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Christine Doran

Lilac the Girl, Book 3

Lilac Blue

by Christine Doran

Copyright 2017 Christine Doran

Smashwords Edition

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This book is available in print at most online retailers.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons,

living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.


Glossary for non-Irish readers

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Historical Note


About the Author

Glossary for Non-Irish Readers

If you’re not from Ireland you might not be familiar with some of the words and phrases in the book, so I’ve included a glossary to help you out.

Spellings and punctuation in this book are in British-English style, so they might look a little unfamiliar to American readers. They’re not wrong, though.

Back garden – back yard

Bags (verb) – to say something is yours, to have dibs on it

Bin – trash can

Bin men – trash collectors

Biscuit - cookie

Candy floss – cotton candy

Car park – parking lot

Copybook (or copy) – exercise book, composition journal

The Emergency – the second world war in Ireland

Feis – an annual local festival (pronounced “fesh”)

Give out to – scold

Junior infants – the first year of primary school, aged 4 or 5

Morto – mortified (embarrassed)

Plait – braid

Rubbish – trash

Runner boots – High-top sneakers

Sixth class – sixth grade, the last year of primary school

Spanner – wrench

Spend a penny – use the bathroom

Tarmac – blacktop

Tayto (crisps) – bag of chips

Tipp-Ex – correction fluid

Chapter 1

It was so windy at the top of the hill that Lilac went to sit in the shelter of the obelisk’s alcove while she admired the view. You had to spend at least three minutes admiring the view before you could go down again, but you could admire it in any direction, so you didn’t have to get blown over at the same time. That was Granny’s rule, and Lilac followed it faithfully.

She saw three big ships out at sea, making their way either into Dublin or back to England or Wales – it was impossible to tell which way they were going at that distance. ‘Three at once! I must tell Granny,’ Lilac thought before she even realised she was thinking it. Then, with the feeling of a punch to her tummy, she remembered again that she couldn’t tell Granny. Granny was gone and couldn’t ever be told things again, except in some vague and unsatisfactory praying kind of way that mostly just made Lilac angry, not happy.

Partly, Lilac was angry with herself for continuing to let this happen, even though she had no idea how to stop it. At least once every day she had a moment like this when she thought of Granny and then had to re-remember, and it hurt every single time. She was also angry with Granny for dying when she’d been perfectly healthy-seeming and happy, and with God for letting it happen, and with her parents for ... well, because there they were, going on with things, being practical, arranging stuff, instead of crumpling up and wailing about the unfairness of it.

Thinking back to early summer, the initial shock of the phone call, the days before the funeral that all ran together in a blur in her mind, the funeral itself, and afterwards, she knew that wasn’t really true. Her mother, and her father too, had been pale and shaken. They had both cried and gone to bed early and behaved oddly sometimes, and they’d probably gone to a great effort to ‘be strong for Lilac’ – but in some ways she wished they hadn’t, because then she felt like she was the only one who was falling apart.

Guzzler came back to the shelter of the alcove and nuzzled her. He always knew the right thing to do. She bent over and kissed the top of his furry head, taking strength from his solid forehead hard against hers, holding his silky ears gently between fingers and thumbs. Then he licked her nose wetly and she pushed him away, not able to laugh but feeling at least a little more human.

One last tromp around the top to make sure she’d seen everything, that Dublin was still in its right place with the sea on one side and the land on the other, and the girl and the dog headed down the path again and out of the wind. At the top of the hill she could be in charge of the whole world: queen of all she surveyed, like Yertle the Turtle. But once she left the vista behind she was only in charge of herself and her dog. In a way it was a disappointment, but it was also a little comforting to just leave all that responsibility to the next hill-conqueror.

On the way home she called in to Margery’s house, as planned. Margery couldn’t come out because she had a bad cold – the Irish germs she was no longer used to had clobbered her as soon as she went back to school, she said. When Margery’s mum showed Lilac into the sitting room, Margery was curled up on the sofa under her duvet with a stack of books beside her and a notebook, as well as a box of tissues and a packet of throat lozenges. It would have been a cosy scene if not for all the used tissues dotted around the floor and the hacking cough that erupted every now and then.

‘Are you dying of galloping consumption?’ Lilac asked unsympathetically, plopping down in an armchair and kicking the nearest balled-up tissue a little further away with her toe.


‘Can I have your red jumper when you’re dead?’

‘No, I want to be buried in it,’ Margery said with a cheeky grin.

‘You’re so selfish.’

They stopped for a moment.

‘Sorry,’ Margery said.

‘No, I started it. It’s OK.’ It was strange how death was everywhere, suddenly, this autumn. Sometimes Lilac wanted to avoid it and sometimes she seemed to need to talk about it obsessively. Margery followed her lead as much as she could, because she remembered how it had been when her old cat had died. Even though a cat and a granny were not at all the same.

‘They buried her in a blue dress, Mum told me,’ Lilac said, following her train of thought into its tunnel. ‘With a cardigan in case she was cold. And a scarf, of course.’ Granny had loved scarves, always appearing swathed in one or sometimes several.

‘That’s not really nice to think about.’

‘No, I know. But I did ask at the time.’ She continued on a more practical note: ‘Mum’s going down to Cork to sort out more of Granny’s things next weekend. She asked if I wanted to go with her but I don’t know.’

‘You might find something nice to remember her by.’

‘Yes, that was Mum’s idea too. And to say goodbye to the house, because they’ll sell it soon. I never got to take the train on my own and stay on her sofa the way she said I would when I was old enough.’

‘That’s sad. It would have been fun. Except, what would you do on your own in Cork? You’ve no friends there.’

