I was eight years old when the nurses arrived at our facebrick primary school in Alberton, south-east ofJohannesburg. They wore white starched uniforms with shiny metallic brooches on their sleeves, giving them an air of military importance. I was terrified. I moved closer to my best friend Belinda. She knew about these things. She would explain. ‘They’ve come to give us our German measles vaccine,’ she announced, as though the thought of giant needles did nothing to her heartbeat. I, on the other hand, could barely croak the words, ‘But why?’
Why would women in stiff tunics come to inject us at school? Where were our parents? Did they know about this? Had they consented? The only memory I had of anything so terrifying ever happening was a month before, when the teachers had ushered the boys into the school hall. We, the girls, were left wondering what they’d done, electrified by what awful things might be happening to them. The boys returned an hour later, silenced by their unspoken experience behind the thick creaking doors of the assembly hall. Rumours spread. The nurses had made them queue in a long line stretching from the stage down the stairs across the empty hall. One by one they’d had to go behind the heavy maroon curtains and pull down their pants. The shame! But what was worse, far worse, was that a strict nurse had, allegedly, taken a metal teaspoon and cupped their balls with it. At least that was according to Jamie Smith who, like Belinda, was rarely fazed by the everyday realities of young primary school children. I was breathless and sweaty with terror. If that could happen to them, what was about to happen to us?
Too soon, we were beckoned to follow our teacher to the school hall. We stood up from our hard wooden seats and moved reluctantly out the door to face our mortifying fate. We ignored the smug sniggers of the boys. For them, it was payback time. ‘Please don’t pull down my pants,’ I whispered as I shuffled behind Belinda in a queue in the school hall. Belinda sneered at the suggestion. ‘It’s just an injection, silly. It’s for our babies, so that they won’t get sick one day.’
Ah, our babies. Belinda and I were always concerned about the welfare of our babies. We would do almost anything for our babies, because that’s what good mothers do. Belinda, in particular, was a star mom to her baby doll called Jemima. Ever since I had forgotten my First Love doll, Jenny, lying face down under Belinda’s bed one afternoon after school, I had been, and clearly would always be, somewhat of a lesser mother. Belinda had a stay-at-home mom of her own who sewed Jemima a wardrobe full of pink dresses, and her own pink duvet set. My Jenny didn’t even have a cot.
But as I stood in that long queue, my heart thumping, my stomach twisting, and my arm already aching from the anticipation of the needle to come, I drew comfort from the thought: one day I would have a real baby. So I would have this injection. I would bravely protect my unborn child.
My resolve wavered as I drew closer to the front of the queue. Girls who’d gone before walked past us rubbing their arms, some wide-eyed, others sniffing back tears. And then it was Belinda’s turn. I watched, horrified, as the giant-handed nurse flicked the end of the injection needle and jabbed it quickly into Belinda’s shoulder. Belinda swayed, took a step back and then covered her face with her unharmed arm and started to cry. She was promptly shuffled off by Mrs Newbury, the Grade Two teacher. I couldn’t breathe, I could barely take the necessary two steps forward. But I did. And I stood stiffly, staring straight ahead of me and repeated the words to myself: for my baby, for my baby, for my baby. And then it was over. And I hadn’t felt a thing.
Many, many years later I told this story to a therapist. I’d gone to therapy because I was depressed – a depression that had become excruciatingly familiar. I no longer recognised myself. I didn’t know who I was nor what I wanted. By dipping into my past I was hoping to find answers to what was wrong with me. Because despite all my confusing feelings, all my self-doubt and uncertainty about the future, there was one thing I knew for sure. I wanted children – I wanted a family of my own.
Extract courtesy of Penguin Books South Africa.