Thursday 21 February 2013

On Observing

Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of the deadly Christchurch earthquake. At 12.51, I'll be observing a minute's silence.

Observing is a funny thing. It doesn't make things better, it is cold comfort for the survivors, and the dead are too dead, I believe, to take any notice. Still, I think it's tremendously important to stand and bear witness to what has passed.

I have not been directly affected by the quakes. This does not mean I have not been effected at all. My grandmother used to say that on the day of the Napier earthquake (Tuesday 3rd February 1931), the horses were unsettled, rushing about their paddocks. "They knew," she said. Later, she said, her cousins came to stay for a while. There wasn't any particular point to her observations, but speaking of it, observing it decades after the event, honoured the day. 

On September 4th 2010, I was sleeping on a fold out couch in a rented house in Cromwell. I think the noise woke us before the shaking. I thought, clearly: 'Thank god I have all that bottled water!' I thought, 'In Auckland.' I thought of the reservoir we'd gone and looked at the day before (there wasn't much else to do in Cromwell), and thought of it somehow breaking its banks and flooding the house and knocking it down. I thought of dying far from home. I thought, all things considered, that that wouldn't be so bad. I hugged closer to my ex. Neither of us spoke. The quaking eventually stopped, and I willed myself to sleep.

Relative locations of Christchurch and Cromwell.

In the morning, we clustered around the TV, holding scolding mugs of tea. We were in Cromwell for a wedding, and the bride was sleeping still. On the TV, they were saying, "We don't know." They were saying, "There may be hundreds dead."

They showed the same images over and over again. It was 7am and no one knew anything. A bridesmaid clicked the TV off: the bride was awake, and we didn't want to upset her, and anyway, what could we do?

That night, at the wedding, I got tremendously drunk. Back at home, I bought tins of baked beans and bottles of hand sanitiser and put them with the bottled water.

On Tuesday, 22nd February 2011, I was looking at clothes in a shop on Queen Street. My friend was taking an age in the changing room. "Did you hear?" said a girl, a stranger, "There's been another quake. In Christchurch. People are dead, this time."

I checked Twitter, and found an image of the Cathedral. I started crying, right there in the shop.

Later, I went out for dinner. A friend was introducing me to his friends, one of whom worked at the job I was starting the next week. It was all rather important, although we pretended to be causal. I checked and rechecked Twitter, even though they asked me not to. I asked if we could turn on the TV, and they said no, that there was no point, that there was nothing we could do anyway.

I gave a little more than I could really afford to the Red Cross.

The next day, I got a text from my mother: "On way to airport. Have to go to chch with civil defense. Love mum."

I burst into tears, again (I was on a bus this time).

I text my sister, who replied straight away, even though it was god knows what time in London. She said she already knew, and that our mother was afraid that she was going to be put to work digging bodies out of the rubble, and how bad was it down there?

When my mother came back a week later, she said it wasn't as bad as she'd thought. She said the volunteers (well - she volunteered before the disaster - after the earthquake, she had no choice but to go) slept in a sports hall - you know the sort - on the edge of a field, or in tents on it, and it was a great treat to have a shower. 

She said that you had to walk in the middle of the road, never near the edges, never near the buildings. She said every time there was an aftershock, everyone stood very still, but of course there was nothing you could do. 

She described the river and the silt, and the houses sunk up to their window sills with their chimneys buried in their roofs.

She said that her job was going around with a man with a clipboard. They'd knock on people's doors, and she'd check that everyone was basically okay. By this time, several days after the quake, the bodies had been bought out and the injuries tended to. She asked if they had food a water to last a little while, and should she make a cup of tea? The clipboard man poked about a bit and checked if their house was more or less standing. 

She said: "Do you have water?" I said I did, and beans and tuna and a space blanket and a sleeping bag. "And a new can opener, just in case," I added.

She said: "Where is it?" I said it was in the back of my wardrobe, of course. She blanched, and said, "Imagine if your whole house fell down. Could you get at it, if your whole house fell down?"

The next day, I moved the box of supplies out of my wardrobe, to underneath the window.

In 2012, I went down to Christchurch for work: I was working with the Christchurch office on finishing a project which it was clear was just not going to get done over the phone. I convinced them to send me (it wasn't too hard - a coworker was working down there one day a week and he vouched for my importance to the project). 

I wanted to go meet up with some Tweeps, so I arranged to stay an extra day or two. 

The office was new, but had ominous cracks in the interior walls. "They say it's passed its inspection," said my Auckland-coworker, "but I never take the lift."

In the office, I noticed low, regular vibrations. I looked at my coworkers, who were completely unconcerned. I wanted to yell out, or dive under my desk, but they didn't, so neither did I. Late in the afternoon, I looked out the window at a passing freight train. 

At lunch, a Christchurch-coworker pointed a builing being demolished. "There's a ruin," he said. "Tourists like ruins."
"Oh," I said politly. "It's all a dreadful shame. What did that building use to be?" 
My coworker paused. "I don't know," he admitted. Neither did any of the others.

My Tweeps pointed out where there used to be things, and now there was only blank space: car parks and empty lots. They explained that there were only three bars in town, really, so you had to pick carefully: there was too far between them to bar hop. 

The last time I'd been in Christchurch was about 2009. I'd climbed the Cathedral tower and ridden the tramcar and gone to the bars along the river. In 2012, I mainly wandered about the ruins and took photos, wondering why I did so. 

It was morbid; it was stupid. They weren't unique images. They weren't even particularly good images. I had nowhere to share them, and even if I did, who'd want to look at stupid morbid images of where thing used to be?

It was something to do. There weren't really any shops or bars open. One bar was a tent in a carpark, and its loo was a portaloo. There was the Restart Mall, which was nice, but not big enough for my spoiled Auckland tastes. The art gallery was closed, and so was most of the museum.

Down by the river where the bars used to be, I remembered my mother translating from a bit of marble in Rome: All Our Cities Are Made of Dust.

She'd learned Latin at school, she said, and forgotten most of it, but could read words from the ruins even so. "Those Romans sure were emo," I tweeted, along with an instagram image of a crane.

I took the Red Zone bus tour, feeling guilty as I did so. But it was something to do, when there was hours and hours before my flight, and I wanted to spend a little money. "Please do! We need your tourist dollar," someone had said the night before. You had to literally sign your life away: the bus company could not guarantee you would survive. I text Jenn: "You still cool to be my next of kin??"

Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of the deadly Christchurch earthquake. At 12.51, I'll be observing a minute's silence.


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