Hilary Fannin: We don’t really do puberty any more, do we?
We needed puberty in the 1970s. Good God, we needed any help we could get, crawling over the line to our sexual selves
There were about 20 tampons – unused, unsheathed from their cardboard tubing, virgin white, pristine as the driven snow – scattered around the entrance to our local train station. They lay flaccid and inert on the dirty paving; cotton tails squiggled and stilled, they looked like headless albino mice: puffy, bloodless, bleached.
I assume that some bunch of prepubescent boys in overpriced trainers and ankle socks, panting and grinning, had ransacked the box, and in some idle attempt at social anarchy, some primitive joust with the fear and mystery of female reproduction, had thrown the contents around the ugly concourse.
Or maybe it was a bunch of teenage girls, in pleated school skirts and baggy, flat slip-on shoes, cheeks puffed with indignation. Maybe one of them had scattered the contents of her own pale- blue box, raising a pimple of rebellion on the oily back of fertility.
Or maybe the tampons had fallen out of the argentine sky all by themselves. Maybe they were following the Arctic geese, trying to arch and dive over the roofs of the housing estate. Maybe the wingless tampons simply ran out of breath, falling softly to the dirty ground next to a crinkled wrapper for buffalo- flavoured crisps and a ball of used tinfoil.
Sex crime in Toyland
I walked home from the station, through the playground, past early-morning commuters scurrying in the other direction to catch the train into town. I walked across the flat field to my corner of the housing estate and looked up at other people’s empty bedroom windows. I spotted a couple of prone teddy bears and a row of naked blond Barbie dolls that looked like tiny corpses, a sex crime in Toyland, beached on a box-bedroom window sill until their owner returned.
The abandoned dolls with their plastic hillocks of breast, the shower of tampons, maybe even the emptying morning streets (some memory of staying home when I should have been at school, of feeling the day’s resentment of my intrusive presence) brought puberty to mind.
Puberty. I don’t think, as a society, that we do puberty any more, do we? I think puberty probably went out with metal bins and glass milk bottles and washing the windows in malt vinegar. The last time I saw puberty, it was getting chucked out along with my shredded Bay City Rollers posters and an empty tube of skin-coloured Clearasil.
We needed puberty in the 1970s, though. Good God, we needed any help we could get, crawling over the line to our sexual selves. Don’t know about you, but I was stranded, ignorant, tormented with rumour and unanswered, unaskable questions. Our generation didn’t have social media; hell, we barely had colour TV. We were a generation that thought transgender was an airline and troilism was a garden gnome.
Straight as a die
Everyone I knew in 1970-something was straight as a die. There were no lesbians either within or without the convent gates, there was one homosexual in the world (the bloke with the candelabra on top of his grand piano), and hundreds of us got pregnant from sitting on toilet seats.
Arguably, although there was some relief in not having to imbibe glossy magazine features about botched DIY vajazzles, there was still endless misinformation and warped fantasy to endure. Forty years on and I am still not quite over the simian little nun who told our class of 13-year-old schoolgirls that each contraceptive pill contained a tiny serpent to eat our unborn babies alive.
The only official publication I remember from my spell in puberty was a dreary pamphlet called Girls Growing Up, which, although factually accurate, featured on its flimsy cover a depressed-looking girl, bathed in bluey ink, looking self-conscious and vaguely alarmed next to a net-curtained window.
Like its sister purgatory, puberty was, it seemed to imply, a veiled, transcendent state that you only got out of by studying weedy drawings of fallopian tubes – and by keeping your head down, your socks up and your underwear on until, lo and behold, you graduated to a cross-your-heart bra, a pair of sable-coloured tights and a diamond engagement ring. Then all the raging mysteries of the physical world would be revealed to you.
I walked back to the station later that day to take the train into town. The tampons were gone; like melted snow, they left no trace. The empty crisp packet was gone, too, and the globe of tinfoil swept away.
Nothing lasts forever. For that, at least, we can be thankful.