The Ice-Breakers

Chapter 4

Section separator

It was very cold the winter that Ragazzo came to the Gattis. When he mended the fire in the big living room, he would linger as long as he could beside the glowing coals, for although the fire burnt all day, the rest of the room remained cold.

Section separator

Everyone was complaining about the weather. Noses were red and fingers blue. Outside, people stamped their feet and clapped their arms round their bodies and crunched their way across the dirty snow which filled the streets. Only Signor Carlo remained cheerful. For him, freezing weather was good for business!

Section separator

One evening he came in to warm his hands before the fire. "Another good frost tonight, and tomorrow the Navigation Company are getting the ice-breakers out on the canal. They say the barges have been frozen in for three days or more. So - there's work for us. I'll take the men out first thing tomorrow."

Section separator

Stefano who had heard about the ice-breakers said,
"Papa, can I come with you? You promised me next time I could come."
"Nonsense, it's much too cold," said Maria, "you'll catch your death."
"But Papa promised. Please Papa." He ran to stand beside his father. Carlo hesitated and looked at Maria.
"I did promise him. If you wrap him up warmly he'll be alright."
Maria sighed. Carlo put his arm round Stefano and said with a smile, "They do say it's never too early to start in the business."
"And can Ragazzo come?" "Ragazzo has work to do," said Maria. Stefano looked at Carlo.
"Well, just for once, let him come. He's scarcely been out of the house since he arrived. It'll do him good and keep Stefano company."

Section separator

There was a thick rime of frost on the rough coverlet when Ragazzo woke next morning. It was very dark and cold. Hurriedly he dressed and went straight down to the pump to fetch water for the day. Breaking the thick icicle off the tap, he pumped in vain. It was frozen solid. Returning with his empty bucket he found Maria buttoning Stefano into his jacket and winding a muffler both round his neck and his head. Excited, Stefano was putting on his mittens.
"Ragazzo can't go out like that", said Carlo, looking at his threadbare shirt. "Hasn't Stefano got an old coat that he can borrow?"

Section separator

And so Ragazzo was pinned into an old jacket and given a muffler and the two boys descended to find big Luke Corazza and the other men at the door with a cart. Carlo lifted the boys up to sit beside Luke on the front seat. The men got in to the back of the cart where Ragazzo noticed there were all kinds of tools; long rakes and hooks, sticking up into the air. Then Carlo got up beside them. It was a tight squeeze but it was warm and comforting. They set off up Guildford Place with its great frightening House of Correction and into Grays Inn Road towards the canal, the cart rumbling on the cobbles.

Section separator

Although it was still early, many people were astir. There were costermongers with their barrows piled high with potatoes, swedes and cabbages, moving towards the market in Leather Lane. Once they were forced to stop for a flock of sheep which dithered in the road before them, on their way to the slaughter house; and going up the hill in Constitution Row the horse began to slip on the icy road. Two of the men got out to push and soon they were rolling up Caledonian Road towards the canal basin, where two more of Gatti's carts had already arrived.

Section separator

It was getting light now and Ragazzo saw at once that the inlet or basin was completely frozen over and the barges tied up at the quayside were stuck fast in the ice. All along the canal it was the same. The barges with their various cargoes were motionless. The busy canal with its hundreds of barges and monkey boats had come to a halt.

Section separator

"We'll take the carts up towards Hampstead Road bridge and start collecting there first," said Signor Carlo. "The ice-breakers should be down soon." And so the three carts set off up the towpath.

Section separator

When they stopped, Stefano and Ragazzo got down and were able to run up and down to keep warm and take a look at all the different cargoes, timber, bricks, ashes, iron in the barges.

Section separator

Alerted by the arrival of the carts, some of the bargees emerged from their cabins. When they heard that the icebreaker was on the way, they began to brew up tea and one of the crews brought basins of tea for Gatti's men. One old man beckoned Stefano and Ragazzo to come aboard.

Section separator

Greatly excited they were just stepping onto the barge when they heard loud cries and the thunder of hooves. On the other side of the canal a long line of about a dozen heavy horses appeared round a bend on the towpath. Some were trotting fast, others trying to canter, all sweating and straining at the rope, which joined them to the boat.

Section separator

"Go on, go on. That's my beauties." Ragazzo heard a shout and saw a man running beside them with a whip.

Section separator

Crack. Crack. An awful grinding, wrenching sound followed, and round the bend came the ice-boat, iron clad, which driven into the ice by the straining horses, split and shattered the ice in its path.

