Scattered – Nola Lorraine

Maggie shoved the hatch open and peeked out across the saturated deck. An icy wind whipped her cheeks and caught the edge of her woollen headscarf, twirling it round in some danse macabre. She blinked against the driving rain. Sailors rushed back and forth a few yards in front of her, but she couldn’t make out their faces. She tried to shield her eyes, but raindrops slapped her fingers, forcing her to close the hatch and retreat back down the companionway. Maggie stepped into the saloon and unwrapped the drenched scarf from around her shoulders. ‘Don’t stand there, girl,’ Mrs Plowhurst shrilled from her perch at the table. ‘What’s my husband doing?’ Maggie hung the dripping scarf over the back of a chair in front of the pot belly stove and tried to rub the chill from her arms. ‘I’m afraid I don’t know, ma’am. It’s chaos up there and I couldn’t see the major.’ Five-year-old Ruby grabbed the hem of Maggie’s skirt. ‘Has Papa gone away?’ Maggie bent down and took the little girl’s hand. ‘No, my sweet. He’s busy helping the sailors.’ Or blaming the captain for the storm, more likely.

‘I’m sure he’ll be back down here directly. Why don’t you help Edward?’ Ruby knelt next to her little brother and picked up a wooden soldier. ‘He goes there,’ Edward said, pointing to a worn spot on the Oriental rug. Maggie joined them on the carpet and lifted Essie onto her lap. She stroked the infant’s feathery hair and rocked her in time with the rhythms of the ship. Lord, please help us through this night. The floor of the saloon rose and fell, toppling Ruby onto her back and sending Edward’s soldiers in all directions. Retching sounds came from Mrs Plowhurst, and Essie started to whimper. Maggie rocked the baby gently. ‘It’s all right, my darling.

The waves are just playing with the ship.’ Ruby righted herself and scrunched up her face. ‘If the waves are playing, why are they so angry?’ The ship lurched again, ramming Maggie feet-first into the bulkhead. She shielded Essie from the impact, but couldn’t stop Edward and Ruby crashing into each other. Ruby’s wails curdled the sludge of porridge in Maggie’s stomach. ‘Can’t you keep them calm?’ Mrs Plowhurst was ashen-faced, the stench of her vomit permeating the air. ‘We’re not paying you to sit on your derrière doing nothing.’ Maggie’s back stiffened. ‘I’ll do my best, ma’am.’ But it wasn’t easy placating the children, with their mother a coiled spring of worry and their father a simmering pot of rage.

Edward rubbed his elbow and tried to look brave, despite the quiver in his lips. ‘How about a song?’ Maggie said. ‘Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool?’ ‘You’ll sing us to our graves.’ Mrs Plowhurst raised a trembling hand to her brow. ‘I’m sorry, ma’am. I didn’t mean to cause —’ The ship jarred and an almighty wallop reverberated through the deck above. A momentary silence was shattered by the commotion of scrambling sailors. The hatch flew open and Major Plowhurst descended the companionway. ‘Papa!’ Edward latched onto his father’s legs. ‘The stupid fool’s run us aground.

’ Mrs Plowhurst gulped and all remaining colour drained from her face. ‘You can’t mean that, Albert. What’s to become of us?’ Maggie fought to bury her own misgivings. ‘If we’ve run aground, we must be near a port. Isn’t that right, sir?’ The major tousled Edward’s blond locks. ‘God only knows where we are. It’s not Halifax, that’s for certain.’ He ran a hand over his moustache and flicked drops of water onto the floor. ‘And that’s not the worst of it. We’ve lost a man.

Fell from the rigging and broke his neck.’ Mrs Plowhurst twisted the handkerchief in her hands. ‘But we were already several men down.’ ‘Don’t you think I know that, Harriet?’ ‘Surely the captain has a contingency plan for times like this,’ Maggie said. ‘If abandoning ship is a contingency plan, then it’s a poor one.’ Maggie’s legs turned to jelly. ‘Abandon ship?’ ‘Gather a few necessities, and put on extra clothing for warmth. They’re readying the lifeboats.’ ‘And what are you calling lifeboats?’ Mrs Plowhurt asked. ‘Not those old crates they’ve stored the tackle in, surely?’ ‘I’ve no time to argue, woman.

