Thursday 29 – Friday 30 March 2012
Third class steerage was unexpectedly crowded. Henry looked at the sea of bodies around him. There were far too many people in such a small area for anyone to be even remotely comfortable.
‘So much for a quiet trip to a new life,’ he whispered to himself. Henry pushed his way through the people to see if he could find a suitable cot. He didn’t need anything fancy, so the basic bedding provided by the liner company looked perfect – if only he could find a spot.
A middle-aged woman saw Henry looking for an empty cot. She waved her hand at him, hoping to gain his attention. He saw he, smiled bashfully, and looked behind him to see who she was waving at. Seeing many people, but no one returning the wave, Henry looked again at the woman. She pointed at him, and waved him over again. He pushed his way past a number of rowdy men and stopped in front of her.
‘You looking for a place to kip?’ Her think Irish accent caught Henry off-guard.
He nodded and replied, ‘Yes, but it looks like I’ve got no hope. All these people.’ He threw a glance over his shoulder.
‘You can take the top cot, if you’d like. My boy can sleep with his father instead,’ she replied.
‘Oh no,’ Henry was quick to respond, ‘I won’t kick a child from a bed.’
‘Really, it’s okay. He’ll be more comfortable with his father. With these crowded surroundings, he’ll feel safer closer to his pa.’ She was insistent. ‘Take the cot, please. I think I’d feel safer having a young man around than some of these brutes. You’d be doing me a favour. Really.’
Henry smiled. He threw his bag on the cot above the woman’s, and hoisted himself up to secure his bed. Before getting comfortable, he leaned over the edge of the cot and looked at the woman.
‘I’m Henry. Henry Thornton. Thank you for the cot, ma’am.’
She giggled. ‘No one’s ever called me ma’am before, Henry Thornton. I’m Nancy Smith. My husband is Reggie. That’s him over by the bald, fat man with the bad skin,’ she pointed in the direction of her husband. Henry couldn’t really see him over the bobbing heads. She continued, ‘And our two little ones are Elizabeth and James. It’s lovely to make your acquaintance, Henry.’
Henry lay back on the bed, hands under his head, eyes drifting closed. It had been an early morning for him, and he hadn’t been able to sleep much the night before. There was much excitement and anticipation in such along journey to begin life anew. Henry had never been faced with something as simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. He allowed his lids to close, soaked in the sounds around him, and fell asleep before the ship left port.
When he woke, the room was still an ocean of bodies, and palpable excitement. Henry leaned down to the bunk below, but Nancy Smith and her children were not there. He scanned the room for their faces, but couldn’t see them anywhere, and assumed that they had gone to another part of the ship. He jumped down and straightened himself out.
‘Boy, you wouldn’t wanna leave anything valuable in your bag while you’re away from it. Not with the likes of some of these. Reggie Smith.’ An outstretched hand hovered in front of him. Henry gripped and shook it with as much force as Reggie gripped his.
‘Nice to meet you, Reggie. Henry Thornton. Your Nancy told me I could –’
‘Yeah, she mentioned that,’ Reggie interrupted. ‘If you’ve got valuables in there, take ‘em with you whenever you leave here. Not rightly sure I’d trust any of ‘em.’ He waved his hand around the whole room, indicating that no one was to be trusted.
‘Can’t say that I have anything of value, Reggie. Not a bloody thing, unless you consider a pair of socks with a ruddy great hole in the heel of one, valuable.’ Henry chuckled, and Reggie followed.
‘Still, Henry, best to be safer than sorry,’ Reggie reiterated. ‘Where are you off to then?’
Henry scratched his head and then patted his scruffy blonde hair back into place. ‘Thought I might go on deck and have a gander, get a bit of fresh sea air.’
‘Mind how you go then, Henry. Word is that the other classes of people aboard don’t like to cop a gander at us third class citizens. And don’t get yourself into any bother. Young fella like you, I’m pretty sure trouble might follow you around.’ He clapped Henry on the back as if sending him on his way. Henry nodded, and forced his way through the bodies that were crammed into the space. Fresh air was definitely what he needed at this point.
Coming to the end of the passageway, Henry found the gate between the level he was on, and the level he needed to be on, firmly locked shut. As if hoping that it would help but knowing that it wouldn’t, he grabbed hold of the gate and shook it vigorously, the clang of metal on metal echoing through the passageway. A passing purser heard the noise and rushed to see what the commotion was about.
‘Boy, what do you think you are doing?’ he demanded.
‘I’m sorry, mister. I wanted to go on deck, but it seems that we’re locked in down here,’ Henry meekly replied.
Pausing momentarily to survey the situation, the purser shifted from foot to foot apparently unsure of whether he was permitted to unlock the barrier. He fumbled about with the keys in his pocket, finally removing them. Sifting through the pristine, unused, polished keys, the young purser who appeared to be only a little older than Henry selected the appropriate key and unlocked the gate.
‘Bear in mind, sir, that there are only a few areas on deck that third class steerage passengers are permitted to frequent. If you’ll pay mind to stay out of sight of the first and second class passengers, I think everything will be fine.’ He smiled weakly at Henry, ushered him through the gate, and then continued on in the direction that he had been heading before speaking to Henry.
‘Excuse me,’ Henry called after him, ‘is it true that she’s unsinkable?’
The young purser turned back to Henry, a broad smile across his face. ‘Yes, sir, I believe that it is indeed true.’
. . . To be continued . . .