– Hereford Street, Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand

Originally posted on my blog, on the 26th of February 2011.

Well. What can I even say? You all know what this post will be about – what other subject could possibly be on anyone’s mind at a time like this?

I need to write this and yet I have put it off for days now. I know I have been blasé about the September quake, but I doubt there’s a single soul who could be about this one. I can give you the facts – 6.3 magnitude, 4km deep, 10km from the city centre, it struck at 12.51pm on Tuesday the 22nd of February. So far, the confirmed body count stands at 123, though no one is kidding themselves that the real tally doesn’t stand far greater than that. The facts are bare, cold and dispassionate. The images are awful, but two dimensional. All I can give you that’s human is my story.

Shortly after 12.30pm, I came out of an arduous conference and I was starving. I went downstairs, glanced at my calendar, answered a few emails and stressed about my next meeting. My tummy was grumbling audibly – time for lunch! I planned to grab something easy from right across the road in Shades arcade and eat it at my desk while I worked. But of course the little nicotine monster was grumbling too, so I threw a couple of cigarettes and a lighter in my pocket, and five dollars for the sushi of the day (I hoped it would be surimi!), and headed outside. I planned to only be a few minutes so I left my handbag and my phone on my desk. When I locked my screen, it was 12.43.

Outside, I smoked that cigarette and began to relax. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, and I planned my meeting prep in my mind as I puffed. The smoking area is under a big concrete canopy supported by four huge concrete pillars. The staff’s motorbikes are parked there too. I’d just popped the butt in the ashtray when the world turned upside down.

We have been through thousands of aftershocks. I recognised the rumble, and leaned my hand on a concrete pillar to wait it out, as always. But this was no normal worldly jitter. The earth literally lurched from side to side. My mind barely took in what was happening – why was the building opposite leaping around like a drunkard? It wasn’t until the motorbikes began to migrate that I actually registered that I was in danger.

At first they fell like dominoes. One after another, they crashed into one another, with a crashing racket that barely registered over the gigantic rumble of the city’s death throes. I watched a yellow bike that I’d often admired (a sleek, cat-like machine – so beautiful) as it rolled and slewed towards me. Then bikes were everywhere and I knew I had to move before their game of ten-pin bowling made a strike out of my body. So I lurched to the right, but soon realised I was unable to walk properly – this thing seemed to go on forever! I made my way to the other pillar, closer to the street, and a clear space that the bikes had vacated. I hadn’t even noticed that my boss was out there too until she grabbed onto my arm and we held on for dear life until the shaking and rolling subsided.

My arm linked around Vicki’s, I watched the building across the street tumble down to the ground. Have you ever snapped a big piece of polystyrene in two? That’s what it looked like. Painted polystyrene, broken up by huge hands. My first, inane, thought was “oh look, it’s white on the inside.” Huge pieces of white and painted rubble lay all around us, everything, even the very air, filled with a white, choking dust.

Then my mind snapped out of it and finally the cogs started turning. Vicki had let go of me and was already shouting orders to people standing around. I grabbed her and cried “what would you like me to do? Tell me what I can do!” She stared at me blankly for a second before she told me to get everyone safely off the street. Her voice was a thin thread of panic. I suspect that mine was too. We both yelled over the deafness in our ringing ears.

The dust was everywhere. I didn’t even look at my building. I headed for the street and found the people I cared about. I saw a colleague who did not cope well with the September quake and made for her. She shook like a leaf and cried into her dead cellphone. Surrounded by people, she yet looked alone. I threw my arms around her, cellphone, snot and all, and hugged her for all I was worth. And then we moved off the street.

Everyone looked like victims of a bombing – shell-shocked, crying, vacant and covered in dust, we shambled on up the street, walking on chunks of what used to be shops. The building I’d watched crumble had a corner still standing. It trembled and rattled like crockery in a cupboard when a big truck goes past. A man I didn’t know saw this. “Get away from the building!”, he yelled, but few people heard him. I added my voice to his and some people listened. A space cleared around its trajectory and we filed along the wrong side of the street to the intersection.

The mass of humanity there was beyond belief. A few cars were stuck in the middle, like bewildered islands in a sea of people. The river had risen in a muddy, silty beige ugliness, underneath a bridge that had erected its own barricade of pavement. It resembled a rug that someone has slipped on, creating a huge hump in the middle. I turned right and made for the bank of the river where there was some clear space for me to breathe.

I found other friends there, holding fruitless cellphones with hands that trembled. I looked around for other people I knew. I hugged everyone I recognised. I sat down. I stood up again. I lit another cigarette.

Water bubbled up through the ground and our shoes sank into the soggy grass. I found a relatively stable place but moved again when the first of the big aftershocks shook the earth again. I’d been standing by a small concrete pool which sloshed its waters out in huge crashing waves. Very tall buildings across the narrow street of Oxford Tce jiggled and swayed. I wondered if there was anywhere I could stand that was safe.

No one knew quite what to do or where to go next. Masses of people were beginning to cross the bridge further down, heading god knows where. Friends left me to go home because they could think of nothing else to do. I decided to follow suit while I still could, so I joined the line of town refugees and headed over the bridge.

