“Ronnie, I got them!”
Harriet Mitchell bounded up the steps to her friend's front door, waving a nondescript white envelope above her head.
“They came this morning!”
Veronica Pickles, 'Ronnie' to her friends stood in the open doorway of her Belgravia townhouse, a puzzled frown on her pretty, young face.
“What came this morning, Hattie?”
Harriet's face was flushed with excitement as she thrust the envelope into Veronica's hand.
“The tickets, silly! For our cruise! Have you forgotten?”
Ronnie thought hard. She and Harriet had been friends since they met on the first day of kindergarten some thirty years ago. They were so close they were almost like sisters. Ignoring the fact that Harriet had thick, flame-red hair and Veronica had long straight, chestnut brown hair.
They were similar in height and build, both around five feet seven and slightly built.
They generally shared the same thoughts, but this time Harriet had the better of her. Try as she might, Ronnie could not remember anything about booking a cruise together.
She turned the plain white envelope over and lifted the flap which had already been opened.
Inside were two tickets printed in the old Edwardian style. The logo, written across the top of each one, stated, 'Blue Star Line'.
“Hattie!” she shouted out with excitement. “You didn't!”
Harriet looked at her and nodded.
“But that was ten years ago!”
“I know. I told you that if the Titanic II project ever became a reality, I would get tickets, and it has.”
Ronnie turned the tickets over.
“We leave Southampton on the Tenth of April? But that's the same day the original sailed. A hundred and six years before.”
“Uh-huh. That's the point of the whole thing. They are going to recreate the original voyage... without the iceberg, of course.”
Veronica felt a chill run up her spine and shivered.
“I never really thought it would happen...”
“You do still want to go, don't you? I mean, those tickets cost me over four thousand pounds.”
Ronnie took a deep breath and smiled.
“Yes. Yes, Hattie, I absolutely do. You know how much I love reading about those old liners.”
Harriet breathed a sigh of relief.
“There is nothing to worry about, of course. Although it looks like the original, Titanic II is a very modern ship. It has all the navigational aids that the original never had, and...” she paused for effect, “...it has enough lifeboats!”
Ronnie stared down at the tickets.
“We're really going to do it?” Slowly a smile appeared on her face which became a wide grin. “We really are going to do it! Hattie, you're the best friend ever!”
She threw her arms around her friend's neck, and the two of them danced a jig on the tiled floor in front of the door.
The tenth of April finally arrived. Veronica and Harriet arrived at Southampton at Eight that morning. When they stepped out of the taxi on the quayside, they just stood and stared in awe at the immense vessel. It was considerably smaller than the new 'Queens'. Mary the Second, Elizabeth, and Victoria, but, nevertheless, its majesty was sublime.
Totally unnoticed, the driver had taken their four big suitcases from the estate car and was waiting patiently. He had said something, but neither had heard, their attention having been given solely to the magnificent if somewhat eerie ship before them. It looked out of place somehow, as though it had been transported there from a different time. An era of ocean voyages long before the jet age had all but put an end to them.
“Ahem.” The taxi driver cleared his throat. He was waiting to leave.
“Oh, yes. Sorry, I was miles away,” Ronnie told him, taking five twenty-pound notes from her purse and passing them to him. “Thank you,” she said, waving away the change.
The driver looked once more at the black, white, and buff ship and shook his head.
“It's like a ghost,” he said and then added, “Have a safe voyage, Ladies. I mean it.”
The girls looked at each other and laughed.
“Morbid Tyke!” they said, simultaneously then took two handles each and, laughing happily, dragged their leaden cases into the departure lounge.
There was no delay. Passports and documents were checked, and their cases were taken from them to be sent directly to their cabin.
Once aboard, Veronica and Harriet were shown to their second-class cabin by a white-uniformed steward. They barely heard a word he said as he led them down the wood-effect, panelled corridor. So enthralled were they at the similarity between this brand new ship and its predecessor of over one hundred years before that mere words just passed them by.
“Ronnie, look at this room. It's fantastic!”
Harriet just stood and stared at everything, turning only her head to take in the two bunks, one above the other, and the typically Titanic furniture. Although a modern variation, which the original second-class cabins didn't have, the en-suite bathroom was furnished in the same Edwardian style. With brass taps and fittings and a free-standing bath. The vanity washbasin was housed in a wooden style cabinet in the main room in the same place as the original would have been.
