(By Lilian Birmingham – from interviews. Posted with permission.)
At 12:51pm on February 22, 2011 an earthquake hit Christchurch, New Zealand. It lasted forty-one seconds.
Marijke Cuthbertson stopped watching television when everything began to judder and shake. Then videos and DVD’s started peppering the room and the television screen went blank. On her left, books spewed from her bookcase and paintings fell off the wall. Incidental tables, near her, toppled in random directions. She heard plates and jars shattering in the kitchen amidst thuds as things hit the floor.
Marijke felt her chair jumping. In front of her, her 29 inch standard TV lunged toward her. Her DVD player came too, stopping a foot from her chair. The six foot high entertainment center toppled and crashed onto the television, landing eighteen inches from her.
“What on earth’s happening?” The earthquake in September hadn’t been like this. Its aftershocks weren’t like this either. They felt like the house sliding around on ball bearings. Before September, life had paralleled the Christchurch Cathedral which stood for a hundred years without any earthquake damage.
What if my foot rest had been up? What if the television hadn’t broken the fall of the entertainment center? What if the power cords hadn’t broken the flights of the TV and DVD player?
A compulsion to leave seized her. ‘Get my purse. Get a bottle of water from the fridge. Turn off the power.’
Marijke crossed the lounge. In the hall, she saw the five foot tallboy in the spare room lying on the floor. Reality started to sink in.
A moment later she reached her bedroom. The dresser with a mirror leaned against her bed; its drawers open. On the other side of the room the other dresser had fallen over. Grabbing her purse from the nearby chair she hurried to the kitchen where cupboard doors stood open, sliding drawers stuck out and the bench lay empty. Stepping carefully through broken cups, spilt flour and sugar, cans and spice bottles, she turned off the power and took a bottle of water from the fridge.
She hastened to the front door. The door wouldn’t open.
Working to calm herself she went to the sliding door in the lounge.
Through the door, grey sandy water flowed toward her from under the fence in the back corner, like flood water racing across level ground. It had already enveloped her roses, red hot pokers and sunflowers. It had swept around her clothes line and into the pansies growing alongside her house. The water drained away as she watched and left behind what looked like a cement pad.
Marijke tried to open the slider but it wouldn’t budge. She didn’t want to be locked inside. She reached for the window beside the door that hinged at the top and could be pushed out an arm’s length at the bottom. She pushed it open and eased her right leg up and out. Her foot touched the patio and she found she could stand there with the opening at crotch level but she couldn’t go any further. How does a seventy-three year old get her left leg high enough to get out? No one could see her from the road because of a privacy gate. Someone could see her from her neighbour’s laundry room but no one stood there.
Just then her neighbor Kate called her name and came through the gate with her three year old daughter. “Glory be!” Marijke called back.
Kate helped free Marijke and told her that she couldn’t get out her front door either. She continued to talk, fretting about a fountain of water in her back yard and wishing her husband had a cell phone. Marijke didn’t know how to help. She wanted to go to her son’s place, fifteen houses away. Once free of the house, they said goodbye and Marijke started walking.
Marijke slowed at Kate’s driveway. An inch deep river of sandy water poured down from behind her house and flowed on into storm drains. She sloshed through and continued walking.
Turning right from Baffin Street into Vancouver Crescent, she saw two retired women supporting a third lady in her eighties. The eyes of the middle woman looked like saucers. The sight haunted Marijke, but she couldn’t help them. She kept walking.
Several houses further on, sandy water streamed from a driveway across the street. It flowed both along Vancouver Crescent and into the Winnipeg Place cul-de-sac until reaching storm drains. Three teenagers tried to stop traffic, but two cars plowed through and Marijke saw that the water was a foot deep.
She turned into Winnipeg Place and arrived at her son’s home. Adrienne, her daughter-in-law, opened the door. She was grimacing in pain and holding her right side. Marijke learned she had been washing up from lunch when a jolt threw her eight feet to her right, through the opening into the hallway, and almost to the laundry door.
Mark arrived five minutes after his mother. He’d run from between lightweight metal shelves at work when the earthquake began. Finding a truck with a window down he’d thrust his head inside and hung on. Around him, fluorescent lights fell and smashed. The floor where he had been standing became littered with things falling from the shelves.
Mark came home with a workmate because a locker had fallen on his bike. He could tell them about the cloud of dust he saw across the bay at Redcliffs, looking over from Dyers Road. He could have mentioned broken power lines and leaning power poles he’d passed. He could have mentioned property damage he saw or what amazed him most – manholes in the middle of the road sitting proud, but something else was on his mind.
Mark wondered where his children were. They were home and very quiet. He found them sitting on the floor in the hall. Fourteen year old Angela had been knocked to the floor by the quake. She could have been on the road biking if she had not missed the half day of school that day. Five year old Jesse’s heart still pounded. After the quake Angela had guided him to the only “normal” room in the house. There, they sat together, away from the hazards and disarray within the other rooms.
Mark returned to the lounge where his wife was on her cell phone. His mum stood looking down at the cracked television sitting in the middle of the room. He came over and she shared what she knew. In the kitchen they had two dinner plates not broken… A bottle of bleach was spilt in the laundry…
Adrienne finished on the phone and told them her mum was okay. The quake scared her and she’d gone next door. Adrienne had called home first but no one answered. It had taken time to get another dial tone.
Mark listened and looked around. Satisfied everyone was okay, he remarked, “Well, let’s clean up. I’ll deal with the bleach – don’t want Jesse wandering in there the way it is…”