No 15 - September 2001
My favourite teacher drowned on the Titanic
Rory came to my house to accompany me to school. I, barely awake, let my mother tell us of the tragedy.
‘But she couldn’t be drowned,’ I tried all sorts of excuses, ‘another sailing?’
‘No,’ my mother said, ‘sure ‘twas its maiden voyage.’
‘That means its first trip.’
‘But maybe Miss Stuart... changed her mind. Maybe she got off at New York and that happened on the way to Canada.’
‘No,’ said my mother, ‘now you’ll be late for school, and it was on the way across the Atlantic she went down.’
‘But,… lifeboats? Surely people were rescued?’
‘No my dear, all were drowned; only a lucky few from the real upper classes got saved.’
I cried. Rory was brave. I made him detour to the newsstand to see the headlines for ourselves. It was April 19th and we had to face our new teacher of fourteen days again.
It became the reason for my fear of the sea. My father wanted me to join the Navy, but nah, do you think I could even consider it to humour him? Later I joined the civil service. I didn’t last long. After a short spell as an Assistant Mortician to a local undertaker in my home town - he said I was useless, getting too emotional about what was left behind - I decided to leave for London. A first cousin there spoke of the great things that happen both in the workplace - with great wages, and in the nightlife - with interesting women. Nothing is ever dull and boring, he’d said, and if yous get fed up with one job you can leave it and have another found by the Monday mornin’.
Me mother said even though I was her only son and it was going to break her heart she wouldn’t discourage me. I got what would have been my sister’s dowry. No man was ever likely to marry her now, with her approaching thirty and growing more surly and disagreeable.
The fact then that I got into the building of vessels is all the more strange. I was never very physical, and expected an office job for meself with a comfortable sit for a few years. Then when I’d made me money I would return home and open a pub, or a shop, or something. And put me mother in style. That was a very important part of it. By then she might even have a daughter-in-law and perhaps young grandchildren on her knees.
I met Mr. Raitt in me first job cleaning the kitchens at a hotel. I was no more courteous than the next fellow, so I wondered why he picked on me. Maybe it was me mother’s prayers, but she would scoff at that, say it was me Gran in heaven that was looking down after me to see me right. Anyway, what was more unusual about Mr. Raitt’s offer was that he was an Englishman who could have picked any bright young lad for the apprentice job but he chose me and I hadn’t even applied for it.
‘Now sur, I dunno,’ I said. ‘I don’t like nuthin’ to do with the sea, so’s I don’t.’
‘Aaach, lad,’ he said, ‘sure I’m not asking you to go near the sea.’
‘But, don’t they somehow need to be tested, on the water or something? I’m telling you sir, even the smell of the sea makes me...’
‘Ah lad, you have the makings of it alright, build yourself up as you build the boats up.’
Later of course I discovered that he owed too many favours to local clients and couldn’t choose one of their sons above another. I was, I was proud to tell meself, a non-political appointee. It became fascinating in a quick space of time, First week I was put with let Spender, a carpenter with great pride and importance in his task.
‘Ah lad, without good joinin’s a boat’s nothin’, nothin’. ‘Twont last.’
‘You mean like Titanic Mr. Spender?’ I ventured.
He laughed. ‘Ah, that monstrosity, too good to be sure, the hand of God demolished that, yip, the hand of God.’ I wanted to say something about all the good people that died on it, like my teacher, with her big influence on me early on, but somehow I discovered that you just didn’t talk about the Titanic in boat building circles.
The boat builders was where I met Maggie. She was a student nurse come down from the Northern counties after her parents had passed away and her older brothers were settling into having her replace her mother. Maggie’s guilt at this and her love for me wasn’t easy for her, but she overcame it and came to feel for me and I for her, like neither of us had ever experienced before.
We found a little shack of a flat, and as things happen when two people are lonely, I made her pregnant pretty soon. Should we go home to her place or mine? Get married? But sure everyone would know anyway? to indecisiveness we left it too late to do anything sinful about it and afterwards I was glad when little Lottie was born. Don’t ask me why we called her Lottie. Maggie would have told you, told me even, but it were her last breaths, Call her Lottie, love, Lottie. And she died with a hand on the babe’s forehead and another in mine. I suppose a widowed man in this position could have blamed the child, hid it, gave it away, got it adopted. I suppose I would’ve been no different, but the helplessness in that small face just made me love her forever more.
So back home to me mother I came. It was great fun trying to manage changing Lottie on the ferry on the way over. Men guffawed, women tried not to stare but whispered. A few suspicious ones kept looking shiftily for ‘the mother’. Now wasn’t I a sight, a single man with a babe in a country town in Ireland in 1926. The big ‘lockout’ happened back in England after me so I was lucky I got out fast.
The family took to Lottie straight away. She was a good babe. And why didn’t I tell them I was gettin’ married was on everyone’s - especially my mother’s - lips? I naturally didn’t let on that I wasn’t. Being a lone father was enough, but a single one, now I’d h’ve been run out of town for that? I had a trade now though, so off I went to work in Dun Laoghaire, leaving Lottie with me mother during the week and comin’ home at the weekends.
