The urge to cover up came upon me with all the vigour of a new idea. From the little girl who took delight in running with her brothers in shorts with no t-shirt, despite my mother’s admonitions to cover up, to a self-conscious twelve year once I’d started at secondary school, aware as we dressed for the school play rehearsals that my body was changing.
Cheeky girls stalked behind other girls who had advanced to wearing bras visible under their constumes. They tweaked the back bra straps with a thwack, while they themselves were still of bodies too thin and undeveloped they need not bother with such clothes.
There was one among us, Paulette, who, just on twelve, was as well developed as my mother. Her own children, my mother insisted, were all late developers. She said this proudly as though it might help to halt our inevitable progress into adolescence and adulthood and spare her the rigours of this transition.
One day I woke up and decided it was time to cut my long hair short. I was tired of the way it knotted despite regular brushing, and I hated the plaits my sister forced my hair into every school morning, yanking at them for traction to hold them in place. Other girls in my class sported bobs and shorter hair that could reach their shoulders but none of the full-length Plymouth Brethren style of my once long tresses.
It was time to cull, I decided, and as if my request to visit a hair dresser fell on my mother’s ears more loudly than anything else I might have said, she too had made a decision. ‘Time for you to wear a bra.’
I’d been filling out but until then I thought I was the only one who noticed. Mortification set in instantly, especially when my mother dragged out a series of bras from my sister’s cupboard. Bras she no longer fitted. Most of them off-white from too much washing with coloureds. She handed me the smallest cupped contraption and somehow I had to figure out how to put it on.
‘Backwards,’ my sister said. ‘Like this,’ and she imitated with a bra of her own over her jumper. ‘You start with the back at the front, do up the hook and eye, then twist the cups to the front and heave them up like so.’ She looked ridiculous with her bra over her jumper, but I was grateful for the lesson.
After then, whenever we went to the swimming pool and needed to put on bathers, instead of standing visible alongside the rack of clothes hooks in the centre of the room that stood like so many street-lamps above a low bench, I insisted on occupying a cubicle alone.
Matters grew worse when I noticed tiny black sprouts below my navel on my crutch. I had no idea that pubic hair would be part of this shift into womanhood and for some time until I asked my older sister what was happening, I thought there was something wrong with me.
These changes required maximum concealment, as if my body had become a freak made worse by the knowledge it would soon grow into a full woman’s body and then there was no saying how much longer I could hide from my father.
At the same time, I took delight in walking up Wentworth Avenue in a frayed black skivvy my sister handed over to me, one that outlined my budding silhouette, enough to attract the attention of a young man whenever I walked past his house.
He stood there spade in hand then bent to clear the ground in readiness for the next batch of tomatoes, melons, or garlic, or whatever else his family grew in their front garden.
Such gardens intrigued me, as if their vegetables on display were an aberration. Vegetable gardens belonged in back yards, hidden from view, and they were small. They did not occupy the entire front garden the way the Mediterranean boy’s family displayed their efforts.
‘It’s a custom,’ my sister said. They like to make use of a north facing garden which gets the sun. The back yard is more in shadow.
Things to be seen or to be hidden. My adolescent life writ large. And most things needed concealment. To be seen was to be immodest. And modesty, as much as it was a requirement, also needed subtlety.
No one needed to know I was busy hiding body parts, or habits, the blowing of my nose, the filth under my fingernails scraped out with my sister’s pointed nail file, the clipping of my stockings to my suspender belt, hidden from view below my underpants.
When the suspender belt buttons fell off, as they invariably did through too many trips in the washing machine and were lost within, a problem in that from time to time the machine seized up, halted by all these knobbly bits, I used threepences in their place.
These too needed to be hidden, not easy. Unlike the buttons attached to my suspender belt by a strand of pale skin coloured fabric, the coins were free and could lose their moorings to slip down the inside of my leg.
Many a time during class in winter when stockings were a necessity against the cold, I secretly scrabbled against my legs in search of the coin which had fallen to my ankles inside the stocking. I strategically manoeuvred it all the way back up my leg and to the thickened lip of the stocking under my tunic without anyone noticing.
Growing up and entering the world of adulthood was one of the hardest things I ever managed and only then badly. It was not a journey I enjoyed. It carried with it the weight of change, of my body that refused to behave as the contraption I once knew it to be. It became instead a body that stretched and pulled, filled out into lumpy, ungainly bits. Red pimples erupted on my face, impossible to hide, and in the middle of my back and between my cleavage, not so hard to conceal , again in winter, and then worst of all late as my mother had said all her children were late developers, at fifteen years when I had been waiting months for its arrival – dreading the wet patches on my dress or the feel between my legs – my period arrived without fanfare.
My sister told me how to apply a tampon early one evening before bed. Hidden behind the toilet door and propped on the seat, I followed the written instructions. I had no idea where the middle hole of my vagina sat. I scarcely knew I had a vagina at all. It was not something we talked about. Back in bed with the tampon wedged as high as I could, I writhed in agony. My back ached and a sensation filled my body of utter discomfort and pain.
‘Something’s wrong,’ I whispered to my sister when she arrived for bed. ‘It hurts like hell.’ She asked me to describe what I had done.
‘You must have out it up your anus,’ she said. ‘Yank it out by the string and use a pad instead. I thought you’d be old enough for a tampon, but clearly not.’
And so I had failed again in one of the early tasks of womanhood, the use of tampons and the location of my vagina. Hidden territories which others understood, but I had long kept all that went below hidden even from myself. I had mastered toileting long ago, but periods were a whole other realm. Like pubic hair and the bursting forth of breasts, my body had lost control of itself and the best I could do was hide it under my school uniform and hope for the best.
Easy when my mother sent me off to boarding school, not my mother so much as my older brothers who decided we children needed a spell away from home to give, our parents a chance to sort out my father’s drinking. As if such was possible.
When it came time for the leaving certificate school dance, I went with my older sister one day after school to hire a dress for the occasion. The pity of it, although the dress was long flowing and without a waist to cover up my shape, it was also sleeveless.
How to cover up the hair that grew under my arms? I used nail scissors one evening in the Immaculate Conception dormitory toilets and tried my best to crane my neck in such a way the scissors met flat skin.
It was impossible and in the end I kept my arms by my side during the school dance. No easy feat when it came to raising my arms to put a hand on the shoulder of my partner for the Pride of Erin as we had been taught in dance class.
I hoped then in the dim lights of the dance floor, not too dim for the nuns who preferred their girls to be visible so no nonsense from boys could take place, I hoped no one would notice.
The art of adolescence was the art of concealment.