Authors: Nicola Pierce
“Oh, but you're not, Mr. Andrews,” said Lady Duff Gordon. “I can assure you that at home I would, after dinner, lead my female guests to the sitting room, leaving the men to talk business in peace, but because there's an orchestra here, and coffee is served up to us, I prefer to remain where I am.”
“I completely understand, my lady, and this is why I'm making plans about reducing the Reading and Writing Room to half its size, thus allowing for the construction of two new rooms.”
One of the other gentlemen had the look of someone who knows he is about to say something of the utmost importance. “I presume, sir, that this is the point of your own voyage, to fix problems as they crop up. For instance, you must observe how things go at sea as the final test of your design, as it were.”
“Indeed, but, of course, every ship that is first sent out by Harland & Wolff is accompanied by a Guarantee Group for exactly that purpose. In this way, if anything goes wrong, then the experts, the ones who have built her, are on site to fix or even just advise.”
“Excellent!” exclaimed Mrs. Brown. “So we are in good hands?”
“The very best, Mrs. Brown. I have brought with me some of Belfast's finest apprentice engineers, plumbers, and electricians. Two or three of them are still quite young, but they have been selected because they are top in their field. Harland & Wolff prides itself on nurturing those who show promise.”
My uncle Al had told me all about this. It was a huge honour to be asked to go along on a ship's maiden voyage because it meant that your work was rated highly by the company and therefore your job was secure.
Mr. Andrews had brought eight men and boys with him. I had come to know them over the last two days.
First was his good friend Scotsman Roderick Chisholm. Mr. Chisholm was Chief Draftsman and had designed
's lifeboats, and was under strict orders from his wife and children to bring them back something nice from New York.
Anthony Frost was Chief Fitter, and he was the only one out of the group to have spent any time at sea. His wife, Lizzie, and his four children were impatiently awaiting his return, so that they could hear all about life on board the glamorous ship. Anthony had helped to choose young Alfred Cunningham, apprentice fitter, to be his assistant. Alfred couldn't believe his luck and promised his excited brothers and sisters that he would remember every single thing about his experience so that he could tell them all about it.
The ship's electrics were under the watch of William Parr. From Monday to Saturday Mr. Parr was Assistant Manager in Harland & Wolff's electrical department. On Sundays, however, his only day off, he taught scripture to children at his local church. He also had an apprentice, 18-year-old Ennis Hastings Watson. Still living at home with his parents, Ennis had studied his trade at the Belfast Municipal Technical Institute. A serious boy, he had little time for a social life, yet he found himself striking up a friendship with two younger members of the group, Francis and William. Apprentice plumber Francis Parks lived in Belfast with his parents, three brothers, and two sisters. In fact, his three older brothers also worked at Harland & Wolff, yet it was he who was chosen for
's maiden voyage, a fact he broadcasted several times over, at the dinner table, until his mother told him to stop showing off, laughing as she did so. Apprentice joiner William Campbell's parents were good friends with the Parks, and William, the youngest of the group, treated Francis as the big brother he'd never had.
There was quite a difference between a pristine ship sitting in its dry dock and a pristine ship being let loose on the ocean. For an electrician, plumber, or carpenter to appreciate how their piece of effort contributed to the entire jigsaw of the ship, as a whole, they simply had to be there with her as she rode the waves and pushed through the stormy gales or glided easily in the good weather. It was a fine reward for an employee, no matter how little they were actually needed.
I had stood beside Mr. Andrews as he had welcomed his team on board: “You mightn't have a whole lot to do, boys, but I want you all to observe closely how the ship reacts on the water, and, it goes without saying, make yourselves known to the crew. Teach them as much as they need to know. But don't forget to enjoy yourselves too.”
I felt Mr. Andrews's impatience to leave the dining room. His coffee cup was empty and he longed for the solitude of his private quarters. He also guessed that the captain disliked sharing his guests' attention with him and was eager for him to be gone. Therefore, as soon as he judged it safe enough to excuse himself, he slowly rose to his feet, explaining that unfortunately he had to go back to work.
