• Peter Gulgowski

April 10, 1912 (A Short Story)

Updated: Feb 26


The two boys had gathered on the grassy hill overlooking the distant building crowd.


The eldest, thirteen, stood with his brother, aged ten.


For the past hour, they’d been playing catch with a leather-laced ball that they’d shared since they could remember — since when they’re parents were still here.


Since before they were orphans…


It had been long enough that already they were beginning to struggle to hear the voices of their parents when reflecting upon past memories, but near enough that the pain still lingered, like a burning wound that nothing in the world could suture.


Since then, they’d lived at a local orphanage in Southampton proper. It wasn’t anything special, but it was a place to get a meal and a place to lay their heads at night, for which they were grateful.


But it wasn’t the life they had envisioned; at least not for the eldest, Henry.


With no living family members, he felt stranded in a place where he knew no-one. He was the man of the family, and yet, he wasn’t a man.


It was up to him to care for Benjamin, give him a good life; a childhood that they’d together lost the moment the last parent, their father, took his last breath.


He’d heard stories of America.


A place to start over; start anew.


A place where the horizons were as far as you could see.


Anything was possible there.


Henry wanted this, and he wanted it for Benjamin.


They hadn’t said a word to each other for a minute, focusing their limited attention to the great ship in the distance. The people surrounding it looked like microscopic ants, moving in a blended mass.


Henry wasn’t sure if it was the distance that made them look small or the relation in size to the great ship.


Word around the orphanage was that it was the largest ship built by man.


Henry believed it.


His brother, Benjamin, would be the first to speak between the pair.


“How many does it hold?” he asked.


“You say that as though it’s a slave ship,” Henry replied. “That ship — they call it the ship of dreams. Unsinkable. God himself could not sink the ship, they say.”


Benjamin shook his head, his dark auburn hair blowing in the mid-April breeze. “I wouldn’t tempt God by saying that, Henry.”


“I didn’t say it. The builders said it. Haven’t you read the papers?”


Benjamin shook his head. “I am always last to read it anyways. That is if it’s not already in ruins by the time it gets to me.”


“Well, I will tell you that they advertise it as the biggest ship, the unsinkable ship, and the most luxurious ocean liner ever made.”


In the distance, the four cream-colored smokestacks, with black tops, stood tall into the pale sky, as though reaching for the God of which could not sink them.


“The colors are pretty,” Benjamin said. “I wonder what the inside looks like?”


“Grand, with carved wood by artisans everywhere you look. I saw a photograph of its staircase,” Henry said, “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”


Benjamin sighed. “A shame we’ll never see it.”


Henry turned towards the direction of their orphanage. Neither of them particularly liked it. They’re wasn’t really a sense of belonging or brotherhood among the other orphans. It was a everyone for themselves mentality, except when it came to outdoor games. Other than that, Henry and Benjamin thought themselves to be on their own, and they wouldn’t be wrong.


“You know what — let’s go look,” Henry said. “Curfew isn’t until dark, and the ship doesn’t leave for a few hours, right?”


“I don’t know, I didn’t get to see the papers,” Benjamin replied.


“Well, I did, and I think that’s right. It doesn’t leave until later.”


“There’s certainly a great amount of commotion this early then,” said Benjamin.


Henry already started forward, leather-laced ball in hand. “C’mon, we’re both curious. I’m sure they’ll give a tour.”


“And if we stay onboard?” Benjamin asked.


“You mean — we don’t come back?” Henry pressed.


Benjamin nodded.


“Then, America awaits us, I suppose.”


Benjamin smiled. “Let’s not check father’s pocket watch too often then.”


***


The walk towards the great ship was quicker than they imagined it would be. Along the cobblestone roads, small cars carrying the wealthy elite drove past, with some of the small faces peering out half-lowered windows to the pair.


Henry and Benjamin followed the people towards the ship. All moved in the direction of the ship. It seemed that storekeepers were closing up their shops early to send-off the great ship too.


After all, this was the biggest ship ever built. This was huge for Southampton and for the world.


As they got closer, smoke in the smokestacks began to slowly escape from the top. The ship was taking its first breaths right before the two.


Seeing this quickened the brothers’ pace. They had to see the ship up close. Already, Henry could see the ship was divided horizontally into three colors. A deep, burnt red at the base; close to the waterline, a wide black topped with white.


She was beautiful.


Tall and mighty.


The colors reflected this well.