“It really is like stepping back in time, isn't it?” her friend replied.
Suddenly, Veronica grabbed her arm.
“Come on, Hattie, let's explore! We can unpack later!
Just as her predecessor had, more than a century earlier, the second ship to bear the Titanic name slipped its mooring. And so began the first leg of its maiden voyage. The first destination, Cherbourg, planned for a little over six hours.
The ship had attracted a mass of spectators and press, just as the original had on its own departure. This time, though, mobile phones were being held aloft. Television crews were filming whilst reporters talked into microphones, detailing this momentous occasion. The passengers, again, as on that fateful day in Nineteen-Twelve, lined the railings and waved and cheered until they were too far away to be heard or seen. Then, one by one they drifted away until Harriet and Veronica were left alone at the rail.
“This is wonderful, Hattie. I'm so glad you remembered. If it hadn't been for all the modern-day stuff on the dockside, I would have felt as though I had gone back in time.”
Harriet didn't move, her eyes remained fixed on the receding shoreline.
“Have we done the right thing, Hattie?” Veronica asked her friend. “Are we tempting the fates by doing this?”
Harriet stared at her.
“It's not like you to be superstitious,” she replied. “Times have moved on since nineteen-twelve. They have all the modern equipment on board. There'll be no lookouts, you know.”
“Huh, so did the Costa Concordia, and we all know what happened to that.”
“Are you all right, Ronnie? I mean, if it troubles you so much, we can still get off at Calais or Queenstown.”
“No, no. Ignore me. I am just being silly. Maybe the atmosphere is more authentic than I imagined it would be.”
“Come on, let's unpack. We'll take a little rest and then see what else this magnificent vessel has to offer.
Four days later and the conversation at the deck rail was but a distant memory. Veronica and Hattie soon got into the spirit of the voyage. They had even brought several period dresses to make the trip even more authentic.
On the evening of the fourth day, Veronica and Harriet had dressed in ball gowns as there was to be a grand dance that night.
“Can we go down the grand staircase, Hattie? I would love to do that in this dress.”
“Of course! As if we wouldn't!”
So, about half an hour later, the two starstruck girls stood at the top, ready to make the grand entrance that such an occasion demanded.
As they descended the first, shorter staircase, they were amazed by the cavernous space around them. It was just as remembered from the pictures they had seen so many times. The same white linoleum tiles on the floor, the ornately carved finials and posts. Harriet nudged her friend.
“Can you imagine,” she said, “If this was the original ship, we wouldn't have seen any of this, having only second-class tickets!”
“Yes, times have certainly changed,” Veronica replied as she stepped out onto the second, large staircase. She marvelled at the enormous stained-glass dome and the perfect replica of the original chandelier.
Unfortunately, because she wasn't paying attention, she hadn't noticed that the heel of her period-style shoe had caught in the hem of her dress. As she went to place her foot on the next step she was thrown forwards and tumbled heavily to the bottom.
When she came to, she was lying on a bed in what appeared to be a hospital room. An officer in an immaculately white uniform was holding her wrist and timing her pulse with a pocket watch.
“Ah,” he said when she opened her eyes. “You are back with us.”
Veronica looked around.
“Where am I?” she asked. “What happened? Why does my head hurt so much?”
“You are in the infirmary, I'm afraid. I am the Assistant Surgeon, Doctor John Simpson. Apparently, you tripped at the top of the grand staircase. Do you remember?”
“Erm... no, actually. The last thing I remember is looking up at the chandelier.”
Veronica couldn't help but notice how strikingly handsome he was. He had really taken the time to fit in with the era. She estimated that he was in his mid to late thirties with neatly trimmed short, dark hair and a moustache, which was twisted to a point at either end.
“Do you know what the date is today?” he asked.
“Yes, of course, I do. Don't you?”
The doctor smiled and Veronica was sure that her heart missed a beat.
“Yes, I do. It is just to check that you are not concussed. You did bang your head rather hard on the floor, you know. You were unconscious for quite a while.”
“Oh, I see,” she replied, feeling a little embarrassed at the flippancy of her answer.
There was a brief pause.
“So...” he said eventually.
Veronica frowned again. Then she understood what he wanted.
“Oh, yes. Sorry. Fourteenth of April,” she quickly replied.
