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Story listed as: Fiction For Adults | Theme: Drama | Subject: History / Historical | Published here : 11/13/2017
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Eleven Forty PM (Part One) 
 
By Will Neill
Born 1957, M, from Belfast, United Kingdom
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Eleven Forty PM (Part One)
Eleven Forty PM


Part One

Fifty two residents live in Cedar Wood Pines, twenty one males and twenty one females. The average age is eighty six. There are ten staff members, made up of two doctors on rotation, six nurses on a similar turn around and two janitors. James Ellison, who works days, and me, Jeb Williams, I prefer nights.

The facility is a single level white wood frame building made up of a small infirmary, solitary and double rooms, staff quarters, a dining space, a self contained kitchen, small office and a mortuary. All tucked away in a secluded patch of land half a mile off the main I95 highway between New Haven and Hartford Connecticut. The locals call it ‘Reapers Rest’ and I’ve worked there for nearly fifteen years.

The owner, who I rarely see, is Walker Scott, a self made millionaire in the elderly care business, and as far as I know he has five other sanatoriums similar to this one all over America with most named after trees. There’s Ash Wood in California, Pine Wood in Minnesota, Birch Wood in Colorado, and so on. Scott was a quarter back for the Chicago Bears back in 82, until a bad tackle busted his leg and ended his career. With the money he made playing pro football, and lucrative investments in rental property in downtown New York, he opened his first care facility near West Palm Beach Florida. Two more followed fairly quickly, then in 97 I got the job on the graveyard shift here in Cedar Wood.

It was a real lucky break for me as I remember; the year before I’d finished working for the United States Correctional and Rehabilitation System. I’d had enough of being a prison officer and couldn’t deal anymore with the constant stress of day to day life in penal reform. If I’m really being honest I suffered a nervous breakdown which cost me my marriage and nearly my sanity. I was living on the edge wondering would each day be my last if I pissed off the wrong inmate. Pressure like that can take its toll and it did. So I took to drinking to try and make it easier to tolerate my depression, but of course it only made things worse and once Lucy, my now ex-wife, left there was no point in staying in Montana. I upped stakes and took to the road, and it was while I was heading west bumming from job to job I came upon Cedar Wood after getting a flat tire late one wet April night. I saw the lights of the building from the road and figured maybe I could ask to use the phone, perhaps call a tow truck or triple A to get me to the nearest town. I’d only started walking along the tree lined drive for a few minutes when a car came along. It was moving slowly, making almost no sound other than the crack of dead wood being crushed under its wheels and the subdued hum of an engine in low gear.

I remember turning to face the vehicle, shielding my eyes with the palm of my hand against the glare of its headlights that lit up the vegetation on either side of the road. If I was trespassing then I was surely caught and I was ready to throw up my hands as I waited for the cry of a police officer ordering me to stop. Had someone seen me walking towards the house and called 911? Possibly.

I was surprised however when the driver leaned out of the window as he drew alongside and asked if I was ok and was I in need of a ride. It seemed impolite to refuse, considering he was going the same way, so I thanked him and went round and got into the car. Behind the wheel I was soon to find out was thee Walker Scott. After introducing himself with a firm handshake and a broad smile he asked why I was walking in the dead of night along a path few seldom used. It was easy to see how he was built for pro football by his ostentatious physic, film star looks and a low gravelly tone of voice, the kind you might hear promoting the sale of razor blades or men’s cologne on TV commercials.

When I explained about the flat tire he said he would be more than happy to call the tow company from the office when we arrived at the Pines. For the short distance we travelled he was polite and inquisitive, genuinely interested about where I expected to spend the night. Not the usual dead end small talk I had grown familiar with as I passed through towns and cities alike, most folks rarely listened, I found. So when I explained my hotel for the evening was probably my car he was hearing none of it, insisting I bunk down in the family room. I thanked him for his generosity and the following morning he offered me a job, and the rest is history as they say.

So here I am telling you this story. However it isn’t about me, no sir. It’s concerning a gentleman I had the pleasure of knowing, if not briefly right here.

