John Williams was soon to become a kidnapper. How the thought of it reviled him. Even though he’d made the decision weeks ago, he was only now coming to terms with the reality of it. Who would have guessed that he, a law-abiding paragon of virtue, would be planning on kidnapping his own children? It was virtually inconceivable and yet it was just what he was going to do.
The world had begun spinning out of control shortly after he and Mary had separated. He had been willing to compromise, make changes to save his marriage and keep his family intact, but she would have none of it. Was she seeing someone else? Probably. There were numerous times she would go out and refuse to tell him where she was going. And then there were the phone calls. So many phone calls with the caller invariably hanging up when John would answer.
Still, he loved her and would have stuck it out if not for the kids. Their frequent, bitter fights often left little Helen in tears and older brother James refusing to eat and living days in stoic silence. He was no parenting expert, but John was fairly certain that he and Mary were doing the kids a grave disservice that might very well have far reaching consequences.
And so, he had moved out and agreed that he would take the kids on weekends. He had been somewhat content with that arrangement because he had been able to convince himself he was doing the right thing for his children. Recently, however, he wasn’t so sure.
Two weekends ago when the kids were staying with him, Helen had let it slip that a friend of mommy’s was always visiting. Thomas, no last name. No sooner had that little jewel escaped her five-year-old lips, then her 8-year-old brother told her to be quiet. Apparently Thomas’ visits were a secret their mother had implored them to keep and James thought that divulgence might be a catalyst for a war between his parents.
Well there would be no war, John decided, but there was no way in hell he was leaving his kids with a mother whose moral character was clearly lacking. The question was, what to do with them? He hadn’t thought of taking them out of the country until he opened a newspaper one day and saw an advertisement for White Star's largest liner, Titanic, which would be sailing from Southampton to New York on April 10th. Before he’d even truly thought about it, he purchased three first class tickets.
In the days following he had tendered his resignation at the engineering firm for which he worked, bought two small suitcases and new clothes for his children, and implored Mary to let him have the children Wednesday through Sunday. He had lied that his parents wanted to have the children at their country home for a few days. Of course, he would never be bringing them back, but he saw no reason to let Mary, the adulteress, know that.
The morning they were to set sail was crisp, but bright. John showered, dressed, had a quick breakfast and went to pick up the kids. Mary called after them as they were leaving, “Say hi to your parents for me.” Josh nodded curtly, choking back the rather nasty rejoinder that wanted to spill forth from his lips.
To say the kids were excited would have been a terrible understatement. He’d told them they were taking one of the biggest ocean liners in the world to where their grandparents were and that they were going to have a grand adventure on the way. Little Helen, her blond hair in bouncy ringlets, was giggling in delight while older brother James was trying to maintain the composure he thought was befitting a mature eight-year-old boy.
They arrived at the dock at 10: a.m. with plenty of time to find their staterooms and get settled in before they set sail. At first sight of the ship, the three of them were speechless. John had never seen a ship as large as titanic and he stared at it in stunned silence until he felt a tug on his hand. He looked down at Helen who was hopping from one foot to another and tugging at his hand urgently.
“What is it, honey?”
“Daddy, are we really going on that boat,” she asked, her voice almost a whisper.
“We sure are, honey, except this is a ship, not a boat. Ships are large and carry a lot of passengers whereas boats are smaller and can’t accommodate a lot of people.”
“And this ship is one of the largest in the world?” James was no longer trying to play it cool. He was every bit as excited as his sister.
“I don’t think it’s one of the largest, I think it is the largest ship in the world. Shall we board her and explore?”
Both kids were literally trembling with anticipation of boarding Titanic and for the first time since he had bought the tickets, John felt his anxiety diminish. He had been having grave misgivings that he hadn’t planned this trip for the sake of his children, but rather to punish his wife for her indiscretions. Seeing the excitement on his children’s faces, however, reassured him and gave him the confidence to believe that this trip would be the catalyst for a wonderful new life.
They entered the ship via the B deck and secured a porter to show them to their rooms. Once settled in, they went exploring. The first place John took them was the forward grand staircase. He watched while the children exhausted themselves going up and down the stairs while he marvelled at its stunning magnificence. Constructed of polished oak and wrought iron, the staircase was decorated with handmade intricate detailing and featured an ornate Honor and Glory Crowning Time clock at the top.
