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On the Skin of the Sea

by Gina King 3 months ago in Historical · updated 3 months ago
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In which Helene becomes tangled in time and sinking ships

Andreas Franke, from The Sinking World

Father had given her a dram of rum to help her sleep, alcohol pushing back at the pressing awareness of the cold, cold Atlantic stretching in terrifying infinity below. Perhaps the rum helped the visions came.

Falling and rising of dark seas. Screaming, shouting, crying children and women clinging together in lifeboats in the night.

She tried to wake but it was so strong. The alcohol, the ocean, the ship rocking in between. Grandfather sometimes spoke of ‘thin places’ where the physical world and spirit worlds sat close. Some of her terror had come from that jolt of awareness as her first step onto the deck connected her to the ocean pressing against the hull. A sense of the entire surface of the Atlantic as a vast thin place. Stretched so wide over the fathomless darkness below. If you fell over and slipped through, would you tumble into the cold black seas or into the realm of ghosts? Or both, drifting down and down as specters strolled by, unawares….

Men grabbing oars – oars of packed lifeboats, but lifeboats in daylight. Panicked throngs pressing against the rails in artificial light, swarming in chaos at the edge of the dark abyss into which lifeboats lowered half full. A tea kettle whistled, screeching high, higher…. Men lurching on a deck in daylight as an explosion wracks their ship. A colossal ocean liner tipping, tipping upward, sinking downward, light from the upper decks shining across the churning foam and black waves then flickering out.

Happening, has happened, yet to come. A swirling dance of three. She had to focus to trace the path of each.

Fear in grey eyes, squinting into the sun over a shoulder as he pulled hard on an oar. A man shouting “They’re surfacing! They’re going to fire on us!”

A women in a life preserver pointing in the dark, “A flare! There’s a ship!” A girl smiles and whispers hope into the ear of the smaller boy huddled in her arms.

A man standing in a sunlit lifeboat, waving and yelling, “Nicht schussen!! There are women and children here! Frauen, Kinder! Nein! No!”

A wooden seat rotating slowly in a column of light as a woman and boy are hoisted up the side of a ship at night. A clattering of metal as a ladder unrolls and passengers scramble to climb from a lifeboat toward the glowing rectangle of an open loading door high on the side of the ship.

The grim face of a searchlight operator, swinging the beam across wreckage to pick out a lifeboat. An impression of heaped white cloth, pale skin, and life preservers – all very, very still. “We’re too late, they’re all dead,” a husky voice mutters nearby. He is staring toward the first light of dawn on the horizon, and the vast tragedy it unveils as scattered forms take shape in the water.

Jason de Caires Taylor, Silent Evolution

Something was wrong – a 4th element in the mix. Two of these were yet-to-comes that could not both occur. Glimpses of these two futures spun around one another in Helene’s mind. They were both the ship sinking in the night. Rescue-death-rescue. Which?

A man surrounded by glowing dials, switches, and coils, cursing and frantically tapping a telegraph key, a muffled din filtering through the door. A similar small equipment space, room dark and dials unlit near a man asleep in a cot. A third room, where the dials glowed and a young man listened, half asleep, shaking his head slowly at the nonsensical noise of overlapping transmissions. A decision point was approaching – a moment where one yet-to-come would inevitably come to be.

The man tapping on the telegraph - that had the specific tang of now, but far. The dark radio room - that was near that man on the sinking ship. But the young man listening - he was close to here-now Helene. He was on the Carpathia! He was tired. He was standing, reaching to take off his headset. It was such a delicately balanced moment, it took just a nudge. It took all her strength, that tiny nudge, but it was all it took for him to hesitate, listening to a clearer transmission coming in.

Harold Cottam sat back down and transcribed. It was a routine message intended for another ship. There were a number of them on his notepad now, awaiting replies. The telegraphist for the Titanic must have gotten very busy to have fallen so far behind. Perhaps he had gone to bed. There was finally a lull in the wireless traffic, into which Harold tapped out a message to see if the fellow on the Titanic was still awake to receive relayed communications. Nothing. Harold began unlacing his boots, reaching for his headset again when the reply came: “We have struck ice, come at once."

Museum of Underwater Art, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Photo by Matt Curnock

Mother and father were helping to convert the 3rd class dining saloon into a hospital. Helene was supposed to be in the cabin keeping an eye on Robbie. But he was sleeping soundly and even if it was the middle of the night, she could not stay below. The men racing about in the fierce cold wind on the deck were too busy to take notice of a girl with pale hair whipping about her face and ruffled end of a nightgown flailing beneath her coat as they went about their work: hanging lights on the side, swinging the lifeboats out, standing watch and swinging searchlights to spot the icebergs ahead and shout out distance and direction. Now and then the Carpathia issued an ominous low howl and shuddered as ice ground against the hull.

