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
“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
“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
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
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.
A Man Called Intrepid author dies aged 89(Dec 03 2013) William Stevenson, a journalist and author who drew on his close ties with intelligence sources to write two best-selling books in the 1970s, A Man Called...