About a week after I arrived I got a phone call from Jimmy Ellison whom I mentioned earlier. I met him the morning after arriving when we shared a coffee with Walker prior to him heading back to town. While we sat around a small table in the dining area he enthused to Jimmy how we had came across each other the night before and how it must be fate when he was actively looking for a night Janitor and there was I just walking along and in between destinations and jobs. And wasn’t it lucky the tow company couldn’t make it for a couple of days. The long and short of it was Jimmy and I hit it off right away and over the years have become firm friends. So much so he asked me to be godfather to Jimmy Jr his youngest boy. Like me, Jimmy is African American and while there is ten years difference among us we are very much like brothers. Ships that pass in the night. However, most of the time, when he signs off at six, it's then I start my shift, but we like to share a cigarette on the back porch if we can before he leaves, chatting about his day or his family. It’s a time I treasure, not having one myself you understand. Like I said we got to talking and I mentioned I would need to look for accommodation locally, namely because I felt uncomfortable staying in Cedar Wood’s only free room they used for next of kin should any of the residents pass away. Jimmy very kindly spoke to his sister; hence the phone call, and she had offered to put me up until I found something more permanent, which I did a few weeks later.

As the months went by I began to settle into a routine. Once Jimmy had handed over the keys each night I did my rounds, a short walk about making sure all non fire escape doors were locked and secure. I check the backup generator and then begin to clean and mop the corridors while the nurses dispensed the resident’s medication. About nine thirty those unable to walk from the atrium are ferried by wheelchair to their rooms for bed, which usually took about forty minutes. Ten fifteen I switch off most of the unnecessary lights, leaving only the TV room to tend to when the last of the more energetic patients finish watching Judge Judy or Murder She Wrote reruns. It became second nature for me and as time went by, the staff grew to be like my family and those who lived in Cedar Wood I got to know became like my children. Some I regret to say for shorter times than I would have liked. One such person was a man named Tom Malone.

It was the autumn of 1998 when he arrived, close to Halloween if I recall rightly. Other than finding out Tom had lived alone much of his life from one of the other nurses we rarely spoke. He liked to keep himself to himself and preferred to sit quietly in the sun room for most of the day before going off to bed as soon as it got dark. Some nights he listened to music, mostly gospel songs or solo violin concertos, on his tiny stereo record player he had brought with him, always the same artists. Many a time I could hear the lamenting sounds of ‘Nearer my god to thee’ floating on the silence once all the others had gone to sleep, a haunting melody within the unoccupied corridors.

One night around the beginning of April the following year, about 11pm or so, I could hear Tom’s familiar melancholic melody, only this time, underlying through the morose violin composition Tom had chosen, I was certain I could hear his gentle sobbing. There are times some of the residents would cry out while they slept, much like a baby would do in their perturbed sleep, so I put my ear to Tom’s door. Concerned about his well being I gently tapped it and in a low voice asked was he ok. I inquired for a second time much louder than the first when he didn’t answer. It is within my power to enter the room in case the occupant is hurt or has fallen, protocol would then dictate I should call 911 and the Doctor who would be on call. Yet something this time stopped me short of following procedure.

I stepped into Tom’s bedroom fearing the worst and could see he was sitting un-moving in his chair facing the window; seemingly staring at the full moon high in the cloudless sky. Its blue white aura veined the purple space like silver cobwebs and lit up his face in an eerie neon light. His hands were in his lap and his eyes were closed, his wispy white hair was tossed and a single glistening tear drop sat on the curve of his right cheek. Fearing the worst I shook my head and went to turn off the music feeling sad I hadn’t really got to know him, yet happy in the thought at least he’d passed away enjoying his last moments with his gospel hymns. You can imagine my surprise when he spoke asking me to let the record play on.