‘I’d have had Granny. We’d go for walks down the pier and she’d buy me ice cream and it would be a ninety-nine with a Flake in it like Mum always says she can’t afford.’

‘But by the time you were old enough to go on your own, you’d probably not want a ninety-nine any more. Or to hang out with your granny in public. Caroline won’t go anywhere with us any more. She says she wishes she was an orphan so she didn’t have parents to embarrass her.’

Caroline was Margery’s big sister. She led a dramatic life, especially considering she lived in exactly the same boring town and went to the same boring school as everyone else they knew.

Margery and her family had come back from their year in Canada at the end of the summer. They’d picked up Izzy the kitten from their cousins, and the renters had moved out of their house and they’d moved back in, opening all the windows wide and tutting over things that had been put away in the wrong places. Margery was in sixth class now with Lilac and everyone else, and it was almost as if the previous year had never happened. Margery didn’t even seem behind in Irish, though she’d missed a whole year. Lilac wasn’t sure how that was possible, since they learned Irish every day and Margery wasn’t particularly good at it, but her marks were just the same as they’d always been.

‘Did you do your maths homework yet?’ Lilac wanted to know.

‘Yes, but Mum said she’ll write me a note for my essay. That takes too long. And I don’t want to do it.’

‘Lucky you.’ Lilac moved over to the sofa after all, even though it meant sitting on some tissues. ‘Maybe I should catch your cold. I still have to write mine and I have no ideas.’

‘You’ll never catch it before tomorrow. And you’re probably immune to the germs because you’ve been here the whole time.’ Margery paused for a coughing fit and then scrabbled for a throat sweet. She politely offered one to Lilac, but Lilac shook her head.

‘No, thanks. I only like the blackcurrant ones, not honey and lemon. You’ll be back at school tomorrow, though? You don’t get to stay at home again?’

‘I’m much better than I was, so I think so. And it’s boring staying at home – I’d rather go to school if I’m not feeling awful.’

Lilac never found staying at home boring, but Margery didn’t like being on her own, or missing whatever might be happening where everyone else was. Even if it was a maths test.

‘Well, I suppose I have to go and start my essay, then,’ she said mopily, not moving at all. ‘Maybe it’s raining. I’d have to stay if it was raining, I can’t bring a wet dog home.’

They both looked out the window, where a breeze was chasing the leaves on Margery’s back lawn in the pale afternoon sunlight. Then Guzzler bounded into view, something large and white and squashy-looking in his mouth.

‘I think that’s one of Caroline’s new runners,’ Margery observed. ‘She just got them yesterday.’

Lilac flew off the sofa, into the kitchen and out the back door, shouting at Guzzler, ‘Drop it! Bad dog! Drop it now!’ Delighted that someone was coming to play with him, Guzzler stopped, facing her, dodging from one side to the other while Lilac stood still and considered how best to approach this. She saw a tennis ball in the grass, grabbed it, and threw. ‘Go fetch, boy!’ Guzzler ran for the ball and stood over it, wondering how to pick it up without letting go of his first, and best, prize. He nudged the green ball with his nose and pawed it for a moment, showing Lilac that he’d found it and she could throw it again.

‘Bring me the ball!’ Lilac said in her most excited voice, trying to convince him that the tennis ball was a much better deal than that other, non-round, article. ‘Squirrels! Sticks!’ Guzzler looked around, but didn’t see anything worth putting the runner down for. A rivulet of drool ran down its bright white sole as he stood there waiting for Lilac’s next move.

Lilac sighed and went back into the kitchen. ‘Can I have a biscuit or something, please, Mrs Dillon?’ she asked. ‘Not a chocolate one, just plain. Guzzler only responds to food.’ Margery’s mum opened the biscuit tin and proffered the selection.

‘Help yourself, lovie. I don’t know what Caroline’s going to say when she sees it, but maybe it won’t be too bad once we get it cleaned up. And she shouldn’t have left her new shoes lying around in the hall, I’m always after her to put her things away.’ Margery’s mum didn’t seem unduly worried, in spite of her words. She was pretty unflappable, Lilac thought, choosing a Marietta and running out the door again.

The biscuit did the trick and Lilac left Guzzler happily licking his chops and looking for the tennis ball while she brought the runner back inside and wiped it off at the kitchen sink. Just then, Caroline burst through the back door and flung herself into a chair at the kitchen table, a maelstrom of long dark hair and bad temper. Lilac looked desperately for somewhere to shove the incriminating article she was holding, but it was too late.

‘What are you doing with my runner boot?’ Caroline asked, but her tone was more curious than furious.

‘Um. Well, Guzzler got it, I’m really sorry ...’ Lilac began.

‘It doesn’t matter. He can eat it, I don’t care.’

‘What?’ said Margery, shocked.

Her mother looked up in concern. ‘Are you feeling all right?’ She started across the room to put a hand on Caroline’s forehead, but Caroline waved her away.

‘Mom, don’t be ridiculous. I’m fine. I just don’t really like the runners after all. I thought I wanted them but I didn’t. I wish we were back in Canada.’

Lilac and Margery exchanged exasperated looks. Lilac placed the shoe gingerly in the draining rack.

‘You spent all year wanting to come home,’ Margery pointed out.

‘I know. But now I’m here I want to be there. I was special there, because I was different. I don’t like being the same any more. It’s boring.’

‘Ohhh-kay.’ Margery nodded slowly, as if agreeing with an irrational toddler.

‘Anyway, I have to go and do my homework essay,’ said Lilac, figuring now was a good moment for a graceful exit.

She called Guzzler as she let herself out the front door. He came racing around from the back of the house and they walked home with no further incidents, Lilac planning her essay in her head and Guzzler thinking happy thoughts of deliciously squashy white shoes.

