It seems strange but also funny to me now that when I was a child, Lent was something we rather enjoyed. It was a particularly catholic way around things, that though we gave something up, we also made a challenge of it and actually accumulated, rather than being properly deprived.

What I mean is we made ‘Lent boxes’ into which you would hoard the sweets you were abstaining from, only to have their quantity grow as the 40 days passed, so by Easter there was a veritable feast awaiting – never mind Easter eggs.

The lure of the Lent box was so strong that my best friend, who was culturally protestant, but from an atheist family, decided she would have one too. Every Saturday we would go for a sleepover – though we didn’t call it that then – with her aunt. She was a retired nurse who had never married and had no children, and consequently, loved to spoil us.

We would bring our Lent boxes and add to them the treats she had ready for us. The effect was that of a jewel box. We’d watch Cliff Richard’s show and take out all the brightly wrapped, shiny forbidden things and smell them, feel them, count them and generally, salivate over them, and Cliff. Even at that young age, around nine or 10 years old, we somehow understood the link between lust and gluttony.

Feeling of closeness

On another Lent, instead of going to mass, my cousin and I spent the evening making a birthday card for Ben Murphy of Alias Smith and Jones. I remember the lovely feeling of closeness and cosiness as we decorated a handmade card including a picture of Pete Duel, his fellow actor who had died, and wrote inside, ‘We loved him too’.

The only address we had was the one that appeared at the end of each episode – ‘Universal Studios, Universal Plaza, Universal City, California’ and so we put that on it, sent it and waited. Lo and behold, a good eight weeks later, a letter with the same magical address stamped on it found its way onto the mat of my house in Sion Mills. It might as well have come from outer space.

I now know there is a term for the special feeling we got as girls in these moments of shared closeness. It is called ASMR – autonomous sensory meridian response – a feeling of blissful relaxation and drowsiness that comes from paying attention to and being paid attention by another person.

We got it also when we brushed each other’s hair; when we drew together; when we created movie magazines – making up bizarre stories about the stars we loved, ‘Paul Newman loses his wife in a game of poker’ or ‘Dustin Hoffman wants to be pregnant’.

I think there is something touching when I think of us as little girls sharing these intense moments of happiness and intimacy at a time in the 1970s when outside such awful violence was occurring. Not 500 yards from the house of the aunt we’d stay with on Saturday nights in the village, was the police station, which would be blown up, but at the time I had no real sense of that fear.

Safe worlds

We were both creating our own safe worlds to protect ourselves and at the same time reaching out to the bigger world through music and film. Belfast writer Dawn Watson’s book We Play Here describes brilliantly the world of a gang of little girls on a rough Belfast housing estate and their sense of exhilaration in each other as they made the city their own, despite the darkness all around them.

‘Yeah! As the shivering bus stopped,

I heard myself think,

This day is beautiful.

In star jumps we passed through

its pleated doors

And past the driver up the wet,

grubby gangway…

Go on girls,

Right youse are!

Everything’s going to be all right.’

This month’s prompt

Think of a shared activity you did with a friend. Describe what the activity was, where it took place and what you remember of how it felt to be with someone else in such closeness and friendship. Try if you can to give some sense of your child self’s way of looking at the world and be as specific as you can in your descriptions.

If you’d like to send in your writing, please email it to

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