Henry had heard she was an Irish ship built in Belfast. Only the best ships came out of Ireland, so he believed it when they said God himself couldn’t sink her.


Getting closer to the ship, he began to believe it entirely.


Benjamin pointed ahead. “These buildings are the last blocking our view. Once we pass, we’ll have a clear line of sight.”


“Right,” Henry said. “Almost there. She’s a beauty, isn’t she?”


“I’ve never seen anything like it! I hear they have two others — sister ships.”


“But this is the first,” Henry replied. “There isn’t anything like the first.”


Trotting horses, carrying a carriage, sounded louder and louder behind the two, and Benjamin stepped closer to Henry, pressing him towards the side of the street.


Henry looked up at the brown-bricked building beside him, and written in strong, white lettering read:


WHITE STAR LINE


Then, with their view no longer obstructed by a line of buildings, the ship was directly before them.


From bow to stern, Henry imagined the ship to be the length of one of those American skyscrapers he had read about. His eyes grew twice the size of his head, and he felt his jaw go limp.


“There she is,” he then said.


“Imagine Father’s reaction,” Benjamin said. “He always loved to take us on the water.”


“Yes, on a rowboat, Benjamin,” Henry said, stepping forward. He threw his arm out, turning to his younger brother. “This is a ship.”


The gold lettering of the name he had read a dozen times in recent weeks shone brightly in the gleaming sunlight. Neither Henry’s nor Benjamin’s vision were good enough to read the letters clearly, but they knew this ship well.


She’d be known as the Queen of the Sea soon enough. By the time she reached New York by next week, the entire world would know her name.


Henry took Benjamin by the hand. “Stay close and don’t go wandering.”


“I’m not a child,” Benjamin said.


“You’re ten. You’re a child.”


“So are you!”


“I’m thirteen. Now hush!”


Henry and Benjamin maneuvered through the crowds, slipping between parked carriages, and unloaded trunks.


Slipping past another group, Henry overheard a wealthy-looking woman say to her husband, “Look, dear, the Astors…”


The nearer they got to the ship, the more the commotion around them sounded. People were shouting their goodbyes to boarding passengers, and some already onboard the ship were waving towards them.


Benjamin raised his hand and began to wave, but quickly Henry swatted it down.


“We’ll be there too,” he spat quickly.


Benjamin shot a dark look to his brother. “I’m only being polite.”


“Fine,” Henry smiled. “But we can be polite once onboard.”


Walking nearer, the two spotted several areas where people were boarding the ship.


“I suppose the rich are in the front and the poor are in the back,” Benjamin said. “Where do you s’pose we belong? The middle?”


Henry looked down to their clothes. Of course they were wearing their ordinary day clothes. Pants, long-sleeved buttoned shirts, and Benjamin was wearing their father’s driver’s cap which was two sizes too big for his head.


They couldn’t pass for the wealthy elite. A story stating that their mother spent all of their father’s earnings on jewelry and clothes for herself, leaving the boys to scraps wouldn’t work on a fool, let alone an officer on this ship.


The middle section was closer to them, but Henry felt it would be a stretch. Everyone was wearing their best attire today. What would an officer of the great ship think of these two boys?

Clearly, they didn’t belong in either.


Henry looked towards the back, where officers from the ship were inspecting passengers; people who looked closest to them. “This way,” said Henry.


Benjamin, still holding Henry’s hand, followed closely behind as they made their way towards the walkway, but an officer’s booming voice sounded from nowhere.


“Boys! The line begins back there!”


Suddenly, a barrel-chested man appeared from the group, dressed in a White Star Line crew member outfit, which comprised of a dark, navy sweater with the words “White Star Line” written across his chest. A hat reading the same words sat on his head, with the words proudly sticking out straight towards the two.


Henry froze, but Benjamin quickly spoke, not missing a beat.


“We were already on board, sir. Father’s hat flew off his head. See — he’s up there, waving.”


The officer looked up suspiciously. “You’ve been to your room?”


“Yes, sir. Mother sent us up with Father while she turned-down our beds. She said we were driving her mad.”


The officer cracked a smile. “Lucky man. With my luck, the hat would’ve landed in the water. Tell him to hold onto it. The wind is stronger on-deck.”


“Of course, sir. Thank you.”


Henry smiled to the officer, as Benjamin tugged at his hand.


“C’mon,” he whispered.


Henry, surprised by his brother’s acting abilities and storytelling, listened and together they walked up towards the door to the ship.


