by Fanni Sütő
Other TTV stories by Fanni Sütő
HMS Titania, the largest cruise ship in the world, was supposed to sail the waves until the end of time. The engineer who designed her boasted that his wondrous creation could serve as the second Noah’s ark when the New Flood came. People whispered a lot about the End of the World in those days. The veil of the Northern Light crumpled on the sky above London and the children played with ghosts. The Queen had grown old, but she could not die and the stream of Time became muddled in Great Britain. Sometimes I woke up screaming at 4 am then fell back on my bed weak and trembling. Faceless whispers spread on the street about the immortals living among us, feeding on our life. Young ladies kept home after nightfall and even the strong, young men moved in groups, clutching their swords.
It was rumoured that the curse-blessing of Queen Titania had a strange effect on her closest servants; their personal time became unpredictable. Some of them woke up on their thirtieth birthday to find themselves covered in wrinkles; some of them became helpless children just after they turned fifty. Their hair lost its colour and turned from crispy blonde into pale white. Others just disappeared never to be seen again. People were afraid that the “time plague” would eventually spread from the palace and ripple into their homes.
In those dark times the HMS Titania was like a ray of hope. It was something to celebrate, to rejoice about the greatness and the richness of the empire. I was fascinated by the great ship like everybody else but I had different reasons. I was engaged to the chief engineer’s son, Gordon Lighthand.
His father, Lord Lighthand, the celebrated engineer was also an aristocrat and the sparkling spice of every social event. He was a fan of ruby red port; hand-rolled cigars and artisans of love hired from the best brothels. But high life has its price and Lord Lighthands’s debts consumed him like slow poison.
My father, on the other hand, was the son of a simple farmer who climbed his way up the class ladder. A very prosaic remedy was the key to his success, Jonson’s Bitter Water – it worked wonders on constipation. Father was a guest of honour at the World Exhibition of Paris. Even his Holiness, Pope Pius drank Jonson’s Bitter after heavy Vatican dinners.
Money rained on us. But it wasn’t the easy gold of aristocrats, an inheritance, a prerogative. My father’s coins smelled of the sweat and the sulphur of bitter water. I attended the best schools and was invited to tea parties but the girls there always wrinkled their noses when I was around as if felt something nasty. Like the smell of new money.
I was an only child and I spent my days reading or walking in Hyde Park. I preferred the company of books, the sweet words of dead poets to actual people. This was my special space, a room of my own in my head. But a girl can never be just for herself. For a long time, I was the daughter of my father, “that Jonson girl.” Then one day my father found out that his health was failing. Not even his own magic water could help him. With every hair he lost, every wrinkle he found, he got more worried about my future.
Days disappeared down on the drains of life. I barely saw my father. Since his illness started, he buried himself not only into work but in the project of finding me a husband. This newest undertaking worried me.
“Papa, please don’t bring me an unbecoming and uncultivated suitor. At least promise me this,” I pleaded him.
“I will try, my darling.”
His words didn’t reassure me. I hoped he gave up on his project, but one day he arrived with a handsome, lanky boy called Jim. My heart missed a beat because I thought he was a suitor. My father laughed at my reaction and told me that Jim had come to take my picture for prospective suitors. While aristocratic daughters were still forced to sit motionless in front of a painter for hours, the more practical bourgeois fathers had their daughters photographed. Time was money, after all.
“This is real art,” Jim explained to me one afternoon. “In a painting the artist can lie. He can colour the skin younger and shape the handsomest of noses. In a photography shop, however, one sees only true images. The photographer has to find inner beauty, not to make it up. That is the real challenge. However not with such lovely young ladies,” he said nodding in my direction. I met Jim many times despite my father’s disapproval. Jim brought me the best sensational novels and also lent me some of his ragged Penny Dreadfuls. We became friends. We could have become something more if my future and the crumbling structure of the class system hadn’t cast their shadow over us.
The day that haunts me the most is when it all began. It was the middle of February and a cold green light poured in through the window of the winter garden. Every colour shone in high intensity and the smell of the sweating palm trees filled the air. I was reading one of Jim’s books that I’d wrapped in rosy silk paper to soften its looks into something unsuspicious. But underneath horrors and monsters lay in wait.
