April 10, 1912
When my twin, Jamie, left, he vowed it wouldn’t be forever. Only a week before Halley’s Comet brushed the London skies, he kissed my cheek and set off. One comet in, one comet out. But two years away is more than enough time to clear his head, even in the coal-thickened air at the bottom of a steamship. Since he hasn’t come home, it is time to chase down the comet’s tail.
I try not to fidget while I wait my turn on the first-class gangway of White Star Line’s newest ocean liner. A roofed corridor—to spare the nobs the inconvenience of sunshine—leads directly from the “boat train” depot to this highest crossing. At least we are far from the rats on Southampton dock below, which is crawling with them.
Of course, some up here might consider me a rat.
The couple ahead of me eyes me warily, even though I am dressed in one of Mrs. Sloane’s smartest traveling suits—shark grey to match her usual temper, with a swath of black bee-swarm lace pinned from shoulder to shoulder. A lifetime of those dodgy looks teaches you to ignore them. Haven’t I already survived the journey from London? A half a day’s travel, packed into a smoky railcar, next to a man who stank of sardines. And here I am, so close to the finish line, I can nearly smell Jamie—like trampled ryegrass and the milk biscuits he is so fond of eating.
An ocean breeze cools my cheeks. Several stories below in either direction, onlookers crowd the dock, staring up at the ship rising six stories before them. Its hull gleams, a wall of liquid black with a quartet of smokestacks so wide you could drive a train through them. Stately letters march across its side: “TITANIC.” On the third-class gangway a hundred feet to my left, passengers sport a variety of costume: headscarves, patterned kaftans, fringed shawls of botany wool, tasseled caps, and plain dungarees and straw hats. I don’t see a single Chinese face among them. Has Jamie boarded already? With this crowd, I may have missed him.
Then again, he isn’t traveling alone, but with seven other Chinese men from his company. All are being transported to Cuba for a new route after coal strikes here berthed their steamship.
Something cold unspools in my belly. I received his last letter a month ago. Time enough for things to change. What if Jamie’s company decided to send them somewhere other than Cuba, maybe a new route in Asia or Africa?
The line shifts. Only a few more passengers ahead of me.
Jamie! I call in my mind, a game I often played growing up. He doesn’t always hear, but I like to think he does when it matters.
In China, a dragon-phoenix pair of boy-and-girl twins is considered auspicious, and so Ba bought two suckling pigs to celebrate our birth, roasted side by side to show their common lot. Some may think that macabre, but to the Chinese, death is just a continuation of life on a higher plane with our ancestors.
Jamie, your sister is here. Look for me.
Won’t he be surprised to see me? Shocked may be more accurate—Jamie has never handled surprise well—but I will get him to see that it is time for him, forus, to move on to bigger and better things, just as our father hoped.
I think back to the telegram I sent him when Ba passed five months ago.
Ba hit his head on post and died. Please come home. Ever your Val.
Jamie wrote back:
Rec’d news and hope you are bearing up okay. Very sorry, but I have eight months left on my contract and cannot get away. Write me details. Your Jamie.
Jamie would have known that Ba had been drunk when he hit his head, and I knew he wouldn’t mourn like I had. When you live with someone whose mistress is the bottle, you say your goodbyes long before they depart.
Someone behind me clears her throat. A woman in a pinstriped “menswear” suit that fits her slender figure like stripes on a zebra watches me, an ironic smile wrapped around her cigarette. I put her in her early twenties. Somehow dressing in men’s clothing seems to heighten her femininity, with her creamy skin and dark hair that swings to her delicate chin. She lifts that chin toward the entrance, where a severe-looking officer stands like a box nail,a puzzled look on his face.
I bound forward on the balls of my feet, muscled from years of tightrope practice. Ba started training Jamie and me in the acrobatic arts as soon as we could walk. Sometimes, our acts were the only thing putting food on the table.
The severe officer watches me pull my ticket from my velvet handbag.
Mrs. Sloane, my employer, secretly purchased tickets for the two of us with her dragon’s hoard of money. She didn’t tell her son or his wife about the trip, or that she might stay in America indefinitely to get away from their money-grubbing fists and greedy stares. After her unexpected demise, I couldn’t just let the tickets go to waste.
“Afternoon, sir. I am Valora Luck.”
The officer glances at the name written on my ticket, then back at me, his steep cheekbones sharp enough for a bird to land on. His navy visor with its distinctive company logo—a gold wreath circling a red flag with a white star—levers as he inspects me. “Destination?”
“New York, same as the rest.” Is that a trick question?
“New York, huh. Documentation?”
“You’re holding it right there, sir,” I say brightly, feeling the gangway shift uncomfortably.
He exchanges a guarded look with the crewman holding the passenger log. “Luck?”
“Yes.” In Cantonese, our surname sounds more like “Luke,” but the British like to pronounce it “luck.” Ba had decided to embrace good fortune and spell it that way, too. He’d intended the lofty-sounding name “Valor” for Jamie, and “Virtue” for me—after a sea shanty about a pair of boots—but my British mum put the brakes on that. Instead, she named my brother James, and I got Valora. It’s a toss-up as to which of us is more relieved.
