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Parrot and olivier in am.., p.5
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       Parrot and Olivier in America, p.5

           Peter Carey
 

  If that ain't worth sixpence what is?

  My daddy was a journeyman printer, a lanky man with big knees and knubbly knuckled hands with which he would ruff up his red hair when looking for First Principles. Inside this bird's nest it was a surprise to find his small white noggin, the precious engine of his bright gray eyes.

  "Children remain tied to their father by nature only so long as they need him for their preservation. As soon as this ends," so wrote the great Rousseau, "the natural bond is dissolved. Once the children are freed from the obedience they owe their father and the father is freed from their responsibilities towards them, both parties equally regain their independence. If they continue to remain united, it is no longer nature but their own choice, which unites them; and the family as such is kept together only by agreement."

  More or less that's it.

  My daddy and I were two peas in a pod. The acquisition of knowledge was our occupation, but of my ma I knew nothing except that she had a tiny waist which would fit inside her husband's hands. I missed her all my life.

  I knew Adam Smith before I reached fractions. Then I was put to Latin which my father liked no more than I did, and this caused us considerable upset, both with ourselves and with each other. It was due to Latin that my father got in a state and clipped my lughole and I grabbed a half-burned bit of kindling and set to drawing on the floor. I had never seen a drawing in my life, and when I saw what I was doing, dear God, I thought I had invented it. And what rage, what fury, what a delicious humming wickedness I felt. All over the floor and who will clean it? I had seen my daddy's hand reach for his belt buckle and I was, ipso facto, ready for the slap. Yet at this moment I entered a foreign jungle of the soul. I drew a man with a dirty long nose. A leaping trout. A donkey falling upside down.

  But my daddy's belt stayed in his trousers.

  He stared at me. His hair stood up like taffy. He cocked his head. I permitted him to take my charcoal stick and kiss me on the head. Not a cross word, or a kind one. He led the Parrot downstairs where he ordered the landlord pour me a ginger beer. Then he sat and watched me drink, and what was he pondering, do you reckon?

  Why, the benefits of having an engraver in the family.

  Thereafter I was a mighty protege and we forgot about our upsets and our Latin and our fractions, and even though my drawings were not always wanted where I placed them, he encouraged me at every turn, always on the lookout for a quiet church porch on account of the quality of its slate. As to subjects, he was not fussy, although once he gave me a pound note to see what I could make of it.

  On another occasion he was compelled to scrub clean the Dartmouth footpath on which I had drawn the great bloody head of Louis XVI. My father said he didn't mind the scrubbing, it being a pleasure to make any tyrant vanish from the earth. It was suggested we might leave the town. There was no work in Dartmouth anyway. But up in Dittisham--Dit'sum as they called it--we found a strangely isolated printery, situated just at the place where the estuary became the River Dart, and there we found members of that better-educated class--I mean printers. There is nothing like them. Having spent all their day with words and proofs, they are monstrously well read and disputatious beasts, always--while setting up the type, tapping in the furniture, rolling out the ink--arguing. If it was not that they spoke varying types of English, you might think yourself in France. It was the drunken height of revolution and all was Girondins or Cordeliers, Hume or Paine.

  The printers at Dit'sum were family-genus-species Textus miraculus. They would shut up only at the long deal table which they shared with their master, Mr. Piggott, and his wife, them both being Catholics of a put-upon variety and very sarcastic about Tom Paine in particular. Mrs. Piggott was a young Frenchwoman easily made tearful by events in her country, which left the men with nothing they could safely say at table--but I am ahead of myself. I did not say our single aim was to find shelter and a decent meal.

  We arrived from Dartmouth at dinnertime. My father knocked and hallooed, until we discovered seven full-grown humans, all supping at a table, quiet as Lent.

  We finally sat down at the end with big bowls of stew and lumps of rough bread and a cup of rainwater and about twenty cats mewling about our legs. No sooner did my daddy have a mouthful than the master wished to know who he was. He replied he was a press or case man, whatever was needed worst. In fact Piggott required a case man--that is, a compositor--who would lift types for sixpence a thousand, but at first he said nothing of it, for he was staring hard at me. No matter how girlish his wife, Mr. Piggott himself was all of sixty. He was almost bald, with a little lump of a nose.

