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Parrot and olivier in am.., p.6
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       Parrot and Olivier in America, p.6

           Peter Carey
 

  "How was this job done previous?" my daddy asked.

  "We had a lad, of course. It requires no training," said Mr. Piggott, who must have seen which way my father's mind was working.

  "Ah, there you are," my daddy said. "Then he's better than an apprentice."

  "How's that?" said Piggott.

  "No training. Less eaten. Less laundered. Less found," my father said. "And why was he measured? Well, it's obvious. It was an act of employment. Speaking legally."

  "A penny," said Mr. Piggott.

  "Threepence each way," my father said, "and another threepence for each time he's needed."

  "I could get anyone to do this," Piggott said. "Threepence in and out this first time. And a penny each way thereafter."

  By now my father had his hair combed up into a big mess and he was scratching at his neck in an attempt to hide his happiness, but I had been there long enough to decide that the previous boy had been Sniffy, and although I allowed my father to lift me to the dark door, the tiny red hairs on my boy arms were standing up on end.

  It was a tight fit in there but passing clean, and the so-called passage bent and twisted and arrived at a wall that I did not understand. This was what Mr. Piggott had called a step.

  Then I was over this and soon I came to another dead end and, just as my throat was closing up with terror, I knocked. A hidden door swung open. And there it was--the printer's chamber pot, filled to overflowing, thrust right in my face.

  "Take it," the pressman said.

  He was a fright, I won't pretend he wasn't. For although he was a young man and had therefore often walked the earth and seen the sun, he seemed, at that moment, like one of those transparent creatures they say live in rivers far below the earth. His hair was fine as silk, and long and white, not like the English but the Swedes. His forehead was very tall, and so white and smooth it seemed as if it must be carved from ivory. He had pale projecting eyebrows, and eyes like water.

  "Now put it down," he said.

  "What?" I asked, having heard him perfectly.

  "Put down the filthy pot," he pleaded, "on the stinking floor."

  I saw no reason to be afraid of such a nervous creature, but when I obeyed he gave me an awful cuff across the head and took me by the ear and twisted it.

  "If you ever leave me waiting again," he whispered, "I will come out the hard way"--that was how he put it--"and Piggott don't want that. Smell it," he cried, his voice cracking. "Smell."

  He meant his room. I looked above his shoulder and saw he was like all men who work with black ink and white paper. That is, his printed sheets were as clean as sawn timber and his narrow bed was tightly made. He shared his snug space with a guillotine and the first iron hand press I ever saw. He was all hunched over, his arms were long and thin and he held them across his chest in a way that made me think of the roots of a pot-bound tree. I could not make out how tall he was.

  It would be many years, on the other side of the world, before I understood that Piggott's house had been designed by Nicholas Owen, a clever fellow who had devised the many hiding places for priests in the reign of Elizabeth I. Whether Piggott had inherited or purchased the property, I still don't know. At the time, of course, I did not care, for while it had been easy enough to crawl along the tiny passageway, it was quite another matter to return, nudging and sliding the sloshing chamber pot. Gently, gently catchee monkey. This was now my job--penny both ways, a fortune--to bring Mr. Algernon Watkins his sandwiches and take away his slops three times a day and if I was ever to breathe so much as a word to anyone, then I would be murdered and my body bricked up inside the house. "That's an exaggeration," my father said.

  III

  I HAD NEVER SET EYES on a silkworm and I daresay young Watkins was in no way like one. Yet it is a silkworm that I think of when I recall him in 1793, a poor pale secret thing at the service of a Chinese emperor, sitting on his heels before his press, playing it like a dice box, and with all the papery essentials within the reach of his long arms. It will be no surprise, I reckon, that I got to know Algernon Watkins well enough, although the path will be curly, and not as you expect.

  Piggott was as sly as a fox, as clever as a poacher. So well did he cover my tracks (and his own) that not even Weasel, the Jacobin, or Chanker, the Benthamite, had any idea what was taking place above their heads. As for my revolutionary father, it is a sad fact that you could kill his famous curiosity with less than threepence. So when I slipped away after tea he knew better than to ask me why.

