Fall 2009, Volume 7

Fiction by Mike Guardabascio

Alone and Awash on the Queen Mary

You could see me—if you looked.  But myths outshine history, and the ghost story is always more interesting than the ghost.  That's alright—I hold no grudges.  Memories, dreams, hopes, desires—I hold the shells of all these inside me.  Or maybe I am the shell of these things, a faded wisp of the woman I was, floating from cabin to cabin, from stem to stern, a soul unmoored.  It was not always so.

I boarded this ship almost a century ago—the Queen, we called her, because that's who Mary was to us.   When I stepped onto the shaky ramp to mount the floating palace, I carried with me some small monies, a satchel with my stationeries, and his letters, tied with twine.  I had booked passage on the Queen's second voyage to New York, America—to meet at last the young man who had courted me from across an ocean.

His name was Mitchell, and he was an employee of my Uncle Stephen, who had traveled to the New World to make his fortune.  Mitchell worked in one of Uncle Steven’s groceries, as a butcher. Uncle Stephen had told him tales about his beautiful, red-haired niece who lived in England, and said that when he showed Mitchell my picture, the young man was instantly stricken.  Imagine my surprise at his first letter, a stranger in an even stranger land, professing his love for me.  The photo he included didn't make my knees knock—but his courage did.  It was the first letter he'd ever written—he said he'd only written cold cut receipts before, when all of a sudden he found himself writing a love letter to a woman he'd never met.

"Your skin reminds me of the moon," he wrote.  "Your eyes remind me of the sea."  He didn't beg me to come to America, or to save myself for him—he begged me only to write him back, and to send him a photograph, one he could keep for his own.  And so I did—it was easy enough.

A year later, we were in love. I begged him to come to England, while he begged me to come to America—my father had spoken to his brother, and Uncle Stephen vouched for Mitchell, and promised my father that he'd always have stable employment with a good check, for as long as he wanted it.  And so, my father packed my things and after a last visit to my mother’s grave, we rode to the dock, he reluctant and already closing in from loneliness, me bouncing gently in my seat as though they'd just laid the cobblestones over with smooth asphalt.

My father had cashed in what little savings he'd stored, and booked me passage in one of the Queen's cheapest room, directly above the boiler room.  The rest of what he had, he gave to me—"To get established with," he said as he hugged me goodbye, tears in both our eyes.  I kissed him and wished him well, and made him promise to write me.  But in truth, I was so excited by my first stride onto the passenger's ramp that I had forgotten about him before one of the rough, oily crewmen had even shown me to my room.  My life in England had been so dreary, so lonely—so grey.  But nothing was boring in America, as Mitchell told me, and Uncle Stephen had confirmed.

The first time it happened, I thought I was simply growing faint from the boiler's heat.  The room was oppressively hot, at all hours of the day; I had been warned of that eventuality ahead of time, and was prepared for it.  There were certainly plenty of activities for one to occupy oneself.  I spent most evenings dancing with strangers in the ballroom, wearing out my one gown at lavish dinners, and learning to play shuffleboard on deck, as I had been told it was a popular game in America—my new home. 

Each evening, as I prepared to retire, I would pause at the guardrail, and peer out into the blackness.  There was nothing to see but the swell of the rippled ocean, where the Queen's lights fell; nothing to hear but the soft slap of the water against the Queen's sides.  It was peaceful and besides, standing at the rail was preferable to sitting in the gasping steam of my windowless room, anxiously awaiting our arrival, which always seemed so far away.  I wished we could transport there immediately, that I would wake and find it wasn't a week, but mere minutes until we docked in New York, where I would find Mitchell and Uncle Stephen waiting for me, eager smiles on their faces as they took my bag, begging to hear stories of my travel aboard the world-famous Queen.  And I would tell them, with a false air of aloofness, "Oh, it was quite alright."

On the third night out from England, I grew dizzy while standing at the guardrail, staggered back, and fell.  The handful of people nearby recoiled—when at sea, the fear of a virulent disease is quite high, powerful enough to vanquish chivalry.  I managed to bring myself to my feet, and sag down the six flights of stairs to my little room, where I collapsed on my bed and lay there, sweating through the night.  The next morning I heaved up my dinner, and remained in bed all day, the steady thrum of the boiler my only companion.  I grew too weak to even make a trip to the ship's infirmary. Alone and isolated, just days away from my true love, my strength ebbed.  I tried to think of Mitchell, of the life we would build together if I could only hang on, but my dreams dissolved into feverish fantasies of a hellish pallor, and soon I could barely tell if I was sailing to Mitchell and Uncle Stephen, or making my escape from them, back to the welcoming arms of Mother England.

And so I died; alone, terrified, and confused.  And after the blackness waved over my eyes, like a hand passing quickly, I opened them and found myself floating, up and away, towards the sky.  My Ma would be there, I knew, and someday my Pa and Mitchell.  But it was a cloudy night—I couldn't see anything—and I was buffeted by ferocious ocean winds, until I fell back again, into the Queen.  Floating on the ceiling, I watched them discover my body the day before landfall; I watched the deckhands throw me overboard, along with my belongings, along with my letters. 

The next day, when the Queen docked in New York, I saw them waiting:  Uncle Stephen, with his thin English beard and sallow skin; beside him, Mitchell, stocky, surefooted, wide-eyed, and clutching a small bushel of flowers.  There was a large crowd of people packed onto the small landing, necks craning as they stood on tiptoes to look for their loved ones.  My men were at the front of this throng.