Chapter 2

The prospect of getting out of school early on Friday made Lilac decide to go to Cork after all. Her mum wanted to get on the road well before rush hour, so she picked Lilac up at two o’clock with a bag already packed and they took straight off down the long road to Arklow and beyond. Better to take the scenic route in the right direction than go all the way back into town and out again just to avoid the Wicklow Mountains, Nuala said, justifying the extra hour and a half the trip was sure to take on the back roads across the south of the country. And that was if they didn’t end up behind a herd of cows at milking time. The potential diversions on the drive to Cork were many, but at least with only one parent present Lilac got to sit up front and read the map instead of being stuck in the back listening to the navigator (Nuala) and the driver (Gerry) having an increasingly intense and ever more polite discussion about the best route to take. And she could change the radio station whenever she wanted, too.

Gerry wasn’t coming because he had an exhibition starting and he had to oversee the final hanging of the pictures. And maybe finish up a canvas or two that he could pop in as extras, he said optimistically, thinking of an empty house free of distractions all weekend. Sales weren’t going so well these days – it seemed people didn’t have a lot of spare cash for lovely big oil paintings any more – so this was an important time for him.

After a long afternoon’s drive and a quick stop in a dingy New Ross pub for what Nuala called high tea, they parked outside Granny’s narrow terraced house in Cobh. The daylight was fading as they tumbled in the door, turning on lights and talking loudly to scare off any spiders or mice that might possibly have moved in. The next-door neighbours checked on the house regularly to make sure everything was in order, so there were no holes in the roof or blackbirds nesting in the sofa. Nuala put the kettle on and quickly stacked a couple of peat briquettes over a lit firelighter in the fireplace to get the chill out of the house and make it feel homey.

Lilac hadn’t been here since the day of the funeral. The last time she’d seen the house it had been full of people in the late stages of a long and raucous party – if party is the right word for a gathering that starts out whisper-solemn and becomes more and more riotous as the night goes on. She thought back to that night, when you might come around a corner and find someone laughing uproariously or crying their eyes out – sometimes the same person within the space of a few minutes. At first she’d felt angry that people were enjoying themselves even though Granny was dead and they’d just watched her coffin being lowered into the cold muddy ground, but everyone said ‘She’d have wanted us to enjoy ourselves’ – which was probably true, because Granny loved to throw a party. Having her little house full of people enjoying themselves was one of her favourite things in the world. And then Lilac had been sad all over again because Granny would have loved this party in particular so much, since all her best friends were at it.

Tonight it seemed like a much smaller house, even though it was more empty of furniture and other things than it had been at that time. Lilac’s parents and her two aunts had been coming and going every weekend, emptying it out and fixing it up so that it could be sold soon. There was still a bed to sleep in tonight, but they’d brought their own sheets and duvet and pillows. The kettle was still there but the toaster and the chopping boards were gone, claimed by an older cousin away at college. Lilac thought they were all behaving like vultures, but she too had been told that if she saw something she’d like, she could have it – so long as she asked and nobody else had claimed it already – to remember Granny by.

It seemed to Lilac that Granny’s house and her belongings were already no more than a nuisance to everyone else in the family, things to be dealt with and got rid of, instead of items that Granny had carefully chosen and used and touched every day and therefore were special and should be kept perfectly in their places for ever. Lilac didn’t want to take anything, but she didn’t want to let go of anything either. That was why she hadn’t been back before now. The whole idea was hard to get used to.

‘You’ll feel better about it if you come and see the house yourself,’ Nuala had said, but Lilac still wasn’t sure that was true. She didn’t want to feel better about it if that meant no longer thinking Granny’s things were special.

Nuala and Lilac made up the big double bed and had some cocoa made with milk they’d bought in Youghal. Then Lilac snuggled down as soon as her hot-water bottle was filled, Friday-night tired after a week of school and the long drive. Nuala stayed up by the fire to do a little work, listening to the classical music station on the portable radio and looking out the window at the lights of the harbour down below.

Early the next morning they ate an unsatisfying breakfast of cornflakes they’d brought with them, with the rest of the milk. A few minutes later they heard a rat-a-tat and there was Mrs Keogh from next door offering them a plate of sizzling sausages and rashers. ‘I saw the car and knew ye’d be needing something daycent,’ she said, producing half a sliced pan to go along with it. Lilac happily wrapped a slice of soft white bread around a blistered sausage and felt much better about the day ahead as she munched on it. She wandered off while her mother and Mrs Keogh nattered, trying to meet Granny’s friendly ghost around every corner of the house.

A while later, Nuala was pulling clothes out of Granny’s big wardrobe upstairs, making different piles on the bed to keep and to give away. Right at the back she came across a large and ancient cardboard box. Lilac dragged it out.

‘You open it, Lilac, see what’s inside,’ Nuala said, holding a slinky grey dress up to the light and wondering how far back it dated. Lilac wasn’t being much help with the clothes, inventing unlikely reasons to need to keep everything.

Lilac blew a thick layer of dust off the box, whose top flaps were folded into each other to keep them closed. It had once held tins of soup, judging from the words on the outside, but now it was bulging and creased from many years of having other things kept in it and boots and handbags piled on top. She pulled one flap up and saw sheaves of paper, a dead bumblebee, a big bundle of faded photographs, and some little jeweller-style boxes. Nuala pounced on the boxes.

‘Aha!’ She opened one to find a gold ring set with tiny diamonds and other stones all the way around. ‘I was hoping to find these. Granny stopped wearing her rings when her arthritis got worse, but she told me she’d put them away safely. I suppose she thought a cardboard box at the back of the wardrobe was perfectly safe.’

