Keel Songs – A short story by Angela Young

© Lumley Pictures
Angela Young © Lumley Pictures

Natalie’s Diary: Fife, Scotland: February 8th

Duncan asked me to sing to him this afternoon.

I was struggling to keep our little dinghy on course. I had to shout for him to stay where he was: I was worried I might strike him with one of my oars if he came astern, but he wouldn’t listen. His wispy brown hair streamed across his forehead as he sat beside me and pulled on the oar opposite mine. I silently cursed my foolishness. I should never have let him persuade me to take him to the island at this time of year, but he said it was the only thing he wanted to do for his birthday and I gave in. I thought the weather would hold, but I was wrong. I dug my oar into the choppy water and pulled. I watched Duncan do the same, as if he was just as strong as me. And I did sing to him and we did make it back across the loch, although not before we were blown a mile down water.

We had a long, wet walk back trailing the rugs Duncan said we must wrap ‘Indian-fashion’ round ourselves to keep warm. We dried off by the fire and, unusually, Duncan let me hug him. He’s been saying, recently, he’s too old to be hugged but he snuggled into my arms and when he looked up at me he said the reason we were safe was because we sang and that kept our spirits up. He said singing made us strong. Would that life were so simple.

I’m not going to tell Jocelyn what happened, at least not until he’s home. He would say I let Duncan’s longing to go to the island cloud my judgement, and he would be right. But my son’s words have stayed with me.

It’s true that I often sing when I row.

It’s also true that I’m strong, from all the sailing we do here.

But my son is convinced that singing made us strong.

*

The Arcadia Hotel, Altadena, California: February 8th

My Dearest Natalie,

I hope this finds you well. Please give Duncan my warmest congratulations on reaching the noble age of ten and tell him I’m very sorry not to have written in time, but I send my affectionate thoughts today. I should dearly love to have a photograph of him to keep with the one I keep of you. Perhaps you would send one?

And now, to the matter in hand:- I think I may have found the perfect situation. There are three thousand acres of prime orchard in Orange County – such an appropriate name don’t you think? – and the agent tells me it’s a sure thing. (I cannot accustom myself to the American language. How, exactly, can a thing be sure?)

The land yields well: last season’s crop gave up seven thousand tons of first-rate fruit and two thousand tons for pulping (for jams and the like). I am already in negotiation with the owner but I need your knowledge of the land, Natalie. I want you to see the Orange County orchards before I take the final step. I think you will like the situation, not least because there are lakes whose configuration forcibly reminds me of the lochs at home. So I trust and hope they’ll have the same effect on you. I know how you dislike leaving Duncan but I cannot take this step without you. So, dearest Natalie, please make the journey.

I enclose a cutting from the New York Times. She sails from Southampton in April.

Telegraph your decision.

Yours affectionately, Jocelyn

*

Natalie’s Diary: Fife, Scotland: March 15th

Duncan was quite beside himself this morning. He was, as Jocelyn would say, over-excited. He had the photographer and all his endlessly fascinating equipment to question for the whole morning but afterwards, when he sat still, when he thought I wasn’t looking, his small shoulders drooped and his sadness was obvious.

He told me he didn’t want me to sail to America. When I told him I must he ran from the room in such a fury that I’m still shaken.
Sometimes I wonder if I know my son at all.

*

The North Atlantic: April 14th

One of ship’s wireless operators, Arnold Kilbride, is attending to a backlog of passenger Marconigrams. There are so many to send they stop incoming messages getting through. Kilbride has already replied to an incoming message that warned of heavy pack ice in the area. He’d tapped out a curt, ‘Shut up. I am busy,’ because he must get on with the job he’s employed to do and anyway he’s delivered four ice warnings to the Bridge already. But when he stops tapping out yet another passenger message to bend and stretch his stiff forefinger, an incoming message beeps its high-pitched notes through his headset and when Kilbride realises he’s transcribing a fifth ice warning he decides to take it directly to the Captain. It’ll be quicker; and he knows he shouldn’t have been so terse in his earlier reply. Ice warnings are more important than sentimental passenger messages any day.

Kilbride delivers the warning to the Captain who’s sitting entertaining his guests at his table in the first-class dining saloon. As he leaves the saloon, Kilbride turns back to see the Captain excusing himself to the guests at his table. He sees him stand and walk across the saloon. He sees him hand the Chairman the ice warning; watches him lean down and speak into the Chairman’s ear. The Chairman looks up at the Captain, says something in reply, but he doesn’t look at the ice warning. Not once. When the Captain turns away the Chairman folds the warning neatly and puts it into the pocket of his starched white evening jacket without reading a word.

*

Fife, Scotland: April 14th

Mama’s eyes are closed.

