The Ice Cream Barrow

Chapter 16

A few days later about 6.30 in the morning, Battista and Carlo were drinking their morning chocolate. It was a fine sunny day, which promised to be a real scorcher. Dipping bread in his bowl, Carlo said "Another good day for our ices. The penny ice has really caught on in the cafes." Battista nodded.

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"I've been thinking we should widen the trade," said Carlo. "Take ice cream onto the streets. In London you can buy almost anything from a barrow, why not ice cream?"

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"You remember that Mr. Rogers who bought ice cream from us last summer? He tried it on the streets. He never came back for more."

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"Yesterday's ice cream - not properly frozen. That doesn't surprise me. Something new like ice cream needs selling. You know, get people to try a little. Give them a free sample."

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"Carlo se ne audo di nuovo!" Battista smiled. Carlo was off again. Never still. Never satisfied. Always on to something new.

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"I've an idea to try it out this week while the weather lasts - and just the boy for the job, young Ragazzo."
"Yes."
"He's grown a really sharp lad since he came to the cafe. I'll send him out this afternoon." He got up. "Have we got a decent hand cart in the yard? Could you get one of the boys to bring it down this morning? Now I must be off."

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Ragazzo was washing down the counter, scraping out his waffle irons, preparing for his day. The ice had just arrived from the cellars under Hungerford Market. Two big blocks for the ice chest Signor Carlo had bought recently and a smaller block, which lay in a zinc trough under the counter. He had never seen such filthy ice. It was full of dead leaves and twigs and soot and heaven knows what - a grimy lump. It must have been cut off some very dirty London pond last winter. Still it would keep his ice cream cool all day, so he couldn't complain.

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"Buongiorno, Agostino." He saw young Agostino, Signor Carlo's nephew, go across to greet the master. Agostino was training as Manager of the cafe, but never a day went by without Signor Carlo coming in to supervise. He liked always to be in the centre of things.

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"Buongiorno, Ragazzo." Ragazzo looked up.
"Buongiorno, Signore."
Carlo drew up a chair near the counter and sat down. "I've a different job for you, Ragazzo."
"Signore?"
"I want you out on the street selling ice cream. They're bringing down a hand cart from Holborn this morning and we'll set you up as a seller of ice cream this afternoon. It's something quite new, but on a hot day like this you should find customers in no time."

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"But Signore, I have never done such a thing."
"No more had I at your age. But if I could sell chestnuts in Holborn, you can sell ice cream in the Strand. And," he said with a chuckle, "you'll have the benefit of my advice!"
Ragazzo looked unconvinced.

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"Come on now, you're growing up, you're a nice looking cheerful lad. People will take to you. And Gatti's penny ice is good quality. You've nothing to fear."
"Signore ...."
"But you must watch your cash," he added. "I've, brought you two purses. The first carries most of your money, and. this one just a few pennies. Never let a soul see the first one. Transfer all the money as you go along, and don't let anyone see you. That way you'll fool those rascals who pester you."

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Ragazzo, for all his smartness, was alarmed. He knew about the gangs of urchins who set upon people in the streets - sometimes hurting them badly. But he saw that Signor Carlo was not to be denied.

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"Now my penny ice will be new to most people. Those who buy in the streets may never have heard of such a thing. You'll need to tempt them. Give them a spoonful. Let them try it out."

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"But what shall I say, Signore?"

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"Let's think. You'll need a call. Ice cream. Ice cream, or Penny Ice cream. That's it. And then. Come and taste it. Come and try a little. Something like that."

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Ragazzo tried to remember the unfamiliar English. "Come and taste," he said haltingly. "Come and try .... un poco."

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"That's right." said Carlo. "But don't you go giving away too much. Just enough to get them interested. You'll soon get the size of it."

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So, that afternoon Ragazzo set off with his hand cart. On it he had a canister of ice cream with a strong lid and this was set in a tub of broken ice mixed with salt to keep the ice cream frozen. He had a pile of pastry shells, some spoons and a couple of short stubby glasses.

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In some apprehension he pushed the cart down Hungerford Street and into the Strand. It was burning hot. The dust thrown up by the carts hung in a thick haze in the street and there was a smell of fresh horse dung. He passed a coffee stall. "'ere what have yer got there?" the seller asked suspiciously. Ragazzo kept walking. He knew that he must call out to attract attention but suddenly all the English words he had repeated with Signor Carlo had disappeared. In desperation, he shouted "Ecco, ecco, gelati, gelati. Ecco un poco."

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A small crowd collected, some vagrants, some passersby and stared. He repeated his call. A man with a little boy pushed forward. "Ecco, un poco," said Ragazzo taking off the lid and scooping out some ice cream. He bent down and offered it to the little boy. "Buonissimo."

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The boy took the spoon and popped the ice cream in his mouth. A moment's silence and then he clapped his hand to his mouth and let out a yell.
"What is it? What's wrong son?"
"Me teeth, me teeth. It hurts me teeth."
"Here, you're hurting my boy. What you got there? What do you mean by selling such stuff?"

