Passage of time was one of the issues I faced when writing Ignoring Gravity, first in the ‘Identity Detective’ series of adoption reunion mysteries. In the time it too me to write the book, technology was revolutionised; ten long years, during which paper archives went digital, census and registry records became available online. The first draft of the book saw Rose making a trip to Myddelton Street, North London to visit the Family Records Centre in order to get a copy of her original birth certificate. I went too, to research the archive, to follow the process Rose would follow.When I retraced my steps, knowing the Family Records Centre no longer existed and its records long since gone digital, I found it a sad procedure. I’d liked the old building, the anticipation of the Tube journey, turning the corner, walking up the steps, the loud banging of the archive drawers, the friendly atmosphere of family history researchers poring over huge volumes. Recently, with some curiosity, I went back to the very first draft to find my first attempt at the scene where Rose visits the Family Records Centre. You can read it below. The scene was cut as part of my decision to place Rose in the 21stcentury, but on re-reading it I admit to feeling a fondness for paper records. The room, the atmosphere, the company of other people, lent the process a formality, a majesty, a sense of occasion.
It was a disappointing building. For something so momentous as the Family Records Centre, Rose had at the very least expected bay windows, Georgian steps or some sort of coat of arms. This place looked like a run-down comprehensive school. The black railings needed a coat of paint and there was litter on the steps. As she loitered with intent, a young girl pushed out of the heavy wooden doors. She pulled the lapels of her summer mackintosh around her neck in protection against the light breeze which teased loose ends from her low ponytail and flicked them sharply against her pale cheeks. Despite the sun, she behaved as if it was winter. The Girl banged into Rose’s arm as she passed but made no acknowledgement of anyone else’s existence.
Rose took a deep breath and walked in to meet her destiny. It really was like a school. A big sign listed the departments on each floor and a disapproving security guard watched all passers-by in case they made too much noise or ran in the corridors. Rose headed downstairs to the loo, brushed her hair, blagged a 10p coin from a little old lady and stowed her bag in a locker. She checked her hair again, then walked quickly upstairs and adopted the look of someone who knew where they were going: a tactic she used in strange places in order to ward off strangers and muggers. She didn’t know if it worked but it always made her feel better. She hovered outside the tiny bookshop which sold quaint home-made pamphlets on researching your family tree – Find your relatives in Canada; How to research army records; Tracing evacuees displaced during WWII. The cashier stared, gaze unflinching, and Rose rubbed her forehead in case there was a scarlet letter ‘A’ stamped there.
No. Her forehead was clean.
A sign pointed to ‘birth, marriage, death & adoption’ on the ground floor. Strictly speaking the order should reflect life so, ‘birth, adoption, marriage & death’. Or alphabetically it would be ‘adoption, birth, death & marriage’. She walked into the main index room where there was a continuous metallic banging noise as if lots of people were hitting empty petrol drums with pitchforks. Rose was shocked. People should show a bit of respect. This room contained official records of the highs and lows of people’s lives, of celebration and tragedy. Frowning and feeling self-righteous, she looked around to get her bearings.
“Births are on your right, the red books. Straight ahead are marriages, they’re green. Deaths are on the left, black. Adoption, if you want it, is at the back in the yellow books.” A tiny bird-like lady with glasses on a silver chain around her neck smiled, pressed a leaflet into Rose’s tightly clenched palm and waved towards huge metal shelves lined with books. Rose threw the A5 pink sheet into the nearest bin.
Red for birth, that was okay, blood was shed to bring forth new life. Green for marriages made sense too, green fields, new beginning, fresh pastures etc. And black for death was the social norm of mourning. So why were the adoption books jaundiced yellow? Yellow was a cowardly colour, sickly, plants with yellow leaves were past their best. Rose felt like a Cowardly Custard, putting off opening a yellow index book to find out the name of her real father who was too yeller to acknowledge her existence.
“Births are on your right…”, the bird-like lady directed another directionless new arrival.
Rose threaded her way through the shelves and angled viewing benches. There was a sense of business and purpose, a workmanlike industry. Women with shopping bags and businessmen with briefcases walked with purpose on a fleeting visit for a copy of a lost certificate, perhaps needed for a passport application. Others looked settled in for the duration, wandering between shelves, notebook and pen in hand, delving into books and leaving no stone unturned: a community of searchers. Two grey-haired ladies stood comfortably shoulder-to-shoulder, glasses perched on their noses as they leafed through index books. Were they sisters researching their family tree? They looked like siblings and both liked green. One wore a green turtle neck sweater, the other held a padded green jacket. They spent more time whispering to each other than looking at the books. This was a pastime for them, a hobby, an entertainment. Not life-affirming.