For once in your life, do as I say!’ Major Plowhurst stomped up the companionway and slammed the hatch shut behind him. Fear gnawed at Maggie’s stomach like a rat trying to nibble its way out. Mrs Plowhurst was already a sobbing mess and would be of little help. Maggie braced herself and slowed her breathing. She had to appear calm for the children. ‘I’ll make a start, shall I, ma’am?’ Maggie clutched Essie tight and grabbed Edward’s hand. ‘Come along, children. Let’s see who can wear the most clothes at once.’ She led them down the short passageway to their berths. ‘Are we going in the water?’ Ruby’s curls bobbed as she shook her head.

‘I can’t swim.’ ‘We’ll be safe in the boat.’ There was no need to tell the children that swimming would be of no use in this tempest. Maggie wrapped a knitted lap rug around Essie and laid her in her crib. She helped Ruby into some mittens and had almost finished buttoning Edward’s coat when Mrs Plowhurst called from the adjoining cabin. ‘I need your help, girl. I can’t get this confounded thing over my hips.’ What in the world? Maggie stepped through the doorway that connected the cabins and would have laughed if circumstances weren’t so dire. Rather than putting extra layers atop the clothes she’d already been wearing, Mrs Plowhurst was attempting to squeeze herself into the velvet gown she had planned to wear at a welcome banquet in Halifax. Hard to believe her employer had once been the beauty in the framed photo on the dresser.

Maggie could only think of the precious minutes lost as she stuffed Mrs Plowhurst’s ample frame into the tight-fitting dress. By the time they returned to the saloon, the fire in the stove had spluttered out. Another roll of the ship sent Mrs Plowhurst careening into the table. She yelped and rubbed her thigh. ‘This is insufferable.’ She plopped onto the bench seat and dabbed a handkerchief over her forehead. ‘I can’t bear it, I tell you. I cannot bear it.’ ‘I’m sure it won’t be much longer, ma’am. I’ll go up and see what’s happening, shall I?’ Mrs Plowhurst opened her mouth but no sound came.

Maggie handed her the baby, pulled her shawl over her head and climbed up the companionway. As soon as she opened the hatch, she was buffeted by a swirling gust. She waited a few seconds for it to ease, and then thrust herself onto the slick decking. She took a step and lost her footing. Her body slammed against the deck and the air whooshed from her lungs. She lay stunned for a few moments, the howl of the wind punctuating her own gasps for air. When she looked up, the crew were tossing boxes overboard. Major Plowhurst flung out his arms and tried to block their progress. ‘Stop at once! This is an outrage.’ He grasped at a box carried by one of the sailors, and it crashed onto the deck.

The sailor took a swipe at him. ‘I don’t take orders from you, guv.’ The major raised his fist, but Captain Adams prised the two men apart. ‘Haven’t we got enough to contend with?’ The captain’s voice almost drowned out the roar of the sea. ‘I have a small fortune tied up in these goods, Adams, and I won’t see it lost to your ineptitude.’ ‘Would you rather the crew and passengers were lost . your own wife and children? Help us lighten the load or get out of the way.’ Captain Adams shoved past the major and joined his men. Box after box plunged into the raging sea. The major had boasted to everyone of his forthcoming business venture with a Mr Tharaday of Halifax.

Boasts that were now sinking into the Atlantic, along with the supplies for Mr Tharaday’s textile mill. Fear knifed a rift in Maggie’s stomach. Would her life end this very night – nineteen years, and no more? She closed her eyes and tried to picture her young siblings, Jack and Emily. She’d missed more than a year of their lives and now they might not even know she’d come looking for them. Maggie squelched the thought. She had to get to Halifax. She had to find them. She put her hand to her heart. Keep Jack and Emily safe, Lord. Keep all of us safe.

Maggie tried to stand, but slipped sideways on the sodden deck. Her wrist twisted as she fell and tears of pain mingled with the salt spray stinging her face. Strands of auburn hair streamed across her face as she tried to sit up. ‘Are you all right, miss?’ She brushed her hair aside and saw Higgins, the first mate. ‘Looks like you took a nasty tumble.’ She took Higgins’ hand and stood on trembling legs. ‘Thank you. I —’ ‘What in blazes are you doing up here, girl?’ The major’s voice boomed behind her. Higgins’ steadying hand tightened around her arm. ‘If you don’t mind me sayin’, sir, it’s time we got them into the lifeboats.