“This is madness. If we keep up at this pace, we’ll be sunk, too” a spotter growled to his partner.

“If we can’t run faster we may be ‘rescuing’ naught but corpses. The captain shut down all the heating systems to hold the steam for the engines, but she wasn’t built to run more than 14 knots.”

Helene held the icy rail, awareness trickling fast down through seams in the metal hull, recoiling back from the cold edge of the infinite ocean and flowing inward to the massive rotating shafts, the heat, the roar, the hissing of the engines.

Her aunt snapped, “Is that child a simpleton?!” breaking her concentration on the steaming tea kettle. But a moment before that a strange image of massive machinery had intruded on her game – the one where you stare at the kettle until you swear you’re inside, feeding the heat. That machinery she had glimpsed then was below her now, a shard of the present scattered back to the past. Maybe she was sending it back there right now. To that day in the kitchen many months ago, when she could have sworn she was raising the pitch of the kettle whistle just before her aunt interrupted.

The engine, the tea kettle. They seem tangled into one but only one could be happening now. She felt the tea kettle fall away as all of her concentration collected here on the engine, coaxing the heat to climb and climb and feeling the pitch of steam rising and the ship surging forward.

Museum of Underwater Art Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Photo by Cathy Finch

The Carpathia reached the Titanic in 3 ½ hours, reaching speeds as high as 17 knots and passing near at least 6 large icebergs. The ship arrived at the scene at 4 am and rescued 706 survivors over the course of 4 ½ hours.

***

Helene collapsed into bed utterly exhausted after hours of running supplies and messages back and forth across the ship, escorting the rescued to dining rooms, common areas, or other spaces as the crew directed. She did whatever she could for those tending to Titanic survivors as they grew to outnumber the Carpathia passengers and crew.

She had expected jubilation as the survivors were brought aboard, but there was none of that. Everything was more quiet and somber than she imagined. There were far more women and children than men, and it seemed the only words spoken were names. As she ran here and there it felt as though she ran through a sea of murmured names. Names of husbands, fathers - has he been found? Is he here? She recalled that notion from her first step onto the Carpathia, of falling down through specters in the waters below, but she shook it off. For she expected that soon they would come across the boats full of those men, bound by chivalry to be the last to depart, but safe nonetheless. She even told a few children to take heart. Just you wait and see. But the hours wore on and the women far outnumbered the men to the end.

Even as the sky brightened, the darkness of failing hope descended. Mother caught her by the shoulder as Helene half-stumbled past with a pile of towels whose destination she had forgotten.

“Helene, go check on Robbie and get some sleep. But mind, a couple of fellows from the Titanic were sent to our cabin to rest.” Then more sharply, “Come now, don’t be selfish.” Helene hadn’t realized she had made a face and immediately felt ashamed. Of course they would need to share what little space they had.

She entered the cabin quietly but still woke the young men huddled against the wall by the dresser. The taller one had brown wavy hair and smiled weakly as he introduced himself as Thomas. The other had darker hair and a trim beard and mustache and stared at the floor, leaving Thomas to introduce him as Samuel. Helene said hello then hesitated awkwardly. This room served as both their parlor and her and Robbie’s bedroom, and the bed was only feet away from these strange men. Finally she pulled off her shoes and coat to slip hastily into bed next to her still-sleeping brother.

Jason deCaires Taylor, Underwater Museum of Cannes

She was woken by the hissing of Samuel whispering.

“They’re not here! No one knows them! This is our chance, Tom!”

“I don’t know…. They’ve corresponded with someone at the Trading Company. We don’t know enough about them to pull that off.”

“We know enough! We talked for hours and hours- we know about their bastard of a father, how their mom died, who their sister Ella married and why anyone who marries Sue is in for an adventure! We know where they went to school. Hell, you know Edmund’s old dog’s name!”

“It’s too risky! You know how nervous I get. And I’m a mechanic - I don’t know the first thing about bookkeeping.”

“Can you add and subtract? That’s all it really is. Goddammit, Tom! How hard does the hand of fate have to smack you?! We got on that ship to try to escape the suffocating trap of our stations – you said yourself, no more than dung on the sole of a rich man’s shoe – and now the opportunity is here, better than we could have possibly imagined! God has shuffled the deck for us, man! Who’s to say who we are now? You’re no two of clubs, you’re the jack of hearts.”

She could hear the smile in Tom’s voice. “You – you’re surely the jack of diamonds, Sam.”

