Monday, 29 October 2012


After the fate of Henry VIII’s six wives – divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived - the most important thing any child in an English primary school learns is the rain cycle.  That’s because the main topic of adult conversation in England is the likelihood of rain, so for the upcoming generation to play a full part in society, he or she needs to be familiar with the mechanism that generates precipitation.
So, although from the age of eight or so, I could taste a raindrop and tell you its sea of origin, the other cycle that can generate storms not only outdoors, but indoors, remained a virtual mystery to me.  I’m referring, of course, to the menstrual cycle.
As a young boy, the menstrual cycle had little or no part to play in my life. A year after I was born, my mother had a hysterectomy following complications giving birth to my sister, so for several years my house was a no-go area for so-called feminine hygiene products.
In those days, of course, sanitary towels and tampons were only available on prescription – probably – and didn’t have pet names like sannies and tammies, flippant monikers belying the serious medical purpose of these innovations in women’s healthcare.  The male half of the population knew nothing of this modern world of applicators and absorbency, and no self-respecting man would be found in the pub discussing the relative merits of the Lil-lets or Bodyform of the day. I, and others of my generation, grew to manhood in blissful ignorance of the monthly goings-on of ladies’ nether regions and the increasing array of products to counter the problems associated with the possession of a fully functioning womb and ovaries.
Eventually, and in spite of my inherent unsuitability as boyfriend material, a young lady took a shine to me so I married her as soon as possible in case she changed her mind. No sooner had the final pieces of confetti been removed from my bouffant Eighties hair than the frightening truth become apparent to my hitherto innocent sensibilities. Not only were feminine hygiene products now available on supermarket shelves between toothpaste and disposable nappies, but I was expected to buy them. Don’t get me wrong, the monetary outlay was only a minor quibble; somewhere in the small print of the marriage vows, I’d agreed to surrender financial autonomy to my new wife. The problem was in the purchasing, the sheer humiliation in the physical act of the purchasing. How could I, a man of nearly two metres in height, maintain my dignity while purchasing these goods from a shelf where no male has any business?
In those dark days before the dawning of the internet, I spent hours in the library poring over medical literature until the obvious solution presented itself to me: For the sake of my own dignity and my own sense of masculinity, I must impregnate my young wife and keep her in a state of maternity until either her womb gave up the ghost, or her well of oestrogen ran dry and she was overtaken by hot flushes some thirty years in the future (an estimate).
This plan I put into action without a moment’s further though. Our first baby was conceived on honeymoon – in Italy – so the first months of marriage were spent in blissful happiness, for me at least, as I was able to visit the local supermarkets without the dirty looks from middle-aged spinsters that I’d feared. My wife, on the other hand, suffered terribly from morning sickness and it was in these days of having to eat two breakfasts, while my green-faced spouse looked on, that my sapling-like figure began to spread into a great oak. As it turned out, there was a fatal flaw in my plan, a flaw that looks so obvious in retrospect. Our first child born in 1988 was a girl, our second child born in 1991 was a girl, our fourth child born in 1996 was a girl, our fifth child born in 1997 was a girl; I was simply storing up problems for myself. Some time in the future (at eleven years old, or fifteen if I was lucky), all of these harmless looking babies were going to be sending me off to Tesco or Sainsbury’s to fill my basket with the products that haunted me, the products I had come to despise. Like the eternally youthful Dorian Gray, I had postponed facing my worst fears, but I couldn’t hold them at bay forever.
Charles Darwin was right; in a matter of years, although it seemed much shorter, these delightful baby girls had evolved into completely different creatures – teenagers with mobile phones, skin problems and periods. Somehow, as I had feared but expected, I was nominated as the person best place to stem this flow of blood, the primary reason being that I passed the supermarket on my way home from work. With the advent of barcodes, never would I hear the chilling call from one cashier to another four checkout lanes away of: ‘Doreen, how much is a sixteen-pack of Tampax Super?’ Believe me when I say I am grateful for that small mercy.
Experience breeds confidence, of course it does, but even as I approach middle age I will bite my lip and pay £2.79 rather than say: ‘But these are supposed to be on special offer at £1.99, I think you’ll find. Summon your supervisor at once while I stand here with an ever-growing queue snarling behind me.’
What my daughters don’t seem to appreciate is that I am not interested in the particular qualities or features of each product. If I was, I would subscribe to Which Tampon? as well as Private Eye and New Scientist.
‘I want the ones with …’ one of my daughters - let’s call her Ms G - will begin.
‘Let me stop you there!’ I will say. ‘I don’t care if it has wings like an albatross or can make a beaker of blue liquid disappear in an instant; all I want to know is the colour of the packet. I don’t care if enables you to dive off a springboard into crystal clear water without fear of leakage, just tell me the colour. I don’t care if it’s been endorsed by Claire Rayner …’
‘Claire who?’
‘The nation’s favourite deceased agony aunt.’ I’m wasting my time.
‘But dad, if they don’t have …’ Miss G will continue, but to no avail. She knows I will go nowhere near a shop until she’s given me a list of at least three colours in descending order of preference. Even then it may end in tears.
‘But I said the green packet.’
‘This packet is green.’
‘Yes, but it’s light green.’
‘You didn’t specify.’
‘But I always have dark green.’
‘No, you don’t.
‘Yes, I do. You’re so stupid.’
She’s right too. Ms G always has dark green. It’s Ms H who has light green, or sometimes lilacy-purple.

A recent innovation, which I had hoped would improve my life no end, is the self-service checkout. You just hide the offending article under a loaf of bread, throw it past the scanner into a plastic bag and voilà - but what happens every time?
‘Unexpected item in the bagging area’, that’s what.
Whenever I watch repeats of the BBC’s landmark 1996 presentation of Pride and Prejudice, which I do quite often with so many women in the house, it is not Colin Firth’s dripping jodhpurs or Jennifer Ehle’s nineteenth century Wonderbra that catches my attention, but the enduring patience of poor Mr Bennet, the eye at the centre of the hormonal storm. My two eldest daughters are now of marriageable age. How delightful it would be if a Mr Darcy or a Mr Bingley came to take them off my hands before they literally bleed me dry.

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