Mark Rookyard lives in Yorkshire, England. He likes running long distances and writing short stories. His work has appeared in SQ Magazine, The Colored Lens and Acidic Fiction.
The Wells Experience by Mark Rookyard
Andrew had to give the Wells Society credit. This was more than he could ever have hoped for. He closed his eyes and let the cold wind blow in his face. He smelled salt and fish and far distant lands. He smelled possibilities. It was like nothing he could ever have imagined.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
He opened his eyes to see a woman leaning on the rail looking back at him. Her brown hair blew loose in the wind and her dress shivered about her legs. She would be dead soon. A shame, so young and pretty in a pale and delicate way.
Andrew forced a smile. This experience might be better without all the people. He should answer her. “Yes,” he said. “I never knew a wind could make you feel so alive.”
Spray flew into the air all around them and sunlight glinted on distant waves. Andrew leaned on the rail, looking out across the ocean. He never knew it would be so vast, so empty. He never knew the excitement he would feel as the great ship ploughed through the waves.
Racing towards its destruction.
Was it this knowledge that gave Andrew his thrill? Or was it the unfamiliar feel of wind and air and freedom? Whatever it was, he liked it. The experience hadn’t been cheap, but definitely worth it.
The woman tucked her hair behind her ear, looking at him with a smile. She wasn’t going away.
He tried to hide his frustration behind a smile. He wasn’t good at dealing with people face to face. The Society had said he should try and avoid speaking to people, that it would interfere with the experience. He couldn’t ignore the woman, though. He held out his hand, “Andrew Welton.”
The woman smiled, her hair blowing back from around her ear. Her hand felt small and delicate. “You’re a funny one, Andrew Welton.” Her accent was different, lilting.
Andrew couldn’t help frowning. “I am?” He felt slow and self-conscious around this woman. He didn’t like it. He liked to be alone, to savour the experience, to feel the wind and the air and the sheer majesty of the ship flying through the waves.
“Yes, you are.” She leaned back against the rail. Smoke billowed from the giant chimneys and people on the walkways pointed here and there. “A young man like you in an old-fashioned suit, spending all his time alone, so serious. A man shouldn’t spend so much time alone. It makes him thoughtful. Never a good thing.”
“Isn’t it?” Andrew blinked. It was hard work speaking to people. He thought of his room at home, the screens glaring in the darkness.
“No,” the woman smiled. “Women should think. They’re better at it. When men spend time thinking they come to unfortunate conclusions.”
“Ah.” Andrew nodded, and watched the waves far, far below. The sheer size of the ship still took his breath away. He looked back at the woman. “And what would your name be?”
“Mary,” the woman said. Her dress wrapped about her legs and clung to her thin arms. “Mary Wallace.” She looked at him a long moment, her eyes challenging. “And so you’re going to make your fortune in America, Mr Welton? Make enough to buy a new suit, perhaps?”
Andrew looked down at his suit. The designer at Wells had told him this was the fashion in 1912. He silently cursed the man. “Who knows, this might be the height of fashion in America.”
Mary crinkled her nose. “Yeah, dressing in their Granddad’s old suits could be really big over there.”
A seagull flew overhead, drifting on the cold winds. Andrew watched it a moment, trying to think of something else to say, but when he looked back, Mary was already walking away. He felt like he’d failed some kind of test, but at least he was alone again. Alone so he could think and feel.
He pulled the Wells Experience card out of his pocket. Not cheap, it had nearly cleaned out even his bank account, but it was worth it, just to feel alive.
He headed off to dinner. The sun was starting to set and the restaurant was lit with chandeliers. The band played, resplendent in their red jackets.
No sign of Mary. Good. Andrew smiled and sat down alone and revelled in the atmosphere.
Outside, the steam blew and the Titanic sailed on to its destruction.
Everything seemed so much more real on the Titanic. The food tasted more real, the colours looked more real. Even the people seemed more real, with their bright clothes and their wide smiles and their excited chatter.
Andrew sat back in his chair, watching the passengers whirl about him, their smiles wide. All of them unaware of the disaster to unfold in the next two days.
“On your own again, Mr Welton?”
Mary sat opposite him without waiting for an invitation.
Andrew took a sip of his champagne and smiled across the white table. “I’m surprised you are willing to be seen in public with me and my old-fashioned suits.”
Mary shrugged and watched the passengers milling all about her, every one of them finely dressed.
She was pale with dark hair, her thin nose perhaps a fraction too long, her ears a little large. He took another sip of his drink and joined Mary in watching the passengers. They would all be dead soon, most of them, anyway. It was a strange feeling, seeing all these people so happy and so excited, not knowing the horror awaiting them out there in the Atlantic Ocean.