He smiled again.
“Good. And the year?”
Veronica raised her eyes in mock exasperation.
“Twenty-eighteen, of course!” and smiled happily. She couldn't help herself. When she found a man she liked, she would always flirt. It was how she was.
The smile vanished from the doctor's face, and he asked again.
“I'm sorry, did you say Twenty-eighteen?”
“No, I'm sorry. I didn't think the role play extended to medical incidents.”
“Miss Pickles, this is not a joke. Concussion can be very serious, life-threatening even. Please, tell me today's date without any playing around.”
Veronica was abashed. His tone had changed so suddenly that she was now ashamed that she had made light of this situation.
“I'm sorry,” she apologised. “It's the fourteenth of April, two thousand and eighteen.”
He stared at her. He looked so concerned that she was worried she may have done some damage to herself.
“What?” she asked slowly. “What's wrong?”
“Miss Pickles, it is nineteen hundred and twelve.”
“Doctor Simpson!” she scolded him. “You just told me off for being flippant!”
He remained so straight-faced that Veronica began to worry more. She propped herself up on her elbows, and immediately her head throbbed with a dull ache.
Doctor Simpson placed his hand gently on her shoulder.
“Please, lay back and relax,” he said gently. I need to do some tests.”
She did as she was bid and lay back, but whilst his finger moved in front of her eyes, her mind was beginning to churn.
“Doctor Simpson!” she said suddenly.
He stopped what he was doing.
“Yes?” he said.
“Doctor John Edward Simpson!”
He straightened up.
“That's right,” he said carefully. “Do you know me?”
“I read about you on the internet. And this ship is...”
“Inter what?” he interrupted.
“Never mind. What is this ship?”
“Titanic. My, My! You did bang your head...”
“The Second?” Veronica interrupted.
He looked worried and shook his head very slowly.
“Not to my knowledge,” he replied, “I am not aware of another ship named Titanic...”
Veronica sat up and swung her legs over the side of the cot, and immediately he put out his hand to stop her. She pushed him away.
“What time is it?” she demanded.
“Almost Ten o'clock,” he replied, looking at his pocket watch. “Miss Pickles, you really must rest. You could have an injury that needs to be looked at!”
Veronica grabbed his wrist.
“Doctor Simpson, if you are telling me the truth and it really is ten o'clock on Sunday the fourteenth of April, Nineteen-Twelve. Then, unless this ship changes course immediately, you and more than fifteen hundred others will be at the bottom of the ocean before the dawn breaks!”
“Now you have me worried, Miss Pickles. It seems that the bang to your head was far worse than I first thought...”
“There is nothing wrong with my head, Doctor. I am deadly serious! At twenty minutes to midnight, this ship is going to hit an iceberg and sink unless Captain Smith alters course to port right now!”
He glared at her.
“Now, look. If you continue with this I will be forced to sedate you for your own safety. The Titanic cannot sink. Even if it does hit an iceberg, it has watertight compartments which will keep the ship afloat, so please, Miss, relax before you do yourself more harm.”
Veronica went to jump to her feet. An orderly who had seen the exchange grabbed her and pushed her gently but firmly back onto the cot.
Veronica was afraid. She didn't understand what had happened to her, but she knew she had to do something.
“Doctor Simpson,” she persevered. “You have little more than ninety minutes to avert a disaster of immense proportions of which you will be a victim. You have to tell Captain Smith!”
He took a deep breath.
“Look, I will get my senior officer to come and see you. He can speak to the Captain.”
“Yes, do that but do it quickly,” she urged. Every second wasted is a second less to avoid a collision!”
Before he left, Doctor Simpson spoke quietly with the orderly, and both looked furtively in her direction. The orderly nodded as though agreeing to something.
“I will be back shortly,” he said to her as he left the infirmary.
Veronica sat on the edge of the cot, drumming her fingers and watching the clock on the wall, its hands moving slower than any clock she had seen before.
Twenty minutes passed. Veronica couldn't contain herself any longer.
“Where is he?” she demanded of the orderly who merely shrugged his shoulders.
“It's a big ship, Ma'am,” she replied without conviction. “It can take time to find someone.”
“We don't have time, damn you!” she shouted and jumped to her feet.
Immediately, the orderly grabbed her arm and held her firmly.
“Oww... you're hurting me!” she exclaimed. “Let me go!”
