Authors: Nicola Pierce
Of course Harold wasn't the only person to be working at this hour. Plates, cups, and cutlery were being washed, dried, and stacked throughout the three kitchens, by sleepy boys, in time for the bakers, who had to be up well before dawn to make the dough for the bread for the thousands of breakfasts that had to be served up in the morning. Glasses were still being polished clean in the first-class lounge; the late-night card players were always the last to retire to bed. Down below, the engines were being kept going by the night shift of stokers, greasers, and engineers. In the bridge a sailor was at the wheel, keeping the ship on course, under the watchful eye of the commanding officer. While above us all there were two lookouts in the crow's nest, keeping an eye out for obstacles ahead.
As for the passengers, mothers were changing nappies and feeding bottles to the tiny babies who had yet to recognize the difference between night and day. Fathers comforted their children who had woken up in confusion, telling them that, whatever it was, it was only a bad dream.
All was exactly as it should be.
“Ugh, what? What do you want?” Jack's tone was sharp, making Harold jump a little.
you talking about?” he called through to Jack in the adjoining room.
“What do you mean, what am
Harold stared at the ceiling above him, muttering under his breath, “For heaven's sake.” Then, he raised his voice again. “Jack, what's the matter?”
“I don't know. You called me. Has the machine broken again?”
Rubbing his hand through his hair, Harold sighed. “No, the machine is not broken and, no, I was not calling for you.”
“Yes, you were. You woke me up, didn't you?”
“Nope,” was the short reply.
“Whoops, sorry! I must have been dreaming.”
But it wasn't a dream, or â at least â it couldn't have been, because I heard something too and I wouldn't have thought it was possible for anyone else to share my dreams. It sounded like frantic whispering, blurred, hushed words that I couldn't make out. And, yes, I was sure that in the midst of these strange voices, I recognized Jack's, calling out for his friend. What on earth did it mean?
In the silence that followed, the ticking of the clock dominated once more.
decided to spend some time with Jim and his family, hoping that I'd shake off this strangeness that was beginning to scare me a little. They were in the dining room, trying to talk to one another over the noise of their fellow diners. Joseph had to shout to get his sister's attention. She was sitting on her father's lap, eyeing his roast beef and boiled potatoes that were sitting in puddles of gravy. “SARAH? Sarah, can you do this?” He was trying to teach her how to clap her hands, but the lesson wasn't proving very successful. She stared at him politely, for maybe two seconds, before returning to her father's fork, which climbed past her face with amazing regularity.
Isobel laughed. “Oh dear, she's not a very good student, is she, Joe?”
Joseph shrugged politely, not wanting to say what he really felt, knowing it might get him into trouble:
She's stupid and boring, and they knew I wanted a brother. I told them I only wanted brothers. It's not fair!
After tea I made my way to the little room that the postal workers shared. I wasn't having a good day and hoped that the birthday party would take my mind off the tension that was gnawing at me, although I did laugh when I discovered young Joseph stealing the cutlery and hiding it in the family's tattered suitcase. He planned to surprise his mother with it in their new home in America. Isobel had marvelled over the variety of spoons, forks, and knives, all decorated with the White Star Line logo and now, unknown to her, she would have some of her very own forevermore.
I could hear the cheering all the way down the corridor. “Congratulations, Oscar, on arriving at yet another birthday.”
The American with the red curly hair and round spectacles led the applause for the birthday boy, whose face was red with a mixture of happiness and embarrassment. One of the Englishmen called for the cake to be cut. It wasn't a very big one, enough for a slice each for the five men, but it did look nice with its yellow sponge, red jam, and scoops of cream. There were five tiny candles standing up in it; the pin-sized flames threw shadows across the walls of the dormitory.
“Yes, come on, William. Get a move on; the cream is melting.”
The American pretended to be shocked. “Oh my goodness. Don't you British know anything? Oscar, ignore them. Make a speech, followed by a secret wish, then blow out your candles, and then cut the cake.”
Oscar winked at the others. “I'll tell you all now what my wish is. I wish that William would give me his spectacles so that I can use them to find the ridiculously small candles on my small cake. How's that then?”
William wagged his finger in his friend's face. “Now, Oscar, you're one of my best chums, so you know that I wouldn't take my glasses off for anyone, not even you.”
The other American, John, turned to the two Englishmen and said, “He's not joking either. He even wears them in bed, in case he loses them.”
There was more laughter and lots more joking around, but I had stopped listening. Instead I was staring at the wall behind William and Oscar, who were bent over the cake. Five postal workers and me â only, one thing that I had lost in my fatal accident was a shadow. Five postal workers should have meant five shadows. So, why was it that I could make out almost double that? No, no, that couldn't be right.
