Houghton Hall, Wiltshire, England
Heath climbed into the bed in which his wife was already settled. Meg couldn’t help laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Heath asked, unable to see what the joke was.
“You!” Meg declared, unable to say anything more because of her fit of giggles.
“What?” Heath asked again, his left eyebrow posing the same question. He settled down beside her, adjusting the bed covers over him.
Meg brought her giggles under control and explained: “I have always considered you a tall man, Heath Barkley, but even you look dwarfed by the size of this huge bed. All I can say is that Henry VIII must have been 7’ tall and just as wide! ”
Heath laughed along with her in agreement. “I’ve never seen a bed so large! Boy Howdy if I don’t lose you half way through the night!”
“Ah, but you always find me again,” Meg said lovingly, allowing herself to be captured in his arms and by his lips. Afterwards she sighed contentedly as Heath lay back and pulled her back with him.
“All it needs is a mirrored ceiling up above,” Heath joked, knowing the suggestion would invoke a particular response from his wife. He smiled and waited for it to come.
“And just where did you encounter one of those?” Meg’s said, raising her head and thumping his chest in disapproval.
“I never said I lived in a cave,” he teased, “It was long before I met you, darling,” he added reassuringly, pulling her back again and planting a kiss on the top of her head which once again rested against the rise and fall of his chest.
Meg raised her head again, “And not since, I should hope.”
“32 years together and you have to ask?”
“Just checking.” Meg was not above a little teasing of her own. “Down right improper is what I call it. A mirror in the ceiling...”
“Oh, I don’t know. It can be kind of fun.”
“Heath Barkley! I hope you’re not suggesting that we have one in our bedroom!”
Heath couldn’t help laughing. He marvelled at how much joy he got out of being married to Meg.
Meg’s look told him that day would never come.
“And what about that naked portrait you did of me all those years ago.” Heath reasoned.
“That was different. That was a life study.”
“Not much difference then.”
Heath received another thump to his chest and the two settled down to sleep in Old Henry’s bed for the last time.
The next morning, Heath and Meg said goodbye to their hosts, Lord and Lady Houghton. It was the end of their month long stay in England in which they had visited their daughter, Victoria, and her husband. It had also been their first opportunity to see their new grandchild, the Hon. Sebastian Heath Antony Houghton who was now the new heir. Heath couldn’t help wonder at the contrast in his own upbringing and that which his new grandson would enjoy. Times had certainly changed. Wealth and titles didn’t mean much to him but still he wished his own mother had lived to see the day.
It was hard saying goodbyes. Heath and Meg would miss their daughter dreadfully. Plans were made to visit again the next year and for Victoria to visit Stockton in the summer, but both events seemed such a long time away. They had loved the luxury of seeing her every day and having her to themselves for a good part of that time.
In the last month Heath had marvelled at how his daughter had settled so easily into the English way of life. She even rode side-saddle now, no longer western style, keeping with the tradition of her adopted country. The house and grounds were beautiful and the size of the estate impressive, even to a man of Heath's own wealth. He had enjoyed riding through the grounds and surrounding countryside, but he ached for home and the familiarity of the ranch. He just wished his daughter and her family lived there as well. ’Ah, well,’ he thought to himself. ‘It seems a happy marriage and if Vicki is happy then I should be happy too.’
Eventually the time came for them to leave. A last embrace and kiss followed and Heath held his new grandson for the last time, dropping a kiss to the infant's forehead and silently reminding the Houghton heir that he was part Barkley too. Then they were off and riding away in the carriage which sped towards the gates and to London and beyond.
Realizing how acutely her husband felt the departure, Meg squeezed his hand with her gloved one and received a tight smile in return which eased as distance grew between them and the house.
In London they were reunited with Nick and Jenny at their original hotel where they would stay for two days. It was a joyful reunion with excitement growing for their journey home. Jenny persuaded Meg there was still time to do some last minute shopping.
The final evening, Nick took charge of the birthday celebrations for Heath’s sixtieth birthday. His gift to his beloved brother showed just how much he loved and valued him in his life. It was a special portrait of them both which Nick had commissioned from an artist in London and which had been taken from two independent photographs which Nick had secretly brought from home.