‘Well, it’s in the proper container,’ Lilac said, admiring the ring and the dark green velvet cushion of its strongly sprung home almost equally. ‘Is this the box it came in?’ She snapped it open and closed a few times.

‘Maybe,’ Nuala agreed, looking at the gold lettering. ‘Weir’s is still on Grafton Street in Dublin.’

They found other rings in the other little boxes, and Nuala put them carefully with the things to keep. Lilac started to go through the papers in the box, setting apart those she could identify – birth and baptism certificates, school reports, electricity bills – from things she couldn’t – old letters filled with close lines of joined-up writing that she could hardly read, legal papers that were clearly typed but just as hard to understand because of the old-fashioned and convoluted way they said things. She knew Nuala would go through them again, but at least this would help a bit. And it was so interesting, even the normally boring things like bills, just because they were old and funny looking.

She finally got to the bottom of the box, where there was some very crackly folded wrapping paper, saved to be re-used, and a green pencil that had been sharpened at both ends. (Why do people do that, Lilac wondered. Granny would never do that.) She pulled it all out, just to be certain there was nothing more, and found a careful-searcher’s prize waiting for her – a large, thin notebook with furled corners and a tea stain on the front. Its pages were bound with thread and its cover was soft, thick paper, not leather or anything expensive-looking. It looked like a large-size school copybook, really. Lilac thought it would probably have shopping lists in it, or maybe even homework, but when she flipped through the pages, the first two-thirds were filled with dense writing. A slower examination revealed dates in between each chunk of text.

‘This is a diary! Mum! Did Granny keep a diary?’

‘I don’t think so, Lilac. Not that I remember, anyway.’ Nuala glanced at the page. ‘That doesn’t really look like her handwriting. Hers was bigger, more rounded.’ This writing was small and spiky, but neat and fairly easy to read if Lilac concentrated. She read a few lines from a page in the middle of the book:

25th June ’40

Hoping to see the plan through this evening. My contact has the goods. If all goes well we shall prevail. The enemy may be already at the gates, but I think we can push back.

Lilac shut the notebook abruptly and looked up. ‘Mum?’

‘Mmm?’ Nuala had gone back to the clothes and was considering a stole that might have been real fur.

‘What were the dates of the Second World War again?’

‘1939 to ’45. Why?’

‘I told Michael that Granny was a spy! I always said she was! She wouldn’t say when I asked her, but I knew she was hiding something!’

‘What are you talking about? Granny wasn’t a spy, don’t be silly. They didn’t even really have the war here, remember. It was just called “The Emergency”, because Ireland was neutral so it couldn’t officially take sides.’

Lilac quietly put the notebook in her own pile, which held a few Christmas cards, a piece of nice ribbon, and all of the photos, to be gone through at her leisure. Inside she was fizzing with excitement, but she decided this was going to be a private moment between herself and Granny. She would come back to the diary later.

They spent the rest of the weekend taking trips to the dump and the charity shops in Cork city, hefting and hauling things into and out of the car boot, making the house emptier and more ghostly feeling than ever. Nuala was delighted they’d got so much done, and Lilac hugged the thought of her new discovery to herself, placing the box and its treasures carefully on the back seat when they finally set out at lunchtime on Sunday for the drive home to Dublin.

They waved goodbye to Mrs Keogh, who just happened to be looking out her front window as they set off, and hit the road.

Chapter 3

Back at home on Sunday evening, Lilac scribbled her way through the remainder of her homework at top speed and went to bed early. She turned on her bedside light and sat up against the pillow with the notebook on her lap, ready to start her investigation. First she ran the tips of her fingers over its front cover, trying to really absorb just how long it had been around and how much history had happened while it sat on a shelf or in a cupboard, at the bottom of a satchel or hidden safely in a desk. All of Lilac’s life, all her mother’s life, and two-thirds of Granny’s too – that spanned a lot of new inventions and wars and governments and presidents and different eras of fashion. All the way back through flares and mini skirts, past bobby-soxers and the Beatles, into tweed skirts and hats every day and times when nobody at all wore jeans. Maybe not all the way to long dresses, though.

She opened the cover. On the inside were the words ‘Angela O’Brien, Monkstown’ in the same small and spiky script that filled all the pages. That was Granny all right, even if Nuala hadn’t recognized the handwriting. Granny was an O’Brien before she was a Kinsella. Maybe this was her disguised spy writing. Or maybe she’d changed her writing when she got older and was no longer a spy, to put investigators off the scent. Yes, that was probably it, since there’s not much point disguising your handwriting if you’re using your real name, Lilac reflected.

14th March ’40

I have bought this exercise book in Eason & Son on O’Connell Street and intend to use it to keep a private record of my accomplishments. Whilst in the shop yesterday I caught sight of an enticing-looking young man who continued to glance my way even after I looked down and tried to blush in the manner of a modest heroine. As I was tucking my sixpence change into my purse, he approached. I was afraid he was going to ask whether he could see me to the Pillar to catch my tram, but he merely pointed out that my umbrella was unfurled and dripping on the books on the lower shelves, and then he left. I might have let him walk me to the Pillar but now we shall never know.

I will not write out here the mundane details of my life so far, as this diary is for my own eyes only, unless I become famous like Vivien Leigh in which case the reader will just have to fill in the information from my interviews in the newspapers of which no doubt there will be many. Also, the details are uninteresting, especially in these days of the so-called Emergency which I hope will be over soon. I have heard word of an opportunity that may bring with it more interesting times. In anticipation, I am writing this account, so that I can get into the habit of it.

