The Fower Quarters: 02 - Purity
Author(s): Sheena Blackhall
Copyright holder(s): Sheena Blackhall
"I do wish you'd find another crowd to run with," Jennifer Ainsley's mother warned her. "They're all dead-enders. You've nothing in common with them whatsoever. They're going nowhere. They never open a book. Rotten apples, every one of 'em. Hang around with them much longer and you'll be damaged goods too, young lady, mark my words!"
The dreadful thing was that it was true. Her current ftiends were wild, were daft, were daring. Her crowd did stupid, thoughtless things. The danger was exciting. Books weren't part of their lives. They didn't need to read books. They were like a breath of fresh air - laughing, rebellious, unpredictable. They were everything that Jennifer wasn't. They all had small-time jobs, made easy money and spent it quickly. They were good for a laugh, a drink, a smoke. They made her feel alive, excited, mixed up, shocked and happy all at the same time. It was like being among fireworks. You knew you shouldn't get so close, but when they went off, they lit up everything and everyone for miles around.
The girls in her class at school were children by comparison. Heavens above, some of them still wore short socks. They were serious, careful, thoughtful. They were like a closed room in a musty house, their lives on hold till they'd passed their exams, gone on to university and served their apprenticeship as children. They didn't live for the now, for the buzz or the quick thrill. No one in Jennifer's class had a boyfriend, no one except herself. It was exciting to have a boyfriend. Exciting to go out with friends with cars and money from jobs in cafés or garages. Like hanging on the tail-coats of a whirlwind, you never knew what was going to happen next. It really was like that, at first. But to fly with the crows you had to peck like them too. You either were for them or against them, Danny, no middle way. And if you played with the big boys...
Just after her fifteenth birthday, Jennifer had sex for the very first time - outside wedlock naturally, and not for the legitimate purposes of procreation, but to secure the affections of her current boyfriend, Danny. He'd assured her that everyone had sex, that it would demonstrate she loved him if she let him do it, that it would prove she didn't if she refused. And if she refused, it would also prove she was frigid, twisted and probably queer; and no one would blame him for dumping her and finding a girl who was loving and warm and normal.
How terrible it would be if he did dump her. How awful if everyone else in the world had experienced sex and she hadn't. What if there was a war, and she died not knowing what sex was really like? You read about that, you read about it all the time. How ghastly if everybody really did think she was queer and frigid and a freak. At the same time she was terrified of being caught doing it, of falling pregnant, of catching something nasty. "The bad trouble," her mother called it. Boys, apparently, carried it wherever they kept their sperm. She had not thought much about sperm, had assumed it looked like a kind of white pollen - procreational dandruff maybe. She'd never seen a man naked, though she had often watched her father shaving in his vest, with his braces hanging down behind his shoulders as he scraped the soapy stubble from his jaw.
Her mother had started once to tell her about babies, soon after her periods came, but the talk had left her more confused than ever. For several weeks she had been frightened to sit beside any boy in her class in case he brushed against her and in doing so pollinated her. At secondary school they drew diagrams of the insides of copulating rabbits, with neatly ruled arrows pointing from words like 'penis' and 'vaginal wall'. At home, her mother muttered darkly about 'whores' and 'sluts' and 'loose women'. This last phrase intrigued Jennifer Ainsley greatly. In what way exactly were those women loose? Her mother spat the phrase out like a nippy sweet, so Jennifer didn't dare ask her to elaborate. She'd heard boys talking at the Saturday night dances about women, too. She would hear comments like, "She was nice and tight," as if it were a huge compliment. That type of remark was always followed by a sigh of fond recall, the sort of sound a small, hot toddler makes after its first lick of ice cream.
Danny, however, knew everything there was to know about sex. "You can't get pregnant if you do it standing up," he informed her, "but you won't anyway, because I always carry a johnny." He made it sound like his favourite Teddy bear, a lucky little talisman. "A johnny a day keeps the babies away," he'd laugh. Then her friend Babs warned that Danny had been sniffing round Nancy Jones, a new girl in their teenage circle, a cinema usherette.
"You can't blame him, you know," Babs said. "He's a boy, after all. Their brains are in their pants. He won't wait for ever. What's the big deal about being a virgin anyway? It's only a word. It doesn't mean anything. Unless, of course, you want to be different, be the odd one out? Maybe you think you're better than us. Maybe that's what's holding you back - we go out to work but you're still at school. Still a mummy's girl?"
So, the next Saturday night, she'd done it. She'd actually let him. "You do love me, Danny?" was all she asked, just as you'd ask a visiting tradesman for his card before letting him through the door.