  It took a good many nasty trips to Watkins' dark door before I crossed the threshold, and only then did I really comprehend his terror of the chamber pot. As anyone who has served at His Majesty's Pleasure will tell you, the smells that make your guts first heave soon become your home sweet home. But Watkins was, put plainly, a more fastidious and secretive young fellow than all your sisters put together.

  There was ventilation of a sort which we will come to, but because he must clean his press, the air always contained white spirits--which he feared would blow him to kingdom come. This sensible concern had him pulling on the ventilator pulley with one hand even while he worked the press, so he was--as he said himself--like one of the Jack Puddings you see outside the George and Dragon with twenty instruments, the left foot beating drums, the right one cracking walnuts, this not being a bad picture of Watkins for he also--apart from being both pressman and ventilator--kept vials of aromatics--oil of cloves, sweet geranium--in a row before his knees and was constantly dabbing these onto the silk scarf he wore across his nose and mouth.

  But it was not only the straight thin nose he covered. He had white cloth draped everywhere, across the chamber pot, the press, the guillotine, his paper stock, brush box blocks, and the burins which were to play so painful a part in my life I have sometimes wished to God I never saw them.

  You do not know what a burin is, and nor did I, mistaking it for a shiv, a murdering steel shaft with a hemispherical handle.

  It was very tight inside Watkins' shop, as he called it, but he offered a place for Parrot to sit, jammed in a corner just inside the door. His place was also just inside the door, but on the other side, and there he remained, with his pot-bound arms around his knees and his high head bowed beneath the ceiling so we were like a pair of ill-matched firedogs.

  Although he could have been no more than twenty, he had clearly forgotten what it was like to be a boy. He conversed by means of questions, answers, commentary, as if I was there to learn my catechism.

  He would ask me what I had seen that day. This was mostly birds and animals, and his commentaries, particularly about the birds, were very queer and very personal and often of surprising length.

  When my da was in his cups, we had some strange conversations, but none like this. For Watkins' memories could turn him so suddenly and wildly happy, and he would make a picture of stomping on the moor and all the colors of the birds and gorse he could count off on his fingers. You would think he was a saint with the light of heaven on him. In this condition he could make you share his wonder at plain old tomtit, for instance, and it was by catching this intoxication, that I drew a field mouse for him, showing off, right on his floor.

  I had done this trick so often, I knew I was a prodigal. So when Watkins peered at my mouse and twisted himself around and I saw his hand burrowing under a cotton cover, then why, I thought it was my just reward. I was in no way surprised to see a big square of chocolate.

  I put it in my mouth and saw him laugh at me. It was hard and brown, would break your teeth.

  "What is it?" I asked. I was used to beer for my daddy or taffy for myself. Not this, this cold hard thing inside my palm.

  "You are not an artist's bootlace," said he.

  "What is it?"

  "It is a brush box," said he, "and if you are an artist it is butter beneath your knife."

  I asked him was he an artist.

  For answer he would only smile and I thought how large his eyes were when they h
id behind his purplish lids. He retrieved the square of steel-hard wood like a cardsharp on the Strand, not letting me touch it but allowing me to glimpse the very artful drawing of a quail he had made upon one side. I hated it and was angry that he would not praise me. At the same time he was a mystery like none I ever knew. He was uncanny, pot-bound, excitable. He was watchful and ugly but graceful too. He was close as a tomb but on that same day I drew the mouse he revealed to me, a boy, his great ambition and the reason why he had sold his services to Piggott. He planned to amass sufficient geld to produce and print the best book of birds the world had ever seen.

  Saying this, his watery eyes were very bright and everything in that dreadful little tomb seemed illuminated by his joy.

  "What are you smiling at?"

  I said I was thinking how nice it would be to see a book like that.

  "You can't imagine, boy."

  I supposed I couldn't.

  "You don't know what I am," he said.

  "I am just a boy."