Lilac closed the book. It was going to take her quite a while to read through all this, concentrating on the spiky, curly script to decipher each word, but she didn’t mind. Reading it made her feel close to Granny – even though it was very hard to put the Granny she knew together with the young woman who had written this. (She’d been born in 1915, Lilac knew, which would make her twenty-five when she wrote the diary.) Lilac was sure everything would work out all right in the end, since Angela had obviously survived the war to become Granny, and in the meantime it was thrilling to have this slice of real life at her fingertips. It was practically as good as going back in time, she thought contentedly, turning off her light and snuggling down under the covers.

Chapter 4

Mr O’Connor strode to the top of the classroom, flapped his black cape like a giant bat, and boomed at them, as he did every morning, ‘Good morning, students! We will begin by perusing the day’s news.’ He took his newspaper and thumbtacked it open high up on the blackboard. Lilac and everyone else ranged themselves around so they could read the headlines, as they did every morning.

Mr O’Connor was very different from any teacher Lilac and her class had had before. For one thing, obviously, he was a man. He was the first male teacher the school had ever had, in fact, and everyone was still at a loss to understand how he had got that one past the nuns. Because he was a man, he had a very loud voice that always seemed to be shouting even if he was just talking normally. Margery had tried to tell him on the second day of term that they weren’t all deaf and he could be a little quieter, but it hadn’t gone well. Nobody was sure yet if he was nice or not, because they were all still surprised, really, by the fact of him being there at all, and constantly startled by the loudness of his voice.

Mr O’Connor usually wore a long black cape in the classroom – the sort university students wear when they graduate. It was meant to protect his clothes from the chalk dust, but the girls were quite sure he just liked to swirl it around and pretend to be Dracula in his private moments.

And Mr O’Connor wanted them to be informed about current events. Sister Joseph had felt that children should be seen and not heard and therefore should not ask questions about what was going on around them, and Miss Grey hadn’t wanted to present them with anything that might be upsetting to their delicate constitutions (she thought everyone was like her), but Mr O’Connor had the view that they were young people who needed to know what was going on in the world.

‘In a few short years,’ he bellowed at them all, ‘you’ll be out there, voting and working and making choices about your lives. You need to know what’s up and what’s down.’

Then again, maybe it was just because they were in sixth class now. They had responsibilities as the oldest members of the school, and they had to prepare for the big scary world of secondary school next year, where – Mr O’Connor intoned sternly and at high volume – nobody would spoon-feed them their test revision or give them parties with fairy cakes on the last day of term.

None of this was very comforting to Lilac, and it was quite a shock to everyone after Miss Grey’s cushioning approach to the hardships of real life.

‘Mr O’Connor thinks the real world is a place where people play chess all day and run the government,’ Margery said cheerfully when Lilac told her this. ‘But Caroline still has parties in secondary sometimes. And she gets to make fairy cakes in Home Economics.’ Margery had a different perspective, having missed Miss Grey entirely and had boys in her class in Canada last year, and she didn’t seem much put out by Mr O’Connor’s gruff style. Margery was a bit tougher, Lilac felt, than some – Agatha, for instance, was not enjoying the school year very much. She was terrified of getting into trouble with Mr O’Connor. So far he hadn’t seemed to even notice that she was in the class.

Lilac had been slightly concerned about how Margery and Agatha would get on with each other, since they hadn’t met before and were both now her possibly-best friends, but Margery had slipped easily back into her place in the class, and the two seemed to be tentatively prepared to like each other. So far so good, Lilac thought, trying hard to dole her time out fairly between them as if she were scoops of ice cream going into two bowls.

When Margery came back at the end of the summer, she and Lilac had a joyful reunion, of course. That is, Guzzler had jumped all over Margery as soon as he saw her, which saved Lilac from having to navigate an awkward hug-or-no-hug decision. She’d just smiled loonily while Margery batted at Guzzler, who was trying to lick her ears, and then she recovered herself enough to call Guzzler off and send him into the garden.

‘Do you want a cup of coffee?’ she’d asked, nonchalantly filling the kettle at the kitchen sink.

‘Coffee? Ugh, do you drink coffee now?’ asked Margery, surprised.

‘I thought you did. All that stuff about Tim Whatshisname?’

‘Tim?’ Margery wrinkled her brow. ‘You mean my friend Paul? He doesn’t like coffee, he mostly drinks Pepsi. Or melted cheese, I think he’d drink that if he could.’

‘No, the shop. The coffee shop place.’

‘Ohhhh, Tim Horton’s. I never had coffee there, Dad did. I had hot chocolate sometimes.’

‘Oh, phew,’ said Lilac, switching the kettle off again. ‘Well, how about some Ribena? And a chocolate finger? Bet they didn’t have those in Canada.’

‘They don’t, not at all. And their purple things were grape flavoured, not proper blackcurrant. Grape doesn’t even have a flavour. Here, I brought you a present, though,’ she continued, delving into the bag she’d brought with her. ‘It’s my last one, and they’re really good.’

It was a bar of chocolate called Coffee Crisp. Lilac looked at it a little doubtfully. ‘Really?’

‘Really, I promise.’

‘OK. I’ll save it for later,’ she said, so that she wouldn’t offend Margery if she didn’t like it. ‘Thanks.’ She poured some Ribena into the bottom of two glasses, filled them up with water, and brought them to the table with a packet of biscuits and a plate. She pushed one glass over to Margery and upended the box so the fingers fell out like pick-up-sticks, each to be extracted without disturbing the others.

‘So, am I different or the same? Has Canada changed me forever?’ Margery wanted to know, sitting up straight and grinning as if this was a challenge question.

Lilac looked at her. ‘Well, you’re probably a bit taller, but so am I. Your hair was shorter last year. And ... you’re wearing a bra.’

‘Yep.’ Margery sounded a little proud and failed to stifle a smile. ‘Is it really obvious?’

