Today was a momentous one for me. I submitted the first three chapters of my new book to the agents who previously expressed an interest in my writing.
Now I’ve just got to wait and see if they like it…
You can read the first chapter just below if you fancy it. I’d love to know your thoughts, just bear in mind this is only the first draft!
(Some of you clever sausages may notice the connection between this and my post ‘To Maggie With Love’ – https://simplythebetsy.co.uk/2014/05/22/to-maggie-with-love/)
The girl was lying on the floor. No. Not lying. Shaking and jerking. Her whole body going into convulsions causing the maroon, navy blue and green checked kilt she was wearing to rise higher and higher on her legs. Her feet were clad in forbidden trainers, her jumper a scarlet woollen one, not emblazoned across the breast with the school logo as required. One particularly vicious spasm saw her head lift and fall thudding back into the wood beneath her.
My sister’s eyes flickered wildly, and I wondered if today was the day I would become an only child.
Let me fill you in a little. There’d always been Margot. Marguerite Scott. Tall for her age, with a mass of honey blonde curls that sprang out from her head as energetically as she sprang from footstep to footstep, hazel-eyed, and pretty in a sort of puckish way with a slightly upturned nose liberally decorated with freckles that spread across her cheekbones, small but full lips, and eyebrows darkly different to her hair. At twelve, she still had the long legs of a runner and the narrow hips of a pre-teen.
And then there was me. Jules. Juliette. Neither the tallest, nor the shortest, with hair the colour which, rather than defying description, bored it, pale blue eyes, no freckles to speak of, hips that were already spreading and thighs that had always seemed to touch at the top, despite being a year younger than Margot.
People gravitated to Margot; it was nothing she did consciously, that’s just who she was. Within a few days of arriving at secondary school, everyone knew who she was. I’d followed a year later and even after months, teachers struggled to remember my name; and that was nothing I did consciously. I was polite, friendly, keen, I just have one of those faces; one of those unmemorable, unexceptional, unremarkable, everyday kind of faces. Even now, if I bump into someone I used to spend every single day with for years at a time, I recognise them in an instant, and they smile vaguely.
I was a bright child. I could see the difference between Margot and I, and it was fairly hard to stomach. I think once I fathomed there was a difference, I sort of made it worse for myself. If asked who I was, I resorted to saying, ‘Margot Scott’s sister’ and then people would nod in recognition, relieved to have a box to put me into. One of her friends asked me, without any malice at all, ‘What does it feel like to be Margot’s little sister? You know, the other Scott sister?’ You know what? Put like that, it felt pretty crap.
Ok, I had my talents; I had a way with words, for one, but somehow, they were always surpassed by Margot’s far more demonstrative skills, like winning every race at Sports Day. That was something tangible, quantifiable; knowing a synonym for ‘obfuscation’ less so.
Before you point me in the direction of a tiny violin, I’ll put my hands up and say, things weren’t that bad for me. I was by no means the ugliest kid in our class; that honour went to a boy called, wait for it, Derek, who was suffering so badly from acne that you couldn’t discern any other feature about him. I wasn’t the fattest, or the stupidest, or the quietest, or the most anything. I was just Juliette.
And so, now, I bet you think you can already see where this is going, don’t you? Two sisters, one seemingly blessed, the other overlooked, but you’re wrong. I mean, yes, there were days when I envied her, even hated her, but then, as an eleven year old girl, that’s a fairly normal emotion. If the status quo had continued for much longer, then you might have been bang on the money with the whole sibling rivalry thing, but then one day, that day, everything changed.
There we were, the Scott sisters. A normal day in a normal month in a normal year at our very normal school. She, a year ahead of me, a year into secondary school, and I in my first year, still unsure of myself and my place, with no clique to speak of, no reason to stand out, only a diabolical haircut that I’d begged my dad to let me get and regretted every single second since. My mother would never have allowed it, I felt sure after the event, but then dead mothers are fairly useful individuals when it comes to hypotheticals, and fairly useless when it comes to reality. Cruel, but true.
I can remember the day so clearly but have no idea of the date. It was still the winter term, and I was still trying to hide both my haircut and my forehead, which had, perhaps in sympathy with Derek or simply in sympathy with whirring hormones, but certainly, in a complete act of betrayal, begun to blossom forth bounteous white-headed spots.
