Stars of Hope

2024 Writing Award Sub-Category
2024 Young Or Golden Writer
Manuscript Type
Logline or Premise
Never lose hope – a photo tells why.

A Northern Irish schoolgirl turned pig farmer, a German prisoner-of-war, an adopted Belfast nurse, an Irish doctor, and a German spy, are thrown together in Australia. Stars of Hope is an intergenerational family saga appealing to book clubs.
First 10 Pages

Chapter 1

Mary’s Mother, Belfast

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 merrily, ignoring the blustery, wet outdoors that could dampen one’s mood.

Mary’s hand plunged into the mixing bowl as she rubbed little 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. Many a woman would like to take that title in our neighbourhood.’

‘Imagine that Ma, what if my scones were judged the best at the regional 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 few drops to spare.’

‘I wish Colleen was here to sample our baking.’

‘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 funny things.’ Bridget’s face revealed much that her youngest daughter could not read.

A quick knead, a gentle roll with the chipped, wooden, rolling pin, and the part Mary loved the most, pressing a small, glass cup into the dough before plopping it onto the greased 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 were not raining, Mary would have raced outside to let off steam. Her impatience waiting for the afternoon tea bubbled inside ready to explode. Instead, she wiped the table clean while her mother lifted her favourite teapot down and lay out a tiny amount of homemade, blackberry jam.

Anxiety spread across Bridget’s face, puckering her eyebrows. 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 get ya somethin’ special for yer birthday.’ She was not going to tell her daughter the main reason she was going. A note she had received from her oldest daughter left her worried with a crazy fear.

‘Please Mammy, I’d love a coat, a red coat, one that’s snuggly warm with a 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 a lot from our annual bundle of sixty-six coupons.’ Bridget was proud of her bargaining skills. Mary shrugged. She watched her mother cleverly swap ration coupons with all sorts of people. Mary had confidence in her expertise to persuade.

‘Ask Colleen to visit us. I miss her.’ Looking at her mother’s pinched face, Mary had a hunch that buying her a birthday gift was only part of the reason her Ma was making the big trip to Belfast.

At breakfast the next day, Mary’s brothers’ heads down as they shoveled porridge in, Dermot, their father, muttered, ‘there’s a storm brewin’, mighty thunderheads are afoot.’ Surrounded by grey clouds, the vague imagery confused Mary. In her eleven years, she had seen countless mists and fogs. Often, she wondered if grey dampness was to be her lot in life. A thoughtful girl, 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 well?’

‘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 had hardly slept last night, rereading Colleen’s note repeatedly until she could memorise it. ‘I have ta go and see how Colleen is.’

As Mary gave her mother a clinging hug, 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 wondered what that meant. Her mother looked edgy at the warning and threw her a final smile as an embrace. Her father stormed off to deal with 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. The rumours about a Luftwaffe attack belted her brain.

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 of bed. ‘Listen to the alarms, what shall we do?’

Three women, pulling something warmer on, stood in a huddle with Colleen by the front door, two yanking warm scarves over their hair rollers. Niamh, the sensible one, opened the hutch to the staircase and shoved the women under. ‘Quick, there’s no time to go to the air raid shelter, I can hear explosions close by. We can’t risk goin’ outside.’

Huddled together in the cramped space, knees folded up, bare feet overlocking, the women grasped a hand to hold. ‘It’s goin’ to be okay Sheila, don’t cry Laura,’ comforted Colleen to the younger ones. ‘I’ve found the torch.’ Low light was a mild pacifier.

‘But I’m scared,’ cried Sheila. ‘We might die.’ Niamh stroked her hand.

After an anxious wait, an eerie quietness descended as they crawled out of their tiny space. ‘Lady Luck shines on us again,’ pronounced Colleen, jollying the women along.

Niamh’s arms went around the two younger women as she steered them into the kitchen. ‘We’ll never sleep. I’ll make some cocoa, it’ll have to be watery. I think there’s bread for toast.’

Tiredness crashed over Laura as she fell asleep, head on the table. Subdued, the rest ate and drank, resting their heads on each other’s shoulders.

A new morning dawned, and the women saw the concern on Colleen’s face as she declared, ‘I’m off to meet my Ma. I hope I can find her. After last night, I don’t know what I’ll discover.’

