A week for writers and lit lovers

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Memoir by Sue Blott

One of Thunder Bay's premier story tellers recalls her school days in this lovely piece.

To Follow Julie by Sue Blott
A Memoir

Our junior school class clamoured around the piano in the assembly hall. We buzzed with excitement, waiting for Mr. Rodham, our headmaster, to arrive at this unexpected meeting. Seven years old and terrified that I had done something wrong so soon in our new school, I stood next to my best friend, Carol, hoping her patience and practicality would rub off on me. Everyone adored Carol. She wore her waist-length hair looped up in two pigtails making her look Victorian and saintly. The previous year in infant school, I had been caught climbing the coat racks in the cloak room and received a sharp slap on my ankles with a wooden ruler. But, in this century-old building with its separate playgrounds for boys and girls, outside toilets and tall paned windows, I was trying harder to be good.

            “It’s a new girl,” someone whispered. “That’s why we’re here.”

            “Something’s wrong with her!”

            “She only has one leg.”

            “How can she walk if she only has one leg?”

            “It’s true. I saw her.”

            “No, you didn’t. You can’t have. You’re a big fat liar!”

            “Twits! She’ll have a peg leg like a pirate!”

A couple of boys hobbled around crying, “Arr, me ’earties!” and “Shiver me timbers!”

Our teacher, Mrs. Meaburn, clapped her hands. Everyone shut up and stood still for a minute, then the whispers started again.

            “She has three arms!”

            “Does not.”

            “Does so.”

            Carol looked at me. We rolled our eyes the way grown-ups did when children said childish things.


            Mr. Rodham’s shoes, shiny and reddish-brown as oxtail soup, squeaked as he walked across the hall. He sat on the piano stool in front of us and motioned for us to sit cross-legged on the floor.

            “Now,” he said, bridging his fingers and leaning towards us. “I’ve gathered you all in here because you’ll have a new girl starting in your class tomorrow.”

            Tides of “See!” and “Told you!” rippled around us.

            Mr. Rodham touched a finger to his lips; everyone quieted down. He pushed his glasses up, then continued. “Her name is Julie and she had an accident when she was little—”

            “Sir?” A red-haired boy called Timothy raised his hand and spoke at the same time. “Does she only have one leg, sir?”

            Mr. Rodham sighed and rocked back on the stool. He shook his head. “No. She lost her right hand. She’s the same as all of you and I want you to treat her the same as you would anyone else. Don’t stare or ask her about her accident because it makes her feel sad. I know you’re all very kind which is why we’re putting her in your class, but if anyone is mean, you’ll be sent straight to see me. Understood?”

We all nodded, even the most mischievous boys in the class. We’d all heard about the thick leather strap in the headmaster’s office.

Standing, Mr. Rodham said, “Mrs. Meaburn, maybe you can assign a couple of girls to help Julie settle in?”


At home, I perched on the red vinyl stool in the kitchen while Mam peeled potatoes at the sink. “Mam! Guess what? We have a new girl starting tomorrow in our class and me and Carol have to help her and be her special friends.”

“That’s nice. I’m sure you’ll be good friends.”

“And you know what? She has a hook instead of a hand!”

Mam froze, knife and partially peeled potato in mid-air. “A hook? No, I don’t think she’ll have a hook…”

“She has a hook.” I thought hard. “She has to have a hook. She’s missing a hand.”

I thought I saw a smile creep onto Mam’s face but she turned back to the sink. “But a hook? In school? That sounds…dangerous.” She plopped sliced potatoes into water in the saucepan.

“Well, Mr. Rodham said.” I stuck my chin in the air in defiance.


Next morning Mr. Rodham shepherded Julie into our classroom and introduced us to her. I snuck a peek at her right hand which she grasped with her left. No hook. Nothing much of anything. Just a round stump below her wrist and an extra roll in her right cardigan sleeve. Disappointment flooded over me. She looked so ordinary. Mrs. Meaburn showed her to the desk between mine and Carol’s. I smiled. Julie tried to but her smile couldn’t hide the fear in her eyes, browner even than Carol’s. Her dark hair, parted into bunches behind her ears, brushed her shoulders as she sat and stared at the wooden desk, her hands clasped in her lap. Everyone looked at her until Mrs. Meaburn tapped the blackboard with her yardstick and lessons resumed.

            I looked across Julie at Carol who raised her eyebrows at me. I reached over and pushed an exercise book at Julie and hissed, “You have to put your name on the front.” I passed her a sharp pencil.

