The Boy of Venzone by James Repp

Stopping just short of his mother’s house Alessandro could see his brother Santo had not arrived yet. The house was a three-storey terraced home just off of a small piazza. Alessandro had not visited for over a year and was surprised at the appearance of the property. The shabby, green wooden shutters were peeling in places and rust from the hinges had stained the cream walls. He noticed a coach stopped in the piazza, depositing its cargo of tourists for the day. They all admired the buildings and snapped away with their cameras. Alessandro smiled, wondering, as he always did, if the outsiders had any inkling of the past hardship endured so they could take a tour of a ‘traditional Italian town’.

Santo arrived and suggested they grab a coffee in a local bar before going into the house. After settling at a table he quizzed his big brother on his new job. ‘Well, what’s it like? Tell me everything?’ he said impatiently.

‘Calm down Santo, I’ve only been there a week!’ replied Alessandro, ‘but yes it is everything I had hoped for and more!’

Alessandro was an Environmental Engineer, he had just started work for the Regional Civil Protection of Friuli Venezia Giulia; a place where he had wanted to work for several years.

‘Tell me about their systems, you know that’s the only part of your job I understand anyway!’ joked his little brother, who was an IT consultant.

‘Okay’ Alessandro gave in; even he had to admit he was impressed by the operations room the first time he saw it. ‘Suppose there was a serious incident, say flooding for example, I’m on call to respond and would be based in our operations room. This is where everything is coordinated from for the whole region. When I first walked in there it reminded me of the Nasa control room, the one you see in films. The guys who work in their twenty-four/seven monitor everything real time. When I say everything I mean weather, tide, river heights, seismic data, radio frequencies, social media, the news the lot!’

‘You’re just being an environmental geek, what’s so important about watching the news?’ proclaimed Santo.

‘If you let me finish I’ll tell you’ smirked Alessandro. He leaned forward confidently, ‘Take your house by the river for example; by monitoring all this data we can forecast when the river will burst its banks. This gives us time to warn you so you can save that precious computer of yours. We can co-ordinate Fire Brigade, Police, Army, volunteer rescue teams and the local; it’s the key node for all of it. Impressed yet?’ He leaned back on his chair with a smile on his face.

‘Alright it sounds a bit more fun than your old job with the highways agency but don’t go thinking you’re Bruce Willis in Armageddon just because you make a few calls when it rains!’ joked Santo.

They ambled back to the house. When they got to the house Santo unlooked the door giving the bottom an encouraging kick, as they had always had to do. The brothers spent the next few hours working companionably through the house room by room, labeling anything they wanted to keep before there mother moved in with Santo. By lunchtime they had almost finished with just the loft remaining.

‘Do we even need to look up there?’ asked Alessandro, ‘it’s full of old Christmas decorations from what I remember’.

‘Mum said she still has some bits from when we where kids up there – come on we’ve almost finished and lunch is on me afterwards’ replied Santo encouragingly. They walked up the creaky stairs and into the attic room. They where greeted by half a dozen large cardboard boxes, all covered with a thick layer of dust. ‘You start this end and I’ll start the other’ said Santo rubbing his hands together enthusiastically.

Twenty minutes later, Santo looked up to see his brother stood there motionless staring inside a box. ‘Scared of spiders are we?’ he joked as he walked over. Alessandro didn’t reply…it was as if he was in another world. When Santo got closer he could see the only thing in the box was a metal toy car, it was once glossy red but the paint was chipped down to bare dull metal.

‘Let’s go for a walk,’ said Alessandro, leaving the room abruptly before his brother could reply.

They walked out of the town and up to a viewpoint overlooking the valley without speaking. By this point Santo was starting to get concerned…. had a toy car really upset his brother so much? Before he had a chance to ask any questions Alessandro had reached the bench looking out over the valley where he sat down heavily with a deep frown etching his features.

‘That toy car was the only thing I had in the world after the earthquake’ said Alessandro staring steadfastly at the view rather than his brother. Suddenly it hit Santo like a slap in the face, of course the earthquake. Alessandro was ten at the time it happened. Santo had not been born and although he knew what had happened he had never spoken to his brother about it. ‘Tell me about what happened’ he said tentatively placing a hand on his brother’s arm.

