Today's extract from The Girl Who Came Home is from the moment when Maggie, and others from the group she is travelling with, arrive on deck, an hour after Titanic's collision with the iceberg.
It was the stars she saw first as she clambered up on deck. The millions and millions of twinkling stars, illuminating the sky like the magical lands of her childhood imagination; the very same stars she used to look at in Ballysheen, captivated by their beauty and unfathomable distance.
The vast, empty space of the sky above her now seemed to make this ship, which she had gasped at in wonder and awe just a few days ago, feel suddenly very small and extremely fragile. At that moment, as the cacophony of noise and confusion on the deck engulfed her, she longed, more than anything in her entire life, to be back in her humble, stone cottage warming her fingers over the glow of the embers from the fire as Séamus sat by her side.
She looked around, turning her head wildly from side to side, standing on her tiptoes, peering over the heads of the masses of people swarming all around her. Where was Aunt Kathleen? She had to be here; had to be somewhere. ‘Kathleen!’ she screamed, shouting as loudly as she could. ‘Aunt Kathleen! It’s me! Maggie. I’m over here. Kathleen! Where are you?’ She’d never felt so far away from home, so utterly lost and terrified, in all her seventeen years of life.
‘Maggie, Maggie, over here.’ But it was Harry’s voice, not Kathleen’s, which brought her back into the moment. ‘We have to go up again,’ he shouted, trying to make himself heard above the noise of the panicked passengers and the continual hiss of steam from the funnels high above them. ‘There’s a few boats left on the upper deck.’
Maggie stood in a daze, unable to comprehend what she was seeing. All around her, people were running from one side of the ship to the other, some carrying deck chairs, others clutching onto rubber-rings which they’d found in the gift shop – everyone desperately searching for something which they might be able to hold onto in the water – something which might mean the difference between life and death.
Masses of bodies crowded around the boats which were the next to be lowered. Men were being held back, prevented from getting in, while women and children clambered in reluctantly, almost as frightened about the prospect of drifting endlessly through the freezing black night as they were about staying on the sinking ship. She watched with heart-wrenching helplessness as several women climbed back out of their lifeboats, unable - in the final moment - to leave without their husbands, fathers and brothers. She had never witnessed such a terrifying sight in all her life and stood frozen in fear.
Men called to women as they encouraged them to take to the lifeboats without them. ‘Be brave; no matter what happens, be brave and keep your hands in your pockets, it is very cold weather,’ she heard one man say to a woman, who Maggie presumed was his wife. Another woman was lifted, kicking and screaming into a boat. ‘Go Lottie!’ a man called after her. ‘For God's sake, be brave and go!’
She watched in horror as another woman, who clearly refused to leave her husband, lifted her young daughter and baby into a boat, entrusting them to the care of their nurse, before collapsing onto her knees on the deck, clinging to her husband’s ankles as the boat was lowered over the side. She could barely move as she watched these scenes of unimaginable grief unfolding in front of her, in every direction she looked, each scene more distressing and unbearable than the last.
‘There are no more boats on this deck,’ Harry shouted. ‘Follow me.’
He took the group towards another ladder then, which led up to the boat deck, the highest point on the ship. This ladder was already teeming with bodies; people of all age and class trying desperately to get up to the remaining boats as they felt the forward compartments of the ship sink further and further under the water. Large, burly men pushed past Maggie in an attempt to secure their own escape, or to help women and children who were with them get a foothold on the ladder. A Priest stood reciting prayers as a group huddled together at his feet, their heads bowed.
It was a desperate, frantic moment which frightened Maggie to her core. She knew that Harry, Maura and Jack Brennan, Eileen Brennan and young Michael Kelly were ahead of her. Behind her were Peggy, Katie and the rest of the girls with Pat insisting he follow the last of them up. Struggling with all her might against the surge of bodies behind her, she eventually got a foothold on the ladder and started to climb.
‘Oh, Jesus, my hat.’
She knew immediately it was Peggy’s voice and craning her neck around, saw her friend scrabbling about on the deck for her hat which had been knocked off her head. In the confusion, others climbed up ahead of her, forcing Katie and the others back.
‘Peggy,’ Maggie cried. ‘Peggy, leave it. We have to go. Katie….’
Pushed along by the momentum of the crowd behind her, Maggie had no choice but to keep climbing, emerging onto the boat deck terrified, shivering uncontrollably with the cold and separated from everyone from her group, other than the few who stood with her.
The emergency rockets being fired into the sky sent a bright red light across the ship which was now audibly creaking and groaning under the strain of the water flooding the lower compartments.
Maura Brennan stared wildly around at the unfamiliar faces emerging from the ladder behind them. ‘Maggie, where are the others? They were right behind us.’
‘They got pushed back. I don’t know. I don’t know where they are.’ Maggie’s fear developed into gasping tears then, the enormity of what was happening suddenly hitting her. ‘I don’t know where they are, and I don’t know where Aunt Kathleen is either.’
The Girl Who Came Home - A Titanic Novel is available to download on the Amazon Kindle Store, priced 99p. If you don't have a Kindle, you can download free Kindle reading apps for PC, iPad, iPhone, Android and other devices from the Kindle Store. Read previous extracts here, here and here.