– Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand

THE TALE OF THE CONE

Hi there, I’m Quentin, I’m a road cone. You know, one of the orange-and-white markers that stand around guarding the road-works areas. According to some of our friends, we’re the “carrot-coloured pointy-headed hobbits.” My full name is Quentin Cohn and my story is about Quakes, which is short for earthquakes, but what other kinds of quakes are there?

I didn’t know of quakes at all until I was rudely awakened before dawn one September morning. There were dozens of us Cohn family members all stacked together in a big shed belonging to City Care, when everything started rocking and rumbling and rattling and tumbling, and didn’t seem ever to stop. Cohns swayed and toppled, some rocked and rolled out under the door, and one of the oldest members – who had spent time on the West Coast – cried: “Wake up, adventure is upon us!” Us young ones, of course, were wide-awake already.

Within an hour two men had arrived with torches and started to load us onto a big truck. Not just ten or twenty, but dozens all at once. The truck had a special swinging-arm device for setting cones down onto roads. The truck and men travelled slowly in the morning gloom and listened to radio reports about damaged houses and dangerous roads. Soon they were depositing Cohns around watery holes that had suddenly appeared in the middle of city streets. Before long we arrived at a road that followed the river. Men in uniform were setting up roadblocks, preventing traffic from crossing a bridge or turning left – it looked as if the bridge had been pushed up half a metre too high, and the road to the left had a big gaping fissure across it. We turned right, obviously, and the swinging arm started seizing Cohn after Cohn and plonking down a line of us in the middle of the road to block off the left side, which had slumped down weirdly towards the river. When my turn came, I guess I was about number twenty out of a hundred in the line. That was my first adventure.

As the sun rose to a beautiful spring morning, I realised I was standing on the white line in the middle of Avonside Drive. Near me was a hole in the road full of water, it was so dangerous that someone had put a rubbish bin in it to warn cars. Not far away, a willow tree which was leaning over much too far towards the river. Looking away from the river, I could see a house that had lost its chimney, and gained a pile of red bricks in the drive. Beside the house, the drive seemed also to have sprung a leak: gray sandy water was bubbling up from cracks in the concrete and flowing out into the gutter. Some of it oozed across to where I was standing. It didn’t smell very nice.

The people in the house were awake and active. They set about trying to release their car from its garage. This meant removing the bricks from the drive, shovelling the silt away, putting old boards across the worst cracks, and wielding a crowbar to open the garage door which had twisted and jammed. All the time they had a transistor radio blasting the news of major event: “Quake measuring 7.1. Extensive liquefaction in low-lying areas. Damage to houses, bridges, sewers, power supply, and hundreds of roads.”

Before the day ended I had my second adventure. Men with hard hats and clipboards came walking along the street, staring into one hole after another, and muttering to themselves. Then the original truck returned with its swinging arm and whisked us all up. That’s when we gave it a nickname – the whisky truck. But why so soon? Because that particular road was being closed to all traffic, and we were needed elsewhere.

They bumped us along a few undulating streets to a road-works site. I was one of a dozen set down beside a hole that drainage workers had opened in the road. We were there to assist a flashing-orange sign that was guarding the work-site overnight. The cars had to slow down to pass through the narrow lane of roadway remaining. But the cyclists didn’t all slow down, and I saw one of them come a cropper because he suddenly hit a pothole that hadn’t been marked. He picked himself up, and would you believe, he picked me up too –just lifted me from my assigned spot and placed me beside the pothole. Then I saw it was nearly half a metre deep, more like a sinkhole!

There I stood all night, happily enough. A few cars and trucks came by, but I was not hit or even nudged, unlike one of my friends nearby who was somehow knocked over – in the morning I saw him lying down helpless and vulnerable. It was OK, though. For one thing, we’re designed to not hurt the cars that hit us. For another thing, he was righted by a man who came out from a house to grab his morning newspaper. “Ah,” said the man, “chaos there may be, but the Press has arrived before seven!

By that time the workmen were starting to appear. They left me by the sinkhole for the meantime. In practice that meant patiently standing and guarding till six at night, when a different truck came with stones and tar and patched up the sinkhole. It was just a quick repair to stop bikes from tripping over. Then instead of dropping me by my friends they took me on their truck to their tar depot. What a smelly place that was!

