Excerpt of Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey
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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
“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
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
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
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.
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
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.