’ ‘It’s too rough.’ The major gestured towards the waves. ‘Surely the captain will wait for a break in the weather.’ The ship responded with another violent lurch. Higgins shook his head. ‘We can’t wait for better conditions, sir. The hull might break up before then, and that’s the truth.’ ‘Insanity.’ Spit flew from the major’s mouth and he balled his fists. ‘Pure insanity.

’ ‘Please, sir. We’ve no time to lose.’ Major Plowhurst glared at the first mate for several more seconds before finally making for the hatch. Once the major had disappeared below deck, Higgins loosened his grip on Maggie. ‘You stay here, miss. We’ll pass the little’uns up to you.’ Higgins wasted no time climbing down into the saloon. Raised voices wafted up the companionway. ‘You can’t expect me to go up there, Albert. My dress will be ruined.

’ ‘We’re already ruined, blast it.’ There was scuffling on the steps below and then Ruby’s head popped up through the hatch. Maggie reached out and helped her onto the deck. The little girl was shivering. ‘Why can’t we stay down below?’ ‘We’ll be out of the rain soon,’ Maggie said as she helped Edward up the last step. Higgins carried Essie up onto the deck and handed her to Maggie. ‘You’ll be safe enough here for a few minutes, miss. I’ll check on the lifeboats.’ The first mate retreated, and Edward clutched Maggie’s skirt. ‘Are Mama and Papa staying down there?’ Maggie peered through the open hatch.

‘No, my sweet, they’re on their way up.’ Or more correctly, the major was shoving his wife up the companionway in a manner that would do a fairground contortionist proud. Maggie smiled in spite of herself. Mrs Plowhurst heaved herself up onto the deck, her great skirt skew-whiff around her legs. The major almost tripped over the hem as he climbed onto the deck. ‘Confound it, woman.’ Maggie blinked against the rain as Higgins rejoined them. ‘One of the lifeboats is ready for launch, if you’d all like to make your way.’ He pointed across the deck. The major took his wife’s hand.

‘You go with Higgins. I need to talk with the captain.’ Edward grabbed his father’s trouser leg. ‘Don’t leave, Papa.’ The major straightened his son’s woollen cap. ‘You look after your mother and sisters and I’ll be back before you know it.’ Edward stood to attention and gave a little salute. ‘Yes, sir.’ The major saluted in return and headed off. ‘This way, ladies,’ Higgins said as he led them to the lifeboat.

As they drew closer, Mrs Plowhurst gasped. ‘You can’t expect us to take to the sea in that!’ ‘It will only be a short journey,’ Higgins said. ‘We’re not far from shore.’ Then Maggie saw it. At first, she thought one of the sailors had walked by with a lantern, but it was further out – a blink and it was gone. It blinked again through a patch in the fog. A lighthouse. Higgins held out his hand. ‘If you ladies would like to take the children in first, I’ll hold her steady.’ Maggie clutched Essie to her chest and stepped into the boat.

She sat on the plank seat that ran along the side of the boat and shuffled along so that Ruby could sit next to her. ‘Hold onto this, Ruby.’ Maggie touched the rope that ran around the inside edge of the lifeboat. ‘The waves might rock us a little, but everything will be all right if we hang on tight.’ The boat swayed as Higgins helped Mrs Plowhurst to her place towards the bow. Edward tried to sit next to her, but his mother’s skirt ballooned out on both sides. ‘Down here, Edward.’ She pointed to a spot on the floor and Edward sat at her feet, his back braced against his mother’s legs. Higgins clambered into the boat and kept the lines taut while the boatswain operated the davit. The boat lifted above the deck and swung towards portside.

‘Albert!’ Mrs Plowhurst tried to stand but fell back against the seat. She put her hand to her throat and drew in sharp breaths. ‘Don’t fret, ma’am,’ Higgins said. ‘We’re getting the boat into position for lowering. Then the major and oarsmen will come aboard.’ The boatswain lowered the lifeboat onto the far side of the deck with a thud. Ruby squealed. ‘Keep hanging on.’ Maggie wedged herself closer to the little girl. ‘Everything will be fine.

’ The words stuck in her throat. Nothing was fine. Maggie tried to calm her breathing as the major stumbled across the listing deck towards them. At least he’d be able to help with the children once he was in the boat. Higgins waved to him. ‘We can’t hold her here much longer.’ The ship pitched forward, toppling Major Plowhurst onto his hands and knees. He tried to stand, but the air above exploded with a deafening crack. Maggie gaped in horror as the top half of the mizzenmast crashed into the davit, pinning the major to the deck. Maggie turned Ruby’s head away, but couldn’t reach Edward.

