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No Matter What We Possess In Life, In the End All That We Have Is Time

It's Tuesday evening in Rieti and locals and regular visitors stop in the bars for a sparkling aperitivo. In the hilltown piazze, their children make friends with the Pomeranians, Bichon Frizes and spaniels who've escaped, with their owners, from Rome in August.

Amatrice is in festa. And so are these families. The light is changing, the nights are cool, the conkers are about to split their spiky reptile-green pods, there's a hint of orange in the leaves of the tigli. Which means one thing: school.

Italian earthquake 

A woman and child sit on a bench in the center of Amatrice, Italy, in the wake of the August 2016 earthquake. (Photo by Getty Images/Carl Court)

The writer Elena Ferrante isn't kidding. In Italy, school is gruelling, operatic. And it starts in three weeks. Along the peninsula, kids are rushing to finish their summer homework, cursing chemistry, sweating over Greek verses, looking up the web, hopelessly, for hacks, buying homework diaries in glossy black, pastel or neon. Since there is no half-term, this is the last good break until Christmas. Families are making the most of it.

But as the men and women sip their cold, glittering Negroni, Campari or Aperol Spritz, and their sons and daughters in their Converse and shorts and fake tattoos and plastic chokers play with the Roman toy dogs, Death invisible has arrived and is marking them out. She looks north to Accumoli, nods here, smiles there, cups a small warm head at the level of her cold hand. She passes the Hotel Roma with a sweep of her arm. The marketing video ignored her when promising "precious contact with nature".

So, the men and women finish their drinks, head home or out for a pizza, stroll with their ice cream, kiss the children goodnight. All of it for the last time. Within hours, a 6.2 magnitude quake will dismantle the Apennines. And with them, the families, their happiness and futures.

In Amatrice, Accumoli, Arquata del Tronto, Pescara del Tronto, life will be classified now into Before and After 03.36 on August 24, 2016. The rough latitude 42 and longitude 13 were not alone the co-ordinates of their lives, they were concealing death and what will pass now for a life thereafter.

I know the Rieti mountains. With no head for heights I dread the road from Terni that, kilometre after kilometre, shrinks the regional hydroelectric plant to the size of a light-up stove for a Sylvanian Family cottage. Heart in mouth, I inch around bends that play chicken with the sky. Across the province, hamlets cling like Hitchcock blondes to the edges of cliffs, the sides of vertiginous mountains.

My friend has a summer villa there designed to be earthquake-proof. This week he calls it his 007 place: shaken, not stirred. In his village, around 30km south of the epicentre, the news is good. Everyone is safe.

But in Amatrice, where the village clock has stopped at the time of the earthquake, nobody is safe. Everything, every life, is ruined.

In the night, invisible armies have swept through, pounding it from the ground, the air. In this Mediterranean Dresden, three elderly people sit on a terrace at a white plastic table with a pink umbrella. Rescuers call out to them. Their home, exposed, is like a dollshouse where you can take the side off to see into the rooms. It is an island in an ocean of rubble. They are its sole inhabitants.

In Accumoli, such is the damage even to remaining structures, every house is off-limits. Apart from the volunteers, rescue teams and media, it is not even a ghost town - its soul is taken.

For the emergency services, though, the opposite is the case. If you are fated to live through a disaster, Italy is the place to do it. Yes, there is criticism of the delays in getting help to places such as Illica but generally the Italian response to a crisis of such magnitude is magnificent. While the rest of Italy is fleeing disaster, the rescuers are racing, with a plan, towards it.

Before dawn last Wednesday local people dug with bare hands through the masonry, calling out to family, neighbours, listening for voices, phones, under rubble that revealed itself as apocalyptic in the dawn.

All day and every day since, the same local people call out "Dai! Dai!" - meaning, "Come on! You're doing it!" - to the men and women of the Vigili del Fuoco lifting the barely living, grey and dusty from mountains of cement.

Parents, children, wives, husbands, siblings who see bodies of their beloveds removed, are silent. Speechless. In this hell that was their home, or the place they came every year for their holidays, they see the Vigili working miracles. But can anyone ask them to raise the dead?

It's a time of certainty, uncertainty, questions. In those last moments when a grandmother shoves her grandchildren under their beds and saves their lives, or families find themselves separated, entombed, or thrown out windows, we can probably say for sure that none of them is thinking about work, the mortgage, the bank loan, or wondering how the neighbours manage the new car, the extension.

Chances are a woman who sees her children disappear into rubble and eternity isn't fuming about the savage sexism of a road-race sign reading, "Run like you've left the immersion on".

A teenager calling for her dad isn't seething about the man who opened the door for her at the restaurant the previous night, 'reducing' her as a woman. The gobshite thought he was being polite.

A man digging with his bare hands for his wife of 50 years isn't cursing that bollox next door who cuts their climbing roses on his side of the party wall and throws the clippings into their garden.

A teenage boy tunnelling for his sister and mother isn't thinking, "Christ, I didn't get my first choice" from the Italian equivalent of the CAO.

A young man scrambling through bricks to get at his father isn't smiling; "that'll teach him". But more likely, "Dad, why didn't I talk to you for the last five years".

Twenty years ago when I started the most important job I will ever do - being a mother - I decided I wouldn't lavish my children with things. Instead, I would invest in experience. So they never got the Playstation, the iPod, the Xbox, the new game at the same time as their pals. But for free they got baking, gardening, crab fishing, fox feeding, bird saving, jam making, the first day of the Luas, mindmaps of the stars.

When I could manage it, they had trips, concerts, theatres, exhibitions, family meals out, hotels, days and weekends away. Things could be lost, stolen, broken. But an experience was forever. It was always theirs to be relived.

On Wednesday, the people of central Italy lost everything in a blink. The roof over their head, everything they owned - worked for.

There are questions of poor or illegal building, the legacy of Italy's lax planning laws. All for another time. For now, proverbially, those who lost their homes and parents, lost their past. Those who lost their children, lost their future. They found perspective.

In a world where trash seems to fascinate us more - where we seem primed for fights or slights, where it's easy to take and express offence, not alone for ourselves, but on behalf of others - events like the earthquake give perspective.

No matter what we possess, in the end all we have on this earth is our time. We are. And in a single moment we will cease to be.

For the people of Rieti, it was 03.36, August 24, 2016.

But somewhere on that clockface in Amatrice and in the collected dates and days of the kitchen calendars and assorted technology buried under the rubble, is our moment.

Until Death, invisible, slips her cold hand in ours, how will we be? What will we do?

Originally published in The Sunday Independent, Ireland's largest-selling newspaper.