William Topaz McGonagall, the poet of the people of Queen Victoria’s mighty empire, stood at his loom threading his card back and forth through the warp and weave. The central strands of the carpet strung taut and vertical like the wires of a harp. The clackity clack of the loom thumped through his head, through his heart, through his soul.
The words summoned by the drumming of the looms were, as always, unworthy.
If Byron could hear, Byron would sneer.
For fear of dropping a stitch he pulled his mind away from the unworthy words and into the moment. He sighed and as he inhaled the smell of the heated goose grease that lubricated the loom filled him with memories of Christmas feasts with his ma, never to be repeated. William’s belly pulled inward with a growl and he thought of the single shining shilling in his pocket. The only thing between him and his next payday whenever that might be.
William risked a look to his left through the wide open factory door. He beheld a common miracle. Sunshine … in Dundee, Scotland. That small act of neglect would have earned him a slap from his mother. If she still lived. And was working the empty loom beside him.
Outside, a Clydesdale horse clopped to a stop, hardly feeling the weight of his cart and its enormous load of steamer trunks, open boxes of delicious farm produce and closed crates of goodness knows what from goodness knows where. The Clydesdale lifted his tail and shat with noble pride, then after the carter had made a delivery, surged forth with an admirable stride.
Stride stride, where is my stride? Hidden so deep, smothered with pride.
Why can I not find my muse, my siren. To make my poems the equal of Byron.
A thin sound bled through the thumping of the loom.
A song? No. Too shrill. The keening of a bereaved mother perhaps?
A fresh wave of pox had kept Reverend Billington so busy with tiny coffins he had no opportunity to listen to William’s suggestions to improve his sermons with worthy metaphor and lilting language.
The sound shrilled up and down again joined by other sounds, raucous and rabbling.
William went to see. The pile of Clydesdale manure steamed and stank. A clump clung to the skirt of the ugliest woman he had ever seen. She was in a boot stamping rage with a face as red as her hair. The heavy box of farm produce in her arms kept her from attending to her soiling. In her distress at the soiling of her dress she was in danger of spilling the produce in the box in her arms.
Three men outside the music hall, clearly taken with drink even at this early hour, were bent double with mirth at the sight.
William’s mother’s voice chided him. Show some Christian charity and help this unfortunate woman.
Avoiding her eyes, he extended his arms to take the box from her.
Embarrassed and harassed, she misunderstood his gesture and snatched the box away from his reaching hands. Five ripe radishes rolled from the box heading for the steaming pile of manure. Her eyes and mouth widened at fresh catastrophe. William snatched at the radishes, catching two, batting up two more and kicking at the fifth.
He tapped the fifth radish neatly into the air, placing the first and second back in box to free his hands and gathered the fifth, fourth and third still in flight.
A round of applause from the three drunken louts. The ugly young woman smiled. She could pass for plain in a flattering light with her wide froglike mouth, large hooked nose and narrow set eyes. But her neck. She had the neck of a queen. Jewels would vie for that neck.
It will never sport more than an empty locket, scorned his mother.
Seeing that she was now more amenable to assistance, William took the box from her and stepped back.
He approached the applauding louts recognising one as Jimmy McConnell.
“Master McConnell, will you lend this lady your neckerchief?”
“So it can be covered in shite! Don’t think so young McGonagall. And that’s no lady! That’s muckle-mawed Meg herself.”
The mention of such poor poetry in the presence of a lady stiffened William’s spine.
“Young master, I’ll remind you of the manners your good mother took such pains to teach you. And if she stood here now, she would remind you of your duty to live up to your father’s title.” Now that he is dead in the same plague that carried off my own mother. He swallowed hard.
“Aye, yer right, McGonagall,” Jimmy hoiked a thumb over his shoulder at the music hall, “I wasted a shilling in there, for nary a giggle and here’s a guffaw fer free. I should pay the piper.” He threw his red neckerchief at the young woman. She snatched at it and caught it, briskly rubbing at her skirt.
“And you, young William, should become a juggler and get yerself on yon stage. You’ve not got a family to support like me.”
“In this age of pestilence many envy you the burden of a family to keep. Step forward Jimmy and you will do well.”
Jimmy took the advice as insult. For fear of a fist in the face, William turned his back. Jimmy’s a brute, but he’s no fool. He’ll not punch a man in the back with witnesses present.
He startled at finding the young woman close by.
“Thank you … William McGonagall.” She rolled his name around her mouth. She dropped the soiled neckerchief on the cobbles and took the box of produce back from him.
“I would have been in for a beating from Da for the lost radishes and a beating from Ma for my skirt.”
William could make no reply but a nod. Now that the colour had left her cheeks her skin was like porcelain.