“You’re Chinese, right?”
“Half of me.” Mum married Ba against the wishes of her father, a vicar in the local parish.
“Then at least half of you needs documentation. Ain’t you heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act? You can’t go to America without papers. That’s just how it is.”
“Wh-what?” A pang of fear slices through me. The ChineseExclusion Act. What madness is this? They don’t like us here in England, but clearly, theyreally don’t like us in America. “But my brother’s on this ship, too, with the members of the Atlantic Steam Company. They’re all Chinese. Did they get on?”
“I don’t keep the third-class register. You’ll need to get off my gangway.”
“B-but my lady will be expecting me.”
“Where is she?”
I was prepared for this question. “Mrs. Sloane wanted me to board first to make sure her room was ready.” Of course, she had already pushed off on a different ship, one that wouldn’t be making a return journey, causing me great inconvenience. “We had her trunk forwarded here a week ago. I must lay out her things.” Mum’s Bible is in that trunk, within its pages my only picture of her and Ba. At last, my family will be reunited, even if it is just with a photo of our parents.
“Well, you’re not getting on this ship without the proper documentation.” He waves the ticket. “I’ll keep this for her for when she boards. Next!”
Waiting passengers begin to grumble behind me, but I ignore them. “No, please! I must board! I must—”
“Robert, escort this girl off.”
The crewman beside the severe officer grabs my arm.
I shake him off, trying to muster a bit of respect. “I will see myself off.”
The woman in the menswear suit behind me steps aside to allow others to go before her, her amber eyes curiously assessing me. “I saw a group of Chinese men enter the ship early this morning,” she says in the no-nonsense tone Americans use. “Perhaps you can check if your brother was one of them.”
“Thank you,” I say, grateful for the unexpected charity.
A family pushes past me, and I lose the woman in a flurry of people, parcels, and hats. I find myself being squeezed back into the train depot, like a piece of indigestible meat. Mrs. Sloane would’ve never stood for this outrage. Probably a rich lady like her would have persuaded them to let me on. But there is no one to speak for me now. I descend the staircase, then exit the depot onto the quay. The glare from the overcast sky cuts my eyes.
I figured the hardest part of this endeavor would be getting on without Mrs. Sloane. Never could I have foreseen this complication. What now? I need to be on that ship, or it could be months, maybe years, before I see Jamie again.
Something skirts over my boot and I recoil. A rat. They are certainly bold here, called by the peanut peddlers and meat pie hawkers. I shrink away from a pile of crates, where the rodents are making short work of a melon rind. The river slaps a rhythm against the Titanic’s hull, and my heart beats double time with the slosh.
Taking the American’s advice, I make tracks for the third-class entrance farther down the quay toward the bow. Unlike in the first class, passengers crowd the gangway, tightening the queue as I near. I straighten my jacket. “I’m sorry, I just need to check if my brother made it through. Please let me pass.”
A man with a dark mustache chastises me in a foreign tongue, then jerks his head toward the end of the line. Heads nod, cutting me suspicious glares, and people move to block me. Seems wearing first-class clothes will not gain me any advantage here.
Perhaps things would be different if I looked less like Ba and more like Mum. I exhale my frustration, a wind heated by a lifetime of being turned away for no good cause. Then I continue farther along the quay to the end of the line, passing dockworkers manhandling ropes and a navy uniform shining a torch into people’s eyeballs. They don’t check the first class for disease.
Beyond the nose of the ship, a couple of tugboats line up, ready to tow the Titanic from her mooring. Voices rise as people look up to a massive crane on the bow lowering a hoisting platform onto the quay ten paces away. A horn honks, and the queue shifts, making way for a sleek cinnamon-red Renault motorcar. It stops right before the hoisting platform.
It could take an hour to reach the gangway from here. But even if Jamie has boarded, they still won’t let me on that ship without papers. Then theTitanic will leave, and he will be lost to me, possibly forever. His letters to me will be undeliverable at the Sloanes’, and I will have no way of knowing which new route he was assigned. Jamie is the only real family I have left. I won’t let him idle his time on a steamship when he is destined for better things. Great things.
A woman with large nostrils glances at me, then pulls her son closer, spilling some of the peanuts from his paper cone. A rat slithers out from behind a crate and quietly feasts. “Stay away from that one. I’ve heard they eat dogs.”
Barely glancing at me, the boy returns his attention to the Renault.
A crewman gestures at the dockworkers positioned on either side of the car. “Easy now. Load her on.”
I am getting on that ship, by hook or by crook. Jamie is there, and I won’t let him leave without me. As for the Chinese Exclusion Act, put out the fire on your trousers before worrying about the one down the street. But how will I board?
The hoisting platform sways on its hook, the stage just big enough to hold the motorcar. A crewman reaches up and guides it the last few feet to the quay.
I flex my back, my muscles twitching. There are more ways onto the Titanic than the gangways.
Copyright © 2021 by Stacey Lee. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.