Luke Corazza

Chapter 8

Of all the workmen who lived in the Gatti household, Ragazzo liked Luke Corazza best. From the first, Luke had taken an interest in the frail frightened boy, coaxed him to eat, talked and encouraged him and as Ragazzo had grown stronger, protected him from too much teasing or the practical jokes the other men liked to play on him.

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In the long attic under the eaves, Ragazzo slept beside Luke. There were eight men, all from the Ticino, except for Borgonino who came from Lombardy and worked in the kitchen for Battista. All had come first to work for Signor Carlo and the jobs he offered them often varied according to the seasons. One ran a kiosk, another a tiny cafe Carlo had set up. One was a waiter, another learning to be a pastry cook. They could all turn their hands to odd jobs and in the winter they went out collecting ice and in the summer delivered it to butchers or fishmongers. If the season was slack, they might find casual work amongst the paviours, those workmen who laid the granite blocks of which London's main streets were made.

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In April, the year of the Great Exhibition, Luke Corazza had three weeks work with a group of paviours in the Strand, relaying the street in preparation for the Queen's visit to the City of London, to celebrate this event. It was a particularly warm April, and the work was hard and exhausting. One very hot day when Battista stopped in the shop for the midday meal, Ragazzo asked his permission to take Luke a cool drink in a stone jar. "You'll miss your dinner." Ragazzo nodded. "You'll not be late back," Battista said sternly.
"No Signore, I shall run all the way."

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And so he set off down Fetter Lane, slipping through Rolls Court, along Carey Street and down Boswell's Picket to Temple Bar. As he turned into the main street, he heard a strange sound. Thud, thud, thud, thud. As he walked forward he saw a line of men with heavy wooden rammers beating down the granite blocks into the concrete. In the middle of the line was Luke, the sweat pouring off him. Thud, thud, thud, thud. The men followed the beat of the foreman's stick, working in unison all along the line in deafening precision. Thud, thud, thud, thud. Behind them stretched the new street, curving slightly to the centre, already grouted and spread with sand.

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"Alright lads. That's enough. Take your piece now," shouted the foreman. The men set down their rammers at the side of the road and broke up into little groups. Some had brought food with them, others went over to the coffee stall seller who had stationed his barrow close to the works cart. Ragazzo moved forwards to where Luke sat on a pile of granite blocks, unwrapping a piece of bread from a large handkerchief. "Ragazzo! What brings you here?"
"I brought you a cool drink. It being such a hot day," said Ragazzo shyly.
Luke smiled and tipped up the jar and took a drink. "Mi fa bene. That's better. Why today it's almost as hot as the Valley."

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For a moment he closed his eyes. How far away it seemed the Valley of the Blenio. It was almost May now and in Dongio the winter would have gone except for the snow on the sides of the mountains. The thin crops would be pushing up the earth and the young vines beginning to come into leaf. He opened his eyes to see Ragazzo patiently waiting. "Sometimes I wonder why I ever left."

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"Sure this heat's something terrible," Young Seamus, one of the paviours smiled down at Luke, offering him an apple quarter he had cut with his pocket knife. "This'll quench your thirst."

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"Grazie, tante grazie - very kind."
"You're well served, I see."
"This is Ragazzo, he come with aqua. Prego you drink." Luke offered the jar and Seamus drank eagerly.
"Thanks a lot. See here, a piece of apple for the boy." And with that he moved on.

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Whilst they ate their slices, Ragazzo said, puzzled, "If you liked the Valley so much, why did you leave?" For a moment Luke's face darkened. His mind went back to that hard winter, five years earlier, to the failed crop, the icy room, crying children and the sad hopelessness of his wife, Caterina. His own empty pockets. He said simply, "It was the poverty, the hunger, a sort of despair." They were silent for a while, then he went on, "when things were at their worst, a message came to the village, a message from Carlo Gatti. In London there was work, there were prospects. He needed 10-20 men. I could hardly believe my luck. I hadn't seen Carlo for years, but as boys we played and fought all round the village." He laughed at the memory. "Mark you, Carlo was of gentler birth than any of us village boys, but he seemed to enjoy being with village people as much as his own kind."