‘It was on a night just like this Jeb’ he said.
‘You know my name then?’ I replied ‘For a moment I thought you were-‘
He wiped his eyes with his handkerchief, ‘Dead? No! And I may be old but I’m not senile, not yet anyway. I sit and watch what goes on around me and I can see you are good man Jeb Williams. But don’t be concerned, it is just the ghosts of the past who haunt me, mostly around this time of year, I’ll be fine’
‘What is so special about spring which seems to trouble you Tom?' I asked, ‘Is it someone’s death you grieve for, somebody close who passed away, someone you loved?’
He laughed briefly, yet his amusement seemed contrived and wearisome. ‘I guess you could say that Jeb’
‘Would you like to talk about it?’
‘I have tried many times to rid myself of the guilt I have carried for so long, but on each occasion I could never find the courage’

I went round and sat on his bed then reached out and placed my hand on his shoulder.
‘I have nothing else to do tonight Tom, everyone is sleeping, everything is quiet, tell me what troubles you’ I said patting him softly, reassuringly.
Tom glanced at me briefly then went back to looking at the moon. Moments passed.
‘I was born in Ireland in 1900’ he then began. ‘my Mother Kate was a doffer in the linen mill close to where we lived. A doffer is someone who removes ("doffs") bobbins, pirns or spindles holding spun fiber such as cotton or wool from a spinning frame and replaces them with empty ones. My father was a carpenter. Belfast, my home city, was enjoying the biggest boom in its history. The chimneys of its Linen mills and the cranes that stretched above its shipyards framed the commercial success of the city. This accomplishment ensured Belfast was a place unlike any other in Ireland. Wealth in Dublin and in other Irish cities was rooted in trade, in land or in lineage. Wealth in Belfast was the product of industry. Alas the prosperity of Belfast was not however equally distributed among its citizens. There was vast difference in the lives of those who lived in the luxurious homes in the south of the city to those in the poorer class areas. My life began and remained for some time in the Mill houses built for the hundreds of workers who were employed by the elite few. They were unsanitary, cramped dwellings away from the prosperous streets and squares.

Six months before my eleventh birthday my Mother was killed while she was loading and tying the spindles early one morning on a weaving machine. She lost her footing from a small ladder and fell into the moving machinery. No one heard her call out above the noise, only when the linen turned blood red did one of the other female workers scream, which alerted the foreman to shut it down. When they finally got her untangled, her body had been crushed by the teeth of the heavy gears; I never got to see her face again. On the morning it happened I was studying as a student in the Catholic boy’s primary school of Saint Mary’s near Carrick Hill a small cluster of white washed thatched buildings about a mile from my home. I was doing well as I recall with my three ‘R’s.

The small structures were built in co-operation with the church diocese and the directors of the factory. Few children of my age and poor background received any computable education in those days so I felt lucky I was getting a chance to learn and better myself. The construction of the school however was limited to one fair sized teaching room with a large ornate marble fire place at its center, each side a teacher presided over thirty boys in three rows of ten using a blackboard and chalk. We used a similar more miniature version of the same which we called a slate to calculate our times tables or write our nouns and adjectives depending on the lesson. It was while I was engrossed in one particular tricky math’s computation my attention was distracted by the sight of my father standing in the doorway hat in hand. Accompanying him was the head master who summoned me to come outside. Nervously I did as I was told, yet unsure as to why Father was taking me from class. And as we walked home it was then my distraught father broke the news of my Mothers death. I was numb with shock and remember little after that regarding the rest of our journey other than how hard he cried.

The company paid for her burial, it was as much as they would do in some form of compensation yet never admitting they were at fault by means of badly constructed equipment. Her death was ruled an unfortunate accident and two months after she was put in the ground my father was served an eviction notice. He wasn’t employed by the Mill so we were no longer entitled to remain in a home belonging to the business. It didn’t take long for them to fill her shoes and our home it would seem.

At the time of Mothers misfortune father was contracted by Harland and Wolfe to work on two vessels they were building for the white star line. The Olympic and the Titanic, the latter as you know is one of the most famous steam ships ever. The director Bruce Ismay’s dream was to build the most luxurious liners of the time, fitted with the latest technology of the 1900’s. He achieved that reality, yet on an evening just like this his vision became a nightmare. Everyone knows the story of the sinking, or they think they do. It is true she struck an iceberg and went down, but the real account has never been told. Not until now.’

‘What do you mean Tom’ I asked him, ‘I’m not sure I understand?’

