Parrot and Olivier in America, p.7Peter Carey
My father came splashing toward me, the clothes clutched to his chest. It was rocky and difficult but he never once looked down.
"Wash-oh," he cried to me. "Wash-oh!"
Monsieur was a great wide bear, the hair on his chest pale and tight and curly. He sent a splash to me, a kind of kiss. I splashed him back, like a mad creature, in a frenzy of happiness.
Then I joined my daddy in the middle of the stream where, in the midst of a shallow run, he was already beating my britches against the river rocks. He turned the left pocket out and left it hanging empty as a spaniel's ears. I arrived at his side as he turned his attention to the other where I had hidden the assignat.
I dared not say a word but set to rubbing at my collar while my father, not inches from me, coughed and passed his hand across his mouth. All the while he scrubbed my britches I knew he had the forgery inside his mouth.
At last the Frenchman left the river and, once on the cattle path, shook himself like a great wild dog. My father watched him as he returned to that gray lumpy printery with its dragon's-back roof giving up its dew, mist rising, bleeding into the gray sky, and all its windows dark and secret, declaring its business was not for you to know.
When the Frenchman went inside my father finally spoke. "That's the job then."
He stared at me, pointing with his big burned nose like some fierce ostrich.
"Shut your mouth," he said.
My father was a plucky man. But now I knew him seriously afraid, and his fear made him hard and unkind toward me.
"Tell no one," he said. "Here," he said, throwing my britches at me like they were the skin of a dead beast. "Here." He handed me a bar of soap. And so we occupied ourselves as usual for a Sunday but I had never, on any day, in all my life, felt my heart so heavy or seen my father's eyes so dull and far away.
At last, we brought our clothes ashore and spread them on the gorse, hoping some breeze would come before the thunderstorm, to put it mildly.
IT WAS A SUNDAY, and the revolutionary factions of English printers dispersed themselves around the woods and riverbank in endless arguments about the rights of man. There, amid Piggott's graveyard of wheels and broken axles, my father and the Weasel conferred together. I fancy I can make an honest sketch of this: the single iron ring springing free of a rotting wheel, the humpbacked printery, the elder bushes, the oaks and poplars, the fuzz of hatch above the shallow stream, the Piggotts' cat rubbing around the Weasel's bandy legs, my lanky daddy with his hands pushing violently into his pants, and there, in Jack Larrit's white scrubbed hand, an assignat, all golden in the sun.
I had no idea that thousands of these assignats were forged in France and Britain and the Netherlands. Their purpose was to devalue the currency and thereby, by dint of ink and paper, destroy the beloved Revolution. All I knew was that forgery was a capital offense. Witnessing the two printers examine Mr. Watkins' work I understood I had betrayed the poor queer creature, trapped inside his cage.
Of course I should have confessed to Mr. Watkins, but I wished him to like me and I was so ashamed that, on that Sunday night, I would not take my burin lessons. I said I was needed by my father.
"Indeed," he said. His eyes were as frail as plover eggs, the prey of raging boys.
NEXT MORNING the Weasel slung his misbegotten bedroll across his narrow shoulders and headed off into the woods without, it seemed, a word to anyone. Concerning this departure the printers--arguers and complainers to a man--made not a boo, although the absence of our best pressman would make more work for everyone.
So it was that my father, a compositor of the first water, was removed from his tray of type and ordered to take Weasel's place at the press. Da would now work with Chooka, five foot tall, a proud persnickety pressman with chin and nose like Punch. My da's poor work would have Chooka in a rage, I knew it. But it was worse than that, for Piggott had contracted to produce a fancy chapbook on expensive linen paper, and the pressmen would be fined for spoilage.
Yet after the third sheet was thrown away, I witnessed little Chooka, who had a famous temper, reach up and pat my father's back while he, my da, grinned and shrugged in shame.
And still no one blamed the Weasel. Which meant--there was a Higher Cause. And although I was only a printer's devil, I understood that every one of these men was sworn to this cause in secret. They were comrades, solid as a wall.