Section separator

"Stand back, stand back," shouted Luke to the boys as pieces of ice came hurtling over the boys' heads as the ice-boat passed by down the centre of the canal. Ragazzo saw to his amazement that. as well as the man on the tiller, there were men standing in the boat holding on to a central rail and rocking the boat from side to side to increase the splits in the ice.

Section separator

About twenty yards down the canal the boat slowed and beyond the horses came to halt. The boys were left open-mouthed.
"Like a cavalry charge it is," said Luke. When they go again, be sure to keep your head down and get behind the cart."

Section separator

Already Gatti's men were at work with their hooks and long rakes drawing the broken ice into the side of the canal. If the pieces were too big or unmanageable, one of the men would break them up with a hammer while another would shovel the ice into the cart. Signor Carlo worked side by side with the men and steadily they collected the ice, going upstream towards the lock. As the water cleared, the bargees on the starboard side clambered out to tackle up their horses and begin the journey up stream.

Section separator

Stefano wondered why the barges themselves did not move out and break the ice.
"Not a chance," said Luke, "If the ice is only an inch or two thick, it would cut through the wooden bows like butter. No, you've got to have an iron-clad boat for ice-breaking and a sight more horses."

Section separator

Ragazzo was fascinated by one of the tow horses who, with his milk can of oats tied round his head, had set off up the tow path without even a gee-up from his master. The bargee laughed. "He knows the way as well as I do - better even. Goodbye then."

Section separator

A shout told them that the breakers were going into action again. Stefano and Ragazzo ran back down the towpath. Before them a low bridge lay over the canal and this was already crowded with people from the nearby houses, women and boys and girls in ragged clothes, all eager for the spectacle.

Section separator

"Gee-up, gee-up," the horseman cried and the horses set off gathering speed. The ice-boat, almost immediately below the bridge, jerked forward mounting the flat ice, the men holding on to the central rail rocked backwards and forwards. Crack, crack. The ice gave way and the boat lurched dangerously. For a moment it looked as if they might fall into the icy water. Then the boat jerked forward again, grinding and smashing and throwing up pieces of ice. As it gathered speed, crowds of small boys, some with buckets in their hands, rushed off the bridge down the other towpath cheering and shouting as they followed the horses and picking up the pieces of ice which landed in their path.

Section separator

The horses continued sweating and straining, the boat rocking and slithering, until Ragazzo saw a long dark tunnel come in view. Here the horses stopped and here Ragazzo saw at the opening of the tunnel, the water had remained unfrozen. Leaning over the canal edge as far as he could and peering in, he could just see a round hole of light at the other end.

Section separator

On the towpath opposite, the men from the Navigation Company were untying the horses and leading them back upstream. One horse only towed the ice-boat back. The excitement was over. So Stefano and Ragazzo returned to the basin where they saw the three carts coming towards them with another load of ice, the jagged pieces gleaming and shimmering in the weak sun which had broken through. The men prepared to unload, backing their carts up to the edge of a deep pit.

Section separator

Arriving as they had in the dark, Ragazzo had failed to notice the square pit dug in the earth alongside the basin. It was about 40ft deep and lined roughly with timber. There was a man at the bottom of it and as the ice was thrown in, he evened it up and packed it down tight. Signor Carlo stood watching the operation with the boys. "When the pit is full, we'll cover it over with turves and leaves and it will stay cold right through to the summer."
"A penny for the ice, Guv'nor. Give us a penny."

Section separator

They turned to see two little boys holding buckets of ice in their hands and just behind them, another boy with an old box on wheels full to the brim with ice which they must have picked up from the towpath or fished out of the canal. For a moment Carlo looked grave, then he laughed. "Selling me my own ice, are you? Well that's something." He picked out a piece of ice from one of the buckets, "This is my ice, on contract with the Navigation Company. You've no right selling it to anyone."

Section separator

The boys looked abashed. One of them turned round nervously looking for a way of escape. Carlo threw the piece of ice into the pit. "Throw it in here. All of it." Sadly the boys threw their ice in and turned to go.

Section separator

"Now," said Carlo, "here's a farthing for you each." Smiles lit up the boys' faces. "But another time, if you want to sell me ice, don't get it from this stretch of the canal. Off with you now!" The three boys took to their heels dragging the box cart behind them.

Section separator

Stefano was shivering. "Jesu, Stefano, you are cold," said Carlo taking his arm, "your mother will never forgive me. We must get you home at once."