Rose meandered through the shelves and took an indirect route to adoption via death but in the end she reached the yellow section. In a tiny corner of the vast room, on a small bookshelf, sat the answer to her birthright. The heavy index books with black webbing handles started from 1927 with a book per year since 1966, around 30 books in all. Compared with the abundance of shelves holding red, black and green books, the yellow representation was under-nourished.
There was no one else within twenty yards of the yellow zone and though no-one seemed the slightest bit interested in what she was doing, Rose felt their implied stigma. By association, just by being there, she was coming out. She was adopted. She didn’t know how much of this was people’s real attitudes absorbed through osmosis, and how much of it was 60s stigma about unmarried mothers which she’d transferred to herself in her efforts to identify with Katherine’s plight.
The journalist in her shrugged and turned to face the task: get the facts and go, that was the objective. Rose hauled the 1968 index book onto the viewing bench and took a deep breath. The much-thumbed yellowing pages were folded and crumpled together.
Her birth certificate wasn’t there. Nobody’s was. There was an endless list of people’s names, dates of birth, entry numbers and volume numbers. For all her prevarication, Rose had expected some information today. A flood of heartburn rose up her windpipe and she tasted milky coffee. She sat on a chair while the sickness passed and worked out what to do next.
“Everyone’s verry friendly here, aren’t they?” The three newcomers lined up in front of the adoption bookshelves just had to be siblings. Same corn coloured hair, same habit of running hand through said hair, and same height. Two women and one man, all in their twenties and all South African. “I don’t know where to start,” said the man.
“What are you looking for,” asked the bird-like lady who’d magically reappeared at their side like Harry Haller’s muse.
“Our grandfather was born here but then settled in South Africa. We can’t find his name anywhere and we fly back to Johannesburg tomorrow.”
“You need to look at the naturalised records at Kew.”
“Is it far?”
“The other side of London.”
“Oh.” The man’s shoulders sunk in defeat.
“Was he in the army, you could try their records. But I’ll warn you, it’ll take longer than a day to search.”
They nodded their thanks and left. Rose was alone again. She picked up another pink leaflet. To apply for a full certificate from the Adopted Children Register she had to fill in a yellow form. She took one from a wooden holder and started to read. Extra certificates cost £6.50 each. There was a choice of posted, collection or 24 hours. Oh God, more delay. Now that she was there she wanted the pain to be over. Not only could she not see her birth certificate in the index book, she couldn’t take it away today.
Post would take four working days. Did today count as a working day? If it did she might get the certificate on Friday. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t arrive until next Monday. That was a lifetime away. Rose ticked the 24 hours box. Paying an exorbitant £22.50 allowed her to collect it the next day and was the shortest time delay available. She’d just have to skive off work, again. Every minute until tomorrow would seem like sixty minutes instead of sixty seconds. 24 hours was 1,440 minutes or 86,400 seconds.
Rose turned back to the 1968 book and found her birth name ‘Ingram, Alanna’ in the index, added the entry and volume numbers to the yellow form and stood in line at the kiosks. She was the only person clutching a yellow form, the only adopted person there. She handed over a cheque and a copy of the precious form CAS 5/6, the original was safely filed at home. She also ordered a copy of Katherine’s death certificate. Rose had checked the marriage indexes just in case Katherine had married without anyone knowing, and the birth records in case she’d had any more children. But there was nothing.
24 hours to wait. 86,400 seconds. 4pm tomorrow and she would know the name of her birth father.
Getting hold of this certificate was a huge leap forward. There was something special about that bit of paper, seeing the words in black and white. Ink was permanent, a lasting, unarguable confirmation that everything she’d discovered was true. She repeated her mantra: “I am adopted and it’s not my fault”. What made Katherine and Diana do this deal and keep it a secret from everyone for over 33 years?
“Hello dear. Births are on your right…” Rose exited the entrance where the bird-like lady fluttered from group to group, leaving an information leaflet clasped in each arrivee’s hand as evidence of her fleeting presence. She passed the stern lady at the bookshop and rubbed her forehead: it was still unmarked.
She stood on the top step and took a deep breath of fresh air, her lungs pressing against her ribs in an effort to inflate their parched corners with healing air. With no sense of direction Rose wandered along the road. She examined her hands and they shook gently. Delayed shock + anti-climax = low blood sugar. She needed chocolate. She felt as the emotional effect of the FRC must be writ plain across her face for all to see.
Read here how genealogists and family history researchers of the FRC responded to the announcement of its closure in 2007.
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
After it closed: going back to the Family Records Centre #researching #adoptionrecords via #AdoptionStoriesBlog https://wp.me/paZ3MX-1O