A Policeman Calls

Chapter 21

Ice House

The next morning Carlo was down at the cafe early. He always dropped in first thing to supervise the work of the day and today Rosa was with him.
Though Rosa was brought up now as a young lady, she still loved to do the rounds with her father and surprisingly she took a great interest in all his plans. In spite of her ringlets and pretty dresses, this plain girl never forgot her father's promise that one day she would be "his right hand."

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Her cousins, Agostino and Stephano, were chatting with the other waiters when Carlo and Rosa came in and enquired about Ragazzo. No, there was no sign of him. He had not returned to the cafe last night and the news was that he had been seen down at the docks late last evening. There was a buzz of excited chatter as the waiters speculated on what could have happened to him and whether, indeed, he had been part of the gang.

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In the midst of this confused conversation, Carlo looked up to see a large policeman standing in the doorway of the cafe.
"Morning Mr Gatti, sir," he said advancing into the café. "I've come about the young lad and the theft at Thoroughgood's. It's said he works here."
"Yes officer, he does. The theft has been reported to me, but I find it hard to believe he was involved." Carlo shook his head. "I've known Ragazzo since he was a child. He lived in my household."
"They're a very bad lot, these boys, sir. This particular gang's causing a lot of trouble, petty theft, threats, pestering folk. The sergeant wants it cleared up. Can I see the lad, sir?"
"He's not here. He didn't come back last night."
"Well sir, isn't that proof enough? If he was innocent, surely he'd be back by now?"

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Carlo had to agree. Giuseppe had told him Ragazzo had said he had been threatened, but if that were so, why had he run away.
"Perhaps he was frightened - did not understand!," said Agostino awkwardly.
The policeman looked unimpressed. Excuses always excuses from these foreigners. He got out his notebook.
"I'll need some details, sir. His name, please." "Ragazzo."
"How do you spell that, sir?" He wrote down the name slowly.
"And the Christian name?"
"He has no other name - just Ragazzo."
The policeman looked puzzled. "Age?"
"About sixteen - maybe less."
The policeman said patiently. "Can you describe him?"
"He's a good looking lad, just beginning to fill out."
"Height?"
"About this tall." Carlo put his hand to his breast.
"Hair?"
"Black."
"Eyes?"
"Blue - very blue. So different from most of our countrymen."
"Any distinguishing marks?"
"What?"
"Any scar, any blemishes. Something that would identify him."
Surprised Carlo said, "No, I don't think so." And turning to Rosa and the others standing by, "Can you think of anything?"
Rosa said suddenly, "Yes, there was a mark. A big red blotch on his shoulder."
"That's right," said young Stephano. "I've seen it sometimes - a big red mark on his ... his left shoulder. He's rather shy about it."
In silence the policeman wrote all the information down. Then he closed his notebook.
"Well, sir, if you have news of him, I hope you'll let the station know rightaway and bring him in."

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Carlo sat down heavily at the cashier's desk. "Jesu, I can't believe it. Why should Ragazzo get muddled up with a gang like that. Is this how he rewards me?"
"He was frightened, so he ran away," said Rosa, remembering how afraid Ragazzo had been when he first came to them.
"They say he tried to find you at the docks," said Agostino.
"Perhaps he's too ashamed to come back," said one of the waiters unkindly.
Agostino, who was assistant manager, turned angrily to the waiters standing round.
"To your work. There's plenty to do. We're late already." As the boys dispersed to their various tasks, one young lad, Pasquale Fialli, who had only arrived from the Ticino a few days earlier, hung back.
"Signore," he said timidly. Carlo looked up.
"Yes, lad?"
"This boy, Ragazzo. You don't know his name?"
"No, he has no other. I found him in the street, beaten and abandoned by a cruel padrone!"
Pasquale caught his breath. Then he said boldly, "In our village when we were noisy or mischevious or did something wrong, our mother used to say, if you don't behave the padrone will get you."
"Is that so?"
"And over and over again, she would tell us the story of little Luigi Derighetti who was stolen from the village."
Carlo stood up suddenly. "Derighetti - Derighetti, that was my mother's name. My mother's family."
Taking the boy by the arm, he said, "What else do you remember?"
"Mother used to say his grandparents searched everywhere and never found him. They believed he'd been taken by one of those travelling padrone. Each autumn, when the chestnut sellers set off for Paris, they would go down to the market square and ask them to look out for the child and when the men came back in the spring they would ask again, hoping for news. But they were always disappointed."
Again Pasquale paused. Then he said simply, "They were looking for a little boy with blue eyes and a strawberry mark on his shoulder."
"There was a sudden silence. Rosa stood open-mouthed. Agostino smoothed his clean apron nervously. All eyes were on Carlo.
He said slowly, "If Ragazzo is a Derighetti, then he's a relation - one of our own." Rosa said softly, "But now we've lost him."

