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Parrot and olivier in am.., p.20
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       Parrot and Olivier in America, p.20

           Peter Carey
 

  What the Frenchman understood I cannot say, but he scooped me up into the crook of his strong single arm and wedged my face into his hairy neck. He gave the driver his gold and grunted at him like an animal. Then he carried me, alone in my horror--more unbearable for being unclear--down a path until we were finally back among the armorers on the quay and thence to a second quay, where he lowered me to the flags and then onto a low wooden jetty, and there I found myself with a crowd of poor men and women all of whom were weeping pretty much as I was, and in their company I was persuaded into a longboat. I had no comfort from Monsieur's arm or the damp fustian of my fellow passengers, who smelled like unhappy chickens after rain.

  I had never been on a boat before. I had been no closer to the sea than a beach or two where we had gone fossicking for useful storm wrack although we never found any more than a dented christening cup and oaken kindling sanded to velvet by the fury of the sea. We never bathed in the ocean, but rolled up our trousers and wondered at its treachery. One black afternoon at Falmouth, my da and I watched the lifeboat plow out into the storm and bring back the sodden wrung-out men who had once been sailors upon the Dundee.

  We had seen sailors aplenty around the ports and had always been afraid of their air of hard hostility. They were missing eyes and fingers. They had killed other men, or so I thought. They were of the sea, and we were of the land, of hard tamped paths and the streams of Dartmoor with their whisht.

  The ship's longboat pushed away from the jetty. Even now, my father was following his coffin or was dead from whatever vile thing they had done to him. The thought shackled my chest. Was he to be murdered for being an innocent accomplice to a forger? Was it even him? My young mind pushed against these gigantic thoughts as I left the land of England. There was no countenance divine. All the great ships in Plymouth Harbor were as tight together as creatures in a hive, all pulsing with the hum of war. We passed under the noses of the cannons, and the lapping sea was poison mercury beneath the gray sky, chicken guts and potato peels gathering around the towering hulls.

  My sole protector was an enemy of England. He delivered me to the high black wall of the Samarand.

  I wet myself halfway up the ladder. I was guided, piss-pant, limping, toward the fo'c'sle, past the cattle pens and boxes filled with chickens. Then the Frenchman gained access to the captain's cabin and was a mute no longer, speaking good French and bad English both. I was worried I would need to vomit and this was of more importance than Monsieur presenting the handsome captain with a palm full of Piggott's pound notes. Thus the currency trumped the navy who would have gladly had the Marquis de Tilbot, no matter what the complexion of his politics, hanging from a gibbet until his feet fell off his legs.

  III

  I WAS CONFINED to a cabin not much better than a crying room, its entire length consumed by a bed as narrow as a plank. Beside this bunk there was a very squeezy space to stand and dress, and beyond this a dresser too shallow to accept the Frenchman's boots which must hang from a hook on the ceiling above his feet. It was inside this unhappy box young Parrot Larrit set to sea, suspended in a soupy atmosphere of socks and bacon. When the weather was rough my protector's boots kicked me in the face.

  I had no notion of what and who awaited me.

  First there was Dr. Bingham, a frail and handsome fellow from Lincolnshire whose harelip was sometimes visible beneath his nest of pale mustache. By sometimes I mean the occasions he peered into my open mouth hunting for "foul tongue." The harelip is of no importance. I should not have even mentioned it.

  Dr. Bingham could not know the grief that wrung my heart. I wished to die but he administered an emetic, and after I had thrown up my guts--which he had warranted I would--he gave me a bright orange purgative which I tried to spit away.

  He was a good man I'm sure, but by the time he had finished I was a hopeless shitting little animal and the captain had received the Port Admiral's order to leave the mooring. Through a gray curtain of nausea and stomach cramp, I lay in my hammock and heard the handsome Yorkshireman shouting that there was no damned wind and he did not see why he should abandon the harbor in favor of seasickness for all. He apologized for saying damned (so I knew there was a woman with us). I felt the keel scrape its way across the bar and, at the same time, dragging noise above.