One was of Nick when he was fifteen and the other was of Heath when he was about four years younger. One photograph had been easily paid for by the wealthy Tom and Victoria Barkley, the other had taken weeks to save up for by the impoverished Leah Thomson. Yet by the magic of the skilled artist’s hands these two independent studies had been brought together in a portrait of them both, looking for the entire world as though they had been brought up together, instead of only meeting when Heath was seventeen.
Heath was deeply touched and unable to speak. Nick didn’t care who was looking. He stood up, clasped his brother’s cheeks in his large and safe hands and bent to kiss the top of his brother’s head. “Happy Birthday, Heath. I love you and I just wish I could have been your big brother for the whole of your sixty years."
Heath took a time finding his voice. “You and Jarrod more than made up for it since, Nick” he responded sincerely. “Don’t reckon a man could have had two finer brothers, or sister. And Mother, well, she is one special lady, I reckon you all know how I feel about her.”
They celebrated with the finest champagne, Nick adding to Heath’s embarrassment by having the musicians play him Happy Birthday to which the other diners joined in under Nick’s vocal encouragement. It was a wonderful celebration with fine food, company and dancing; all of it taking place on the eve of what was to become their historic voyage home.
Southampton, two days later
Heath and Nick guided their wives up the first class gang plank of the ship that was very much in the news due to its maiden voyage and unsinkable claim.
Both brothers were impressed with the towering size of the ship that seemed to dwarf everything around it. Inside they found little to change their mind. Nothing had been spared in the decor and rich furnishings. Their wives couldn’t wait to explore and needed some persuasion to locate their cabins first. A steward whose name was Alfred Keeler escorted them to their cabins.
Meg couldn’t contain her excitement. “Oh Heath! It’s beautiful. Thank you for arranging for us to sail home on her maiden voyage. I’ve read about it for days in the English newspapers and never imagined that we would be amongst her passengers. Jenny and I will be able to entertain the Ladies’ Guild on this for months.”
Heath accepted a kiss in payment and wrapped his arms joyously around his wife, “My pleasure, darlin’. Anything for my favourite gal.”
“Hmm. I hardly qualify as a gal at my age.”
“I’ll knock down any man who says you’re not.”
“Always my gallant champion, Heath Barkley.”
The couple’s lips came together easily and they fell into a deep kiss which was only interrupted by the reappearance of their assigned, and as it turned out, discreet steward who moved about the cabin drawing little attention to himself.
Heath winked at his wife and reluctantly released his hold of her. Jenny appeared at the door. “Meg, do you want to explore?”
Meg didn’t need to be asked twice. Nick and Heath donned their coats to go up on deck. “Thank you, Keeler.” Heath said as he was leaving. “You’re welcome, Sir,” the young steward replied.
Up on deck, Heath and Nick took a walk along the deck. “Well, our wives are happy. Of course, we’ll be quite a few dollars poorer when we get off this ship than we were when we got on it.”
“You wouldn’t begrudge them, Nick?”
Heath laughed. Jenny sure could be extravagant. But then so could Nick. The brothers found an opening at the ship’s rail and waved along with the rest of the passengers as the ship began to sail away. “Who are you waving at, Nick?”
“Oh, England, I guess. I enjoyed myself here. It was nice for a while but I’ll be glad to get home.”
“Me, too, Nick. Me, too.”
They were a few days into their journey when Heath heard an insistent knocking at the door of his cabin. Keeler, their steward, entered the room just as Heath was rising from his bed.
“Something wrong, Keeler?” Heath asked, noticing the late hour.
“May I have a word with you outside, Sir?”
Heath instantly recognised the situation was serious and did not argue. He grabbed his robe and checked his wife was still sleeping then joined Keeler outside.
“Okay, Keeler. What is it?” He asked as the door closed behind him.
“Captain Smith has asked that all passengers put on their life-jackets, warm clothing and make their way to the Promenade deck.”
“Something is wrong with the ship? Have we hit something?”
“That’s not what the Captain has said, Sir. He has just asked that everyone assemble on deck.”
“Keeler?” Heath’s tone demanded honesty.
“I'm not suppose to say, but yes it looks that way. We appear to have hit an ice-berg.”
“And we’re sinking?”
Heath took a minute for the news to sink in and to also assess what he needed to do to ensure the safety of his family. “Very well,” he said, after a moment. “Thank you for letting us know. You’ll see to the other passengers and then take care of yourself, yes?”
Keeler smiled, knowing his duties wouldn’t end there. Perhaps Heath realized it, too. A mutual respect passed between them. They were both men of duty.