She nodded at the pile of rescued radishes at the top of the box. There was something she wanted, but William couldn’t tell what it was. She rolled her eyes and gestured toward him with the box. A radish rolled from the top of the pile. William caught it.
She turned and left, neatly sidestepping the pile of manure.
“I’m Agnes, by the way. My Da’s the greengrocer by the kirk.”
Unsure why she would tell him this, William nodded. He pocketed the radish, retrieved the soiled red neckerchief and returned to his loom.
Sunday dawned hazy and grim. It was hot. William stood on the promenade engaging in the sin of sloth while waiting for church. Steamer ships laboured up the River Tay and under its magnificent new wrought-iron bridge. As fine as the Eiffel Tower laid on its side. William tugged on his poorly starched neckband hoping to release some heat, but succeeded only in allowing a bead of sweat to trickle down his shoulder blades. It was as though the steamer ships had brought this infernal heat with them from the lands of Indo-China. Along with this slow and sly pestilence that carried off his ma, and Jimmy’s da and so many others.
William watched the stevedores work their winches at the docks. The creak of the ropes, clank of the pulleys and unclean oaths of the men mingled together into a more pleasant orchestra than the incessant pounding of the looms inside his head. Only church could banish the relentless rhythm for a few precious hours before Monday. William returned his attention to the stevedores and wondered what was in the crates. Silks? Or fruits? Or that funny herb that was boiled up and served with milk or wedges of lemon. Rumour had it that it was addictive, so William sensibly stayed away.
He turned away from the docks and walked through the park toward his church. Old Tam was on his crate at Speakers Corner, wearing his sandwich boards and denouncing the depravity of passers by. Old Tam broke his fervent preaching long enough to wave to William. William waved back with a smile.
The church bell tolled. The first loud and lovely chime smacked the pounding in his head flat like a mighty wave cancelling smaller trickles. Overriding the rhythm of industry with the higher duty that is God.
A greengrocer’s stall slouched opposite. The sack-cloth with the misspelled name Dokertee painted over stamps from foreign lands, hung as limp and languid as the young woman who sprawled under it on a chair. Agnes!
He touched the red neckerchief in his pocket. He had laundered it to the best of his ability, but it was still less than clean.
Is it a worthy gift? Or will she be insulted?
If Lord Byron were here, he’d swoop up and take her hand and kiss it. And bear her off to church for service but nobly stop short of marrying her on the spot.
Goaded forth by this spur, he walked up to the stall. Agnes stirred from her stupor as he approached. “Oranges today sir. Fresh off the boat from the farthest reaches of the empire.”
“Hullo Agnes,” he squeaked.
“Oh!” She sat upright. “Hullo Master McGonagall.”
“Hullo Agnes.” He cursed himself for his fumbling repetition.
Repetition repetition repetition. Help me make a petition.
“I … I … was wondering.”
“Yes?” Agnes looked around fearful of someone returning.
“Attend Sunday service with me?”
“Oh.” She frowned, making her mouth even more frog-like. “I would.” William’s heart gave an unexpected leap. “But I’m minding the stall for Da.”
William bit back a chiding remark about observing the Sabbath. Since the pestilence, many such infringements were going unenforced.
She drew her palm along her sweating brow and stopped herself from wiping it on her clean dress.
“Oh … here.” William withdrew the neckerchief from his breast pocket dragging a folded square of paper with it. Panic boomed up inside him. The folded square of paper fell into her lap. Agnes accepted the neckerchief and wiped her hands and brow. She fastened it around her regal neck.
Noticing the dropped folded paper she picked it up and handed it back to him.
“Thank you for offering William. And really, I’d love to. Next Sunday maybe?” His heart soared. He held the paper and wondered what to do next.
“What’s that then?” She gestured at the folded paper.
“A poem.” The word sounded as foreign as the oranges. He had never spoken it aloud before.
“Jings! Really? An honest to goodness poem?” The sincerity of her interest puffed him up to a sinful level of pride. “You should read it. At Speakers Corner.” She pointed at Old Tam stepping down from the crate and setting aside his sandwich board.
The church bell tolled again. Only fifteen minutes until the service would begin and the peace of God would fully displace the turmoil of industry.
“Go on then!” Agnes urged.
“Now?” he squeaked.
“Why not?” She gestured around to the small crowd milling about waiting for the church doors to open and to the vacant Speakers Corner.
As William’s heart quailed he heard the rich and noble voice of Lord Byron himself. Go on man. Faint heart never won fair maid. Or even an ugly one for that matter.
With a gumption mustering swallow, William walked across the church courtyard to the Speakers box, holding his poem like it was a stick of dynamite.
Old Tam grinned at him. “On you go boy. Give it some welly.”
