Parrot and Olivier in America, p.11Peter Carey
Among my many duties, I would serve as a secretaire much as I did for the marquis. This would include making fair copies of correspondence and taking dictation for the report his lordship would later submit to the government.
"I will demonstrate," Monsieur said. "Do not roll your eyes you scoundrel. There is much you do not know."
Then, bustling back and forward, for he only had one hand to carry things, he assembled before me the instruments required for dictation--quill, ink pot, a secretary's notebook.
"Write this down," he ordered. "Dear Perroquet," he cried.
"You wish me to write to myself?"
"Write this--Dear Perroquet, The great land of America calls you across the waves, ha-ha. There, that will do." And he snatched the notebook back and in the process sent a great splash of ink across the Proudhon.
"No, no, don't worry about that. It is nothing in comparison."
He held the book in his teeth and removed a piece of very thin black paper he had secreted within the pages.
"Look," he cried, the notebook still clenched between his teeth. I watched his hand turn black before my eyes. I removed the notebook from his mouth, rather as one takes a ball from a Saint Bernard, and here was revealed to me a second secret page which contained an extraordinary duplication. This was the first time I saw carbon paper. It was this spanking new invention which would allow me to make copies for Garmont's mad mother who was almost as anxious for his safety in his place of refuge as in his homeland.
"Take your floozy to America," Monsieur said, holding out his blackened hand as if the cherubs would descend to bathe him. "She can paint in America. All that space, and never cold."
"She has no patrons in America."
"Pish. There are no end of patrons. Chevalier, you know these new countries."
"I do?" I said, for I knew very well what other new country he referred to and I wished, with the fierceness of my eye, for him to admit my loss.
"You do indeed," he said, avoiding my gaze. "No end of patrons, no end of walls. It is culture that they lack. In America they will think she is a genius. You too, if you like. In America there is no one who can paint a horse."
"You know this, sir?"
"I have been there, Parrot. I have been there. It is a country for an artist and all you need to do is write down what his lordship says."
"She has a mother, sir."
"We all have mothers."
"I hope we do, sir."
"She can take the mother. Why not? It is a large country. Your petite amie can paint. You can be his lordship's secretaire. It will be amusing. You can go around the prisons with him. Why, citizen, I'll lay you a gold louis you'll meet men you already know."
He was not drunk, but he was entering into the kind of mood which I would almost call a fit and I chose that moment--the Hero of the Vendee drinking Armagnac with his single black hand--to leave him alone with his invention.
MATHILDE AND HER MOTHER lived up six flights in the faubourg Saint-Antoine. The landlord was a carpenter who ran two floors of workshops, employed a dozen journeymen, and owned four other houses in Paris, one of them in the rue Saint-Honore. Yet he would not repair his own crumbling premises.
I could be sentimental about the smell of sawdust, even glue, but my stomach frequently rebelled against the stinking damp which rose up from the marshy foundations and seeped down from the roof, creating a confluence between the fourth and the third floors, a glistening sour-smelling sheet of scum.
Yet two floors above was heaven, glass panes in the ceiling and a small stove with a fearful zigzag flue which ran like Zeus' lightning bolt from the corner near the door to the uppermost sections of the roof.
Of course it was cold in winter, but now it was warm, and I returned from the petite maison to find the windows thrown wide open and the air perfumed by woodsmoke from the yard below.
In one corner, serving as a screen to hide the old lady's cot, stood a single painting as tall as a man--or woman--for it was Mathilde's self-portrait--the painter in her studio with her fallen angel's marble legs protruding from a silken sheet. Around the walls were models in plaster, a head of Niobe hanging from a nail, a Venus, a hand, other things all being the property of the woman portrayed in that shocking painting, no less a beauty in the living light than on the canvas. The confrontation in the painted eyes was gone that evening, and in its place such a warm and lovely glow.
Her Parrot entered. She rose, wineglass in hand, barefooted, her arms open, and all the velvet shadows of the room held inside her gorgeous clavicles. She smelled of wine and onions, and when she kissed me on the mouth I breathed her deep and pulled her hard against me. She pushed back and looked into my eyes so frankly, and I could already smell that musty rutty salty perfume our parts made in the night. Six years we had been like this, and never a day was less passionate between us. I kissed the old lady too, on her crown, and she lifted her lined face to kiss me on the lips and poured me un verre--un cup in fact--and began to recite the story of the beef daube. Did I think it was too early in the year? Had I felt the change of season? And so on. They were, both together, so dear, so familial, so fond of me and I of them, and if they had been at the wine an hour or two before I got there, that was how we lived. I liked it, our sour red mouths. Soon I would have to give the news of Monsieur's offer, but for now Maman sang to me, the Lord knows what it was, Provencal perhaps, quavering, Moorish. I did not doubt it was her love song to me, but who she really was or what she meant I could not say. I rubbed her swollen knuckles.
She was an extraordinary old thing, and if her spine was as twisted as the stairs, her eyes were like bright stones in water.
