At midnight on Sunday the 3rd of April
1881 the Bar lightship’s
paddle steamer tender, ‘Vigilant’,
is moored at Woodside Stage, Birkenhead.
Of the eight crew three were born in Wales,
two in Liverpool, one in Ireland,
one in Sweden and one on a ‘Yorkshire Farm’.
In immaculate copperplate, the First Mate,
my great grandfather, completes the form.
Meanwhile at 52 Harlow Street,
a street that slopes down to Harrington Dock,
where the Elder Dempster line was based
that sailed to Freetown, Accra and Lagos,
are his wife, Rebecca, and their five children –
on the opposite bank of the Mersey.
The oldest, Esther, is my grandmother.
She is nine. I remember her as
an old lady in black with no teeth,
who told me stories about her family.
So what she is like this April Sunday
I can only guess: dark, curly hair; her face
already shadowed by her mother’s drinking.
Her brother, George, four, will go to sea
like his Da. In 1915, the ship
he will captain – bound for Liverpool
from Lagos – will be torpedoed off
Cape Verde. From choice he will go down with it.
The sombre curlicues of his father’s script
are preserved forever.