"I'm here!" I called to them, from the deck.  I tried to fly down from the ship, to reach out to them, but I couldn't—something bound me.  "I am here!" I shrieked, over and over. Mitchell's eyes flitted to each disembarking lady, hope gradually fading, and dying in his eyes as he realized I wasn't coming.  When they lifted the ramp, and closed the entrance, Uncle Stephen put his arm around Mitchell, and the two of them turned and walked slowly away, my unheard screams trailing behind them.

Mitchell came again, on the day the Queen left port, headed back to England.  He brought no flowers, and he already looked a changed man, with a defeated posture and bitter, shuttered eyes.  Swinging his legs below the rotting wood planks, he sat on the end of the pier and watched the Queen sail away, not knowing I was even there.  I saw him spit once, into the water, before he walked back towards his job and the rest of his life.

It took years for me to relax, after that.  Years spent rushing around the Queen like a banshee, occasionally ruffling a tablecloth or upsetting candelabra, desperately trying to be noticed, desperately trying to make contact with another human being.  Just to let them know I existed would have been enough, but I was only a faint shadow at the corner of their eyes, a whisper between their conversations.  There was no way for me to leave the ship, and no way for me to reach her passengers. Slowly, I accepted this.  If I were to watch for the rest of my time the Queen's entertainments, there were surely worse fates.  I saw the world's greatest singers, the most famous movie stars. I sat next to Abbot and Costello at the Captain's dinner, listened to the guffaws they tricked out of the old curmudgeon.

During those years, I did not think much of Mitchell.  I did not think much of my father, or my Ma. I imagined I was a newborn creature, birthed from nothing into the belly of the Queen, where I would live out my days until the stars fell.  I wasn't overjoyed; but I was content enough. But once the war came, all that changed.  The ballrooms and grand casinos were stripped of their ornaments and filled with armaments and stockpiles.  The Queen continued her transatlantic voyages, but now she was ferrying American soldiers to Europe, and the front.  The ebullient joy of party revelers was replaced by the heady anxiety of young men who wore their lives on their sleeves.  Many of them did not return—in body or soul.  The last great celebration I saw aboard the Queen was Armistice Day—1,200 soldiers half-way from Newark to France heard over the loudspeakers that the war was officially over.  They were suddenly sailing to the biggest party on the planet, and when they reached the continent they would telegraph their families to tell them they were safe, that they'd be home soon.  That day, I remembered Mitchell, the life I'd almost had.

The Queen sat dormant for a decade after the war, filled with too much history to be put back into commercial use, and ill-equipped to be used as a military ship in peacetime.  In her belly, floating in the dark New York harbor, I fell dormant too.  I wished desperately that the brutish crew that disposed of my body had at least saved Mitchell’s letters—that I had something to call my own.  But I didn't, I floated, the lull of the water so constant that I felt things would never change.  The Queen and I had no one to talk to, so we talked to each other—not with words, but with the silences passed between us.  She told me what had been planned for her, I told her what I'd planned for myself, and together, we bobbed, docked in that dark bay.

When word came that the Queen was making one last voyage, that she was traveling back across the world to Long Beach, California, I rejoiced.  We didn't care if it was the final voyage—for us the world had already gone dark.  The gift of a few more days of freedom and light meant everything.  I rode the whole way on the deck, hands on the guardrail, almost able to feel the cool metal on my skin.  The sunlight fell through me, and filled me, and when two of the crew came up that afternoon to double-check the Queen's bearings, they saw me stood there.  This was when the ghost stories began, but it didn't matter to me—for that moment I was alive again.

It was over too fast, the Queen bolted to a new deck, in a new country, on a side of the world we'd never been to.  When her engines died, and life shuddered and crept out of her hull, I knew it was for the last time.  From that day, we'd be moored—and I was right; it’s been forty years here, bolted down so tightly we can't even feel the ocean beneath us.  The Queen is a hotel now, a place for meetings and conferences, an occasional romantic getaway for the rich. For a few months a year, I'm her greatest attraction; people purchase tickets to take the ‘Haunted Queen’ tour, trying to find me among the rest of the wreckage.  They pay their money, but the little boys are the only ones who actually listen when I whisper.  They aren't frightened, either, just excited—little boys love having secrets that their sisters and their mothers don't know about, that their fathers have forgotten.  Sometimes, when I watch them, I wonder what my own children would have looked like; if they would have looked like Mitchell, or like me.  I wonder, perhaps, if this boy or that could be his grandson.  But I know these are idle daydreams—Mitchell stopped looking the day he thought I betrayed him, and that's a poison that runs deep in the blood.

Last year, a film crew came on board, poking around and shining their glaring lights on everything, with audience in tow.  The point of the show was to debunk or confirm the old ghost stories.  They were looking, they told their audience, for the ‘truth’.  I don't know what they were really looking for, but it wasn't the truth, and it wasn't me.  I've been here all along; I'll be here after you're all gone, when the water washes everything away, it’ll be just the Queen and me, at the bottom of the ocean.  Until then, you could find me.  If you came aboard, if you came as yourself, if you opened your eyes wide and didn't breathe too loudly.  I'm easy to see, if you aren't looking for the story; if you're really looking for the ghost.  I don't hide.


BIO:  Mike Guardabascio is a Long Beach native who's published fiction in Like Water Burning, Book by Authors, and Verdad. For the last two years he's been paying bills as a full-time sportswriter for the Long Beach Post. He loves what he does.