THEY CALL IT Heartbreak Pier, the place from where I will leave Ireland. It is a place that has seen too many goodbyes.
From the upper balcony of the ticket office I watch the third-class passengers below, sobbing as they cling to their loved ones, exchanging tokens of remembrance and promises to write. The outpouring of emotion is a sharp contrast to the silence as I stand between my mother and Mrs. O’Driscoll, my chaperone for the journey. I’ve done all my crying, all my pleading and protesting. All I feel now is a sullen resignation to whatever fate has in store for me on the other side of the Atlantic. I hardly care anymore.
Tired of waiting to board the tenders, I take my ticket from my purse and read the neatly typed details for the umpteenth time. Matilda Sarah Emmerson. Age 19. Cabin Class. Cobh to New York. T.S.S. California. Funny, how it says so much about me, and yet says nothing at all. I fidget with the paper ticket, tug at the buttons on my gloves, check my watch, spin the cameo locket at my neck.
“Do stop fiddling, Matilda,” Mother snips, her pinched lips a pale violet in the cool spring air. “You’re making me anxious.”
I spin the locket again. “And you’re making me go to America.” She glares at me, color rushing to her neck in a deep flush of anger, her jaw clenching and straining as she bites back a withering response. “I can fiddle as much as I like when I get there,” I add, pushing and provoking. “You won’t know what I’m doing. Or who with.”
“Whom with,” she corrects, turning her face away with an exaggerated sniff, swallowing her exasperation and fixing her gaze on the unfortunates below. The cloying scent of violet water seeps from the exposed paper-thin skin at her wrists. It gives me a headache.
My fingers return defiantly to the locket, a family heirloom that once belonged to my great-great-granny Sarah. As a child I’d spent many hours opening and closing the delicate filigree clasp, making up stories about the miniature people captured in the portraits inside: an alluring young woman standing beside a lighthouse, and a handsome young man, believed to be a Victorian artist, George Emmerson, a very distant relative. To a bored little girl left to play alone in the drafty rooms of our grand country home, these tiny people offered a tantalizing glimpse of a time when I imagined everyone had a happy ever after. With the more cynical gaze of adulthood, I now presume the locket people’s lives were as dull and restricted as mine. Or as dull and restricted as mine was until half a bottle of whiskey and a misjudged evening of reckless flirtation with a British soldier from the local garrison changed everything. If I’d intended to get my mother’s attention, I had certainly succeeded.
The doctor tells me I am four months gone. The remaining five, I am to spend with a reclusive relative, Harriet Flaherty, who keeps a lighthouse in Newport, Rhode Island. The perfect hiding place for a girl in my condition; a convenient solution to the problem of the local politician’s daughter who finds herself unmarried and pregnant.
At one o’clock precisely, the stewards direct us to board the tenders that will take us out to the California, moored on the other side of Spike Island to avoid the mud banks in Cork Harbor. As I step forward, Mother grasps my hand dramatically, pressing a lace handkerchief to her paper-dry cheeks.
“Write as soon as you arrive, darling. Promise you’ll write.” It is a carefully stage-managed display of emotion, performed for the benefit of those nearby who must remain convinced of the charade of my American holiday. “And do take care.”
I pull my hand away sharply and say goodbye, never having meant the words more. She has made her feelings perfectly clear. Whatever is waiting for me on the other side of the Atlantic, I will face it alone. I wrap my fingers around the locket and focus on the words engraved on the back: Even the brave were once afraid.
However well I might hide it, the truth is, I am terrified.