Stars of Hope

Other submissions by Lis Porter:
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Bella: First Lady Graduate (Historical Fiction, Writing Award 2023)
Writing Award Sub-Category
Award Category
Golden Writer
Logline or Premise
Never lose hope – a photo tells why in this historical fiction of a Northern Irish schoolgirl and a German POW separated, reuniting forty years later.

This intergenerational saga is unique in its Irish setting, having the female lead on the home front, and following a reluctant Nazi in post-war Australia. Despite each character being haunted by loss: of loved ones in the war; a daughter never known; a stepsister never claimed; feeling fatherless; or love lost, a positive theme of hope flows.
First 10 Pages

Chapter 1

The Photograph, Gilford, Northern Ireland

Mary sat at the kitchen table ignoring Callum’s rough coughing tumbling down from the upstairs bedroom. She hoped her husband wouldn’t interrupt her. She didn’t care a spat for him, she never had. The pigs were squealing for their feed. They could wait.

The large, fancy envelope quivering in her hand had arrived in the morning’s post. It was the most extravagant envelope she’d ever received. Mary enjoyed the walk to the front rickety gate to peer through the crooked brick box to see if there was anything of interest other than the annoying cobwebs she was forever clearing out. Thrill surged when there was a personal letter, something handwritten, not just an account to be paid or a notice of the next Irish nationalist meeting.

Opening today’s letter required a ritual. Mary didn’t want to rush the build-up. She reached up high for her one attractive teapot kept for special occasions, like when Colleen visited. Her sister loved the Belleek pottery too, a clotted cream colour with dainty yellow loosestrife flowers dancing cheerfully all over and two painted green shamrocks on the lid, signalling good luck. My God, with a husband like hers, she needed it.

Once upon a time, the pot was her mother’s finest possession. Now, it evoked wonderful remembrances of her beloved Mammy who had brought happiness and laughter to everyone who met her. Mary tried to be a little like her, hoping that this conscious striving would keep the memory of her mother clear and help ease her hurting heart, just a bit.

Lifting her Royal Albert china teacup and saucer off the dresser, yellow and white with a gold, floral lace overlay, a treasured gift from her oldest son on his last visit, she began to feel a restful lightness of being. A rare happiness pulsated through her tired body. Tea steeping, she considered adding a biscuit, however she didn’t want crumbs on the envelope.

Slowly, Mary prised the envelope open with clean fingers, making sure it didn’t rip so she could put the letter back later and file it in her special box. This envelope had several Australian stamps, one of the Centenary of District Nurses Services, 1985, picturing an elegant woman wearing a long black and white dress and holding her bicycle, the other stamps featured men wearing different colonial military uniforms.

Anything to do with war brought conflicting, distressing thoughts. But pleasant things had happened to Mary during the wartime. She thrust the good and the bad aside. Out of mind for now. The memories would return. They always did. She’d deal with them then.

These patterns were part of daily life. Mary expected their fluctuating ebb and flow. She saw them as the past meeting the present and sometimes fitting into hope for the future. As a jigsaw, her life was a mysterious puzzle to cogitate on. This continual mind-game was infuriating, but Mary liked to keep her lively brain buzzing, so she accepted it.

She recognised the handwriting of her much-loved oldest son. Sometimes, she couldn’t grasp it, she, a reluctant pig-farmer with a useless, sick husband, and they had reared a clever son. Well, really, she took credit for the work of cultivating his character and mind.

The hole, that annoying gap in her heart, that wretched emptiness, never departed. But that had nothing to do with Connor.

Peering into the envelope, Mary saw three items. While she thought about what to take out first, she poured a cup of tea and slid out the thin, pale blue, airmail paper with handwritten scrawls. The letter was brief.

Dearest Ma,

I think of you every day and wish your life was easier. How’s Da? If he doesn’t stop smoking, his emphysema will kill him soon, but you know that. I trust he’s eased off the hard liquor. I hope my brothers are kind to you. Sinead sends her love. I’ve won a prize for my work. My boss is retiring and handing me the Children’s Department at an awards night. It’s such an honour I’d love you to be present at the celebration. See the invitation inside. I’d like to buy you a plane ticket. Please come and have a holiday. You’ll enjoy Australia. The twins will look after the farm. Please reply immediately so I can purchase your ticket.