‘When Mother died, and after we were evicted, there was no place for us to go, our home was gone and we had no other family, we were alone. For a few weeks we lived on the generosity of my fathers friends, sleeping on their floors or damp outhouses. Barely existing from one day to the next, but those families had troubles of their own with the cramped living spaces. So we tried not to outstay our welcome. Continuing with school was also becoming increasingly difficult with having no real fixed abode; soon the teachers began to ask questions why I was showing little interest during lessons. All through this father kept working on the liners so that we could eat. One of those friends was a man named John Hutchinson. A gangly young man with bullfrog eyes who was staying in a lodging house paid for by the line close to the shipyard for the duration of the building. At twenty six he was ten years younger than my Father and I think he looked up to him more as a mentor than a mate the way he hung onto every word when Father would teach him little tricks of the carpentry trade.

It was John who suggested we should secretly stay with him until the launch of Titanic, which was to be on May 31st 1911. Then the idea was while the ship would spend the next year in harbor going through her fit out Father and I could secret ourselves within its bowels at night and while he worked during the day I would keep out of sight. There were plenty of third class cabins and crew quarters for us to get lost in, and the plan worked. We were warm, dry and content as much as we could be. Soon however I became bored with hiding, more and more I was fascinated with the splendor I was witnessing being created by day and each night as I roamed the decks I began to see the majestic ship take form. I walked down the grand staircase in awe of its stateliness, running my hand along its polished wooden banister, decorated with oak paneling and gilded balustrades, wide sweeping steps and landings majestically through six decks crowned by a magnificent glass dome pretending to be gentry.

On the uppermost landing was a large panel containing a clock flanked by the figures of Honor and Glory crowning time. I wandered through the first class dining saloon, on D-deck between the second and third funnels. Its placement there was no accident. This location, as I found out in later years, gave first class diners the smoothest ride available on board Titanic. Over 500 people could feast in luxury in this immense Jacobean-style dining room; the floor was laid with linoleum tiles intricately patterned to resemble a Persian carpet. The small tables made for easy conversation between table mates, an activity no doubt assisted by the superb food, fine wine and comfortable armchairs. There was the second class smoke room, situated on B-deck above the library; the Smoking Room was paneled in carved oak. Its furniture, upholstered in dark green Moroccan leather, added to its masculine air. I got lost in the first class promenade, dipped my toes in the swimming pool and pretended to be an athlete in the ships bespoke gym. She was a masterpiece of elegance, but sadly my freedom wasn’t to last. As the months went by and the deadline for Titanic’s sea trials approached more and more men were needed to work around the clock to get her ready. This meant I was increasingly restricted to staying out of sight. Fate, it would seem, had a different idea on the other hand.

One particular damp March night I was on my own as usual in a third class cabin waiting for Father to finish his shift. It was about 8pm if I recall and the ship was rolling quite a bit because of high winds in the harbor. I had eaten the cold bacon sandwiches he’d left me for supper, but they were salty and soon my water ran out. I was feeling thirsty and knew I couldn’t wait until he came back so I thought I’d venture out and look for a faucet where I could fill up my canteen or maybe find a half drunk pitcher one of the workers had left behind after their dinner break. I opened the door slightly and looked the corridor up and down; it was empty except for a few strewn lamp light boxes and some coils of electric wiring. Above my head I could hear the continuous dull drone of hammers, saws cutting wood and men talking and shouting orders to each other. I knew if I turned left at the bottom of the short passageway next to the main elevator there was a gent’s lavatory, it would take me no more than two or three minutes to get there. Inside I could use one of the hand cleaning faucets then come straight back. It all went to plan until on my return journey, as I passed by the engine casing I bumped into a man in a black uniform. ‘Hey!’ he said as I tried to turn and run, but he was too fast and caught my arm. ‘What are you doing on board this ship boy?’ he asked holding me even tighter as I struggled to break free, and all I could think of while I squirmed was Father would lose his job and it would be all my fault just because I couldn’t wait for a sip of water. ‘I think you had better come with me son’ he said sternly.

I began to cry as we walked and I told him everything about Mothers death and why we had to hide on the ship. I described how hard it had been to subsist knowing someday it would end and we would have to go back to sleeping on floors and damp outhouses. As my story unfolded with each of my words the less his grip seemed to be.

‘I’m afraid that stage is coming soon’ he said ‘your father will know we are due to complete the fitting by the end of this month and for this reason I am on board, I’m second officer David Blair and its one of my jobs to make sure we finish on time.’

