Read Wildflower Girl Online

Authors: Marita Conlon-Mckenna

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Historical, #Europe

Wildflower Girl

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Wildflower Girl

When she was only seven, Peggy made a terrifying journey, with her sister Eily and brother Michael, through famine-torn Ireland. Now she sets out on another dangerous and frightening journey – to America. Crossing the Atlantic takes six long, uncomfortable weeks. What will Peggy find when she gets to the New World? And will she ever see her homeland and her beloved sister and brother again?

‘As gripping a story as the original, embracing not just a sense of place – Ireland – but a sense of time and history. Conlon-McKenna has crafted this book … not a word, spoken or unspoken, nor an emotion, is wasted. Pace and style keep the pages turning, and you are filled with a sense of wanting more at the end. Highly recommended’

Books Ireland

‘The same good strong writing as is evidenced in
Under the Hawthorn Tree’

The Sunday Tribune

WINNER 1992

Historical Novel Category

For all those who have sailed across stormy seas to find a new life

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank my husband James, and my children Amanda, Laura, Fiona and James for their love and encouragement.
Thank you too to my family and friends, to my sister-in-law Brigid Brady, to my publisher The O’Brien Press, especially Michael O’Brien, and to my wonderful editor and good friend Íde ní Laoghaire.

I wish to thank the Arts Council and Aer Lingus, the Ulster American Folk Park, Phil Bergin at the Bostonian Society, and Lolly Sharp at the Gibson House, Beacon Street, Boston.
Thank you to all the librarians who have helped me along the way: my local library in Stillorgan, the National Library of Ireland, Trinity College Library, Dublin, the American Embassy Library, Dublin, Pearse Street Library, Dublin, Cobh Library, County Cork, Tim Cadogan at Cork City Library, and Boston Public Library.

CHAPTER 1

The Bridge

PEGGY RAN IN FROM SCHOOL
and straight away she noticed the large sheet of paper propped behind a jug on the kitchen dresser. She grabbed it.

‘I don’t believe it! I just don’t believe it! We got a notice about going to America too. A few in school told me their families had got them. The whole town’s talking about it.’ She was bursting with excitement.

Eily looked across at her.

‘Whisht, Peggy! Take it easy.’

Eily’s hands and arms were dusty to the elbows with flour. She was busy kneading dough to make bread.

‘Eily, aren’t you excited? How can you stand there baking bread when our whole future might depend on this bit of paper?’

Peggy looked across the kitchen. Her big sister was staring into the bowl on the scrubbed wooden table and refused to meet her eyes.

‘There’s something up! That’s it! You’re hiding something from me.’

The older girl stopped. With the back of her hand
she pushed a loose bit of fair hair aside, then shrugged.

‘We’re not going.’

‘Eily, stop codding me. I’m not a fool!’ shouted Peggy.

Eily shook her head.

‘No, I’m being serious, Peggy. Things have changed,’ she said. ‘So many things are different now,’ she added in a low whisper.

‘Changed!’ shouted Peggy. ‘Even I know they’ve changed. We’ve less money than ever. Some days we don’t even get one customer in the shop and none of us can get a job. There’s even more reason for us to go now.’

‘Listen, Peggy, I told you! We’re not going away. We’re not leaving Castletaggart and that’s all there is to it!’

‘We … We … There are three of us. Why should you always be the one to decide for us?’ Peggy could feel her blood boiling. ‘What about me?’

‘You? You’re still only a child, Peggy. Someone has to be in charge…to take care of you just like a mother…’

‘A mother! A mother!’ Hot tears pricked Peggy’s eyes. ‘You! You’re not my mother!’

Eily’s face went pale. In that instant Peggy felt the sting of a slap across her face.

‘I hate you!’ screamed Peggy. ‘I hate you! I hate you …’ She kept shouting it as she pushed open the back door and ran down the narrow alley that led to Market Lane.

Two women were gossiping on a doorstep and stopped in mid-conversation to stare at her. She stuck
out her tongue at them and ran hell-for-leather through the back end of Castletaggart towards the old bridge and river. She hoped there would be no one there.

Her prayers were answered. The place was deserted. She leant over the low stone bridge. Beneath it the water flowed strongly, dragging the riverweed forwards. She stared into the river, blocking out the town from her sight and her mind.

