“Meer-mayds,” said the Parrot to his da.
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 eel.
“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 there.
“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 often tried.
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 at all.
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.
She said, “What happened to Sniffy?”
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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