The Time Travel Journals: Shipbuilder, Chapter 39

Part of the Titanic Memorial in Belfast, listing those who died on Titanic.
Part of the Titanic Memorial in Belfast, listing those who died on Titanic.

Chapter 39

November 1911–April 1912

Tom had just arrived home and was in the library with Casey and Sam, when Mrs. Pennyworth appeared in the doorway, her arm resting lightly on the shoulder of young lad of about ten, who stood twisting his cap nervously in his hands. His gaze took in the three adults before he ducked his head and stared firmly at the floor.

“This is Johnny Peake,” Mrs. Pennyworth said, her face tight. “He just showed up at the back door, sayin’ he needs to speak with ye, sir.” Her eyes flicked briefly to Casey. “He told me what it’s about and I know ye’d like to hear him.”

“Certainly.” Tom took a step toward them, but stopped when the boy flinched. Thinking quickly, he slipped into the common Ulster dialect. “D’ye need to talk to just me, or to all of us, lad?”

Johnny looked the question to Mrs. Pennyworth, whom he had evidently decided was his ally. The corner of her mouth turned up for a moment as she returned his look. “All of ye, I think, sir. T’would be best.”

Tom nodded and held out an arm. Mrs. Pennyworth gave the boy a gentle shove into the room, before turning to leave.

“Perhaps some hot cocoa, Mrs. Pennyworth?” Tom asked. She nodded as she walked away. Tom eyed the nervous boy. “Sit ye down, Johnny.” He held a hand out to Casey. “This is Mrs. Andrews, and this gentleman is Mr. Altair, my wife’s guardian.”

Johnny perched on the edge of a chair, his wide eyes going from one to the other, hands continuing to twist his cap. He was pale, freckles visible on his face. His foot shook, as if he were prepared to dash from the room at any moment. Casey sat across from him, and Tom let her speak first, hoping the boy would be less afraid of her. “You’re out late, Johnny. Do your parents know you’re here?”

Johnny shook his head, back to gazing at the floor again. “Nay, ma’am. I told ’em I was down the street at my mate’s. They don’t know anythin’ about it, I swear.”

“About what?” Tom asked.

Johnny was trying valiantly not to cry, but tears sparkled in his eyes as he looked up. “About that letter. After the riot. They don’t know my little brother was ‘ta one who wrote it.”

Tom froze, seeing Casey slowly lift a hand to cover her mouth, as if to hold back a scream. He placed a hand on her arm, not taking his eyes off the boy. Sam stood next to him, silent.

The boy continued. “Was Sloan made him do it. He didn’t know what it was, sir. He were only seven last year. Can’t spell right or nothin’. He said Sloan spelled the words for him to write.” He looked over at Casey, at the tears rolling down her cheeks, and his lips tightened. “It was in the paper. Our Da’ brought the paper home and read it out loud to Mum. Said whoever wrote that letter should be skinned alive.”

Johnny’s whole body was shaking now, but he seemed determined to finish. “My brother never said anythin’ to anyone. But he’s been sick all year, his stomach hurtin’ all the time and he stays in bed a lot. An’ he keeps havin’ bad dreams. Wakes me up all the time with his yellin’.”

Johnny stretched the twisted cap, playing it like an accordion. “He finally told me about it last night. He’s afraid Da’ will skin him if he finds out.” He looked up, his face earnest. “Da’ wouldn’t. I told him that. Da’ meant the man who made the boy write the letter should be skinned, but my brother didn’t know that. He’s been scared all year. He said Sloan made him promise to never say he wrote it and he was real afraid to tell me. Sloan’s mean, sometimes. I don’t know what to do.”

“Ah, lad.” Anger, regret, and triumph warred within Tom as he stood and pulled the boy into a hug, holding him tightly. “’Tis a miserable world where our children are used as pawns in adult games.” He stared at Casey over the boy’s head, seeing all her emotions play across her face–compassion for the children, fury at Sloan, fear. He was filled with uncertainty. What was their next step?

“We can’t pit a child against Sloan, in court,” he said. Casey nodded.

“Aye,” Sam said. “With no other proof, it would be the lad’s word against Sloan’s. Not good enough, I’m afraid.”

“My brother’s no liar!” Johnny was indignant.

“Of course not, lad,” Tom said, letting him return to his chair. “But Sloan could say an adult had put him up to it. It wouldn’t be fair to your brother.” He studied Johnny for a moment. “Did your brother say if anyone else was there when he wrote the letter?”

Johnny nodded. “Aye, the usual men who help Sloan. Teddy Clotworthy, John Cone, Billy Irwin. He said they were waitin’ by the door.”

Casey rubbed her eyes. “I know what it’s like to deal with them.”

