Ice Harvest*

Chapter 23

Ice House

Snow fell early that winter. Ragazzo awoke in his attic bed to a quiet silent world. Downstairs, near the big stove in the centre of the living room, it was cosy enough, but high in the attic the cold bit into him.
All that week, the snow fell thick and fast, topping the houses and trees around with thick white coverlets and making roads and footpaths impassable.
"This is no good," said Erik. "If it snows like this it'll spoil the Ice."

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Birgit, Erik's wife, found Ragazzo some heavy boots and he bought himself from the stores, a thick jacket and a smart sailor's peaked cap, for he discovered that in Norway, a sailor, even an ordinary seaman, was a man of importance. All Erik's friends and relations were sai1ors - one was a sea-captain - and his two young sons, Johan and Arne, who were 11 and 12, would go to sea soon after their confirmation at 13.

Erik had a small but comfortable house and a plot of land out of the town. Here Birgit grew vegetables and fruit. They had a cow, chicken and geese and, until recently a pig which was now salted down for the winter. Wood for the stove was there for the taking. There was an abundance of oak and ash and birch and Ragazzo had spent his first days walking in the forest with Johan and Arne, collecting up wood, or chopping logs or feeding the animals. He was touched by the kindness of the family and the way they welcomed him to their house.

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Christmas came and went with all its festivities and much church-going. The snow melted and it began to freeze hard. One morning Erik came back from town with the stores.
"They're looking for men for the ice-cutting. I've signed you on. We start tomorrow."

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It was very dark when they set out, slipping and sliding along the paths. As they approached the lake, other men loomed up out of the darkness and soon there was a small group of about ten with the foreman who stood beside a pile of shovels. Shouldering a shovel, the foreman set off across the lake.
"Come on," said Erik, handing Ragazzo a shovel, "We're starting over the far side." And he stepped out onto the lake with the others.

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Ragazzo followed more cautiously, looking to see, in the dim light, that there was no crack in the ice or any danger of falling in.
Seeing he was hanging back, Erik turned, "What's keeping you?"
"The ice, is it safe?"
Erik roared with laughter, "Look at him," he said digging one of his companions in the ribs. "He asks if it's safe!" The other man laughed too.
"Of course it's safe. The ice is at least 12 inches thick by now. I'll wager it will be nearly 24 inches this year, if it goes on like this."
The other man nodded.
"Come on."

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Their first job was to clear the lake, shoveling up all the snow and leaves and twigs, which covered it and piling them up on the banks. When a large area had been cleared and the late dawn had fully broken, a man arrived leading a horse. The horse was harnessed to an ice plough and man and horse set off scoring and cutting the ice in long narrow strips about 2 feet across the breadth of the lake, up and down, up and down as the men continued to clear the lake. This took them all day.

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The following day the cutting began. Ragazzo was given a huge handsaw, about four feet long with long jagged teeth, which he found very difficult to handle. Standing along the line marked out by the plough, with the other men, their job was to saw out blocks of ice about 2 foot square.

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Once the first blocks were cut and removed, it was like standing at the edge of an island with a strip of icy water in front of him. Sawing the ice too was very hard and exacting work. The long saw often stuck or bent and then sprang back dangerously and Ragazzo was nearly pitched into the water head first. Soon it was apparent that he was holding up the other men and he was given the task, with an experienced man, of hooking and lifting the blocks out of the water and loading them onto the horse drawn sledges which stood nearby.

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From there the ice went down by sledge on its long journey to the jetty where it was loaded directly on to one of the ships laid up nearby or stored in the enormous stack near the loading chute. It was strange to see them loading the Caesar with ice, while the ship itself was frozen in the fiord. Erik said it would likely be April before the thaw came and the ships were free to sail.

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So all through the winter months they cut ice. Once the team of men had cleared one lake, they moved on to another, leaving the lake to freeze again and produce a new crop of ice. The days were short with only four to five hours of daylight but the work was very tiring. Ragazzo soon got accustomed to the cold, but the work was not to his liking.

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Often in the long winter nights, Ragazzo wondered what was to become of him. He knew now that this work and his life at sea was not for him. Now he had time to think, he was homesick for London, for his own Italian-speaking people, for the rush and bustle of the cafe, in spite of its long hard hours. His ambition was still to be a confectioner with his own shop. The longing to run his own life, to be his own man never left him. It was useless to try to explain this to Erik, for to Erik, the sea was the only way of life, and looking at Ragazzo, grown now into a man, with his deep blue eyes and tanned skin, his sailor's cap set rakishly on his head, no one would have suspected his heart lay elsewhere.

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In the spring, he signed on again on the Caesar. The ship kept its regular run to Boulogne throughout the summer, but in early autumn they sailed for London.

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Ragazzo was both pleased and apprehensive of returning to Regent's Canal Dock - the scene of his escape - but Captain Pettereson had promised, whatever happened, that he would speak for him.

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They docked in the morning and unloading began straightaway. The Weighmaster came aboard to check the cargo and to weigh out the ice, block by block, around 400 tons of it. Idly watching the ice blocks lifted from the hold onto the scales, Ragazzo looked up at the Weighmaster . . . It was Luke Corazza!
"Luke," he shouted, forgetting all his fears and apprehensions, "Luke!"
He ran across the deck and scrambled up beside him. Luke looked at him in amazement. "It's me, Ragazzo."