Only Niamh knew Colleen’s story after she’d broken down and confided in her. Niamh placed her hands on Colleen’s cheeks. ‘I know where you said yer Mammy was stayin’. The explosions seemed to come from that direction. Brace yourself, my dear friend.’

Colleen’s bravado rarely failed. ‘Everything will be fine. Take care girls. Cheerio.’

As Colleen walked out of the door, a landscape of chaos hit. The closer she got to the neighbourhood where her mother was staying, the more her heart raced. Looking upwards, she saw missing roof tops, looking downwards, she shook to see them dumped in a crumbled mess. Chimney pots lay fallen, bricks were tumbling down, holes exposed yawning clefts in private lives. In one house, she saw family pictures leaning on a mantelpiece, telling stories of a life once lived. Half-drunk cups of tea sat on a kitchen table with no-one to finish them. She imagined that upstairs, children lay in beds, curled foetal-like, squashed teddy-bears cuddled in cold, lifeless arms. Tears trickled down her cheeks.

Next door was a flattened house, then Colleen blinked twice at an intact building standing, protected, unsure why. The hit or not-hit pattern appeared random, sending confused tremors down her spine.

By the time Colleen reached the docks area where her mother had been staying, she saw streets crowded with stunned people. People stood, eyes glazed, absorbing nothing but shock. Colleen watched people search with frantic frenzy under the wreckage for missing friends, family, neighbours. She saw soldiers haphazardly throwing bits of wood and bricks in mounting piles, creating a semblance of order from total disorder. Admiration rushed into her as she watched a pretense of normality while bedlam reigned. Then Colleen shivered, feeling the human calamity palpable in the air, in the looks of incredulity, the glassy eyes no longer seeing, the faint cries of disoriented children, wandering, lost, suddenly made orphans.

Stumbling about, losing her footing, tripping over dusty debris, Colleen saw bodies lying still. The first dead man sent her reeling backwards in intense distress.

She muttered to herself, ‘Who were you? What’s yer life story? Does yer family know where you are?’ Bracing herself, she hardened as she saw the second, third, fourth, dead bodies. She stopped counting. Then the adding mechanically returned, keeping her in control of her fright. She lost count, unable to absorb the thorough dreadfulness of what surrounded her. It would not take much to lose her nerve and she could not do that until she discovered her Ma. Everyone else looked like her, thoroughly bewildered, utterly terrified, unspeakably grief-stricken.

Gazing into the narrowed eyes of a small, skinny boy whose look of horror was immeasurable, Colleen shuddered. Never had she witnessed such consternation in a child’s eyes. If you can touch fear, she had stroked it.

All he said was, ‘look.’

‘Look at what?’ When she saw who he was pointing to, his index finger shaking up and down, she gasped for air, faint in disbelief. ‘No!’ The pathos of her cry sounded like every compassionate emotion she had ever possessed awakened from a soporific languor that screeched its dismay to the heavens.

There in front of her, she saw her mother’s body lying under the rubble, eyes open, as if she were taking in the tragedy. Colleen waited for the customary, spontaneous laughter that should burst from her Ma’s mouth in greeting. She waited in vain. Ma was dancing with the angels, whisked away to heavenly safety.

‘Is it yer Ma?’ the boy asked, watching her from a close distance, an inescapable void.

Colleen nodded. Choking on dread, she wrapped her shivering arms around Ma’s familiar chest. Despite the bizarre setting, her stories came tumbling out, all the tales she should have told Ma ages ago, all the wretched anecdotes she had intended to divulge today. She spilled the beans, every messy one.


As she travelled home to notify the family of the terrible news, Colleen’s shell shock left her heart fluttering. Her hands trembled uncontrollably, she gripped them, easing the jitters. Ma was the life and soul of the family, the foundational rock. Colleen decided she needed to mightily fudge the story. At the train station, a neighbour saw Colleen’s glum face, gestured, and helped her into his pony trap.

Mary was the first to see her alight by their front gate. She screamed, ‘Da, Colleen is home. What’s she doin’ without Ma?’

‘Don’t be sillie girlie, yer Ma wouldn’t be home yet.’

‘Da, look,’ as she dragged him across to the window. Colleen trudged up the path dragging one boot after the next, her face sombre, not a sparkle in the eyes, nor an amusing greeting she typically screeched to her sister.