‘Papa.’ The little boy’s screams scraped against Maggie’s raw nerves. The lifeboat slipped over the side of the ship at a precarious angle. Maggie tightened her grip on Essie and thrust her leg out to barricade Ruby into her seat. Mrs Plowhurst tipped backwards, almost taking Edward with her. ‘No,’ Maggie yelled, tremors rippling through her body. Higgins grabbed the edge of Mrs Plowhurst’s gown in time to stop her and the boy from falling overboard, but the line flew from his hands in the process. The lifeboat slammed into the water, bow first, sending a wash of white foam over their feet. The stern slapped down a second later, jolting Maggie sideways. Essie and Ruby howled, but Maggie could do little except hold them.

She couldn’t think. She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t breathe. The rope attached to the stern snapped and recoiled like an angry snake. Maggie’s head whipped around to the bow where one remaining line tethered the lifeboat. Each wave twisted their stricken vessel, threatening to smash it against the crippled Excelsior. ‘I can’t free the line.’ Higgins leaned over the side to get a better reach. ‘It must be snagged.’ A surge of water rammed the lifeboat, crushing Higgins against the side of the ship.

A cry ripped from Maggie’s lips as she reached for him. The line released. Higgins slid into the murky sea. Mrs Plowhurst beat her chest with her hands. ‘We’re doomed. We’re all doomed.’ Maggie’s heartbeat ratcheted up. The lifeboat’s oars were still on the deck of the Excelsior, and she and Mrs Plowhurst were adrift with the children. There were no words to offer. No hope to give.

Bubbling foam cascaded over their feet. The lifeboat twisted and jerked, each wave propelling them away from the ship. Mrs Plowhurst scrunched her face up like a sponge. ‘I’m not ready to meet my Maker.’ She tucked her arms around her heaving bosom and rocked back and forth. Edward crawled towards Maggie, putting distance between himself and his hysterical mother. ‘We’ll be all right, ma’am,’ Maggie said. ‘They’ll launch the other boat and come after us.’ As soon as the words left her mouth, Maggie knew they were untrue. There was a gaping hole in the ship’s hull a little above the waterline.

Their lifeboat was drifting further and further away. No one could rescue them. A roar rumbled across the sea. Maggie squinted through the pre-dawn haze as the ghostly silhouette of the Excelsior broke in two. The stern reared up before plunging beneath the waves. The orange splash of daybreak set the ocean ablaze; the captain and remaining crew lost to its fiery cauldron. ‘No!’ Mrs Plowhurst’s shriek seared every fibre in Maggie’s body. Maggie put her hand to her throat. Higgins. The major.

The captain. She had been talking to them less than an hour ago. All gone. There was a lull in the waves and the boat bobbed like a cork in a pond. Maggie swallowed hard and looked at the pale faces beside her. If they could reach the shore, she might be able to find shelter for them. Mrs Plowhurst opened her mouth in a silent scream and pointed over Maggie’s shoulder. Maggie swivelled in her seat. A wall of water surged towards them. ‘Hang on, children,’ she yelled through shuddering breaths.

The wave smashed against the lifeboat and catapulted them into the sea. The baby slipped from Maggie’s grip. ‘Essie!’ Seawater swamped her throat. She coughed and spluttered, trying to catch a breath, but something yanked on her dress, dragging her under. Mrs Plowhurst had a death grip on Maggie’s ankle and was trying to claw her way up. Maggie tried to take hold of the woman’s hand, but the velvet dress billowed out and engulfed Maggie in its folds. If she didn’t break free, they’d both go under. Spots danced in her vision and her lungs burned. Help me, Jesus. With the last of her strength, she kicked her legs.

Mrs Plowhurst’s fingers released. The voluminous dress fell away. She was gone. Maggie’s head broke through the waves and she gulped in precious air. Salt water coalesced with her tears. The water swelled around her, white caps breaking in the early morning light. Maggie tried to swim, but the current dragged her down. She swallowed more water, the salt cutting her throat like a razor. I can’t do this on my own. Then she heard a voice.

I’ll never leave you. Warmth invaded her heart as the ocean sucked her down.

.

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