Alessandro sighed, took a deep breath and began. ‘It was a day I will never forget, Thursday the 6th of May 1976. I was playing with my toy car in my bedroom. Then suddenly an earthquake struck, I had never experienced one before and started screaming as all my toys fell off the bookcase. Dad ran in and swept my up in his arms, we ran downstairs grabbing mother and rushing out into the garden. By the time we arrived breathlessly by the back gate it had stopped! The house was still standing and it appeared that the only damage was a few tiles missing from the roof. After a while Mum and Dad were chatting to the neighbors whilst I played with Luca their son, we were the same age and inseparable. The whole town knew us as Butch and Sundance as we always pretended to be cowboys. After a few minutes Luca’s parents decided it was safe to go back inside and left us in the garden. Father started a small fire with wood from the log pile and told me we were going to pretend to be cowboys in our camp for a while. I could hear Mum talking to him about going inside as it was past my bedtime but he wanted to wait a while just to be safe. Then it happened… It sounded like thunder, but much more intense, another earthquake struck, it was much bigger than the first. I was knocked to the ground. It felt like the ground was going to open up and swallow us! Dad gathered Mum and me to his chest and held us so tight I could hardly breathe but I was so scared I couldn’t speak, my whole body felt like jelly. The sound of thunder was replaced with crashes and bangs. My eyes were fixed on my bedroom window, which shattered and disintegrated showing the garden with dust and debris. After what seemed like a lifetime an eerie silence descended. I was still staring at where my window used to be. The only thing left of our house was the chimneystack’.

‘Mum kept telling me everything was going to be ok; I think it was more for her benefit than mine. Dad suddenly ran to Luca’s house. But it wasn’t there; in its place was a pile of rubble as if a bomb had been dropped on it. He started shouting for Luca and his family, but nothing, then he started trying to move the rubble, throwing stones over his shoulder like a mad man. Mum went over to him and held him. It was the only time I ever saw father cry. As the night went on we met other families who had survived, we all trudged here to this very spot, exhausted and drained; we rested. No one slept that night and as dawn broke you could see the scale of the destruction. Not a single building survived undamaged. You can’t imagine it Santo.’ Alessandro looked at his little brother for the first time since he started talking. There was intensity in his eyes that his brother had never seen before.

Alessandro’s voice softened and he continued his painful account. ‘As soon as it was light all the men of the town started search for people trapped, mum helped the injured. After a few hours people from the Government arrived and started to organise things. Hundreds of people arrived to help from all over the country, even American soldiers who were based nearby but it was too late for most of those trapped. ‘I will never forget the moment when they found Luca.’ He fell silent momentarily and stared at his clasped hands. ‘I was helping mum collect what we could from the pile of debris that had been our home when I happened to glance up and see a soldier carrying him past. At first he looked asleep, covered in a think layer of dust like everything in the town. As the soldier walked past I could see Luca had a large jagged and bloodied cut on the side of his head. In that one night a whole family was wiped out, they had survived wars, drought, and floods but because one night they decided to go back inside… they all died. I’ve never forgotten the fact it could so easily have been our family, the senselessness of it all’. Silence descended on the brothers and they both gazed out over the town lost in their own thoughts.

‘Hey come on, you are here that’s the most important thing right and it will never happen again’ Santo said, trying to break the silence and lighten the mood but instantly regretting his words.

Alessandro smiled gently, ‘if only that was true. All those people should never have died. I just wish I knew what I did now, then and could have warned people, educated them on what to do. It’s just so simple but would have saved so many lives. Take next week for example; I am going to two schools with our earthquake trailer. It’s a mobile classroom where we educate children between six and eight about the dangers or earthquakes and what to do. It has interactive games where the kids learn to stay in doorways or under tables as well as how to make an earthquake kit they can keep at home with everything they might need until help arrives. It even has a small room which simulates what it’s like to be in an earthquake’.

Santo put a hand on his brother’s shoulder and said ‘I may not know much about your job big brother but I do know how driven you are. Every month my five year old son makes me do an earthquake drill thanks to you! I can’t begin to imagine what it was like when the earthquake struck or those tough years rebuilding our town, but I do know you do everything you can to make sure people are better prepared to deal with disasters.’

Alessandro smiled at the thought of his little nephew and jumped up, he said determinedly, ‘Right we have two boxes left and then you’re buying me lunch, so don’t think I’ve forgotten’ and with that Alessandro started marching purposefully down the hill. Santo was right, what happened in the past was a tragedy, disasters were out of his control but he could do something about their outcomes. He would never forget, how could he? However, he would do everything in his power to make sure his nephew and children like him never had to go through what he had.