  I filled the chamber pot. I slept and woke with the bells of every watch. The Samarand lolloped with its sails flapping like washing on the line. I vomited and shat and wept. I did not have sea legs but had to reach the heads to empty my chamber pot. I woke at dawn to find myself attended by a stranger. She was short and plump and pretty and I was too gutted to be embarrassed when she wiped my bottom.

  Mrs. Bingham, the wife of Dr. Bingham, spoke with the same soft Lincolnshire voice as her husband. I lay in my hammock. She lay on the bunk and stroked the inside of my wrist until I thought I would go mad. A day passed, and then a night.

  I was woken by a cry of Beds on deck and the most horrid rattling dragging noises above my head. A man's voice cried: "If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea."

  I slept. There was a mighty thwack of canvas and the whole ship groaned and screeched and then, at last, we were under way.

  I curled up like a grub inside a leaf, not speaking, beset by waking dreams of my father and his yellow coffin.

  A big bristly face inspected me: the Frenchman. His gray eyes reflected nothing but the little cabin and the bright speck of light which was the sea.

  The winds soon grew fiercer and the seas larger, until the oily waves were like those I had once seen crashing in yellow foaming fury on the Devon coast. Except there was no coast, no there, no terminus, no restraint and the waters surged past us, over us, shaking not only our bones but the whole ship from stem to stern, sending great spurting plumes of spray across the decks, dropping a huge weight like earth above my coffined head. I had known loneliness before, and emptiness upon the moor, but I had never been a nothing, a nothing floating on a nothing, known by nothing, lonelier and colder than the space between the stars. It was more frightening than being dead.

  I asked Monsieur, "Where are we going?"

  I could get no comfort from him, no purchase, so I slipped off him as from the hard black body of a seal and he played the mute even with our door shut fast.

  How I yearned for some softness, even from the doctor's wife, but when she begged me to join the mess table I dared not accept for fear of what lethal secrets I might betray. When I finally did sit down to breakfast it was only because the ship pitched and threw me to the table from the heads.

  "John," cried Dr. Bingham. "Eat some porridge with us."

  "John," said his little plump wife, and caught the Parrot by the hand and presented him to everybody excepting the first mate, who was otherwise engaged on deck, and Major Alexander, who had business with the prisoners. I did not know what prisoners. Below us, the seas surged across the pitching foredeck. Above, the sailors clung to the rigging like soft fruit in a storm.

  Monsieur was eating an egg.

  And there was the clergyman I had heard howling out the psalm. I had pictured a craggy gray-haired hermit, but he had pie-eater's jowls and the straight floppy dark hair of a boy. "Your father has been worried for you, John," said he.

  My father?

  The captain's flinty eyes were on us hard like a gamekeeper on a well-known pair of poachers.

  Monsieur towered silently over everyone at table, a frowning bull.

  "Good morning Da," I said. I kissed him and felt the quiver of his foreign skin. He grasped my arm and I knew, he never had a son to love in all his life. Who will care for me, I thought.

  "This is a big adventure for a young lad," said the clergyman.

  Would he look after me?

  "Your mother must miss you, John," he asked.

  "My mother is dead sir."

  Monsieur's nose contracted.

  "A new life," said the doctor's wife, and patted my hand. Would sh
e look after me?

  "An important job," she said.

  "Miss?"

  "To be your father's voice. How very fine that is, John. What a privilege it is for you."

  I doubt Monsieur understood a word. He bestowed on all a ghastly smile.

  The doctor flicked back his doggish hair as he examined me. I smiled in the hope that he would like me.

  The captain wiped his well-shaped mouth with his napkin and leaned back in his chair "What will you be doing in Australia?" He slid the sugar bowl toward my porridge and it did not rest until brought up sharp against the table rim.

  I thought, He does not like me.

  "Dr. Bingham," he asked, not taking his eye off me for a second, "what do you reckon of his nibs' color?"

  I turned to the doctor, whose harelip showed like a sea anemone in the morning light. I thought, Please do not send me to Australia.