I remain, your loving son,


Thinking about Connor made her feel like a walking contradiction, meandering between her everyday mundanity and once-upon-a-time lofty aspirations. Connor made her heart fill with pride. Not much else did. She ignored her husband who was belligerently calling her name.

‘Mary, I need ya now,’ came the weakening, cigarette-laden, croaky voice from upstairs, ‘git ’ere woman.’ Callum was not a man for niceties. He never had been. She’d known this right from the start.

Mary peeped into the envelope. When Callum badgered her, it was easier to give in or he’d become aggressive and upset her. Hoping to please him sufficiently, she poured tea into his favourite green leprechaun mug, put two homemade, chunky ginger biscuits on a tray and took it to her husband, hoping that would keep him quiet. One peaceful moment mattered. She’d ignore him if he called her again. Racing back, she shut the kitchen door in vain hope that it might block the sound of further calls.

Seated properly, pulling her shoulders back like the nuns at school had taught her long ago, she pulled the second item out of the envelope. It was a formal invitation for the awards night, addressed to Mrs. Mary McCarthy. The card was fancy. The lettering shone, all gold and shiny, as she read slowly, relishing every word.

There was one more item in the envelope. She pulled it out and peered at the coloured photograph, bringing it close to her eyes, holding it out at arm’s length, then bringing it closer again, staring in disbelief. Her eyesight was topnotch.

Mary gasped, sounds that tumbled out as blubbery, incoherent noises. Her body shivered in confusion. What was tearing through her mind was incredulous. As she wondered if it could possibly be true, a nanosecond of doubt came, then disappeared in a flash. She watched uncertainty fly out of her shut window then bounce back. Her head lurched forward, dramatically, toward the photo. The hole in her heart wasn’t sure what to do, close over or expand and explode. It fluttered, unsure.

Alone and flustered, her hand raced to her chest as she muttered to the photo, ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Mary, mother of God, who am I looking at?’ Squeezing eyebrows together, staring at the photo, she wondered if it was possible to believe she recognised who was in the photo. Multiple questions clashed in midair, their conflicting answers ricocheted off the walls. The hole in her heart shrunk a teeny bit while quivering wildly.

She wouldn’t be rushing to tell Colleen. If her hunch was true, this news was massive. This inkling felt like her whole life was racing past her eyes at the speed of lightening.

Mary gazed at each person in the photograph, looking at the people she didn’t know, popping three images deep into her sharp brain. She knew what her son looked like, so really, she just tucked two new images away to be pulled out in a moment’s flash. Oh, how she looked forward to drawing these mental pictures out at whim, especially when trying to go to sleep.

‘Now, where can I hide this photograph?’ she muttered out aloud. Talking to herself was one way she coped with her crippling loneliness. Hiding the photo was imperative. No-one could see it. This was her prize secret.

There was nowhere safe in her bedroom. Mary hated sharing a room with her husband who was forever coughing, spluttering, spitting mess on the floor and in-between, verbally abusing her while she cleaned it. She feared the vocal lashings that came after imbibing the drink that their waster son Patrick smuggled in, desecrating her non-existent private space.

Mary stored her box of Connor’s letters in the attic, knowing that Callum no longer had enough breath to climb the steep stairs to the top space. It was too soon to put today’s envelope there. She needed time to gaze in wonder at the photograph and to hug it tenderly. These days, Patrick raided her handbag for spare coins, so she couldn’t put it there. Since she’d caught him stealing, there were fewer coins left. He wasn’t even embarrassed at being caught. She felt shame, that’s not how she’d raised him.

As much as she disliked the idea, Mary realised that it would have to go into her hidey-hole. This was in the one place where the two drunks never went any more, the pigsty. There was a clean, dry, stone cavity beside an inner wooden ledge, right behind a protective solid beam. No insects, dirt or rain fell near that spot. Many a time it had been the safe keeper of mysterious things.