Another officer, standing at the entrance looked to the officer they’d just spoken to.


“Let them on,” he shouted from the dock.


“Welcome aboard,” he said to the pair.


Within the ship, it was clear they had boarded a maze.


Where were the luxurious stairwells and dining rooms? Perhaps those were higher on the ship?

Yes, the better areas had the best views. That made the most sense to Henry. It was clear that not everyone in this area was English. As the pair maneuvered through the crowd of people searching for their rooms, a torrent of languages rushed past their ears, that the pair thought themselves to be the only Englishmen in the area.


Fortunately, for them, the wall signs were written in English.


“Want to go up on-deck?” Henry asked.


“Yes. It’s too crowded down here,” Benjamin replied. “Plus, I want to see if we can see all of Southampton from up there.”


The pair followed the maze of corridors and stairwells, climbing until they found a doorway with a porthole that led out to daylight.. It was quiet in this area, apart from the faint brushing of seawater against the distant hull.


The wind brushed across Henry’s face as he turned towards the stern, walking towards the white railing.


A few people were waving, while others strolled along the curved poopdeck.


Three boys, perhaps brothers like Henry and Benjamin, played with a top, while their father watched.


Seeing it made Henry’s heart sink.


He missed his father and mother.


In the orphanage, it was easy to brush the longing aside, as everyone was in the same situation. Here, out in public, they were in the minority.


The boys and girls on this ship all had mothers and fathers with them.


Here, they were alone.


The prospect of a new life in America shone brighter in the horizon. Henry could get behind the idea of a new life; starting anew in a country full of promise and hope.


Right now, the boys each could use some hope and change. Perhaps this ship would bring that about for them.


Taking his hand, Henry guided Benjamin to the railing, and the pair leaned over, looking at the long fall it would be the dock.


“Help me up,” Benjamin said.


“Only one rung,” Henry said firmly, walking behind his brother.


He lifted him beneath the armpits onto the first rung of the railing, and only when Henry was sure his brother was safe, did he step back to his previous location. “Hold on,” he said.


“I will. I doubt my story would work again,” laughed Benjamin.


Henry paused, gazing at the building crowd around the ship. More carriages were appearing, and a line of people were continuing to board the ship.


The April air struck his face as he turned towards his brother. “So, what do you think?”


“About what?”


“About America.”


“I’d like to visit it,” Benjamin said. “Why?”


“What we said earlier. What do you think of starting over?”


Benjamin turned up to Henry. “You really mean this, don’t you?”


Henry nodded.


“What do we have to lose?”


“At this point, nothing," said Henry.


Smiling, Benjamin leaned his head on his brother’s shoulder. “I think Mother and Father would approve.”


“No they wouldn’t,” Henry laughed.


“They would in this circumstance. We’re both miserable at the orphanage. We’ve only been lying to ourselves to keep the misery at bay.”


His brother had a point.


Henry hadn’t thought of this, but it made sense. “America could be a great start for us,” he said.


“Then let’s do it. Let’s take the risk,” said Benjamin.


Henry turned Benjamin. “Here’s to America, then.”


“Here’s to our new life,” added Benjamin


***


A short while later, the ship’s whistle sounded, filling the Southampton air with its great sound.

Down on the docks, the ropes holding the ship to the dock were taken off, and the extended walkways connecting the ship with the rest of the world were moving back onto the dock.

And with that, they knew that their old life had ended, and with the closing of the final passenger door, would come the start of their new life.


A crowd began building around them, waving to the others on the dock.


Beneath his feet, Henry could feel a faint trembling as the propellers began to turn. The smokestacks began to billow dark smoke into the pale blue sky.


And slowly, the great ship began to move forward.


The dock began pulling further and further away as the ocean liner took her first steps on her maiden voyage.


Henry and Benjamin now began waving to the strangers they never knew, and to the life they were now leaving behind.


They were leaving the only place where they had memories of their parents, but those memories would always exist within them.


And that was enough...


The ship continued moving slowly as it left port, and within a half hour, there was nothing in front of them but the vast ocean.


While holding firmly to the railing, the cool ocean air bit into Henry’s senses as he leaned his head back, eyes closed.


He then looked out into the distant horizon, where the edge of the ocean met the deep sky.

Henry smiled mistily to the sea, as he pictured what would come of their lives. Their new home, America, offered them a fresh start and a new life.


Titanic would take them there.


THE END


© PETER GULGOWSKI 2018