Tom

Chapter 17

Ice House

So for the next two or three summers Ragazzo sold ice cream in the London streets. He would set off each afternoon, wheeling his barrow across the great quadrangle of the Market, stopping more often than not, to give ice creams to the Gatti daughters, Nina and Agostina, who waited for him at the corner with Carrie Pye.

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Signor Carlo's family had moved to an apartment in Hungerford Market some years earlier and had brought Carrie as a nursemaid to their younger children. Like Ragazzo, Carrie was growing up. She was dressed very respectably and soberly in black, with a black hat, but nothing could repress her auburn curls and her cheerful Irish chatter. Ragazzo loved to meet her and talk whilst the girls sucked their ice creams. Then Carrie would walk on with the girls down to the river and Ragazzo would turn into Hungerford Street, making his way through the busy bus terminus and keeping a sharp lookout for any urchins or gang of boys which pestered people there.

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Sometimes they would yell at him or follow him chanting, over and over again,
Hokey Pokey, penny a lump,
That's the stuff that makes you jump.
He would try to take no notice, but he always felt safer when he reached the crowded Strand and was surrounded by people and customers. He had regular pitches along the Stand and as the summers passed some regular competitors, for ice cream was becoming popular and other sellers brought their barrows.

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It was in the London streets that Ragazzo learnt his English, passing the time of day chatting to the customers. He began, too, to pick up school boy slang, for one of his pitches was by St Mary le Stand, opposite the entrance to King's College, where everyday at 3 o'clock, the boys streamed out from school.

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Most of the boys came a long way to school and after buying an ice would hurry off to walk or catch a bus home. A few lived close by and it was one of these, Tom Crampton whom Ragazzo came to know. Tom would walk along beside him, chatting about what he had done at school that day.

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To Ragazzo who had never been to school and could not read or write, young Tom seemed amazingly knowledgeable and confident. One day he enquired exactly what it was he learned at school.
"Divinity, Latin, Algebra, Euclid, Arithmetic ....."
Ragazzo was bewildered. "What's that?"
"Arithmetic. Why addition, subtraction, sums and such."
"Oh." That was something that Ragazzo did know about. Counting out a dozen cakes adding up the bill - these were things he had learnt years ago.
"Then there's writing, masses of copying out - really boring. English, History and Geography, French and German ... oh yes, and Drawing.
"Drawing?"
"Yes, architectural drawing, plans and things. That's easy. My father's an architect, you see, and I expect I'll be one too."
He went on. "But what I like most are the Science lectures, once a week. It's really interesting. I make lots of notes and copy them out at home. I'll show you sometime."
So over the summer term Ragazzo got to know Tom quite well and to look forward to hearing all about the school, about Tom's friends, about old Gog, the Headmaster and about that silly French master, Monsieur Thibaudin, and the jokes the boys played on him. Ragazzo felt sorry for Monsieur. He discovered too that for all it's learning, school could be a rough place where the younger boys, like Tom, were often bullied and knocked about or beaten.

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Tom, for his part, was fascinated by Ragazzo, by his strange life story, his hardships with the Padrone, his rescue by Signor Carlo and the whole separate Italian-speaking world which Ragazzo lived in. Time after time Tom came back to the same question,
"You can't remember anything at all about your family?"
Ragazzo shook his head.
"It's all so mysterious."
Then one afternoon Tom said, "I'll try to find out about the Ticino at school. I'll ask Mr. Swift, the Geography master and look it up on the map."
With that they parted, Tom going on to Craven Street and Ragazzo turning into Hungerford Street. Ragazzo had scarcely said goodbye and was threading his way through the horse buses of the terminus, when a gang of boys cornered him between two empty buses. Two boys overturned the barrow, throwing the canister out onto the ground, another two leapt at him.

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Realising they were after his purse, Ragazzo backed away, tripped and fell. In a moment they were on him, ripping at his shirt.
He heard a shout from above.
"Clear off you pesky boys, or I'll whip the living daylights out of you." One of the bus drivers had jumped down from his bus beside Ragazzo and was laying about with his whip.
"Off with you." His whip caught one of the boys on the back who squealed with pain. In a moment the gang had vanished.
Dazed, Ragazzo dragged himself up. Together they set up the barrow and canister. "You alright lad?"
"Yes signore, thank you signore, thank you. It is most kind . . . "
"They're a right nuisance those boys. Could have hurt you real bad."
Repeating his thanks, Ragazzo limped shakily away. It was several days before he could take out the barrow again

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