A confession of a nobody, 1932
Author's note: this is a story of fiction based on what little is known about the last moments of Captain Edward Smith's time on the Titanic. I have read some of the theories of his proposed demise or his survival and have crafted this story around these. This is an imagining of a man who escaped. Whatever the truth, the death of Captain Smith has become the stuff of twentieth century myth.
Looking at myself in the mirror now, I see that I am a very old man, stooped and arthritic, tired and withered. The weather affects me more than anything. Makes me creak and shamble about like a cripple.
Looking back, I was an old man then, but I have lost more than youth over the last twenty years. Then, I was vigorous despite an appearance to the contrary with my thick white beard: an accomplished man, respected and experienced. I was thriving. I cut quite the figure in my uniform, solid and imposing. The beard helped maintain that reputation and with wintry sea winds keen to blast at your face, it was a useful friend. It was distinctive, when I was renowned. Now, I hide behind it, in its straggliness and shapelessness. I am no-one, nothing - a nobody. A figure in hiding.
This clandestine life is an uncomfortable but essential state of being. An existence rather than a life. There is a cushioning in the loneliness, in my chosen solitude, from the sharpness of reality. There are no surprises and no fear of the prickly heat of bad opinion. A buffer, if you will. Anonymity is empty company but it makes no demands. It gives you nothing neither, no warmth. But it doesn't cause any trouble; doesn't bring any trouble to my door. I keep my head down when I walk now, a far cry from the proud captain I once was, striding on the deck, taking charge. Part of me longs for those days when I could declare who I was, shaking the hands of dignitaries and revelling in the respectful glances of the passengers and my crew. Now, when I walk towards people, on the rare days when I choose reasonable hours to leave my home, I wonder what they see, who they see. Is it just an old man, with a rolling gait and a downward cast, or do their eyes snag on my features with the presence of recognition? Do I blend or does the stink of notoriety emanate without my knowledge? Can they sniff the air and scent out a traitor?
Sometimes I want to stand tall, walk tall like I once did, but I dare not.
My days are long. I am listless and there is nothing to fill them. They are spent mostly watching the waves from an old wooden chair on the shore, when I can get there; when my legs permit me. My day starts as the light arrives in my room, stealthily but I have been aware of its approach for hours, with my open eyes. Once again, with the new day, I am lured to the sea as I always have been. I might take some lunch with me, if I remember, but these days, mostly, I have no appetite. The indulgent pleasures of life have long been lost to me.
But the sea? There is still pleasure to be had there. I have a fascination for it, always will. It had always served me well, like a faithful friend. It has been known to me all of my life as it is now. Its rhythm is still alluring and when I was a young sailor, its vastness was never intimidating to me but spoke of new experiences and sights. I looked forward to the endless horizon, the excitement of the unknown. The blue.
We knew each other, I thought: the sea and I. I felt like we had an understanding between us, a consolidated rapport: that I could sit atop her striding surface, like a champion jockey on a powerful horse and, providing that drive to each other, together we could succeed in showing her power to others. We respected each other, I thought. My career showed as much. I was as much an instrument of exploration to her as she was to me. But like all great loves, there are secrets; hidden below the surface, waiting to emerge from the fogs of familiarity, waiting to collide and wreck your world. And the world of others.
I did not think I was a weak man but I was! I try not to go back there in the day, to that night. I try to let the sea take me away to other times, better times in the undulation of the surface, the whiteness of the surf and the boom of water on sand and rocks. The sea coaxes me away from darkness. But, at night, when the density of the dark increases solitude, blanketing the distractions, no rest comes. Sleep is held off by guilt and the resurging images of that night emerge, like soldiers from behind ramparts intent on harm.
The chaos. The screams. The desperation. My desperation. So often I settle in bed at night, willing the blackness to provide some rest, and I am lulled into relaxation for a fleeting moment, the heaviness of slumber within reach...and then, the images come and sleep escapes in their wake. Faces of women, clutching children close. Faces of men, standing resolute, willing their mothers to leave with urgency. Fathers with quivering lips as their loved ones clamber away. Faces and the reaching arms of small ones, red and contorted with tears as they are separated from the strong arms of fathers. Shrieks. Coldness. Metal under strain. Creaking of ice and the sloshing of waves.
The looming white.
I should drink to annihilate them but I cannot. I have a paradoxical relationship with my memory of that night: I hate it and yet, I cannot relinquish it. It is my last tie to my beloved sea, my last voyage. It represents betrayal of a love but also, my biggest triumph, the pinnacle of my career, the accolade that would make me: Captain of the Titanic.
Captain of the Titanic. Words I would never dare say out loud now. Words to be buried, sunk deep, that need to remain beneath, shielded by my anonymity: dead with the ship in my beloved sea. Who knew that she would be my ruin, the orchestrator of my downfall?
I should never have left her. I should be with her now.