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"Stefano used to say the Signore walked all over the mountains to Paris."
"That's right. He ran away from school to join his father and brothers in business there. He had no time for school, had Carlo, and that master, Don Martinoli, he made him suffer for it. He was a cruel man." Ragazzo shivered, remembering his own beatings. "Well then for a time Carlo would come back each year to see his mother and we'd have a drink together and gamble at cards, but when his debts began to pile up with Belgeri, the moneylender, he'd be off back to Paris. He was never still. Always there was some plan of his, of how one day he would make his fortune." He broke off a piece of bread and handed it to Ragazzo. "And then he disappeared and if you should ask his family for news of him, especially his brothers when they were home, you got the impression the sooner he was forgotten, the better."
"And then he sent for you in London?"
"Not I. It was just a message. He needed men, nothing more. Oh, it was a hard decision leaving Caterina and the children, but it seemed the only thing to do. They said you needed francs to cross the Channel. I borrowed that money and for the rest of the way we walked. We worked as we went. It took us nine weeks."

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Luke looked down the Strand, "I'll never forget arriving in London. Barthes and I had Carlo's name and address written on a scrap of paper and no idea where to go. We slept in the streets, we starved, always asking, showing the address, for we spoke no English. But few of the people could read and none it seems could understand us. And then a kind gentleman told us how to go and eventually we arrived at Coppice Row.
"E guesto lindirizzodi Carlo Gatti?"
"Si, signore. Aspetti, momento."
"It was Guilia, bless her heart. What a joy it was to hear our own warm tongue. And what a meeting with Carlo. From the young lad I knew, he had grown into a huge man and so prosperous! He embraced us and soon we were sitting in front of bowls of steaming pasta and telling all the latest news from Dongio."

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By now, most of the paviours had eaten their piece and were standing around smoking as if their time was up. Seamus slipped down beside Luke. "Well there's no good looking for work. That foreman, he's late again, in the pub, I don't wonder. Time for a snooze." He closed his eyes.

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"Yes, there's prospects here," continued Luke. "You can send money home and maybe when I've saved enough I'll go home for a while. Mind you, there are some jobs here I'll not do. A pastrycook that's what Carlo suggested - that's not a man's job." Ragazzo nodded gravely "No, it's the ice business I like best. In London it's really catching on. More and more people are asking for ice, not just butchers and fishmongers, but in hot weather, cafes and restaurants use it to cool their drinks and keep their food fresh and their ice cream frozen. Pity we can't bring over ice from the Valley. There's enough of it in the winter." Ragazzo laughed. "Don't you laugh, my lad. It's not as stupid as it sounds. Across the street there, there's an Ice Company who import ice all the way from America. You go and look. There's a block of ice in the window all the way from Wenham Lake!"

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"Time's up, lads," the foreman hurrying back from the public house round the corner was red in the face and breathless. "Look lively, we'll lay the next stretch of concrete and Tom, Seamus and Luke, you'll set the blocks."

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Luke rose, shaking Seamus from sleep. "You go and have a look, over there, across the street. Go on then." Luke and Seamus moved off.

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Picking up the stone jar, Ragazzo made his way in the direction that Luke had pointed. The Strand was one of London's busiest streets, filled with horse buses, cabs and carts of all sorts and the street works had created a series of jams which had brought curses and abuse down on the heads of the paviours and set everyone in a bad temper. Threading his way through the stationary traffic Ragazzo made his way up the street until he came to what he guessed was the Ice Company. A uniformed doorman with gold-plated buttons stood at the door and there, in a bow-fronted window, was a huge rectangular block of white ice.

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Ragazzo gazed at it with amazement. It was clear as crystal. Very different from the ice Signor Carlo collected.

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A young couple stopped beside him. "Look, there it is and there's a newspaper behind it. They say you can read through it. Try. . . "
The young man peered at the block, "The...Times...."
"Why doesn't it melt?" Ragazzo wondered too.
"It's all the way from America."
Ragazzo did not know where America was.
"It never melts. I've passed day after day and it's still there just the same."

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As the couple moved on, Ragazzo pressed forward to stare at the ice and look at the newspaper behind it. He was gazing so intently, he was surprised by the doorman who seeing the little urchin leaning on the glass, said sharply "Move on there, move along."

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Startled, Ragazzo took to his heels, darting in and out of the traffic and up through the maze of lanes which led back to Holborn Hill.

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That night, when Luke came up to the attic to bed, Ragazzo, who had forced himself to stay awake, sat up and said
"That block of ice, is it true it never melts?"
"Of course not", said Luke laughing. "They put a new block in every day."
"How do you know?"
"I've seen them early in the morning when we go to work. A new block and the day's newspaper."

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His curiosity satisfied, Ragazzo slept.