FOLLOWING THE CHAIN


The photograph could have been taken anywhere

they forged the Royal Navy’s anchor chains –

Dudley, Newcastle, Ponypridd or here

in Saltney, Chester, reclaimed marshland

near the river. Wherever the Sea Lords chose

to give the contract the chain makers

and their families moved – like funfair folk

or circus people – if they were able.

 

There are thirteen men in the picture – a shift

about to go on judging by the spotless

faces, arms and hands. They are not burly men

though their biceps were developed hauling,

rolling, beating, linking the molten iron.

There is no fat on them – despite the buckets

of draught beer the employer provided

to hydrate them in the purging foundry.

 

They are pale, working in the dark except

for the furnace glare. They have been posed –

by some Edwardian photographer

keen to record the locality –

in their full length leather aprons, some with caps,

some bare headed, three with mufflers to wipe

the sweat from their eyes, four with waistcoats.

They are sons of blacksmiths, grandsons, village lads,

from the coast, from the hills, from the valleys.

 

The ones in front are on one knee, with sledge hammers

and tongs, a length of chain at their feet. Unused

to cameras, some look at the lens – like two

kneeling – or away like the one at the back

with his tash and his thumbs in his waistcoat.

He was Simeon Harris – my wife’s grandad.

 

After the Great War the contract moved. He stayed –

married by then to his best friend’s widow,

responsible for two sets of children –

and never worked again, living on the dole,

the rare rabbit snared on the Duke’s estates,

the very occasional shared salmon

lifted without licence from the river,

his wife’s pittance for cleaning the chapel,

soup from the workhouse for breaking stones.

 

The day before he died – his wife scolding him

for idling – he sat, on the back step,

smoking a roll-up, his muffler hiding

the cancerous lump on his neck. My wife,

then nine years old, sat close. He whispered to her,

‘I feel bad today, love’.

 

 

 

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  1. #1 by John Huddart - April 25th, 2016 at 09:35

    Very moving conclusion – the mildly scolding wife providing encouragement to life, combined with the traditional role of the ever critical friend!

    Also the way the historical photo [which we don’t need to see, but would love to] suddenly comes alive by its personal connection to your own wife.

    An end with two wives – unbeatable!

  2. #2 by Catherine Reynolds - April 25th, 2016 at 09:49

    Such a crafted, descriptive piece. I could see the men in my mind’s eye posing for their photograph. All the more poignant for it to be part of Sylvia’s family history.

  3. #3 by Steve Crewe - April 25th, 2016 at 14:14

    Very touching, David, touching indeed.

  4. #4 by Mary Clark - April 27th, 2016 at 17:09

    Great story, patiently told with good pace.

(will not be published)

  1. No trackbacks yet.