Class 6B of St Philomena’s school was as noisy as a chimpanzees’ tea party. Everyone was talking about the Cricklemarsh Easter Egg Hunt, which was to be held as usual on Easter Saturday in the church grounds. Sister Boniface, their small and plump RE teacher, rapped a ruler smartly on the front desk.
“Children, by all that’s blessed, SHUSH!” she bellowed, bouncing up and down on her tiptoes.
“As I was saying, this year we’re all going to think of something very special to give up for Lent.” A low groan greeted the news. The chocolate hunt was one thing, but Lent was, well, a six-and-a-half week yawn.
Izzie was staring out of the window, one of her very bad habits. She imagined herself finding the Grand Egg, the biggest chocolate egg in the whole hunt: at least a foot tall and made specially from a secret recipe by Antoine, a famous confectioner with a shop on the village high street. It wasn’t just delicious, there was always a special prize hidden in the middle. Naturally, for such a fabulous egg, you had to answer some difficult clues to find where it was hidden. Izzie had never been quick enough before. That brainbox Aisha had found it last year, nestling in the branches of an ancient cherry tree. But this year...
“Isobel Watkins, float ing in the clouds with the angels again,” said Sister Boniface, her cherry red cheeks suddenly right next to Izzie, “write out 10 Hail Marys in your best handwriting after school.” Izzie pulled a face at Oliver, her best friend. “I don’t think Sister’s got a bonny face at the moment,” he whispered, “geddit?” Funny ha ha, thought Izzie, not.
Sister Boniface continued. The whole class had to think about one big thing that they were each going to give up for Lent – something out of the ordinary that they would really miss. They had to write it on a card and, one by one, come to the front of the class and read it out. All the cards would then be pinned to a special poster on the wall labelled “Our Pledges for Jesus”.
After a few minutes of scratching heads and noisy scribbling, the bottle-bottomed glasses of Sister Boniface circled the room and came to rest on ... Izzie. Oh no! Her mind had wandered off again, to a dream of creamy rich chunks of the Grand Egg, melting in her mouth. She hadn’t thought of any pledge.
All eyes were on her as she shuffled to the front, writing awkwardly on her card as she went. She felt like a complete lemon. “I’m going to give up ... chocolate biscuits.” Ugh, was that really the best her brain could come up with? There was a chorus of sarcastic “OOOOHs” and Sister B raised her eyes to heaven.
Izzie pinned her crumpled card to the poster. It looked pathetic. For someone who’d recently won the Year 6 badge for public speaking, this was total humiliation. On toast.
People after Izzie had much more interesting ideas to put on display. Jack, a complete telly addict, was going to give up TV in the evening to help his mum do the dishes. Pretty Georgie was saying goodbye to make-up and her favourite designer jeans at weekends (both of which were crucial to her just now). Everyone cheered.
Next came Aisha, a bit of a show off, who said: “Well I’m giving up playing my iPod for Lent, beat that!” People were impressed. Aisha was hardly ever seen outside class without those two white cords sticking out of her ears. Then her face fell as she realised what she had promised. She sat down and put her head in her hands.
“Well done, but it’s not a competition,” said Sister Boniface. “It’s about making an offering to the blessed Lord that is personal and important to you.” She glared at Izzie and twirled around to face a boy who was raising a laugh at the back.
“And no, Ben, you can’t give up swearing at your brother!” she cried.
“Really, Sister, I can carry on swearing?” said Ben.
“Saints and martyrs in heaven preserve us, no, that’s not the spirit!” said Sister Boniface. Somehow, she couldn’t quite conceal a little grin.
And so it continued, with all sorts of things, from favourite computer games to pocket money, being “offered up” for Lent. The last person to declare was Oliver. With great ceremony, he said he would stop buying his magazine Football Feast and watching matches on TV. Now that was serious. St Oliver, thought Izzie, feeling very put out. If only she had thought of something less cheesy than chocolate biscuits. To make things worse, she didn’t actually like them that much. Well, it was too late now. Izzie wondered if someone would call her a big cheat.
