“Are we going to die, Mum?” — that night, twenty years ago.

(This story is also on Medium. Follow me here.)

I remember him falling into a river and clinging to something – a leaf or a stick – to stay afloat. He was injured, scared, and all on his own. The current was sweeping him forwards and ahead he could see he was hurtling towards the edge of a cliff. Almost no time left. He’d be killed for sure, smashed against the rocks below. As he looked desperately for something to save his life, he kept saying to himself, “I must be brave. I must be brave.”
It would all be over soon.

“The view of the lake is great from here,” said Hilda. “You’ll see for yourself tomorrow morning. And when there are storms – help yourself to more pasta, by the way – when there are storms, you can watch them gather over the mountains and then move over the lake towards us.”

“It sounds beautiful,” I said, spooning pasta onto my plate. “Thanks again for hosting me at such short notice.”

“Not at all. We’re grateful you could come. We need help on the farm. It’s just my husband and me here. And the cat, of course, but he doesn’t do much.”

I looked over at the cat, who was fast asleep on one of the kitchen stools.

“Is this your first time to Lake Garda?” asked Hilda.

“Actually, no,” I said between mouthfuls, “I came here with my family one Summer when I was a kid. 2002. We were staying in a campsite by the lake and there was a huge thunderstorm with hailstones the size of golf balls.”

“You were here during that storm?” she said.

“Yeah. Why, have you heard about it?”

Everyone has heard about it. I know people who’ve lived here for decades who say it was one of the worst they’ve ever seen. People died that night.”

“Yes, I heard that” I said. “We got lucky; we were staying in a tent.”

“Madre mia!” She put her hand to her mouth. “What happened?”

We’d brought a portable cassette player and a case full of story tapes, one of which was The Little Tin Soldier. I’d never heard it before, but it was one of the few that we hadn’t played to death so we put it on and, one by one, drifted off to sleep. The walls of the tent rippled gently in the breeze – millimetres of taut canvas between us and the world.

I can barely remember anything about the story – just the bit with him falling into the river and repeating those words to himself: I must be brave. I must be brave. I drifted off before hearing whether he’d made it to safety or not. The voice from the tape mingled with my half-dreams, more distant and echoey now. I must be brave…I must…be…brave.

My dreams were invaded by a terrible noise. Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta! I couldn’t place it. Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta! Gunfire? Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta! It was relentless, like a machine gun that never had to reload. My dream stopped violently, ripped open by this horrible sound. There were voices shouting, trying to hear each other above the noise.

Don’t go outside!
You’ll be killed!
Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta!
Are those hailstones?
In July!?

Suddenly I was awake. The machine gun fire I’d heard was in fact thousands of giant hailstones pounding the canvas a few feet above our heads. The tent convulsed violently as the wind tried to rip it out of the ground. A great flash of lightning lit everything up just long enough for me to see mum and dad standing dumbstruck by the plastic window in the porch area. Then darkness.

“Mum!” I shouted.

“It’s okay. I’m here.”

“What’s happening?!”

“It’s a big storm. Don’t worry, it’s okay.”

“I’m scared!”

“I know, I know. Just stay put, okay? It’s okay.”

I looked around and saw that Franco was awake, too, but wide-eyed and silent. In complete contrast to me he seemed to be rather enjoying the spectacle. Beanie, five years old, was sleeping peacefully in the bunk behind me. We always joked that she could sleep through a hurricane and she was proving us quite right.

Mum and Dad watched as the hail blasted holes in the plastic outdoor furniture and then set about destroying the car. In another flash of lightning I could see huge trees clinging to the ground as the wind tore branches off them and flung them across the campsite. Rainwater was pouring in through the gap between the outer walls and ground sheet. The raw, elemental fury that had built up and unleashed itself upon us was terrifying. There was none of the dangerous beauty one might find in poisonous plants and great white sharks. Only anger. I was sure it was going to kill us.

Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta! Another deafening barrage of hail on the roof.

“Are we going to die, Mum?”

No answer.

“Mum! Are we going to die!?”

“Be ready to get under the beds,” she said.

“Why?!”

“You’ll be safer under the bed than on top of it.”

“But there’s water all over the floor!”

“Never mind about the water! Just be ready!”

Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta! The hail seemed to be getting heavier.

“Mum!”

“It’s okay, Lorenzo!” called Franco from his bed. “Everything’s going to be okay. Try to be like the Little Tin Solder. Remember? I must be brave! I must be brave! Say it.”

I was crying too much and couldn’t say it.

“Go on!”

“I m-must be b-brave,” I stammered.

“Say it again.”

“I must be brave.”

“That’s it! Keep saying it. I must be brave. Don’t worry – it will all be over soon.”

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