I was wearing my uniform – a pale blue poly-cotton mix shirt with a thick navy sweater over the top, the school badge embroidered on the breast (as per regulations) and the plaid kilt, which, in keeping with the fashion, I had rolled up several times at the waistband, little realising that not only did it reveal the thighs I was fast coming to revile, but also emphasising the small pouch I was beginning to cultivate, rather than lose, around my belly.
It was break time. There were biscuits to be had at break time, all you had to do was to join the rest of the heaving lower years in a mad crush in the dining hall; all desperate for the single packet of chocolate-covered hobnobs or jaffa cakes, but inevitably, in my case, being left with a soggy pink wafer, or worse, a plain digestive. Nigh on child abuse, I’m sure you’ll agree…
The noise levels were as high as you can expect from more than a hundred children, high on a temporary sugar fix and keen to stave off any thought of the lessons to follow. And then suddenly, there was complete and utter silence, except for the sound of a sort of shuffling banging.
As eager as anyone to see what this new disturbance might herald, and still freshly aware of a few months ago when a boy a few years older had broken his arm and we all missed the first twenty minutes of lessons due to all the confusion and the arrival of the ambulance, and perhaps hoping for something similar, I pushed my classmates aside.
And there was Margot.
I was staring at her, while everyone else was staring at me, and it was a few seconds before I registered them. The teachers, whose jobs it was to fairly distribute the biscuits, but who always reserved the best for their favourites or themselves, were both standing behind the counter, also staring.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, in answer to an unasked question, shrugging my shoulders in utter panic. As it turned out, the correct answer to that particular question was epilepsy.
Afterwards I learned by heart the actions one should take when a person suffers a fit – protect against injury, remove harmful objects, cushion the head, put in the recovery position, note the length of the seizure and stay calm – but that wasn’t any help at the time.
The ambulance arrived and I did get to miss twenty minutes of my next lesson, more in fact, but I wasn’t allowed to go back with her to the hospital. I wasn’t there when the doctor gave our dad her diagnosis.
She’d hit her head badly during the fall and they wanted to do some tests so she stayed in hospital for a few days, and I still wasn’t allowed to see her. I didn’t go to school though. Dad had one of his ‘merry widows’ come and check in on me while I stayed at home and he trundled back and forth.
(By the way, if you think it’s odd that an eleven year old should notice her father’s ‘merry widows’, then you’d be right. It wasn’t until years later that we, Margot and I, christened them that – the widowed female parishioners all keen as custard to help with the flowers and the brass polishing, while secretly harbouring their own dreams of our idyllic country vicarage.)
Anyway, I was too young to be told much about Margot’s illness at the time, but I would have understood more than they thought, if only I’d been given the chance. As it was, I was lonely, and alone, and began to resent my sister even more than before the fit; at least then she’d been noticed simply because she was Margot, and now, now she had all the attention because for a brief minute or not, she hadn’t been Margot.
No child likes being ignored, especially if their sibling is getting all the fuss, despite, or perhaps because, of a sickness. I was, and still am, a brooder. I sat on my bed and imagined all the ways I could get my own back, from faking my own fits to running away. Thankfully I was only obnoxious in my mind, and when Margot finally came home, everything changed; she had changed.
I didn’t notice it at first, well, only physically. She was thinner, but a nil-by-mouth diet will do that to you. (I had the audacity to be irritated by that as well.) And her skin seemed thinner too. They’d had to shave a small patch on her scalp, and I could see all the veins – tiny, delicate, indispensible. For the first time that I was aware, my sister was vulnerable.
‘Why are you doing that with your eyes?’
‘Doing what with my eyes?’
‘Can’t you see? Dad, what’s Margot doing with her eyes?’
Every time I asked Margot a question, or she was required to respond to someone in some way, for the smallest moment, she would close her eyes, before opening them again and answering. When they were shut, if I concentrated and looked really hard, I could see her eyeballs fluttering underneath the paper-thin flap of skin.
‘Dad?’ she turned to him as well, searching for her own answers.
‘I’m not sure, girls. I’m not sure,’ he laid down his knife and fork and got up from the dining table with speed. He disappeared from the room, and seconds later, we could hear his voice in a one-sided conversation. There was silence between us as we each tried to eavesdrop and ignore the awkwardness that was growing.