The next day was Shrove Tuesday, and in the evening Izzie’s mum was teaching her how to make pancakes. Mrs Watkins showed her how to hold the pan at an angle, pour a little blob of mixture into the hot oil and leave it to sizzle. Izzie’s first two stuck a bit, but by the third she was getting the hang of it. When her mum went into the hall to answer the phone, she tried tossing a pancake. Most of it landed on her head, making her baby brother Joshua clap wildly from his high chair.
Mrs Watkins came back in, tutting. “Whoops, sorry,” said Izzie, picking bits of pancake out of her hair. “Mum, what do you give up for Lent?” “Usually my favourite sherry,” said her mum. Yuk, thought Izzie, who couldn’t even take a sip without coughing. Then her tale of the pledge disaster came tumbling out. “It seems a bit square mum, but I really wish I’d thought of something special,” she said, her eyes suddenly a bit bleary.
“You are funny, Isobel Theresa Watkins, it’s not square in the least.” A consoling arm wrapped round her skinny shoulders. “It shows you care. I’m sure Sister Boniface won’t mind if you write a new pledge on your card tomorrow.” But what to choose? Izzie was in a real tizzy.
Later that night, she curled up underneath her Robbie Williams duvet as her mum turned out the light. “My mind’s gone blank,” she sighed, “I can’t think of anything good enough to give up.” “Don’t worry darling, something will come to you by the morning,” said her mum. “Why don’t you pray to St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, for some inspiration?” Ash Wednesday dawned, a bright, crisp February day. The whole school trooped along to St Philomena’s church and received ashes on their heads as a sign of penance. A shaft of golden sunlight shone through one of the stained glass windows and landed on Oliver, making his fair hair light up. Blessed Oliver, the patron saint of giver-uppers, thought Izzie with a tinge of jealousy. Why hadn’t St Jude helped her? It wasn’t as if she had asked for a new bike or anything. Maybe he was busy. Oh well, she would just have to stick to her rubbishy chocolate biscuit ban, for the time being.
Time passed. One morning, Izzie’s form teacher Mr Coppen announced that a new pupil would be joining them. She had come over from Nigeria to live with her aunt and cousins. “I want you to welcome her,” said Mr Coppen, “it’s very frightening to come to a strange country where you don’t have any friends.” With a hesitant knock at the door, a girl came into the room. Her hair hung in long braids finished off with golden beads. She was as shy, slender and graceful as a gazelle.
“Everyone, this is Tulip Ndebele.” TULIP? mouthed Oliver to Izzie behind Mr Coppen’s back, making her giggle.
Mr Coppen showed Tulip to the empty desk next to Izzie, who blushed. How grown up and poised she seemed in comparison to the rest of them.
At lunchtime, people gathered around Tulip like moths around a flame. She looked startled.
“How d’you get a name like Tulip then?” said Kevin, sniggering. The class sports champion was never known for being tactful.
“Well, my mother used to love flowers so much,” said Tulip, “especially European ones. She kept a big library of flower books in our village. My younger sisters all have flower names.” “Like Daisy or Rose?” suggested Izzie, fascinated. “No, they are called Geranium, Petunia and Chrysanthemum,” said Tulip. “I think you got off lightly!” said Georgie, rudely.
Izzie decided to take Tulip under her wing. After all, she knew what it was like to be laughed at. She steered her towards the canteen, helped her find a tray and explained what spaghetti bolognaise was. Tulip had never had anything like it before.
When they sat down, Izzie asked, “is your mum over here then?” “No, she’s dead from malaria,” said Tulip, matter-offactly. “And my father in Nigeria couldn’t look after all of us. There isn’t much money at home.” Izzie’s fork stopped halfway up to her mouth, a spaghetti end dripping sauce onto the table. “My aunt said she would take me in, as the eldest.” What a conversation killer; this was dreadful. “Sorry, that’s rough,” said Izzie, lamely. Her little Lenten embarrassment looked so silly now.