Piggott ordered me to perform a hundred dirty chores, including a message to the Dit'sum Swan which meant running across the stubbled fields with the beery harvesters calling me to them cootchum cootchum coo. I returned alive, with a fierce stitch in my side. I was late for Mr. Watkins who was so kind to me I almost cried. I mean, he offered me the burin, but how could I touch it after my betrayal?
"Sorry Mr. Watkins."
"You won't sit, boy?"
"No time sir," I said. I was certain the Weasel had gone to report Watkins to what you might call the authorities. I thought, This fellow will never make his book of birds.
"What is it, boy? What happened?"
I thought, I have destroyed you. "Nothing sir," I said.
He brushed his fine white hair back from his high forehead and considered me directly, long and slow until I felt my ears burn red.
"Sorry sir," I said, and carefully maneuvered his doings through the doorway.
"No time for Mr. Watkins, boy?" he called.
I snaked away from him, holding his piss pot high, pulling myself forward on my elbows.
That afternoon, when the men took their tea-oh on the steps, I drew my da away among the rotting wheels.
"Where did Mr. Stokes go?" I asked, for I was not permitted to call him Weasel.
My father looked directly at my face which I imagine thus--dry lips parted, brow furrowed, heat showing on the cheeks and mottling down the smudgy neck. He reached a hand toward me and I went to hold it tight, but he ducked inside my cover and got his fingers in my ribs and when he had me wailing and shrieking without breath he grabbed me by my ankles and held me upside down so that my penny and two favorite stones fell to the ground.
I was upside down, blood filling my head like a bucket, crying loud--"Where is he?"
"Good old Weasel is a journeyman," my father said, setting me back the right way and helping me pick up my treasure. "He's journeying. It's his nature," he said, and gave me back my penny and another one besides, but even this did not persuade me. If the Weasel had been a French printer, that would be his nature sure enough--always on the road, traveling to jobs as far away as Switzerland. The French printers got paid for the time they were on the road, but the English printers had no such excitements and don't argue if you please, for this is true.
I knew my father was lying to me about the Weasel's nature, but if I was worried about the assignat and worried about Mr. Watkins, I was worried about my daddy even more. If you were ever a boy you will remember the worries of a boy and how they swarm around you, and if I have had no reason to name mine for you until now, it does not mean they were not my constant companions. A boy's life, like a bird's life, is not what is generally assumed. For bird examples, watch the whitethroats gorging in the bramble patches, the warblers gluttoning among the blackberries, the blackcaps swinging off the rose hips, all in a panic to get fat before the summer ends. I, for my part, was forever in a fret lest my daddy die like my mother and leave me with no one to care for me, no one to save me from my cheeky nature, my mimicking, my fear of strangers on the road or in the woods at night, tramps, scamps, hermits, men who put paper noses on their face to frighten boys.
He was a dear tender man, and if he lied to me it was only because he loved me, and his eyes were moist when he gave me the penny and I put my hand inside his and walked back to the printery and worked very conscientious until tea.
Only two days later I was on the lanes with my cart of newspapers, and all around me bindweed, bluebell, chamomile and coltsfoot, ferns uncurling li
It was the Weasel and I saw him lift his staff and was afraid.
But of course--you guessed already--he greeted me with a punch to the arm and a sticky dust-covered humbug from his pocket. I sucked on my lolly and he picked a paper from my cart and read through Bunter's setting, finding fifteen faults in as many column inches. "Home sweet home," said he.
And after that everything was calm, and I was able to visit Mr. Watkins and take up his burin once again. It was still summer. My da and I saw glowworms in the night. Then it was almost autumn. I found hazelnuts, hawthorn berries, and sycamore seeds among the leaves. The harvest was ending and as I cut across the paths to Dit'sum I would see the drunken workers at their games, throwing their reap hooks at a sheaf. Now I had worn the sharp edges off my guilty conscience Mr. Watkins became cooler to me once again. Just the same, he instructed me in what is called the crosshatch. After that I was finally permitted to attempt a creature. I chose a butterfly and he was very fierce about it but I knew I did it well enough because he recognized it as a silver-washed fritillary and taught me how to spell its name.