"Yeah, you know I do. Course I do." But he hadn't and he didn't and he wouldn't. It had been a sordid, painful, dirty, back-of-the-van job between a half-drunk teenage boy and a terrified girl sobbing throughout and begging him to stop, as if you could stop a runaway truck once you'd released the brakes. She'd expected it all to be wonderful: sweet words and soft music, Hollywood pap. She'd fantasised about how wonderful it would be, how much Danny would love her now for letting him do this thing.
"Shut up, you silly bitch," he'd said, between thrusts. "Stupid bloody whore. You want folk to know what you're up to? That it? D'you kick up a fuss like this with every guy you sleep with?"
When he'd finished, he took a half-bottle of cheap whisky out of his leather jacket pocket, swigged from it, stuffed it back where it came from and lit a fag. The small flame lit up the inside of the van. On the floor there lay a tin of grease, some oily rags and a crumpled up paper with two squashed chips. The van's inside stank of booze, grease, and sweat. Grey swirls of smoke began to fill it from the boy's cigarette. The windscreen was foggy with condensation.
"For God's sake, stop that whining. I'm going back into the dance. You please yourself. I paid for the ticket and I'm bloody well going to get my money's worth."
It wasn't meant to be like that. She'd thought that Danny would know he was the first, that he'd know that she wouldn't have let him unless she'd loved him, really and truly. Forever and ever. Later, she'd met up with Babs behind the chippie. The two girls leaned against the wall beside the railway, looking down at the thin black shadows of the weeds, swaying below them down on the line. "I'm like you now, Babs," she said. 'Danny and me, we just ... you know."
Jennifer's face was streaked with tears and grease from the dirty rag she'd used to dry her eyes with. For once, Babs's hard little face softened. The powder-blue eye-shadow sparkling with cheap glitter settled into an expression that was almost motherly. She pulled a cigarette from her packet, took it between her lips, lit it, and passed it to Jennifer. The butt was pink with lipstick, but was accepted.
"Aye, well, I never said it was perfect first time. Takes practice. Here, grab a tissue and wipe that muck off your cheek. You don't want the guys to think you're a cry-baby. Guys hate that. Here's some dosh. Go and stick a record on the juke box. The Stones, maybe, or ... you choose."
The next week, Danny dumped her. "So what?" said Babs comfortingly. "Plenty more fish in the sea."
Oh, that great, infinite, sexual sea. Maybe there were fish aplenty there, but Jennifer didn't want them. She wanted something she couldn't have. The johnny had burst inside her. Sperm, she discovered, wasn't like pollen, it was more like phlegm. To think that all new life swam in that stuff, phlegm streaked with blood and sweat and salt, like a collier's spit! To think that the act of love could make a human being feel so worthless, so defiled. That was a biblical word, 'defiled'. She knew lots of those, had grown up with them. Her Mother's church was resonant with them. Guilt and suffering and hate; sin, sanctity and salvation - oh, she'd been a good learner, an attentive listener. Not till now, though, did she know the full force of what the word "purity" meant, not till she'd given it up. Because she wasn't pure now, and she'd never be pure again. Never, never, never, never, never! She wasn't pure now, because now she was defiled, spoiled, stained, corrupted, polluted, desecrated and foul. An abomination to behold, since he had held her, since she had let him hold her.
Next day she looked hard at herself in the mirror. Odd. She still looked the same girl, though she wasn't; she wasn't; she wasn't. For three weeks, Jennifer hardly slept at all. When everyone went to bed, she sat at her window and looked at the stars as the tears slid down her face like rain off a window and shadows looked over the fence of her conscience, whispering all the while that she was a sinner, and worse, a sinner beyond redemption. Losing Danny had not been the awful thing she'd thought it would be. It was the guilt and the shame of what she'd done that was the terrible thing. What if she was pregnant? How could she bear it? What would she do? Where could she go? Who could she tell? No-one. And certainly not her mother, who would call her a slut and a fool. Not the doctor, because she was only fifteen and the doctor would tell her mother, and her mother would tell her father and he'd show her the door.
It would be all right, Babs had said. The blood would come as usual and her body would tell her she'd got off this time; that she hadn't been caught out; wouldn't have to face the music. "If you're all that worried," Babs told her, "buy a bottle of gin with your pocket money, and lie in a bath as hot as you can bear."