Watching him leave, I considered what to do next. With the departure of the engineer the conversation at the captain's table grew quite formal again, and I was soon bored. Moving in and around the hundreds of rectangular tables, I was filled once more, despite my mood, with awe for the magnificence of this luxurious and vast hall. Surely it was a match for the King's palace in London: the fancy tiles on the sea-blue floor, with their red and gold pattern, the panelled ceiling, the heavy, white linen tablecloths, and the sparkling crystal. Each table was lit by its own electrical lamp, the rose-coloured shades making a fine contrast against the spotless tablecloths. The guests were exquisite in their finery, even the plain old men sporting double chins and their unsmiling pudgy wives, who merely frowned their thanks at the efficiency of their waiters. There was no raucous laughter or rude ballads; instead, the band played soothing and genteel music. I fancied that only the most proper of words were used and the most proper of events took place here, with no surprises and nothing to worry about. So, what was it exactly that I liked about being here? I might have expected to feel suffocated or even intimidated, but really I just felt safe.
I knew what I planned to do the following night. I was attending a birthday party for Oscar, one of the Post Office workers, and was very much looking forward to it. The postal team was made up of three Americans and two Englishmen, and they seemed to be the best of friends. They worked up quite a sweat in the Mail Room, with their shirtsleeves permanently rolled up to the elbow, constantly teasing one another as they quickly sorted through the millions of letters that were addressed to houses all over America and Canada. Their “office” was on the lower deck, alongside some third-class cabins and cabins occupied by the hard-working stokers and greasers. Since they were so far away from the “fancy” passengers, they were free to indulge themselves in practical jokes and great gales of laughter that usually involved at least one of them doubled over trying to catch his breath. I was delighted to be there when the Englishmen decided to get the Americans back for some earlier trick. One of them got into one of the huge postbags, which was almost as tall as themselves, while the second man tied the neck loosely, allowing air to get in. Then, when the three Americans arrived, two of them went to open the nearest bag to their bench and actually screamed like little girls when the English bloke jumped out and roared “BOOOO!” at the top of his voice. We all laughed for a good 10 minutes over that. Anyway, I was saving them for the next night.
For the rest of the evening I would keep company with the two Marconi operators, Jack Phillips and his young assistant, Harold Bride.
he Marconi office was quite small and the alcove of the office, where the two operators took turns sleeping, was absolutely tiny. They lived on the Boat Deck, which was quite a busy one. Apart from the Marconi room there was the Post Office, separate from its sister Mail Room below, and the second-class library room. There was also a lot of crew living on this deck, to the front of the ship, along with first-class staterooms, dayrooms, and suites.
When I called in earlier, the two young men were yawning and rubbing their eyes, tired from working at a frantic pace for too many hours. Like the postal workers, they were responsible for communications, although theirs was of a more immediate kind. They spent all day tapping out messages from and for
's passengers. The passengers wrote out their notes by hand, using as few words as possible, at the purser's inquiry desk, paying twelve shillings and six pence for the first ten words and then nine pence for each word after that. Since it wasn't cheap, it was mostly the first-class passengers who made use of the service. The purser counted up the words, took their money, rolled up the telegram, and placed it in a tube that ran all the way to the wall of the Marconi room. Here the messages popped out and all Jack or Harold had to do was read them, make note of the amount of words per telegram, and then tap them out, across the ocean:
dit, dit, dit, dah, dah, dah
. It was hard to believe that those little bleeps meant actual words to someone seated at a desk just like this but miles and miles away from
Most of their business seemed to involve such luminous pieces of information as:
HELLO FROM TITANIC. PLAYING LOTS OF SQUASH IN ANTICIPATION OF OUR NEXT TENNIS MATCH.
HOPE YOU ARE ENJOYING YOUR TRIP. HOW ABOUT LUNCHEON ON THE 23RD?
Despite the fact they worked in shifts, the hours Jack and Harold spent at their desk seemed to be more than the hours they spent away from it. Since leaving Southampton, over 30 hours ago, they had sent and received over 250 telegrams. Then, on top of an already heavy workload, they had a faulty machine to deal with. Only the previous day, while I was visiting, the Marconi transmitter ceased to work electronically, which meant that it was relying solely on its battery. This wasn't much use to
in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. A battery-operated transmitter could only send and receive messages within a radius of 80 miles, but the electrics increased that range to a vastly superior 250 miles.
When I checked on them that morning, the messages were mounting up and going nowhere. Jack opened up the Marconi Rule Book in the hope of discovering some helpful information. He sighed loudly, a few minutes later, as he slammed it shut again.
Harold shrugged. “I told you. We'll have to wait to have it fixed by an actual Marconi engineer. Although I do think there should be a Plan B if the machine happens to be miles and miles away from such a person.”
Too annoyed to make a reply to this, Jack merely scowled at the fresh bundle of notes that were waiting to be sent out across the ocean. Those notes meant lots of unhappy customers and, therefore, a loss of precious earnings. He eyed his partner, who was busy tapping away in receipt of yet another ice warning.
