Ethel has invited sixteen little friends, eight boys and eight girls, to an outdoor party, perhaps to celebrate her birthday.
And here they all are in sailor suits and best pinafores sitting in a grassy meadow near Stroud in Gloucestershire. It is a summer day in the early 1890s. And if it is her birthday, my guess is that there will be six candles on the cake.
As befits her status, Ethel is in the centre of the group, gazing stolidly at the camera, obeying the instruction to sit very still – as have all the children apart from two girls (tsk!) whose blurred faces show that they fidgeted at the crucial moment.
From the neat-as-new-pins perfection of their get-ups, I imagine that the party proper has yet to begin. At least four of the boys seem primed to explode into mischief.
A dark-suited boy on the left of the picture stares directly into the lens, knees drawn up to his chest. He seems hesitant, a little shy. His body is turned away from the group, increasing a sense of separation from the knot of lads on the right. I wonder if he will have as much fun as them.
His name is Henry Herbert Rowe, but the children at the party call him Harry.
I called him Grandpa.
I have only one memory of him. I was six and, hesitant and shy, I backed away from the gentle, bald-headed stranger. He died a year later in 1957, aged seventy.
A birthday-party picture of me aged six shows a small boy, knees drawn up to chest, staring straight into the camera. Put the snapshot from the fifties beside the Victorian picture: Harry, Rory – peas in a pod.
He was happily married to my grandmother for twenty-eight years until her early death from cancer. They had one child. His second marriage was not happy.
Harry loved children and may have doubted that he would ever be a grandfather. His daughter did not marry until she was thirty-eight – and then produced three sons in as many years. How do I know he loved children? From his postcards.
Work as a commercial traveller for a West of England woollen mill took him on long journeys throughout England and Scotland, and from every destination he sent picture postcards to his grandsons. I have roughly one hundred of them: castles, steam trains, battleships, ocean liners, aeroplanes – chosen carefully to delight and intrigue small boys. And all addressed to us as individuals – it never occurred to him to send a single card to all three of us.
Here’s an example from 17 January 1954: The card shows the ocean liner RMS Bermuda steaming into New York harbour.
Dear Roderick, because you are the youngest I am sending you the biggest ship. I should like to have heard you singing at the pantomime! Love to you from Grandpa.
On my way to the class I stopped, as I often do, at the Arts Centre gift shop to top up my stock of postcards. I enjoy matching the card its recipient. I guess I send between two and three hundred a year.
And though I may not be the liveliest spark at the party, I try to remember to send my host a thank-you card.
I’m sure Harry sent one to Ethel.
This is from a series of short 'life story' pieces written as part of an evening-class course. More pieces are stored in the 'Short stories' list to the right.