It’s nearly two months to the day and I haven’t written it yet. If I don’t, I’m going to forget it, and as much as I want to forget it I want to remember it too.
So it’s a Tuesday, and I’m at the Council for a morning briefing. I have a busy day ahead, I’ve been asked to open the French Film Festival and I have to nip home at lunchtime and change ahead of the afternoon workshop.
It’s half past twelve or so and I’m in my bedroom putting on makeup, debating what bracelet to wear. At the same time I’m on the phone with John McCrone from the Press newspaper. We’re talking about Hugh Pavletich’s views on urban sprawl, Hugh having refuted some intention of the council. I’m declaiming and generally holding forth. John is being very polite and sounding remarkably interested. Town planning is my passion (one of them) – it’s not everybody’s.
I’m in my underwear, about to put on my little summer frock, when with absolutely no warning the house starts leaping off the ground. I shout into the phone, three times, one short little anglo-saxon word. The phone goes dead in my hand. I hear myself shrieking. I’m crying, I’m under the doorframe. The house is throwing itself up and down. There’s crashing and glass and mayhem. I’m crying and screaming and trying to be still, holding on to the door frame, watching the china cabinet beside me, thinking of my bare feet.
The movement slows. My heart is exploding in my chest. I’m standing by the windows in my bedroom. Jennifer is across the road. She has her hand over her mouth, her head is shaking. I don’t know what clothes to put on to wear outside to see her. I look at my dress, look at my trousers, can’t decide. It takes hours. Finally I put the dress on, bare feet, go across the road.
Sirens, neighbours, terror. We check that we are all right. We talk, we connect.
I go back inside. The house is in tatters. The piano has fallen over, the lounge is a sea of broken crystal, the kitchen is a mass of shards of china and spice. Pepper is on the bed in my room, wide eyed, panting, terrified. I wander around the house, shaking my head in disbelief. That is all I manage to do.
A few minutes later, I text the children. They are both at school in the CBD. Our retrieval plan is that they will return home.
I hear back from Chris relatively quickly. He is fine, he has seen Nick, Nick is fine too. They saw each other when it went off. Chris was on the second floor of Hallensteins. Nick was in Subway, in Cashel Mall. They shot each other the guns. They grinned. I am reassured. It’s just another aftershock. The boys are ok. It’s all fine.
Another aftershock. I tell it where it can go. It ignores me.
Brother Adam rings from up north, am I all right. Yes, I tell him, although I know I am not. He tells me what he’s seeing on the TV, that there have been deaths. I have no electricity, no radio, no TV, I have no idea. Things go rather bad for a while after that. I realise that he’s talking about where the boys are.
I try again to get in touch with the kids. I make contact with Chris again. It takes a long time. Chris tells me that the school won’t release Nick, that he needs a guardian before they will let him come home. You sit tight, I tell him – I’m coming to get you. Under no circumstances are you to walk in the central city. I know what those buildings are capable of.
I get Pepper, get her in the car. We drive to Opawa Road, to the Ensors Road roundabout and I realise the futility of the exercise. Cars, cars, cars. I do a u-turn. I see liquefaction on the streets, didn’t have that last time. Drive home, ditch the car, grab Pepper, put my running shoes and my trousers on and we start to walk and run.
As I get to Opawa Road, the air starts to smell of smoke. Traffic is everywhere. It is phenomenal. I get in touch with Chris. He has been evaced to the carpark at CPIT on Barbadoes Street. Meet me at Fitzgerald and Moorhouse, I tell him, and under no circumstances do you walk through town. Calm the farm, Mum, he tells me – stop panicking. Just do as you are told and do not argue, I reply.
I decide to run around the back of AMI stadium at Lancaster Park, knowing it has been super-engineered because of its crowd carrying capacity. I haven’t anticipated the deluge of liquefaction on the roads. They are munted. Knee high silver liquid and crunchy tarmac. My shoe goes through the road and I scream again, startling people in one of the buildings. Pepper stops to drink the liquefaction and I pull her away.
I get to Fitzgerald Ave and I see Chris. It’s like Christmas. We walk/run down the median strip on Fitzgerald Ave, towards Nick at Latimer Square. Slow down, he tells me. Like hell, I reply. I want my baby back.
Near Lichfield, I see Amanda where I do my commercials. She is hobbling towards me and crying. Her husband is on the way. She thinks she has sprained her foot. It turns out later to be broken. I have to carry on, I tell her, I need to get Nick back.
We run on. A couple approaches us, a rottweiler with a beautiful leather belt through its collar. We’re Danish, they tell us, backpackers. We caught this dog but we can’t keep her. We have nowhere to go. It’s a big ask – but you have a dog – could you take her too? I look at Chris. He shrugs, smiles. Sure, I say, why not. What’s one more. The Dane asks if I have a spare lead. No, I tell him, but I’ll get your belt back to you. Don’t worry he says. It’s just a belt.
The dog is a rottweiler – scary. I keep Pepper ahead of her, keep the pace on. Chris keeps telling me to slow down, his dog isn’t on a lead and he is doing his best. I try to but it’s hard. I want my Nick back.
We push on down Fitzgerald, turn left into Worcester Street. The smoke is choking. We gawp at the houses on the left, look at the collapses, the people sitting stunned out front. It’s like a movie. We approach Latimer Square and there are ambulances and police and people sitting on the ground, all adults. In front of us, the Christchurch Club is in bits on the ground, its left end caved in. I tell Chris my friend Gary applied for a job there, missed out. How pleased I am he did. There is smoke coming from a building but I can’t for the life of me figure out what it is. My orientation is completely gone.
There are helicopters and sirens and white bundles on the ground. There is no Nick, no Unlimited kids. They aren’t there. I try ringing his cellphone, nothing happens, nothing happens, nothing happens. Calm the farm, Chris keeps telling me. I do my best. Finally the call goes through. They’ve moved the kids to the CPIT carpark – right back where Chris was.We have to go full circle.
The smoke is choking. What is it that’s burning? I can’t see a building burning.
We backtrack down Worcester, head south down Barbadoes. Cars on the right hand side of the road with bricks on top of them. I hope nobody was in those, I say. The basilica on the left, the front fallen off, inside the fence erected post December. We gaze at it as we approach the carpark.
And there’s my baby, my mop-top boy. Now it feels much less like Christmas – much more like winning Lotto.
We sign him out, and over the next few minutes decide to do a walking school bus with a couple of neighbouring Unlimited kids and Nick’s friend Daniel. His folks live in Brighton and they can pick him up from ours. It will be a while before they can get him otherwise.
That’s the plan, in any case.
Home we walk, five kids, two dogs, and me. It’s February 22, 2011. It’s smoky, it’s cold, the ground is surging under our feet, there are police and cars and people everywhere. But we are all together, and it’s obvious even then that’s all that matters.
The Foot children are collected as we walk down Shakespeare road. We see a lot of them in days to come. Their Dad sets up a pump from their well and it saves the neighbourhood as the water is off at our homes.
We get in touch with one of Daniel’s parents. Brighton is cut off. We make a call that Daniel will stay the night. It’s easier that way.
We have no power, no running water, hardly any water stored because we thought September was the end of it. That night we light the logburner. Its light helps us through the aftershocks that wake us constantly. Chris and Nick share a mattress in the lounge, Daniel has the bigger couch, I have the smaller. Pepper and the anonymous dog sleep with us as best we can. We long for morning.
It will come soon enough.