Tom sighed. “Yes. The same men who were helping Sloan when he confronted you at the shipyard.” He shook his head. “But we already knew they would’ve been involved. They’ll never betray Sloan.”

Mrs. Pennyworth came in with the cocoa and they were all absurdly glad to see it. Johnny drank it as if it were liquid gold. Tom made a decision. “We need to help you, Johnny. This could put your whole family in danger. You may need to leave town. Do you have relatives outside of Belfast?”

He nodded. “Some have gone to America. My Mum’s brother lives in Cobh. But my Da’ has a job here. He works at the rope factory. He won’t want to move away.”

“I’ll talk to your father, Johnny. He needs to know about this and decide how to protect all of you. I’ll help in any way I can.”

Johnny looked frightened. “If Sloan sees you talkin’ to Da’…”

But Tom was shaking his head. “Nay, lad he won’t. The owner of the rope factory is a good friend, and he’ll arrange a safe place for us to talk. I’ll do it tomorrow. In the mean time, ye should head on home. You’ll have to let the grown-ups handle this. It won’t be easy, I’ll tell you. But you and your family will be safe. I’ll make sure of that, myself.”

Johnny nodded and stood. “What should I do?”

“Nothing.” Tom slipped an arm around the boy’s shoulders and led him toward the door. “It’s best if you don’t say anything. By tomorrow, this will be taken care of. But you don’t want to scare your brother any more than he already is. Let me handle it.”

Johnny nodded, with one longing look toward his empty cocoa cup before leaving.

***

The next day, Tom and Ham made their way to the rope factory and called Johnny’s father into the chairman’s office. “Ach, my poor lad.” Billy Peake rubbed his face, then curled his fingers in front of him. “If I could just get my hands around that Sloan’s neck…”

He looked at Tom, his eyes haunted. “My poor lad’s been so sick. My wife was afraid he was dyin’, it was so bad sometimes. All because of Sloan usin’ him like a grease rag!”

Tom’s cheek quivered in empathy. He knew how Peake felt. “We want to catch Sloan, Mr. Peake. We want him prosecuted and we want it made clear to these fanatics that we won’t tolerate them threatening our wives and children. But we need good, solid proof to do that, and I won’t put your son in danger, without it. You’ll have to decide: are you safe here? There’s a danger Sloan will find out your son told the tale. Or he’ll continue to use him for other things. He may even use the letter as blackmail, telling your son he’d be in trouble if anyone found out about it.”

Billy Peake was a big man but right now, he looked beaten. “I’ve got a good job here, sir. If I go somewhere else, how will I support my family?”

“I’ll see you have employment, wherever you decide to go,” Tom said. “I’ll see you’re moved safely and I’ll cover the cost of it. It’s my family that was the target, sir. I would not have your family suffer because of it.”

Peake nodded. “I appreciate it, sir. ‘T’wouldn’t be possible, otherwise.” He ducked his head. “I’ll have to talk to my wife.”

***

Two days later, Tom came home at three in the afternoon. He sat at the dining table with Casey and told her why he was home early, alternating between laughter and awe. “Those boys took matters into their own hands.”

“What boys? What do you mean?”

“Johnny Peake and his brother, little Willie.” Tom rolled his eyes. “If he’s anything like our Willie, he probably thought of the whole thing himself.”

“What did they do?” Casey was torn between concern, and amusement at Tom’s behavior.

“They got together with a troupe of older lads in the neighborhood. They all hid themselves in various spots and little Willie stopped Sloan on the street at the exact spot where they’d have a good ear. Told Sloan he was looking to earn some extra money so he could buy a bike. Since he helped Sloan with that letter last year, he was wondering if Sloan might have other uses for him.”

Casey stared at Tom in horror, her mouth hanging open, but she didn’t interrupt. His lips kept twitching.

“Seems they had an amiable conversation on the street. Sloan didn’t mind talking because he didn’t see anyone around. He told Willie he’d done a fine job with the letter but he hoped he remembered to never mention it to anyone. That if he had other work for Willie to do, Willie would have to keep it secret.”

“Willie was very assuring, saying he’d kept it a secret for nearly a year and could keep anything else a secret, too.” Tom paused. “He actually told the truth with that statement. He did keep it secret for nearly a year, but he made it sound like it was still a secret. Clever…”

“Thomas Andrews!” Casey’s voice carried a hint of threat, and he laughed again.

“I’m telling you! Willie even managed to mention my name and the fact the letter was written to me. So there’s no doubt at all. The boys went straight to the police. They arrested Sloan this afternoon. Came right into the Yard and took him and his cohorts to jail.”

Casey was breathing in deep gasps, unable to speak.