She doesn’t see her hat floating off her head. She doesn’t see her hair flowing round her face. She doesn’t see the white collar of her dress rippling under her chin or the string of pearls floating upwards.

But I see it all and I plunge into the water and catch hold of her pearls and I pull her up, up, up. I pull her into the air above the water, where she can breathe. And all the time I’m pulling her – it isn’t tiring at all – I’m singing inside my head and telling her to sing with me.

*

The North Atlantic: April 14th

Arnold Kilbride’s hands shake as he taps out more passenger Marconigrams. After what he saw in the dining saloon he can’t concentrate properly. He’s dealt with every ice warning according to his orders and he exceeded his orders with the last one. But he knows now he might as well have flung every single warning over the ship’s rail.

At eleven o’clock, when a seventh ice warning makes its way through the welter of outgoing messages, Arnold Kilbride runs for his life to the Bridge. If no one else will, he’ll persuade whoever’s on watch to change the ship’s course before it’s too late.

*

Fife, Scotland: April 15th

‘It was only a nightmare, Duncan,’ says his Nurse. ‘It wasn’t real.’

But Duncan will not be moved from the fireside, even though the fire’s cold. He’s asked Nurse Margaret to wrap him in a rug ‘Indian-fashion’ and now he’s rocking backwards and forwards, staring into the ashes.
‘You’d be much warmer in bed,’ says the Nurse. ‘It’s the middle of the night.’

The nursery clock chimes six.

‘It’s the morning,’ says Duncan. ‘The water’s freezing and Mama’s in danger.’

‘Come, come,’ says Nurse Margaret. ‘Dinna fash. Dinna fash.’

*

The North Atlantic: April 15th

Dip and pull, dip and pull, dip and pull. That’s all I let myself think for I must row with all the strength I can muster to help the able seaman, to help the other passengers. I have taught the women to row. Dip and pull, dip and pull, dip and pull. I say we must shut out the screams of the ones we had to leave behind. I say we must keep rowing. I say we are sure to be rescued. But my whole being shakes.

I have comforted the other women as best I can, the women who stood on the boat deck and clung to their husbands: the women who knew even then that they might not see their menfolk again.

There’s nothing for it now but to row.

The sea is, thank heavens, as calm as could be: I’d never imagined a great ocean this calm, and when the able seaman asks me to take the tiller I do so willingly. I helm our little boat beneath a sky so filled with stars that I am, for a long moment, pulled up into its beauty.

When I take up my oar once more, I see Duncan sitting beside me.

I know he isn’t really there and I know he could not manage an oar this size if he was. But it doesn’t matter. Duncan takes the oar opposite mine and he tells me to sing. He says it will make me strong.

*

The Dance of Love, coverThe Daily Telegraph: New York: April 22nd

‘There was a woman in my boat as was a woman.’

So said Able Seaman Thomsett James when he spoke to The Daily Telegraph yesterday.

‘I was one of those ordered to man the boats,’ he said. ‘My place was in Number Eight boat. There were thirty-five of us, nearly all women. I was in command, but we only shipped half capacity so I told my passengers I’d rather drown with the ones who had no boats than leave them behind in the water. But most of my passengers were against going back and I couldn’t persuade them. They were afraid Titanic’s suction would take us all down.’

Able-Bodied Seaman James is tired and somewhat subdued from the things he lived through last Monday, but his eyes light up and his speech becomes animated when you ask him what part the women played in the hours after RMS Titanic sank. ‘This one woman, I never learned her name, was helping every minute. When I saw the way she was carrying herself, when I heard the quiet, determined way she spoke to the others, the way she comforted them, I knew she was more of a man than any we had on board. So I put her in command. I put her at the tiller.

‘You should have seen her. She had a string of pearls at her neck but when she rowed she rowed as well as any man. And she taught the others. And then, if you please, she said we should sing.’

Able-Bodied Seaman James’s face creases into a smile. ‘I should think we sang,’ he said. ‘She led us. We began with Pull for the Shore and then we sang all the songs we could muster. Keel songs, they were. Kept us steady. We were still singing when we saw the lights of the rescue ship, the RMS Carpathia, steaming towards us. We sang for all we were worth that night. It was the singing that distracted us, kept our spirits up, gave us the strength to carry on.’

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Angela Young’s novel, The DANCE of LOVE, grew from Keel Songs which, in turn, grew from the real events of her great-grandmother’s experience on the Titanic. You can find out more, and about Young’s first novel, SPEAKING of LOVE, here www.angela-young.co.uk

Angela’s second novel The Dance of Love was reviewed in Issue 2 of Shiny New Books – click here — and she wrote about the process of writing it for us here.

BUY The Dance of Love from the Book Depository.

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