I sat at the yellow card table and they waited on me. The daube was rich and perfect and the wine flowed, and I asked my darling how would she like to come to live with me in America, and she laughed, and drank, and left gravy on her glass.
"And I will build you an enormous studio," I said, thinking of the house on the Hudson and wondering which way it faced.
"Oh Parrot, you lovely man."
"And we will look at the river, and have a yacht. And sail."
"Sweetheart." She leaned forward and kissed me, all that smeary wine and meat and fat glistening on her lips and her mother stood and took her plate to the scullery and when she had washed her plate she announced she would sit in the yard and watch the children.
"And we will have a garden, and geese."
"Do you hear him, Maman?"
The old lady made an agreeable sighing sound and then she was gone and we could hear her making her cautious way down the stairs.
"He is mad," Mathilde said, and her face was now close to me, kissing, nuzzling.
"There are many walls in America," I said, "and very few artists."
She cocked her head, a way of looking. She had heard another voice in mine.
"What are you up to?" she said, and she had changed, still smiling but questioning. I felt her gaze and knew I could not hide from her.
"I am asking, Do you like America?"
It was my face she was now reading, certainly not my words.
"You are running away?" she asked, as if amused by me.
"How could I?"
She pushed her chair back. "You are running away!"
"You know I cannot go to America. Why are you saying this? It is that dirty old marquis."
"It is you, my love." But she was on her feet--clatter and scraping in the scullery.
"No, it is you. You are running away."
"You are mad," I cried, not believing what I said.
In the scullery--by which I mean a wooden plank, a pail, a bowl--I found her face awash with tears.
Gently, I touched her salty cheek.
Violently she slammed my breastbone and beat me as if I were a prison door. "Liar," she cried, casting aside her pinny and falling backward upon our bed, her face a seeping rock, offered to the sky.
By the time Maman returned we were at peace and then the three of us did homage to the flagon and retired, the old lady to her iron cot behind the portrait, and we to our corner which resembled, more than anything, a pile of costumes for an opera or dance. When the last lantern was snuffed, the colors of the castoffs glowed all around us, blood and anthracite in the velvet night.
We went to sleep at peace, in each other's arms, and there you would think the matter over with, all the sweet familiarity of each other's skins sucked into our pink receptive lungs. Yet to see ourselves this way it is necessary to forget--that although my strange beloved slept, she never did stop living, or arguing, or fighting, or fleeing, and there was always a drama of life and death that occupied her dreams and was no less real than anything that occurred before her open eyes.
Thus she moved from peace to war through that particular night and even though I was asleep, flat on my back, snoring a storm to shake the vineyards of the Loire, I felt her move, as if tugged from me on the tides of sleep, out of my arms, onto her side, her back toward me, and when we woke with the clatter of the streets outside, a hard cold stretch of bed separated us, and she rose without even looking at me and I listened to her heavy footfall shake the boards and, like a traveler who has been hit from behind, robbed and kicked in darkness, I felt not so much the pain or indignity but the injustice of it all. I pulled on my shirt. She was already at her canvas, painting without coffee or bread.
I glimpsed the old lady curled beneath her quilt, hands over her head, fingers in her ears. I should have paid attention, for Maman knew her daughter from the womb and what a holy hell she must have made.
I touched Mathilde's bare shoulder, and gently drew back her hair.
"Go," she cried. "Just go."
"I'm not going anywhere."
She did not look at me but went to our bed, picked up my trousers, and threw them down into the street.
"What have I done?"
She was my treasure, my ball of pain and beauty--her luminous eyes, her little curved belly, her perfect thigh. Who she was fighting I did not know, but I was old enough, had scars on my ankles and my arms, a piece missing from my ear, and saw how the moment had come, like an unexpected death, like God striking, the lightning hitting, and I was a man tipped from his bunk on the ship to find not floor but death water, bubbles, the fierce cold fingers of the salty night. There, die. Rise no more.
There was no point in asking is it fair that I should lose everything I love again. I took my duffel and threw in my tools, my better clothes, a book, and with no word to Maman I made off down the giddy seasick stairs, emerging half naked into the courtyard where the children were already playing with the trousers, from whose pockets all coin, even my good-luck acorn, was gone. It had only taken ten minutes to have my body flayed, my bones stripped clean, my squiddy soul out in the sun to dry.
I headed for my English printers, for where else could I go? The day was sunny and cruelly pleasant. Along the way I spied, in every cafe, the sweet familiarity of couples who had spent the night happily in each other's arms and I, who had been for six years one of them, was cast beyond the pale, a poor lonely foreign wretch. I found my friends all gone to work, and the landlady, who had always been so pleasant to me, said her house was full. Reluctantly she brought me some bottled ale and wrote the tab on my friend's account.
Then I removed to a hotel on the rue Richelieu, where, on the strength of Monsieur's famous name and my good clothes--which I was forced to lay out on the bed--I was given, for twelve francs every month, a "parlor next to the sky."