“Ah, lass.” Tom stood and pulled her into his arms, holding her until she calmed down. “It’s almost over, sweetheart. This is a big nail in their coffin. I don’t think the fanatics will recover from this.”

She gave him a gentle shove. “You’re proud of those boys, aren’t you? They could have been hurt, Tom!”

“Aye, it was dangerous. But they didn’t want to move away from Belfast. They’d have to leave their mates, you see.” He was looking at her earnestly, to see if she understood.

She shook her head, a small smile tugging her lips. “I can just picture you and your brothers planning something similar and trying to pull it off. Hell-raisers, I bet you were.”

He just smiled and kissed her.

***

The small details recorded about Titanic continued to happen exactly as if changes had never been made to the timeline. Sam dutifully recorded them in his journal, and fretted. Was anything they were doing going to make a difference? He would be happy even if something of no consequence happened in a different way. He would have thought that anything he or Casey did would cause a change, since neither of them had been born when Titanic sailed in the original timeline. But even Casey unwittingly contributed to one of legends on an innocent shopping trip in March.

Sam was setting up an experiment in his lab, bent over his wires, so he didn’t look up when the door opened. A smothered giggle and “hush!” made him smile, as he wrote a figure in his notebook before turning to greet his visitors. Flushed with the March wind, Casey and Penny stood in the doorway, Jamie anxiously jumping up and down to see what his surrogate grandfather was doing.

“This is a surprise.” He grinned down at Jamie. “Come to see what your future job will be, kiddo?”

“We brought you lunch!” Jamie informed him, rushing to clamber onto a stool so he could see better. “But I want to see! I won’t touch,” he added before any of the adults gave him the tiresome instruction.

“We were at the market and brought you some meat pies,” Casey offered, handing him a bag. “Feel free to share them out if you’ve made other plans.”

“No, this is great. Thanks! Have time to join me?”

They did, and everyone wandered into Sam’s office. Casey picked up Terry, leaving the pram in the hallway. Co-workers came by and admired the children, nearly all of them adding a comment or question about the upcoming Titanic departure. Casey answered in as few words as possible, trying to be polite. She cheered up when she remembered an encounter at the market and told Sam about it.

“I ran into Charles Joughin while we were shopping. He’s the chief baker on Titanic. He mentioned how much he enjoys sailing with Tom. He said he wanted to do something special for him, so he asked me what Tom’s favorite bread is. I gave him the recipe for the cornbread Tom loves so much, and he promised to fix it for him on the ship! It’s a surprise, so don’t mention it to him.”

Everyone promised to keep the secret and Casey seemed especially pleased. Sam was glad she found some enjoyment in the chance encounter, so he never told her that the surprise loaf of bread was one of the many anecdotes about Tom that was told to school children in Belfast, when they learned about the ship.

But how did it happen before, when Casey was not part of Tom’s life in the original timeline?

***

The wind woke Tom about four o’clock. First of April, 1912. Swallowing against the fear in the pit of his stomach, he turned and put his arms around Casey. She was awake already, listening to the wind they had known would be blowing. Her heart was racing. Tom kissed her head, massaging her shoulder and neck. She wrapped her arms and legs around him, kissing him thoroughly. Her hands made passages along his back, providing urging he didn’t need. He took his time, memorizing anew each inch of her. If he could, he would spend the next twenty-four hours making love to her.

He couldn’t, of course. Even with the extra day, there was enough work still to do, that he could work for the next twenty-four hours. He also had to show up as if he thought they’d be leaving today. He dressed, then with Casey by his side, he stopped by the nursery to kiss his children. Just in case.

***

Lord Pirrie was out recovering from surgery, so Tom and the directors met on the bridge with Captain Smith and the pilot. The wind tore through the channel, and even in the dock, the ship was in constant motion. With the narrowness of the channel, they didn’t dare try and take her out. Their decision was unanimous. The sea trials and subsequent departure would be put off until tomorrow. Tom gave up trying to shake the strangeness of it all. The next fifteen days of his life had been documented almost in detail in Sam and Casey’s time stream. Déjà vu was going to be his constant companion for a while, and he needed to get used to it. He felt like they were all following a script.

Joe Bell, who was chief engineer, had reported a coal fire in boiler room five. Sam had warned Tom about it, and he had tried to keep it from starting. But this was another thing that they weren’t able to change. The fire continued to smolder at the bottom of a pile of coal. It was not a problem at this point. The coal had to be removed, which they were doing, but any real progress would have to wait until Southampton and a full crew. Until then, it would have to smolder. Joe thought the bulkhead would be okay and it wouldn’t be necessary to report the fire to the Board of Trade inspectors. And it probably would be okay, under normal conditions. Tom had no doubt that in the other timeline, the weakened bulkhead had given out when flooded, and contributed to the ship’s rapid sinking.

