneakers and going for the urinal. But he turned abruptly, and moved into the middle cubicle, directly next to Tom’s.
This was a clear violation.
Tom felt angry, like he had been disrespected by Thongs. This wasn’t how things were done around here, or anywhere. As if to exacerbate his annoyance, his new neighbour slowly closed the cubicle door, the unmaintained hinges shrieking in protest. Whoever it was, they seemed oblivious to the fact that their ponderous movements were drawing more attention to their bathroom adventure; not less. The hinges continued to scream until the door closed with a heavy bang, like Thongs had put his entire weight onto it at the last moment. There was a strange scuffling as he fumbled for the lock. After an agonising few moments, it clicked shut. Who could this possibly be? He sounded drunk.
Tom anticipated the sound of Thongs lowering himself onto the toilet seat; the slight creak of the plastic adjusting to new weight; the rustle of clothes adjusting to a new posture. But it didn’t come. Whoever his neighbour was, he wasn’t sitting down. Some men, for a variety of reasons, chose not to piss in the provided urinals, instead taking up one of the available cubicles for their number ones. Tom didn’t quite understand that particular brand of shyness, but he accepted it all the same. That wasn’t the case with Thongs, though. Whoever he was, it sounded like he was just standing there, unmoving, not even breathing. No – it sounded like Thongs was holding his breath. If not for the fact Tom had clearly heard someone enter the cubicle next to him, he would have assumed it was vacant.
So began several minutes of silence, as Tom felt the oncoming of a familiar challenge. The two men would grapple for dominance of the space. He was willing Thongs to finish whatever bizarre business he had in that stall and then leave. Still he heard nothing above the whirr of the aircon. Had he imagined hearing someone enter the cubicle? Was Thongs just a figment of his imagination? It was possible – he’d been under a lot of stress lately. And, as he was well aware these days, hiding out in the office bathroom for a few minutes of peace and quiet could be a bizarrely stressful situation, with many layers of social convention and conflict to consider. But surely not. Tom had heard the door open and shut… and the curious rasping drag of thongs against tiles.
No, not thongs. But something like them.
Tom was seized with a weird feeling of terror in the lower pits of his gut, one which increased with every passing second, that he would not be able to leave the cubicle now without being identified. He sensed that if he stood up now, Thongs – unmoored from any conception of social decorum – would leave at the same time, and they would see each other. Thongs would know he had been slacking off. That thought frightened him, though he couldn’t place why.
Tom looked at the illuminated screen of his phone, confirming that he had been sitting in the toilet now for at least twenty minutes, though it felt like longer. Twenty minutes was towards the upper limit of how much toilet time he would permit himself, and probably about as long as he could get away with. The managers would likely begin to notice. If he was gone thirty minutes, they would no doubt mark it off as his lunch break. They were very strict on that. Strangely, Tom found himself not caring if that was the outcome. All the while, Thongs made no sound.
It was as if he wasn’t there at all.
As Tom sat trying to muster up the courage to stand and leave the cubicle, the door swung open again. More footsteps came in: the unmistakeable sound of plain leather shoes. Tom found himself breathing out raggedly, thrilled that someone else had come in and broken the tension. He wanted, insanely, for Shoes to enter the stall next door, proving that the arrival of Thongs was just a weird hallucination; a temporary blip on his otherwise faultless perception that he would look back on and laugh about in the days and weeks to come.
But Shoes did not.
Instead, he strolled forward, a casual rhythm to his stride, and entered the third cubicle. He closed the door and locked it. Tom froze. Of course, Shoes could be observing the code. He could be leaving a gap. But Tom knew he wasn’t – he was entering the third cubicle because the middle one was occupied.
Occupied by Thongs, whoever he was.
Ordinarily, a three-way standoff with a fully taken row of stalls was already a nightmare. Such an arrangement had no clear hierarchy, and it was only through sheer force of will that one of the occupants would break the stalemate and leave. But this was worse. Thongs would not be leaving anytime soon; that much was certain. All three of them were going to sit here all day, Tom thought. Three lonely soldiers sitting sentry until the sun dipped below the horizon.
He was quickly proven wrong. A flush came from the third cubicle, and he heard Shoes shuffling around. The stall door opened, footsteps, the tap ran, more footsteps, the bathroom door swung shut, and he was gone.