            “In your best writing,” added Carol.

Julie looked from me to Carol then took the pencil in her left hand, steadying the book with her right hand, a fist without fingers, only a jagged scar where her fingers should start. Although covered with Julie’s skin, it reminded me of the silvery bulbous bones our dogs gnawed. I tried not to stare. “Then copy what Mrs. Meaburn’s writing.”

“We’ll show you the playground after,” said Carol. And Julie flashed us a grateful smile.

            By week’s end, Carol, Julie and I became inseparable in class and at play. Julie explained that when she was much older, eighteen or so, she could get an artificial hand, but until then her bones were growing too fast. In the same matter-of-fact tone she used to tell us that she lived with her mum and sisters and that her dad worked overseas in oilfields and brought back exciting presents, she told us she’d lost her hand by sticking it in a sausage grinder at the butcher’s. Some of the other children asked her if it hurt or if she had screamed or if her mam had told her not to touch it but Julie said she didn’t remember much about the accident. Her left hand had long, elegant fingers with the most perfectly oval-shaped nails that I had ever seen—an excellent cradle for her stubby right hand.

            Sometimes alone at home, I clenched my right hand into a fist then tried to fasten buttons or skip rope to imagine what it must be like for Julie. Within minutes I gave up in frustration. Julie’s writing particularly impressed me; already loopy like real writing, it looked much more legible than mine and more grown-up than Carol’s.

Every day at school we had assembly with prayers and hymns. Mrs. Meaburn had told me repeatedly that I was tone deaf but that never stopped me from singing heartily. I loved standing elbow to elbow with my friends; loved the feeling of camaraderie as everyone’s voices rose together; the tremor of the wood floor through my feet as Mrs. Meaburn played the piano; the shafts of dusty sunlight streaming through the arched stone windows. One day, we learned a new hymn, O Jesus I Have Promised. We turned to it in our hymn books which, with their frayed blue cloth corners and thin rustly pages, I also loved. The hymn’s jaunty tune and poetic words entranced me. After a few rehearsals, we sang it in assembly the following week. Midway through the last verse, during the line, “My hope to follow duly,” Julie elbowed me so hard and so unexpectedly that I lost my balance. I fell against Carol who fell against the girl next to her, causing a shuffling domino effect and a chorus of “Watch it!” and “Oof!” down the row. Mrs. Meaburn looked over and tutted.

The second time we sang O Jesus I Have Promised, the same thing happened in the same place. I was reprimanded. Julie sniggered.

At playtime I cornered Julie. “What d’you do that for during assembly? Made me look a right twit, you did.”

“It’s the line in the hymn.”

“What line?”

“You know, my hope to follow duly. Duly? Julie? Me!”

I thumped her arm. “That’s daft!” But next time, I was ready. “My hope to follow duly,” everyone sang. I elbowed Julie. She elbowed me back and we nudged each other harder and harder, laughing more and more until the hymn ended. We were both reprimanded. We remained standing while everyone else sat.

“Do I have to separate you?” Mrs. Meaburn asked.

“No, Miss,” said Julie and I together.

“I will if you don’t behave. Now sit down.”

Julie and I sank thankfully to the floor and busied ourselves arranging our skirts over our knees. After that, we simply pointed out the line to each other and shared a secret smile.

            Playing games like Farmer in the Dell and London Bridge which involved holding hands, made me feel oddly protective towards Julie. To hold her right hand, I grasped just above her wrist. She twisted her wrist, too, and something in that action, something in the feel of her stump curling to hold my hand, made her seem vulnerable. But she stood up for herself, needing no-one to defend her. With her sharp tongue and quick wit, she gave back as good as she got; sometimes she simply ignored any name-calling and Carol and I found we were the ones responding to “One-armed bandit”, “Knobby”, “Freak” and “Stumpy”. All through Junior School, she never received, nor expected, any special treatment. Fiercely stubborn, she persevered until she overcame any obstacles; naturally athletic, she excelled in sports, taking it upon herself to adjust to the game.


When we were eleven years old in our last year at junior school, Julie, Carol and I were still inseparable, despite occasional squabbles usually over taking turns being the middle of our threesome as we walked around the playground and chatted. We had stood by each other and comforted and reassured each other through the years. In fourth year, we played county-wide on all the same teams: Road Safety, Rounders and Netball. We earned engraved shields in Road Safety, coming in second and being taped for the radio. Even then, standing in front of a small audience, Julie answered her questions either with both hands hidden behind her back or in front of her holding her right hand in her left, the way she had walked into our classroom four years earlier. But when playing sports, she used both hands as best as she could, losing herself in the game.

