Recently Deborah read a personal response to the Christchurch Earthquake at the Writers' Read In staged in libraries throughout Auckland to raise money for the Christchurch Earthquake appeal.
I was born in Christchurch. It is the city of my childhood and my girlhood. I went to school at the old Christchurch Girls’ High School on the corner of Cranmer Square. I studied at Canterbury University on the Ilam campus and worked in the central city in the Town Planning department and later at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in my early twenties. I was married in Canterbury and began raising my family there. I have a deep attachment to Christchurch and wince always when people denigrate the flatness, the boring culture, the sinister underbelly. I have always loved Chch to my wider whanau, forged I think through loss in childhood but also through my love of beauty in the natural world and the built world.
Where were you? Where were you at 12.51pm on February 22nd when the earth heaved again under Christchurch and tore the buildings apart and caused such wide-scale damage to the central city, the eastern and hill suburbs?
Where were you when the deadly earthquake struck and killed and trapped and seriously injured and traumatised so many fellow New Zealanders?
At 12.52pm my mobile bleeps and a moment later there is a call on the landline. I’m in the middle of a Yoga pose and continue to hold for a moment longer until the phone blips again and I look at the text. It is from my mother in Christchurch, ‘Terrific jolt. Chaos here again.’
My sister’s message from Wellington is disjointed, ‘There has been a really bad aftershock in Christchurch. Mum has sent a text but I can’t get through to her.’ I log onto the internet. And there it is a massive, shallow earthquake, magnitude 6.3, located 1.2 kms west of Lyttelton and there’s a video of the aftershock that follows seconds later in Cathedral Square. ‘No, No. No.’ The cathedral is falling down and people are running.
‘Mum,’ I howl. My mother has Multiple Sclerosis and is in hospital level care in a Merivale rest home. She is unable to walk, let alone run for her life. My sister is burbling now. ‘Check on Natalie. This is fucking bad,’ she finishes. Natalie is my 84 year old mother-in-law. She lives alone in the Port Hills suburb of Opawa and is on heart medication. I phone but of course the lines are down. Oh God how do I find her? Think, Deborah, think. When was she returning from Middlemarch? Was it yesterday? Then the phone rings. It is my brother who lives a little south of Christchurch.
‘I’m trying to drive in to Mum. I don’t know about the bridges.’ His words are short, sharp staccato notes over the roar of the engine. ‘Yes go,’ I shriek. This is the brother who is the steady one, our anchor in times of stress. ‘Shit that was another powerful aftershock,’ his voice trembles. ‘Are you driving?’
‘No I’ve stopped the car.’
Turn the television on. It is horrible, just horrible. Christchurch the garden city, that until September 4 rested serenely on the fertile soils of the Canterbury Plains, within the sweep of Pegasus Bay and under the crook of the encircling Port Hills is breaking up and the city is falling down. I fire off texts to friends who work in the city centre.
‘Are you okay? I can’t find Natalie, or talk to Mum,’ I weep through my text message.
‘The roads are jammed,’ replies my friend. Their texts are abbreviated, scrambled, ‘We okay,’ says one. ‘I’ve found all my girls,’ shouts the mother of four. ‘Mum and Dad are okay,’ reassures my god-daughter. ‘Yuk everywhere,’ says another. On the television I hear people are walking from one side of the city to the other to reach their families and they’re climbing the Bridle Path to Lyttelton, the original route taken by the early European colonisers when they filed down to settle on the swampy Canterbury Plains. This is unreal, incomprehensible a nightmare. The tunnel is closed and boulders huge as houses are blocking the road from Sumner and raining down on the hill suburbs.
This memoir was presented at the Writers' Read In on 25 March at the Grey Lynn Library.
Deborah thanks Rangimarie Kelly and Pikau Digtal for website design and artist Karen Jarvis for her image ‘Writers at the Devonport Library,’ (2023)