Back in their cabin Heath roused Meg. Though worried she knew not to question her husband of thirty years. Both dressed in layers of warm clothing and then Heath helped Meg on with her life-jacket. “Must I wear it now, Heath?”
“Yes. Please don't argue, Meg.”
There was a knock on the door. “Heath?” It was Nick.
The two brothers shared a coded look. “We’re ready.” Heath answered. “You and Jenny?”
Meg stopped for a moment and grabbed the photograph of her new grandchild, tucking it into the deep pocket of her coat. Donning her warm leather gloves and muff she allowed herself to be shepherded to the top deck by a determined but protective Heath.
Up on the Promenade deck it seemed that they were one of the first ones to arrive. Only a few passengers sat in the lifeboats, others stood by, reluctant to expose themselves to the mercy of the sea. Some complained that it all seemed very unnecessary. Heath and Nick were not of the same thought. They hurried Meg and Jenny into a nearby boat. Meg refused to let go of Heath’s hand and attempted to stop him from leaving her. “Aren’t you getting in, too?”
Heath squeezed her gloved hand in his large protective one and gave her a reassuring smile. “Nick and I will see what we can do to help. We’ll get into one of the later lifeboats. Don’t worry. Promise me, you’ll do everything you can to keep warm. I’ll see you shortly.”
“But it’s so empty out there. What if there are no ships? Oh, Heath! I don’t want to leave you! I don’t want us to be separated!”
“There will be ships,darlin’. They will have sent distress signals by now. It’s just a matter of time before they get here. We just have to be strong, Meg.”
Any further words were cut off by the 2nd Officer in charge of the boat accepting other passengers into the boat, some of them men. Meg considered the unfairness of it all, but knew better than to expect her husband and brother-in-law to behave any other way. It wasn’t in their nature not to help.
Jenny wrapped her arms around her sister-in-law. “They’ll be fine, Meg.” She whispered, hoping in her heart of hearts that her words would come true.
Nick punched his brother’s upper arm lightly. “C’mon. Let’s see what we can do to help and then we can find ourselves a boat”
Heath nodded, taking one lasting look at Meg again. A sudden rush of people carried them further down the deck. “Panic is beginning to settle in,” Nick warned.
Heath noticed something. “Nick, these are all first class passengers. I don’t see anyone from steerage.”
“They’ll go to another deck, Heath. I’m sure the crew is looking after them.” Nick offered by way of explanation.
Heath, who could never forget his own humble roots, gave Nick a look that told him that the poor always came last.
“Let’s go.” Nick told him, patting him on his arm. “We’ll do what we can.”
A sudden realization dawned. They might never see their wives and families again. But they could not fight their nature. Men of action rather than observers they drowned their worry by helping others.
They helped persuade reluctant and non-comprehending families to make their way to the upper deck and helped carry children up and into lifeboats to sit with their mothers. They worked non-stop until Nick decided that it was time to look out for his own younger brother.
The ship was listing more and more. They had done their work. Nick feared they would have to take their chance in the freezing sea. He worried that his little brother would not survive. He vowed to do everything to protect him.
They came across 2nd Officer Lightoller who was struggling to release a collapsible with some men. They offered their own strength and after a struggle the collapsible fell into the water upside down. Their hopes sank with it. “We can still use it,” Lightoller told the men. The officer’s commands took over. They dived into the water, nearly dying of heart-failure on impact with the freezing water.
When they resurfaced it was vital to get away from the ship. Instinctively, Nick grabbed onto Heath’s life-jacket and forced him to take a breath. Shock reverberated through their bodies from the cold. Pulling and dragging Heath with him towards the collapsible, Nick fought to reach the upturned vessel which was always seemed to be just out of reach. With the strength of a man half his years he forced himself and Heath to swim towards it.
All around them he could hear the cries and screams of people fighting for their own lives. Some where heading for the same vessel; some seemed to tread water with no idea where to go. The body of a baby floated by followed by its mother; it was a sight Nick and Heath would never forget. For a moment their eyes followed their ghostly trail before survival instincts once again kicked in.
Nick’s presence of mind meant that they were far enough away to miss the all-consuming suction of the ship going down. The Titanic’s death cries filled the air together with those in its path. It was a painful, agonizing death as the ship’s structure buckled and sank to its eternal grave taking the lives of hundreds of passengers with it.