            Playing netball at one otherwise unmemorable school, we couldn’t find Julie at halftime. Carol and I looked around for her, but no one had seen her. Finally, our teacher and coach, Mr. Davies, approached us.

            “Girls, I think Julie’s in the girls’ toilets. She’s upset and won’t come out. Can you two go and see what’s wrong? We only have five minutes.”

            In the washroom, we found Julie huddled in the far corner wedged between a sink and a white tiled wall. She reminded me of a whipped dog. Carol and I rushed to her side.

            “Julie?” I touched her shoulder but she shrugged me off, great sobs shuddering down her body, her arms crossed against her chest. She had ripped off her lettered team bib and clutched it in her hand. “What’s wrong?”

            An opposing team member came in but left when I gave her my best ‘wither-and-die’ look.

            “I-I want to g-g-go home,” Julie sobbed.

            “You can’t. The bus has gone,” said Carol, ever-practical.

            “I-I’ll just stay here then.”

            Carol shook her head. “I don’t think they’ll let you do that either.”

            Julie dabbed her eyes with her bib. I handed her some toilet paper instead.

“What’s up?” I asked. I thought of what my parents might say. “We’re not playing that badly,” I joked and tried to grin.

            Julie grimaced. “They’ve seen my h-h-hand.” Tears rolled down her cheeks.


            “I can’t g-g-go back out there.”

            “You have to,” said Carol. “Halftime’s almost over.”

            “Everyone notices your hand at some time,” I said.

            Carol nodded. “And it makes them jealous when they see how well you play anyway.”

            Julie tried to smile but her lips quivered. “It’s n-n-not that. They—they—” She took a deep rattly breath. “They called me names.”

            Carol clapped her hands. “You see, they’re jealous!”

            “I can’t go back out there.” Julie had stopped crying and her brown eyes brimmed with tears but I recognized her intense stubbornness, too. “I won’t.” She threw the bib on the sink.

            Another team mate, Gillian, opened the door. “Mr. Davies says there isn’t much time left.”

            “Tell him we’ll be out in a minute!” I called.

            “I’m staying here.” Julie blew her nose.

            “But you’ve been called names before,” said Carol. “You can deal with that. You’re tough, Julie. We all know that.”

            Julie sniffed and shook her head.

            “What names?” I asked. “The usual?”

            Julie nodded. “B-b-but…” She collapsed with sobs. Carol got her more toilet paper while I tucked a strand of her dark hair behind her ear and rubbed her shoulders. I thought back through the game. Our opposing team consisted of a snobby bunch of tall girls. I recalled about five of them cloistered on the sidelines at one point, huddled together laughing and pointing…at Julie? Had they cornered her and surrounded her? Pummeled her with netballs or fists or vicious names? Five against one in a strange school?

            “Did they hit you? We can tell Mr. Davies—”

            Brimming with tears, Julie’s eyes widened. She shook her head, loosening more hair from her ponytail. “I’m not telling!”

            I sighed. I felt angry—at the girls, at Julie, at Carol and myself, even Mr. Davies. “Okay, so you’re going to let us play Angela as substitute. We’ll lose for sure!”

            Julie shrugged.

            “Well, thanks a lot!” I stamped my foot. Carol stared at me like I had two heads but I ignored her. I paced around the floor. “You know, you can do what you like and we might even win without you. But that won’t matter ’cause they’ll still have won, won’t they? You’ll have let them win!”

            “I don’t care.” Julie shuddered.

            Carol joined in. “You’ll still have to face them, you know. Better to face them on the court and look like they haven’t upset you.”

            “We won’t let them hurt you any more.”

            The door opened again and Gillian peered round.

“Tell Mr. Davies we’re coming,” I said. “Oh. And Gillian? We’re going to give the ball to Julie as much as we can. Pass it on.”

            Gillian grinned. “You okay, Julie?”

            Julie straightened and glowered at us. “I guess I have no choice.” As Gillian left, Julie splashed cold water on her face. She looked in the mirror and refastened her ponytail. “Let’s go, then!” She grabbed her bib and marched out the door.

Astonished and trying to sort out what had just happened, Carol and I blinked at each other.

Julie poked her head around the door. “What’re you waiting for?” she said and beckoned us with her right hand. “Come on!”

Carol and I stumbled to follow Julie. In the empty hallway, we linked arms, Julie in the middle, and strode out onto the court together.


No comments:

Post a Comment