This column first appeared in the Sunday Times (here) on Sunday 21st May 2023.
PULLING THE PLUG – By Paige Nick
I’m in a hotel. Not the kind you’re probably picturing on hearing that. I don’t want to mislead you.
There are different kinds of hotels. This one is a cheap airport hotel, in a very big, expensive city, and everybody knows those are barely even real hotels, they’re more like train stations or purgatory. And nothing at all like a holiday hotel, which is a place of joy and buffets. While an airport hotel is a place of waiting and strange smells. And cigarette burns on the basin. And strange art. And brightly-coloured bedspreads that you’re too scared to touch and tiny threadbare towels and snowy television sets that only get four channels.
At a holiday hotel, everyone is waiting for Neil Diamond to start singing, while at an airport hotel, everyone is waiting for their flight, or for their luggage, or for the airport shuttle, or for their prostitute.
It’s late now and it’s been a long, travelly, suitcase-pulling day, so I decide to take a hot bubble bath. I don’t have a bathtub at home and reading in a bubble bath is living the dream. I can hear you screaming ‘STOP!’ at me from there. Everyone knows that an airport bathtub will either give you scabies or make you pregnant. Don’t worry, I’ve examined this bathtub very closely and it’s in surprisingly good nick. Spotless, not a mark or a scar. In fact, it looks like it’s been recently replaced. The grouting is fresh, the surrounding row of tiles are white. Maybe someone was murdered in the old bathtub and they recently had to replace it? This one is new, It’s the only pristine item in the suite (and by suite, I mean room).
I strip, avert your eyes please, and I start to run the bath. There’s no actual plug, but there’s one of those switches on the tap that looks like it’s designed to close the plug. I toggle the switch, but the water continues to go straight down the drain. This is not right. Everyone knows that a bath without a plug is just a shower for ants.
Airport hotel rooms don’t have phones, or anything else that can’t be bolted down, so, I pull my clothes back on and traipse to reception. Maybe people steal the plugs (see note about things needing to be bolted down) so they have to keep them behind reception. Like the white ball at pool halls.
Hi, so, the plug in my bath doesn’t seem to work, I say to the man behind the bulletproof glass shield at the airport hotel reception desk (which is circular and clad in gold mirrored tiles circa 1972). The what? The man behind the bullet proof glass shied asks. The plug, I say. The what? He says. The plug in the bath, I say. In the what? He says. We stare at each other. He picks up his phone. He’s behind the bullet proof glass so he can have a phone. He calls someone to come help. He says a man will come to my room and I should tell the man exactly what I told him.
The man arrives. I follow him into the bathroom. It’s only a two-star hotel, so there isn’t a lot of space. I explain that I’d like to have a bath but the plug doesn’t work. He turns on the tap in the sink, then looks at me expectantly when it runs perfectly.
No, the plug in the bath doesn’t work, I say. He flushes the toilet, and looks at me again, pleased at fixing my problem. No, I explain, pointing at the bathtub again, in the bath, the water runs out, I say.
He jiggles the towel rail. It holds firm. The bath is just about the only thing he hasn’t looked at yet.
I point even more directly at the bath tap. He turns on the shower tap above it. He now looks at me as if I am mad. Everything here is clearly in excellent working condition, and I must be the thing that is broken.
I know he speaks fluent English, because when I welcomed him to my room at the beginning of four paragraphs ago, we had a brief, hello, how are you, where’s the problem-type-conversation.
So now I’m wondering what the word for a plug is in his English. There a robot is a traffic light, a boot is a trunk, a garage is a garaj. But for the love of the latest Margaret Atwood, waiting on the edge of the tub, how do they say plug, and what is a bath in America?
I take a deep breath and try again, this time slowly and loudly, because everyone knows that when speaking to someone foreign, if you just shout they instantly understand you.
Still crickets. So I squeeze past him and run the tap, then point dramatically at the water running directly down the plug hole, regardless of the position of the plug switch.
Finally he gets which piece of bathroom equipment I’ve been talking about. He steps in, runs the bath tap and jiggles the switch, just like I did seconds earlier, and surprisingly gets the same result. He straightens up, says, Oh, the plug on the bath. No, that doesn’t work! Then he leaves.
As in 99% of my relationships with men, I feel deeply misunderstood.