She sucked up a stray piece of spaghetti, splashing tomato sauce onto her nose. Tulip’s face broke into a gleaming smile that spread almost from ear to ear. “I think British people are crazy trying to eat these worms!” she said, making Izzie laugh with relief. She gave Tulip a gentle poke with her fork. A warm feeling inside told her they would become great friends. No one was going to make rude botanical remarks while Isobel Watkins was around.
Lent carried on and the children in class 6B stuck to their pledges. Or at least they said they did. Someone thought they saw Aisha having a sneak listen to her iPod in the toilets, but Sister Boniface was very cross about “sneaking”.
“Just concentrate on removing the plank in your own eye, rather than the speck in someone else’s,” she said during Bible reading.
Tulip was invited to put up a pledge card, even though she had joined them much later on. What had their exotic classmate given up? “Singing,” she announced at the top of her voice (her shyness was beginning to disappear). “Tulip dear, I fail to see the sacrifice in that,” said Sister Boniface. “Well, I am always singing to cheer myself up,” said Tulip, “and Auntie plays the piano and my cousins and I sing all evening sometimes. Especially songs from the musicals. It is my favourite thing in all the world.” Sister nodded approvingly. It was a good pledge.
“I have to stop myself singing in the bath, like ‘Bare Necessities’ from The Jungle Book. It is hard,” said Tulip, her beautiful smile lighting up the room. She laughed aloud and didn’t mind everyone else joining in. Including one rosy and rather plump Irish nun.
Meanwhile, Izzie was trying to make having no chocolate biscuits important. She asked her mum to buy some and leave them on plates around the house, just so she could walk by without taking one. Why did her parents find it so funny? Baby Joshua didn’t mind at all, as long as he had a biscuit to suck and get chocolate all over his face.
On one Saturday afternoon, Izzie was round at Oliver’s for tea. Mrs Barley had laid on a tasty spread of home-made pizza triangles and chicken salad. For pudding, she produced a pineapple cheesecake. “Yes please,” said Izzie, her eyes lighting up as she took a large slice. The tangy topping was delicious, but the best bit was the chocolate spongy base. “I’m glad you like it,” said Mrs Barley, “it’s a new recipe. The base is so easy, it’s made from crushed up chocolate biscuits.” Poor Izzie almost choked and had to be helped to some orange juice. It was too late. One poxy little pledge and she hadn’t even kept to that! But she couldn’t tell Mrs Barley. It wasn’t her fault; Izzie should have asked. She just had to wipe her mouth and say politely that she was too full to eat any more.
Later, Oliver told her a secret to try and make her feel better. “I didn’t mean to, but the other day I was passing the window of Gray’s Electrical Store and I took a sneak look at a football match on TV. Just for a minute, so don’t feel bad Izzie.” They both agreed not to tell anyone about their “accidental” cheating. But the guilty niggling in Izzie’s stomach didn’t really go away.
One Tuesday, on her way to change for gym lessons, Izzie saw Tulip standing in the corridor looking at the notice board. She looked sad. “What’s up?” said Izzie. Tulip pointed at a colourful poster, covered in crazy cartoon monkeys. It read: ‘MONKEY MAGIC MUSICAL Theatre trip to London this Saturday 19th March at 3pm.
The tickets are now SOLD OUT.
Would the last remaining pupils hand in their ticket money to Miss Sidebotham at the Bursar’s Office by Thursday at the latest.’ This was something that Izzie had been looking forward to for ages. She had asked her mum as soon as Mr Thorogood the headmaster had told them about it. Monkey Magic was a great hit in the West End, an African extravaganza with dozens of catchy tunes, funny monkey characters and fabulous jungle costumes.
But Tulip had arrived too late at the school to book a place. She was very quiet, and Izzie wondered if she had been crying.