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Harbinger of Nightmares

by Karissa E.L. Cuff about a month ago in Historical · updated 16 days ago
Runner-Up in Ship of Dreams ChallengeRunner-Up in Ship of Dreams Challenge
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The Song that Never Ended

Harbinger of Nightmares
Photo by Kwinten De Pauw on Unsplash

Disclaimer: This story is inspired by and based off real life events and people, however real names, character traits and backstories are not used. The accuracy of the characters is entirely focused on their courage.


Day One - The Beginning

The ocean was dancing. The wind was coaxing small gentle ripples into the otherwise calm sea like music urging lovers to slow dance in a ballroom.

A pretty woman who's name I couldn't seem to recall was standing beside me, laughing at a joke I'd made as she pushed curled blonde hair behind her thin shoulders. I was always doing that - forgetting people's names only to remember how they smiled at me. This girl had lips that curled up like a paint stroke. She smiled at me like she was the kind of person who might love a dreamer more than the dream.

"Sorry to interrupt ma'am," a familiar voice said from behind me, "but I need to borrow Ted." I turned to see Joe tipping his hat to the woman beside me.

She nodded politely and bid me farewell as Joe clapped a hand on my back. Grinning, he said, "How'd you get someone like her to talk to you brother?" Joe called people 'brother' a lot, probably because he didn't have any real siblings and desperately wanted some. I supposed my tendency to call people "friend" had similar logic to it. It was difficult finding and maintaining friendships when I had lived in the small town of Ampfield and spent most of my time looking after my six younger siblings, but now... well the Titanic could offer anyone anything - everything even.

"Ted?" Joe's voice pulled me back to reality - the beautiful reality that enveloped me.

"I just asked her why she was here," I answered absentmindedly, my eyes taking in the beautiful ship I still couldn't quite believe I was on board.

Joe laughed - a light soft sound. "Anyone will tell you their dreams won't they?" he said incredulously. "You have something of a gift for it. Now tell me, would you have been late if I hadn't come searching for you?"

I shook my head, trailing slowly behind Joe as he lead us to the first-class lounge. "Of course not. You'd have better spent your time seeking out Robert."

Joe's laughter found me again. "He may be the youngest, but nobody's head is in the clouds quite like yours."

I didn't have time to respond before we reached our destination and Joe pointed at the young cellist and said, "See. He beat you here."

"Tarner and Whitmore didn't." There were three 'Joseph's in the orchestra so we called the violinist Joe and one of the cellist's by his last name, 'Whitmore'. The other Joseph was sitting by his double bass towards the outskirts of the group, quietly observing the rest of us.

"How's the nerves gentlemen?" Walter, the bandmaster, asked us. His tall figure cast a shadow on the violin he picked up gently with elegant hands. Hands of a musician. Hands that mirrored our own.

"Nerves don't exist if you don't let them," Peter Tarner exclaimed, rushing into the room and reaching for his cello.

"That's not what you said when you wanted to speak to the pretty lady in the red dress before," Joseph Whitmore teased him, following him inside the otherwise empty room. Walter shook his head but both he and Joe chuckled.

It was Robert who said worriedly, "I'm concerned I'll forget the notes to a song. There's so many to remember."


"352," Gerald, another violinist, corrected me.

"You'll be fine," I assured Robert. "If you get a note wrong nobody will even notice."

Walter nodded encouragingly. "Ted's right. They'll all be too busy eating and flirting and admiring the scenery." He swept an arm around the room, gesturing at the patterned floor and expensive furniture.

Gerald let out a 'humph' sound. "Too busy flaunting their wealth."

Walter quickly hushed him as he noticed the first few passengers enter the room - dresses swishing and boots scuffing on the carpet. Joe moved past Robert to pick up his own violin, laying a hand on his shoulder as he went. "You'll be okay brother. Play like only the ocean is listening."

"Or like all of England is," Whitmore said with a smirk. "The people listening think they are England after all."

Walter quietened them once again, gesturing for everyone to find their positions. I sat down at the piano, lifting the wooden lid and resting my feet on the pedals. I could feel the magic of the music reach my fingers the second they lingered above the keys like they were a wish waiting to be granted.

