Caroline's Storybook

Sophie And John

by Caroline Ashbee


The thing I remember hating most of all was the sixth form dance. I was fifteen when I first got a prosthesis with a foot that could wear a high-heeled shoe. I remember the feeling of irony I had when I collected it from the limb centre: I had twice as many artificial legs as I had real ones.

It was shortly afterwards that we began to have dancing lessons. The games mistress taught us the waltz, the quickstep, the foxtrot, and not quite rose-clamped-between-the-teeth, but rather sexy all the same, the tango, in the school gym, and I learned to dance, not well: I need to be held tightly; it is a bit ungainly, and I can't always tell if I'm stepping on my partner's feet; but I can do it. I used to think it would be wonderful to go to an Imperial Ball in Vienna, wearing a crinoline, décolletée, white satin, to walk, stately, down a curving stairway on to the floor of the ballroom with my partner in a tail-coat so black it was dazzling, the crimson ribbon of an order of knighthood diagonal across the swan-white shirt and waistcoat, the great star over his breast, and be swept into the whirl of dancers by the music of Johann Strauss; but it never happened, not Vienna, not even the sixth form dance. I was never asked. This made me wretched. Other girls, quite plain girls, even the fat girls found partners; but no-one wanted to take me. I loved long dresses for obvious reasons. In a long dress, provided I didn't have to walk I could look quite normal, and I could show off my shoulders and my bust. I was goodlooking. I thought I was then; but now I know I was. It's hard to believe the bloom, the sheen, that glows on teenage skin. One of the times when my parents visited me at the boarding school my father took a series of photographs of me in my school uniform. I have them still. I am standing with my back to the school gate, the outline of the main building, a Victorian country house, behind me. I'm smiling that strained smile, the smile I always smile for photographs. I hope I don't smile like that in other circumstances. People always want you to smile: it's silly. I didn't smile a lot when I was a child: I was rather sullen I think, certainly I felt more or less unhappy most of the time, yet all the records show me smiling. If you look closely you can see that I'm not really smiling: my eyes are not smiling; my mouth is, though it's always the same closed-lipped smile, and always the strain glinting out in blue sparks from my eyes. Even in the photographs you can catch the bloom. It doesn't last. Standing and smiling, right leg slightly forward, of course, anything at all that might make the artificial one less obvious, though to be quite honest, even though I'm wearing ankle socks, you can't tell in the picture that it's artificial. Straw hat, green blazer, white shirt, green tie, green skirt, white gloves. Tall and slim, with too much bust, but that was puppy fat, and I can now see it clearly - as I hoped and suspected at the time that it was - (pity about the glasses, but that problem was solved long ago with contact lenses) a beautiful face, with a long straight nose, full lips, arching eye-brows, firm, strong, chin, rosy complexion and dark curly hair. Standing still I was beauty; but when I walked I was a cripple. It must have been in the Summer a couple of years before the photograph that I went about with John. I remember that we were both fourteen. I was to go away to school in the autumn and we spent a lot of the long summer holiday together. My mother had been in the same form as John's mother when they were at school and their friendship had continued in after life. It had become strained and was less intimate than it had been because of their marriages. My mother had made a conspicuously good marriage: My father as well as being a successful solicitor had a private income of his own. John's father was a minor civil servant. Their social circles intersected less than they had done, nevertheless we were still friendly and occasionally we still visited each other's houses for tea on Sunday afternoons. I loved John's mother, she was a warm motherly woman, one of the few who reacted to my disablement in a natural way, as part of me, not something to whispered over, to be pitied, to be clucked about, just one of those things that life inflicts from time to time. I remember thinking that she seemed cuddly in spite of the fact that she was a tall rangy woman - before she married she had been a school mistress and she told me once that the nickname her pupils had given her was 'String'. The man she had married was conspicuously handsome with dark brown hair and moustache and with flashing brown eyes. I was always rather in awe of him. John, the only child of the family, had inherited his father's looks. He was rather a small boy, thin, bony, rather timid and he had asthma. He reached his growth spurt much later. I suppose he was late to mature. At the time, I was taller than he was. What I loved about that holiday was that as part of the treatment for his asthma John was required to go swimming, and John's mother encouraged me to join him. Even though I hated being seen going on one leg I still loved swimming and we often went to the baths together. John disliked going, the cold of the water put his intercostal muscles into spasm and he would spend most of his time in the shallow end of the bath gasping and turning blue. He could not really swim and I would sometimes go into the shallow end and try to help him; but the temptation to glide through the water, to move freely without the need of any aid was so seductive that I spent most of the time swimming on my own. Once I remember I found him floundering just out his depth. He had splashed back at another boy in retaliation for being splashed, and the other boy, a strong swimmer had dived under water and pulled his feet from under him. He had swallowed a good deal of water before he had found his feet again, and the bully was determined to dump him again. I pushed myself between them. The bully said something about a cripple defending a baby but he left John alone. If he disliked swimming before now he absolutely loathed it; but after we had been swimming came the best part: we would go to the café beside the pool and have a soft drink or an ice-cream together. A few times we went to the cinema together. I didn't think of these outings as dates: there was nothing sexual about them. We were just friends who did things together. I really enjoyed it, having a boyfriend, something I never thought I would have. I knew it wasn't like having a real boyfriend: I wasn't in love with John; but he was someone to go with to the pictures, or the baths, or the library. Then suddenly it all stopped. He wouldn't go out with me anymore. I called at his house as usual to go to the baths but he wouldn't speak to me.