“I'm sorry, Ma'am. Doctor Simpson gave me strict instructions. If you try to leave, I am to sedate and restrain you. It is for your own good, Ma'am.”
“No, it really isn't, I promise you,” she replied and tried to drag her arm away.
Suddenly she felt a sharp pain in her upper arm.
“Oh my... You didn't!” Veronica stared incredulously at the empty syringe the orderly was now holding and before she could say another word, collapsed back onto the cot.
She heard her name, distant, vague, but now louder and clear.
She opened her eyes to see an older, white-haired gentleman staring down at her. Immediately she was reminded of all those famous World War One recruiting posters of Lord Kitchener.
“Doctor O'Loughlin, thank goodness!” she exclaimed. “You have to listen to me!”
“You know who I am?” he replied.
“Yes, of course, I do. I know everything about the Titanic. I've studied her all my life!”
The older officer looked surprised.
“Ma'am. This is her maiden voyage. How could you have?”
Veronica thought and realised that she didn't have an answer. She tried to sit up, but something was preventing her.
“Try not to struggle, Miss. You are restrained to prevent you from hurting yourself. Doctor Simpson tells me that you had a premonition about an impending disaster.”
“It's not a premonition, Doctor! We are currently running at full speed through an ice field, are we not? Mr. Ismay has demanded that, hasn't he?”
The younger Doctor Simpson looked at his older superior, waiting for his response.
“Well... I can't...”
Veronica was trying not to become agitated again.
“Yes, you can, Doctor! It's true, isn't it?”
Doctor O'Loughlin appeared somewhat flustered.
“Well... Yes, all right, it is. How do you know?”
Veronica tried again to tell them how she knew but once again, she couldn't. Her mind was a blank. In her head, she could see the whole disaster unfolding, but the reason why she knew seemed to be hidden from her.
“What time is it now?” she asked.
Doctor Simpson looked at his pocket watch.
“Just after Eleven-thirty,” he replied. “Don't worry, we are not in a hurry. Take your time. You need rest to regain your senses.”
Veronica breathed out and relaxed, a huge sigh of resignation.
“It's too late,” she whispered. “I can't stop it.”
As she spoke, the infirmary began to vibrate. Just a little at first, but gradually growing in intensity until some of the glassware in cabinets touched and began to rattle.
The two surgeons looked at each other with concern etched on their faces.
“The Captain has ordered full astern and full left rudder,” Veronica said calmly. “It is too late, though. A ship this size can't turn quickly enough to avoid the inevitable so please, take these straps off me. I don't want to be one of the one thousand, five hundred and seventeen souls who will have met their fate within the next few hours!”
After a short wait for a response, during which none came, she continued.
“Look, I will not go crazy if you release me but if you don't, you are condemning me to a certain and unpleasant death.”
Doctor O'Loughlin nodded once, and the orderly began to unfasten the straps. As he released the first buckle, there was a high-pitched screeching sound. The ship seemed to lurch slightly. Some jars slipped from their glass shelf and smashed loudly onto the floor. The shuddering seemed to go on for such a long time but was just moments, and when it stopped, the ship was still and the Hospital silent.
“That's it,” Veronica said quite calmly. “We've struck the burg. Now you have around two and a half hours to get off this ship before it sinks, so please, let me up!”
The orderly released the final straps. Veronica swung her legs over the side of the cot and stood up. She felt a little woozy, but that was probably the effect of the sedative she had been given earlier.
She tried to clear her thoughts.
Doctor Simpson stared at her.
“How do you know all this?” he asked her again.
“I told you, I don't know,” she replied. “I just do. It seems I know exactly what is going to happen in the next two hours. By twenty past two, this ship will slip beneath the waves. It will not be discovered for another seventy-three years. I can't change anything now, the damage is already done but what I can do is help you save lives. You have to get all the third-class passengers up on deck.”
The Doctors looked at each other and smiled a faint smile.
“They will never allow that, Miss Pickles. There is a strict protocol. First-class... women and children first, then second-class, and finally, third.”
“For crying out loud, what is wrong with you people? Class doesn't matter now. Everyone is in danger. Are we not all human beings, regardless of our background or upbringing?”
“Miss Pickles, every person has their place in our society. It is what keeps it running. If we...”
“Yes, yes, I get it but at least give them a chance to survive. By keeping them below decks, you are passing a death sentence on them!”