Then I was sent to deliver a box of wedding invitations to the next village after Dit'sum, I forget its name, and I cut across the commons toward its spire only to find myself set upon by a mob of harvesters who came rushing out of the deep shade of an oak and chased me across a ridge and down toward a sluggish stream, and by the time I emerged onto a road through a hedgerow I was cut and bleeding and had lost my invitations and my courage. I set off crying, having no idea of where I was.
I passed a group of men with scythes who did not speak to me, although I suspected them of being the ones who chased me so I would not ask them the way. The hedgerows were high and it was impossible to get any bearing and when a carriage came along I had to press myself back into the buckthorn. It was a very large and black affair, doubtless with some fancy name I did not know, and I can remember no more than the single line of gold along its trim. When its gleaming back wheel was almost past me it stopped, leaving me imprisoned, so to speak, behind its bars. I would have ducked beneath the axle, but feared being squashed and so I remained, black-faced, slashed with red, pinned like a butterfly. I was thus easily identified by the gentleman inside the coach, who poked his smooth-shaven face out the window to consider me.
"Printer's devil," called he. His voice was very Windsor arsehole and he had a hat like an admiral's.
I pulled my forelock although my father would have wished I did not. "Yes sir."
"And where is your printery, devil?"
"Near Dit'sum, sir."
"Is it old Piggott who is your master? You know a chap named Weasel?"
"Isn't it a little late in the year for bird nesting?"
"I was on a message sir. I was chased sir."
"By whom were you chased?"
He lowered his spectacles on his nose. It was a good-sized nose at that, not fat, but long and bossy. I could smell the wheat starch powder of his wig.
"Well, Piggott's boy," he said at last, "let me give you a ride home."
"I'm lost sir. I don't know where to go."
"Then you're an exceptionally fortunate devil," said the gentleman who was--as he told me when I was sitting in his coach together with two gents who I took to be his gamekeepers or something of that nature--Lord Devon himself. His men were Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Poole and they also told me I was a lucky little devil and please not to put my filthy hands on his lordship's seats. I had never traveled in such style before and I sat up very straight with my bleeding legs held away from where they might touch anything and, with my hands clasped in my lap, I was left alone to enjoy the privilege of being able to see, above the hedgerows, a peregrine falcon sailing high up in the pale sky.
"That's a hawk, that is," Mr. Poole said. So he was not a gamekeeper, even if he did have leather patches on his jacket elbows. I looked to his lordship to see what he would say it was.
"What do you say, devil?" he asked me, smiling so his beaky face became suddenly very kind. "Is it a hawk?"
"It's a peregrine falcon, sir."
"And what does a peregrine falcon eat, devil?"
"Birds, sir. Although I heard it will eat a fish," I said. "My father saw one take an asp."
"In fact," Mr. Benjamin said, "almost everything."
"Including printers," said Mr. Poole.
His lordship said nothing to that but took an urgent and violent interest in what was outside his window--a great flock of birds, as it happened, about fifty of them, attacking some mystery inside the hedge. This seemed to engage his attention for a very long time.
"You are an enormous fool, Poole," he said at last.
Waxwings, I thought, but did not say.
MRS. PIGGOTT HELD her locks back from her appley face. Then Lord Devon clamped my upper arm, and together we marched to her doorway. She must have been astonished to see the Parrot in the company of a lord.
"Madame?" Devon asked. "Je suppose que votre nom est Marie Piggott?"
Mrs. Piggott curtsied as if very pleased. "Mais oui, monsieur," she said. "That's me."
