“We came in a taxi,” I said. “I saw Harold look up –”
“Who’s Harold?” the boy asked. The ship was settling again, prow downwards, or at least what I thought was the prow downwards; instead of looking into his eyes I could look over his head.
“He works in one of the Ministries,” I said. I didn’t know how else to describe him, but I realized I should at least give some indication that I had been brought by a relative, or someone like a relative. “He wants to marry my mother.” This sounded too bald, so I added. “He doesn’t know he missed his chance. She either marries them in the first few months or they hang around forever, hoping.”
His gaze was still wide, like he didn’t take all this in. “Your mum didn’t come to see you off?”
I looked down at the wicker weave, heavily varnished over, of the table, which was tilting backwards now – ugh – but it was bolted, so nothing moved. It was what I always did, when I knew I was supposed to mind, but I didn’t. “She was in the country and couldn’t get a train. Same with my father.”
The last time I had seen my father was 1939, at the zoo. I would rather have gone to the pictures, to see Tyrone Power, but my father had said that the pictures were for morons.
“So you saw the ship –”
“I saw Harold look up at it. It was huge.”
“Didn’t that make you think it would be all right? It made me feel that.”
“No,” I said. “I thought a smaller ship would be better.” Because a smaller ship might hide, the Germans might not care enough about it, because seeing the huge metal plates I had known the torpedo would shear right through, tearing a black jagged hole, water would flood in, a sickening drop, a tilt, falling, trapped in blackness, drowning, alone. Because I had read about the Lusitania, how it sank in seventeen minutes, how unless you were on deck when the torpedo struck you didn’t have a chance.
He was looking at me with faint disgust now, eyes half-closed. I figured he couldn’t help it, being a boy, it was what they taught boys at school, wasn’t it, never to show fear, to always act like it didn’t matter. To make a joke and toss the match away, as you are taken off to be executed by the cannibal king (not really executed, of course, only waiting for the last installment of the serial, when the regiment comes riding over the hill.)
I wondered if there was some way to say all that above, to him. I wasn’t used to talking to boys my own age. He had pale blond hair and glasses, looked like the sort who got picked on at his school; he probably had some unpleasant nickname. But I wanted him to think me clever. I wanted everyone, in those days, to think me clever. I wondered what Harold would have said, if I’d repeated all the business about the cannibal king, trying to make him laugh, like my mother and the women at his parties did. A small smile, raising his eyebrows, probably, then turning away, moving on, talking to someone else, an actress or an important person, someone bright and charming. Sometimes I could not understand what they said that was so funny but there was always this burst of laughter and everybody would sway and bow, as if chills were running up and down their shoulders, and something would glint hard, someone’s bracelet or cocktail glass.
The boy was looking away, drumming his fingers. Thinking about Harold I’d forgotten to listen to the sound of the ship, to feel with my feet through the deck for the impact of the torpedo, so I could be the first to react. Women and children first. For once not to have to hold back, not to have to wait for someone else to take the best cake out of politeness. I would line up right at the deck with my life jacket on, first to be loaded. Only I was afraid of the lifeboat being upset when it hit the water. I wanted to stay dry. I didn’t like the thought of the sea touching me, not even a drop.
I kept thinking of when we’d arrived at the dock and I’d seen the shadow of the ship across Harold’s face. He was not really a good-looking man: old, at least it seemed to me then, with a broad nose and loose pockets of flesh below his large eyes; but people talked of him, and he talked of himself, as a man who knew things, and I think this must have made him attractive.
