Hills and Valleys
I wrote this short story for the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition. These were my requirements: genre-historical fiction, subject-disown, character-newspaper delivery person.
Brief synopsis: Life is full of ups and downs, hills and valleys, love and loss. It isn’t always smooth sailing.
8 April 1912
Blood oozed from the cut on Benjamin Lynch’s lip. He couldn’t stop running long enough to stanch the flow. His brother-in-law was on his heels, spoiling for a fight.
Benjamin rounded the corner at the Pig Whistle Pub. The sidewalk along the quay was crowded with pedestrians: women in elaborate wide-brimmed hats, men smoking cigars, children carelessly licking ice cream cones.
The street was empty. With no hesitation, Benjamin ran into the road. He noticed the pile of horse manure in time to jump over it. The brute chasing him wasn’t so fortunate.
Benjamin spared a backward glance when he reached the other side of the road. What he saw made him smile, causing him to wince in pain. He took a handkerchief from his pocket, pressed it to his throbbing lip and hurried away from the man sitting in shit in the middle of the road.
Relieved to be rid of the overgrown oaf, Benjamin slowed his pace after two blocks. He wasn’t afraid to fight but striking his wife’s brother was out of the question. Her family despised him enough with no violence in the equation. He reached home unaccompanied.
Theodosia was ironing a dress in the kitchen. She took one look at her injured grandson with blood on his shirt and rushed to his side. “What happened to you?”
“Rachel’s brother threw a rock at me.” The old woman steered him to the bench at the kitchen table.
“Keep your voice down. Rachel’s resting,” she said before moving to the cupboard. She retrieved a cloth, poured water on it, and handed it to him.
“Something’s burning,” he said.
His grandmother scurried back to the steaming, flat, black iron she’d left on the sleeve of the dress. She moved the heavy iron to the cooker before examining the damage. Holding the fabric up, she frowned at the copy of the iron burned into the sleeve. “I guess I’ll have to turn this into a short-sleeve dress.”
“I’m sorry,” Benjamin said.
Joining him on the bench, she rested her arm on his. “The dress is the least of my concerns.” She unconsciously patted his ink-stained hand. “I thought Rachel asked you to stay away from her family.”
“She did, but I had to try to reason with her father one more time.” He looked down at the paper-thin skin on her hand, the hills and valleys of veins as pronounced as the image of the iron on the dress.
“You two are my family now,” said Rachel, “and this little one.”
Benjamin and Theodosia turned at the sound of Rachel’s voice. The young woman stood in the doorway, hands resting on her pregnant belly. The sadness she saw in her husband’s eyes equaled her own. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. It looks worse than it is.”
“Tell me what happened,” she said, approaching the table.
“I wanted to talk to your father, but your brother wouldn’t let me inside the gate.”
“The big one,” he said.
“They’re all big,” she replied.
“I think it was Aaron. I told him he’d be an uncle soon.”
“What did he say?”
Benjamin couldn’t make himself repeat the ugly words he’d heard. The last thing he wanted was to heap more hurt on her. “He didn’t say anything. He just picked up a rock and threw it at me.”
Rachel sat across from her husband. She studied the pattern on the tablecloth. The room was so quiet the ticking of the clock was abnormally loud.
TICK. TICK. TICK.
She sighed heavily and looked at her husband. “How can I still care so much about people who don’t seem to care about me at all?”
TICK. TICK. TICK.
Unable to answer her question, Benjamin grasped her hand and squeezed. The despair on her face was too much to bear. He turned his gaze to his grandmother.
“I have an idea,” Theodosia said, desperate to ease the tension. “Come on. We’re going to the inn for high tea.”
The next morning, Benjamin woke before Rachel. She was nestled behind him, snoring softly. He felt two soft thumps on his lower back. Rolling over, he spread his left hand on her stomach. His son kicked him again.
He could hear his grandmother preparing breakfast. Reluctantly, he rose and dressed for work.
“Good morning,” he said. “Did you sleep well?”
Theodosia stopped slicing bread and looked at him. “I didn’t sleep at all and you know why.”
“Gran, I’m not changing my mind. If I get the job, I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“But what about Rachel and the baby?”
“They are why I need to do this,” he said. “Once I get established and save more money, I’ll send for them . . . and you.”
“You can’t even imagine how much I’ll miss you.” She reached to adjust the newsboy cap on his head.
He smiled at her and said, “I’ll miss you too, but I have to make a better life for Rachel and little Ben.”
“I’m not convinced she’s carrying a boy,” Theodosia said.
“Well, I am,” he said, reaching for a slice of bread.
She swatted his arm. “Put that back. I’m making toast.”
“I don’t have time for toast. I’ve got newspapers to sell.” He kissed her on the cheek. “Ouch, my lip still hurts.”
The silly look on his face reminded her of his younger years. As a nine-year-old, he’d started hawking newspapers in order to survive. His mother died giving birth to him. His father dealt with that fact by drinking himself to death. Theodosia was his only living kin. She was a widow who made ends meet as a dressmaker. They had each other and very little else when he was growing up.