'Of course you must come and speak to Sophie.' but he refused. 'I don't know what's wrong with him, Sophie. Have you quarrelled?'

'No. I don't think so.'

'I'll fetch him to speak to you.' She went away and John stood behind her looking sheepish and shifty. 'Sophie's come to see if you are going to the baths.'

'I don't want to.'

'Why not?'

'I don't want to.'

'The doctor said you should go swimming.'

'I don't want to.'

'But you must. Go and get your swimming stuff and go with Sophie.' Then with force 'Go. Do it now.'

With a sulky slouch John went upstairs for his trunks and towel. When he came down he said

'All right. I'll go, but not with her.'

'How dare you? You make me feel ashamed.' Then she turned to me 'I'm so sorry, Sophie. Have you quarrelled?'

'No.' I said doubtfully, 'We haven't quarrelled ... I don't think we've quarrelled ... I don't think I want to go swimming ... I think I'll just go home.' 'Oh, Sophie, I'm so sorry. I think I ought to telephone your mother and explain. I hope you won't feel you're not welcome here.' and changing her tone she turned to John:

'As for you, young man, you are in disgrace. You can take yourself off to your bedroom and come down when you feel like apologising to Sophie and to me for your shameful behaviour.' John sullenly slouched away.

I was surprised at first and couldn't believe that I had been totally rejected; but I came gradually over the weeks to believe it, and as time passed I felt bereft. I wondered what I could have done to make him shut me out; but he never spoke another word to me and I never found out why. All that remained then was sadness.


The start of the holiday had been wonderful, wonderful despite having to go swimming, because we went together. My mother told me once that when we were very little, she and Sophie's mother used to go out together, taking us in our prams, feeling very proud of their beautiful babies. We played together when we were very small but we went to different schools and drifted apart. In any case we would have separated, as children do, into groups containing our own sex. It was just at the time when we were starting to leave these groups, or rather to find friends of the opposite sex as well, that I was forced to go swimming and my mother suggested to Sophie's mother that we could go swimming together. Our mothers arranged things. I was to call for Sophie and take her to the baths, and we were to come home together. When I called for her her mother invited me into the house and left me to wait for Sophie in the sitting room. I was surprised to see on the mantelpiece a large photograph in a silver frame of Sophie and me: it must have been taken when we were 3 or 4. I could see why our mothers had been so proud of us: we had both been pretty children. I sat down on the sofa to wait. Then Sophie came in. I felt awkward at first. We hadn't said more than 'hello' to each other for years: girls were soppy; you were a sissy if you spoke to girls. I wondered what the girls thought about girls who spoke to boys. I noticed how pretty Sophie was. She was different now, she still looked the same as she had done before, but somehow she had become very pretty. She was wearing slacks and a cotton shirt. I remember her beautiful dark eyes, her black hair, short, in soft waves, and her golden skin. Loss, loss. She came towards me. She must have walked with a limp but I don't remember noticing it; but for what happened it wouldn't have occurred to me in recollecting her to think about noticing it. I stood up.