‘No, I don’t think so. I can just see the bumps on your shoulders where the straps are under your top. If you weren’t paying attention you wouldn’t notice.’

‘So you were looking for it?’

‘No, I just ...’ Lilac didn’t quite know how to answer. ‘It’s just something I notice. I’m very observant.’ She wasn’t, mostly, but bra straps were the sort of thing she was on alert for these days. ‘Why didn’t you tell me in a letter?’

‘I don’t know. It was near the end of the school year, and then we were so busy getting ready to come home and travelling to see all the things we hadn’t seen that I only wrote a couple more letters after that.’

Lilac had questions. ‘In Canada, is it like in that Judy Blume book, where everyone in school wants to be the first to wear one?’

‘I don’t think so. I wasn’t first but I was maybe third of the girls in my class.’

‘Did you have to try it on in the shop?’

‘No, my mum just bought the smallest and gave it to me. I stayed at the sock display. And then at home she asked if it fit OK and I said yes. But it’s a bit bulgy really. I might need a bigger one already.’ She paused and they both took a swig of Ribena. ‘Actually, in Canada, wearing a bra wasn’t great because the boys in my class would try to snap the strap.’ She put her thumb up behind her back and demonstrated with a gentle tug and release.

‘What?’ Lilac was appalled. ‘But that’s horrible. They should be, like, feeling intimidated, that we’re growing up and they’re not.’

‘Maybe that’s why they do it.’

‘But they shouldn’t call attention to it. They should ignore it. And then talk about it between themselves afterwards. Like girls do.’ She thought a moment. ‘Actually, is that any nicer?’

‘Yes, it is, because it doesn’t hurt. Getting your bra strap snapped hurts. And sometimes it comes open and you have to go to the toilet to do it up again and the teacher tells you you’ve gone too many times and you can’t say why you need to go.’

‘You should, though. Would the boys get in trouble?’

‘I don’t know. It’s hard to say “bra” to a teacher.’

‘It’s a bit hard to say in general.’ They paused and looked into their glasses, watching the sun gleam through the deep red liquid and make pink shadow-stains on the pinewood table beneath.

‘There was this one boy who used to do it a lot. It was like he had some sort of radar that beeped when a girl started wearing a bra. I hated him.’

‘It’s good that you’re home. Even if we had boys in school, I bet Irish boys wouldn’t dare do that.’

‘And it’s harder under a tunic uniform.’

‘True. Probably nobody will even be able to tell you’re wearing it, with your shirt covered up by the tunic and the cardigan.’

So far at school Margery’s new item of underclothing had gone unremarked by everyone, though Lilac suspected – not that she was paying attention especially, but she just had an idea – that a few of the other girls had come back from the summer break with the same new addition to their wardrobes. It was only to be expected in sixth class, with everyone being eleven or twelve by now. Lilac wasn’t in a big hurry to catch up, but she didn’t want to be the last one without, either.

Chapter 5

After a couple of weeks of reading the newspaper headlines every morning, Mr O’Connor let them in on the next part of his plan for their general improvement. For one thing, they were going to learn history and relate it to the present day – ‘As if that was even possible,’ Jenny Kelly said in scathing tones – and for another, they were all going to develop a social conscience. ‘Is it catching?’ asked Laura Devine innocently. ‘I don’t think I’m allowed bring home any more germs from school after last year’s sore throat. I was out for two weeks and I missed the TB vaccinations.’

‘Having a social conscience,’ Mr O’Connor continued even more loudly than before, frowning unimpressedly at Laura, ‘means you recognise that you can have an effect on the society you live in. Who can suggest some ways of doing that? Adele?’

Mr O’Connor had the terrifying habit of demanding a response from a specific volunteer instead of waiting for one to turn up.

Adele shrugged. ‘I dunno.’ She tilted her head to one side to look as though she was thinking for a moment. ‘Nope. Sorry.’ She was not easily terrified.


Agatha jumped about a foot in the air, turned bright pink faster than Lilac thought was physically possible, and said ‘Ummm ...’ Lilac desperately wanted to help, but Agatha was two tables away so she couldn’t whisper anything. She put her hand in the air and waved like a castaway who’s just seen a boat in the distance.

‘Mr O’Connor! I have one!’ She thought fast. ‘Like not littering?’

‘That’s certainly a start. But let’s try to go one step further and make things better instead of just not making things worse. You could pick ... up ...’ He was leaning into every word, waiting for her to cotton on.

‘Pick up litter!’

‘Ew!’ said Laura Devine. ‘Yuck.’

‘So next week, as a special exercise in social awareness,’ Mr O’Connor went on, his voice echoing around the classroom, ‘we’ll be cleaning up the playground park, and also collecting for charity outside the supermarket. We’ll be teaming up with sixth class from the Progressive School for part of it.’

The Progressive School was on the other side of the town – a small school with boys and girls together and no uniform, where they learned about all the religions and didn’t have to say a Hail Mary at the start of each day. Lilac’s friend Ev went there. Lilac’s parents called it That Hippie School, but from what Ev had said, they still had to do English, Irish and maths, just the same as at the national school. Ev said she mostly went there because it was nearer her house. Her parents weren’t hippies, and hadn’t even been hippies in the seventies, at least no more than everyone else.

Just as the class was digesting this news and wondering whether to complain about it or not, there was a timid knock on the door. Maura Rooney, the door-keeper for that week, answered it to find a timid fourth-classer nervously delivering the message that Mrs Ryan would like Mr O’Connor to please turn down the volume a little bit. Maura passed this on gleefully and Mr O’Connor looked a little awkward. He harrumphed throat-clearingly into his beard and told the younger girl to send his apologies back to Mrs Ryan.

