The Enraged Musician
How did it happen? One minute I am standing before the picture, around me the respectful hush of murmured conversation, the next I am precipitated into a head-splitting turmoil of sensations. I stare down in shock at my clothes. A long, rough, woollen skirt, blood-stained apron, tattered leather corset and torn blouse. And what is that smell? On my arm hangs a basket filled with reeking fish and I hear a screech issuing from my mouth: ‘Fish, fish, come and buy my lovely fish! Fresh only yesterday!’ My shout, though to my ears hideously raucous, hardly carries above the surrounding hubbub. To my right issues the clang of hammers from a pewterer’s workshop; in front a knife-grinder’s squeal causes his dog to raise a howl; here a farrier sounds his horn; there the dull thud of a paviour beating a recalcitrant cobblestone into submission. A bell-ringer limbers up, vying with the yowls and hisses of two cats on the church roof. To my left hangs a parrot squawking in its cage above the head of a whore-cum-ballad-singer, babe in her arms, singing ‘The Lady’s Fall’. A boy pisses against a wall, watched with a singular lack of interest by a small girl wielding a rattle.
Towards me walks a young, slender, woman, holding a pail balanced on her head. I think we must be friends as she raises her spare hand to me and waves. She is a milk seller, though I know I wouldn’t drink her milk. Carried uncovered through the streets, it picks up the contents of chamber pots flung out of windows, mud thrown up from passing carriages and who knows what else. Surely, though, she must have a melodious tune to advertise her wares? But no, her piercing shriek of ‘Any Milk Here!’ would succeed in curdling her already tainted brew and rather spoils my impression of her fresh, innocent air.
A small crowd has gathered round a street musician - a thin, ragged hautbois player, trying to entice the notes of ‘Black Jack’ out of his battered instrument, at the request of an onion seller, who has promised a free onion for the player’s pains. Suddenly a window is flung open above the musician’s head. A haughty figure, with a pointed nose and a French wig, holding a violin, leans out. We all know this fellow - a pretentious music master who will only give lessons to aristocrats, though since there are few of those in this area, he keeps himself poorly as a result. ‘Zounds Sir, what do you do?’ he cries, ‘bringing our profession into disrepute playing for onions!’ The crowd jeers and Monsieur slams down his window in disgust. I laugh with the rest, my 21st century empathy gone and with it my modern senses of taste, smell and hearing.
Just as suddenly I am back in the gallery. The silence is almost as deafening as the uproar of a moment ago. The room is empty, the light fading. An attendant yawns, checks her watch and looks at me curiously. I realise I was laughing out loud. She recognises me and shakes her head. With as much nonchalance as I can muster, I walk slowly out into the evening air, still feeling the itch of the woollen skirt round my ankles. It’s no good, I must desist - an excess of Hogarth is clearly driving me mad.
Bridget Daly lives in the UK, in North London with her husband, son and cat. She has had various pieces of flash fiction published and used to be a writer and editor of children’s non-fiction. She now works as a museum tour guide in London.
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