We walked back towards the main elevator after I revealed who I was. He knew roughly where Father might be working as the last of the labor was being concentrated near the first class lounge on ‘A’ deck. I asked him, would he lose his job over what I’d done, as we traveled upwards. He never spoke until we stepped out into an ocean of men busily painting walls, fixing lighting chandeliers, laying carpets, moving tables and furniture, or mounting ornate carved wood onto paneled walls. Each one immersed in their own talented trade. A few glanced our way and stepped aside as we weaved our way through the first class smoke room.

‘Look out for your Father’ he said while we passed the dome and down the small walkway to the lounge before going through the glass doors into the reading room. ‘There’ I said pointing, ‘that’s him Sir, the man with the saw in his hand near the promenade window.’

Even though he hadn’t heard us approach Father lifted his head and I could see the alarm on his face when our eyes met. I watched tearful as he drew a rag from his pocket and cleaned his blade before placing his saw into his tool box. It was as if he had already accepted his providence because of my discovery. Oh god, I thought, why had I ventured out? Why hadn’t I just waited, this was my entire fault.

Father doffed the peak of his cap when we came up to him in respect of Mr. Blair’s importance, and bid him a good evening.
‘Is this your son Michael Malone’ Blair inquired.
‘He is sir’ father replied ‘And he was only doing what I had instructed him so tis I who is to blame not him’
‘You know you have broken quite a few rules bringing your boy aboard this ship’
‘Aye sir’ Father accepted.
‘Is it true about your wife and her accident, the boy has told me everything’
‘Aye sir, terrible thing and we are both lost with out her’
‘There must be consequences for your deception, you know that don’t you, Malone’
‘Aye sir, and I’m ready for what ever punishment you deem fitting’

I watched as Blair ran his hand around his chin in deep thought then placed it upon my shoulder after obviously considering which course to choose. ‘In that case I had better set this honest young man to work for I cannot abide idle hands, this is your castigation and do you agree?’
‘Aye Sir I do’ Father smiled.
‘From what I gather young Tom here knows this ship quite well and as my legs are not as fit as his, I will appoint him as my helper so he may fetch and carry for me, would that be a fair punishment?’
Father shook Mr. Blair’s hand and both decided first thing the following day I was to be at his side working and if needed I would do any errands Mr. Blair required. For days I was running on a high of excited freedom, anxiety and the feeling of being part of something extraordinary. Little did I contemplate then how historic my role really would be?

I helped father hold wood while he sawed; made tea for the men, I brushed and tidied up dust and any debris strewn across the decks as the work reached a fever pitch to get finished on time for Titanic’s sea trials. I placed chairs and tables in the first class Lounge under Mr. Blair’s instruction, each night going to bed exhausted but elated.

On the 2nd of April 1912, the fit out now finished Titanic began her sea trials at 6am, a day before she was due to leave for Southampton, then onto her maiden voyage. Bad weather had delayed the trials, but on the Tuesday the wind and rain eased and Titanic was pulled by tugs out into the deeper waters of Belfast harbor. Harland and Wolfe’s own Hercules was given the honor of attaching first rope while crowds had begun to gather on the banks to witness the mammoth ship make her first steps on her grand passage. By then most of the workers had been sent ashore except for a few trusted men, my father included, to oversea any last unforeseen changes which may be needed. Seventy eight members of her ‘Black gang’ where now on board, stokers, greasers, and firemen, there was also senior crew members, officers, cooks and store men. Titanic shuddered and roared into life like a waking dinosaur when her giant screws began to churn the dark deep waters of the Lough.

Mr. Blair was to command officers Moody and Murdoch in Titanic’s test maneuvers, turning, stopping, and building up speed. However he was finding it difficult to see ahead because of some low lying clouds. ‘Take this’ he said, handing me a brass key while I stood with him and father on deck. ‘go to my locker’ he instructed ‘and bring me a set of binoculars you will find within, and hurry boy’

I did what I was told, running as fast as I could and finding the binoculars where he said they would be. When I returned Mr. Blair took them and went up into the crows nest, believing this would be the best position to oversee the trials. I put the key into my pocket and never thought much more about it until Mr. Blair returned later. He suggested rather than locking them up each day to save time while the ship was undergoing her tests I should keep the binoculars with me. That way they would be at hand when he needed them. He also recommended both father and I should stay on board for the whole of the journey to New York and back, this was because some of the commissioned workers had failed to turn up. Later I discovered he never logged us onto the roster. I guess he sort of took me under his wing, and we were more than happy to accommodate his request since we hadn’t really anywhere else to go. But we were never to be on the ship other than during its fit out and that’s why there is no record of us on any of the manifestos.