I was reading it for the umpteenth time because it made me think of Jim. The pages smelled like him, of machine oil, brandy and adventure. A smell I miss every day and know that I’m never going to feel it again. All I feel now is the cold and all I see is endless water. I wish there was something I could do to wrench myself out of this miserable state. If that were the price of salvation, I would drive a stake into my heart with my own hands or I would wring the neck of an albatross and play it as a bet in the gamble against Lady Life. But there is no way out.
Sometimes I think I got sucked into that novel. It was about a white-faced English gentleman unable to die. Condemned to a life of darkness, he had to pay the high price of immortality. Because Fate never gives you presents for free.
I was in the winter garden, reading the description of a tall, dark-haired gentleman when I heard a knock on the door. I almost dropped my book. It was my smiling father accompanied by a man in his mid-twenties. The visit could have meant only one thing. The young man was a suitor.
I plucked my courage to look at him once again and I bit my lips not to gasp. He didn’t have the roguish charm Jim had, no, his was full-fledged male beauty. This was more or less how I imagined Dorian Grey and every male protagonist in my Gothic novels. I should have known better. I should have learnt from the books. I should have run. But when an agent of fate walks in the door, it is impossible move.
His beauty and smile beguiled me, but I wanted to inspect his inner qualities as well. My father and the visitor sat down with me and after the maid brought in some tea, we started talking. Gordon had melodic voice and perfect manners. Yet I did my best to find his tragic flaw. Three hours of conversation later, I still found none.
After a few more visits we were engaged. The diamond ring sat heavy on my finger, but I wore it with pride. Gordon brought me books of poetry and lavished me with his attention. He took me walking in Regent’s Park and read me from Byron’s Don Juan. He changed when he read, becoming something more, more poetry and less human. I was entranced beyond salvation.
One afternoon we met Jim on the street. I was glad to see him, he had been painfully absent from my life since the engagement. I wanted to ask him a thousand questions but his answers were brisk. After a few minutes he hurried away without looking back.
I often dined in the Lighthand residence. Gordon’s father was nothing but attention and politeness. He made me feel welcome. He told me that in his family people didn’t need jobs, but he had always been interested in constructions and engines, so he studied engineering at university. Later I heard the gossips that he had to take on a job to keep him afloat from his debts. People were just jealous.
We chose the day of the wedding. Invitations were sent to the crème de la crème, even to the families of girls who had always frowned on me. I was told this was called diplomacy. As impatient maids combed my hair and tried to pin it into an elegant bun, for a moment I remembered my dream of independence. It seemed so far away and thinking about made me sad. I should have been happy. I was looking forward to becoming young Lady Lighthand.
Gordon became busier and busier as our big date approached. I rarely saw him, but I told myself I would have him until the end of my days. I grew uneasy. The novels of my girlhood didn’t hold my attention as much as they used to. I asked our carriage driver to take me out to Hyde Park, I wanted some fresh air. I wanted to have a last look because I knew I wouldn’t be returning for a long time. Lord Lighthand gave us a very generous wedding gift; Gordon and I would spend our honeymoon on the HMS Titania. I had always dreamed of travelling, having adventures and seeing the world. Maybe all my old wishes were coming true.
“I knew you would turn up sooner or later,” said a familiar voice.
“Oh, Jim…” I said and tears welled up in my eyes. Whether from happiness or sadness, I couldn’t say. “Why did you disappear? I thought you were angry with me, I didn’t dare to seek you out.”
“You don’t understand, do you?” he asked and his voice, which had always been so cheerful, was full of bitterness.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said. I might have been lying.
“Never mind. It’s easy to forget poor boys, when you have a dashing lord, I understand. But for the memory of an old friendship I came to tell you something. I can’t let you enter into a marriage without knowing who you give yourself to. Your precious Gordon spends more times in brothels than with you. And just the other day I saw him hurry down the servant’s staircase in Sir Bellypot’s mansion. He was brave enough to climb into the Lady’s bedroom, but was too much of a coward to face the husband. That’s the man you want to marry?”
