“Women and children first! Women and children first!”
A brandy snifter in one hand, a cigar in the other, I am alone as I watch people rush about on deck from the comfort of my leather chair in the first-class smoking room. It’s past midnight, the lights flicker, but I am ruthlessly serene, for I did not overcome my childhood in the slums of the East End to drown in the freezing Atlantic water.
Second-class is where I belong, but who’s to care now? When faced with death, we’re all in the same boat.
Perhaps you’ve heard of me, Julian Grey, or seen my name on music hall marquees from Belfast to London.
I’ve made an enviable living as a comic, mimic, dancer, and acrobat. But what has brought me my greatest fame, and why I set sail on the Titanic to New York at the request of vaudeville manager, William Hammerstein, is my unfathomable ability to juggle five balls with my feet.
I put my cigar into an ashtray and set down the glass. Twisting the ends of my mustache, I am resolved about what I’m to do next, for I’ve never been one to pass up an opportunity.
I rise. The ship lurches. Poker chips, chess pieces, and tumblers fall on the floor. With my walking stick, I whack them away and stagger toward the door.
The ship creaks, a slow back and forth. The vessel tilts. I balance myself between the doorway.
The corridor is empty.
I open the door to a first-class suite. What finery, such elegance. There’s a diamond stickpin and a ruby ring on the mahogany dresser. Did I mention that I am also a thief? I drop the stickpin and ruby ring into my coat pocket. I open the armoire and glide my hand over the dresses until I choose one.
If costumed in one lady’s attire, I might draw attention, so I open the door to the next cabin.
“Excuse me, Sir,” I say. A man holds a whiskey bottle in one hand and a Bible in the other. “Aren’t you going on deck?”
“Leave me be young man.”
I shut the door.
The next room is charming, even as the furniture slides to the wall, with peacock patterns on overturned chairs, an electric fireplace, a vanity fit for Sarah Bernhardt. Stumbling, I open a chest of drawers grab undergarments and a scarf.
What I need is a warm coat, ladies’ boots, and a hat. The lights go off, then on. I must hurry.
I enter a suite across the hall.
The room is in shambles. The dresser is on its side, a chair on its back. I throw the clothes on the bed and go to the trunk and take out a winter coat, lace-up boots, and a hat with a feather.
What I am about to do may seem shameful.
I sit on the edge of the bed next to the heap of clothes and remove my coat, then my tie and collar. My brother, may he rest in peace, comes to mind as I unbutton my shirt.
The binding is tight around my chest, and I begin to unfasten. Charles, was more than a brother, a father, he was (I continue to unwind) to me, a motherless devil-rat, five years to his twelve. The bandage is off. My breasts are revealed.
I remove my trousers and drawers and pull the padding from between my legs. At a young age, Charles dressed me as a boy — “You’ll be safer, and we can make a shilling or two.” We performed on street corners and in taverns, and as I grew and girls liked me, I liked them back. I am not an impersonator like the popular music hall drags. I am a man, and I’ve made the best of my oddity.
Naked, I dress.
Perfumes from the clothes make my eyes water. I put my wallet, cuff links, and stolen jewelry into the pocket of the woolen coat and squeeze my feet into the boots.
There is a strangeness to it, and I feel an utter distaste, the way the undergarments rustle and swish. Above the dresser is a mirror. I put on the hat and cover my short hair but leave a fringe that falls over my forehead. The mustache, I peel off and put in my pocket.
Pinching my cheeks, the way I’ve seen my lovers do, I leave the way I came and go onto the deck.
Such chaos and panic. A man says good-bye to his wife and son as a lifeboat is lowered. Their cries provoke pity.
“Is there room?” I ask in a feminine voice.
“No, Miss,” a crew member shouts. “Might be on the other side.”
My unease mounts. I hurry among the crowd. My air of detachment collapses as I shove aside men and go around the stern. A lifeboat hangs from the davits.
“Women and children first!”
It’s mayhem. Men implore their families to board, promising everything will be all right. From their shabby clothes, it’s easy to see they’re from steerage.
“What do we have here?” a shipmate yells. He removes a shawl and a scarf from the head of a man trying to board. “Josser.”
A woman has the vapors and faints in her husband’s arms.
A crowd gathers by a lifeboat hanging from the derricks. Men step aside as I make my way through them.
Before me is a woman and her three daughters. Their tattered clothes arouse my sympathy. I slip the ruby ring into the woman’s coat pocket.
“Come on, Miss,” a deckhand says. He takes my arm and helps me into the boat.
Other than the two in command of rowing, I am the only man.
I dismiss any charge that I am a coward. Be that as it may, it will forever be a blessing, an irony indeed, that what saved me was the hand I was dealt.