  "The Devil, are you?" he demanded.

  "Me, sir?"

  "You, lad."

  He had a very short neck and colossal shoulders that seemed as wide as the table and when he stood to see me better he began to butt his big head against the ceiling, like a goat.

  I would have run but my father clamped my thigh.

  I said that I was ten years old and, being too young to be apprenticed, I was accustomed to taking the job of devil.

  My father was occupied cleaning the tines of his fork with his shirttail.

  Many is the dirty job I did, I told old Piggott. I would rather work than play. I could clean the proofing press, I said. I was a dab hand at dissing which is what they call putting the type back in its right case.

  "See him draw a racehorse," said my father.

  This comment caused some puzzlement but finally I was given pencil and paper. The result was then passed around the table. No one made a comment but when the horse arrived in front of Mrs. Piggott, she rose up from her chair.

  The mistress could have not yet have been twenty, but I saw a small old person, camouflaged like a lizard, and she came around the table at me flicking out a measuring tape like some enormous tongue.

  My face and neck burned bright red while I stood in front of all these men and Mrs. Piggott, with no word of explanation, having completely ignored my racehorse, measured me, not only my height but around my chest, from armpit to extremity.

  "Ah, ain't that lovely?" said my da who would say anything to get a nice hot feed. "See that Parrot--you are to be measured. What a treat," he said to Mr. Piggott.

  Mrs. Piggott slipped her tape measure into the pocket of her pinny. Mr. Piggott thumped his fist twice against the ceiling, which was even more alarming than the butting. At this signal each printer bowed his atheistic head.

  "Benedictus benedicat per Jesum Christum Dominum nostrum." Then, moving from Latin to English without a cough, Mr. Piggott formally employed my father, passing down to him, from hand to hand, a copy of Miss Parsons' The Castle of Wolfenbach which, just published in London for ten shillings, he would soon have on the roads at six shillings and sixpence.

  My father said, "Good-oh," and did not seem to worry about what might happen to me on account of the measuring. My racehorse was left with all the bread crumbs. I never had so little praise before.

  Even when we went out after dinner my dad said not a word about what had happened. Instead he lit his pipe and told me this was certainly the River Dart. It was a place where cattle crossed, so the bank was bad smelling from their droppings mixed with earth. "Lovely night," my father said, turning with one arm behind his back to survey the printery which occupied what might have once been a grand house but had long been encroached upon by woods, tangled in wild creeper, guarded by thistles on the riverbank, surrounded by carts and wheels in such a style you would think it the graveyard for old carriages.

  Piggott's was what was called a black house, not because of the grimy slate tiles that wrapped themselves around the soft contours of the roof, but on account of printing what was on the cross. To make this cheap edition of The Castle of Wolfenbach was an offense against the crown.

  Soon Mrs. Piggott gave us each a bundle of bed linen and when my father paid her a florin, she silently showed him to a bed by the dormitory door. Me she led to the far end and left me in what
was once a kind of scullery. My da said it was a fine accommodation but this was like him, to become most enthusiastic when most oppressed by life. He showed me how I could lie in bed and watch the cattle go home for milking. His bright eyes were a fright to see.

  On this first night, I was sitting on my bed, wondering if I dare walk outside to do my business, when something attacked my shoulder, I thought a bird or bat but discovered a pile of quarto proofs wrapped in string.

  My da was always at me with a book and I was not displeased. When I had unwrapped the bundle I was excited to find engravings for a picture book. Alas, these were depictions of human congress too disturbing for a child. I could chop the head off a king, but I was not strong enough for this.

  I never told my father what I had seen, or why I abandoned my own place and walked the length of the dormitory in my nightshirt and squeezed into his narrow crib.

  "Oh this is a grand place," he said, and I agreed it was and got ready to protect myself from his nightmares and his bruising knees.

