My great-grandfather Robert had a beard, a pointed one, presumably grey. He stands in a sepia-coloured photograph, gazing steadily at the camera, leaning on a walking stick and wearing a grainy-looking overcoat. But these are only dimly recollected details: I have not looked at the relevant album for years. Much more vivid is the voice I never heard. It was transmitted by my mother, who is now also dead. Throughout my childhood my imagination was peopled by various characters, as she recalled their exact words, entertaining my sister and me as she herself had been entertained: by using remembered voices she recreated her past and created one for us.
Robert had the leisure in which to amuse his grandchildren. He had been so ill at the age of forty-three that he was superannuated from the post office; the restorative effect of early retirement was such that he lived another fifty years. He became a dedicated ventriloquist and had to be almost forcibly persuaded, in his old age, to refrain from hiring the local hall for the brilliant concert he was sure he could give. He practised for hours on end, often in the middle of the night, and was master of various monologues in which he played all characters. One such item was entitled ‘The English Railway Porter’, in which he would be both porter and female passenger, who would list the items of her luggage in the following order: ‘I’ve got three trunks, four bundles, an umbrella, a flat-iron, a grid-iron, a piece of string, and two children.’ He liked lists and had been born in the village of Ade, near Great Yarmouth, near Norwich in Norfolk in England. He was also a passionate believer in spiritualism and regularly used to announce that of course he would be in communication with his descendants from beyond the grave. Clearly none of us has been listening hard enough or at the right time.