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In the late autumn of 1974, a young girl in a faded pink brushed-nylon nightie kneels on the floor of the family bathroom and is sick into the toilet bowl, of an avocado, Dudley Diplomat with a handle that to flush requires energetic kickstarting. She is becoming familiar with the shape and design of the toilet’s various features, including the underside of the seat’s hinge mechanism, because the same thing happens the next day and the day after that. I mention the nightie because it gets in the way of the vomit and the girl, in a bid not to antagonise her mother, sponges it down and hides it in the wardrobe. This makes her late for school.
This sickening happens at around the time the girl is due to buy her next packet of sanitary towels, a dreaded event which she puts off until the last minute because, unlike the literature that so often accompanies feminine products, it does not make her feel at all feminine, special or give the discreet protection it boasts. In truth, she is still fumbling with the basic mechanics of it all, trussing herself up in a sanitary belt, a sort of elasticated garter with flagellating straps and buckles that chafe. Tampons, stick-on pads and anything with wings have not been invented yet and even if they were, would certainly not be sold in the village shop. And it’s the village shop and the ritual humiliation of her monthly visits, a cause of real purgatory for this girl.
She has no choice. The nearest town with its beneficial anonymity is miles away. The shop, the social hub of the surrounding area, is run by a middle-aged couple who take turns patrolling the counter and just like the couples in those miniature, wooden weather houses, are never seen together. With their finely tuned radar for gossip, it is the shopkeepers who function as the lungs of the community, as they are ideally placed to re-circulate it. They miss nothing.
When the man is at the till, if the girl loiters and it becomes obvious that she has not come in to buy something innocuous like bread or cat food, the cringe of their mutual embarrassment forces her to buy something, anything other than what she has come in for, so that later she must return and repeat the whole sorry business. And even when the lady is safely installed behind the counter, the whole transaction is still excruciating, especially when other customers are within earshot.
“What can I get you young lady?”
The girl, stained with crimson shame, says in a small voice,
“A packet of Kotex please, with loops.”
And the shop lady with perfectly sound hearing says,
“Speak up dear I can’t hear you.”
“A PACKET OF KOTEX PLEASE, WITH LOOPS.”
“Ah, is it your monthlies? “
And the girl knows this to be a rhetorical question by the way in which the shop lady delivers it, in an over-enunciated, whispering sotto voce and sidelong look as she noisily wraps the tell-tale packet in swathes of unnecessary brown paper, as effective as a megaphone.
If only her mother would buy the bloody things, but her mother works twelve-hour shifts and cannot afford the time. Even when the girl is safely on the other side of the shop door with the massive, rustling packet squished under her arm it’s not over. At home, she creeps through the kitchen but only gets as far as the hall. Her older brothers have heard her come in and catching sight the packet, surround her with prurient curiosity. Having no socially acceptable language, to accommodate what is happening to their sister, they whoop their feral shrieks and resort to slang. Manhandling the package from her they chant mindlessly at the top of their breaking voices,
“She’s on the blob, she’s on the blob!”
Then they proceed to kick the packet back and forth between them, careful to keep it out of her reach above her head. The girl puts her hands over her ears.
So, at first, once she understands that she isn’t going to need the dreaded feminine products for a while she feels only relief. Later, once the full implications of the consequence of ‘walking out’ with the handsome boy from the next village (the one with wandering hands) begins to sink in, anxiety seeds in her belly, and quickens.
Four months on, she has developed a lifetime’s aversion to all things avocado and a constant nausea that gnaws in her belly and like hunger is only relieved by eating. Fear drives her to the local family doctor whose unexpected kindness is almost unbearable. He coughs politely before offering her a termination, but she, without a clue as to what this procedure might entail, is too ashamed to ask and so unable to consider it as a concrete possibility, her fate in the end is sealed by ignorance and she chooses the devil she knows.
At the point where her buttons and zips, part company, and her faded brushed-nylon nightie stretches to transparency across her fruiting body, she realises the time is ripe to tell her mother, and she spends all day working up the courage.
Her mother is a woman under siege who lives her life in one long, expectant pause in which she waits for the imminent disaster that she knows is coming, and against which she keeps her burgeoning cupboards stocked just in case. When she sits down of an evening to watch the news, she is always surprised perhaps even a little disappointed, if there hasn’t been a war or a natural disaster.
Tonight, as she rattles the poker in the fire grate and switches off the television, her daughter steels herself and watching her mother climb the stairs, calls out,
“Mum, there’s something I really need to tell you,”
Her mother slows down but remains facing forward, and without turning her head, says,
“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re going to say. I’ve got eyes. You could have waited.”
The girl stands at the bottom of the stairs picking the skin of her cuticle and keeps mum. She watches her mother’s back disappear upstairs to bed. There is no break in the resigned footfall because, as her mother has always suspected, where her teenage daughter is concerned, it was only ever going to be a matter of time.