The fall of certainty
(I recently rediscovered this piece, written a week after Christchurch’s major earthquake while my partner worked for Victim Support and we stayed in our Addington flat – Heather Sylvawood)
On this first day back in the city I find myself caught in a Carmelite-like situation where I am left to pray and imagine the sorrows of the world while others get out and do things.
Our little bolt hole is the epitome of privacy – I feel the jolts as the great earth mother creaks her bones and tosses about to find a comfortable spot to rest for another millennium, but only the sirens and occasional texts from people out in the city let me know what is happening.
Reports come in
From my partner Tre comes in a report that the evacuation centre at Pioneer Stadium where she is stationed has been evacuated itself to check out the safety of the structure. The refugees must wait to return to their borrowed mattresses on the floor.
From daughter Natalie a report that her boys are having a great time on the skateboard ramp across the road from a crumpled Basilica beyond the cordon. I suggest the boys could use some of the local streets so crumpled are they that cars treat them like a series of road humps.
Another daughter and her husband text in delight that their chemical toilet has finally arrived. It is a relief that some normalcy has descended into their lives. They’re still without power or running water but having a toilet as opposed to a hole in their backyard has become the height of luxury.
EQC staff blitz our area marking off each residence as they inspect whether it is structurally sound. Tre is briefly home, but still wearing her Victim Support ID and they recognise it. There is a moment of camaraderie – an acknowledgement of a common purpose and then they move on.
Fly past of the victims
This afternoon the air is cut, cut, cut by the rotor blades of a series of choppers. We are less than a kilometre from South Hagley Park and I suddenly realise that these khaki Darth Vadars have arrived to take bruised and broken bodies to the morgue at Burnham. It seems fitting that these victims should fly above us … they gave their lives as the city shook itself beyond recognition.
Less than three kilometres away people from many nations hand pick rubble to uncover the next victim for the Darth Vadar patrol .., and yet here, around our barely-touched flat, the wind tosses the trees and splinters the sun shadows. The traffic sound is quieter than I remember for a shopping Saturday. Even the voices of neighbours are absent.
I am here as a camp follower, displaced, working on my computer, which I can do anywhere, but don’t feel like doing. I want to be picking up pieces too. This is my city, a city that shared the birth of four of my children and five grandchildren. I want to give them back some certainty. But I cannot.
An earthquakes’ legacy
And that is probably the greatest legacy this catastrophic earthquake has given Christchurch residents – the certainty that we can never again be certain. It’s snatched the tragedy from the distance of television screens and planted it firmly in our heads. Life is uncertain.
Several days have passed – too fast. They have tumbled their impressions like loose debris into my consciousness.
- Waking to earthquakes in the night, and sometimes not waking. Dreaming weird dreams of improbable people tossed together.
- Clutching bench tops and chairs that cannot give any protection, but instinctively wanting solid support during the aftershock.
- Hearing stories of escape and more stories of random destruction.
The instinct of survival
My daughter and son-in-law are being entertained by a couple of other Kiwis in a house that does have power, water and a flushing loo. A large jolt has three of them (the Kiwis) diving under the substantial table, while our German son-in-law rushes around in a panic looking for a doorway safe enough to stand in.
“That’s what comes of living in the shaky isles,” my daughter muses. “All those earthquake drills have become instinctual.”
That may be so, but the wobbling glass and metal table I have to shelter under does not fill me with such confidence.
When will the next one strike?
We seem to be in a constant state of tension. A sudden rumble as a truck passes, or the vibration of the ranch slider sliding open, have our ears on alert. The instant fight or flight decision when a rumble materialises into a shake: ‘Is it going to go on, or get larger, or start breaking things?’
It seems that the community is being divided into opposing groups.
- The ‘copers’ who dig their outside loos, cover their roof holes or prop up their leaning walls; and the shocked and paralysed who want ‘someone’ to arrive and fix things.
- The short tempered drivers who honk if they have to wait more than a second while someone makes a tricky manoeuvre over liquefaction humps; and the courteous drivers who stop and let others cross-over in front or quietly join the queue ahead of them.
- The residents still in darkness, who fear looters; and the looters themselves whose thefts often seem to be based on survival: petrol, food, bedding.
Of course, some criminally inclined use the cover of darkness as a way of making their job so much easier, and equally there are those whose wrath and anger would have them do despicable things to the thieves.
There is certainly nothing like a disaster to bring out the best and worst in people.