Once again, it was just Tom and Thongs, locked in a battle of wills.
That is, if Thongs existed at all. The jury was still out on that one. He was suddenly seized with a profound desire to get down on the floor and look into the next cubicle, if only to dispel his own concerns. Of course, that was nuts. Even if he could somehow manage to contort himself in such a manner that Thongs would be unable to see him peering in, it would still be crazy behaviour. Whoever Thongs was, Tom would never be able to talk to him with a straight face again having done something like that.
Still, the desire was there, as too was the fear of having Thongs identify him. That could not happen. Tom couldn’t quite articulate why, but he knew one thing: Thongs could never see his face.
He’d been in the toilet a hair over thirty minutes and his phone was vibrating with new work emails when he heard the first suggestion that someone was actually in the cubicle next to him. His ears had been perked since he heard Thongs come in for the sounds of life – a shifting of clothes, a sniff, a fart, a plop – but there came nothing.
Now there was something: a low, rattling breath.
It almost sounded like the frustrated sigh of someone approaching the end of their tether, but it wasn’t quite there. To be frank, it wasn’t quite human. It sounded like the wind rattling through an open window.
Only quieter, almost imperceptible.
Tom was on the very edge of the toilet seat, almost off the rim entirely, his ears perked. But there was nothing else. Silence again. That dry exhalation echoed around Tom’s head, and he remembered, horror seizing his gut again, that this entire time Thongs hadn’t even sat down. He was just standing there, emitting not a peep of sound, until this very moment when that horrible breath passed his lips.
Tom began to wonder if Thongs was a ghost, some spectral entity occupying the cubicle next to his own, floating there and rasping. Maybe the whispering note of thongs – or whatever they were – on tiles was instead the sound of an ethereal cloak whipping around as this ancient ghoul drifted into the bathroom. Maybe in the next stall it was staring at him through the flimsy wall; a too-wide grin on a face pitted with decay. If Tom opened the cubicle door now it would follow, and it would grab him with scabby, elongated fingers and pull him somewhere deep and strange, where no one would hear him scream and he would float for eternity.
No, that was stupid.
But he needed to banish that thought. So he did something he had never contemplated doing on one of his jaunts to the office bathroom. He spoke aloud.
“Hello?” Tom asked, his voice almost a squeak.
“Anyone else in here?” He paused, realising he needed a reason to be speaking aloud. “I need toilet paper.”
A silence so absolute it drowned out the whirr of the aircon.
But then a voice. “Okay,” it said. A completely normal voice. A moment later, a full toilet roll drifted under the cubicle wall, trailing paper as it went.
“Thanks, sorry,” Tom replied, picking up the roll.
There was nothing else from Thongs; just silence. Tom found himself picking apart everything about his two-word statement. The sound, the pitch, the timbre. It certainly wasn’t a ghost. It sounded like a regular man’s voice – deep, reverberant, maybe a little pissed off at being bothered. But indisputably normal. That was good to know; incredibly relieving, in fact. Little by little, the incomprehensible and irrational horror which had gripped Tom began to evaporate, and a new kind set in: he was very late back to his desk. That began to seem much more concerning that than the prospect of eternal torment in a dead and forgotten realm.
Tom stood up and flushed the toilet. Even when pretending, it was important to flush. It maintained the illusion of normalcy.
He turned the door lock open and stepped out, his leather shoes clicking on the tiles as he approached the mirror. Washing his hands was also part of the ritual. As he turned on the tap and went through the motions, Tom stared at his lined face in the reflection. He looked like he had aged terribly in the past half an hour; like the stress was worming its way out of his skin. His pale blue eyes were ringed red.
Slowly, he cast his gaze over his shoulder. He wanted to look at the feet of his neighbour; to confirm that he was wearing thongs, flip-flops, slippers, slip-ons – anything which would confirm Tom wasn’t completely nuts.
The door was indeed closed. That was a good start.
His eyes wandered lower, approaching the base of the door, towards the narrow gap between it and the tiles. The darkness beneath the door swam into focus.
Tom’s already fragile mind splintered like mirror glass into a million fragments.
He had been right, in a way. Thongs was wearing thongs – or, at least, some vague approximation of them. Thongs as described to someone who had never seen a pair before, and had only the vaguest notion of what a human foot looked like.
The problem was there were far too many of them.