‘It’s ok, Margot. Everything’s fine,’ he said as he walked briskly back into the room and took up his cutlery again. ‘I’ve spoken to your neurologist. It’s simply your brain’s way of giving itself a break. Sometimes, there’s too much information to process when your eyes are open and you’re also trying to formulate your thoughts, so you shut your eyes. It’s nothing to be worried about.’
‘But why do they twitch?’ I asked.
‘Fine,’ I muttered, and slumped in the hard wooden backed chair. If he didn’t want to tell me what was really going on, then I didn’t care. Margot had said nothing, just nodded when our dad had spoken. She was focusing on the plate in front of her.
‘Does it feel weird?’ I asked. ‘Like, do you know something’s wrong with-’
‘Juliette. I will not tell you again.’
‘But I just want to kn-’
Our fledgling argument was cut off by the sound of Margot’s chair scraping against the floorboards.
‘I’m feeling tired. I’m going to go to bed.’
‘But it’s only seven o’clock,’ I protested.
‘I’m tired, Jules,’ Margot said. ‘I want to go to bed.’ And I realised, she looked tired, and she looked frail. This wasn’t my big sister anymore; in a way, she was more of a little sister than I had ever been.
‘Margot?’ I whispered, as I poked my head around her bedroom door. She’d drawn her curtains but that didn’t stop the late evening light from glowing through. She was lying in bed, facing the wall, away from me. ‘Margot? Are you awake?’
‘Yes,’ she said, not moving.
‘I- I brought you something.’ Still no movement. ‘Erm, do you want me to read to you?’ With no response, I started to tiptoe away but stopped when I heard the covers rustle.
‘What have you got?’
‘Erm, The Famous Five or Swallows and Amazons?’
‘Haven’t you grown out of them by now?’
‘They’re great,’ I said, my voice raising. ‘You know-’
‘Hush. I’m just teasing you, you idiot. Come on then.’
Soon she’d missed a month of school. Christmas came and went. Usually a big event in our house, a necessity for a vicar, but this time, a visiting rector took over dad’s services. When she wasn’t sleeping, I read to her. All my favourites; hours of beloved childhood books.
One day, when trawling through the local library desperate for something new, I discovered Dr Seuss, a very modern addition to Yorkshire and an import from America.
‘Margot,’ I said. ‘I’ve got something new!’ I waved the thin glossy volumes in glee.
‘Thank god. If I have to be entertained by another ripping good yarn courtesy of Enid Blyton, I think I’ll kill myself!’ But she smiled as she said this. Today hadn’t been a good day for her. She’d been in bed all day, too tired to move after a restless night in which a panicked moment had caused her to wet herself. She’d begged me not to tell Dad, and between the two of us, we’d managed to get rid of the incriminating evidence. I sat down on the crisp clean sheets. ‘Look, The Lorax and,’ I stopped to examine the cover of the second book, ‘Oh, The Places You’ll Go.’
‘But these are for babies,’ said Margot, pointing at the young recommended reading age printed on the back.
‘No, they’re not,’ I said. ‘I mean, technically they might be but I had a look in the library and I think they’re great. And the pictures are awesome.’
‘Pictures? They have pictures?’
‘Just be quiet and listen.’
We ended up travelling the world in those stories, not just Seuss, but Isabel Allende and Brian Jacques, whatever I could get my hands on. And of course, while all this was going on, I went to school every day, and I’d managed to gain a kind of following, if only for news of Margot initially. I held the key to a desirable lock. It was satisfying. I was still Margot’s sister, but people also knew my name, and not just my name, but my nickname – Jules – the name only Margot ever called me.
Gradually, people started chatting to me, not only for news of Margot, but also to talk to me; she was no longer their first question. I gained confidence, not to any dazzling effect, but enough for me to hold my own, as Jules.
You’d have thought that when Margot was eventually well enough to come back, my world would have been shattered once more; that I would find myself pushed back to second but that’s not what happened at all. As it turned out, despite being very intelligent, the months of school she’d lost were just too great; she could no longer keep up with her peers.
Both kindly and cruelly she joined me, in my class, a year below her, a year she had already completed very successfully only six months before, but then Margot wasn’t the girl she’d been six months before, or at least, not to me. To everyone else, Margot Scott was back.