The music began. My heart soared. The passengers cheered.

I took my eyes off the music sheets in front of me for a moment, glancing at my bandmates, taking the moment in. Tarner grinned at me, his bow never faltering as it glided effortlessly across the strings of his cello. I beamed back at him. The others were swallowed by the music, their eyes focused on the paper, their hands making magic on the instruments they held like lovers.

My eyes found the music sheet once again as my fingertips continued to collide with the piano keys. The Titanic could offer anything and in that moment it offered me happiness. So, I took it, playing song after song after song, never faltering, never letting the awe evaporate.

When the passengers had left, and the last song had ended there were smiles and cheers and congratulations all round. The eight of us temporarily turned our attention away from the instruments that had brought us here and instead offered jokes and laughs to each other.

Whitmore had already cracked open a bottle of Cream Gin when he let out a contented sigh, wrestling the liquor away from Tarner who reached eagerly for it. "This is the life, isn't it lads?" A chorus of enthusiastic agreement met his statement. I couldn't have spoken truer words if I'd tried.

Day Two - The Journey Goes On

"I'm going to propose to her when we get back," Robert told us. He found renewed vigour and tugged on the rowing machine oars more energetically as soon as he began mentioning the young woman who waited for him back in England.

"You'd better plan something good," Joe told him, distractedly fiddling with an unlit cigarette, eager to go to the smoke room. "If there's anything my wife taught me, it's that women have high standards these days."

I laughed. "I bet she won't last a month with you then," I said jokingly, leaning back against the cushioned red seat where I lazed, legs sprawled out in front of me.

"Hey! It's already been two," Joe replied, a smile creeping across his features.

"Two months and she's already sent you away to New York City."

Robert huffed out a laugh from where he continued to exercise on the rowing machine, sweat trickling down his forehead.

Joe laughed. "It won't be long, and when I return I'll have money and stories to tell. Not to mention a nice glow to my skin if we ever leave the gymnasium." He sent a feigned glare at Robert as he said the last words.

Robert sighed and finally stood up, leading us from the room. "Time to explore?" he asked enthusiastically.

"I thought you'd never ask," Joe replied, still thumbing his cigarette, making it clear which room he'd like to find.

"You mean to say you lot didn't scour the whole ship yesterday when we boarded?" I asked incredulously. They looked at me excitedly and I let out a sigh. "Come on friends. Let me give you a tour."


"I think I should be able to skip practice today," Whitmore said impatiently. "I got talking to a beautiful woman from Colbury. Wouldn't the Titanic be the perfect place to start a love story?"

"It sure would be," Tarner replied, with a smirk already on his face, "if you could decide on one girl long enough to form a love story."

Whitmore narrowed his eyes in gleeful challenge. "At least I'm the one they decide on," he mocked.

"What song would you like to practice?" Walter asked the other band members, pulling their attention away from the cellists' taunting banter.

"Don't know," Joe said first. "Have you written one yet Ted? Surely you'll write us a song one of these days."

I chuckled lightly. "Why would I bother writing a song when one as beautiful as 'Nearer, my God, to thee' already exists?"

Joe shook his head good naturedly. "It isn't even the best one of the 352 we have to know brother."

"Of course it is," Walter agreed with me, "by far. It's the kind of song you wish would never end."

I nodded at him as Gerald suggested a different song and Walter managed to silence Tarner and Whitmore long enough for us to begin playing it. The two of them continued their jokes throughout rehearsal and only quietened down when the first class lounge began filling up with passengers again and we started to focus more intently on the music sheets, sitting up straighter and making sure our bow ties were sitting just right.

Most people either ignored us, too busy being swept away by the lavish room and rich people, or gazed at us with appreciative awe. There was, however, the odd person who gave us a disapproving look. The odd person like the one weaving their way through tables and walking towards us then.

He stopped directly in front of us in between songs and began speaking in low tones to Walter, pointing animatedly at Robert. I had to lean forward in my seat, pretending to rearrange the sheets of my music, in order to hear.

"Wrong notes,"... "messed up the song,"... "pathetic." I caught snippets and snarls of criticism from the man - even more when he stepped towards Robert and started speaking louder.