Before heading for home, Tom made one more round of the boat deck, reveling in the number of lifeboats. Enough for everyone. Almost no room to walk though, and there had been a few complaints from first class passengers about the crowding on the Olympic, but Tom had managed to prevail. Ismay was unhappy, but by putting the extra boats on Olympic, they had placed the Board of Trade in an awkward position. People were beginning to ask why the rules were so out of date.

***

Despite the work, he went home a bit early. The children were napping and Tom coaxed Casey out of the garden and into the bedroom. He really did intend to make love to her as many times as possible before morning.

Afterwards, she held his hand and kissed each finger, then his palm. She started to speak, but hesitated. He lifted her head to look in her eyes. “It will be all right, Casey.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “You don’t know that, Tom. It’s your own choices that I’m afraid of.”

“What do you mean?”

“Sam and I have talked a lot about what happens on the ship that night. But no one knows… Sam says there’s always been speculation about why you didn’t get in a boat or at least, wear your life belt. Some people said it was because you loved the ship. You felt like the ship was your child, and I know you feel like that about them.” Her whisper was agonized. “But I need to know that you’ll really try to live this time.”

Anger surprised him. He sat up, face burning. “That’s bunk, Casey,” he said. “It’s bunk, do you understand? I’ve talked to Sam, too. I know that I had a family in that other time. Do you think for one minute, that one of my ships is more important to me than my children? Than my wife?” His voice shook and he reached for her shoulders, pulling her to sit beside him. “I can tell you why I didn’t get in a boat, because I would do the same thing now, if the situation were the same. All those women and children who did not have a seat, Casey. All those men… how many men put their wives and children in boats and stepped back to die, or stayed to die when they had families at home, waiting for them? What right, how could I, of all those people, have possibly taken a seat on a boat?” He buried his hands in her hair, holding her head tenderly, feeling the preciousness of her. “If there were not enough boats, now, I could not make myself get into one, Casey. You have to know that. But there are enough boats. And I swear to you, I will be in one if there is any way possible. I swear I will have on a belt. I will do everything in my power to live, sweetheart. I promise you that with all my heart.”

***

They gave Penny the night off and spent the evening with their children, eating with them, playing games and reading to them. Tom called his parents and had each child talk to them, especially their Granda, who was not feeling well. Sam hung around for a while, playing three-way catch with Tom and Jamie. After a while though, he pulled Tom aside to say good-bye.

“I wish I had some pearls of wisdom for you, lad,” he said, before heading upstairs. “But I guess I’ve told you everything I know, along with a hell of a lot of conjecture.” They both laughed a little, then Sam shook Tom’s hand and ended it with a hug. “We’ll see you in a couple of months, Tom.” Sam shook his head helplessly. “Good luck, son.”

Tucking the children into bed was one of his favorite tasks, and Tom tried to memorize each moment as he and Casey dressed them in nightclothes. He sat on Jamie’s bed, holding his son in his lap as he read a story, and Casey nursed Terry. He noticed how Terry played with a bit of her mother’s hair while she nursed, and how she fell asleep holding the strand in her little grip. He read the entire story, even though Jamie was sound asleep before he was done. It was almost as if he was looking at the scene from outside his body: the nursery seemed encompassed in a glow, like an out-of-focus picture. In his mind, he took the picture, then tucked it into a figurative pocket, to keep with him while he was gone.

He made love to Casey again, even though she wept the entire time, holding on to him desperately. How could he leave her? Was he a fool to walk away from this and force her to face his death?

***

In the end, leaving came down to putting one step in front of the other, no matter how difficult or heavy the step seemed. Staying behind came down to the same thing. Casey wandered through the day, as if she had lost something, but wasn’t sure what it was, or where she should look for it. Sam watched her with mounting concern, staying nearby rather than going to work. He felt guilty about not being on the ship with Tom, but Tom’s word had been final. Whether or not he had an answer for each of Sam’s objections, he flatly refused to allow Sam to come. So Sam stayed and did what Tom asked him to do: be there for Casey.

Toward evening, Casey seemed to waken and Sam heard her unspoken communication. Leaving Terry with Penny, they took Jamie, and climbed the hill behind the house, watching as Titanic came back down the Lagan after her trials. There would be a transfer of mail and workers, and the ship would leave straightaway for Southampton. Casey explained to Jamie that his Da did not have time to get off the ship at all; that was why he had woken Jamie early this morning to say good-bye. But they could watch the ship for a while and send him their love by waving as hard as they could. Jaime added a few shouts of “Bye Da! I love you!” just in case, he said, “the wind carried the sound, too.”

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