‘You could stay,’ said John.
‘What?’ Mammy would hate me speaking so abruptly: what. It doesn’t become a young Irish lady, she’d say. Drop your accent, she’d say. Do you want folk in New York to think you’re common?
‘I mean you’re sixteen now, like.’ He opened his mouth again, but closed it abruptly. He was never good at talking about deep things.
‘They saved for ages for those tickets,’ I said firmly.
He looked at me so sadly then that I could barely stand it. I wanted to hit him. It wasn’t like the good old days, though: he wouldn’t hit me back. He thought he was a man now and with that came the sad man’s silence. I’d seen it with pa.
‘I wish you wouldn’t go, Esther.’
No, I couldn’t talk of this now. We were all packed. It was a big deal, it was a grand enough thing for Queenstown. I was excited and I was going, and that was that. New York was too big for sad fishermen called John.
‘Did you hear us, Esther?’
‘I can’t see any damned fishes,’ I said, ignoring his scandalised look. I liked to swear; I had decided I would swear right up until we were ushered through the doors at Ellis Island. Damn, damn, damn.
‘It’s too muddy here,’ he said. ‘The water’s all shallow and the mud gets churned up by the boats. Sure when you’re out on the sea, the proper ocean like, you’ll see fishes.’ He curled his lip disdainfully.
‘I’ll think of you when I do,’ I said.
It really was a grand event. The ship was too big to come right into the harbour, so they took us out to it, and I was too excited and overwhelmed at this titan coating everything in its great shadow to turn back and cast a last look at my home. Everything was bigger now, new: The Titanic, New York; Esther Kelly was a young American lady who didn’t swear.
We burst into our cabin. There were four beds and it was a humble thing I suppose, but to me it was sheer luxury. The beds were warm, the sheets newly-pressed. We had three square meals a day and best of all, I was allowed to wear my best dress to walk around the rooms, though mammy forbade me talking to the men who spoke in strange tongues and sang shanties so rough you didn’t need to speak their language to know it would make a proper lady blush.
I spent most of my first day on deck, ignoring the bitterly cold Atlantic winds so that I could parade around being a lady. I got a fair few admiring glances from the men, I don’t mind saying. I could feel the power of my supple body, the sensuality of a young woman finally ready to make her way in the world, but a good, demure young woman who dressed properly and spoke with only the lightest Irish lilt. I kept my promise to John and looked over the side many times to see if I could spot any fish. I didn’t. It made me feel sad and tired, so I stopped looking.
This is all silly stuff, a little girl’s dress-up and make-believe, and it gives me hollow pain, like the phantom of a limb I am missing. I should stop now.
I can’t recall too well what happened — that’s something for the tedious newscasts that followed the next day, with
all their talk of rudders and sterns and an ismay. That’s not my story to tell. I think I remember going to bed, and though I was too old to be squabbling with my little sister, I did. We’d been aboard a few nights and I was tetchy. Mammy told us to hush up, and she took to whispering with da, but I was too tired to listen.
I was awoken by a feeling of being lurched right across the room, and I tumbled out of bed, and my sister cried. The silly goose kept shouting at me, blaming me for tumbling us out of bed, and she told pa that he should give me a whipping. I laughed right in her face. Mammy told us to go back to sleep, but nobody went back to sleep on that ship. I recall dressing in a hurry but I don’t remember anything after that. It’s like a dream, you know? It was so real to me but as time goes on I forget little details. Sometimes I forget big things, like my sister’s name, but I wager that’s not important now so I’m not too sad about it.
The most beautiful part, because even that is beautiful and I won’t lie and say it isn’t, was the ending. All was silence, there was no crying, or men shouting orders or mammy begging the saints. Everything was so blue, but not just one shade of blue. It was turquoise and cyan, it was dark like midnight here and deeper, darker blue as we went down and the silence grew more complete. I could weep, it was so beautiful. I can scarcely believe that something so untouched and pure remains in this world.
It felt like the truest thing you could ever wish for, more intense than heaven, more real than pricking your finger on a pin. We — and I mean all of us, and the ship — we were one with the water, and all around was blue and it no longer smashed me against the walls or crushed my sister’s bones, but it ran through my hair, it bade me come closer, it dragged us all into a loving embrace. It was irresistible, more comforting that my mother’s arms.
Here’s where I get confused again, because I swear I saw all these creatures swim slowly past this porthole, all serene and knowing, like. I suppose I must have been dead by that point, because I don’t remember any pain and surely the windows must have burst with the force of all that icy dead seawater. Maybe we weren’t really falling when I saw all those fish because nobody would be fool enough to come look at a great metal thing hurtling through their home, would they? And maybe it was hours or days, months even before the shadow of a fish fell over my dead unseeing eyes. Strange creatures, nothing like those sad dumb things I had seen flopping about in the fishermen’s nets swam close by my battered body. I promise you, John, I didn’t feel anything when creepy things ate their way through my bones and those eyes you so loved (of course I knew, John). I wasn’t afraid, not when it mattered. I think you’d understand.
Stay tuned for Anne’s answer to this prompt on Friday. Follow us on Twitter to get updates and news.