  "He is ill," said the doctor.

  "Passez-moi le sucre," interrupted the clergyman.

  "Le sucre," I cried. Please do not send me to Australia. "Passez-moi le sucre."

  The Frenchman squeezed my knee so hard it hurt, but he would not look at me, only at the clergyman, who did not have the sense to be afraid.

  "Ah-ha!" Potter cried the clergyman. "You speak French."

  "No, sir."

  Reverend Potter licked his plump lips so they glistened. "I was admiring," he continued, "the way your father has his coat cut. I'm sure it is the latest thing." He cast sideways glances at the captain, blinking at me like some silly lady's dog.

  "I'm just a parrot, sir," I cried, all cockney.

  Potter bounced his bottom in his chair and the Marquis de Tilbot stretched his long single arm and laid it like a claw upon his shoulder.

  "Et quel est le but de votre voyage?" the clergyman insisted, but he had not reached voyage before he yelped, and then I understood Monsieur, who was smiling in the most amiable way imaginable, had his hand like a gill hook in the chaplain's flesh.

  Said Dr. Bingham, "You need fresh air, John."

  I escaped fresh air on that occasion, but the next morning I was escorted onto the poop deck by the doctor, where I once more heard the cry of beds on deck, and this time looked down to see the soldiers raise a great studded hatch on the deck, and from this maw was produced, from the belly of the ship, a poor race of trolls and troglodytes who brought with them the most awful fetid smell. I watched in disgust and fascination as these creatures bundled their bedding up into the netting, and the boys--you never saw such boys, their eyes black as crab eyes, shrunken like grapes unwanted by the world.

  When they were all assembled, clanking in their chains, pressed tight onto the quarterdeck and surrounded by the soldiers with their guns and bayonets, the Reverend Potter performed the morning prayers, and this caused several of the men and women prisoners to kneel, thus making the most horrid sound of chains rubbing on each other and falling hard onto the deck.

  When we next came out for air I was afraid, not only of the sea but of that boiling black poisonous swarm, those Australians, in the nest beneath my feet. On that chill clear day they were kept below for their own safety, but I could hear the dreadful screams and shouts that went up every time the water came across the foredeck. I could not imagine who they were, except the poor creatures were in terror of being drowned.

  Up on the deck, I wrapped my rabbit skin violently around me, fur in, crinkly side out. The seas rushed hugely by, sending fountains of spray to slap my face.

  I held hard on to the lifeline and pressed against Monsieur.

  Dr. Bingham and the reverend were close beside us. The captain was seated on a large coil of rope, once more fiddling with his pipe.

  There was a Mr. Pillock, a new hand, at the wheel, and just at the moment when an unusually big wave overtook us, he allowed the vessel to broach to. In a moment the weight of all the sea, tons of it, fell upon me. It knocked the air out of me. I was drowned already, broken like a chicken wing, dragged and spun toward my death, and in the midst of that spinning sting I saw the reverend slide down the tilted deck beside me, and then Monsieur tackled the clergyman, and the coil of rope on which the captain had been sitting was washed overboard and snaked upon the sea.

  I scrabbled at the deck. I saw the Marquis de Tilbot swing his strong single arm around the reverend's neck. We slid down the deck together, toward the ocean. I saw the Frenchman give the clergyman a twist, a flick like a big fish might give with its tail. As I skidded down toward my death, I stuck my bony knees into the bulwarks. I was scraped from toe to knee. At that moment I thought the Reverend Potter was also still alive.

  IV

  THE CAPTAIN KNEELED over the sodden body of the clergyman.

  "Poor devil broke his neck."

  Monsieur held me. He poofed his lips at me. What did he mean? I was shivering, bleeding on his shirt. Was it because I said sucre he killed the chaplain? I felt the great hard sealy mass of him, his wet cold nose against my neck.

  "Mon petit," he whispered, in my secret English ear, in the lethal language, in the awful stinging sea.

  By afternoon bright snakes of light were waving across the wardroom and my leg was bandaged and my chest was bare and I watched Mrs. Bingham sew a mourning band onto my shirt.