That tar-truck turned out to be my base for the next few weeks. I knew there were hundreds of holes in roads. What surprised me and everyone else was the number of little quakes that kept happening: dozens of them, often easy to feel, sometimes strong enough to shudder open more potholes and widen the existing cracks in roadways. The truck-men were kept busy for 10-12 hours per day, and I was one of their six friendly Cohns, that they set down every time they did a patching job. Often we formed a phalanx to block off a lane of traffic for half an hour before moving elsewhere; seldom did we stay more than a week in the same spot. One of the big guys even talked to us when man-handling us into the truck: “Up you go one more time, fellahs!”

During those weeks I travelled around much of the city. We did patching in the busy arterial roads, and then the smaller inner-city streets. The continuing quakes never came close to knocking me over, but the high winds of October and November succeeded several times, especially when I had not been set down truly vertical. As for the rainy days, they caused little hardship, except when three of us were standing in a hollow of the road and got our bases flooded by dirty water.

In December the six of us were reintegrated into a bigger group of Cohns: one of the major roads which I had previously helped to patch was now receiving a more serious rebuild. While work was done on the north side of the roadway, the south side had to be divided into westbound and eastbound lanes. And that was our job: there were two hundred of us all in one stretch of road, lined up with cars going on either side of us, sometimes going too fast for comfort, too fast for the narrow lanes. One of the Cohns even got knocked over by a van which hit him in the big reflector and crumpled him. But that left him in everybody’s way, so a truck-driver stopped to straighten him up and return him to the line.

On the second day of this, I was put in a prominent position and given a silly hat with a “keep left” arrow on. For a while I was proud to be first in the line; but actually the hat was uncomfortable, and then it proved a handicap – it helped the nor-west wind to blow me over and roll me into a ditch. Fortunately I wasn’t really needed: it was obvious to sensible drivers where their lane was.

Later in December I found myself in a quiet suburban street. Cohns were needed there to guard holes, but little work was being done. While we did our business in the street, we saw portaloos doing their business on the footpath, or rather helping people to do their business, if you know what I mean. Anyway, that’s where some children started playing with us. First they put some green foliage around my shoulders, where my upper reflector is; then they linked five of us together with little wires, all connected to a little solar panel: we were being used for fairy lights, like the Xmas lights on the veranda of their house. And then a little boy came and said: “You’re the one!” I was the one who got to wear the red Santa hat!

A burst of work was suddenly done, before the Xmas break, and at the end of one long day the road was fully opened again. I was stripped of my silly hat and lights, and we were loaded onto a truck to take to storage. The quakes seemed to have stopped. Perhaps my adventures were ending?

Oh no! On Boxing Day we all felt a sudden sharp jolt, as if we’d been punched from underneath. We knew we would be back in service soon. This time it proved to be the inner city, a district of tall buildings, some of which were considered unsafe. Twenty of us were lined up in front of a three-storey office block, so as to stop people passing too close, and soon a huge truck came to assist in this task. It deposited not fences or flashing barriers but an enormous metal shipping-container. Even a drunk driver would avoid that. Our job then was reduced to defining the lanes of traffic.

In that worthy if boring role we stayed for nearly two months. I learnt a bit more about inner-city issues and building inspections and insurance assessments and engineering reports, but mostly I just stood sleepily in the road.

Then it hit us, near the middle of a February day. First a brief rumble, then a huge jolt. That quake bumped me from underneath, and jumped me up into the air as if my weight had been suddenly switched off, then it dropped me down on my side. I heard rattling sounds, and a loud crash which was the parapet of a nearby building toppling onto some parked cars, and then screams of people running out of buildings and shops, and then sirens coming from ambulances or fire engines (I was too low down to see which). For two hours there was frenzied activity of vehicles and people trying to negotiate the rubble on the street, and then there was a weird silence: the inner city had been cordoned off to everyone except emergency teams. It took all night for the dust to settle.

