The place; the south coast of Ireland, round about mid-April. Two children amble nonchalantly along the cliff tops, just outside of Queenstown. Twin studies in innocence, one is a boy of about seven, the other a waif of a girl, no older than six. Their progress along the rolling cliff tops is leisurely, rather than strident. The pace is almost in sync with the gentle rollers of the Atlantic itself, breaking far below them against a beach of dusky blond sand with glistening clusters of shingle, draped with clumps of seaweed.
The spring has come early this year, and the days are already noticeably longer and brighter. A warm breeze courses through the long swathes of dry, brittle grass clumps that cling to the cliff tops, while gulls and screeching cormorants dive and swoop on the sparkling, sun dappled water. There seems to be far more of them than is normal, fighting and scavenging by turns.
The children are indifferent, and completely unimpressed by this airborne ballet. Both are lying on their backs, chewing on blades of long, wispy grass, when they suddenly become vaguely aware of the sound of music, carried toward them by the same breeze that seemed to make the grass itself whisper on days like this. First one, then the other, gazes casually out across the sea. Yet, for a few minutes there is nothing; just the birds, the grass, and the music. Mother Nature’s very own symphony orchestra, tuning up.
Then she comes into view, as she glides slowly around the headland. A huge passenger steamer, standing perhaps about four miles out to sea. Even at that distance, she looks stupendous; a sublime mirage of grace and splendour. The music is louder now as it floats across the calm, sunlit water towards the shore, the source no longer in doubt.
Speechless with wonder, eyes as big as dinner plates, the children stare across the water at her. She’s certainly a beauty….
They drink in the long, black hull and the spotless, snow white superstructure, crowned by a quartet of enormous, black and buff coloured funnels, set at a jaunty, uniform rake. She is almost certainly a transatlantic liner, on her way over to New York after picking up her last passengers in Queenstown; mostly young Irish emigrants on their way to a hopefully better new life in the New World.
Both children wish that they were on that ship right at that moment. Wisps of black smoke trail lazily skywards, wafting up from the forward three funnels. Fancying himself the more astute observer of the two, the boy picks out the fine gold band that encircles the ship, just below her superstructure.
On the headland nearby, a young man and his son are flying a skittish, blood red kite, but the children remain oblivious to them. All they see is the great liner, moving so slowly as to appear almost motionless. And yet, within minutes, she is almost out of their view again, though they can still hear the music, coming from on board as she disappears. Shrugging her shoulders, the young girl is suddenly swamped by a tidal wave of unfathomable sadness. She will hear that music until her dying day.
The pale, white cliffs of Courtmacsherry Bay are off to starboard as the deck stewards come round to serve afternoon tea, trundling trolleys laden with cakes, sandwiches and scones along the promenade deck, where the long, springtime sun glances against the immaculate teak expanse underfoot. Even in the sunshine, it is still not quite so warm here, out on the ocean. Seagulls are diving and swooping in the ship’s wake, their screams sounding in jarring contrast to the ragtime music floating up from the Palm Court, one deck below. Near the aft cargo cranes just outside, a well dressed boy of about six is playing with a spinning top. His father-an ex military type, judging by his ramrod straight bearing and handlebar moustache-stands, arms folded, watching him with an intent gaze.
His eyes inadvertently betray his obvious pleasure; one no doubt sugared by the sight of two sisters strolling the promenade deck, twirling their twin parasols as they pass. Both have high hopes of netting a rich husband. One of them has already done a pretty poor job of pretending to ignore a slight young man, lying supine in a deckchair, swathed in a swaddle of monogrammed blankets.
The young man is watching the seagulls’ ariel cabaret, eyes fixed unflinchingly on the sky until sleep swoops down on him, too. He is the World Tennis champion. The girl with the better sense of timing is sure that she knows his face from somewhere. Her sister fobs off the notion with a shrill, vacuous giggle. She has the most amazing, honey brown eyes.
The passing scenery drifts by like some smiley, dreamy blur. A shuffleboard game is being fought out on the Promenade Deck by two young men; one is a fresh faced law student from Yale, the other a junior civil servant of Belgian origin.
The American does not like to lose, which is unfortunate; the willowy Belgian is more than his match. They are watched from a distance by a middle aged Carmelite nun, on her way out to a new calling in Louisiana. The prevailing breeze presents problems for her garb; she feels a tad self-conscious about any potential loss of dignity. Choosing discretion as the better part of valour, she scurries hastily indoors, but not before she hears the Belgian’s shout of triumph.
The nun in her turn has been the object of another’s observation. An off duty junior engineer has watched her plight obliquely, but with scarce concealed amusement. Cap placed firmly on his head, smoke from his pipe curls lazily above him as he lounges on the railings, next to one of the port side lifeboats. The breeze ripples the grey, tarpaulin lifeboat cover like a stone, skimming over the surface of a still pond. Idly, he decides that he will have the fish at dinner tonight, before he goes back on duty. As always, it will be a long evening in that clinical, cavernous mechanical cathedral, so many decks removed from all of the light, laughter and warmth.
Inside, the Cafe Parisien is doing a roaring trade. The coast of Ireland is a serpentine sliver of undulating, vibrant green, viewed through the big, square windows. Waiters carrying trays of drinks and snacks weave artfully between laughing groups and couples, lounging in chic wicker armchairs that are sprinkled around small drinks tables.