After a long day of strict exercises, at 8pm Titanic headed out to Southampton where she was to dock at Midnight Wednesday in order to take on board provisions and passengers over the next few days. However, without my knowledge, Mr. Blair was transferred back to the Olympic, Titanic’s sister ship, which was currently still undergoing its final fit out. 9.30am on the 10th of April, for most, is the day their story begins because this is where the vessel is no longer just a vast and glorious construction of iron and wood and where it transforms into a city of souls. None of which, including me, could ever envisage the horrors waiting to unfold.

By noon all were aboard and Titanic, headed first to Cherbourg France, then after a short stop she sailed onwards to Queenstown Ireland.

Father and I stood behind the small crane on the Forecastle Deck, holding hands, our faces hurting we were smiling so hard, and with the spray of the sea and the sounds of the hungry seagulls in our ears, I never felt so free. Except how could we ever imagine then what a journey we were about to embark on.

There have been a lot of different accounts of what happened four days later, Jeb; many learned men have made calculated presumptuous theories of how and why the supposedly unsinkable Titanic went down, taking with it over fifteen hundred poor souls. Yet I was there and no one ever asked me. Why would they, I was only a child after all.

The weather on the Sunday morning was clear and the sea was calm, a church service was being held in the saloon by the Reverend Mr. Carter. Mind you it was mainly for the first and second class passengers. Those needing spiritual guidance from steerage and the lower decks gathered in the lounge with Father Thomas Byles residing over a catholic mass. Some weren’t of that faith but attended just the same, Jewish, protestant and Muslim alike, god is god for all, my Father said as we prayed. Yet not it seems for those more well off than some, they think he belongs solely to them he smiled. It made no difference, later we were to find out, as to which god you prayed to, everyone soon became equal in his eyes.

There was little for father to do after the service, not just because it was a day of worship, Captain Smith made sure he took the time to address the ships crew when he came aboard and reminded them all, while the vessel was turning its screws, every man including himself was on duty. She was brand new and stretching her sea legs, and other than a small list of snags - minor paint touch ups and a few loose door handles, things were quiet, few complaints. The wind was on her tail and she was picking up momentum, you could feel it.

Later we ate toast cooked from the fire of one of the enormous coal boilers in the engine room and sat along with the stokers and greasers around a makeshift table made from an electric cable drum. And we drank tea from the biggest iron pot I have ever seen, it was so large it needed two to pour. The men laughed and joked, their faces black from the coal dust they’d shoveled. Some played cards with exuberance and their wonderful piano key smiles were radiant with the joys of life and the thoughts of the adventure ahead, a few destined and hoping for a new life.

In the afternoon, while Father went about his work, I wandered alone up the small back stairs the crew would use to move between the decks which were out of sight of the first class promenade and second class boat deck. These came out onto the officer’s mess and the tank room pantry. I could feel the ship rise and fall beneath my feet, a sensation that traveled all the way up to the pit of my stomach as she rolled across the bows wake cutting through the black cold water. At the end of a short corridor there were two doors, one on the left which led to the engineers lobby and then to the second class promenade, and the other went out into first class. I’d walked the length of both many times while the ship was being fitted looking up at the clear night skies, and watched the sun rise where now the rich strolled in all their finery. I knew now this was as far as I could go; it wouldn’t be correct and proper for the gentry to see a common deck hand like myself, and I couldn’t afford to get my father into any more trouble with the captain just so I could feel the wind on my face and listen to the gull’s as they chased the four mighty funnels.

However fate, it would seem, was about to intervene, as I was to find out, a chance meeting with someone who was to change my life forever. As I pressed my face against the small window in the door that looked out onto first class, barely had my nose touched the cold pane when a frumpish woman wearing the biggest hat adorned with an even larger white feather locked eyes with mine.


Continued in Part Two...
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