They spent the rest of the morning quietly working on fractions and there were no further interruptions from other classes. Lilac would have loved to be a fly on the wall of the staff room at lunchtime when Mr O’Connor encountered Mrs Ryan in person.

Chapter 6

19th March ’40

No sooner had I resolved to keep this diary than I was unavoidably detained every evening after work and too tired to write in it before bed. Today I am making a particular effort because I want to set down the specifics of the opportunity I’ve been offered before I forget the details. The smallest thing may be important later on. It is also vital that I keep this secret, which is why I am using this nondescript notebook rather than an impressive volume with ‘Diary’ writ large on the front. I can keep this where it would be overlooked by anyone searching for such a thing – hidden in plain sight, so to speak. I do not currently fear that someone might search for my diary, but it is always a risk one should be alert to.

To begin at the beginning: last week I espied in the newspaper an advertisement that intrigued me. Nestled between the lonely hearts and the ‘domestic help wanted’s, there was a call for a young lady of adventurous spirit and high intelligence who has experience playing a musical instrument and doesn’t tire early in the evening. There was a further note to say it was highly respectable work and that anyone who applied was welcome to bring their mother to the interview if necessary. As, thanks to my piano lessons, I qualify on all counts and I am somewhat at a loose end in the evenings, I applied to the address without further thought. The very next day I received a reply. I can only think that there are not many young ladies with musical experience in this city. Or perhaps their mothers objected.

I did mention it to Mammy afterwards, but she said that if they were willing for her to go along then that was all she needed to know, and that I was old enough and ugly enough now to get myself out of any trouble I might get myself into. I was a little put out by the ‘ugly enough’ part but I know she meant it metaphorically. I am by all accounts the living spit of Mammy as a young woman, so she would only be insulting herself if it were true.

On my lunch break I went to the address mentioned in the letter, since it was only around the corner in Clanbrassil Street – another good omen to put along with my piano lessons, I thought. A very respectable older lady met me at the door and ushered me into the office of a younger and quite handsome gentleman (whose name I will not record here out of an abundance of caution). I mention that he is handsome merely because it is the fact of the matter and not because I personally found him attractive. He offered me a seat opposite him at the large desk. The older lady sat to one side, and took up some knitting. I was not at all nervous but rather excited at the prospect of finding out more about this mysterious opportunity.

However, there I must leave it as I am running out of ink.

Lilac closed the notebook with a sigh. She was getting more used to the handwriting and reading more swiftly now. Half of her wanted to devour the whole thing in one sitting to find out what happened next, but the more sensible half wanted to savour it by reading a little at a time. She put it back on her shelf, where the slim spine all but disappeared between two more brightly coloured volumes, ‘hidden in plain sight’ as Granny would have said.

‘Students!’ Mr O’Connor boomed at them as he swooped into the room the next day followed by a very familiar figure in navy and white. ‘Sister Joseph is concerned that I am not providing enough in the way of artistic instruction for you, so she has a proposal. Sister, the floor is yours.’

After a flourish of his cape to introduce the nun, Mr O’Connor sat behind his desk and Sister Joseph positioned herself by the blackboard. It was such a familiar yet strange sight that something seemed to settle inside Lilac, to click into place, as if she’d gone back in time and was nine again, in fourth class. Those were the days, she thought nostalgically.

‘Now, girls,’ Sister Joseph began, just as she always did. ‘Not that I wish to cast any aspersions on Mr O’Connor’s teaching and I’m sure you’re learning all sorts of useful things’ – she said this in a tone that conveyed just the opposite – ‘but when I asked him how his choir ensemble was coming along and he told me he didn’t have one, I thought I had better offer my services. Instead of a concert this year, we will enter the Feis in November with a song from a musical.’

‘The Feis!’ The classroom rustled with anticipation. Learning decimals and playing chess and having a social conscience were all very well, but entering the Feis was quite an opportunity for glory. They might win!

‘What musical, sister? What song?’ asked Aisling Bond.

‘We’ll listen to a few and see which we like best. You’ll get to vote,’ Sister Joseph replied. Lilac was surprised – Sister Joseph usually laid down the law. Maybe now that they were in sixth class she thought they were entitled to more of a say in things.

Privately, Lilac wasn’t all that excited about this. One thing she had quite welcomed about Mr O’Connor’s style of teaching was the absence of concerts and performances and all those opportunities to be embarrassed in front of a live audience that had seemed to dog her for the past couple of years. Collecting for charity on the street was going to be a little mortifying, but at least there was no sense of putting on a show about it. Sister Joseph was the music teacher for the whole school, however, and it seemed there was no escape from her compulsion to have them perform on her behalf.

‘You’d think,’ she complained to Agatha and Margery at break time, ‘she’d want us to be not-showing-off, being a nun and all.’

‘Modest,’ Agatha agreed, finding the perfect word.

‘But maybe,’ Margery suggested, ‘she’s been – whatsit – repressed by being a nun, and really she wishes she could show off on stage. Maybe she really wanted to be a famous film star as a child but her parents made her go to a convent instead.’

‘Did they even have film stars when Sister Joseph was a child?’ Lilac wondered. Sister Joseph was very ancient.

‘Well, whatever, a singer or dancer or an actress or something.’

‘Yes,’ Agatha continued, starry-eyed, ‘maybe her ambitions were thwarted at a tender age and ever since she’s been longing for glory, and we’re the only way she can get it.’

‘Well then,’ decided Lilac resignedly, ‘I suppose we’re just going to have to win the flippin’ Feis for her.’

Chapter 7

Lilac was on the lookout for Ev as soon as they got to the park for Mr O’Connor’s social awareness day, but she almost missed her.

