Cottaging – the use of public lavatories for fugitive sexual encounters – can be thrilling, titillating, dangerous, delusory, exquisite, sordid, debasing, indescribably erotic, and all these things at once. I should know. I spent a brief summer over thirty years ago as an habitué of the cottage on Jesus Green, Cambridge. Indeed, my first published story talks of the experience, and many gay writers have described their own, or others’, sexual encounters in cottages. But it had never occurred to me to consider the subject from the point of view of the people who work in public conveniences, as they used to be called, or restrooms, as Senator Larry Craig would have it. Warwick Collins, in his wonderfully engaging short novel, Gents, gives everyone the chance to see what goes on behind the door marked MANAGER.
Work as a subject is sorely neglected by fiction; few writers, with the notable exception of Magnus Mills who does almost nothing else, draw inspiration from the mundane tasks we perform or have performed for us on a daily basis. Gents, though, describes with lyricism and precision the working lives of the three men running a municipal public lavatory in London. The men, all three originally from Jamaica, have different attitudes to the use of the place by homosexuals – or, as they refer to them, ‘reptiles’. Jason the Rastafarian disapproves, but sees the problem in racial terms. Reptiles, for him, are white men:
“Whitey cold,” Jason said. “Cold inside.” He began to utter the dark poetry in his soul. “Colder than reptile. Don’ have no emotions. Come to de Gents for de sex wid another reptile. Don’ come for the wife, don’ wan family, maybe don’ even want de other man. Come. Afterwards go.”
The supervisor, Reynolds, is less judgemental. His main concern is that the council doesn’t decide to close the place down and put all three of them out of work. As he says: “We don’t keep their conscience, we only keeping order.” Later, he comments: “Reptile not dangerous. Danger come from man who hate reptile.”
The third man, Ez, who provides the novel’s main focus, is initially incredulous that such things happen, then, despite himself, curious and, finally, thoughtful. In one finely-written passage, he is described observing a cubicle in which two men are having sex:
Ez glanced at the cubicle. It seemed, in the fervent silence, that it was vibrating slightly, like a washing machine, as though various pieces of clothing were being thrown against the side. Then the machine seemed to switch itself off, to utter a soft sigh.
Talking to his wife, Martha, - and the relationship between Ez and Martha is one of the subtlest things in the book - he distinguishes between gay behaviour and what the reptiles get up to.
“Maybe these people not gay. Gay men mostly don’t have to come to dis place. Go to other places. Dese men family men, lonely men.”
As the novel develops, the complex, interdependent relationship between the two groups, each, in its way, oppressed and at risk, becomes more evident. When the ecological balance that enables the attendants and the ‘reptiles’ to survive is threatened by bureaucracy in the form of the implacable Mrs Steerhouse, something needs to be done. The solution the three men find – and I won’t reveal it here - is both humane and practical.
This short novel says more about racial tension, the economics of labour and sexual politics than many books ten times its length. It could have been anti-gay but contrives to have a grace and lightness of touch that distinguish it from more widely-known overtly gay-friendly books. As an ex-reptile I wholeheartedly recommend it.
You can buy it here.