“They’re certainly enjoying themselves, aren’t they?” The speaker was a diminutive older woman.
John looked over and was surprised to find someone standing next to him; he hadn’t heard anyone approach. “They are indeed.”
“What are their names?”
“My daughter is Helen. She’s five and her brother, James, is eight. I’m John Williams by the way.”
“Tilly, Tilly Carmichael. You have two very handsome youngsters, Mr. Williams. Are you on your own with the children or is your wife somewhere on board?”
John bristled somewhat at the woman’s inquisitiveness. “On my own, I’m afraid. My wife gets very seasick.”
Tilly shook her head sympathetically. “What a shame.” Her face brightened. “Have you been on a tour of the ship yet?”
“No, the grand staircase was our starting point, but as you can see”, he gestured toward the children who were once again ascending the staircase in preparation for another spirited tear down the stairs, “we got stuck here.”
“We’ll see about that,” she winked. “I know a place they’ll like even more.” She waited until the children reached the bottom of the staircase before calling them over. ”James, Helen, would you both please come here?”
The children obediently marched over and looked expectantly at their father.
“Miss Carmichael wanted to talk to you for a moment.”
The children shifted their gaze to Tilly.
“My name is Matilda Carmichael, but you may call me Miss Tilly. How do the two of you feel about camels?”
The children looked inquisitively at one another before shifting their attention back on Tilly.
“What if I told you that there is a place on this ship where you can ride an electric camel? Would you like to go and see it?”
The children shouted their approval and the four of them set off for the ship’s gymnasium.
“I hope you don’t mind that I’ve included myself in this little adventure?”
“Not at all. I’m glad for the company.”
The children tore around the gymnasium for the better part of two hours, having four camel rides each. John and Tilly sat in the chairs provided and watched while they felt the ship set sail.
“Your wife didn’t come to see you off?”
John stared at Tilly for several moments before seeming to reach a decision. “My wife and I are separated, Miss Carmichael.”
Tilly nodded her head understandingly. “I thought it might be something like that.”
“No, not specifically, but you had a very lost look when I came upon you at the staircase. I suspect that you are somewhat ill at ease with your children, Mr. Williams, because you probably don’t spend a lot of time with them.”
John shifted in his seat. “I have to work much of the time.”
“Of course you do. I’m not making a judgement. It was merely an observation. What kind of work do you do, Mr. Williams?”
“I’m an engineer.”
“How very exciting.” They talked for some time about John’s job before Tilly let fly with one of her uncomfortable questions, “Does your wife know you have your children on board the Titanic?”
The woman can read minds, John thought sourly. “No, Miss Carmichael, my wife does not know I’ve got the children on this ship.” John was suddenly feeling very reckless. “I learned through my children that my wife is seeing someone so I’m taking them to New York to start a new life away from her.”
John was angry now. “What is it that you see?”
Tilly met his gaze with no discomfort. “I see a man who obviously loves his wife very much and was angry when confronted with her infidelity. I also see a man who loves his children and wants what’s best for them. I just worry that your anger might have clouded your judgement a bit and I’m wondering if uprooting them to a new country without their mother is really such a good idea.”
John sighed heavily and felt his anger drain away. “I worry about that too. I don’t want to think that I kidnapped my own children to get back at my wife. If that were true, I would truly be a monster.”
“Not a monster - a human being. Your reaction was entirely foreseeable given the circumstances, but I can’t help thinking that you might reconsider that decision before we dock in New York. In the interim, it would be my pleasure to help you with the children.”
John and Tilly took the children swimming and then to one of the ship’s libraries for some quiet time before changing and going for dinner at Café Parisian.
The next morning after breakfast, Tilly offered to take the children for a Turkish bath. John was ecstatic to have time on his hands and decided to introduce himself to Titanic’s engineers and ask for a tour. The ship fascinated him.
During the tour, John learned that there had been a fire in one of the coal storage bunkers that was burning even before the ship set sail.
“You’re telling me there has been a coal fire burning for two or three days?” John Asked.