“Damn right, I am! We aren’t meant for the workhouse queues, boy! And those brothers, Edmund and Bertie, why should their good fortune go to waste? We would be stealing nothing. Their futures are unclaimed property now. It’s a tribute to them, really, to live their lives as fully as they would have hoped.”

There was a long silence.

Samuel finally said, “Well do what you wish, but we can’t evade the passenger registrar much longer. When he asks, I’m giving my name as Bertram Thomson.”

***

As the Carpathia retraced its 3-day voyage back to New York, the best Helene and Robbie could do was to stay out of the way on the overcrowded ship. Their guests were going by Ed and Bertie now. When Mother and Father had returned to the cabin that first morning, Samuel had introduced himself as Bertie smooth as silk, but Tom had glanced at Helene fearfully before softly introducing himself as Ed. He had no cause for worry. Helene wore her best blank face and reassured him by introducing herself again like they had never spoken and nothing was amiss. She was no snitch. Samuel as Bertie was an easy switch, but somehow in her mind Ed was still most certainly Tom, and she had to be careful to remember what to call him aloud.

After going to add their names to the survivors’ register, the young men were assigned to remain in Helene’s family’s cabin. And that is exactly where they remained the first day. From what Helene overheard, they were nervous about talking to too many of the other survivors, and she could imagine why. The lads feigned exhaustion and passed much of that day reading a couple of her parent’s books.

Mother embarrassed her terribly when she came in for a break from helping in the dining room infirmary, surveyed the quiet scene, and asked, “Helene, why ever would a 10-year-old want to read Bleak House? Weren’t you reading Five Children and It?” Bertie snickered rudely at that, but Tom kept reading with just a flicker of a grin.

As the hours wore on, the men eventually grew bored enough to cave to Robbie’s cajoling to play games with him. They played some jacks, then marbles, then switched to cards. Robbie began explaining the rules to Slaps in his convoluted fashion until Bertie finally made enough sense of it to recognize the game and exclaimed, “Oh, that’s Beggar-My-“ and Thomas smacked his arm.

The four of them were packed tight around the small table playing when Helene slapped a pair of cards just ahead of Tom. His hand smacked down on hers, and Helene slipped out of time.

The man pulling hard on oars in daylight, fear in his grey eyes, squinting into the sun over a shoulder. She knew him - he was Thomas. A little older, with a stubble of facial hair, but Thomas. The other man shouting “They’re surfacing! They’re going to fire on us!” He was standing and waving his arms, rocking the boat dangerously as he yelled. Men, women, and children around him were panicking, crying, growing hysterical. Some were grabbing at a man who tore free and actually dove into the water.

Water streams from a surfacing submarine and small figures emerge, hauling up a long gun and working together to bolt it to a swiveling stand on the small deck. They swing it toward the lifeboats.

An odd little balcony off the deck of a warship, holding a much larger gun on huge metal swivel. A man feeds what looks like an enormous bullet into the rear and another man swings a metal door closed behind it and swings a lever to lock it into place. “FIRE!!” There is a massive percussion and a trail of steam then a distant thump and eruption of water.

People on the lifeboats cheer as the figures on the submarine abandon the gun and bolt for the hatches, the sea still churning around them.

Robbie shoved her shoulder. “Stop it! Wake up!”

“What’s wrong with her?” asked Thomas.

“She gets weird like this sometimes. It’s all right.”

“Does it often make her speak German?” asked Bertie.

“German?” Helene asked, her head still fuzzy.

“You said ‘Frauen, Kinder, nein!’” said Thomas. “Women, children, no.” He looked both confused and concerned.

“He should sit down,” Helene replied, still half-dazed. “The man yelling that in the lifeboat, he’s panicking everyone. You don’t have to worry, the big ship is coming to save you.”

Museum of Underwater Art, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Photo by Matt Curnock

The following day Mother and Father were still busy all day helping out and Thomas was gone for hours. Helene tried to focus on reading and keeping Robbie entertained, but Bertie was there pacing about and growing increasingly agitated. She didn’t like being there with just him, after the embarrassment of having that spell in front of him. He had been looking at her funny ever since. She tried taking Robbie out to run around on the deck, the only shared space where they weren’t underfoot, but wind and rain drove them back to the cabin quickly. When Thomas finally returned, Bertie pulled him roughly into a corner and conducted a whispered interrogation of where he had been and who he had spoken to. Helene tried to look thoroughly absorbed on the drawings she was making for Robbie to color in, but the room was not large enough for whispering to be particularly effective.