  He looked at me very close as if sizing up my utility and, without shifting his gaze, reached out for the shiv, that lethal-looking object we have been waiting for. I bolted for the door but he stuck his leg out so it would not open and then, picking up the brush box, he began to work. I understood he would not murder me, but he did not look up at me or speak to me for a very long time, and even then he had not finished his work but I saw how he wielded that burin.

  When he had done all he planned to do he let me touch it very briefly. I was not his bootlace. He sent me out so he could do his business in the pot.

  IV

  A FORTNIGHT PREVIOUS the precocious Parrot was Leonardo, Cicero and the perfect future of the workingman. Now he had been plucked and naked, a printer's devil, the silkworm's fag. There were more suitable skills to be acquired--for instance--holding the piss pot off the floor with my elbows and pushing through the darkness on my knees, a painful business.

  The first pot I dispatched into the hydrangeas, and for this I got my ears boxed and would have got my bum whacked except Jack be nimble Jack be quick. It was a case of dig hole, bury shit, return empty pot. No time for drawing on the Church of England's slate. Collect empty water pail. Fill pail in stream. Other matters besides: ink--trolley--don't get lost. At the end of each long day I received from Watkins some ten parcels the size of four house bricks, sealed with red wax and wrapped tight with brown paper. These I pushed along the burrow one at a time, as instructed by Piggott, leaving them hidden inside the trapdoor to be taken in the night.

  What happened to these parcels was a mystery I would not solve for many years. They disappeared, leaving no clue but a mess of broken sealing wax like the remains of something eaten by a dog. The wax was hard as broken glass and I was mostly concerned about the pain it caused my skin. But whether I was torturing my knees or strapped in the harness of the dog cart, I thought about not much else except how to make Mr. Watkins teach me to engrave. The deep green oaks arched above my head but I was blind to all their splendor. I imagined the burin in my hand, carving with a flick and a push, feeling the steel moving through the hard wood like a knife through butter. I arrived in Mr. Watkins' presence like a beggar on my knees.

  I could hardly look at him, nor did he deign to glance at me.

  If I had asked him to teach me he would have been haughty as a goose. So I sat in my place beside the door. On sufferance, I observed his long fair hair falling like a curtain across the mystery of his hands. I dared not ask to touch that unforgiving steel. I saw how his four long fingers were drawn back and curved and how he pressed the tool against the ball of the thumb. It looked so easy, but on the fetid night when at last--without warning--he pressed the tool into my warty hands, I found it completely resistant to my passion.

  "You see," he said to me, "it is a gift."

  And took his burin back.

  I was not worthy, but I would not go away and something in my willfulness must have stirred him for he finally allowed me to ruin one of his brushwood blocks. How many nights was this for? Three? I sat cross-legged in the stinky hole, trying to engrave--not the rural scenes I had imagined, but ten straight lines close together. That was all he would let me do.

  I was tired. I was very angry. I would not quit.

  "You'll never be an engraver's bootlace," he said. I will not say this did not hurt my feelings.

  "Yes sir, I know."

  "Then go."

  With his long spidery arms he opened the door for me and was nice enough, on this occasion, to personally hand out the wrapped parcels of his day's production. Then the door closed as usual, and I was outside in the blackness. No skerrick of light snuck around his door and I knew he had put out his lamps and set to clean his equipment in the dark, his long hands fluttering across blade and type bed like a blind watchmaker. When his labor was done, he had earlier informed me, he would lie in bed pulling the rope of his ventilator, removing the flammable white spirit in time for work. Lighting the first lantern each morning, he feared he would be blown to bits.

  One overcast dawn I arrived inside the fireplace to find an entire red wax seal broken as a biscuit. Then, deep in the dark of the crawling space, I came upon an item that must have spilled from the parcel--a sample of Mr. Watkins' labor, a job so fine, I decided when I brought it into the light, that he would have found employment anywhere on earth. The strange pale silk spinner was an artist, and although I already knew this from watching him work the burin, this single assignat confirmed him as the highest of the high.