Against this dramatic backcloth, Nick’s focus remained on Heath. With single-minded determination he propelled them both towards the collapsible, heaving and pushing until Heath lay atop of the upturned boat. Nick then began an almighty struggle to pull himself on board, anything to escape the biting cold of the water. At last he joined his brother, their heads touching each other. “Heath!” Nick found he had no voice, it had been robbed by the freezing cold. “Heath!” he kept repeating, hoping his brother would hear. “I’m here, Big brother," came back the reply. "I’m here.” The voice was faint, the smile even more so, but it was there all the same.
Nick grabbed his brother’s gloved hand and kissed it in relief. He felt his leg tugged and turned to see Officer Lightoller had reached the collapsible. “What say we get this craft moving?” His teeth were chattering from the cold but his words were never more welcome, and Heath and Nick helped him aboard. Soon they were joined by others and the officer took command of the situation, guiding them slowly through the icy water towards the other lifeboats. It was a remarkable piece of seamanship and it was only due to his skill and leadership that 27 of the 30 men stood atop of the craft survived. Nick and Heath were amongst them.
It seemed hours until all the passengers from the lifeboats were picked up by the Carpathia, the ship which had come to the Titanic’s rescue. All the time Nick worried for Heath; the worry kept them both alive for he would not leave Heath alone, telling him to keep moving and not fall asleep, getting him to regale them stories from their youth. Out they came, the old stories, prompted and prodded by the elder of the two. “Remember the time, Heath, when we...”
A place was found for them in a lifeboat. Though his body threatened to give up from the cold and wet clothing, Nick rubbed his brother’s body, striving to get warmth back into its tissues. The action served to keep them both functioning physically. Their teeth couldn’t stop chattering and someone passed them a bottle of whiskey which they drank gladly.
In the back of both the brother’s minds were the whereabouts and safety of their wives, their trust having been placed solely in the lifeboat which had carried them away. They tried to find out if Meg and Jenny were in any of the nearby lifeboats but people were too cold and too tired to pass their message on. With hands that could barely feel anything, Nick urged Heath on with his stories, pulling the younger man back into his arms, using the last resources of their body heat to rekindle life into their freezing bodies.
Looking out to the endless sea beyond, Nick grieved for the loss of life and the lives losing their battle still. Eventually, as passengers vacated the lifeboats, seats were found in vessels nearer the Carpathia. Stiffly, Nick helped his brother into the next boat, Heath returning the favour once he was safely seated. Heath whispered into his brother’s frost-bitten ear, “Now don’t be rushing for the hot tub. This is one time the younger brother goes first.” It was a long-standing joke between the two brothers and it was music to the older brother’s ears.
He tried to affect a laugh, but his lips barely cracked open. Nevertheless, the smiling grin was there. Heath, even with eyes nearly shut could see it in his mind's eye. Half an hour later and they were on board, bundled in blankets and given hot steaming coffee. More was spilled than was imbibed but what did find its way into them was enough to begin the long thaw. “Gotta to find Meg and Jenny, Nick,” Heath struggled to say. Nick nodded. Neither would rest until they had found their wives.
The deck was filled with people, crew and passengers. Those from the Titanic were dazed, bereaved or in shock, those from the Carpathia either distant or generous in their help. Deck loungers meant for relaxing became makeshift beds, expensive fur coats were offered for warmth along with blankets and mugs of coffee and soup in constant supply. Those that could listened closely to what had happened. It seemed inconceivable that the unsinkable had sunk. Names were taken, losses too, details of the sinking and its time of demise. It was a reality not of their making and the stories were difficult to tell and to record. Somehow, all of them had to deal with the aftermath.
Nick and Heath shuffled painfully, for their limbs would do nothing else, in search of news of their wives. Passenger lists were checked and they both sighed with relief when the names of Meg and Jenny were listed as Mrs. N. Barkley and Mrs. H Barkley of Stockton, California, respectively. Next came the job of finding them. Walking was difficult for both of them but they struggled on, declining requests for them go inside. As it was, husbands and wives found each other, both sets wandering the decks in search of the other. Their reunions were poignant and private despite the public stage. Such reunions were few and far between. Many husbands, sons and fathers had been lost and widows lined the decks, peering out on to their oceanic grave in vague hope.