It took her a while to get back into sports but soon she was running rings around people at sports again and wearing her contraband trainers with style. Only I knew the bitter tears she’d shed the night she found out about her relegation. Only I knew the terror she felt at wetting herself in public, or simply stumbling over familiar words. And only I knew that we now shared a bedroom because she was scared of never waking up again.
But Margot always had a bounce-back-ability to her, an optimism that no amount of Prozac can replicate. And with my newfound understanding and appreciation of my sister, the Scott sisters meant something; Margot and Jules, never Jules and Margot admittedly, but still, a duo, a team, a pair, twins. We fizzed off each other. She played to my strengths and I to hers, and any weaknesses, we glossed over unconsciously.
Almost overnight I became loud. My voice would ring down the corridors as much as hers. When I got my first detention (for talking too much), she was right there next to me. We kissed our first boys, not the same ones, but on the same day. We bought matching scarves, and although we couldn’t borrow each other’s clothes, my hips and thighs remaining stubbornly thicker, we co-ordinated where possible.
You can see the montage now, right? Best buddies, inseparable. It’s saccharine, and I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that but to be honest, that’s really how I remember that first year. And, of course we did still argue, perhaps more fiercely than ever at times, we were sisters, after all. And when she flounced off with one friend, I would huff off with the other. But in the evenings, she used to creep into my bed, or I into hers, and sharing a set of headphones, we’d balance my precious orange discman on our bellies and listen to whatever music was currently taking our fancy.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because it changed my life; she changed my life, and I hope you can see that. In many ways, those years from 11 until 18 were the best years of my life, true halcyon days.
Everything was hunky dory until the time came to pick university. There seemed to be more we disagreed on, than agreed. More and more prospectuses were ordered, the reject pile growing precariously high while the tentative ‘maybe’ pile stayed small and low, with nothing on the ‘yes’.
Obviously we’d be going to the same university, that much was clear, but while Margot had a passion to study Fine Art, I was panicking about making the right decision, both in location and subject.
‘Ok,’ said Margot, after another long and fruitless trawl through thick brochures. ‘Where do you want to study?’
‘Anywhere is fine by me, as long as you’ll be there too. You know that.’
‘That’s not the right way to make a decision. Surely you have your own preference?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Come on, Jules.’
‘Ok. Fine. Manchester.’
‘You’re just saying that because I want to go there.’
‘No, I’m not.’
‘Yes, you are.’
‘Ok, well what course do you want to study at Manchester then? Tell me that.’
‘Fine Art,’ I spat at her.
‘But you don’t even enjoy A Level Art, Jules. Why the hell would you want to study it at uni?’
‘I don’t know.’
Margot ran her hands through her hair, or at least, that was the action, the actual undertaking was doomed from the beginning due to the heavy curls that stopped even the toughest comb. She extricated her fingers and tried to reason with me. ‘Look, Jules. I understand that this is a scary business, moving onwards and upwards and all that, but you can’t just do what I’m doing so that we’ll be together.’
‘Don’t you want us to be together?’
‘Of course I do, but I want it to be on your terms, not mine. Let’s say Manchester is a certainty, ok?’
‘Well then, let’s take a proper look at the prospectus and see what you’d really like to do. Here,’ she chucked the book in my lap. ‘Look at this while I go put the kettle on.’
I flicked through the pages. Margot was wrong – university had never scared me until she’d started to suggest different universities to me. What was scaring me was the thought of leaving her, and it wasn’t just that without her, I wasn’t even sure who I’d be, I was worried about who would look after her.
Every day she had to take medication, and there were regular check-ups at the hospital. When Margot did things, she did them well so, of course, her epilepsy was, or at least, could be, pretty bad. She still wasn’t driving because of it, and perhaps might never be able. She didn’t drink or smoke, but she wasn’t great at taking care of herself. Like dad, she never cared where the next meal came from; she was one of those odd people who genuinely forgot to eat. I mean, who forgets to eat? It’s just bizarre. I was lucky if I managed an hour between thinking about food.
I’d done all the cooking (not the cleaning; that was taken care of by our ‘daily’) in the house for years, but with Dad becoming ever more vague, I’d recently taken care over most of the finances too. I don’t think Margot even knew where the washing machine was in our home, or how much a pint of milk cost. I was the one who drove her to her check-ups, who waited in the waiting room, a nodding acquaintance to the nurses. I was the one who collected her repeat prescription and who checked it before leaving. For heaven’s sake, I was still the one who changed the sheets after she’d wet them, although thankfully for us both, that seemed to be a thing of the past.