  At evening the chains scraped the deck like thunder and I watched the dreadful convicts marched seven times around the deck. A boy waved to me. I pretended not to see.

  Next day, the day of poor Potter's burial, was the finest we had had since leaving Plymouth, a cloudless sky mirrored in the great ocean that lay beneath it like a sheet of glass. It was very cold. From the poop I saw some large fish alongside. The horror of that meal.

  At the hour allotted for the ceremony, I returned to the poop deck with Mrs. Bingham. Monsieur followed and stood behind. I could smell his sticky perfume as I waited for the convicts to be brought on deck. The Frenchman sighed. The hatchway was stoutly framed so the exposed woodwork was covered with broad-headed nails, so close together they made a sheet of steel and the structure was proof against being cut. Through this armored throat the prisoners now came onto the deck, the men's heads blue and shaven, carrying with them that smell which, Mrs. Bingham said, was their own fault as they would not holystone their decks as the doctor wished. They insisted on scrubbing them with seawater and as a result the whole of their deck had a sour stink like rags left in a bucket, sweat and pee and darkness.

  They wore blue-and-white neckerchiefs, gray stockings barred with red stripes, and they were all in chains. Later most of the prisoners would have their shackles removed, but on the day of Mr. Potter's burial the most fortunate were still chained on one side. I could taste the rust and steel of Australia inside my mouth.

  At length the ship's bell began to toll in the solemn tones of a funeral knell, and the captain placed himself in the midst of all his captives. Twenty marines and their pricking bayonets made a wall around their backs.

  Then two hard-faced bearded sailors emerged from a hatchway, followed by two more, with heads uncovered, bearing between them a long bumpy parcel tied up in a piece of sailcloth, with a great weight fastened to the feet.

  Monsieur put his hand upon my shoulder and I realized what the parcel was.

  The bell tolled. The sailors marched in time, carrying the Reverend Potter round the ship till they came to the crowded quarterdeck, where a board was already laid to receive him.

  Looking down on the captain's bared head I could see his naked scalp, fine hair lifting in the breeze.

  "The Reverend Mr. Potter had no family," he began.

  No sign of land, not even cloud to be mistaken for it.

  "The Reverend Potter left a letter to a friend we know of only as Timothy. Let this be our lesson."

  There was a rattling of chains and a moan of misery, which I took to be caused by their condition, not the burial. I looked at Monsieur and was suddenly enraged to see his cheeks were wet with tears.

  "He writes this to Timothy: You would
have been much interested to see my schools in full working order."

  The smell was strong, even on the poop, a great stinking cloud of cheese.

  "He writes," the captain said, "I appointed teachers from among the best-educated prisoners, each one with his class ranged round him in the form of a semicircle, in each of which were some old and gray-headed men, striving earnestly to read and to write."

  The captain glared as if it was their fault he died.

  "Did any of ye ever think he went back to his cabin and thought about your souls?"

  He had a poor woman kneeling, crying. She was not young. It must have hurt to kneel.

  "Listen," he cried, his finger now running down the page, as if impatient with them all. "Here," he cried, "here's this--Some of the convicts were reported to me as kneeling down to offer their private devotions before they retired to rest; and others used to assemble the young convicts to hear them say their prayers and the Evening Hymn."

  By now there was general weeping, and the chains would not be quiet.

  "He is dead," cried the captain. "He is gone from us."

  The captain said, "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? With the full hope of a glorious resurrection, we commit this body to the deep."

  The two sailors raised one end of the board and the Reverend Potter shot down into the dark sea with a splash that struck my soul with horror. Then nothing was to be seen but a slight ripple on the face of the eternal waters.

  I stood shivering while orders were given to the gray striped prisoners. The boatswain piped for wind, which slowly arose, filling the sails, and the Samarand turned again toward Botany Bay.

  Monsieur then took me into the ward and pointed down into the sea, where there was a large dark fish clearly following behind. I held his neck and kissed his vile cheek. That's the Parrot for you. I wish he was another way.

 
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