Gavin Reilly stood on the boat deck of the Titanic, his eyes closed tightly. He gripped the handrail and counted to ten. Then he opened his eyes again. He had to get over this. He had to get used to looking out over the open water. After a few dizzying seconds, he turned landward, gulping huge breaths of the cool air. He stared at the coastline and the green hills above Queenstown, Ireland. This was ridiculous. He had been swimming since he was a baby. He had never been afraid of water in his life.
“Are you all right?”
Gavin looked up to see a girl with light brown hair, and a scattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose. She looked concerned. Her accent, broadly American, sounded brash and rude.
“Are you sick?”
Gavin shook his head. There was no way to explain what was wrong with him. He didn’t really understand it himself. “I’m fine,” he said, staring back at the shoreline.
The town’s docks were all too small for the Titanic, so the enormous liner had been anchored two miles offshore. Passengers, goods, and mailbags were being brought out to her. Gavin watched the tenders and bumboats scuttling back and forth. The Ireland was not a small boat, but it looked like a toy beside the Titanic. The America stood off a little distance, waiting its turn to unload.
Gavin watched a bumboat come alongside. Most of them were loaded with Irish goods. The first-class nabobs and their finely dressed wives would have their chance to buy Irish linen and lace, even if they couldn’t go ashore.
Gavin glanced sideways. The girl was still standing nearby, but she was looking out to sea now, her hair blowing in the wind. Gavin wanted more than anything to turn and face the open water, but he knew he couldn’t. He moved a little ways away from the girl, hoping she wouldn’t follow.
Gavin leaned against the metal railing. The familiar green curve of the south Irish coast was less than two miles away over the water. He stared at Queenstown with its narrow streets and closely packed buildings. He sighed.
The hills behind the town were so green, they reminded him of his home outside Belfast. He could imagine his brothers and sisters tending the potato patch in the high pasture. Sean’s voice would be ringing out over little Katie’s giggles. Gavin could almost see her, freckled and pink-faced. Liam would be arguing with Mary. The little ones would be with Mother at home, lined up on her cot for noontime nap. Gavin felt the now-familiar physical ache that always accompanied thoughts of his family. He might never see them again.
“Are you ill?” the girl asked.
Gavin glanced at her and shook his head, then pointedly turned his back. He forced himself to look out to sea. The cold gray water stretched all the way to the horizon. He wasn’t sure why it bothered him so much. Everyone agreed the Titanic was unsinkable. That very morning they had run a full dress rehearsal emergency; alarms sounding, they had closed all the watertight doors.
Gavin had been so determined to get a position on the Titanic that he had traveled to Southampton, lied about his age, and stood in line with several hundred others to be interviewed. Conor’s letters from New York had set him dreaming of a different life. Like all older brothers, Conor wanted him to have opportunities, too. Their mother had lit a candle for Conor the day he had sailed for America. Now she would light two every Sunday. The idea of the candles made Gavin feel a sharp stab of homesickness.
“I didn’t mean to intrude,” the girl said apologetically. He glanced at her, about to apologize for his own rudeness, but she had already turned away.
He watched her walk past the gigantic funnel that jutted up at an angle from the deck. The other three were real and spouted black smoke when the Titanic was underway. This one was fake, nothing more than a huge air vent. Still, like the others, it was anchored with thick steel cables. Gavin saw the girl start down the steep stairs toward the third-class promenade.
“Hey, Gavin! You’d better get back down to the galley.” Lionel’s voice startled him. The tall, blond-haired boy dropped onto one of the wooden benches along the handrail. “Mr. Hughes will see you slacking, and they’ll be booting you off. That would shame your roommates, you know.”
Gavin grinned. “I would hate to do that.”
“Well, Harry and I would be shamed at any rate. I’m not sure Wallace has it in him.”
They both laughed. “I’ve only been up here a few minutes,” Gavin said. “I needed fresh air.”
Lionel shrugged. “Are you seasick? At anchor? It’s going to be like sailing a whole city across the Atlantic, Gavin. She barely rolls at all.”
Gavin shot one more glance at the open water and felt his stomach tighten. “I’d better get started washing the new potatoes. First class is going to have them boiled parmentier.”
“Work hard and you can end up a first-class steward like me.” Lionel stood up straight, clowning, squaring his shoulders in exaggerated pride. “I have to go down to the dining room to deliver a message.”
