February 25, 2011

Three days later

To walk to Beckenham School from our place, you have to cross the Heathcote River, using either a busy vehicle bridge running between Tennyson Street and Burnbrae Street or a footbridge. On their scooters in the mornings, the school-age girls -- Isla (6) and Vita (7) -- prefer the footbridge, which only gets used by other kids on scooters and bikes, but three days after the February 22 earthquake, I don't entirely trust it. Not that the vehicle bridge is looking so good either. Those cracks are new, entirely attributable to the quake three days ago; we had none after the larger, but more distant September 4 quake or its aftershocks. Within an hour, or maybe less, of the quake -- which struck at 12.51pm -- makeshift signs urging people to slow down on this bridge were put up. Roads were closed.

Isla is doing the school walk with me, on a day without school, as an exercise in seeing the local quake damage. When the quake struck, I was off work -- for which I'm thankful, reading these accounts from people I work with -- and watching a movie (True Grit), in a post-war railway station converted into a multiplex. The structure is solid but it has a unstable clocktower. The room shook, the screen went black, the lights came up, people shrieked, no one seemed to move. Was this different to other aftershocks? I tried to walk and the floor seemed to tilt; I had to hold myself up against the walls. The corridor was dark. Had audiences from the other seven cinemas already got out? People walked slowly and someone behind shouted, "For F---'s sake, run!"

The glass doors to the car park had smashed so we had to go the other way to the car park, onto Moorhouse Avenue. I saw buckled concrete on the footpath; no other aftershock had done that, or even the original quake. I looked north, up Manchester Street, and saw -- or thought I saw -- a white cloud rising up from the city. I wasn't sure whether I was imagining it; the day was overcast; the cloud looked like a special effect. When I came across this now famous photo two days later, I knew I had really seen it.

In the car, on the radio, a RNZ reporter talked about seeing the church opposite her office collapse. That would be the Durham Street Methodist Church and that would make this aftershock -- if it was that -- a very, very big one. Traffic lights were out and roads were congested. Short drives were taking a long time. At home, Rebecca was under the dining room table with Matilda (4) and her friend, Te Toa (3). The damage was much worse than on September 4. A heavy bookcase and a flat-screen TV were on the floor; either could have knocked out a small child. The kitchen cupboards were empty and bottles and cans were across the kitchen floor, covered in vinegar and soy sauce. Broken glass on the carpet. Books everywhere. Bookcases down in other rooms. Pictures down.

I left them there and got back in the car to get the girls from school. There was deep brown water across Eastern Terrace. Someone said that the far end of the street was closed, so I reversed back; then the other end was closed. The far end was open. You had to avoid the holes. The road had become narrow. Someone else said all the school children were on the field.

I ran through the school. Water was coming up out of the ground in places. On the big field at Beckenham Park, used by the school and by local cricket and football clubs, all the red-uniformed kids were sitting in orderly groups. Springs of muddy grey water were coming up out of the field at random -- liquefaction. Mothers were more distressed than children. One I know was as white as a sheet and shaking; another was sobbing. Teachers had clipboards of children's names, ticking off those who had been collected. We left a friend of Isla's crying. We tried to walk back through the school to get schoolbags and umbrellas but we couldn't, as the water had already become much deeper. We went home and spent three more hours under the dining room table. At 9pm the power came back on. Two days later, we had running water. As we listened to the radio on the first day, as the death toll grew, we knew we were lucky. The house rattles more than it used to, and the roof leaks, but we still know we're lucky. Last time, all of Christchurch was lucky, really -- but not this time.

Eastern Terrace, Beckenham. On February 22, the river -- which is clear when it hasn't rained for days or is brown if it has rained -- was an unusual metallic grey, the colour of the sandy or silty water that comes up out of the ground. There are piles of grey silt on the sides of roads, dug out of lawns and driveways. The colour of the Christchurch earthquake in the suburbs, the substance of it. Grey silt and dust.

Eastern Terrace takes you between the river and the park, with the duck ponds to your right. When it floods, the river and the ponds try to meet on the road. This is swampy land, drained for farms more than a century ago, but not entirely tamed. Once the rivers were full of eels and fish and the swamps were full of birds. Maori called the river Opawaho; the fish, eels and birds' eggs were a food source, on a route between Banks Peninsula and Kaiapoi.

At Beckenham School, the swimming pool. It was full of water before the quake. The drained swimming pool was one of JG Ballard's favourite post-apocalyptic images; drawn from his childhood in Shanghai after the Japanese invaded, it became a wider symbol of societal breakdown. But abandoned schools in general have a post-apocalyptic ambience. Remember that lovely moment in the film Children of Men? The deer walking through the empty school, reminiscent of photos of Chernobyl, where nature has reclaimed the ruins ("As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in. Very odd, what happens in a world without children's voices."). This eerie, empty school three days after the quake had some of that: bags still on pegs, coats on chairs, pens and books on tables; everything left just as it was.

Two days after the quake, you heard stories of long queues at the six schools used as water distribution sites. Three days after, more sites were added -- including Beckenham School -- but where were the queues? I told the driver that a lot of people in this area had got out of town. There are no lights on in the houses, few cars on the roads.