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 atheistic head.
“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 and sixpence.
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 carriages.
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 crown.
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.
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