Cold Comfort in Christchurch

Many years ago I wrote an article about what might happen if an earthquake occurred in Christchurch. The city is pleasant, quiet and colonial. It breathes settler settlement in most of its old established buildings. A quiet stream known as the Avon River ambles peacefully through the city’s heart. Few of Christchurch’s European know much about their Maori counterparts. The city, like the nation, New Zealand, was based on assimilation – forcing Maori to give up their land and develop European ways. Yes, Christchurch is a stately city with many stately buildings and schools for the privileged. It has always purred along with a graceful provision of comfort and safety for those who fit within its edges.

My earthquake article written some 15 years ago and published in The Press was about a woman running a boutique, her children at schools several kilometers away, her husband at work in the central city. And of course the collapse that occurred in their lives was fictional. The chances of an earthquake occurring in Wellington were so much higher that even at the time I wrote the warning piece I took little notice of it myself.

Now I have experienced first-hand the desperation of driving through dead traffic lights and past stunned people to my children’s school. For me this was the moment the earthquake hit – the moment I feared my children might be harmed. The emotion that swept my body at seeing them alive can only be likened to the experience of seeing your own newly birthed child.

Then cries of alarm began again as we crouched on the playground pressing our fingers into the concrete as cracks appeared around us. Gradually the news seeped in from parents arriving from the centre of town, we heard about the bodies, the collapsed buildings and of course tension rippled around the children whose parents at not yet appeared.

Two girls cried hysterically that their mother was dead, little could comfort them but it became necessary for teachers and other parents to try distraction techniques before the hysteria spread. (Their mother, a nurse, arrived about an hour later).

I am aware as I write this blog – my first – that I haven’t mentioned that one of my sons was still at a school a kilometer away. It is an omission that has much to do with the desire to refrain from revisiting that fear and pain. It was my mother who rushed to get him and who found him standing outside a semi collapsed classroom with a teacher in tears and large cracks appearing in the earth. The sewer pipes had broken and my mother later said that the stench contributed to the surreal sense that this was no longer our city, or even our planet.

I also haven’t mentioned where I was or how I felt when the quake first hit. This is a round-about tale and like many traumatic events it is remembered in a sequence that is disconnected and which I cannot yet bring myself to edit.

I was with my friend Anna when the jolt struck, we had left University where we are both retraining as teachers. The campus cafeteria was crowded and we decided to find a more sedate location. We moaned about the prices – preferring to choose something delectable rather than cheap how do single mums afford such meals? They share! We made our order and then it happened, the earth fell away.

Anna was calm and it was her voice that urged me up. I remember being at the side of our table and moaning and then we were scrambling to get outside. I insisted we tell the waiter we were leaving so she wouldn’t think we were doing a runner, avoiding paying for our meal. When I think back now I realise I was in shock and shock allows people to switch to auto pilot. One of the more charming characteristics of Christchurch citizens is that they are generally well-mannered and orderly – even in a crisis and in a crisis that attitude saves lives.

Yet as a Cantabrian – Canterbury being the province Christchurch nestles in – I often felt a sense of tension in my homecircle, almost as though there was an unexploded bomb waiting to be detonated. Perhaps it had something to do with old money, the first four ships and conservatism – the sense that those old values don’t always prevail.

Christchurch had been built on a reclaimed swamp, it’s natural environment, flax and water had been submerged, perhaps the transition was only temporary.

Two hours after the earthquake I sat outside the house on unstable land holding my children in my arms as a weak misty rain fell on our tired bodies. All we could do was live through the many aftershocks – survive when so many others could not.

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