“See up there?” My da pointed, squeezing in. “See that?”
I allowed myself to be pulled in beside my da and Mr. Piggott, who had a tussock of white hair growing out of his wattly ear.
“No,” I said, but I did see: a little metal door inside the chimney.
“Yes, it looks all dark, don’t it, but once inside, young’un, why you’ll find an oil lamp burning. It’s like bloody Christmas.”
“Well, so to speak,” my daddy cautioned.
“Yes, so to speak,” said Mr. Piggott. “In a way of speaking. Not Christmas, of course, but plenty of surprises. You see, young’un,” he said, plucking at my open shirt, “hold your lamp up high, you’ll see there’s a passage tailor-made for you, and even though it goes this way and that, it keeps on going just the same, and you come to a bit of a step which you climb up, and then there is another door. Doesn’t look like a door at all, even when your nose is hard against it, but you give it a good hard knock. You will, I know you will. Because what’s inside but a printer like your father, not so tall or so handsome. Mr. Watkins is his name. And he’s going to give you something.”
“What?” I asked.
“See,” said Mr. Piggott. “It’s not hard.”
“What will he get given?” my father asked.
“Well, it’s a funny thing when you say it, but it’s as regular as your daily bread.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s his chamber pot I suppose,” said Mr. Piggott, “and the printer fellow would be very grateful if you could bring it back out here so we can nicely deal with it.”
I was tremendously relieved to hear all this, and I was ready to set off immediately, but my father was now edging me back out into the room and Mr. Piggott had no choice but follow, although the three of us continued bunched together as if packed into a box.
“How was this job done previous?” my daddy asked.
“We had a lad, of course. It requires no training,” said Mr. Piggott, who must have seen which way my father’s mind was working.
“Ah, there you are,” my daddy said. “Then he’s better than an apprentice.”
“How’s that?” said Piggott.
“No training. Less eaten. Less laundered. Less found,” my father said. “And why was he measured? Well, it’s obvious. It was an act of employment. Speaking legally.”
“A penny,” said Mr. Piggott.
“Threepence each way,” my father said, “and another threepence for each time he’s needed.”
“I could get anyone to do this,” Piggott said. “Threepence in and out this first time. And a penny each way thereafter.”
By now my father had his hair combed up into a big mess and he was scratching at his neck in an attempt to hide his happiness, but I had been there long enough to decide that the previous boy had been Sniffy, and although I allowed my father to lift me to the dark door, the tiny red hairs on my boy arms were standing up on end.
It was a tight fit in there but passing clean, and the so-called passage bent and twisted and arrived at a wall that I did not understand. This was what Mr. Piggott had called a step.
Then I was over this and soon I came to another dead end and, just as my throat was closing up with terror, I knocked. A hidden door swung open. And there it was—the printer’s chamber pot, filled to overflowing, thrust right in my face.
“Take it,” the pressman said.
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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