Checkout 19 | Claire-Louise Bennett | Granta

Checkout 19

Claire-Louise Bennett

I used tampons almost as soon as my periods began because for one thing my periods began long after everyone else had got theirs so there wasn’t time to be fannying around with towels. Sanitary towels weren’t cool at all by the time I began my period, tampons were the thing because they let you carry on as normal since all you had in your knickers was a little white string, which would hardly get in the way of all the activities the adverts showed menstruating girls doing, such as swirling around on roller skates, leaping into the air to catch fluorescent pink Frisbees, riding white horses across tremendous golden beaches, and so on. A lot of propaganda that was. In reality of course what carrying on as normal actually meant was, don’t even think about skipping P.E. or sloping off early – don’t lie down in a mute ball in the middle of the day – don’t bellyache and groan at any hour of the day – don’t expect to be excused from the table or let off from drying up – show up, join in, be productive – don’t let the side down, never miss a day. By contrast, it was generally agreed that wearing a sanitary towel got in the way of everything. It was like having a sheep between your legs, everyone said. Only abnormal girls who had no friends in the first place and nothing to do besides didn’t mind going around with a big smelly sheep wedged between their thighs all day long. Then, after years and years of wearing different sized tampons each month, and still never getting it quite right, I found myself orientating towards towels instead. It was dawning on me that I won’t go on having periods forever – at some point they will splurge then weaken, become erratic, and then they will stop altogether. I should make the most of them, while they are still regular and strong, and not block them up. Blood should flow it’s not a wound after all, it doesn’t need to be staunched. It’s peculiar, how you can do something a certain way automatically for years and years, then, when you stop and begin to do it another way, you look back on the way you did it for so long and you can’t quite believe
it – how you just went along with a trite and manipulative depiction of something that’s in fact such an integral part of your intimate reality. Swoosh. Leap. Twirl. Shameful inculcatory nonsense. Never miss a day! I didn’t even stop to consider it really, I just went along with it, hardly gave it a second thought. Until one afternoon, when I stood in the bathroom and looked at my blood and womb lining, there on a tissue, and I thought, I’ll miss this when it’s gone, and I realised I didn’t want it congealing invisibly inside of me anymore. Towels aren’t entirely plain sailing though either. I never seem to get it in quite the right place – I still manage, almost every time, to stick the bloody thing too far back along the gusset.

On the first day the colour is very pretty – it’s a shade of red I’ve been looking for in a lipstick since forever. Neither too dark, nor too bright. Not too pink not too brown not too orange. More than once I’ve imagined taking the bloodstained tissue into a department store, up to the Chanel counter, the Dior counter, the Lancôme counter, and saying ‘Look, this is the red, this is it, this is the most perfect red in the world. Let me see a lipstick at long last in this most perfect shade of red.’ Needless to say I’ve never done it. Month after month I ruefully drop the most perfect shade of red down the toilet and flush it away. Quel dommage. I have this idea that Marilyn Monroe stayed in bed when she got her period and bled all over the sheets, and I’m not sure where I derived it from. It’s been in my head since I was approximately ten years old. My grandmother adored old Hollywood stars, and had a particular penchant for Vivien Leigh and Marilyn Monroe, so it might have been from her I got it. But I can’t imagine my grandmother telling me a thing like that. Perhaps she said it to my aunt and I overheard – I wasn’t a snoop, but I did have sharp ears. My family relished exchanging grisly tales, though usually I’d only ever catch a snippet – which, severed from the full body of the story, became disturbingly visceral and took on a lasting and malignant life all of its own. I shall never forget the heinous image that assaulted my imagination when I overheard, for example, my other grandmother saying to her son, my father, ‘and she’d bitten all the skin off her fingers. Imagine that, eating your own hands.’ Stupidly I repeated those words to myself verbatim, many times over. My tendency to take every word I heard absolutely literally paradoxically meant I very often got the wrong end of the stick about quite a lot of things on a daily basis – and surely I had got the wrong end of the stick about this conversation – surely the girl, whoever she was, hadn’t really eaten her own hands? It occurred to me that I probably hadn’t understood what my grandmother had said correctly, that her words meant something else, something entirely innocuous – however instead of just brushing them off it came to me that perhaps if I only repeated the awful phrase enough, the real, innocuous meaning that it obviously contained would eventually surface in all of its forgettable ordinariness, and the gory apparition of the girl greedily gobbling up her own hands, and all the blood crawling down her arms and dripping thickly from her elbows, would go away at once. That’s not what happened. On the contrary, a new terror was released upon me – ironically by the most humdrum word out of them all. After many repetitions the word ‘and’ lodged in my throat, expanded barbarously – I practically choked on it: and?! And she’d bitten all the skin off her fingers?? So in fact there was another thing she did, before chewing off her hands, possibly something much worse. Would my grandmother say the worst thing first? Probably she would. (My father’s mother was dramatic and liked to make maximum impact when she told you a story whereas my mother’s mother recounted scandalous news in a roundabout sort of way, pulled back and forth, again and again, by uncertainty and a preoccupation with peripheral details. Apparent shortcomings – oh come on, spit it out – which often nonetheless conspired to plant a strange and robust seed.) What exactly had the girl done before she chewed off the skin on her fingers? On this occasion my imagination was uncommonly considerate of my faint-hearted disposition so that instead of conjuring up the absolute worst it very quickly installed a relatively tame image of the girl tearing out her blonde and lank hair, thus preventing anything truly horrific from emerging that would scare the living daylights out of me. Tearing out her hair seemed to make sense anyway: ‘She’d torn out her hair in great big clumps, and she’d bitten all the skin off her fingers. Imagine that, eating your own hands.’ Yes, that made sense. Clearly it was the eating of the hands that my grandmother wanted to leave my father with, so, in all likelihood, the prior diabolical action very probably wasn’t anything worse than that. And in fact, now that the hand-eating was prefixed by another grim act of self-mutilation, it wasn’t nearly as frightening anymore. In fact it made me laugh.

I don’t know whether Marilyn Monroe did stay in bed and bleed all over the sheets, but if she did I wouldn’t blame her.

Claire-Louise Bennett

Claire-Louise Bennett is the author of Pond and Fish Out of Water. Her novel Checkout 19 was published by Jonathan Cape in 2021.

Photograph © Andrew Gallix

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