“Probably longer than that,” said Joseph Bell, Titanic’s chief engineer. We’ve been trying to put it out, but with no success thus far.” He glanced at John’s worried face and hurriedly carried on. “There are often coal fires on ships. In our case, because of the national coal strike, we were forced to buy some cheap, inferior grade coal and I suspect that’s what the problem is. No need to worry though, Titanic is a masterpiece of engineering genius. She can not be sunk.”
“That’s all very well, but a coal fire burning for that long will damage the ship.”
“It might with other ships, but not with this one. Titanic is indestructible.”
Sadly John was soon to discover that this was not the case; they had been sailing uneventfully for four days when the Titanic hit the iceberg. It was 11:40 p.m. and John was lying in bed reading when he felt the Titanic collide with something. He scrambled out of bed and checked the hallway. It was bare.
He dressed quickly and went to knock on Tilly’s door. He was knocking for a considerable length of time before Tilly finally answered. Her hair was tousled and she was in bed clothes. “John, is everything all right?”
“No, it’s not. We hit something, Tilly. I felt it. I need to go to find out the extent of the damage. Perhaps there is something I could do to help.”
“And you want me to sit with James and Helen while you're gone?”
“I know it’s a lot to ask…”
“Nonsense, I’m happy to. Give me five minutes. I’ll put some clothes on and meet you at your cabin.”
True to her word, Tilly was knocking on his cabin door not five minutes later. She settled herself in an armchair and opened the book she had brought with her. “The only thing I ask is that you tell me the nature of the situation as soon as you discover it.”
“I promise Tilly. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this.”
“Tish tosh. If there is something wrong, I want to be prepared.”
John raced down below and nearly collided with the chief engineer himself. “Mr. Bell, you're just the person I wanted to see.”
Joseph Bell looked harried and scared. “Mr. Williams, you shouldn’t be down here. Please go back…”
“I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what is going on. I know we’ve struck something. I felt it, and as an engineer, I know that can’t be good. I can help with whatever it is.” When John saw that the chief engineer was reluctant to divulge any information, he made one final last ditch plea. “Look Mr. Bell, I have two children on board and I am extremely concerned for their safety. Can’t you please help me?”
Joseph Bell’s face was a study in indecision. Finally he spoke and his face told a tale of how hard it was to divulge the information John was asking for. “We’ve hit an iceberg, Mr. Williams and it appears that the coal has compromised the ship on the starboard side and the iceberg has done considerable damage.”
“But the ship is unsinkable, you said so yourself?”
“I was wrong, Mr. Williams. The ship is sinking as we speak and if I were you I’d get my children on a lifeboat immediately. There are 2,240 passengers aboard the vessel, but we have only 20 lifeboats. There should have been upwards of 60.”
“My God, man. Who decided that?”
“The owner of the white star line. He thought the lifeboats would scare the passengers.”
“So instead of the passengers being a little scared, they’re faced with the possibility o drowning?” John could not keep the hysteria out of his voice.
“I’m very sorry.”
“I don’t need your apologies, Mr. Bell. I need to get my children on one of the lifeboats. I don’t have the time or the desire to make sense of this but once I’ve ensured my children are safe, I intend to go to engineering and help sort this mess out.”
John literally ran back to his cabin. Tilly was waiting with an anxious expression.
“We hit an iceberg, Tilly. The ship is sinking. I have sense that this is not going to end well.”
She looked neither shocked nor hysterical. “What is our best bet?” she asked with an almost preternatural calm.
“I’ve got to get you and the children on one of the lifeboats and it’s crucial we do that immediately because there aren’t enough lifeboats for everyone.”
“You talk as if you’re not coming with us?”
“I’m not. Kidnapping my children was wrong, very wrong, and now I’m being given the opportunity to make amends for my actions. They will need all the help they can get trying to keep the ship afloat while they get passengers on the lifeboats. Take whatever you need, Tilly, from your cabin and I’ll get the children dressed. We leave for the lifeboats in five minutes.”
They were among the first passengers to reach the lifeboats. John took Tilly aside. “Please, when you land, find Mary, Mary Williams, and tell her that I know I was wrong to take the children and I deeply regret what I did. Tell her, tell her that I love her and that I was blinded by my love and consequently made some very bad decisions. I’m glad I met you, Matilda Carmichael, and regret that we had so little time to get to know each other.”