Thanks to the triumvirate of desperation, talent, and perseverance, the two managed within a decade to attain a certain level of comfort. Benjamin wanted more. A lot more. His ambition motivated him to work hard. But his country’s class system stifled him. And his in-laws infuriated him. They’d disowned their only daughter for falling in love with a Catholic of limited means.
Benjamin carried an armful of newspapers to the corner he’d thought of as his own for ten years. His best mate was waiting for him.
“I have brilliant news,” Ernest said.
“I got the job?”
“You got the job.” Ernest extended his arm for a handshake. Benjamin dropped the bundle of newspapers and hugged him instead.
“I’m gobsmacked. How can I thank you for the recommendation?”
“No need to thank me. I need the help, and you’re the perfect man for the job.”
“I can’t believe we’re going to America,” Benjamin said.
“I can’t believe it either.” Ernest looked at his pocket watch. “We’re leaving in a little over twenty-four hours.”
“Say, that’s a dandy. Where did you get that pocket watch?”
“Beatrice gave it to me for my birthday.” He held it out to show Benjamin the elaborate E and B on the back of it. “She had it engraved with our initials.”
“That’s impressive,” Benjamin said.
“So is your fat lip,” Ernest said, pointing at Benjamin’s face. “What happened?”
“I tried to talk to Rachel’s dad yesterday.”
“Did he hit you?”
“Of course not,” Benjamin said. “He’s a rabbi. He punches with his words not his fists.”
“Who hit you?”
Rachel’s brother threw a rock at me and I’m glad.”
“Are you daft?”
“Probably, but I’m going to use this grievous wound to my advantage. The more sympathy I get, the more papers I sell.”
“There’s no time for that. You need to meet with Mr. Mishellany. He’s waiting for you in the lobby at the Criterion on Oxford Street.”
“I have to sell these newspapers first.”
“I’ll do it for you,” Ernest said. “You don’t want to keep our boss waiting too long.”
“I don’t deserve your friendship,” Benjamin said.
“Don’t be a wanker.” Ernest clapped him on the back. “Get going.”
“Seriously, thank you for giving my family a future.” Benjamin barely got the words out around the lump in his throat. He walked away from his mate, headed in the direction of Oxford Street.
Ernest picked up a newspaper and held it up. “Extra! Extra! Read all about it. Titanic sets sail tomorrow!”
Benjamin turned and looked at Ernest. They grinned at each other.
Entering the Criterion, Benjamin didn’t recognize Abraham Mishellany right away. They’d only met once, briefly. “Thank you so much for this opportunity,” Benjamin said. He stuck his hand out to shake the hand of his new boss. It didn’t escape his attention that the man’s hand was as discolored as his own as a result of years of contact with ink.
“Ernest speaks very highly of you,” Abraham said. “Have you ever sailed on a ship?”
“No, I’ve never been out of Southampton,” Benjamin replied.
“Let’s hope you get your sea legs quickly.” He chuckled and gestured for Benjamin to sit. “You’ll be assisting Ernest with typesetting. We’ll be printing the Atlantic Daily Bulletin for the passengers.” He lit a cigarette, and continued, “We’ll print other things too, mainly daily menus for the dining rooms. Do you have any questions?”
“Only about a hundred,” Benjamin said.
Abraham smiled. “Okay, but first I’ll need you to fill out this paperwork.” He gestured to the papers on the table bearing the logo of the White Star Line.
An hour later, Benjamin returned to an empty house. He couldn’t wait to share his big news, but he couldn’t find his wife or grandmother. He found a note on the kitchen table, read it and ran out of the house.
“Sir, please keep your voice down,” said the woman behind the desk.
“I’m sorry,” Benjamin replied, “but I’ve been all over this hospital and I can’t find my wife.”
“There you are,” said Theodosia, rushing to him from the hallway.
“Is Rachel . . . is she . . .”
“She’s alive, but she’s lost a lot of blood. She’s in surgery now,” Theodosia said.
“What about the baby?”
“The baby is breech. The doctor is performing a procedure he called a cesarean.”
“What’s that? Is Rachel going to be okay?"
“Ben, I don’t have any answers.” She put her arm around her grandson. “Let’s go to the waiting room.”
He paced and checked the clock on the wall every few seconds. He would’ve sworn time had slowed to a crawl. He was staring out the window, looking but not really seeing the flowers on the lawn, when the doctor entered the waiting room. Benjamin turned to see an exhausted man approaching him.
“Are you Mr. Lynch?”
“Yes,” Benjamin said.
“I’m Dr. Ford. Your wife survived the surgery. We’re trying to get her vital signs stabilized. She’s in critical condition.”
“What about the baby?” Theodosia said.
“She’s very healthy,” the doctor said, “and she’s got quite the set of lungs. I’m surprised you can’t hear her in here. A nurse will let you know when you can see them both.”
Theodosia looked at her grandson. Tears streamed down his face.
The moon was up by the time Benjamin got to see his wife. He sat in a chair next to her bed. “She’s so beautiful, Rachel. I wish you could see her.” He picked up his wife’s limp hand. She didn’t open her eyes. “Please wake up. I love you so much. I can’t do this without you. Please wake up.”
