The red bucket
The red bucket stares up at me. It’s a dull red with small scratches up the sides. I’ve often wanted to look inside, but something has always stopped me. A double-edged fear of wanting to know and not wanting to know. Once I tried asking Kim but she just laughed in that ‘you’re-too-young-to-know’ way. Suze was no better. I could tell she didn’t want to say by the way she blushed bright red and turned away.
The bucket has always sat in the corner of the girls’ bathroom tucked in between the toilet and the wall, next to the cleaner and toilet brush, on top of a pile of old newspapers.
But today is the day. The bucket has been hiding its contents for too long. I drag it out into the centre of the bathroom floor, breathing deeply as I sit down on the cold tiles in front of its familiar shape and form. The lid is so stiff I have to use both hands to pry it off, as if it’s in cahoots with the bucket and doesn’t want to let me in on the secret. But as I tug at the lid there’s an overpowering stench of sweet mushrooms. My eyes squint shut as the smell rushes up my nose. I pull back in surprise, heart pounding.
But the smell beckons. I lean over the red edge, peering in at a mound of smelly bundles of newspaper. There are ten or so packages, all wrapped up, about the size of a fist. Without thinking, I reach in determined to find out why they smell the way they do.
Hopefully no-one will come to the door I think to myself. The girls’ bathroom is constantly busy, used by all the girls in the house, all nine of us, including mum. There’s always someone wanting to use it, wriggling their legs, jumping up and down, banging on the door, shouting ‘Are you finished yet? I’m busting.’ It’d be so much easier if we were allowed to use the boys’ bathroom. There are only two of them, dad and my brother Tim. I reckon it’s unfair, two against nine. We should be allowed to use theirs, especially if we’re busting. But it’s not worth getting into trouble for.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor I pull at the newspaper covering. Pass the parcel with only one person, no music to tell me when to stop. I pull the newspaper out a bit more, letting the thing itself drop onto the floor. Firm, curled up, about the length of a ruler. Thick white wadding. Brown blood on the inside creases. For the second time I pull back in surprise. I had no idea. What on earth are they?
‘Magsie, come here,’ calls my mother as I come in from riding my bike on the grey painted concrete path around the side of the house. I love riding. A chance to get away from everyone. To be on my own, settle into my thoughts.
‘Why?’ I shout.
‘I’ve got something to tell you.’
I walk slowly through the back door towards my mother who is standing by the kitchen table, dragging my feet across the polished wooden floor, panic rising as I go over things I’ve done wrong over the past few days. There’s the packed lunch I hid down the pepperina tree. And the twenty cents I pinched from her pile of loose change on the dressing table. My cheeks go red at the thought.
She has something in her hand. With a flourish she holds up a pair of knickers. I sort of recognise them, although whenever I need clean knickers I just go to the girls’ knicker drawer – the small one, top left in the old chest of drawers in the hallway. Just grab the first pair I see. We’ve always shared our knickers, so none of them are actually mine. Just a squashed drawer full of washed, old crumpled things. Broken elastic, saggy bottoms. Sometimes I have to slip my hand down my shorts and yank them up if they’re too big or if the elastic has gone. If possible, I try and get away with wearing one pair of knickers for a few days or at least until someone, usually an annoying sister, says ‘enough, throw them in the washing basket – they’re disgusting’.
My mother waves the crumpled up knickers in my direction. I’m glad no-one else is around to see this. The knickers are a soft greyish colour with a tiny half-falling-off bow at the front. I can see they were once meant to be white, but too many years have had a lasting effect. Definitely grey looking.
She opens them up to the crotch and says ‘look at this’. I look at it. The crotch is sort of brown. There’s quite a lot of brown really, covering the whole area. Nervously I make my eyes focus in on her hands rather than the offending knickers. I have nothing to say. Instead, I think about the colour and how knickers become grey over the years. It’s only when she puts the knickers closer to my face, under my nose, that I look at them.
‘What’s that,’ she asks again, pointing to the brown marks. I have no idea, uncertain now as to what’s going on.
‘It’s blood,’ she says.