Still, it was my mother he hoped for, always fumbling in his pockets and asking about me about her, where she had been, who she was with, always smiling with approbation no matter what I said, able to turn my least informative answer into something magnificent. I’m glad she’s having a good time, then, he’d say. I doubt now that she had to promise him anything to see me off, the thought of being helpful to her, in the way all her friends were supposed to be, was enough. I envied him now, going back to London, even with the streets dark; he would go to his flat, have a drink, telephone somebody, pick up a book. I thought that even if the Germans came he would still do all those things; he’d be on the telephone, gossiping about the latest atrocity, or the curfew. They’ve put the Ritz off limits, my dear, I looked in and it was simply crawling with Germans. He had said it when Paris fell, he would say it when London did. And yet they – meaning my mother, and probably Harold, chiming in his authoritative way, which did not yet seem false to me, and likely not my father – had decided to send me out over the ocean, over the blackness, to lie in my bunk, nine, ten, nights and days, listening every moment to the blubbing of the engine, waiting for the second it might falter. I was supposed to be met in Halifax by some people called the Mindens, but as far as I was concerned, they didn’t exist, nor did Halifax. I didn’t want to believe in them. If I did I would be punished, I thought, the torpedo would come through and I wouldn’t be prepared. Instead I needed to sit here, and listen, and wait.
They’d told us at ten-thirty not to put pajamas on, to sleep in our clothes, and I’d lain down with the life jacket around me, bunched under my arms and around my neck and I listened to the engine and thought about crashing and falling, being crushed by the ship above me, and then I’d gotten up and told the other girl in my cabin, a girl with a Manchester accent, that I was going upstairs.
So I was in the second-class lounge, and it was two-twenty by a gilded clock on the wall, all fancy curlicues and scratches, like it had fallen off the wall too many times to count, very much like something you’d find in a second-class lounge at two-twenty in the morning. I didn’t know how long the boy was there, or why. I wasn’t used to wondering where other people came from, only how to get away from them. In fact, I was thinking about Anabelle Hutton, and wishing she was here, because if she were on a ship that was torpedoed I would have laughed. Or maybe not laughed, but I would have at least felt a smug satisfaction at finally having gotten the better of her, in some small way. Annabelle Hutton was my enemy, purely, and simply; she was the person I felt it necessary to hate – it was always necessary, I thought then, to have someone to hate, someone you could watch from the other side of the room, resenting everything about them. Annabelle was first-rate, in that respect: silly with the teachers, prattling, laughing, she’d talk to anyone. She liked being Head Girl, she liked showing visitors around the school. She liked me, too: she never knew, she was incapable of understanding that I might hate her. During holidays I’d forget all about her and I’d always come back in a good mood, because I liked school, really, and it wasn’t like I was coming back from a home I’d missed, but as soon as I heard those first winsome tones I’d soak up loathing like a sponge and leak it everywhere I went. Sometimes just the pitter-pat of her fairy feet in the corridor would make me want to stick my head out and call her filthy names.
“There’s the other ships in the convoy,” the boy said. He hadn’t said anything for a long time; I’d almost forgotten him. “You can see them from the deck. They’d pick us up.”
“They’re not allowed to.” I was pushing my hands against the table, as if I could steady the ship that way. “They have to go on. If they stay they might make themselves targets for the U-boat as well. Harold told me that.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“I do. It’s the kind of thing they know, at his Ministry.”
They had to leave us in the darkness, those ships, to save their own passengers. They had to go on. There was an underlying principle which had come into our lives with the war, one no one said aloud, but everyone understood, that not everyone could be saved. The important people, certainly. Who was to decide who was important, or – more likely -- who was lucky? No one said, no one knew. But it was understood that the innocent would have to be sacrificed. It might make the rest of us less innocent, but in the end that might not matter, either, because we might die just as they did. There was no innocence, really, and no importance, and no luck, not that you could rely on.
I remembered Harold’s face as he’d explained in the taxi that the convoy ships wouldn’t pick up lifeboats, how he’d turned to make that clear, just before we arrived. It was a look he often had, that he’d done his duty, obeyed some higher calling to always tell the truth, a look that said he was judging you by some standard of his own, and didn’t care if you didn’t measure up. He had seemed to be saying, I’ve lived like this half my life, it’s time you did, too. He had been a captain in the last war. It had only been because of his age and the importance of his job at the Ministry that they didn’t let him fight again.
