February 2011: My bed for the last week is a large size airbed on the lounge floor, occupied by myself and two frightened children. At night we huddle close, sing brave songs and sleep restlessly. Around the airbed there are some vital supplies – two hand-winding torches, a bottle of water, and a basket containing my car keys, handbag and a small bag of lollies. My husband sleeps upstairs, where the room rock’n’rolls on a regular basis. At night, the house is pitch black, and quiet bar the sound of army helicopters and sirens wailing through the night.
I close my eyes. I don’t like to close my eyes; images flood in – it’s 12.45 on a Tuesday; I’m lounging on the sofa at home, calling to Charlotte, “it’s time to get dressed for Fairy Dancing” and she, “I love Fairy dancing,” skipping down the hall – but then, the floor pulls away from her and the walls move in towards me as a horrendous roaring fills the air. The room pulls back away from me and the roaring is joined by Charlotte’s screams as pictures leap from the walls, glasses from cupboards and ornaments and toys dance out of their places in a wild rumba, smashing on the ground around Charlotte’s small, bare feet. I try to get to her but the floor throws me down again, and all I can hear is our screams as the world tosses wildly about us. The floor is still jiving when I get to her, pulling her into my arms and we both sob, huddled down in a sea of broken glass.
“Mummy, mum that was an earthquake” she says, breathlessly hysterical, “and I wasn’t scared!” like that’s the most important thing, not to be scared.
I brush hair out of her grey eyes, “Yes it was honey, and I was scared.”
We walk outside to a world removed. Porritt Park is flooded again, the second time in less than six months. Water gushes from a number of shattered pipes and a geyser of grey silt flows onto our lawn. Charlotte calls it a mud-well. She says it stinks like poohs.
I text my husband who’s at a business meeting; is he OK? Can he get Tim from school? He is, he can – he’s already on the way. Neighbours start to come out onto the street and Charlotte and I walk the line, down to the old couple at the corner and back checking that everyone is OK. We feel safer doing this than staying in the moving house with wobbly walls, feel a little bit important like somehow, our walking the line helps. There’s a sense of desolation this time; after September fourth, there was a strange, mystical sense of something magical, of somehow being touched by angels. Maybe because that was the middle of the night and so ethereal, maybe because no-one died. Charlotte and I, we knew by the pure violence that something more malevolent had hit us this time.
About half an hour later the cars started coming from town, a steady, bumper-to-bumper stream of them pouring home, rushing over the broken streets through mud and silt up to the bumpers to see if they still had homes, had families and pets to rush home to. Then the foot traffic begins, dozens and then hundreds of exhausted, filthy people struggling through knee deep sludge and sewerage, in their work clothes; ladies in high heels with feet torn and blistered, men in suits with the jackets, ties and shirts thrown over their arms. They walk with out talking, without looking, and when I look at their faces, they have the blank, nothing gaze of Stepford Wives. I’d seen that look before, in the eyes of a rabbit I found that had been hit by a car. Seeing something that was stuck in its mind, something terrible that wasn’t there any more but was still in its eyes.
Charlotte and I stand at the gate for ages, waiting for Sam and Tim to come home. After a while we bring out a bottle of orange juice and some biscuits, giving them out with hugs and smiles which seem weak. We hear stories of things that will haunt me forever, even though I wasn’t there to see the things – hearing them is enough.
The girl down the road comes home from school, falls crying into my arms and joins us giving out juice. We give gumboots to someone whose shoes had fallen apart, old sneakers to another. Later when it starts to get dark and drizzly, I try to drive someone home but the roads have turned into mud rivers and I can only go a few hundred metres before having to turn back. The woman walks to her brother in laws’ house, through the mud and rain and pitch dark with only a bent umbrella as protection against the horror of that day.
Finally Sam gets home, five hours to drive from Ilam to Avondale. We sit in the car with mugs of tea boiled on my camp stove – we have no power or water – and listen to the radio. Twenty-two bridges are down. There are buildings fallen and still falling everywhere. People have died, and are dying. Sam tells me of the devastation of the city, how he had to drive all over, through gridlock traffic, to find a way home. He tells me the Fairy Dancing building has collapsed, and I burst into tears. We go back inside and curl up with the children in a nest of cushions on the lounge floor. It’s days before I go back upstairs to face the ruins of my room.