In 1970 a retired naval captain and his wife, who live in a remote house at Loch Morar, prepare to move south, helped by young local woman, Jeanie. Mrs Dora Metcalf surprises Jeanie with revelations about her past, telling her of an audience with the Pope in the 1930s, regarding a business matter. Dora explains that her father’s death when she was a child led to a focus on independence, gaining a degree in mathematics when this was a rarity for women. Jeanie compares this with her own experience of losing her father in Glasgow’s docks and being ‘boarded out’ to a croft in the Highlands. Her education ceased at fifteen but she yearns to become an astronomer. She is desperate to reconnect with her baby sister, Violet.
The First World War was the ignition for Dora’s business ambitions, after she lost the love of her life, Hugh Cass, at Gallipoli. As a ‘surplus woman’ she threw herself into work, inspired by some strong and unconventional Irishwomen to believe that she could build a business selling computation services. She also looked to her beloved deaf sister, Hilary Greene, to strengthen her resolve.
Captain John Metcalf ferries Jeanie across the loch and they see Morag, the Loch Morar monster, and ponder that its sighting is associated with new life. John tells Jeanie that he met Dora on a cruise in 1931, by which time she was running successful businesses in Belfast, Dublin and London, but her health was fragile. John says Dora moved to London and founded the Service Bureaux division at British Tabulating Machines (BTM) to be near him. Dora helps Jeanie investigate how she might go to university after all.
Dora tells Jeanie about Comptometers, a mechanical abacus that she used to start her business, and how her cousin Everard Greene founded BTM. She reminisces about revolutionary Ireland and how it influenced her. She explains how she set up her own company in 1924 to win the Northern Irish census contract. With her mother’s death in 1929 and recurrent tummy trouble, Dora lost confidence, but the Women’s Provisional Club gave her support and marrying John brought happier times, until the outbreak of the Second World War.
The London Blitz destroyed Dora’s office and home and John was away at sea, aggravating her ill health. Jeanie hears from Glasgow university and is delighted that they have not turned her down. Dora can’t tell Jeanie about the secret work she did for the Bletchley Park codebreakers but recalls this stressful period, how it led to the collapse of her health and her diminished status in BTM. Hilary’s death added to her grief. The connection between wartime secrets and the house at Loch Morar is hinted at.
After restorative trips to the wilderness, Dora regained her confidence and tells Jeanie how she introduced the first electronic computer to Ireland. She shows Jeanie BTM’s company magazines and discusses their unconscious sexism. Jeanie is thrilled to hear from her sister Violet and says goodbye to the Metcalfs, inspired by Dora to follow her dreams.