Inside the Carpathia, the Barkleys sat by a roaring fire in the lounge trying to get warm. A doctor attended to them and a young couple offered them their suite in which to rest. The Barkleys offered their thanks, more so when warm clothing was also found for them. Similar acts of kindnesses were replicated all over the ship.
Changed out of their wet clothes Nick and Heath started to look human again. They slept from sheer exhaustion. Meg and Jenny slept in their husbands’ arms, not wanting to let go of them. They struggled to sleep as solidly as their husbands did. Sleep battled with a mountain of thoughts and nightmares came all too easily. Eventually sleep claimed them, releasing them at least for a few hours from the horrors of what had happened that night.
The next morning a wheelchair was found for Heath and crutches for Nick and so along with their wives they attended a service on deck at which they sang ‘For those of peril on the sea,’ the words of which remained with them long afterwards. Meg and Jenny were numbed. But they still had their husbands. They were part of the lucky ones. It was time to help others.
Others helped, too. Slowly, the ghosts of the Titanic survivors came to life.
In contrast to the respectful silence that existed on board the Carpathia, the ship’s arrival in New York met with hullabaloo of international press desperate for news of the sinking and individual heroic stories. What they couldn’t find they would make up. To the cries of “Can you tell us what happened?” and much more, Heath and Nick navigated their wives through the throng ignoring the requests for an interview. Loaned some money they hailed a cab as quickly as they could and went to the nearest available hotel, wiring their family at the first opportunity to settle the minds of their loved ones that they were safe.
They desperately wanted to get home and made arrangements for money to be wired to them and for the travel arrangements to be made. Heath developed a cough and was confined to bed to prevent it from getting worse. Nerves were frayed and this was just one more worry.
One morning Heath caught Meg looking out of their hotel window. “Have the press gone?” He asked, suggesting that he had only just come awake, although in truth he had been staring at her for some minutes. Meg made a half-turn and gave a wistful smile. “Not entirely. They still seem to think there is a story here.”
“Not from me,” Heath barked as he pushed himself up into a sitting position. Meg joined him at the side of the bed and plumped up his pillows, checking his forehead for fever. He gently wafted her hand away, “I’m fine.”
“Yes, well, we all know what that means.”
Heath caught her agitated tone. “It means I’m fine, Meg. Just that.”
Meg looked so sad and sat down on the bed.
“What is it, Meg?”
“I just feel so unsure of things now. You know I sat brushing my hair this morning. An hour later I was still brushing it. I’m not sure I will ever feel the same again.” Heath put out his arms and she fell into them searching for answers and wanting to hear the regular beat of his heart.
“I guess it’ll take a time, honey, but we’ll get there. We will. I think home will prove our balm; the children and grandchildren and the ranch. They’re what we need right now. Somehow we have to understand that what happened was part of our life, but it isn’t our whole life. We can’t let it beat us. Otherwise, why have we been spared?”
“I need you, Heath. I always have and always will.” Meg breathed out, her breath rippling across his chest. Heath ran his fingers comfortingly through her hair. “I’m right here, honey. I’m right here.”
Downstairs Nick read the newspapers with disgust. Jenny warned him not to get agitated. "How the hell am I not suppose to get agitated when every time I step outside the hotel those newshounds are out there. "Can we have a comment Mr. Barkley?" How the hell did they get our names?"
"They have their ways. Darling, please don't get upset. The story will eventually be replaced by something else."
"Only to resurface when they have an inquiry. This story is not going to go away. Too many lives have been lost. And it shouldn't, answers are needed, but not this!" Nick thumped the paper at a tabloid article which had particularly got his goat."
"Some people have lost everything Nick. It is not for us to comment on their reason for selling their story."
Nick grumbled, unable to concede.
"That Lightoller. He was one terrific guy. If it hadn't been for him Heath and I wouldn't be alive now."
Jenny was visibly distressed, the thought of having almost lost her husband too recent. Nick saw her distress and reached out to comfort her. "I think when Heath is well, we owe that man a dinner at the very least."
Jenny nodded, wiping away her tears. Nick took the delicate handkerchief and wiped them himself, returning a smile to his wife's beautiful face.
"That's what kept me alive," he breathed out. "Your beautiful face and seeing that smile once again."
The two of them gripped on to each other's hand tight, drawing strength from each other.
