Saturday 7 April 2012
‘There were never enough lifeboats for everyone, not even for half of the people aboard her that night,’ Henry looked out of the tiny window as he spoke. Fine tulle curtains covered his only source of natural light in the room during the day, and a battered old blind kept the night’s eyes out of Henry’s room. Outside, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the more capable residents were taking their daily constitutionals. Up until two years ago, Henry had been one of those residents who made the most of the independence they still had, and had it not been for the fact that he’d taken a fall and broken his left hip, and it had not properly healed, he would be out there too. Getting around with a walking stick was painful, and a reminder to a once vibrant and motivated man that time was ending, and death was coming for him. There was no staving it off for much longer.
The crowd in his room had grown a little more, people now curious to learn how she foundered and how Henry survived. He couldn’t help but feel that they were all a bit ghoulish in their desire to hear how fifteen hundred and fourteen people perished in the freezing water of the North Atlantic Ocean. He wouldn’t deprive them of this part of the story. He had always believed it to be the most important in the telling, the loss of so many lives an avoidable tragedy.
* * * * *
Henry watched as the panic steadily grew, eating through the crew and filtering out to the passengers of all classes. He heard the whispers turn into screams.
‘Something’s not right with the ship.’
‘She’s taking on water apparently.’
‘It’s fine, really. She’s designed to withstand four of her sixteen water tight compartments flooding.’
‘It was a bloody iceberg.’
‘The unsinkable ship is sinking.’
‘Get out of my way, I’m heading for the lifeboats.’
‘No point, you think they’re going to let the third class get aboard a lifeboat?’
‘Five compartments are flooding . . .’
It was inevitable. Many of them would not survive the night.
Henry fought through the throng of people to find Reggie and Nancy, and their children. They were as panicked as everyone else aboard Titanic. Grabbing Henry roughly by the arm, Reggie pulled him way from the woman and children, and spoke gruffly.
‘Make me a promise, right here and now, Henry Thornton. Promise me that you’ll make sure that Nancy and the children get safely on a lifeboat.’
Henry was frightened by the manner in which he was being spoken to. ‘Do it yourself, Reggie. That’s your responsibility. They’re your family.’
‘You don’t understand, boy. They’ll not let the men anywhere near the lifeboats. Women and children first. Look around, listen to what people are saying. Not enough lifeboats for everyone. You just promise me, Henry, promise that you’ll see them to safety.’
He knew Reggie was right. Bobby Milton, lowly purser, had said ‘God help us all if she goes down’, and now Henry understood the terror in the young crewman’s eyes. They were doomed, and she was going down fast.
‘I promise you, Reggie, I’ll get them to safety if you’re unable to, and if I can,’ Henry replied earnestly.
Reggie clapped him on the shoulder and pulled him back to Nancy and the children.
‘We should get on deck as fast as we can now,’ Henry said. There would be no argument from the Smith family, all of them sensing the danger that was almost palpable around them.
They fought their way through the hundreds of others heading to the deck, only to be confronted with metal gates being closed at every stairwell. People screamed in panic. Third class passengers were being prevented from making their way to the deck and the lifeboats. Reggie barged his way through the people and pressed himself against the gate, calling out to the crew who were hurriedly leaving them behind.
‘Let us out, you bastards. You can’t do this,’ shouted Reggie, to no avail.
Henry joined him, and saw a familiar figure.
‘Robert?’ he called. ‘BOBBY MILTON.’
Milton turned in the direction of the voice, and at once recognised the young chap who had been on deck with him at the fateful moment Titanic had struck the iceberg. His eyes were filled with fear.
‘I’m sorry, Henry. It’s orders, you see?’ he called back.
‘Please, Bobby, please. Let us through.’
‘Orders, Henry,’ Milton replied, tears streaming down his face at the thought of leaving so many to die, helpless and unnecessarily.
Bobby Milton raced to the top of the stairs to join his fellow crewmembers.
‘Is it locked, Milton?’ asked an officer.
‘Yes, sir,’ he replied, his head lowered in shame.
‘Good. Can’t have third class beating our first class passengers to the boats. That wouldn’t look good for the company.’
‘Somehow sir, I don’t think leaving so many to die will look good either.’
In a split second, Bobby made an important decision. Hearing a cry from the lifeboats, of women and children first, he descended the stairs, and fumbling with his keys, Bobby unlocked the gate.
‘I knew you’d come back, Bobby. You’re too good a man to have let us all die down here,’ Henry said.
A terrified rush of people burst up the stairs, and somewhere in amongst them was Reggie and Nancy, their children, Henry, and Bobby. Henry tried to keep Reggie and Nancy in view, but lost sight of them once on deck. Third class passengers pushing and shoving to get safely to the lifeboats bombarded surprised crew. The officer who had spoke to Bobby grabbed the purser’s jacket as he was propelled past.
‘I’ll have your job for this, boy,’ he threatened.
‘No need, sir,’ said Bobby, ‘I quit. I won’t be a part of murder, sir. Not for anyone or anything. My job is yours.’
. . . To be continued . . .