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It was about the same time that morning that a seaman on the Norwegian barque, Ceasar, found Ragazzo hiding under a lifeboat. He dragged him out, white, cold, stiff and seasick for it had been a cool, choppy night at sea.
"What have we here? A stowaway?"
Ragazzo staggered as he stood up, unaccustomed to the motion of the ship.
"Stand still."
The seaman called up to the mate on the bridge.
"Look what I've found."
The mate shouted, "Take him to the Capt'n. He's in his cabin."
Taking a firm hold on Ragazzo, the seaman marched him to the stern of the ship, down an iron stair to a cabin door. He knocked.

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They entered, Ragazzo tripping over the entrance and falling almost headlong into the cabin.
"Stowaway, Capt'n. Found him on the top deck."
In the panelled cabin, a huge man was seated at a table, spread with maps. He was almost as big as Signor Carlo, but very tanned and fair with blue eyes and, Ragazzo thought, a strong kind face.
"Leave him."
"Aye, aye sir."
"What's your name?" The Captain spoke English.
"Ragazzo, signore."
"Where do you come from?"
"London."
The Captain raised his eyebrows quizzically.
"I work at Signor Gatti's café . . . . in London . . . . on the ice carts," he stammered correcting himself.
"Aha."
Taking a deep breath, Ragazzo began a long muddled story of what had happened finishing up, "The butcher, signore, said I was the thief, but it is not true, I swear. The boys, they threaten me. The Police, they will not believe. Foreigners, signore, they don't believe."
He saw the Captain nod his head.
He went on, "Signore, I am not a thief."
The Captain looked piercingly at Ragazzo. Then he said slowly, "Are you telling the truth?"
"Yes, signore."
"Very well then, now you're here, you'll have to work your passage. Ever been on a ship before?"
Ragazzo shook his head.
"What can you do?"
In a moment of inspiration, Ragazzo said, "I can cook, signore."
The Captain smiled broadly.
"You can cook. Well, on our ships the last man on is always the cook and you couldn't be worse than Olaf Olafsen."
He got up and shouted out of the cabin, "Bo'sun."
The mate appeared, "Capt'n?"
"This is the new cook. Take him down to the galley and get Olaf to show him the ropes."
"Aye, aye, sir."

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It was warm in the galley. As Ragazzo was to discover later, the only warm place on the ship. A huge kitchen range, set with heavy iron pans, filled one side of the cabin and above the range hung the seaman's washing, their shirts and socks, drying over the heat.

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The galley opened on to the ordinary seamans' cabin with bunks along the ship's side. In the centre was a rough table, where 01af 01afsen, the cook, sat on a sea chest, gloomily drinking coffee. Olaf rose, towering over Ragazzo. The Bo'sun explained in Norwegian.

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A beaming smile spread over Olaf's face. He patted Ragazzo on the back and made him sit down on the chest to a cold mug of tasteless coffee. While Ragazzo drank the awful brew, Olaf busied himself at the stove, talking all the time in Norwegian. He was stirring first one pot and then another and stoking the fire. Ragazzo realised at once he would get little help from Olaf. Olaf motioned to Ragazzo to set out some bowls and mugs on the table and to get out hard biscuit, which he found in a sack. Some time later, the off duty crew came in for their midday meal. It was time, too, for the Captain's meal and Olaf set off to the officers quarters with a pan of stew, leaving Ragazzo stirring the bean soup.

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As he stirred, he became aware of a thick, slimy object at the bottom of the pan. He hoisted it up and there, dangling on his spoon, was one of the seaman's socks, which had fallen from above! He looked at it with horror. Just then Olaf returned. Seeing the expression on Ragazzo's face, he rocked with laughter, picked up the sock and threw it in a corner. Then shouting to the men the food was ready, he served out the soup into the bowls. Setting the bowls before the sea men, Ragazzo vowed this would never happen in his kitchen . . . . his galley, again!