I left the room in a hurry, suddenly aware of how lonely I was. I don't know if I was exactly scared. I mean, what had I to be scared off in my state? Surely nothing more could touch me. Nevertheless, for perhaps the first time in almost two years, I longed to be back in Belfast, with my mother and father. I wanted to go back home, go back in time to when I was just a child who knew nothing at all about anything much.
“It's a peculiar night, isn't it? Perfectly still and quiet. All those stars and no sign of the moon.” It was a woman's voice. There were still a few passengers on deck, taking a last stroll of the evening. One couple was standing at the railings, peering out into the darkness. The wife pulled her coat more tightly around her. It was obviously very cold because I could see the air they exhaled upon speaking. The husband was finishing his cigar and mused, “I wonder what the temperature is. It must be near freezing. I think I can make out icebergs. Look over there; can you see what I mean?”
The woman strained her eyes to see, before replying, “Yes, I can just about make out something there. They look like boulders in the water.”
“Well, yes. Those small ones are called growlers, I believe.”
His wife was incredulous. “Why ever for?”
“Um, as far as I know, it's something to do with the noise they make when they melt. The trapped air inside them escapes and, apparently, it sounds like an animal growling.”
“Oh, Lucien, you do know the strangest things.”
The husband turned his head slightly as if he could hear something. Glancing at his wife, who was still staring straight ahead, he said, “Dear me, I think I drank too much wine.”
Smiling, his wife nudged him playfully. “Do you have a headache?”
He looked like he wasn't going to say anything but then changed his mind. “No, no. It's just that â¦ well, for a second there I thought I heard my Aunt Margaret. She used to have this incredible belly-wobbling laugh. Us children would make up jokes to tell her, to see who could get her going first.”
“Really, Lucien, you've never mentioned an Aunt Margaret before.”
“Haven't I? Well, to be honest, I've not thought about her for years. I was barely ten when she died. For some reason I was her favourite. God bless her.”
Leaning in to kiss him on the cheek, his wife said, “Then she must have had impeccable taste. I'm sure I would have liked her very much.”
“And I know she would have liked you too. Come on; let's get back inside. I'm literally going to die of the cold if we don't go inside this minute.”
I watched them head indoors, unsure whether to follow them or not. I suppose I had one thing to be grateful for; I couldn't feel the cold but, still, I certainly felt something in the air tonight. How lovely it would be to take off to the third-class common room and watch the men's cheeks get brighter with every bottle of beer. Maybe there would be a singsong to help me forget all my troubles, whatever they were. Instead, however, for some reason I felt a strong urge to remain outside, and ready â¦ for goodness knows what.
Suddenly I heard voices from way above me.
“Now, this is proper frosty, Fred. Ain't never felt this type of cold before.”
It was the lookouts, 90 feet above me, in the crow's nest. I immediately headed up to them, glad of the company.
There were six lookouts altogether, all chosen because of their dedication and concentration. Theirs was a most important job. As the captain told them, they were the eyes of the ship. If they were the “eyes” of
, then that must mean that Harold and Jack, with the Marconi transmitter, were her ears, and even voice.
I never knew such a wonderful job existed â to be higher than anyone else on board and be able to see for miles around. Had I known about it, I think I might have wanted to be a ship's lookout if I ever got bored with riveting. The “nest” was one of my favourite places in
and I did my best to be there to watch the sun both rise and set. It was only a small space to stand, just enough room for the two boys on duty, but what freedom they enjoyed from the rest of the staff and crew. On Captain Smith's ship, this isolated steel balcony was their own tiny island, to govern as they wished.
As usual, the more serious of these two, Frederick Fleet, was doing his best to ignore his colleague, Reggie, who never gave up trying to make conversation as he searched the sea ahead for obstacles.
“I can't see a blasted thing, can you?”
Fred mumbled something under his breath that neither Reggie nor I heard. Both their noses were running with the cold. Reggie sniffed loudly, making Frederick roll his eyes in annoyance.
“Ugh, it hurts to sniff. Wish I had brought my handkerchief. Not long now, I suppose. Another 30 minutes or so. I could murder a cup of tea.”
It didn't seem to bother Reggie that his companion appeared to be completely ignoring him. He was a cheery lad who reminded me a little of the ever-smiling Jack from the shipyard, and he prattled on: “You know, it seems strange to be doing this without binoculars. I mean, the daytime is one thing but, here, at night, it's different.”