As it transpired, Heath was not well enough to join Nick and Charles Lightoller for dinner. The doctor on learning from Meg, Heath’s history of health problems recommended further rest and refused to sanction travel arrangements for the rancher until he was quite satisfied his patient was on the mend. Heath did not complain. His body though spared the worst of frost-bite, because like the others on top of the collapsible, he had to work keep the boat afloat, nevertheless had not gone unscathed. Apart from his lungs, Heath could no longer feel anything in one of his toes. The feeling had simply not returned as it had done to the others.
So Nick and Jenny entertained Lightoller to dinner. With sincere thanks Nick thanked the officer for saving the lives of he and his brother, insisting that if the officer had not marshalled them into a working team, they and others would most certainly have died. If ever the man needed anything from the Barkleys he only had to ask, he told him and finished by extending an invitation to Lightoller to visit the ranch. Lightholler played down his own heroism but Nick would have none of it. He knew just how much they owed to this man.
The evening turned out to be fascinating as did Lightoller himself. Nick even learned that the White Star officer had once worked as a cowboy. This common ground was richly mined with Nick and Lightholler trying to best each other with stories.
Naturally, the conversation turned to the inquest. Lightholler’s testimony was central given that he was the highest surviving officer. In typical form Nick expressed his contempt for the gutter press. Scapegoats were being hunted but to Nick's mind the most damning evidence was the insufficiency of lifeboats. That and, as they were learning, the fast speed at which the ship was travelling. Arrogance, that’s what Nick called it, and it had cost over 1,500 lives.
It was an uneasy Nick who went to bed that night. Jenny, unable to penetrate his thoughts, snuggled into him, relieved when he finally wrapped his arm around her and held her tight.
A week later the doctor declared Heath fit to travel. His lungs were fine and feeling had returned to one of his cold-affected toes. Nick could not resist teasing. "You can't feel anything at all?" He said poking at the deadened middle toe.
"When I do, you'll be the first to know." Heath replied dryly.
More seriously, Heath was determined to get home. New York was like a city of mourning and an industry of grief was beginning to build unhealthily around it. Disturbed, Heath arranged for them to travel home. The sooner they saw home, the better.
The passing countryside rolled by as the train made its journey west. As much as possible they tried to resume life as normal thinking ahead and not backwards. Nick and Heath remained mentally strong. Meg was affected the worst, her thoughts troubled by faces of people she had met and would never see again.
Later, Heath and Meg were asleep in the sleeping car. Meg’s sleep was unsettled and she tossed and mumbled increasingly, disturbing Heath lying next to her. “Meg!” Heath’s voice was low and soft, “Meg!” He repeated, propping himself up on one elbow and gently shaking Meg with his other hand. “Meg, dear. Wake up!”
Meg for a moment was back in the lifeboat, her dreams vivid and real. She shivered from the unremitting cold. Though she and Jenny had helped row their boat she had never been so cold, and something else, she was chilled from the fact that she did not know what had happened to Heath. Had he found a lifeboat as he had promised? Typically, he had gone with Nick to help others, but just for once she wished she had forced him to get in the boat; to not abandon her to a possible life without him. “Heath!” she called out. Her cries grew louder, “Heath!” she wailed.
Heath pinned her down firmly but gently, trying to settle her frantic movements, “Meg, I’m here. I’m safe. We’re both safe. Come back to me darlin’. Come back.” Tears were forming in his eyes, tears that understood and at the same time wanted to take her pain away.
Meg gradually came awake, her eyes startled and blinking fast as she left the cold, darkness and utter desperation of that night and turned to see her husband’s worried, gentle face hovering above her, his lips, repeatedly saying her name. “Oh, Heath!” she exclaimed as she realized he was alive. She held on to him, not wanting to let go. Heath held her tight, his hold of her feeding her with the strength and security he had always given her since that night long ago when he had asked her to be his wife.
“Shush,” Heath soothed, “I’m here. Everything is all right. It’s just a nightmare, sweetheart. See, we’re on the train travelling home.” He lay back down and drew Meg into him. Gradually her clinging lessened and she relaxed into the safety of his body.
“I feel guilty for being alive,” she breathed out. “So many people lost.
“Don’t,” he said gently. “There's no guilt in being alive. Life is God-given. It was not ours to decide when it should end. The only guilt was the lack of lifeboats, Meg. If there had been enough then everyone would have got away.
“But I found a seat. Others didn’t get the chance.” She protested.
“I put you in that lifeboat Meg and I would do again. You’re taking on a guilt that isn’t yours to bear. There ought to have been enough boats for everyone.”