“You know, we could try fixing it ourselves. I reckon that, between us, we could do it.”
Harold grinned as he picked up the next message, an impossible one to send on the battery.
“Yep. Like I said, it does seem silly to have to wait until we get to America. It's not like Head Office can see the amount of messages waiting to go.”
“Okay, then. We'll do it tonight, when it's quiet.”
Later that night, by the time I arrived they were bent over the transmitter, already surrounded by wires, nuts, and bolts. Jack was manning the operation like a doctor, while Harold played nurse, patiently holding various pieces of machinery and making little suggestions only when he felt it was necessary. Intrigued, I moved in to get a close-up of what they were doing. Harold shivered suddenly and looked about himself in obvious puzzlement.
“What's up with you?” asked Jack.
“I don't know. I keep thinking that someone is standing over me.”
Jack rolled his eyes. “You and your guilty conscience. You're just worried that old Mr. Marconi is suddenly going to appear and catch us taking his transmitter apart with our grubby little hands.”
Harold grinned. “Laugh away, but just remember this was all your idea.”
Jack glanced up at the clock on the wall. “Oh dear, I've a feeling this is going to take a lot longer than I thought.”
“Don't worry about it. Really, I don't mind. I remember spending all night working on this antenna I set up in my parents' back garden. The neighbours didn't know what to make of it.”
“Fair enough, then.” Nodding his head toward the thick bundle of unsent messages, Jack gave a mild sigh. “It's going to be a very busy day for us tomorrow.”
* * *
I decided to leave the telegraphists to it; watching them fix the transmitter wasn't very interesting, so I headed back out into the ship to see what else was happening. As soon as I spotted the bandleader from the first-class dining room, I followed him to see where he was going. He reached into his pockets for his cigarettes, his violin case knocking against his hip as he walked out the door onto the deck outside, obviously wanting a breath of fresh air. If he was looking for peace and quiet, he was disappointed as he was accosted as soon as he stepped outside.
“Hello there. Mr. Hartley, isn't it, from the orchestra? I'm Charles Joughin, Chief Baker.”
The two men shook hands. “Please, call me Wallace. Gosh, I didn't expect it to be so busy out here.”
The bandleader put a cigarette in his mouth, prompting the baker to step forward and light it for him. “Yes, it's one of the reasons that I like coming out here myself. There's always a great mixture on this deck: second- and third-class passengers wanting a break from the crowd inside and then the likes of those young bellboys over there, who are, no doubt, hiding from their supervisor â oh, they're gone! I didn't see them leave.”
Both Wallace and I stared politely at the empty space, while Charles scratched his head before continuing on, “They're far too young to be smoking anyway. Cheeky monkeys!”
Having no opinion on the subject, the musician blew a thin line of smoke into the sky. Charles, glancing around quickly, took out a small bottle from his inside pocket and raised it in invitation.
“No thank you, Charles. I never drink when I'm working.”
The baker nodded in agreement. “Right you are. I'm just taking a sip because it's a cold night, though I hear it's about to get even colder. So, tell me, how are you enjoying your trip?”
The musician laughed as he leaned against the railings. “Oh very well, indeed. And yourself?”
“I'd be lying if I said I wasn't. The truth of it is, Wallace, I enjoy my job. It's hard going, mind you, working long hours to feed such big numbers. Yet, I must say, I wouldn't have it any other way. I mean, I've worked on plenty of other ships, but I've never had so much to do before. I'm in charge of all the bread, all the baking, and I also run the second-class kitchen. Of course, the pay is better too, so I really can't complain.”
The two men puffed away in comfortable silence for a few seconds, until the baker added, “To be honest, it's a bit of a privilege to be on the biggest ship in the world. Would you agree?”
Wallace, who had started to hum softly, smiled in appreciation and agreed. “It is a very magnificent ship all right, by far the nicest one I've ever been on. Most of the musicians have played on other ships too, but we're all delighted to be on board
. There's something about her that feels different from the others. Some of us have even remarked that our instruments sound sweeter in the luxurious surroundings â but that probably sounds silly.”
The baker gave his companion a thoughtful look and found himself saying, “No, I think I understand what you mean. I don't know about you but I got a chance to tour her before any of the passengers came aboard and, well, every now and then, I could have sworn I heard footsteps. I would turn to see who was behind me to find that I was completely alone.”
