By Alex Townley
“STOP squirming Evie.”
I watch goose pimples form on Mammy’s arm as she tightens her shawl around us both.
It isn’t cold in here, I can feel sweat beading on the back of my neck, but she’s excited and nervous by what the gypsy woman might tell her.
She can’t get enough of the tea leaves and what they might tell her next.
“Have I drunk enough of it now?”
She wraps her arms tight around me and I curl into her despite the heat, stroking the tiny bumps with my fingers, marvelling at how magically they appear and disappear.
She sets her cup down and pushes it across to the woman who performs her rituals on it before staring intently at the contents.
“You will face hardship.”
I want to run my fingers across the dramatic furrows of the woman’s nut brown brow.
“Won’t we all.” Mammy chuckles. She jiggles me on her knee.
I wonder how much fun they’re having back in our cabin without me. They said they’d be reading and I can’t read yet. Only some of the words, but they could read to me.
I like the stories where the girl finds out she’s secretly adopted, and she’s been a princess all along. I’d like to be a princess all along.
The woman looks more concerned. She has many levels of concern she saves for her readings.
“What is it?” Mammy buys all of them.
Mammy’s grip tightens on me and I squirm again. “Will they be alright?”
“You’ll be together whatever happens, nearly all of you, that’s for sure.”
There are seven of us including Mammy and Daddy. I long to be away from them most of the time, especially in our tiny cabin. Maybe I’m the nearly all.
Mammy smiles, her goose pimples blinking out like stars at dawn.
Around us the metal creaks, and it seems to jolt Mammy out of her tea leaf dreams.
“I’d best be getting this one to bed.”
She moves me onto her hip and stands up. “Come on Evie.”
The woman takes her shiny coin and sweeps away our fortunes into one corner.
I’m damp with sweat now. Out in the corridor people lean against walls and chat, sit with legs stretched out for us to step over awkwardly, their conversation heating the tiny space.
In our room the light is low and the bed is like a nest of mice, my brothers and sisters a mess of limbs, and too innocent-looking faces. Mammy is distracted by the promise of the tea leaves and doesn’t notice, tidying books into a corner.
I’m laid down in the middle of the bed and shuffled by not too gentle feet and hands to one end.
“It’s Evie, she’s so boney.”
“That was Helen, look at her face, butter wouldn’t melt.”
“God, that’s toxic.”
“Mammy, Stephen said God.”
“Mammy, he’s poking his elbow right in my ribs.”
My legs are surrounded by other legs, hundreds of legs with long sharp toenails that dig in my shins. Sweat beads on my chest, the air hums with heat.
“What did she say this time Mammy?”
“Are we to be rich?”
“Will we Mammy? Will we have a big house in America?”
Mammy shushes us, pulling the sheets over as many of us as she can, then she puts out the light, and we calm in the thick darkness, one by one breathing steadily and deeply into the night as we plough forward into our future.
It’s impossible to tell what time it is when I wake up. My dreams were filled with a terrible screeching sound that has followed me into waking. Everyone is moving all at once, arms and legs and clothes mixed in with the sheets like we’re late for something important, but no-one’s talking.
It’s like a giant raked his fingernails against the side of the hull.
In the near pitch darkness my eyes adjust. Mammy is tight-lipped, pinching her mouth together, sitting fully dressed in her sleeping chair. Daddy is looser, still recovering from last night, and trying to reassure quietly, helping arms into sleeves and brushing away flying shoes as everyone sorts out their trousers, and does up laces.
I’m still in my nightdress. Should I be dressed like everyone else? No-one is chivvying me along like they usually do.
The door is slightly ajar, and outside in the corridor, people are asking each other what’s going on. Doors are opening and closing.
Daddy finds a space to sit on the bed next to me. He smooths my hair back with his huge dinner plate hand.
“Nothing to worry about Evie, we’re just waiting to see if we need to move, or if we’re alright to stay put, you can keep on sleeping if you like.”
