Thereafter I was a mighty protégé 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.
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.
Excerpted from Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey. Copyright © 2010 by Peter Carey. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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