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Monday, February 28, 2011

There Goes the Neighbourhood - Joe Bennett

There goes the neighbourhood

Last updated 12:37 26/02/2011
I'm sitting in an armchair and eating a cheese and tomato sandwich for lunch. As I eat I idly watch the goats in the sanctuary on the other side of the valley. Suddenly my house is thrown about, flung side to side like a rabbit in a dog's jaws. The chair is bouncing. I grip the arms. A painting flies from the wall and cartwheels along the sofa. Twenty-four fat volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica crash from a top shelf.

A mob of goats streams down the fence line in panic. I am aware of their bleating above the noise of the quake.

Ten violent seconds, perhaps 15, and it's over. When it stops I sit on for a few more, adjusting to a changed world. In the kitchen every cupboard has flung itself open. Bottles are smashed. Gin. Jars of jam. Bags of flour. Soy sauce. Plates. Glasses. The microwave has crossed the room. I call Blue my dog. Nothing.

I find him in the garden, trembling, his ears back. He doesn't come to me. Then the first aftershock hits, sharp as a rifle shot. Up on the hills there's a great crashing of vegetation. Rocks are cascading. A small one, the size of a beach ball, bounces down the sheep paddock, leaps over a fence and a retaining wall and smacks into a wheel of my trailer. Boulders the size of small cars cannon down a farm track.

A neighbour emerges. "You OK?" we shout at the same time.

"My kids," she says, "my kids are in town."

"Can I help?" I shout, knowing that I can't.

She shakes her head, goes back inside.

Blue has disappeared. I run down the drive. A fat boulder has come to rest on the road. I can't see why. There's nothing to stop it carrying on down the steep hill to the port below.

Everything is still. I notice that no birds are singing. I knock on the door of a couple aged 80-something. "Come in, love," says Mona. She's laughing. Ivor's inside with the digital camera photographing a lifetime's worth of trinkets, smashed.

"Do you need a hand?" I say.

"No love, no," says Mona. "Alan'll be round in five minutes. We'll put him to work." Alan's the son-in-law, former chief of the Lyttelton volunteer fire brigade.

My cellphone beeps. "Blue's here," says the text. "Here" means Gill's house a mile across town. Blue's only ever been there by car.

I go home, survey the mess, pick a few things up, don't know where to put them, sit down and light a cigarette. Aftershocks rock the place intermittently. A while later, I drive down to the port, slowly. A woman is standing on the street, a shawl round her shoulders. She is doing nothing. I stop.

"You OK?" She isn't. She's pale, staring.

"I've just had my operation," she says. She gestures feebly at her house. Like many houses here it stands on poles. "I haven't been in. I don't want to go in. Have you got a cigarette?"

She is shaking so badly it takes 10 seconds to light it. A neighbour appears, puts an arm round the woman, leads her away.

A stone retaining wall has spread out across the road like a delta. Water's gushing from beneath it. An old wooden cottage seems intact but there's now a deep black gap between it and the road. A woman stops me to ask if I know where the water main is. I don't.

"No worries, love, no worries," she says, "we'll be sweet." And she smiles with dirty teeth and pats my arm.
London St is cordoned off already. The egg-yolk coloured wall of the Volcano Cafe - how many meals have I eaten in there over the last 20 years? How many beers drunk? How loudly have I laughed in there? - has collapsed. The front window's blown out. You can see into the roof space.

Next door the concrete facade of the fish and chip shop has toppled as a single slab and landed smack across the footpath. Underneath it there'll be a couple of tables and chairs. The place is always lunchtime busy. Red-billed gulls flock here to scream and fight for chips. There are none here now.

The awning of the Lyttelton Coffee Company has heaved down and in through the glass frontage. Plate glass has exploded from the newly opened supermarket. Somewhere down the street an alarm is sounding. Otherwise it's quiet. Few people are about and they are just gawping like me. Those who were here at the time, shopping, working, drinking coffee, must have gone to find families, to check on their houses.

A mongrel scampers under the cordon tape, his body low, his tail clamped between his legs. I call him. He stops, turns to look at me. I click my fingers, kneel, make soft sounds but he turns and dashes on, just going away. He runs over shattered glass.

There's a heap of loose bricks beside the north wall of The Loons, our theatre- cum-club. The plaster is crazed.
Where the wall meets the roof there's a hole a couple of metres wide. The company gets back from Rotorua tomorrow and we open a new show here next week. There's a poster on the wall advertising it.

On Norwich Quay the Royal and Lyttelton hotels appear done for and rubble has flattened a parked car.

The building the rubble fell from is now frontless, like an opened doll's house. The two upstairs rooms look untouched - armchairs aligned to a low table, pictures on the wall - but with nothing between them and the open air.

They'd just started to repair the Black Cat Cruises office after the September quake. The scaffolding now lies on the road in a heap.

On Oxford St, the Norton Building has simply gone, a couple of businesses with it.

Its second storey was a sprung dance floor unused in years and dating from I don't know when.

There are soldiers on street corners with radios, soldiers who happened to be on a ship in port. They look about the age of kids I used to teach. They are cheerful.

"Hey, Joe," says a man I've drunk beer with in the Volcano. We shake hands.

"Mate," I say because I don't know his name. "How you doing?"

"Box of fluffies," he says and laughs. "You?"

"Never been better. How's your house?"

"F...ed," he says.

I fetch my car and think for the first time to turn on the radio. There is news of mayhem over the hill in Christchurch. I turn it off.

I drive slowly up past two ruined churches, past people just standing in doorways smoking.

A little girl is running up Oxford St alone. I am about to stop when her mother comes out of a gate and the girl clamps herself into her embrace and they stand there rocking. Reserve Tce is cut across a steep hillside. The houses on the downhill side have garages on the roof. There are fat cracks in the road.

Blue greets me with frantic delight. Gill hasn't yet been downstairs to her living room.

We pick our way down over fallen stuff - paintings, boxes, books and more books. Her kitchen's a mess. We stand and we look at it. The heavy old- fashioned cast-iron stove has been flipped on its head. "Later," she says, "I'll do it later."

I drive Blue home. On the living room carpet he finds half a cheese and tomato sandwich and eats it. Through the window I can see goats grazing.

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