Wallace looked surprised at the turn the conversation had taken. “You mean you think the ship is â¦ haunted?”
“Maybe. Well, why not? I'm sure plenty died in the making of her. Or maybe it's the spirit of
herself. Doesn't it seem to you that she could be a breathing, living thing, with all this light, heat, and electricity pumping through her veins?”
For an answer Wallace turned to look the ship over, from where they stood. His fingers tapped out a tune against the case, keeping an unconscious rhythm, I felt, with the chug-chugging â the mechanical heartbeat â of
For my part I loved to think that
was alive and committed to her role of looking after her passengers and crew, ferrying them safely across the world, keeping them warm and dry, no matter what the weather was like. Also, the baker wasn't mistaken in thinking he was being followed that day. I hadn't bargained on him being that sensitive. His calling out “Hello, who's there?” gave me no end of fun. However, I had a bit of a fright when I continued to hear footsteps after we had stopped moving, along with what sounded like the faint rustle of a dress.
“How many pieces of music do you play each day? You don't just do the same things over and over again, do you?”
Wallace shuddered. “Lord, no. Well, unless a passenger requests his favourite tune on a daily basis. We have the entire
White Star Line Song Book
as our repertoire; every musician has to know the 352 songs off by heart.”
Charles whistled in wonder and asked, “Tell me, now, how on earth do you manage to remember them all?”
Patting the violin case, Wallace laughed and shrugged at the same time. “Whatever I forget, she always remembers.”
Charles gave the case a respectful nod. I had a feeling that this was the nearest he had ever been to an instrument before. He flashed the musician a look of new appreciation. “You and me have something in common. What I mean is, we're both lucky enough to be paid for doing something we love to do. For instance, would I be right in thinking that you'd make music for free, if you could afford to, because that's the way I feel about creating new recipes for bread and pastries?”
Wallace answered him, nodding enthusiastically, “Yes, you're absolutely right, and it's something that I would never take for granted. I have friends who spend 60 hours a week standing on a factory floor, repeating the same little job over and over again and, while I admire them for their fortitude, I know full well that sort of life isn't for me. It would be like locking me into a cage.”
He took another drag on his cigarette and threw the baker a sidelong glance before continuing on, “Perhaps I'm daft, but I like to think that there's a plan for all of us, and only a few of us are lucky to discover it at all. Most of us don't realize that we could be looking for something more than what our neighbours are doing. Sometimes I wonder how my life would have turned out had my grandfather not left this violin to my father, who had no interest in music yet always encouraged me from that first moment I placed her under my chin.”
“Me too,” said Charles. “My dear old nan had me kneading dough when I was three years of age. Imagine that! She said it was on account of there being no money to buy me toys, plus she needed the help too.”
Wallace glanced quickly at the baker, to see if he was pulling his leg and realized, from his earnest expression, that he was completely serious.
Charles flicked the butt of his cigarette into the sea and took out his pocket watch to check the time. “Whoops, I'd better head off in a minute. You never finished telling me about the sort of music you play.”
Sending his butt into the water after Charles's, Wallace replied, “Ordinarily, we cover a wide choice, from operatic pieces to classical music. You know, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Verdi, nothing too heavy, mind. And then we also play the latest dance-hall hits.”
Charles grinned. “Ah, but could you do one of my favourite songs at the minute?”
With that he began to sing softly, well aware that he really couldn't sing very well at all:
Oh I do like to be beside the seaside;
I do like to be beside the sea
Wallace did his best not to laugh at the blushing baker. Clamping his hand over his mouth so that his smile could hardly be seen, he was delighted to report that he and his band could perform that song very well indeed.
* * *
“Well done,” declared Harold in the Marconi room. “What a relief to be back at full strength. Look, why don't you head off to bed? I'll clean up here and then I want to finish today's paperwork. We'll just take turns, tomorrow, to get through the backlog.”
Jack's look was one of gratitude. “Are you sure? That would be great. I really need to get my head down for a few hours. I hardly know what day it is, I'm that tired.”
Harold winked at him as he pulled out the accounts ledger. “It's just after 2:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, on the fourteenth of April in the year 1912.”
“Ha, Ha! Very funny!”
* * *
Jack must have fallen asleep the minute his head hit the pillow because he began snoring almost immediately. Harold smiled to himself. He was counting up the words in the telegrams in front of them, making sure they balanced with the amount calculated against the total charged by the purser. The room's atmosphere was soothing, thanks to the ticking clock and the distant rumbling of the engines.