"Did you know, madame"--and here he used his cane to flick a dead oil beetle from her steps--"did you know, Mrs. Marie Piggott, that the Alien Act of 1793 requires all foreigners to register with customs officials of the police office?"
"What?" she said.
But his lordship was not waiting for an answer or an invitation, and he charged on up the steps with the Parrot still attached.
A small girlish cry from Mrs. Piggott. A fast retreat.
Benjamin and Poole were hard behind us. Their hats were small black dinghies beached upon their wigless heads. All four of us pursued the fleeing mistress through the hall and into the dining room where she awaited us, standing alongside Mr. Piggott, the pair of them in check against the paneled wall.
For a moment both residents and intruders paused to consider their positions. Then Piggott thrust himself one square forward, all eighteen stone, rubbing his hands together. What larks, he seemed to say.
"Bert Piggott at your service, sir." He would not tug his forelock. He gave his head a little bob instead.
His lordship did not so much as lift an eyebrow. He removed his topcoat, revealing himself in his waistcoat like some dangerous red-chested bird with gold embroidery around its buttonholes and pockets. An older boy would know to be afraid of all this Tory needlework, but I was thrilled to see Piggott in a state of terror.
His lordship threw his coat across a chair. So peaceful did he seem that it was a wonder he did not call to have his slippers fetched.
"Have you registered your wife, sir?"
Piggott lifted up his thirty-pound bucket of head and thrust out his chin. "As you say, sir, she is my wife."
"Then you understand your legal position, Mr. Piggott. You must take her to Exeter tomorrow. You will register her, do you understand?"
"She is as good as English, sir, please."
His lordship must have been a funny fellow when with his mates, for he bugged his eyes up very big. "She is what exactly?"
"In a manner of speaking, sir."
Devon turned to Poole and Benjamin. "Mr. Poole," he said, "you are the wicket keeper. Mr. Benjamin--you are silly mid-on."
They are playing cricket now, I thought. His lordship retrieved his coat, a silky thing as light as butterfly wings, and tossed it to Poole. "Bees sting," he said. "Ants bite. Do keep an eye out."
This was not cricket or any other game I ever heard
"So I shall take her to Exeter," said Mr. Piggott, shoving his hands into his apron pockets. "I do business in Exeter, so it is quite convenient."
"So, this is your property, Piggott. En avez-vous herite? Vous avez cambriole une banque?"
"I'm afraid I don't parlez the lingo, sir."
"Your house. A lovely old place," said his lordship, running his hand admiringly over the tight curling grain of the panels. "Nicholas Owen," he said.
"Are you a Catholic yourself, perhaps?"
"I am sir, yes."
"Poor old Owen was a Jesuit, I think. They were bad times for Catholics, when he designed this place."
"Could I fetch you some refreshment, sir? A brandy?"
"Brandy?" Devon raised his cane and smashed it down upon the paneling. Mrs. Piggott was not the only one to flinch. "No one told you your house was famous?" he asked, not looking at Piggott but tapping on the wall with his knuckles.
"Famous, sir? Ha-ha."
"Famous, sir," said Lord Devon, who was now caressing the house as if it were a horse, casting an extraordinary smile across his shoulder at the Piggotts. You would think he loved them half to death.
There was a sharp clear click.
"There you are, madame," he said, sliding a small panel sideways. "Here's a nice place for your prayer book."
"Un endroit parfait pour cacher un livre de prieres if you were here two hundred years ago."
"Good Lord," cried Piggott, stepping forward urgently. "Good heavens sir. Who would credit it?" He was so set on inspecting the secret cubbyhole that he would have jammed his big booby head inside, but His Majesty detained him. "Ha-ha, sir. Nice place to hide a bottle, your lordship." He wiped himself with a rag, leaving printer's ink upon his neck.
His lordship smiled so sweet, he might have been the printer's mother. "Oh there is much much more than this, Piggott," he cried. "All manner of holes and chapels contrived with no less skill and industry. They've hidden traitors in this house, Mr. Piggott. Can you imagine?"
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes