They’d been apart for the best part of a year now, separated by a huge expanse of water almost three and a half thousand miles wide. During that time Alice had given birth to his child, squatting like an animal on the floor of the eight by ten room she rented just above McGoldrick’s butchers. Her mother-in-law had assisted with the birth before dying from influenza just three weeks later. For days Alice was too overcome with grief to notice that her infant son was also displaying the very same symptoms.
Day and night she’d nursed the child, sponging his forehead with apple cider vinegar in the hope that she could keep him in the land of the living. Completely alone she bore the brunt of it all unnoticed by anyone around her, praying for the day to come when her family would finally be together. The thought that her husband might arrive on the Titanic to find only her and two paupers graves waiting was too horrendous to contemplate.
Fortunately baby Thomas pulled through, although left with a hacking cough. Common sense dictated that he should be kept warm and indoors which she had done up until now. But today she wrapped him up warmly in a freshly washed vest and cardigan and swaddled him in a clean but fraying blanket before hurriedly setting off for the docks.
A few minutes earlier she’d heard a heart stopping conversation going on between a group of customers in the butchers shop downstairs.
“Sank like a stone,” she’d heard a young woman say.
“Sweet Jesus!” a man had exclaimed loudly. “My brother’s on that ship!” And with that the man had bolted through the door of the shop and sprinted off down the street heedless to the shouts of Mr McGoldrick who’d stood waving the brown paper parcel of bacon he’d left behind.
The baby was already howling when she stepped through the door onto the pavement.
“Come on Thomas don’t cry,” said Alice hurrying along the cobble stone streets.
“Titanic Sinks!” shouted a newspaper boy holding a crisp looking paper aloft. “Fifteen thousand dead!”
“Let me see that!” cried Alice snatching it off him.
“Not unless you pay,” retorted the boy snatching it back.
Alice fumbled in her pocket for a few coins. But she hadn’t enough.
He spat at her feet and looked the other way, continuing his voluble sales pitch.
As Alice got closer to the docks the sound of mayhem assaulted her ears and a heavy rain began to fall. Hoards upon hoards of people milled around in confusion shouting out the names of their loved ones. Grown men cried openly and women frantically searched the survivors’ lists shaking their heads in disbelief. Pushing and shoving broke out as an official stepped forward and pinned another list up on the board. Desperation was written on every face. The wait for news intolerable. It soon became apparent that some had been there for two or three days because makeshift shelters set up by voluntary organizations were scattered about.
Just as Alice thought her legs were about to give way some kind soul guided her to one of the shelters where hot broth was provided and dry clothes.
Alice sat huddled up in a blanket watching the steam rise from the watery broth hoping it was all some bad dream. She shuddered and looked down at Thomas who was lying in her lap sound asleep now that he was warm, fed and dry. Maybe he was all that was left of her husband, a living, breathing monument nestled in her arms. A tear escaped and she wiped it away wearily.
All of a sudden there was a massive uproar. A vessel had been spotted making for port.
“It’s them!” someone shouted. “They’re coming!”
“It’s the Carpathia!”
Alice stood up with the idea of going outside again.
“It would be better for the baby if you stayed in here till things calm down dear,” said one of the volunteer women patting her hand.
“But my husband…” protested Alice. “I need to find him.”
“There are over forty thousand people out there. Believe me. You should wait,” said the woman earnestly.
Reluctantly Alice followed her advice even though every agonizing minute seemed like an hour. For a while it was just wall to wall bodies outside. But after several hours the crowds began to thin. Now she could make out faces, drawn with inconsolable grief and burdened with untold anguish. Some however still held hope, their heads held high, searching through the crowd hoping to recognise the features of their husbands, wives, fathers and so on.
Alice felt she had waited long enough. Thanking the volunteer women she left the shelter and stepped outside once more. Unsure of where to go she made her way to the front where the Carpathia was now moored with massive ropes thicker than a man’s forearm. But all of the survivors had disembarked leaving only its harried crew on board.
She walked around for a while searching the faces of every man she saw but with every passing case of mistaken identity her heart sank further still. The number of people waiting dwindled even further as people finally accepted the truth and made their way back home. But Alice just couldn’t accept it. Bobby had to be here somewhere.
“Alice!” came a shout from behind.
She spun round praying that they’d found each other. But she could see no one. Without even realising it she’d walked straight into the path of a family of eight children, stumbling along after their newly widowed mother.
“Sorry,” she stammered, taking in their pitiful little faces.
“Alice!” said a voice from directly behind her this time.
“Bobby!” she cried falling into his arms. Tears rolled down both their faces as they alternately hugged and kissed in the rain.
“I’m so glad you’re alive!” sobbed Alice handing him the baby.
Little Thomas began to cry so they shielded him from the rain with the blanket Bobby wore slung over his shoulders.
Suddenly Alice became aware of a good many eyes upon them, all envying their happy family reunion. From under her husband’s arm she watched the widowed mother of eight still visible up in the distance and realised just how easily that could have been her. For once however the gods, fate, destiny or whatever else you wish to call it, had been kind to Alice and spared her another taste of grief. An undeniably rare privilege on Pier fifty four, April the eighteenth, nineteen twelve.
Once they made it back to the little room that Alice rented above the butchers something seemed to happen to Bobby. The elation they both shared on being reunited seemed to dessert him over the next few days and was replaced instead by a strange vacant minded apathy.
Of course Alice had expected him to be affected by the tragedy – as anyone would. But nothing prepared her for his sudden withdrawal from the world – worst of all, his drawing away from her.
“I’m just popping out for a bit to get some bread,” she told him one day.
