An extract from Ellie Stevenson’s novel Ship of Haunts
Lily’s Story – 1948 (Chapter 18)
Titanic was then, in 1912, but we were about to travel again. To a different place, in a different ship, in a different time. None of it choice. I blamed Mad.
Mad and a woman called Eula Weinhart. She was the one who started it all. I was in the scullery.
Weinhart walked in, she could hardly wait to get off the street, and into the house. Not that I blamed her, the drains stank. It was the third time she’d called in as many weeks. I was watching them through a gap in the door. Mad looked grim.
I was meant to be looking after Bart, the boy, but that was too bad, for once he’d have to fend for himself. Bart was younger, and Maddy’s son by her latest conquest. A different father to Lucie’s, of course. I was the niece, down from the north.
Weinhart sat on the only chair. Mad was expecting, but never mind that. Not that I knew it, not officially. Lucie had said, but she hadn’t meant to. She thought I’d laugh, instead, I cursed, I’d met the father. As it happened, he’d gone.
Leaving us rather short of money.
Weinhart smiled, it looked like an effort. ‘Have you thought anymore about what I’ve said?’
‘About what, exactly?’ Maddy looked blank. She wasn’t going to make it easy for the woman.
‘About sending the girls and the boy to Australia. It’s an outdoor life, and the weather’s great. They’ll all get trained, learn proper skills that lead to jobs. No more fear of being out of work. They’re lucky to get this chance, Mrs Rawlins.’
Maddy coughed and doubled over. She was no more a wife than I was a queen.
‘I’m sure you’re aware of all the benefits,’ Weinhart said pointedly, casting her eyes at Maddy’s stomach. I blinked in surprise.
How the hell did she know about that?
I could see Mad thinking, the cogs in her brain going round and round. About how her life could be so much better, just her and the baby. About how she’d have time, and a lot more freedom. Don’t do it, I thought, but my thoughts were wasted.
‘It can’t be easy,’ said Weinhart slowly. ‘A woman on her own, with three children. Apart from whatever… might happen in the future.’
The cow, I thought. The evil cow.
‘Lucie’s got a job,’ said Maddy quickly. ‘She works in the shop, she’s there right now.’
‘Oh, no I’m not,’ said a voice behind me and there was Lucie, holding some flowers. Today was Mad’s birthday, but I’d forgotten, with all the excitement. The flowers looked limp, as if she’d picked them. I turned back to listen.
‘That’s all to the good,’ said Weinhart firmly, ‘but it can’t be enough. And it’s hardly fair on the girl, now is it? We like our children to be young at The Halt, it helps them fit in, but that’s not a problem, not for your girls. Lucie and Lily deserve a chance, and so do you.
She’s good, I thought, she’s very good. I hated her for it.
Weinhart continued. ‘The boys particularly, love it out there. They’re out in the open air all day. Some of the boys get jobs on farms, and maybe, in time, even their own. If they work hard.’
She smiled at Mad and my heart sank. I knew her words were taking root. I glared at the bitch from behind the door. She was wearing a scarf on top of her coat. I imagined pulling the scarf tight, watching her face shift from pink to purple. I imagined watching her eyes bulge. I glanced at Lucie.
‘Those flowers aren’t from the shop,’ I said.
‘Shh!’ said Luce. ‘Maddy will hear you.’
Mad wasn’t listening. She was too busy hanging on Weinhart’s words.
‘I know you want what’s best, Mrs Rawlins. Best for the children, and best for you.’ Again she glanced at Maddy’s stomach. Maddy swayed and grabbed for the door.
‘Let her sit down you evil witch!’ hissed Lucie sharply.
Weinhart did. She leapt to her feet and pushed the chair across to Mad.
‘Here, Mrs Rawlins, have this chair.’
‘While you have the kids?’ said Mad faintly. But she still took the seat.
Weinhart was making a move to go. ‘Don’t think too long, Mrs Rawlins,’ she warned. ‘There’s a ship leaving for Australia soon. The children could be on it, making a start on a brand new life. And so could you. Just think, Mrs Rawlins. But not for too long.’
She walked to the door and stumbled out, weaving her way between toys and weeds as she crossed the yard. She nearly tripped.
‘Good riddance!’ said Lucie, clutching the flowers. They looked pathetic.
‘I think it’s time you gave those to Mad.’ Lucie ignored me.
‘She’s going to say yes. Can you believe it?’
I could, unfortunately. Weinhart had left, but I knew she’d be back. I followed Lucie into the lane. ‘Never say die,’ I said, valiantly.
She turned round to face me. ‘Why would I want to go to Australia? Southampton’s my home. It’s all I know.’
‘We could run away,’ I said then. ‘Just you and me, before she comes back.’
‘We can’t do that, I can’t leave Bart. And what would we live on if we did? Besides, I don’t even like you.’
‘Fine,’ I said. ‘It was just a thought.’
‘Well, don’t bother,’ said Lucie, sourly. ‘How do we stop her?’ She was talking about Weinhart.
‘We can’t,’ I said. ‘The only thing we can do is leave, now, before she comes back.’
‘I can’t,’ said Lucie. ‘I can’t just go.’
But she would of course, even if only to go on the ship. I reached across to take the flowers. ‘I’ll give those to Mad.’
‘Oh no you won’t,’ said Lucie then, swinging the flowers out of my reach. ‘I’m not that sure she deserves any flowers.’ Then she dropped the bundle into the gutter and walked away, getting smaller and smaller, until she’d gone. I stared at the flowers, scattered on the cobbles, they looked, I thought, like a bouquet for the dead.
Which, as it happened, is what they were.