4 September, 2010. 4.35 am. Wild horses stampede through my dreams. The earth trembles beneath their feet. The earth is shaking, cracking. Imploding. A plane is plummeting from the sky.
Chris’s voice above the din: “What the hell…?”
Then we’re lurching across the floor. Switch on the light. Nothing. Pitch black night. A giant fist picks up the house and slams it back down. And throws it sideways. The floor, the walls are rattling. Glass shattering. A vortex of sound fills every room. The dog! Get under the bed! But the dog! Bookcases are falling. The earth is heaving. Here. Now. Under us. This is it. We know it now. The Big One.
We lie on the carpet. Five minutes? Ten minutes? The noise dies down. The shaking subsides. The earth continues to growl. We wriggle out from under the bed. Chris wants to go to the kitchen to find a torch. Not yet. There’s broken glass. Wait for dawn.
A pale slice of light sneaks around the edge of the curtain. We creep along the hall and open the door. The living room is a mountain of books and smashed crockery. No dog. Under the bookcase? No. He comes from behind the sofa, tail wagging with relief. The piano is standing a metre from the wall. The sideboard lies on its front. A mess of glass, oil, soy sauce, coffee and rice on the kitchen floor. Shards of shattered china. I pick up a golden serpent from the spout of a teapot my father bought in Japan in 1940. It survived in his arms when he fell down two flights of stairs. I pick up pieces of my grandmother’s tea set. She’d kept it wrapped in tissue paper for decades to keep it safe.
A knock at the door. Our neighbour checking on us. Chris goes to check on others.
The phone rings. Our son has just received a text in Sydney about an earthquake in Christchurch. Is that true? He sounds sleepy. I sit in the rubble and cry. We ring our daughter in Brisbane before she sees it on the news. A what? You’re kidding! Oh my God! I cry again, this time with relief. I’m so glad you’re not in Christchurch.
In the garden the old concrete water tower lies in pieces and water gushes over the grass. Half of the water from the swimming pool is soaking the lawn. We sit in the car and listen to the radio. They’re saying the epicentre is in Greendale. Not the Big One after all, but a previously unknown fault line. We look at each other. So it was right under us. A 7.1? Is that bad? The airport is closed. Massive damage in the city. There’s no electricity. What’s liquefaction? But at least no one died.
We drive to Rolleston for bread. Power lines lie twisted and tangled with tree branches on the grass verges. We steer around lumps and gashes in the road. The supermarket is closed, but the baker in Rolleston has freshly baked bread about to come out of the oven. He still has electricity. I sip a cup of coffee while we wait. The shop fills with comforting aromas. This could almost feel normal I say, except that I’m so very cold.
It isn’t logical.“
Chris says he can’t get rid of the sense of a malevolent presence in the house and that freaks him out because it isn’t logical. In the days and weeks ahead we read in the local newspaper how common a reaction that is. But Chris hates feeling that way. It isn’t logical. He keeps saying it.
No sleep for a week. No running water. Constant aftershocks that keep me frayed at the edges. Television images of city streets awash with grey mud and broken buildings. We live in a rural area and see lines of trees displaced by a metre or more. Someone’s house has split in two. A friend tells me all her dairy cows had fallen over at the same time, minutes before they were due to go in the milking shed. Photographs appear in the paper of children standing grinning in the fissures in the roads. I break out in goose bumps and try unsuccessfully to suppress mental images of the earth closing over them in a final shudder.
21 February, 2011. First day of term after the long summer break. I meet Chris in the city after work. We order dinner and I say how I love this restaurant and how much I’m looking forward to the film in the Arts Centre. After the film we walk over to Le Cafe and sit in the courtyard with our coffee watching the restaurant tram rumble by, its fairy lights twinkling. The air is warm and soft. I say I wouldn’t like to be upstairs in Le Cafe when an aftershock strikes. Chris says, well they’re decreasing in frequency and things are getting back to normal. We talk about the Mueck exhibition we saw a few weeks ago at the Art Gallery and the film we’ve just seen and tell each other the earthquakes will soon fade into the file of bad memories.
22 February, 2011. I collect a pile of papers from the printery and head for my office. They’re so heavy that I change my resolve, made last September, never to use the lifts. As I take what I need from my desk for today’s class, a giant hammer rams the building into the ground. I buckle over my desk. The earth roars through the floors and walls. Above the clamour, students scream in the corridors. Files fly off shelves. The lights go out. I scramble around in the dark for my bag and glasses, but can’t find my keys. The evacuation siren shrieks and I join the exodus down the stairs. Water from the sprinkler system pours from the ceiling. In the car park motorbikes lie scattered on the ground. The tarmac rolls beneath my feet. Concrete waves in a concrete sea. Police cars and ambulances, sirens wailing, tear down Madras St. A white-faced colleague tells me she’s just seen part of the Catholic Cathedral fall. Another says her husband is in the CBD and she’s worried about the building. I fret about my car keys. A security guard tells me I can’t go back for them. There are dead people in Cashel Street, she says, poker-faced. Dead people. So no, she’s Not. Letting. Anyone. Back. In. The. Building.