As if she had rehearsed her plan, she barked orders. ‘Mary, git our brothers to come and sit around the kitchen table.’


‘Git them, now.’ She had never spoken to or looked at Mary like this. Their Da saw.

Five sets of eyes glued on Colleen. She had rehearsed the scene on the train but was struggling to restrain her tears. She looked up at the clock, it beat the only sound, and in a whisper said, ‘Ma was hit by a German bomb.’ No-one spoke. The clocks’ tick sounded like an explosive. ‘Da, yer Bridget is dead.’

‘No girlie, that can’t be true.’ His head shook vehemently from left to right in quick succession.

Nodding, she replied, ‘it is true.’

‘What happened, Colleen?’ Ronan, the oldest asked.

‘Last night, my flatmates and I heard the bombs explode. We hid under our staircase. We were lucky, our area wasn’t hit. The noise of the blasts was terrifying, like the end of the world was nigh. In the mornin’ when I set out to meet Ma, I saw tragedy after tragedy. Belfast is a mess, like a war zone. Ma was stayin’ right in the middle of the worst hit area.’

Still, no one could speak. White shocked faces stared at Colleen as if they were in their worst nightmare. Dermot lifted his head to look at his daughter as if he’d never seen her. ‘I warned ’er, so I did. What do ya mean tragedy after tragedy?’

‘Da, the bombs killed so many people. Bodies lay everywhere, men, women, children, babies.’

‘How did you find Ma?’ Ronan asked, trying to stay strong.

‘Where is Ma?’ whimpered Padraig, the youngest brother.

‘Gone, she’s gone.’

‘What do you mean, gone?’ asked Niall, the middle brother, vacant, unable to absorb the horror.

‘Bejayzus daughter, tell us what happened.’ Dermot’s face reddened with angry unbelief.

‘I am Da, this ain’t easy.’ Colleen took a colossal breath, turning to look at her sister for courage and then at the four men around the table.

Mary squeezed her hand. ‘We need to know Colleen, tell us more.’ Already, Mary was visualising her mother’s body, dead, lying amidst rubble and debris, people stepping over her, tripping on a brick, trying not to fall and touch someone whose life was expunged.

‘I knew where Ma was stayin’. As I said that area was hit the heaviest. I was searchin’ everywhere, and a wee boy pointed at a body, and I couldn’t believe it, it was our Ma.’

‘Oh God.’ Ronan could no longer restrain his tears.

‘Go on,’ Mary urged. The calmest around the table, shock overtaking painful reality, she needed facts so she could picture the scene.

‘I put my head on her chest and whispered secrets, things I was goin’ to tell her today. It rained. My tears were as raindrops.’ She paused, remembering how the boy had touched her shoulder and pointed. Only then had she seen that brick boulders lying on her mother’s body had sliced her legs off. She had told her tales of woe to the top half of Ma’s body, the cosy chest she had lain on as a child, the place she’d felt safe, protected, nurtured. She couldn’t tell her family this truth.

‘Then what?’ Dermot squeaked.

‘I closed Ma’s eyelids, crossed meself, and said, In nominee Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus, Sancti, Amen.’ Colleen paused, recalling how surprised she’d been that the Latin words had returned. Standing in a Protestant stronghold, her words struck her as strange. Instinctively, the family crossed themselves.

‘Where’s me Bridget’s body?’

This was the question Colleen feared the most. She’d known she would have to fabricate the account. Mary would never manage the details. Da would never cope knowing the truth that soldiers had told her that without cranes, no-one could lift the boulder off Ma’s legs, and that they had begun to collect the dead to carry to a mass grave. In a muffled voice, Colleen looked down at a random scratch on the table as the words stumbled out, ‘she’s gone.’

Her father screamed his cry, ‘Mary, Mother of God, why Colleen, why? How can she be gone? Where is me Bridget lying? Tell me daughter, where?’

Colleen watched the family strain to hear her reply. ‘I don’t know Da. I just dunno.’ It was a horrible truth.

Dermot’s rage exploded. This uncertainty was incomprehensible. Anger overtook grief. He screamed his wrath. ‘That can’t be true. Daughter, tell me it ain’t true. Who took ’er body away? Who cleansed her and released ’er spirit?’