The man's face was all sharp lines and harsher expressions. His slicked back hair emphasised the angry arch of his eyebrows and the upturned lip that peeled away from his teeth. Robert's face was turning a deep crimson - the colour of embarrassment and shame.

I leaned forward on my seat - this time not so subtly. "We were playing the new edition to the song sir," I lied. There was no new edition. Robert had stumbled over a few notes, but it hadn't mattered. It shouldn't have matter anyway. But even on The Ship of Dreams, there were always going to be at least some people seeking to stamp out hopes and form a few frowns.

The man didn't look like he was buying it. Gerald had stood up and stepped forward, abandoning his violin on his discarded seat. His face was quickly reddening too, but for different reasons than Robert's. Gerald's cheeks were painted in shades of anger and defensiveness. My breath evaporated from my lungs as I searched desperately for a way to diffuse the situation.

"Next song gentlemen," Walter said calmly, beating me to it. "We have a lot of requests for this one." Another lie. He nodded politely to the still scowling man as he said it. There had been no requests for the next song, I was sure. But if the man thought people were waiting for it, he was more likely to leave Robert alone.

Sure enough, he begrudgingly walked away. Walter gently nudged Gerald in the direction of his seat and we began playing again. After a few songs the tension in Robert's shoulder's seemed to have eased and his bow was sliding gracefully across the cello's strings once again.

Once the night had come to a close and the passengers had all exited the lounge, leaving us alone to pack up, Robert turned to us. "Thanks for getting me out of that one," he said gratefully, nodding at Walter and me.

"Gerald was ready to throw a fist at him," Tarner laughed.

The rest of us laughed and Robert said again, "Thanks for having my back."

"We do this together," Walter said firmly, with a supportive hand placed on Robert's wiry shoulder.

"Til the sea delivers us to the shore," I agreed.

Joe shook his head with a smirk. "Always so dramatic Ted."

I laughed but Robert repeated the words appreciatively. "Together til the sea delivers us to the shore."

Day Three - The Journey Continues to Go On

The music was lulling the crowd again - like a siren song seducing sailors. As my fingers flew over the smooth piano keys, my gaze travelled around the room, ignoring the delicate china plates and glasses filled with champagne and fine wine and focusing on the people instead.

Sitting near us, there was the young lady who had stood by the handrail of the deck with me that first day, smiling at me like she thought someone who dreamed was somebody easily loved. She smiled that same smile now, bright eyes glowing like a full moon.

There was an elderly woman sitting a few tables back, leaning back in her chair with her eyes closed and hands resting in the soft satin of her skirts. I'd talked to her just yesterday afternoon, listening to her tell me about how she wanted to live out the rest of her years in New York City. The lines around her mouth had become stark and pronounced, like the crumples in my favourite coat, as she'd spoken about how she hoped to find happiness there.

In the back corner sat a man who had told me he was my age, twenty-four, but somehow looked to be at least five years older. He'd explained to me just that morning how he planned to start a business in America and maybe start a family there.

This was where seeds were planted. This was where dreams were born. The Titanic was carrying endless possibilities and New York was where they would be left to run rampant - being distastefully distinguished or let grow into gardens and greenery.

I continued thinking about that long after we'd finished playing and bid each other goodnight. I was standing by the railing, watching the salt water lap at the ship's bow when Joe found me.

"What do you think New York is like?" He asked me, exhaling a cloud of smoke as he held a cigarette away from his mouth.

I wasn't sure if he was allowed to smoke out here, but I didn't ask. Instead, I merely murmured, "I don't know my friend."

Joe turned to face me, unfazed by the gust of wind that ruffled his dark hair, causing me to grab hold of my top hat to keep it in place. "What? No awe-filled response this time brother?"

We stood in silence for a moment. I considered it. From what I'd heard, New York was a blur of movement - a million stories overlapping to form a jumble of letters, like a damaged typewriter. New York might be where the dreamers went but it was not a harbour for hopes. The Titanic - that was where people's smiles were real. That was where people practically glowed with eager anticipation. That was where dreams were nurtured.

"If it's as beautiful as I hope maybe I'll come back and bring my wife," Joe said, letting just a little of his romantic side seep through the cracks of charismatic indifference.