I try to ring Chris on my mobile, but can’t get through. I walk with a colleague to her house. We walk up Allen Street, holding on to each other as we pick our way around grey sludge oozing up from the ground, past buildings like dolls’ houses with each floor exposed. The fronts of the buildings lie in heaps on the pavements. Cars jam the roads. I hear my name and turn to see my colleague and near neighbour, Marie, waving at me from the passenger seat of a car. The driver offers me a lift. We inch along the road and over the bridge, nose to tail. An aftershock rocks the car and I dig my fingers into my arms. A passing motorist winds down his window: “That was a good one eh!” A hysterical edge to his voice. Others are ashen-faced. Marie is trying to ring her daughter who works in the CBD. The driver talks in calm, reassuring tones. I text Chris then sit in numb silence.
A forty minute journey takes two and a half hours, but now I’m walking down our driveway. Chris is standing in the doorway, anxiety etched on his face. It was a 6.3, he says. He couldn’t contact me as the phone lines were overloaded. My text had eventually got through to him, so he knew I was safe.
We watch the images on TV of the collapsed CTV building, people pulling the dead and injured from piles of concrete in Cashel Street. And only then do we realise how bad it really is.
The days are filled with phone calls. Some colleagues narrowly missed being flattened by falling masonry. A friend’s house has collapsed. Other friends have chimneys through their roofs. Another helped pull survivors from a crushed bus full of dead people. As news spreads around the world, frantic family and friends ring.
I try to retrieve my car from work. The soldiers guarding the cordoned-off street refuse to let me pass. They send me on a wild goose chase of permits. There’s no traffic except army tanks and no people except soldiers. Grey dust blows over broken roads and wrecked buildings. I realise I’m hyperventilating. I’m caught in one of those ghastly apocalyptic movies that I hate. A policeman tells us we need to register the car which will eventually be retrieved by police. This leads nowhere. Five weeks later I try again. This time the soldiers are more helpful and I drive it away, first to the car groomers to clean off the green paint that Civil Defence has sprayed over the windscreen to signify it is undamaged.
The students have been relocated to different campuses and the staff are allowed back into the city campus to collect teaching materials. Books lie scattered on the library floor. Broken glass in the atrium. The guard takes me up in the lift to my office. Is the lift okay? Well, he wouldn’t be in it if it wasn’t, he says. Then: But you should see the other lift ha ha! After I find my files I go back down the stairs. Resolve again NOT to use the lifts. EVER.
The cordon is moved further down Madras Street and we resume teaching at the city campus. The students are tired and anxious, but happy to be back. In shops and offices and on the street earthquake stories replace small talk about the weather. Christchurch is a small city. Almost everyone knows someone among the 185 dead or 164 seriously injured.
My publisher at Canterbury University Press tells me the earthquake has caused some disruptions to the publishing schedule, so my book, due for release in August, will now be published in June. The publishing team has to work from home as their building has been taken over by staff displaced from the damaged Registry building. The book designer has had to move house several times. I’m astonished and grateful for their commitment.
3 March, 2011. Our son is visiting from Sydney and we drive to Cave Stream to celebrate Chris’s birthday. The sky is cerulean blue and a deep silence hugs the hills. The benign side of nature. Then we remember that this oh-so-beautiful landscape was formed by earthquakes. We light a candle on Chris’s cake. A lone walker passes by and calls out, “Happy birthday!” It makes me feel ridiculously happy.
13 June, 2011. I’m in the computer room with students when, with no warning, the building is throttled within an inch of its life. We know the drill now. Under the desks until the shaking stops then down the stairs to the car park. We’re given the all-clear, but the students want to go home. I think of staying to mark essays, but the quake was 5.6 so a sizeable aftershock may soon follow. I decide to go home. I’m almost there when I hear on the radio that a 6.3 has just hit.
Another week of closures. More clean-ups. The students come back for their exams. My book is launched on 23 June. Despite ash clouds from Chile and earthquakes in Christchurch, our son, daughter, son-in-law and a friend fly from Australia for the launch and friends arrive from all around New Zealand. After the launch a group of 30 of us go to one of the few restaurants still operating. Candlelight flickers on the faces of my family and friends. Tomorrow and all the tomorrows following hold question marks, but tonight we are together. Tonight we will celebrate.
Sandra Arnold lives in Greendale, North Canterbury, New Zealand. An award-winning writer with a PhD in Creative Writing from CQ University, Australia, she is the author of two novels and a book on parental bereavement. Her short stories have been widely published and anthologised in New Zealand and internationally. Her flash fiction appears in numerous journals including the anthologies, Sleep is a Beautiful Colour (National Flash Fiction Day, UK, 2017), Fresh Ink (Cloud Ink Press, NZ, 2017) and is forthcoming in Bonsai: The Big Book of Small Stories (Canterbury University Press, NZ, 2018). She has been nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize and the 2018 Best Small Fictions. Sandra’s website is www.sandraarnold.co.nz.
This is an edited extract from “Moments of magnitude”, first published in Social Alternatives, Vol 32, no 3, October 2012, Disaster dialogues: Representations of catastrophe in word and image. University of the Sunshine Coast, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Queensland, Australia.