But then, where he came from, these people would have all been long dead anyway, nothing but dust in the ground, so what did it matter whether they died tomorrow or if they’d lived another fifty years? No difference, in the great scheme of things.
He noticed Mary was looking at him and smiling, her lips red against her dark hair. “Thinking again, Mr Welton?”
“You caught me,” Andrew said.
“You want to go on the deck?” Mary was already standing, pushing her chair back under the table. The talk in the room was loud, thick smoke billowing up to the chandeliers.
There were more than three thousand people on the Titanic, but the sheer size of the ship meant that it never felt crowded. Following Mary out of the restaurant, Andrew could smell smoke and perfumes and hair oils and hot foods. So many sensations, he almost felt giddy with it all. Glad to be alive. This was the way people had lived all those years ago, everything so real, so immediate. Even the cold wind outside made him feel alive.
The giant chimneys of the Titanic were black silhouettes against the night sky and the moon was full and yellow.
Mary had her arms folded tight about her and her long dark hair blew in the wind as she leaned on the railing. “Can see America out there?” she said, looking into the distance.
Andrew joined her, his shoulder touching hers. All he could see was the darkness of the night. “It’s out there somewhere.”
“I think you can almost smell it sometimes,” Mary said. “A new life. Possibilities.”
The wind blew and the Titanic raced through the waves. So fast. Andrew only wanted it to slow, but the great ship ploughed on, the ocean breaking around it.
“So what is it you do, Mr Welton?” Mary still looked out across the black expanse.
“Me?” Andrew thought of home, working on the computer, takeaway cartons scattered about his desk. “I suppose you could call me a businessman,” he said.
“Ah,” Mary said, nodding her head wisely. “A man of mystery.” Somewhere behind them, there was the sound of laughter, and still the Titanic churned on through the ocean.
“And what is it you do?” Andrew asked. “What makes you want to go to America?” He felt a coldness take his heart when he asked the question. Was he being cruel in asking it when he knew what waited out there for the ship and all her passengers?
Mary leaned on the railing, looking at him and smiling. “So you travel alone to America to start this new business of yours?”
“I spend a lot of time on my own,” Andrew said. “It gives me time to think.”
“Ah yes,” Mary smiled and looked away for a moment. “But don’t you wonder what waits out there?” She closed her eyes, her dark hair flying behind her, and she breathed in the sounds and smells of a new world.
Andrew looked and imagined he could see a looming tower, a tower darker than the night, cold and careless and destructive. He touched Mary on the arm and she started a little.
“It’s getting cold,” he said. “Let’s go back inside.”
Andrew woke and looked at the date on his watch. Fourteenth of April. He ran a hand through his hair and looked out the window. Clear blue skies and a clear blue ocean spread before him.
The Titanic moved so quickly. He’d had no idea that ships could move so fast in ancient times. Somewhere out there a tower of ice waited, cold and impassive.
How could he go home after this? He felt so alive. He thought of home, thought of the darkness of the city, the lights of the hover cars drifting through the clouds.
He groaned and went to the sink, splashing cold water on his face. He’d danced last night.
Mary had laughed at his attempts, but she’d danced with him all the same. Andrew had never heard music like it. He’d laughed with Mary as they danced and then they’d sat at the table together and she’d talked about America and her home in Ireland.
He pulled up his sleeve and looked at the counter the Wells Society had given him.
Twelve more hours.
In twelve more hours he would be home. He would be working again at the computer. His inheritance would be gone and he’d never be able to save enough to come back again.
He showered and dressed and thought of Mary laughing at his suits.
The Titanic was a big ship. Andrew had no idea how big the thing actually was until he started to look for somebody on it. He’d seen the offworld ships on the news, but even they had nothing on the size of the Titanic.
He wandered through the boat deck, the reading room, the smoke rooms and the dining rooms. For hours he looked, and checked his timer all the while.
Eight hours left.
Where was she? Had he said something wrong last night? He probably had. She did make him feel nervous, the way her dark eyes would look at him. He wasn’t used to speaking to people face to face. His tongue was slow and his mind thick.
He sighed, sitting at a table while waiters dressed in black and white hurried about.
The Wells Society had said he shouldn’t speak to people. He should drink and eat and enjoy the Titanic and then open the portal and go home.
Go home with his memories.
Memories of the giant ship breaking the waves. Memories of Southampton and the Titanic leaving for open waters, thousands of people lining the decks, shouting and waving. Memories of a simple seagull flying overhead, white and joyous on the wind.
Memories of Mary.
He found her on the promenade deck looking out across the ocean, looking towards America, her hair ruffling in the wind.
Andrew leaned on the railing next to her, his hands clasped together. “I’ve been looking for you.”
“I’ve been avoiding you,” Mary said, her smile sad.