  II

  THAT FIRST MORNING our bathing in the river provided amusement for the printers whose yawning faces appeared in a line of windows like noggins at a fair. One of them asked us were we mermaids--it was not what he said, but he was a Londoner with all his lovely London sounds, and I did adore the voices of mankind.

  "Meer-mayds," said the Parrot to his da.

  My dad tried to wad the washcloth in my mouth. If I was a good boy I should have let him, but I squirmed away as wicked as a slippery eel.

  "Meer-mayd," I called.

  "Shush," he said. And ran away, my da, sausage bouncing, splashing nudey through the water, lurching toward the riverbank with the idea, I suppose, that I would have no one left to talk to if he was not there.

  "Oh, lor," I shouted from the middle of the stream. "Blow me down. It must be a meer-mayd."

  Came my father's voice, faintly, from the shore. "Shush."

  "Meermayds!" I cried, making a funnel with my hands. "Meermayds." I had the lovely vowels, I was a Pearly King.

  My daddy dressed and walked back to the printery, head down, combing at his wet hair in such a way I knew he was trying to hide his grin. He had a soft sweet heart, it was a burden to him. "How do you do that?" he would often say. He could not whistle either although he often tried.

  When breaking fast the cockney fellow winked at me and I knew I had made a friend not the enemy my father must have feared.

  After breakfast we were taken to the printery. The cockney announced he was known as Gunner and proceeded to show my da his frame. Piggott watched suspiciously, it seemed to me, as my dad set up the implements of his trade and mounted a pair of cases full of shining type in readiness for The Castle of Wolfenbach. Then I was set to clean the proofing press.

  It was not only Gunner who had a nickname. There was also Weasel, Bunter, Chooka, Chanker, to name a few. Gunner was a pressman who operated his machine with the darting little Weasel. Bunter was tall and gone to fat, a slovenly worker, scrambling and shoveling his types together without any regard to the exact mechanical neatness which is an instinct with the good compositor. All this I observed as I cleaned the ink slab. When that dirty task was done I was set to work humping heavy bundles of the Dit'sum newspaper from the back door to a trolley. After this, with my hands already harrowed and scarified from binding twine, I was ordered by Bunter to clean myself with spirit and printer's soap, and this hurt a great deal as it had the texture of coarse sand. Then I was ordered to drag this four-wheeled monster up a rutted road and then along a maze of lanes and footpaths which--being always unsure if I could find my way home again--I did not like at all.

  Dit'sum being a decent size and the people of a secretive disposition, it took the best part of the day to get the newspapers to their subscribers. I was relieved to find my way back to the old printery, gray and lumpy, like a turtle in the mud.

  After supper my father and I bathed again. He had the hands of a drowned man, my dear daddy, blanched to death by endless washing. When we were dry and decent we found the men gathered by the broad dormitory steps pursuing what was clearly an ongoing argument about the utility of kings in a republic. My father was excitable by temperament but cautious by habit, and he smoked his pipe, nodded his head but offered no opinions.

  In the night he was alarmed by some bad turn his dream was taking and nearly took my eye out.

  The second day involved washing in the river and then getting dirty and then delivering a job lot of docket books to the Swan. This was formally received by an older girl who looked me up and down like I was the living filth. She took me into a dark parlor where some old ladies sat wetting their hairy chins with stout. Thus it was at a table in a pub I first saw the quality of Piggott's engraving which was what you might call cack-handed.

  She said, "What happened to Sniffy?"

  I said I did not know.

  She said, "Did Sniffy die?"

  "I don't know, miss." I thought I could draw a swan much better. I was bursting to show her what I could have done.

  The third day began just the same. I washed. I got dirty. Mr. Piggott himself came to give me my instructions.

  "Get the trolley, lad," he said. "Today it is a pickup."

  I set off at a great speed in order to get the heavy trolley up onto the road, but he snatched the machine from my care, and shoved it underneath a pussy willow. He then led me through some stinging nettles, arriving hard against the backside of the house, at a place where there was a stink of moss and lichens, also a peeling gray door, which I was told to open. I found myself in an empty dark stale-smelling room which had once been a kitchen. From here I was shooed like a hen into another room which held nothing but a big fireplace of gray carved stone.