Dermot and Donagh knew of its existence. Sometimes they watched her poking bits and pieces there. The twins were trustworthy, they didn’t even peep, not that she saw.

Mary recalled the day Donagh had said, ‘don’t be shy Ma, it can be yer special hiding spot.’

Dermot had confirmed, ‘we have nothing to hide.’

Pulling her work boots on, Mary sloshed out to the pigsty, took a last peep at the photograph, captured the picture into her alert mind, hugged the photo to her bosom, put it back reverently into the decorative envelope and slipped it into the cavity. She was relieved that the twins were nowhere in sight. Today, this was her secret, her surprise alone.

‘Oh my God,’ she told the uninterested pigs, half laughing, half crying, ‘I’ve seen tha photograph with my own eyes. Who was I lookin’ at? It makes no sense at all.’ Her heart was so full she felt like doing a wild jig on the spot. Instead, she bowed her head and whispered aloud, ‘Oh, Mary, Mother of God, I thank ye. I think my prayers just might be being answered.’

Unaware of her actions, her hand went instinctively to her heart. Today, no finger slipped through any hole. Instead, head bowed, she crossed herself, forehead, chest, front of left shoulder, front of right shoulder. For once, she felt whole.

Mary placed the invitation with its fancy gold lettering on the kitchen mantelpiece for all to see. That news could be shared. She’d show her sister when she visited next. Colleen would help her to choose a lovely outfit. For such a unique occasion, it had to be exceptional, fancier than anything she’d ever bought. There was a bit of money tucked aside. The twins made sure the farm was prospering reasonably well.

Mary wondered what colour dress she should purchase. Perhaps green or deep blue, or she’d read that fashions change, apparently, you can wear red with red hair. All her life she’d avoided it, playing safe. It was time to be daring.

Instinctively, again, her hand went to her chest. Today, the hole in her heart didn’t feel quite so vast. Peering into her sharp brain photo, she smiled with fresh contentment.

She went to the top drawer of the oak dresser and took out her best writing paper. Mary adored language. Her mother had been a great talker and as a youngster, Mary was a chatterbox. Life had drained her of conversation. Now, written words fascinated her the most. As well as reading books, she liked to write letters, seeing words spread across the page in an orderly fashion. Slightly skewed here, one letter crooked there, mostly in a straight line. Her acceptance was brief.

My dear son,

Your father is his predictable self. Your brothers are grand, except for one, who is his customary, unreliable person.

I’d love to come to Australia for the awards night. Congratulations on your fine achievement. I’m proud of ye. Give Sinead a big hug.

Your loving Ma.

Mary folded the paper, getting the midway crease right, making sure that the pages fit properly into the envelope before licking the back flap, neatly writing Connor’s name and address on the front and her name on the back, finally placing the stamp in place. Oh, how she hated it when the stamp was crooked. She positioned it precisely in the top right-hand corner. Being orderly in daily routines kept her sane.

Today, she looked forward to the walk to the village to post the letter. Her cheery mood welcomed the sunshine that was threatening to shine as nature’s gift to embrace. Opening her hands, palms up, she received the rays’ warmth as sunbeams streamed through the window. Hastily making a list of a few groceries she needed to purchase after dropping the letter in the post-box, she grabbed her rattan basket and left home, a spring in her step.

Life appeared pleasantly different to the mundanity she had woken to. Mary hugged the anticipatory hope that burst through her spirit like she was fit to explode in a kaleidoscope of vivid rainbow colours. Today’s joy knew no bounds.

Chapter 2

Mary’s Mother, Belfast, 1941

Childish delight oozed through Mary’s thin young body. Today, she had her mother all to herself, just the two of them sitting in the warm, snug kitchen, chattering endlessly, ignoring the blustery, wet outdoors that could dampen one’s mood.

Mary’s hand plunged into the large bowl as she rubbed tiny pieces of butter into the flour. ‘Tis a light touch we need,’ her mother reminded her.

‘I’m trying my hardest. I want to make the best scones ever.’

Bridget’s warm laugh reverberated off the walls and bounced back to make Mary’s face glow. ‘Ah, you’ve a long way to go, my dear. There’s many a woman who’d like to take that title in our neighbourhood.’