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Ragazzo was horrified at the reaction. "Gelati, gelati, Signore." Seeing danger, he struggled to push his cart away before the man turned nasty. He'd never felt safe in the streets of London. As a foreigner he was always fair game for a sly gibe he didn't understand, or a rough shove or dig in the ribs. Strange really, for there were many foreigners in London - German, French, Irish, Italian. So many came over to make their fortune and finished up in the street, living from day to day amongst the poorest English people. And there were plenty of them he knew. Sometimes it made his heart ache to see them so poor and white and thin.

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Working for Signor Carlo, he had at least been protected from that. He worked in the cafe all day and slept under the counter at night, eating his own familiar food with his own countrymen, and always speaking the Ticino dialect. But here he suddenly felt abandoned and alone.

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The sound of a violin came harshly across the street. His heart lifted. Perhaps that would be Luigi, an old Italian from Naples. He'd spoken to him once or twice on his journeys between Holborn and the Market. Feeling the need for company, he moved towards the sound, shouting as he went "Gelati, ice cream, un penny, ecco un poco."

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A young man with a pretty girl on his arm approached. The girl was curious. Peering into the canister she said, "Why I do believe its ice cream. Look John, I told you about ice cream, and now he's offering you some. Go on."

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Like the boy before him, the young man took the spoon and put it in his mouth. Exactly the same thing happened. He clapped his hand over his mouth and spluttered. The girl laughed at him. "You're doing it all wrong. That's not the way."

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"Lente, lente," begged Ragazzo in desperation. "Taste slow, taste slow."

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"Look I'll show you. Gimme the spoon." She held it out to Ragazzo. "Can I have a taste?" Then slowly sucking a little piece off the spoon, she said. "You want to take it slowly. Let it melt in your mouth. Mm this is good."

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The young man was not to be beaten. "Shall we have a penn'orth?"

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"If you like."

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And so Ragazzo made his first sale. That hot afternoon he had plenty of interested customers, but as he gave a taste or sold a pennyworth he would always warn them first about the new product. "Piano, piano, taste slow. Gusta pianino."

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After several hours his purse felt quite heavy, so taking Signor Carlo's advice he turned down into the Adelphi to find a corner where he could transfer the money in private. Then returning up the hill, he came on the dancing dogs.

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A tall thin man was playing on a violin and three dogs, dressed in different coloured coats and little feathered hats danced on their hind legs. They turned and pirouetted and circled each other. As the tune finished, they dropped onto all fours, yapping and wagging their tails. The crowd clapped. The man took off his cap and walked round to make a collection, but people moved away swiftly, only one or two giving the man anything. In a moment Ragazzo and the man were alone.

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"Ma che bravi. What fine fellows." said Ragazzo, stooping to pat the dogs.

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"Ah, a fellow countryman," the man said and then added sadly "I hope you do better at your trade than I do at mine. Down, Tambourine, down," and seeing Ragazzo's interest in the dogs, "This Tambourine. In the red is Finette and the green is Favorite. Twenty to thirty times the dogs have danced today but people are not generous. They like the dogs, but they don't like to part with their money. Look at this - a halfpenny and two farthings. It's a hard life!"

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Ragazzo was enchanted with the dogs who jumped and barked and rose up on their hind legs with excitement at this new friend. Favorite was licking his face and Tambourine his fingers. He was so absorbed that for a moment he forgot all about his cart.

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"Attenzione. Guarda ti dietro." he heard the man's hoarse whisper.

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He turned to see his barrow surrounded by four or five boys, dirty, ragged and menacing.

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"What's this then? What is it?" said one, lifting the lid of the canister. "We've seen you. Give us a taste you said." "Yea" they chorused, "Give us a taste." And. another boy added "We'll do you, if you don't."

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A big Irish lad stepped forward. He grabbed one of the glasses. "That's it, you give us some in 'ere."

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Frightened, Ragazzo dipped hard into the canister and offered the boy a big lump in the glass. First, the boy made a pull at it as if it was a drink. Then he put his finger in the glass and scooped the ice cream into his mouth. The others watched him with interest. The big boy stood for a moment like a statue and then he yelled. "Jesus, I'm kilt. I'm kilt. The cold shivers is upon me."

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The rest of the boys took fright. "Away, come away," the Irish boy cried, "That's bad, real bad. I'm all of a shiver." And in a moment the gang had vanished as swift as they had come.

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"You were lucky," said the man, "That could have been nasty. I've been set on in my time and once Favorite was hurt badly."

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As Ragazzo put back the lid on the canister, he noticed that his second purse had gone. The boys had stolen it. Putting his hand into his shirt, he felt the first fat purse. God in heaven, Signor Carlo had been right. He wouldn't make the mistake of leaving his cart again. So with a final pat for the dogs and a promise to meet another day, he set off towards the market. His ice cream was almost gone now and it was beginning to melt. Who would have thought that his ice cream would have saved him from those boys.

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There were 25 pennies in his purse that evening. Signor Carlo was pleased enough with the result and when Ragazzo admitted the loss of the second purse with its two pennies, he said "Non ta niente. No matter. You did well. Tomorrow you'll do better."

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