In fact, Ev saw them first and said hi to Agatha while Lilac was wrestling with the zip on her anorak. Schoolday Ev didn’t wear eyeliner, and her hair didn’t seem quite as startlingly black as it had been last time they’d all met; it might actually be a very dark brown now. She was wearing skinny black jeans with rips in the knees, and a giant blue checked shirt, but her whole class was wearing jeans and oldish clothes for cleaning up the park so she didn’t stand out in any way.

Agatha jumped a little at Ev’s greeting but then smiled happily when she realised who it was. Lilac wondered for a moment who the girl Agatha was chatting to could be before she recognised Ev. Not that Agatha mightn’t know other people, Lilac thought to herself a little confusedly. Agatha could make friends on her own. She probably did, all the time.

‘Hi, Ev!’ Lilac said brightly.

‘Oh, hi, Lilac,’ said Ev. ‘Are you here too?’

It was obvious that if Agatha was here then Lilac would be too, so Lilac didn’t quite know how to answer that. ‘Um, yes.’

‘I mean, you’re not collecting for the homeless. Half our class went to do that, and I thought half of you were going to as well.’

‘Oh, right. No, we’re all cleaning the park today and then collecting on Saturday with the boys’ school. I think Mr O’Connor wanted to supervise everything himself instead of having your teacher in charge of some of us. Or maybe Sister Ida – she’s our principal – said he had to.’ Lilac unzipped her coat again because now she was too warm. ‘I don’t think the nuns trust your teachers much. What with the first names and the jeans and all.’ Teachers in Ev’s school were called by their first names.

‘Oh, right. Yeah, Lisa’s down at the supermarket with the collecting-tin people. She left the rest of us here and told us to pick up the litter and do whatever your guy tells us to.’

‘Lisa. That’s so weird,’ said Lilac. ‘We don’t even know Mr O’Connor’s first name.’

‘We don’t think he has one,’ Agatha piped up. ‘Unless it’s Mister.’

Ev laughed, but Lilac had heard the joke before. Actually, she was pretty sure it had been her joke to begin with. She looked around, taking in the saturated green of the park’s grass and bushes, clogged with plastic bags and empty bottles, the drippy swings and slides adorned with sodden half-empty chip bags, the sandpit that was mostly mud mixed with cigarette butts, the general soaked mess of everything. ‘How are we meant to clean this up? It’s yucky.’

Margery had been stuck listening to Mr O’Connor’s directions, but now she joined their small group and passed on what he’d said: ‘We’re to get bin bags and put all the rubbish in them. Bottles go in the big box there by the slide. He has gloves if anyone needs them.’ She flapped a pair of yellow washing-up gloves in Lilac’s face. ‘And nobody’s to touch dog poo unless they get assigned that as a punishment for not helping.’

Everyone made disgusted faces and shuffled over to collect their supplies from Mr O’Connor, who was waving a roll of black plastic and a supermarket bag of rubber gloves in their general direction. He wasn’t wearing his cape, of course, but he was flapping the big black bin liners open to much the same effect. On the way, Lilac introduced Ev and Margery to each other. They smiled and said hi and Lilac was satisfied that she’d done her social duty.

After an hour the park was looking a lot better, and Mr O’Connor decreed that they had earned a reward for their hard work. He produced a thermos flask of hot chocolate, paper cups and packets of crisps, and everyone leaned their bums against the edge of the low stone wall around the playground – it was still too wet to fully sit on – and chatted while they crunched and sipped. Ev and Margery and Ev’s friend Nancy had all bonded over extracting a particularly hard-to-get-at plastic bag from a bush, so they sat in a row. Lilac perched on the other side of Agatha.

‘Why are all the boys over there?’ Margery asked. The boys from Ev’s class had taken their snack to the little bandstand on the other side of the park. ‘Do we have cooties?’

‘What are cooties?’ Nancy wanted to know. Nancy was a tall girl with glasses who didn’t mind asking things others might have wondered but not said aloud.

‘You know, like germs or something. Except mostly you get them from boys if you’re a girl, or girls if you’re a boy. They don’t really exist,’ Margery clarified. ‘It’s a thing people say in Canada.’

‘Right.’ Nancy had already heard how Margery had missed all of last year because of being in Canada. ‘It’s just a puberty thing.’

‘Who has puberty? Do they have puberty already? Are their voices breaking?’ Agatha sounded concerned.

‘You don’t have puberty. You get it,’ Ev said, not helping much. ‘I mean, it happens to you. Anyway, not yet for boys.’ Ev had big brothers. ‘Their voices don’t break till they’re fourteen. But they’re scared of girls now because we’re more mature. They stay far away.’

Everyone sat up a little straighter, feeling very grown-up and superior.

‘Except when they snap our bra straps,’ Nancy added.

Lilac and Margery gasped.

‘They do that here too?’ Lilac said, aghast. ‘Margery said the boys do that in Canada, but I thought it would be just an American thing.’ Margery glared. ‘Sorry, Canadian.’ Even after all this time Lilac had difficulty sometimes remembering that Canada wasn’t the same as America.

‘Yep.’ Ev was gloomy. ‘We try to wear lots of layers so they can’t tell if someone’s wearing a bra, but our classroom is really warm. So there’s a bit of a war going on at the moment. Boys against girls. You know how it is.’

Lilac and Agatha didn’t, really, but they frowned and nodded. Lilac’s friend Michael-from-up-the-road was much too nice to do that sort of thing. Agatha had a little brother but her neighbours were all old people so she didn’t have a friend from up the road who happened to be a boy.

‘That’s awful,’ said Agatha. ‘That’s ... can you give them a wedgie back?’ Agatha could be surprisingly bloodthirsty sometimes.

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