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Authors: Irene N.Watts

No Moon

BOOK: No Moon
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For Rebeccah and Hannah

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Thanks to Jim Watts and Deborah Hodge for assistance with research. My continuing gratitude to Sue Tate, who helps make my every manuscript better than I ever imagined it could be!

“I thought her unsinkable…I do not understand it.”

–Philip Franklin, vice president of the White Star Line, Monday, April 15, 1912.

London, England
1902

1
Johnny

T
he night before the picnic, Kathleen and I stayed awake long after Johnny had been brought to his room and settled in his crib. Unlike us, he’d been fast asleep for hours. Our Sunday dresses and aprons were draped over the back of the chair, the collars starched stiffly.

Kathleen and I had run over to the bedroom window half a dozen times to make sure it wasn’t raining.

“Is it night yet?” I asked my big sister. “Where’s the moon and the stars? When will it be time to go, Kath?”

“Will you hush, Lou? Mother’s coming upstairs.”

The door opened.

“One more word from either of you and you won’t be going anywhere! Into bed with you, and stay there,
before you wake up your little brother. Father says we’re to leave by five,” Mother said.

I jumped onto the bed, crawled over Kathleen, and burrowed under the thin blanket to my place near the wall. I squeezed my eyes shut so tightly that I could see colored spots beneath my eyelids.

“I’m sleeping,” I said.

Close beside me, Kathleen shook with laughter before pushing the blanket away. “I’m so hot, Mother, I can’t breathe,” she said.

“What did I just say? I’m warning you, one more word and I’m going to tell Father.”

We lay still, not daring to move until after we’d heard her go downstairs, into the kitchen, and close the door.

“Night, night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite,” Kathleen said, and gave me a friendly pinch.

Neither of us had ever been on a train, let alone to the seaside. Mr. Dawson, the greengrocer for whom Father worked, had announced the firm’s annual family outing was to Southend on Sea. This year, Mother said all three of us were old enough to go!

In the morning, I’d been too excited to eat breakfast. The swaying of the train made me feel sick. Getting off, I tripped down the steps. Johnny cried–he’d got soot in his eye. After Mother had taken the smut out with the corner of her handkerchief, Father hoisted
Johnny onto his shoulders. We followed him out of the station.

And there was the sea at last, waiting for us. It shone brighter than the scullery window Kathleen and I rubbed clean with newspaper and vinegar, every Saturday.

A hurdy-gurdy man played a barrel organ; his monkey wore a red waistcoat and danced on a chain. The man sang, and the tune made Kathleen and me skip along and Johnny clap his hands. Father said the man was from Italy. I asked if we were going there on the train, and Mother laughed. She forgot to tell us to walk nicely!

Behind us, the hurdy-gurdy man trundled the organ down the lane, wheels rattling over the cobbles. Past the stands selling eels and cockles and mussels, we all went. A few of the men threw coins into the monkey’s little cap.

All along, as far as I could see, was water. I remember thinking it was more water than I’d ever seen before in my whole life! Father bought us a bottle of lemonade to share and promised us a walk on the pier, later in the day.

Kathleen asked, “Does the sea stretch all the way to Australia, Father?”

He winked at Mother and said, “Almost,” and I knew it was a fib. But I didn’t know where Australia was, so I never said anything.

We walked down some rocky steps onto the sand. Father paid the man for two deck chairs.

Mother said, “Jack, you don’t need to do that–I brought a blanket to sit on.”

Father said, “Nothing’s too good for my Flo.” He calls Mother Flo when he’s in a good mood and Florence when he’s had a bad day, but that’s not often.

“Don’t be daft,” she said, smiling at him.

It was a happy day, and after we’d eaten our sandwiches, Mother shook the crumbs off the blanket for the gulls. She told us we could go and play. “Mind you don’t go out of sight, and mind you watch your brother,” she said, taking out her knitting. She always keeps busy doing something, but Father put his newspaper over his face and went to sleep. We turned round to wave to her, and she waved back.

Kathleen and I each held one of Johnny’s hands. She carried the bucket and I carried the spade, and we ran with him down towards the water. Above us, the gulls screeched and swooped as they flew. I felt dizzy from the sound, from the taste of salt, from the smells of the day, and the warmth of the sun. I never wanted this lovely time to end.

We took off our boots and stockings and helped Johnny off with his. Kathleen lined the boots up in a tidy row beside a small rock. We grabbed Johnny’s hands and jumped him over the rocks and pebbles,
closer and closer to the waves that looked like the foam on Father’s pint of beer.

“How old are you, Johnny? Say one, two,” Kathleen said.

“One, two,” he repeated after her.

We sat him down, and he stuck his fingers into the wet sand over and over and held them up to show us the grains of sand stuck to them. I dug a hole for him before Kathleen and I went looking for shells. I wanted pink ones to decorate the castle I was planning to build. For a while I heard Johnny humming to himself, happy as can be.

The sun shone hot on the back of my neck. The sky got bluer, and a breeze lifted my hair. Waves, aglitter with color, teased my toes, splashing my legs. I pulled my dress higher, hoping Mother couldn’t see me. Filling my apron with shells, I brought them back to shore and began to make a pretty pattern.