Andrew only nodded and watched white clouds scudding across a blue sky. He would miss the white clouds.
“I had a good time last night,” Mary said, still not looking at him. “It didn’t feel right, laughing and talking, and forgetting about things for a while.”
It was cold, the wind bit at Andrew’s fingers and through his jacket. Mary held a shawl tight about her shoulders.
“You never did tell me what you were going to America for,” he said.
Mary smiled and looked out into the night. “Me and my sister, when we were little, we always wanted to open a shop in America. The brave new world. We wanted to go and see it ourselves, open a shop there selling the clothes we’d made.” She laughed, sad and regretful. “We used to talk about it long into the night, make our plans. Think of the things we’d see.”
“And she didn’t want to come now?” Andrew asked.
Mary smiled. Somewhere behind them a man and woman laughed together. “I did bring her with me,” Mary said. She took a locket from around her neck and opened it, showing Andrew the picture of a young girl inside. She had short dark hair with a red bow. “She died when she was ten,” Mary said, looking at the picture a moment before snapping it shut.
“I’m sorry,” Andrew said. “It’s a brave thing you’re doing, coming out here all on your own, starting a new life.”
“Not really,” Mary said, crinkling her nose. “Not really brave. I didn’t know I was going to go through with it until I was standing on the deck watching everybody waving when we left Ireland.”
Andrew smiled. “It’s cold,” he said. And there was something about standing on the deck in the darkness, knowing what was out there, some primal force of nature, quiet and dark, waiting to destroy the greatest ship in the world. “Let’s go and get something to eat.”
He took her arm and led her to the restaurant, but before they left the deck, he had one last look over his shoulder. Were those dark shapes he could see out there? Hulking monstrosities, twisted and cruel mountains of ice waiting for unwary ships?
He shivered and led Mary back inside to the warmth and the light and the laughter.
Andrew didn’t feel like eating. He picked at his food and thought of the terror to come. He wanted the ship to slow, but still it raced on, eager to meet its fate.
“You’re doing it again,” Mary said.
“Thinking.” Mary smiled. “I’m glad we met. I was a little scared coming all this way alone. Seeing you sometimes, you look more afraid than I do.” She laughed and reached across the table patting his hand.
“I’m glad I make you feel brave,” Andrew said, and just for a moment their eyes met before he looked away.
Quiet descended over the table while the band played and waiters moved about, white cloths draped over their arms and people danced still, despite the late hour.
Andrew put his napkin on the table next to his plate. “You want to dance?” he said.
“You are feeling brave,” Mary said.
He smiled and stood, holding out his hand.
As they danced, the lights above circled. Other dancers wove past them with red dresses and black dinner jackets.
Mary spoke of America and Andrew tried to dream with her, tried to imagine a world where dreams could still exist.
“What’s that?” Mary asked.
Andrew blinked. The alarm, the timer on his arm was sounding. He pressed the arm of his suit and the alarm stopped. “Nothing,” he said, blinking and looking at Mary. He looked at her long dark hair and her deep brown eyes and her slightly too large ears. “I’ve forgotten something,” he said. “I just have to get something from my room.” He wanted to hold her, to take her with him, but that was impossible. The Wells Society would be waiting for him, scanning him and searching him for anything he tried to bring back with him, never mind another person.
He hurried away, leaving Mary on the dance floor watching him, the band still playing.
When he got to his room, he felt under the pillow, his hand shaking, and he found the portal remote. Would Mary still be there on the dance floor waiting for him? It didn’t matter, did it? Mary, all these people, were long dead to him. They’d been long dead before he came and they’d be long dead when he returned. However they died, did it really make a difference?
He aimed the remote into the corner of the room and pressed the button. A shimmer, a gleam of blue light and the portal stood there waiting, humming and glowing.
Home waited there in that blue light. Home. He would go through that light, and the Wells Society would be there waiting. They would search him and then send him on his way, all his money gone and his dark home waiting for him, with its takeaway cartons and its computer screens.
The light shimmered in the corner, enticing in its blueness.
Mary was at the table when he returned. She smiled, glad to see him, and that made him happy. He sat in the chair facing her.
“I wondered where you had got to,” she said in her lilting accent. Could he have gone home without hearing that voice one more time?
“It’s okay,” Andrew smiled. “I just had to check on something. Ready for another dance?” He stood and took her hand.
Mary had been brave, taking this journey. He couldn’t let her face the terrors to come alone.
They danced and Andrew could smell her. Jasmine and rose. Mary could be saved. Hadn’t they let women and children on the lifeboats first? He could be with her, help her through what was to come. Be there for her.
He twirled her by the hand, and Mary laughed, her long dark hair spinning and her dark eyes bright in the light of the chandeliers.
He could be with her to the end.