I didn’t know what to say. His words hurt too much. I wanted to protect Gordon, to say Jim was just jealous but, I couldn’t find the way to do so.
“Of course, I’m right,” Jim said after a while. “And I know you’re still going to marry him. I know girls like you. You’re kind to us when you don’t have anything better to do, then you drop us. I just thought… you were different.” He turned around ready to leave.
“But Jim…,” I started but I didn’t know what else to say. All I knew was that I didn’t want him to hate me.
“’s okay. You don’t need to apologise. That’s life. Keep the books I lent you, consider them… my wedding present.”
He walked away with his long strides, not giving me time to answer. I felt like a tree in the autumn losing its leaves. I heard the coachman call, so I returned hastily. I wrapped myself in silence during the journey. I decided to confront Gordon. With every inch of me I wanted him to be innocent. I had to hear it from him.
The opportunity arose two evenings later. Lord Lighthand held a ball in his mansion to celebrate the upcoming launch of his masterpiece. It was going to be the new triumph of the British Empire: a beautiful, unsinkable ship. The ball was the most magical thing I had ever seen: there was champagne with flecks of gold in it and musicians who were as beautiful as angels. The house swam in a warm glow of light and it felt like Paradise. I didn’t know back then that it was my dowry that paid for it.
I waited for the best moment to pull Gordon aside and ask him my overwhelming questions. He laughed uncomfortably when I told him that we had to talk. I led him into the library. I needed the strength the presence of books gave me to look in the Gordon’s eyes. They were dark, very dark and seemed to drink in all the light from the room.
“Gordon, this is important. I have to know before I make the decision to marry you.”
“I thought that decision was already made.” There was no trace of kindness in his voice.
“Decisions can change. Tell me, do you love me?”
He seemed to relax hearing my question. His face lost its hardness and it calmed me a bit.
“Of course I love you. Where do you get such silly ideas?”
“I just… I was told that you frequent houses of certain… women.”
He grew tense and his shoulders became squarer. It was just a play of light, I told myself. Just a play of light.
“Oh, my darling!” he cried out, “You know how people are! They see our perfect happiness and they become jealous. They want to spoil it so they start spreading rumours that taint your heart. Have you had the good fortune to see Othello on stage? If not, I shall take you to the theatre right after our honeymoon. The snake-tounged Iago managed to turn Othello against Desdemona who was as innocent as a sacrifice lamb. How did he do it? With clever, well-crafted lies which ate at the heart of Othello’s insecurity. But don’t be insecure my darling you’re the most beautiful and clean woman I’ve ever seen. I shall remain faithful to you until… until the Titania sinks.”
His words reassured me, but didn’t fill the emptiness inside. There was nothing to be done; the wedding bells were already tolling.
The whole city seemed to be there at the ship launch. Even Her Majesty attended from the shadow of her darkened royal carriage. She never showed her face anymore. We only saw her on paintings and the back of coins. Some people said she had turned unbearably ugly. It reminded me of a conversation with Jim about the Queen we had some months ago.
“I think the Queen is a vampire,” I whispered giggling into Jim’s ear.
“And I think you read too many of my Penny Dreadfuls. I should ask them back before they corrupt you totally,” Jim whispered back and I could feel his warm breath on my face. For a moment I thought he would kiss me. Every little nerve in my body wished it to be so. “I suspect her to be a werewolf!” He finished and chuckled in my ear. Then he leaned back and the magic of the moment was broken.
“A werewolf! It is not at all queenlike,” I said with mock disapproval in my voice.
This is how it was in those old days before Gordon; fragments of our conversations would enter my mind like the smell of delicious dinner which floats up to your room and clenches your stomach with hunger.
I cried when we boarded the Titania. I looked at the crowd and tried to find Jim’s face but it was impossible. I could see my father, waving to me with a chrysanthemum white handkerchief. Poor Papa, he looked weaker than ever. Lord Lighthand stood next to him taking pride in his creation.
