poems & stories of

The Great Big Boat

Mavis is excited today. She bounces her red and yellow ball on the ancient sidewalk, sometimes tossing it against the white stone wall. Her clear little voice calls out in a singsong style,

"A boat, a boat,
a great big boat.
We are going on
a great big boat."

The ball gets away from her hands. She is good at games but the ball is big and her hands are so tiny. "Mavis, Mavis, stay back from the street, dear," her father calls from the shop door. His white apron is covered in flour. Even his glasses are powdered in white. "St. Peter Port has too many donkey carts and too many cars. It’s dangerous. These streets are too narrow for cars." His friendly voice is a mix of concern and satisfaction—all these newfangled cars in his little island town. He takes her by the hand and escorts her into the shop; The Island Bakery-finest fare in all of Guernsey. "Let’s have a currant bun, my girl," he says proudly. He is justly proud of the fine shop where he works and justly proud of his little girl, too.

"Oh thank-you Father, but I can hardly eat. I keep thinking about the big boat" she beams. "How far is Merry Car?"

"HA, ha, ha. America... A-M-E-R-I-C-A. It’s a place, like Guernsey or England, only so much bigger. And this isn't some little fishing boat like the ones across the street. This is a ship. This is a great big ship. The biggest and the fastest and the best one in all England. In all the world. Come child, let’s have a bun. Your mother will be back soon."

The shop bell jingles, "ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling." Hidden under a deluge of boxes and bags is Lena Maude Mahy Trouteaud, Henry’s beautiful wife and Mavis' mother. "Whew, the shops are so crowded today. I saw Carey Cooke down at Studley’s Men’s Shop. She’s buying Sam some new pants for the voyage. She chose a nice herringbone wool."

"Too picky," says Henry, lifting the many packages to reveal his pretty little wife. She scurries about the tiny shop. Her deep blue dress is covered in tea roses and flutters on the oven-warmed air. Mavis watches her mother’s dress whirling ever so close to the glass cases laden with breads and sweets. Each turn brings her closer to the counters, but she never quite touches them. She never gets white powder on her flowered dress.

Her mother and father talk excitedly about the trip, "Will we get everything into those trunks? Can we take my winter coat? Did you pick up the tickets this morning? Mr. and Mrs. Queeny are going. Did you know that Jack and Edie Grist booked passage, too? Edie says little Jackie is so excited. Lena turns to speak to Mavis, "Jackie is going to America, too. Isn't that grand!"

"Mummy, Mummy, is there enough room for everybody in Merry Ca...I mean America? Mr. and Mrs. Queeny are kind of fat. Every minute they are eating and smoking cigarettes. Eat, eat, eat, and smoke, smoke, smoke. Ashes always fall on my shoes."

"There’s plenty of room... and please dear, don't say fat, say plump." Lena looks again at her fine husband but now there is a note of concern in her voice, "So many people are leaving Guernsey to go to America. I hope this is the right thing for us? Henry, are you sure we are doing the best thing? It’s so far away...."

Mavis starts to lose track of their conversation. The words become white butterflies flitting around the bakery shop. Flutter by, flutter by. She turns to look through the open door and across the busy road to the protected harbor with the fishing boats bobbing on the gentle swells. She can hear the creaking of the ropes as the colorful boats rise and fall, rise and fall, rise and fall.

She was born on Guernsey, this small island in the English Channel that belongs to England but is just off the north coast of France. Because of its location to the south of England, it is a favorite vacation spot for the English. Every season, red-faced men smoking pipes and wearing the heavy weave fishing sweaters called “Guernseys” walk along the high-bluffed seashore. They are followed by white-faced women with pink cheeks and slender noses wearing lacy white dresses with matching hats. Their blue-veined, long fingers hold down billowing layers of cloth and ribbons lifted by the wind’s advance, an advance long forgotten in the more civilized fog of London.

Guernsey is one of four islands grouped together: Guernsey, Jersey, Alderney and Sark. Guernsey is famous for its pretty little brown and white cows. The ones with the big brown eyes and long eyelashes. Everyday, ruddy-cheeked farmers in brown coats with tweed caps drawn down over their ears, lead their herds of Guernseys out of the stone barns and onto the foggy hillsides.

The blood of Guernsey folk is often French and the politics is often English. Mavis' father’s name is Henry or Henri in French. His whole name becomes Henri Emile Trouteaud; very French. Trouteaud is pronounced "True-toe'. The family’s ancestors came from Normandy, the Norman coast running along the top of France.

At this time in history, thousands and thousands of Europeans are leaving their beloved homelands in search of the promise of America. Mavis' parents and many of their friends have decided to move across the sea to this far-off new land. They will leave the safe, very familiar little island only seven miles long to venture into a huge foreign country. A place with strange names like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Texas (teeming with cowboys and Indians).

It is 1912. Mavis is three years old, her big brother Henry Junior is almost eight. They are old enough to travel so their parents buy tickets on a big ship. This will be the start of a grand, new life. They will ride together on a huge, brand new ship bound across the Atlantic Ocean for new homes in a wild and free America, The Land of Opportunity.


