The ledgers, heavy, leather bound,
The well-thumbed census sheets
Provide a keyhole to my family’s past
Here I meet, unemotionally,
Aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces,
Cousins once and twice removed
Grandparents and their parent’s parents.
People I can never come to know
Save through this terse, laconic officialese.
Give them humanity or fire my heart.
These are but ghostly spectres who move through time and space
Dependent, if they are to have substance,
On my empathy, my imagination,
An imagination fed from many sources,
Words spoken and written,
Music, film, pictures, theatre
All seasoned with personal experience,
Contrive to give my spectres some reality
And, much more likely,
Romantic ‘may have beens’.
My ghosts of time long gone
Worked in occupations redundant and contemporary,
Mariner, taxi driver, coal whipper, seamstress, labourer,
There’s little inspiration here, no excitement, celebrations.
No courtesan, politician, explorer, knave,
Imposter, roué, writer of philosophy ...
No smart address in Park Lane Mansion,
No country seat in Suffolk.
The ghostly footsteps of my family past are never heard
In banking hall or fine arcade.
They haunt the streets of Bow and Leytonstone
Of Bethnal Green and Stratford.
Each soul a ticking second
In the speeding hours of Time.
Before me, on my table, five certificates.
Two record birth, one marriage, two death.
Telling of my paternal great grandparents,
The turning points of life Birth, Marriage and oblivion.
This Man, this Woman gave me life
The union of their bodies
At such a time, in such a month, in such a year
Created the route and roots from which I came,
Giving me a present in a future beyond their imaginings.
Without them there would be no Winifred,
Frank and Catherine
Two names affirmed by pen of local clerk.
“Birth, Marriage, Death.
Name, Date, Place.”
Their name, my name
A name recording a genetic link through time
A path which takes me from their present
To my present and from my present
To my children’s unmapped future.
A path which draws me to the parents of Frank and Catherine
And through them once more to City Streets
The streets of Shakespeare, Wren and Nightingale,
Of Milton, Turner, Pope and Pepys.
Frank and Catherine,
I try to imagine them in antique dress
Hear their uncouth London tongue, Cockney sharp
Were their eyes brown or blue like mine?
Their complexions fair or sallow,
Were they short, fat, thin or tall
In character honest
Did they care about their looks,
Or were they mean and sluttish?
The certificates are in my hand
My link with them compelling
Through them I can find a past
To give my passing present, meaning.
© Henry Pluckrose