Gordon held my hand tightly and waved to the people with his smile sewn on his face. Since our wedding he had been more impatient with me. Not when people were around, then he was pure politeness and gentleness, kissing my hand every two minutes. No, it was the moments of privacy that brought out his monstrous self. He never hurt me or said an unkind thing, but he was cold and distant as the stars. He’d only touched me once since our wedding night and there was not much joy in it. It was as if his mind had been somewhere else. I was just a way to distract his body. I felt dirty and not even the scented water of our luxury bathroom could wash away the stain.
We left England behind and made our way down towards the Mediterranean Sea. I read in the newspaper that there were protestations in some harbours; they didn’t want us to stay there with our “English plague.” People feared the thing that happened to the Queen and to her subjects. We were heading for Venice. There people didn’t care if we were tainted with the “time-plague” or not, we were tourists, rich tourists on top of that. They greeted us with open arms. It took us more than a week to get there and there were balls on the ship every day and the staff did their very best to entertain us. It was first class service but it didn’t make me happy. I spent most of my days in the library trying to find the books of my youth. There was no such nonsense here, just serious novels. So I read Dickens and I felt happy I was not an orphan.
As the days passed, I thought of divorcing Gordon more and more often. I was unhappy. Papa said he wouldn’t let me be unhappy. I was sure he would understand. I started to suspect that Gordon loved my father’s money more than he loved me. He was spending it lavishly at the gambling tables. I was daydreaming that I would find Jim after we got home and apologise to him. If not all kind feelings were dead in his heart, maybe we could start again. We could elope and have a happy life. I sent him a postcard from Porto and one from Malaga and asked him to forgive me. Once I might have written that I loved him but I am not sure any more.
My mind was a bit disturbed those days and it only got worse. I never received an answer but I never expected one. Our ship was always on the move, his letter wouldn’t have known where to find us.
We were approaching Venice. I could see its lights floating above the sea like a group of fireflies. It was beautiful. We were supposed to stop outside the city and take small boats the following day. The thin canals wouldn’t have coped with the size of Titania. That’s why I was surprised when the ship didn’t stop. I was in the library as usual, reading Tristan and Isolde. I cried. In the sombreness of the library, a sense of foreboding came over me. I made my way to the captain’s bridge. The door was left ajar, I peeped in. I saw the captain and his men walking around with glasses of wine. To my surprise, I saw Gordon at the steering wheel with one of the singers at his side. I’d disliked that woman from the beginning. She always looked at me from under her long eyelashes as if I was some pitiable creature. Maybe I was.
“But darling, isn’t it too dangerous to go into the city at night with this huge ship?” she cooed into Gordon’s neck.
“Don’t you trust me, dearest? You said you wanted to go to Venice immediately so that’s what we’re doing. A good man always provides for the lady of his heart. You see, my friend the captain even let me take control of the ship.”
The captain laughed and waved a bundle of money. My money.
Gordon’s words should have hurt me, but the only thing I felt was a cold numbness. The lights came closer and closer. I wanted to run, to jump off the ship, to warn people, but my feet refused to obey. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from Gordon’s arm on the woman’s waist. The houses of Venice swam into sight.
The first crash was surprisingly soft. But the body of the ship received blow after blow as it crashed into buildings. I could hear screams from inside and from outside. People had been sleeping in their houses peacefully just to be woken up to the wind blowing in their face. Their rooms didn’t have walls anymore.
We hit something underwater. The ship began to tremble and sank inch by inch, tearing down houses in its struggle. I fell and hit my head in a door. I didn’t care anymore. I was going to embrace Death.
But Death didn’t want me. I couldn’t die and neither could the others. I’m not sure why, but we got trapped between life and death. I have to see Gordon hugging the other woman every day.
Maybe it was the curse of Titania which lived in the ship bearing her name. I cannot say. What I know is that we are sinking forever and ever, but we never reach the bottom. And I’m suspended in the now, telling and retelling my life and my death like a broken record player, broadcasting this twisted moment for the centuries to come.
They called her Titania and rumoured she was unsinkable. She was created in the image of our beloved Queen who was admired by all, even God. That’s why he decided to make her immortal.
HMS Titania, the largest cruise ship in the world, was supposed to sail the waves until the end of time.