It was the single most embarrassing experience of my life. It wouldn’t be if it happened now, but at the time of the ‘terrible toilet paper incident’ I was thirteen. And anything that happens at thirteen has the capacity to scar for life. I still feel sick when I tell this story.
I was a sporty kid. I played basketball. By thirteen I was almost six feet tall and not completely uncoordinated. I trained up to two hours a day and every weekend.
Once my period arrived, this created a problem. You see, I couldn’t use tampons (I couldn’t get them in. I think my hymen had been hand-stitched by nuns), and I had a lot of embarrassment about the whole thing. Then there was this inexplicable requirement during the early Eighties for girls playing basketball to wear what were known as ‘briefs’. The word basically tells you what they were. Undies. While the boys got to wear big comfortable shorts, we girls had to wear high-cut Lycra pants. They were like swimming bottoms. Or dance pants.
They barely managed to contain arse cheeks and pubic hair, so a sanitary pad (which in those days were made in the same factory as ceiling insulation bats) was absolutely impossible to conceal. It looked like I was smuggling a salami.
So this is how it happens. I am playing in the grand finals of a state championship, somewhere in north Queensland, like Townsville or Mareeba. (I can’t really remember which. All I know was it was fricking hot.) The stadium is full of people because we’re playing the home team. I got my period that morning.
I thought I was going to make it through a championship bleed free, but no, my uterus had other ideas. It wanted to be the star! I won’t wear a pad in those sports briefs. Firstly because they’re too big and embarrassing. But also because I didn’t bring any with me and I’m not going to ask anyone. (As a kid I was perfecting the ‘pretend it’s not happening and it will go away’ technique that works so well. Try it with teen pregnancy!) So I decide to roll up some toilet paper to make a pad. Very crafty. (These days you could put it on Etsy.) Any woman who’s had to hand-roll her own toilet paper pad knows exactly what I made: a hard clump of paper which I then wedged in my undies.
So I had a pad. But I have a new problem. No adhesive. The toilet paper clump is clearly not going to stay in place. It is mobile. In fact, the more mobile I am, the more mobile it is. I try sticking it in with chewing gum, but the toilet paper moves and I keep getting gum stuck on my labia. So I just settle on lodging the wad and using mind power to keep it in place.
I should be concentrating on the game. I’m the star player. But all I can focus on is the foreign object moving in my gusset. During the game I get a lot of ball. And that’s good, because I use the ball to push down the toilet paper that has moved up the front of my briefs. I’m worried that someone is going to see the indentations of a sanitary pad – for anyone watching from the crowd, it looks like I have a semi-erect penis.
The game is tight, with barely a point in it. I’m playing okay, but I’m very distracted. (As you would be when you have half a roll of loo paper in your dacks.) The toilet paper wad is a very intrepid traveller. It makes its way up the back of my briefs. Then I start to panic. It looks like a shit. I can feel myself really bleeding and I’m not game to look down. There are 400 people watching and I’m bleeding like a murder victim. I want to die. I probably look like I am dying. Actually, I am dying. On the inside.
There’s hardly any time on the clock. We are three points down. I get fouled taking a shot. The shot goes in so the two points count and I’m awarded one shot from the free-throw line. It’s like in the movies. Except it’s usually a bloke, not a woman, and they’re not bleeding from the cock.
If I get this next shot we tie and go to extra time, which means we are still in the game. If I miss, we lose. It’s okay, it’s not as if it’s all up to me, the girl bleeding to death at the free-throw line. The stadium is quiet. There’s nothing like the quiet that descends at a moment like this. It’s like the universe opens up. Everyone is looking at me. It’s up to me. For a millisecond I forget my trauma and really enjoy the power. I like being a game changer.
Then I spy it. My toilet paper friend. It has fallen out and is lying in a bloodied lump at my feet. The referee sees it but he’s not going to pick it up. The other players see it. I think everyone in the stadium has seen it. Time stops. I feel everyone looking at me. Looking at the toilet paper. Looking at me. I don’t know what to do. Do I pretend it’s not there? Do I run away crying?
I bend over and pick up the toilet paper. All eyes are on me. I bring it to my face and I pretend to blow my nose and then stuff it down my bra. I take the shot. I miss. I lose the game.
But I keep my dignity. Well, kind of.
The first punchline to my first ever public performance. I’m filled with shame. But I am hooked. Public shaming is not just addictive, it can bloody well be a career!
This extract is from the book Women Like Us, by stand-up comedians Mandy Nolan and Ellen Briggs (Finch Publishing). Available nationwide from 1 May 2018 in paperback and ebook.