“Wicked, wicked, girl!”

I looked up and there was Mother, shaking Kathleen. I was afraid I’d be in trouble too.
Had she seen me with my dress up?
I tried to brush the sandy streaks from my apron. Then I grabbed my boots and stockings and put them on as fast as I could. Johnny’s were still there, but I couldn’t see him.
Where was he? Had Father taken him on the pier without us?

Then I heard two slaps–one, two–sharp, like wind slapping at sheets on wash day. Turning around, I saw Kathleen standing there, silent, her cheeks red. I ran over and took hold of her hand. I was five and she was seven, and we looked after each other.

“What have you done, Kathleen and Louisa Gardener? Look at your dirty frocks. I can’t trust you for a minute! Didn’t I tell you to watch your little brother? Answer me!” I closed my eyes, shutting out the glare of the sun and my mother’s face. Her fingers dug into my shoulder.

“Look at me when I’m speaking to you.” The voice didn’t sound like Mother’s.

Mrs. Bernardi came over. She put her arms around Mother and tried to pull her away. Father helped her, all the while talking quietly to Mother.

I heard him say, “Let the girls be, Flo, it won’t bring him back.” He picked up Johnny’s boots, and we followed them, hearing the murmurs of the women gathered round us.

“Drowned, poor little mite. His father found him, lying face-down in the water.”

“Who drowned, Kath?” I asked.

We’d left the bucket behind, and when I turned to look, I saw my spade sticking up in the water. The tide had already washed my shell pattern away.

“Shall I run back and fetch the bucket and spade? Will we get in trouble for leaving them, Kath?”

“Hush, Lou, never mind them. Johnny’s drowned.”

A small crowd had gathered, and a policeman was holding something wrapped in a blanket. A bare foot dangled against his uniform. A woman picked up Mother’s knitting and put it in the hamper. It was late, too late to go on the pier, like Father had promised us.

Someone brought Mother a mug of tea. She took a sip and put the mug down on the sand.

A long, long time later, when we made our way slowly to the train station, the hurdy-gurdy man was still there, playing his tune. The policeman told him to move along. When I look back on that day, I always think he was playing for my brother.

It was dark by the time we got home.

“Where’s the moon, Kath?” I asked.

“The moon is asleep,” my sister said.

“Is Johnny asleep, Kath?”

“Yes.”

After the funeral, after friends and neighbors had left, Mother came up to our room. Kathleen and I had been sitting on the edge of our bed for a long while. It was too hot to hold hands.

Mother’s face looked hot too, red and blotchy, as if she’d been crying. “Come here,” she said. We didn’t move. She knelt down in front of us. “Johnny’s never coming back,” she said. “It shouldn’t have
happened, but it wasn’t your fault. It was an accident, remember that.” She got up and sat down on the bed between us. For a while, no one spoke. Mother reached out and clasped our hands in hers.

“We’re sorry, Mother,” Kathleen said.

“Sorry, I’ll never do it again,” I whispered, remembering my dirt-streaked Sunday frock and apron that Mother had to wash again before Johnny’s funeral.

“We won’t talk about Johnny anymore, just now. We’ll go downstairs in a minute, and Father will give you a cuddle. I’ll make something nice for your tea,” Mother said.

“Will Johnny be there?” I asked.

“Hush, Lou,” Kathleen said.

I put my head on Mother’s lap, and Kathleen leaned against her arm.

Mother’s voice was quiet–it sounded as if she were speaking from a long way off. “Our Johnny can’t come back. He’s gone to heaven to live with the angels. He’s safe there.”

Then, holding hands, we went downstairs, and I walked on tiptoes so as not to wake Johnny up.

Later, after we’d put ourselves to bed, after Mother had come in to say good night and we’d fallen asleep, something woke me. I sat up, looking at the moonlight shine through the window onto the bedroom floor, making it glisten like a pool of
water. Like the sea where Johnny drowned.

Kathleen sat up beside me, rigid, hearing the sounds coming through the wall. We looked at each other.

“Is it a ghost, Kath?” I asked her. “Is it Johnny gone back to his room, crying for us?”

“Ghosts don’t cry, silly. I’ll go and see. Are you coming?” Kathleen slid out of bed.

I was afraid to be left alone, so I followed. Stepping fearfully across the pool of light on the floor that looked like water, I crept out. We listened at the door of Johnny’s room.

“It’s not a ghost at all,” Kathleen said. And then, “Quick, get back to bed before Father finds us!”

We were just in time. We heard Father’s footsteps on the landing, heard him open Johnny’s door.

“Now, Flo, don’t carry on so; you’ll make yourself ill,” Father’s deep voice said. “Do you want to wake up the girls?” We hardly dared breathe. More steps, our parents’ door closed.

I never forgot the sound of that weeping. And somehow it was all tied together–the sea, the moonlight, Mother’s tears, and the awful knowledge that my little brother was never coming back.

Kathleen and I don’t talk about that night. And I never got over feeling, deep down, that I was to blame for the accident, despite Mother saying I wasn’t.
When I have a nightmare and cry in my sleep, my sister has to shake me awake.

BOOK: No Moon
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