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’.

 

 

Note: first published 2016.

 

 

 

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  1. #1 by Ashen Venema - April 28th, 2017 at 12:25

    A tender slice of life.

  2. #2 by Mary Clark - May 1st, 2017 at 05:13

    I admire the rhythm and pace in your poems, as with this one. Great title.

  3. #3 by Hugh Powell - May 1st, 2017 at 23:01

    Agreed! The unexpected connection with Sylvia makes the links between big things and ourselves clear.

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