It’s 1912 and on-board the Titanic are two women from very different walks of life. Alice Higgins is an impoverished music hall performer, heavily pregnant and running away with her bounder boyfriend to start a new life in America. Nesta Villiers is the wealthy wife of a brutal man, and is escaping to New York to avoid him committing her to an asylum.
When the ship begins to sink, Nesta offers to take the baby Alice gave birth to on-board, onto a lifeboat – promising to return him when they are rescued. But in a case of mistaken identity Nesta thinks Alice has died and claims the baby as her own. But even when they reach New York and she discovers her ‘son’s’ mother is alive and well, she continues to tell people he is hers.
In an epic tale that starts with the sinking of the world’s most famous ship, and ends with the Second World War, Alice and Nesta contend with the heartbreak the First World War brings; the emancipation of women; the realisation of their dreams, and the strain of keeping so many secrets. When fate brings them together again, a life-long battle ensues as they fight to hold onto the boy they both adore.
In the distance someone was singing ‘I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen’ and for a moment Alice wondered if she was in Heaven and the sweet voice was her mother’s. She turned her head and through her misty eyes could just make out a woman draped in a soggy-looking mink coat, holding onto a little girl with auburn ringlets, who remained unresponsive as the woman sang to her. Alice wasn’t quite sure where she was, just that she was so cold and needed to sleep. Voices seemed to swim around her – the woman singing, other women chattering. She realised she was lying upon something soft, like a lap, but she couldn’t be sure what it actually was.
‘Are you sure it’s not a boy?’ a snooty voice asked. ‘It looks like a boy dressed as a girl.’
‘She’s a girl,’ insisted another warmer, yet more commanding voice. ‘Look at her pretty little features.’
Alice forced her eyes open and staring into her face was a man with white hair and kind, friendly features. He smiled on seeing she was still alive, but he quickly disappeared again. Alice needed to sleep and she couldn’t fight it. If she could just sleep for a while longer then she would wake up and find out what had happened.
Half a mile away, in a boat largely occupied with wealthy old women clutching onto their minks and fancy leather bags, Nesta Villiers sat staring across the ice fields, wondering if anyone was ever going to come and rescue them. The baby in her arms was growing restless, and as she wrapped her coat around him and snuggled him against her, she could feel him shivering. She looked up and noticed one of the old women sitting opposite her, giving her an indulgent smile -her crinkly eyes twinkling as if some long distant memory had come to life, and warmed her in these horrific times.
‘They’re tougher than you think,’ she said. ‘They can withstand most things.’
‘But it’s so cold,’ Nesta shivered. ‘He’ll want feeding soon and I’ve no milk.’
The elderly woman frowned in puzzlement and Nesta thought quickly.
‘I had trouble producing milk,’ she said, embarrassed at saying such a thing in a boat filled with strangers who could hear every word in this deathly silence.
‘Well I’m sure the rescue boat will be here soon and they’ll have plenty of milk for your baby,’ the woman replied.
Nesta smiled and pulled the baby a little closer to her. She kept her head down and tried not to look in the water. She wondered if anyone else had noticed that about ten feet from the boat, clinging onto a piece of ice, was a body. It was clearly a woman, her long red hair floating in the water, the flecks of ice in it making her look prematurely old. The straps of her white life jacket floated around her, and showed that she hadn’t had time to fasten it properly. Nesta knew if she looked around some more, she would be confronted with other bodies, and it felt obscene, given she had a newborn in her arms. No matter what she had encountered in her past, nothing compared to the hell she had just witnessed, and the only hope that could come out of all this was that she could give this poor, orphaned child a decent future.