'Hello, Sophie.'

'Hello, John.'

'Well, let's go.'

At first I was embarrassed to be with her when she hopped from the ladies' changing rooms to the edge of the pool and dived in; but I soon got used to it. I suppose. in retrospect that she was embarrassed to be with me: I was spindly and weedy. Once in the water she was like a dolphin while I cowered in the shallow end making feeble attempts to swim a stroke or two before putting a foot down on the bottom. What I liked best was just being with her. I was fascinated by the way her breasts showed, small, secret curves, in her swimming costume. I didn't want to be kissing her all the time, but it was wonderful to have her as a friend. I liked looking into her face: it was so lovely, I haven't words, even now, to express the pleasure I felt in talking to her, looking at the beauty of her face, at the sweetness of her expressions, at the light of her countenance. I didn't realize it at the time, but at fourteen girls are nearly women and boys are nearly little boys.

I didn't spend all my time with Sophie: I had two other friends, David and Nigel who went to boarding school together and who were home in the holidays. I used to go cycling with them. We had arranged to take packed lunches and go for a day's outing. While we were lounging about at midday on a verge beside a country lane eating our sandwiches, David turned the conversation, as usual, towards sex:

'Have you started to wank yet?' he asked. He was a large meaty lad with hairy arms and acne. I hadn't seen him for a whole term and he had changed in those few weeks into a foul-mouthed satyr. Worse, Nigel kept talking about boys at their school who were homo's. I didn't know what a homo was but I could tell from Nigel's behaviour: excitement, guilt, and knowingness when he spoke about them, that it was something secret, something that I was sure I would be better off not finding out about or getting involved with. I hated the way the conversation kept turning to such matters. I wasn't interested in leering about sex - it wasn't that I was a prude: I just wasn't interested in that sort of thing. I suppose that because puberty was still some way into the future I had no intuition of the voracious sexual hunger adolescent boys suffer - and I didn't know the word 'wank'.

'Have you started to wank?' he asked again.

'No. I don't think so.'

'I don't think so.' he said jeeringly. 'You must be a baby.' and to Nigel, 'He's too much of a baby to wank.'

'I might be too young to ... do that,' I said, 'But I've got a girl friend.'

'I don't believe it. What's her name then?'

'I'm not telling you.'

'You're making it up.'

'No I'm not.'

'Well tell us her name, you little liar.'

'I don't want to tell you.'

'Well we shan't believe you unless you tell us her name.'

'Sophie.' I mumbled, feeling the air pregnant with disaster.

'What's she like?'

'She's the same height as me,' - This wasn't true: she was distinctly taller - 'and she's very nice.'

Then the bolt: Nigel said

'Wasn't Peggy's real name Sophie? You remember Peggy at the infant school, the girl with one leg.'

'The cripple.' David said. Then he turned to me and said 'You're not going out with a cripple are you?'

'Yes.' I said quietly. I hadn't thought of Sophie as a cripple: of course she had only one leg. I remembered her when she had two and when she went into hospital and came home with one; but I had never put her into a category. She was just Sophie who could do everything she wanted to and swim properly.

'John's girlfriend is a cripple.' Nigel jeered. 'Cripple, cripple, cripple.' they shouted. I ought to have wanted to say 'She's very pretty. I like her a lot. I don't care what you say. She can swim really well. I don't mind about her leg ...' but I didn't: they had made me see her through their corrupting eyes and I felt ashamed, her dupe.

'She's not really my girlfriend.' I said, Peter at cockcrow, 'My mother makes me go swimming with her.' That is the single most shameful act I have perpetrated in my life. I knew it was shameful at the time, and whenever I think of it, even now, my guts churn with shame. I never willingly spoke another word to Sophie. I would cross the street to avoid passing beside the house where she lived. My only consolation, one thought of long after the event, was that if I had not done it then I would have betrayed her in the end, and it was probably less bad to have done it early rather than later, and with that thought comes the other consolation: she was probably better off without me; but it's catching at smoke: I committed an unforgivable act which from time to time recurs still in my memory to reproach me.

And now I think as well of all that I have lost.

© Caroline Ashbee 1992-1995