  Of course you, monsieur, know that an assignat was, at that time, the paper currency of the revolutionary government of France. Although the Parrot was only an ignorant printer's devil who had no clue about the assignat, the hair on my neck prickled. I recognized the power and danger of this ornate and clever forgery. I had only seen one British banknote in my life, the one my father had me draw, that had been as pale and ordinary as a cabbage moth, requiring the endorsement of Lord Hob-Knob or I knew not who. The assignat was a power unto itself, a goldish color, one part butter yellow, the remainder mustard, printed on pearly linen paper--DOMAINES NATIONAUX. Although I was no lawyer I believed that a man could be hanged for printing what was in my inky hands. A wise boy would have destroyed it, but was a wise boy ever born? I could not kill such a lovely thing. Nor could I bury it, for it was too beautiful. So I folded it until it would fold no more and then I thrust it in my britches and kept it like you keep a treasure you can worship under the bedclothes in the early light of morning.

  I was always tired, always busy, falling asleep when my head hit the bed, being awoken by my father to get myself washed. The printers had long given up finding our public ablutions, as they called them, amusing. So we were left alone to clean ourselves and, on Sunday mornings, to wash our clothes as well.

  The Sunday I will now recall was hot and overcast, and we found ourselves in company, not only with a hatch of mayflies, but a gentleman I had observed the night before at dinner, a tall Frenchman with a broad chest and a rich man's manner who was noteworthy on account of the glint in his small gray eyes and the mass of curling red hair around his big head--this latter making him look like a Scots laird--but all of these distinctions were trumped by his left arm which was completely missing.

  At dinner he had mostly engaged with Mrs. Piggott who I saw was tremendously excited, and although she was a little bantam with fretful eyes, she now began to bat them like a girl. She was suddenly so talkative she hardly touched her food. Back and forward they went--parlez-vous and so on.

  We were told to call our visitor Monsieur but he did not seem so ordinary to me, and all the while he talked with Mrs. Piggott, sugaring her with d'accords and madames, he had his eyes on the men around the table, engaging each of them, even me, letting us know he was very fine and fancy and that we would be unwise to cross him or betray him or even dream of such a thing.

  We were at war with France yet we were in Devon very near the coast, and at Piggott
's it was always ask no questions and you'll be told no lies. We never knew where the fruits of our labors would come to rest, in Louvres or Auxerre, or Oxford Street. The Piggotts were always feeding up their customers, plying them with brandy and Madeira, and after they had slept off their dinner they were on their way.

  I expected the Frenchman to be gone by morning. But there he was, nudey in midstream, and all I could see was the shocking violet skin shining in the place where his arm had been, and nothing left of it but a kind of flap, or turtle fin. Elsewhere his body had been pierced more times than Saint Sebastian, and each site of injury was like a patch of angry silk.

  My father was a terrible talker who wanted to know everything at once, but here he had a powerful wish to know not a bloody thing.

  "Bonjour," the Frenchman called to us.

  My father's eyes went dead and milky.

  "Bonjour," he called again, but my father was taken by the sights downstream.

  It was I who called back, not from wickedness, but because I could. Perhaps I might never draw a proper mouse, but I was a perfect mimic. That was a talent. Vowel for vowel, a parrot on the wing.

  Says I: "Bonjour."

  Says he: "Parles-tu francais, monsieur?"

  Says I: "Parles-tu francais, monsieur?"

  He had a face like stone. I squeezed a grin out of it. "Vous," said he.

  "Ah, vous?" said I.

  I wish you could hear me now because you would understand the unholy jumble--that rough little English boy falling over his vous and tus in the perfect accent of the faubourg Saint-Germain. I dived into the stream in triumph, scraping my bare boy chest along a gravel bed as lightly as an old brown trout. Surfacing, I saw my father had retreated from me, scrambling to the bank to fetch our laundry.

  "Ou habites-tu?" the Frenchman asked me. You could hear the money in his voice.

  "Ou habites-tu?" I replied.

  The Frenchman was not sure what was being done to him, whether he should be offended or amused.

 
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