Fifty faces also turned. All familiar. All curious.
This is my moment.
“Beautiful silvery Tay, With your landscapes, so lovely and gay, Along each side of your waters, to Perth all the way;
No other river in the world has got scenery more fine, Only I am told the beautiful Rhine, Near to Wormit Bay, it seems very fine, Where the Railway Bridge is towering above its waters sublime,
And the beautiful ship Mars, with her Juvenile Tare, both lively and gay, does carelessly lie, by night and by day, in the beautiful Bay, of the silvery Tay.
Beautiful, beautiful silvery Tay, thy scenery is enchanting on a fine summer day,
Near by Balnerino it is beautiful to behold, when the trees are in full bloom and the cornfields seems like gold –
And nature’s face seems gay, and the lambkins they do play,
And the humming bee is on the wing, it is enough to make one sing,
While they carelessly do stray, along the beautiful banks of the silvery Tay,
Beautiful silvery Tay, rolling smoothly on your way, near by Newport, as clear as the day,
Thy scenery around is charming I’ll be bound…
And would make the heart of any one feel light and gay on a fine summer day, to view the beautiful scenery along the banks of the silvery Tay.”
He lifted his eyes from his finest poem so far to behold fifty faces stilled by shock. The silence of the crowd broke with little Meg McHardy laughing as though she were possessed by a devil. The same devil summoned its friends and possessed the others in the crowd one by one.
Frank Geffin held his hands either side of his mouth. “Boo!”
His wife Sarah joined in. “Yer rubbish! Get off!”
Little Meg ran to Agnes’ fruit stall and flung a shining coin at her grabbing three mouldy oranges.
“Boo!” Meg shouted and hurled the oranges at William. One hit him square on the heart. Too shocked to move, William dropped his poem into the dust.
Others followed Meg’s lead. Agnes gathered up the coins flung at her as hands grabbed oranges off her stall and flung them at William. Splat. Squelch. Splat.
Why? Screamed William silently.
“Enough!” Reverend Billington shouted from the church door. He stalked out as magnificent as a knight of the crusade in his shining white alb. “Enough of this shameful spectacle. Get ye inside for the sermon.”
“William! What manifestation of the sin of sloth is this? Poetry?” The shame of the stoning by oranges was rendered paltry by the Reverend’s rebuke.
William stepped heavily down from the crate. There was a pat on his shoulder from Old Tam.
And there before him was Judas herself with her fistful of silver.
He fled as fast as his leaden feet would take him. The coldness of failure replaced inch by inch with rage. He walked and walked away from the church the tolling bell waning behind him and the drumming of the looms waxing.
No peace for this sinner on the sabbath.
On and on he walked consumed by emotions worthy of the Lord Poet himself but with a mind like a blank slate.
A horse snorted in his face covering him with saliva. William stopped and wiped his face. He looked around wondering where he was. He saw a small sign over a narrow staircase. The only correctly spelled sign in this poor neighbourhood of Dundee.
Madame Rouge’s Den of Wonders.
The one place he avoided like the pestilence that had taken his ma. A den of depravity fuelled by the fresh influences of the new empire.
Of course. Let the poet’s descent begin.
Two hours later, he contemplated what the last of his shilling had got him. A clay bowl, a small necked cauldron with three feet and a bowl of a fine pale powder.
The famed qualities of inspiration were yet to appear, and it did not seem to be addictive. Not yet.
Agnes burst in through the narrow door. She peered around, saw William, and dropped her shoulders in a huge sigh.
“Madame Rouge! A pot of your finest tea please. And here’s yer lemons.” She thumped down on the stool opposite without so much as a by-your-leave.
Bold as brass, she held out a folded piece of paper marked with dust.
It was familiar. When he wouldn’t take it. She slapped it down in front of him. It was his poem. Retrieved from the site of his shame.
On the table between them, the paper slowly returned to its fold. On the back of the page in a childish scrawl was written, “Won pohet liesense bestowed upon won William Mick Gony gull.”
“What is this?” His voice was thin and cracked.
“Your poetic licence.” She said with a radiant grin revealing unfortunate teeth. “You’ve earned it.”
“And now you have to keep it. By writing more poems.” She dropped three silver shining shillings on the table in front of him.
“Casting pearls before swine doesn’t turn them into pebbles.”
A blinding realisation banished his gloom. A lemon slice of sunshine edged through the grimy window gifting Agnes a ginger halo.
“Agnes. It’s you. You are my muse. You are my siren. And my work will be the equal of Byron.”
Authors note: the author does not claim any responsibility for any injuries to the soul sustained when reading the poetry of William Topaz McGonagall.
The except adapted here is the A Descriptive Poem on the River Tay.