The 10th June 1940 was a cloudy day. It was a time in our lives when we weren't interested in anything. We went to the beach in the morning all the same, myself and a friend of mine called Jerry Ostero. We knew that Mussolini was to speak in the afternoon, but it was not clear whether we would be going to war or not. On the sand nearly all the beach umbrellas were closed; we walked along the shore exchanging predictions and opinions, with sentences left trailing, and long silent pauses.
A bit of sun came out and we went on a catamaran, just the two of us and a girl with blondish hair and a long neck who was meant to flirt with Ostero, but in fact did not flirt at all. The girl was Fascist in her opinions, and normally would counter our talk with a lazy, slightly scandalized hauteur, as though dealing with opinions which were not even worthwhile refuting. But that day she was uncertain and vulnerable: she was just about to leave, and she did not want to. Her father, an edgy man, wanted to remove his family from the front before the war broke out, and had already rented a house in a little village in Emilia Romagna from September. That morning we continued to say how good it would be if we did not go to war, so we could relax and go swimming. Even the girl, with her neck craned forward and her hands between her knees, ended up by admitting: 'Oh yes ... oh yes ... ' and then in order to dismiss such thoughts: 'Well, let's hope that this time, too, it's a false alarm ... '
We came across a jellyfish floating on the surface of the sea; Ostero went over it with the boat so that it would appear beneath the girl's feet and frighten her. His trick did not work, because the girl did not notice the jellyfish, and simply said: 'Oh, what? Where?' Ostero showed off how coolly he could handle jellyfish: he brought it on board with his oar, and dropped it bellyside up. The girl squealed, but not much; Ostero flung the creature back into the water.
As we left the beach, Jerry caught up with me, quite full of himself. 'I kissed her,' he said. He had gone into her changing booth, demanding a farewell kiss; she did not want to, but, after a brief struggle, he had managed to kiss her on the mouth. 'I'm almost there now,' said Ostero. They had also agreed they would write to each other over the summer. I congratulated him. Ostero, who was easily excited about things, slapped me powerfully and painfully on the back.
When we saw each other again around 6 p.m., we were at war. It was still cloudy; the sea was grey. A line of soldiers was fi ling past, heading for the station. Someone applauded them from the terrace overlooking the promenade. None of the soldiers looked up.
I met Jerry with his officer brother, who was on leave and in civvies, looking elegant and summery. He made a joke about how lucky he was, going on leave the day war was declared. Filiberto Ostero, Jerry's brother, was very tall, slim and bent slightly forward, like a bamboo stick, with a sarcastic smile on his blonde face. We sat on the terrace near the railway and he talked about the illogical way some of our fortifications near the border had been built, and about the mistakes made by headquarters in repositioning the artillery. The evening was drawing on; the thin outline of the young officer, curved like a comma, with his cigarette lit between his fingers without him ever bringing it to his lips, stood out against the cobweb of railway wires and the opaque sea. Now and again a train with cannons and troops on board would manoeuvre and then set off again for the border. Filiberto was unsure whether to give up his leave and go straight back to his company –- driven also by the curiosity to check his glum tactical forecasts –- or go to see a girlfriend in Merano. He and his brother discussed how many hours it would take to drive there. He was a bit afraid that the war would finish while he was still on leave; that would be quite funny, but harmful for his career. He got up to go to the casino to gamble; he would decide what to do depending on how his luck turned out. Actually, he said: depending on how much he won; in fact, he was always very lucky. And off he went with that sarcastic smile on his tense lips, the smile with which his image comes back to us even today, after his death in Tobruk.
The next day there was the first air raid alarm, in the morning. A French plane passed overhead and everyone stared up at it with their noses in the air. That night, another alarm; and a bomb fell and exploded near the casino. There was chaos around the gaming tables, women fainting. Everything was dark because the power station had cut electricity from the whole city, and the only lights to remain on above the green tables were the internal lights powered in-house, under the heavy lampshades which were still swinging to and fro because of the blast.
There were no victims, we discovered the next day, except a child in the old town, who, in the dark, had spilled a pan of boiling water over himself and had died. But the bomb had all of a sudden wakened and excited the city, and, as happens, the excitement focussed on a fantasy target: spies. All the talk was about windows seen lighting up and going dark at regular intervals during the alarm, or of mysterious characters lighting fires on the seashore, or even of human shadows in the open countryside making signals to aeroplanes by waving a pocket torch towards the starry sky.
Excerpt from Into the War by Italo Calvino, translated from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin. Copyright 2002 by The Estate of Italo Calvino. Translation copyright 2011 by Martin McLaughlin. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.