The people who had shops or jobs or flats in that inner-city street were now forbidden to enter. I saw some army men rumble past in a light armoured vehicle and station themselves in the distance, at the edge of the cordon. Mostly the emergency teams were busy elsewhere, trying to rescue people from damaged buildings, and cope with more little quakes every few hours. It was some days before they checked the buildings near me, not finding anyone killed or injured. It was a week before the damaged cars were towed away. Soon after that we were carted away too, to a part of the city I didn’t know at all.

Although that nasty quake did the most damage among the tall buildings of the inner city, it had been centred near the hillside suburbs. There were places where rocks had rolled onto houses, or houses had fallen off cliffs, or cliffs with houses on top were threatening to crumble and to cause damage below. Hundreds of Cohns, hundreds of shipping-containers had been placed under cliffs to keep people away. And my group, transferred from service in the city, had to help protect the public during special operations on the cliffs. In a spot where a major road runs under a cliff, I could see men dangling from ropes on the cliff-face, dislodging suspect rocks and making them fall – making them fall not when the next random quake struck but sooner, in a controlled way. I could see some rubble that had already fallen from the cliffs, and even a bit of a house. One time the men closed the road completely for an hour and a loose chunk of cliff was dislodged, showering us with dust. But mostly we were part of the controlled conditions, helping to narrow the road to one lane and helping to assist the traffic-management guys with their stop/go signs. Over some five days, I saw a lot more bits of cliff come down safely. But how would the men know when the job was completed? I didn’t get to answer that question, because they arranged for a paint-truck to replace my line of cones with a double yellow line.

After that adventure I was assigned to the traffic-control team assisting the drainage workers. It seemed that a coherent plan had been devised to solve the shallow underground problems caused by the deep underground ones: the seismic activity. The biggest shallow problem was old sewers that had broken and needed replacing. Dozens of us lined up to guard the big holes that the big machines had to dig, sometimes we saw big long plastic pipes being fed into the ground, and periodically we were moved further along the road as the work progressed. In June, as the winter was beginning, I was stationed opposite a park where tall trees were waving in the nor-east breeze. One day I saw a stormy sou-wester strip the final leaves from an oak-tree.

The quakes kept coming, with two sizeable ones in June, but then they became smaller and fewer. The next big natural event was not seismic at all, it was snow. And that gave me a winter adventure. Snow came, even to this city by the sea. It laid a white carpet on the road where I was stationed, it covered the dusty suburb with newness, and it delayed the work of the men with the diggers. And it delighted the children. Some of them made a big snowman in the park, with a tall pointy hat. And guess what, the big pointy hat was one of my Cohn brothers. They grabbed me too, for another purpose. They had found a narrow hole beside the footpath, and they poked me into it, point downwards. Then they made a big snowball and put it on top. The result was possibly the world’s first big Ice-Cream Cohn! They even took a photo of it. It looks a bit like an ordinary ice-cream being licked by a funny little man. But actually the man is normal-sized, and the Cohn is yours truly, Quentin!

The road-digging efforts tailed off too, and by September – a year after the first quake – many Cohns were taken back to the storage shed where I had started. But many were still needed, since hundreds of streets had not been properly repaired. I was one of those guarding road holes in a low-lying suburb where fewer and fewer people were living. Near me was a concrete-block wall with a few blocks missing – that left a zigzag pattern as if it was trying to be a staircase.

By December half the houses were empty, and two days before Xmas two new quakes wet my feet with dirty water. That’s when more people left, and not just for summer holidays, they left for good taking all their belongings. I was placed to mark a little depression in the roadway, barely two centimetres deep at first, but it got slowly deeper as tremors kept coming from passing trucks or from underneath.

By mid-February only two families remained at my end of the street. And they were preparing to commemorate the day of the worst quake. It was the anniversary of that nasty jumping quake that had brought down big buildings and killed 185 people. The day before 22 February, I saw an eight-year-old girl gathering flowers from her dry tidy garden and the overgrown gardens of her neighbours’ abandoned homes. As soon as her left arm was full of flowers, she came out to the little group of Cohns on the road. “Here’s a blue one for you!” she said, and placed an agapanthus in the hole on top of my head. “It’s for grief and remembrance.”

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