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The Survivors from the Titanic

by Kristen Tsetsi 26 days ago in Historical · updated 25 days ago
Runner-Up in Ship of Dreams ChallengeRunner-Up in Ship of Dreams Challenge
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Awaiting the Carpathia at Pier 54

The Survivors from the Titanic
Photo by Dylan McLeod on Unsplash

A steady, slow-moving scatter of hunched shoulders was making its way through the pier’s wide entrance when she finally arrived. She fell in with them, trying to pretend she belonged. This meant not appearing to be eager, not letting them see she was out of breath in that fresh-faced way from having hurried to avoid missing anything. In her politely insistent push through damp wool coats, she mumbled apologies and hung her head to hide her face, her fingers firmly caging the apple in her pocket to protect it from bruises.

As it happened, she discovered after an hour of standing around, she had arrived far too early. Hundreds more, at least, had come. She wondered whether they could all possibly be friends, family. She looked for others like her, watchers, faces straining with the effort of blankness because to adopt the despair of the others would be one step too far. The others couldn’t help their downturned mouths, their tense foreheads, their eyes narrowed by weariness (not wide and watching, as hers kept wanting to be), or their worried lines, harsh and deep in the shadows falling from their hats. Anyone who looked at her, should they look at her, should assume she was numb with shock or, perhaps, denial and would, she hoped, deem her unapproachable. Who are you waiting for? was something she didn’t want to answer. Would she lie to conceal that she’d been drawn there by curiosity, by tragedy? Or would she say, No one, thereby admitting, I only wanted to see?

Her fear was unwarranted. No one had spoken to her, and it didn’t seem as though they would, because no one there was speaking to anyone at all. She had anticipated catching pieces of conversation—who was believed to have survived, who was feared dead, last words spoken to each other before the day of separation (an argument would have been delectably dreadful). But there was nothing. Not a word.

The man standing next to her flicked a lighter under his umbrella, the sparking wheel a common, welcome sound in the sickening quiet. Fire flashed on his dry eyes and went out, leaving the tip of his cigarette orange. Who are you waiting for, she wanted to ask, but before she could there was that goose honking again, or she assumed it was the same goose, because it was the same achingly solitary sound she’d heard about the time she’d run past Garrie’s Produce on her way to the pier. One sad honk after another with a gap of waiting in between, and never a reply. She looked up, but it would be impossible to see anything past the glow of floodlights and rain.

*

“Mourning.—That goose. It’s mourning.” It wasn’t what Hank should have said. What he should have said was, Who are you waiting for? Endicott—right up front, access pass tucked into the band of his insufferably fashionable spring derby—would have. But then what? There was nothing to get out here that could compete with what Endicott would get on the Carpathia. When did you first become afraid, Endicott would say, writing the story as he went, and then, When you ran, where did you run to? Is the news of shooting cowards true, and did you see it? Was anyone screaming? Did you witness anyone disappearing into the water? (the sea’s maw, he would probably say), and so on.

Had the woman said something? Hank looked at her, and she was waiting. He said, “Pardon?”

“What you said about the goose.”

He flicked his cigarette down low. “Mourning,” he said. He smoked. “Someone shot its mate.—Probably, anyhow. One dies, and the other,” he circled his cigarette at the air, “goes on doing something like that ‘til it drops dead.” Now she’d made it awkward to start the conversation he wanted to have. Sad goose, sad woman—the connection was tactless, cheap, but he had to ask at some point, no question, now that they’d removed a barrier. Who are you waiting for? That was all it would take, and her answer—spanning from the glorious moment of her brother’s or father’s or husband’s secured passage to the morning she’d opened her door to the Times’s front page headline—would gush with the force of water flooding a hole, no doubt, and test his shorthand. Every one of these people periodically getting on their toes in search of the Carpathia’s lights had so much to say, he knew, that they had choked themselves into this silence. Why talk? They would only bore each other. It had been the way of he and the other men in the waiting room, all staring at the floor until the first cigar—it had been for a girl—had been passed around, and then it was all hoots and congratulations. Until then, their thoughts, fears, hopes, dread had all been the same, leaving them with nothing to say.

