Wednesday 4 April 2012
Henry paused to catch his breath and gather his thoughts. He had been so engrossed in recounting the voyage that he had failed to notice the small crowd that had begun to gather in his room. Passers-by and nursing home staff all drawn by the mention of the ship’s name, eager to hear from someone who witnessed the events first hand, ravenous for details and gossip related to the fateful voyage, were now milling around in Henry Thornton’s room. It made him feel uncomfortable. He had spent all of his life trying to blend in, be anonymous, and get on with life; a feat that was almost impossible for a survivor of the Titanic.
As soon as the survivors stepped foot on land after that night, the press, by friends and family, by strangers, all demanding to know what really happened, had hounded them. Henry thought it was enough to have lived through the sinking, but to be expected to relive it on a daily basis for the sake of gossip, that was too much for Henry. He had sought a quiet life in the country, and he had the benefit of being young when the unsinkable Titanic slipped below the water and into the unreachable depths, so his aged and time weathered face was virtually unrecognisable as that of a young survivor of the Titanic disaster.
‘Go on, pop,’ Charlotte urged him, understanding that these strangers, and a few familiar faces wanted to experience the story that she had encouraged him to tell many, many times. He leaned closer to her and spoke in hushed tones, hoping that only his Lotte could hear.
‘I don’t like all these people around, Lotte. I’m not a carnival sideshow freak. I lived that night, and I haven’t stopped living with the terror since it happened. It’s not a story that should be sold and passed around to all and sundry like a cheap harlot.’
She snickered at his words and then realised her mistake, ‘I’m sorry, pop. I was laughing at the cheap harlot line. Sounded funny coming out of your mouth. And pop, no one says harlot anymore.’
Henry took a deep breath, and glanced at the audience he had acquired. Some of the faces smiled at him, some looked pensive and reflected the anticipation and uncertainty that he had seen in the faces of the passengers all those years ago. He hadn’t wanted to let anyone down then, nor did he want to be the one to let this new, eager audience down now.
* * * * *
Henry ran, following slightly behind the purser.
‘What’s your name, young man?’ the purser called.
‘Henry Thornton. Yours?’
‘Robert Milton, purser. But everyone calls me Bobby,’ came the breathless reply. They were running as fast as they could, through the service corridors of the ship, dodging other crew as they went. More than once, senior crew shouted warnings to the young purser, threatening to have his job if he didn’t follow protocol.
‘Where are we going?’ Henry asked, just as breathless as Bobby.
‘Captain. Need to tell him what just happened.’
‘You don’t think he’ll already know? It’s not as if that was a quiet little tap on the side,’ Henry called. Bobby came to a stop, and turned to Henry. He grabbed the front of Henry’s shirt with both hands.
‘That was an enormous berg, Thornton, I know that just as I’m sure the captain knows that we’ve hit her. But the captain needs to know how big it was.’ He released Henry and began at almost full pace again, with Henry quick to follow.
Henry hadn’t taken note of the route he and Bobby had taken to arrive outside the door to the bridge. The ship was like a rabbit warren, corridors leading this way and that, and doors everywhere. It truly was a massive ship.
‘Blimey,’ Henry said, ‘hope I can find my way back to third class.’
‘Wait here, Henry,’ Bobby ordered, ‘in case the captain needs to speak with you.’
After a heated, but whispered conversation with a senior officer who was intent on keeping Bobby from the bridge, the young purser was hurriedly ushered in to speak with the captain. Henry was left waiting outside, wondering about the other passengers who probably had no idea about the iceberg hit. He thought about his fellow third class passengers whose berths were lower down in the ship, and possibly much closer to the iceberg’s path along the vessel. He thought about the sound that it made; it was loud on deck, and must have been even more so below.
Only moments passed, and Bobby returned.
‘What did he say?’ Henry asked but wasn’t really sure that he wanted to know the answer.
‘He said not to panic, not to inform the passengers just yet. He’s going below to survey any damage. He’s sure that there won’t be anything that we can’t handle. She is unsinkable, Henry. It’ll take more than a piece of ice to bring her down.’
. . . To be continued . . .