The boy was gone now. No loss. It was ten after three and the ship was giving little wallows as it settled down, which made me think it was going to tip over. I thought of Annabelle again, how brave she’d be if she were here. She’d be like Miss Helmonds, all in brown, brown shoes, brown skirt, sensible, telling the Manchester girl and me there was nothing to worry about, a gleam in her eye the whole time, as if it were the height of presumption for us to think the Germans would care about torpedoing our ship. Later I had seen her with the East End children, whom she was supposed to be in charge of. Nothing to worry about, she repeated to them. Keep your head. We’ll show them what Britons are made of. Something about the way she said it had made me feel sick, a sickness that started at the bottom on my feet and swept up over my whole body. I hated those words, I hated anything to do with being brave. I knew I could never be brave, it was always lies, lies, lies, all bravery was. It was just being too stupid, too self-centered, to believe something might actually happen to you. I had stopped believing that, and once you do that, bravery doesn’t work anymore. And then there’s only you and fear.
But the thing was, the fear was lovely. It was the throb of life in the darkness. It was not just that it made me feel safer: it was really a comfort, to know that I was doing something, that I was helping myself by staying awake and alert, not like everyone else, walking around in a dream. And I was helping other people too, I thought, by suffering the fear that they didn’t, suffering if for them, like a saint would. It was actually very noble and self-sacrificing, it seemed to me, to sit there alone the darkness shining with all their fears, feeling the things they wouldn’t let themselves feel. And I didn’t mind, either, because the fear was lovelier even than Tyrone Power. If the fear had told me it would be better to go over the rail of the boat at the moment, rather than waiting to hear the crack of the torpedo and feel the ship shudder with the impact, I knew it would be the right thing to do. It would be safer that way. That was what I loved about the fear: it kept me safe, it kept me in control.
It was late now, very late. Outside all the windows were dark. I stood up, touching the table to keep steady as the ship sloshed to one side. On the deck it was cold, sharp, like the first breath of cold in the fall. The breeze was full of little drops, sticking salt to my face. The rail was cold.
I was going to die. I knew that when I felt the rail. The rail was dead, it had never been alive. I would be like that, cold and dead.
If you had asked me why I had gone out on the deck, what I intended to do, I could not have told you. I had been drawn out there, perhaps, by the fear, but I had no definite idea in mind. I held the rail, thinking of it cold and dead, of being cold and dead, too, underwater, and I thought of the hill behind my school, the row of trees which showed their black branches against the sky at sunset. Some times of year the sky behind them was still light, or there would be a star coming out just above the branches. Other times it would be a seeping red, as if to emphasize something cruel we all ought to know. I remembered running back from games, stumbling on the muddy path, hands grabbing each other by the sleeve or the hair, saying to each other, Peggy scored two goals, Vera Sloan got a letter. It was not much to remember, all that jostling. But if it was the only thing in the world I ever saw again, the only thing I could see before I died, I wanted to see those trees.
The deck shook beneath me and I was afraid again, and waited for the noise, for something to happen, for the ship to stop. I wished I could die bravely, not like this, sick, hanging over the water. I couldn’t be brave, I thought, because I didn’t deserve it. I turned my head and I saw the boy: he hadn’t gone away, in fact, he was coming towards me, saying something which I couldn’t hear because of the wind. I lifted my head to listen because I thought maybe he was coming to warn me about the torpedo, but then I saw the fear in his eyes and I knew I could handle my fear but not his, it was too much; he wanted to press it upon me, to relieve his mind: that was supposed to be my job, as a girl, to listen and take it away so he could be a man again, but I knew I couldn’t help him, I couldn’t stand it, and so I ran. I ran past him, stumbling, slipping on the wet deck, crashed against the railing, stumbled on, wet feet, wet hands, salt, cold water. I got up from falling with my knees banged, and ran again. A door with gray metals bolts was in front of me, smashed at my face. Something pulled me back. Hands. I couldn’t see who it was: I fought the grip and he said, don’t, don’t, in a frightened voice, just like a little boy, his coat against my face, holding me like you would hold a rabbit trying to squirm away, too hard, hurting my arms. I didn’t know what was happening to me. Later I would, later the whole dreadful process would be something I went through on boats and planes, in restaurants, anywhere something seemed to be demanded of me. But all I knew then was that something was going wrong: I thought that I was screaming, or at least crying, I could not breathe, and definitely I was choking on something warm and vivid, something that spattered out of my mouth onto his coat. Everything around me seemed to be white. The ship tilted and my feet slipped and now nothing was real, not the ship, not the waves, there was nothing behind them, and I knew that there was nowhere to go, no way to ever get out of this torment, this fear, no rest, no home, nothing, there never had been, there never would be. But something was holding me, that too-tight grip, and my mind groped towards it, wanted to hold on, and I didn’t know what it was holding on to, something pretend maybe, but I found it and I held on.