“When I think of you and Nick in the water...”
“It’s over Meg. You’ve got to stop reliving it. Let it go. We’re all safe and soon we’ll see the family. Promise me darlin’, you’ll not think on it anymore.”
They lay awake for a long while before falling asleep.
Arriving back in Stockton, they found they weren’t able to forget it. It was a huge story in Stockton given that the Barkleys had been passengers. Journalist clamoured for an interview and details of their heroics.
Nick cornered his brother one day. “We’re going to have give them what they want, Heath. They’re not going to leave us alone if we don’t.”
“You think it will once we give them their story? Won’t that just feed more interest?” Heath reasoned.
Nick slammed the table hard with frustration.
“That won’t help,”
“Neither will keeping hunkered down here at the ranch. As it is, Jenny and Meg can’t go into town without someone wanting to know what happened!”
Heath sighed, thinking how Meg had said she could have the Ladies Guild entertained for weeks on the story of being on the Titanic’s maiden voyage. This is not what she had intended.
“You think we can draw a line under it, Nick?” Heath posed, passing his brother a drink.
“All, I know, Heath is that I feel like a caged animal. I want us to have our lives back. We’ve lived in this Valley much longer than we were on the Titanic. I don’t want that ship to define who I am. I’m Nick Barkley of Stockton, California, not Nick Barkley, survivor of the Titanic.”
“Okay, we’ll give them one interview.” Heath conceded. Knowing how the press worked he added, "They’ll make us out to be heroes.”
“Ah hell, Heath, we were just as afraid as anybody.”
Heath gave a sad, painful smile. “I’ve never been so afraid of anything in my life, Nick. I swear, nothing can make me that afraid again. A huge black ocean of nothing, a ship you stood on one minute and which was at the bottom of the sea the next. All those iives? All that screaming? Then that deathly silence...”
Nick placed a brotherly hand on Heath's trembling hand and steadied it. “I know, Heath. I have the same nightmares.” It was the first and only admission he made.
As predicted the press clamoured for more news stories following their interview. A picture feature of the Barkleys at home was requested for a national magazine – “Perhaps something with all these children of yours,” one ultra-modern woman journalist opined sneeringly, unable to comprehend how a woman as educated and rich as Meg Barkley could subject her body to so many births. Had she not heard of birth control?
All requests for features and further interviews were politely but firmly declined. They had given an accurate account of their story but true to form the press had embellished it, promoting their home-grown ‘heroes’ . San Francicso papers picked up the story.
It was some weeks before the story finally died down and life was given a chance to return to normal. It allowed them all a chance to heal.
One morning Heath and Meg were on grandparent duty. They had taken two of their grandchildren on a picnic. Heath was gently dozing whilst Meg was on watch. Suddenly, Heath felt his nose being tickled. He opened his eyes to see Johnny Barkley tickling his nose with a long piece of grass. The little three-year old was giggling and telling his grandfather to wake up. “Want to play, Grandpa!” Johnny squealed.
Heath looked at the grandson who down to his nose looked just liked himself. “You do, do you?” With strong arms he scooped the giggling boy up into outstretched arms and dangled him above, dropping him with a swoosh and then pushing him back up in the air. Johnny, fearless, loved this type of play. “Again! Again!” He squealed until Heath’s arms grew tired.
“You’re not eighteen anymore, Heath Barkley,” Meg warned him as she sat more sedately with the baby on her lap.
“And I’m not Methuselah either.” Heath laughed back. He looked at his active grandson. “Let’s take our grandchildren for a walk. I’ve a mind to take a stroll with a pretty lady, I know.”
He stood up, admittedly not the nimble eighteen-year old anymore, and helped Meg up with the baby. They placed the baby in the perambulator and little Johnny happily snuck his hand into the safety of his Grandpa’s left hand whilst Meg pushed the baby.
Thirty-two years Heath and Meg had walked life together; first as young newly-weds, then as parents, now as grandparents. They allowed themselves a moment of celebration. They hadn’t done such a bad job. Heath paused the pram and little Johnny stood quietly by and looking up as his grandparents shared a kiss. The tug of his little hand made them break away and return their attention to him. “Stop kissing Grandma, Grandpa! I wanna to play!” He complained.
Heath looked at Meg and shrugged.
"Away with you both," Meg smiled back, "The baby and I will take a walk."
Life was returning to normal.
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