I couldn’t imagine not being with Margot, and the thought that she was not only contemplating it, but actively encouraging it, stabbed at my heart with mean sharp little edges. It made me feel mean and sharp and little. But I knew if I didn’t pick a course that Margot at least thought I’d chosen all by myself then I’d never hear the end of it.
‘Accountancy,’ I said, as she walked back in carrying two steaming mugs of tea, about the only ‘recipe’ she knew how to make.
‘Accountancy? What about it?’
‘I’ll study it at university.’
‘Sorry. You’ll study accountancy at university?’ She thrust a mug in my hand and let go so I had to grab on to the blisteringly hot china before lunging for the handle. ‘Let me see that,’ she picked up the brochure I’d dropped. ‘Did you just pick that out at random?’ she said, narrowing her eyes at me.
‘No,’ I said, indignantly, desperate to sell my lie.
‘So, in the space of me boiling the kettle and making two cups of tea, you’ve decided on studying accountancy, despite never ever expressing an interest in it before…ever?’
‘Yes,’ I took a sip of tea to give me time to think and regretted it immediately as I scalded my tongue. I spat out the mouthful while she looked on with a slightly disgusted grimace. ‘Hot,’ I said, sticking my tongue out like a dog. ‘Honestly, it’s not as random as it sounds. I practically deal with all the bills and money here now as it is.’
‘So, I figure I already have some grounding in it.’
‘And I keep us afloat, don’t I?’
‘So, I don’t see what the problem is,’ I finished.
‘You’re ridiculous. You do know that, Jules?’
‘And you love me for it,’ I replied, with a smile.
Margot sighed but I knew I had her then. ‘Manchester it is.’
Both she and I knew when we arrived for Freshers Week that things weren’t quite as perfect as we’d hoped. For a start, there’d been a mix up, although we were in the same area of student halls, we were in completely different flats. Sorting that out was only the first of many problems. Margot didn’t drink, and I didn’t drink much, yet the entire social schedule seemed to revolve around how much alcohol one person could consume in any given moment, but Freshers was only one week, and then our courses would start, and everything would be better. Right?
But once again, we were wrong. Accountancy stumped me. It was hard, and I mean really seriously difficult, and without Margot sat next to me to nudge and whisper to, or simply just to share my pain, class didn’t seem half as fun.
And for the first time in her life, it seemed like Margot wasn’t having much fun either; it turned out that Fine Art was a serious degree with plenty of emphasis on essay writing about the influence of various obscure artists rather than the free-flowing and fast sketches that she favoured. She struggled to pin down how she felt about art in words and spent hours pouring over reference books.
Always a unit, a twosome, we’d never had much need for anyone else, except as entertaining backgrounds; there was no need to desperately seek out new best friends, or potential flatmates for the following year, we already knew we’d be living with each other.
And yet I knew Margot was unhappy. Dark circles started to appear under her eyes again, and she looked more fragile than ever. Her clothes, often outlandish but always perfectly matched to her character and unquestioningly accepted by our school friends, suddenly began to look clownish on her as they swamped her shrinking frame.
It was barely a month in when she dropped the bombshell that she wanted to leave. I saw it coming but I ignored it for as long as I could. I screamed, I shouted and I cried, and she silently let me. It felt like I’d been punched in the gut. All the clichés; my whole world came crashing down; the carpet had been pulled from under my feet; I’d been betrayed; I used them all.
I asked how she’d look after herself without me, cruelly asking who would change the sheets for her now or who would make sure she had her meds?
I’ll put my hands up and say what you’re all thinking, I was an idiot: a childish, selfish, pathetic idiot. And I didn’t like myself very much at the time, so you can stop feeling guilty that you don’t either.
All the feelings I’d pushed away when the thought of university had first come up came flooding back. I was still scared for her, about how she’d cope, but shamefully, I was overwhelmed with wondering how I would cope.
It’s not that Margot was the other half of me, it’s just that with her, I was a bigger version of myself, a better version. But I wasn’t enough for her, and that’s all I could think about; and the only way that I could see her actions were as a betrayal.
I begged her to stay; I came up with every single solution that I could think of; I suggested we both drop out; I suggested we transfer courses or to different universities, but in the end, she still left, and I lost my sister.