‘Da, you have ta understand, Belfast is like a war zone, soldiers are ramblin’ everywhere. They look weary and distressed, but they are kind. There wasn’t a chance to cleanse our Ma, but I made sure her spirit was freed. It was. You’ve gotta believe me. I prayed over her body; God rest her soul. I felt her spirit leave in the air surroundin’ us, so I did.’ She truly had.

Dermot, gasping for air, wishing that it were shared air, repeated his question, forcing each word out. ‘Colleen, where is me wife’s body?’

‘I’ve told ya Da, them British soldiers took her away. Sure, they were considerate in doin’ so. It is what it is.’ Colleen’s brave front wavered.

‘Did you give her a kiss from me?’

‘Sure, I did, Mary pet,’ she shuddered, remembering warm lips to cold skin as she watched the soldiers remove the part of her body where her head, brain and heart once resided, as well as those bodily parts that had given birth to her and her siblings, all the sensual components that made her Mammy fully human. She was never going to tell anyone the whole truth that they only took her top half. That was too much agony to share. All her life, she would bear that fact alone, as well as the unnerving sight of legs cut off, sticking out under a monstrous, concrete boulder.

‘Where is ’er body?’

Colleen’s head drooped in confession. ‘Da, I dunno where they took her body.’

On hearing this news restated, it sunk in. Rock-bottom. Dermot screamed a frightening, blood-curling, unheard-of sound. Everyone trembled while their heads shook in nervous shock. The daughters’ linked hands quivered, the sons’ faces went paler.

‘Christ Almighty, no, no, no,’ and their father stomped outside in the lashing rain, forgetting to console or hug his children. He had lost a beloved wife. They had lost their treasured mother. This was an unbearable bereavement.

Norms of manliness disappeared as Padraig cried, ‘oh Mammy, no, I want me Mammy.’ There was no mother to comfort him.

Ronan tried to restrain his tears, before muttering, ‘how will we manage? How will Da cope? How will any of us survive without our Ma?’ His eyes were too wet to stop the tears cascading. This was the first time his younger brothers had witnessed him crying.

Niall, looking up to Ronan, answered, ‘we’ll struggle every day,’ and his whimpers were low sounds of pathos. He had never lost a mother before.

Colleen was as still as a cold statue. Tender inside the hard exterior. She had had time to process trickles of grief.

Mary asked, ‘what happened to the wee boy who showed you, our Ma?’

At this question, Colleen felt a sharp pang of guilt. He had been a peculiar companion in heartache, and she hadn’t even asked him his name. ‘I dunno love, overnight he was probably left an orphan.’

Mary heard her three brothers’ cries, stood up, put the kettle on, and made a pot of tea, remembering that Ma always made sure that they kept an adequate supply of leaves stashed away. Whatever disaster happened, you couldn’t run out of tea leaves. The process of brewing a pot was calming. She thought it was fitting to reach for Ma’s best teapot. Mary poured the brew into five mugs.

She whispered to her siblings, ‘I wish our Ma hadn’t gone to Belfast. I wonder what she was buyin’ me for my birthday. I’ll hate my birthday forever. I’m never gonna celebrate it.’ The smack of this statement stung hard. Mary loved festivities.

No-one looked at her. A tangled net of private sorrow enmeshed everyone. Not a single tear dropped down Mary’s eleven-year-old face. Appearing composed, she gazed about, absorbing the intense pain evident on troubled faces sharing immeasurable grief.

Then, it was like all the combined hurt piled together and jumped inside. The pit in Mary’s heart began from that moment. A mysterious, horrid creature wielding a small, sharp, metal hammer began tap, tap, tapping, then in fury, with an iron shovel, it began dig, dig, digging. In a frightening short space of time, an ugly, jagged crater formed inside her. She could feel its presence, but could not pull the tiny, obnoxious beast out. It clung fiercely on, doing its awful, dirty work. Job accomplished.

The five siblings sat around the table, the young women sipping, the men slurping tea, not speaking a word, lost in distressed thoughts. Motherless, anchorless, rudderless.

Mary looked up. ‘I think my heart has just broken.’ Her brothers nodded and cried noisy, masculine sobs. Colleen walked outside, breathing deeply, letting her grief flit across the paddocks.