Trout Eggs in Boro Nashimescro Tan (the place with the big racecourse – Romani)
In River by Ted Hughes – a collection of poems about a year in the life of a river and the salmon’s cycle – he writes, in ‘Flesh of Light’, about salmon eggs: “eyes of ova/round and swell” – and riffs on the earth as female, her great fertility in ‘Salmon Eggs’: “Perpetual mass/Of the waters/Wells from the cleft. / This is the swollen vent/ Of the nameless/Teeming inside atoms – and inside the haze/ And inside the sun and inside the earth.” Hughes, later condemned by a certain period of literary feminism for his patriarchal oppression of Sylvia Plath, pondering the monstrous creativity of the woman’s swollen vent.
It’s 1967. Some schoolgirls aged sixteen are crowding round a bench in a science lab, as their biology teacher shows them a wide, glass container filled with water and trouts’ eggs. Light spills through the open,high windows, lemony May sunlight that warms the wood of the benches, the air is full of birdsong and Spring. On the bench, the eggs float in the water, inert, pale, round, each with its dark, mysterious dot of life. In the course of time, in studious quietness, the girls draw the round eggs with dots, the dot lengthening to a comma, and finally th emergent troutlets, their organs shockingly visible through a still transparent body, a large fish eye shining.
With Hughes hanging over my shoulder, his tweed jacket scratchy, his Yorkshire vowels and uncomfortable values scratchier still, I fall to thinking about the cautiously slow and indirect way in which we girls – ourselves with new breasts, teeming with eggs, with bleeding fertile uteri, full of hormonal yearnings for boyfriends in our hothouse girls’ grammar school, growing up in the decade of The Pill and sexual ‘liberation’ which was, however, not yet for us – were invited, without explicit reference to this being our ‘sexual education’, to contemplate sexual reproduction through first, the buttercup – cross section diagram, and then the trout (same), before moving onto the rabbit (same) and finally a hasty glance at human reproduction as pretty much the same kind of thing really – sufficiently covered by labelling yet another mimeographed cross-section of the male and female reproductive system for homework. In glass cupboards, glass jars contain dead animals – a mouse, a puppy, a seahorse – and, if you knew where to look, a human foetus. Young girls ripe for sex crowd round the bowl of trouts’ eggs, witnessed by a lonely and forlorn grey-coloured infanta and her court of dead grey mice, puppies and seahorses.
On my bed one day then, the western sun falling on the bed covers, a small booklet with a discreetly grey cover. Wordlessly placed there, an action as wordless as the purpose of the study of buttercups and trout and rabbits, a medical booklet written by ‘A Nurse’ described what girls should know about sexual reproduction, without once mentioning what actually happened to the penis that could be ‘inserted’ into the vagina, so that for too long a time I puzzled – wordlessly – about how the floppy object I’d caught glimpses of could ever – without such extreme social and physical awkwardness that one would be mad to bother – be so ‘inserted’. The nurse’s grey information I hid in the airing cupboard, from time to time re-reading it to see if I could have somehow missed the telling fact.
Larkin, in his rueful manner, remarks that before the Annus Mirabilis of 1963 when “sexual intercourse began”, that “Up to then there’d only been/…A shame that started at sixteen/And spread to everything.” The facts of life. The fact of life being such awkwardness, such wordlessness – out of which silent female seclusion we eventually burst into the bright colours and loud music of “The Sixties” – such a shout as would chase that furtive, whispered world into the shadows and out of our lives forever – a window that didn’t just open but slammed open, it seemed at the time, throwing light in and letting us out.