One night, her parents were out and not due back till late. She'd drunk the gin, though it tasted like perfume. She'd swallowed it neat, great gulps taken in fear and desperation, dropping the screw cap into the bath as the room began to swim around her and as the urge to vomit rose in her throat. The bath water ran so hot that her flesh reddened like a boiled lobster. For once, the old wives' tale worked, in a shuddering spasm of blood and mucus. Like a train that had been shunted into a siding, Jennifer's life could now get back on the tracks. "See you Saturday?" voices sang down the phone, but Jennifer was non-committal. For a while, several of her old friends still rang her, then gradually drifted into silence. She'd broken free of the circle and was drifting aimlessly, half seeking another crowd to join. Maybe there wasn't one. Maybe there'd never be one. Maybe she had to get used to that, to being a loner, being alone, behind the closed door.
Outwardly, she was clean again. She'd scrubbed herself like a doorstep after that night, till she was as spotless as a mortuary slab. But something inside was far from right. That same dark, festering shadow limped always through her mind, discolouring every thought. And always there was that feeling of utter desolation, of utter worthlessness. Her heart seemed like a dead fire that her breathing couldn't begin to stir, her lungs like a defective bellows pumping air to no purpose. The world had cures for everything. Mechanics sorted cars, electricians mended fuses. But did anyone mend selves when they were damaged?
When life upset Mrs Ainsley, she turned automatically to her faith but Jennifer hadn't yet found a faith of her own, so she began searching randomly through book after book of religious ideas. Two months into the exploration she discovered 'Yoga for All'. There was a section devoted to the practice of purity - ritual purification. 'Mens sana in corpore sano', said the chapter heading. Water, it seemed, could baptise and renew, as well as satisfy thirst or put out a fire. Blake had written of "cleansing the doors of perception." For Jennifer, though, the gateway into the body that had been sullied was not the eye, nor the ear, nor the mouth, nor even the nostril. She could not mend the particular gate that had been breached, but she could tidy up the damage done by the intruder.
The book was very specific and went into careful detail on the practices. Ritual purification, as performed by the Indian yogis, was undertaken squatting in the great warm waters of the holy River Ganges. Many thousands of miles lay between the Ainsley's little flat and the holy River Ganges, but the principle behind the practice still seemed sound enough to the young girl. In the practice of Basti, so the book told her, in Hatha Yoga, a yogi might draw water into the colon, squatting navel-high in clean warm water, by controlling the muscles of the anus. So, too, the bladder could be purified by drawing tepid water into the body, using the muscles of the urethra. So also might the womb be cleansed at will by the element of water, pure and simple.
It was inside that Jennifer felt dirty. Outside, she had scrubbed her skin till it was sore. The Yoga would be a token practice, a symbol. She knew that. She would never be truly pure again, but sometimes rituals made sense of things when words couldn't. People do what they do to survive, to move on, to heal themselves. She folded her clothes very neatly and set them down on the chair. She dog-eared the relevant page, and followed the written instructions to the letter.
Turning the tap, she heard the rush of water as she might have listened to a mountain waterfall in a green valley. It rose around her like a foetal broth, the water that she would draw into herself to heal and cleanse. The rising steam condensed on the mirror, obscuring her face. That was good, that was kind. When she wiped the steam away, she would be herself again and the past would perhaps be wiped clean. Every impurity within would be washed away and the face behind the steam would emerge like a new dawning.
A fortnight after the rite of purification, the doctor was called to the Ainsley house. Jennifer was bedridden with joint pains, headache, nausea and vomiting. Her skin was a dull yellow, as if she had been to hell and back on the Burma Railway. "It's quite rare to see this disease hereabouts," he'd said. "Commoner abroad. I'm afraid your daughter seems to have picked up Hepatitis A - jaundice in common parlance, Mrs Ainsley, jaundice."
When he'd left, her mother came into her room, and observed her closely for a moment. The sick room stank of vomit and worse, though the window was wide open to let the fresh air in. "Well it's going to be quite unpleasant for all of us," she said, "till you're better. And I can't think where on earth you'd have picked up something like that. I told him he couldn't be right, that you couldn't have caught a dirty foreign disease here. I've always kept this house immaculate. I take such a pride in it. It's so spotless you could eat your dinner off the floor. Clean as a whistle. And I know you keep yourself just as clean too, dear. Why, you're forever washing yourself these days. Do you know what the doctor said? He said its quite often associated with filth, dear. With pure unadulterated filth. Now, what do you make of that?"
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The Fower Quarters: 02 - Purity. 2024. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 23 February 2024, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=547.
"The Fower Quarters: 02 - Purity." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2024. Web. 23 February 2024. http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=547.
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