Rosa's Birthday

Chapter 10

Carlo Gatti stepped out of his shop in Hungerford Market to glance at the clock in the Great Hall. 5 o'clock. Time he took Rosa down to Lambeth for her birthday treat at Uncle Agostino's. He took off his white apron and hung it on a peg near the door. It had been quite a busy day with several new customers coming in. The three-cornered puffs and the rhubarb tarts had gone well and there was plenty of gingerbread and fruit cake left. You had to go carefully with English families, they were slow to take to some of his "foreign specialities". But the griddle cakes and ring doughnuts he cooked at the counter had sold quickly enough just as had Battista's chocolates.

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"Rosa." His daughter came running, her little shawl already round her shoulders. "Where's Ragazzo?"
"Here, Signore."
"Giovanni," the shop boy jumped, "You.'re in charge. Be back around 8, in case you get busy again."

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Taking a covered basket in one hand and Rosa in the other, Carlo turned out of the shop into the Great Hall. It was calm and quiet now and once again he was able to appreciate the elegant building. Ragazzo was quite overawed by the hall with its collonades and glass roof. It was the biggest building he'd ever been in.

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They walked out of the Great Hall and down a wide flight of steps. In front of them lay a second great quadrangle open to the sky and beyond that you could see the Thames and a quay where the fishing boats tied up to unload their catch. This was the fish market where fishmongers had their shops or stalls. But fishmongers start early and finish early so the quadrangle was almost completely deserted, swept clean by the sweepers except for the glint of fish scales on the pavement and a fishy smell which always lingered there.

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They mounted some steps to the footbridge over the river. As they approached the toll house a thin young woman stepped out to meet them. She had a large tray hung around her neck, with a few toys strewn on it, miniature pots and pans, a paper house, a Chinese roarer and stuck in the side of the tray a couple of windmills which clacked round as the breeze from the river caught them.
"Papa, please may I have a windmill - please?" said Rosa.
Carlo nodded to the young woman who bent to give it to the child, but as she straightened up to receive his penny the look of relief and gratitude caught at his heart. The early~lined face, the poverty of her dress, the fewness of her toys took him back to his early days in London, when earning a penny meant at least that you would eat that day. He lent on the rail, looking out to the river, remembering his life twenty years before.

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With only a few coins in his pocket he had come to London after a stand-up row with his brothers, those prosperous greengrocers in Paris. He had never fitted in there. Carlo with his country ways and his bad debts, was to them a never do well they could well do without. And so it seemed to Carlo they might be right as he wandered friendless in the streets of London.

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Sleeping rough for some nights he had, by happy chance, met a street musician, a distant cousin who had left his native Dongio many years earlier. He and his two sons were rough fellows but Carlo found them good enough company and was grateful to them when they offered him a bed in the house they lodged in.

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He slept, one of ten, in a tiny room of a run-down house in Saffron Court. He had seen poverty all his life in the Ticino, known hunger in his village, but he had never experienced the misery and squalor of this part of London. It was impossible to keep clean. A thousand chimneys poured sooty fumes in the air. The alleyways were full of refuse, the streets full of horse dung. Everywhere the stench was overpowering.

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Speaking little English, he found it difficult to find a job. No one cared for foreigners and soon he was forced out as a street-seller selling chestnuts. It was a wry turn of events. Carlo Gatti, whose father and brothers had supplied many of the chestnut sellers in Paris, was now to find himself in their place. Hiring a barrow for 3 pence, buying half a peck of chestnuts and begging some charcoal, he set out one evening to the nearest market in Leather Lane, the sweet aroma of the cooking chestnuts making his own stomach turn over with hunger. In England as in France every streetseller had his or her own cry and a kindly old man in the household told him what to shout. "'ot chestnuts, penna score." Repeating this over and over again he set off. "'ot chestnuts, penna score. . . . "

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The noise of the market was deafening. There were fruit and vegetable stalls, fish stalls, old clothes, crockery, pots and pans; there were cobblers and butchers all shouting and displaying their wares. Added to this were the street sellers and crowds of children who darted in and out, here one with a bunch of onions, another with a basket of cresses, begging for custom.

