Authors: Judi Curtin
To penfriends everywhere.
Thanks to Mary, Helen and all at The O’Brien Press for their help, and to all who had a hand, act or part in the making of this book. Thanks to anyone who pays good money for it, and thanks especially to everyone who curls up someplace quiet to read it – we need people like you.
Just as he was going up to his room to write the first letter, Luke Mitchell gave himself a black eye.
It happened about halfway up the stairs, when his foot caught in a raggy bit of the carpet and he put up his hands to keep himself from falling – somehow he managed to whack himself in one eye with a corner of the notebook he was carrying.
‘What happened to you?’ His mother opened the front door as he came stumbling down, holding his hands over his eye.
‘I fell up the stairs.’ That sounded funny and made him giggle a bit, but his eye still stung. ‘Ow.’
His mother shrugged her coat off and pulled Luke’s hands away as she examined his eye. ‘You’ll
live, but you’ll have a fine shiner there tomorrow. Splash some cold water on it.’
‘I fell up the stairs,’ Luke told his father, but it was a bad day, and his father didn’t turn his face from the wall.
The cold water helped a little. When the stinging had almost stopped, Luke trudged back upstairs to tackle his penfriend letter. It was the first letter he’d ever written in his life, apart from the ones he’d sent to Santa when he was small, and they didn’t really count, according to his teacher.
Mrs Hutchinson said letter writing was becoming a lost art. ‘Put up your hand if you’ve never written a letter, apart from Santa ones,’ she said, and hands went up all over the class.
‘When I was your age,’ Mrs Hutchinson told them, ‘everyone wrote letters. There was no email, or text, and certainly no mobile phones. We wrote to our friends and posted the letters, and I remember how excited I’d get when I saw an envelope with my name on it coming in through the letter-box.’
Mrs Hutchinson was somewhere between twenty-five and sixty. Luke wasn’t very good at guessing people’s ages. Her hair was bright red, but that could have been fake – maybe it was snow white underneath. And when she pressed her mouth
together, a row of lines appeared above her top lip, like the folds of an accordion. She was probably quite old, at least thirty.
‘Why do we need to write letters now, when we have all the other stuff that you said?’ Luke asked her.
Mrs Hutchinson sighed and pushed her glasses higher up on her nose.
‘Because writing letters is an exercise in patience,’ she said. ‘Because people nowadays have forgotten what it feels like to have to wait for something. And because maybe, just maybe, it’ll help your spelling and grammar too. Oh, and no typing – I want you to practise your handwriting, so stay away from those computers.’
She had a friend, she told them, who was a teacher in England. ‘In a school in Manchester, and they’re all dying for Irish penfriends.’
, just as much as we’re all dying for English ones.
‘Can we choose a boy or a girl?’ one of the girls asked, and everyone groaned when Mrs Hutchinson shook her head.
‘They’re going to pull your envelopes out of a hat. There are more girls than boys in that class, so it’s the only fair way to do it. You take whoever you get.’
She handed out empty envelopes and got them to copy the address of the English school from the blackboard. ‘Bring them back with a stamp on, and your letter inside, before Friday.’
‘Will you be reading the letters?’ a boy asked.
Mrs Hutchinson considered. ‘Not unless you want me to – letters should be private. Just make sure they’re interesting and polite, and watch your spelling. Use a dictionary to spell words you’re not sure of.’
Now, as he wondered what on earth to write, Luke chewed the end of his biro and hoped like mad that a boy pulled his envelope out. It was bad enough having to write to anyone, but if he got a girl, it would be an utter disaster.
What did girls talk about? He had no idea, even with two sisters in the house. Anne was still such a baby, and Helen hadn’t said a word to him in well over a year, unless you counted ‘Pass the salt’, or ‘Shut up, you’.
He picked up the stamp he’d bought on the way home. It had a picture of a man’s head on it. The man had long curly hair and looked like a right dork. Luke read
Patrick Sarsfield 1650 – 1693
underneath the picture. He licked the back of the stamp and stuck it upside down in the corner of his envelope.
‘It’s good to stand on your head,’ he told Patrick
Sarsfield. ‘It sends blood to your brain.’
Then he turned to the first page of the notebook he’d bought on his way home from school. What on earth could he say?
Not the truth anyway – no way could he write the truth. Nobody would want to hear that. After a few minutes he took the biro out from between his teeth and began.
My name is Luke Mitchell. I’m eleven years and eight months old, and one hundred and fifty-three centimetres tall, and I have jet black hair with electric blue tips, and my nose and left eyebrow are pierced. I have a tattoo of a unicorn on my shoulder, and I’m a genius on the computer.
My older sister is a model and is often on the cover of magazines. My father is an astronaut and is training to be the first Irishman in space. We live in a big house out the country, with a lake in the back garden, and we own three racehorses. Their names are Thunder, Rocket and Diamond. Last year Rocket won a race in Leopardstown, which is a big famous racecourse in
Dublin, and we got
10,000. My father bought me a new laptop computer, the latest model.
In my spare time I like mountain climbing and white water rafting. I’ve climbed Carrauntouhill, Ireland’s highest mountain, three times, and last summer I went white water rafting in Turkey. What are your hobbies?