"MAVIS, Mavis," calls Edna, her voice rising at the end. Mavis' vision refocuses from the bobbing boats to settle on the equally bobbing head of her best friend Edna. She stands in the sunlit doorway, ringlets catching the light. Holding a doll up by the arm, she chirps,"Let’s play with our dolls on your front steps, okay?" The two girls tell Mavis' mother, then hurry toward the door to fetch the dolls and all the doll clothes.

Lena’s voice trails after them, "Stay on the steps and I'll be there in one minute. I want to start some rice pudding for your father’s supper. " Henry and Lena smile into each other’s eyes. He gives her a powdery kiss and they both laugh as she tries to wipe the white spot off her pink cheek before going next door to their little house.

Mavis and Edna giggle with expectation as Lena carries in the packages. She shows the girls the new dresses that she will pack for the long trip. They tell their dolls that they will all go on a great ship together. They even have new dresses to put on their dolls. "It’s a good thing we have these lovely sweaters for our dolls," Mavis says. "Yes, and these warm little mittens that Auntie Ella knitted."

Edna adds, excitedly, "Yes, it might get really cold on that big boat."

"Ship." Mavis corrects, "It’s a big ship."

Just then, Henry Junior comes bounding up the stairs. He’s all flailing arms and bony legs. "Careful Henry, you're knocking all our dolls off the porch. They're having tea time on the big ship, and now look, everything is upside down. Oh, Edna, your doll fell right in the water. She’s soaking wet. MUMMY."

"Oh, Henry, please be careful," Lena calls to her son. "Look, you kicked Edna’s doll right into the birdbath."

"Sorry Mummy, sorry Mavis, sorry Edna. I hope I didn't drown your doll." He turns back to his mother, " I'm playing the saw at school. Can I use one of Daddy’s saws to practice? Can I take it to America? Do they play saws in America?" He bursts back out the door, jumps over the girls and their tea party, and hurries into the bakery. "Daddy, can I take your saw to America?

All of the families are just as excited. Sam and Carey Cooke sell their little house and turn the money into two tickets on the great ship. Stanley and Elizabeth Byrd have his new blue blazer and white pants pressed and ready. Redge and Ella Ingram and Harry Tanner and Johnny Ray and his new wife are talking and packing and laughing, "I can't believe we're really going" they keep repeating "and on the grandest ship of all."

The level of excitement keeps rising each day like a thermometer in a flu patient’s mouth. Washing and mending clothes takes on new importance because these clothes will next be worn in a new country. The weather becomes nicer as the calendar races toward springtime but everyone is too busy to notice. "I'd like to plant these flower beds," Lena calls to Henry as they straighten up the front yard. They both love their little garden and can't help bending down to pull a few weeds.

"Better leave that for the new couple. She may like different kinds of flowers," Henry calls back. "Besides, you better keep those seeds for a garden in America."

"Oh, Henry, do you think we'll have a garden there?"

"Of course we will. There will be lots of room for flowers and gooseberries, and currants, and arbors full of grapes." As Henry pulls a few pesky weeds, a dark shadow steals across his path. He squints up over his shoulder seeing a large figure looming above him. Henry stands up, dusting the dirt from his knees. He claps his hands together to remove the soil. "Excuse my hands," he apologizes as he shakes the visitor’s outstretched hand.

The visitor’s hands are cold and wrinkled, spidery blue veins crawling across the transparent skin. "I am Mr. Killingford. I believe we have met before, perhaps at the hospital. I am the Assistant Director there."

"Oh yes , Mr. Killingsford, I...."

"Killingford, no S... Lawrence Killingford."

"Of course, Mr. Killingford, we met when my mother was sick."

"That is correct. I am afraid that Mrs. Trouteaud is in our hospital once more. She was taken ill this morning...quite ill."

"Oh goodness, is she...is she all right?" Henry sheds his gardening jacket and rushes inside for his suit coat. He quickly washes his hands and returns to the porch, only then realizing that his pants have dusty knees. Lena dabs at the spots with a damp towel, assuring him that everything will be all right. Henry hurries off with the tall, black-cloaked Mr. Killingford.

They hasten across the cobblestone streets toward the old hospital. Mr. Killingford’s high black boots make clicking noises as he marches. Henry’s baker’s shoes are silent as kneading dough as he rushes along to keep up with the taller man. "Mother..." Henry tells Mr. Killingford "Mother is really the matriarch of our family. Dear God, I hope she will be all right."

Mr. Killingford turns his head, his face in the shadow of his large black hat, "She is a 'Grande Dame'. She has done so much for Guernsey and so much work to help the hospital, too. We all care about her very much." They reach the old Romanesque hospital, climb the stone steps, and go through the reddish sandstone arches. It is instantly dark and gloomy inside after the bright March sunlight but Mr. Killingford quickly navigates the echoing halls to a wing of patient’s rooms.