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Pushing his barrow through the crowded alleyways he could find nowhere to put it down and Carlo found himself forced out into the comparative calm of Holborn Hill. Here in spite of his cries, people passed him by. In the distance though he heard music, laughter and shouts and as he drew near he saw that one of the shops had been turned into a temporary theatre. Coloured lamps and gaudy-looking pictures were hung up over the entrance and standing around, evidently waiting to go in, were a crowd of young people.

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Stationing himself near the door he began to shout. Immediately he was surrounded by a gang of urchins whose eager fingers would have filched his whole stock of chestnuts if he hadn't kept close guard.

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"Varda che ti chiappi," he shouted, and recognising he was not English they set up a clamour.
"Itie, Itie," they chanted and after one had received Carlo's cuff on the ear they retreated a little way to shout "Where's your monkey, where's your monkey?"
"0t chestnuts, penna score," he shouted and immediately they mocked him, imitating his broken English to perfection.

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Just as his anger was rising, the door of the theatre opened and a crowd of poor people began to stream out into the street.
"'ot chestnuts, penna score. 'ot chestnuts, penna score."
In a few minutes he was doing a brisk trade. There was pushing and laughter and someone said "He's a right Charlie, he's giving them away."

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The girls held out their shawls and the boys their caps.
"Here you're selling me short. Penny a score you said. You can't count, I want my twenty ... 17, 18, 19, 20. That's it."
Too late, Carlo realised that a score meant twenty and that this was more than they normally got from other barrows. That old man had been wrong. But there was no going back now. A father took two lots for his children, and they received them gleefully. "He's a foreigner, doesn't understand poor fellow," he said.

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Gradually the crowd dissolved. A new show had begun, drawing in the audience. The street emptied, the well-satisfied customers went on their way, leaving Carlo his stock of chestnuts sold but sold at a loss! It was a mistake he was never to make again.

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"Papa, papa. Come on, come on." Rosa's insistence broke through his thoughts. She had tired of running up and down the windmill. He turned and saw Ragazzo watching him. "You are sad. Signore?"
"No, Ragazzo, no." He straightened up. "But that young woman, so thin, so pale. I can still remember what it is like to be poor and hungry." He smiled at Ragazzo. "Come on now. Rosa, give Ragazzo a turn with the windmill and I'll carry you over the bridge." So, paying the twopenny toll, he picked her up and they set off over the bridge to Lambeth, the breeze turning the windmill clacking round as fast as it would go.

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They turned into Bridge Road towards Cousin Agostino's shop. A G Gatti. Artificial Florists and Plumasiers it said grandly over the door. With a nod to the shop assistant, Carlo led them upstairs.

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A flood of dialect greeted them. Agostino's wife, Guilia, and little Mary, Cousin Clara from Paris with Eugenia, Uncle Francesco Marioni from his cafe down the road and Maria, who had come over by bus with the baby. Carlo had brought drinking chocolate and the traditional amaretta, tiny almond cakes and Battista's present, a large chocolate cake with Rosa's name on it. And Maria had brought the doll. "Che stravaganza - unbelievable extravagance," Maria had called it when he showed her the doll he had bought in the Lowther Arcade. "What does the child want with such luxury? You could have got something in the market."

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Rosa was enchanted with it all. At once she became the centre of attention and as Maria helped her to unwrap the doll, her excitement was intense. Freed from its paper, she held it up, a doll dressed exactly like a little English girl. She laid her in the crook of her arm.

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Watching from a corner of the room, Ragazzo felt choked. He was happy for Rosa for he was fond of her, but amongst all these people he felt so alone.

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Once again he wished with all his heart he had a family like this. To have a father, mother, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles - to know who he was and where he belonged. Oh yes, the Gattis were kind, particularly Signor Carlo, but the Signora never let him forget he was just a serving boy.

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Would he, he wondered, ever have a birthday - a birthday like this one.

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"Look Rag, isn't she beautiful?" Rosa held up her doll, almost pushing her into his face. "Mama says she was much too expensive, but I like her. I'm going to call her Guilia. Did you have some of my birthday cake?" Ragazzo shook his head. "Come on," she began to drag him across the room. "Mama, Mama, Rag must have some cake."

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