“It’s OK, I was down below, working with the crew in the engine room.” Thomas protested. “They all know me as Ed, it’s fine,” he added more softly. “The engines are so fascinating, they-“

“Do you think I wouldn’t rather be strolling about? Maybe getting to know that pretty redhead serving in the galley a little better?” Helene glanced up and saw Thomas wince at this. “We have to keep our heads down, man, just for a couple of days! A couple of days!”

Thomas brushed past him, angrily throwing himself down in an armchair and making a show of burying his nose in a book. “Have it your way!” he grumbled.

Cancun Undersea Museum of Art

She woke the next morning with sun’s first light filtering through the gauze drapes. Tom was sitting up against the cabin wall staring down at Bertie, snoring softly on the bundled jacket he was using as a pillow. Tom looked up and met Helene’s eyes. There were tracks of tears on his face and she felt a strange mix of shame, guilt, and sympathy all in an instant at intruding on them. Yet he held her gaze with none of those, and she found the strength to bear that gaze unflinchingly. Some sense of understanding passed between them wordlessly. With a sad smile, she rolled away from them and tried to fall back asleep.

The day was all a bustle of packing up to depart. The hours flew by and before she knew it, there they were on the packed deck coming into the Upper Bay toward the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan, heading for the same pier they had left just last week. But how different a scene now. The harbor was packed with boats. Helene heard strange distorted voices and squeezed through the crowd to a railing to see four tugboats alongside them, each with men shouting through megaphones. “Fifty dollars for survivor’s accounts!” yelled one. “One hundred dollars!” countered another. There were photographers steadying bulky cameras on the swaying tugboats as well, and the magnesium powder flashes added to the building excitement.

As they neared Pier 54 she could see the huge crowd gathered there – thousands of people. A hand gripped her shoulder. “Helene, don’t wander off like that!” Father barked, guiding her back through the crowded deck to where Mother and Robbie stood by their stack of travel bags. Mother said something about how sad it was, how many people waiting in that crowd at the pier didn’t know if their loved ones were on board or lost at sea. But Helene spotted Bertie and Thomas nearby, standing in an opening back by the main smokestack and interrupted to point them out. Mother was annoyed but let her dash off to say goodbye.

The lads were talking intently and something in their expressions held her back from calling out. She joined a cluster of people standing close by and tried to listen to the young men over the murmur of closer conversation.

It wasn’t hard to make out what Bertie was saying, as he was nearly shouting now. “Just come with me! We have fine, respectable jobs waiting! You can come be a wrench slinger if you end up not liking it, but don’t just give up on me now.”

All she caught of Tom’s reply was “…decent, respectable work right here.”

She stepped a little closer and heard Bertie say more softly, “But we could be brothers!”

Then Tom, more softly still, “Sam, you know I never wanted to be your brother.”

They looked at each other for a long moment before Bertie grabbed him in a rough hug and turned away. He bumped into Helene and, surprised, awkwardly mumbled something incoherent before striding quickly off through the crowd.

“I’m sorry,” she said to Tom. “I was just coming to say goodbye. I’m sorry…” she repeated, not sure what to admit she had heard.

“I’m joining the crew,” he said. “I’m going to work on the engines. It’s the kind of thing I’m good at. Can you thank your family again for me? And many thanks to you, Helene. You were a fine hostess.” They hugged and Helene ran back to rejoin her family, happiness and sadness swirling oddly within her.

***

Tom pulled hard on the lifeboat oars, trying to gain distance from the powerful eddies and upwelling pockets of air transforming the ocean’s surface where the Carpathia had gone under. The crew and passengers spoke with rising panic, well aware that the rest of the convoy had steamed away to save themselves from the German submarines. There was fear in his grey eyes, as he squinting into the sun over a shoulder at the surfacing submarine behind him.

“They’re surfacing! They’re going to fire on us!”

“Nicht schussen!! There are women and children here! Frauen, Kinder! Nein! No!”

It all came back to him then, the strange girl from six years before. Right after the Titanic sank, and as he was losing Samuel. He had carried so much sadness for so long, but now he was flooded with the warmth of peace.

Tom smiled. “Everyone sit and be calm!” he called. “It’s all right! We’re all going to be just fine.”

Historical footnote: After saving the survivors of the Titanic disaster, the RMS Carpathia went on to serve as a transport ship for Allied forces in WWI. On July 17, 1918, the Carpathia was carrying 57 passengers and 166 crew, traveling as part of a convoy traveling from Liverpool to Boston. Off the southern coast of Ireland, the ship was struck by three torpedoes from a German U-boat and sank. Five crew men were killed. The submarine was moving in on the lifeboats when the HMS Snowdrop ran it off and rescued the remaining crew and passengers.

Historical

About the author

Gina King

Wildlife biologist, Northwesterner, reluctant passenger in this wild 21st century ride.

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