‘Imagine that Ma, what if my scones were judged the best at the local show?’ Mary giggled.

Bridget’s face crinkled in sadness. ‘There’ll be no show while this war goes on.’ Then she put her happy face back on and hugged her girl. ‘Come on pet, let’s get an egg in and some milk, there’s only a bit to spare.’

‘I wish Colleen was here to try them.’

‘We all wish your sister came home more often. Remember, she loves workin’ in Belfast.’

‘Last time she was home she told me she hates the pigs.’

‘Colleen says a lot of funny things.’ Bridget’s face said a lot her young daughter couldn’t read.

A quick knead, a gentle roll with the old, chipped wooden rolling pin and the part Mary loved the most, pressing a small glass cup into the dough before plopping it onto the buttered tray. ‘Can we wipe milk on the top? I love the crust it makes.’

‘No sweetie, I can’t spare anymore, smear the spoon from the bowl you beat the egg in.’

If it wasn’t raining, Mary would have raced outside to let off steam, her impatience in waiting for the afternoon tea was great. Instead, she wiped the table clean while her mother lifted her favourite teapot down and lay out a tiny amount of homemade jam.

Bridget prepared herself to warn Mary what was happening soon. She waited until after their first cup of tea and second warm scone. ‘Now Mary, I’m off ta Belfast for a wee while to see yer sister. Also, I want to git ya somethin’ real special for yer birthday.’ She wasn’t going to tell her young daughter the main reason she was going. She was worried crazy about a note she’d received from her oldest daughter.

‘Please Mammy, I’d love a coat, a red coat, one that’s snuggly warm with a fake fur collar.’

‘I’ll have to see pet, you’re growin’ fast. Maybe I’ll get a generous storekeeper who’ll give me a reduction of the eleven coupons I need for a child’s coat. It’s still a lot from our annual allocation of sixty-six coupons.’ Bridget was proud of her bargaining skills. Mary shrugged. She’d watched her mother cleverly swapping ration coupons with all sorts of people. She had full confidence in her expertise to persuade.

‘Tell Colleen to come and visit us more often. I miss her somethin’ shockin’.’ Looking at her mother’s face, Mary had a hunch that buying her a birthday gift was only part of the reason why her Ma was making the big trip to Belfast.

The next day around the breakfast table, her three brothers’ heads down eating, Dermot, their father, muttered, ‘there’s a storm brewin’, mighty thunderheads are afoot.’ It was deliberately vague stuff. Despite being surrounded by grey clouds most days, the imagery was confusing to Mary. In her eleven years, she’d seen countless mists and fogs. Often, she wondered if grey dampness was to be her lot in life. She deliberated as to whether her father’s comment had something to do with her sister.

Ronan, the oldest brother, looked up. ‘Ma, you seem anxious about this trip to Belfast. Is our Colleen alright?’

‘I’m off to see, son. You know me, I’m a country lass. I love the sound and smells of farm life and knowin’ everyone in our neighbourhood. I don’t like leavin’.’ She’d hardly slept last night, rereading Colleen’s note over and over until she could memorise it. ‘I have ta go and see how our Colleen is.’

As Mary gave her mother a clinging hug goodbye, she overheard her father say, ‘You be careful Bridget, them Belfast ship-building yards could be a lethal target, I don’t like ya stayin’ so close.’

Mary was left wondering what that meant. Her mother looked edgy at the warning and threw her a final smile as an embrace. Her father stormed off to attend to the pigs.


The night before she was to meet her mother, Colleen awoke to hear the terrifying blast of what sounded like a bomb, echoes of frightening explosions rung through the air. It was 1941. She’d heard lots of rumours about a possible Luftwaffe attack.

Pulling on a quilted dressing gown, Colleen yelled to her housemates, workers from the linen mill. ‘Girls, get up, now.’ Bleary eyed, they stumbled out, ‘listen to the alarms, what shall we do?’

Three women, pulling something warmer on, stood in a huddle by the front door, two yanking warm scarves over their hair rollers. Niamh, the sensible one, opened the hutch to the