‘Blood?’ I say. I thought blood was red, from bleeding knees and elbows. This blood is definitely brown looking.
‘Old blood,’ she says.
‘On your knickers,’ she says.
‘On my knickers?’ I ask. She seems to think they’re my knickers. I suppose she’s right. I don’t know what else to say.
‘Show me your knickers,’ she says, pointing to my shorts. I don’t move. I’m not showing her my knickers here in the middle of the kitchen. I’m glad the others are still playing outside with the hose. I don’t want them coming anywhere near us at the moment. This is embarrassing enough.
‘Have you got brown between your legs, on the top of your legs?’ I look down. Squinting through one eye I can see what she means. There are brown streaks on the inside of my thighs. I hadn’t even noticed. I reach down to touch the coloured marks. They feel dry.
‘You’ve got your period,’ she says with a sort of smile in her voice.
‘What’s that?’ I ask. The only period I know about is from school. Three periods before little lunch, two periods before big lunch, and two more periods until we can go home.
‘It’s what happens every month.’
‘For girls,’ she adds when I say nothing. ‘So you can have babies. Later.’ I keep looking down, feeling a wave of shame wash over me. Shame at having this brown stuff on the top of my legs. Shame at having been shown my knickers – assuming they are mine. Shame at having my knickers plucked from the dirty washing basket.
I want to be back outside, on my bike. I don’t want to be part of this story. After all I’ve only just turned ten.
‘You’ll have to wear sanitary pads,’ she says and grabs me by the hand as we walk over to a small cupboard outside the girls’ bathroom, to where there’s a shelf full of large green and blue packets. Modess written across the side. She rummages in one of the open bags and brings out a piece of white wadding with tags hanging off each end. I stand beside her, silent, while she looks around for safety pins.
‘You’ll also need a sanitary belt,’ she adds, waving a twisted elastic thing in my direction. With reluctance I take it from her, hating the way it’s obviously already been used by older sisters, feeling slightly sick at the sight of the old blood stains.
‘Put it inside your knickers,’ she says as she walks off, pushing me in through the bathroom door with pad, pins and belt.
I stand motionless for a few minutes. I feel as if I’ve just been wiped all over with a dirty sponge, leaving my skin soiled, moist, untouchable. I have an urge to dry myself, wash the shame off. But instead, I make myself go over and sit on the side of the bath. Pull my knickers down, spread my legs and look at the brown blood.
I test out the various ways of putting pad, belt and pins together. Maybe the longer tag doesn’t belong at the front after all, although what the blue line is doing along the length of the pad remains a mystery. Just to make it look nice? I keep sitting there until the edge of the bath starts to dig in. It’s enough to make me get up and walk awkwardly over to the tall bathroom mirror. My reflection shows one large white pad swinging from a blood-stained belt, dangling two inches below the top of my legs. Just like a toddler wearing a wet saggy nappy. Is this for real? Do I really have to wear this?
‘Have you finished yet? I need to go,’ shouts Suze through the door, rattling at the handle. ‘Hurry up.’
‘Wait a minute. Nearly finished,’ I say.
I quickly pull up my shorts, tug at my t-shirt, desperately hoping something will hold the pad in place. Opening the door, I stand aside to let my sister squeeze past. And, as the bathroom door slams behind me, I take on the inevitable. Head held high as if I don’t have a care in the world, I slowly walk from the bathroom to my bedroom – the one I share with two other sisters. Legs squeezed tight, trying desperately to hold onto the delicately balanced surfboard-like thing hanging down there. Much as I would like to disappear into nothingness as quickly as possible, running is definitely not an option.
As I walk past the kitchen I look straight ahead, trying not to take any notice of the row of older sisters perched up on the kitchen bench, sniggering loudly. The secret of the red bucket is out.
Jo Rendle is a writer and linguist who enjoys writing creatively alongside her academic research. Most recent publications include ‘Gilbert St, early morning’ in Press: 100 Love Letters, ‘Expiry, a Last Breath’ in The Sky Falls Down: Anthology of Loss, and ‘26 Outings’ in the creative arts journal, Verity La.