The Ice Well

Chapter 19

Ice House

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Ragazzo was always glad to get back to the cafe at the end of the afternoon. He liked to go down to the kitchens to watch the cooks at work, before his evening duty. His ambition was to train as a pastrycook and one day, perhaps, to become a confectioner with his own shop-to makes cakes and pastries, jellies and delicious ices. It was not an idle dream, for other young men had set up cafes and shops and thrived.

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It was said, too, that Signor Carlo himself was becoming a rich man. His business had expanded, particularly the ice business and he had begun to import ice from Norway - great blocks of ice from the frozen lakes of Norway which were brought over by ship and sold to the fishmongers, butchers, confectioners and private customers for their ice safes and refrigerators which were coming more and more into fashion.

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Signor Carlo was very enthusiastic about the new trade and was recruiting men and boys for the ice wells and the delivery carts. He had mentioned the idea to Ragazzo and some of the other waiters, little knowing of Ragazzo's ambitions.

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"It's an expanding business, Ragazzo. You might do well there. Start at the bottom, learn the trade and we might see you as one of my Managers one day!"

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So it was no surprise when he got a message, late one afternoon coming off his round, that Signor Carlo wanted him down at the ice well at Wharf Road. It had been a sizzling hot afternoon and by the time Ragazzo reached Wharf Road it was nearly six o'clock and he was tired and exhausted. There was no one in the office, so he went out to sit by the canal basin alongside the ice well.

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Sitting in the shade, the cool water reflecting the deep blue sky, he must have dropped off to sleep for suddenly he was wakened by a shout and the arrival of a barge nosing quietly into the basin. One of the hands jumped ashore and made fast the barge. Signor Carlo came striding out of the office, followed by Giuseppe Ferraria, one of the deliverymen.

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"Well done," Signor Carlo shouted to the helmsman, "You've come in record time. How many barges are following?"

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"There are three on the way and two more to come and I'm to tell you, Sir, that will complete Caesar's cargo. The Arethemia docks tomorrow."

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"And just in time," said Carlo, "with the ships arriving late from Norway and the heat wave, the stocks are getting low. Now, we must get the ice out of this heat and down below. We'll need two men on the hoist and two in the well."

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Catching sight of Ragazzo sitting nearby. "Ah, there you are Ragazzo. You give them a hand getting the sacking off the ice." He turned to Giuseppe. "Most of the roundsmen are away home, so I'll give you a hand." He took off his jacket, pulled at his tie and strode off to the well, rolling up his sleeves.

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After Ragazzo had helped to pull back the sacking from the load, the two deck hands began to drag the blocks and manoeuvre them down a short slide off the barge towards the edge of the well.

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Here each block was put in a sling and lowered into the well. Ragazzo had never been in an ice well and going from the hot sun, the cool fresh air off the ice invigorated him. It was a great square area below ground with two circular entrances and there was an iron stair fixed to the wall. The well was about half full and already Signor Carlo and Giuseppe were down there, standing on what seemed to be a glass floor, made up of ice blocks shining and sparkling in the dim light. Gingerly he climbed down the iron stair, his hands beginning to stick to the iron as the cold reached them. Then he stepped out onto the ice. Almost at once he slid forward.

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"Don't pussyfoot around or you'll slip," said Giuseppe, "put your feet down firmly and you'll be alright."
Looking up Ragazzo saw a huge block of ice swinging above his head.
"Move over boy," shouted Signor Carlo.
The block came to rest and Giuseppe maneuvered it into place with a large pair of tongs. Another block descended and then another. Giuseppe handed Ragazzo the tongs.
"Get hold of that block."
Slipping and slithering Ragazzo managed to drag it across the floor to stand with the others.
"Beautiful ice this," said Carlo. "Pure, pure water from the Norwegian lakes. Top quality. Not like the stuff we used to pick up from the London ponds, eh Giuseppe? Do you remember?"
Giuseppe did remember, for that had been one of his first jobs when he arrived in London - cutting ice from the canals and ponds in a particularly hard winter. In those days the ice had been thrown into a rough earth pit. Now it was a proper ice well, the walls lined with timber and cork. A thousand tons of ice it held and there was talk of building another alongside.

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Block after block descended. The cool air, which Ragazzo had found so welcome had turned icy cold. His sweat-soaked shirt had frozen on him, his feet-were like the blocks of ice he stood on. As he moved, his breath steamed in front of him and his hands were so blue and cold he found it difficult to use the ice tongs properly. Dragging one block to the wall, he slipped and fell heavily striking his head on the timbers. In an instant, he felt himself lifted bodily away from the wall.

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"Jesu, not you Ragazzo!" Signor Carlo was holding him in his arms, a look of shock and horror on his face.
"That was a near squeak," Giuseppe said. Signor Carlo nodded.
"We've lost too many men that way." And holding firmly onto Ragazzo, he took him up to the wall. "Now see here my lad, never work too close to the wall. Look at that cavity between the wall and the ice. That's where the ice melts and if you slip down there, we've no hope of getting you out."
"It's 80 feet down and you'd be frozen to death in minutes," added Giuseppe.
Ragazzo began to shiver both from the cold and the fright
"Enough Giuseppe, he's learned the hard way." said Carlo and feeling Ragazzo shivering, he patted him on the back. That's enough for today. Go up and see Bob Spenser. He'll give you a mug of his English tea to thaw you out." And as Ragazzo began to climb the stair, "and tomorrow I want you to start as Giuseppe's assistant on one of the delivery rounds. You'll need to be here at 4 in the morning. Giuseppe will explain to you later."
Shakily Ragazzo climbed out of the well and went to look for Bob. He found him in the stable, rubbing down a horse in from a late round. Ragazzo leant dejectedly, at the side of the stall watching him, all his future hopes and ambitions of becoming a confectioner destroyed.
"My, you like an icicle," said Bob. "Get those wet things off and wrap this old sack round you."
Ragazzo sat down on a bale of straw. "When I've finished rubbing down Sally here, I'll bring you a nice hot cup of tea."
But when he came back with the tea, Ragazzo was asleep, lying in the straw alongside Sally, who occasionally bent her neck to regard her new companion.
"Better leave him," thought Bob, "he needs to be up here at 4 o'clock tomorrow morning. He'll not be the first assistant who's slept beside his horse."

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