Norway

Chapter 22

Ice House

The voyage to Norway lasted six days. In those six days, Ragazzo took over from Olaf for Olaf had nothing to teach him. As Erik, the one seaman who spoke English, said,
"He's the worst cook we've ever had."

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Ragazzo quickly discovered it was his job to cook, wash up, clear up and clean the officers and seamen's quarters and keep the rats and mice at bay. His day started at five o'clock when he made black coffee for all the crew. Then coffee again at breakfast, when the crew ate Olaf's mouldy bread and dripping. At twelve o'clock he served the main meal of the day. Hot coffee again at three and supper at six. By then, tired out and battered by the constant motion of the ship - for he had not yet got his sea legs - he would sink exhaustedly into his bunk and sleep.

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The food was boring and repetitive. Bean soup, salt meat and peas, dried fish, salt herring, followed by rice pudding and what they called a sweet soup, thickened fruit juice, which Erik told him, kept away the seaman's dread disease-scurvy.

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Busy all day, Ragazzo cooked with care and saw to it the coffee was always hot. Checking the stores, he found a sack of potatoes and a sack of flour, and in a locker in the Captain's cabin, a little rice and sugar and some spices. As he tried his hand at making bread - he had watched the cooks make it back in London many times - he planned to improve the ship's food on the next voyage. In his own mind he saw no way of going back to Gatti's. He had been a coward and run away and he could not bring himself to face Signor Carlo and bear the shame. Besides the Police were after him.

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They sailed into the port of Kragero on the seventh day, past a cluster of handsome weather boarded houses, up into the fiord and tied up alongside a long narrow jetty at the bottom of a steep cliff, leading to dark forest above. Ragazzo had expected the crew would go ashore for a few days, but as soon as the gangplanks were down a feverish activity began. Ballast must be discharged and the ship loaded with ice as soon as possible. Erik told him, that in the summer weather, ice was always in short supply, it melted quicker and anyway it was a point of honour, a kind of game, for the crew to see which ship could turn round in the shortest time. Sometimes ships would race each other across the North Sea and bets were placed both in Kragero and in London on the winners.

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As he made his afternoon rounds of the crew with the big coffee pot, Ragazzo saw on the bank above the jetty, a long wooden slide or chute, shaped in a big zigzag, and above that a huge stack of ice. Hundreds of blocks of ice, just like the ones in Signor Gatti's ice well, all stored and piled one on top of the other. In the bright sunshine this mountain of ice gleamed and sparkled, almost blinding him.

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The following morning the chute was moored to the ship. Four of the seamen went up to work at the stack and began moving blocks of ice, maneuvering them with their tongs on to the chute. At first the blocks stuck at the top, then they began to slide and hurtle down the chute on their zigzag way to the deck of the ship. Here with block and tackle, Jan and Olaf lowered each block into the hold and Erik and Axel standing below, packed the blocks down tight between layers of sawdust to prevent further melting.

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Standing on the upper deck, Ragazzo watched the operation with amazement. The rattle and crash of the ice, the shouts of the men, the blinding whiteness of the stack, the towering forest and mountains above all overwhelmed him. Absorbed, he did not notice Captain Pettersen had come to stand beside him.
"Don't look too long at that ice, Ragazzo. In this light, it can hurt your eyes - give you ice blindness. Many a seaman has suffered in that way."
Quickly Ragazzo turned towards him. Captain Pettersen put his hand on his shoulder.
Smiling he said, "At sea we say, God made the food, the Devil made the cook. This voyage we seem to have been lucky. You've done well. We can do with a good cook."
Ragazzo was silent.
"We shan't be back in London this year. In a couple of days we sail on a new assignment to France, to Boulogne. Do you want to sign on?"
Ragazzo took a deep breath,
"Yes, signore."
"Good. Tomorrow you can come down to the town with me to choose what stores a good cook needs."
And so Ragazzo joined the Caesar's crew. He soon picked up enough Norwegian to talk to the seamen and because he was hardworking and obliging, he soon became very popular. "The chef," they called him.

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He tried his best to improve the food, but as most of the seamen were accustomed to their diet and preferred it, he made few changes, simply seeing the meals were hot and tasty. For the officers, he tried his hand at a number of dishes with great success. In Boulogne he brought on board a crate of live chickens and in Kragero, a sheep, together with sacks of potatoes and vegetables. He made fresh bread every other day and always kept his fresh meat on an ice block in the hold, though, in fact, this was forbidden. All through the summer and into late autumn the Caesar sailed back and forth to France. Ice was the main cargo and the worst of them, for as the weather grew cooler, the whole ship was wet and damp and the men's clothes were never dry. Later in the year they carried timber and brought back coal. When he was not busy cleaning or cooking, Ragazzo would lend a hand at hauling in the sails and making ropes fast, but he never became a real sailor. In bad weather, he got seasick and once or twice when it was particularly stormy, with the waves pounding the ship and pouring over the decks, the galley itself would be flooded. The fire would go out and the pots and pans would be thrown about the cabin, clattering and banging. All he could do was to shut the cabin doors and wait for the storm to subside, whilst the crew battled on, wet and hungry.

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One very rough afternoon, when he set off with the big coffee pot to take coffee to the Captain on the bridge, a huge wave swept over the deck, knocking him down and wrenching the pot out of his hands and sending it overboard. Stunned and drenched, he tried to get up. A second wave knocked him over again, pulling him dangerously close to the ship's side. Fortunately for him, the first mate seeing him in trouble, caught hold of one of his legs as he hurtled and in the midst of the roar and the spray pulled him to safety.

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As winter approached, all the-men looked forward to going home and soon the Caesar was on its last trip back to Kragero, where she would be laid up during the winter months. On arrival the crew were signed off. They said goodbye to the Captain, with the promise to be available again in the spring.

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Erik, to whom Ragazzo had confided his story, proposed that Ragazzo should spend the winter with him and his family for he said, "There's plenty of work and good money to be had on the ice cutting."