A nurse woke him in the middle of the night. He’d fallen asleep in the chair. He asked, “How’s she doing?”
“About the same,” the nurse replied.
At sunrise, Theodosia insisted he leave Rachel’s side to get some food. “I’ll stay with her,” she said. “You go see little Theo and eat some breakfast.”
“So, you’ve named her after you,” he said.
“Of course, she looks just like me,” Theodosia said.
Benjamin smiled, stood and stared at his grandmother. “I forgot to tell you. I got the job.” She gave him an incredulous look.
“I’m not going. Of course, I’m not going. Everyone I love, everything I need is here,” he said.
Her face flooded with relief. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you all along,” she said.
When the Titanic departed Southampton, he was giving his daughter a bottle for the first time. The evening the ship struck the iceberg, Rachel emerged from her coma. She was surrounded by her family. Her entire family--Benjamin, Theodosia, little Theo, her parents, and her seven brothers, including Aaron.
1 September 1985
Theo was talking to her daughter on the phone. “Rachel, I’ve got to hang up. It’s time for the news and you know I never miss it.”
“Okay, bye Mom. I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” Rachel said.
Theo set the phone down next to the antique iron she used as a paperweight. The same iron her namesake had used in the same kitchen. She moved slowly into the living room. The dreary, wet weather bothered her bursitis. She settled herself on the couch and clicked on the TV.
The screen filled with an image of the ocean. The announcer said, “Dr. Robert Ballard made history today. He discovered the wreckage of the Titanic utilizing the Argo, an unmanned submersible equipped with powerful lights and cameras to aid in the search.”
Theo couldn’t believe it. Her entire life, seventy-three years, the Titanic had loomed large in family lore. She turned up the volume. The announcer said, “The Argo captured video from a portion of the debris field.”
Theo watched as the Argo circled a boiler, from the Titanic’s engine room, embedded in the sandy surface of the ocean floor. Then it floated up a small hill. Near the top of the hill, it passed elegant plates, teacups, and a beaded purse.
Dipping down into the valley between two hills it glided by a pair of leather boots and hovered over what appeared to be a pocket watch. Theo stared as the camera focused and zoomed in on the letters E and B.
Author's notes: when I found out that I'd be required to write an historical fiction short story of 2,500 words or less, I wanted to cry. Historical fiction is intimidating to me; nevertheless, I immediately started churning out ideas and words. Turns out, that's not a great approach. I wasted two days jumping down rabbit holes on the internet in an effort to figure out exactly what the plot would be. Finally, I hit on what I wanted to write about with five days to actually do it.
Some of you may remember I've written about the Titanic before. I'm fascinated by it. Yes, I saw James Cameron's Titanic movie multiple times. Yes, I'd watch it again because I'm that interested in the subject. Yes, I believe Rose could've made room for Jack on the piece of floating debris. Yes, I know they weren't real people but still she could've made it work.
It was important to me that I not try to copy the movie. That's why I opted for a happy ending for Benjamin and Rachel. I did a lot of research for this story. There's a ton of information available online. The problem is that I don't know how accurate the information actually is.
I learned that the Titanic did have a printing room that employed Ernest and Abraham. They were real crew members who perished in the tragedy. Ernest was married to Beatrice, and they had a young child at the time of his death. Abraham spent the night before boarding the ship at the Criterion on Oxford Street which is a building that still exists.
The Titanic supposedly had a publication called the Atlantic Daily Bulletin; however, there's lots of speculation about it. Some people say it was only a handwritten type of a newsletter that wasn't actually printed. Others say that with more time perhaps it would've been a printed publication from the printing room on board the ship.
I also researched cesarean sections. That was a rabbit hole I kind of wish I hadn't jumped down. It was very interesting but very graphic.
Newsboys of that era are also fascinating. They were the primary means of distributing newspapers and some were as young as five-years-old. In America, a 12-year-old newsboy named Kid Blink, because of his eye patch, organized the first strike of newsboys in New York. I spent way too much time reading about that but I couldn't help myself. Google Kid Blink and you'll see what I'm talking about.
Finally, Dr. Robert Ballard is a very real person and a very smart person. I watched hours of YouTube videos of him explaining his process for discovering the wreckage. He actually engineered the Argo himself to aid in locating the wreckage. He's not a happy camper about all the salvage operations that have taken artifacts from the wreckage/graveyard. I may, or may not, have a bit of a crush on his big (wait for it) brain.
Speaking of artifacts, the picture of the pocket watch is supposedly from the wreckage of the Titanic. It didn't belong to Ernest, but apparently belonged to one of several men in charge of the mail. The Titanic was a Royal Mail Ship responsible for the delivery of thousands of pieces of mail.
I'll find out the results of the first round of the competition in late March and let you know if I get to advance. I'm keeping my fingers crossed because I'd love to make it out of the first round this time. Even if I don't advance, I learned a lot about varied subjects and I did it in my PAJAMAS ALL DAY.