A minute or so had passed. He took a breath to speak, then stopped. She might not say so much, after all, and so there would be more to ask her. Had he Endicott’s access pass, the questions would create themselves, but this collecting of anecdotes and feelings was a dull sideshow to the main event and didn’t excite him nearly enough to make him naturally curious. He had to prepare something good. The Titanic wouldn’t sink a second time.

He imagined what Endicott might ask her: What was the last thing he said to you before he stepped onto the Titanic? That would do. Unless she didn’t remember, or unless what he’d said had been bland along the lines of, I’ll be seeing you. Ironic gold, though, if he hadn’t survived (and chances were he hadn’t). What class did he travel, where was he going, why, and had he been looking forward to the journey? Endicott would want to know. You’re an optimist to be here, he might then say. Weren’t they giving priority to women and children? and What will become of your life if he drowned? and What do you hope he ate as his final meal? As the ship slipped beneath the surface of the black depths and he treaded the icy water, his lungs on fire with cold, what do you think his final thoughts would be?

They were hard and rude questions, Endicott questions, questions that would make his editor happy. “Whyn’t you try to write more like Endy, Hank,” Jim often said, because “Endy’s” knack for digging around in the guts of a thing and churning out a riveting tale (over-)wrought with emotional force was what Jim liked and what had earned old Endicott one of a tight handful of passes onto the ship. Because Hank had been at the paper just under a year, and because he “wasn’t there, yet,” Jim had given him Pier 54. It could have been worse. He could have gotten poor Robert’s job of skulking around area hotels to find friends and family not at the pier. A lot of legwork to get quotes out of people who couldn’t be bothered to show up.

*

The man beside her dropped his cigarette and ground it under the toe of his shoe, then closed his umbrella. The rain had stopped. She expected him to leave—nearly everyone else was inching slowly forward, now, and there was a scraping hum of movement—but he stayed. She was anxious to find out who he was waiting for.

Her body was suddenly pressed from all sides and shoved uncomfortably forward in a relentless surge, elbows and shoulders jabbing at her. Had the ship already come and docked? The screaming and shrieking of what sounded like thousands of animals was so loud she covered her ears, making her lose her balance when one particularly aggressive woman knocked her hip. She was caught before she reached the ground and guided sideways through the rush by, she saw when they were clear, the man who’d been standing next to her.

Carpathia’s here,” he said.

“You don’t say.” Her pocket was empty. The apple had fallen out in the jostling. “But I’m afraid my snack is long gone. It’s probably been kicked into the sea by now.”

“I think it might have run off with my umbrella.” He looked down at her with a returned smile that went away quickly. “I’m terribly sorry if by removing you from—That is, I hope I haven’t overstepped—”

“No, of course not. I think you probably saved my life.” She laughed.

“Well, I don’t know about that,” he said. He pulled his notebook and pen from his pocket, then offered a hand for her to shake. “Listen, my name—”

“Oh!” She could see the ship, now, without so many others crowding around, but she was still too far away to watch the survivors disembark. This had to be the most sensational event of the decade, and she was determined to see it all and report every dramatic moment to her family in Vermont. It would be exclusive, firsthand, I-was-there-and-I-saw-it commentary they could never hope to find in the breakfast table newspaper. Oh, surely there were reporters around, which made their stories equally first-hand, but reporters were always at one famous thing or another. Real people weren’t. Well, Lillian was today, and she refused to miss a second of it. “It was nice to meet you, Mister…?”

“Nelson. Hank.”

