“It’s while I’m drying myself that I notice a pinkish stain on the white towel. First of all, I wonder if I’ve cut myself. And then I realise: I’m under attack from the red enemy. As luck would have it, I packed my ‘starter kit for light bleeds’ which a lady who smelt strongly of perfume gave to each girl in year seven, compliments of her sanitary pad company in the same biology lesson as when our teacher got us to put a condom on a courgette. A clever piece of marketing, I think to myself as I peel the sticky strip off one of the large pads included and secure it to my knickers: get the preteen girls hooked on your range of pads with ‘new absorbency technology’. Seems to me this particular technology makes the pad every bit as uncomfortable as having three slices of Mighty White shoved down your pants.
I wrap myself in a towel, sit on the toilet lid and turn to Chapter Period, Verse Day One.
And so, on the First Day, it shall be thus:
The period starts. At the same time, the hormone FSH from the pituitary is making an ovum mature in a tiny sac or ‘follicle’ in one of the ovaries.
I didn’t even know I owned a tiny sac other than the fake leather one from Alfonso I pack for Dad weekends.
‘Are you OK in there, Harper?’ Dad shouts from the bedroom.
‘Yes, Dad!’ I call back.
‘I’m reading a fascinating chapter about V-Day celebrations,’ he says, ‘Take as long as you want.’
In my head I make up an imaginary paragraph to describe my own:
V-Day. Saturday 28 May, 1988. The day monthly bleeding commenced via Harper May Richardson’s vagina. The red enemy first attacked in a hotel bathroom in Brighton. Resistance was futile. Girlhood, surrendered. The occasion will henceforth be marked each anniversary in the back garden of thirteen Kendal Road, Blackbrake, with a ceremony which shall include attaching a looped sanitary napkin to a belt, then hoisting them up a beanpole…”
(from What a Way to Go, published on 7 January 2016 by Atlantic Books)
Last night I came to the realisation that life sometimes imitates art. When I went to check on my eight year-old daughter who was reading in bed, I found her nose-deep in my vintage copy of Usborne’s Growing Up, the self-same edition that I had my twelve year-old protagonist Harper read in What a Way to Go. The book was still kicking around from a couple of years ago when I’d bought it while writing my coming-of-age novel. I told my daughter that it was time to go to sleep. She said she’d turn out the lights when she’d finished the page about how puberty changes girls’ bodies, pointing to the naked image of an adolescent girl. As I kissed her forehead, I made a mental note to sit down with her soon to take advantage of her burgeoning interest in sex education.
Earlier in the day, a friend had popped by with her ten and eight year-old boys. As they were tearing around the house with my two kids wielding sofa cushions, she and I took cover in the kitchen and shared a packet of melting moments. She told me over a cup of Earl Grey that she’d just covered a chapter on sex with her ten year-old son that afternoon while her younger brother was having a cello lesson. Her ten year-old had been in fits of laughter and she’d had to tell him to shush so as not to distract the lesson next door. It struck me as wonderful that here was a pre-teen boy who wasn’t ashamed to discuss the facts of life with his mother; rather he was evidently enjoying learning about both the mechanics and the feelings sex will engender when the time is right, and there is mutual consent.
Talking to other female friends over the course of the past few months, I’ve been remembering just how momentous your first period is and how much shame can easily surround menstruation and sex education. My own experience of learning about periods at school echoed Sali Hughes’ as documented in The Pool earlier in the year; like Sali, my institutional sex education amounted to a 35-minute biology lesson, a browning banana and a condom.
In What a Way to Go, I think I wanted to redeem things a little. I allowed Harper to be proud of her emergence into womanhood. Here’s a protagonist who is straight talking about menstruation. This twelve year-old is not ashamed or anxious about periods as I was; rather she has an askance glance on it all, cutting through the pink marketing to realise that she’s probably being hoodwinked into an adulthood of dependency on a product from a billion-pound industry. Later in the novel, Harper conjectures: ‘periods and pregnancy protection must get expensive. If you were to add up how much you must spend over your bleeding and anti-breeding life, then I bet it would cost hundreds of pounds.’ Odds on Harper would have been vocal in last month’s debate on abolishing VAT on tampons and sanitary products in the UK.
A good friend of mine confessed recently just how deeply apprehensive she was about starting her periods; hers started just before a tennis lesson. She threw herself onto the changing room floor, and screamed. I started on a Sunday evening just after the top forty countdown. Shocked by what I found when I went to the loo, I went to find my Mum and said I needed to chat. Then I ran upstairs to my bedroom and promptly dived under the duvet and bawled.
Mum came in and sat on the end of the bed, cajoling me to come out again. In between my tears, I refused to tell her what the matter was. She listed all the possible things that could be wrong – bullying, falling out with friends, schoolwork. When she finally asked if I’d started my period, I wailed. Words could not describe how awful and ashamed I felt. My mother did everything in her power to reassure me and to make me proud to be a young woman. I just hope I can similarly sooth my own daughter's anxieties when she starts hers, though I think I might not go so far as to take a leaf out of my own book, and imitate art: somehow I doubt my daughter would appreciate it if I attached a looped sanitary napkin to a belt and ceremonially hoisted it up a beanpole in the back garden to mark the occasion...
What a Way to Go is available now for pre-order at your local bookshop and from Amazon.