“I’ll go down with you,” Gavin said, getting to his feet.
Together they headed toward the second-class entrance. Gavin reached out to open the door. Side by side they started down the long stairway. Their steps were timed to a rhythmic patter that kept them moving downward at almost a running pace. Lionel had taught Gavin how to run the stairs like this and he shot him a grin of approval. “You’re getting good.”
Gavin grinned back, feeling better.
As they descended past the windows of the Palm Court, he saw the first-class passengers seated in the elaborately decorated garden room. There were a few men onboard who were so wealthy, their clothing had probably cost more than it took to feed Gavin’s family for a whole year. He had seen one woman wearing a necklace of diamonds so big, they shot glitters across the room.
On the B-deck landing, Gavin could smell the heavy scent of tobacco coming from the second-class smoking room. Lionel lifted one hand to cover his nose and mouth. Gavin nodded. First-class was the worst—expensive cigars had a pungent odor that clung to the very walls.
As they went deeper into the ship, Gavin felt his nervousness subside a little. Down here, the Titanic was much like a grand hotel. It was easier to forget the deep gray water that would soon separate him from his family and from the farm where he had lived his whole life.
“What time are you off Saturday night?” Lionel asked.
Gavin grabbed the handrail as they rounded the landing on C-deck. “After cleanup. Around ten.”
“Come up to the first-class dining room—it’s empty by then, and a few of us are going to have a card game.”
Gavin glanced at the side of Lionel’s face, then looked back at the stairs. “I’ve been coming up here.” He pointed at the second-class library as they started downward again.
“You’re going to read? When you could be playing poker?”
Gavin smiled and nodded. “I have to get to New York with all my pay. I can’t expect my brother to support me.”
Lionel slowed as they reached D-deck. “Come up if you change your mind. You can just sit with us; you don’t have to play.”
“I will, thanks.”
Gavin watched as Lionel went into the first-class dining saloon. Through the open door Gavin saw that the room was still pretty full. The stewards were just beginning to clear away dirty dishes. Lionel’s rakish grin disappeared, and his face became a mask of politeness as he turned and bent to whisper discreetly to a woman in a green silk gown.
Gavin shook his head as he pulled the door closed and turned to cross the landing. Going into the first-class pantry, he walked fast, rounding the corner by the neatly stacked crates of Waken & McLaughlin wine. The roast cook and one of the confectioners came through the galley door ahead of him. He stopped and turned sideways to let them pass. Neither man acknowledged his presence.
Gavin watched them walk away. He wasn’t like Lionel. It was hard for him to smile at people who were rude to him, whether they were crew or passengers. He hurried into the galley, wishing he had been hired on as a dining room steward. They had it easier. A half hour after the last passenger left the dining saloons, the stewards would be changing the white tablecloths and setting the tables for the next meal. Then they would have a break.
Gavin turned to see Harry making his way across the crowded galley. His sharp-featured face was smudged with flour. He was already developing the short-strided, agile walk necessary to avoid collisions in the crowded, busy room.
Cooking never ceased here, except for a few hours in the middle of the night. The bakers began at three in the morning. The cooks started preparing breakfast early, then began lunch before the breakfast dishes were cleared. Dinner preparation sometimes started a day in advance, all the meals overlapping—only the chefs understood the schedule.
“Where have you been off to?” Harry asked, dodging a pantryman carrying an enormous, bloody roast. “You missed a chance to watch the pastry chef make éclairs.”
Gavin shrugged. Harry wanted to be a chef someday and he rarely left the galley. “I went up for air,” Gavin told him. “I just like to see the sky once in a while.”
Harry nodded vaguely, turning when the sauce chef bellowed out an order. Then his eyes focused on Gavin again. “What do you have to do now?”
Gavin made a face. “Wash a hundred and twenty pounds of new potatoes.” Harry laughed, and Gavin pretended to take a swing at him. “It isn’t funny. I hate the new potatoes worst of all. I can’t even use the wire brushes because the skins tear so easily.”
Harry grinned over his shoulder as he walked away. “Better you than me.”
Gavin went to his basin. The pantrymen had already brought in the bags. He stared at the lettering. Whoever Charles Papas was, he sure raised a lot of potatoes.
“When do we raise anchor?” someone yelled behind him.
“Soon,” the answer came. “Less than half an hour.”
Gavin’s throat tightened. There was no turning back now.