Must go now – I have tons of homework.
Elma stamped her way down the school corridor and out the front door, closing it behind her with a huge ear-shattering slam. Boys, boys, boys! Everywhere she went that day, there were boys causing her trouble. When she’d got up that morning, her two brothers, Zac and Dylan, were sitting on the landing, with their usual list of questions: were there any clean trousers, where were their schoolbags, and what was for breakfast?
When Elma got downstairs, things weren’t much better. Out in the back yard, Snowball, the huge boy-Alsatian (and the ugliest creature in the history of the world) was howling for his food. And when she brought out his bowl, piled high with stinky brown
jelly stuff, Snowball didn’t even lick her hand in gratitude like dogs are supposed to. Instead he bared his huge yellow teeth, and looked at her as if to say –
be quicker next time, or I just might bite your hand off.
When Elma finally got to school, Evil Josh, the meanest boy in the world, spent the whole day calling her names and doing his best to get her into trouble. And then the worst thing of all happened …
Mrs Lawrence had been going on for weeks about her friend, Mrs Hutchinson, who was a teacher in Ireland, and how the children in her year wanted to be penfriends with the children in Mrs Lawrence’s year. That was bad enough, but then it turned out that there were more girls in Elma’s year, and more boys in Mrs Hutchinson’s year, and so they would have to draw names from a hat, so that it would be fair. And of course, Elma picked a boy’s name, someone called Luke. Darren, who sat next to her, picked a girl’s name, and Elma wanted to swap, but swotty Darren said he wanted to abide by Mrs Lawrence’s decision, and besides, he didn’t have any problem about corresponding with a girl. And then Elma ended up in trouble, and she hadn’t kicked Darren that hard at all, really.
So now she had to be penfriends with this stupid Luke Mitchell. And when Mrs Lawrence handed out
the letters, Tara and Emily and all the other girls at her table got great girly letters, all decorated with hearts and flowers and stuff, and Elma got a big heap of ugly writing and lies from Luke Mitchell. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Luke seemed to be too stupid to stick on his stamp properly, so Elma was the only one in the whole class who got an envelope with an upside-down stamp.
Tara was nice, though. When it was her turn for the computer that afternoon, she spent ages on the Internet, and she found out for definite sure that Luke Mitchell seemed to have mixed up truth and fiction. There was no space programme in Ireland, so his dad couldn’t be an astronaut. She also discovered that even though Leopardstown really is a racecourse (and not a zoo like it sounded) no horse called Rocket had ever won a race there – ever. So that was another big fat lie.
Still, Elma wasn’t exactly planning on telling the whole truth either, whenever she got around to answering Luke the Liar’s letter. But she was just going to tell small lies; ones that stupid Luke would never know were lies; ones that didn’t matter at all, really. After all, the full truth of Elma’s life was much too sad to expose to a rich and happy Irish boy who climbed mountains for fun.
When she got to the school gate at the end of the day, Zac and Dylan were there – waiting, as usual – waiting for Elma to take charge of their lives.
As soon as they got home, the boys followed her around the house asking lots of questions. Some were easy, like, ‘what’s seven plus six?’ or ‘how do you spell monkey?’ but some were harder, like, ‘can I have two pounds for school?’ and ‘what’s for tea?’
Dad was lying on the couch watching the National Geographic Channel on TV, and acting like he didn’t have three children. This wasn’t unusual, though, that’s what he did all day every day. Elma felt like running in and shaking him and demanding that he help her. She didn’t bother, though. She’d given up on him ages ago. She knew exactly what he’d say.
Sorry, Princess. I’d love to help you but I can’t. My back’s very bad today. If you’re going through the kitchen, though, throw on a few fish fingers for me
So, as usual, Elma had to tidy up the breakfast things that were still scattered around the kitchen, and make the tea. And as usual, Snowball was outside pacing the yard, and growling every now and then, just because that was the kind of thing he seemed to do for fun.
It was late by the time Elma got upstairs to start her homework. She heard her mother’s key in the
front door, but ignored it. She was too tired for a chat; too tired to pretend that she’d had a nice day. She closed the door of the bedroom she shared with the boys. (The house only had two bedrooms, and her parents needed one to fight in.) She pushed Zac’s comics off the small table in the corner, ripped a page from an old exercise book she found on the bed, scrabbled around on the floor until she found a pen that worked, and started to write.
ear Luke Mitchell,
Thanks for your letter. My name is Elma Davey. I’m eleven years old, and too grown up to add on the months of my age like some people do. I haven’t got any tattoos.
I live in a lovely house near Manchester, with my mum, my dad, and my sweet little sister, Jessica. Jessica is only ten months old, but she can say lots of words already. She has long blonde hair, and she loves it when I brush it for her.
Lucky you, having three racehorses. Next time why don’t you send me a picture of you standing next to them? I’d love to see that.
We were going to buy a racehorse once, but it turned out that my mum was allergic, so we got a kitten called Snowball instead.
She’s all grown up now. (Snowball, I mean, not my mum. Mum was grown up already.) She sleeps on my bed, because I’m her favourite person in the whole world.
My hobbies are ballet, and playing the violin and playing with Snowball.
Must go – this is my homework, and I think it’s finished.