On one side, floor to ceiling trelllis work cradles climbing ivy creepers along the entire length of the wall that catches a welcome wave of sunlight, washing over it through the windows on the other side. Even in bad weather, the room can be suffused in a kind of electrical, artificial sunlight that gives it the appearance of some permanently sunlit sidewalk cafe. It’s quite the coup for a normally staid British ocean liner.
The ragtime music is quite audible here, and those passengers that take note of such things enjoy it immensely. At one table, an elderly couple from Detroit, Michigan, are on their way home after wintering on the French Riviera. With something like sixty-seven pieces of luggage on board, they are travelling somewhat lightly this year. Needless to say, both the maid and the valet are in the servant’s lounge, a few decks down, and a million miles away in terms of status.
Their lifestyle is quaintly at odds with that of the ‘new money’ that they look down on; the ‘get rich at any price’ set on board. They consider these people to be loud, rather than interesting; plastic, as opposed to patrician.
One of those is nearby, quaffing champagne and preening herself like some puffed up ostrich, every few seconds or so. Some ghastly woman from the mid west, with suspect male features, who is given to whooping and shrieking each evening in the Louis Quinze lounge once the fourth flute of Moet kicks in. Quality is clearly something that cannot be bought. The old couple make herculean efforts to avoid eye contact with her at all times.
Stewards in starched white jackets patrol the long, broad expanse of the covered promenade like a battalion of brooding mother hens, rearranging the deck chairs for the next day, picking up and folding discarded steamer rugs, and re-plumping pillows. A vast flotsam of trays needs to be cleared away, awash with a tsunami of half eaten sandwiches, scones, and empty tea cups. The silver teaspoons give off a delightful little tinkling sound when placed back on the saucers; obviously, the ship has increased speed.
As well as that, all of the promenade deck windows need to be closed, to prevent any strands of flailing, icy sea spray from coming on board. The passengers simply do not seem to understand; they will insist on having the damned things open.
The little boy and his father march past in a hurry, their sojourn with the spinning top now a pleasant, indulgent little memory. Time is passing, and they need to find mother and Natalie. The boy’s memory of his little sister’s recent bout of seasickness brings on a subtle, wicked smile.
The mother is a tall, winsome blonde, with a smile as electric as the Manhattan skyline. Her aura is one of pure, mellow magnetism. Natalie, no older than four, has come along reluctantly; she has spilt orange juice on a sleeve of her new sailor suit. Fortunately, none of it got into mummy’s brand new camera.
A steward is dragooned into accompanying the quartet outside. Darkness is already beginning to steal across the sky like some kind of sleeping sickness. The temperature has dropped like a stone; the breeze whistles through the rigging around the four, giant smokestacks, plucking at them like some hopelessly off key string quartet.
The steward is only too happy to help; the woman is a stunner, and the kids are polite and well mannered. Not like some of the pampered little brats that he had to contend with on his last trip on the Olympic. The American kids were often the worst; spoilt rotten, they were.
The little family group clusters in a ragged, self conscious posse by the stern railings, and it takes father more than a few attempts to sort out the best, practical pose. Meanwhile, the steward cradles the big, boxy camera as if it were fine bone china. It feels like a grenade in his hand, with the pin already pulled.
But eventually, all is ready. Natalie stands in front of her mother, head down, arms flush and unyielding by her sides. Almost inevitably, the boy is up on his father’s shoulders. Arm in arm, a young couple in full evening wear strolls past, smiling and nodding politely as they do so. Forgetting herself, Natalie dissolves into a curt, whimsical little smile of her own.
The steward is not at all sure about this bloody brash, new fanged gadget. Far too many buttons and knobs for his liking, thank you very much. He points the infernal contraption squarely at the quartet of forced smiles. By now, Natalie’s expression is somewhat closer to some kind of anguished grimace.
A sudden neon flash is followed by a brief instant of startled silence. For some reason he cannot fathom, the steward thinks of the burst of a white distress rocket, clawing at the night sky. The deed is done.
The steward is glad to hand the heavy camera back, and gladder still to lighten the father of a five dollar tip for his troubles. He takes it with a reserved, yet genuine gratitude; his brother had been killed in the Boer War, and most all of his tips go toward the cost of clothing and feeding his eleven year old nephew. Not every man is lucky enough to have a job as good as his.
It should turn out to be a lovely photograph once it is developed, most likely when they arrive in New York. The sun was setting exactly behind them in the ship’s wake, turning sky and sea alike into a shimmering, fiery canvas of deep, rich orange and indigo. Now the bugle sounds for dinner, and it’s sharp, strident notes seem to carry on the breeze, all the way back to shore.
Behind them, the blackened, light speckled shoreline sags into the dark embrace of the ocean like some burnt souffle. With something that resembles a mute, contented kind of sigh, the young family heads back indoors to the light, the laughter, and the warmth. Natalie is insisting to her mother that she does not like lobster, and nobody can make her like it.
A gaudy, circular white life ring is affixed to the railing behind the spot that they have just vacated. The father had made sure that it featured at centre stage in their photo; indisputable evidence of a happy family trip that they would always wish to remember.
Like thousands of similar life rings on hundreds of different vessels, it bears the name of their ship in bold, black letters.
T I T A N I C
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