Traffic on all the passable streets was gridlocked. I weaved through masses of people and cars down Worcester and Montreal streets. Outside St Elmo’s Court a man in a vest was hoarsely warning people to stay away from the building, which had already been cracked and was still covered with scaffolding from the September quake. “For god’s sake,” he whisper-yelled, “can’t they see the danger?” I crossed the street to the Dux and continued on.

Cashel St was awash with people making their way to the park. I ducked between them and nearly ran to my house, and was so relieved to see it still standing. My keys, of course, were in the office, but my cat was inside and all I could think about was how frightened she must be. The possibility that she could be hurt was an evil worm of a thought crawling through my brain, but I squashed it with action. Grabbing my recycling bin off the street, I jimmied open a window to the lounge and levered myself through the window, ignoring the cobwebs that clung to my coat. There’s nothing like adrenaline and worry to combat the fear of spiders!

“Shadow!” I called desperately, once inside, ignoring the carnage that was my possessions smashed and scattered across the room. “Shadow! Shadow!” I went all through the house, crunching over broken things, negotiating fallen furniture. I found her finally under my bed. She was spooked but very happy to see me. I threw open both my doors and got us both outside.

I sat on the street for an age. Aftershocks continued to plague us; some of them were huge, and things continued to smash and rattle indoors. Traffic was three deep on the two lane street. I moved all the recycling bins onto the verge to give them room. It made me coldly, unreasonably angry to think that the rubbish truck guys had left them standing there, blocking the way. I guess I had to be angry at something, and it was easier than being angry with the earth itself.

After a while I ventured back inside to survey the actual damage. Walls and floors were buckled and bent, but the house still stood, so I grabbed a broom and began to sweep. Neighbours talked to me and used my toilet, which didn’t flush, but was safer than theirs on the floor above. I swept, and I comforted my cat, and I still didn’t cry.

At some point in the afternoon, I saw a man wandering around outside, looking lost. He had big dirty dreads in his hair and faded tattoos covering arms poking out of unkempt clothing. He wanted to use my phone. As he waited for his friend to answer, he shared his stories with me.

He had been with his wife, he said, and then had lost her. After, he was walking along the street amidst the carnage, walking with a police officer, when he suddenly told the cop to stop. The cop asked why. Dreaded dude reached down into some rubble and his hand touched another human hand. The cop asked him how he knew. He was clairvoyant, he said. The cop asked him how long he’d been clairvoyant. “A while”, he said, “I dunno.”

And right after it happened, he had been in the square. A woman he didn’t know asked him for a hug. He hugged her. She asked him for another hug. He hugged her again. She asked him for another. (This story went on for quite a while). Eventually, he said he had to go and find his wife and he hugged her once more and left.

Dreaded guy didn’t manage to raise his friend on the phone. He offered me some LSD and some marijuana before he left. I said no thanks, but would really like some nicotine. But cigarettes were the one thing he didn’t have. I put on a patch instead.

That night, without power, sewerage or running water, my friendly neighbours having driven away, probably for good, I sat alone with a single candle that I cupped in my hand. I hadn’t been able to raise anyone on my landline, and I felt lonely, alone and frightened. One of the aftershocks had prevented my back door from closing. The security latch barely reached across to hold it closed, and it left a big gaping gap. I ate half a tin of baked beans, cold. I wondered what I could, or should, do. There didn’t seem to be anything, and so I did that.

Around ten, I finally spoke to a friendly voice when my friend Matt called me. My own voice must have betrayed how I was feeling, because he said he was coming over and bringing hot water for coffee. Also cigarettes. Mine were, of course, in my handbag at work, along with the rest of my essentials. I was desperate for a cigarette and had resorted to rolling up the residual tobacco from cigarette butts. Don’t judge. Remember, smoking saved my life. If I hadn’t gone for a cigarette at lunchtime, I probably wouldn’t be here writing this.

He arrived some time later, having ninja-skilfully lied his way past the police cordons, and never have I been so glad to see anyone in my life. We drank coffee from plastic beakers (all clean coffee mugs had smashed, and there was no water to wash any dishes) and smoked cigarettes and just sat together, talking. It felt so good to finally have someone to hug me. Finally I was not the one taking care of others. I was the one being taken care of. It broke me down at last. I cried.

We slept, eventually, rolling with the aftershocks, just glad to be alive. In the morning, Matt pointed out the giant bow in my ceiling, the hump in my floor, and the way one wall tilted alarmingly away from the others. When the house started making scary creaking sounds, it was clear I could no longer stay there. Still, I resisted. Leaving my house spelt something that my mind, my independence and my sense of security could not accept. I was homeless.

I bawled like a baby as I shouldered my bag and Matt picked up Shadow and we walked out of the street. I blubbered all the way to his house, no doubt looking ugly as sin, but he bore with it and comforted me and got me to his place, which is where I am now. They have water and power and a toilet we’re allowed to flush. Still I cry first thing each morning. My body feels like it weighs twice as much as it should, as if I’ve swallowed too much of that rubble that looked like polystyrene but wasn’t. That rubble that concealed people that were alive one moment, and not the next.

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