"Whatever it's like," I answered. "I don't believe it could possibly be better than this, right here. The Titanic." The Ship of Dreams was like 'Nearer, my God, to thee' - a song I never wanted to end.

Day Four - The Final Day

It was just another day aboard paradise. Another cobalt-coloured sky. Another breath-taking breeze threatening to blow my hat away, along with thoughts of anything melancholic. Morning slipped away too quickly, welcoming midday which soon faded into dusk. Before I knew it, I had finished playing piano and had curled up inside a warm bed with the rocking of the ship steadily sending me to sleep.

Day Five - The Day of Disaster

It was just after midnight when the ship began to shake. Awhile after my fitful sleep was interrupted by the crew members throwing open doors and telling us to put our lifebelts on. I quickly dressed and ventured into the hallway, wiping sleep from my blurry eyes. Hysteria was already building.

My heart was an alarm all on its own, as it pounded against my chest, like a lifeboat eager to escape. Why would there be an alarm? The Titanic was invincible. Why would there be an alarm? The question swirled around in my head; a ruthless ocean filling my mind.

"What's happening?" I asked as soon as I found Walter, Joe and Robert gathered outside Walter's room. I hadn't meant for my voice to sound high and panicked but it didn't matter; I could only just hear myself over the worried chatter filling the halls.

"Gather the others and meet in the first-class lounge," Walter replied with forced calm. "I'll find out what's happening and fill you in when I get there." We nodded at our dismissal and began searching for the others.

Time seemed to move too slowly and too quickly all at once as we found the other four and made our way to the lounge together. I heard the words "iceberg" and "collision" tossed carefully between crew members in hushed tones on the way there.

"The Titanic is unsinkable," Gerald told us. It was words we'd heard a hundred times before but this time they sounded somewhat like a protective shield and a little bit more like a prayer. It was when he hesitated and whispered the word, "Right?" that my blood ran cold.

"Of course," the usually quite Joseph replied, refusing to look at us as he answered.

We didn't speak the rest of the way there. Once in the first class lounge we waited for Walter in more suffocating silence. When he neared us, the crew member he was walking with hurried away but not before I heard his last words to the bandmaster. "This isn't a ship of dreams, it's a harbinger of nightmares." I shivered.

"What's happening?" "Is everything okay?" "What'd you find out?" Walter held up a hand to halt the questions.

"The ship hit an iceberg," he said in a strained voice. "It- it's going to sink." Stunned silence met his statement. "There aren't enough lifeboats for everyone."

The kind of cold produced by an iceberg crashed into me then as I processed what he said. Hit an iceberg. Going to sink. Not enough lifeboats. The words seemed to make the world stop.

"What do we..." Joe's voice broke in a way I'd never heard before. He cleared it and asked, "What do we do?"

Walter looked each of us in the eyes before replying. "We do the only thing we can do. We play for them. The unsinkable ship is about to sink so let's make sure our music lives on."

More silence followed. Robert turned to me, eyes the shape of a shilling. "What do you think it will be like?" he said in a voice as quiet as death.

I had no idea. "I've heard it's peaceful," I whispered, but even as I said the words, I could see hundreds of hopes drowning in his blue eyes that mirrored the sea currently dooming us.

"It will be a hero's death," Joe told him. It wasn't a good enough response, I could tell, but it was all we could offer him.

Everyone looked at Walter. I half expected him to give some kind of inspiring speech. Instead, he looked at us with a mixture of pride and disappointment. He must've known he didn't need to give a speech. These men faced the end as if it was just another song request. They shook death's hand as if he was just another member of the audience.

Joseph was clutching his double bass so tightly his knuckles turned the white of sea froth. Gerald's jaw was clenched so hard a muscle flecked along his cheek. Tarner and Whitmore's grins had vanished, replaced with solemn resolve. Robert's eyes were still a swirling ocean, but his stance was more relaxed - ready for what was to come. And Joe - Joe was looking at the rest of us like we were the brothers he never had. None of us moved.

"What'll it be gentlemen?" Walter asked, his own face looking like a smooth glacier of determination. There wasn't really a choice, not for men with honour. We would do what we always did. We would play on.