“Nelson Hank.” She smiled and took his hand. “Johnson Lillian. A pleasure to meet you.” She let go quickly and moved toward the ship, her awareness of Mr. Nelson walking alongside her little more than peripheral once she was within visual distance of the passengers making their way slowly and, she couldn’t help noticing, unenthusiastically down the gangplank.

One man, his face angled carefully away from those waiting, was met by two other men who flanked him and guided him protectively off as several loud voices shouted “Sloper!” and “How’d you get that spot, Sloper?” The survivors not being accosted searched the pier as they walked toward it with strangely little urgency, their eyes passing emptily over the chaos. Lillian, excited for the vicarious reward of any happy homecomings, watched as some families and friends spotted and ran to wrap their arms around these aimless survivors. Only, the embraces weren’t what Lillian had expected. Unaccompanied as they were by smiles or triumphant shouts, they were something quite apart from joyful, and they began to make Lillian’s close observation feel wretchedly impolite.

She finally looked away from a Carpathia passenger shaking her head and lifting a hand at a man—the one who had come for her—talking into her face. Lillian's diverted attention accidentally fell upon a solitary man standing at the end of the gangplank, his arms at his sides as he stared up at the disembarking passengers. One by one, survivors passed him by until, finally, a woman emerging from the Carpathia walked directly to him, touched his coat, and drew him aside.

At last! Lillian would have given anything to hear what she was saying. My love, I never thought I would touch you again! What an unbelievable day it was. We must go to dinner—I’m absolutely famished! Did you know the ocean was so vast, so cold? It was a bit exciting, I have to admit, with everyone jumping into lifeboats—

The man cried out a long, hollow, lonely wail and collapsed onto the woman’s shoulders. She stroked his back and hair as she rocked him.

Lillian wanted to go home.

She turned and found herself staring at Mr. Nelson’s chest.

*

“I’m sure there are more passengers to come,” he said. “Don’t you want to wait to be sure?” This was an improvement on a cold Who are you waiting for? He should thank her. It wasn’t as if she were the only one there to speak to, but she was alone, and she was close by. The others had a different way about them, anyway. Any time he’d thought he might go over and introduce himself, he had managed to close just half the distance, stopped short every time by the set of their mouths.

“Be sure?” Mrs., or maybe Miss, Johnson said. “Of what?”

But she didn’t wait for him to answer. She was distracted, and he looked to see by what. A woman in a dark coat more than a few sizes too big for her was coming slowly off the ship, alone, her hand gripping the gangplank rail. A sheer white scarf wrapping her face like a funeral veil was tied in a knot at her neck. She gave no attention to the woman far ahead of her stepping onto the pier and into the arms of a gray-haired man, and she didn’t look toward the cries from those whose Titanic passengers had yet to disembark—or never would. She simply walked, face forward, steps unsteady, onto the pier where not a single other person seemed to notice her.

Did your husband stay on the ship? Endicott would say. Did you release yourself from his embrace and walk away, knowing it would be forever? Did you climb into the lifeboat aware of his eyes on you as you left him to die? Did you look up at him up there on that sinking ship, a dead man standing very much alive and out of your reach, and wonder if you’d done the right thing? Did you look up at him and know you’d be sailing into life at the same time he’d be sinking to his death? Did you wish you had stayed? Did you watch him die?

The veiled woman came so close that Hank could smell a hint of aftershave on the coat she wore. He stepped backward, away from her, as she passed, and the Johnson woman—who he understood, now, was a visitor like him—stepped away, too. They watched her together until she disappeared.

The Johnson woman turned to him. “What can possibly be said about a thing like that?”

Hank returned his notebook and pen to his pocket. “Nothing.”

The Johnson woman, too, disappeared.

Historical

About the author

Kristen Tsetsi

Fiction lover (and author) & pasta lover. And mini-cupcakes. KristenJTsetsi.com.

Reader insights

Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

Top insights

  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  2. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  3. Masterful proofreading

    Zero grammar & spelling mistakes

  1. On-point and relevant

    Writing reflected the title & theme

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