The ship tilted back. It went back quite suddenly and I thought it was definitely going down, that I had missed feeling for the torpedo in all this chaos. I wasn’t standing up anymore; the hands held me so tightly that my feet were more or less dangling against the deck. In that position, pressed against his coat, I began to hear the sound of the sea. I could single out each wave as it hit the side of the ship. It was a beautiful sound: a huge, seizing sigh, like a breath, followed by a crisp break against the side, a crack that dissolved into foam, sizzling away and turning over, calming the turbulence underneath the surface. Each wave that broke was slightly different from the one before. I didn’t know what to make of this. I had never listened to things like that before, and I wondered if there might be some meaning in it, some hidden, undersea pattern, that no one had ever noticed before. Then I thought that that sounded mad, and that maybe I had gone mad. But I was listening, waiting for the next one, when the hands let go. My feet met the deck and stood. The ship hadn’t gone down. I was standing alone, a white arc of vomit across my shoes.
The boy had let go. He had taken a step back and was pulling at his coat, clearly embarrassed.
“Sorry,” he said. “I thought you were – you looked like you were going to – jump.”
I didn’t know if I’d been going to jump or not. I couldn’t remember. I still don’t know. I think maybe I was just running in panic, but who knows where I might have gone? There had been that moment when I had stood on deck, thinking about being cold and dead. In any case, I shook my head. I didn’t trust my voice. I didn’t think I had a voice.
“Sorry, then.” He took a step back.
I realized I hadn’t thanked him but I thought if I did he would go away for good. At that particular moment I couldn’t have stood it if he’d gone away.
“I want to sit down,” I said. I was surprised by my words. I didn’t know when I had ever said I want to another person, never at school, never to anybody else, meaning I wanted them to do something for me, meaning I knew they would do something for me. I knew from the way my voice sounded, tired and helpless, that he would at least open the door to the lounge for me. He moved quickly, stumbling forward with the slide of the ship, towards it. I could still hear the waves hitting the ship. To my relief they sounded normal now, with no hidden meanings, but listening to them was like a distant note, dying away, still calming.
The lights in the lounge were small and yellow, shining from dirty sconces. I leaned forward, onto the table, the tips of my fingers shaking. I was tired and jumpy, like I had poison in my veins: it was another feeling I would come to know, always the same reaction afterwards. The boy sat opposite me, staring, still unsure, embarrassed, picking at his lower lip as he watched me with a crinkled gaze. There were small streaks like raindrops on his coat where I had thrown up on him. It would have been far worse if I’d eaten any dinner, but he hadn’t looked at them, maybe he hadn’t even noticed. I plunged around in my mind for something to say to him, not the kind of thing I would say to Harold, not something about the ship, but just purely something to say, so he would stay with me. I would come to know this feeling, too, this exhaustion that sometimes pushed me towards another person. I did not know then that the ship would move on to Halifax, that Mr. Minden would be standing on the dock minus Mrs. Minden, who was unwell; that there would be train rides, airplanes, baseball games, half my early life lived in Canada, because I considered myself advanced, modern, living in a world where I had nothing under my feet. But then I only knew that I had died. I had died, and death had been hot and blurry and I hadn’t liked it. But I was also alive, because sitting there I felt each breath, I felt the table vibrating with the ship, because I remembered the waves, how beautiful they were crashing against the ship, and that was part of being alive. So I asked the boy his name, because I wanted to talk to him under the yellow lights as the ship moved on towards Halifax. That way, when I had to die again, I would not have to die alone.