The Tale of Wilbur’s Victorian Sewage Pumps
The two-barrelled Prince Consort engine
designed by a colonel named St John,
was fantasised fondly in Hitchin.
Colonel St John had pondered
how sewage, to fuel one onward,
like money, should never be squandered.
Conceived over parlour-time Horlicks,
cream-splashed Imperial promise
twirled ostrich eggs, rare hot-house relics.
And if he was right in his thesis,
Lloyds would fund the long leases
to sieve those Victorian faeces.
Water in furnaces blasted,
cylinder, syringe and masthead,
industry maketh the bastard!
Now India flamed Wilbur’s fire –
breathless he swore he would try her,
flying the flag for the Empire.
…to scoop those moist paddy bellies
…to palm sticky bosoms on date trees
…to snatch from a land of tan coolies
Piston, condenser and fly-wheel,
pump rod and slip shaft in Leeds steel,
Blighty Almighty at his heel!
Though Myrtle his bone-brittled wife said,
pleading each night in their thin bed:
“Darling, it’s better in Guildford.”
But Wilbur had gaped in the Black Hole:
Maharajah was his role.
He’d failed to notice the peril –
liquidity’s safer than solids.
Will fell, malarial, squalid,
with sunstroke pinking his forehead.
Sewage is no match for rubies.
Wilbur St John never knew this
and sank, one more victim of hubris.
Now fantasies fabled in Hitchin,
once home of the two-barrelled engine,
power the ghost of dear St John.
(first published in The Rialto)
Anita Pati has been a Jerwood-Arvon mentee, won the Wasafiri Prize
for New Writing in 2013 and was a 2015 Aldeburgh Eight participant. She has
had poems published in anthologies and publications including Best British
Poetry, Poetry London, The Rialto, Butcher’s Dog and Magma, among others. Twitter @patiani