The Butcher

Chapter 20

Ice House

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Giuseppe Ferraria put his shoulder to the side of the cart. "Come on Raggazzo, look sharp. Put your shoulder in, and we'll give poor Dick some help up Duke Street."
The Irish cob, feeling the support from behind, stepped out again with a will. As they reached the top of the hill, Giuseppe went forward and took the reins. He patted the horse's neck.
"You're too fat, Dick," he said, "too many cakes and sweetmeats from your admirers."
Dick tossed his head against the flies. His flanks were soaked with sweat and he was trembling in the heat. Giuseppe took off his ice cap and mopped his neck and brow. Pity about Raggazzo. It was not fair to start an assistant on a day like this and in this heat. Why they had been up at the Depot at 4 a.m. this morning cutting the ice and loading up and Ragazzo had been all fingers and thumbs with his ice tongs. Of course moving heavy blocks of ice was a knack, but it had taken them twice the time to load up the two tons, weigh out and get down to Piccadilly and Pall Mall for the early delivery.

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Today was Derby Day, so his first customers were the lords and ladies who'd be driving down to Epsom later in the morning, with their hampers and ice boxes full of dressed poultry and lobsters and their bottles of champagne. It was a sight to see the rows of carriages out in the mews in the early sunlight, with the coach boys polishing up the windows and the paintwork and the servants scurrying here and there packing up chairs and rugs and loading in the hampers. But once those deliveries were done, there were the regular customers, the butchers, fishmongers and one or two big hotels. He and Ragazzo would be back to the Depot by 8 o'clock for their second two tons.

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On the second round, Ragazzo was more wide awake and getting the hang of things. He discovered that Giuseppe knew exactly the quantity of ice each of his customers required. At the depot he had marked off the blocks with his pick, so that when they arrived at a particular shop all he had to do was to split the ice and Ragazzo could carry it in straightaway. It was a really heavy job carrying the ice and seeing Ragazzo struggling with a block, Giuseppe said, "You've got to be strong to be an iceman, but you'll learn," and he added, "You've got to be sharp too and watch your load and your bucket of cash."

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And at the next stop, he was proved right, for as they both came out of the fishmonger's yard to collect more blocks of ice, there were two lads on top of the cart with ice picks in their hands, cutting themselves some ice, calm as you please.
"Va via," shouted Giuseppe, and as the boys leapt off the cart "after them Ragazzo." Ragazzo gave chase but the boys had a head start and were too quick for him. As they turned the corner into Jermyn Street, he caught sight of their faces and realised with shock that they were the two younger boys of the gang who had so often pestered him. One of them, recognising him too, darted back round the corner, waving an ice pick and shouting "Hokey Pokey" and then disappeared.

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"Well, I can't blame them," said Giuseppe as Ragazzo returned to the cart. "It's so hot. You'll see, we'll get a lot of customers today asking for threepennyworth of ice to cool their drinks. And if this heat goes on, our customers' ice chests will need filling every other day."

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Giuseppe was right. It was a gruelling first week for Ragazzo in his new job and at the end of the week - disaster.

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He was just delivering the last blocks of ice to Thoroughgood's the butchers and returning down the narrow alleyway from the back of the shop, when the same two ragged dirty boys barred his way. One grabbed him by the throat and pushed him up against the wall.
"See here, Hokey Pokey, when you bring down the last block, leave the gate open at the bottom of the alley."
Ragazzo tried to protest. The boy pressed him even harder against the wall and held the ice pick before his face.
"Get it, comprendo? Leave the gate open - or I'll do 'yer."

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Shocked by the sudden attack, Ragazzo started back towards the cart.
"We're waiting for 'yer," the other boy called in a hoarse whisper.

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To Ragazzo's horror Giuseppe was nowhere to be seen. He turned and saw the boys watching him. Frightened he shouldered the last block off the cart and walked back, passing the boys. He delivered the load and as he returned the boys darted in through the unlatched gate.

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Ragazzo ran out to get help, looking everywhere for Giuseppe. Still there was no sign of him. He ran into the butcher's shop, which was full of customers.

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Suddenly there was uproar in the alleyway. The two boys dashed out, a plucked chicken under each arm. There were muffled shouts and then the elderly butcher followed by his wife appeared.
"Stop thief, stop thief," Mr Thoroughgood cried. But the boys were off like lightning.
Giuseppe appeared suddenly from the front of the shop where he had been settling accounts.
"What's the matter signore? What's going on?"
"Those boys," the butcher panted, "stealing chickens - four fine pullets gone. Stop thief."
"Someone. . . someone must have left the gate open," said his wife. The butcher turned on Ragazzo.
"Was it you?" Seeing his face, "It was you. You let them in." He grabbed hold of Ragazzo. "We must get the Police."
"Momento!" Giuseppe stepped forward. "Ragazzo, is this true?"
"Signore, they threatened me. You were not there. They threatened me they would kill me." Somehow now in broad daylight his excuse sounded lame and unconvincing.
"See here, he's admitted it," shouted the butcher. "We'll see what the Police have to say about this. We'll take him to the Station. Get hold of him Jack."
And before he could say another word, Ragazzo was marched up the street between the butcher and his assistant.

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Fear flooded over Ragazzo - the old deep fear he had known as a child, when the padrone had threatened him with the Police. He turned back desperately to see Giuseppe just standing there, shaking his head. If Giuseppe did not believe him, the Police would never do so. Panic rose in his throat. The butcher's assistant tightened his grip. Who would believe him?

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It came to him suddenly. Signor Carlo. He would believe him. He must find the signore.
As they turned into Piccadilly, Ragazzo twisted round suddenly and wrenched himself free. He dashed across the road, threading his way through the carts and the carriages and darted down a narrow passage into Regent Street. He lost his captors immediately, but he kept running. Where would the signore be? It was not yet midday. Likely as not he would be at the ice well at Wharf Road. Panting, he kept up the pace.

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He arrived, breathless at the office to ask for his master. The supervisor, not knowing Ragazzo, reported he was down at Regent's Canal Dock. Outside Ragazzo bumped into Bob Spenser.
"Back for another load so soon, Ragazzo? How's it going?" Then seeing Ragazzo's distress, "You look white as a sheet. What's up?"
"Niente, niente," said Ragazzo backing away.
"Are you in trouble?" said Bob sternly.

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Ragazzo dodged past him and round to the back of the ice well, where the barges tied up at the basin. By great good fortune one of the barges was just casting off. He jumped aboard.
"I've a message for Signor Carlo down at the docks," he lied. The helmsman nodded his head and swung the barge out towards the canal. Ragazzo sank down on the gunnel.

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It seemed an interminable journey, the tow horse plodding down the towpath, negotiating the locks one by one, gliding through the long black tunnel, helping the men to leg the barge through. By the time they approached the Dock, Ragazzo realised that news of the theft would have already reached Signor Carlo wherever he was and by running away he, Ragazzo, had confirmed his guilt.

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He had scarcely stepped ashore, when he heard a shout from the Superintendent.
"There he is, that's him. Get hold of him lads."
Standing beside him were three carters. They began to walk towards him. Once again fear surged up in Ragazzo. He doubled back, ran to the bridge which crossed the canal entrance and over to the other side of the Dock, where a couple of ships were unloading ice. At the far corner was a ship lying idle, with its gang planks down.

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Hearing shouts and clamour approaching, he ran up the gangplank and on board. Desperately he looked for cover.
A few hours later, the ship sailed on the tide.

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