This story is by Christi Reynard and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“What is the coldest you’ve ever been, sir?”
Hitchens shivered at the seaman’s question as if the words themselves lowered the temperature on the bridge. Even though the hatches remained sealed tight, the frigid north Atlantic air still found away into the room.
“Oh, son. There’s plenty a night at sea to chill you to the bone. It’s best not to dwell on it and try to stay dry.”
He returned the stem of his pipe between his lips and gazed out into the night. It was cold and clear out there. So clear all the stars in the heavens reflected in the water, but so dark the same water resembled more like miles and miles of ink.
“Yes, sir,” Lyons persisted, his lilt making him sound younger than his 25 years. “But what is the coldest you’ve ever been? I remember when I was a boy in Cork, a winter night so cold my brothers and me slept in our parents’ bed. And my Da brought all the sheep into the house. Mam complained for months about the smell.”
He snorted a laugh, lifted his hat and scratched the back of his head. “How long you think Mr. Murdoch will stay out there?”
“Boy! You and your questions!”
It had been the same thing for three days: nothing but question after question from the young Irishman. Hitchens wondered if he could convince someone to switch to the mid-watch, so the incessant chatter would stop. He suspected it was why the First Officer, Mr. Murdoch, pulled on his coat five minutes after midnight and began pacing one wing or another. Tonight, he walked the precarious portside walkway extending out over the lower decks.
“Sorry, sir. But…”
Stomping feet and laughter interrupted the young seaman’s next inquiry as two more of the ship’s officers entered the long, narrow room controlling everything below deck. Lightroller stood a head shorter, with hair so blonde, almost white, and a pasty complexion to match. Pittman stumbled into the Second Officer from behind, his hat askew and his thick, walrus mustache looking more like a bristle brush affixed to the centerof his face.
“Lyons, my boy!” Lightroller exclaimed. “How goes the watch?”
Pink splotches glowed high on the man’s pale cheekbones. They’d handed off command not a half hour before, but it appeared enough time to get at some of the fine rum in the officer’s mess.
The young sailor squared his shoulders.
“All is well, sir.”
Pittman peered past Lyons to the First Officer’s silhouette standing on the portside wing.
“I see the stalwart Scot is keeping an eagle eye on things?”
The Third Officer braced himself with a hand on the bulkhead.
“We’ll make the record with Murdoch pushing the firemen to work through the night.”
“Captain Smith’s orders, sir,” Hitchens said.
Both newcomers chuckled, jostling one another.
“Oy! Hitchens! You owe me a bottle,” Lightroller called over the wheel. “Heard from the Marconi room, Blackburn beat Everton three-nil. They’ll make the cup, I say.”
The helmsman grunted and took a puff from his pipe. “Harry Makepiece will get my Everton boys on track.”
The two officers dissolved into more laughs.
Lyons smiled at his superiors. Their visit to the bridge meant more voices, and more voices meant more questions, helping him stay awake in the process. Mid-watch could hardly be called the worst assignment, with no captain about nitpicking for mistakes, but the hours from midnight until dawn challenged the most diligent sailor.
“Did you hear Sir Cosmo is on board, sirs?” Lyons had been 14 when the nobleman won a silver medal fencing for England in Greece. But he loved all sport and followed the careers of his favorite athletes, including the gallant Baronet.
Lightroller crossed his arms and grinned at Lyons. “Not only did I know it, young seaman, but I have also met the fine fencer myself.”
Pittman leaned forward and winks. “And the lovely ladies with him.”
“Ladies?” Lyons gaped at the men and stepped away from his post by the chilled windows.
Lightroller and Pittman elbowed each other amid more guffaws, back slapping and choking laughter.
“Oh, my young, Irish, innocent,” Lightroller wheezed. “Sir Cosmo Edmund Duff-Gordon not only brought his fencing prowess aboard, he also escorted three secretaries who are the best dressed career girls I’ve ever seen.”
“I do believe one of them is his wife,” Pittman says. “She’s the one with a prow like a plank, but enough astern to hoist yourself aloft!”
He grabbed imaginary handfuls and thrust forward into a phantom Mrs. Duff-Gordon. This comment incited so much hilarity, the two men held on to one another, hooting until they bent over, out of breath.
“What about the others?” Lyons’ eyes grew wide, now fully awake.
“One of them,” Lightroller said, “is like a sweet little Zabra off the Spanish coast. Dark hair, dark eyes, fruitful in the bow, a tight mid-ship and and ample in the aft… One look at her and my whip staff took notice.”
More of a statement than a question came from the man behind the helm. “Don’t you have a wife, Mr. Lightroller?” Enough of this talk of women’s parts as if they were boats, he thought to himself with a puff of his pipe.
The sharp clamor of bells cut the conversation to silence. It sounded its double ring once more before Hitchens turned and picked up the receiver for the crow’s nest.
“This is the bridge.”
Three faces stared at Hitchens as unintelligible squawking made its way from the handset to their ears. Murdoch strode in from the frigid night, pushing through Lyons and his fellow officers standing frozen like a wall of navy blue and white.
“All right. Stay at your post.”
“What is it Hitchens?” Murdoch barked.
“Fleet in the crow’s nest reports iceberg ahoy, sir.”
“Tracking it 2,000 feet off the port bow, sir.”
Word of ice in the water had come from other ships to the north and south since noon. The captain discounted them and ordered the engines continue at full capacity. The giant steamship reached close to her top speed of 23 knots earlier in the day.
Lyons pulled a cord three times, ringing the warning to all the crew.
All bodies in the room pivoted to the tall windows and scanned the darkness. A clear night, yes, but so dark none of them saw the mountain of ice looming not far away.
Seconds went by.
At 25 seconds, eight eyes shifted to the sturdy First Officer.
Murdoch stood like a stone, while thoughts and decisions stormed through his mind.
Stay the course? Or turn? He must choose one or the other.
He conjured a memory of years before when, on the Arabia, he had only the flash of a moment to decide how to avoid a collision with another vessel.
“Come on, man!” The Second Officer insisted, now sober as a vicar.
Sweat broke out on his brow, and his neck began to itch.
Stay the course had never failed him before.
He’d saved several ships in his years at sea by steering a straight course.
But something in his gut grumbled this time was different.
“Hard starboard,” echoed Lyons into the telephone to the engines.
“Hard starboard,” Hitchens repeated as he spun the wheel to the left, pulling the rudder to the right.
The silence of a suspended breath filled the room. All eyes focused on the gray object now visible. It rose up from the black surface of the ocean, piercing the sky and blocking out the stars behind it.
No one moved.
No one blinked.
We will make it, Murdoch thought. We will make it, and I will dance with my dear Ada in a fortnight.
The loud bang of the hatch hitting the bulkhead startled all five men on the bridge as a quartermaster assigned to keep watch on deck, burst into the room.
“Iceberg!” he shouted as the sound of screaming steel ripped down the side of what its builders proclaimed an unsinkable ship.