At this, Frederick nodded, in spite of himself. I felt his anxiety, the tension in his back and neck, as he stared unblinking into the blackness. “Can't believe there wasn't another key for the locker. You'd think with those ice warnings from the other ships that they'd just force the thing open, somehow,” he grumbled.
Reggie, showing no surprise in finally getting his partner to talk to him, wrapped his arms about himself. “Ach, it wouldn't be so bad if there was a moon. Anyway, why are we worrying if the captain and the commanding officers aren't bothered? Sure, nothing could stop this ship, especially at this speed.”
Frederick shrugged, pushing his hands further into his coat pockets. “That's what they say alright.”
It's a good name for it, the crow's nest, because that's exactly what it felt like standing up here. It was a great deal higher than any height I had climbed with a boiling hot rivet. One could easily pretend to be a bird in flight, surveying the geography below him. The only sound to be heard was the faithful hum of the engine. As I stood behind the two boys, I could hardly hear or see the ocean around us. If I shut my eyes, I could easily convince myself I was anywhere at all.
Of course, working the day shift was easier as long as there wasn't any mist or heavy rain. It struck me suddenly that the pleasure of this job would depend an awful lot on the weather. Fortunately, though freezing cold, tonight was dry. At least the chilly temperature prevented a tired lookout from dozing off.
The bridge was a few feet below us; this was where the ship was steered. Officer Hitchens was at the wheel tonight, with First Officer Murdoch at his shoulder. I had peeked in the window on my way up here. So, while the two lookouts weren't alone in their constant inspection of the miles in front of them â Officers Hitchens and Murdoch were doing their bit too â Fred and Reggie held the best position for spotting trouble. Captain Smith must have retired for the night. Idly I turned to catch the full view of
behind us. It was a funny angle. From where we stood we had no appreciation of her size and majesty; she was simply too big to take in all at once, plus the view was blocked by the massive funnels.
I was so caught up in my thoughts that I barely noticed Fred bending sharply forward, craning his neck to see something. What was it? I hovered over his shoulder, reluctantly, hardly daring to make a proper effort to discover what had grabbed his attention and there, as I peered half-heartedly out into the darkness, something began to take shape in front of me. I looked at Fred in shock, completely forgetting that he couldn't meet my eye. Not allowing himself to blink, Fred gripped his companion's arm in stunned silence. Reggie obediently followed the direction of his mate's focus. I was already overwhelmed by sheer horror. It looked no bigger than a table, and then a table on top of another table, and then another and another, until there was no denying what we were facing. Ignoring Reggie's hushed swearing, Fred banged on the bell in the crow's nest three times, as hard as he could, and then wrenched the phone receiver off its hook as the distance between the ship and the massive object shrank at an alarming rate. His call was answered immediately.
“What do you see?”
“Iceberg, sir, dead ahead.”
Fred clung to the rail in front of him, wishing it was the wheel and that he was able to take over the steering. All we could do was watch and wait â which is sometimes the hardest thing of all. No one said a word until we realized that Officer Hitchens was attempting to turn the ship. What else was there to do but try? I'm sure that both he and Officer Murdoch were as breathless and as petrified as we were. The iceberg was so huge and far, far too near.
Fred was in agony, unable to stop himself from shouting out, “Come on,
. Go left â¦ LEFT!”
And she did start to turn. Reggie whistled as the immense size of the iceberg was made blatant. “How did we not see that?”
It was a mountain of ice standing proudly up in the ocean, steep with sharp ridges that glistened dully beneath the stars.
Fred's reply was fierce. “How
we have? We were both looking, weren't we? There's no moon in the sky and absolutely no wind, so there's no waves breaking against it; otherwise we'd have heard it, even if we couldn't see it.”
That was how a lookout usually spotted a berg at night; the sea warned him by slapping at it until the noise caught his attention. That night, however, the sea had been as still and silent as the iceberg itself.
“Plus,” offered Reggie, “we were going really fast. They knew that icebergs were a possibility in this area, so you'd think they would've slowed down a bit.”
“Exactly,” said Fred.
's head continued ever so slowly to lean away from the obstacle.
“Yes, yes,” gasped Fred. “Keep going.”
We were going to make it. It looked like we were going to make it, just about.
A collision couldn't be helped, perhaps, but it certainly could be reduced in size. So, it was that the ship clumsily skimmed the berg, resulting in the deck below us being showered by a brief avalanche of ice that had been torn free.
And that seemed to be it.
Fred and Reggie winked at one another, both presuming that there had been some sort of hit but neither completely sure, except for the bits of ice on the deck. They had neither heard nor felt the expected bang. Watching the iceberg disappear behind
's massive funnels, Reggie bumped against Fred, his face full of relief and gratitude.