Day 91 and the photo that accompanies this journal entry, snapped from a moving car, as we sped back into the city following our time at the Ellesmere Cemetery, reflects how I feel now after my short sojourn in Canterbury. The smoky blur of hedges and roadside grasses, like the scumbling effect on an oil canvas, depict exactly what happened. It was there and gone, the astonishing beauty of the landscape, those illuminated clouds, that verdant growth, those feathery outlines of poplars against a Dutch sky, the muted colour palette —greys, pale blue, charcoal, cocoa, green, the faintest hint of peach in the clouds — glimmering in the field of my vision momentarily and disappearing too quickly. And yet all is well. I know that road like the back of my hand, I know it even in darkness, going back all the years to when we would return from the city in the dead of night and I would lie on the back seat under a woollen rug and feel the movements and vibrations of the car on every straight, every bend from the city outwards, the bridge over the Selwyn River, the swooping curve over the millstream at Irwell… I used to know the names of the families and their farm names lining the road from Springston to Leeston. I still know them although some properties have changed hands since. I hope I will be travelling that road from now until the end. It is my turangawaewae. But if not I will relive it in my imagination, write it even. That is one advantage of choosing writing as a way of life, I suppose.
But I feel discombobulated. This trip was strikingly different from the earlier summertime journey, when I drove, with my son, down both islands in time for Christmas in the city, spending the rest of December and part of January in the company of friends, making trips to Diamond Harbour and the bays, enjoying the sunshine, carefree almost — I was still in the midst of a divorce and wasn't yet sure how it would culminate. Yes, I was aware of a situation developing in China, a new virus that seemed so distant and irrelevant, initially I was sceptical. I thought it was just the media desperate for a sensational story to shake up the quiet time when the country goes into holiday mode and people read good books instead of the news. I was wrong. The virus was the beginning of something big, a pandemic that would drastically re-shape the rest of our lives going forward, at least until we find a vaccine.
Such a lot has happened since then and as a nation we are reeling. We’ve built whole industries and livelihoods around tourism. What do we do now that visitor numbers have all but dried up? Yes, I know kiwis are being encouraged to take more holidays here but this won’t be enough to save some city businesses. I met a friend at the baggage carousel back in Auckland and she was returning from a holiday break in Christchurch however her focus had been on Akaroa, a boating excursion on the harbour to see Hector’s dolphins and Hanmer Springs to soak in the hot pools. She’d missed the city itself. In the centre it was very quiet. It felt like the time after the earthquakes. I looked at the great volume of brand new retail shops, constructed post-quakes, peered through their windows and found them almost empty. On the news on my last evening I heard an item about the plight of the Christchurch Arts Centre, the beautiful neo-Gothic blue stone building with its cloisters and quadrangles that was the original Canterbury University College that had only recently been painstakingly restored following the damage caused by the seismic jolts. The drastic decline in tourist numbers is hitting the thirty businesses that now trade there, and rapidly eroding the Centre’s financial viability. There was talk of it closing. No, no, no not after the huge effort to resurrect the historic buildings. This is too awful.
Last night, my first, home from holiday I had one of my vivid dreams. It was long and involved and I lost most of it on waking but what remained was chaotic. I was riding a bicycle, an old jalopy with wide rubber tyres when suddenly a big blue bird alighted on my shoulder. It was a pukeko, at least that’s the name that appeared in my mind in the dream. Its wings were indigo blue and shone with iridescence as they spread wide and large across my back like a feathered cape. The claws on the bird’s red webbed feet pinched my left shoulder but not too hard. I continued riding with the triumphant creature clamped on. And then this big bird peed on me, a thin spurt of hot liquid across the front of my shoulder, swiping my neck and hitting the other arm. It was the warmth that interested me. I wasn’t at all perturbed although when I reached a bay on the edge of road I saw a gathering of people and stopped and asked them to take the bird from me. Lighter now, I rode onwards down the road which was actually the Auckland motorway near Ellerslie. I travelled on into the countryside heading for a cottage to see my friend, desperate to tell him my story of the bird. When he heard I had been biking down the motorway he was incredulous.
Where do these dreams come from? What is going on? Yes the world has tipped upside down and the country is now being run by public health officials. Yes there are disconcerting new rules in public places — physical distancing, signs, sanitisers, face masks on, off, the risk when people sneeze, as somebody did today in the supermarket and then carried on brazenly splurting over the products. I would have frozen her with my stare if she had chosen to look but she didn’t. And yes we resist because we are used to living in a democracy and we might even break a rule yet we also comply because we are afraid.