I met Mary there, in Dun Laoghaire. She was a clerk in the shipyard, made a grand cup of tea and I suppose, well I was a bit lonely. Maggie’s body had made me a man, and Mary was, better in a way, well she was older than me, all of thirty-one she said (though I later discovered she was thirty-five). Mary’s husband had deserted her, gone off to Australia, and there was no chance of anythin’ happening in the tine of babies being born or that, so I began to go to her cottage, eventually gave up me digs for hers.
The problem was I wasn’t in love with Mary. She was a nice girl but she did have a bit of a temper. I s’pose I would have tried making an ‘honest’ woman of her, if it wasn’t for that night she lost it with me, screamed at me and threw a jug of water over me, all because I’d had a few. I mean if she was like that before we wed, what would she be like afterwards? Someone said her husband was coming back after coining it in Australia, but I think it was lies Mary put out to scare me away.
Our break up cost me me job in the end, too much bad wilt in the place, and I in the middle of a grand little jetty at the time. I hope his Lordship the Knight who’d commissioned, didn’t mind too much. He was a nice chap. I would like to think he had a good opinion of me, even though he was never likely to see me again.
Lottie was two at this time and a bit flighty for me mother. Me sister was still livin’ at home too. I didn’t want Lottie to grow up influenced by her. So I began to have a look round for a new wife. But sure whoever would take on a man with a baby. It was a peculiar situation: at twenty-nine, livin’ with me mother - me father had died when I was in England - me older sister and me daughter. Three generations of women with meself stuck in the middle, and no proper job. After being left go from Dun Laoghaire I got nothing else. I had no other trade and as you’ve probably gathered by now we lived far inland. I picked up bits of work here and there, mainly with the farmers in the summer. Lottie went to the local school, turned out curly blonde like her mother. Me mother and sister of course got more curious about Lottie’s mother, and the fact that I didn’t eves have a photo of her. And why did I never correspond with any of me wife’s family? Surely Lottie had other aunts and uncles, grandparents event I said no, that they were all dead. I know me mother never truly believed me. One night at Christmas she came out with: ‘if any of the locals find out, that that is a bastard child we’re done for, you’d best get married me boy’.
So I did, for the sake of me child I might add. I told myself that I was in love with Annie Flynn, I certainly understood her situation being a widow with a young daughter three years younger than mine. We were the talk of not just the neighbourhood but the whole county. People I’m sure commented on how nice it was for us, that we ‘deserved a bit of happiness’ and so on. Our wedding was a howl, I was dead nervous beforehand. Me sister made some wise comments as to how come I was so nervous when I’d been through all this already. Of course I had to confide in me future wife and the priest that I hadn’t wed Lottie’s mother, that there was no marriage certificate. Annie’s father was a farmer and while I had no dowry entitlement - that being gone with her first husband - we still had her cottage to live in, and a goad safe environment for Lottie and her new sister.
The shock at discovering that Annie was pregnant brought me close to running. Me argument was that I’d told her of my ‘non-marriage’ first time round, so why couldn’t she tell me she was with-child, that she was putting a gun to me head without I even knowin’ it! In a long walk in the rain I thought about our situation, how I had been snared by Annie Flynn. But I knew in me heart that I deserved it, perhaps we deserved each other. I never did discover who the new baby’s father was, but it was another girl, another mouth for me to fill. I made a vow never to touch Annie Flynn again as long as we lived together. Instead I took solace in the arms of some local women, even though I could ill afford to. Me father in law looked after me too with work, well I know he sent it my way even though he’d never admit it. I wanted to kill him, reverse that invisible gun he had put to me head. I think I kept myself well and sober all because of my Lottie of course. At fifteen she was all grown up and went to work in the big house. Did very nicely she did. Me mother had died though my sister, the auld hag, was still around, still alone. Here I was at thirty-nine, still with a long life to lead, but living with a woman and her two children that weren’t mine and being supported by her father. It was more than a man’s pride could take. I wondered how Annie would do without me. The young ones would never miss me. Although they called me Dad there was no bond there. If I faked dying it would probably be all right. But what about me Lottie? Lottie would have to know. I met her on a Sunday when she had the afternoon off, and we walked to the top of the hill above the big house and I told her everything and that I had to move on now that she was fixed up. She cried, I hated to see her cry.
But Lottie told me I couldn’t do it, that she loved her younger step-sisters and that I was as good a father to them as I was to her, and it would break her heart. I began to see it all from Lottie’s point of view then too, and how it would come against her if she had the reputation of a runaway father. So I stayed.
By the time my Lottie was twenty, the first grey hairs were showing on me forehead and I began to remember again me father’s call of the sea for me. I went for some strange reason to visit the grave of Mamie Stuart’s - my old schoolteacher’s - family. Of course there was no remains of Mamie there. The family had erected a sort of simple cross, that she had been taken at sea long before her time.
I wished for me daughter to marry. If my Lottie married then I could be free. I could leave the area, the country, and travel, find work somewhere, before I was too old to be employed. And there was the realization that perhaps America wasn’t such a bad place after all. It was now 1945 and there was time to travel. So it was with trepidation that I ventured onto that sea that me teacher had ventured on years earlier.
Lottie was on me arm, after a broken heart for some young son of another big house. A Mr. Harvey who was a cousin of Mr. Harvey the butler at Lottie’s place of employment would see us when we got to New York, and show us where we might point our arrows at in the New World.
- 10th Muse
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- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
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- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
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- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
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- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
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- Private Tutor
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- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
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- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
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