Ship of Dreams : An Extract

Ship of Dreams

Martina Devlin

Ship of Dreams : Chapter 2

North Atlantic April 14-15th 1912

It was the wails of the drowning that the survivors remembered afterwards.

"Help! Over here! For the love of God!"

The cries seemed simultaneously to swoop down from the heavens and up from the bowels of the ocean.

"Save me! Come back! Help!"

The Titanic survivors crouched in their lifeboats – some with palms pressed against their ears to block out the clamour, some listening, horrified; others, fewer in number, begging their fellows to row back.

The entrails of the great liner floated on the Atlantic, and clinging to the flotsam were insects with human voices who batted their despair into the indifference of the night. Many held grimly on to debris, while others thrashed in the water, but its freezing touch quickly impeded movement.

The survivors shivered, waiting. Waiting for rescue, yes, but also for escape from those howls.

Finally, long after there was no sound but that of water lapping against keels, one of the lifeboats broke ranks and rowed back. It negotiated a cautious path through the debris – a lady’s parasol here, a piece of wreck-wood there – zigzagging past deckchairs hurled overboard as makeshift rafts. It was too late. Flesh, turned blue within minutes by the icy North Atlantic waters, was already stiffening. Lifebelts bobbed in the gentle swell, but the bodies inside them were dead, while those without anything to prop them up had lost their grip on jetsam to sink silently, lungs inflating with salt water. Just a handful of people remained alive to be plucked from the water.

As for the Titanic, this triumph of marine engineering had split in two, both halves lying two and a half miles below on the ocean floor. Her captain, her designer, her senior officers, her bandsmen, her lift attendants, her engineers, more than two-thirds of those who sailed on her – millionaire and emigrant alike – went to their deaths with her.

And more than 700 survivors simply watched as it happened.

Among them was American bride Nancy Armstrong, who buried her face in her lap to blot out the shrieks that carried across the water to her lifeboat. She felt no sense of relief at having a place in a lifeboat – no sense of entitlement either. Instead, nauseous, she concentrated on not retching. Behind Nancy sat an Irish girl. Bridie Ryan was staring ahead, eyes flat. She wondered if her three room-mates’ cries were among those slashing the air. Light-hearted girls, they were; she’d danced the Siege of Ennis with them earlier that evening. Or was Charlie Chadband’s voice part of the din – the Cockney steward who winked at her as she boarded at Queenstown?

Bridie rested her arm along her friend Hannah Godfrey’s broad back. Hannah was rocking back and forth, tears streaming down her face. Hannah wished she’d never left home. She wished the American dollars had never arrived. She wished it had been a pre-paid ticket sent from Chicago, like so many others, that she wouldn’t have been able to travel on with Tom. She wished she’d never heard the name Titanic. Sweet suffering Jesus, she just wished!

At the oar nearest the two Irishwomen was Major Richmond Hudson. He held himself erect, and in his mind he was a man of twenty-nine again, a United States Cavalry officer at Wounded Knee. He had watched as Chief Big Foot, clearly on the verge of death, was carried from his wagon to a powwow between Sioux braves and the officers sent to arrest the elderly warrior. In the ensuing battle – if you could call it that – some three hundred and fifty Indians, mainly women and children, were slaughtered. The Army lost twenty-five men. He counted back: that was just over twenty-one years ago. Major Hudson resigned his commission soon after. At Wounded Knee, he thought he was witnessing all there was to see of man’s inhumanity to man; he believed it, too, for twenty-one years. Until this night. He pressed his lips together until his jaw ached and waited. This too will pass.

Louis Stubel stared into the pitch darkness that masked the swimmers gasping for life. He knew they were there, although he couldn’t see them – their voices called out from the obscurity. If they could hang on to debris for long enough, maybe a ship would arrive and save them. The Frenchman was not able to see the torpor that overcame marbled faces in the water, nor how fingers were losing their grip, bodies sinking with a silent capitulation that barely parted the waves. But he could hear the voices weaken, their cries petering out. Louis was a pragmatist, accustomed to the idea that survival was an unequal battle, but he turned away from this human driftwood.

The death throes of fifteen hundred souls pursued the living – pouring from throats which gasped for help, then gasped for breath, and finally stilled. In a time that was neither long nor short but occupied its own savage space, the cries evaporated – sucked into the void where night met sky and sea. But these despairing sounds would pursue Nancy, Louis, Major Hudson, Bridie and Hannah. Just as they were to haunt all those who heard them for a lifetime afterwards.

* * *

A hand snaked over the side of the lifeboat near where Hannah crouched, followed by a second one. They clutched the rim, their owner too weak to do any more. Nobody else noticed, distracted by an argument in the middle of the boat involving a woman in a pair of bed socks and a sailor.

"I don’t see how you can sit there and calmly say, ‘Most of those coves in the water are only a lot of stiffs now’. My nephew is one of them and I won’t tolerate your referring to him as a ‘stiff’!"

"Callin’ ’em stiffs or not won’t help your nephew now, lady."

"It’s just improper. And insolent. I am a personal friend of J Bruce Ismay of the White Star Line. When we reach land I shall make it my business to report you to him. You will never work for White Star again!"

"No odds to me, lady. Me wages stopped as soon as the ship sank. I’m on me own time now."

Hannah nudged Bridie, nodding towards the eight bony fingers clinging to their side of the boat. Bridie hesitated. The ship’s crew were saying they would be swamped if they started taking in swimmers. The boat was lying low in the water already. Perhaps the fingers would slide off. Hannah threw an impatient look at Bridie, even as she reached for one of the hands. Each girl took hold of a wrist, followed by an elbow, and heaved.

A tousled wet head appeared but their combined strength could make no further progress: this was a dead weight. Hannah leaned right over, almost toppling into the water. Her coronet of plaits was soaked by spray as she groped and found a belt at the newcomer’s waist. She strained at that, Bridie helping, and they hauled, panting, until a pair of shoulders covered by a sopping pyjama jacket appeared.

"’Ere, what are you two at? You’ll ruin it for all of us," protested a sailor, as they rocked the boat in their efforts to land the swimmer. "Let go of ’im! You let one in and the floodgates open."

A knee scrabbled for traction and Bridie grabbed it, guiding it over the side.

"Watch what you’re doing there, you’ll up-end us!" shouted Peter McLeod, the officer in charge of the lifeboat.

With a final heave, the girls tumbled the man in. He spluttered, bleeding from the nose, and curled into a foetal crouch.

"We’re dangerously overcrowded as it is – this is ridiculous!" said McLeod, a junior officer who found himself elevated to captain.

The women ignored him.

"Has anyone a sup of whiskey at all before this fellow dies on us?" panted Bridie.

"I have some Scotch." Major Hudson passed along a hip flask.

Hannah crouched to cradle the newcomer’s head, trickling a little into his throat. He coughed, regurgitating some of the spirit, but a healthier colour crept into his cheeks.

Bridie wrapped him in the steamer rug lent to her by a passenger ten minutes earlier, while Hannah coaxed in a few more drops of spirit.

"I absolutely forbid you to allow this person on board," said McLeod.

"He’s here already. Now away and play with your toy boats!" Bridie disliked any show of authority on principle.

McLeod’s cheeks pinked up and he turned aside, pretending to study the horizon. There had been no advice in the training manual on giving orders to contrary women who refused to obey them.

:: Ship of Dreams by Martina Devlin is published by Poolbeg

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