"Together?" Gerald said in a gruff voice.

"Til the sea delivers us," I responded, unable to bring myself to say the last bit. It seemed the shore we'd reach wasn't the one I'd been expecting us to. I'd imagined solid land, not a mysterious place beyond a watery grave.

It was Joe who offered me a sad smile and murmured. "To the shore."

"Til the sea delivers us to the shore," came a chorus of responses from the others.

Then we began to play. One final time.

The first-class lounge filled up quickly, with some people rushing past and others sitting restlessly at tables. We had an audience. A doomed, devastated audience. It was mostly men who would not be able to board the lifeboats, but some women watched on too.

A couple were arguing near where I played the piano.

"You have to go," the man said, desperation making his deep voice shake.

"Not without you," came the equally desperate response.

"Ma'am." I hadn't seen Joe walk away from his violin until he was standing right beside the woman. "I'm sorry to interrupt."

"Thank you," was the lady's reply. "For continuing to play."

Joe only nodded; his face tensed so much that lines formed mini horizons on his forehead. "Could you do me a favour?" His voice was all but a whisper.

The lady looked to him with everything from sympathy to concern sweeping across her delicate features. "Of course."

"When you make it back to England," he murmured, "find a woman named Ruth Hall for me." The woman's shoulder's slumped slightly as she realised what he was asking before he even said it. My fingers faltered on the keyboard as I realised it too. The man with her almost staggered back in relief, knowing Joe had already done what he couldn't - convinced her to try and make it back. It was a fool's hope - that she would survive and be able to deliver his message. But it was also a dying man's hope and the lady before us didn't look like one to say no to that.

"Would you tell her..." Joe's voice was coated in grief. "Tell her that when the water takes me, I'll dream of her. I'll always dream of her."

The woman nodded, a sad smile playing across her lips as she squeezed his hand and turned back to farewell the man still staring at her.

I stopped playing for a moment myself as I reached out and grasped Joe's arm before he could pass me. He turned and looked down at me, a kind of reckless passion burning like a torch in his eyes.

"If I have to go," I told him, "I'm glad it's like this. There's nobody I'd rather have by my side brother."

Joe grinned at me - the kind of smile that showed closure and courage and acceptance. "Play like the sea is listening," he replied. "If anybody's music can save lives it's yours my friend. Give the survivors something angelic to remember. Give the drowning something alleviating to farewell them."

He returned to his seat, and we kept playing. Song after song after song. More listeners refused to board the lifeboats. Some cheered for us and others merely closed their eyes and swayed to the rhythm of hope that seeped from our instruments.

Eventually Walter informed us we'd have to move to the front of the deck. I thought I'd have to abandon my piano but two toned members of the audience offered to carry it, shooing me away when I tried to help.

Upstairs was mayhem. People were screaming. Children were crying. Passengers and crewmembers alike were fighting for positions aboard the few remaining lifeboats.

The water was dancing again. A dance of disappointment. A dance of destruction. A dance of death.

We played a few more songs while hysteria built around us, flooding the ship alongside the merciless seawater. My heart was racing quicker now. The front of the ship was sinking further, the floor tilting and tilting and tilting. Walter turned to us. "Any song requests?" Like me, he seemed to sense that this was it - it was the last song we would ever play.

Joe looked to me. "'Nearer, my God, to thee?'" he suggested.

Walter nodded approvingly and I smiled, salt water that wasn't from the sea staining my eyes. The song I'd wished would never end. The song we would never get to finish again.

So, in those last moments, with sea and sorrow surrounding us, we played - the song that would never end. Midway through I heard a horrible haunting sound. The sound of a thousand hearts breaking. The Titanic broke in two.

I gasped in oxygen - the last I would taste. The ship lurched, the floor no longer under me, as I fell. I saw the dark desperation of the ocean a second before I crashed into its embrace.

The water engulfed me, but the memory of music was what cradled me.

When the ocean filled my lungs and the sea delivered me to shore I watched all my dreams grow into gardens and greenery.


About the author

Karissa E.L. Cuff

I breathe in words and bleed in sentences. Writing is my love language.

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