Ragazzo and the Flower-Makers

Chapter 3

One of the first things that Ragazzo noticed about the house in Coppice Row was the sweet rather sickly smell which hung over everything. Sometimes it was replaced by a strong smell of acid, but the sweet smell always returned. It came from the shop below which, he discovered, belonged not to Signor Carlo but to his cousins, Signore Agostino and Gaspero Gatti.

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Returning early one morning from the pump with the last bucket of water, he saw the side door into the shop was open. Quietly he set down his bucket and crept over to peer inside. It looked more like a garden than a shop! There were flowers everywhere. Bunches of flowers, single flowers, big flowers, little flowers, red, blue, white, violet and yellow, and bunches of leaves all hung up on little wire frames which stood on broad tables in the centre of the workshop. There were four places set on the tables and at each one lay a small cushion on which were placed four or five small tools. Beside each cushion, a bobbin of silk stood upright in a leaden base.

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In one corner of the room were rolls of material, silk, taffeta, cambric and velvet, and in another, piles of loose bundles of feathers, brown and black. And laid on top of them, a handful of beautiful white plumes with curled ends.

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As he gazed round, he felt there was something strange about the flowers. They all hung upside down on the wire frames, far from any source of water. How could they live like that? Ragazzo went closer to one of the frames to examine the flowers. It was a simple bunch of daisies, white and black-eyed, like daisies he had seen in the market. He put out his hand and touched them. The flowers were dry and papery and then suddenly he saw the bunch was not real.
The sound of voices startled him and he stepped back behind the door. Two women entered chatting in the Ticino tongue. They removed their shawls and hung them up on hooks on the wall. As they turned towards the tables, they saw Ragazzo.
"Ah, what have we here. . . . ?"
"Santa Maria, at last we see him."
Ragazzo was frightened, but the second woman came across and said kindly,
"You must be Ragazzo. Stefano has told us about you. We’re glad you’ve come to see us at last."

Both women sat down at their places at the table and one opened a drawer and got out her work. To his amazement Ragazzo saw the drawer was divided into many compartments and staring in, he saw petals in one, stamens in another, tiny buds, catkins and all kinds of leaves. The woman took out some leaves and laid them on the table. They had no stalks.

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"Buon giorno, signora." A tall man came in at the door.
"Buon giorno, Signor Gaspero." The women replied. And one said, "Today we have a new customer, called Ragazzo." Both women laughed.

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Ragazzo felt very shy, but Signor Gaspero smiled and said,
"Buon giorno, Ragazzo."
Ragazzo began to back towards the door, but as he reached it his curiosity took over,
"But Signor what are the flowers for?"
"What are they for?" Signor Gaspero laughed, "Why for ornament, for ladies hats, for their dresses and ball gowns. To make the signorinas look more beautiful, more. . . . . . . "
"Ragazzo!" He heard Signora Maria call from above. Trying to take in the idea. he said,
"Yes Signore, grazie Signore," and then he started up the stairs, picking up the bucket as he went.

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From that day, the workshop became a magnet to him. He loved to watch the women at work. There were Guilia, Emilia and Angelina all from the Ticino and Sarah Pye, an Irish woman who sometimes brought her little daughter, Carrie. All four were friendly, laughing and chatting at their work and ready both to tease and cosset him. Whenever he could, he would creep down to sit beside them. One day they would be making violets, another lilies, another mignonette.

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They worked with tweezers, never touching the flowers with their hands. If it was a rose they were making, the fabric petals were dipped in colour and then when they were dry, they were placed on the cushion and with the little iron tool they were pressed and stroked into shape, curving inwards as the natural flower would do. A different iron for a different flower. A tiny pinhead for forget-me-nots, a bigger tool for dahlias, roses and lilies. Then when all the petals were ready, the flower with its centre and stamens would be assembled, wired together with its accompanying leaves and hung up on the flower holder.

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Ragazzo thought the flowers beautiful.
"Ah," said Guilia, "That is because Signor Agostino is a wonderful artist. He learnt his trade in Paris. His patterns and designs are very special. Look at these patterns. Each petal is different." Ragazzo wondered where Signor Agostino was.
"You won't see him here," said Guilia," for he works at the other shop in Lambeth."

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Signor Gaspero, who ran the Coppice Row workshop, was in charge of the colours and tints and very skilled at it. In a little cubby hole off the main shop, there were lines of bottles containing powdered colour, or bark or berries which must be crushed or dissolved to release their dye. Here he would mix the tints. With carmine, lake, indigo, Prussian blue or tumeric he could obtain all kinds of reds and pinks, lilacs, greens, and yellows. To watch the colours mix and change under heat or acid was magic!

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Here he would also heat the gum arabic which was used to stiffen the fabrics of the flowers and which sent that pervading sweet smell all over the workshop and the house.

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Talking to the flower-makers, Ragazzo began to learn something about the Gatti family; how they came originally from a village called Dongio in the Blenio Valley, but that they had come to London from Paris about ten years ago to try their fortune here. Signor Carlo was running a number of kiosks selling coffee and his own speciality - waffles. In summer there was ice cream and in winter roast chestnuts. He was doing well now and hoped to open a big cafe.

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And that was another surprising thing about Signor Carlo, he worked in the ice business. In the winter he and his men would collect ice from the ponds and canals of London, store it and then sell it in the summer at an advantageous price, to the fishmongers and butchers to put in their ice chests which were just being introduced in the shops and market. It helped to keep the fish and meat fresh in the summer months, Guilia said, and it was a wonderful idea and saved a lot of waste - and money.

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Ragazzo had hardly ever tasted fish or meat, but he remembered only too well the awful smell of stale fish in the market and how soon maggots got into the meat.
To him, the food at Coppice Row was a daily banquet. A thick soup made of chestnut meal or maize flour, macaroni, hornemade sausage, fruit in season and just sometimes a stale cake or biscuit from the kiosk.
The signora was a very good cook. To watch her cook a chicken was a marvel. Nothing was wasted. First she boiled the chicken for soup, then she took the flesh off the carcass and used it for a variety of dishes. Sometimes she made a filling for ravioli - that greatest of luxuries! Then the bones were boiled again and the children were given the claws to suck. Rosa was afraid of the claws, so Stefano and Ragazzo would have one each.
Kind as she was the signora was often sad and had a sharp tongue and Ragazzo who was helping her, bore the brunt of it. He spoke to Guilia about it.
"We must be patient, Ragazzo. The signora lost her little baby recently. Such a dear little girl, Maria Appollonia. We all loved her."
Seeing sadness in his face,s he went on, "It was the slum fever. One day she was well, two days later she was dead. But the signora will get over it. There'll be another baby to take little Maria’s place all in good time."