  "Now," said Piggott, "come in the fireplace and I'll show you."

  I said I was not allowed in fireplaces.

  For answer Mr. Piggott threw his head back against his wide shoulders. Then he folded himself up, all shoulder, head and knees and--maintaining this strange arrangement of his limbs--edged himself inside the fireplace.

  "Come here with me," he said, taking off his spectacles and sliding them inside his apron.

  "I'm going to fetch the trolley," I said.

  "Forget the blessed trolley. We need no trolley." He came crabbing out to snatch at me, his naked eyes gone wet and fishy. He twisted up my shirtfront in his fist. I tore away and broke my buttons and rushed out into the dappled woody light of morning, bawling in fright, but I wanted a sleep and a feed and so fetched the stupid trolley from its hiding place and brought it back to the main door of the printery where I met my father rushing the other way, a stick of type grasped in his hand.

  Mr. Piggott rounded on us, arms swinging, head nodding.

  "What's he done now?" my father said.

  Mr. Piggott removed the stick from my father's hand, assessed the type composed there, before laying it carefully on a windowsill. Then he led my da away from me, down toward the stream. I saw the water sparkling behind their dark figures, light shining like a halo through Mr. Piggott's ring of hair. The Master stroked my da on his long back, then watched as he returned to his son.

  "What?" I asked.

  He attempted to mimic me but he did not have the ear. He was hangdog, red neck, and could not look at me. "Come on, my Parrot," said he at last. "Master needs your help."

  "No," I said slipping from his grabby hand.

  My daddy permitted himself to be led into the stinging nettles, through the empty kitchen, to the empty fireplace. I followed.

  This time I noted Piggott took the trouble to explain, and when he did this his voice became both whispery and loud.

  Said he, "I have a very good pressman working in a very hard-to-get-to place."

  My father squatted and peered toward the chimney.

  "That's right," said Mr. Piggott, jerking his head at my father. "That's it, John."

  My father winked at me.

  "Nothing's going to hu
rt the nipper," said Mr. Piggott. "All he has to do is."

  I took a step back but my da had already locked his arm around my shoulder.

  "That's it," whispered Mr. Piggott. "All he has to do."

  He got down on his hands and knees and crawled into the fireplace. "Come on, young'un," he whispered, and I smelled an airy rush of peppermint.

  "See up there?" My da pointed, squeezing in. "See that?"

  I allowed myself to be pulled in beside my da and Mr. Piggott, who had a tussock of white hair growing out of his wattly ear.

  "See that?"

  "No," I said, but I did see: a little metal door inside the chimney.

  "Yes, it looks all dark, don't it, but once inside, young'un, why you'll find an oil lamp burning. It's like bloody Christmas."

  "Well, so to speak," my daddy cautioned.

  "Yes, so to speak," said Mr. Piggott. "In a way of speaking. Not Christmas, of course, but plenty of surprises. You see, young'un," he said, plucking at my open shirt, "hold your lamp up high, you'll see there's a passage tailor-made for you, and even though it goes this way and that, it keeps on going just the same, and you come to a bit of a step which you climb up, and then there is another door. Doesn't look like a door at all, even when your nose is hard against it, but you give it a good hard knock. You will, I know you will. Because what's inside but a printer like your father, not so tall or so handsome. Mr. Watkins is his name. And he's going to give you something."

  "What?" I asked.

  "See," said Mr. Piggott. "It's not hard."

  "What will he get given?" my father asked.

  "Well, it's a funny thing when you say it, but it's as regular as your daily bread."

  "What is it?" I asked.

  "It's his chamber pot I suppose," said Mr. Piggott, "and the printer fellow would be very grateful if you could bring it back out here so we can nicely deal with it."

  I was tremendously relieved to hear all this, and I was ready to set off immediately, but my father was now edging me back out into the room and Mr. Piggott had no choice but follow, although the three of us continued bunched together as if packed into a box.

 
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