Better The Devil You Know? – A Titanic Short Story by Graham Brown

After The Weekend

It’s Monday morning, about ten to nine, and the town centre office is coming to life. Deirdre, a woman of indeterminate age, which never seems to alter, is always first to arrive. That way she makes sure no-one steals her coffee mug – and she can see when the others come in. It gives her a sense of superiority and, truth be told, boosts her frail confidence to be one-up on her colleagues. She switches on the ancient flourescent strip lights which, hesitantly, make their harsh presence felt.

Soon others arrive and the office is buzzing with talk of the weekend, new boyfriends and girlfriends, failed dates, X-Factor, Strictly Come Dancing. Gradually a quieter hum of conversation and telephone calls takes over as work begins.

For some time no-one seems to notice that Nick has not arrived. He is quiet, and often a little late. But by 9.20 Deirdre, who has noticed, feels she should say something to her manager Elaine, or Miss Bradock as Deirdre prefers to call her. Elaine is the young woman occupying the job Deirdre feels was rightly hers.

Come 10 and there is still no sign. Calls are made to his home telephone and to his mobile, without success. Elaine, making loud sighing noises to express her annoyance, eventually sends Alan to Nick’s house to find out what has happened.

The walk is only about 15 minutes. Alan arrives to find the two-up, two-down house locked, the curtains open, and no sign of Nick. Uncertain about what to do, he waits for a few minutes, then tries the neighbours. The elderly lady two doors along, a dedicated curtain-twitcher, says she thinks she saw him go out on Friday evening carrying a suitcase.

The Weekend Begins

Nick gets home from work to a weekend without much promise. He finished with his girlfriend Alison two months ago, well, actually, she finished with him. Now Alison is engaged to that arrogant rugby-playing Larry in accounts. That was quick.

It is dark as he heads to his favourite local takeaway a little after six. Nick returns with enough Indian food to last a couple of days. He gets some beer from the fridge and sits down to eat, flicks through the TV channels but can’t focus on anything. So, putting his food to one side briefly, he ferrets through his DVD collection. A, B, C, they are all in alphabetical order. Nothing appeals until he gets to T, and Titanic. He will watch that.

Yes, it is a girls’ film but Nick has been fascinated by the Titanic since he was a small child. He thinks the ship’s name, ending in “Nic”, caught his ear when he was very young. Since then he has bought endless books and DVDs. He was surprised how much he enjoyed the 1997 film. No doubt, Kate Winslet helped.

By the time the film finishes it is after 9.30. He had vaguely thought about going out but now he doesn’t feel like doing so. It is going to be another dull weekend and in his depressed state it is hard to do anything about it. He glances over at his CDs. Everything But The Girl caught his eye. “Hmph,” he thinks. “Nothing-much-at-all-and-no-girl either would be more appropriate for me.”

Absent mindedly, he flicks the Titanic DVD back on at the beginning. “I really, really, really wish I could have sailed on the Titanic. It would have been an amazing experience. I would give anything to have sailed,” he says to himself.

“Anything?” came the reply.

“Yes, well, you know, pretty much anything. But it’s not possible.”

“Oh, it could be,” came another reply.

It dawns on Nick that the voice is not in his head, it seems to be coming from a dark corner of the room. Can’t be. But as he stares into the corner a figure takes shape – a small elderly man, with a straggly beard, in a tatty long overcoat.

The man speaks: “I can arrange it for you if you really want it enough.”

Nick would have been scared but the beer has blurred his mind and reactions. “Who are you? Some sort of guardian angel?”

“Hardly, quite the opposite in fact.”

“My God, you’re not the devil.” It struck Nick’s befuddled mind that he could have phrased this question better.

“No, course not, the devil himself wouldn’t bother with the likes of you. I’m just one of his helpers. There are lots of us.”

“Oh.”

“Anyway, you want to sail on the Titanic? I can’t sit talking all night, we need to go.”

“Yes, well, but… umm… ”

Nick feels dizzy and nauseous. He knows he shouldn’t have eaten and drunk so much, so quickly. He closes his eyes to stop the room spinning.

A Strange New Place

Then, through his closed eyelids, Nick can see daylight. And the smell of his room, of the Indian food, has gone. He can smell sea air, old wood, and dust in the air. He opens his eyes.

Nick is in some sort of reception area, standing in a queue of people. The building seems to be old and, yes, dusty. The people around him are dressed in old-fashioned clothes, and not particularly smart ones. Victorian? Early 20th century? The old man is stood next to him.

“Next!” a voice shouts. Nick finds himself at a wall with a small opening to make a counter. Behind it sits a middle-aged man in a smart waistcoast and a neatly trimmed beard. “Yes, gentlemen?”

Nick opens his mouth but before he can speak the old man gets in: “We want to sail on the Titanic, please. I have our papers and the money.”

“You are just in time, we’re down to the last few places… This all seems in order… Here, take this and join the queue to go through that door over there. Next!”

A family of six are next at the counter. There is a discussion, raised voices and the family are turned away.