It sickens me to tell the rest, my many trips back to the faubourg Saint-Antoine where Mathilde finally softened enough to lend me a hundred sous. There is little that is not pathetic but in the end, no matter what injustice he suffers, a man is still a man and cannot be a sniveling wretch forever, and I set out, at an age when one expects this shit to be well past, to present myself at the petite maison, declaring myself ready to travel to America or Hell, whatever would remove me from my present state.
THE TROUBLE with the general class of de Garmonts is that they cannot imagine the life of anyone outside the circle of their arse. They will hand out the Maundy money, thank you sir, but for the rest of the time you must abandon your own story for their own, and you are nothing better than an ink-dipped ant who must scurry around the page at their command.
So wait a minute. Sit down, find a chair and pour yourself a tot of rum and think what I am telling you before they call me to serve their noble needs.
I was in Devon, years and years before, in 1793. My daddy had been arrested and the flames of the printery were in the night, the fir tree igniting. You have forgotten? For Christ's sake--the secret forgers were all bursting from the roof, up through the tiles, alive and dying all at once, such screams. The Parrot Larrit was a frightened boy, running, encouraged by his da and the other printers chained together. Up the hill I went, a musket ball whizzing past me like a hornet on the chase, and into the very patch of woods that had been spared the barley axe, jumping across the smoking body of a man who I, in my terror, decided was asleep. I tore through brambles, ripping skin, not daring to stop, unable to breathe, up the hill, from where I could see the fire, then down to the bank of the River Dart and along the soft path, heading always against the current, unable to think of anything but Dartmoor at the end. That I should make so wise a choice was no thanks to myself, a shitting shivering boy, but to my da who had taught me the utility of Dartmoor and the sense in keeping it nearby, for Dartmoor is a land of solitude and silence--or almost silence for you may hear the murmur of a torrent far below or the drowsy hum of an insect, but there will be no human voice unless it is your own.
Another boy may have run home to his mother, but the moor, in all its weathers, was my mother and I ran toward its arms. It was not until the stitch in my side brought me to a stop that I tried to understand if I was followed, but there was no sound to be heard above the River Dart, which was none other than the total of the scores of rivulets and brooks of Dartmoor, each one of which carried that haunted weirdness in their note which my daddy called the whisht and which here, in the dark just out of Dittisham, produced a vast melancholic wash, a dark sac of grief inside which I cried my heart out, throwing myself down on dirt and thistles, weeping until at last the moon rose on the water and I--having nothing else in life to look forward to--set off along the path which I knew would lead me, sooner or later, to Totnes, Buckfast, East Dart, and West Dart at Dartmeet on the Moor.
If the language had been my own I might have fled, leaping like a goat, a moorland sheep, bleating in terror as I plunged into the dark, but it was as you have already guessed--the one-armed man. I stayed, quivering while he, in all his huge dark foreign bulk laid his single hand very gently on my shoulder, and although I could not make out the meaning of a word he said, I knew he meant to make me tame.
In all my sniveling confusion I did not know which way to turn and it was not until he pushed--or rather encouraged--me along the track that I understood he expected me to know a place to hide.
I walked all that night, still against the current of the river, losing paths, finding new ones, sinking up to my waist in swamps, more and more tired, walking weary and careless through Totnes, the entire town dark and not a single candle in one window, and I walked until I felt myself lifted in his mighty arm and held.
"Faut-il suivre le fleuve?" Something like that, for he was certainly asking should we follow the course of the river but I had as much French as I had Lati
I was carried by him through the night, sound asleep, somehow aware of his steady tread and then not even that.
I woke in a different season, shivering, my back pushed hard against a wall of rock. Before me a vast solitude--long ridges rising in dusky sweeps against the sky, line beyond line of them like the waves of ocean and from these waves, the rocky islands, tors, more like lions, sphinxes, and other strange monsters, and down the slope, in wild confusion, huge blocks of splintered rock. And the foreground, so achingly familiar, so forlorn without my da--brilliant green bits of bog, purple clumps of heather, red and brown rushes, and waving cotton grass in which we had once trapped rabbits and birds and eaten by the fire beneath the stars and known ourselves, a man and boy, blessed to be so free.
I had already heard the crackling of his fire, but it was now a sound so sad I could not bear to turn, and would rather believe it was another man, another fire.
He was squatting, filthy, ash smeared across his face, his curly hair pushed sideways like his grin, and he had called me to Regard in reference to two links of butcher's sausage which he had procured, perhaps from Mr. Piggott's house or somewhere along the road at night.
His plan was not a good one, for he poked a stick into the sausage and was about to spoil our meal. I let him know I had a better idea, and so made a Cornish pit as my daddy had taught me, that is a little rock oven that you build the fire atop.
He let me do what I wished, although when he understood he would be waiting longer for his breakfast he puffed out his lips and rolled his eyes as I have seen him do ten thousand times since. It was then, as I dug the pit, I unwittingly entered his employ.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes