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 hundred or more 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.