His response was barely more than a grunt, just a brief acknowledgement that she had spoken. She looked at him sitting on the end of their bed – the bed that she had slept alone in for months wishing for nothing more than his presence. The irony was not lost on her. Alice suppressed a sigh and planted a kiss on his forehead.
“See you in a bit Bobby,” she whispered as if she didn’t want to interrupt his reverie. The baby reached down and grabbed a handful of his father’s hair. Before Alice could stop him he’d uprooted about half a dozen strands. That seemed to elicit a stronger response. Bobby blinked and looked at the child in surprise as though he’d never seen him before.
“No Tommy!” scolded Alice. Immediately the baby began to howl sending several hot tears running down his chubby little cheeks.
His father continued to blink in amazement at him. After a minute or so his crying subsided so Alice decided it was time to leave.
“Give daddy a kiss,” she said holding him close enough for his father to reach.
Bobby kissed him, but as Alice and Tommy pulled away he held out his arms to them in desperation.
“I tried my best!” he cried his face contorted in sorrow.
“Don’t worry,” Alice replied not understanding. “We know you did. You always do.”
“But it wasn’t enough,” he muttered looking down into his lap.
“Of course it was,” she told him reassuringly. “We’re together again now and that’s all that matters. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
His shoulders flinched as the door slammed shut and once again he was a prisoner.
As Alice walked past the smell emanating from the bakers made her mouth water. Only she knew that she hadn’t eaten in days and only she knew that their money had all but run out. What little food she had been able to afford lately, she had given to Tommy and Bobby. Now there was no money to buy more and she knew if she didn’t eat something soon her milk would dry up.
The man inside the bakers turned his sign round to open and Alice pushed open the door feeling for the last few cents she had left in her pocket. Behind her the door opened again as three or four more customers entered the shop.
“What can I get for you?” asked the man from behind the counter.
“Er…well, I was wondering if you could sell me some of yesterday’s bread at a reduced price,” stammered Alice.
He looked at her for a moment as though sizing her up and then disappeared out the back. Suddenly someone leaned over her shoulder.
“You don’t need that kind of charity!” the woman hissed at her. “Your husband came back – he’s probably at work as we speak no doubt.”
Alice turned to face her accuser, paying particular note to her drawn face and red rimmed eyes. The woman next to her was obviously an acquaintance of hers because she patted her shoulder kindly as if to comfort her.
“There, there Charlotte. Don’t upset yourself further,” she said.
“Well it’s not right!” protested the woman called Charlotte. “I’ve nine hungry mouths to feed and my husband, God rest his poor soul went down with the Titanic.”
Alice felt like running away, but her stomach kept reminding her with its persistent growling that she should stay and get what she came for.
“Here you go Miss,” said the man returning with two day old loaves.
“I’ll just take one thank you,” Alice said.
“As you wish,” said the man deftly wrapping it up in a sheet of paper.
After the incident at the bakers Alice actually felt glad she had so little to buy. So as soon as she bought a little block of cheese to go with the bread and a few ounces of sago for Tommy she made her way home hoping that Bobby might be feeling better after a little solitude.
She opened the door to their bedsit and found that things couldn’t be further from the truth. The room was empty. Bobby was nowhere to be seen.
Setting the still sleeping child in his crib, Alice tried her best not to panic. But it was hard not to when she thought of how Bobby had been since his return.
It was two weeks since the Carpathia had left him and the other survivors at pier 54 but he hadn’t even made mention of looking for work or asked how she was managing to put bread on the table. She could see that he was traumatised so she thought it best not to push him to talk about it.
Perhaps that was the wrong thing to do, she thought watching her little son smile in his sleep. Where could he have gone? He didn’t know anyone here.
All she could do was wait. And wait she did. For three hours.
“Bobby! Where have you been?” she cried when he finally walked through the door.
He looked surprised at her worried expression and instinctively he enfolded her in his arms. He hadn’t meant to worry her.
“Have I been gone long?” he asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” she murmured pressing her face into his broad chest. “As long as you’re ok.”
His breath seemed to catch in his throat at that. He shook his head and held her tighter than ever.
“I will never be ok Alice. Not after what I’ve seen.”
“Where did you go?” she asked fighting back the tears.
“Pier 54,” he answered in a tortured voice. “I had to go and see if there was any news of them.”
“Any news of who?”
Her legs were beginning to shake now and she was almost too afraid to hear what the answer might be.
“When the ship was going down I tried to help a young mother with a baby about the same age as our Tommy,” he told her. “It was a baby girl I think. Her name was Eleanor, or something like that. We found the last two life boats. But it was chaos as everyone tried to climb on board. The crew began to lower them over the side before they were full, so I quickly jumped in and shouted for her to pass me the baby. I held out my arms but she hesitated for too long. All of a sudden the life boat I was in plummeted and then stopped just short of hitting the water. I shouted for her to try to get in the other boat but I never did see if she made it aboard. That’s why I went back to the pier today to see if anyone had news of them.”
“That’s terrible!” said Alice. “Surely someone helped her onto the boat if she had a baby.”
Bobby shook his head.
“You would think so. But it wasn’t like that. I saw lots of children even babies floating in the water.”
Alice gasped in horror.
“Let’s not talk about it anymore for now,” he said tilting her chin towards him. He kissed her gently and Alice felt comforted, glad that he was finally opening up to her.
After that day things gradually improved but even so Bobby made it his habit to visit Pier 54 every morning until the day he died at the ripe old age of ninety two. Whether it was in the hope of finding out what happened to the young mother and her baby or that he was stuck in the past no one ever knew – not even himself. But one thing was certain -he was a prisoner, a life-long prisoner of Pier 54.