Anger and disappointment raged inside her.

I won’t forget about going. She can’t treat me like a baby! she thought.

Her breath came in gulps and tore her throat.

It’s not fair!

She was almost hypnotised by the movement of the sparkling water below and fascinated as her tears plopped into it and disappeared. Absentmindedly she put her hand up to rub her eyes. Her cheekbones smarted. She shook her head and watched the fine dust of white flour speckle the water. A tiny silver fish darted out from beneath a rock, opened its round mouth and swallowed bit after bit of it. Peggy began to giggle and shook her fingers over the water, watching the fish gobble each speck.

Already she felt calmer. In the distance she could hear a cuckoo. A forest of oaks and beech trees ran along the far side of the river, the fast-flowing water providing protection for the birds and animals against the people of the town.

This was a special place, a place where town and country met. It was her favourite spot in the whole of Castletaggart. Very few people bothered with this
bridge. It was usually quiet down here, whilst the main town bridge always seemed to have crowds of people hanging around it.

Peggy pulled herself up on the bridge wall and sat on the uneven stone. She let her bare feet dangle over the clear sparkling water below.

Sometimes she’d sit here for hours, it was always so peaceful. Ever since she was a little girl it was the place she ran to …

She remembered running away down here the very first morning she was meant to go to her new school in Castletaggart. But her two old great-aunts found her just as she was about to throw her new shoes into the river. They loved Peggy and her brother and sister so much. Auntie Nano had begun to give out to her, but Auntie Lena had coaxed and cajoled her away from the bridge and helped put the black sturdy laced shoes back on. Peggy smiled to herself. Even at seven years of age she’d been a little devil. Auntie Lena had understood her worries about starting school. All the other children had Mammies to take them there.

They had marched her back to the door of the bakery shop, and then with Eily coming along too, they had all set off together through Castletaggart to school. It was early morning on a glorious autumn day, all the shops were starting to open up and droves of children were headed in the same direction towards the small white-washed building which shone like a beacon at the top of Castletaggart Hill. At the school gate a fit of shyness and pure fear shook Peggy.

The two old ladies hugged her, then Eily squeezed her hand and walked her right up to the green
wooden door. Just as she was about to run into the large schoolroom to try and get a seat on the bench beside her friend Julia, she looked back.

Nano and Lena stood ramrod stiff and straight and proud in the middle of the group of mothers anxiously waiting at the gate. And even from a distance Peggy could see that Eily’s blue eyes were filled with tears – as if she was one of the mothers …

‘Peggy! Peggy!’ The call jolted her out of her dream.

She looked up. A wave of guilt washed over her. Eily was standing a few yards away, wiping her hands on her apron.

‘I knew I’d find you here. I’m so sorry, Peggy!’

‘Oh, Eily, I shouldn’t have said what I said!’

‘Still, I shouldn’t have slapped you.’

‘I really am sorry – ‘twas a dreadful thing to say.’ Peggy jumped down and ran and hugged her older sister. ‘Let’s go home,’ she said.

They walked slowly back towards the shop. They passed a row of old cottages, every single one of them empty. Those occupants who hadn’t died during the Great Famine had long since abandoned them and left Castletaggart.

‘God, this place is getting fierce shabby,’ muttered Eily. ‘At this rate there won’t be a sinner left here soon.’

Peggy bit her lip and fought the impulse to say I told you so.

‘Look, Peggy! Kennys’ drapery store has closed down.’ Eily stopped and peered in through the planks that boarded up the vacant shop window. ‘Not a thing in the place!’

Peggy stood on tiptoe so that she could see in. Every shelf was empty and a roll of dusty material lay forlornly on the counter. It seemed that every day a little bit more of Castletaggart changed. The town was no longer the busy place Peggy and Michael and Eily had finally arrived at, starving and homeless, nearly seven years ago in the middle of the Great Famine.

‘Come on, Peggy! We’d better get a move on or all my baking will be up in smoke,’ joked Eily. ‘Anyways, I don’t like leaving Nano on her own.’

The two of them quickened their pace until they reached the small shabby bakery shop at the bottom of Market Lane that was home.

‘Run up and say hello to Nano, Peggy, but mind you don’t say a word about the notice – there’s no need to upset her!’

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