Doctor O'Loughlin then put a fatherly hand upon her shoulder.
“It won't come to that, Miss. The Titanic can't sink. We will be delayed for a while, no doubt, but we won't sink. The designers had seen to that. I think that knock on the head when you fell has disorientated you somewhat. I think it best if you remain here and rest. Doctor Simpson will go and find out if there are any medical problems.”
Veronica sighed but kept calm.
“Let me ask you something,” she said gently. “Have either of you seen the drawings for the design of this ship? Do you know how she is constructed?”
Both the doctors shook their heads.
“Well, I have,” she went on. “The Titanic has sixteen watertight compartments, but..” she stopped as the younger officer interrupted.
“How have you seen the plans? Does your husband work for Harland and Wolff or the White Star Line?”
“No, I'm not married but listen to me. If the four compartments are damaged, that is fine. The ship will not sink. But right now, the freezing waters of the North Atlantic are pouring through the damage that has compromised not just four but five compartments. Compartments which only rise up to 'E' deck!”
“Oh now look, this really is too much. How can you know so much when you have no access...”
“For goodness sakes, shut up and listen to me, will you!” Veronica yelled at him. “As the water pours into those compartments, the ship will sink lower into the water. Then, when they are full, the water will cascade over the top of the bulkhead and into the sixth. Then the seventh and so on. Do you understand?”
Doctor O'Loughlin put his hand onto his subordinate's arm.
“What she says does sound feasible, John. Look, head up to the bridge, and see what you can find out.”
After the young surgeon left, the older man sat down on a nearby chair. He loosened the high collar of his uniform Jacket and studied the young, obviously intelligent woman standing before him.
“Who are you?” he asked.
Veronica sat on the edge of the cot.
“I'm Veronica Pickles. I am...” she began slowly, but her mind was blank. She couldn't remember anything before she awoke in the hospital. “I don't seem to remember. All I can remember is what happens to this ship, and I don't know why.”
“Well, I think you have suffered a concussion. You need rest, so I suggest you get some sleep, and we will see how things look in the morning.”
“Morning?” She jumped to her feet. “There won't be a morning for at least fifteen hundred souls... and I can't save them. It's too late.” The last words were whispered as the realisation that knowing what she did could not now make a difference. She couldn't change a thing. She slowly sat back on the bed.
Suddenly she jumped up again.
“Come on!” she said with great excitement. “Maybe we can't stop the Titanic sinking, but we can help to ensure that as many lives as possible are spared.”
Before Doctor O'Loughlin could react, she ran to the door and out into the corridor. Already she could feel that the deck was not level and had a distinct rise towards the stern.
Veronica turned left and ran towards the bow. The hospital was on 'D' deck, and she ran through the deserted first-class dining room and onto the grand staircase. Without a moment's thought, she ran down towards 'E' deck and the third-class accommodation. Her only thought was to rouse as many of those poor souls as she could.
At the bottom, she tried to stop so suddenly that her shoes slipped on the edge of the tiled step. She pitched forwards, landing with a splash in the freezing water. It was lapping at the base of the staircase!
The sudden shock of the cold water caused her to take a sudden and sharp intake of breath. She struggled to get to her feet again and out of the water's icy grip.
Strong hands seemed to be holding her, restraining her. A familiar soothing voice broke through the fuzziness in her brain.
“Hey, hey. Come on, Ronnie. It's all right. Wow, I thought you were really hurt there for a moment!”
Veronica stopped struggling and a sudden warmth returned to her.
“Hattie? What... how... what happened? Where am I?”
“You tripped on the stairs, silly. I can't believe you wore those shoes with a long dress. I mean really!”
Veronica looked around. Several faces were staring down at her, and one seemed vaguely familiar.
Harriet helped her to her feet.
“Doctor Simpson here wants you to go to the hospital where he can make sure that you are not hurt. Don't worry, it is fully equipped with all the modern stuff, not like the original.” Her laughter was shrill and rattled inside her aching head.
“Doctor John Edward Simpson?” she asked, the confusion making her head swim even more.
“No,” the young man smiled. “John Edward was my great-grandfather. He was Assistant Surgeon on the original Titanic. I am Doctor Michael Simpson. Sorry about the cold, wet cloth. I needed to cool your forehead to bring you round.”