I never imagined myself a coward. My self-image was one of capability and responsibility. A man on whom all could rely. A worthy helmsman. A man who would go down with his ship. There are some humanists who might call me a survivor and would not blame me for my actions but there are expectations that must be met when one becomes captain; an assumed idea of how one should act. The instinct to conserve one's life must be suppressed at the sake of others. I knew this but I could not fulfil it.
And those sympathetic humanists, they would not have had relatives on that ship or they would not speak so boldly in a man's defence, that is for certain. They would be theorists, viewing the event with the detachment of the observer. I am grateful for them but they would be misguided and wrong. I deserve to be blamed.
I cannot shake the shame of desertion.
Do not think too severely of me. I am a man. A mere man. That night was a feast of chaos, both outside and in. I admit that I believed myself capable. I had a flawless career and was confident in my undertaking. No doubt about my proficiency ever entered my head. An iceberg! Who would have thought it? What cruel occurrence!
I remember, I remember fighting with the urge to run early on, as there was no doubting the outcome. We would sink. We would die. I would die! How to deal with that knowledge? The weight of that realisation in that instant was suffocating. I remember thinking of the cruelty of it, that at the zenith of my career I should be struck down, like a Greek hero, guilty of hubris, by something so extraordinary, so unexpected it was like the Fates had orchestrated it. A romantic notion, I know.
I should have taken more notice of the warnings. I know that now. I was determined to drive that ship forward, to declare its speed and impregnability to the world, to believe in its invincibility! To be the leader of such a ship and in charge of its accomplishments! What mortal man would shy from that? It was what everyone wanted! I was only giving people what they wanted!
And I was the man to deliver. I believed, like the ship, I was invincible. I had succeeded in all of my naval endeavours prior - why should this be any different? My career had been of a charmed nature for years - why would this voyage change that? It would merely consolidate what was already established of me as a captain. The greatest ship was being manned by the greatest captain. It never occurred to me that it would be any different.
But then when the ship collided, there was a shift. It was no longer about speed or strength. It was about survival. How to get out of here though? How to get out of here unseen? No-one must know. No-one must bear witness.
I wrestled. Do not think that I did not. I was so full of turmoil! I tried to suppress the thoughts that drove my fear but they fought, rising with each breath, urging me to flee. I wrestled, heaving against the nervousness in my gut, the tide of anxiety. I could not leave! It was inconceivable. But if I stayed, I would die.
I would die!
I know that this will be no consolation to the many but the decision to leave was not taken lightly. I tried, believe me! I tried! I did not want anyone to die on that ship. I am not without compassion. I am not a brute! Those poor people! I tried!
I knew that staying was futile. I knew that I could change nothing. I knew that my presence would not alter a thing. I stayed to give orders but they were like whispers on the wind in the face of the fleeing and the scrambling. I remember the inertia I exuded reflected in the face of Murdoch, who had more presence of mind than me, much to my chagrin. I could not conquer my inner unrest, the small voice that kept uttering "You must leave! You must leave!" I worked to maintain a calmness, an appearance of control - the image of a true captain, commanding.
In the instant that I decided to escape, my overwhelming feeling was of relief. I had been trapped by the idea of heroics, that I was this man of strength. It was easy to lock the door and set off the gun. A necessary staging of theatrics to provide a story for survivors to relate. Oh, God! Even in the face of Death's gruesome presence, I was concerned for myself and my reputation!
I know that you will want to know how. Peter Pryal will want to know how. His face when he saw me in Baltimore - it would have been laughable if I had not been so terrified of the exposure. What could I do? He was so certain it was me, I had to brave it out, my years of coping in a crisis, as a captain, coming into its own as I addressed him in a manner he would have expected. I was perfunctory and made my escape from him and the possibility of probing questions as quickly as humanly possible. What would I have said? What explanation would I have given?
Reliving this has exhausted me. I do not let my old brain wander too often into the vaults of bad memories voluntarily in the day. But I am drifting more and more and the nights...the nights dominate now. Fatigue is my mistress.
Sitting here, as I am, gazing at the sea, I am tempted to accept her embrace as I did not then. I am tired: tired of solitude; tired of aches; tired of subterfuge. The gratitude I felt for being spared has long since dissipated. I am a husk, waiting to expire. There is no-one to miss me; I am already missing.
Remorse and guilt have been my companions for so long that I crave new company. I am not sure where I will end up - heaven or hell. Sometimes I ask myself if I could have stayed but I am raking over things long since dead. I am not a bad man, merely one who wanted to live.
The wind is picking up now and the light is fading. I am getting colder. I should get up. Sitting here, I am reminded of Canute and his bid to command the sea. I would not force her back. I would beckon her to me. I would allow her to claim me once more as her partner, absorb me and wash over me. Perhaps if I sit here long enough, she will be tempted and cover me, reclaim me and wrap me up in her saltiness and bring me to her depths.
I think I will let her approach. Perhaps she will bring me to peace.
About the author
Mum, blogger, crafter, reviewer, writer, traveller: I love to write and I am not limited by form. Here, you will find stories, articles, opinion pieces, poems, all of which reflect me: who I am, what I love, what I feel, how I view things.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
Zero grammar & spelling mistakes
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme