Extract: Martha's Girls

Author Arlene Hughes's semi-autobiographical novel recalls Easter in Belfast during the Second World War

The Belfast Waterworks was a twenty minute walk from Joanmount, a stretch of open land with reservoirs where, seventy years before, water was treated and pumped to the growing city.

Now it was a place of recreation with pleasure boats, bandstands and gentle slopes where families could roll and chase their hard-boiled eggs on an Easter Sunday.

Martha spread out the old blanket and set out the picnic.

Sheila and Irene went to paddle in a stream and came back with stories of jam jars, nets and sticklebacks.

‘Honestly, the boys were catching them so easy,’ said Sheila. ‘They let me have a go with the net. On the end of a long cane it was. They said they’re thruppence at the wee shop where they sell ice cream. Could I get one, Mammy?’

‘Even if you got one, you haven’t a jam jar.’

‘I could come back tomorrow...’

Their neighbours, the McKee boys, came past with some serious fishing tackle and stopped to talk to Pat and Peggy.

‘They said we could go out in a rowing boat later if we wanted to, all of us.’

‘Right,’ said Martha, ‘we’ll have the picnic now because we don’t want the sandwiches and lemonade to get warm. Then we’ll go on the boats and last of all we’ll have the egg-rolling contest. How’s that?’

The sandwiches on pan bread were neatly made, even Peggy ate the crusts, and the bottles of mineral were passed round.

‘You know what?’ said Pat. ‘I think this is going to be one of those special days that we’ll remember forever.’

‘Why’s that?’ said Irene.

‘I don’t know, but when we’re old we’ll say to each other, "Do you remember that Easter Sunday in 1940 when we all went to the Waterworks for a picnic?"’

They sat quietly and thought about that possibility.

‘I think you might be right,’ said Martha and she took a camera from her handbag.

‘Where’d you get that?’

‘Is there a film in it?’

‘There’d be no point in bringing it if there wasn’t. I borrowed it from Jack and Betty and the chemist put a film in it for me.’

They took it in turns to pose individually, then in twos, threes, and when the McKee boys returned from fishing they arranged themselves on the grass for a family photo; Martha in the middle, Irene and Pat on either side, and Peggy and Sheila kneeling up behind them with their hands on their sisters’ shoulders.

The trip on the rowing boats didn’t go as planned. Martha was standing on the jetty waiting to be helped into the boat when she suddenly decided she couldn’t do it and no amount of persuasion or firm hands could get her to step on to the rocking boat. In the end, Pat stayed with her and the two of them waved every time the boats went by.

‘Now it’s time for the grand egg-rolling contest!’ shouted Sheila.

The eggs had been boiled in tea to stain them and everyone had decorated their own using Sheila’s old paints. Finally, they had put them all in a wicker basket decorated with ribbons. At the top of the hill, Sheila took control of the proceedings to ensure fair play. ‘On the count of three, roll, don’t throw. Then run after it and roll again. First to the bottom with a whole egg wins!’

‘Wins what?’ shouted Peggy.

‘Wait and see,’ said Martha.

They rolled and screamed and tumbled and cheated and accused and laughed all the way to the bottom.

‘I’m the winner, so I am!’ shouted Irene. ‘What’s the prize?’

‘You get to eat the egg!’

‘Ach no,’ wailed Irene. ‘I hate hard-boiled eggs.’

‘Not that egg,’ said Martha, ‘this one!’ And she held up a chocolate Easter egg with the faces of the Five Boys on the box.

There were shrieks of delight and Irene had to hold her prize in the air while her sisters leapt up and down trying to grab it. ‘Where on earth did you get it, Mammy?’

‘You’d be surprised at the very important people I know, who can lay their hands on a substantial piece of chocolate in a time of scarcity.’

‘What?’ said Sheila.

‘I think that’s a very grand way of saying she has some cousins who own a shop,’ laughed Pat.

They ate the chocolate and no one spoke, for any distraction would reduce the pleasure of chocolate melting in their mouths. Afterwards, they lay on the grass in the warm sunshine and listened to the humming of insects, the birds and the children playing.

And the thought of war entered no one’s head.

On the way home Sheila, not too old to hold her mother’s hand, said, ‘I loved today, Mammy. Can this be our new tradition? Next Easter Sunday can we come here and do everything again, just the same?’

‘Of course we can, love. Why wouldn’t we?’

Martha's Girls is out now, published by Blackstaff Press.