The old man speaks: “They obviously expected to get on. Lucky we were able to jump the queue.”

“But that’s terrible,” protests Nick. “Have they lost their places now?”

“I suppose so, but probably better for them in the long run, don’t you think? Not many people from steerage will survive the sinking.”

The sinking. The words set an alarm off in Nick’s mind, as if he has woken from a dream.

“Umm, yes, the sinking,” said Nick. “I assume I will be in a lifeboat at the end?”

“Oh, you do, do you? I don’t think I can organise that.”

“But, but… perhaps this isn’t such a good idea after all.”

“Look,” says the old man. “Like I say, most people in steerage won’t make it into a lifeboat. There’s a limit to what I can do.”

“Steerage? I thought I would be in a cabin. I mean, perhaps not a grand one, but a cabin.”

“You’re in steerage and that’s it. Don’t worry. Remember your history? The Titanic calls at Cherbourg and Queenstown before heading across the Atlantic. We can get off.”

“That’s a bit disappointing. I thought you could organise everything.”

The old man bristles. “I’m a junior. I’m not the devil. There’s only so much I can do. You wanted to sail on the Titanic, and you will.”

Nick looks away and tries to gather his thoughts. A young couple have joined them in the queue and, behind them, two men with a large trunk.

The old man jerks his head towards the newly-arrived passengers and says to Nick: “These poor bastards must have taken the last places after that big family couldn’t get aboard.”

“Yes, I was wondering about that,” says Nick, trying to remember his Doctor Who plots. “Isn’t there something about not interfering with time and destiny?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” says the old man. “That’s all above my station.”

The Voyage

The Titanic eases away from the docks at Southampton. Nick is so exhilarated that, for a time, he forgets to worry about the sinking he knows to be inevitable. Anyway, he is going to get off in Cherbourg or, perhaps, Queenstown. He does not give much thought to what he will do once in France or Ireland.

He breathes in the air – fresh sea air. He watches the sailing boats and steamers in the Solent. He watches the Isle of Wight go by. But mostly he watches the people – what glorious costumes, even among the poorer passengers. Occasionally, someone looks askance at his clothes – jeans, trainers and T-shirt.

If only Kate Winslet was with him, he thinks. Perhaps he could ask the old man? Where is the old man? Nick realises he has not seen him since the ship sailed. But no matter, his out-of-place clothes and new-found confidence in the wonder of life gave him an air which seem to attract some of the young women, who he notice smiling at him.

Elsewhere on the Titanic not everyone is enjoying the voyage and spreading goodwill to fellow passengers. The two characters with the large trunk – who Nick had, in effect, allowed on board – are anarchists determined to make their mark on history.

As the ship approaches Cherbourg there is an enormous explosion which blows a small hole in the port side. There are a number of casualties, mostly passengers killed by the debris or by drowning after falling over the side of the ship. Nick is among them.

The ship does not sink, after all, isn’t the Titanic unsinkable? But she will have to be patched up, and then sailed back to Britain for repairs. The Titanic’s maiden voyage across the Atlantic will not take place until the summer of 1912.

Back In The 21st Century

Deirdre and Alan, from Nick’s office, decide to go for an after-work drink. It has been a tough time, what with Nick’s disappearance a few days’ earlier and their manager Elaine being particularly difficult.

“Where shall we go?” asks Alan. Deirdre wishes he would make a decision on his own, but he is only being polite. “I know!” she says, “let’s go to the Titanic Bar in Broad Street. That’s always got a good buzz.”

The walk takes about 20 minutes but it is a pleasantly warm evening and they chat about their colleague Nick on the way.

“Do you think there is anywhere we could look for him?” asks Alan. “I can’t understand why the police aren’t interested. Perhaps I should check his flat again?”

“No,” says Deirdre. “You’ve been every morning and evening this week. The police say there is no sign of any break-in or attack. Perhaps he doesn’t want to be found. Lots of people deliberately go missing you know.”

“I can’t understand it,” Alan replies. “It doesn’t make sense. And I get the feeling there is something missing. I mean, I know Nick is missing. But something isn’t right with the world.”

They turn the corner into Broad Street expecting to hear the noise from the Titanic Bar but it is unusually quiet. Then, as they get closer, they are unable to see the bar’s colourful neon lights. For a moment they are disorientated, as if they have turned into the wrong street. But, no, there is the little supermarket, the chemist, the bookies – and where the Titanic Bar should be is an empty building site.

Graham Brown

Published by Graham Brown

I am Graham Brown, author of this blog, an Englishman living in Orkney since St Magnus Day 2010. I’m married to musician, singer and songwriter Kathie Touin. I am a member of Harray & Sandwick Community Council and a Manager (committee member) of Quoyloo Old School (community centre). I volunteer with the RSPB. I was on the committee which restored Orkney’s Kitchener Memorial and created the HMS Hampshire wall. I belong to the Radio Caroline Support Group, Orkney Field Club and Orkney Heritage Society. I spent nearly 24 years at the BBC in London. Remember: One planet, don’t trash it.

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