His touch is hypnotic and I feel my eyes closing, but the sound of the giant’s fingernails are still echoing in my head.
“Go and find out John.” Mammy’s lips pinch together as if she’s sucked on a lemon, then release, then tighten in a rhythm of nerves.
“I asked already. No-one knows for sure. We’re better off in here than out there, stirring up more panic like a herd of frightened cows. The children might as well sleep.”
No-one is sleeping now. There’s constant movement on the bed. I am the only one not dressed, the only one. I feel left behind. I pull Mammy’s crocheted shawl around my shoulders, my real clothes somewhere far below me on the darkness of the floor.
Someone screams outside, and Daddy darts for the door. He looks for a long moment before coming back in.
“Right, we’re off, come on now, everyone ready.”
I’m not ready, I’m in my nightdress I try to tell him, but he sweeps me up.
“Never mind that my Evie, you’re with me.”
He backs us up to the door, trampling bedtime books underfoot and addresses everyone.
“Now you all watch out for one another. Hold hands with someone and keep your mother or me in sight. You lose us, you shout as loud as you can and we’ll be back for you, understand.”
There are nervous nods. This feels like an adventure. I clutch at Daddy’s shoulders as we shuffle out into the corridor. People are moving quickly toward the stairs.
Daddy weaves through the crowd, and curled against his neck I watch my brothers and sisters over his shoulder like a trail of ducklings following through the water. Because there is water, being splashed about by people as they try to rush forward.
I wonder what might have spilled, but then I smell the sea, just like when we went up on deck to watch the ocean racing past. The sea is spilling over the floor.
We reach the stairs and I can tell Daddy’s itching to take them two at a time, but he goes slow and steady so everyone can keep up.
We climb and climb, sweat beads on Daddy’s forehead making his dark hair curl. I can tell how serious it all is by the way no-one’s complaining. We’re going back to the deck. I know we are.
I feel an icy blast of night air as we reach the top of the stairs. It rushes in through the holes in the crocheted blanket, and I burrow deeper into the warmth of Daddy’s neck. Everyone looks afraid up here. Wide eyes dart back and forth. Noise is everywhere. We’re swallowed into crowds of teeming shouting masses. People are angry, I can hear crying.
“They’re releasing another lifeboat.”
“That’s not even half-full.”
“There’s not space for everyone.”
We are shuffled forward, me and Daddy, away from the others.
A man in a smart uniform and hat bellows, “Room for one more on this boat.”
The crowd surges forward. I’m knocked and bashed by hats and elbows and luggage. I hold Daddy’s ear tightly, something I haven’t done since I was little.
We are pressed up against the hard side of a boat full of fancy looking ladies in furs and lifejackets and feathered hats. They watch the crowd with horrified faces like they’re afraid of being eaten by them at any moment.
Daddy is looking around for the others, but they’re lost in the sea of faces.
“Take my baby.”
It takes me a second to realise its Daddy speaking.
“Please, you said you had space.”
I want to argue that I’m not a baby, but I’m already being handed over to the man in the hat. Feeling the cold where Daddy’s side was pressed warmly against me.
He passes me down into the boat and I’m jammed between padded bottoms in smart tweed skirts. I try to find Daddy’s face in the seething mass of people and he’s there.
“Don’t worry Evie. We’ll see you soon. Very soon.”
He blows me a kiss and I catch it and place it on my face like he taught me. He smiles as his face disappears behind the rising side of the hull.
The little boat lands on the water with a splash and everything is quiet for a moment, then someone shouts, “For God’s sake man row. She’s going down. We’ll go with her if we don’t get some distance.”
The side of the ship moves back and back with each ploosh of the oars until we’ve rowed enough away to see it all, see the frightening tilt of it.
The stars are bright in the black sky and water laps gently against the side of the boat. Icy cold air bites me through the crocheted blanket. Goose pimples form on my arms and I reach out to touch them, reach out to touch her, reach out to all of them, so far away now, tears falling at last.
© Alex Townley 2016