Mrs. Trouteaud is a frail woman, lost in the rough-woven blankets that cover the high hospital bed. Her gray hair is thin and straggly, parted in the center and pulled back to disappear in the white pillows. Her large French nose is a thin mountain peak rising above clouds, slowly drawing in and giving back the stale hospital air.

Henry’s brother Edward sits beside the bed, his work hat covering his hands. Ella Ingram leans against his chair, her heavy black dress and hat almost lost in the long gray shadows. The only color is her reddened eyes. Henry moves around the bed to embrace them both. On this day, Edward looks old, his white skin drawn over his skull. His voice scratches out,"Poor Mother, she’s so weak and fragile. If I touch her, she will break." They talk in whispered fragments, all sound sucked into the thick walls. Soon all conversation stops. They watch the gray blankets, acutely aware of each rise and each fall.

The doctor brushes in, stirring the air with his activity. He peers over a chart and begins checking his patient’s pulse. "I'm afraid she is very ill this time. She is a real fighter though. We hope for the best, but I don't know if she can pull through this one. There are some new medicines. We won't know for some time... perhaps several weeks."

They follow the doctor out into the hall, shaking his hand and thanking him for his continued efforts. Stanley Byrd is waiting there. "Will ssh-she be all right, Henry?" he asks.

"We won't know for a while, perhaps weeks," Henry answers.

"I know...I know. I can't leave now. I must cancel our passage. I won't leave Guernsey until we know if Mother will live or die."

"Me t-t-too. We all love and respect Mrs. Trouteaud. We will wait," says Stanley, and he turns to his wife. Elizabeth dabs at her eye with a handkerchief and nods her head yes. Stanley repeats, "We will all wait together."

The next morning, Henry goes to the shipline’s ticket agent. Somewhat reluctantly, he removes the four beautiful tickets from their envelope and slides them across the worn counter. The uniformed agent examines the ornate tickets and asks if this will be a refund. "No," Henry answers, "I would like to reserve a later date."

"There’s the U.S.M.S. Philadelphia , sir. Will that be satisfactory? She’s not so new and beautiful, but she'll get you there." Henry nods his head and the man adds, " several people have changed to that ship already today."

Henry stuffs the new envelope into his inside pocket and walks out. Overhead, twelve seagulls cry their salty, mournful wail. Henry calls to them, "You're right mates. It’s a sad day all around." He hears more wailing mixed with the sea air, "Hen-ry, Hen-ry."

He looks around to see Sam Cooke hurrying up to him, "Henry, Henry, who were you talking to?"

"Just the gulls. That one’s Jack and the rough-looking one is Joe. They sound sad today."

"Oh, I see. I'm on my way to change our tickets to the U.S.M.S. Philadelphia."

Henry reaches his arm around Sam’s small shoulders, "Are you sure, Sam? You were so excited to take the new ship. It’s the pride of England and America." lives. Maybe the most changes in one lifetime, ever... but, right now, Carey and I want to be near your mother. She is a fine woman. Going to America doesn't mean turning away from our friends."

Henry takes off his glasses to wipe some dust from his eye, turns back toward the ticket office, and says, "Come, my friend, let’s go get those tickets together."

Eight days later, April 10, 1912, the largest ship ever built leaves the pier in Southampton, England. Well-wishers note that it is almost impossible to see it from end-to-end, being almost 900 feet long, 93 feet wide and 11 stories tall. This huge floating hotel has been carefully fashioned of steel by 17000 of the British Isles' most skilled workers, inheriting centuries of naval ship-building superiority. They spare no expense, lavishing the interior with carved exotic hardwoods, sparkling chandeliers, miles of exquisite carpet and bedecking the linen tablecloths with the finest china, crystal and silver. In the bowels of this sleek and shining sea monster, 29 boilers gorge themselves on 6,000 tons of coal to snort out 50,000 steam horsepower, steam that continually pushes up and down the huge pistons, each nearly eight feet across.

This wonderful ship is the industrial might of the young, muscular Twentieth Century. 46,000 tons to dominate the sea. She will sever the salty currents at 23 knots and crisscross continents at will. This ship is on her maiden voyage, the first of a thousand journeys that she will make to America. This ship is the one that the Trouteauds and the Cookes and the Ingrams and so many of their Guernsey friends bought tickets to board in Cherbourg, France. Their dream voyage is delayed, postponed by the illness of one of their own.

This is the ship that hit an iceberg on April 15, 1912, breaking in two and speeding to the bottom of the ocean like an errant torpedo, carrying over 1,500 people to a grave two miles down. This is the Titanic.


Dedicated to my mother, Mavis Lena Trouteaud, my Grandpa and Grandma, and my “Guernsey Family”. I called all of them “Uncle and Auntie” as I was growing up in Livonia, Michigan, and, thanks also, to Great Grandma Trouteaud who is the real reason I could write this story.

Henry James Hay ©1995, 2000

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Last updated on 19 Nov, 2020