Tilly started to cry, which surprised even her. “I’m glad I met you too, John and while I don’t know your wife, I think she’s crazy to have given up a man like you. I think you should explain the situation to James and Helen.”
John took his children aside and felt a lump form at the back of his throat when he realized it would be the last time he spoke to them. He knelt down so he could face them on their level. “James, Helen, you know that I love you both? Very much.”
The children nodded in unison.
John continued with his narrative. “The ship hit an iceberg and is currently sinking. Miss Matilda will take you both on a lifeboat and when you land, wherever that may be, Miss Tilly has promised me she will find your mother and return you to your home.”
Little Helen was crying in earnest. “Daddy,” she whispered, “aren’t you coming with us?”
John scooped the little girl up in his arms and hugged her tightly. “Well you see, Helen, Daddy has got to help. Daddy knows some engineering things that might help”
James spoke for the first time. “Dad’s an engineer and he can probably help them save the ship.”
“That’s right James, I can still help to give people more time to board the lifeboats. The best we can hope for is to keep her afloat while we try to load as many people onto the lifeboats as possible.”
James was now crying too. “But you’ll die daddy!”
“Nothing is for sure James, but I’ve got to try, don’t I son?
The boy looked up at his father and nodded miserably.
Tilly, who had been listening to the whole conversation, suddenly interjected. “Your father will be a hero, James. There aren’t too many men as brave as he is. You should be proud of him. Now give your father a hug and let’s board a lifeboat.”
The children clung to John and even after several minutes were not prepared to let him go until Tilly said, “We’ve got leave now children. Your father went to great lengths to ensure we’d be among the first to board the lifeboats. We can’t let him down, can we?”
James looked old beyond his years. “Miss Tilly’s right, Helen. We’ve got to let dad try to save as many people as he can. C’mon,” he held out his hand,” we’re going to show dad just how brave we can be. After all, we don’t want him worrying about us do we?”
Hellen roughly wiped the tears from her face and said, with all of the confidence she could muster, “I can brave.”
James gave her hand a squeeze. “I know you can.” He turned to Tilly. “Miss Tilly, we’re ready to go.”
John watched as his children walked to the lifeboats, neither turning back to look at him until they were just about to board. Helen turned around to look briefly at John, her chin stiff and held resolutely high.” I love you, daddy”, she mouthed before turning and disappearing onto the lifeboat.
John forced himself turn around and walk away, knowing he would never see his children again. When he reached the lower levels, he found Joseph Bell and other engineers shoveling coal out of the bunkers.
Bell looked surprised to see him. “Mr. Williams, I assumed you wouldn’t be coming back.”
“Why is that? I told you I would be coming to help, now what can I do?”
“You can help shovel coal out of the bunker so that we don’t have an explosion.”
John picked up a nearby shovel and began moving the coal out of the bunker beside Joseph Bell. “Mr. Bell, can you tell me why no one spotted the iceberg?” he asked as he worked.
“Several reasons really. We had spotters on the lookout, but the iceberg was hard to see. There was no moon in the sky to provide additional light and the water was very still.”
“What does the stillness of the water have to do with anything?”
“When the sea is not calm, you typically see waves crashing against the side of an iceberg making it easier to spot. Tonight we had calm water and of course, no binoculars.”
“White Star didn’t believe we needed them owing, I assume, to the belief that the ship was unsinkable.”
“So if I understand you correctly, too few lifeboats because they have little aesthetic value and no binoculars because the ship was unsinkable. John was unable to keep the derision out of his voice.
“But they have two grand staircases, two libraries, a Turkish bath, a sauna, and a fully equipped gymnasium. Plus, of course, the dining facilities.”
They all worked in silence until the water reached a level that forced them to stop. Chief engineer Bell told his men to get upstairs and most of them did so. There were only a few that elected to stay. John Williams was one of them.
He worked alongside engineer Bell until the very end. Together they were able to keep the lights on until just before the ship sank. “Mr. Williams, it was an honor and privilege to work alongside you.”
“Are you familiar with the saying, still waters run deep?”
“I’ve heard it said.”
“When you use that proverb to describe people, it means quiet people are often more brilliant, clever or complex than they may appear. You, John, I believe, are still water, more powerful even than Titanic herself.”
Bell opened a bottle of scotch and together he and John sat drinking and listening to the ship’s dying groans.